Outgrowing God

Richard Dawkins

Bantam Press, £14.99

Review by Mark Smith

Was Jesus a nice man? Would a nice man destroy a tree just because there was no fruit on it when he was hungry? Would a nice man order demons to enter a herd of pigs, causing them to stampede over a cliff and drown? According to the New Testament, Jesus did both of those things and Richard Dawkins thinks that makes Jesus, if not bad, then certainly ignorant. And, as we know, Dawkins can express that kind of view without any fear of the consequences. He is not afraid of the non-existent anger of a non-existent god.

He is not afraid, either, to issue judgments on deities more used to handing judgments out, and in his latest book, Outgrowing God, the scientist, writer and atheist does so in a typically robust and entertaining way. Bit by bit, he tackles the foundations of Christian belief – a belief in God, the Bible, the idea of atonement – and subjects them to logic and reason. It is impressive, intimidating and hard to resist, although – at the risk of incurring the wrath of science – I must point out that Dawkins’s book seems to have omitted or ignored a very important point which also happens to be one of the main reasons people believe in God.

But first we should talk about the entertaining cross-examination Dawkins conducts on Christianity and some of its most famous tropes and ideas. The story of Noah’s Ark for example. If the tale was true, says Dawkins, the natural world would show a pattern of animals spreading out from the spot where the Ark came to rest. Instead, what we actually see is that each continent and island has its own unique set of animals. Mr and Mrs Kangaroo did not come out of the Ark and hop all the way to Australia, says Dawkins. And Mr and Mrs Sloth did not crawl all the way to South America.

You can deny that logic if you dare, but it’s when Dawkins tackles the idea of the Bible as a “good” book that his reasoning becomes irresistible. On the subject of Jesus casting demons out of a man and sending them into a herd of pigs, Dawkins asks how much more impressive it would have been if Jesus had said something like “Verily, I say unto you, there are no demons. This man has an affliction in his head.” Dawkins admits that this is judging a man of an earlier time by the standards of today, but then Jesus, he points out, was supposed to have been no ordinary man.

Dawkins’s examination of the concept of atonement will also strike a chord with anyone who’s ever struggled with the central concepts of Christianity. What we’re told is that Jesus died for our sins; he paid with his life so our crimes against God could be forgiven. But how, precisely, does that work? What does it actually mean?

Dawkins breaks it down for us and in the process underlines its apparent irrationality. The idea, more or less, is that God wanted to forgive the sins of the humans he created. But God couldn’t just forgive them outright, as he has the power to do – somebody had to pay for the forgiveness and nothing would do except the torture and death of his son. In other words, the only way God could think of to persuade himself to forgive humans for their sins was to have his son (who was also himself) crucified. Is that it? Because if it is, it’s hard to understand, which may be why, for some, it is hard to believe.

Dawkins’s main point is that sceptics, atheists and agnostics can only be expected to believe ideas like atonement and accept the existence of God if the facts support it, and he says there is no good evidence anywhere for any kind of god or gods. Fair point. But Dawkins also appears to think that’s the end of the matter, which it isn’t. In fact, he appears to think proving his theories means we can all do what he refers to in the title of his book and outgrow God.

But this is where Dawkins falls down. He has shown there is no evidence for a deity, but he doesn’t mention the most powerful reason people need God, or at least the prospect of him, which is his emotional power in the face of crisis and death. Has Dawkins demonstrated there is no God? It’s hard to say no, but science and reason do not have the consoling power some of us need. And until we find an alternative to the answers God offers – true or false – there appears to be no prospect of us ever outgrowing him.