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Outgrowing facts: Inaccuracies in Richard Dawkins’ new book

February 2020 | by George Heath-Whyte

Richard Dawkins was asked by journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy in an interview recently, ‘If you could change the world, how would you change it?’ His answer was that he would rid us of ‘anything that’s not evidence-based, where factual knowledge is concerned’. Unfortunately for Dawkins, that may mean he needs to start ripping pages from his new book.

I’m an Assyriologist, which means I study the languages, history and cultures of ancient Mesopotamia (including Assyria and Babylonia, both in modern-day Iraq). I was reading Dawkins’ book Outgrowing God and wrinkling my nose at various claims he had been making. These had been on topics I didn’t quite know enough about to pinpoint what smelt fishy, but then I read a paragraph about my own academic field of Assyriology.

My nose suddenly stopped wrinkling and my jaw dropped. It was riddled with factual errors that anyone who had done more than a few minutes’ research would have avoided.

Ark reconstruction in Dordrecht
see image info

Dawkins had claimed that much Old Testament writing was produced during the period of the Babylonian captivity (in the 6th century BC). He then wrote, ‘What, then, can we say about the myths from the beginning of Genesis? Adam and Eve? Or Noah’s Ark? The Noah story comes directly from a Babylonian myth, the legend of Utnapishtim – which isn’t surprising, since Genesis was written during the Babylonian captivity. The Utnapishtim story in turn comes from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Arguably the world’s oldest work of literature, it was written two thousand years earlier than the Noah story. The Sumerians were polytheists. Their flood legend says the gods couldn’t get to sleep because humans made so much noise. Fed up with the racket, the gods decided to drown everybody in a great flood. But one of the gods, the water god Enki, took pity on a man called Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in an older version) and warned him to build a huge boat, to be called “The Preserver of Life”. The rest of the story is pretty much the same as the Noah version: animals of every kind taken on board, a dove, a swallow and a raven released from the ark to see if there was any land coming up, and so on, including the spectacular rainbow finish. It was another god, Ishtar, who put up the rainbow as a sign that there would be no more catastrophic floods’ (pp. 53-54).

Oh dear. Where to begin?

A language problem

Let’s start with the claim that ‘The Utnapishtim story … comes from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh’. You might need some background knowledge, so here we go.

Sumerian is an ancient Mesopotamian language, one of the first written languages in the world that we know of. Sometimes ‘Sumerian’ refers to the people who spoke the language. It stopped being spoken on the streets of southern Iraq around 2000 BC, although it continued to be used by priests and scholars for two millennia afterwards (similar to the use of Latin in medieval Europe) right up to the first century AD.

After Sumerian faded from general use, it was the Akkadian language (with its two dialects of Babylonian and Assyrian) which took over as the main language of Mesopotamia.

The version of the Epic of Gilgamesh that Dawkins is talking about – the version that contains the story of a man called Utnapishtim who built a boat and was saved from a great flood – is not written in Sumerian as he seems to think. Nor was it written at a time when you could describe the people as Sumerian. It was, in fact, written in the Babylonian dialect of the Akkadian language.

Ok, it might seem pedantic to point out such a minor error, but it’s the first clue we get that Dawkins has not done his research into the supposed relationship between the story of Noah and Mesopotamian flood stories.

A dating problem

As well as the language, it seems that Dawkins has confused the plot of the flood story found in the Epic of Gilgamesh with that of another Babylonian flood story, one about a man called Atrahasis.

Some parts of these two stories are word-for-word alike, but not all. It’s in the story of Atrahasis — centuries older than that of Gilgamesh — that the Babylonian gods send the flood because humanity is making too much noise. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, this reason is not given.

Whichever flood story Dawkins was thinking of, neither of them are ‘Arguably the world’s oldest work of literature’, as he suggests. They also weren’t ‘written two thousand years earlier than the Noah story’. That is unless the Noah story was written long after the time of Jesus!

Nebuchadnezzar II
see image info

So far, we’ve seen Dawkins blunder over the language of the story and the date of the story. Moreover, he conflates two distinct stories and states, as if indisputable, that Genesis ‘was written during the Babylonian captivity’. For an Oxford professor describing himself as an ‘evangelist for the truth’, we expect more.

The next set of mistakes is far more concerning.

A reading problem

Dawkins starts giving his confused account of this Atrahasis-Gilgamesh-hybrid story, before writing: ‘The rest of the story is pretty much the same as the Noah version: animals of every kind taken on board, a dove, a swallow and a raven released from the ark to see if there was any land coming up, and so on, including the spectacular rainbow finish’.

That’s a troubling list of similarities, isn’t it? Does Dawkins have a point? Don’t panic! What this list seems to show is that not only has Dawkins not read the Babylonian flood stories, but he’s not even read the biblical flood story!

The dove, swallow, and raven are part of the Gilgamesh flood story, but have a read of Genesis 8:6-12. There’s no swallow in the biblical version: a raven gets sent out, then a dove, then a dove for a second time. Now, if you have access to a translation, have a read of Atrahasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Any mention of a rainbow? If you didn’t head off and read it, let me save you some time. There is no rainbow mentioned anywhere in either of them.

It gets worse. Contrary to what Dawkins writes in the final sentence of his paragraph, the goddess Ishtar is nowhere to be found in the aftermath of the flood in the Babylonian stories. No god puts a rainbow anywhere, and there’s no mention of anything being done so that there would be ‘no more catastrophic floods’.

So, where on earth did Dawkins get such a fictitious idea from? Well, a quick Google search suggests that it may have been a rather old, rather cute website called historwiz.com. Maybe it was another dodgy website, but it certainly wasn’t any reputable source, and certainly not a scholarly translation of any of the relevant texts.

The suggestion that the flood story of Genesis is based on the flood story found in the Epic of Gilgamesh is far older than Dawkins, and pointing out the inaccuracies in this paragraph doesn’t defeat the general argument. But, to use a phrase Dawkins seems to be very fond of in this book, ‘no serious scholar’ should make factual errors as blatant as these.

Dawkins’ problem with evidence

The first six chapters of Outgrowing God (there are twelve in total) are devoted to theological, philosophical and historical arguments as to why we should, as the title suggests, outgrow belief in God.

His lack of understanding of such subjects probably won’t come as a surprise to many. Dawkins has said himself that he doesn’t bother to read theological scholarship, even tweeting in 2013, ‘I’m told theology is outside my field of expertise. But is theology a “field” at all? Is there anything in “theology” to be expert ABOUT?’

When asked why he doesn’t engage with this theological literature by atheist YouTuber CosmicSkeptic in an interview about the new book, Dawkins replied, ‘I’ve got better things to do. I do Science’. Later in the same interview, he also admits, ‘I’m not well read in the history of philosophy’.

I’ve only gone through one paragraph here, but Dawkins’ treatment of ancient history in general would seem to be poorly researched. Sadly, my Assyriological concerns won’t stop the popularity of this book, but at least they can arm you to challenge any readers you meet about the accuracy of its evidence.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Good Book Company. Used with permission.

George Heath-Whyte is in his second year of a PhD at Trinity College Cambridge, and a reader at Tyndale House.