The Three Kinds of Theism

If you're an atheist who's setting out to debate religious believers, there are three main categories of theism you can expect to meet. Although religious belief is one of the most diverse of human phenomena, with a limitless variety of gradations and exceptions, I think these three suffice to classify nearly all of the theists that a nonbeliever is likely to encounter. If you want to debate, it's important to keep this in mind, because your strategy for dealing with each group needs to be different.

First of all, we have the fundamentalists. This is the most familiar group and the one that atheists encounter the most: the believers who interpret most of their holy book literally, who believe in miracles and demons and all the other trappings of supernaturalism, and a god who is anthropomorphic, judgmental, and intimately concerned with how humans lead their daily lives. The most zealously evangelistic, and the theocrats who most want their belief to be supported by the government, all fall into this category. Because they're the loudest and the most organized, they also take a prominent role in political debates like access to abortion or teaching evolution in schools.

Second, we have the laypeople. These are the ordinary, mainstream believers who are by far the most numerous of the three groups. They usually attend church infrequently, viewing it as one obligation among others, and they participate in religious rituals mainly out of habit, or to maintain a sense of community. Their political beliefs span the spectrum. Members of this group can be frustratingly difficult for atheists to engage, because their views on the Bible (or whatever their church's sacred text is) tend not to be variable so much as vague. Most of them have never read the Bible and know very little about what it says; for the most part, they believe without thinking much about it, and if asked to give a reason for their belief, few would be able to answer the question quickly or with confidence. Their notion of God tends to be somewhat less anthropomorphic than the fundamentalists, and certainly less demanding, less wrathful: more like a kindly grandparent than a stern tyrant.

Last, we have the theologians. These people, numerically the smallest of the three groups, are the elite, highly educated believers who are usually found among the clergy, the professional pundit class, and other rarefied circles. They tend to consider themselves more "sophisticated" than the other two groups, whose beliefs they view as simplistic and overly concrete, whereas they themselves tend to believe in a highly abstract, impersonal idea of God.

When debating with a fundamentalist, it's essential to know your Bible. A fundamentalist's identity is intimately bound up with their holy book, and an attack on it is an attack on them. The contradictions, scientific errors, textual alterations, and moral atrocities in religious texts make them unworthy of belief by any rational person, and that's a point you should hammer on. Granted, there are well-rehearsed apologetics for most of these points, but the important thing is that you know them at all. As Dan Barker has said, they consider the Bible their weapon; atheists aren't supposed to be using it against them. If you're already familiar with it, you'll have defanged their first and most common line of argument and will be able to very effectively put them on the defensive. A fundamentalist can't let an attack on the Bible slide.

For the laypeople, your strategy should be: Drive a wedge between the believer and the Bible. As I said earlier, most lay believers know very little about the Bible - mainly just the parts that are taught in Sunday school. I know from personal experience that they often react with shock and revulsion when they learn about its many violent, racist, or sexist passages. Your goal should be to encourage this feeling, to point out you know that they are a good person, and why would they want to believe in a book that contains such terrible things?

In my experience, the layperson will often claim that the bloody parts of the Bible represent corruption by misguided humans, and that God's true message can be found in the better verses. The best way to respond to this is to ask, "So which verses in the Bible were written by God, and which were mistakenly added by people - and how do you tell the difference?" Point out that what they're really doing is using their own conscience and sense of morality, and if they're capable through conscience of telling good ideas apart from bad ones, then what do they need the Bible for in the first place - and why do they hold it in any special reverence? Lots of books contain both good and bad ideas, and many contain a much higher proportion of good ideas than the Bible.

For theologians, your strategy should be: Tie them to the Bible. Since most people in this group eschew literal, anthropomorphic interpretations of God, you should point out that the Bible teaches exactly such a view. It repeatedly speaks of God as getting angry, jealous, repentant, and possessing other human passions. It repeatedly speaks of God as intervening in the world and doing miracles - indeed, the essence of most major faiths, especially Christianity, is that they're based on miracles. It repeatedly speaks of God demanding worship and punishing people who displease him. All these things are anathema to the theologian's view, which carefully separates God from any point of contact with the world.

And since they'll likely protest that the literal view is not their view, you can point out that it underlies their perspective, whatever they may think. Ask them if they pray, if they attend church, if they go to confession or otherwise participate in ritual, if they still use the language and participate in all the outward trappings of conventional religious belief - which most of them do - even though those activities make little sense except in the paradigm of the jealous, worship-demanding, miracle-working god they claim not to believe in.

August 3, 2009, 7:36 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink31 comments

The Anti-Semitism of the New Testament

The history of anti-Semitism in the Christian church is a long, sad story. Ironically, this faith which began as a sect within Judaism has been responsible for many more atrocities against the Jewish people than any of their other enemies.

For centuries, Christian Europe reviled Jewish believers as Christ-killers, and Jews were accused of ludicrous crimes like "host nailing" (stealing consecrated communion wafers and driving nails through them, to crucify Jesus anew) or draining the blood of Christian children to bake in matzoh. Throughout the Middle Ages, thousands of Jews were tried and executed, or simply murdered by mobs, after wild accusations such as these incited Christian communities to frenzy. One of the most notable Christian anti-Semites was Martin Luther, who wrote a book titled On the Jews and Their Lies which argued that Judaism should be outlawed, synagogues should be burned down and Jews should be enslaved for forced labor.

At the root of all this anti-Semitic hatred and bloodshed lies a matter of first-century politics. At the time of Christianity's origin, there was a necessity to blame someone for Jesus' death. But blaming the Romans would not have been wise - Christians existed at Rome's sufferance in any case, and depicting their founder as a criminal executed by the Romans for treason would have been inviting far worse persecution. The natural alternative was to cast blame on the Jews, whom the gospels depict as conspiring to murder Jesus with, at worst, the reluctant cooperation of the Roman authorities.

As Christianity cast off its Jewish origins, this story was found useful to serve other purposes. Finding few converts among the Jews, Christianity's evangelists began targeting Gentiles for conversion. The depiction of the Jews as a stubborn, hardhearted people, cursed by God with blindness and unbelief as punishment for their sins, was readily integrated with the Gospel story and used to explain why these people had so widely rejected the faith that was born among them.

Consider some specific examples of biblical anti-Semitism. While all the gospels record Jesus as engaging in debate with the scribes and Pharisees, only the Gospel of John elevates these disputes to an accusation of corporate guilt against "the Jews" in general: "And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him" (5:16). The fourth gospel also says of Jesus: "He would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him" (7:1) and adds darkly that "no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews" (7:13). In the crowning accusation, John depicts Jesus as accusing "the Jews" as follows:

"Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."

—John 8:44

When Jesus is tried before Pilate, John writes: "The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die" (19:7), and adds: "Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (19:12).

Ironically, the single most anti-Semitic verse of the gospels comes in the book that otherwise shows the most understanding and sympathy for the Jewish viewpoint, the Gospel of Matthew. In this bloodcurdling verse, the Jewish spectators demand that responsibility for Jesus' death be placed on themselves and on all their descendants:

"When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children."

—Matthew 27:24-25

The anti-Semitism continues in the Book of Acts, where the apostle Stephen is made to say what would become a common Christian refrain against the Jews - that they had always been a sinful and stubborn people with a history of killing prophets, culminating in the supreme atrocity of their killing God's only son:

"Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers."

—Acts 7:51-52

The epistle of Titus adds another pervasive element of anti-Semitic lore, the Jews' supposed obsession with money, and adds threateningly that "[their] mouths must be stopped".

"For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake."

—Titus 1:10-11

The first epistle of Thessalonians, in what may be a later interpolation, alludes to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem as a deserved punishment from God:

"For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost."

—1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

And the Book of Revelation repeats John's accusation that the Jews were secret demon-worshippers:

"Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee."

—Revelation 3:9

Rivers of innocent Jewish blood have been spilled through the ages because of verses like these. Today, to their credit, the mainstream Protestant churches have gone a long way toward banishing anti-Semitism to the shadows - but it is far from dead. It still has some prominent backers, such as John Hagee (as well as Mr. "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" himself), and the Catholic church is intently moving backward.

However, Christian anti-Semitism has taken on a more subtle form: the so-called "Christian Zionist" movement, which encourages militant Jewish settlers to further expand their settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. What few of these people mention explicitly is that they encourage the settlers because they believe it will more swiftly bring on the End Times, in which one-third of Jews will be converted to Christianity and the rest will be slaughtered and then eternally condemned to Hell. This veiled wish for a new Holocaust, one condoned and directed by God, must be the most virulent manifestation of anti-Semitism to be found in all the dark history of Christianity.

July 20, 2009, 8:56 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink55 comments

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus

Summary: An eye-opening look at just how much the text of the Bible has changed over the centuries. Not to be missed.

I've read two other books by Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted and God's Problem, and while they were both competent, readable works explaining the principles of biblical textual criticism, neither one really floored me. But I circled back around to read some of his earlier books, and I'm glad I did. His 2005 book, Misquoting Jesus, is by far the best of Ehrman's works that I've read so far.

For modern, English-speaking readers, the Bible often seems as if it's a book whose content is set in stone. It's right there in the title - The Bible - implying that the text which follows is single, immutable, and beyond dispute. Many Christian groups work their hardest to support this impression with doctrinal statements which proclaim the Bible to be divinely inspired and perfectly free of error. And while atheists challenge this claim by pointing to the numerous contradictions in the Bible, even relatively few of us dispute that the text we have is the text as it was originally written.

This is a line of argument that deserves more attention from us, because as Ehrman convincingly shows, what's striking to a historical scholar is the fluidity of the Bible. There are thousands of conflicting manuscripts - in fact, as he colorfully puts the point, there are more variant manuscripts of the Bible than there are words in the Bible [p.90]. And while many of these variants arise from simple and obvious copyist errors, many others cannot be dismissed so simply. There are variant readings affecting important verses, which can only be explained as the result of deliberate alterations made by scribes and theologians who wanted to alter the text to support a particular point of view - and in most cases, it's far from clear which was the original meaning and which the alteration. The Bible we have today, in its variant translations, is little more than a snapshot of this process of textual evolution, and many controversial passages are the product of judgment calls by modern scholars as to which variants to reject and which to accept.

Ehrman begins by briefly discussing the origins of Christianity and the formation of the canon. He describes some of the barriers to accurate copying of a text, including the extremely low rates of literacy in the ancient world. Even some so-called village scribes were illiterate and only knew how to copy the letters of their own name to sign a document. This would have been a particular problem for Christianity, which by all accounts began in the low, less-educated classes and only much later spread to the literate elites.

This leads into an important point: even when copying of Christian texts took off, the early copies were the sloppiest. This is because they weren't written by professional scribes, for the most part, but by the relatively few literate Christians who recopied texts for their own use, before the religion became established. As you'd expect from amateur work, many copying errors and other mistakes slipped in. But more important than these unintentional changes were the deliberate ones, made by scribes who were bothered by difficult or theologically troubling verses and "corrected" them to something more palatable, or even more importantly, by apologists who wanted to reshape the text to more clearly teach a doctrine that they held (or more clearly condemn an opposing belief).

The following chapters give an introduction to the principles of textual criticism and how modern scholars tease out the original wordings. There are some basic guidelines: all else being equal, for example, the older manuscript is usually preferred to the younger. More difficult variant readings are usually preferred to simpler, easier ones, since a scribe would be likely to "correct" a difficult verse to an easy one, rarely vice versa. And verses that don't fit with the language, theology or style of the rest of the book are more likely to be interpolations than ones that do fit in.

The last section of the book will be the most interesting to atheists: using these principles, Ehrman analyzes several passages from the Bible that are widely accepted to be later, theologically motivated alterations, and explains how we know that this is so. Many of the passages he cites contain key doctrinal statements or very well-known biblical tales - including all the post-resurrection appearances in Mark, the verse in Luke of Jesus' sweat falling like drops of blood as he prayed in Gethsemane, John's story of the adulterous woman, and the single clearest NT verse establishing the doctrine of the Trinity. All of these are likely to be interpolations. (I may dedicate future posts to expounding on Ehrman's arguments in these cases.)

I'm always in favor of more books that make the case for nonbelief or that expound a positive view of atheism, but the books I value the most are the ones that I genuinely learn something from. Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle was one; Jennifer Hecht's Doubt: A History was another. This one has more than earned its place on the list, and I highly recommend it to any atheist who wants to acquire a more detailed understanding of the origins and evolution of the biblical text.

July 6, 2009, 7:10 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink26 comments

Little-Known Bible Verses XIII: Fetuses Don't Count

It's consistently been part of the anti-choice strategy to treat unborn fetuses as separate, autonomous people, even well before the point of viability. For instance, the anti-abortion website says:

It is illegal to execute a pregnant woman on death row because the fetus living inside her is a distinct human being who cannot be executed for the crimes of the mother. (source)

In fact, such niceties did not occur to the authors of the Bible. They did not value the unborn nearly so highly, as we can see from a little-known Bible verse.

In Genesis chapter 38, the Israelite patriarch Judah marries off his firstborn son, Er, to a woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er "was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him" (38:7). Judah, who was nothing if not practical, instructs his secondborn son Onan to marry his dead brother's wife and impregnate her, to perpetuate his brother's family line. Onan, who isn't feeling the brotherly love, consents to have sex with Tamar, but pulls out at the last moment and spills his "seed" on the ground. "And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also" (38:10). (In case you were keeping track, this primitive, ridiculous little bloodbath of a myth is recorded in a book which is believed by billions of people to be the word of God.)

Judah was running low on sons by this point, but bravely soldiers on, instructing Tamar to "remain a widow at thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown" (38:11). However, Tamar - who seems understandably fed up by this point - disobeys, puts off her widow's garb and goes out and sits in the open, wearing a veil. Judah comes across her, doesn't realize she's his daughter-in-law, and, well, you can probably guess what happens next: Judah "thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face" (38:15) and agrees to pay her one goat from his flock in exchange for sex. No, I'm not making this up.

Tamar conceives a child. When Judah sees her again, he still doesn't realize she's the woman he slept with - but he does see that she's pregnant, and hasn't married his son yet, and is therefore enraged.

"And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt." (38:24)

Judah was fully aware that Tamar was pregnant from her act of infidelity - and yet he still orders her to be put to death straightaway! The life of that "distinct human being" inside her seemed not to concern him at all. Certainly there's no mention made in the text of him intending to wait until she had given birth before having her burned alive. In the end Tamar escapes her fate, so the issue never comes to a head, but there is no indication that it was a consideration before her reprieve.

There are plenty of other verses in the Old Testament which strongly suggest that its authors did not view unborn fetuses as equivalent to born children. Exodus 21:22 says that if men fight and injure a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, the guilty party is merely fined, but if the woman dies, the responsible person is also put to death. (Some apologists claim that this text merely means the man is fined if the woman's injury causes her to give birth prematurely without doing any other harm. Readers are invited to imagine a physically plausible scenario under which this could occur.)

The Book of Numbers, starting in verse 3:15, tells of a census God ordered Moses to carry out among the Israelites. Pregnant women are not counted as two people. In fact, this verse specifically says that even children less than a month old weren't counted! This shouldn't be surprising; a tribal society with a high rate of infant mortality could scarcely afford to invest large amounts of resources into newborns, until they had passed a point where they were more likely to survive. But this brutal necessity hardly fits with the "pro-family" mindset that the modern religious right claims to derive from the Bible.

Numbers 5 also contains the infamous "law of jealousy", where a man who suspects his wife of being unfaithful can take her to the priests and force her to drink "bitter water". This potion appears to be some form of abortifacient, because if the woman has been unfaithful, the text says that it will cause her to have a "miscarrying womb" (according to the NIV translation). Many modern anti-choice advocates argue that even a pregnancy conceived from rape should not be grounds for an abortion, but the biblical authors had no compunction in describing it as the appropriate response to spousal infidelity.

Following the theme from Genesis 38, Hosea 13:16 thunders that "Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up." Again, the innocent lives incubating inside these sinful women do not stay the hand of the divine executioner.

Other posts in this series:

May 6, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink51 comments

Paul's Resurrection Creed

In the book of First Corinthians, there's a passage that's frequently cited by Christian apologists:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

—1 Corinthians 15:3-8

It's often been observed that Paul's epistles have virtually nothing to say about a historical Jesus, but this passage is one of the few points of apparent contact between his letters and the gospels. As such, it's frequently cited by Christian apologists seeking to build a historical narrative of the events of the New Testament.

But there are some anomalies about this passage that don't fit with the traditional view of New Testament historicity. This post will examine some of them.

First of all, the way Paul describes the disciples is strange. He refers to Cephas (Peter) as if he was not among them. But more interestingly, he refers to "the twelve" - a description that would have been plainly inaccurate at this point, because Judas committed suicide before the resurrection (Matthew 27:3), and his replacement, Matthias, was not chosen until after the ascension (Acts 1:26).

Next is that Paul writes that Jesus was seen by "the twelve", and then two lines later, by "all the apostles". Unless he meant something different than what Christians commonly mean by "the apostles", this would have been redundant. It seems as if Paul considered those two to be different groups of people.

There is yet a third point of discontinuity between this passage and the gospels, and that is that this passage contains an omission. This verse has been treated in the Christian community as a primitive creed, reciting the list of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. But then, why doesn't it mention the women - especially Mary Magdalene - whom Mark, Matthew and John all agree met the resurrected Jesus before any of his male disciples saw him?

Historian Earl Doherty makes this point in his book Challenging the Verdict:

If it is claimed that an empty tomb story, presumably accompanied by Gospel appearance traditions, goes back to a time that was earlier than Paul, how could such stories be circulating at the same time as this 1 Corinthians creed, when the two would have been mutually incompatible, contradicting each other as to who had seen the risen Christ? Wouldn't that have occasioned an outcry from those who would condemn the creed as inaccurate, since it left out the women entirely and declared Peter to be the first to see Jesus? And even if no earlier version of Mark's story existed at the same time, this purported creed would have been circulating at a time when there would have been a lot of people who could point out its inaccuracy. Where are the women in this creed? That's the cry that would have been raised.

In all three of these points, Paul's resurrection creed is out of kilter. It will not come into focus; it resists harmonization with the gospel accounts in subtle but important ways, hinting that the orthodox picture of Christianity's origins is inaccurate.

Despite these inconsistencies, this passage is often cited by apologists for one major reason - Paul's claim of the five hundred witnesses. They treat this as if it were a major piece of evidence in favor of the resurrection, but it is nothing of the kind.

We do not have five hundred separate, notarized accounts. What we have is one person, Paul, who says that five hundred anonymous people saw Jesus, giving no further details about their identities or the circumstances of the seeing. By itself, this is not strong evidence, just as it would not be strong evidence if I gave you a piece of paper that said, "One thousand people saw me do a miracle." This is not independent corroboration; it does not have enough detail for outsiders either contemporary or ancient to verify for themselves. And, of course, these alleged 500 witnesses are never mentioned again in Paul or anywhere else in early Christian literature.

One final point about this passage that Christians often overlook is that Paul lists his own "seeing" (Greek ophthe) of Jesus alongside all the others, drawing no distinction among them. But Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, either before the resurrection or after it. His only experience of Jesus, according to both Acts and his own letters, was a purely spiritual, visionary one. But since he describes it in the same terms as all the others, this implies that those others - the five hundred witnesses included - were also purely visionary, not an encounter in flesh. Earl Doherty again:

In a study of the meaning of "ophthe" here, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being "in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception." In other words, the "seeing" may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. Rather, it may simply be "an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself... they experienced his presence."

When all things are considered, Paul's resurrection creed fits better into the mythicist model of Christian origins: the theory that Jesus was not a historical human being, but an spiritual savior whose death and resurrection were purely a matter of faith. These "seeings" of him by Paul and other early Christians were mystical, visionary experiences which they interpreted as confirmations of that belief. The gospel details - Judas' suicide, the women at the tomb, the identification of "the apostles" with "the twelve" (possibly these were originally two separate groups of early church elders) - came later, as details were added to this mythical tale to give it a veneer of history.

March 11, 2009, 6:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink31 comments

New on Ebon Musings: Dating the Good News

I've uploaded a new essay to Ebon Musings, "Dating the Good News". This essay attempts to fix a date of composition for the New Testament's four canonical gospels based on documentary evidence, both positive and negative, and draws some conclusions on what this date tells us about the evolution of early Christianity.

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

March 8, 2009, 4:44 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink48 comments

Little-Known Bible Verses XII: Communism

"Atheism and communism always seem to go hand in hand," begins a letter to the editor I recently found through a Google alert. And though the fear of communism has died down since the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the prejudice that this writer was parroting has affected our politics for decades.

In the Cold War, when anti-communist fear and paranoia were rampant, we sought to differentiate ourselves from the enemy in every way possible. It was this fear that spurred the U.S. government to stamp religious slogans on our money and our national oaths, in an attempt to set us apart from "godless communists". The ultimate result was that the things which we thought made us unique became linked together in our minds: right-wing politics, Christianity, and red-blooded American capitalism. The effects of that linkage are still visible today, with bizarre consequences like avowedly Christian organizations who make it a major part of their mission to slash social welfare programs and give tax cuts to the rich. Conversely, even after all this time, outspoken atheists are still smeared with guilt by association, regardless of whether or not we have any association with or sympathy for the fallen communist regimes.

But the merger of Christianity with predatory capitalism was not always the case. In fact, the first Christians believed something very different, as we see from a little-known Bible verse.

In the Book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 44 to 45, we hear a bit about how the first Christians lived following the departure of Jesus:

"And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."

This is communism in a nutshell - common ownership, no private property, redistribution of resources based only on need. The first Christians were communists.

This verse probably wasn't heard from the pulpits too often during the McCarthy era. Indeed, most of the Bible's clear teachings about social welfare (another one is Deuteronomy 15:7-8, which commands believers to give the poor whatever they need) have been ignored by the Christian right, which embraces social Darwinism in the policy arena even as they denounce Darwin's theory of evolution.

Some Christians did recognize this - C.S. Lewis, for example, says that the ideal Christian society would in many ways be leftist, and there are plenty of liberal churches that emphasize social justice. But even today, hardly any advocate the socialist, communist ideal that is plainly envisioned by the Bible itself.

Other posts in this series:

February 17, 2009, 7:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink67 comments

On Inerrancy

Pandagon's recent post on Carlton Pearson, and the comment thread there, got me thinking about the question of inerrancy.

Last February, in "The Aura of Infallibility", I observed that the apologist's claim of scriptural inerrancy is really a claim of personal inerrancy. Even if I believe a book to be without error, I must rationally admit that I could be wrong about that. The only way to maintain a claim of inerrancy with absolute confidence, as many theists do, is to believe that I myself am incapable of committing error in that judgment - which is just what many believers do, even if they don't think of it in those terms.

But people are not infallible, and the claim of biblical inerrancy cannot be sustained. The Bible contains many verses that contradict each other, as well as others that contradict established facts of science or history. Whether in its original autographs or its modern translations, the text is plainly errant. Given this, we must consider what the implications are for believers - and for atheists. Can it make any rational sense to follow the dictates of an errant Bible?

Some Christians have said no - if the text has any errors at all, we must throw it away. For instance, the Methodists' founder, John Wesley:

If there be any mistake in the Bible, there may well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth. (source)

And many modern atheists have taken this and run with it, asserting that if the Bible contains any errors, it cannot be the word of a perfect god and must therefore be valueless and should be discarded. Moderate believers, by contrast, hold that even if the text has faults, it still contains divine wisdom that we can use to our benefit. Is this a sustainable position, or should we side with the fundamentalists and argue that the Bible must be taken as either all or nothing?

I'm of two minds on this topic. I can see the logic in arguing that, if the Bible was the handiwork of a perfect god, it would itself be without error. I can't imagine why a deity who desired to communicate with us would permit the mistakes and prejudices of human beings to distort his message; that makes no sense to me. But to be fair, the psychology of the fundamentalists' god strikes me as equally irrational, just in different ways.

So are the two views, the fundamentalist and the liberal, equally implausible? Not quite: in my opinion, there is one small asymmetry between them.

I don't think that only inerrancy could justify belief in the Bible. Nevertheless, if you assume the text to be the product of divine revelation, it raises some serious questions as to why it would be imperfect. If God had a message he wanted to convey to humans, one would think he would want to communicate clearly. Surely, if God is benevolent, he would want humans to understand his will; he would not desire that we be confused or divided. The consequences of his leading us astray are terrible - just witness the rivers of blood spilled by people warring, persecuting, and torturing each other for the sake of their differing interpretations of God. Yet all this religious dissension also shows that the message is anything but clear.

So, did God not want to communicate his message more clearly? Or did he want to, but lacked the ability to do so? Either option poses a serious challenge to belief in a benevolent, all-wise deity. Why would God even write a book - a single book, one whose origins lie in a long-ago time and a very different culture, one that is prone to mistranslation, misinterpretation and deliberate alteration? Why grant some people special access to his word, and convey the message in such a flawed and imprecise format? Why not just speak to all of us directly, impress his message on everyone's heart?

For all their faults, the fundamentalists can deal with many of these questions more adequately. They would say that God did inspire a perfect book, one that conveys his message exactly as he wanted it, and it's only human fallibility that is to blame for all the religious dissension. But the liberal theology, for all its virtues, does not have satisfactory answers for these challenges. By positing that God has permitted human error to creep into the Bible and mingle with his own message, they can account for the Bible's errancy - but only at the cost of a more illogical and convoluted theology that has no answers for several obvious and vital questions. By far their best option, liberal or conservative alike, would be to stop making excuses for the Bible and adopt a more rational philosophy.

December 15, 2008, 9:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink182 comments

New on Ebon Musings: The Pillars of the Earth

A new essay, "The Pillars of the Earth", has been posted on Ebon Musings. This essay surveys apologist claims that the Bible displays miraculous foreknowledge of modern science, and sets the record straight as to what these verses really mean.

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

December 1, 2008, 9:06 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink50 comments

Jesus Never Laughed

In The Case for Christ, evangelical psychologist (and demon-believer) Dr. Gary Collins rendered this appraisal of the mental health of Jesus:

"We don't see psychological difficulties in Jesus. He spoke clearly, powerfully and eloquently. He was brilliant and had absolutely amazing insights into human nature. He was loving but didn't let his compassion immobilize him; he didn't have a bloated ego, even though he was often surrounded by adoring crowds; he maintained balance despite an often demanding lifestyle; he cared deeply about people; he responded to individuals based on where they were at and what they uniquely needed.

...[D]isturbed individuals frequently show inappropriate depression, or they might be vehemently angry, or perhaps they’re plagued with anxiety. But look at Jesus: he never demonstrated inappropriate emotions."

One might suspect this verdict was delivered with less than full clinical objectivity. But I have a question for Dr. Collins: If Jesus was the epitome of mental health, experiencing all the natural and appropriate emotions that are ours, then I have a question: Where in the Bible does he laugh?

There's no shortage of wrath in the New Testament, no lack of righteousness or judgment or even sorrow. But is there even a single instance of laughter - of genuine, spontaneous mirth, the kind that every child experiences?

Doing a search for "laugh" or "laughter" and its likely synonyms, I found only one reference in the gospels, and it goes to establish rather the reverse point:

Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh... Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

—Luke 6:21-25

Not only does Jesus never laugh, it seems, but he condemns those who do, claiming that sorrow and misery will be theirs in the hereafter. And it's not just the New Testament, but the Bible in general that continues this theme. Widening the search, we find a few references to God laughing in the Old Testament, but these are not laughs of merriment. Here are some examples:

But thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them; thou shalt have all the heathen in derision.

—Psalms 59:8

I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh.

—Proverbs 1:26

and also:

Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.

—Ecclesiastes 7:3

Doing a Web search, I found that I'm not the only one who's noticed this. Several Christian sites also note the lack of laughter in the Bible:

Not surprisingly, it is exactly in the same context as all the other scriptures that record God laughing. Never in joy, never during worship, never in mirth, never to be amused, only in derision against His enemies. He is not frivolous in his laughter, nor is He out of control. He laughs in judgment... It is a fearful thing to be the object of God's laughter, or to take His laughter out of context. (source)

I had searched the scriptures to find any biblical precedent for "holy" laughter and there was none. To my amazement, I had discovered that there were surprisingly few references in the Bible to any kind of laughter, period. (source)

Thus, the Bible takes a dim view of mirth or laughter, showing much laughter as having its roots in scorn or folly. (source)

All these sites display the narrow, pinched worldview of the fundamentalist. Laughter is neither frivolous nor sinful. It's an intrinsic part of human nature, a healthy way of expressing merriment and joy, and an appropriate response to the ironies and absurdities that are inherent in the world. It is the natural alchemy that transforms sorrow into happiness. Our lives would be flat and empty without the rich emotional color it gives them.

But the Bible, like most religious dogmatists, treats laughter as an unworthy subject. It's not difficult to see why: in the cramped and rigidly proscribed world of fundamentalism, there is no room for irony, no room for taking either their own doctrines or the beliefs of others with any sort of light-heartedness. To laugh at something is to admit the existence of more than one way to view it, and that thought is anathema to the religious worldview that sees only in black and white. Of course, it's not just Christian fundamentalists who feel this way; Ezra Levant helpfully provides an example of the same sentiment from the Ayatollah Khomeini:

Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.

But we atheists can laugh. Not just at the follies and absurdities of religion, which are not in short supply, but at ourselves as well. The battles we face are serious, true, but as soon as we take them so seriously that we can no longer laugh, we have crossed the line from impassioned activism into dangerous self-righteousness.

November 10, 2008, 9:26 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink115 comments

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