You Down With O.T.G?

Question from Joseph:
Hey, I’m an undergrad at a Christian college and my major is Biblical studies. I was raised an evangelical Christian but have been an agnostic for about a year now.

I have a lot of respect for the Bible and think it is under-studied and under-appreciated by atheists.

Anyways, here is one question I’ve thought about. If the OT prophets were misinformed and delivered messages from a figment of their imagination, then why were their messages so self-critical of their people and generally doom-and-gloom messages? You would think if someone wanted to imagine a God, they would make him a lot more compassionate and less vengeful and jealous. Also, where the heck did they actually get their oracles from? Most people don’t discourse with their imaginations to the point of writing out lengthy books about them. The prophets also performed object lessons to demonstrate God’s messages. For example, Ezekiel laid on his side for over a year!

The prophets also predicted a lot of events (usually vague, but still…) that came true. I wonder if this is the same type of trick that fortune tellers use, where they give a vague answer that will inevitably be manifested at some point in time, while those with a confirmation bias will end up being convinced of divine foreknowledge. But some of the prophecies were quite specific…where did the prophets come up with these?

Answer by SmartLX:
To address a couple of things very quickly:
– The Bible is classical literature, certainly. Like all classical literature it’s underappreciated as such in today’s world, and not just by atheists. That said, given that atheists reject the central claims of the Bible, they’re not usually motivated to delve into the nitty-gritty. See my piece on theology.
– Someone advocating the fulfilment of a prophecy wants you to consider only two possibilities: that it was pure coincidence and an impossibly lucky guess, or it was genuine divinely bestowed foreknowledge. There are many other possibilities, some of which I’ve named and numbered in my earlier piece on prophecies.

Now as for the character of God in the Old Testament, let’s continue to assume that the stories were made up, as you posit, for the sake of argument. God does not have a likeable personality because the purpose of the stories is clearly not to make people feel good. (There’d be a lot less genocide in it if that were the case, for one thing.) The purpose of the stories is to inspire awe and fear of God, to influence people’s behaviour as per the Commandments (not just the Ten, either) and to drive people to spread the Word. Like in any narrative, the characters need to be what they are for the author to deliver his or her message, not just for their own sake.

You do get the impression that people did some extraordinary things to receive their messages from God and to get the books written, but that doesn’t really speak for their veracity. Some of their actions, like Ezekiel’s marathon reclining session, could be exaggerated accounts themselves – or even if they’re genuine they could have degraded these people’s mental states to the point where they heard from the God of their day without any real divine communication at all.

We’ll never really know what happened to people like Ezekiel, but an extraordinary story hardly warrants jumping straight to a specific supernatural explanation.

Biblical Evidence Disqualified?

Question from Zach:
Does Christians not having evidence that isn’t rooted in the Bible mean there is no proof that has yet been discovered?

Answer by SmartLX:
What’s in the Bible isn’t proof either, so regardless of the Bible there’s no available proof at all.

There are quite a few different ways in which people attempt to prove the truth of Christianity using the Bible, some of which we’ve looked at here (see following links where available) but none of which have achieved much more than to reassure those who already believe.
– They argue that the text couldn’t have stayed as intact as it is from copy to copy from the original manuscript if the important bits weren’t true. To address this as briefly as I can, this is not convincing, because yes it could have.
– They argue that the Bible makes prophecies that are fulfilled in later books of the Bible, came true later or reveal scientific truths unknown to the people of the ancient world. This was Great Big Argument #5 in my series.
– They argue from their own personal “religious experiences” while reading the Bible, claiming that God has done what He’s supposed to do and acted upon them through His Word. This is extremely subjective, and unless it results in a verifiable miracle it’s not verifiable at all. It’s their word against anyone else’s.
– They argue that if people acted as written in the four Gospels and afterwards, then Jesus must really have risen from the dead. This one has caused a lot of long arguments here with little progress, and it remains unconvincing to non-believers no matter how incontrovertible it sounds to believers when it’s coming out of Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell or William Lane Craig. One problem is that Christians tend to be very, very reluctant to concede the slightest point about Jesus, so central is he to the truth claims of the religion. If you want to wade in, there are recent-ish articles about Jesus here and here. This answer has links to tons of material both within and outside Ask the Atheist if you want to go all out.

Multiple questions, as if by telegram

Questions from Naki:
What are they seeking for?
Is there anything in the world that GOD didn’t mention in the bible? Yes? What is it? Is atheist right? how?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists are a diverse bunch, seeking many different objectives. There are a few objectives shared by large numbers or even the majority of outspoken atheists: freedom from religious persecution, the end of religious privilege, secular morality and government, and of course the end of prejudice against atheists.

There’s plenty that isn’t mentioned in the Bible, let alone in statements attributed to God in the Bible, because the last book in the Bible was completed before the year AD 100 (or 100 CE). It didn’t mention Islam, the Crusades, the steam engine or the internet. Neither did it mention much of what was happening at the time of its writing in places inaccessible to its human authors; for instance there’s no mention of the Australian Aborigines.

It’s not certain, of course, but I think atheists are more likely to be right than believers in any given religion. The main reason for this is that even if atheists are wrong and there’s at least one god, the chance that believers in a particular god are correct is one in the number of possible gods. That may well be infinite, so the effective chance of a given god approaches zero.

The Old Testament – Ancient Chinese Edition

Question from Heather:
Awhile back (probably 2 years ago) I saw this site that said the Chinese language documented the events of the Old Testament. I forgot the exact words they used but basically certain things translated directly to “woman and serpent” or “boat with many mouths.” Things like that. How do you explain a language “documenting the events of the Old Testament”?

Answer by SmartLX:
This argument for Christianity is put forth in full by the book The Discovery of Genesis: How The Truths of Genesis Were Found In The Chinese Language. Three examples of the supposed links are shown here.

Shortly after the book was published, it was pointed out to the authors that the analyses were based on the modern forms of the Chinese characters, most of which came about long after the time of Christ and hardly counted as “ancient” in comparison to the Bible. The book Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn’t Solve followed very quickly, which threw out much of the earlier material and started over. (Confucius, of course, had nothing to do with any of this.)

Some specific criticisms of the books and their underlying argument can be found in the customer reviews of each book on Amazon, particularly the 1-star reviews. To address the issue very broadly, however, these claims rely on single interpretations of just the few most applicable of the thousands of Chinese characters, most of which already have plausible secular etymology. If a symbol literally means “woman and serpent”, for example, to how many different legends (or real-life snake stories akin to Cleopatra’s) could this be referring besides Genesis? Why is it more likely that the symbol was magically transmitted from a foreign story than simply adapted from some part of the great wealth of Asian mythology?

The real issue, similar to that of “God’s Pharmacy”, is confirmation bias. People notice the few coincidental links in a sea of possible combinations of Chinese symbols and Judeo-Christian icons, and ignore the fact that because there are so many of both we would expect a few matches even if there’s no real connection.

Familiarity with Scripture

Question from Casey:
Ever read the Bible or any other religious doctrine?

Answer by SmartLX:
Growing up as a Christian, and attending Catholic primary school for many years, I became quite familiar with the Bible. We mainly dealt with the most well-known parts of it: Genesis, Exodus, the four Gospels and so on. I was never devout enough to try to read the thing recreationally (except for one attempt, from which I was soon distracted) but I think I was exposed to a great deal of it. Nowadays, I use Bible Gateway and other online copies of the text to look up passages as and when they become relevant to questions from the site, or my own curiosity. To be frank, the more I read the less I like or believe it.

As for other religious texts, like the Quran, the Book of Mormon or the Talmud, I mostly know their contents from quotes. I do of course make sure a scripture really says what I think it says before I attempt to describe its position on an issue or event. If you think I’ve misrepresented something in the Bible (going by your following question, Casey, it’s clear that you’re a Christian), let me know.

Jake and Andrea will add their experiences with religious texts, if they’re around.

The Bible, and Pascal’s Wager, in that order

Question from Quentina:
What problems have you found with the Bible?

And what if God is real and you’re wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
The basic problem with the Bible is that it was written between 3000 and 1900 years ago by a varied group of authors, some of whom had read the others’ work but most of whom never knew each other, and who by today’s standards were woefully uneducated. Furthermore, while there’s plenty of evidence outside the Bible that people believed the stories soon after they were written, there’s little to no evidence that the central events therein (especially the supernatural events) actually happened.

If you want to get into specifics, the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is a great start. Yes, since it was created others have devoted themselves to reconciling every single criticism it levels at the Bible, and links to some of the responses are in the SAB itself. The majority of those reconciliations, however, rely on a single interpretation of the text being the right one, and in each case there’s little support for that particular interpretation – other than that it’s the one that makes the Bible correct, which is an argument from consequences.

If I’m wrong, it doesn’t make any given believer right. If I’m wrong and God is real, God might still not be the one you think He is (assuming you believe in God), or behave as you think He does, or want from us what you think He does. In fact, if there’s a god, there are so many possible gods that the chances of your god being the real one are so very small that you’re almost certain to be worshipping a false god. You may be punished by the real god when you die, depending on how jealous he or she is.

If on the other hand you can demonstrate, or otherwise provide evidence or a logical argument, not only that there is a real god but that your god is the real one, you don’t need to rhetorically make atheists wonder whether they’re wrong; you can actually persuade them that they are wrong and you’re right. The fact that you haven’t simply attempted this straight away suggests that you know you don’t actually have such evidence or arguments. If you do have something, lay it on the table.

Taking The Bible By The Horns

Question from Brian (the earlier one):
What is the best way to refute the Bible?

Answer by SmartLX:
Don’t bother to refute the whole thing, and keep your goals in mind.

There are those who believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, but there isn’t an equal and opposite faction of people who think every single word is false, and for good reason. The Bible uses some real locations (Jerusalem, Babylon, Alexandria) and involves real people (Nebuchadnezzar II, Pontius Pilate) and describes some events we have no reason to doubt (the spread of Christianity in the first century). Forrest Gump does the same with 20th century history, so it’s no indication of the veracity of the overall narratives, but not everything in there is completely baseless.

So if you’re not about to refute the whole Bible in one go, you need to decide which specific position you want to refute. In principle, the easiest one to topple is the doctrine of Biblical literalism/inerrancy (even if the two are officially distinct, they’re very close). It’s the idea that there are absolutely no errors in the Bible, and every claim is literally true. You can refute that just by establishing a single error or contradiction, no matter how small or insignificant.

The Skeptics’ Annotated Bible is your best friend here; check out the Contradictions and Absurdities sections for a wealth of issues. As you know, Brian, other websites have made a point of responding directly to every item in the SAB. SAB links to many of these, so pick the stuff where you don’t buy the counter-explanations, or there are none.

(A word on these counter-explanations, after reading a bunch of them: many explain away contradictions by suggesting specific interpretations or extra undocumented events which, if correct, reconcile bits of the Bible with other bits. There’s never any evidence that these interpretations are the correct ones, or that the extra events happened. Therefore while the explanations may stop one from establishing that the Bible is definitely in error in a specific case, by no means should they reassure anyone that it is definitely internally consistent.)

Otherwise, you can attack the big issues where a literal reading of the Bible contradicts whole areas of physical science – biology, geology, astrophysics, time, etc. You’re in for a bigger fight in that case, because tremendous resources have been devoted to defending the Bible against science (or as a creationist would say, defending it with science).

If you want to go past the inerrantists and refute the Bible to the extent that it convinces a broader range of Christians and Jews that their faith is misplaced, you have to go after the core events. For Jews it’s the lives of Moses and King David, for Christians it’s the life and particularly the rebirth of Jesus and for certain subsets of both groups it’s Genesis. If the last two times I’ve properly discussed Jesus with a Christian have established anything, it’s that it can be bloody hard to visibly move people an inch on issues they well know are the linchpins of their beliefs.

If you have any success in this area, I certainly want to hear about it.

If only there were…oh, wait, there is!

Ladies, genetlemen and Brian, I give you the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, with the SA Quran and SA Book of Mormon thrown in.

Question from Brian:
Is there some kind of online resource for atheists? I was thinking of something like an online bible with highlighted contradictions or something. I couldn’t find anything though.

Answer by SmartLX:
Ladies, genetlemen and Brian, I give you the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, with the SA Quran and SA Book of Mormon thrown in. Issues are listed by chapter and verse, as well as category (e.g. Contradictions, Absurdity and Intolerance). It’s the single most comprehensive online Bible study guide that doesn’t immediately try to plug every hole with rationalisations in the name of “Biblical exegesis”.

The SAB has been around long enough that several Biblical inerrantist groups and individuals have started counter-projects to answer every single issue it raises, as a matter of principle. The creator of the SAB isn’t concerned by this; he lists the responses on the site, and includes links with each highlighted issue to any specific responses from those counter-projects which are freely available (some are now commercial products). These responses are just as informative to read as the site itself, because they show just how hard you have to work to reconcile certain passages with the doctrine of inerrancy, or divine co-authorship, or even common sense.

So go check it out. I’m right here if anybody wants to discuss something specific pointed out by the SAB.

Evidence in the Bible

“Well, the Bible is evidence. It’s evidence of what early Jews and Christians thought, or at least told people, was true. However it’s not such good evidence that the events therein are true.”

Question from Brian:
What is the best way to deny that the bible counts as “evidence?”

Well, the Bible is evidence. It’s evidence of what early Jews and Christians thought, or at least told people, was true. However it’s not such good evidence that the events therein are true.

It essentially makes a series of claims. Some of these claims are outlandish by historical standards, others less so. Some require the laws of physics to be broken, others don’t. Some can be investigated, others can’t. Some have apparently been proven to be true, others apparently disproven.

The central, critical claims in the Bible are all supernatural, like the Ten Plagues or the resurrections of Lazarus or Jesus or of course the existence of God. There’s no agreed threshold of documentation quality beyond which claims like these are generally accepted. Believers tend to think that’s because unbelievers are in denial and won’t accept any level of evidence if it leads to a conclusion they don’t like. Unbelievers tend to think it’s because all the evidence so far hasn’t actually demonstrated the truth or even the likelihood of a supernatural claim. Both may in fact be the case simultaneously, or only one, or neither.

To answer your question, it’s worth drilling down a bit to find the believer’s real argument. Ask something like, “Why does the fact that someone wrote 2000+ years ago that this happened mean that it actually happened?” The answer will tell you why your believer thinks the Bible is good evidence, and will be along one of several lines: uncanny preservation of the original text, corroboration of different texts, the idea that people died because they wrote it and so on. Between this site and the old one (see the archive link in the sticky post) I’ve replied to most of these at some point.


Where’d it all come from? Religion, that is?

“The Christian religion three days after Jesus’ death, if you believe any of what’s written, was fewer than twenty people, none of whom had yet written anything of note.”

Question from Caalia:
Did the bible start the Christian religion? In other words, were there believers in yahweh, his creation,the ten commandments, etc. before the compilation of the bible?

I heard the bible was written years after the said events (be they fictional or factual). If so, where did the believers in Yahweh before the compilation and writings of the bible get there ideas from? What was there source, if not the Torah, or the bible?

There were certainly believers in Yahweh, creation and the Ten Commandments before Christianity, and before the Bible as we know it was completed, because those are all Jewish beliefs as well as Christian.

These events are all laid out in detail in the Torah, which is actually the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy from what’s now the Old Testament. As far as anyone knows it was started over a thousand years BC and finished five to six hundred years BC. People believed in these things and passed them down through their families long before they wrote about them. Literacy was hardly widespread in the ancient world.

Specifically Christian beliefs, i.e. those pertaining to Jesus, began during Jesus’ supposed lifetime, with people claiming he was the Messiah. Stories about his resurrection began soon after the supposed date of his execution, and the Gospels were written something like five to fifty years after that when there was already a fairly large population of Christians.

Generally speaking, “sacred” texts are written to spread beliefs, not to start them. They’re written by people who already believe, or at least want others to believe. The Christian religion three days after Jesus’ death, if you believe any of what’s written, was fewer than twenty people, none of whom had yet written anything of note. Only years later did they commit it all to parchment.