Dawkins and the Bible

Writing in the Observer, Richard Dawkins writes that he wants every child in Britain to read the King James version of the Bible. Why? Because “a native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.” He doesn’t actually explain why he thinks this; it is sandwiched between a paragraph on biblical phrases that we use anyway (whether or not we realise) and a paragraph on the results of his survey on people’s (lack of) biblical knowledge.

Personally, I’d rather people read a modern, comprehensible version of the Bible, so that they can create and develop a relationship with God. That’s the point of the Bible, not its worth as great literature. It’s worth pointing out that whilst parts of the Bible are written as great literature (Jonah, Job and so on) other parts are written much more in everyday language (Mark’s gospel and so on).

Dawkins also argues that European history is incomprehensible with “an understanding of the warring factions of Christianity and the book over whose subtleties of interpretation they were so ready to slaughter and torture each other.” He seemingly hasn’t read great modern literature such as Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall (let alone an actual history of the period: try John Guy’s classic The Tudors) which makes clear that this was as least as much about realpolitik and the whims of kings as it was about doctrine.

It is also a bit like trying to discredit modern science by pointing out the appalling atrocities of the Nazi scientists, let alone the way that they and their results were quietly assimilated by the Allies (sorry, I know this is conforming to Godwin’s Law, but I think that comparison is justified for once).

The central part of Dawkins’ argument is that he has an “ulterior motive” for wanting people to read the Bible. He argues that if more people actually read the Bible they would recognise the “pernicious falsehood” that it is a “good guide to morality”. He mocks the ten commandments partly I think for encouraging worship of God, and partly for their obviousness (although if ‘don’t murder’ is so obvious a command why do people keep breaking it?).

Dawkins also points out the problems with the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, which I’ve talked about elsewhere. It’s also worth pointing out that Jesus’ own approach to the Old Testament law. In the Sermon on the Mount he talks about ‘you have heard that … but I say to you …” while in Matthew 19 he tells people that Moses only gave a command because their “hearts were hard”. In other words, the parts of the Bible that Dawkins most criticises are the parts that other parts of the Bible recognise are not the last word on the subject.

Dawkins concludes that the Bible “is not a moral book”. If he means that the Bible is not a textbook for morality, a checklist of how to behave, then he is quite right. If, however, he reads it as the narrative account of humanity’s encounters with God, how he shaped (and shapes) their thinking, and how they discovered more about him and how they and we are encouraged to continue that journey of discovery, then he will at least realise that most of his criticisms aren’t really valid. I don’t care in the least whether children (and adults) ever read the King James Bible or not, but I do want everyone to meet with the living God, and one good way of doing that is to read the Bible (in a version that they can actually understand).

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