Not long after the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado the religious community started generating miracle stories bizarrely “proving” God’s providential hand at work in the tragedy. One young woman who was struck in the head will make a full recovery because the bullet fragment lodged just millimeters away from vital areas of the brain without damaging them. Her pastor expressed his amazement that twenty-two years ago when this woman was born God had perfectly designed the structure of her brain knowing the bullet would hit it.
But what about all the dead and maimed? Was God asleep at the wheel when he designed their bodies? How can people so blithely claim divine favor in an event where many others were not so fortunate? This sentiment is deeply engrained in Christian piety. We hear it all the time. Just this week in three different conversations I heard people utter the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I”–which, when you think about it, basically means “God must like me better than that other poor slob with all his/her problems.” Really, there is no other way to take this phrase.
Of course a big part of the search for signs of God’s providence is a desperate need to find some kind of meaning in a world that often seems meaningless. Homo Sapiens is a meaning-seeking machine. Clearly the need to find meaning is so overwhelming that we will settle for almost any explanation even when the explanation doesn’t make any sense at all.
Christians who have a very high view of God’s sovereignty, such as the Neo-Calvinist guru John Piper, even claim that every single death is ordained by God, no matter how the death happens.
“Children of the Heavenly Father” is a very popular hymn in some traditions. People like it for its catchy, singable tune and for it’s reassuring message of God’s love and protection. Over the years, however, the song started to really irk me as I became more and more aware of the lyric’s sinister implications. Here’s the second verse: “God his own doth tend and nourish, In his holy courts they flourish./ From all evil things he spares them. In his mighty arms he bears them.”
“From all evil things he spares them?” OK, that is just manifestly not true. 146 people drowned when an overcrowded ferry capsized in Tanzania last week.
No matter how desperately we may want to believe that the stars are aligned in our favor and God smiles down from heaven on upon us, the reality is, of course, that the universe is indifferent to human suffering. To think otherwise is dangerous.
I think Ingersoll once said something like this: “Only human hands can solve human problems.” The gods aren’t likely to step in and save the day. They certainly haven’t yet. The love we need can only come from other people. It’s up to us.
Some of my friends have been surprised to find out that I’m still reading the Bible. They thought I would be totally done with it after I left religion behind. Actually, I now enjoy reading the Bible more than I ever did as a Christian since I no longer have to defend it. Without the baggage of faith, it’s possible to appreciate the book with a little more objectivity.
Yes, I realize a lot of freethinkers are really put-off by anything having to do with the Bible, and I completely understand that. The book has been a source of much human suffering, and it has often served as a brake on the social evolution of our species. But just because we may reject the metaphysical and magical claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t worth reading. Here are a few reasons to pick it up.
- Knowing some basics about the Bible will make your critique of religion more credible and might enable you to better engage theists in conversation about what they believe and why they believe it. Heck, you’ll probably be able to point out a few things they didn’t know.
- Whether we like it or not, the reality is that biblical allusions and imagery pervade the music, art, and literature of Western civilization. If you don’t know the Bible, you’ll miss a lot.
- The Bible contains a lot of good literature. The cycle of stories in the David narrative are gripping portrayals of the complexities of human nature. I’d be willing to bet they provided at least some inspiration for “The Godfather.” Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is sublime and is also, ironically, entirely non-theistic. (Literary critic and non-theist Harold Bloom counts Paul as one of the one hundred “exemplary creative” literary geniuses of the Western world. Yeah, I know Paul often sounds like a jerk, but it is possible to be a jerk and a genius at the same time. )
- Knowing something about the Bible is often helpful when trying to complete The New York Times crossword puzzle.
Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way suggesting that the Bible has any special authority or any wisdom about life that can’t be found elsewhere. In fact I am totally confused by theists who claim to find some coherent set of “biblical values.” I spent twenty years trying to find coherence in the book. None exists.
But sometimes it’s a heck of a good read. And the portions of the Bible that actually are good literature present us with compelling and nuanced descriptions of human condition. And so I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the Bible any more than I’d want to live in a world without The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost.
A few months ago when I had the chance to appear on MSNBC’s “Up W/ Chris Hayes” author Robert Wright asked me if I felt a sense of urgency about recruiting others to the free-thought position. Or is it enough be satisfied with one’s own skepticism and adopt a “live and let live” attitude toward belief? Is it rude and intolerant to challenge the beliefs of others? I didn’t have a great answer at the time he posed the question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since.
From time to time I’ve heard this position expressed: “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you don’t impose your religion on me.” Personally I sometimes resonate with that attitude. Tolerance is often in short supply in our world. It sounds nice to say that belief is purely a private matter, but I’m not sure that is even true. Every single day the news brings us examples of how belief negatively impacts our world. Here are just a few examples:
- Surveys consistently show that people of faith are far more likely to deny the reality of global warming and its anthropogenesis. There is often a connection between religiosity and a hostility to science.
- In my home state of Texas, the religious views of the state Board of Education force publishers to alter the content of textbooks, which are then sold throughout the rest of the country.
- A few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention vigorously reconfirmed their position that gay rights are not civil rights. On so many issues of social justice theology has acted as a brake on progress.
- Still every day around the the world people kill other people over theologies, beliefs, myths and other unprovable ideas. A super-intelligent alien race studying humanity would surely conclude that we are an insane species.
And of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. I often wonder if belief impacts just about everything in our society. For instance, does belief in a punishing God contribute to a generally pervasive punitive approach to life, as exemplified in our draconian “war on drugs?”
So, I guess I’m leaning toward the position that there is no such thing as benign belief. It ultimately disables critical reasoning.
On the other hand, I also think that skeptics and freethinkers can at times shut down conversation as well. The best way forward would be through conversation not confrontation, to be challenging but also charitable.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Geckos abound in these parts during the summer. It’s a wonder to observe their ability to walk on virtually any type of surface. Until recently it was one of the mysteries of nature. We didn’t have a very good idea of how they climb like Spiderman. The science section in Tuesday’s edition of The Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihao Hu, who has figured out how it works. Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with any surface. Amazing. The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder. It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.
Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith” A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity– God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.” One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.” Theologians even write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the ” immanent Trinity” (or “ontological Trinity.”) The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all. None of this means anything. While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something real we observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any observation or empirical evidence of any kind whatsoever. You can’t watch the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw. There’s nothing to go on.
Religion misuses the term mystery. You just can’t make stuff up and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery. In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “real presence” of Christ in bread and wine, and then feel like they are sub-standard believers because they can’t fathom the theologians’ supposedly profound insights. It’s nuts.
Leaving the crazy metaphysics behind doesn’t make the world any less wondrous. Quite the contrary. Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could possibly dream up.
Let me close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Dan Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell,” where he talks about developing an “awestruck vision of the world.”
“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both it’s glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” (p.303)
Question from a reader: “Surely people have doubted their religions for centuries, yet all of the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Perhaps it is our more recent understanding of science that has helped fuel the growth of religious dissent. How is it that we can still have so many people DEEPLY devoted to religion in the face of all we know?
Well, the short answer to the last question is that old habits die hard. And religion is a very old habit–a habit which evolved tens of thousands of years ago while the human brain was still developing. The human brain tends to naturally believe in gods because in our prehistoric past belief in the tribal myths conferred various survival advantages.
On one level, humans have a natural tendency to over-infer agency; we are predisposed to see threats to our existence everywhere. We tend to assume the worst–that the stick shaped like a snake is, in fact, a snake. A noise in the underbrush could be a predator. Natural selection of course would favor individuals who successfully avoided predators. And that’s a big reason why humans today still see agency everywhere, even where it’s not. The old Christian hymn “This is My Father’s World” expresses this primitive impulse: “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”
Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes also discovered that devotion to the gods was an effective tool for tribal cohesion. The threats and rewards of religion motivated people to sacrifice and even die for the tribe. In the prehistoric world of almost constant inter-tribal conflict, the tribe with the strongest religion would survive and the genetic algorithm for religiosity would proliferate. It’s a little bit of an over-simplification, but not much.
So why do people still believe? Because belief is in our DNA. Science, however, having emerged long after the human brain evolved does not come naturally to us.
In your question you said that all the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Actually that seems to be changing fairly quickly. In the parts of the world with access to better education, religion is stagnating or declining. There are very few believing Christians left in Western Europe. Religious Buddhism (as opposed to the non-theistic philosophy) hit a wall in Japan a long time ago. And this week the Southern Baptist Convention reported a loss of members for the fifth year in a row, which is astonishing for this powerhouse evangelical denomination. I think it’s a pretty clear indication of where the culture is going.
Virtually everybody who attends a mainline seminary learns facts about the Bible that will rarely, if ever, be shared with the typical congregation. Ministers are generally reluctant to talk about how the Bible was largely shaped by geopolitical facts on the ground. Perhaps the lack of discussion about problems with the Bible is an example of the attitude expressed in that famous line from the film “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nicholson’s character shouts, “You can’t handle the truth.”
When I was working in churches, I too, never really shared what I had learned about the Bible. Here are just a few examples of some difficult realities that believers should probably know about:
- There is basically no archaeological evidence at all to show that the Exodus event ever happened. Most of the evidence actually suggests that the Israelites were Canaanites all along. All those marvelous images we have from the movie “The Ten Commandments”?–forget about them. It’s all fiction. And there was no conquest of the land as depicted in Joshua and Judges. These stories are most likely national creation myths written down in the late 7th century BCE, to support King Josiah’s plan for national unification and expansion.
- There is also no evidence that either David or Solomon ruled over a great kingdom. If David did exist, he was probably a minor tribal chieftain and not a commander of vast armies. The temple of King Solomon was supposed to have been one of the grandest edifices in the ancient world, yet none of its remnants have ever been found–and not for lack of trying.
- Jesus, as depicted in the gospels, gets more than a few things wrong, and that’s problematic if he’s supposed to be fully divine. He was an intensely apocalyptic preacher who clearly expected the end-times to happen very soon. See, especially, the thirteenth chapter of Mark, where Jesus predicts the darkening of the sun and the moon, the stars falling from the sky and the “Son of Man” coming in glory within the lifetime of those hearing his words. Obviously, the prediction did not come true.
- Paul’s letters predate the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life by many years. Yet Paul does not reference the teachings or miracles of Jesus. When Paul talks about Jesus’ resurrection he does not mention a bodily resurrection, an empty tomb, or many of the other details we associate with the Easter story.
Well, this is just the beginning of the problems to grapple with. And none of the items mentioned above are some kind of fringe position. This is all part of mainstream biblical scholarship. But it’s not widely known or discussed in churches.
I only have a vague notion of who reads this blog. But I would be interested to know a couple things: If you are a believer, how do you deal with the numerous historical and archaeological problems in the Bible? And if they don’t impact your faith, why is that? If you are a freethinker, do you ever engage your believing friends on these issues? If so, what do they say?
Thanks for reading.
Since President Obama’s public announcement of his support for same-sex marriage last week, the response from the right has shown us yet again that the Bible continues to drag our society down. In several stories on radio and television I’ve heard people angrily denouncing the President’s stance saying, “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong!”
That’s it? That’s all you got? “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong.” Is it really that hard to think with a just a little more nuance? And how can we even begin to have a conversation with a mentality like that?
From time to time I have encountered conciliatory progressives who urge patience and moderation when dealing with the fragile psyches of the Bible believers who wish to impose their worldview on everybody else. After all, they will say, religion has a valuable role to play. As an inherently conservative institution, religion acts as a necessary brake or a corrective on those who would change society too quickly. I’ve heard that argument more than a few times. Change is good but it has to be gradual.
Why does all social change have to be gradual? I don’t get it. Who would possibly get hurt if same-sex marriage were suddenly legalized all over the country tomorrow?
The influence of the Bible was a huge reason slavery lasted until the 1860’s in this country. (Actually slavery persisted under the form of sharecropping well into the 1960s.) Why did the Land of the Free tolerate human bondage for so long? Partly because the Bible says slavery is OK. I’d be willing to bet the slaves wished that social change had been a little less gradual in their case.
On issue after issue–slavery, women’s rights, reproductive rights, Prohibition–the legacy of the Bible in American public life has largely been a story of oppression and social regression. The role of the Bible in American life is analogous to the role of the Koran in the Arab world. Any difference between the two situations is merely a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.
(Actually, I’m not saying that the Bible is totally worthless. In a post-Christian, secular society there are actually still good reasons to read the Bible, which I’ll get to in another post. )