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Dawkins On Morality

Richard Dawkins discussing The Old Testament, makes the point that the religious make the same kind of judgments that atheists make when it comes to deciding what moral and ethical standards to adopt. The religious, with blinders on, simply don't see that such judgments don't require faith, but are derived by thinking reasoning humans with no need to appeal to imaginary Gods.

Begin in Genesis with the well-loved story of Noah, derived from the Babylonian myth of Uta-Napisthim and known from the older mythologies of several cultures. The legend of the animals going into the ark two by two is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is applaing. God took a dim view of humans, so he (with the exception of one family) drowned the lot of them including children and also, for good measure the rest of the (presumably blameless) animals as well.

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 decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheists 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.237-238

Richard's book The God Delusion is now at #4 on Amazon.


 

Comments

The "moral of the story" as endorsed by Dawkins is one of very many interpretations, although his disregards God's apology and pledge not to repeat his behaviour. My favorite reading is that which is provided by the Zohar: Noah is condemned for not having argued with God (as Abraham will do) regarding His actions. He just built the boat and let everyone perish. As becomes apparent later in Genesis, God is a character who must be wrestled with (physically, as with Jacob, but also metaphysically, as in the passage where Abraham barters with God about Soddam and Gomorrah).

Number 4 on Amazon in the US, maybe, but it's number 1 on Amazon here in Canada, and it's number one on Amazon in the UK as well.

Zounds -- reationalism is alive after all! Whodathunkit?

Issac, was Abraham the same guy that God demanded that he sacrifice his son?

Issac, Is Abraham the same guy who was asked by God to sacrifice his son?

Abraham was indeed the same guy who was asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. That story (it's often referred to as "The Binding of Isaac") is a pretty incredible one, and it speaks to the powerful imagination of it's writer. Isaac is born because God miraculously blesses Abraham's previously infertile wife Sarah with a child. The facilitation of this child is seen as the re-entry of God as a benevolent, creative force after the fall, the flood, etc. But then he asks Abraham to kill him. I find the story quite powerful: Why was it so impossible to construct an easy characterization of a loving God? Why is he often a truly terrifying and cruel villain?

To return to the point I made in the first post, there is a rabbinic tradition that sees The Binding of isaac as an instance of Abraham failing the test of humanity (not succeeding in the test of faith, as it is often read). Abraham should have rejected God's demand, and understood, as he does later in Genesis, that God doesn't always have the right idea. There is a strong case to be made for humanity being the hero over God in the Torah, beginning with Adam and Eve's rebellion against the authoritarian rule of the Garden.

While the literalist and simple-minded reading of the Bible is truly a menace, I wouldn't neccessarily assume that there aren't benefits to be drawn from a rigorous reading of the text.

Issac, thanks for answering my question.

I will like to ask you again to refresh my memory on this topic.

Did Abraham almost end up sacrificing his son until God at the last minute asked him to sacrifice a lamb instead?

Isaac, while I'm somewhat sympathetic to your more humanist view (as much as I can be), you'll at least acknowledge that this is a somewhat selective and marginal interpretation, won't you?

Possibly the most fascinating aspect of that interpretation is the reaffirmation that you really can read anything you want to into that book.

Under this interpretation it seems to follow that the Covenant was a tragic failure of the human will. In exchange for deliverance from the Egyptians, Moses signed his people into slavery to God. Is that what you'd want to say, or am I reading you uncharitably?

kes - you are correct, although I believe it is a ram that ends up on the makeshift altar.

Gelf - this is not my view of the Torah, it is one among many views. It might follow that the Covenant of Moses was just as you characterized it, but the the revelation on Sinai complicates that. The Ten Commandments are largely tenets basic to our moral intuitions - this is the introduction of the God character as a real "moral" figure.

"Possibly the most fascinating aspect of that interpretation is the reaffirmation that you really can read anything you want to into that book."

i wish that wasn't articulated so condescendingly (or do I misinterpret that?). The same capacity for a plurality of readings is the case of a great many texts, sacred and secular. Find me two people who draw the same lessons from the Republic, or Hamlet. I don't see this quality as a liability at all.

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isaac, i was bowled over by your comments on an issue very near and dear to my heart. i've been pushing for this view- that is, the general principle you stated "There is a strong case to be made for humanity being the hero over God in the Torah, beginning with Adam and Eve's rebellion against the authoritarian rule of the Garden"- for many years. i've been called a religious fanatic, an unbeliever, a heretic, and my favorite, a gnostic.(the similarity between this view and jewish gnosticism is undeniable but not exact.) i came to these conclusions on my own and have pretty much considered myself a one-man faction representing these views for many years now, not wanting to ally myself with the gnostics, the standard schools of biblical criticism, or mystics of any kind, for various reasons. is there a group of like minded people out there? do you know of any websites or books that expound this idea? i would be grateful.

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im assuming from your comments you have a fair amount of jewish learning under your belt. if the books are in hebrew, all the better.

"I wish that wasn't articulated so condescendingly [...]"

That's a fair cop, and I apologize, but please understand that any condescension I let slip was not directed at you personally, but instead at the subject matter, or more properly the most common prevailing attitudes towards the subject matter. The more scholarly tack you are taking here is uncommon in the extreme, and somewhat refreshing.

If anything, it was bit of a cheap shot at those who insist not only that adherence to their own interpretation of religious texts is absolutely coincident with morality, but that only the one interpretation is possible. It was a cheap shot you unwittingly enabled by expressing a theory that is radically different from mainstream interpretations, yet probably just as well supported by the source material as the mainstream view.

The only issue I still have with this is that, while I appreciate the plurality of interpretations, I'm pretty sure that's not how religion is supposed to work. It seems that in order to accommodate objective discussion, one must detach oneself from genuine belief, along with the attendant assertion that epistemic positions (e.g., "there is a god") have absolute moral implications. I have no problem with such detachment; however, once genuine belief is sacrificed, discussions of the metaphysics and ethics of God seem to take on the flavor of seriously discussing the possible reasons Lois Lane never recognizes Superman with glasses.

"this is not my view of the Torah, it is one among many views"

I referred to it as "your view" primarily based on your claim that this is your "favorite reading." My apologies if I inferred a stronger attachment to this interpretation than you actually hold.

"The Ten Commandments are largely tenets basic to our moral intuitions - this is the introduction of the God character as a real "moral" figure."

I think I disagree with this slightly, but my quibbles are minor unless by "basic to" you mean "prior to." These issues mostly revolve around the amount of the Law that is ritual rather than moral in character, and probably aren't really terribly relevant at this point.

"The binding of Isaac" was a test of Abraham's faith in God keeping his promise. God had promised to make a great nation through Abraham - and since the only child recognized by both Abraham and God as his own (not Ishmael) was Isaac. Therefore, if Abraham trusted God to keep his promise, he could by faith sacrifice his son, knowing that God would still keep His promise of a great nation through Isaac - by resurrection or whatever means. It must have broken Abraham's heart to obediently take the life of the child he waited for for countless years - but he trusted God even more. Therefore Abraham passed the test, and God, not willing that ANY should perish, provided the sacrifice in place of Isaac, showing His infinate mercy and pleasure in Abraham's passing of the test. And indeed, Isaac brought forth Jacob, who brought forth his sons (and two grandsons through Joseph) who's children and childrens children became the nation of Israel, which still exists to this day. No other people group can make that claim, therefore showing God's blessing on His chosen people and his miraculous intervention of saving them from extinction many, many a time... and eventually, the Messiah, born of the tribe of Judah, a "son" of David, Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the world.

Jonathan Becker -

I'm glad I was able to strike a chord with you. Are you familiar with the work of Erich Fromm? I'm also glad you made the Hebrew distinction: though I am just a casual student of literature, sacred and secular (without any religious pretensions) it is abundantly clear to me that the Torah can only be insightfully read in the original: a great deal of its nuance cannot be translated, and a great deal of ugliness is a result of that. Not being facile at all with Hebrew, I, in investigating these matters always turn to scholarship that addresses the Hebrew original.

Why so quick to dismiss the mystics? I as well am very leery of "mystical experience" but am currently finding the writings in the Zohar etc. very interesting.

Gelf -

My apologies to you if I was overly sensitive. I disagree with your point regarding what you term "objective discussion". I would suggest that in cases like this, it is helpful to "inhabit" certain points of view, and a temporary suspension of disbelief may be quite conducive to creative thinking. Obviously, of course, it is always necessary to step "outside" and re-assess. As for your quibble on the Ten Commandments: I am speaking of the laws that include in the vernacular, "don't lie/steal/kill/adulterate" etc, and to these I am ascribing the virtue of being basic to our moral intuitions. I am confused about and interested in why you would characterize them as ritual.

Hi Issac, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

I do have some concerns with the revisionist view that you have of the Torah, specifically with regard to this part:

“there is a rabbinic tradition that sees The Binding of isaac as an instance of Abraham failing the test of humanity (not succeeding in the test of faith, as it is often read). Abraham should have rejected God's demand, and understood, as he does later in Genesis, that God doesn't always have the right idea. There is a strong case to be made for humanity being the hero over God in the Torah, beginning with Adam and Eve's rebellion against the authoritarian rule of the Garden.”

This tradition seems more like a whitewash to make the Jehovah sounds more appealing to people.

I’m fine with it only if you can back it up with direct statements from the people and from Jehovah in the Torah that says the exact same thing.

Otherwise, I don’t think it’s credible nor is it consistent to the image and tone of God in the Old Testaments.

I’m not a fan of your Jewish God with its demands for absolute obedience and for making His people go through untold sufferings simply to prove themselves worthy for His gifts and benediction.

However, I respect the fact that he and the people who wrote the OT did not conceal this nature of God nor his deeds and intentions. There was a boldness and straight forward honesty that I appreciated in the OT.

All that will be gone with the type of revisionist thinking you propose, which starts with a What If i.e. What If Abraham did or did not….

To scholars, this type of What-if hypothesis is very subjective and unreliable as it can easily prove what people wants it to prove.

elsewhere, in a review of dawkins' book, i was amused to find a statement to the effect of " dawkins has finely honed his arguments against faith by years of debate with fundamentalists". i'm assuming the reference is to christian fundamentalists. since most responders on this blog seem to feel the same way i do about the strength of the arguments of christian fundamentalists, i hope my reasons for finding that statement amusing are not too obscure. gelf: this may come as a surprise to you (it does to most people, including secular jews), but "detaching[oneself]from genuine belief"- not in god, but in one "correct" interpretation of the biblical text- is absolutely standard procedure in the "fundamentalist"/traditional jewish approach to understanding the bible. other than this small point, i loved your superman/lois lane analogy-you are correct, with style.

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another typekey attempt ends in failure. that last post was me.

Firstly, as this threads Torah apologist, please let me publicly distance myself from rob's contribution. I have no sympathies for his line of thinking, and I trust that whoever reads this thread can distinguish between his attitude toward the text and mine.

to kes -

I apologize for my candor, but your reply betrays a certain level of ignorance.

You speak of my "revisionist" view of the Torah. A revision of whose view? Yours?

"This tradition seems more like a whitewash to make the Jehovah sounds more appealing to people."

In what way did the reading I suggested make the Hebrew God more appealing.

"I’m fine with it only if you can back it up with direct statements from the people and from Jehovah in the Torah that says the exact same thing"

Who are "the people"? And why would you defer to the words of the Hebrew God?

"To scholars, this type of What-if hypothesis is very subjective and unreliable as it can easily prove what people wants it to prove."

I find quite scary your conviction that scholarship is not about asking questions, and that there is an "objective" reading of any text. In what way are your opinions not fundamentalist?

The Torah is riddled with inconsistencies and paradox. As is, by the way, Hamlet. There is no reasonable explanation explicit in the play for the protagonist's madness (and is it real? affected?). Serious Shakespearean scholars operate under the presumption that the Bard was aware of this fact, and that there is significance to this inconsistency. The manner in which I approach the Torah is analogous. I cannot be guaranteed of certainty (as kes seems to be capable of), but as I was reminded of upon visiting this site, certainty is a virtue afforded only "fools and fanatics".

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isaac, thanks for pointing me toward fromm-very interesting, i had only known of him as a kind of humanistic/psychologist fellow. i don't mean to dismiss the mystics, only to point out my non-membership in that club. i too am interested in what mystics SAY-i.e. the zohar- but that doesn't make me one.i'm also interested in what the biblical critics and the gnostics have to say, but..etc. regarding your self-definition as a "casual student of literature": my mama taught me from a very young age that false modesty is a SIN. regular readers of this blog can ATTEST that i follow her teaching RELIGIOUSLY:)

Jonathan "Anonymous" Becker: Yes, I was dimly aware that some Jewish traditions focus intensely on scholarly apologetics. I have a measure of respect for that approach insofar as it rejects the common notion that faith is incompatible with thinking, but as I'm about to reiterate to Isaac, there's something I just don't get about it.

Isaac:

"I disagree with your point regarding what you term "objective discussion". I would suggest that in cases like this, it is helpful to "inhabit" certain points of view, and a temporary suspension of disbelief may be quite conducive to creative thinking. Obviously, of course, it is always necessary to step "outside" and re-assess. "

This does not jibe with my personal philosophical intuitions, but I'm certainly willing to accept the idea that it may jibe with yours.

As I'm sure is painfully obvious, I'm far more accustomed to the American Christian tradition. Perhaps even as an atheist I'm so bound by that tradition as to be unable to fully grasp your position, but it really seems like once you've posited an all-powerful ruler of the Universe, the stakes for correct belief regarding that ruler and what He expects from us are so high as to extinguish all possibility for reasonable discussion. The scholarly tradition you're ably defending here seems to require inhabiting what seems to my mind a rather contorted twilight region between belief and nonbelief.

"As for your quibble on the Ten Commandments: I am speaking of the laws that include in the vernacular, "don't lie/steal/kill/adulterate" etc, and to these I am ascribing the virtue of being basic to our moral intuitions. I am confused about and interested in why you would characterize them as ritual."

I chose not to get too deeply into this in my last post, but as you've asked, the ten commandments do present a few points of confusion for me. The commonly cited set of commandments from Exodus 20 are the first of God's commandments, and they are punctuated by a lightning bolt, but then God goes on ticking off commandments well into Exodus 24, and it is never explicitly stated that those first ten were what was inscribed on the stone tablets.

This would be a minor concern if not for Exodus 34, when God commands Moses to remake the tablets and inscribe the same ten commandments upon them as were on the first tablets. God then states ten commandments, in verses 10-26, that differ greatly from the Exodus 20 set and says, "write those down."

The only two commandments shared between Exodus 20 and 34 are the prohibition against idolatry and insistence upon observance of the Sabbath. Both of these are ritual commandments. In fact, all of the Exodus 34 commandments are ritual in nature.

Of the Exodus 20 commandments, the first four are likewise ritual in nature. Few people would claim to have "moral intuitions" about the first four commandments.

The latter six, I grant, represent moral intuitions, but I'm still trying to grasp what you mean when you say that the ten commandments are "basic to" these intuitions. Did the Hebrews need those latter six commandments, or are you making the more humanist claim that this was the point at which the character of God was rewritten by men as an agent of their own moral intuitions?

Hi Issac, I have admitted that I am not an expert on the Torah as can be seen in my earliest posts here with phrases like:

"Issac, thanks for answering my question. I will like to ask you again to refresh my memory on this topic."

========

However I am very familiar with the topic of revisionism from my studies in histories, where it appears quite frequently in politics, religion, arts etc.

Contrary to what you claim, I have never said that scholarship is not about asking questions.

All I said is this: "To scholars, this type of What-if hypothesis is very subjective and unreliable as it can easily prove what people want it to prove."

My comment is about circular reasoning and an attempt to prove what you want to be proven, nothing more.

If your interpretation of the Torah is not revisionist, you should have scripture citing and supporting your views on the Torah. Kindly note that revisionist thinkers can often turn black into white to picture something into what they want to believe.

This is where basic scholarship principles comes in such as finding lines in the Torah and views by God and his prophet to support your interpretation.

If not, I won’t take this point further as there may not be any basis for further discussion.

Hi Issac, I have admitted that I am not an expert on the Torah as can be seen in my earliest posts here with phrases like:

"Issac, thanks for answering my question. I will like to ask you again to refresh my memory on this topic."

========

However I am very familiar with the topic of revisionism from my studies in histories, where it appears quite frequently.

Contrary to what you claim. I have never said that scholarship is not about asking questions.

All I said is this: "To scholars, this type of What-if hypothesis is very subjective and unreliable as it can easily prove what people want it to prove."

My comment is about circular reasoning and an attempt to prove what you want to be proven, nothing more.

If your interpretation of the Torah is not revisionist, you should have scripture citing and supporting your views on the Torah.

Kindly note that revisionist thinkers can often turn black into white to picture something into what they want to believe, especially when they don't like to see how certain truths are depicted.

That is where the temptation of revisionism lies.

And This is where basic scholarship principles comes in such as finding lines in the Torah and views by God and his prophet to support your interpretation.

If not, I won’t take this point further as there may not be any basis for further discussion.

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