Dawkins is Right – Sort Of

Leave it to uber-atheist Richard Dawkins to call out Christians for their hypocrisy – correctly.

In an article in the Washington Post, Dawkins scathingly mocks and criticizes Christians who have sought to distance themselves from ever-embarrassing Pat Robertson and his recent comments on the Haitian earthquake disaster.  For my thoughts on this matter, you can refer to an earlier blog post of mine.

Let me begin by saying that there is truth in Dawkin’s painful excoriation of mainstream American Christianity.  Too many Christians immediately censured Robertson for his controversial comment.  Rather than explore the theological ramifications of what Robertson was rather ineloquently saying, they reacted on impulse.  Good Lord, we can’t be saying those sorts of things in public!  Good Lord, that’s not how God works!  Good Lord, Christians are going to sound like idiots again!  There might be a plethora of reasons ranging from reasonable to ridiculous to scrap Robertson’s comments.  But I haven’t heard many nuanced attempts to actually interact with what he said. 

What Robertson did was to acknowledge the very Biblical idea that spiritual realities manifest themselves in the physical realm.  As I stated earlier, where I believe that Robertson erred was in making this connection to an event that is historically tenuous, without (I’m assuming) the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to whether or not this correlation – in this instance – is warranted.  What Robertson was getting at is part of Biblical Christianity though – God works in ways that we are often baffled by, that can be terrible to behold.  What Robertson doesn’t know is whether or not that is what is actually happening here. 

Dawkins rightly attacks both those who are too quick to attribute physical disasters to the Hand of  God, as well as those Christians without the depth of Biblical understanding to recognize that such attributions may not be without theological merit.  The error is not in saying that God might be behind this, but that God is behind this, for this or that reason.  The error is not in wanting to focus on helping our fellow human beings in whatever circumstance they find themselves in (precisely because of our inability to know what actions are specific Acts of God and what are simply ‘natural’ disasters or the everyday consequences of being sinful people living in a sinful world), but the error lies in assuming that theological implications are not there to be explored and prayed about.

It’s painfully easy to shoot one’s mouth off.  I do it all the time.  Fortunately, I don’t have the public exposure of Robertson or Dawkins.  There are those Christians who receive press coverage for saying controversial things in the midst of troubling times.  They don’t necessarily represent Biblical Christians, but the media highlights who they want to highlight.  I’m guessing that Robertson has received a lot more mainstream limelight and press time on major media outlets than any of the innumerable Christian organizations that are currently devoting their time, money, resources, sweat and blood to the relief efforts.  Judge for yourself if there is a bias at play in that sort of coverage disparity.

So, Dawkins is right on in calling the knee-jerk reaction of many Christians’ to Robertsons’ remarks hypocritical.  The problem is that for many of them, it might not have been hypocrisy but ignorance at play.  It’s hardly a comforting alternative.

But Dawkins is incorrect about more than a few things here as well. 

Dawkins asserts that the judgment of God is the “centrepiece” of Biblical Christianity.  While those moments of righteous judgment on God’s part are certainly memorable, they hardly constitute the center of the Biblical witness.  They do, however, for much of the center of Dawkins’ rejection of the Bible.  That’s a key difference.   He later clarifies that our entire theology is based on “an obsession with sin, with punishment, with atonement.”  That’s far closer to reality.  The center of Biblical theology is not the problem of sin, but rather  the solution to sin.  A great deal is said about the effects and reality of sin, but throughout this, the Biblical witness constantly points to the promised solution for sin, the cure found in the Son of God becoming human to suffer and die in our place after bearing witness to the work of God through Himself in reconciling a broken creation and a rebellious human race. 

Christianity is not a “long celebration of suffering”.  Biblical Christianity is a brutally honest acknowledgment of the suffering we bring on ourselves, and focused on the suffering of God Himself to deliver us from such suffering.  Our suffering is not laudable any more than it is effective.  It does not solve the central problem of our existence – rebellion against God.  It is simply the natural consequence of rebelling against the legitimate author and authority of all creation.  What the Haitians are enduring is terrible.  What the elderly man dying of cancer is enduring is terrible.  What the elderly woman dying of natural causes in her sleep endures is terrible.  What the child suffers during the angry exchanges of parents in the midst of divorce is terrible.  The effects of sin are pervasive and terrible.  But when they are mounted up in numbers in the hundreds of thousands, they command our attention and our response in a way that all too often escapes us on the individual level.  Haiti is not suffering something more terrible than what countless people suffer every day.  But it is the economy of scale of that suffering, if you will, that pulls us from our stupor and rips from our hearts the anguished question of why

It is a question that Dawkins is ill-equipped to answer, despite his pithy starting point.  The question of why a simple matter of plate tectonics should elicit such an outpouring of empathy and giving and support is the very sort of thing that Dawkins is unable to account for.  There is no explanation for why such things stir us so, or why so many people give sacrificially to alleviate the suffering of others.  Dawkins doesn’t have an answer for it, because his assertion is that this is the way things have always been.  This is normal.  The Bible asserts that this isn’t  the way things have always been.  This isn’t normal – even if it’s what we’re accustomed to.  The Bible provides a rationale for our outpouring of sympathy and help, just as the Bible at the same time acknowledges that the wages of sin are death, and that death can come at any time, in literally any form. 

Dawkins can ridicule all he want, and I trust he’ll continue to.  I appreciate his willingness to call Christians on their inconsistencies, but he needs to be better informed himself about the allegations he makes about the Biblical witness.  I pray God’s forgiveness for  him for such errors.  I pray that he will seek same forgiveness for himself.  He could be a powerful proclaimer of the Gospel.  Perhaps he just needs to hear it correctly.


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