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May 20 2011

How religion warps thinking

The many widespread and massive evil acts that god commits in the Bible (the story of Joshua being one) should logically undercut any religious belief in such a god. But the desire to believe is so ingrained in some people that they are willing to abandon the logic and evidence that they use in other areas of their lives in order to maintain the things they were indoctrinated with as children.

The best defense against charges of an evil god would be to concede that the Bible is pretty much entirely fiction. This should be easy to do since the evidence against the historicity of almost everything in the Bible is so overwhelming that one has to suspend all critical faculties to retain any credence. But of course religious people cannot do that. Believers have to cling to the historicity of the Bible, at least in its basic storyline and the main events, because they have nothing else.

They try to do this even though, for example, no traces of the kingdoms and magnificent palaces of David and Solomon have been found, although excavations have unearthed evidence of older civilizations. One inscription that was discovered refers to ‘the house of David’ but does not provide any information about who he was. No serious scholar thinks that a mighty king David ruling a large area ever existed. The only debate is over whether the person described in the Bible existed at all or was a minor warlord.

The Bible is riddled with contradictions, large and small. For example, camels are all over the Old Testament as symbols of wealth and as beasts of burden and they cause serious problems of credibility. The story of Abraham, who supposedly lived around 2,000 BCE, has plenty of camels in it. But we know that camels were not domesticated until 1,000 BCE and were used as beasts of burden only after 800 BCE. Furthermore, many of the place names mentioned in the Old Testament did not exist until the 6th or 7th centuries BCE. All these facts strongly support the proposition that the Bible consists of stories that were created after around 600 BCE, based on folklore and myths, with the authors simply projecting back in time. (The state of knowledge is summarized in the book The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand.)

The famous exodus story is another myth. According to Ussher’s Biblical chronology, this occurred around 1490 BCE. The story says that the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt for generations and then dramatically escaped under the leadership of Moses. While modernist believers are willing to concede that the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea may not be historical, they think the basic story is true. But there are no records of such captivity and no archeological evidence whatsoever to support the idea of 600,000 warriors (which one can estimate to about 3 million people if one includes the families of the warriors) wandering about in the Sinai desert for forty years. Absolutely nothing has been excavated in that region to suggest that a large community ever lived there for any extended period of time.

When you tell religious people this, they are surprised because their priests never informed them, assuming that the priests even know this. When I recently told this to a Catholic priest, he suggested (like most modernist believers seeking to believe in the face of evidence that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods) that while the Bible is true in its basic historical facts, it may not be accurate in all its details and may have been exaggerated. He suggested that the actual number of people who left Egypt may have been small enough to explain the lack of evidence in the Sinai. The fact that he was willing to make up this excuse on the spot to counter evidence that he had not seemed to be aware of suggests how deep is the desire to retain belief in the Bible’s historicity. It also seemed odd that he would so easily concede that the numbers were made up but insist that the event itself must have happened. How low can the numbers go before they become meaningless? Would a single person walking across the Sinai constitute ‘the exodus’?

I was also a bit disturbed that he did not seem to know about the lack of evidence for the exodus, even though he was a Catholic priest and thus should have attended a decent seminary with faculty who should have known about this scholarship. It just shows how religions need to keep their followers, and even their leaders, in the dark about basic facts that science has unearthed about the Bible in order to maintain belief.

But even conceding the possibility that the exodus story numbers may have been much smaller than stated in the Bible does not take away from the basic implausibility of the story. Take a look at this map of the Egyptian empire in the 15th century BCE.

ancient egypt.jpg

Note that the Egyptian empire extended all the way beyond Canaan. It does not make any sense to say that the Israelites ‘escaped’ from Egypt and went via Sinai to Canaan because their entire journey from start to finish would have been within the Egyptian empire. The whole exodus story not only lacks any empirical support, it makes no sense either.

A 2008 two-hour NOVA program titled The Bible’s Buried Secrets discusses the origins of the Bible and the Israelites in the light of modern archeological evidence. While staying within the bounds of facts, the program’s creators seem to be very sympathetic to believers and stretch the meager evidence to try and make the Bible stories (at least beginning after 1000 BCE which is around the time that David supposedly reigned) seem at least slightly plausible. But even they cannot hide the fact that the evidence for almost everything is either slim or none.

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