Outgrowing God by Richard Dawkins

In his new book Outgrowing God, Professor Richard Dawkins explores how much of what we know about religion is true, and argues why we shouldn’t believe in God.

(c) Jana Lenzova

‘The animals went in two by two.’ We love the story of Noah’s Ark. Mr and Mrs Giraffe, Mr and Mrs Elephant, Mr and Mrs Penguin and all the other couples, patiently walking up the gangway into the great wooden ship, welcomed by a beaming Mr and Mrs Noah. Sweet. But wait; why was there a worldwide flood in the first place? God was angry with the sinfulness of humankind. All except Noah, who ‘found favour in the eyes of the Lord’. So God decided to drown every man, woman and child, plus all the animals except one pair of each kind. Not so sweet after all?

Whether or not we think God is an entirely fictional character, we can still judge whether he is good or bad, just as we might judge Lord Voldemort or Darth Vader or Long John Silver or Professor Moriarty or Goldfinger or Cruella de Vil. So throughout this chapter, when I say ‘God did so-and-so’ I mean ‘the Bible says that God did so-and-so’, and from these accounts we can judge if the God character is a nice character, whether the stories about him are fact or fiction. I shall do so, and you will no doubt feel free to decide for yourself whether you think it’s still possible to love God in spite of everything. As a man called Job did, in the following story from the Bible. 

Job was a very good, righteous man who loved God. This pleased God so much that he had a sort of bet with Satan about Job. Satan thought Job was good and well-behaved and loved God only because he was fortunate – rich and healthy, with a nice wife and ten lovely children. God bet Satan that Job would go on being good and go on loving and worshipping him, even if he lost all his good fortune. God gave Satan permission to test Job by depriving him of everything. And Satan duly set about it. Poor Job! His cattle and sheep all died, his servants were all killed, his camels were stolen, his house blew down in a gale and all his ten children died. But God won the argument because, even in the face of such provocation, Job never became cross with God, and refused to stop loving and worshipping him.

Satan still wouldn’t admit defeat, though, so God gave him permission to test Job even further. This time Satan covered Job’s whole body with boils, like the boils God inflicted on the Egyptians. Still Job’s faith held firm. He didn’t stop loving God. So God finally rewarded Job by curing the boils and giving him lots more wealth. His wife had lots more children. And they all lived happily ever after. Pity about the ten dead children and all the other people who’d been killed because of the bet but – as people often say – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Like the Noah myth, it’s just a story, it didn’t happen.

Here’s another story, a very upsetting one, also about God testing somebody to see whether he really loved God. Imagine that, when you were a child, your father woke you one morning and said, ‘It’s a fine day, how would you like to come with me for a walk in the country?’ You might quite fancy the idea. So off you go for a nice day together. After a while, your father stops to gather wood. He piles it up and you help him because you enjoy bonfires. But now, when the bonfire is ready to light, something terrible happens. Utterly unexpected. Your father seizes you, throws you on top of the pile of wood and ties you down so you can’t move. You scream with horror. Is he going to roast you on top of the bonfire? It gets worse. Your father produces a knife, raises it above his head, and you are now in no doubt. Your father is about to run his knife through you. He’s going to kill you and then set fire to your body: your own father, the father who told you bedtime stories when you were little, told you the names of flowers and birds, your dear father who gave you presents, comforted you when you were afraid of the dark. How could this be happening?

Suddenly he stops. He looks up at the sky with a strange expression on his face, as though carrying on a conversation with himself in his head. He puts away the knife, unties you and tries to explain what has happened, but you are so paralysed with horror and fear that you can scarcely hear his words. Eventually he makes you understand. It was all God’s doing. God had ordered your father to kill you and offer you up as a burnt sacrifice. But it turned out to be just a tease – a test of your father’s loyalty to God. Your father had to prove to God that he loved God so much that he was even prepared to kill you if God ordered him to do so. He had to prove to God that he loved God even more than he loved his own dear child. As soon as God saw that your father was really, really prepared to go through with it, God intervened just in time. Gotcha! April Fool! I didn’t really mean it! Yes, it was a good joke, wasn’t it?

Is it possible to imagine a worse trick to play on someone? A trick calculated to scar a child for life and poison a father–child relationship for ever. But that’s exactly what the Bible says God did. Read the whole story in Genesis chapter 22. The father was Abraham; the child was his son Isaac.


Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more