Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Malevolent God?

Last week I posted a blog with several quotes by well-known agnostics and atheists. It was a half-serious, half-humorous reply to those who live irreligious lifestyles and encourage others to do the same. One of my commenters insightfully wrote:
I would be curious to know your fuller answer to Mr. Dawkin's quote about the God of the Old Testament. This seems to be one of the hardest questions for Christians to answer, and perhaps the one most commonly asked by the skeptic of the Christian God. How could a loving, creator God destroy his creation? Or suggest, nay command, "his people" to slaughter whole nations?
This is a legitimate and important question to consider. What sort of God is the God of the Bible? Modern popular Christianity seems to present a smiley-face version of God who is ultra-loving and compassionate. Yet, the Old Testament seems to present a clear depiction of God as anything but a "nice" deity. In fact, there are some people who are strongly opposed to the God of the Old Testament because of the things He says and how He acts towards people. As Christians, it is crucial to know who God is, what He is like and whether He is really a good God or not. Is the God of the Bible a benevolent being, or is He malevolent, cruel, vicious and unreasonable? In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, a well-known atheist, writes:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Within that quote, we have a list of accusations that would take volumes of scholarly dissertations to properly reference and debate. His statement, quite frankly, is dynamite. It calls the whole of God's character into question. In considering how to address Dawkins' characterization of God, we first must see if his accusation is actually scriptural. Although his word-choice is deliberately provocative and excessively negative, to a certain degree He does accurately describe the God of the Bible.

-God is a jealous God.
-God does concern Himself even with seemingly trivial matters.
-God does kill people and order the killing of people.
-God does execute vengeance.
-God does establish inflexible rules and require people to abide by them.
-God does hold His own glory and majesty in high regard.
-God does differentiate between people and treat people differently based on their race and gender.

And clearly there are a few parts of Dawkins' statement that are not true:

-God is not unjust. Justice is one of His defining traits and He always renders to each person according to their deeds.
-God is not unforgiving. A desire for man's repentance and reconciliation is interwoven into all of His actions.
-God is not misogynistic, since He does not categorically hate women.
-God is not a bully. Any actions that may be regarded as cruel are always directed towards specific people for specific reasons.

Now that we have briefly examined the validity of Dawkins' claim, let us take a closer look at what Dawkins' is really saying, beneath all the provocative words. Ultimately, Dawkins is saying that the God of the Old Testament is unpleasant because He is self-centered, immoral, violent and unreasonable. Even supposing that Dawkins is correct, why does that matter? Even if God is unpleasant, does that have any bearing on whether God actually exists, or whether Christianity is true? None, whatsoever. Hitler and Napolean were certainly self-centered, immoral, violent and unreasonable men, but no one is denying their existence because of that. Therefore, if his statement is meant to be an argument against the existence of God or the veracity of Christianity, it lacks any merit.

What then is Dawkins trying to claim? Is he saying that supposing God really exists, that He is not a good God worthy of worship or obedience? This seems to be a more reasonable understanding of Dawkins' stance. By appealing to our moral sensibilities as modern, enlightened people, he is attempting to defame God's character by arguing that the Christian God (if He exists), is quite a horrific and evil sort of god. And what is his basis for such a claim? It is a moral claim, yet the moral basis for it is unspecified.

If he is arguing against violence, unreasonability and self-centeredness simply because of his own personal opinions, then he is making a faulty appeal to authority. Just because Richard Dawkins thinks something is immoral doesn't make it so.

If he is arguing against God's character based on the social construct theory of morality, then he is making a faulty appeal to popularity. The social construct theory of morality is inadequate as a foundation for criticism because it a relativistic standard that differs from people group to people group and therefore has no authority to critique any action outside of its own social sphere. Additionally, the social construct theory of morality cannot serve as a grounded foundation for morality because it uses a circular basis for claiming authority. For example, a community may say, "Whatever a majority says is right is okay and whatever a majority declares as wrong is prohibited." But then when asked, "Why do we have to follow the rules of the majority?" The only answer that can be given is, "Because the majority has agreed that you must abide by the rules established by the majority." Obviously, such a moral foundation wouldn't even support a house of cards, much less any argument of substance.

If he is arguing that self-centeredness and violence are intrinsically wrong, then he is attempting to use Christian morality as a basis for his argument. There are several problems with this approach. First of all, if he successfully uses Christian morality as a basis for arguing that God is immoral, then God would be disqualified from establishing any sort of universal rules for morality, which then renders Christian morality an insufficient basis for arguing that God is immoral. So, even if Dawkins' argument succeeds on such a basis, it still fails.

Secondly, if Dawkins' is attempting to use Christian morality as the basis of his critique, then his approach is flawed because his arguments against God's benevolence aren't actually grounded in Christian morality, but are grounded in a gross modern twisting of Christian morality. In fact, it is for this very reason that Dawkins' statement seems as powerful and convincing as it does. Because of our modern perspective of reality, we have taken some aspects of Christian morality and abrogated them while altering other aspects of Christian morality to match our enlightened, contemporary view of the world. Does Christian morality really condemn violence? Does Christianity oppose self-motivated behavior and glory-seeking? Does Christianity oppose absolute and inflexible moral rules? I think not! In a couple of future blogs I plan to address these three specific moral stances in more detail.

Though there are a few points of Dawkins' quote that I find are unsupported by Scripture, and though his wording is intentionally and unfairly negative, to a certain extent I agree with his characterization of God. Quite frankly, the God of the Bible is jealous. He is vindictive and does retain the right to execute vengeance. God does hold a position of authority and He demands that all people respect His position of authority and obey Him unswervingly. God does recognize that men and women are fundamentally different, and He does treat people differently based on gender. He does directly and indirectly bring death and destruction to nations who oppose Him and His people. God clearly declares that homosexuality is an evil perversion of nature that is punishable by death. Because of this, I can see what Richard Dawkins is trying to say. However, Dawkins fails to establish a reasonable criteria that would demonstrate any of God's actions as being truly evil or malevolent. Maybe God is violent. So what? Maybe God does treat different people and different groups of people differently. So what? Maybe God is radically self-centered and concerned with His glory. So what? Since Dawkins has failed to establish a baseline for his criticism, he is expressing nothing more than a personal opinion. Therefore, whenever I read his quote, this is what it says to me: "My personal opinion is that the God of the Old Testament is self-centered, violent, murderous, unjust and unfair." So what? Everyone has their own opinion. Dawkins' opinion just happens to be partially incorrect and completely devoid of moral potency.

What is wrong with being violent? What is wrong with seeking glory? What is wrong with jealousy? What is wrong with establishing clear and inflexible rules? As far as I can, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these. In fact, all of these seem to coincide quite nicely with the image of a president or a king. If there is any sort of claim that God is evil or malevolent, the claim is more a reflection of our own personal and cultural biases than it is a meritorious accusation against the God of the Bible.


  1. Very nice post. Of course, most people don't care a bit about moral reasoning. Christian morality, as you pointed out, has armed its own critics. On that point, the early Gnostics had a certain wisdom to them: completely rejecting the God of the Hebrew Bible.

  2. Nice post.

    I have to say that when I read "The God Delusion", I was very unimpressed with it. Dawkins is an impressive, if rather excessively self-convinced, scientist, but his capability for metaphysical discussion is below average at best. I thought the book was fairly embarrassing for Dawkins, really, because it is replete with straw-men and a 6th grader's comprehension of religion, never mind a very rudimentary, at best, grasp of metaphysical argumentation.

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