Thursday, September 25, 2014

Whenever I hear Christian apologetics...I reach for my Bible

It's true. And yes, I just adapted an oft-misquoted line from a Nazi play for the title of this post. I figured I'd go ahead and get Godwin out of the way from the outset.

It is my opinion that the greatest impediment to the intelligibility of the Christian faith is, in fact, its foundational set of documents. Far from being an asset, the Bible is the Achilles' heel soft underbelly of most Christian systems of belief, especially the more fundamentalist ones. It is my observation that the more reliant upon the Bible a brand of Christianity is, the more easily it is collapsed upon itself. Even brands of Christianity that aren't closely tied to it like Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Mainline Liberal Protestantism largely fall victim to it as well, often via the very arguments those other denominations more closely tied to the Bible would use against them. Time and again the Bible will contain material that just completely wrecks otherwise coherent systems of Christian doctrine and often the heavy-lifting has already been done by some other group within Christianity.

Want to blow molinistic excuses for the problem of evil out of the water? Calvinists have already done the work. Want to undercut Sola Scriptura? Catholics have that covered. Want to illustrate the absurdity of the Trinity? Ask those Jehovah's Witnesses that come to your door next Saturday. Want to show how evolutionary theory isn't compatible with Christianity? Look no further than Answers in Genesis. What do all of these groups have in common? They all use the Bible to knock down each other's theological systems. Not all of the arguments are that great, mind you, but my point still stands. They all show that the Bible can be an effective weapon against nearly every form of Christianity.

Source: Malachi Clothing
I sometimes find myself suppressing laughter when Christians quote portions of the Bible at me or other unbelievers like a Hogwarts student casting a spell. They've been told the Bible is a weapon by none other than the Bible itself. Well, I agree. The Bible is indeed a weapon. In fact, it's the weapon of choice for ex-Christians like me because studying the Bible is one of the things that led me to reject Christianity. It's why I wholeheartedly agree with Isaac Asimov: "If you suspect that my interest in the Bible is going to inspire me with sudden enthusiasm for Judaism and make me a convert of mountain‐moving fervor and that I shall suddenly grow long earlocks and learn Hebrew and go about denouncing the heathen — you little know the effect of the Bible on me. Properly read, it is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived." It's why I spend so much time talking about the Bible on this blog. It's why I still take an interest in Biblical scholarship and regularly study the Bible. It's the reason why I encourage Christians to actually read their Bibles (all the parts) and to think about what they are reading.

Will reading the Bible always do the trick in making a Christian rethink his belief? Of course not. I read the Bible all the way through myself on multiple occasions and managed to navigate the cognitive dissonance quite well. That doesn't mean everyone will. I suspect that for many, simply encountering passages like Numbers 31 might be enough to rattle them out of notions they may have had about the god of the Bible being a swell dude. For the more thoroughly shielded and indoctrinated, it's going to take a bit more than the divinely-ordered slaughter of little boys and enslavement/rape of little girls to push them over the edge.

For many it will never happen. There typically exists some sort of rationalization that can be appealed to in nearly any circumstance. Christianity has had almost 2,000 years to hone these excuses. Even so, it's simply an impossible task to try to make complete sense of a collection of that many truth propositions when so many are either contradictory or empirically falsifiable. However, if a person always begins by assuming there absolutely must be a solution for any problem a skeptic poses, she will eventually discover one to her liking. She often only needs one, as the standard for demonstrating error is usually insurmountably high. The proposed solution only need be possible, not merely likely. Any solution, regardless of how improbable, is still more likely to the believer than the alternative.

When it comes to this stuff, greater intelligence often seems to merely guarantee that the process of seeing these problems for what they really are will take longer and require more nuance. Indeed, the person may never find their way out as they move deeper and deeper into self-deception with each "solution." Their minds will begin to just assume that since they've been able to address every objection in the past, they will have no problem deflecting subsequent criticism. Thus we have the "properly read" qualifier in Asmiov's quote above.

To me, "properly read" means studying the texts critically while seriously entertaining the notion that they may, in fact, be solely the product of human beings and at least some parts may lack any sort of divine origin whatsoever. It means setting aside straw-grasping at the excuse of "metaphor" while looking for some deeper, spiritual meaning for a passage and instead positing that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It means not simply shifting one's hermeneutic approach every time something doesn't fit the usual method of interpretation. It means taking the time to seriously consider the points made by critics without presupposing that those critics are instruments of Satan out to lead people astray. It means being open to the idea that an apparent error in the so-called "inerrant" Bible is exactly what it appears to be: an actual error. It means at least momentarily suppressing whatever go-to backstop one has for continuing to cling to one's current core belief system, whether it's Pascal's Wager or the Sunk Costs Fallacy or peer pressure or just the desire to avoid that sinking feeling that's experienced when exploring these topics. It means letting one's desire to know what's really real override one's desire to remain comfortable, at ease and certain of oneself.

Even now you might be reading this and thinking to yourself that the reason people like me don't see the Bible the way you do is because we don't have the Holy Spirit. Like Paul said, these things are foolish to us because they are spiritually discerned and we just don't have the spirit within us. You may as well tell me that because Dumbledore hasn't cast an interpreting spell on me I can't understand his magic book. How conveniently unfalsifiable and how capricious and arbitrary of your god. That sounds to me like another one of those backstops I was referring to.

Often something has to trigger a willingness to move past those things, however. Some glitch in the Matrix or a brief glimpse behind the curtain that a believer chooses not to ignore and suppress. That, and a desire to see the thing through to a satisfactory end is going to be necessary. And it's probably going to take more than one or two discrepancies. It will be different for different people. Everyone's mileage varies. Additionally, the more one chooses to stay in their echo-chamber and run to the soothing reassurances that come from just knowing that some kind of a response exists on some apologetics website somewhere on the Internet or in some commentary, regardless of how weak that response is, the less likely one will be able to emerge from that protective little cocoon of belief.

Will rejecting the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God necessarily lead to atheism? Obviously not. People can and do stop short quite frequently. Many will still cling to the idea that the Bible is somehow divinely inspired in parts with a mixture of error and they will rely on either their own notions or those of some ecclesiastical authority to decide which parts. Others will see the Bible as thoroughly the product of human beings on par with other works of religious literature, but still hold to some form of theism or spirituality. Many will not stop short, however, and I tend to think that the more elevated one's view of the Bible was at the outset, the further one falls once the Bible is seen for what it really is. That's one reason why I don't think Asimov was necessarily being hyperbolic in proclaiming the Bible to be the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. Perhaps I'm biased, though. Studying the Bible is largely what disabused me of my faith and I'm glad it did.

I feel fortunate to have been indoctrinated into a version of Christianity that placed so much emphasis on the importance of that particular collection of ancient documents contained in the Protestant Bible. Had I been raised in a version of Christianity that taught the Bible was full of errors, wasn't at all reliable from the standpoint of Science, History and even morality and shouldn't be regarded as the cornerstone of the Christian faith, why, I might still be a Christian. However, I'd probably be the kind of Christian that most unbelievers like me don't really have a problem with. Of course, according to most of the Christians I've known, those kinds of Christians aren't Real Christians™ anyway.


  1. I think Asimov was right. The night I finally shed my indoctrination once and for all, I fled all in tatters to my study Bible for hope and answers. And found only more questions and problems, and no god at all to help me. The problem is that getting to that point of being able to confront those questions and problems often requires the knocking-out of every leg under the table--and it happening so fast that further indoctrination can't prop the table back up again. I hadn't thought about how other denominations are out there doing non-believers' work for them, but you're absolutely right. Want to find good objections to the practice of speaking in tongues? Talk to the Baptists. Want to find out why the Trinity is nothing but demon-worship? Oneness Pentecostals have whole books about that. Rapture too. Or you can talk to other denominations about why the Rapture is a false doctrine. It's just the WEIRDEST THING how one source document can result in soooooo many contradictory ideas.

    I'm so glad you're blogging again.

  2. Excellent arguments and brilliant exposition. Keep up the good work.

  3. I completely understand and agree with this article. I was raised in a "The Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God and our sole authority for faith and practice." style fundamentalist church. You were to defend everything with book, chapter, and verse. This ultimately led to my atheism!

  4. Exactly. Act the way you believe.

    If you believe in good, be a good person.

    Otherwise, Church and faith is useless. without true practicing what you preach you shame your bible every time.

  5. I believe that a "one size fits all" approach to debating Christians is misguided. I recently wrote a post on my blog entitled, "How to Debate a Christian". I believe that the key to debating Christians is to know which type of Christian he or she is: a Liberal, a Moderate, or a Fundamentalist. I believe that each of these three types of Christian has a different weakness in their Christian belief system; a weakness which the atheist/skeptic can take advantage of to win the debate. I would be interested in a Christian critique of my post if anyone has the time and inclination.

    Blog: Escaping Christian Fundamentalism
    Post: How to Debate a Christian