The radio discussion on the Pew religion survey

The call-in radio program on the Pew survey on religious knowledge (in which atheists and agnostics turned out to know the most about religion) was interesting. The other members of the panel were Tim Beal, a professor of religious studies at my own university (whose field of specialization is the Old Testament), and Reverend Marvin McMickle, the pastor of a Baptist church in Cleveland. (You can listen to the program here and it is also available as a downloadable podcast.)

The discussion got quite interesting around the 21-minute mark when Beal pointed out that many professors of religious studies are, in fact, atheists. I followed up by pointing out that the more one knew what was in the Bible or the more one learned about the background to the Bible, the more likely one was to become an unbeliever. Most people’s knowledge of religion is what they learned as stories when they were children in Sunday school and does not get much more sophisticated than that. I pointed out that almost anyone who went to seminary and studied the Bible learned that much of what they believed had no basis and that this came as a shock to many, moving them towards unbelief. I quoted the study by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola on unbelieving priests where they said that a common joke they heard from them was that “If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven’t been paying attention.”

After all, there is no historical or archeological evidence for almost all of the Old Testament. Let alone the obvious fictions about Adam and Even and Noah and the like, there is no evidence for Abraham, Moses, of Israelis kept in captivity, and no archeological evidence of the exodus consisting of 600,000 warriors (about 3 million people) wandering for forty years in the Sinai desert. The conquest by Joshua never happened and Jericho was an insignificant little town that was unwalled. No traces of the kingdoms and the magnificent palaces of David and Solomon have ever been found though excavations have unearthed traces of older societies. The main controversy among scholars is whether the famous king David existed at all or was at most a minor chieftain.

Instead of being a continuous narrative of the history of a people, the OT should be considered as a library of fictional books written by multiple authors between the late 6th century BCE and the early 2nd century BCE in order to propagate certain myths and promote monotheism. It has been revised repeatedly over the years until being ‘canonized’ around the 4th century CE as the Bible that people now take to be the word of god. Beal agreed with me on these facts.

McMickle was clearly agitated by my comments and protested vehemently. What I found amusing was that he did not challenge me on the facts, which of course he cannot. He instead said that he was shocked that I could so casually dismiss three thousand years of belief by so many people. He went on to speak of the value of religion in sustaining people through slavery. He (and a caller) implied that they did not worry too much about the historical and scientific accuracy of the Bible but that simply accepted the canonical Bible.

I was also amused that a caller (at around the 30 minute mark) seemed to be incredulous that someone who had once been a Christian seemed to be denying Jesus and was ‘almost’ blaspheming. I made it clear in my response that I was definitely denying Jesus and had no problems with being considered a blasphemer. I later regretted that I did not add that I also denied Allah, Krishna, Yahweh, Zoroaster, Zeus, and even the Holy Spirit (whom I like to fondly call Harvey), which is the one sin that Jesus says that Melvin will not forgive. I like to think of myself as an equal opportunity blasphemer.

A little later, in response to an atheist caller who said that he was angry that none of his priests had told him about the lack of historicity and unknown authorship of the gospels (another fact that Beal confirmed), I said almost all priests know all this stuff but cannot share this with their parishioners because that would be a bad career move. It would freak out their flock and likely get them fired and there is little that an ex-priest is qualified for. So they stay silent and allow their parishioners to continue to hold on to their childish Sunday school myths as if it were history. Preachers like McMickle are willing to concede obliquely in intellectual conversations that it is not important to them whether the events in Bible are historically true or not but you can be sure that they will never say from their pulpits that there is no evidence that the events described in the OT ever occurred.

The key difference between scientists and religious people is that scientists value the role of evidence in supporting belief and care whether something is true or not, and know that it is quite possible for almost everyone to believe things that are false for a very long time. So the fact that people have believed their religious myths for millennia is of sociological interest but of no significance as regards to its truth-value. The key question is whether there is any evidence for these beliefs. The fact is that there is none. There is as much evidence for Moses as there is for Santa Claus.

As for the benefit of religion sustaining people through slavery, one could just as well make the case that the reason slaveholders encouraged slaves to become Christians was to make them passive and accepting of their awful lot in this world, with the promise of rewards after they die.