(Quick explanation: I’ve been in some frustrating debates with religious believers lately — one in particular — and it seems like the point-by-point squabbles have been missing the point. This piece is an attempt to step back from that, and look at the whole disagreement from a larger perspective.)
Instead, I want to step back for a moment and give you an idea of what your arguments sound like to someone who isn’t already a Christian. Not just to someone who’s a pretty convinced atheist, but to someone who doesn’t know what they think one way or another, who’s looking at different religious beliefs and deciding what to think. You seem to be at least somewhat sincere about wanting to understand non-believers, and I want to give you, and other believers, an idea of what religion — and religious apologetics — looks like to us.
When it comes to some Bible verses (such as the ones about hell), you say, “These shouldn’t be taken literally. You have to see them in context: the context of the times, the context of Jesus’s other teachings, etc. It’s a mistake to interpret them too literally.”
But when it comes to other verses, you say, “Look, how wonderful! The divine word of God! Isn’t it inspiring?”
Similarly, when there are factual things that the Bible got right, you say, “Look how accurate it is! It’s clearly a trustworthy source!” But when faced with Biblical inaccuracies and inconsistencies, again you say, “It’s a mistake to take the Bible too literally.”
Here’s why. You obviously can make a case for why your interpretation is the right one, why you’re correct about which verses to take literally and which not to. The problem is this: When I — and other atheists and non-believers and even just non-Christians — hear these kinds of interpretations and apologetics, you have to understand that we’ve heard dozens of them before. Possibly hundreds.
From people who are just as convinced as you are that their version is the right one, and who have equally extensive arguments to support their positions.
And all these versions are different.
In some cases, radically and wildly different, and completely in opposition to one another.
Every single Christian sect — arguably every single Christian — has their own different idea of how to correctly interpret the Bible; their own idea of which verses are important and which are trivial; their own idea of which verses to take literally as the divine word of God, and which verses are mis-translations or historical mis-interpretations or even flat-out mis-quotations. Some Christians believe that “Drink, for this is my blood” is meant to be taken literally; others believe it’s meant as a metaphor. Some believe that the verses about blasphemy being an unforgivable sin are trivial; others take them very seriously. Some believe that the idea of hell as eternal torment is a misunderstanding of Jesus’s message; others believe it’s one of the most central and vital messages in the book. Etc., etc., etc.
And they all have arguments for why their version is the right one.
Then, of course, you also have Muslims and Hindus and any number of other non-Christian religions and religious sects. They all have their own texts, and their own rationalizations for the errors in their texts, and their own explanations for why their faith — and their personal version of that faith — is the right one. Again, all with wildly different versions of those faiths.
Everyone is contorting themselves into pretzels to rationalize away the factual and moral problems with their sacred texts. And everyone just keeps pointing back to those texts, and to other believers, and to their own hearts, to prove their points. Nobody’s pointing at evidence out in the world to show why their understanding of God is the correct one… or if they do, as with the argument from design, they’re not doing a very good job of it.
Essentially, people who try to prove that their version of Christianity — or any religion — is the right one keep doing the same two things. It always comes down to either Scripture or personal religious experience. People will sometimes look to the historical record to support their point; but they’re always looking at what history says about Scripture, or what it says about someone’s personal religious experience. It always circles back to those two things.
The problem with citing Scripture as support for your belief is that it’s circular reasoning. You’re essentially saying, “I believe in the Bible because the Bible tells me to.” The thing about the Bible is that, if you don’t already believe in its divine truth, it looks very much like any other book, with parts that are inspiring and parts that are appalling, parts that are accurate and parts that are demonstrably flat-out wrong. The only way to see the Bible as perfect is to start with the assumption that it’s perfect, and then rationalize away all the inaccuracies and inconsistencies and moral atrocities.
And the problem with citing personal religious experience (yours or other people’s) as support for your belief… well, that should be obvious. The human brain is extremely good at self-deception, and one person’s personal experience is not to be trusted as a piece of evidence. Especially since people’s personal experiences of God differ so wildly. If God is revealing his truth to people through personal revelation, why would everybody’s revelations be so radically different? Why isn’t God capable of making himself clearly understood to everyone he talks to?
Most importantly of all:
Even if you could absolutely prove, with solid external historical evidence, that what you think Jesus meant really is what he meant… how does that prove that Jesus is the divine son of God? How does it prove anything other than that he was a person with some interesting ideas that you happen to share? The Bible isn’t a reliable source — again, it’s shot full of inaccuracies that take a mental contortionist to explain away. What evidence do you have — other than the Bible, and other than your personal experience and the personal experiences of other people — to support your theory that God exists?
Now. Compare this to other ways of trying to figure out what is and isn’t true about the world.
Science, for instance.
Scientists will certainly squabble with one another about the correct interpretation of data. But ultimately, they’re not just looking back at a pre-determined set of texts written thousands of years ago, and looking in their hearts to decide how to understand them. They’re looking out in the world. Theyâre gathering data, gathering evidence. They’re trying to figure out what’s true in the world by looking at the world, very carefully and very systematically, using a method that is specifically designed to screen out human bias and error as much as possible.
And when the data contradicting their opinion becomes too overwhelming, or the arguments against it become too compelling, they don’t twist their original opinion around in a series of apologetics explaining why the original opinion is still true and just needs to be interpreted correctly.
They say, “Huh. I guess I was wrong.”
So to someone who isn’t already attached to a religious belief, the combination of those two things — the fact that science is looking out in the world to figure the world out, and the fact that a central defining feature of science is a willingness to admit when it’s wrong — makes it look like a far more trustworthy source of information about the world than religion. Science has a built-in self-correcting mechanism; religion has the opposite, a built-in self-perpetuating mechanism that actively resists correction.
Now, you can argue — you have argued — that religion, not science, is equipped to answer questions like: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Where do we come from? Where are we going?
I must respectfully disagree. Partly because, as is obvious, I think religion is a mistaken idea about how the world works, and any philosophy of life based on it will therefore have a foundation of sand.
But I also think science, and the information about the world and ourselves that science has gathered and continues to gather, can definitely help us answer some or all of these questions. (A few possibilities: We are here because our ancestors’ DNA successfully replicated itself… and in a larger sense, because of the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. We create our own meaning of life. We come from the molecules of the earth and the heat and light of the sun. And that’s pretty much where we’re going, leaving behind whatever work we’ve done in the world and whatever patterns and ideas we’ve created or passed along. Plus, of course, our DNA, if we’ve successfully replicated it.)
And one of the things science (or the philosophy of science, anyway) shows us about understanding life is that a theory that can’t possibly be falsified is useless. If a theory can be twisted around to explain absolutely anything that happens or that might conceivably happen, then it has no predictive power, no ability to help us understand how the world works.
Which brings me back to my point about the circularity of religious thinking. Take another look at Ebon Musing’s observation about theists, in his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists: “Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, ‘Nothing — I have faith in my god.’”
And ask yourself the question he asks: Is there anything that would convince you that you were mistaken? Is there any possible piece of evidence that could persuade you that God does not exist?
If the answer is “No” — if your answer is, “That’s what faith means, it means believing in God without demanding evidence and no matter what happens” — then you’ve pretty much proven my point. Religious belief is a snake eating its own tail. It’s a self-referential game of Twister. And it doesn’t help us understand or explain anything at all, about ourselves or the world.