Richard Dawkins discusses the concept of ‘Love thy neighbour’ in The God Delusion in order to debunk the claim of religion that it’s main message is love and compassion. How independent do we think this analysis is? Let’s look at this analysis as objectively as we can.
Dawkins begins with the assertion that ‘neighbour’ in biblical terms only refers to the Jews, and that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ really means ‘Thou shalt not kill Jews’. The merit of the idea of ‘Love thy neighbour’ itself is, of course, ignored. Dawkins is far too concerned with the prosecution of his agenda. With regard to truth of the matter, he draws most of his quoted ‘evidence’ from a paper by John Hartnung. Dawkins provides no substantive proof but simply claims that Hartnung’s research demonstrates it to be the case. By way of example of this ‘evidence’, Hartnung refers to a study of Jewish children’s attitudes by an Israeli psychologist George Tamarin. This draws a contrast between the group’s attitude towards the deaths of Jews and non-Jews in the Old Testament. Not surprisingly, the children were much more prepared to countenance the killing of non-Jews than Jews. Dawkins himself concludes that these children have been indoctrinated into a racist attitude by their religion.
This all sounds very telling, but it does not demonstrate much other than that things were very different at the time of the Old Testament. Whether we like it or not, God chose the Jewish nation to receive the word that he was the one and only God. The events of the Old Testament need to be evaluated in the context of that truth. We cannot draw conclusions based on current day interpretations of events that happened thousands of years ago, particularly when those interpretations are made by children. Furthermore, Dawkins’ point that the opposite results obtained by the control group, (where mention of Judea was replaced with a fictional Chinese kingdom), demonstrated that religion had affected the children’s morality, is exactly as one would expect. The religious perspective is that morality derives from God. Therefore, no doubt the children believed that ‘God had his reasons’. For my part, I too struggle with some of the events of the Old Testament but it doesn’t undermine my faith. I realise that we cannot compare current day attitudes with earlier times, when ideas, canons and creeds were propagated and enforced exclusively by violence. I would be confident that if you took out the historical context out of the Hartnung study, the results would be very different.
As regards the New Testament, Hartnung draws the same conclusions, claiming that Jesus was a devotee of the same in-group mentality and that it was Paul who invented the idea of taking the gospel to the Jews. This seems to me to be little more than wishful thinking on the part of Dawkins, and it is interesting to note that he doesn’t expand on this idea except to make the unsubstantiated quote from Hartnung that ‘Jesus would have turned over in his grave if he had known that Paul was taking his plan to the pigs.’ I won’t comment on this except to say that, in my opinion, the language Hartnung uses tells us more about him than his comment tells us about Jesus.
The issue of to whom Jesus directed his message is directly addressed by Geza Vermes in The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. He considers the question: did Jesus intend to address only Jews or did he expect the gospel to benefit the entire non-Jewish world? (Geza Vermes, by the way, is an ex-Christian and ex-Catholic priest). He concluded that there were clear affirmations that Jesus intended only to address the Jews, but equally clear affirmations that broadcast the opposite view. He, therefore, after “having considered the whole evidence”, identified the following dilemma:
“Either Jesus adopted a strictly pro-Jewish stance and the later introduction into the Gospels of pro-gentiles leanings must reflect the point of view of the early church, which was by then, almost exclusively non-Jewish. Or it was Jesus who adopted the universalist stand and this was replaced at a later stage by Jewish exclusivism.”
So, according to Geza, one way or the other, the gospels have been subject to later revision. Either, the almost exclusively non-Jewish make-up of the early church introduced pro-gentile leanings, or Jesus adopted a universalist stand that was later replaced by Jewish exclusivism. Vermes himself adopts the former view, that the verses that reflect a pro-gentile view were introduced to appeal to the non-Jewish early church. Vermes has no proof, (he himself says that, “having considered the whole evidence”, there is a straight choice), he simply chooses one over the other on the basis of his own personal inclination.
Vermes’ is a scholar well-known for his books on Jesus but this does not mean that his interpretation is not open to dispute. There are two grounds upon which we might find fault. Firstly, if the early church was so totally non-Jewish as he claims, then surely the revisions to the text would have been more significant with many of the references to Jewish exclusivity being expunged altogether. Secondly, he ignores the possibility that the gospels are, in fact, accurate and simply reflect different considerations at different times. Considered in this light we can see that, though most of Jesus’ ministry was undoubtedly directed for the most part at the Jews, this does not necessarily mean that his intention was not to bring salvation to all. Upon setting out on his task, he would have been aware that his message would have had to favour the Jews or they would not have followed him. Once Jesus had achieved a critical mass in his ministry, so the target of his message could begin to broaden. This broadening was then handed over to Paul and the other evangelists who brought it to the rest of the world. This interpretation is the one most consistent with the evidence.
Having dealt with the ‘Jewish’ problem, Dawkins expands his ideas on group enmity. Though Dawkins recognises that violence is perpetrated on the name of countless other ideologies, he argues that religion is particularly pernicious as it is passed down through the generations. Without the labels of in-group/out-group enmity he contends that the divide would not exist, and hence the reason for violence would disappear.
Dawkins has a point when he identifies group loyalty as a powerful force. However, there is nothing to suggest that religious divide is any more or less pernicious than any other divide. Man has what Dawkins himself calls “powerful tendencies towards in-group loyalties and out-group hostilities.” The truth is that it is man’s nature to group together and fight other groups, whatever the labels. Much of the fighting and suffering done in the name of religion has nothing whatsoever to do with God, in the same way that much fighting and suffering done in the name of freedom and equality has nothing to do with this ideals. This is explored in more detail in the section on Hitler and Stalin.
Dawkins concludes the section by saying:
“Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness – its deliberate and cultivated pandering to humanity’s natural tendency to favour in-groups and shun out-groups – would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world.”
This point is totally fallacious. It is akin to a child saying, he made me do it, in that it passes responsibility on to someone or something else. Ultimately, man commits evil and is responsible for it. This is nowhere more clear-cut than in Dawkins’ won philosophy. God does not exist, religion is a creation of Man – so where is the culpability? It is simply too convenient to blame ‘labels. Who has created these ‘labels’, ‘forces for evil in the world’, these ‘religions’. Dawkins is hoist by his own petard, because there is only one answer. Man. Therefore, if there is only Man and he has created such forces, if we got rid of religion, you would have to assume that Man would re-invent it all over again, or at least a variety of the same thing (a ‘religion’ believing in no God, perhaps – let’s call it atheism). Unless, of course, you believe in the generally progressive change of the moral zeitgeist, that we have now evolved to a state of superior morality. Even a brief view of twentieth century history debunks any such claim.