Saturday, 30 January 2010

Dawkins is right, Dawkins is wrong (part 1)

The Times recently carried a piece by Richard Dawkins about the response in some Christian quarters to the Haitian earthquake. His point is two-fold:

1) True Christian theology understands this as divine retribution for sin, not the blind action of geology, and this is typified by Rev Pat Robertson who has declared that this is punishment for the actions of the people in 1791
2) Mild-mannered faith-heads who dispute Rev Robertson's analysis are being hypocritical to their religion

The new and improved Richard Dawkins may have been through the PR machine since The God Delusion but he is still pointed enough to be thought provoking.

Here’s where Dawkins is right: Robertson’s views are loathsome. He puts himself in a position of authority, knowing the mind of God, and apparently revealing it to the world. (As an aside these public declarations of God’s decision-making process often closely resemble the political motivations of the one bringing the revelation).

In a general sense it is true that the suffering in all our lives is a result of our wrongdoings, but Dawkins proclaims:

Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for “sin” — or suffering as “atonement” for it

Christian theology is not a celebration of suffering. There is a seed of truth in what Dawkins says but as ever, by design or ignorance, he is mis-representative. What the Bible does do is expose suffering as the natural consequence of our selfishness. When we do something wrong it hurts people. The sacrifices of the Old Testament, like the scape-goat, were simply a lesson in consequences. The crucifixion of Jesus is the pinnacle of that teaching.

So how do natural disasters fit into this picture? Here are some points to consider

- Natural disasters are part of the fabric of creation. The earth’s history has been violent and tumultuous for the entire 4 billion years of it existence
- They are indiscriminatory, except in the few occasions where God has told us otherwise
- They illustrate how the whole framework of creation is built around our mortality
- There is a cost involved in creation, where beauty contrasts with horror, good contrasts with evil, light contrasts with dark
- It therefore seems logical that the universe was created in anticipation of human sin – which is the conscious decision to do wrong.

Part 2 will see how the mild-mannered faith-heads, rather than being hypocritical, are living out their calling.


  1. Dawkins' assertion that "True Christian theology understands this as divine retribution for sin, not the blind action of geology" is quite preposterous.

    Where does he get the idea that is 'true Christian theology'?

    Surely 'true Christian theology' proclaims that 'the wages of sin is death', not 'the wages of sin is suffering and pain'.

    Indeed our actions bring consequences and most 'sins' end up hurting us or someone else (or both), but rarely by 'divine retribution'.

    Is he turning into Richard Dork-ins??

  2. "What the Bible does do is expose suffering as the natural consequences of our selfishness". Really.

    The Bible is a mix of stories. Does Jericho speak about our selfishness? John the Baptist? Job? Etc.

    Christians get backed into a corner on this topic, and then they answer with, "well He's a just God and the Bible says so, so I just trust all this suffering is in good hands." It sounds like nonsense.

    When I came to understand how the Bible was actually written, everything changed.

    When 10,000s die in natural disasters, we can only really conclude that God isn't listening. If he made us, it looks like he left us alone. The best thing we can do is live a thoughtful life.


  3. Fred, when 10,000s die in natural disasters we can safely conclude that our planet is behaving in a perfectly normal fashion and God has nothing to do with it.

    I don't recall God promising that nobody would ever die as a result of natural disasters.

    You say: "If he made us, it looks like he left us alone." That's absolutely correct; He left us alone. Fortunately, He left us alone with the Bible to guide our "thoughtful life."

  4. Drawing on 2 comments on the article here...
    they speak more eloquently than I could!

    God made man as his greatest creation. In order for humans to be all they can be we must live in a world like this one. Moral courage can't just be a potentiality, it must be an actuality in all it's complexity for it to mean anything. Also, in order for the world to be able to create and sustain the complexity of life that it has, the crust of the earth must move, must regenerate itself. Thus, earthquakes, tsunamis. All religious people can do in the face of a catastrophe is to do what we can to alleviate the suffering and possibly create a world where these sorts of things have much less impact. Isn't the real tragedy of Haiti the poverty that has blighted the island, that lead to substandard buildings and poor infrastructure? This is as much a man-made disaster as divine.
    Matthew Thomas, Cattleford

    Having lost a sister to a brain tumour aged 49, and a close friend to cancer at the age of 30, and being a C of E priest, you might imagine this kind of matter has been a part of my own, and many others' formation. Archbishop Sentamu is right on one level; for the sake of those caught up in this tragedy we need to pray and act now, and think later. But for many of us there has already been much thought. John Polkinghorne and others successfully argue that free will is not just about humanity, it is also about the freedom of the universe to be what it is. It has to 'work' to make sense. In order for life to exist on this planet there simply has to be tectonic activity. Without the 'recycling' processes involved there would be insufficient carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and earth would become a lifeless snowball. It has to be a dynamic system and given the freedom to be what it is. Likewise, without mutation there could be no progressive evolution. Most mutations are dead-ends, some are useful and retained if they provide breeding advantage, and some are deadly. But you cannot have one without another, at least not if you want life. Could God have done it differently? Probably. But then if his hand was that obvious, would we have the freedom to choose whether to seek him out? Probably not. But back to Archbishop Sentamu's sentiments; the importance of what needs to be done now far outweighs the philosophy of why it happened.
    Paul, Birmingham

    And a pithy quote from J Vernon McGee

    "This is God's universe and He does things His way.
    You might have a better way but you don't have a universe!"

    Faith and Belief is ubiquitous, everybody has faith in something, everybody believes in something, it's just a case of what you choose to believe in and how you choose to act on that belief.

  5. Hi Fred

    The comment about suffering being the result of our selfishness was in the context of RDs mixed up ideas about sacrifice. I think what I said is true, so stand by it, but I agree there are other situations which are much less simplistic.

    What was it about the way the Bible is written that changed everything for you?



  6. Dave,

    Thanks for your response to my comment.

    I agree: the planet appears to recycle its plates. As that happens, the delicate life on the surface is harmed. We don't know if God has anything to do with it.

    I don't agree that we are fortunate that God left us alone with 'the Bible' to guide us through our "thoughtful life".

    I remember a story of a man who decided to give his life to Jesus. He was traveling to the church when he was knocked off his motorbike and killed. He never made his confession of faith. But I guess God accepted him any way, just like God accepts 10,000s of Haiti's souls and 250,000+ from the Tsunami. Even if they were from another faith, I guess.

    Christians will say, "only God knows that". Just like they say, "well, He's a just God and the Bible says so, so I just trust all this suffering is in good hands."

    Good luck.


  7. Hi Charles

    Thanks for your reply.

    After a tragedy, I realised my view of God was wrong. As I searched the scriptures I was disturbed to discover the Bible isn't the perfect volume many believe. When the platform is shaken, everything changes.

    I also found it's important that what you believe fits with your real experience. My conception of God didn't fit with what I had experienced and what I could see as obvious in the world.

    If you've not seen it, I'd recommend Stages of Faith by Fowler. Talks about the journey.


  8. Hi Fred

    Thanks for the recommendation! I've ordered the book and will put some comments here (or by PM?) when I've read it.


  9. Fred

    If you haven't heard anything / read anything by him, I'd recommend Rob Bell from Mars Hill Bible Church.
    Quite different from most other things you may have heard.
    If you have $2 to spare, going to their online store and starting with "blessed are the poor in spirit" from here would be a great place to start.

    may God bless your journey.

  10. Hi Fred,
    Don't know if you'll get this, but I've finished reading 'Stages of Faith' and found it very interesting. Thanks for the recommendation, I got some useful insights.