Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why Atheists Laugh at the Bible, and Why They Shouldn't

Atheist bloggers love to laugh at the Bible, to point out all of its inconsistencies and logical errors. Writers like Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins love all of the horrible stuff in the Bible – the cruel God Yahweh of the Old Testament, the silly mistakes and the glaring inconsistencies of history and even errors of basic philosophy. When you're faced with a Biblical literalist who claims the Bible is 100% correct in every respect, it's hard not to laugh. I've even done it myself.

That's really sad, because in truth, the Bible is a fascinating book. Atheists have been forced to ridicule it because the Biblical literalists have an equally ridiculous position. And somewhere in the middle, the real Bible, a collection of fascinating stories, myths and lessons from thousands of years ago, is turned into a caricature of itself.

When atheists take this trivial view, more-or-less throwing stones for fun at an easy target, we miss something really important. We lose the story behind the Bible.

I recently got a new appreciation of the subtlety of the Bible from Bart Ehrman's excellent book, Jesus, Interrupted, which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in religion, atheist and theist alike. One of Ehrman's previous books, Misquoting Jesus, was a constant companion while I was writing The Religion Virus, and now Jesus, Interrupted has joined it in my library.

In Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman asks an amazing question. Virtually every seminary and Bible college in the world teaches the real story of the New Testament authors: who wrote it, when they wrote it and why they wrote it. Many of the New Testament chapters are known to be forgeries, not written by the purported author. Their depictions of Jesus and his philosophy are wildly different, ranging from a man of peace to a harsh judge. Different versions of seminal events such as the timeline of his betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection are impossible to reconcile. And even the most basic question, "What is required for salvation?" has two completely opposite answers depending on which chapter you read.

Ehrman's question is this: Why does every Christian minister in the United States know this, yet it's not taught in churches? Why do seminaries teach ministers the true history of the Bible, but ministers only teach the "devotional" version?

It's really quite sad. By doing so, they've turned the Bible into a caricature of itself, shallow and thin. It's an easy target for atheists because there's no substance to the caricature.

If the New Testament were taught properly as Ehrman suggests, it would be a much more powerful document. By accepting its flaws and blemishes, Christians could look at the real meaning behind each story. They would discover that its authors had strong feelings and strong faith. They would learn that there were tremendous differences of opinion in the centuries following Jesus' ministry. They would appreciate just how powerfully Jesus affected his followers.

By teaching the true story behind the New Testament, Christians would force atheists to address a much harder target, a real book written by real people about a man who was tremendously influential, and whose wisdom transcends time and geography. Instead of a trivial caricature of Jesus, atheists would have to face a real challenge.

If Christians really want to spread their faith, they should teach about the real New Testament, not some silly cartoon version of it.


  1. I must say I take issue with the way you have framed this point, as it leans toward suggesting that the 'easy target' approach is more universal than it truly is.

    I, and many others I know, rarely (if ever) take pot shots at the simple inconsistencies in The Bible. They're generally known by anyone worth engaging in a productive conversation on the subject and extremely unlikely to sway anyone convinced of the book's infallibility. There simply is no reason to mention them in most cases.

    I would argue that the main culprits of such simplistic arguments are young people who have recently become atheists via Christianity or otherwise reasonable people turning their guns on the fish in the barrel during a moment of intellectual sloth.

    The latter being quite forgivable - it *is* really hard not to laugh sometimes, and we've all definitely done it.

    That said, arguing the real man and the real book is not much more a hard target. Simple logical fallacy abounds even in the higher-level aspects of the philosophy. It would certainly be a far more interesting discussion, but not one that should intimidate.

  2. To add to what Kim already said, the major reason why they can't teach it as the real story is the second you allow the knowledge that forgeries exist in the Bible it calls the veracity of it being the word of God into question. It's already bad enough that Christians have to jump through the circular hoop of a written book being the only evidence for the God who supposedly wrote it, but admitting it's not the word of God is theological suicide.

    Heck, most of the religious people I know haven't even read the book end to end in proper order, they usually just pick and choose passages to "study". You know, the ones that reflect the morality they actually want instead of the morality that's actually in the Bible?

    Atheists end up fighting a caricature of Jesus and the Bible because that's what so many religious people actually believe.

  3. I wouldn't trust a dictionary if most of the info was wrong so why would I or anyone trust the
    bible? It's just a badly written history book and not worth much to thinking people.

  4. The same thing can be said of the Koran, too. Truly any devout theist can take their holy book and point out passages and paragraphs for the sake of their argument instead of using the whole of the book itself. What a said place the Western world has become, basing its faiths on Zoarastic religions. To understand faith, one must understand all faiths, not just the one they choose to live with and interpret for their own moral gain.
    It's amazing how many Eastern, Ancient, and Native American paths are completely forgotten when the big 3 Western faiths make all the headlines.

  5. It's an interesting point. But I think that if most people knew the truth behind the bible, it wouldn't even be a target. Because then the discussion wouldn't be about it's sopposed divine inspiration. It would be about the truth and not about the myth.

  6. Aspentroll -- you might be surprised at the historical accuracy of some parts of the Bible. Before you make blanket claims that it's a "badly written history," you might want to read Ehrman's book. The New Testament does have many inconsistencies, but underneath those there is a huge amount of accurate history about Jesus and about the history of Christianity over the first few centuries after his death.

    There is another excellent analysis book, The Bible Through the Eyes of its Authors by Frederick March that does a similar job with the Old Testament. March's book is more of an encyclopedia (and it's huge), but he does the same trick that Ehrman does: They both look at each event and compare all of the different biblical authors' takes on that event. They show us who each author was, what was going on politically when that author wrote, and why the author took a particular stance on a topic.

    Once you see the Bible from this point of view, a far more interesting picture emerges. The cartoon version that biblical literalists put forward does far more damage than good.

    One of the points that March makes is that the Old Testament's history is sharply divided into two periods. All of the history before about 800 BC is completely bogus – Noah, Abraham, Exodus and so forth probably never happened. But the history it gives from 800 BC up to the time of Jesus is amazingly accurate, and much of it has been confirmed in stunning detail by archeologists. When the Old-Testament authors were recording oral legends, it was just fiction, but when they were writing about their own times, they mostly got it right.

  7. How can you say "there is a huge amount of accurate history about Jesus" when there is no reliable evidence that Jesus ever existed?

  8. Bart Ehrman is an Evemerist

    The Evemerist Position:

    "Evemerism represents the perspective that many of the gods and goddesses of antiquity had been real people, such as kings, queens and other heroes and legendary figures, to whose biographies were later added extraordinary and/or supernatural attributes."


    The Mythicist Position:

    "Mythicism represents the perspective that many gods, goddesses and other heroes and legendary figures said to possess extraordinary and/or supernatural attributes are not "real people" but are in fact mythological characters. Along with this view comes the recognition that many of these figures personify or symbolize natural phenomena, such as the sun, moon, stars, planets, constellations, etc., constituting what is called "astrotheology." As a major example of the mythicist position, various biblical characters such as Adam and Eve, Satan, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, King David, Solomon & Jesus Christ, among other figures, in reality represent mythological characters along the same lines as the Egyptian, Sumerian, Phoenician, Indian, Greek, Roman and other godmen, who are all presently accepted as myths, rather than historical figures."

    The Mythicist Position | What is Mythicism?

  9. There's a big difference between criticizing the Bible based on it's story and criticizing it based on claims of it's factual truth. Is it a good story? Eh, I really see nothing particularly wonderful about it, reading it purely as literature, but I see it as no different than Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Twilight. Can I criticize all of them based on their content and/or the shortcoming of their storytelling? Absolutely. However, when I criticize it, it's almost always based on the way it's taken and the claims of the people who actually believe this nonsense is actually true. I'd do the same thing for anyone who thought Gandalf was real or who thought Hogwarts was real.

    Just as everyone else should.

  10. Indeed. For a series of writings form a slew of authors, mostly unknown, it would be very difficult to imagine that the delusion they were under regarding their god beliefs were espousing much real value, even in their own times.

    I have read the Ehrman books, and I have several of his lecture series DVD's. I like all of his material, and I find his approach to Biblical historical critical analysis to be refreshing. But I would not go so far as to consider The Bible anything more than mythology mixed with some history...a bit like the Greek gods...


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