Category Archives: Atheism
Ever since the publication of Christopher Hitchens book, The Missionary Position, I keep hearing from people who believe that Mother Teresa was twisted person who intentionally perpetuated poverty rather than relieving it because she believed things were better that way. I attended a discussion for an unrelated book last night in which one of the audience member commented that Teresa kept people poor because she thought it would help them get to heaven. The moderator pushed back at that idea, but it obviously had some currency with those present.
I’m not an expert on Teresa, and I haven’t gotten around to Hitchens’ book. So no answers here, but I do have this question. I wonder whether its the case that Mother Teresa’s admirers and detractors would all essentially agree on the facts of what she did, but interpret them in almost opposite ways. Could it be that she chose to focus on comforting the sick and dying rather than relieving poverty because that was her calling, her charism, and she needed to focus on bringing a personal touch to as many people as possible in Calcutta? Those who fell under the influence of her ministry certainly seemed grateful. Hitchens, whose vision goes no further than the material comforts of this life has no appreciation for a touch of grace to the dying because it doesn’t solve anything he can see. It has no tanglible results. But with every hug, every bath, every spoonful of soup brought to the lips of an invalid, Teresa was sowing grace amidst despair.
I’m not opposed to poverty relief efforts–quite the opposite! But I do recognize that there is more than one kind of good work in the world. I’d be cautious about criticizing someone for doing a kind of good work different than the one I prefer. There’s room for both.
And I’m definitely of the opinion that Teresa is just too tempting a target for my atheist friends. There’s a little too much glee in the criticisms. What a delight it is to show that the woman so admired around the world was a fraud! If the iconic holy woman of the modern age was really a pathological deviant, then there can’t be anything to that Christianity stuff after all, can there?
So recently, when I was still a christian, I decided to do a morning devotional bible study. I started as I usually did, with a short prayer asking god for guidance and wisdom through his word. That day I came across the story of jesus’ anointing at Bethany in john 12. This is the story of how Mary (sister of Martha) poured oil into jesus’ head during a meal, which was met by indignation by the disciples and a subsequent rebuke from jesus. But that’s strange, I thought. I had remembered it was some unknown, unnamed woman who poured the oil and got rebuked. I decided to do some research on the internet. This was the beginning of the end of my faith.
I found out that the anointing at Bethany is detailed three different times in the gospels: john 12, Matthew 26, and mark 14 (there is a similar account of anointing in luke 7 but it is different enough to be considered a separate incident). In Mark and Matthew, the name of the woman is not given. However, the stories in all three accounts are almost identical: the woman, supposedly Mary, approaches jesus and his disciples at a dinner table and pours an alabaster vial of expensive perfume of nard on him. The disciples, seeing this, say something to the effect of: “Why are you wasting this expensive perfume? It could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor.” And jesus rebukes the disciples, telling them to leave her alone, that she is preparing him for burial, that the poor would always be with them, but he wouldn’t, etc.
But this is the problem: the episode in John happens BEFORE jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, while in Matthew and Mark the anointing happens AFTER the triumphal entry. So there is no way it could have been the same event… yet the stories are so identical, that I found it IMPOSSIBLE to believe it happened twice, within the space of a few days!
My research led me to skeptical sites listing bible contradictions and absurdities, and I discovered the bible contained many other contradictions, some I had noticed before (and tried to ignore) and others that I had not. The death of Judas Iscariot is another example. Matthew 27 states that after Judas had betrayed jesus, he became remorseful, flung the 30 pieces of silver into the temple and hanged himself. Acts 1 says he bought a field with the silver, then somehow fell headfirst into it, and died when his guts spilled out after his stomach burst open. So the “Field of Blood” was purchased by the chief priests according to Matthew, and by Judas according to Acts. The cherry on top of this whole confusing contradictory episode is Matthew’s reference in 27:9 that Jeremiah is the prophet foretelling the whole 30 pieces of silver incident; the problem is, there is nothing about 30 pieces of silver anywhere in the book of Jeremiah!
There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other contradictions in the bible, such as the conflicting genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, the conflicting accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb, the conflicting accounts of how the disciples were first gathered, etc. (and I haven’t even gotten to the old testament). So basically, my deep investigation of the anointing story opened the floodgates to my skepticism and doubt of the bible, and my faith in the book began to crumble and did not stop. For quite a few days I was in distress, trying to find a way to reconcile all the errors. The entire worldview I had developed and lived for the last few years was breaking down! Eventually, I remember flinging the bible on my table, looking at it, and saying something like “You are full of errors. You are not reliable”. The next day I prayed my last real prayer, where I asked god, that if he was really there, to give me or show me an explanation of why his supposed book had so many contradictions and confusions, otherwise I could not keep on believing. I think the reader knows by now whether there was an answer to that prayer.
I understand now why fundamentalists always insist that the bible is inerrant. It is because once you concede that the bible has errors, it is a slippery slope. Who decides then what is an error, what is sound doctrine, and what is not? Biblical interpretation becomes very subjective, and christianity becomes a salad bar for each individual, who chooses what to take literally and what to take as metaphor depending on their own reasoning and sensibilities. Salad bar christianity is much of what I see today among christians, and partly why there are so many different christian denominations and schools of thought. John 16 says the holy spirit guides believers into all truth, and 1 Corinthians 14 says god is not the author of confusion, but these exhortations are false and ridiculous considering all the divisions and differing interpretations of scripture among christians both now and throughout church history. No book has created more confusion and conflict than the bible, because there is no holy spirit guiding anyone who reads it.
Now when I look back, I wonder how in the world I ever convinced myself that a serpent/devil deceived Eve and cursed the world, or that Noah took all the animals into his ark to save them from a flood that covered the entire earth, or that languages were uniform before the tower of Babel, etc. etc. I was so taken by Jesus and what I perceived to be his wise and other-worldly teachings, that I chose to ignore the other parts of the bible that probably deserve as much belief as Santa Claus. As a christian, when I would encounter unbelievable stories in the old testament or statements that seemed to contradict each other, I would often push it out of my mind, reassuring myself there must be an explanation, or that things were different in those days, etc. But now my faith no longer exists and I see the bible for what it really is. I still think that the bible is a remarkable piece of literature that has had an enormous impact in western history and thought, both for good and ill. But it is also no longer a book I can base my life on.
Suppose JohnK had been able to talk with a really good inerrancy apologist about the contradictions he was seeing in the Bible–could an excellent apologist have kept him in the inerrancy (and Christian) fold?
What if instead of insisting on inerrancy, someone had told John that the Bible doesn’t work quite like that?
What if he had been instructed that the Bible never intended to be 21st century style historiography?
What if he was told that the scriptures themselves were not his model, but that they, like the Holy Spirit, were designed to point the way to Jesus?
What if someone said that our faith isn’t in a book, it’s in the Christ, and the Bible is just one of our resources for knowing the Christ, along with orthodox church tradition, worship practices, and the faithful lives of the community of believers?
Would John’s experience have been different if he had been told from the start that we wouldn’t be able to make an historical timeline of Jesus’ ministry out of the gospel accounts?
Here’s a bright person, articulate and thoughtful, who lost his faith because he read the Bible. There are thousands more out there like him. Can the evangelical churches in America undergo the paradigm shift it will take to cultivate faith in people who currently leaving our churches because they’ve read the Bible carefully and it didn’t turn out to be what they had been told it was?
From the comments section of this article:
On the subject of Theism, I’m in 99.9% agreement with you. That is, I believe there’s insufficient evidence to support the existence of 1,000 different gods and religions. You believe there’s insufficient evidence to support the existence of 999.
Please accept my sincere best wishes that you manage to gain that last one-tenth of one percent understanding. I’ll cheerfully accept your best wishes (or call them prayers) that I receive evidence that would let me believe that your 1 of 1000 gods proves true, however unlikely I think that may be. (commenter Malis)
Remember, if you cling to a particular religious belief, you are by definition atheistic to all the other myriad religions in the world… and thus, you have that in common with me. I simply deny one more religion: yours. (commenter Spinoza)
This argument is clearly working for the atheists–I encounter it about every seven and a half minutes these days. I suspect Dawkins is the one who popularized it, although I think I’ve seen ancient versions of it. It’s pretty clever, in that it gives every conceivable religion equal standing (so Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism are given the same status and likelihood as a cargo cult or the Hale-Bopp UFO cult), and thus argues “You have good reasons for believing that the 999 other religions are bunk, and therefore you already understand why I think yours is, too. You are almost an atheist, you just have one more illusion to break.”
Nine hundred ninety nine is probably an inflated number, although I won’t pretend I know exact what the actual number of religious systems in the world is, and I don’t think you could really quanitify that very easily. It obviously works in the atheists’ favor to say “you think 99.9 % of possible religions are wrong,” rather than “you think that only the two billion people who are Christians have it right.” Of course, Christianity has much greater standing than the Hale-Bopp suicide cult, and to take a religion espoused by one third of the world and treat it as just one option among 1000 isn’t really being honest with the situation as it stands.
And, of course, Christians don’t think that all other religions are purely bunk. We can affirm that we agree almost completely with Judaism. We can affirm all that Judaism does, but in additionwe affirm that Yahweh was seen on earth in the form of his incarnate son. We can affirm a great deal of Islam as well. For a great many faiths we say “yes, yes, yes, and yes” to significant doctrines, mixed in with our “but no, not that” to other propositions. Atheists see all religious people as completely deluded, but Christians see all religious people as partially correct, and sometimes mostly so.
I simply reject this kind of black and white thinking that wants to divide the world into “completely wrong” or “completely right.” There are a lot of” mostly wrong”, “very mixed”, and “mostly right” systems out there. To say that I oppose 99% of the world when I affirm Christianity is badly in error. I affirm the third of the world who are my co-religionists and partially affirm a great many more besides that. It is much more honest to say that the atheist disagrees with me and the other 90% of humanity who believes there is some sort of God.
As C.S. Lewis wrote: “And it should (at least in my judgment) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected.”
Picking up where we left off before–
Sam Harris wants to tie his interlocutors to a specific dichotomy about the Bible. It’s either the inerrant word of God or a purely mortal product. Because he knows his fundamentalist target audience already believes that, he doesn’t bother to make the case for accepting that dichotomy, nor does he bother to tell us why we should reject other views of the Bible between the extremes. But there certainly are viable views in between the extremes that still allow for the scriptures to be authoritative for our faith without the need for an over-rigid theory of inspiration.
For what it’s worth, here’s where I am when it comes to issues of Biblical inspiration and authority:
1) No one wrote a history before someone wrote a history. Okay, that’s tautological, I know. But the point is that genre is important, especially regarding the Old Testament. It is generally acknowledged that the first person who set out to write a history in anything close to the modern sense was Herodotus in 5th century B.C. Greece. That was the beginning of a new discipline that sought to record events in a way that faithfully represented the accounts of those who were there. Before Herodotus, there weren’t distinct histories, just epic stories that combined parts of what we would now label history, legend and myth. If a superior intelligence wanted to communicate in written form to the tribal peoples of the ancient near East, he would be unlikely to choose to do so through history, a genre that was completely unfamiliar to them. (It is so familiar to us that this is hard to imagine–we just have to do our best to get into the mindset of a 13th century Hebrew slave.) If you compare the early sections of Genesis to other ANE creation accounts like Atrahasis or the epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll see some pretty marked similarities. Skeptics consider that evidence against the Bible, but it’s only reasonable that God would communicate in a cultural form that was already familiar to the Hebrew people. Giving them a history would have been a huge misservice when they only knew how to interpret cultural myth. And here I mean myth as a literary form, not implying falsity, but noting that exacting historicity was not the point.
Is it possible to communicate theological truth through ahistorical stories? Would God do such a thing? Well, sure he would, and if you’re a Christian, you think so too. Because we believe that Jesus was God and Jesus communicated through parables–one of the most culturally relevant genres of first century Palestine. If Jesus chose stories about vineyard workers and banquets to communicate genuine truth about God and the kingdom, why couldn’t the Father have chosen ANE style epic form to communicate essential truths about himself and the world he created?
The Bible communicates through a tremendous variety of genres: songs, proverbs, letters, parables, apocalypses, law codes, gospels, prophecies, dramatic monologues, genealogies, and, yes, histories. But there is no compelling reason to assign the label “history” to many early sections of the Bible, and I suspect that we only do so because of the weight of tradition and our own cultural familiarity with the genre. When Genesis is laid alongside other contemporaneous literature, it’s clear that epic myth is a much better fit for genre.
And that doesn’t make Genesis less inspired or less authoritative, any more that understanding that there wasn’t a historical good Samaritan or prodigal son make those stories less authoritative. (You do think that those are preachable, right? And they tell us something about God, right?) But it does mean that arguing about whether the days of creation were 24-hour days or eons, or whether the flood was world-wide or local, ultimately is about like arguing over what color the good Samaritan’s donkey was. It’s not the point of the story.
I think it’s important to say that I didn’t come to this view of Genesis because I wanted to disregard it in any sense–and I don’t. I came to this view because my evangelical Bible teachers taught me that to interpret a passage well, I had to understand its genre. To me, the most conservative approach I can take is to assume that the Bible was written in the genres appropriate to its era(s), and not impose on the scriptures the forms and preferences of my own era. To force the early Biblical passages into the genres I know and like regardless of the original cultural context is not a conservative move–far from it. God communicated clearly within the constraints of the literary forms that were available to his readers. He could not have done otherwise and expected them to understand.
Next up, assumption #2: Some Things That Seem Important to Me Don’t Matter to the Biblical Writers
I wrote before that “there’s a pretty thin line between Fundamentalism and Atheism,” and “It is the Fundamentalist position that there are only two coherent worldviews: Fundamentalism or Atheism.” What I should have mentioned is that most atheists I interact with think that the only legitimate form of Christianity is Fundamentalism, and they continually read the Bible just like fundamentalists, do, only without faith. Granted, that’s a big difference, but it’s important to note that the reading strategies are identical. Atheists and fundies agree that the presence of contradictions or historical inaccuracies in the text would disqualify the Bible from functioning as divine scripture, which is why one side tirelessly compiles lists of Biblical errors and the other side tirelessly seeks to reconcile them all. The reason that game goes on and on, unendingly, is that they are working from the same Enlightenment rules. And it’s a pretty dumb game for Christians to play, since the rules stipulate that the other side only has to score one point to win the game. If we don’t plausibly explain away every single alleged contradiction, we lose. And you already know that I don’t think we can do that.
Or take the opening paragraph of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation:
You believe that the Bible is the word of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God, and that only those who place their faith in Jesus will find salvation after death. As a Christian, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true. Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong. The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t. Either Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation (John 14:6), or he does not. We agree that to be a true Christian is to believe that all other faiths are mistaken, and profoundly so….
As a work of propaganda this is marvelous, and surely effective. All Harris is doing is pointing out that he and the fundamentalists he is addressing share an identical black and white worldview. He doesn’t have to persuade them to play by his rules–they are already on board. All he has to do is play the game better than they do. Actually, he doesn’t even have to do that, since they’ve implicitly agreed to the “if I score one point against you, you automatically lose” rule.
The really clever thing he does comes soon after, on page 5.
Here, we need only observe that the issue is both simpler and more urgent than liberals and moderates generally admit. Either the Bible is just an ordinary book, written by mortals, or it isn’t. Either Christ was divine, or he was not….At least half the American population understands this.
This follows up on something he writes on page ix, in the introductory “Note to the Reader”:
In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms. Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” I address. (emphasis mine)
Brilliant! He not-very-subtly flatters his intended audience by declaring that fundamentalist/conservative evangelical Christianity is the most committed form of the faith. He knows that if he can convince his readers that all the really serious Christians are inerrantists, his work is almost done. He’s narrowed the field down to two options, one of which he’s pretty sure he can obliterate, even while he’s smiling and speaking softly the whole time.
Needless to say, Pope Benedict XVI might not be so quick to agree that the most committed Christians are fundies. Or the Metropolitan Christodoulos of the Greek Orthodox Church. Or the Episcopal priests I know who are doing poverty assistance in struggling urban neighborhoods. Or the pastor at the Disciples of Christ church down the road who is active in homeless assistance. Harris wants to measure commitment not by “perseverance in following the example of Jesus” (which seems like a reasonable definition to me), but by “adherence to a literalist reading of the scriptures.” There’s no necessary link between the two, and if you were to tell most of the early church fathers that the only really dedicated Christians were strict literalists you’d have to wait for them to stop laughing before they could give you a cogent response. In fact, the whole historical-grammatical interpretive paradigm only develops in the most recent four or five hundred years of Christian history, and really became prominent in the last three hundred. That might seem like a long time, but for most of Christian history, the brand of Christian identity that Harris considers “the most committed form” didn’t even exist.
Lunch break is over…I’ll continue this line of thinking later.
And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”