Dawkins: ‘You don’t get your moral compass from religion’
Published: 17 December 2015 (GMT+10)
Richard Dawkins has recently conducted a video interview for Business Insider1 attempting to explain morality without the firm foundation of a Creator God. A previous article dealt with the question: Does morality have to come from a Creator God? Here, we examine the question from a slightly different angle. The transcript of Dawkins’ video spiel follows, first in its entirety, then interspersed with my examination and discussion:
“You don’t get your moral compass from religion. If you did you would be stoning adulteresses to death, and you would be executing people for breaking the Sabbath, and for making graven images and that kind of thing. We clearly do not get our moral compass from religion. Our moral compass in the 21st century is a 21st century moral compass and it’s changed. It changes by the century, it changes by the decade. I call it the changing moral zeitgeist. And the shifting moral zeitgeist has nothing to do with religion. You can find the occasional verse in scripture which accords with our modern morality but you have to do that with sifting through and throwing out large numbers of verses which go against our modern moral compass. So why not just take the modern moral compass as it is having been worked out by moral philosophers and by a sort of discourse that takes place all the time as the centuries go by. We now regard with abhorrence slavery whereas a couple of hundred years ago it was the norm. All sorts of things like that have changed, and this has nothing to do with religion. The other way in which religion might give a moral compass is if people behave in a moral way because they are frightened of God, because they want to go to heaven, or don’t want to go to hell. That’s a rather ignoble reason for being good, I would rather meet somebody who is good for the sake of being good, rather than for the sake of sucking up to an imaginary friend.”
This is not the first time that Dawkins has come out with similar material. In 2006 when he released his polemical book, The God Delusion, it dealt very much with the same ideas.
In his interview, Dawkins is introduced as an ‘evolutionary biologist’ and this, in the very truest sense, is his starting position. The high altar at which Dawkins worships is his uncompromising faith in naturalistic evolutionary origins. It is important to note that he is not some objective observer of life trying to think things through, rather a biased orator of his own atheistic religion.
Muddying the waters
“You don’t get your moral compass from religion. If you did you would be stoning adulteresses to death, and you would be executing people for breaking the Sabbath, and for making graven images and that kind of thing. We clearly do not get our moral compass from religion.”
While Dawkins may use the word ‘religion’ here, listeners/readers should not be caught out by this thinly veiled disguise for what he really means, Christianity. It is a simple bait and switch tactic. He introduces the word ‘religion’, but then aims his attack directly at only one in particular.2 He attempts to horrify his listener by referring to laws and punishments found in the Old Testament, which from the viewpoint of today’s largely liberal society (his intended audience), may seem extreme and scarily harsh. What he totally fails to do is give them any historical or theological context and either shows himself to be ignorant of these matters, or is guilty of being deliberately misleading. Either way Dawkins doesn’t tell the whole truth! The Mosaic laws that he is referring to in the Old Testament were for a particular people, Israel. They agreed to enter into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai, at a particular time in history, and Jesus later fulfilled these laws and brought in the new covenant. This totally invalidates Dawkins’ point. Christians no longer adhere to these particular laws because they are no longer applicable, yet we still get our morality from the Creator and Lawgiver—God.3
A shifting ‘moral zeitgeist’?
“Our moral compass in the 21st century is a 21st century moral compass and it’s changed. It changes by the century, it changes by the decade. I call it the changing moral zeitgeist. And the shifting moral zeitgeist has nothing to do with religion.”
Zeitgeist means ‘spirit of the age’ and by applying it to morality Dawkins is saying that the spirit of the age dictates how people view morality, and as the spirit of the age changes, so too does morality. Here, Dawkins is trying a different tactic with his audience by telling them, in effect, that we now have a 21st century moral compass. Without many even realising it, Dawkins now appeals to their sense of pride in man’s modern scientific accomplishments in the 20th and 21st centuries. His basic appeal is this: As man in the modern era has made momentous life-changing technologies possible, so man’s intellect has also evolved, grown and become superior; therefore we no longer believe in the archaic religious story of creation and the need for God to be our moral compass. We now have the capability to decide right and wrong for ourselves!
However, he bases this on the faulty premise that modern man is somehow a greater arbiter of moral truth than people of any of the preceding centuries. How society views or tries to define right and wrong is, and will always be, irrelevant—the ultimate truth about right and wrong is defined by the Creator. Only the Creator has the undeniable right to set the terms of right and wrong, a right that people with the God-removing evolutionary worldview have sought to undermine and abolish, replacing it instead with an ever-changing moral zeitgeist. This is why it is so important to understand the full out-workings of the evolutionary worldview, and how the morality found within the Bible rests firmly upon its history. These two aspects are intricately interwoven and inseparable.
Dawkins even gets it wrong in his assertion that the “shifting moral zeitgeist has nothing to do with religion”. Those who have imbibed the spirit of this western age seem to be going out of their way to reject everything to do with Christianity, even to remove all things Christian. If this is not the case then why did Dawkins bother to write The God Delusion, specifically directed against Christianity?
Who is really cherry-picking the Bible?
“You can find the occasional verse in scripture which accords with our modern morality but you have to do that with [sic] sifting through and throwing out large numbers of verses which go against our modern moral compass.”
Dawkins has previously argued in The God Delusion that as some professing Christians do not take the Bible as intended in Genesis, historical narrative, they also pick and choose what morality they wish to have,
“Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally anymore. But that is my 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 matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without absolute foundation. If one of these is ‘morality flying by the seat of its pants’, then so is the other.”4
Dawkins is saying, look, some Christians are so totally compromised that they don’t even get their morality from the Bible, so nor do I and nor should you. Unfortunately, in one respect Dawkins is totally correct, that there are some professing Christians who make conscious decisions to bring in an idea that they like from outside the Bible, then try to change the meaning of the biblical text to suit this belief (eisegesis). It is one of the reasons that Creation Ministries International exists, to reach out to Christians who are compromised with a naturalistic evolutionary worldview and are trying to force-fit it with Genesis; we explain the serious theological ramifications of doing so. And as Dawkins alludes to, this serious breach of biblical exegesis (which allows the biblical text to be interpreted in its intended manner) can lead to other compromises with the world when the ‘spirit of the age’ changes; people can indeed end up ‘flying by the seat of their pants’ on all sorts of matters! While some professing Christians may take this further step, changing the meaning of a plethora of other Bible verses as well, it in no way alters what the Bible is actually and clearly saying on those matters.
Let the philosophers decide morality?
“So why not just take the modern moral compass as it is, [it] having been worked out by moral philosophers and by a sort of discourse that takes place all the time as the centuries go by.”
I suppose that depends on what side you are on. In today’s ‘spirit of the age’, when someone decides to have an abortion she may wish to refer to the modern ‘21st century moral compass’. However, would the child who is to be slaughtered inside the womb agree? It really boils down to the fact that man cannot decide truth; it is not in our remit to do so—not human discourse, not a majority point of view, not even legislation, can decide what right and wrong is. Man’s point of view is totally subjective and discriminatory, depending on whatever wave a particular society is riding at that time. Without a Universal Lawgiver, we are subject only to humanity’s whims; as history has shown and continues to show, the world can be a very bad place for those on the wrong side of those whims, see for example: The Holocaust and The bloodstained legacy of evolution. And if people decide morality through discourse, then why accept it as it stands now? How could people know that they are right, and that further discourse would not change this? Without an ultimate foundation, a basis for truly knowing what is right and wrong, then morality will be man’s folly, to be played about with as he sees fit. Dawkins knows this to be the case and has admitted this before in a debate between himself and another evolutionist, Janet Lanier, a computer scientist:5
Jaron Lanier: “There’s a large group of people who simply are uncomfortable with accepting evolution because it leads to what they perceive as a moral vacuum, in which their best impulses have no basis in nature.”
Richard Dawkins: “All I can say is, that’s just tough. We have to face up to the truth.”
“We now regard with abhorrence slavery whereas a couple of hundred years ago it was the norm. All sorts of things like that have changed, and this has nothing to do with religion.”
Dawkins was born on the 26th March 1941 in Nairobi, British Kenya; he returned to live in England in 1949 and has spent most of his adult life living there. Dawkins is an educated and intelligent person, so to state that the abhorrence of slavery has changed in the past couple of hundred years and that this has nothing to do with religion (Christianity) is astounding. Either it shows that he is historically ignorant and theologically illiterate or that he is being deliberately misleading. Are we to seriously believe that Dawkins does not know of and understand the motives of the anti-slavery activist and Christian hero William Wilberforce? To overlook that he and fellow evangelical Christians changed the course of slavery (in the British Empire in the 19th century) based on biblical principles is surely unbelievable?
But what of his regarding slavery with abhorrence from the perspective of his 21st century moral zeitgeist; how does this fit with an evolutionary worldview? Why would human slavery be abhorrent? This, it should be pointed out, was said by the same man who tweeted: “With respect to those meanings of ‘human’ that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig”;6 clearly showing what he thought of the dignity of human life. To view slavery with abhorrence within an evolutionary worldview is not consistent and makes no sense as humanity would have no innate value; it would just be a product of natural mechanisms, one mass of atoms controlling and directing another. Slavery can only truly be viewed with abhorrence if mankind has value, a sense of dignity, having been made in the image of God, with all men created equal. For more on whether the Bible supports slavery, see Bible v slavery: response to critics.
Fear of God?
“The other way in which religion might give a moral compass is if people behave in a moral way because they are frightened of God, because they want to go to heaven, or don’t want to go to hell. That’s a rather ignoble reason for being good; I would rather meet somebody who is good for the sake of being good, rather than for the sake of sucking up to an imaginary friend.”
Christianity is not a faith based on fear, with this fear driving a person’s moral compass; it is a faith based on relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, the wrath of God is a fearful thing (Hebrews 10:31), but it is the conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit that leads people into relationship with Jesus, not fear. “Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”7 and it is out of love for their saviour that born again Christians try to abide within God’s will for their lives.
But why exactly would it be ignoble—dishonourable or shameful—within an evolutionary worldview to adhere to a moral compass in fear of God if it ensured their survival in heaven (not that it can)? Surely this would fall into line with one of the key aspects of evolution—survival of the fittest? The fittest in this case being the ones to behave in a moral way because they are frightened of God. Even when Dawkins tries to spurn the idea of being moral towards God due to a fear of judgment he shows himself to be philosophically naïve and out of touch with his own evolutionary worldview.
It is also strangely inconsistent that Dawkins would even use the word ‘good’ in relation to someone’s actions. Dawkins believes that, within his naturalistic evolutionary position—which is faith based, whether he concedes this or not—“The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”.8 Due to this position it is unclear why Dawkins would even feel the need to expound on a moral compass at all, or to try and speak on what ‘good’ is, as he doesn’t believe such a thing exists. How can someone either do or define something that does not exist?
The Bible is clear that God created this world and has set out for us what He expects of mankind, each one of us facing judgment after death. This world does have an absolute morality set out by our Creator God and the divine revelation of the Bible gives us a perfect compass to this morality.
Having examined the content of what Dawkins had to say, it is hard to come to any other conclusion than Dawkins is not only historically, philosophically, and morally illiterate, but that he is also deliberately misleading in what he has to say. Rather than listening to what anyone else has to say on the issues of what is or is not good or moral, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man” (Psalm 118:8)—and for the purposes of our subject, this means holding fast to His Word.
References and notes
- Business Insider is a business news site. Richard Dawkins’ interview, Morality has nothing to do with Religion, 14 October, 2015, can be found at: uk.businessinsider.com/richard-dawkins-religion-morality-2015-10; last accessed 27 November 2015. Return to text
- I acknowledge that this could also be aimed at Judaism due to the verses referred to being found in the Old Testament, but having read, listened to and watched Dawkins for many years I do not believe this to be the case. Also noteworthy is Dawkins’ admission in his book The God Delusion.In discussing similar matters he says, “Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind, but only because it is the version with which I happen to be most familiar. … I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism.” (p. 37). Return to text
- It is worth pointing out though that God’s holiness and wrath for sin should not be undermined in any way just because we are no longer under the Sinaitic Covenant. God’s judgment on sin has not diminished in any way. The Bible is clear that those who are not found in Jesus Christ will suffer in hell for all eternity (2 Thessalonians 1:8–9). This seems to be more and more unpopular to say, unfortunately even in some churches, but it is the undiminished truth, spoken in love, hoping that people will repent of their sin and believe in Jesus. Return to text
- Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, Transworld Publishers, London, 2006, p. 238. Return to text
- Evolution: The dissent of Darwin, Psychology Today 30(1):62, Jan–Feb 1997. Return to text
- See twitter.com/richarddawkins/status/311774201012948992, posted 13 March 2013. Return to text
- Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 1, reformed.org, accessed 27 November 2015. Return to text
- Dawkins, R., River out of Eden, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1995, p. 133 Return to text