An Atheist’s Admiration for the Sermon on the Mount

I’m convinced that if everyone in the world practiced the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7), 95 percent of the world’s problems would be solved. It might surprise you to know that even atheist extraordinaire Richard Dawkins shares my admiration for the Sermon on the Mount. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes:

“Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 283.

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Addendum, September 30, 2012:

I recently discovered a blogpage written by Richard Dawkins entitled “Atheists for Jesus” (April 10, 2006). At the top of the page is a photo of Dawkins wearing a T-shirt that reads “Atheists for Jesus.” In the article, Dawkins explains in greater depth his admiration for Jesus as an ethical teacher, while dismissing the theistic worldview of Jesus. Here’s an excerpt:

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” . . .

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. “Atheists for Jesus” would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of “Atheists for Jesus” might be just what is needed to kick-start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right—could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.

Dawkins is wrong, of course, when he claims that a “reborn Jesus” would not be a theist. Jesus would know all about the anthropic, fine-tuned universe—a body of evidence that Dawkins actively misleads his readers about in The God Delusion. In fact, I think it is likely that Jesus, being the absolute exemplar of intellectual honesty, would connect his ethical teachings to the evidence for a Cosmic Designer that permeates our growing understanding of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

But I do agree with Dawkins on this: Jesus might well wear a “Jesus for Atheists” T-shirt, because Jesus is for all people, weak and strong, young and old, male and female, believer and nonbeliever. The one who said “Love your enemies,” the one who forgave those who crucified him, would certainly be for atheists. He would not be for atheism, of course, because atheism doesn’t square with reality. He would want everyone to know the truth.

But Jesus welcomed the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman centurion, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the rich and the poor, the drunks and prostitutes. So why wouldn’t he welcome an atheist as well?

Read Richard Dawkins’ “Atheists for Jesus” in its entirety at RichardDawkins.net.

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