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Feb 16 2011

Why atheism is winning-2: Religion’s Achilles heel

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I looked at some of the theoretical arguments made by accommodationists for not criticizing religion and discussed why I did not think them very credible.

The other arguments that accommodationists make are practical ones. Belief in a god, we are told, serves some positive ends, such as inculcating moral values or causing people to refrain from bad actions for fear of divine retribution, and eliminating it would result in antisocial behavior by some. The counter to this argument is that there is no evidence that religious people are more moral than non-religious people or that lack of religious beliefs drive people to evil actions.

The other practical argument is that religions have been around forever and will continue to be around forever so fighting to eliminate them is futile and only serves to alienate those moderate religious people whose assistance we need in the struggle against dangerous and pernicious forms of religious extremism. Hence the best that atheists can hope for is to form an alliance with moderate religious believers. To attack religion in all its forms is to risk pushing the moderate religious faction into an alliance with the extremists. This is the argument that I am going to address in some depth in this series by arguing that the seeming durability of religion is an accidental byproduct of history and those factors that sustained it for so long are no longer the force they once were.

The idea that one can hope to eliminate extreme forms of religion and be left with just the cuddly moderate forms is an illusion. On the contrary, it is the very existence of any form of religion at all that enables the extreme forms to survive. The followers of extreme forms of religion do not in the least see themselves as extreme. On the contrary they see themselves as the true believers, the center, because they are the ones who take the commands of their religious texts seriously and follow them diligently. The moderates are seen by them as people who lack seriousness and have compromised their religion in order to gain social acceptance in the secular world and enjoy worldly pleasures despite the commands of their religious texts.

As long as these religious texts are treated as venerable and as the ‘word of god’ (however one interprets that ambiguous phrase), there will always be extreme forms of religion and endless debates between moderates and extremists as to who has the correct interpretation of the texts. Such an argument is necessarily going to be inconclusive, since there is no objective means of arriving at a conclusion and what is the best interpretation is always going to be in the eyes of the beholder.

A better way to counter religious extremism is to strike at its very core and point out that the very basis of their religious beliefs, the texts themselves, are basically ideological tracts written by people at particular times in history to serve particular ends. They are little more than works of fiction using the occasional bit of actual history to create a fanciful narrative. They bear even less of a relationship to actual history than the highly tenuous ones that the film Birth of a Nation and the book Gone With the Wind do to the history of the Civil War and the period of the Reconstruction.

It is easy to make this case objectively and conclusively because the evidence is already at hand and the scholarly work has been done, is well established and this knowledge is widely known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts. For example, using all the tools at their disposal, such as archeological findings, modern scientific tools, and textual analysis, the evidence is overwhelming that almost everything in the Old Testament of the Bible is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. All the major characters and events (Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, the captivity of Jews in Egypt, the exodus, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.) are fictional. The story that the books of the Old Testament tells is interesting and complex and full of charismatic figures and magical events but so is the Harry Potter series but we do not believe it to be true for that reason.

Many people, even non-believers, will be surprised at the claims that I make in the previous paragraph, because even those who do not accept the Adam and Eve and Noah stories still tend to think that the later stories of Egyptian captivity and Moses and David and Solomon are based on facts. They will question why, if the falsity of these things are so well known within the scholarly community that studies religious texts, and given the importance of this topic and its obvious relevance, this knowledge has not been disseminated to the general public.

I suspect that these facts are not broadcast widely or even mentioned in polite company because Christianity and Judaism and Islam, even in their so-called moderate forms, cannot survive if these things are widely known because their theology all depend on varying degrees in believing in the historicity of at least some of these people and events. This is religion’s Achilles heel. The advent of modern tools of scientific analysis has exposed this heel and has tilted the balance away from religion in a decisive way. It is impossible to see how re-truthify (to coin a word) these legends. There is no going back and this is why religion is doomed.

Next: The clergy’s dilemma

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Donald Boos

    I have theory about the bible’s exodus story. Experts on Egypt agree that there never were that many Israelis captive in Egypt, yet there may be a semblance of truth in the exodus story. In fact the United States had a very similar event. Recall Joseph Smith and the Mormons? He claimed to have found golden tablets that were sent from heaven. He started a radical cult called the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Because of their radical views they were unpopular with the established religions. Harassment by neighboring Christians forced them to move, settling in Kirtland Ohio. Harassment continued and they moved again. This time even farther west where they set up a colony in Salt Lake City Utah. This could be classed as a U.S. exodus.

    In Egypt the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV decreed that all Egyptians would worship just one god, and that god would be Aten. He changed his name to Aknahten. Which meant lover of Aten, He moved the capitol to a newly built city he named Amarna. This caused much unrest among the Egyptians. ( Imagine the U.S. citizens if the Supreme Court ruled that the only religion would be LDS). After 17 years reign, Aknahten died. The new rulers reverted to the previous religions. It’s safe to assume many converts were still firm believers of the one god concept. Moses could have been a priest of this group. This group was harassed as was the LDS group in the U.S. Either when the harassment became unbearable or they were driven out, they decided to migrate. This became the biblical exodus.
    Robert Feather advocates that this is the origin of the one god concept of the Hebrews

  2. 2
    Peter

    OK, Mano, you got me!

    I was raised Congregationalist Protestant (or whatever you want to call it), but rejected the idea of the actual existence of a God some time in my early teens. I concurrently had extremely strong doubts about the so-called historical accuracy of the Bible, but assumed that the general narrative arc reflected actual events.

    My parents were kind enough to send me to a private school which started us in Latin in 6th grade. This exposed me to mountains of ‘ancient’ greco-roman writings. There was a very rich and involved mythological body, and some of it seemed to reflect echoes of much older actual events: A Bronze monster throwing flaming rocks at a ship sailing the Cyclades certainly could be a way of recording the experiences of sailors passing too close to a volcano.

    In that light, I simply assumed that much of the bible was the same: a nugget of truth, polished by generations into a nice little fable. Of course Moses didn’t cause the Red Sea (or Reed Sea, or whatever) to drain! But the fact of the exodus I took at face value.

    But then you taunt me with the claim that there isn’t any reason to think that the Exodus happened… so I spend about 5 minutes reading some things, and there it is. Or rather, there it isn’t and never was!

    Indeed, it is a sad commentary on the blinding effect of religion on the rest of us.

    Thank you for making me think.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Peter,

    You needn’t feel bad. Even I, who considered myself a pretty knowledgeable Christian who studied the Bible and biblical history and took exams in them as part of my training for the lay ministry, was never told about all these things being fiction. So it should not be surprising that most believers have no clue.

  4. 4
    Don Boos

    Mono,
    I think the economists have it all wrong about money spent on the on infrastructure and public employees on the debt. That is money that stays within the system. Cutting those programs does not reduce the debt. It only redistributes the wealth to to the upper classes (those who have the most wealth). The conservatives are opposed to redistribution but are in favor of this defacto redistribution. Fair taxation should be based on a percentage of individual wealth.

  5. 5
    David

    While I would agree there is not the amount of evidence for Old Testament events that most would expect, there is evidence.
    Such as a clay tablet deciphered in the British Museum with inscriptions about King Nebuchadnezzar
    from Jeremiah 39:3

    A reference to King David uncovered at Tel Dan

    The discovery of the pool of Siloam mentioned in the book of Kings – 20.

    There are many others, that you did not even mention when making a statement like

    “the evidence is overwhelming that almost everything in the Old Testament of the Bible is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.”

    I would expect at least an acknowledgment of these other pieces of the puzzle not obfuscation.

  6. 6
    Mano Singham

    David,

    I put the ‘almost’ in there for this reason. I did not want to repeat stuff that I had written before but perhaps I should have put links to them, especially to my series on The Bible as history.

    It is only the very last part of the OT that makes contact with actual history and where Nebuchadnezzar appears.

    I also talk about the minimal evidence for David.

  7. 7
    Raskolnikov

    So David, if a Harry Potter book contains a reference to George W. Bush, that proves Harry Potter exists? Really, think it through before you say something.

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