Dawkins and Moral Compasses

Richard Dawkins has made quite the splash in recent times with books arguing against religion and belief in God. He is an evolutionary biologist, an atheist, a vice president of the British Humanist Association, and the author most recently of The God Delusion. Jason Miks a reporter for CNN recently interviewed Mr. Dawkins to get his views (as if there might be something surprising in his answers) about whether or not children could be called Christians and whether or not western society would lose its moral compass without religion’s guidance. Even if you’ve never read this CNN interview, you can describe what Mr. Dawkins said: essentially, no, children shouldn’t be labeled Christian and no society won’t lose its moral compass without religion.

While a believer will find a lot to disagree with in the interview, I would have to partially agree with him regarding his moral compass remarks.

Morality, the Bible tells us, doesn’t come directly from the Scripture or from religion; morality comes directly from God.

Romans 1:32 “and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

How did they know?

Romans 2:14, 15 “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,”

The Gentiles, the folks who did not have Moses’ Law, who did not have any of the Jewish Scriptures, instinctively know the essentials of God’s moral laws anyway, written in their hearts. The Romans, Greeks, Chinese, and every other society has recognized the same basic sets of laws and morals. They are, of course, sometimes “interpreted” (rationalized) to meet the local society’s desires—and we all eventually choose (sometimes often) to ignore our moral compass; but amazingly enough it remains essentially the same throughout time, location, and culture. What a wonderful blessing from a loving God who always has our best interests at heart to give us His moral compass “built in”! Of course, there is down side, too, isn’t there? No one has an excuse for his or her sin.

Romans 2:15, 16 “in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

It is this “built in” moral compass that Mr. Dawkins acknowledges that should make him and others pause for thought. How did such instinct get there? Is there really a conscience, a moral system, encoded into the genes of men somewhere among the millions of data points in our DNA that we will be able to point to when the human genome is finally understood? Animal instincts can be somewhat understood like hardwiring connections between senses, pleasure centers, and survival behaviors. But human morality is quite different than animal instincts—being often unrewarded with pleasure, sometimes even accompanied by pain and death. And why is it that these supposed moral genes of ours haven’t mutated and evolved; why have they stayed so solidly stable over the centuries, across oceans, mountain ranges, continents, latitudes, etc.—things that can (according to theory) isolate mutations and advance evolution?  If Mr. Dawkins weren’t so invested in atheism, he might find that the only reasonable answer to how we got our essential, “built in”, universal moral compass is God.

Beyond this, however, his argument that we don’t need religion to have a moral compass is founded, diabolically, on a half-truth (half-lie): you see, having a moral compass and following the moral compass are two different things. While it is true that our moral compass comes to us as part of our human package, like opposable thumbs and larger brains, it is also true that we are historically quite prone to deliberately drift away from true north. We have a regrettable habit over the centuries of calling good evil and evil good. Thus, God and Scripture (the unchangeable true norths), and religion (which should point us to the unchangeables, though sometimes they fail in their duty) are indeed necessary to call our attention to the drift, rightfully challenge out rationalizations, and rally our consciences to do right. We don’t need religion to give us a moral compass; we need religion to call us to live by it.

Mr. Dawkins and others like him argue that our morality has changed in the last couple of centuries from the days of stonings to more refined days of less racism, greater kindness to animals, less harsh punishments for criminals, etc. and that it has nothing to do with religion. Au contrare, Mr. Dawkins, it has been religion down through the centuries that has changed our moral world for the better. Consider, for example, how William Wilberforce and John Newton through their appeals to the Scripture pricked the conscience of the Christians of their day against slavery and were the beginning of the end of slavery in the west, or the effect that Martin Luther King and religion had on racism in America. It wasn’t atheism, humanism, or philosophy that made those moral advances.

And on the other hand, consider the outcome of Godlessness and irreligion. While it is true that current society allows its conscience to be pricked by a Judeo-Christian religious paradigm, we are already seeing society changing for the worse. Already we can see that without religious encouragement, society tends to factor God out of its moral calculations—terrible criminal deeds are planned and performed in smug assumption that they can avoid any consequences. Consider, for just one example, the mass shooter syndrome in America. Have you noticed that such tragedies hardly ever end in a living perpetrator? They die, and they die, not because of a hail of police bullets, but because the perpetrators themselves almost always commit suicide, confidently (perhaps even smugly) believing that in their death they have beaten the system and dodged any justice or punishment for their horrendous actions. How many such shooters might have changed their minds about committing their crimes, if they had believed, through the encouragement of religion, that there is a God, that such deeds (even if you believe you’ve been wronged) are sinful and condemned, that death is not the end of life, and that all men will be justly judged for the deeds of their life. Similar already existing examples of the outcome of Godlessness and irreligion could be multiplied.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote so eloquently in Why Faith Matters,

“Religion is not our enemy. Before the Western faiths captured the heart of our world there was cruelty, carnage, and destruction. In the twentieth century, when religion ceased to be a force in international politics, the scale of slaughter was far beyond anything human beings had ever known. Religion’s place in conflict cannot be understood if we compare it to a perfect, peaceful world, such as we have never seen. The question is rather, ‘What sort of world did religion come into, and what did it make of that world? What is the world like when we take religion out of it?’ Only by comparing the ages when religion was dominant with the ages when it was weak or absent can we fairly estimate the depredations or benefactions of faith…In the succinct and often quoted words of the ancient historian Tacitus, explaining how conflicts were resolved in his world [before Christianity took hold]: ‘They make a desolation and call it “peace”‘”

So, while it is true that religion isn’t necessary for people to have a moral compass, it is also true that God, the Scriptures, and religion are necessary to keep us on the right path, to keep things from being “interpreted” or rationalized away. And the promise of God’s ultimate judgment is important to remind us that we are accountable for our thoughts, words, and deeds even after this life is finished.

As intelligent as Mr. Dawkins is, it is amazing that his arguments are far less based on science and reason and far more founded on a few cherry-picked, atheist-spun facts and personal attacks on the intellect of Christians. Like many of the arguments in his books his assertion that men don’t need religion to have a moral compass is shallow, not well thought through, and founded on a lot of “it’s true because I said so.”

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About parklinscomb

I'm a minister for the church of Christ in Manchester NH where I've worked since the 1970's. I'm a big fan of my family, archaeology, the Bible, the Lord's church, and Gander Brook Christian Camp.
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2 Responses to Dawkins and Moral Compasses

  1. I says:

    I would like to say that you’ve argued nicely but even as a fellow theist I can not agree with the way you have put it. Firstly, because your argument seems to suggest that if we knew the lord in heaven is watching, we will not commit any sins because we will not want to be condemned by him. However, I find that as if your almost saying “God is the only threat that makes people behave” or saying “Religious people only commit good deed in fear of God.” I don’t think you realise it yourself but you, should, be sharing the love God has but not in such a disrespectful way to God himself. You make him sound as if he is only here to punish us. God is forgiving in all aspects even to the most hated. You’re acknowledging that our fellow atheist have no moral stand, and even if they did they do not act on it, which frankly is untruthful. Our fellow atheist have all right to believe in what they believe in. We are not God himself to condemn others for their belief, our way is not to force our beliefs but live with love and peace. It is not a competition.

    • parklinscomb says:

      There are several things that I’d like to respond to, but time limits me. What I would say in a nutshell is this,

      Philosophically, if God doesn’t exist, men really don’t have a motive for behaving. We become mere organized rocks, as amoral as granite, with no consequences other than those imposed on us by other men.

      Historically, mankind has demonstrated multiple times that they less they fear God, the more outrageous their deeds become (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and sundry experimental atheistic communities).

      This isn’t to say that no atheist has a morality that he/she adheres to; only that his/her morality will be baseless and therefore inclined to change if it is in their interest (e.g., popularity, politics, sensuality, financially, etc.).

      Certainly, it would be lovely for mankind to respond to God’s love and be obedient; but reality is not that lovely. Good parents use both love and consequences for motivating their children to obey; all good parents would prefer that their children obey on the basis of trust and love; however, the motivation of consequences is the one that must be used most often.

      So also with sharing the Gospel. You must surely have noticed that the apostles’ sermons talked about the consequences of disobedience far more than the appeal to love God. One example of a time when Paul uses God’s goodness as a motivation for obedience is Romans 2:4-6 “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” This section immediately goes on the say, “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS.” The reason the Gospel is the good news is that it is rescue and salvation from the consequences of our own sins.

      Lastly, about it not being a competition, I think I’d disagree on the basis of 2 Corinthians 10:3-6: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.”

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