The God Delusion: A Theological Response
Atheists and atheism have made news lately, thanks to the sales success of a number of books. Recently Dallas Seminary theology professor Dr. Glenn Kreider reviewed The God Delusion by well-known atheist Richard Dawkins. Afterward Dr. Kreider discussed some of his thoughts with us.
KS: What do you think Dawkins hoped to accomplish?
GK: From the first page of the book’s preface he makes his agenda and purpose clear. He believes religions are dangerous, not only because they are all false, but because they all inevitably lead to great evil. The title expresses Dawkins’s view of God and those who believe in Him. The author defines delusion as “a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.”
So he writes to encourage the adoption of atheism, or at least an agnosticism toward religion. One of his goals is to mobilize the vast number of atheists in the world to “come out” and create what he calls a “critical mass for the initiation of a chain reaction.” Dawkins believes that atheists and agnostics outnumber religious Jews and most other particular religious groups, but because they are not organized they therefore “exert almost zero influence.”
Dawkins’s first chapter ends with this disclaimer: “I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.” Yet it is hard for readers to miss the irony that greets them in the opening sentence of the second chapter, “The God Hypothesis.” Here is Dawkins’s description of Yahweh: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Of course Dawkins knows that such language is offensive to worshipers of Yahweh, and it would seem he intends his language to be provocative.
The God Delusion is full of such offensive rhetoric. That is Dawkins’s style. So he appears disingenuous when he claims, “I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god.” Yet that’s exactly what he does throughout the book. His strong language is, however, not limited to beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Every religion receives his scorn.
KS: How could you read that without getting upset?
GK: Reading Dawkins’s rejection of God is annoying, frustrating, aggravating, and even wearisome. This initial reaction does seem appropriate, particularly since he goes to great lengths to be offensive, provocative, and dismissive. Yet on reflection, the more appropriate Christian reaction would seem to be sadness. Richard Dawkins is a brilliant man—created in the image of God—who is in rebellion against his Creator. Were God to grant him the faith to believe in Him, Dawkins’s outlook would be different. Would it not be appropriate to pray for his salvation, to ask God to bring him to repentance, to open his eyes to see the marvelous One who is revealed in creation, and to petition God to grant him eternal life through faith in the risen Lord?
KS: Good point. Does Dawkins say anything you feel is worth considering?
GK: Although he admits that most Christians pick and choose which parts of Scripture to take literally and which to “write off as symbols or allegories,” and thus are not as imminently dangerous as Islamic extremists, he does warn against the tendency of some Christian leaders (extremists?) to claim publicly that natural and other disasters have been the work of God. Whether it was the events in America in September 2001, the Asian tsunami in 2004, hurricane Katrina in 2005, or other events since then like the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, some Christian leaders have thought it appropriate to speak for God, to claim to know that God not only caused those events but was sending a message in doing so. These leaders claimed to know not only what God had done but why. Like Dawkins, I find this practice troubling.
John Calvin warned against presuming to know what God is doing in the midst of suffering. Calvin affirmed that such events occur as part of the plan of God. What we cannot know, however, is why God does what He does. Thus, as Calvin says, “We must lay our hand upon our mouth; that is to say, we must not be so bold as to prattle about them. If God hides the reason for His works from us, and it is too high for us to reach, let us shut our mouths; that is to say, let us not be talkative, babbling after our own imagination, but let us glorify God and not be ashamed to be ignorant. The true wisdom of the faithful is to know no more than it has pleased God to show them. Therefore, let us keep silent before God regarding whatever He does, till the last day comes, when He reveals Himself and when we see Him face to face in His glory and majesty.”
Also, and surprising perhaps, in Dawkins’s book, which is harshly critical of Christianity, he gives a clear presentation of the Christian gospel! He writes, “God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam. Ever since Paul expounded this repellent doctrine, Jesus has been worshipped as the redeemer of our sins. Not just the past sin of Adam: future sins as well.” Of course Dawkins finds this gospel deeply offensive, since it requires belief in a God who demands human sacrifice to appease His wrath. But Christians find the substitutionary atonement a sweet doctrine. Dawkins illustrates Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 1:18 about unbelievers: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
KS: Who should check out this book?
GK: Those who are offended or easily angered at harsh language and pejorative treatments of the faith should not read Dawkins’s book. But those who want to understand how Christianity is perceived by an intelligent scientist who is an atheist will find his book enlightening. I found it challenging and convicting as well as helpful in confirming the faith granted to me by God’s grace. Dawkins reaffirmed for me the need for faith and for consistency between what we claim to believe and what we practice. Dawkins reignited a desire to pursue God who is beyond my ability to understand completely. He is not just the “God of the gaps.” He is the Creator of heaven and earth, the providential Sustainer of everything that is, and He is the proclaimer and the content of the hope that one day all things will be made right.
I also found myself agreeing with Dawkins at times. At one pivotal point in the book he writes, “I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was.” Although he does not believe in God whose Word it is, Dawkins does not believe that atheism “provides a justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education.” Ironically it would seem that some of the “danger” of books such as The God Delusion for Christians is that even they are biblically and theologically illiterate. Also it may be difficult for most Christians to engage people like Dawkins in his area of expertise, science. But Christians ought to heed his call for followers of Jesus to become more knowledgeable about the sacred book of Christianity. Dawkins is convinced that there is no God and thus those who study the Bible and engage in religious practices will accept the treasures of the heritage “without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions.”
People need to become biblically and theologically literate because the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word of God continues to speak through it and even saves some “through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5–6). As long as one is granted life and is listening to the voice of the Spirit of God in the Word of God, there remains the possibility of the miracle of the new birth.
Dr. Glenn Kreider (ThM, 1990; PhD, 2001) teaches Introduction to Theology and theological subjects such as the doctrine of the Trinity, angels, humanity, sin, and salvation. He said he is motivated by his passion for the triune God and his desire to help others respond to divine revelation in spirit and truth.
Before coming to Dallas Seminary he directed Christian education and pastored a church in Cedar Hill, Texas. He is married with two children and his research interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, and our eschatological hope.
Josh Bleeker, assistant director of Admissions, is one example of how Dr. Kreider’s cultural sensitivity and sincerity helped someone understand his place in the Chrisitan story: “Dr. Kreider’s swift but subtle appreciation for my love of music blessed me deeply,” Josh said. “He’s wise enough to capitalize on a person’s passions and teach him how to let Scripture-grounded theology guide that passion to glorify the Lord.”