(Via Exile from Groggs) a confused but funny piece by Dawkins on 'Atheists for Jesus'. Key quote:
Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.
Then Dawkins goes on to marvel at humanity's capacity for altruism, which has evolved far beyond what reasons for survival would have dictated. Dawkins wonders how the memes of the 'super-nice' could be encouraged to spread. Apart from the memetics idiocy, this part is actually not all that bad. It shows the very big gulf between Dawkins' ideas and social Darwinism. But then Dawkins comes up with:
I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. 'Atheists for Jesus' would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of 'Atheists for Jesus' might be just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right - could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?
I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.
A few thoughts:
1. The article pretty well illustrates the sophisticated, condescending position that Jesus was a great moral teacher, sort of like Gandhi, just a pity there's so much supernaturalist nonsense in the New Testament. If we would just take away the conversations with daemons, the healing of the blind and the crippled and the sick, the walking over the water, the resurrection after three days - all the miraculous fairy-tales which, in our age of Science and Reason, we have outgrown - we could well assent to his teachings. The problem with this position is of course that it is, well, shit. Without the miracles, the temptation in the desert, the daemons and most importantly the death and resurrection, the gospel is reduced to nothing. And if you don't understand why all those things that offend our modernist sensibilities yet must be there, you haven't really understood anything of it.
2. Another thing: Dawkins makes a lot of the supposed contradiction between Jesus' teachings and the 'vengeful', 'vindictive' God of Abraham. It's an unfortunate but very commonly human phenomenon that we either see contradictions or continuities - but not both at the same time. And in as far Jesus stood in contradiction to the Old Testament he also stood at the end of a line that was drawn throughout the Old Testament. I am not talking here about the Messianic prophecies - but in the way the Old Testament, at the same time as it lays down the Law, continuously reaches for something beyond, something transcending the Law.
3. The God of Abraham is, of course, the God that reveals Himself by rejecting human sacrifices. A God who in one key passage is persuaded by Moses not to destroy the people who have turned away from him:
"I have seen these people," the LORD said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. "O LORD," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.' " Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32: 9-14).
Or the God of Jonah, who was moved by the repentance of the Ninevites he had intended to destroy, to the displeasure of his prophet, and who gives Jonah the following lesson: Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live." But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (Jonah 4: 5-11).
Or the God of the prophets, who continuously rejects outward ritual observance in favour of lived faith, the spirit of the Law: Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1: 13-17).
Or: With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6: 6-8).
Or indeed the maligned God of Leviticus: Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the LORD. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19: 13-18), When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19: 33).
This God is the same God of love, compassion and forgiveness that Jesus preached.
4. Dawkins quotes the Sermon on the Mount:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'" But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5: 38-48).
Now, first of all, with these injunctions, Jesus was not proclaiming a new Law to succeed the old: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5: 17-18).
Second, the passage that Dawkins quoted may indeed sound pleasant to well-meaning, pacifist-minded secularists. But what of the following two?
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5: 21-22)
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5: 27-30).
They, to me, illustrate the difficulty of taking Jesus' sayings as mere ethical injunctions. As injunctions towards 'niceness'. Or even 'super niceness'. Reflecting on them, I am painfully conscious of how far I fall short of them. I may restrain from adultery - but the very thought of adultery? And how often I have called my brothers idiots - on this blog, to begin with? Compare the spirit of the passages above with the basic 'golden rule' ("Do unto others..."). This is a call to action, or the refraining of actions - whereas the passages in the Sermon of the Mount call for a cleansing of the spirit, which is much, much more difficult to obtain. More precisely, they illustrate precisely how radical the Biblical commandment of love is.
Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'" "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"
Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19: 16-22).
Notice first how Jesus is reluctant to explain to the young man what is good. At his question, he first explains the commandments, and only when the young man perseveres in his questioning, Jesus answers that if the young man wants to be perfect (see the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect., Matt. 5: 48) he is to abandon his wealth and follow him.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19: 23-26).
Jesus here illustrates the impossibility for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of heaven by his own devices, but elaborates on the astonished questions of his disciples that what is impossible for humans may yet be possible for God.
5. Again, if we bowdlerize Jesus' message by taking out all the supernatural stuff and concentrate on the notion of 'Jesus as a great moral teacher', we are left with a moral teacher who sets impossible standards. And leaves me, personally, feeling very much like the rich young man who leaves Jesus' company dejected. An alternative is to read the passages as illustrating precisely how high the standards are that God sets for us, and how impossible it for us to meet them by our own intermittent, occasional goodness, if that. But this exercise is futile on an atheist/secularist reading of the gospel such as Dawkins proposes.
6. If you'll allow me to indulge in stereotypes, there's two kinds of atheists. The first one is the liberal secular humanist type: they like their universal moral standards, universal rights and liberties - just no God, please. This is the type that tends to react as though bitten by a snake if you bring up the Argument from Morality as they tend to intepret it as to say atheists can't be moral, and being moral is important to them. To the extent that a lot of their criticism towards religion is inspired by the very immoral past and present behaviour of religious leaders and institutions. And if we were to just leave these behind and have our decisions guided by the light of Science and Reason, we will evolve towards a more just, tolerant, happy society. Most 'New Atheists' are exponents of the first type.
The second one would cheerfully allow the Argument from Morality and contend that, as there is no God, there are no universal morals either. We are bags of chemicals and subject to whatever chance and necessity nature has in store for those: normative systems are entirely conventional. I would guess some Satanists are of the second type. As may be Sartre. And my favourite De Sade.
Now, if I were adrift in shark-infested waters, thrashing around and seeing black fins approach me, and at the same time a boat full of atheists holding a rope, I would hope they would be first-type atheists. That goes without saying.
Nevertheless, I am much closer in my outlook to the second type than the first type. Because I am not so convinced that humans are particularly good or moral. In his brilliant satire Justine, Sade describes a virtuous heroine who continuously falls victim to all kinds of tormentors, and who when confronted with an opportunity to kill one of them, refuses to do so as such an action is not virtuous (after which the victimization of the heroine continues). In other words: either become an amoral predator or fall victim to one. Eat lunch or be lunch. And religion and morality, to Sade, are pious lies to convince the lunch to resign to its fate.
Were I an atheist, I could not but agree. And I cannot but agree with Sade that, taken in themselves, the torture and the pain of others are rather delightful things. It's ugly, but there it is. Certainly the behaviour of people when given the slightest chance does tend to convince me that the sentiment is widespread.
So if an atheist were to ask me: Do I need God, do I need Divine commands to do the right thing? I would have to answer that I pretty much do. You're blessed if you don't. But I do. For as far as I can be arsed to do the right thing, that is.
7. If the Gospel would be merely a message of morality, of being 'nice' or 'super-nice' as Dawkins wants it to be, I would despair of it. Turn my face away, and depart like the rich young man in Matt. 19. I would turn to some libertine cult with lightly-clad ladies and hallucigenic substances, or some weird Gnostic sect with lots of arcane and cryptic writings to satisfy my liking for puzzles. But not Christianity (let alone Dawkins' secular humanism with Christian influences).
Fortunately, it isn't. It's about hope - hope that the small death that I experience in my reptile-brained desires and fears, arrogance and pride, and all that, sin, basically - the wilful turning away from standards that I am all too well aware of, and the big death that looms at the end of the road might yet be conquered. Has been conquered by Christ and the grace of God.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. (Matthew 12: 20).
That ultimate message, which speaks to the depths of a broken and stained soul and whispers it may yet be clean, cannot be secularized.