(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
While developments in science have provided the most powerful arguments against the existence of god in any form, it is not only science that has led to the undermining of traditional religious beliefs. As far as Christianity and Judaism are concerned, other areas of scholarly work, such as modern textual scholarship in the form of the so-called ‘higher criticism’, coupled with careful archeological studies, have shown that the Bible is very much a human-created document and that there is little or no evidence for the validity of any of the knowledge contained in it.
It now seems clear that almost the entire history presented in the Bible (such as the stories of Abraham, Moses, the captivity and exodus from Egypt, David, Solomon, etc.), right up to the period when the Israelites were taken into exile by the Persians in about 650 BCE, is fiction. The present day Bible has been shown to be essentially a political document written in the centuries between 400 BCE and 100 CE, and consists of the codification of documents produced by priests beginning around 650 BCE, very long after almost all the events it purportedly claims to record. (See my earlier series of posts on this topic.)
Even for events reported in the New Testament, the evidence is very weak that some person named Jesus lived at the appropriate time claimed by Christians and, even if he did exist, there is no credible evidence for the claims of his followers about his virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, and other supposed clues to his divinity.
The idea that the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text is divinely inspired is hard to sustain. Religious people can and do cherry-pick passages from them to suggest that they contain information that could only have come from a divine entity but these arguments are laughably inadequate.
For example, at a recent science-religion program sponsored by the Campus Freethought Alliance held at Case, a religious panelist suggested that the Bible must be true since it predicted some things that came to pass later. But the examples he gave were weak, consisting mainly of things that Jesus said or did that were supposedly predicted by the Old Testament prophets. This is the kind of argument that will only satisfy the already devout because even the Bible itself says that Jesus had studied the scriptures and actively sought to satisfy the prophecies. Thus the Bible itself undermined the speaker’s case but he seemed to be unaware of this implication.
This willingness of believers to suspend rational analysis when it comes to their own beliefs is widely prevalent. Recently two young Mormon missionaries came to my home to try and convert me. They told me the story of Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon based on the golden plates that he supposedly discovered and which subsequently disappeared again after he had translated them using the magic stones. When I asked them why I should believe the writings in their holy book, they told me that it made predictions that had come true. When I asked them to name one, they said that the book had predicted Columbus’s voyage to America. When I pointed out that Joseph Smith lived in the 19th century, long after that voyage, and that this could hardly be considered a prediction, they said that Golden Plates had been created long before Columbus. When I asked them how they knew this, they said that Joseph Smith had said so!
These Mormon missionaries were young, articulate, and seemingly intelligent people. The fact that they did not seem to realize that they were arguing in a circle and basically claiming authority for a text on the basis of nothing other than the claims of that same text shows just how much religion subverts people’s most basic reasoning skills. I see the same thing with Christians who try to convince me about the reality of Jesus and god by quoting passages from the Bible. It does not seem to strike them that this makes little sense.
Even on the most basic of facts, the Bible falls short. For example, 1 Kings 7:23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4:2-5 gives the value of pi (as the ratio of circumference to diameter) as 3. As Sam Harris points out in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 61), “But the Egyptians and Babylonians both approximated pi to a few decimal places several centuries before the oldest books of the Bible were written. The Bible offers us an approximation that is terrible even by the standards of the ancient world.” In other words, even by the standards of knowledge available elsewhere at that time, the Bible got it hopelessly wrong.
As for making predictions, the Bible is simply terrible. It makes no predictions worthy of the name. As Harris says, “If the Bible were such a book [of prophecy], it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as “In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers – the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus – and this system shall be called the Internet.” The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.” (Harris, p. 60, my italics)
The idea that the Bible (or the Koran) can form the basis of a moral life has also come under serious attack because the morality that is espoused in it can only be described as appalling. It is all too easy to find passages that indicate god’s approval of slavery, prostitution, genocide, and rape, and to find punishment by death being advocated for such absurdities as working on the Sabbath, wearing garments made of different threads, planting different crops side by side, showing disrespect for parents, or for sundry sexual transgressions. As Richard Dawkins says in his narration in the British television documentary The Root of All Evil, “The god of the old testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist, an ethnic cleanser, urging his people on to acts of genocide.”
Thus the Bible has an awful record when it comes to history, mathematics, science, morality, and predictions.
The problem for religious people of how to deal with theodicy (why a loving all-powerful god can allow evil to occur) is also one that will not go away, however much religious people might try to paper over its problems. How can anyone contemplate the unspeakable atrocities committed during the Holocaust, the Vietnam war, the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda and of Native Americans, slavery, (the list can go on almost indefinitely) and still believe in a kind and loving and providential god?
All these problems are well known to religious scholars but are not raised so much among the general public. And for a long time, the dubious argument of showing ‘respect for religion’ prevented even non-religious people from pointing out forcefully all these obvious weaknesses of religion, and that religious texts had had no scientific or historical or moral validity and should be viewed as little more than fiction.
But that has changed. The new atheists have not hesitated to highlight all these weaknesses of religion that have come to the fore because of advances in science and other disciplines.
Next: The politics of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion
POST SCRIPT: Zinn on the American empire
Historian Howard Zinn has a new cartoon book A People’s History of American Empire, with voiceover by Viggo Mortensen.
(Thanks to TomDispatch.com.)
You can read Zinn’s views on the American empire here.