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Jesus Would Have Been an Atheist?

Richard Dawkins

In a recent interview with The Guardian, popular atheist Richard Dawkins made a strange and audacious claim:
 

"I wrote [an] article called ‘Atheists for Jesus,’ I think it was...Somebody gave me a t-shirt: ‘Atheists for Jesus.’ Well, the point was that Jesus was a great moral teacher and I was suggesting that somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today."

 
His proposal, of course, gives rise to the question, what new knowledge—scientific, moral, historical, or religious—would cause Jesus to reverse his divinity claims? What new discoveries have been made that definitely prove Jesus is not God?

Dawkins' confusing claim is rooted in his quip that Jesus was simply a good man—elsewhere in the interview Dawkins calls him “intelligent” and “a great moral teacher"—but he certainly wasn't God. Jesus never claimed to be divine and so we shouldn't project that identity onto him. Let's just learn from his teachings, care for the poor and marginalized, and follow his imitable example.

The problem is that if there's one thing Jesus cannot be, it's "just a good man" or "just a wise teacher." C.S. Lewis, who like Dawkins taught at Oxford back in the mid-twentieth century, subverted this view in his classic book, Mere Christianity:
 

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
 
You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."

 
Granted there is another option which Lewis neglects, namely that the Jesus we find in the Bible and other early writings is fabricated or embellished. But in this case, it's clear Dawkins was referring to the Jesus we discover in the New Testament. And that Jesus, he believes, precisely because of his intelligence and moral integrity, would renounce God if he was living today.

Fr. Robert Barron provides his own response to this "good, but not God" claim in the first episode of his CATHOLICISM documentary series:
 

 

What do you think? Would Jesus have been an atheist today?

 
(Image credit: Fink or Swim)

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • Dennis Gairdner

    The enemy of the Gospel is the domesticated Jesus: warm, fuzzy and non-threatening. His love for us is amazing and a bit frightening. What "everybody knows" today about Jesus needs to be shattered so that we can confront Him as He is. Thanks for the post.

    • Michael Murray

      But how do you know how he is ? Personal revelation or Bible reading ?

      • james warren

        Historians have noticed a difference between Jesus’ unique “voice print” from the theological and dogmatic language the gospel writers placed into his mouth after the crucifixion.

        The Jesus who says “I AM the Light of the World” is not the same person who says “Why do you call ME good? Only God is good."

  • I very much like what the pope's astronomer, Br. Guy Consolmagno, has to say about science and religion:

    "Science books go out of date, very
    quickly; the Bible does not go out of date, anymore than Shakespeare or
    Plato go 'out of date.' It’s a different kind of beast." (from http://religionnerd.com/2010/10/17/the-popes-astronomer-in-conversation-with-brother-guy-consolmagno/)

    Everyone can agree that scientific knowledge grows and changes (sometimes dramatically such that even firmly and widely held beliefs are overturned). So my questions to Dawkins are: What specifically did Jesus not know in His time that would have converted Him had He known it? What is the earliest point in history in which He could have lived so that He would have developed a correct understanding of reality?

    • QuanKong

      All books go out of date. The Bible has many versions! There is a diiference between science and history. Science is dynamic. History is past. You can't change or update history. Jesus and the Bible are history!

      • "Science is dynamic."
        Which is exactly why science can never be the foundation of Truth.

        • QuanKong

          Science seeks the Truth by various methods. Even if it can't arrive at the Truth, is is better than just blind faith or plain belief. It is not the intention of science to be the foundation of Truth. It seeks to understand phenomena.

        • james warren

          The Bible changes radically because the cultural situation in which it stands changes radically.

      • james warren

        History is dynamic as well. Every generation is called to engage in a discussion with the past that is always different than a past discussion.

    • Michael Murray

      Ah so that explains why the Bible we read today is the same one that Jesus followers wrote down in English.

    • james warren

      Jesus was an atheist of his day because he said things like “You have heard that _____________, but I say that _______."

  • QuanKong

    Would Jesus have been an atheist today? Hmmm ... why ask a rhetoric question? Why not ask him when he comes again?

    • Michael Murray

      Why are we waiting ...

  • I think this article misses (slightly) what Dawkins was actually saying. It refers to an interview in which Dawkins referred to an article he wrote in 2006, entitled "Atheists for Jesus." You can read it here:
    http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/20-atheists-for-jesus

    Now, there is no doubt that, when speaking of religion, Dawkins has no clue what he is talking about most of the time. He does, as Brandon points out, completely gloss over the fact that Jesus claimed to be God. That's the only way the last paragraph of his article makes any sense at all. He says:

    "... in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he [Jesus] would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists."

    Really?? The One who turned water into wine and told the weather what to do would reject "supernaturalist" mumbo-jumbo in the light of modern science, eh? Would "modesty compel him" to also give up the whole "nobody comes to the Father except through me" business as well, I wonder?

    But what Dawkins is really getting at is what he sees as the insanity of believing in the supernatural in "the light of modern scientific knowledge." He is basically saying that miracles are impossible, and the Space Shuttle proves it. The "Jesus for Atheists" thing is just a dig at Christians, the point of which is: Christianity stupid, atheism smart. It has nothing to do with the "domesticated Jesus" paradox.

    I think the issue here is not if Christ could have used modern science as an excuse for turning to atheism (that's just ludicrous), but whether or not it's a valid excuse for an atheist.

    • Michael Murray

      We need excuses? That's your idea of serious and respectful dialogue?

      • Hi Michael,

        Yeah, you're right. I changed it to "valid reason."

        • Michael Murray

          Thanks :-)

    • james warren

      “...Jesus claimed to be God.”
      Actually, he did not.

      In fact, he says “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”
      And “Friend, why do you think I am a judge over you?”
      Or “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?"

      Most historians see the Gospel of John as early Christian theology. He presents a different picture of Jesus who speaks in long, dense, theological monologues all about himself and the importance of believing in him.

      John has no parables. The word “repent” never comes up. There is no concern for the poor. There is no Last Supper. And Jesus dies a full 24 hours BEFORE the other three gospel writers tell us he died.

      Jesus is a mystical philosopher in John.

  • There's another possibility not accounted for in the above article -- Transhumanist Jesus. If he were alive today, he would have believed that his miraculous accomplishments were due to something scientifically explicable, such as nanotechnology, or that we live in a simulation where the apparent laws of nature are actually a form of computer code that can be overridden.

    • Hi Luke,

      Jesus would have believed that his own miracles were not actual miracles? I wonder: if somebody performed Jesus's miracles today (for example, raising dead persons back to life by merely speaking), do you think they would actually be "scientifically explicable?"

      > "... or that we live in a simulation where the apparent laws of nature are actually a form of computer code that can be overridden."

      Now this is really interesting. That's actually what a miracle has always been understood to be: a temporary "overriding" or "suspension" of the laws of nature. Do you think that can actually happen?

      • Michael Murray

        Now this is really interesting. That's actually what a miracle has always been understood to be: a temporary "overriding" or "suspension" of the laws of nature. Do you think that can actually happen?

        I don't see any reason why it couldn't happen but I don't see any evidence for it. Lots of reports but no real evidence. It's a bit like aliens. Could they be visiting earth ? Yes. Are there reports of them visiting earth ? Yes the internet is full of them. Are there reliable reports ? No.

      • Yeah, I think raising the dead with a voice command would be scientifically explicable, if they are a result of advanced technology. It would have to feature voice recognition (easy), repair/replacement of damaged cells (hard), and detailed restoration of any lost structure to the brain to avoid memory erasure (harder).

        Cryonicists are hoping to do something kind of similar down the road when nano-scale technology becomes sufficiently mature. The fundamental limitation is that you have to have a good enough brain to at least infer (enough of) the original structure from, otherwise the result would be a clone/identical twin with none of the person's memories. Actually, technically you could impart the structure on a newly created brain provided you have the details recorded somehow.

        The Bible doesn't have enough details to tell us if Lazurus (dead four days) experienced memory loss, so I'm not sure we can rule out clone-resurrection with a newly grown brain and thus new individuality as an explanation for that case.

        > Now this is really interesting. That's actually what a miracle has always been understood to be: a temporary "overriding" or "suspension" of the laws of nature. Do you think that can actually happen?

        It's an interesting parallel, at any rate. I can't imagine the *real* laws of nature being overridden, but it is pretty easy to imagine that the laws we experience in the everyday reality are (unbeknownst to us) actually just video game rules, so to speak, which could be overridden within the context of the true laws of nature. Philosophy has explored this in the form of brain-in-a-jar arguments and so forth. It seems a coherent notion, it's just a question of evidence.

      • james warren

        Miracles testify about Jesus’ importance. The virgin birth has nothing to do with the biology of Mary. It has to do with the significance of Jesus.

        Virgin births were attributed to many ancient heroes and great men in Jesus’ day.

    • james warren

      Metaphor points to a truth.

      After his death, Jesus’ power and presence were still available to his followers after his death. So his followers used a cultural and religious meme which was around back then:

      Jesus came back from the dead.

      No one, any time or any place can cause people to rise out of their graves, walk around, talk and eat. So there is definitely something else that is going on.

  • GreatSilence

    This is my new favorite site, but this article is pure speculative nonsense, from Dawkins who started it to us now taking it further.

  • Jay Adams

    I'm Jesus reincarnated, so if you're wondering about my perspective, go to: SpiritOfTruthBlog.com - FYI, I'm a theist, but I find Christian doctrine regarding miracles, virgin birth and resurrection from the dead far-fetched at best.

  • serpiente1984

    Jesus could have been a Satirical Atheist, the record of his life and death is a masterpiece of a Satire, in fact.. to this day those who claim to be his followers don´t get even close to any of his teachings.

  • Jillian Galloway

    If we try to separate facts that can be proved from things that people have made up we'd conclude that there are no gods and therefore Jesus cannot have been a god. Jesus, however, was born into very religious times and there was really no reason for him to question the existence of gods. And in trying to understand his unique perspective of the world in context with the religious beliefs of the day, it's even possible to understand why he felt that he must have a special relationship to the god that he accepted was real. Jesus had great teachings that we could use to rise above the barbaric savages that we are today, however invisible sky-creatures are not real and Jesus was not one of them.

  • Proteios

    Der...nope. Jesus was the Son of God. He would never be an atheist, simply because he had access to technology, which is always a relative phenomenon or scientific perspectives on the world. No more than the majority of the scientists who are still predominantly members of one religion or another. Dawkins is fearful of losing his cult following and has to make sillier and sillier claims to keep the "freethinkers" in line.

  • ateist

    What can I say about Charlatan&Dawkins from England, he is stupid Men, no logic!

    Atheist 100%!!!

  • ateist

    Dawkins, he ist he indoctrinated Person, with complex "Jesus." His Book "God,s Delusion is very well, interesting Book, I must say, but Dawkins is a disgrace to the atheist movement around the World!

    Atheist 100%!!!

  • ateist

    Dawkins teach others, some teaching hisself first!

  • friedrich nietzsche

    The "Enemy" of Reason is the Bible and fucking Dawkins Dogma "Jesus Christ"!!!
    The "Gospel" is a typical for DEcadence or Madhouse&Churchs!!!

  • friedrich nietzsche

    THE BIGGEST HUMAN "ENEMY" IS FIRST THE BIBLE!!! GEN. 2:17.