An analogy

January 3, 2011

For quite a while now I’ve been trying to hammer out some kind of analogy or thought experiment to help deal with Christians who think the Bible is enough justification for their beliefs, to illustrate how ridiculous it is.

If 4 of your good friends came up to you separately and told you that two days earlier they’d seen a man rise from the dead, would you believe them? I’m gonna be honest, I’d think there was something in it. Maybe there was someone who everyone thought was dead, but actually it turns out they weren’t, or they were just injured or something. (In fact something very similar happened last Easter to a friend of mine from the pub, believe it or not. He hadn’t been seen for a week or so, and then one of his crazy neighbours phoned the pub on Good Friday and said they’d seen a body being carried out of the house, so word gradually got around and everyone was in the pub on Easter Sunday, mourning, when he showed up alive and well. Now he’s nicknamed ‘The Phoenix’ by some, but that’s a tangent.) I probably wouldn’t just dismiss it completely, but I wouldn’t be convinced that it actually happened.

Back to our hypothetical 4 witnesses, would you hear their account and then conclude: “Hmm, clearly this man was the Son of God and obviously when he died it was a symbol of his victory over death and only a fool could deny that believing in this sacrifice is the only way to get into heaven because we’re too sinful on our own”? Of course not! It’s a complete non-sequitor. None of those things follow from the account that a man rose from the dead.

Now consider that we don’t even have this kind of testimony in the Bible. We have 4 accounts from people we don’t know and whose trustworthiness we can’t even guess at. They did not witness the events themselves but at very best got it from direct eyewitnesses, and that’s only if Mark got his information directly from Peter. So at best it’s second hand testimony. Then consider that the first Gospel, Mark, was written about 30 years after Jesus died. So at best we’re talking second hand testimony recorded from an eyewitness 30 years after the event happened. Memories are not trustworthy.

On top of that, a lot of Biblical scholars currently believe in a 2 source hypothesis, that the authors of Matthew and Luke both used the gospel of Mark and another text as source material for their own gospels (with their own theological bents), and it’s undisputed that the author of John had read the other synoptic gospels too, so actually we’re only talking about 2 testimonies, not 4, one of which we have no access to. (Even if John the apostle did write the gospel – which is unlikely – he starts his gospel with “In the beginning there was the Word…” Clearly he’s not speaking as an eyewitness.)

So let’s get back to our analogy. A stranger called Mark comes to you and says someone told them they’d seen a man rise from the dead 30 years ago, and then over the next 20 years 2 more strangers called Matthew and Luke come to you and say they’d heard from 2 people (one of whom was Mark) that someone rose from the dead at that time as well. Then a full 30 years after Mark walked in, another stranger called John comes and says he’s been speaking to the first 3 people outside and he agreed, and in addition John swears blind that this person who rose from the dead was also present at the creation of the universe. Would you believe them?

Then consider that this testimony isn’t given in person, and we can’t question the witnesses, because it was written down thousands of years ago. And the testimonies sometimes contradict each other! Is this really enough to establish that someone rose from the dead, never mind all the theological interpretation that goes along with it? If any Christian can honestly say yes to that, then they’re gullible, and there are plenty of conmen out there who’d love to meet them.

A personal relationship with Jesus

November 5, 2010

I watched this video today, and it got me thinking a bit more about this really strange idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, which seems to have come from the Baptists or something similar.

Isn’t this such a daft idea? For a start, ‘relationship’ normally implies a 2-way street and Jesus doesn’t seem to be holding up his end of the bargain, which I suppose is a good thing. If you want to talk to God that’s fine, but if he starts talking back, we’ve got a name for that and it’s schizophrenia. And some people take this ‘relationship’ to a whole different, sexual level. Obviously most Christians don’t say they literally hear God speaking to them, it’s more like a feeling inside, or you just know what the right thing to do is, as it says in Romans 2. But isn’t it strange that God seems to be telling different people different things, and surprisingly enough, God seems to agree with what each of them think. On the other hand, there are instances where “God” is just clearly wrong, like the recent videos by creationist NephilimFree where he claims God is spreading the word through him and yet he’s making claims that we know aren’t true. God is clearly just in these people’s minds.

But there are other ways of looking at the personal relationship with Jesus. It’s completely unsolicited. Imagine if you got a letter from someone who said he loved you, but you’d never heard of him, and he also said that if you didn’t love him back, then he’d torture you. Is this a desirable relationship to have? It’s like having a stalker!

Other times, when I hear people talking about God, they sound like an abused wife or something. Especially if they’re talking about the problem of evil, and they say “well we turned away from God, we did something wrong” or they’ll say that we all deserve to go to hell but it’s only this relationship with God that’s stopping it happening for them, they sound like a beaten housewife making excuses for her husband! Some will even go so far as to say that God created us, so God has the right to do what he wants with us or that God is so powerful that he has the right to do what he wants, what kind of a relationship is that?! Never mind that’s it’s a broken and immoral system, never mind that God’s making people suffer with natural disasters, never mind that God fucking around with our lives is about as dickish as me abusing a small animal.

Who the hell would want a relationship with God? Especially if the Bible is anything to go by, he’s inconsistent, he supports slavery and human sacrifice, he’s jealous, he’s homophobic, he’s petty, he has impossible standards to live up to… the list goes on. Even if I could see God, I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with him.

Bit of a ramble.

What value does the Bible have?

June 14, 2010

Insomnia strikes again (2 days before an exam, woo!), so I’m going to write a shortish piece. It’s probably no surprise that I do not consider the Bible to be a good historical document, particularly to be used as proof of miracles or the resurrection or anything like that. The gospels were written decades after the resurrection, in many of the cases the documents are of unknown authorship, it’s clear that the writers had a theological or political bias, we have no originals and the collection was later edited to filter out anything that was not consistent with the dominant theology. But what other value does the Bible have?

Let’s start with historical value. Yes, I just said it’s not good evidence for miracles (in fact no written document would ever be good evidence for miracles), but what about other stuff? I’m not sold one way or the other if the Bible can be used as evidence for the existence of a guy called Jesus, but I wouldn’t be too opposed to saying that it could. I base that on Galatians rather than the gospels, which was written around 10 years after Jesus is said to have died, is addressed to a group of Christians in modern- day Turkey, and seems to imply that the early church was getting fairly organised in a relatively short space of time. I suspect that a complete fabrication would have a harder time spreading so fast, but I could go either way. Paul also does not mention any miracles apart from the resurrection and his famous road to Damascus experience.

There are other parts of the Bible that could also serve as historical documents, such as the parts told in Kings and Chronicles. There are huge sections of those four books which basically go ‘the Israelites made God angry so God sent their enemies to defeat them in battle’ or ‘the Israelites made God angry so God sent a plague’. Take away the mystical explanation for material events and you have a basic outline of Israelite history.

The Bible is also widely sourced as a beautiful literary work. Obviously a translation isn’t going to have the same effect as the original or all the other translations, and beauty is a fairly subjective thing anyway (I don’t like the KJV at all, for example), so it’s a difficult thing to claim, but there are many parts that most people appreciate. Regardless of whether the Bible has literary merit of its own, it is extremely widely referenced in other works. The Song of Solomon alone (which IIRC only takes up about 4 pages in a normal-sized Bible) has inspired a whole literary submovement in the Spanish mystics (a group which is often credited with kicking off the Spanish Golden Age), and also influenced an awful lot of other artists of various stripes. You can’t fully appreciate Shakespeare either without a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. Certainly there is some value there.

But how about morality? We can all pluck out examples from the Old Testament about stoning people who work on the sabbath, children who talk back to their parents, and staying away from women on their periods, among lots of other things, but many Christians will say that we have to look at the New Testament, particularly the teachings of Jesus. I find very little positive about the teachings of Jesus. Off the top of my head the only thing I can think of is the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Sermon on the Mount is largely a bunch of bad advice, most of his parables are about the Son of Man, and the advice that he gives to various people is to sell all their belongings, leave their families (or hate them, depending on how you read it) and follow, not worrying about possessions because God will care for them in the same way he looks after the birds. In short his teachings are not to think about the future. Now that would be fair enough if Jesus was going to return within maybe 10 years or so, but we’re almost 2000 years down the line now and he’s still not back. If we’d been following Jesus’ teachings to the letter for all that time we’d be much worse off. They were very bad teachings.

Of course you can find Bible quotes to justify any moral position – that’s why it’s so often called the Big Book of Multiple Choice – but my main problem with the morality found in the Bible is its supposed source. Not just God but authority in general. That’s bad because we’re not supposed to think about why something is wrong, it’s wrong because an authority figure says so. So we’re learning absolutely nothing about what morality is, and quite frankly we’re not talking about morality at all; this is obedience to authority. When people talk about the moral framework of John Stuart Mill, they don’t just take his word for it, they examine the utilitarianist system and see if it stands up to scrutiny. Another problem with taking moral values from authority is that it means you have black and white morals. One thing is right and the opposite is wrong, when I think you’ll find the reality is a bit greyer than that.

These two objections are assuming, though, that Christians follow the moral code that they find in their Bible, which of course they don’t. The vast majority of Christians pick and choose the parts of the Bible that they want to follow. They’ll say that the Old Testament Law was nullified by Jesus’ sacrifice, but that’s not true, only the sacrificial laws were overturned (as in ‘I did not come to break the Law but to fulfil it’). Even if it were true, what about the poor morals contained in Paul’s writings, for example, where he says women must sit at the back in silence when men are teaching? Or what about in Matthew 15 when Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for not stoning unruly children? How about the whole notion that thinking about something can be morally wrong? Christians choose the parts of the Bible that they believe are moral and throw away the rest, but on what basis do they do that? Clearly they have a set of morals that is outside the Bible. So why not just skip the Bible and use that in the first place?

Ramble over. I think I’ll try and go to sleep now.