Why Richard Dawkins is wrong

Iain Provan’s 2014 title, Seriously Dangerous Religion is a defense of the frequently misunderstood and denigrated Tanakh, or to Christians, the Old Testament. While defending it, Provan also seeks to highlight its unique character, one that reflects an equally unique God, showcasing this worldview as different from others and worthy to be understood and analyzed in its own context. Though he does not explicitly say this until his conclusion, Provan, when differentiating between the biblical worldview and those of other religions, implies the superiority of biblical faith throughout his text. His initial hesitation is curious. The text itself is lauded as a great academic text because of its thorough research, but I believe it is fundamentally an intelligent defense, an apology, for the Old Testament, one that is sorely needed in this contemporary hostile environment.

The basic structure of Provan’s book is simple: he uses the Old Testament to answer basic questions about the human experience. The subjects range from the nature of the world to God, and to humankind. The subjects go deeper as he delves into questions of life, action, and relationship too.[1] The first ten chapters seek to answer a question. In the beginning of the chapters Provan outlines the basic biblical perspective. After outlining the biblical understanding of a topic, he briefly outlines differing, and as he argues, opposing worldviews.[2]

As I have already noted above, the general framework and position of the text is immediately applicable in the Northeastern United States where atheism is becoming a cultural fixture, where people are losing faith and affiliation regionwide, and where postmodern pluralism is the new rule of the day. Mere tolerance, or perhaps indifference, is the single distinctive of our collective faith.

Chapter 1: Of Men and Of Hobbits: Stories, Art, and Life

Provan begins his text with the question of story. He makes the simple argument that narratives guide humankind’s philosophical understanding of the world, what he calls the “big idea.” He starts with the story of the axial age. A term coined by Karl Jaspers, it refers to the period of time (800 to 200 B.C.E.) where the seeds of all the major world religions were planted. This era of peace is something Jaspers argued that human beings must return to in order to survive. [3] The horrific trauma that the Second World War inflicted on the entire globe influenced much of his theory.[4]

The story of “Dark Green Religion” follows; it is one that is similar to Jasper, but rather than seeing the emergence of the major faiths as enlightening, Bron Taylor, who coined the term, sees them as repressive.[5] Instead of returning to those faiths, humankind must return to the  “Paleolithic Age and reconnect with our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the state of nature.”[6] This belief system is, in fact, contemporarily popular as environmental activism flourishes in the era of climate change awareness.

Finally, is the story of Scientific New Age. This big idea refers to the aforementioned “new atheists” and cites individuals like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.[7] This materialistic worldview heralds science and empirical data then as the only producer of truth, and unlike Taylor and Jasper’s theory, it is “hostile to religion.”[8] Prior to reading Provan’s text, I was personally aware of only this narrative, while the other two were new to me.

In differing levels, Provan’s point is that all these new narratives agree that “the Old Story,” the one from the Old Testament, “is neither true nor good nor beautiful.”[9] Provan’s book’s point then is to showcase that the Old Testament is indeed all of those things. He makes an important caveat that he is not concerned with a scientific deconstruction of, say, the book of Genesis. He is much more concerned with what the writers of Genesis are trying to say, more than how perfectly Genesis holds up when tested against the latest scientific advancements.[10] This distinction already puts Provan in favorable positioning.

Chapter 3: Slow to Anger, Abounding in Love, and (Thankfully) Jealous: Who is God?

The most distinct feature of the God in the Hebrew Bible is that he is singular. This marked contrast from polytheistic faith is essential. Provan does not address this question, but even a beginning student of Hebrew will note that one of the Hebrew words used to describe God in the Pentateuch is “Elohim.” It is argued that a writer or a group of writers used that term, in Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. That term is, in fact, in a Hebrew plural form, which may suggest that some writers of the Old Testament actually had polytheistic influence. This kind of detail is likely beyond the purview and thesis of this text, but for me, it was a noted absence.

More distinctions emerge within singularity, though. Since God has created both the heavens and the earth, he is the God of them. In ancient near Eastern faith, the sun and the moon were often deified.[22] Moreover, ancient Syria-Palestine had gods of the earth; Japanese Shinto still do, as well as the Shoshoni of Wyoming who use the term “Mother Earth,” in fact.[23] This line of thinking continues regarding gods “under the earth.”[24] Consider “Mot” the divine enemy of Ba’al. Provan also notes the three realms, heaven, earth, and underworld, have their own Greek Gods—Zeus, Demeter, and Hades.[25] Such notions have no counterpart to the god of the Bible.

Provan continues to note distinct characteristics of God: that He is not of creation,[26] that He is sovereign over it,[27] and that he is incomparable.[28] What Provan calls the most important thing about God is that he is good. In order to match his critic, Richard Dawkins, who describes God as “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction”, Provan writes a defense of the God of the Bible, while taking Dawkins down throughout. He proceeds to describe a good God, who loves, forgives, and delivers. One who is holy, and who gives his people the option and path to be holy,[29] One is slow to anger, but who is angry for justice.[30] One who is jealous to be worshipped, as he is the sole creator of the cosmos, one who seeks vengeance on those who oppress the down-trodden.[31]

He concludes one section with this rhetorical question, “How is it possible, then, for Richard Dawkins to allege that the God of the Old Testament is a ‘petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak’? Is he even reading the literature that he so freely criticizes, or is he simply picking up his opinions about it second hand?”[32]

In contrast, to other gods, who Provan describes as not “committed” to the “good of worshippers,” he wonders if indeed Dawkins was thinking of them when writing about the God of the Old Testament.[33]

Full review here.

[1] Iain Provan, Serious Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 11.

[2] Provan, 153.

[3] Ibid, 6.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid, 8.

[9] Ibid, 9.

[10] Ibid, 16.

[11] Ibid, 23.

[12] Ibid, 24-25.

[13] Ibid, 27.

[14] Ibid, 30.

[15] Ibid, 31.

[16] Ibid, 32-33.

[17] Ibid, 37.

[18] Ibid, 41.

[19] Ibid, 42.

[20] Ibid, 44.

[21] Ibid, 46.

[22] Ibid, 50.

[23] Ibid, 51.

[24] Ibid, 52.

[25] Ibid, 53.

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid, 54.

[28] Ibid, 55.

[29] Ibid, 58-68.

[30] Ibid, 69.

[31] Ibid, 70.

[32] Ibid, 72.

[33] Ibid, 73-75.

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