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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“…you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.”
Question from Bailey:
I’m an atheist and a freelance writer. My dad’s preacher has agreed to answer some questions I have about the Bible and his views on things of the religious matter. Trouble is, now that I have the opportunity to ask whatever I want (and get an entirely silly response I’m sure), I am a bit stumped. I have in mind:
1.) If the Bible is as black and white as they say, why ignore the laws in the Bible such as “don’t eat shellfish” and the like, and follow rules like “homosexuality is a sin?”…I will be referring to the laws in Leviticus.
2.) Do you believe in creationism or evolution and why?
3.) Why are there so many contradictions in the Bible? (I will be using specific examples, but would like as many ideas as possible).
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Help?
That lot’s a good start, but you’ll have a better time in the interview if you know roughly what he’ll say beforehand, and that’s not difficult.
I’ve only just answered a question about the nasty Leviticus laws, so check that out first.
Whether your father’s preacher is a creationist depends rather a lot on his denomination. Evangelicals are generally creationists to some extent (with some high-profile exceptions such as Francis Collins), whereas Catholics usually toe the Vatican’s line of theistic evolutionism which is basically, “God caused evolution.” Either way, what he believes is almost certainly what his church officially believes, and you’d do best to look that up.
You may be at a disadvantage if he does turn out to be a creationist. There are a great many creationist arguments which, unsound as they are, take 5-10 seconds each to say and require a bit of research to rebut properly. About the best thing I can do for you is supply a slightly old but still exhaustive list.
If you’re looking for contradictions, you can’t go past the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible. It’s got a huge collection of them. Best of all, it’s been around long enough for other sites to write replies, and in a grand example of sportsmanship the SAB links to them directly. If you have a selection of apparent contradictions you’re going to bring up, you can get a very good idea of how this preacher will respond if he decides to defend them.
Besides your suggested questions I have one more, which I always try to ask believers: quite simply, “Why do you believe?” Once you know that, it’s only natural to work through the follow-up question with them: basically, “Is that a good reason?” It’s why I’m an atheist, really. I examined my own reasons for believing in the Christian God, and they just weren’t good enough. Self-examination, if you can manage to provoke it in others, is a powerful tool.
Best of luck with the interview, whatever your goal is. (You didn’t really make that clear. I hope you actually have one.) Let us know how it goes.
“Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus.”
Question from Anonymous:
I’m an atheist. I recently told a gay-hater about this and his response was that “It came from the Mosaic Law which is no longer in effect.”
What’s the right response to this?
Keep up the good work!
Mosaic Law, taken in this case to mean a large set of Old Testament laws including the one in the link, is widely regarded by Christians who care about this sort of thing to have been contradicted many times and therefore superseded by the teachings of Jesus. A good example is the substitution of “turn the other cheek” for “an eye for an eye”. This rationale is often given for not following the really destructive laws in Leviticus.
Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus. Some apologists give quite complex reasons why certain parts of Mosaic Law should continue to be upheld, while others just drop the whole thing and rely on other parts of the Bible, such as Romans 1 in the New Testament, when condemning homosexuality.
The most straightforward response to your “gay-hater” is to move out of the Old Testament altogether and quote some apparent silliness from the New Testament instead. This article, though not very carefully written (see the typo in its title), has some good examples. This will maintain your original point while avoiding his grounds for dismissal.
Keep us posted via comments, if you like.
“There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism.”
Question from Rick:
I was listening to a podcast a few days ago when the host made a comment about parents who read the bible to their kids. He made a good point when he said that he would love to tell the parents to let him read the bible and pick his own verses to read to the kids. Its funny because people who “read” the bible, don’t really read it at all. They just jump around from chapter to chapter. I would love to see a parents face as you explain Sodom and Gomorrah. And what goes on in gen. 38. What do you think?
There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism. I don’t know about that, because there are ways to spin even the Old Testament’s most violent stories in God’s favour. This is regularly done in the name of Biblical exegesis. How a given kid will interpret these stories is anyone’s guess.
The podcaster’s point is a fun way to upturn the idea of reading the Bible to kids, but we both know it’s not going to happen that way. Parents read the Bible to their kids so that their kids will believe in God. They choose whichever parts of it they think will achieve that. Maybe it’s to make them behave, maybe it’s the ultimate goal in itself, but either way the Bible achieves its original goal and the kids are indoctrinated.
“Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.”
Question from Ebony:
I’ve recently come to my senses and become an atheist. I have been puzzled by one thing in the Bible. The 10 kingdoms of the Roman Empire that were predicted. I can’t find any evidence that the book was written after this time. There has to be a reasonable explaination. Please help me.
See my piece on prophecies. Even prophecies that appear vindicated and legitimate need not be the result of genuine prescience, for a variety of possible reasons.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, it didn’t instantly shatter into exactly ten pieces, each with its own king ready to roll. First it split into the Eastern and Western Empires, then the Visigoths and other invaders stripped away one country after another until Constantinople was sacked and there was nothing left.
If you think about it, it was inevitable that there would be ten kingdoms at some point. Starting with one whole thing and ending with the dozens of modern nations which were geographically within the Empire at its peak, the number of independent states and/or the number of monarchs must have been ten somewhere in between. (You sound as if you know which specific kingdoms they are; care to fill us in?)
The empire having already split into ten kingdoms is only one interpretation the faithful seriously consider. Some anticipate that the former Empire will ultimately become ten kingdoms, united by the Antichrist, not long before the end of the world. In this form it joins the many endtime prophecies which people argue are beginning to come true, in this case by pointing to volatile political situations in Europe.
Therefore, in the context of my earlier piece this one may be a case of 1. High Probability of Success, 2. Still Unknown and/or 4. Shoehorned.
“If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false.”
Question from Sigurd:
If I belive in science and darwinism and do not belive in any god what so ever.
But I belive the persons in the bible are stories of actual people and their lives.
Am I then an atheist?
I think it’s safe to say that you are.
If there’s no God, and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it doesn’t mean that every single word of the Bible is false. Some characters are known historical figures: Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Caiaphas and several different Pharaohs. Many events after the Resurrection probably have some truth in them, as they concern the early mortal Christians’ doings and are light on miracles. At the very least the Bible is set in some real places, such as Jerusalem and Memphis (in Egypt, not America).
Not believing in gods is what makes you an atheist. If you’re of the opinion that the Bible is accurate to a lesser extent when it comes to more mundane matters, it makes no difference unless it then convinces you that the Biblical God is real.