Where do we get our morals? Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, chps. 6-7, dedicates much ink to spilling out his theory of morals. He is bound to do two things: demonstrate that morals are an evolutionary deposit in humans (through natural selection) and prove that religious morals are madness.
In essence, Dawkins draws upon his famous book, The Selfish Gene, to demonstrate that morals are the result of natural selection. Species that survive are altruistic — disinterested concern for others — in that they:
1. favor their own genetic kin,
2. they have a reciprocal “concern” for others,
3. they act in a way that protects their reputation, and
4. they act in ways that promotes dominance.
He posits — he cannot prove — that natural selection programmed our brains to have altruistic urges.
He attempts to answer the question of why be good if there is no God? He remonstrates with those who think they are only good because they want to live before God. Do we really need policing from God to be good?, he asks. He favors utilitarianism (Bentham, James and J.S. Mill) — for it clearly favors a natural explanation of morals. He does not think morals have to be absolute to be morals.
Chp 7 is a display of acid. What it is is two things: a long diatribe against the morality of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and at the same time a contentious (but unproven) line that our morals today are not based on the Bible but on other factors. I say unproven because (1) he does not show the origins of the morals of those who call themselves Christians and (2) he does not show that Christians root their morals in non-biblical factors.
He sketches elements of the Bible that he finds morally objectionable, not dealing adequately or fairly with those elements that are the sole basis for the enlightened morality he holds dear. His survey is heated, though: he excoriates the God of Genesis and Judges and Exodus and Numbers… “The Bible,” he says, “may be an arresting and poetic work of fiction, but it is not the sort of book you should give your children to form their morals” (247). “What makes my jaw drop is that people today shold base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh” (248).
He affirms Jesus — evidently thinking that when Jesus says things he likes they must no longer be fiction — but ridicules atonement and original sin and the use of the cross as a religious symbol. Atonement is vicious, sado-masochistic, repellent, barking mad and viciously unpleasant. He sums it up with this: “Jesus had himself tortured and executed, in vicarious punishment for a symbolic sin committed by a non-existent individual [Adam]” (253).
He thinks the love our neighbor command, and here he depends on John Hartung, is “in-group morality” that involves “out-group hostility” (254ff).
By trotting out these examples, Dawkins thinks he is doing two things: first, he is ridiculing the morals of the Bible and, second, showing that our morals today are not derived from the Bible. But, he makes a logical mistake of the first order: not only does he narrow his biblical concerns to what he objects to, but he does not develop the foundational and always developing moral statements of the Old and New Testaments — even forgetting their ongoing development in the Church — that form the basis for contemporary morality. In other words, by narrowing his sights, he fails to see that the morals he advocates are in fact biblical! How so?
Here are his rough and ready list of universal morals:
1. Do to others what you have them do to you.
2. Strive to cause no harm.
3. Treat everything with love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect.
4. Do not shrink from justice, but be ready to forgive.
5. Live with joy and wonder.
6. Seek to learn something new.
7. Test all things against the facts.
8. Respect dissent.
9. Form independent opinions by reason and experience.
10. Question everything.
11. Enjoy your sex life; don’t worry about the sex life of others.
12. No discrimination on the basis of sex, race or species.
13. Do not indoctrinate your children.
14. Value the future on a timescale longer than your own.
Scot has provided an excellent summary of chps 6 and 7, leaving little to add. In typical fashion Dawkins demonstrates that common morality or moral law need not point to God, as an alternative explanation can be posited. Moral law can be explained by natural selection and Darwinian survival of the fittest – the selfish gene. There is no gap for which it is necessary to invoke the existence of God. This, of course, does not prove or disprove the existence of God – but merely demonstrates that God, if he exists as I believe he does, has created a rational and logical world.
In Ch. 7 Dawkins’ wit and venom is directed primarily against Christianity and against Judaism as the precursor of Christianity. The Old Testament is ridiculed through emphasis of extreme examples in the Pentateuch and Judges. It is interesting in this discussion that Dawkins takes a tenacious hold on the fundamentalist view that the OT is either 100% literal or 100% untrustworthy. He denies the possibility that myth or story could comprise part of the inspiration of scripture as it undermines his position that the moral authority of the OT must be dismissed. With respect to the NT, I find it interesting that the principle points singled out by Dawkins’ for ridicule are (1) the doctrine of the atonement and (2) the book of Revelation. The moral teaching of the majority of the NT is unacknowledged – or explained away as extrabiblical, although, as Scot has pointed out, his morals are largely biblical.
Dawkins finishes the chapter with a discussion of the rapidly changing moral Zeitgeist of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. Expressions and attitudes that seemed reasonable to Martin Luther, that were commonplace in the 1800’s or even the 1950’s are unthinkable by today’s standards. Books from the 30’s or even 50’s are appallingly racist or sexist. Dawkins doesn’t note this example – but upon rereading even several of the books from the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis are troublesome by current standards. Dawkins’ view is that this trend is a positive evolution reflecting the loosening hold of traditional religion – which is, by its nature, invested in the preservation of “in-group loyalty” and “out-group hostility.”
But is not this evolution in fact part and parcel of New Testament theology? Consistent with the redemptive trend and universal inclusiveness of the Gospel – and by this I don’t mean universalism; I mean that the NT Gospel has no “in-group” or “out-group” defined by anything other than faith in Christ. It is inclusive of all who care to embrace it irrespective of race, ethnicity, social standing, or class. As an interesting aside Dawkins notes the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish prayer as an example of the divisiveness inherent in religion “Blessed are you for not making me a Gentile. Blessed are you for not making me a woman. Blessed are you for not making me a slave.” (p. 259) Compare this with Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What do you think of Dawkins’ contention that the evolution toward equality of persons in western civilization reflects an increase in education and the weakened credibility of religion in general and Christian belief or the Church in particular?