23 June 2008

The Difference Between Interpreting and Picking (and Other Thoughts on Dawkins on NPR)

Today, I listened to Richard Dawkins on NPR during an episode of To the Best of our Knowledge entitled "Atheism & Its Critics".

The program opened with a discussion on faith. See my thoughts here.

One of the fundamental allegations Richard Dawkins levels against Christianity is that we (we being believers) pick and choose what we will accept as true from the Bible - Cafeteria Chrisitans, to borrow an old term. But I disagree with him on this. There is a fundamental difference between interpreting what you read and choosing what you read. Yes, some Christians avoid the more troubling part of the Bible. But many of the most sincere Christians are the same ones who take what they read and truly struggle with it. Yes, it bothers me to read about the mass killings committed in the Old Testament. But I have not rejected these stories. Instead, I have taken them as how the ancient Israelites saw God - as a god who loves his people and wants to protect them. Which is one of the recurring themes of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. On the other hand, if an atheist is to go through and reject the teachings of love in the Bible - to say that these are present in all cultures and therefore not relevant to the Bible - and focus purely on the violent stories of the Tanakh, then that might just qualify as "picking and choosing".

Of course, Dawkins also has a fundamental misunderstanding of the sacrifice of Christ, claiming the crucifixion is a bloody sacrifice of an innocent man to satisfy God for the sins of Adam, a man who never existed. To this, I say he's half - no, a quarter - of the way there. Yes, the crucifixion was a bloody sacrifice of an innocent man. But it was also a self-sacrifice - God himself dying for our sins. And that's the point we should take - the love inherent in the self-sacrifice, not the gruesomeness of the act. Secondly, and one of the largest misunderstandings Dawkisn makes is to assume that the crucifixion was about Original Sin. And while this may be up to debate among theologians*, by no means should it be taken as the belief of all Christians. It is my belief that Christ died for the sins of all people, not for Original Sin.

"I am in favor of goodness," says Dawkins. He claims that he stands against the claim that you don't need religion to be good. To this, I say, define "good". If "good" is doing good things - feeding the hungry, helping the poor, and such - then yes, you can be good without religion. If "good" means never doing bad, if it means living a perfect utilitarian lifestyle - always causing more utility than harm - then we're in trouble. Because nobody can ever be good in this sense.

Oh, and if you get a chance, read what Brad Hirschfield has to say - "faith without fanaticism."

Rock on.

*Though I can't think of any groups that hold this belief. Perhaps someone can provide an example.