An Atheist’s Admiration for Jesus

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.


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

Darwin’s Holocaust? (Part 3 of 3)

Go to Part 1.

Continued from Part 2.

Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As the title suggests, Hitchens blamed much of the evil in the world on religion. (For more insight into Hitchens’ views and where his thinking went wrong, see Lament for an Atheist—Part I and Lament for an Atheist—Part II. See also the video at Christopher Hitchens Makes a Startling Admission.)

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins makes a similar case in The God Delusion. And it’s true that many atrocities, savageries, and cruelties have been committed in the name of religion: The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the execution of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade, Martin Luther’s rabidly anti-Semitic treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, the Salem Witch Trials, the 1066 Granada Massacre and other pogroms, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian problem, Jonestown, India versus Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jihad, 9/11, and on and on.

But does religion really poison everything? Well, it depends on how you define “religion.”

If, by “religions,” we mean the tribalistic societies that organize themselves around certain beliefs, rules, rituals, and traditions, and that often defend their beliefs through figurative or literal “holy wars,” then yes, I agree, that sort of religion has a distinctly poisonous history. (And by tribalism, I mean any social structure — including a religion or denomination — that prizes cultural conformity within the group and practices hostility toward those outside the group.)

But if, by “religion,” we mean a commitment to live according to the teachings of, say, the Sermon on the Mount — teachings that cut across the grain of our tribal instincts by commanding us to love our enemies, forgive those who sin against us, and pray for those who persecute us — then Christopher Hitchens was simply wrong. That kind of rational, selfless religion has never poisoned anything. In fact, in The God Delusion, Richard 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.”24

The Sermon on the Mount is the sort of religion that even Richard Dawkins can endorse. The compassionate, forgiving, anti-tribalist Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount really does exist, and is often found right alongside the corrupt, institutional religiosity that Jesus of Nazareth confronted and condemned throughout the gospel accounts.

Jesus seemed to know in advance that some of his so-called “followers” would corrupt and betray his message. He predicted that a day would come when many supposed “Christians” would say to him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” And he said his reply to them would be blunt: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”25

Hypatia, a woman  of Alexandria in Roman Egypt, was one of the leading scholars of the classical age. She was famed as a mathematician, astronomer, and public speaker, and she taught at the Great Library of Alexandria. Unfortunately for Hypatia, she also threatened the political power of Cyril, the corrupt Christian archbishop of Alexandria. In AD 415, Cyril sent his aide, known as Peter the Reader, to recruit a mob of monks to assassinate Hypatia. The monks ambushed her in her chariot, stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets to the Caesareum church, where they killed her, defiling their own house of worship with her murder. They tore her to pieces, then burned the body parts outside of the city. The stated rationale for Hypatia’s grisly murder was that “she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles” — but the true motive was Cyril’s lust for power.26 No doubt, Jesus would say to Cyril, Peter the Reader, and the murderous monks, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

The Crusaders swept through Europe and into the Holy Land, slaughtered Jews and Muslims, pillaged and burned entire villages, raped women and put infants to the sword. They exhibited the heads of their slain enemies on stakes. Wild tales of miracles circulated among the Crusaders, bolstering their morale as they committed horrific atrocities under the banner of the cross. It’s no wonder that radical Muslims to this day identify all Christians as “Crusaders.”

Tomás de Torquemada was the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century. Known as “the hammer of heretics,” Torquemada “enthusiastically supported the use of torture during interrogations,”27 and reportedly sent at least 2,000 supposed “heretics” to be burned at the stake. Yet if you compare Torquemada’s “enthusiastic” actions with the teachings of Jesus, you have to wonder: Who is the true heretic — Torquemada’s victims, or Torquemada himself?

Corrupt, tribalist, institutional religion is rife with human evil. To all those who torture, kill, rape, molest, seduce, and steal under the cloak of religion, the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount undoubtedly says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

But the religion of the Sermon on the Mount, the religion endorsed by Richard Dawkins, is another thing altogether. That religion has produced some of the finest achievements of our civilization.

Take, for example, our healthcare system. Compassionate religion has blessed the world with the creation of hospitals. In the Middle Ages, religious orders of monks and nuns ran the first hospitals in Europe. In medieval France, a hospital was called a hôtel-Dieu, a hotel of God.

Or, consider how religion has promoted education. Priests and monks preserved civilization and learning through the Dark Ages. The church also invented institutions of higher learning. In medieval times, writes historian Lowrie J. Daly, “there were no great state-supported educational systems, nor even solitary schools. Practically speaking, the Church was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.”28

The first university in the world was at Bologna, Italy, founded around AD 1088 or earlier; next was Oxford, founded around 1096; the University of Salamanca, Spain, founded circa 1130; the University of Paris, circa 1150; and Cambridge, circa 1209. We don’t know the exact date any of these great universities were founded because they all had modest, unheralded beginnings as cathedral schools, taught by clerics.

Religion practically invented science as we know it. Medieval church clerics studied empirical phenomena and catalogued their findings. The study of science came naturally to the religious mind, because the early clerics believed that a rational God had created a orderly world that could be comprehended by human reason. Here are a few of those early clergy-scientists:

• Thierry of Chartres (died c. 1150) wrote and taught at a cathedral school at Chartes, France. In his Hexaemeron, he proposed a cosmology with similarities to the Big Bang and features of cosmic evolution.

• Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253) was the Bishop of Lincoln and an Oxford scholar credited as the first mathematician and physicist of the Medieval era. Science historian Alistair Crombie called him “the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford.”29

• Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) was a German Dominican friar who advocated the teaching of reason and science in the church. He catalogued thousands of insights and observations in logic, medicine, chemistry, and astronomy.

• Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294) was a Franciscan friar known as Doctor Mirabilis (“wonderful teacher”) because he advocated the study of nature through the empirical method.

• Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) advocated “natural theology” and “natural law,” rooted in reason as well as biblical revelation.

• French priest Jean Buridan (c. 1300-c. 1358) was one of the world’s earliest true physicists, recording observations that led to a modern understanding of inertia and momentum. In De Caelo et Mundo, he proposed an early version of the Copernican model of the cosmos — 200 years before Copernicus.

As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, great scientific minds continued to seek out the laws by which a rational God had designed an orderly universe. Johannes Kepler envisioned God as the Great Mathematician, and he went on to systematize the laws of planetary motion that bear his name. Michael Faraday saw God as the Great Physicist, who laid down laws for Faraday to discover in the fields of electricity and electromagnetism. Isaac Newton saw God as the Cosmic Engineer, and his faith in a rational God drove him to discover the laws of gravitation, motion, and mechanics.

As Paul Davies observes, “The very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way.”30 Faith in a rational God and a well-ordered creation brought modern science into existence.

And then there’s the field of social justice — and particularly the abolition of slavery. While it’s true that many slaveholders rationalized their cruel trade from the Bible, it’s also true that religion founded on the Sermon on the Mount helped bring slavery to an end. The slave trade in England was abolished largely due to the efforts of a prominent evangelical, William Wilberforce. The American abolition movement was led by the Quakers and such evangelicals as Charles Finney.

So Hitchens’ blanket statement that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t be more wrong. The Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms weren’t caused by the Sermon on the Mount or anything else said by Jesus of Nazareth — just as Charles Darwin was not the instigator of the Holocaust or the Holodomor.

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson explains the seeming paradox that, down through the centuries, religion has inspired human beings to commit acts of both incredible evil and amazing good. He writes:

We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls.31

When evil people want to do evil things — when they want to commit acts of murder, genocide, sadism, oppression, theft, or terror — they will grab any rationale to make their evil seem “good.” If it weren’t some twisted pretense of religion or a pseudo-scientific rationale, it would have been some other excuse. But the evil would have happened in any case.

There is no evil in the words of Jesus. There is no evil in the theory of evolution. The evil is in people — in human nature itself.

That’s what poisons everything.


This is an excerpt from God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof by Jim Denney, copyright 2012, available as an ebook at For permission to quote from this excerpt, contact the author in care of this blogsite.

24. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 283.

25. Matthew 7:22-23, Holy Bible, New International Version®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

26. Sandy Donovan, Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher (Minneapolis: Compass Point, 2008), 75.

27. Michael C. Thomsett, The Inquisition: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010), 158.

28. Lowrie John Daly, The Medieval University, 1200-1400 (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 4.

29. Alistair Cameron Crombie, The History of Science from Augustine to Galileo (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995), 27.

30. Paul Davies, “Taking Science on Faith,” New York Times, November 24, 2007,

31. Frankenberry, 379.