Tag Archives: Atheism

Playing With the Numbers

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.”

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Politics and Culture

Why Does This Matter?

I’ll get back to a specific discussion of Genesis and Jonah before long, but let me zoom out for a minute and look at the big picture.  What’s the point of discussing the minutiae of details about historicity in Biblical texts?  Here’s why I think it’s important:

1)      Biblical inerrancy/literalism is an unnecessary barrier to faith. I started down this line of thought by noting that Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, an atheist polemic, wants to limit his readers’ option to atheism or fundamentalism.  At that point, all he has to do to lead them out of faith is create sufficient doubt about Biblical inerrancy—which, in my opinion, is devastatingly easy to do.  I don’t think it’s either gracious or smart to tell people who have noticed tensions in the Biblical text that they can’t be real Christians unless they cling to the doctrine of inerrancy.  That strategy is creating more new atheists than new evangelicals.  Same thing goes for literalism (a closely related proposition).  Tell a young person who is gifted at science that he or she must be a creationist (or worse, a young-Earth-creationist) in order to be a Christian, and chances are that person is walking away from faith forever.  Because we made something other than submission to the Lordship of Jesus a requirement for entrance.

2)      These texts are read better when assigned to the correct genre. Take the creation accounts for example.  A lot of ink is spilled trying to defend the proposition that Genesis is an accurate telling of the origins of the world, and I still see people claiming that what Genesis teaches is in harmony with modern scientific understandings.  That doesn’t hold up, to put it mildly.  I don’t think you are going to find a reputable astronomer who seriously believes that the very first thing to appear in the entire universe was the planet Earth.  But that’s the picture in Genesis.  No stars until day four, just Earth, floating alone in the void of space.  Scratch that—the Biblical picture is that Earth is immovably built atop the foundations that God laid (Job 38:4, Psalm 18:15, 82:5, 103:25, 105:5, and other texts).  I have yet to have a young-earth creationist give me a satisfying answer as to why Genesis 1 is literal history, but the many references to God laying the foundations of the immovable earth are not.

So, back to the point: one thing I hope we all can agree on, regardless of our view of the scriptures, is that there was no such thing as a secular evolutionist when Genesis 1 was written.  And yet a lot of the same people who teach the basic interpretive principle that “the text means what it meant to the original readers” completely throw that out the window when it comes to Genesis, and turn it into an anti-evolutionist polemic—one of the things it couldn’t possibly have intended to be.  Some very devout Christians have been reading this text for decades without ever asking the basic questions, “but what did this mean way back then?  What did the first audience think was important about Genesis 1?  How did it challenge existing ideologies?”  We have a hard time getting to those questions because the theory of Biblical inerrancy overwhelms our study with the agenda to defend the literality of these texts, which, ironically, makes it less likely that we’ll ever get to real theology at work in Genesis.  This unnecessary agenda diverts us to questions like “Did humans and dinosaurs co-exist?” “Has the speed of light changed?”  “Did the Flood change the global climate?” and all manner of diversions from letting the text spiritually form us.  But that’s where you inevitably wind up if you take a mythic poem and insist on defending it as a scientifically accurate text.  It stops being scripture and becomes the starting point for endless argument.

It’s really incredible the change that happens in Christian formation when you say, “Let’s set aside our modern scientific questions and try to hear what the text said to readers in the ancient world.”

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Church Culture

My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 1: Genre Matters

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

4 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Bible

Atheists Think the Only Real Christians Are Fundamentalists

Author Sam Harris.  This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

Author Sam Harris. This picture, like his worldview, is black and white.

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Church Culture, Politics and Culture