‘The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma.’ ~ Abraham Lincoln
A lot of Christians think they are being singled out when religion is criticized. In North America, this is actually true. But it’s not because we atheists have some soft spot for any other religion. It’s certainly not because atheists and agnostics in this part of the world think Christianity is somehow less credible than other mythologies. It’s simply because Christianity is what we are familiar with. Not surprising, given the relevant demographics on this continent. I just know more about it to criticize the specific elements of the religion. If I knew more about Judaism and Islam I would be equally critical in the specifics of their tenets.
And from what I do know about other religions, I see the same withdrawal from reason as that demonstrated by practitioners of Christianity. I see no reason to accept that any religion is more valid than any other. I’m very equal-opportunity in that regard. All religions ask one thing: either accept or reject unsubstantiated and unverifiable dogma. Given such a choice the path is clear: I do not. In the absence of positive evidence to the contrary, logic demands that the null hypothesis (in this case, the non-existence of god(s)) be maintained.
The second reason Christianity is often singled out is that it is at present the greatest danger to maintaining a secular society. Except in the minds of bigots like Jesse Jackson, Zionists are not trying to take over the world. There is no Islamic Theocratic Party in the U.S. It is the Christian far-right that is attempting to theocratize the most important democracy in the world, one with the capacity to destroy humanity. This group of zealots has decided that politics are the best means for spreading their mind virus to infect us all. It simply doesn’t enter into their small minds that those who do not share their malady, whether we believe in a religion other than theirs or none at all, might not actually want it. If we haven’t accepted Christ by now (or however you want to phrase ’surrendering of reason’), we aren’t going to.
And Christians at all positions to the left do nothing but make excuses for the actions of those to their right. Yes, Islam does tend to try to expand its territory. But so does Christianity, and it is this group which is a clear and present danger to a secular society. They are shamefully quite open about its intent, its acolytes uttering unverifiable nonsense, such as “God commands us to prosthelytize”, in their weak attempts to justify it. And from what do we need ’saving’? It seems to me that Christianity teaches that we all have a disease, this conveniently unverifiable concept known as ’sin’, for which only it can cure. This has all the elements of selling snake oil, and all religions do this.
Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author of such books as American Fascists and I Don’t Believe in Atheists and (to his credit) himself not a fan of the Christian far-right, has made the claim that the so-called ‘New Atheists’ (as if there is somehow a new way not to believe in superstition) are under the mistaken belief that if we removed religion everyone would suddenly become rational beings. This is strange since the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et al have said no such thing. But a world lacking religion would be without the most important enabling and legitimizing mechanism for irrationality, something I (and others) believe well worth pursuing. This ‘New Atheism’ is a long-overdue reaction (by those who recognize that there is a complete paucity of evidence for anything supernatural and see no reason to credit it with existence on that basis) to the attack on reason which Religion is unilaterally waging. And if Religion wins, we all lose.
Christians revere one man and his teachings: Jesus of Nazareth. Whether this man actually physically existed or not is rather irrelevant. Somebody had to write the Q document and it might as well have been a guy named Jesus. The name was certainly common enough in that period. What is relevant is whether the miracle-working biblical Jesus existed, which I find incredibly unlikely. In the New Testament Jesus is bigger than life. He was a miracle worker who fulfilled prophecy, according to the Gospels. The Gospels portray Jesus as if he were the only person ever attributed with performing miracles. This is simply not so. There were many other magicians in his time said to do miraculous things. Apollonius of Tyana was said to have powers similar to Jesus. Indeed, writing in the 3rd and early 4th centuries C.E., Philostratus (in his Life of Appollonius of Tyana) and Hierocles (in a blatant attempt at discrediting Christians to further his persecution of them) claimed Apollonius exceeded Jesus in this regard. Simon Magus would be another one. It is easy to see how such a backward superstitious people would believe in such things as miracles. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers written somewhere around the 3rd century B.C.E., attributes miracle-working to his favorite sages Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates. Far from being a rare occurance, such claims were a necessary par for the course to raise those to be worshipped above the commonplace. Christians can see immediately how comical this is in the context of a modern sophisticated world, but completely disconnect from this reasoning when considering the miracles of Jesus. It is hypocritical to accept Jesus’ miracles while rejecting the claims of Laërtius when they have same level and quality of evidence to support them. Squirm as Believers might, there is no more reason to accept that Jesus’ miracles were any more real than any of those performed by the subjects of Laërtius’ biographies.
It’s nearly 2,000 years later and things have changed, right? Not if the number of 1-900 psychic hotlines or faith healers is any indication. Magician and skeptic James Randi has made debunking these people his life’s work. But, they’re harmless, right? Not in the least. So-called psychics and faith healers prey on human tragedy and are some of the most despicable people imaginable. In 1987 Randi recorded wireless communications of Popoff’s giving Popoff information on his victims so that it looked as if he was getting it straight from the Holy Spirit. Randi overlayed the taped voice communications with video he took at one of Popoff’s ‘shows’ and exposed him very publicly on The Tonight Show. Randi didn’t tell Johnny Carson what was in the video and Carson’s totally unrehearsed expletive in reaction says a good deal.
But even afterwards people still think he’s the real deal. The old saying, ‘fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’ certainly applies here. While I think that Popoff’s antics are criminal, my level of sympathy for those that know of how his fakery works and still believe that nonsense goes way down. Randi has similarly exposed many other faith healers and psychics, actually showing how seemingly miraculous acts like cold reading is done. Yet so many people want – nay, need - to believe in miracles, no matter that the consequences can be lethal. If people living in a modern society want to believe in superstition for which they must consciously ignore contrary evidence, what are the chances that the myth of Jesus’ miracles arose simply from a burning desire to believe in them? Pretty damn good, especially for a superstitious sheepherding society.
The Gospels also make Jesus out to be the biggest thing since sliced bread – sliced bread not having been invented yet. Should there not be any contemporary sources describing him? The first we hear of Christians is from Josephus, wherein he gives them passing mention and simply verifies that there are such things as Christians. Yet Josephus was born in 37 C.E., after Jesus was supposedly crucified. This fits no definition of the word ‘contemporary’ that I know of. Tacitus, another commonly cited source, wasn’t born till 56 C.E. However, the mention of Christians in his Annals is likely a later addition, since early commentaries of this work never hint that he wrote about Christians and the passage makes the same error as to Pontius Pilate’s title (calling him ‘procurator’ rather than ‘prefect’) as Josephus.
The Gospels themselves were not written till even later! Mark, generally thought the earliest, wasn’t written till around 65 C.E. The others follow: Matthew in ca. 70 C.E.; Luke, ca. 80 C.E.; John, ca. 90 C.E. This begs an important question: If they were written by those that they are attributed to, why wait so long? If the life of Jesus was so important would they not want a record of it? Perhaps they thought the second coming was upon them and they didn’t need to, but I don’t buy that. Would it not be more efficient to write down what they saw, make copies and disseminate their testimony? Indeed, John must have died a very, very old man if he were indeed the author of the gospel attributed to him.
The Gospels themselves, however, are so riddled with discrepancies between surviving copies that to use them as a source is simply beyond credible. Even 300 years ago John Mills documented 30,000 differences in surviving manuscripts. This has since ballooned to at least ten times that number. To be sure, many were simple copying errors. But enough translation errors (one leading to the virgin birth myth) and wholesale editing of text are known so as to make the original content of the Gospels completely guesswork. Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus was at one time a bible literalist. That was until his expertise in the history of the New Testament grew beyond that narrow line of thinking. I do not know what his current beliefs are in terms of Christianity, but he is definitely no longer a literalist.
Textual criticism has shown that much of what Jesus supposedly said and did is very unlikely to have occurred. This is not controversial heresy but mainstream scholarship. For instance, remember the story where Jesus supposedly said (in John, chapter 8 ) ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’? According to mainstream textual critics, this passage is pure fantasy, a later addition.
Nor can the parallels with so many other mythologies be ignored. Mithras, Ra, Zoroaster and Krishna were said to have been born of virgins. Indeed, parthenogenesis was apparently quite popular in antiquity, and included not only gods but real personages like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. There are parallels of Jesus’ crucifixion and baptism in mythology of the mystery cults of the Mediterranean well known to the people of the region at the time. There is nothing to suggest that Jesus isn’t just one more added to the pile and the Jesus myth constructed from various elements of other mythologies.
So few Christians know the history of the very book they so revere and take it at face value, ignoring that it has been translated several times. ‘Ma’ Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas, is attributed to have said,
‘If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!’
I find it very difficult to believe that a bible literalist can maintain that point of view while delving into how the bible has changed throughout its history. It certainly turned Ehrman’s world upside down. It’s no wonder that Martin Luther condemned reason numerous times, calling it ‘the Devil’s whore’.
C.S. Lewis is considered by many Christian apologists to be the closest thing to a saint outside of Catholicism. He seemingly starts off okay. Lewis was a self-described skeptic and believed in converting to Christianity on the basis of the weight of evidence and reason. In Mere Christianity he writes:
‘I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.’
He even described those which accept Christianity on blind faith alone as ‘stupid’. On this one point he and I agree.
But does he live up to his own standards? Not unless the bar for the standard of evidence is lowered to a point where a professional limbo dancer would be needed in order to go under it. In Mere Christianity he is so caught up in reasoning out the ‘moral laws of the universe’ based on the bible that he never seriously questions his source (nor considers any other possible explanations) and accepts it in toto at face value. There is an alternative explanation for the existence of morality (there is no such thing as ‘moral law’ since moral boundaries are significantly dependent on culture). Nor is this at all how a skeptic would approach the matter – the validity of source is the first thing a skeptic considers, something Lewis never seriously questions at all! Far closer to the truth is that Lewis simply wanted to believe. He was certainly no skeptic, at least not by any definition of the word for which I am aware. It’s little wonder that skeptics generally dismiss him and only Believers find him at all convincing, and then only because they want their bias confirmed.
So, what about the biblical prophecies? Well? What about them? None stands up to any scrutiny. The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and, lo and behold, he was! So what’s the problem? We have no corroborating source, that’s what. Sam Harris has remarked that this is like events predicted in The Lord of the Rings coming to fruition in Return of the King. Prophecy problems are ubiquitous, so I will only include a few examples:
- The tax census described in Luke which caused Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem is almost certainly a literary ruse, since no record of such a census has ever been found. But it was necessary to get them to Bethlehem somehow, lest the prophecy described in Micah not be ‘fulfilled’.
- Matthew and Luke both give genealogies trying to show that Jesus was of David’s line and hence fulfills the prophecy of Jesus lineage in Zechariah, but are inconsistent. The prophecies in Zechariah and Micah describe a military leader and head of state, not the nebulous ‘King of the Jews’. Nor do we have any extra-biblical corroboration as to his lineage. Indeed, there is no credible evidence whatsoever that Jesus even existed.
- The so-called Massacre of the Innocents associated with Herod described in Matthew is another bit of biblical history that simply never happened. This story likely arose from Herod’s propensity for murdering members of his family that he perceived were after his thrown. But no record of such a heinous act being ordered or perpetrated has ever been found outside of the bible and it is unreasonable that contemporary historians would have missed this had it actually happened.
- The one prophecy which actually came about was the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. That was a good one, right? Well, not really. There is nothing in the prophecy which is remarkable. Now, if the prophecy gave a date, a modus operandi or a name, then you’d have something. The Romans, well known at the time Jesus’ supposed life, are not even mentioned in the ‘prophecy’. This is above and beyond how nebulous the original prophecy (sort of) described in Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel and needs to be well massaged just to get us to referring to the temple.
- Historical events used to claim that the prophecy in Ezekiel describing the destruction of Tyre needs a very large shoehorn in order to fit since, like the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, no details at all are given. The prophecy also claims that Tyre would not only be destroyed but never be rebuilt; yet a quick search of Google Earth shows it plainly on the map. Interestingly, many claim that it was Alexander’s siege of Tyre that fulfilled the prophecy, yet Ezekiel in chapter 26 is quite clear that it would be Nebuchadnezzar doing the damage. And Christians claim skeptics take scripture out of context
Some aren’t just problematic – they can never be fulfilled:
- Ezekiel prophesied that Babylon would conquer Egypt. Right.
- In Matthew 23 Jesus predicted that the end of the world would come within the lifetime of his disciples.
What’s happening with these so-called prophecies? Again, it is people’s need (bordering on, sometimes is, pathological) to believe. They pick out the parts which seem to have validity, ignore the rest, and claim it was fulfilled. But when viewed as a whole, these prophecies are no more remarkable than those of Nostradamus’. When you want so much to believe it is part of our nature to ignore that which should prevent it.
Nor does the mention of historical events and places for which we have corroborating sources lend any credence to the accuracy of the bible. To say that Jesus must have existed (along with the miracles) because totally unconnected and independent places and events were mentioned is a lot like saying that because we know the Civil War happened Gone With the Wind is a biography of Scarlett O’Hara. Such ‘reasoning’ is nonsense. And yet I see it constantly.
One of the claims made by believers is that the bible was ‘divinely inspired’. Such a belief leads directly to the claim that the bible is the ‘word of God’. Why? Because it says so in the bible! But this line of reason is a tautology. As Sam Harris remarked in his speech to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, anyone believing this immediately sees the fallacy when another religion such as Islam makes the same claim about the Qu’ran. What is interesting is that they are unwilling to apply the same level of critical thinking to their own religious book. And how indeed does one verify that the bible is ‘divinely inspired’? Does that mean that the other codices not included in the bible, which from the Nag Hammadi Library we know existed, were not ‘divinely inspired’ and therefore not worthy of inclusion in the biblical canon? Why were they excluded?
Well, we have Irenaeus (late 2nd cent. C.E.) to thank for the fourfold canon that is in every bible today. In his book Against Heresies he laid out what books should be included and why. In essence, it all comes down to ‘because I said so’. Christian doctrine was in constant flux in its early history. Views on who Jesus was has varied drastically: some thought he was an ordinary man adopted by God; others that he was God made flesh. Even with the huge number of Christian denominations, today’s views on Jesus are remarkably homogeneous in comparison. Orthodoxy is simply the doctrine which wins out over all the others. No evidence of divine inspiration, just infighting between differing points of view. Again, Christianity gives us more banality.
‘Credo quia absurdum.’ - I believe because it is absurd. Tertullian was wrong. Absurdity is nearly always exactly what it appears to be – absurd. And absurdity is not at all something anyone should aspire to.