The bible is a terrible moral compass, if you think about it. Of course, you can cherry pick the verses that you like, which means the verses that happen to coincide with our modern secular consensus, but then you need to have a rationale for leaving out the ones that say stone people to death if they break the Sabbath, or if they commit adultery. It’s an appalling moral compass.- Richard DawkinsDawkins should know better. This is a clear example of the fallacy of composition, the idea that something that is true of some parts of the whole are true of the whole. It is like concluding that an entire barrel of apples is bad because the first three you pull out happen to be bad. He doesn't like the fact that some Christians "cherry pick" their scriptures for the good bits, but doesn't have a problem at all "cherry picking" the bad bits for his own purposes.
I wonder if Dawkins would mind terribly if I applied the same standard to The Origin of Species, about which Stephen J. Gould says:
A few figures in history have been so prescient in their principal contributions, and so acute and broad-ranging in their general perceptions, that they define (or at least intrude upon) almost any major piece of a comprehensive discussion ... Evolutionary biology possesses the great good fortune to embrace such a figure... The Origin of Species exceeds all other scientific "classics" of past centuries in immediate and continued relevance to the basic theoretical formulations and debates of current practitioners. Careful exegesis of Darwin's logic and intentions, through textual analysis of the Origin, therefore assumes unusual importance for the contemporary practice of science. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen J. Gould, pp. 57-58Oh, really? If I applied Dawkins' logic, I could say this:
The Origin is a terrible scientific compass, if you think about it. Of course, you can cherry pick the verses that you like, which means the verses that happen to coincide with our modern scientific consensus, but then you need to have a rationale for leaving out the ones that says whales evolved from bears or support Lamarckian inheritance. It’s an appalling scientific compass.I'm being facetious, of course. I believe, as does Gould, that the Origin is a wonderful scientific compass. But the comparison does give us some tools for determining how the bible can serve us as a wonderful moral compass. The reason Dawkins' fallacious argument seems compelling is that so many commit the same fallacy of composition with respect to the bible, whereby they reason that since the bible contains so many wonderful verses, the whole thing must be wonderful. This usually goes in hand with the fallacy of division, whereby it is reasoned that because the bible is a good book, every bit of it must be good.
There is another error in Dawkins' reasoning that I feel compelled to point out. The reason the Origin can be considered the "bible" of biology is that it laid the foundation for the modern version of the whole field. Dawkins either does not realize or ignores how foundational the bible was for our modern view of morality. His quote seems to imply that our modern views of morality just happen to coincide with certain "cherry picked" themes in the bible. But this isn't just happy coincidence. Western civilization was intentionally built upon such themes as forgiveness, love, and the oft neglected but crucially important understanding of debt and usury that are found in the teachings of Jesus, much as the modern scientific consensus was intentionally built upon themes found in The Origin of Species.