Home > Bible > Dawkins, Religion, Morality, and the Importance of Being Informed

Dawkins, Religion, Morality, and the Importance of Being Informed

In a video interview on Al Jazeera English, the well-known Professor Richard Dawkins is asked why murder is wrong if life isn’t sacred (about 29:45 into the video). “Where do we get the notion of morality,” a caller asks, “from physics or from God?”

It’s an excellent question.

A Thought Experiment about MoralityUnfortunately, Dr. Dawkins — usually known for using evidence to support his positions — here essentially reprimands the caller for asking a stupid question: “I cannot believe you’re suggesting” that there could be morality only with God. “Do you seriously think,” he continues mockingly, that people didn’t know that killing was wrong until Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and told the people “thou shalt not kill.”

To me (as I said at the very start of my TEDx presentation), this is like saying that of course we don’t need farmers any more because we can get food from supermarkets. I might equally ask Dr. Dawkins, “do you seriously believe that we need people to grow fruits and vegetables when they’re available at any supermarket?”

More specifically, Dr. Dawkins’ response is troubling for three reasons:

  1. I think he’s misunderstood the role of religion.
  2. I know he’s misquoted the Bible.
  3. I think he’s wrong.

The Role of Religion

Dr. Dawkins seems to be missing the essential point. He says that everyone knows murder is wrong, that there are certain evolutionary reasons to come to abhor murder, that it’s better to live in a society where people don’t kill for no reason, and so forth. But even if all of that is true, it’s religion that encodes this important information, and it’s religion that brings the message to people who are trying to decide how to live their lives.

In other words, even if Dr. Dawkins is right that God has nothing to do with morality because some things are immoral simply because they are immoral, it’s still religion that occupies itself with pushing people toward doing what’s right.

The Importance of Being Informed

Ironically, just before the question about morality, Dr. Dawkins stresses that “people who don’t know what they’re talking about should keep quiet,” yet then minutes later he misquotes the Bible to make his point about religion.

It’s well know that the translation “thou shalt not kill” is inaccurate. (I go through all of the evidence in chapter 7 of my And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. The short version is that the commandment only applies to illegal killing, and the point is that laws about killing, unlike some other laws, are both matters of law and of morality.) In other circumstances, Dr. Dawkins might be forgiven for relying on a mistranslation, but here he’s trying to speak to the very nature of religion and he’s asserting that he knows what he’s talking about.

The point of the Ten Commandments is that some things are not only illegal but also immoral, and illegal killing is one of those things. (Again, I go into more detail in my TEDx presentation, starting around 15:20 into the video.) So it’s important to distinguish between “kill” and “kill illegally” (“murder” is pretty close, though a little too narrow, because some killing is illegal but not murder).

More generally, Dr. Dawkins seems not to understand the role of religion that he is attacking. He seems to think that, according to the Ten Commandments and religions based on them, the only reason not to murder is that God might catch you and punish you. Some people believe this. But another religion-based approach is that these things are wrong because God doesn’t want us to do them, even if God doesn’t actually punish us.

This is no different than making murder illegal — a step that probably makes sense even though most people wouldn’t murder even if it were legal, and some murderers don’t get caught.


Perhaps most importantly, I think Dr. Dawkins is wrong.

I imagine a thought experiment. You’re a sharpshooter and you’re flying over an island in international waters. As it happens, two people are living on the island. No one (except, now, you) knows they’re there. They have no living relatives. And they’re too old to have children. Because you enjoy your craft you take aim and shoot them both dead. Have you done anything wrong?

My answer is yes, because it displeases God.

My question is whether Dr. Dawkins thinks it’s wrong, and, if so, why? After all, no one suffers. No one is around to mourn their death, and (because Dr. Dawkins admits no afterlife of any sort) they themselves don’t care that they’re dead. Because the island is in international waters, it’s not even clear that any laws have been broken. In fact, the world may be better off, because you’ve had a fun day, there’s a tiny bit more oxygen left for the rest of us, and you’ve improved your skills, which you can now put to good use.

I suppose Dr. Dawkins would mock me, as he did the caller, for asking, but I’ve been asking this question for 20 years, and I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer other than, “it’s wrong because of some external determination.”

I call that God.

Categories: Bible
  1. July 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    The question you pose at the end is essentially the point that Dr. Dawkins makes in the interview. You question whether shooting two people is wrong if it is void of consequence or impact. Dr. Dawkins, as would any normal person, would likely infer that depriving two people of life merely for your entertainment. Your mention of Oxygen is confusing as the cyclic nature of Oxygen in the environment and the lack of a shortage would mean there would be no positive effect of “freeing up” that Oxygen. Being free of religious influence merely allows one to make rational, informed decisions that are not pressured to conform to a strict code of religious conduct. Any person raised with moral teachings would identify that killing is wrong irrespective of whether there were consequences, people have the right to live as much as you do. Your question would be more relevant if it explored a positive benefit from this couples demise, perhaps the survival of a near extinct species only present on this island.

    Furthermore I ask you this: is it not better to believe that your actions are ultimately futile with no reward of afterlife and yet still do good, rather than do good out of fear of eternal torture and the expectancy of reward after death?

    Compassion, empathy, love; these are human emotions, not religiously instilled ones. This is why asking if an atheist (or anyone not of your particular religious ideology) believes killing is wrong without God is a stupid question.

    • July 3, 2012 at 8:09 am

      Furthermore I ask you this: is it not better to believe that your actions are ultimately futile with no reward of afterlife and yet still do good, rather than do good out of fear of eternal torture and the expectancy of reward after death?

      It seems to me that the same argument would suggest that we shouldn’t have laws, so even though I hear this a lot, and I don’t find it convincing. (“Wouldn’t you prefer that people do good even without the fear of fines/jail/etc.?”)

      More importantly, I think that the fear of retribution isn’t the key feature here. Rather, what the Ten Commandments (for example) do is suggest that some things are wrong even if you don’t get punished. (I explain this in more detail in my TEDx talk.)

      Furthermore, I’m not sure I care why people treat me well so long as they do.

      For that matter, the way you (and many others) frame the question is already biasing the answer. Another way to pose the question is this: which would you prefer, (a) that rather people do good because they’re afraid of the consequences; or (b) that people rob/murder/etc.?

  2. July 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    They won’t give you a straight answer because the answer is, “no.” Morality is not innate. Animals that eat their young due to minor imperfections in their offspring or because they desire the extra sustenance is evidence of this simple fact. Humans may be able to think on more complex levels, but many people without proper guidance in their lives have proven that they can easily harm and even kill others just as easily as animals do–without it weighing on their conscience.

  3. Jason Turnbull
    July 7, 2012 at 3:28 am


    Do you believe that (your) God influenced:
    – Australian Aboriginals customary laws of punishment?
    – American Indian blood law?
    – Buddhism idea that no harm be done to any living thing?
    – Ancient Greeks to change there laws to exile murders, instead of the family settling matter on their own?
    – etc ect ect

    Christian or Jewish religions also had laws and punishments in place, but this does not prove it came from “God”

  4. MsColleen
    July 23, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Joel, have you noticed how often atheists are accused of being completely immoral because, without belief in God, they can have no basis for any form of morality? In other words, the lack of god-belief automatically equates with base depravity in every way.

    As an atheist, I have encountered this time and again. It is always a very ugly personal attack on my character, because these attackers have NO knowledge of my conduct and behavior, but they immediately “know” that I commit all of the most foul and debased actions their perverted minds can imagine, all because I don’t hold any god-belief.

    While I freely acknowledge that religion does give a foundation upon which to hang a full panoply of proper behaviors, I would have to turn your question around and ask is it absolutely mandatory to have a god-belief to behave in a moral manner? As philosophers have asked, as the ancient Greeks (and perhaps earlier) have done, is there any basis for a code of ethics that does NOT require a god-belief?

    Or, is it right to accuse me of all the most profoundly perverted and immoral behaviors any pervert can imagine, simply because I hold no god-belief?

    The discussion can just as easily branch off from this question to a further question: because someone believes in a different belief system than the person being addressed, does that other who holds a different god-belief system also practice all the most depraved and immoral behaviors, because he doesn’t believe in the correct god?

    The problem is not merely that atheists are anti-religion, the problem is that religionists of many flavors are very anti- everything that does not comport with their specific god-belief system.

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