The so-called New Atheists have not fared well among scholars of religion. Generally, their work has been shrugged off as shoddy, unscholarly propaganda, or they have been taken to task for conjuring “straw man” caricatures of religious traditions, conveniently ignoring all the good that religious institutions have done, defining faith in a manner unrecognizable to most religious people, and opposing science and religion, as if a commitment to one must mean a denial of the other. Scholars of the Bible in particular complain that they rehash tired contradictions and improbable historical claims with which almost any educated believer is already acquainted while making egregious errors that undermine their credibility. For example, Richard Dawkins mistakes the Gospel of Thomas (a collection of Jesus’s sayings) for the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (a narrative about Jesus’s childhood); Christopher Hitchens wrongly assumes that all four canonical Gospels were based on Q; and Sam Harris misspells the name of Israel’s patron deity. Yet, as a scholar of the Bible myself, I find that the New Atheists do have some very important things to say about how many communities of faith approach scripture.
First, they helpfully point out that the God of the Bible bears little resemblance to the cozy deity of today’s mainline Catholic and Protestant communities, who is compassionate, merciful, faithful, attentive to the cries of the suffering, and on the side of the poor and the downtrodden. Not coincidentally, this is just the sort of god they need to underwrite a bevy of social programs and charities. Yahweh can be kind to those few whom he favors, but he can also be “an ill-tempered and implacable and bloody and provincial god” (Hitchens) or a “cruel ogre” whose “monumental rage” and “maniacal jealousy” terrorize those who don’t do exactly what he says or who offer up a prayer to a rival deity (Dawkins). The New Atheists rightly challenge Christians to take a fresh look at the biblical portrait of God and to acknowledge that their deity of infinite love and mercy is a far cry from the irascible, capricious sky god who lurks menacingly within the canon. To their credit, the early Christian Gnostics at least grappled honestly with the portrait of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible, which led them to conclude that its egomaniacal, tyrannical protagonist could not possibly be the universe’s highest ranking deity. Yahweh may have created this material world—indeed, given the variety and magnitude of suffering on this planet, and given that he so often is subject to fits of unbridled rage and jealousy, he seems a very likely candidate—but there must be a god higher still to whom believers owe their allegiance and to whom their spirits return at death.
Second, the New Atheists do a very good job of reminding believers of the dangers that lurk within their scriptures. Too many adherents today overlook— or simply aren’t aware of—features of their sacred texts that can be marshaled to inspire violence or to authorize social policies and structures that marginalize women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and people of other faiths (or of no faith!). Sam Harris, for instance, tries to show his readers that a careful reading of the Qur’an and the hadith does not support the nowwidely repeated and rarely challenged mantra, “Islam is a religion of peace.” In fact, portions of Islam’s earliest sacred texts very clearly command violence against non-Muslims. In the Qur’an, for instance, Muhammad commands his followers on more than one occasion to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them.” To motivate believers for battle, he claims that “God has granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight” and warns those who don’t that they will have no share in the spoils of war or even in eternal life. And, just in case the rhetoric of reward and punishment alone doesn’t do the job, Muhammad incites animosity toward “the infidels” by dehumanizing them by referring to them as “beasts” who are “deaf, dumb, and blind.” The assertion that “Islam is a religion of peace” just doesn’t pass muster. One might say this of Jainism, but it cannot be said of any of the Abrahamic traditions. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam certainly can serve—and has served—as an instrument of peace and reconciliation, but there’s simply no denying that its early texts authorize violence against non-Muslims in the name of God.
I see Harris asking Muslims to take a clear stand on whether or not statements like those above are divinely revealed and therefore authoritative for the community of faith. I am not aware of any imam who has offered a public and unambiguous repudiation of these texts. Among moderates and progressives, they are usually just ignored or reinterpreted “in historical context” to blunt their unpalatable features. Rory Dickson offers a fine example of this interpretive approach (one prolifically employed by Jewish and Christian apologists as well): “In discussing Qur’anic verses on fighting, al-Akiti notes that one of the most severe Qur’anic verses ordering war— ‘Slay the unbelievers where you find them’ (9:5)—was revealed in reference to a historical episode, the breach of the Treaty of Hudaybiya, by the Meccans opposed to Muhammad in 630 CE. Considering the verse’s reference to this historical episode, al-Akiti writes, ‘no legal rulings, or in other words, no practical or particular implications can be derived from the Verse on its own.’ As the verse is historically specific in its genesis, general rulings cannot be made from it.”
Of course, if God authorized the execution of unbelievers in the seventh century, doesn’t it stand to reason that he might command violence in similar future scenarios? Surely, “breach of treaty” can be taken in the broadest possible sense to include broken vows and unfulfilled obligations of many kinds. I imagine that it would be relatively easy for a jurist or imam to make a case for using this verse to legitimate violence in a variety of modern situations where people have not held true to their word.
Well-intentioned hermeneutics like al-Akiti’s aside, the fact remains that because God commanded violence in this particular instance, it’s perfectly reasonable for a believer to assume that he might wish to see the same from adherents in the future (unless, of course, one wishes to argue that God has undergone a significant change in character since 630 Ce—a claim that would find virtually no support among traditional Muslims). Harris is saying that today much more is required from moderate and progressive Muslims: it is time they publically denounce these parts of the Qur’an and declare that they neither come from God nor reflect values conducive to peaceful societies, no matter how you spin them. Certain parts of the Qur’an and the hadith must be desacralized in order to safeguard future generations from religiously inspired violence.
Dawkins and Hitchens choose rather to focus on the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Dawkins aims to show that Christians, no matter what they say, generally do not take their moral cues from the Bible—or that if they do, moral inspiration must be restricted to a minuscule number of passages. The Bible is full of characters who behave atrociously— Lot, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Jephthah, and certainly Yahweh himself, to name a few—none of whom any sensible parent could commend to children as a role model. Moreover, many of the Bible’s moral codes are at best dated and often unreasonably punitive or downright cruel as well. For instance, the Ten Commandments simply take for granted the institution of slavery, treat women as men’s property, prohibit a very natural inner disposition (covetousness), and demand unwavering allegiance to a single tribal deity—a sectarian stipulation that in view of our Constitution’s establishment clause would seem to preclude their being posted in public places. Even sacrosanct exhortations such as “Love your neighbor” (Leviticus) and “Love one another” (John) recommend extending sympathies only to those who already are members of the in-group and therefore would hardly qualify as stunning ethical advances.
Like Dawkins, Hitchens too lambastes the Bible’s barbaric Bronze Age moral codes and parochial ethics, sparing not even the most beloved biblical texts. “No society ever discovered,” he writes, “has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai,” and many of Jesus’s teachings, including the Golden Rule and the antitheses in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, present adherents with a perfectionist ethic that keeps them in a perpetual state of failure and guilt—all to the great benefit of paid religious personnel. “The order to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’” he observes, “is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed. . . . Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves: the thing simply cannot be done (as any intelligent ‘creator’ would well understand from studying his own design). Urging humans to be superhumans, on pain of death and torture, is the urging of terrible self-abasement at their repeated and inevitable failure to keep the rules. What grins, meanwhile, on the faces of those who accept the cash donations that are made in lieu!”
Roman Catholic theologian John Haught, an outspoken critic of the New Atheists and author of God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, argues that when Hitchens and Dawkins highlight outmoded worldviews and frightful moral injunctions in biblical writings, they simply read these texts wrongly. He berates Hitchens for his “plain reading of everything” and Dawkins for his tendency to emphasize morality to the exclusion of so much else in the Bible. Both authors, he says, completely miss the overarching theme of the Jewish and Christian canons, which is that Yahweh is ceaselessly working to liberate those in bondage: “One of the greatest benefits of taking a good college-level course in biblical literature, or of being part of a Bible study group informed by up-to-date scholarship, is that one can learn to read the biblical texts in such a way that a major theme, say that of liberation, remains transparent in the background even while we are reading passages that may seem morally offensive when taken in isolation.”
Haught’s preferred approach is routinely taught in seminaries and divinity schools around the country today, and I am grateful that it is. But never should hermeneutical strategies that prioritize liberation mask the Bible’s unseemly and potentially harmful features. Haught suggests that mere acquaintance with “up-to-date biblical scholarship” should enable believers to slough off the Bible’s “morally offensive” passages as occasional abnormalities and focus on more prominent and palatable themes such as liberation. But the morally offensive passages do not amount to a few hiccups in an otherwise liberation-saturated text: they in fact predominate. And it is precisely these aspects of the Bible to which Dawkins and Hitchens helpfully draw our attention. The decision to boil down the Bible’s message, as Haught would have us do, to “God liberates the oppressed” is just that: a choice made by progressive interpreters of the twenty-first century who need the text to validate their current values, agendas, and programs.
But can’t one just as well reduce the Bible’s message to “God punishes sinners”? In fact, if one is after a “plain reading” of the corpus as a whole (which is what many early Reformers were after), it seems the latter has far more weight behind it than “God liberates,” because in the Bible, God does far more punishing than liberating. Too often, only the tiniest minority of our species are fortunate enough to be the recipients of Yahweh’s favor. The majority are simply written off, slaughtered, or consigned to eternal torment. Haught’s liberatory reading strategy— one, I assume, that minimally would seek equality for women, toleration for people of other faiths, sustainable consumption practices, accommodation for the disabled, and justice for the poor—is laudatory, but it often goes against the natural grain of the text. Tellingly, such an approach was nearly nonexistent among Christian clergy for two millennia. What Haught implies is that the “plain reading” performed by a majority of Christians over the centuries is plain wrong: Christians have been badly botching biblical interpretation until just the last few decades, when he and his colleagues finally woke up and got it right. But, because so few even today read with this lens, Haught is also saying that most Christians still get it wrong and therefore have no idea what the Bible is really about. Are all but the academic elite and their tiny cadre of sympathizers totally misguided?
Just as Harris pushes Muslims to come to terms with violence in their earliest texts, I see Hitchens and Dawkins doing much the same for Jews and Christians. It’s time to take a public and unequivocal stand, they argue: Do you still consider the conquest narratives, the household codes, and the countless passages that demonize out-groups to be sacred Scripture or not? If so, in what sense? Is the Bible God’s infallible word to all human beings or is it merely divinely inspired? If divinely inspired, where precisely does divine input leave off and human creativity begin? Might you go so far as to say that the Bible is entirely a human product and therefore holds no ultimate authority over the contemporary community of faith?
My own perspective is one that I suspect the New Atheists share: the only way to protect future generations from religiously justified violence and injustice is to finally acknowledge the Bible’s human origins, thereby desacralizing the entire corpus. It may remain an important dialogue partner in the same sense that, say, Plato’s Republic or Camus’s The Plague do for millions, but it can no longer be called upon to dictate human behavior, aims, and models of reality. It should be treated no differently than any other collection of voices from the past. Indeed, once divested of its authority, interpreters will be free to see what’s actually there—voices that truly can be capacious, wise, even sublime but also plenty of others that are mean-spirited, ethically bankrupt, and hopelessly antiquated.
- Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
- Dickson, Rory. “Religion as Phantasmagoria: Islam in The End of Faith,” in Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
- Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
- Haught, John. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
- Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007.