Thursday, December 20, 2012

Riddle Me This, Believers of the World

I find religion absolutely fascinating. I was raised in a very Christian family, attended church regularly, believed all the things I was supposed to believe, et cetera, for upwards of two decades. I no longer believe any of these things, and my journey away from theism has been a very gradual and very rewarding one. Although I couldn’t possibly point to one event, or one revelation which changed my mind or turned me away from all of the nonsense which I was fed from birth, I can share the difficulties with the Christian faith in particular that made me stop and evaluate, and ultimately reject, “God’s Truth.” The following is a short list of very important problems with the Bible, which I think all believers should consider, and if they still want to believe, come up with explanations for. I must also give credit to the most prominent thinkers on this subject at the moment, namely Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, as much of what is expressed below has come about at least partially through their influences. So, in no particular order:


The issue of slavery in the Bible is a very troubling one. Slavery was a reality of the culture in which the book was written, and so there are many passages in both the Old and New Testaments that refer to it. Prudently or not, verses of the Bible were even used as justification (while, it must be said, other verses were used as condemnation) of slavery in America during the tumultuous abolition/Civil War/13th amendment period.

I’ve encountered a paucity of even-handed analyses of this issue in my rummaging; as is generally the case in matters of religion, most analysis on this topic either comes from Atheist or Christian Apologist sources, each with a clear agenda. I’ve read arguments on both sides and also consulted the appropriate passages in the Bible to see what the reality is, as best as I can discern it. I’ll start with the Apologist position, the assertion that the Bible does not support or condone slavery.

One important distinction should be made at the onset – the slavery of the Biblical world differed significantly from what we experienced in early American history. The idea of going to a foreign land and basically kidnapping strangers and enslaving them is in fact condemned in the Bible (Exodus 21:16). I believe this is the strongest point that the Apologist can make; it is not, unfortunately, a condemnation of the practice of slavery in every form. From there the Apologist can only point to passages in which masters are ordered to treat their slaves kindly. Slaves are permitted, for example, to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12); Hebrew slaves are to be manumitted after six years (just the males though, sorry ladies!); a slave who escapes his master must not be returned to him (Deut. 23:15). From there things get a little less persuasive: a slave must be set free if the master hits the slave and causes blindness or knocks out a tooth (Exodus 21:26), and if a master beats a slave so severely that he or she dies, the master must be punished (Exodus 21:20).

Apologists also point to passages which instruct masters to be kind and just to their slaves, but for hardly the right reasons: “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1) Ephesians 6:9 and Galatians 3:28 express sentiments similar to this one. Remember, masters, you’re actually a slave too! To Christ! Perhaps the most disturbing passage I’ve read about slavery comes from the New Testament, which I’ll just quote in its entirety:

“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.” (1 Timothy 6:1-2) 

That’s right, Christian slaves – be the best damned slaves you can be, because we don’t want Christianity to look bad. This passage also makes it quite clear that it was perfectly acceptable for Christian masters to have Christian slaves.
Although these Apologist defenses of the Bible end up reading more like indictments, there are other passages which are even more troubling. Ephesians 6:5 commands slaves to obey and fear their masters just as they should obey and fear Christ. Leviticus 25:44 permits the buying of foreign slaves, including children: “treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.” Don’t do this with the people of Israel though, that’s a no-no.  The continuation of the Exodus 21:20 verse I referenced above goes on to say that a master should not be punished after beating his slave with a rod as long as the slave “survives for a day or two,” because “the slave is his own property.”

While I do believe that it is very important to understand the reality of the practice of slavery in the Biblical world and how it differs from what most Americans envision, the reality is this: the Bible simply does not categorically condemn the practice of slavery, as our common, shared morality dictates that it should. “Thou shalt not enslave other human beings or consider them as property” does not appear in the Ten Commandments, or anywhere else in the Old or New Testament. It’s not good enough that the Bible makes some concessions, some rules about how to treat slaves and penalties for their mistreatment. In order to have any sort of moral authority, this book should clearly condemn the practice of human beings owning other human beings as property, and at no point does it even come close to doing that. This should give Christians serious pause. (I should also mention that this same point could be made about the treatment of women simply by referencing different verses. I have decided not to elaborate this as its own point only because it would read very much like this one. Suffice it to say that I personally find it incredible how any woman willingly subscribes to any of the Abrahamic religions unless out of sheer ignorance of their prejudices.)

There is, of course, a perfectly viable and plausible explanation for such an egregious omission. When one posits that the Bible is the word of man and not the word of God, this makes perfect sense. Slavery was a necessary and vital part of culture in the Biblical world. Just as some American politicians were hesitant to ban slavery because they did not know what the outcome would be when millions of people were suddenly set free, nor would the human authors of the Bible have put a prohibition on something so interwoven into their culture. This explanation is parsimonious and reasonable; I find any explanation from the Bible-is –Word-of-God camp to be inadequate on this point.

97,000 Years of Heavenly Indifference

This criticism of Christian belief is wholly borrowed from the late Christopher Hitchens, who has explained it eloquently at many different times. Here is a video of him presenting this argument:

To summarize it, the argument goes something like this: hominids, i.e. creatures that for all appearances are recognizable and biologically classified as human beings, have existed on Earth for at least 100,000 years. There is an irrefutable mountain of empirical evidence to prove this point, and it is generally accepted by the vast majority of scientists and a steadily growing number of theologians. The Christian must then believe the following:  for at least 97,000 years, God in heaven sat idly, watching the development of hominids with complete indifference. This was a time of immense suffering for the species: life expectancy would have been very short, infant deaths very high, disease and famine quite rampant, danger of rival tribes attacking and stealing food constant, natural phenomena like droughts, floods, and storms without obvious cause. This persists with celestial apathy until one point when God decides that enough is enough and finally intervenes. He chooses a remote desert area occupied by people who are fairly barbaric and uncultured and eventually makes His presence known and lays down His laws.

It is the responsibility of the Christian to explain 97,000+ years of ignored human misery, as our knowledge of the history of our species makes it clear that our ancestors suffered a great deal and without any discernible heavenly help. Again, the parsimonious explanation of the complete lack of any Biblical reference to this very troubling reality is that the people who wrote the Bible simply did not know anything about evolutionary biology, and so of course there is no way that there could be any reference to this extremely long lapse of astral assistance. This leads nicely into a much broader problem with the Bible, namely…

There is No Evidence of Divine Insight in the Bible

If the Bible is the word of almighty, infallible, omniscient God, who created all that there is and knows all that has ever been and will be, then it would be reasonable, I think, to expect there to be some fairly astounding, profound revelations within its pages, the sorts of things that no mortal could ever know or predict or elucidate. There is no such information in the Bible, as far as I can discern. In fact, there are many claims in the Bible about the natural world that are ostensibly false and simply the product of profound ignorance about the history and physical laws of the universe.

Criticisms of the Bible about its accuracy regarding matters of history, science, archaeology, ethics, and even internal continuity are numerous and have a very long tradition. Many religious people will dismiss these criticisms by stating that the stories are meant to be interpreted as allegorical rather than literal, and so there’s really no problem here. That’s fine. Just as in the slavery issue, my concern is not what the Bible does say, but rather what it does not say.

The Bible does not issue any sort of accurate, specific prophetic warning about any of the various calamities, whether acts of nature or man, which have befallen mankind and killed countless inhabitants of God’s Earth. It contains no useful information about medicine, such as how to treat, cure, or prevent the spread of infectious disease. Even if you assert that it was not the purpose of the Bible to provide the Israelites with practical scientific, mathematical, or medicinal knowledge about the world, but instead a code of ethics and morality, there is still nothing Earth-shatteringly original, unique, or sublime. It’s certainly not the case that nobody had ever previously voiced the opinion that murder and lying are bad, nor was Jesus the first person to offer the do unto others suggestion. In short, there is nothing in the Bible that could not have been written by nearly any literate person living in that time period. If it really is the Word of God, he certainly has some very strange and not particularly helpful things to say.

What If the Bible had Been Lost and Was Discovered Today?

I don’t particularly like to deal with hypotheticals, but I do think that this one is too intriguing to cast aside. What if, for example, Constantine hadn’t adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, or some other such machination had occurred, such that Christianity was not preserved to the present day? Instead, posit that we live in a society where some other religion is dominant, or perhaps no faith system at all has a strong foothold. Then a discovery occurs like that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where many very old manuscripts are dug up and translated. What is the chance that the discovery of the Gospels, or even an entire codex of the Bible, would lead to people adopting Christianity en masse?

The heart of the question can be expressed more concretely, as we could envision an effectively similar situation in which people in other parts of the world are introduced to the doctrines of Christianity by missionaries. Christians will note that many people in such places in the world have become Christians by discovering it in this way, not by being raised in a society that already believes. This is not exactly the spirit of the hypothetical; it has already been demonstrated that poor, ill people in desperate need of aid will believe in God if you have a Bible in one hand and some food or clean water in the other. Rather, would newly-discovered Christianity be able to take hold today, in a modern society with a solid understanding of the natural world? I think the intellectually honest answer is no, it would not (and if you’re not inclined to believe that, Christianity is declining inthe civilized world and growing in developing countries); it would simply (and rightly) be lauded as an important discovery about the ancient world and placed on the shelf with other ancient works of mythology. If we wouldn’t find it credible in this scenario, why should we in any other?

The Incompatibility of Other Religions

At the moment, there are something like 2.2 billion Christians in the world, roughly one third of the world’s population. Right behind them are 1.6 billion Muslims, nearly another third. These two religions, espoused by over 60% of all people, both claim eternal post-mortem bliss for followers and eternal damnation for deniers. Although there are many different flavors of Christianity, they are all united with the fundamental dogmatic belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. Those who do not believe this will spend eternity in Hell. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet of Allah, but they reject outright the idea that he is God, or a savior of any kind. Muslims also view the Christian idea of the Trinity as a kind of polytheism and condemn them as well.

Both Christianity and Islam claim divine inspiration and the infallibility of their holy books, and each one is incompatible with the other. This leaves us with the following three possible permutations:

1) Christianity is the true faith, and everyone else will spend eternity in Hell.
2) Islam is the true faith, and everyone else will spend eternity in Hell.
3) Neither one of them is true, and perhaps there is no Heaven or Hell.

I say that these are the only three outcomes because the last one basically encompasses all other possible eventualities. Even if we were somehow objectively certain that one of them got it right, this would still be at best a 50-50 shot for the majority of the world’s population. Based on the evidence that each faith presents to defend its claims of knowing what happens after we die, I would personally quantify the possible veracity of each permutation in the following way:

Christians got it right: 0.01%
Muslims got it right: 0.01%
They’ve both got it wrong: 99.98%

Of course these figures are assigned more-or-less arbitrarily. In fact, I don’t actually grant any measure of probability to these ancient mythologies and their outrageous claims. Believers often criticize reasonable people for being arrogant in their veneration of science and dismissal of theism. A scientist will admit that he simply does not know what happens after death, because there is no credible, testable evidence by which to make that determination. Christians and Muslims will profess quite confidently to know exactly what happens, despite the fact that they cannot offer any proof (in any practical sense of the word), and in fact they would dismiss any sort of proof that contradicted their views. One of those positions seems much more arrogant than the other, indeed.

So, What To Believe?

As I’ve said, I find these issues to be quite troubling, and I suspect that I would find any attempt to explain them away as a desperate effort to cling to one’s dear faith. With each passing day, the Bible is revealed more and more clearly to be exactly what it is: a man-made hodgepodge of Iron Age mythology. I do not advocate that people run screaming from theism, but rather that people march calmly towards the truth. Consider very carefully all that you believe, and why you believe it. If your beliefs are based on bad evidence, or no evidence, there is a very low probability that what you believe is true. I believe that we all have a responsibility to be intellectually honest people, and that means constantly examining our view of the world and allowing the possibility of changing that view in light of better information. A worldview which does not allow for criticism or for change is not compatible with a modern, civilized society.