Little-Known Bible Verses: The Holy Kiss

Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been on a tear lately, posting some outstanding articles about the theological roots of dominionism and its influence in American politics. And today, he wrote another post that inspired me.

This post was about a new book by the sociologist Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, which deplores a group whom Smith dubs "biblicists" (I'd probably just call them fundamentalists). These are Christians who believe that the Bible is a perfectly self-sufficient guide to humanity which needs no outside authority to interpret it; that all one has to do is read the plain and literal words of the Bible to find God's clear and unmistakable plan for what to believe and how to live. Yet, somehow, Christians who all say they believe this keep coming to opposite conclusions on a bewilderingly huge range of theological issues. The review lists some of them:

For example, biblicists differ over human free will and divine sovereignty; penal satisfaction and Christus Victor; creation and evolution; sprinkling and immersion; divorce and remarriage; complementarianism and egalitarianism; just war and pacifism; pretribulationism and posttribulationism; amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism; everlasting torment and annihilation; soteriological exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism; and on and on.

This is just what I wrote about in "The Aura of Infallibility": people who say they believe that the Bible is infallible really mean that their own interpretations of it are infallible. It ought to be incredibly embarrassing to people who consider the Bible a clear and authoritative guide that they can't agree among themselves on what guidance it actually gives. This has been noted by other Christian writers, most notably C.S. Lewis, who wrote that proselytizers should try to hide the existence of differing Christian sects from potential converts, because a person who was aware of this fact about Christianity would be less likely to become a Christian.

In any case, this brings me (finally!) to the subject of this post, which is a Bible verse coincidentally pointed out in the review of Smith's book. The Christian fundamentalists we're all so familiar with claim that the Bible is holy, inerrant and authoritative, and contains advice applicable to all Christians at all times, including divine ordinances on how to organize and behave in a church community. So why don't they obey this verse from Second Corinthians?

"Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss."

—2 Corinthians 13:11-12

This isn't the only verse in the Bible that teaches this custom, either. In fact, no fewer than five verses from five different books of the New Testament all order it - Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14, in addition to the one cited above - which implies, given the strength of their recommendation, that the biblical authors saw it as essential. St. Augustine even says that the kiss should be on the lips to be done properly:

This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.

Needless to say, the vast majority of evangelical churches politely ignore this. Even the fundamentalist churches that practice snake-handling tend to find this one a bridge too far. (It actually is practiced as part of worship in some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, though not usually on the lips as far as I know.)

As silly as it is, there's an important point here. The next time you encounter someone who claims to interpret the Bible "literally", ask them if they do this at their church. If the answer is no, as it most probably will be, you'll have made your point: even supposedly "literal" interpretations are driven and shaped by the believer's culture and by their own ideas and prejudices, and not simply by doing whatever the text says.

Other posts in this series:

August 31, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink46 comments

The Biblical Cruelty of Child Beating

In 1877, the great freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll wrote these words about the then-common practice of corporal punishment:

I tell you the children have the same rights that we have, and we ought to treat them as though they were human beings. They should be reared with love, with kindness, with tenderness, and not with brutality. That is my idea of children.

...I do not believe in the government of the lash. If any one of you ever expects to whip your children again, I want you to have a photograph taken of yourself when you are in the act, with your face red with vulgar anger, and the face of the little child, with eyes swimming in tears and the little chin dimpled with fear, like a piece of water struck by a sudden cold wind.

Even back then, Ingersoll recognized the barbarity of punishing children with beatings and pain. Even then, he was a much greater man, a more loving man, a more compassionate man than the evil, sadistic fundamentalists who still exist today - the ones who believe that whipping a child is an appropriate response to disobedience, that parental decrees should be enforced with fear and pain. Two such people have just been sentenced in California after pleading guilty to beating their 7-year-old adopted daughter to death.

Lydia Schatz's parents were followers of Debi and Michael Pearl, whom I've written about before - the Christian couple who believe that an abused wife's only recourse is to pray to God to strike her husband dead. The Pearls also teach that beating a child is the proper way to make them obedient, and they specifically recommend implements to use for the purpose, such as belts, wooden spoons or quarter-inch plumbing supply tube.

The CNN interview shows the disturbingly large influence the Pearls have in the Christian community - their warehouse full of books, covers boasting "660,000 Sold". Predictably, they deny all responsibility for Lydia Schatz's death, though the interviewer probes no further than that. He also doesn't mention that, in one respect at least, the Pearls are correct: the Bible does teach parents to beat their children. In fact, the Bible treats child-beating not just as one method of discipline among others, but says clearly that it is essential:

"He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."

—Proverbs 13:24

"Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying."

—Proverbs 19:18

"The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly."

—Proverbs 20:30

"Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell."

—Proverbs 23:13-14

So, yes, the Christians who advocate whipping children are following the Bible. That's how we know the Bible is a wicked book, one that teaches a flawed and savage morality far inferior to the compassionate humanism of Robert Ingersoll. Punishing children with beatings doesn't make them moral; it makes them cruel, by teaching them that inflicting pain is a legitimate way of solving a problem. As studies have found, corporal punishment correlates with aggression, antisocial behavior, mental illness, and abuse of one's own family later in life.

The harm done by religion to helpless, vulnerable children is enormous: whether it's religious sects which shun medicine and let their children suffer and slowly die from treatable illnesses, or religious sects which advocate mutilating a child's genitals, or religious sects which actively teach the goodness of beating and torture, or religious sects which simply teach children to be terrified of being attacked by demons or of burning forever in a fiery hell. Lydia Schatz is dead because of cruel and evil teachings like these, and she probably won't be the last. (Did her parents call themselves "pro-life", do you think?) Robert Ingersoll had advice that seems like it was written just for the Schatzes, advice that I hope they'll follow some day, hopefully many years in the future, after they're released from prison:

If that little child should die, I cannot think of a sweeter way to spend an autumn afternoon than to go out to the cemetery, when the maples are clad in tender gold, and little scarlet runners are coming, like poems of regret, from the sad heart of the earth — and sit down upon the grave and look at that photograph, and think of the flesh now dust that you beat. I tell you it is wrong; it is no way to raise children!

August 24, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink35 comments

The Financial Ignorance of Religious Texts

Among the many other prohibitions in the Old Testament, there are several verses that prohibit charging interest on loans (at least to one's fellow Israelites - foreigners are apparently OK to gouge). Some of them are:

"You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest..."

—Deuteronomy 23:19-20

"And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit."

—Leviticus 25:26

"If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right - if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel... does not lend at interest or take any increase... he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord God."

—Ezekiel 8:5-9

The New Testament, meanwhile, is more ambiguous on the subject. Matthew 25 and Luke 19 contain the parable of the talents, where a wealthy landowner gives money to his servants and rewards the ones who invest it and return him a profit. But this is most likely intended as a moral lesson about developing one's god-given talents, not as financial advice. Luke 6:35, however, is more explicit: it instructs Christians to "lend, hoping for nothing again".

The Qur'an, meanwhile, contains similar injunctions. Sura 2:275 says that Allah "permitteth trading and forbiddeth usury", and 3:130 and 30:39 similarly warn believers not to lend money in the hope of "increase". These rules, like other vague guidelines in the Qur'an, have been expanded in sharia law into a total prohibition of charging interest that's widely observed in Islamic countries (as opposed to the Jewish and Christian response, which is to largely ignore the inconvenient commands).

You might be wondering how you get a mortgage if you live in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia or other Muslim theocracies. The answer is that Islamic banking companies have invented a concept called sukuk to get around this prohibition, which would otherwise make it impossible for them to do business. In essence, rather than you buying a home with money borrowed from a bank and then repaying the bank with interest, the bank buys the home outright and then permits you to live there for a fixed period, paying rent to do so, while at the same time you slowly acquire ownership of the property by paying back the bank's principal. If you think this sounds like a legalistic fiction, invented to technically comply with the prohibition on interest while exactly reproducing its legal structure, you're right.

As the tortured reasoning that created sukuk shows, regardless of what originally motivated these prohibitions, in the modern world they're archaic and irrational. Interest isn't always a cruel imposition by wealthy lenders (though it can be) - in a capitalist economy, it serves several important purposes. It compensates the lender for credit risk - that is, the risk that the loan recipient will go bankrupt and won't be able to repay. It compensates the lender for opportunity cost - for them giving up the ability to do something else, potentially more profitable, with the money that's loaned. And it compensates the lender for inflation - the fact that money becomes less valuable over time as a society becomes more productive and prosperous and the money supply increases.

The charging of interest has transformed lending from an activity that's the largesse of a few wealthy elites, to a bona fide profession whose benefits are available to everyone. Interest has made it possible for tens of millions of people to buy a home, start a business, or finance anything else that they couldn't have paid for up front and out of pocket, and it's enabled the global capitalist revolution that's lifted hundreds of millions out of subsistence and poverty. If we had obeyed the prohibitions of religious texts, none of this would ever have come about. However well-meaning these rules originally were, their existence shows that the texts that contain them were authored by fallible humans, ignorant of the mathematical and economic arguments that would propel the human species to prosperity.

March 11, 2011, 6:52 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink58 comments

Yes, Virginia, The Bible Does Teach Hell

Slacktivist, my favorite progressive Christian blog, has been reporting on how the religious right has been in a tizzy over the news that prominent evangelical pastor Rob Bell may no longer believe in eternal damnation. (I know, I know - he doesn't believe that God will torture billions of people in a lake of fire for all eternity? Horrors!)

This is a view Slacktivist himself holds, and to defend Bell, he quotes three passages commonly used to support belief in Hell, Luke 16:19-31 (the parable of Lazarus and the rich man), Matthew 25:41-46 (the sheep and the goats) and Revelation 20:11-15 (the book of life and the lake of fire), in order to critique the standard interpretation:

...these passages' references to a "lake of fire" or "eternal fire" or torment in "Hades" cannot easily be read as teaching that this is the proper understanding of the cartography and logistics of the afterlife. That's not what these passages are about.

...The point of these passages, clearly, is ethical instruction and I don't think they can really be made to accommodate any other reading.

Now, I'm all for this position on ethical grounds, as I wrote in my post about Carlton Pearson. I applaud anyone who has the decency to reject the idea of Hell as a sadistic fantasy. Nevertheless, I'm afraid I have to disagree with Slacktivist on textual grounds. It isn't the case that this idea can't plausibly be found in the Bible.

I can cheerfully grant his point that the hellfire imagery in these passages is there as a rhetorical device to draw readers' attention to the ethical lesson taught in all three, which is about helping the poor and needy. I also agree that this fact is probably embarrassing and awkward for the right-wing believers who usually quote these passages, since those people's favorite pastimes are slashing the social safety net and cutting aid to the poor in the name of Jesus (not to mention flatly turning away people who need aid and compassion).

But here's the problem: Just because the threat of Hell is invoked to get people to follow a moral commandment, it doesn't follow that the moral commandment is the only meaningful part of the passage or that the threat is merely metaphorical. If a Soviet text said, "The Great Leader banished a dissident to the gulag in the icy wastes of Siberia, because that dissident disobeyed Marx's teaching about giving to each according to his need..." - you might say that the point of the passage is about following communist teachings, but that doesn't mean that the incidental details about Siberia are fictional. On the contrary, you could very plausibly argue that if there was no Siberia, the entire passage would be hollow and would lose its point.

For what it's worth, Slacktivist also overlooked another commonly cited passage:

"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."

—Matthew 13:49-50

This passage is harder for his argument to accommodate, since it isn't a detailed exhortation to ethical behavior, as with the other three passages, nor does it use hellfire as a framing device for a larger parable. It just states a plain, declarative fact: the wicked are going to be cast into a furnace of fire to suffer. Sounds rather, well, hellish.

And then there's this old mainstay, which is especially difficult for the universalist view. It clearly states that not only is there some kind of undesirable fate awaiting in the afterlife, but that most of humanity goes there:

"Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it."

—Matthew 7:13-14

Both these verses are spoken by Jesus, also, which causes problems for the universalist view that "we should look at the larger context of the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ" (quoted from here).

For what it's worth, I agree with Slacktivist's contention that the doctrine of the Rapture is a modern invention, created by stringing together vague and unrelated verses from different parts of the Bible. The proof of this is that the Rapture is a very recent belief in Christianity, with few or no historical antecedents before the 1800s. But this isn't true of Hell, which does have an ancient vintage. Some of the oldest noncanonical Christian books, like the Apocalypse of Peter, take sadistic delight in describing the torments of the damned. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and in this case, the undeniable historical truth is that Christianity has always included belief in Hell. I wish this weren't true, and I wish there was decisive scriptural evidence against this wicked idea, but it just isn't so.

As much as I like Slacktivist's writings, he's fallen into a common trap for religious liberals: the dangerous belief that the way we should decide what to believe about any theological topic is by figuring out what the Bible says about it - and therefore, if we want to reject any religious doctrine, we need to find an interpretation of the Bible which supports this. He says that his view is based on the character of God as revealed through Jesus, rather than through a proof-texting approach which plucks out isolated verses to support a specific position; but ultimately, it's just a more roundabout way of achieving the same thing. However well-intentioned this is, it always results in an endless game of dueling interpretations, and since no one can prove the superiority of one interpretation over another, this means that the poisonous, misanthropic views of fundamentalists can never be decisively refuted.

I have a better idea: Who cares what the Bible says? Even if it taught the existence of Hell as clearly as daylight, it would still be a morally monstrous and revolting belief supported by no real evidence. Instead, why don't we appeal to people's inherent reason and sense of compassion to persuade them to reject it? I don't believe that this is a futile task - the flickers of conscience so often seen among theists prove it. What we need to do is to give them permission to doubt, permission to believe that the Bible is not an absolute authority and that its claims can and should be rejected when they clash with science, common sense, or human decency.

March 3, 2011, 6:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink33 comments

Book Review: Trusting Doubt

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: An outstanding analysis of the flaws of evangelical Christianity, written from an insider's perspective by a former believer. My only complaint is that I wish she'd provided more information about what the next step is!

Although there are lots of atheist books that present a compelling case for atheism or against religion, there are relatively few that I'd recommend giving to a staunch believer as a means of convincing them. It takes more than a strong command of the facts to achieve that difficult goal; it takes a special kind of deft touch, one that makes an airtight case with passion, but without rhetoric that will only cause them to dismiss the author as an angry atheist. Valerie Tarico's book Trusting Doubt, I'm pleased to say, is one of the few books I've found that meet that standard.

Tarico herself is an ex-evangelical, a graduate of the private Christian university Wheaton College. As she recounts in this interview on Debunking Christianity, she spent most of her life immersed in the culture of evangelical Christianity, fervently believing, following all the rules and rituals, preaching to nonbelievers. But she wrestled with persistent doubts throughout her teenage and college years, in addition to struggling with depression and an eating disorder that her faith couldn't heal, as she'd been taught it would be able to. It was around the time she got a graduate degree in counseling psychology that these doubts could no longer be quieted, and she finally walked away and found the peace and freedom of becoming an atheist. Trusting Doubt is her account of what drove her away from faith.

Throughout the book, Tarico shows an impressive command of her subject material, and covers so many areas it's almost impossible not to learn something. There's an account how the Bible came to be, both the Old and New Testaments: how stories like the flood or the exodus were drawn from Babylonian folk tales and Canaanite religious texts, and how rabbinical and church councils decided which books to put into the canon and which to leave out. She contrasts the critical-historical method of scholars with modern evangelical "Bibliolatry" (p.31), worshipping the Bible as a contextless monolith, rather than learning about the twists and turns of the human process by which it came into being.

Following this, Tarico presents a list of biblical stories that contradict science, history, or each other, as well as a list of biblical broken promises and false prophecies. She shows how the Bible encourages prejudice, promoting the racist "chosen people" mythology or commanding the unjust treatment of women. Interspersed with these, she gives some telling quotes from the Christian songs, preachers, and apologists she grew up learning from on how to deal with these difficulties, such as this advice from the apologist Gleason Archer: "Be fully persuaded that an adequate explanation exists, even if you have not yet found it" (p.44).

There are also philosophical sections, critically analyzing the problem of evil and the idea of redemption by blood sacrifice. She discusses whether it's fair to make salvation dependent on a person's time and place of birth, and how religion is unnecessary for morality and how humans have a basic set of moral principles built in. She discusses the bloodshed throughout history in God's name, and the political oppression that's still going on, with a telling observation about the evangelical persecution complex: "When we see ourselves as victims, we cannot see ourselves as victimizers" (p.190). But one of the standout chapters was a superb analysis of religion from the memetic perspective, discussing the characteristics that make a meme successful regardless of its truth value - and then showing that evangelical Christianity embodies all of them!

If I have one complaint about this book, it's that it ends too abruptly. Tarico presents such a sympathetic and articulate case against evangelicalism, I wish she'd spent more time talking about the alternatives, so that people who read her book and come away convinced will have some idea of what the next step is. She clearly holds to a humanist perspective now, and the book would have benefited greatly from a chapter or two summarizing the principles of this view and comparing it with the one she once held. But it's that insider perspective, the sense of having been there and done that, that makes this book so potent and so difficult to dismiss.

February 11, 2011, 9:58 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments

The Language of God: Intellectual Dishonesty

The Language of God, Chapter 6

By B.J. Marshall

Collins begins Part III of his book, entitled "Faith in Science, Faith in God," by trying to wrap his mind around why evolution is so difficult for some religious people to get. He recalls an experience where he was at a men's dinner at a Protestant church discussing how faith and science can mesh. All was well until the senior pastor was asked whether he believed in the literal story of Genesis. The priest carefully chose his words to give a non-answer any politician would be proud of. This prompts Collins to lament: if evolution is so well attested, why is it so hard for people to accept it?

He provides two possible answers: 1) it takes such a long time for evolution to occur that people have a hard time comprehending it, and 2) it seems to contradict the role of a supernatural creator. For his first point, Collins draws a comparison between evolution on earth and a clock, pointing out that, if the earth was formed at 12:00:01 a.m., humans would not have come onto the scene until about 11:59 p.m. For his second point, Collins talks about the creation myths (yes, both of them) in Genesis. To stress the idea that these myths might just be "poetic and even allegorical description" (p.151), he points out some odd things in the stories: Genesis 1 has vegetation showing up three days before humans, while Genesis 2 has humans first; if the sun was not created until the third day, what exactly does the notion of "day" mean? There are lots of contradictions in Genesis that Collins doesn't cover, but he's clearly asserting his view that Genesis ought not be taken literally.

When discussing Genesis and all its various interpretations he mentions St. Augustine, who wrote five analyses of the Genesis accounts:

With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not brashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. (p.152)

It's amazing to me how the Augustine quote Collins pulls parallels the politically adroit Protestant pastor in his non-answer. After writing five analyses on the subject, all Augustine can do is give one big shrug? I find it disappointing sthat the preeminent Doctor of the Church couldn't take a stand on what interpretation might be better. Although, given how violent the church has been throughout history, maybe it was better for him to not ruffle feathers by saying it's all a crock of bull. But what's the pastor's excuse - a need to protect his organization's dependence on dogma?

Collins recounts the problems the church had with heliocentricity in a way to show that this story - science vs. dogma - has been done before. Although scriptural passages speak of how the earth is an immovable foundation, Collins notes that the scientific correctness of the heliocentric view won out despite strong theological objections. Showing the church's strong stance toward science, the Dominican Father Caccini insisted that "geometry is of the devil" and "mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies" (p.155). Collins wonders whether evolution can be harmonized with the Bible just as heliocentricity was. Collins ends his introduction with exhortation from Augustine's De Genesi ad Litteram to say something like, "Hey, Christians. You're really making yourselves look bad when you don't face the indisputable facts."

If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

Quick answer, St. Augustine? We won't. Even if Christians had their views right about a range of topics from the efficacy of prayer to heal their kids to evolution and cosmology, that still wouldn't warrant our belief in the resurrection or the walking zombie hordes that accompanied it. We arrived at our understanding of the efficacy of prayer, evolution, and most everything about objective reality through reason and evidence; and our views are provisional based on new evidence that comes to light. I'm doubtful that reason and evidence can get me to buy the resurrection, talking donkeys, zombie hordes, or the existence of a deity.

The next few chapters in this section explore what Collins sees as possible responses to the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God:

Given Collins' options with respect to science and faith, and how he sees evolution as just an example of how God operates in the world, I'm more likely to see Option 4 as "When Faith Needs Scientific Help." But even that position is rife with problems since it presupposes that faith is something that needs helping. It's as if people cling to their baseless dogma so tenaciously that they can't budge; all they can do is try to reconcile scientific discoveries to their flawed worldview.

Other posts in this series:

February 7, 2011, 7:30 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

New on Ebon Musings: The Origins of Orthodoxy

Over the past several months, I've been writing a lengthy new essay for Ebon Musings. I've finally put the finishing touches on it, and I'm quite proud of the result: go check out "The Origins of Orthodoxy".

This essay covers a topic I've been interested in for a long time: the origins of the Christian New Testament canon. It's the story of which books made it into the Bible - and which ones didn't - and why, and all the historical twists and turns over the first three centuries that resulted in the canon as Christians have it today. I did this research because this is something that I personally wanted to know more about, but of course, I'm happy to share the end result for the use and benefit of other freethinkers.

This is an open thread. Any comments or criticisms?

November 27, 2010, 11:27 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink16 comments

Book Review: The Heathen's Guide to World Religions

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Entertaining but plagued with inaccuracy.

William Hopper's The Heathen's Guide to World Religions is intended as a satirical survey of the world's major faiths, written from an atheist perspective with sarcasm, humor and irreverence aplenty. I hadn't heard of the author, but his biography at the back of the book says he's a former Catholic and one-time candidate for the priesthood who deconverted, traveled the world, and ultimately got an academic degree in world religions from Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.

There were plenty of places in this book that made me laugh (the section on Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, was hilarious). He also has some clever and telling observations, such as pointing out that the survival of Gnostic Christian gospels like the Nag Hammadi manuscripts - buried in the Egyptian desert for centuries, and discovered by chance by a Bedouin - is far more plausible evidence of divine intervention than the propagation of orthodox Christianity through secular force and theocracy. Another good observation is that, while the Jews never even came close to controlling all the territory that God allegedly promised to Abraham, the Muslims did conquer all that land and more besides, and ruled it undisputed for several centuries. Should they be considered the chosen people?

But those points, clever and amusing as they are, are overshadowed by two major criticisms I had after finishing this book.

First: Although this is a minor thing, there were spelling and typographical errors throughout the book, and it got to the point where it was a constant distraction. I winced at mentions of the "Garden of Gethsemani" or the "Dali Llama", but even those are forgivable. The one that really grated on my nerves was a reference to J.R.R. Tolkien's character "Golem" (burn the blasphemer!).

Second: Spelling errors are annoying, but they can be overlooked. But there were other errors in this book that were far more serious. For instance, the author's inexplicable praise of Martin Luther:

I kinda liked Luther because the guy was just trying to figure things out... Luther was known for being amiable and easy-going (once he was free from the Catholics)... Luther had concentrated on divine grace and forgiveness... [p.109]

He must be referring to a different Martin Luther than the one I've read about, because that one wrote polemics like On the Jews and Their Lies which argued that all synagogues should be burned down, all copies of the Torah burned, and all Jews enslaved for forced labor. He wasn't any kinder to his Christian opponents either, writing, "Heretics are not to be disputed with, but to be condemned unheard, and whilst they perish by fire, the faithful ought to pursue the evil to its source, and bathe their hands in the blood of the Catholic bishops and of the Pope, who is a devil in disguise."

There were errors of commission as well as omission, such as when Hopper writes: "This whole story is found in The Hadith, a book of the life of Mohammed" [p.134]. No! The hadith are sayings in a collected oral tradition, not a book! (If I were a history teacher, I'd be reaching for my red pen right now.) Another one that made me cringe was when he said the territories conquered by Mohammed were known as the "Byzantine Empire" [p.142] - which was, of course, a Christian empire formed from the eastern remnants of Rome. There's also some ad hoc hypothesizing that's just bizarre, such as when Hopper asserts that Hasidic Judaism was copied from the beliefs of Hindu yogis [p.40]. He presents no evidence at all for this wild claim.

But maybe the biggest single blunder is in this excerpt:

The average person would say it's impossible to know what [Jesus] looked like because the Bible never told us. Well, the Bible never did lots of things. Again, we turn to Josephus to fill in the blanks. Here's what he had to say...

"At this time, too, there appeared a certain man of magical power, if it is permissible to call him man, whom certain Greeks called a son of God, but his disciples the true prophet... His nature and form were human; a man of simple appearance, mature age, dark skin, small stature, three cubits high, hunchbacked, with a long face, long nose and meeting eyebrows.... and an undeveloped beard." [p.80]

Since I wrote a three-part essay on the historicity of Jesus and had never heard of this passage from any source, pro or con, I was rather surprised by this. I did some digging, and it turns out this quote originated with an eighth-century bishop, Andreas Hierosolymitanus, who attributed it to Josephus. But there's no passage even remotely like this in any of Josephus' surviving works, and none of the second- and third-century Christian apologists who cite Josephus extensively ever mention it. It's most likely a late fabrication - and what's really damning is that Hopper invites us to "read the original Josephus" to see this passage in context. Since it doesn't exist, this can only mean that he never looked up the primary source for himself, which is inexcusably sloppy scholarship. (He cites a book called The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist by Robert Eisler as his source.)

It really is unfortunate that this book had so many glaring errors, because it presents some genuinely interesting stories as well - such as its account of how Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, was implicated in a scam selling fraudulent "miracle wheat", or the bizarre affair of the Mormon "Salamander Letter". These are things I'd like to know more about, and I intend to look into them on my own, but I wouldn't trust this book to use as a reference.

October 14, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

A Not-So-Complicated Moral

This week in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has a column titled Test Your Savvy on Religion, discussing the American religious knowledge survey which found that atheists were better informed about faith than believers. Kristof has a pop quiz of his own, and I'm guessing that regular readers of this blog will know the answers and see where he's going with this:

1. Which holy book stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death?
a. Koran
b. Old Testament
c. (Hindu) Upanishads

5. Which holy text is sympathetic to slavery?
a. Old Testament
b. New Testament
c. Koran

11. Which holy scripture urges that the "little ones" of the enemy be dashed against the stones?
a. Book of Psalms
b. Koran
c. Leviticus

Of course, Kristof's quiz is meant to showcase the many moral atrocities of the Bible - and to be fair, most American Christians are ignorant of these, so bravo to him for pointing them out - to disillusion people who believe that Christianity is morally far superior to Islam. I have no quarrel with that, but I object to his conclusion:

And yes, the point of this little quiz is that religion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, and that we should be wary of rushing to inflammatory conclusions about any faith, especially based on cherry-picking texts.

I don't agree with this. I don't think the conclusion that should be drawn here is very "complicated" at all. In fact, I think it's simple: nearly all religions contain violent, brutal, morally unacceptable teachings in their sacred texts. Therefore, we should reject those texts as a guide for morality. What's so complicated about that?

Kristof writes that "The most crucial element is perhaps not what is in our scriptures, but what is in our hearts", but that sweeps crucial historical facts under the rug. It makes it sound as if modern churches and believers just searched their consciences, realized that these verses were wrong and stopped following them. In fact, the Bible's teachings about sexism, about slavery, about absolute monarchy, about holy war, and about the oppression and destruction of differing ideas (to name a few) didn't just dissolve in spontaneous, society-wide enlightenment. All of these were hard-fought victories won by determined freethinkers in the teeth of intense religious opposition (and the same battle is playing out today over gay rights). To put it another way, this moral progress was made by convincing people that the Bible's teachings were wrong - and this process of enlightenment is still ongoing.

The only real difference between Christianity and Islam is that a higher proportion of Muslims interpret the Qur'an literally than Christians interpret the Bible literally. I'm in agreement with Kristof about the dangers of drawing unfounded generalizations about whole groups of people, but where we probably diverge is in the proposed solution - because I think the fastest way for any society, Christian or Muslim alike, to make moral progress is to simply discard these wicked and antiquated writings, put superstitions about gods and demons aside, and rely on conscience and compassion as the guiding beacon for their moral decisions.

October 12, 2010, 7:56 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink24 comments

Book Review: The Naked Bible

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Entertainingly irreverent, but with a sharp point under the silliness - though I still haven't figured out why the Bible on the cover is wearing a bra.

It's always good to see fellow atheist bloggers breaking into the publishing world, and it's in that vein that I'm pleased to review The Naked Bible by Andrew Bernardin, the blogger behind 360 Degree Skeptic. The lengthy subtitle of this book is: An Irreverent Exposure of Bible Verses, Versions, and Meanings that Preachers Dishonestly Ignore, and it delivers on that promise.

I'll emphasize at the beginning that this book doesn't aim to be a critical, scholarly analysis of the Bible. Nor does it attempt to be even-handed and fair to Jews and Christians (except in the sense that it relies on quoting the words of their own holy text). Instead, it sets out to be an irreverent and skeptical commentary, discussing and mocking the verses, doctrines and ideas in the text that stand out as the most ridiculous - similar to my essay "Behold, I Am Against Your Pillows", but lengthier and far more comprehensive. Most of these verses, naturally, are the ones that are politely ignored by the majority of preachers and lay believers.

Another nice touch is that, for many verses, this book quotes several different translations. Often, this shows how some contemporary publishers have tried to paper over the uglier side of the Bible by deliberately softening the translation or making it vague, as compared to other translators who had no such scruples. Here's an example from the book, Genesis 24:60, as translated in the New Living Version:

"They prayed that good would come to Rebekah, and said to her, 'You are our sister. May you become the mother of millions. May your children and all their children's children after them take over the cities of those who hate them.'"

The modern Message Bible, meanwhile, makes a comical attempt at whitewashing:

"And they blessed Rebekah, saying, 'You're our sister - live bountifully! And your children, triumphantly!'"

As Bernardin says, "Nice try, Message Bible. Those who know better don't deny that the Bible expresses bloody values" [p.38]. He also asks, "Why wouldn't they simply pray that Rebekah's children weren't hated?"

There are some nice quips in here too, such as this line commenting on God's punishing all of Egypt to make the pharaoh let the Israelites go:

Wouldn't a just and fair god cause the source of his consternation to, say, have a heart attack? Even better, with a touch of his wondrous magic, couldn't a benevolent god make the Pharaoh simply undergo a change of heart? If a bit of Who singing was capable of making the Grinch give back Christmas, imagine what the touch of a god could do. [p.50]

Or on Exodus 21:17, which bars deformed people from approaching the altar:

I could understand, "He who hath a broken soul or a boil upon his spirit, he shall not enter the house of our god." But he who hath a harelip is unfit to kiss the mighty one's feet? Talk about a double whammy: first a god does a shoddy job directing your creation, and then he bars you from his house. [p.129]

And in reference to one of the many verses in which God promises that a man's sin will taint his descendants forever:

Apparently, to err is human, but to hold a grudge is divine. [p.143]

There's more than enough ridiculous material in the Bible to fill out a book, and it's good to have this one pointing that fact out. I had more than a few laugh-out-loud moments reading through it. (Some of my other favorites were the Halloween-themed chapter and Bernardin's clever exegesis, on par with the finest feats of Christian apologists, "proving" that Goliath had a brother also named Goliath.) But there's a sharp point under all the silliness: for an allegedly divine book, the Bible is chock-full of ridiculous rules, archaic customs, bloody savagery, and much else of no use or relevance. Most of the people who loudly revere the Bible have never read it for themselves and are unaware of this, and the more attention we call to it, the better.

September 10, 2010, 5:55 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink25 comments

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