Dawkins’ Challenge

Why have hundreds of thousands of people bought Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion and watched the TV series? Why are so many highly educated people inclined to agree with him that religion is irrational and often evil, and that the world would be much better without it?

Certainly many wars in the world have a religious component. If the book confined itself to an attack on religiously motivated killing of innocent people, one could understand its popularity. But it does not. It attacks belief in God, religion as a whole.

The public would not give Dawkins’ book so much attention if they had greater understanding of and respect for religious faith. Dawkins challenges the world religions to convince the public that religious faith is an instrument for good, not evil.

One way for the Christian church to do that is to remind people of the great good done by its saints, such as William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. Their passion for freedom, humanity, and interracial harmony and justice is truly inspiring. And there is Jesus himself, the compassionate holy man who is the exemplar of the Christian life and the cornerstone of the church.

But the public perceive these as exceptional individuals, not as typical members of the Christian church. The church in its wisdom has a stack of beliefs and practices that it says contribute to a good Christian life, but which outsiders, and perhaps some insiders, find bewildering. Consequently, many people do not think much would be lost if churches were closed down.

The challenge for the church, therefore, is to explain the gospel so clearly that it can be seen as good news; and it must explain its practices so that people can appreciate their value in producing good lives and just communities. This task, however, is not as simple as it might seem. More than engaging preaching is required. The message itself is in need of clarification. Too often the church’s beliefs are confused, its sacraments seem pointless, and the Christian life appears to be such a denial of individual worth and autonomy as to be abhorrent.


Consider for example the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. St Paul and the author of Hebrews interpreted Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in the tradition of those in Leviticus, designed to appease the just wrath of God against sinners. But unlike the sacrifice of animals, they say, Jesus’ sacrifice was eternally acceptable. Knowing that, believers should accept that God has forgiven them their sins. Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s forgiveness are expressions of God’s great love for us. This doctrine is at the heart of their gospel.

There are several well known problems with this doctrine that make it unintelligible. First, it depicts God as both just and wrathful and loving and forgiving. Leon Morris suggested that a loving father can entertain righteous anger. 1 But that is so only if the anger is motivated by a desire to reform the offender. God’s anger was for retributive, not reformative justice, first requiring the death of an animal, if not of a sinner, and finally, according to St Paul, the death of Jesus. A god who demands the death of sinners is not forgiving in a loving way, and to claim that he is, is to say something self-contradictory, unintelligible and confusing. Emil Brunner drew attention to this confusion in his book The Mediator, where he wrote of Jesus’ crucifixion:

The whole classical Christian doctrine…recognizes both the wrath of God and the Divine Love which blots this out. It is the same paradox and mystery as the doctrine of the Trinity. …

Hence the Cross, conceived as the expiatory penal sacrifice of the Son of God, is the fulfilment of the scriptural revelation of God, in its most paradoxical incomprehensible guise. 2

The second serious confusion in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement concerns God’s justice. God’s just wrath required the death of sinners. But to satisfy this demand for justice, we are told, he allowed his perfectly innocent son to be crucified and let all the guilty go free. It is contrary to every theory and intuition about justice to punish the innocent. So once again, the picture of God presented here, of one who is both just and unjust, is contradictory and therefore unintelligible.

Calvin, referring to Isaiah 53, declared that on the cross “The guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God.” 3 In that case God is punishing the guilty, not the innocent, in letting Jesus die, and so his justice is preserved. Although this conforms to traditional ideas about substitutionary atonement, it does so by creating another problem. Even Calvin knew that according to the Bible, Jesus was not guilty of any sin. Consequently to say that God held him to be guilty is to accuse God of self-deception, of believing something to be true when it is — and is easily known to be — false.

As a result of Jesus’ crucifixion we can believe that God forgives us our sins. But here is another explanation of that faith, one that avoids contradictions and is true to experience. It was hard for Jews, so aware of the righteousness of God, to believe that he would really forgive them their sins. The condition of forgiving those who offend you is to accept the harm and suffering they inflict upon you without retaliation. On the cross Jesus revealed the depth of God’s love by demonstrating a willingness to accept every evil people could possibly inflict upon him—physical, social and spiritual—and yet He returned to offer them peace and his Holy Spirit. Seeing this, we can now believe in God’s willingness to forgive us. 4


To most people the sacraments are a mystery. It is not enough to be told rather vaguely that they are an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace.

Baptism is surely a symbol of repentance and renewal, and communion an acceptance of Christ’s forgiveness and the life of his Holy Spirit. But the significance of the sacraments has to be explained in detail, to make it quite plain how essential they are to a holy life, and consequently to a Christian community.


Let me turn to the problem of autonomy. I recently saw the film As it is in Heaven, which portrayed a Protestant clergyman demeaning and belittling people by pointing out their sins and requiring them to submit, in penitence, to a life of purity as defined by the church. The people of the town were liberated from this oppression by a man who affirmed the value of every one of them and encouraged each to follow his or her dream, in fellowship with the others. In effect he preached, not sin and repentance, but acceptance and autonomy.

Few Christian churches today are as demeaning and repressive as the one presented in this film. Most exhibit genuine care, and have a truly loving fellowship. In fact there is much less emphasis in modern churches on sin and repentance, and on humble discipleship in obedience to Christ. Rather there is great celebration of God’s love, often vaguely defined, but little on discerning God’s will for our lives. The churches have adopted the same optimistic attitude as the film, that love will conquer all ills and produce a heavenly harmony.

Christian tradition, however, demands something sterner, namely submission to Christ. Sins must be identified, repentance must follow, and there must be a commitment to Christ in order to live consistently by his loving Spirit. Outsiders would see this as a repudiation of one’s own rationality and autonomy, a mindless and rather pathetic subservience to the will of another. What needs to be explained is that submission to Christ is, in fact, an autonomous act or attitude, which is reaffirmed by Christians every day. Autonomy is of value, but if it is exercised badly, people can become instruments of evil.

The Bible

When discussing Christian beliefs, I suggested that some traditional biblical doctrines be abandoned as unintelligible. But some will say: the Bible is the authoritative basis of Christian faith, God’s word to humankind, so that its doctrines must be respected. Very well, but what should be done about its inconsistencies? One response is simply to affirm those passages with which we agree, and ignore those that do not please us. Dawkins complains that Christians do this, picking and choosing which doctrines to follow according to their taste. 5 But this is not true of professional theologians. They try to discover the main themes of biblical teaching, paying particular attention to those that are confirmed by experience. I think they must adopt a doctrine of progressive revelation. God’s word to the Jews in the Old Testament was probably appropriate at the time as He attempted to create a pious and just community, and later his word through Jesus met the need of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities to discover a new heart of compassion and love to motivate them to live well together. Perhaps God has a new word for us today.

Faith and reason

My criticisms raise the question of how much faith should submit to reason. This question is central to Dawkins’ book. To begin with he opposes scientific reason to speculative metaphysics, and denies that there is any scientific reason for believing that God exists. Later in the book he argues that a quite uncritical acceptance of all the doctrines of a faith produces a ready acceptance of some quite mad and wicked injunctions by extremist groups. “Faith,” he writes, “is evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” 6 What place have faith and reason in Christian belief?

This is a huge topic that deserves continuous reflection. I have two points to make. First, the evidence for God’s existence is strong and manifold, but not overwhelming. But scientific proof is not the only rational ground for belief. It is also rational to hold beliefs which are not inconsistent with accepted facts and which are of value to people’s lives. Christians hold their beliefs largely because they foster peace, love, adoration—a host of good things they treasure. There can be pragmatic as well as epistemic grounds for belief. In fact we hold many beliefs about the world for which we lack conclusive proof because it is useful to do so. Dawkins is wrong to insist that all beliefs should be capable of scientific proof. 7

My second point is that contradictions really are unintelligible. So if the church preaches something self-contradictory, such as that God is both vindictive and loving, that is nonsense. And if it preaches a doctrine clearly contrary to fact, that is quite incredible. When preachers declare that God loves everyone he has made, this cannot mean he will save them from all harm. One has only to think of the millions who suffer from war, famine or disease, to see that that is not true. God loves people in offering them the fellowship of his Son and the life of his Spirit, but he does not love them as a father who protects all his children from harm. It would be mad to suggest otherwise. The church must not be content with paradoxes, but try to resolve them.

The way forward

How can popular understanding of Christian beliefs and practices be improved? We must have theologians who will identify problems of intelligibility and credibility, and who will consider them, discuss them, and propose answers that are both clear and plausible, and consistent if possible with the major Christian doctrines of the Bible and the creeds. Grey areas will remain. For instance, evidence of life after death is meagre, but the value of faith in it is immense—it has given people hope and comfort down the ages. The scholars must teach the clergy who will explain the faith to their congregations, and then the faithful will be able to share their beliefs intelligibly and convincingly with their friends.

As the National Church Life Survey remarked recently:

A great challenge remains for church leaders to help attenders develop a compelling vision, to be committed to that vision and to maintain that commitment through to its fulfilment.” 8

This was published in The Melbourne Anglican, September 2007.

  1. Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Tyndale Press, 1955.
  2. Emil Brunner, The Mediator, tr. O.Wyon (Lutterworth Press, 1934) pp. 471, 473.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T. McNeill, tr. F.L. Battles, Westminster Press, 1960,vol1, II, xvi,6.
  4. C. Behan McCullagh, Theology of Atonement, Theology, vol. XCI, no. 743, September 1988, pp. 392-400. SPCK
  5. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, ch.8. Bantam, 2006
  6. Ibid., p. 308.
  7. C. Behan McCullagh, Can Religious Beliefs be Justified Pragmatically? Sophia vol. 46, issue 1, May 2007.
  8. Quoted in The Melbourne Anglican, June 2007, p.12.

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