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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dawkins on the Old Testament God

Here's what Richard Dawkins says in The God Delusion:

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 misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Now, Dawkins himself has commented on this (though I can't immediately find the provenance). What I'm about to say is not, therefore, very original, but I do know that Dawkins more-or-less agrees with it - or at least some of it.

Some people doubtless think that the above quote is "shrill" or "strident". I say that those people are tone deaf. The tone is, above all, that of someone delighting in the English language and inviting us to do likewise, as he locates all these adjectives, many of them polysyllabic, though the rhythm of the prose (try saying it aloud) is controlled by the fact that they are not all of the same length. The delight is heightened by the sense that we have as readers of the sheer thoroughness of this denunciation, and by its precision and accuracy: by a sense that Dawkins could justify each of these very specific adjectives (and the nouns they attach to) individually, if called upon to do so. Whatever this passage is, it's not Dawkins playing tennis with the net down. It's exuberant yet disciplined.

The total effect is not just that of intoxication with the language, though it's certainly that as well; it is, let's say it, funny. Indeed, when Dawkins reads the passage out loud to audiences they laugh at it. That's his aim.

There's a seriousness about it, too, of course. Once again, the joy of the language and the humour it produces rely on the thoroughness and precision (and accuracy) of this denunciation of the Old Testament God. A serious point is being made here, but also in a way that celebrates our ability to make it in just this way, and partly for that reason it invites our laughter.

There's a great deal more that can be said about the passage, including, yes, the fact that a certain disrespect for the Old Testament and the religious significance of the passage is conveyed. God, as described in the Old Testament is being revealed not just as monstrous but also as absurd, and we are invited to feel and share the absurdity as we laugh at the wordplay. There's an iconoclasm about it, of which we are conscious - perhaps even uneasily, but perhaps not so much - even as we laugh.

The tone of The God Delusion is not strident. Sometimes it is passionate and blunt, more often it is urbanely humorous, but it can also be thoughtful: carefully making distinctions and even concessions, while identifying what the author invites us to regard as the important and irrefutable nuggets of truth. Dawkins is, to pick up on some of my previous post, a master of the English language, and there is always much going on in any passage that he's written which resists a reductive description as "strident" or "shrill". Of course, if you start out unsympathetic to him, with a closed mind, you may miss all this, all the humour, the cajolery, the careful seriousness of purpose, but it's all right there in the choice of language.

When Dawkins is described as "strident" or "shrill", one response is to say, "Who cares? All that matters is the cogency of his arguments." But this is an unsophisticated response. People are always going to be interested in discussing the sorts of things I've pointed to in this post - and even if they're not comfortable discussing it, they will encounter language working in these complex ways. And it will do its work on them, one way or another.

It might, for one thing, sometimes make them laugh out loud.

A better response to someone who complains about the tone of such a passage is not:"Tone doesn't matter." It's: "You're tone deaf."


Greywizard said...

If Dawkins' langauge regarding the god of the OT is taken to be strident and shrill, then so is that of many OT commentators. Yes, Dawkins' description of the OT god is good linguistic fun, but it's also a fairly good characterisation of the god depicted there.

One of the things that I noticed when reading through the OT as a child is that, in the Pentateuch at least, god is unpredictable and dangerous. It's hard to know just what it might get up to and how it might respond. The story of the moving of the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem, after David had conquered the city and decided to make his capital there is a good example. While it was being moved on a cart, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark so that it would not fall, and he was struck dead on the spot. (2Sam 6.7) Then of course there is the time, when Moses is sick, and God threatens his life. Moses' wife circumcises their son, touches Moses with the circumcised prepuce, and throws it in the direction of the threat, and Moses lives. (Ex 4.24-26)

These are completely bizarre stories, and yet they give an eerie sense of the mysteriousness and danger of this being called God. Dawkins' amusing description of the OT God does not go nearly far enough. God reflects the uncertainty, contingency and cruelty of life itself.

However, the NT God is even worse, for the NT God never lets go, and pursues his foes into the shadowy world of the after life, there to afflict for eternity those who are at enmity with him. In the light of the biblical evidence it is simply ridiculous that anyone should take exception to Dawkins' accurate, if incomplete, account of the nature of the biblical god.

Spencer Troxell said...

Yeah, you're right Russell. Dawkins is anything but mean spirited in his critique of religion. He is funny, objective, and possessed from time to time by a justifiable righteous indignation.

Of course all of that comes off as strident when you are the walking bundle of exposed nerves that any thoughtful religious person is bound to be (as I myself once was). Your sensitivities are piqued: It's like when you have a nasty hangover and the sound of the toaster popping up your breakfast bagel is just so damned loud...and shrill.

I'm glad you pointed out how skilled Dawkins is with language. His humor also goes unappreciated too often, I guess because it is subtle, and when you have a hangover, it's hard to appreciate subtlety.

steve oberski said...

If you look at the OT as an early attempt to understand and explain reality, the sheer capriciousness and malevolence of the OT god just mirrors the environment that the authors dealt with.

Eamon Knight said...

A few years ago Dawkins was interviewed on TV Ontario (Steve Paikin's show, for those who recognize the name). Paikin read that passage and complained that it wasn't "respectful". Dawkins, IMO, rather blew his reply. First he went off on a tangent about how wonderful that passage sounds when read aloud by his wife -- which is no doubt true, but came across as self-adulatory and pompous. Then he tried to get back on track by explaining he's not dissing religious believers, only the OT idea of God, but never really succeeded in analyzing the notion of "respect", and what deserves it and what doesn't, and calling out the entitlement claimed by religion. I don't think it requires a Simon Blackburn-length treatment to get the basic idea across, and Dawkins didn't.

Much though I love me some Dawkins, at times he sticks his foot very firmly in his mouth, and this was one of those times.