“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 misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
That’s Richard Dawkins’ verdict on Yahweh. And if you think he’s just got a problem with the Old Testament then it’s worth noting that the New Atheists have just as big (if not bigger) a problem with the New Testament. Now, not every atheist will have read “The God Delusion” and not everyone claims to share his approach to debating on faith. However, this statement is important because I would suggest that it is representative of a major objection to the Christian claim that God is good. So, it’s right that we engage with it.
Firstly, it’s important at this stage to note that Dawkins is making a series of moral judgements here. He is saying that if there is something called goodness, then God does not possess or show it. So, a major part of our discussion needs to focus on the following questions:
- What is morality and does morality really exist?
- Where does morality come from?
Remember that one of the key things we should be thinking about as we go along is whether our answers to these questions are consistent, fit within and support our worldview or whether we give inconsistent answers and/or undermine our worldview.
We are back to presuppositions again. Presuppositions are the foundational beliefs that we have on which our worldview sits. Generally speaking, if you challenge my individual beliefs and find evidence to prove me wrong, unless you actually demolish the foundations and show that my underpinning pre-suppositions are wrong, I’m unlikely to change my mind and more likely to simply find new explanations that fit within the overarching framework of my belief system.
Morality – is it real?
What we immediately see here is that Dawkins is making a moral assessment of the Christian God. He attributes a number of negative characteristics and actions to God. Now, I am a little curious about this. Does Dawkins mean that there really are right and wrong motives or does he simply mean that here are a set of standards that Christians would claim are moral and by their own standards, their God fails?
It is right to ask the question “is there really something that we can genuinely call morality?” What do I mean by this? Well, here are a few examples of moral qualities: love, mercy, compassion, kindness etc. Now, I can say that yes I agree, love exists, that a real action (compassion) happens because of an emotion I experience (love) and that the action results in a further sense of well-being. However, there is a big difference between seeing “love” as a moral quality and seeing it as a label to describe chemical processes. The difference here is about “is and ought.”
What do I mean by this? Well, I am constantly able to observe how people, animals and plants function. I know that in certain conditions certain creatures will normally perform in certain ways -they’ll respond to the environment around them. That’s what we mean by “is”.
However, saying that things do happen does not mean that they should happen. We can say that something “is” the case but we also want to talk about what “ought” to be the case. For example, if you are a Tottenham Hotspurs fan, then the difference between “is” and “ought” would be obvious. You might think that Spurs ought to have won the Premier League in 2016. However, the real situation is that Leicester won the title. Or to give another example, take someone who runs a business using dodgy and maybe even criminal methods. You might say that he is successful and making lots of money but he ought to be found out and locked up in prison.
It’s the same when we look at the wider world around us. We can observe how the world functions, how animals behave towards each other, how humans treat one another. You will observe that certain behaviours tend to have certain consequences. You will observe a world where some people do well and others don’t. You will observe a world where there is pain and suffering as well as joy. That’s what the world is like but ought it to be like that?
How do we tell the difference between “is” and “ought”? Well, medical treatment offers some clues. we know that some people respond physically to stimuli that should cause pleasure or a neutral reaction, but in fact they experience pain. Now on a small scale I know that the “is” here isn’t the “ought”. Medical diagnosis depends on distinguishing the two. A doctor will then compare my experience of pain to two things, first of all he will look wider and finds out what is the experience of the rest of the population. Secondly, he looks deeper and finds out what my past experience is by looking at my medical history.
So to distinguish between “is” and “ought” we need to see the bigger picture. But if we are looking at how the whole Universe behaves can we do that? Is there something bigger to look to? Where do we get our terms of reference from? How do we know that particular behaviours are right or wrong, especially if they appear to be common to much of humanity? For example, Slavery has been common and persistent throughout history in some form or other. Does that mean we should just accept it?
Then what do we do if there is more than one “is”? What happens if we observe a number of different practices around the world? For example, how do I choose between capitalism, communism and feudalism? I really have three choices
- I could say that one system is right and the other two are wrong.
- I could say that all of the systems are wrong and we need to keep searching for the right one.
- Or we could say that none of the systems are necessarily right or wrong. All we can say is that each system exists.
If we take the third option, then we are saying that it is impossible to identify an “ought.” All we can do is describe what is the case. Now, this is a perfectly logical conclusion for atheists to come to. If all we have is the Universe around us, then there is nothing greater than it, nothing beyond or outside of it. We have on way of telling how things “ought” to be. All we can do is describe how things are.
This is in effect a logical conclusion of belief that the foundational absolute is matter. Words like love justice, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, retribution, restoration really are just words to describe the reality. They are just labels for observable chemical processes and interactions between organisms but we should not load them with any value.
The problem is that not many people really want to do this. Generally speaking, people want to talk about goodness and morality. Generally speaking, as well, we tend to talk about evolution in terms of progress. It’s not just that things change, mutations are meant to lead to improvements.
Where do we get our morality from?
Ethical Approaches – an important piece of the jigsaw
John Frame identifies three main approaches to ethics: existential, teleological (or situational) and deontological.
Existential Ethics tend to be subjective, “they focus on ethics as a phenomenon of the internal life” meaning that “a good act comes from a good character.” Modern politicians often rely on this approach: we are expected to trust their policies because they are good and honourable men and women. The problem with this approach is that it is subjective. It is dependent upon individual conscience about right and wrong. How can anyone challenge what I do, especially if I believe myself to be essentially wise and good?
Frame does note though that:
“No thinker is an absolutely pure example of any of these three tendencies. The reason is that ethics by its very nature requires all three perspectives. One can try to reject a perspective, but it always shows up somewhere. So, in secular existential ethics, our inner subjectivity is made to play all three roles; motive, goal and standard.”
The second ethical tradition described by Frame is Teleological Ethics.
“This term comes from the Greek word telos, which means ‘goal’ or ‘purpose.’ This tradition understands ethics as a selection of goals and of means to reach those goals. In the secular version, the goal is usually human happiness or, more narrowly, pleasure.” 
This leads to a lot of discussion about how we know what a good goal is. Utilitarianism will argue that we should weigh up what brings the greatest joy or happiness, but that leads to further questions. For example, what if I pursue maximum pleasure for me at the expense of pain to others? The answer to that one may sound simple, but then, what if we pursue pleasure for a majority of people, but that results in severe pain for a minority?
The third approach is called Deontological Ethics. This is about a concern for objective rules or principles. Frame says that:
“Deontologists tend to be contemptuous of people who do good in order to gain pleasure or happiness or to express their inner inclinations. In the deontological view, seeking happiness is never morally virtuous; indeed, it detracts from the moral quality of any action. So when a writer despises pleasure and exalts principle or self-sacrifice, he is probably a deontologist.” 
How do we determine what those rules are? Well, a theist is likely to identify those rules as being given by God. However, an atheist does not have (and may not want) that option. Also, we cannot go on subjective feelings or benefits. So as Frame explains, because
“Deontologists seek to find ethical norms that are universal, necessary and obligatory. They usually accept the argument of Hume, Moore, and others that such norms cannot be found through sense experience (as in teleological ethics) or introspection (as in existential ethics).” The problem set before the deontologist, therefore, is to find some other source of ethical knowledge.” 
So how does Richard Dawkins engage with ethics? It’s important that we go back to his basic starting point: the selfish gene. In Dawkins’ worldview, our essential purpose is to provide vehicles for genetic reproduction. The Gene functions selfishly in that its concern is self-preservation.
So, does this remove the possibility of altruism? Dawkins argues that no it doesn’t because it is the gene that is ‘selfish’ because that’s what it needs to preserve, but just because the lowest common denominator is defined as ‘selfish’, it does not mean that everything else is ‘selfish’ around it.
“It is necessary to put the emphasis on the right word. The selfish gene is the correct emphasis, for it makes the contrast with the selfish organism or the selfish species.”
The gene itself needs to be ‘selfish’ because
“The logic of Darwinism concludes that the unit in the hierarchy of life which survives and passes through the filter of natural selection will tend to be selfish. The units that survive in the world will be the ones that succeeded in surviving at the level of their rivals at their own level in the hierarchy. That precisely, is what selfishness means in this context.” 
Dawkins does acknowledge that this ‘selfishness’ will extend beyond the gene. However, this is not guaranteed to be always and uniformly the case.
“The most obvious way in which genes ensure their own selfish survival relative to other genes is by programming individual organisms to be selfish. There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of the individual organism will favour the survival of the genes that ride inside it. But different circumstances favour different tactics. There are circumstances –not particularly rare – in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically”
He then goes on to discuss a number of circumstances in which organisms and communities may discover good reasons for acting altruistically in a way that supports the survival of the selfish gene. He concludes:
“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ to each other. First, there is the special case of genetic kinship. Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback. Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness. And fourth, If Zahavi is right; there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising.”
Essentially, Dawkins argues for a form of game theory where the game players “start out being nice, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Then repay good deeds with good but avenge bad deeds.” He does, however, also acknowledge the problem that “there will always be cheats, and stable solutions to the game theoretic conundrums of reciprocal altruism always involve an element of punishment of cheats.”
Now, I want to suggest that Dawkins’ ethics are essentially located within the teleological tradition. We do good for the good of something, but note that it’s specifically for the good of the gene which may not necessarily be or at least feel like the same thing as “my good/ wellbeing,” although the two things could well coalesce. In fact, because it is the gene itself which functions at the teleological level, then I am still likely to experience the other two forms of ethics. For example, in order to safeguard its future, the gene may generate a number of neurological processes intended to give me a sense of honour if I carry out actions aligned with the gene’s well-being. Alternatively, individuals and communities may learn to live by certain seemingly arbitrary rules that on the one hand don’t appear to deliver happiness or pleasure to the individuals or the community, but do ensure survival at the genetic level.
Now arguably, the implication is that my action’s true end goal is to serve the needs of something other than either myself or even those others who are the immediate recipient of my altruism. In fact, this is always true when your world view is founded on anything that is not a-se. In other words, I live to serve someone or something who is dependent upon me. The observant reader will realise that this is the alternative to grace.
It’s interesting that most creation or origins myths revolve around the needs of the gods. They create either to win battles with each other, by accident in some tragic way or in order to create servants and food for themselves. This is why I suggest that the alternative to the Bible’s account of God and creation means that I am no more than an accidental by-product of the gods’ agenda. In effect, Dawkins’ origins story does the same, only it is the genes that take the place of the gods. We become the accidental by-products of gene survival.
Dawkins’ creation story does the same. It’s fascinating that the Bible’s creation story subverts this. God does not create out of need – but he does create intentionally. We are not an accidental by—product.
I want to suggest the following problems with Dawkins’ account
- Dawkins still hasn’t really explained why altruism should work – why would we end up with that model (especially if the foundational building blocks are selfish)?
- If altruism is right, then why do you end up with selfish people? Why would someone go rogue and if altruism is what we truly need, then shouldn’t evolution eliminate the faulty alternatives? Or, if it doesn’t, then doesn’t that suggest it is somehow very inefficient?
- In the end, even when we follow altruistic means, then it does not follow that we ever can do that for genuine altruistic reasons – we are at heart selfish because our genes are selfish. Even when I do act altruistically, I’m primarily playing a waiting game to see how things will play out and where and when I might need to play nasty. I am, at heart, a selfish being. In effect, what we have is a form of original sin, but not recognised as such and without the possibility of salvation. I am really a slave to my genes. Really all any of us are doing is biding our time in the game.
Finally, even Dawkins doesn’t really convince himself that morality has a real place in the process. It may well be
“that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo. An even closer analogy is the human urge to adopt a child, I must rush to add that ‘misfiring’ is intended in only a strictly Darwinian sense. It carries no suggestion of the pejorative.”
In other words, Dawkins may be able to give an explanation for why we do good to those who are in a position to do good back to us. But why should we give when we don’t get anything back? Why should we serve without being noticed or rewarded? Why should we love those whom we don’t seem to have any real responsibility to?
Dawkins ends up saying that these emotions and compulsions are mistakes, errors in our genetic makeup. I still think that this is the most consistent and coherent conclusion to Dawkins’ account of origins. Mind you, I would suggest that if our primary purpose is to enable the survival of genes, then any suggestion of “misfiring” must, within a Dawkinsian worldview, be pejorative. It cannot be anything other.
So, in the end, Dawkins cannot really give a coherent account for why we should be moral. Not only that, I don’t find his account for why we are moral all that convincing either. Not only has failed to justify the ‘ought’ but he also failed to coherently explained the ‘is’.
Now, part of our discussion is quite rightly about challenging atheist positions to see if they can give a reasonable account for morality, but we still also have to deal with the question “Is the Christian account moral?” (We will explore that in our next post).
 NB. I’m choosing Richard Dawkins as a conversation partner because he is an example of an atheist thinker and writer who is reasonably well known and widely read. I understand that not every atheist will have read Dawkins, come to their conclusions because of him or even agree with every aspect of his reasoning and approach. However, it’s good to start somewhere. Dawkins himself takes time to explain when and why he disagrees with others who would be broadly in the atheist evolution camp.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 50.
 See for example Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, 109-122.
 Note, to save heated debate, my own answer to that is “no.” If you are interested in the history of the abolitionist movement in Britain, you may find my little booklet “John Wesley and the Abolition of the slave trade (Unpublished, 2008) of interest.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 74.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 74.
 Ironically at a point in history when we are less and less inclined to believe that they are that!
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 75.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 91.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 101.
 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 101.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 246
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 246
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 247.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 251.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 249.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 249.
 Noting Frame’s comment above that all three are always present in some form.
 NB when referring to accidents here, I am not referring to whether or not evolution is about chance, but rather that human life, including our ability to think and feel, is a side product of the primary process, not the main intention.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 232.