In this blog, one of the things I want to begin to clarify is what I believe, and maybe begin a conversation about that. There is much more to it than the following, but this is a start. I intend to address these and other topics in greater detail. There are three main points I want to make:
1. The Bible is a book.
2. The concept of “sin” seeks to shame people for doing what they have been conditioned to do by millions of years of evolution.
3. The Christian concept of salvation via vicarious punishment is immoral.
The Bible is a book. I hesitate to add, “just” to that sentence as I don’t want to downplay the importance of books. However, by “just” a book, I mean that it is like other books in that it is written by humans, for humans. Ideas found in the Bible are found in sacred texts around the world: a creator, prophets, sacrifice, holy war, plague. There are historical details, poetry, and myths.
The number and variation among the authors of the Bible, while interesting, does not compel one to believe the fantastic stories within. Does the fact that the identity of many of the authors, from the author of Revelation to the Gospels to the Torah, are unknown and perhaps lost to history, help the Bible’s credibility?
As far as harmony within and among the various books of the Bible, I must be missing something, because a critical examination of Scripture reveals disharmony. The disharmony is most evident in comparing the Old Testament and the New Testament. The character of The Lord, in his various names, seems to have a character arc the way you see characters in books and movies. The God in the Old Testament won’t hesitate to turn a woman (unnamed, as many female characters) to a pillar of salt for the unspeakable crime of turning around to look back. He drowns the entire planet for their sin. The Almighty obliges Elisha by sending bears to maul children who made fun of his baldness. This particular story strikes me as very petty and as far the opposite of “turn the other cheek” as one can be. The Old Testament contains multiple instructions for animal sacrifice. The Old Testament doesn’t mention the concept of hell. The Old Testament makes no mention of Jesus, and if you think it does in some symbolic way, there are some Jewish scholars that disagree with you. The New Testament doesn’t have floods, or languages being confused (neither of these OT gems has any evidence to support them being true). It features a great deal of letters, in fact that is the majority of it. The story of Ruth is about dedication to family; Jesus would have a follower turn away from his family.
What about archaelogical evidence for Biblical events? You must ignore the first couple books of the Old Testament, as no evidence for the flood of Genesis or the Exodus in Exodus has been found. I will grant you that evidence for parts of the Bible has been found. Many scholars, even non-Christians, accept that Jesus was a real historical figure, and that the places that he lived are real places. That doesn’t mean that we should believe in the miracles that he did, including resurrecting. Let me give you an example. Barack Obama is a real historical figure. New York City is a real place. Spiderman has adventures in New York City, one of which features Barack Obama. Does that mean that there is a man who can do whatever a spider can?
The number of extant copies of the books of the Bible compared to other works of antiquity matters not at all if we are talking about what we should believe regarding ancient times. The Maya had pictures that looked like astronauts in spaceships, but anyone can see from the physical objects left behind by them that they were primitive people who did not have a printing press, fireworks, and a host of other simple technologies that were common by the time Western explorers came, let alone space travel capability. There is much more to history than reading the books of the time period and concluding that the book with the greatest number of surviving copies must be the most accurate one. There are millions of copies of Harry Potter out there, and people of all ages are probably still buying them. Should future archaeologists conclude that Hogwarts was a real place?
Regarding the “prophecies” that you claim the Bible makes, that have come true, again, the Bible is a book. Being that it is a book, it is open to interpretation. All the New Testament is not recognized as Scripture by the Jewish scholars. Islam would claim that the Old and New Testaments may be true, but that they have the Final word in the Q’uran. I think you will find, in other traditions, plenty of scholars that do not agree with you.
The way I see the Bible is as a magnificent work of literature, full of poetic truth. As literature it is the most influential work the Western world has produced, perhaps the entire world. But it is a book .
2. The concept of “sin” seeks to shame people for doing what they have been conditioned to do by millions of years of evolution. Every aspect of our lives, from our limbs, to our hearts, and our brains, has been shaped by genes which have been driven to make copies of themselves. The urges to eat and procreate have been part of life since the beginning. Behaviors which gave creatures a reproductive advantage have always been encouraged, whatever form those behaviors have taken. Humans are products of this process, same as all other living things.
We have only recently, in evolutionary time, begun to walk upright, wear clothes, and create complex societies. Our lower brain, the parts of our brain that are homologous to other primates and even other animals such as reptiles, is programmed to seek out resources, particularly those that relate to food and sex. This is why, in these times of relative plenty, it is so hard for people to control their eating habits. The same is true for sex, eveidenced by sex addicts and a thriving porn industry. Civilizing influences have caused people to stop simply obeying their baser instincts, and we are constantly reminded that overindulging in food, sex, or some other substance has disastrous consequences. Those who cannot control their lower-brain desires are counseled, arrested, or otherwise removed from society.
The point I am making here is that we all have these thoughts, these impulses, such as you mentioned, of lust or of desire to hurt someone or to have something that is not yours. To suggest that mere thoughts put someone on par with someone who actually commits any crime, whether it’s stealing a pack of gum on up to the worst thing you could imagine, is ridiculous. To illustrate this point, let’s do a thought experiment. Two very similar police cars pull over two very similar drivers. The only difference in the two situations is that in one, the driver was knowingly going ten over the limit, and in the other, the driver was only thinking about speeding, but in fact was doing the limit. There are no other issues with either car or driver. Who is more likely to get a ticket?
Here is another example. A man punches another man in the face. The fight is quickly broken up, and immediately afterward there are police on the scene taking statements from everyone. The punched man, when asked for his statement, puts his wrists together saying that he wanted to murder the man who punched him for a brief second after he was hit, and that he should be arrested for imagined murder.
It should be obvious by now that there are no penalties for imagining speeding or imagining murdering someone under the law. The reason that there aren’t laws about these things is twofold: on one hand, they are nearly impossible to detect. On the other hand, when they aren’t followed by the imagined action, they are harmless.
This idea of thought crimes is Orwellian, and requires a supernatural entity to be aware of it. Further, it is irrational to find someone guilty of a crime when they are merely behaving according to conditioning and programming.
3. The Christian concept of salvation via vicarious punishment is immoral. You said that Jesus was willing to die for my sins personally and I should be grateful for that. I have a few problems with that. First, Jesus has already done that, without me asking, and I find out about it much later and am expected to be grateful. That is not how favors work. Second, what is the moral justification for not holding me accountable for my actions? Third, the “sins” that Jesus is taking the punishment for are not all really sins, as I explained above. Also, the idea of salvation by Jesus begs a few questions. I am borrowing here from Christopher Hitchens.
Humans have existed in our present form for anywhere from one to seven hundred thousand years. Let’s lowball it and say one hundred thousand. If the Jesus story is true, that means that God watched humans flail about in depravity for ninety-eight thousand years with His hands folded. Your response to this may be the old chestnut of “His ways are not our ways” but 98,000 years seems a long time to just sit there and watch man suffer.
Finally, there are the Neanderthals. They are closely related to humans, but remain classified as a separate species by anthropologists. Though we retain Neanderthal DNA (all of us, not just linebackers), they are extinct as far as we know. From archaeological evidence, it has been found that they marked the grave sites of their dead. It is believed that they had a sort of religion, or at the very least spiritual ceremonies. If there is a Creator, He let them die, along with more than 90% of every species known to have existed.
If there is a Creator, he should know that I used my given powers of reason and inquiry to determine that there wasn’t enough evidence to justify believing in him.
Churches do a good job of getting people together and unifying them with one purpose. When people are arranged so, the feeling of belonging is beautiful. This belonging feeling happens with sports teams, clubs, cast/crew of productions, military units of various sizes, and other collective that humans form. When churches do this, they give the credit for the feeling of belonging to their God.