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.

Thank Who?

Question from Omar:
Hello there, I find myself in a little situation and I’m here asking for your help. I’m an atheist, been for a long time now and as of late I’ve noticed that I can’t find and expression that substitutes the so famous thank God. It’s not such a big issue as you may notice it’s just that it’s really frustrating not being able to come up with a new phrase.
People ask me how I’m doing and when I answer I would like to have the opportunity to say something like “I’m fine thank ….” Obviously not God because that would be a huge lie on my behalf and I could not forgive myself.

So the thing is I’d like to ask you what phrase do you use or heard being used if that’s the case.

Thanks in advance.

Answer by SmartLX:
The language lingers long after the belief has gone, doesn’t it? From personal examples like this to the days of the week named after Norse gods, the lexicon is constantly influenced by passing religions.

I often say “…thank crap” just because it sounds kind of funny. Here in Australia I know several people who say “…thank f**k” because they’ll use any excuse to throw in the f-word. Others in my circle are just happy with “…thank God” or “…thank Christ”. If people are feeling particularly mild, they’ll dig out the ancient bowdlerism “…thank goodness”. An atheist in an activist mood can even make a point of using an obsolete god:
“Thank Zeus!”
“Zeus? Why Zeus?”
“Well, why God?”

Gratitude for the workings of the universe is essentially a theistic idea, and as baseless as any other theistic idea if there’s apparently no deity in control of our destiny, so thanks aren’t appropriate except in the straightforward cause-and-effect sense, e.g. “I’m fine, thanks to that bucket of water that was right next to the stove.”

Without thanks, what you have available are simpler statements like, “I’m fine, luckily/fortunately/so far/touch wood.” Or you can just stop short and give the gratitude to the person who asked you how you are: “I’m fine, thanks.”

You’ve got lots of options, and they’re not limited to the above. Take your pick.

God and Schizophrenia

Question from David:
What is the general consensus amongst atheists about the experiences of schizophrenics? Perhaps this is a naive question but bear with me.

I am referring particularly to the profoundly spiritual aspects of the experiences often had by schizophrenics, particularly in regards the feeling of depersonalisation and spiritual isolation and/or feeling of connection and closeness to God and depth of these experiences. This is often the case with people who have previously been complete atheists. I thought this type of spiritual conversion process might well be of interest, especially because it is considered a psychological/ physiological issue.

Any replies or insights would be helpful.

Answer by SmartLX:
Many Christians, especially those belonging to charismatic churches which celebrate, encourage and actively seek dramatic personal experiences of God or Jesus, will tell non-believers the stories of their own experiences because they think it’s the best way to convert them. This is because a perceived personal encounter with a deity can be so convincing that it makes people forget how much less convincing it is to hear others testify about the same thing. It’s a lot easier to suspect that another person is either lying or wrong about such a thing than to suspect your own senses.

Schizophrenics have it tougher than the rest of us in this respect. The condition produces aural and/or visual hallucinations which seem to the sufferer to be unambiguously real. In many cases they can be demonstrated not to be, but hallucinations people keep to themselves may never even be questioned. If I saw God in a full-blown ecstatic delusion, and didn’t know I was delusional, as far as I was concerned I’d have really seen God and I might not question it until I was diagnosed with a mental illness…maybe not even then.

So what do the intense experiences of schizophrenics and victims of other mental maladies tell the rest of us about ourselves? That our brains, though incredible, are fallible and susceptible things. We have a hard enough time sorting lies and falsehoods from truth and facts at the best of times; any impairment to our own faculties might make the task impossible. (That includes temporary impairment: intoxication, sleep deprivation, migraines, you name it.) We ourselves are among the things we must question in order to improve our understanding of reality.

Dispensationalism and Doomsday

Question from Brian (not the previous Brian):
I am studying Bible at a christian university but am tired of a strictly christian perspective (many of my friends at home are atheists and i enjoy discussing theology with them). As i study more deeply i realize that much of Modern christian theology doesn’t match up with older theology and even the Bible itself but i specifically want to talk of the rapture and similar eschatology.

To begin with I can find no historical evidence of a “rapture” before John Darby described it. In fact it seems more in line with the oldest texts that heaven quite literally descends and there is no longer a distinction between heaven and earth. In this time the “Kingdom of Heaven” is where the dead are resurrected from the hadean realm and judged. Those who were judged to be righteous in life get to stay and those whe are judged unrighteous are sent to gehenna (hades and gehenna (a constantly burning trash heap outside jerusalem) are important distinctions in the original texts). Being sent or taken away is seen as punishment throughout the old testament i don’t think God would suddenly change his mind about that.

Well thats what i think, rip it to shreds please.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’d like to know how you interpret the end of 1 Thessalonians 4 if not as a literal description of the future Rapture. Sure, “raptured” might be one of several different translations (“caught up” is another) but they all seem to mean roughly the same thing. I think it was laid out for Darby pretty clearly. So what did they think it meant before Darby came along? Or did they just not give it the emphasis it now has? Meanwhile, those who aren’t raptured probably end up in Hell, which is close enough to the Old Testament idea of being sent away.

Details aside, God will supposedly extract His chosen few one way or another. This event, and more generally Judgement Day, is useful to Christians and non-Christians alike. Christians can use the threat of approaching endtimes to proselytise and recruit in an atmosphere of urgency, like the frantic folks at the eBible Fellowship are doing right now. Non-Christians can simply wait until after the appointed date to point out the futility and lack of predictive power of Christian prophecies, as no doubt they will after May 21 when the Fellowship is trying to explain why not one of their number was raptured (and, after October 21, why the world hasn’t ended). The 2011 dates join a long and dubiously distinguished line of specific endtime prophecies by people who saw the short-term benefits of displaying apparently concrete information about the fate of us all.

I’m 30, and this isn’t my first rodeo. I vaguely remember an end date that whizzed by when I was in high school, and another during university. What worries me isn’t the possibility that one of them will turn out to be accurate, but the near-certainty that each time people are being exploited. The Millennium was the worst in recent times; in Uganda, hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were massacred by the failed prophets who had taken all their worldly goods in the months leading up to New Year’s Eve.

There’s a big one coming up next year: the date in December 2012 sourced from the Mayan calendar and reverse engineered to match every bit of religious or new-age Doomsday math anyone had lying around. I’m frankly terrified of two things. Firstly, even more people than the Millennium victims will likely be exploited and even ruined or killed thanks to the massive, worldwide, decades-long hype suggesting that they’re about to die. Secondly, some disappointed fanatics may even see fit to engineer apocalypses for themselves and those around them shortly after the fateless date.

My one consolation is that after 2012 there are really no further doomsdays similarly embedded in the public consciousness. We can all give it a rest for a while.

The women at the tomb, and other conundrums

Question from Mr Brown:
This isn’t so much an atheist question but a question concerning the validity, or lack there of, of the resurrection.
In Matthew 27:65-66 the author tells us how several women who went to Yeshua’s (Jesus) tomb to anoint his body with spices after he was crucified.
My first question is how did two women (three in the gospel of Mark) plan on unsealing a sealed tomb guarded by Roman guards and sealed by a large stone tomb?
Second question: Why didn’t his disciples go to anoint his body, particularly his brothers James and his twin Jude?
Third question: After Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24:36 Jesus is able to walk through walls (appear in sealed rooms John 20:19) why was there a need to roll the stone from his tomb?

One last question not concerning the resurrection.
If the accounts of Jesus are true how could both his family and disciples doubt he was the messiah after seeing, people brought back to life, angels, the ability to control nature, healing the blind, terminally ill, crippled, and other unearthly phenomena?

Answer by SmartLX:
The thing about asking obvious questions about the resurrection story is that people have had two thousand years to plug holes in the narrative through re-translation, re-interpretation or plain old guesswork. Of course, if you assume temporarily that certain parts of the story were true and others weren’t, other reasons practically suggest themselves.

– When the women set out to anoint Jesus, they might not have known about the stone. They would probably have expected the guards to let them access the body, as long as they didn’t try to steal it. (As it happened in the story, the women were left alone with the open tomb after the tremor, and the Romans hadn’t checked inside, so if the body were still there that would have been a great time to move it.)
– Perhaps anointing was women’s work (it certainly didn’t take a holy man, or the women wouldn’t even have tried) or the eleven remaining disciples were too afraid of their own disillusioned followers to go near the place. (They didn’t yet have the resurrection story to redeem themselves in the eyes of true believers, and avoid getting lynched.)
– Apologists get a great deal of mileage out of the mere existence of the Empty Tomb (assuming that even that existed). If the stone hadn’t been moved, the tomb might not have been found empty – and without prior knowledge of an empty tomb, appearances of Jesus might have had less impact. (To view it more cynically, if the stone hadn’t been moved it wouldn’t have been possible for anyone besides an undead Jesus to empty the tomb.)
– You’ve got me on that last one. I haven’t heard a good reason why Jesus’ prior miracles seemed to account for so little if they actually happened.

Look, if I don’t tell you, someone else will: you’re asking the wrong guy if you actually want to hear the accepted answers to these questions. Go ask some Christians. (Better yet, see how many different rationalisations you can collect from different Christians.)

Trouble in the Mailroom

“If you sent in a question any time in the last few weeks (or if you sent a question at any point which hasn’t been answered), using the “Ask here!” form or the email address, then chances are it didn’t reach us.”

If you sent in a question any time in the last few weeks (or if you sent a question at any point which hasn’t been answered), using the “Ask here!” form or the email address, then chances are it didn’t reach us. Sorry.

Until we sort this out, feel free to enter your questions as comments on this post. Copy and paste them from your Sent box if you need to. We’ll extract them and make new posts out of them.

Meanwhile, the archive of the old site is still there if you want to make sure your question hasn’t been asked before. Keep in mind that it’s an archive and new comments won’t be published there. If you think there’s unfinished business bring it over here in a new question.

Edit: The “Ask here!” form seems to be working now, so use that.

Natural Selection

“So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist.”

Question from CLH:
Asking you a question about specifically about evolution might seem a bit off-topic in regard to atheism.
But as you probably know the majority of the scientific community (the majority of which are atheists) regard evolution as scientific fact.
And we’re talking the entire theory, not some watered down “micro-evolution” version.

I’ve recently read some books to increase my knowledge and understanding on the theory of evolution.
It is now abundantly clear to me that all living things on this earth have evolved (as opposed to having been “designed” in their present form).

Until you understand that these changes have occurred slowly over billions of years it is kind of hard to grasp the concept of evolution. Even then it is mind-boggling to thing that we could get from a single-celled organism to where we are today.

But the facts are indisputable in that regard. But while evolution doesn’t fit well with the story of creation as told in the bible, it doesn’t
completely rule out intelligent or conscious design at point in the evolutionary process.

In my reading about evolution the authors do a great job of explaining how evolution consists of the natural selection of random mutations.
It seems confusing to people at first (which is it…”random” or “selection”?), but I get now the basic concept. But the part that I don’t understand
is this. They make it clear that neither random mutations or natural selection is a “conscious” process.
This suggests to me that there is no needs assessment or analysis taking place. But without such a needs assessment or analysis taking place, how
are we to believe that the natural selection process could have any direction or insight in determining which random mutations are actually beneficial and should therefore be selected?

Consider the evolution case study “How Beach Life Favors Blond Mice”

The basis of the study is that beach life survival favors mice with blonde as opposed to dark colored hair. The understanding is that flying predators
can more easily see and located the contrast of dark colored mice against the white sand background as opposed to blond colored mice. Makes perfect sense
and I believe that has actually been proven in some scientific experiments. But here is what I don’t get. Without a conscious assessment of someone or something
to make the observation that being blonde is more beneficial how does the natural selection go about making the right selection that we’re giving it credit for?
It would be one thing if you had a group of mice that were gathered behind a rock and saw a couple of their buddies (one blond and one dark) run
out onto the sandy beach and make the observation that time and time again the predator preys on the dark colored mouse. It that observation (conscious knowledge) were somehow
transferred and converted to their DNA for future generations to make use of in the natural selection process then that might make sense.
But once again we’re told that natural selection is in no way a conscious process. So that being the case, one has to wonder what basis natural selection
has for doing the needs assessment and making the right selection? That seems to leave open the possibility that intelligent design might be interceding at some point. Not necessarily a theist “God” mind you, but some form of intelligent (conscious) design. Or perhaps the scientists are just wrong about natural selection not being a conscious process?

On a side note, I’m wondering if there is a more common sense explanation for the blond mice case study such as the following:
As more dark mouse die off there are less and less of their dark mouse DNA to contribute to the future generation gene pool resulting in the future breading and reproduction cycle of more and more blond and less and less dark colored mice.

Answer by Andrea:
I see that your critical thinking skills are well-honed, since you basically came up with the answer as to why evolution is not a conscious process in your last paragraph.
My religiously conservative dad once took a tour through Grand Canyon and when the guide told him that the squirrels had changed through natural selection my dad laughed, “Isn’t that silly, squirrels choosing each other?” I tried to stifle my own laugh while I explained they don’t consciously choose each other, it’s that the squirrels best adapted to their environment (in your example mice being blond and less visible to predators) live longer and therefore produce more offspring. Their offspring that carry those adaptive genes will also live longer, which allows them to also carry forth those genes to a greater extent than those not carrying the beneficial genes until they become commonplace in the population. The version of the gene with less adaptive properties then often becomes recessive or eventually it loses its function due to disuse.
With respect to mutations, a lot of religionists will say that mutations are bad, and it’s ridiculous to think they could generate a whole new species. But what they don’t understand, or perhaps want to know, is that our genes mutate all the time throughout our lives for many different reasons, and most of those mutations are neither harmful nor beneficial. When harmful mutations arise, they are typically not spread widely since their carriers are not as fit for the environment and typically don’t live as long or as healthily.
Darwin termed this “natural” selection, which is selection guided nonconsciously by environmental cues. This is compared to the selection he saw by pigeon and dog owners, who guided the selection “unnaturally” by selectively breeding their animals to produce the desired genetic mix.
So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist. In fact, it takes a far greater “leap of faith” to believe that an intelligent designer zapped everything into existence — for example, who zapped the intelligent designer into existence? And if that creator has always been around, why not just believe the universe has always been around in different form, for which there is much more evidence? It’s much more logical to believe that since only four out of 118 or so elements needed to produce life — oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon (albeit under the right conditions). There is fossil, genetic, chemical and empirical evidence for evolution, yet there is absolutely none for the intelligent design, also known as the creationist, point of view.
Creationists will admit there may be evidence for evolution but assert that this is only on the microevolutionary scale, such as with regard to bacteria and viruses. Although they deny that macroevolution occurs, we have already seen it with other quickly-producing organisms such as birds, fish and small rodents to the extent that they can no longer interbreed — one step at which they are considered a new species. There is also plenty of scientific evidence in the form of fossils, and there are transition species for almost all of the major transitions, including from water to land (see Tiktaalik, discovered in 2006).

Good job analyzing.


“If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.”

Question from Robert:
What is an Atheists position on the paranormal, and what do you say to people who have experienced paranormal activity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Save the capital A, please. It’s not named after anyone, it’s not a complete philosophical “school” and it doesn’t trigger the special case for deities. You wouldn’t capitalise a theist, so you shouldn’t capitalise an atheist either.

There is no one atheist position on the paranormal – by which, from your title “Hauntings”, I assume you principally mean ghosts. We’ve had self-proclaimed atheists here arguing with other self-proclaimed atheists over whether ghosts exist. It’s not necessarily a contradiction for an atheist to believe in ghosts if he/she sees a way people can persist after their own deaths without the help of a god. Personally, while I know people leave behind great legacies when they die, I don’t think they continue to exist as literal ghosts. And I don’t think there’s any available, substantive evidence for any other “paranormal” phenomena, which for me puts them all in the same category as gods.

Thus, there’s nobody I’ve ever spoken to who I can be confident has actually experienced paranormal activity. When people say that they’ve experienced paranormal activity, which sometimes they do, I ask for their evidence and I discuss alternative explanations with them. If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.

Rapture in 2011!…?

“The thing about apocalyptic cults is that they portray the apocalypse in such a way that everything works out all right if they’ve got all the chips at crunch time.”

Question from M:

After hearing your most recent podcast, I was inspired to inquire further about the Rapture that has been announced for May 21, 2011. I contacted the EBible Fellowship about their decree and asked the following:

“I was just wondering, if you are indeed certain that the world is coming to an end soon, would you have a problem with signing a contract that all your belongings be turned over someone else on that day. Surely, you won’t need any money or a home or furniture, or anything else for that matter, once you are raptured up to heaven. A few good beneficiaries that I would like to suggest for your possesions to be given to are: The Center for Inquiry, The James Randi Education Foundation, The Public Braodcasting Station or The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

God’s Law is absolute, and as such it would be an admission of lack of faith to have any doubts about this apocolyptic proclamation. Please do not insult God’s intellegence by hedging your bet. To keep ones earthly belongings in the off-chance that God may be wrong is the height of arrogance. The only possitive course of action would be to accept the end as a fact, and leave all possible resourses to those who chose to ignore God’s word in hope that they will then be better able to find the truth that is God in the time they will have left after the rapture and before the entire world ends. To deny the deniers an opportunity to repent and see the light would be, at best, unchristian.

Thank you for your concern on this highly important matter.”

I have been told for meny decades that God is the source of morality and that Christians are thus moral, so I don’t see any reason why they should object to my proposal. The only thing left to do now is sit back and wait for those bank accounts, property titles and other such stuff to get signed over. They wouldn’t be lying about the whole Rapture thing, surely.


Answer by SmartLX:
The thing about apocalyptic cults is that they portray the apocalypse in such a way that everything works out all right if they’ve got all the chips at crunch time.

Particularly in Christian eschatology (endtime mythology), the end of the world isn’t a quick process; there’s the Tribulation to get through, where the world goes almost literally to Hell before Jesus shows up (again). That’s what the Left Behind books are all about, and there are over a dozen of those so there’s a fair bit of chronological space to squeeze them all in. While it’s happening, the righteous will do what they can to help those who need or deserve it, but for that they need money.

Point is, there’s always a reason why they aren’t giving away their own resources other than that the world isn’t really ending. Whether the reason they give is a real reason or not, just keep in mind that doomsday cultists, whatever they may be, are not necessarily stupid. They have probably thought of the obvious questions people are going to ask them, especially questions which challenge their right to their own stuff.

Christmas on Duty

“If it came to a lawsuit, the nativity would most likely be defended as a seasonal tradition stretching back decades.”

Question from Armybrat:
I work on a military post and driving into work today there was a big nativity scene at the first intersection after entering the post. Is this not going against the law of mixing government and religion? Me personally I dont think that it should be there but Im not a law major so what do you think? Oh and its not in or around a church.

Answer by SmartLX:
First off, I’m assuming you’re in the USA. And I hope you’re not assuming I’m a law major either.

If the nativity is inside the post, and it’s sanctioned by the management, then it’s an endorsement of a specific religion on government property and the same laws apply to it as to all those lists of the Ten Commandments in courthouses which cause lawsuits all the time.

If it came to a lawsuit, the nativity would most likely be defended as a seasonal tradition stretching back decades. This would be a paper-thin defence as there are plenty of traditional Christmas decorations that don’t shove Jesus right in your face, like trees (minus the angels), tinsel and Santa. Nevertheless, that might well be enough to save it if the arbitrator is sympathetic.

If you want more details on legal issues like this one in the US military, there’s an organisation that would love to help: the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. They’re secularists, not explicitly atheists (their founder is Jewish), but the big problem right now is unchecked Christian proselytisation to captive audiences of soldiers and frightened civilians, and people of all stripes including Christians can fight that together.