Professor Dawkins thinks that Jesus today would have been an atheist. But would Dawkins have paid any attention to Him?

Dawkins, with comedian Ariane Sherine: not a great believer AP Photo/Akira Suemor

“Jesus was a great moral teacher,” Richard Dawkins said to The Guardian earlier this week. “Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.”

I love this kind of thing; I have a taste for the grotesque. Here is Jesus, a “moral teacher”, the authority of whose entire teaching derived, from the beginning, from the fact that he didn’t just believe in the existence of God the Father as a kind of add-on, compulsory at the time, but from the fact that he Himself and the Father were one: and Dawkins says that if Jesus had only known what we know today, he would have been an atheist. Of course, he is well aware of the “oxymoronic” nature of his statement; as he explained in an essaywritten in 2006, “In a society where the majority of theists are at least nominally Christian, the two words are treated as near synonyms. Bertrand Russell’s famous advocacy of atheism was called Why I am not a Christian rather than, as it probably should have been, Why I am not a theist. All Christians are theists, it seems to go without saying.” (He later points to the example of an atheist bishop, the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, to prove that it ain’t necessarily so, though the preposterous Holloway describes himself as a “post-Christian”, even as a “recovering Chistian”).

All the same, one is entitled to ask, if this “intelligent” teacher would have been an atheist today, what would his moral teachings have actually been, and what authority would they have had in a non-religious world in which you can’t just set up as a “moral teacher” and expect to be listened to? Dawkins says Jesus’s teachings, in the context of their times, were radical, and certainly they were:

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

It’s nice to know that Professor Dawkins likes this “charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness”, and especially, it seems, the teaching that we should love our enemies: in the run-up to the Pope’s visit to the UK, he wasn’t himself exactly running over with love for his enemies, the Catholics (as he undoubtedly conceived them as being), and especially not for the Holy Father; his entire campaign was full of the most virulent hatred for him. So, the modern atheist Jesus probably wouldn’t have had any more effect on him that the “intelligent” theist of the first century. Or perhaps he thinks that an atheist Jesus would be just like him; a major disciple of Dawkinianity, perhaps.

Dawkins’s mention of Bertrand Russell’s book Why I Am Not a Christian brought back for me many memories: for until not long before I myself suddenly, in my early thirties, realised that all my life I had been utterly mistaken in my own firm belief that there was no God, this book had been central to my anti-religious formation. I had read it and re-read it, many times. I thought after some months of joyful and passionate belief that I had better test my new faith: so with great trepidation I re-read Russell’s book. I need not have worried: this, as I supposed, unanswerable text now seemed to me utterly ludicrous, from start to finish. Perhaps its most ludicrous assumption was that common to all committed atheists: that reason and the discoveries of science have made belief in God impossible; as Dawkins puts it, “”Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today.”

The point is, of course, that knowledge of God isn’t (as they suppose) a human construct, put together from materials provided by the prevailing zeitgeist: it is far more often counter-intuitive, as often contradicting prevailing beliefs about the nature of the world as confirming them. The other misconception is about what exactly these ignorant God-believers actually did believe about their world. How often have you heard atheists complacently declare that Christians from former ages believed that the earth was flat? (The corollary is that since we now know the earth is round, belief in God isn’t possible any more). Actually, Christians have always believed that the earth was a globe: St Augustine called it the “orbis terrarum”; and one of the mediaeval emblems of Christian kingship was, among the coronation regalia, the orb: a sphere surmounted by the cross, denoting the authority of God (mediated by the king) over all earthly things. Dawkins thinks that evolution disproved Christianity. Darwin, we know, didn’t: and the idea that evolution and Christian belief are contradictory, as Dawkins thinks they are, is very clearly untrue; Pope Benedict has described this idea as “an absurdity”:

“Because on one hand,” he explained, “there is a great deal of scientific proof in favour of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and that enriches our knowledge of life and of being as such. But the doctrine of evolution does not answer everything and does not answer the great philosophical question: Where does everything come from? And how does everything take a path that ultimately leads to the person?

“It seems to me that it is very important that reason opens up even more, that it sees this information, but that it also sees that this information is not enough to explain all of reality. It is not enough.”

And that’s the point, Professor Dawkins. You are, thank God, just wrong about Him. Those who know God personally (and that’s what we are talking about) know that he has not lied to them: he is truly there, in a way they could not have imagined before he revealed Himself to them. If what you believe about the world were true, it would be a bleak prospect for us all, as it so clearly is for you.

Quite simply, Professor Dawkins, “it is not enough”. And one day, I hope and pray, you will know it. You will emerge from your atheism as so many have done before, to a meeting with Him. It happens all the time: may it be so for you.