The next chapter in Dawkins is called “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist,” and it is one of the strangest bits of business I have encountered in some time.
The first part of the chapter is dedicated to proving how the Bible exhibits “sheer strangeness” and is “just plain weird” (p. 237). To establish this, he tells a number of Bible stories — Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister, Jepthah’s daughter, the Levite’s concubine, Lot sleeping with his daughters, and so on. He does this in order to prove that no one, not even the most conservative Christian, gets his morality from the Bible. Getting your morality “from the Bible,” for Dawkins, apparently consists of justifying any action provided it can be shown to have occurred somewhere in the pages of Scripture. And since no one, not even the most rigorous follower of the courtship model, sets a bride price for his daughter at 100 Philistine foreskins, we must all of us be really inconsistent. “You say you believe the Bible . . .”
Dawkins’ knowledge of scriptural hermeneutics and the nature of unfolding revelation is frankly sophomoric, and that actually constitutes a gratuitous insult to sophomores. The only alternative that he can imagine to slavish imitation of anything done by any given Bible character is to relegate the Bible to the world of “symbolism.” But if you do that, he argues, the Bible becomes a nose of wax, and anybody can make it say anything he wants. Those are the two alternatives presented by Dawkins in this chapter — wooden imitation or up-for-grabs symbolism.
But there are plenty of people who take Judges as literal history who do not believe that carving a dead concubine into pieces as a summons to war is righteous. We believe in this way, not because the incident offends our modern moral sensibilities (which it does), but because the text itself leads us to this conclusion. The text is the basis for our modern moral sensibilities. This was a time in Israel’s history when every man did what was right “in his own eyes,” and the results were frequently appalling.
Dawkins clearly does not know how to read a literary collection of texts like the Bible, and it is equally clear that there is an entire world of literary and biblical scholarship out there from which, if it had a deadly contagious disease, Dawkikns would be quite safe.
Suppose that Macbeth were a sacred text. According to Dawkins, either you would have to go out to find yourself a Duncan to kill (in order to “get your morality” from Shakespeare), or you would have to interpret the whole thing as a series of nebulous symbols. “Nope. No other options.” Good grief.
Having set up this wobbly foundation, Dawkins proceeds to get even wobblier. Where do we get our morality? Since he has shown (!) that nobody gets his morality “from the Bible,” where do we get our morality? At this point I have to do what Dave Barry frequently does and assure my readers that I am not making this up. We get our morality from the contemporary zeitgeist, or spirit of the age. Everybody, more or less, has the same basic morality, the one notable exception (kind of) being the conservative Christians in the U.S. who are busy makin up the American Taliban. But we all have a basic sense of what constitutes good and what constitutes bad. Dawkins cites a list of commandments he got off the Internet that illustrates this, called the “New Ten Commandments.” It would be exceeding tedious to cite them all, but I will quote some of them, along with one I made up. See if you can tell which one that is.
2. In all things, strive to cause no harm.
5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
6. Always seek to be learning something new.
10. Question everything.
11. Love pina coladas, and walking in the rain.
Okay, so I added the last one. But I think you could only tell because it was supposed to be ten commandments, and that had an eleven by it. And what is it with that number ten? Question everything, except for stupid, arbitrary lists like this one. Whenever I see that bumpersticker that says “Question Authority,” I want to get a marker pen and write on it, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
But Dawkins celebrates the zeitgeist. He points to the suffrage of women as an example of this zeitgest, with women gaining the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893, Britain in 1928, Switzerland in 1971, and in Kuwait in 2006. See? Look at us go.
Dawkins is jubilant because “the Zeitgeist moves on” (p. 267).
“The Zeitgeist moves on, so inexorably that we sometimes take it for granted and forget that the change is a real phenomenon in its own right” (p. 267).
Dawkins is driving the car, and I am in the backseat trying to figure out what I thought were mapquest directions, but the night was foggy and really dark. Later I discovered that the mapquest directions were actually grease stains from a piece of pizza left on one of Dawkins’ scientific papers.
“How are we doing?” say I, somewhat worried.
“Great, great,” he cheerfully replies.
“Where are we going again?” I want to know.
“We are making excellent time!” he answers. “Never better!”
“How do you know that?” I want to know.
“Look at all the other cars zipping along right beside us,” he says. “Zeitgesting down the road like crazy.”
In other words, we don’t know where we are, where we are going, who made the car, or who gave us the keys, but we are making excellent time nonetheless. I don’t have a copy of it with me, but it reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ wonderful hymn to evolution. “Lead us, evolution, lead us/Up the future’s endless stair/Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us/Lead us, goodness, who knows where.”
“The shift is in a recogniably consistent direction, which most of us would judge as improvement” (p. 268).
Most of us, hey? Or is that just most of the smart ones? And does that make it an improvement? Can “most of us” be wrong? If not, doesn’t that open the door to all manner of hellish dystopias? And if so, by what standard? Is a majority vote an all-purpose disinfectant?
Begging the question like a champion, Dawkins simply assumes what he needs to prove. The Zeitgeist is doing good things as long as it is moving in a “progressive” direction. But how on earth are we supposed to define progress?
“The Zeitgeist may move, and move in a generally progressive direction, but as I have said it is a sawtooth not a smooth improvement, and there have been some appalling reversals” (p. 272).
Appalling reversals? By what standard? A generally progressive direction? By what standard? Improvement? By what standard? The standard for how fast and in what direction the car should go cannot be how fast and in what direction the car is currently going. A car is not a map. An internal combustion engine is not a map. But Dawkins dismisses all this with a facile, “Look at us go.”
And the interesting thing is that, in the first part of the chapter, when he was arguing against Christians who pick and choose from their Bibles (which would be bad, I agree, if we were doing it), he denomstrated plainly that he understands this principle. When he was talking about what parts of the Bible we should follow and what parts not, he laid down a principle that is quite good. I am glad that he did this because he shows that he understands the principle clearly. Now all he has to do is apply it to himself. But, son of a gun, he doesn’t get around to that.
“Remember, all I am trying to establish for the moment is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty. But then we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not” (p. 243, emphasis cheerfully and helpfully added by DW).
According to Dawkins, there are competing moral claims in the Bible. There aren’t, but let’s give it to him for a moment. He says that in order to make a choice, we must have a criterion of choosing. That’s right, we do need that. Now, there are also competing moral claims out there in Zeitgeist-land, and Dawkins knows it. I mean, Dawkins just cannot get over the lunatic theocracy that Americans are busy building under that renowned theocrat George W. Bush. That, surely, is a contrary wind to the prevailing winds of progressivism.
So let us change our metaphor from driving a car aimlessly to windsurfing aimlessly, because the zeitgeist is more like a stiff wind than it is like a road just lying there. Dawkins wants us to windsurf in a particular direction, in front of what he thinks ought to be the prevailing winds. But why should we care what he thinks the prevailing winds ought to be? What matters is what they are, right?
But then Dawkins gives the game away. It all boils down to personal choice.
“Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally anymore. But that is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is morality flying by the seat of its pants’, so is the other” (p. 238, again, the emphasis is cheerfully mine, in an attempt to clarify these issues).
I agree that if they are both flying by the seat of their pants, then they both are. But if Christians are following a sure word from God, a light in a dark place, that does not change what Dawkins is doing. Dawkins here acknowledges that, whatever else is the case, he is flying by the seat of his pants. How does one answer any perplexing ethical questions? Personal choice trumps all.
Should I believe in science? Personal choice. Should I accept the theory of evolution? Personal choice. Should I adopt a progressive political agenda? Personal choice. Should I participate in hate crimes against homosexuals? Personal choice. Should I support apartheid? Personal choice. Should I support the expansion of the American empire? Personal choice. Should I accept the authority of reason and evidence? Personal choice. Should I ditch my wife for some new babe I thought I found? Personal choice. Should I find Intelligent Design compelling? Personal choice. Should I help the old lady across the street? Personal choice. Push her into the traffic? Personal choice. Should I vote for the presidential candidate most likely to outlaw abortion? Personal choice. Should I give my selfish genes more of a shot at immortality by becoming a serial rapist? Personal choice. Should I respect the personal choices of others? Personal choice. Should I have nothing but contempt for the personal choices of others? Personal choice.
Dawkins has written enough in this chapter to reveal that he knows what he is doing. But at the same time, it is also clear that he is still half ashamed of it.