How anyone can seriously say “God is love,” never fails to astonish me. Most observers know a few Jehovah stories of heinous acts. I grew up with them, but while aware of quite a few, I’ve never sought for and compiled them. Since I don’t believe in gods without evidence, detailed summary of their sins seems a waste of time. I was aware that Richard Dawkins in the second chapter of The God Delusion (2006) constructed a list of godly travesties in one sentence—which I found interesting but nothing new. He said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
(Now, before I comment on this, let me make a couple of points. First, because Jehovah, Allah, and Jesus are legitimate literary figures, I will speak of them as if real, though I do not believe they are. Second, this post is not meant to attack individuals with faith in Abrahamic religions, but the damaging and fatuous stories they’ve fallen for and defend so energetically. My comments are meant like those of a bystander confiding in a passing motorist that the road she is on has misleading signage and doesn’t go where she thinks it goes. She might be wise to ignore my counsel, but absent ill intent on my part, it’d be silly to get angry about the unrequested guidance or to take personal offense. I say this because I’m not insensitive to people’s personal investment in cherished beliefs, nor the tendency to strike back when they’re questioned. Now back to Dawkins and his shocking sentence.)
Although I have no quarrel with Dawkins’s forceful words, I admit being struck by their unvarnished severity. Were pejoratives ever so imposing? But if mocking someone who according to popular legend created the universe, I suppose it is only reasonable to swing for the fences. However, my natural inclination is to be wary of possible overstatement. Exaggeration serves a rhetorical purpose of arousing emotional reaction. But it is damaging to sincere argument; it’s like shouting when quiet consideration is called for. Yet I know Dawkins to be careful in his use of words. So I wondered—as critical for almost six decades as is my own appraisal of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic deities—whether possibly I have been too lenient.
This topic arose in reading Dan Barker’s 2016 book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, for which Richard Dawkins wrote the Foreword. In his book Dan takes on the meticulous task of seeing if biblical statements themselves justify all of Dawkins’s allegations. He found scores or hundreds of references, more than sufficient to back up Dawkins’s categories of monstrous behaviors. Dan is a former fundamentalist preacher and subsequently author of several freethought books—like Losing Faith in Faith, his first, and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. He and his wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor, are co-presidents of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
The sheer magnitude of passages he found testifying to the loathsome and petty nature of the Hebrew’s bronze age deity is overwhelming. Even I was surprised how many references Dan found to make his case. In my November 23, 2014 post “God is love?” I shared my own thoughts on the depravity of the Abrahamic God in terms, it turns out, that are far too gentle. Since then I’ve read the Quran and now I’ve read Dan’s exhaustive tabulation of biblical references. I can say with confidence that the degree of Jehovah’s wanton cruelty is as great or greater than that of Mohammed’s Allah.
I don’t say that lightly. I can just imagine a Christian, Muslim, or religious Jew recoiling at the arrogance of anyone (me, in this case) judging God to be an abysmal character—after all (and here comes the cover up), “God’s ways are not our ways.” True, they certainly appear not to be. The goodness of all the Christians I know well is far greater than that of the God they worship. In a society, we shame and jail humans who act in ways that are not nearly as heinous as God’s. As to arrogance, if humans are incapable of judging God to be cruel, then they are equally incapable of judging God to be loving.
God, his prophets, and all those who stand in fear of God’s bullying poured out praises beyond number. “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion, slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works,” said the Psalmist. He added, “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.”
The faithful must have known that their unending, institutionalized sycophancy was safer than even slightly tugging on Supergod’s cape. This kind of slavishness, evident even in modern Christian hymns, prayers, and worship services differs little from the perpetual, tiresome obsequiousness in Muslim prayers and greetings. A quick check in my Quran found Allah repeatedly referred to as ever-wise, ever-cognizant, forgiving, appreciative, aware, charitable, bountiful, and the list of undeserved praise goes on.
Pious groveling is integral to the Abrahamic religions. God is to be thanked for everything that comes out well, but never blamed for things that do not. God is to be thanked for those who lived through the hurricane, but not the thousand who did not. (In a rare form of being more accurate than we meant, at least the bad weather is called an Act of God, while the sparing of some is not!). But the psychological burden goes on, naturally more on the very faithful than the less so. Believers are regularly caught up in self-effacing and self-blaming, for they can never live up to the standards imposed by a God to whom they willingly give authority he doesn’t deserve.
I want to cry out to them that they are better creatures than their God. They treat others better, they are more trustworthy, and they are far more loving than this horrific deity invented by the ancient Hebrews. Yet they feel compelled to confess their unworthiness without end. That might not be a bad choice, inasmuch as the unloving God threatens to consign them to everlasting fire for a number of theological misdemeanors.
As I said in the 2014 post, the ubiquitous phrase “God is love” is only a mantra, not a truth. Like cheers at a sporting event (“we’re number one! we are the best!”), it is contradicted by masses of scriptural references. Its only utility is to arouse the fans, not to describe a fact. The God of the Bible is not loving, but evil.
Dawkins focused only on the Old Testament stories. Barker went further to bring in the New Testament as well, a welcome addition, for Christians have long said that the God of the Old Testament became a softened character in the New. The coming of Jesus and his crucifixion provided relief from the burden of humans’ accumulated sin, for Jesus was imbued with God’s more forgiving, affectionate side—so goes the attempted vindication. A fierce God had eased up on his murderous, jealous, ill-tempered side when the gentle Jesus brought his message of peace and love. But that explanation is, at best, a weak defense.
Without stretching the meaning of the word beyond recognition, Jesus was not “good.” Yes, Jesus did bring new ways to express God’s will, even a number of thoroughly quote-worthy expressions of kindness. But he also made the point that he and God were the same, certainly not at odds. He came, as he said, not to suspend the law, but to fulfill it. Later writers battled over whether Jesus was actually God, an integral part of God, or just a figurative son in whom God was “well pleased.” (Christology is a fascinating part of theology—a study of who and what Jesus of Nazareth was, along with the historical threads of would-be orthodoxies competing with each other. Rather like the Trinity doctrine, it was finally settled by social struggle.) But the number of Jesus’s noble, humanitarian and benevolent actions and statements cannot erase his self-professed one-ness with the cruelty and callousness of God. Besides, Jesus brought fewer moral considerations than countless human philosophers. So excusing the horrid Jehovah because he repented and sent a gentler emissary does not compute. Did Jesus issue an apology or even a recognition of the cruelty imposed by Jehovah before Jesus’s coming?
The net balance of goodness and harshness in Jesus’s parables and acts aside, there is an even more startling way in which God—or God combined with Jesus—is perhaps more evil in the New Testament as before it: Our supposedly sweet and caring Jesus—illustrated with halo by countless churches, artwork, and children’s minds—brought horror far beyond any of those described in the Old Testament.
While the Old Testament God killed multitudes, made other multitudes suffer, accepted slavery, and in many ways was unfathomably cruel, the gentle Jesus brought, taught, and imposed the beastly, incomprehensibly evil torture of everlasting fire.
Despite all this, the Bible is not a bad book. It is a collection, translated as best we can, of ancient writings by people whose knowledge, fears, and ambitions were common to the ages in which they lived. We can nevertheless learn from writings of the ancients, but only if we—their progeny—interpret their beliefs, actions and, indeed, their plodding search for truth by using the modern benefits of reason and science to which their efforts finally led.