Last fall, acclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins released his newest book, Out Growing God. For those familiar with Dr. Dawkins’ previous books, the book offers nothing new. However, this book has a more targeted audience: teenagers.
Dawkins dedicates the book to “all young people when they’re old enough to decide for themselves.” In the book he recounts that he “gave up” Christianity when he was fifteen years old. Dawkins offers this book as a guide for those headed in the same direction.
As I read, I stumbled on a thought that I believe has some value for Christian believers—yes, a devotional thought courtesy of Richard Dawkins!
A few times through the book thinking about Old Testament Israel. He brings into question their monotheism. Basically, he talks as though they weren’t:
“…although the Israelites worshipped their own tribal god Yahweh, they didn’t necessarily disbelieve in the gods of rival tribes, such as Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites; they just thought Yahweh was more powerful – and also extremely jealous…” 
Dawkins is following an argument from as late as the 19th century. German theologians, namely Julius Wellhausen, reinterpreted the Jewish religion through a Darwinian lens. Wellhausen popularized the idea that the Jewish religion evolved over time from animism (the belief that a spirit lived in everything), to polytheism (the belief in many gods), to totemism (the belief one’s tribe descended from a group of plants or animals), to ancestor worship, and eventually to monotheism—well, sort of.
This idea is not new, but it is also not current and for good reason. Jewish scholar Rich Robinson explains:
“Unfortunately, [Wellhausen’s] influence was based on assumptions and philosophies which had little to do with historical evidence. The recent upsurge in modern archaeology has shown Wellhausen’s viewpoint to be arbitrary and outdated.”
(Note: I highly recommend Dr. Robinson’s article on the topic. It was concise but helpful on the issue.)
So why does Dawkins portray the Israelites this way? My guess is that he is attempting to relegate the Jewish religion to the ash heap of ancient paganism. After all, conflating the Biblical narrative with the mythologies of the past and dismissing it accordingly is one of Dr. Dawkins’ favorite thing to do. The strategy is clear: if he can disregard the Jewish religion, he can disregard the fulfillment of it, Christianity.
However, as with so much of Richard Dawkins critique of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, he acts as though his assertions are a given. When he offers evidence for his claim, which is rare, it is feeble at best.
But, here’s the thing…
On this issue, I think he kind of has a point. It’s just not the one he intended.
Think about how many times the Children of Israel turned to idols. Think of how often idolatry was in the pervasive land. There were many points in Hebrew history that worshiping the gods of their enemies was the norm. Moses and the prophets told them that there was only one God and that they were to worship and obey him alone. They were supposed to be monotheistic. But they often failed to act like it.
I am not sure what value that fact has for Dr. Dawkins other than criticizing believers for not being as consistent as their beliefs should make them. (A line of reasoning that has gotten him in trouble before.)
However, his comments prompt me to ask myself: Years from now, what evidence will a skeptic have on me to accuse me of not being truly monotheistic?
In other words, how much am I capitulating to my culture and bringing idols into my heart and mind when Christ has claimed them for himself?
Like the Hebrews, we live in a world with an abundance of phony gods. Our culture worships the pantheon of modern deities like money, power, and comfort. We are called on to show obeisance to the postmodern deities of moral relativity and individual autonomy.
The real difficulty is that our culture has an ally on the inside. The Bible tells us that our hearts work in tandem with the world in the idol making process. In Ezekiel 14, three times within four sentences, God indicts his people for setting up “idols in their hearts.” (Ezekiel 14:3-7) We do not make idols with our hands; we make them with our hearts.
Hand-crafted images made of wood or precious metals are not much of a temptation these days. Furthermore, most of us Christians avoid the worship of blatantly sinful idols that come by way of temptation and addiction. But our hearts are more menacing than that. You see, we tend to make idols out of the good things in life.
Timothy Keller explains how this happens:
“The human heart takes good things…and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.”
That is to say, an idol is not defined by its inherent goodness or badness. An idol is “anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
So I ask myself, what am I seeking to give me what only God can give? (…and probably already has given!)
May God help us to detect and destroy the idols our hearts create. That way, years from now, no one can look back and accuse us of not being truly monotheistic.
 Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God, p. 7.
 Rich Robinson, “Monotheism of the Ancient Hebrews: Evolved, Invented, Stolen or Revealed?” (https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-0505-letters-to-the-editor/monotheism-of-the-ancient-hebrews-evolved-invented-stolen-or-revealed/)
 Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, p. xiv.
 Keller, p. xvii.
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5 responses to “A Devotional Thought from Richard Dawkins”
Excellent post! There are so many things we can idolize without even realizing it—marriage, children, entertainment, status, etc. That is why James tells us that we must be careful not to “deceive ourselves.”
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A great reminder we all need regularly.
Though I have heard many sermons and teachings over the years about guarding against building up false idols, and how easy it is to allow something to creep in and overtake your heart and mind, I have seen and experienced how easy it is to do. That being said, I think right now there are a lot of Christians, who especially through social media, appear to be doing just this – allowing current events in the news take over their thoughts instead of remembering that God is still bigger, and in control. As we see daily talks of impeachment, along with the mess that has becoming our once great Commonwealth, I see many friends, become so vocal through social media, I can’t help but think that spreading worry instead of hope has become an idol to many.
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Well written, though I have to ask: You said we live in a world with abundance of phony gods. What evidence do you have of your god that followers of other gods do not also claim as evidence of their own?
With all due respect, your question really misses the point of the post.
But, sure I’ll bite.
Your question (and you the accompanying post on you blog) has one primary flaw: Whether people claim the same arguments/evidence for their beliefs is not a “checkmate” of my beliefs. It is a matter of whether on not those claims hold up against scrutiny.
I understand that followers of other religions say that their worldview has the greatest explanatory power, but whether it actually does is another matter. I understand that they claim their holy books contain revelatory truth, but whether they actually do is the question. I understand that they claim personal experience to substantiate their beliefs, but whether their experiences have any bearing on the truth is a more pertinent discussion.
Christians have grappled with such questions for two millennia, so I’m afraid your question does not “doom” my belief quite as much as you had hoped.
Here’s the thing: I would ask you, what evidence do you have of your atheism that theists do not also claim?
Because of a book (or a number of books)? Because it makes sense to you? Because it improves your life? Because you grew up in a secular culture that encouraged such a disregard for religion?
Cool. I get it. You claim the same substantiation for your beliefs as I do mine, along with followers of other religions. That just doesn’t bother me as much as it apparently bothers you.
So, even though I find your question to be very much a red herring, I will say this. I believe Christianity has at least two things that no other religion has: a savior worth trusting and a gospel worth believing.
No other religious founder in the history of the world has the right to speak of eternity, because they had never been there. Jesus talked like he had been there, like he was going back, and what we needed to know about it. But, unlike any other religious founder, the evidence is overwhelming that he knew what he was talking about on matters of life, death, and eternity.
Every other religion in the history of the world has been a system of rules to follow and duties to perform. They essentially boil down to a to-do list, things we do for God/the gods, by which we attain salvation, enlightenment, paradise, nirvana, etc. However, the uniqueness of the Biblical gospel is that God becomes one of us, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
My page was acting kind of glitchy when I sent my reply yesterday, so I’m not sure if it actually went through. Here was my response:
I appreciate the response.
I do want to say I was coming at this genuinely curious as to your perspective – what you actually believe makes the Bible unique. It wasn’t meant as a ‘gotcha’ question, though I can see why you may suspect as much.
I was also raised in a Christian household in the middle of deeply Christian Kansas. I’ve been baptized by my pastor grandmother, many church camps, youth groups, etc. The culture around me was very much immersed in Christianity and atheism was exclusively pariah until after I became an atheist. It actually still is most places outside of the internet.
“whether it actually does is another matter”
I agree completely. I was expecting you to tell me things that you find unique about your religion that aren’t actually unique in what different religions claim, and that is what you have given me. You believe *your* religion holds up to scrutiny, has the greatest explanatory power, contains revelatory truth, personal experience substantiates your belief, etc. Every single religion that we know about has followers who believe the exact same things about whatever religion they represent. Humans are very obviously extremely prone to running with their subjectivity.
Atheism requires no evidence – it is the default position. If I see evidence of nothing supernatural or of any god or anything that necessitates a god to explain, I remain unbelieving in a god, aka: an atheist. Theists don’t require actual evidence for their beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, and that doesn’t mean inherently that they are wrong in their assertions, but it does mean that they are not justified in the belief.
That is why I asked you this question. You believe you have sufficient evidence, but if that evidence is subjective, it necessarily cannot be trusted. Human gut instinct, superstition, choices out of fear, choices out of bias, believing what is comforting or what you were simply taught, and all other vehicles for religious belief are among the modes of thought that most often lead to false beliefs. A savior worth trusting and gospel worth believing is entirely subjective, and every other religion would claim the same.
The only specific uniqueness you’ve claimed is God ‘becoming’ Jesus. While there is a fairly good possibility Jesus was a real person, I’ll grant, we’ve no good evidence of him being divine, performing miracles, or resurrecting. The embellished (understatement) story that I believe was crafted around his life, probably by his friends who wanted to honor him, was likely influenced by the religions, cults, and myths of contemporary times. Osiris was a big one, from my understanding.
It isn’t particularly unique.
Nor is it a particularly strong argument, as it is only a bit of the story that you claim to be unique. Anyone could write something in fiction that has never been written before.
I apologize – I know I’m coming onto your page and being annoying, and you have no obligation to humor me. I really am asking out of genuine curiosity. I do write about this stuff but I am on no ‘team’ except truth, and I do not want to misrepresent your side.