Answering Justice Scalia »« Open Thread for AETV #791

Gods, wizards, and plot holes

A lot of atheists really like to argue about inconsistencies in the Bible, and let’s be honest here, there are a lot of them.  A quick look at the “Contradictions” section of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible will show us all kinds of gems such as the following:

There are hundreds of them.  Dan Barker seems especially fond of this kind of argument, as he has his “Easter Challenge” in which he asks Christians to reconcile the death of Jesus from the four Gospels into one coherent story.
[...]

At least one Christian apologist, Stephen Kingsley, has claimed that he’s been able to solve this challenge.  I tried to read the answer he outlined at EasterAnswer.com, and frankly I don’t have the stamina to go through the whole thing and look for gaps.  John Loftus claims that he failed, saying “His attempted harmonization is far fetched and as such no answer at all.”

Right… so it’s far fetched.  Would that be more or less far fetched than the underlying story where Jesus rose from the dead after three days?

In general, I find it a waste of time to argue about whether the Bible tells a coherent, self-consistent story.  I’m not saying that you can’t make a case against the Bible in this way; I’m just saying that by and large, Christians will not care.  Since I’m concerned mostly with the effectiveness of arguments against Christianity in practical situations, an argument that kills time and goes nowhere is sometimes just as bad to use as an argument that has obvious logical inconsistencies.

What those arguments come down to is this: You’re debating the particular details of a fictional universe.  It’s much like if you were to go to a Harry Potter meeting at Comic Con say “Wait a minute, it doesn’t make any sense that Hermione would have a time traveling device in Prisoner of Azkaban but then give it back to Dumbledore without doing anything else useful with it.  She could have saved a ton of lives if she’d used it properly in future books, especially Deathly Hallows!”

Even if you happen to be right and you’ve found a plot hole, a really dedicated Harry Potter fan can always make up some kind of excuse that forces the story to make sense somehow.  They can say “Ah, but you see, time travel in the Harry Potter universe has certain limitations which prevent you from interacting with your own past self / affecting large scale events / reversing the polarity of the phazon emitters / whatever.”  Once you recognize that the universe is fictional and malleable so that you can make up your own rules as you go along, you can’t ever really force the fans to acknowledge an internal inconsistency.

If nothing else they can always play the trump card for getting out of any plot difficulties.  As Lucy Lawless said in a guest appearance on The Simpsons: “Uh, yeah, well, whenever you notice something like that… a wizard did it.”  Lots of stories have wizards, sonic screwdrivers, infinite improbability drives, a magical substance called Unobtainium whose properties are impossible to pin down… anything that can magically explain away any perceived problems with the plot.  Some of these stories make them more obvious than others.  You can easily criticize an author who relies too much on this sort of device as being a hack, but you can never really “disprove” the story by griping about its literary shortcomings.

You’ll find no shortage of apologists who are willing to devote a ridiculous amount of time to reconciling the perceived inconsistencies of the Bible.  How did Judas die?  One gospel said he hanged himself, one said he jumped off a cliff and his guts spilled out.  The answer at carm.org is: He hanged himself, then the branch broke, then he fell down and burst open.  Never mind that Acts doesn’t bother to mention the trifling detail that Judas was hanging from a tree first; never mind that it doesn’t make sense to ignore this detail from a literary point of view.  If you start from the premise that the Bible is always accurate, then you can just pull out your favorite infinite improbability drive type of excuse.  (Interesting note: In The Passion of the Christ, Judas hangs himself and that’s it.  Mel Gibson was not nearly as concerned with playing these games as with making a movie.)

Sure, two women who came to see Jesus saw a stone in front of the tomb, and saw two men there, then went away, then came back again and saw one angel, and a second one showed up, having already moved the rock.  Whatever.  Just shuffle the pieces around like a jigsaw puzzle, and whatever you come up with — however thematically ridiculous it may sound — is correct as long as it leads to your desired conclusion.

And if none of that works, any story where God’s involved has the ultimate “a wizard did it” card to play.  What’s that?  You say the ark couldn’t possibly house all those animals for a year without eating each other?  No problem, because a god did it.  How could a man survive for three days in the belly of a giant fish, wouldn’t it digest him and kill him?  Where would he get fresh water?  A god did it.  How does the trinity make sense?  Well, it’s a beautiful mystery, you know, but it makes sense because a god did it.  Now you’re getting it.  It’s easy, see?

Finding those inconsistencies and examples of just plain terrible story telling is certainly an interesting exercise for the reader.  But pointing them out to a serious fan of the fictional universe is by and large a massive rabbit hole that you don’t want to waste time in, unless you want to become the same kind of Comic Con attendee who is obsessively devoted to one and only one piece of literature.

That’s why I try not to get bogged down in conversations about details of the Bible.  I just skip it and ask the one question, “What reason do I have to believe that any of this is reliable?”  That usually saves a whole lot of time and doesn’t give unwarranted credibility to something that’s just a story in the first place.

Comments

  1. says

    to point out the contradictions in the bible is not necessary a waste of time. yes probably if you are debatting with a professional apologists, but if you talk about it with the evangelists on the street it might be different for many haven’t read all the gospels or didn’t realized the contradictions so it might really help them to start to doubt…

    for Judas’s death: he was or repenting and give back the money and hang himself or didn’t repent, didn’t give back the money and died by god’s hand.

    I like ComiCon nerd’s stuff hehe

    • says

      I think it depends. If you’re talking to someone who’s weathered the contradictions already and is in make-stuff-up-mode, it’s probably pointless.

      Then again, there’s quite a number of people who can be rattled out of their bubble when pointing some of these things out.

      But with all things, everything in moderation.

      • F [disappearing] says

        What it really depends on is that this is not how Kazim personally addresses Christian arguments. Some people do. Some do it simply for entertainment. Some do it as historians.

        If the basic demand “prove it” doesn’t work with Christians making claims supposedly backed by the Bible, I’m not sure how arguing the minutiae thereof will help. Either they don’t really know their Bible, or they do and already have their filters in place. Occasionally, yes, you can get a person to reexamine their Biblical understanding, but this isn’t going to be direct or particularly effective in most cases, depending on what you are arguing for or about. And I get the distinct impression that Kazim isn’t in the habit of arguing Biblical points, so…

  2. Sonorus says

    Hermione had to give her time turner back (to McGonagall, not Dumbledore, who then returned it to the ministry…she had to have special permission to use it in the first place) at the end of her third year at Hogwarts. In book 5 (Order of the Phoenix) all the time turners were destroyed and therefore not available in book 7 (Deathly Hallows). I’m sure there are many plot inconsistencies in the seven book series (it would be astonishing were there none), but this isn’t one of them. I can’t think of a single large-scale work that doesn’t. Wagner’s Ring Cycle has at least a dozen. Someone else will probably be able to point some out in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So it’s not at all surprising that in the Bible, a work written by quite a few people over a great deal of time is logically inconsistent. Obviously we have a branch of Christianity that believes in Biblical inerrancy (sp? Is that even a real word?), but if you pin down anyone who is a serious scholar of the Bible, including those at fundamentalist seminaries, even they will admit that there are serious inconsistencies, starting with the genealogies of Jesus, which really ought to be the same. But, none of that is going to be convincing to a true believer, only to someone who already doesn’t believe and is coming to turns with not believing while surrounded by a family and culture where everyone at least acts as if they do. It’s worth pointing out these things for those folks, so that they can question what they have been taught with actual historical evidence and reason when they are ready to do that. I thank the people who did all that for when I was ready.

      • Sonorus says

        Of course the answer is that Rowling wanted to use time travel as a plot device in book 3 and not ever again so she wrote in the destruction of the time turners. She has fun with the logical inconsistencies of being able to alter a timeline (did you really alter it or was your trip back in time to alter it already part of the timeline?), but there’s really only so far you can go with something like that before it becomes tiresome.

        About the gospels, I suspect (it’s not a belief because it’s probably impossible to prove with any certainty) that what we know as the historical Jesus is a composite of various prophets from about the same time (there would have been a great many) that got merged into one narrative. This still happens, actually. Stories about one person will get merged into the story of someone else and then becomes part of the narrative even though it’s just not true. This often happens around big tragic events (Columbine, for example, or 9/11). If that can happen in an era in which it is possible to verify information with some reasonable degree of accuracy, imagine how much more often that would happen with an oral tradition. I reject the “conspiracy theory” ideas about the story of Jesus. I don’t think it’s necessary for people to have intentionally merged various myths, legends and folk tales. It would be incredibly difficult to avoid that. Imbedded in those tales, there are probably some facts or at least things based on fact, but it would be impossible to separate out which things come from which sources.

        (btw, I’m a big fan. I miss NonProphets. :-( )

        • says

          But why? I write sci fi/fantasy and think time travel is as valid as any other aspect to toy with. It can be employed a number of interesting ways. Admittedly, yes, it can be an easy out when you are in a fix, yet, I find that aspect of the exercise fun. Example…one of my character’s “future” selves pops in and out of the storyline at various point for split seconds and alters bits of time. For several seasons of the tale you have no idea why or how. This is a small footnote to the entire narrative, but I think it is a fun part of the story…*note–not a Potter fan or reader so I am unsure what the argument is about but …meh *shrugs*

          • Lord Narf says

            Controlled time travel can be a major problem. It takes a great deal of plotting skill to make it work. I don’t think Rowling has the necessary skill to pull it off.

    • beammeupscotty says

      There are NO inconsistencies in the Lord of the Rings. It is the greatest story ever told and every single word in it is exactly as it should be and absolute truth. Period.

      On the whole “find the inconsistencies in the Bible” thing, I come down on the same side as Kazim. Arguing minutae of the book just lends legitimacy to it, and is an exercise in futility. The invalidity of the Xtian world view does not rely on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Bible. It is the absurd notion that there is an invisible superhero in the sky watching over us.

      As far as dealing with Xtian apologists, after so many years of trying to reason with them, I now take a more direct approach when they knock on my door. I simply tell them to get the flock off my front porch or I’ll kick their ass. It really works wonders.

      Just kidding about the whole LOTR thing.

      • Lord Narf says

        You’re allowed to say fuck on here, you know. You’re allowed to tell the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses to fuck off, too … or at least if you’re not supposed to do that, I don’t give a fuck. ^.^

        I wouldn’t really call door-to-door preachers apologists, though. I’ve never encountered any who have the vaguest sense of logic and are able to justify anything to non-Christians. They’ll feed you all sorts of lines out of the Bible, but if you go back to square one and ask them why you should accept anything in the Bible, you just get the most pathetic circular reasoning.
        “Well, it’s the Bible! It’s God’s truth! It’s infallible by definition!”
        There’s usually a lot more hand waving, but that’s what it always boils down to.

  3. John Kruger says

    If I found a math text book that staggeringly failed at multiplication it would not make sense for me to trust it on calculus. I could corroborate and independently verify the calculus in it was correct, but simply trusting it would be very foolish after its authority was destroyed on the simpler operations.

    There are some things even a wizard cannot do. Some things are hard logical contradictions that indicate a mistake even in fantasy land. If you set up rules and break them even magic cannot be an excuse, at least one part must be wrong. A wizard or god cannot make there be only one language and yet have other people speaking another language, for example. http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/babel.html

    Or have other people never to be punished for the sins of others and yet actually punish other people for sins not their own. http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/iniquity.html

    I know that people can irrationally hold on to the stories when they want to, but you really should take them to task about believing in a resurrection, heaven, hell, and anything else they want to brandish in front of you to change your mind solely on the authority of a book that makes so many egregious errors.

  4. robertwilson says

    I would’ve loved to take Star Trek as a major in college, as it is I settled for French (actually I love language/literature so settling isn’t entirely the right word).

    I’ve come to regard Theology in that same vein thanks to Russell and his “would it sound just as good if Captain Kirk said it” approach among others. Yes some philosophy yo can learn doing theology is great. But the fact people are arguing over the stories doesn’t make them real. And frankly I find Star Trek much more fun. Well, DS9 anyways… cause it’s gritty and realistic, by ST standards… and the rest is just bubble-gum Sci-Fi.

    All I’m really saying is “Come at me bro” if you disbelief the Sisko’s badassery.

  5. JP says

    Has anyone ever heard an apologist explain why:

    Without the death and resurrection of the jesus character there is no salvation for the world.
    Judas set into motion the particular event that led to the resurrection and saved the world.
    Why is Judas vilified, rather than a saint? Was he not merely carrying out the god’s plan?

  6. says

    Russell,

    This seems to be a very “ACA” sort of position to take, and I respect the hell out of it. You do it with the “why should I care what the Bible says” and Matt does it with his interrupting at the very first point of disagreement, and Tracie does it with her insistence on coherent definitions for things like “existence.” Why engage with the fine details when the bigger picture fails to meet the lowest qualifications to be worth discussing?

    • Sonorus says

      Exactly. It’s interesting to note the discrepancies in the portrayal of Judas but the bigger problem is why an omniscient deity would need to keep coming up with new plans. And why wait so long to send a messiah? What about all those poor gentiles from before ca. 33 AD? Just doomed to hell because there was no Jesus yet?

      The foundation of the narrative is unsound.

      And kudos to Matt and Tracie and others for calling people out on the “first cause” bs.

    • Lord Narf says

      Matt’s stance is critical, yeah. The moment someone says something wrong, “No, stop! Please justify this point, because I call bullshit on it.” If you let them get all the way to the end, they’ll think they made a valid argument, despite that one fucking huge problem with the core of their argument.
      Not that there’s ever only one problem with their argument. There’s usually at least one ludicrous premise that we’re supposed to just assume is true, one bad connection between the flawed premises, and then one huuuuuuuge, unjustified leap to their chosen god, at the end of the argument.

      “Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health … what have the Romans ever done for us?

  7. Another Matt says

    There is an Eastern Orthodox doctrine which makes a separation between “justification” (what Paul mostly talked about in his epistles) and “salvation.” Most Western forms of Christianity assume they refer to the same thing. Basically, the Eastern tradition says that “justification” is something you have to do before you can even start on salvation — in this soteriology, salvation is a healing process (see “theosis“), which takes a lot of work and time.

    “Justification by faith” is analogous to “admitting you have a problem,” while “salvation” is like the rest of the 12-step program.

    If you have the patience for it, you can read about it here:
    http://www.stpaulsirvine.org/html/Justification.htm

    PS — please don’t take this as proselytizing for Eastern Orthodox Christianity; I’m an ex-Christian atheist.

    • Lord Narf says

      Yeah, I get what you’re saying. Despite being wrong, at least the Eastern Orthodox have a slightly more rational system of approaching their religion. They have a lot of unjustified, fallacious crap as well, but the structure …

      The Evangelicals, on the other hand, insist that once you believe, then you’ll be given the evidence … which is complete shit. Rational minds don’t work that way.

  8. grumpyoldfart says

    I insist that the Christian describe god (otherwise we won’t know what we are talking about).
    `

    Sidetracks are not allowed (evolution, quantum theory, etcetera). “No, just describe god in a way that I can understand.”
    `

    The payoff comes when the exasperated Christian informs me that god is beyond the understanding of mere mortals and I get the opportunity to say, “So you don’t know what you are talking about !?”
    `

    Payoffs are rare though, and the Christian usually departs with a flounce, declaring that I am the most pig-headed atheist they have ever met.

    • Sonorus says

      I have a Roman Catholic friend who says things like, “I’m sure God has a reason, but my little pea-brain just couldn’t understand it.” It makes me sad. She’s not a child. She’s actually quite intelligent and well-informed. But when the topic if faith or religion comes up she reverts to thinking like a five-year-old. At least she’s not like my fundamentalist relatives who actually express some of their religious beliefs is phrases that sound oddly like baby talk.

  9. Warp says

    The same argument could be used to say that it’s useless to discuss with a young earth creationist about the age of the universe. “How come we see the light from very distant stars and galaxies?” “A wizard did it.” So it’s useless to even try to counter their arguments against science?

    I don’t think so. But why is this different?

    • Kazim says

      The two situations are different. In the case of verifying the Bible stories, we’re comparing elements of the fiction against other elements of the fiction — i.e., how did Judas die, and how can the two stories be reconciled? In the case of young earth creationism, the theist is actually making a claim that has an impact on the physical world outside the story, i.e., directly conflicting with observable science. At that point it becomes a matter of science vs. religion, which is a very different argument from reconciling two texts.

      Of course, creationists try to undermine the basic principles of how science is done. But that’s a much more sensible argument to have, and gives you the advantage that most people already trust science (or act like they do) and that tends give you an advantage.

      • Sonorus says

        The other problem is the inconsistencies between Biblical accounts and archaeology. The physical evidence often undermines or contradicts the written accounts. It’s even a bigger problem for the Mormons who have spent a good deal of money trying to find the sites mentioned in their holy book with nothing to show for it.

  10. Comment1 says

    I like the Judas one because it’s probably the simplest example where the entire meaning of the story changes due to the events.

    In one, Judas is all guilty and sorrowful so he hangs himself.

    In the other, he doesn’t give a crap so God strikes him down with almighty vengeance and gut splatter.

    It’s not just an inconsistency in events, it’s two completely different ideas of who Judas was and what kind of character he had. Splicing them together actually robs the bible of whatever literary or historical interest it could have,

  11. says

    So, how many angels fit on the head of a pin, exactly?

    It’s that kind of argument. With no way to verify, you can make up whatever you want as an answer and justify it.

    Like my claim that pixies live inside my nose. They make me sneeze. So instead of saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, I say “PIXIES!” And you can’t prove that they don’t.

    BTW: I’m very much like grumpy. I set some very clear groundrules. First, define what god is. Not what it does. What is it made of? How do you know? How can I verify your claim?

    All gods have a very serious ontological problem.

    • Sonorus says

      Whenever someone says to me “what if you are wrong and there IS a god” I always say “Can it be Thor, because that would be AWESOME!”

  12. says

    I tend to disagree, when you are arguing with a theist you just never know what is going to stick. I know that when I was a Christian, the contradictions of the bible definitely had a cumulative effect. Sure, I was an expert at playing the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile them in my head, and anyone that I was talking to during this period would have probably figured I was a lost cause and that they didn’t get through to me. But every contradiction I dealt with was a little bit more to balance, and at some point it all came crashing down.

    Contradictions from the bible were certainly not the only reason I became an atheist, but they surely played a part.

  13. fastlane says

    Wolverine would totally kick Batman’s ass, I’m just sayin’.

    Yes, that’s what arguing about these kind of things are like, but the weird thing is, sometimes it works.

    • Another Matt says

      If it were a Batman comic and Wolverine was just some random Batman villain (with all the powers that Wolverine has in the X-men world), it’s still pretty much guaranteed that Batman would find a way to win. That’s the fun of fiction, and the danger of taking it as real.

      For my money, though, Buffy would beat ‘em both. :)

  14. John says

    To get around all arguments that are spotted from the atheist side….all it takes is the magic dust since god is all-powerful or near since god can’t do all things. since another school shooting just happened, more people are praying and more people are looking for answers from a god stand point, the harsh reality is bad stuff happens, some caused by humans and much of it isn’t as well, I can see Sam Harries point of there being no free will……though I’m still not convinced just yet. I know Matt and some others have argued it on the non-prophets, but there is no denying that we have extreme limited free will, all those 20 children and others had their free will violated, yet people still pray to the magic sky being for answers……when will the world get it that humans have faced almost extinction long ago as Christopher Hitchens said and no god was there for us then, you it least can say gods do not care for us, and they sound ridiculous when people start to tell you about them.

    It all makes sense to me now why atheists and other skeptics I meet are supposed to keep their mouths shut, they have the ability to shatter your fantasy world as they did with me, it was painful, but I was under a spell and it’s hard to realize the universe does not care about are tiny little dot in the cosmos…..Carl Sagan called it the pale blue dot.

    I wait for someone to show me I’m wrong…..I’m not smart and it does not look like it can be done yet either.

    Take Care.

  15. azgeo says

    The contradictions argument can actually be extremely helpful to fundamentalists. I was raised to believe that every single bit of the bible was true and that there were no contradictions in it. I was never challenged on this, or on religion in general: Not in school, not by people I knew, nowhere. Then when I was twenty, I read the “Creationism” section of “Why People Believe Weird Things” which I had picked up to laugh at UFO nuts, etc. In a single small chapter Shermer dismantled every christian apologetics book I’d ever read and then some. (It also helped that I was just starting Geology 101 and so had too much understanding about what he was talking about to simply deny it.) Suddenly I realized that there was simply no truth to the story of Noah’s flood. Because I’d been told constantly that there was nothing wrong in the bible and nothing contradictory, my faith in the whole thing died and I had no idea what to believe now that I thought any part of the thing could be untrue. I still believed that parts of christianity were true, like Jesus, but I didn’t know which parts, and now I no longer trusted the apologetics books. I was at a loss for how to determine the truth of the thing.

    The next day while checking books in at the library where I worked, I came across The God Delusion and thought, “Well, I’ll read this. If it’s BS I should be able to disprove it easily”. After the first chapter or two I was a theist but no longer believed in Yahweh or Jesus. Two days later and 2/3 of the way through the book I was an atheist. I went from fundamentalist christian (one who actually read his bible all the way through more than once and loved attending church and bible study) who believed that the whole bible was 100% true to an atheist in three days.

    Why did I bring this up? Because as a christian I would have found contradictions in the bible itself to be far more compelling than scientific arguments. I’m fairly sure that if someone had sat me down (any time from when I was a teenager up to when I was twenty) and showed me just a handful of those contradictions, I would have undergone the same process. (Probably not as quickly, since I likely wouldn’t have fortuitously encountered The God Delusion, but still fairly fast.) So, these types of arguments can actually be very effective, to a certain type of christian.

    • azgeo says

      Just thought I’d clarify this point before anyone points it out: I mentioned that I read my entire bible multiple times and yet I didn’t note the contradictions then. How did this happen? Well, the bible is very long and many parts of it are very boring. It is easy to miss that this part here disagrees with that part there when you spend over a year getting through the thing. ;)

      • Lord Narf says

        That’s what I assumed. We’re taught to read the Gospels sequentially, rather than in parallel. If you hold the Gospels up side-by-side and compare the telling of the various scenes, you can’t help but see the glaring problems between versions.

        … but Christians don’t do that. Hell, most rarely even hear more than one of the Gospels. Most preachers have their favorite gospel to do sermons out of, and their congregation never gets the alternative tellings.

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