The Reach of Original Sin

Question from Tim:
LX, I’m interested in your thoughts about something:

I’ve been thinking about crime and punishment lately for separate reasons from religion, but a related religious connotation entered my mind recently that I think needs exploring, and I’d like your thoughts on it.

As it relates to Christianity (and many other religions as well in some form or another) humanity has to suffer on planet Earth because a god was disobeyed by a young couple in a garden. The price of their disobedience was that they became “fallen”. Different definitions of what exactly that means abound, but the basic premise is that they went from a perfect state to the current state of existence that all humans currently find themselves in. That existence is definitely less that perfect, and involves all manner of things like sickness, disease, pain, suffering, heartbreak, bad luck, etc. If you are really unlucky you might have been born Jewish and killed in the holocaust, or born gay and thrown off a high rise in Iran. But no one escapes the wrath of this god, everyone has some kind of bad thing befall them from time to time.

And all of it is due to, from we are told, a couple of young people eating a piece of fruit off of a forbidden tree.

So I can’t help but wonder, in the midst of all this suffering throughout the history of humanity, how much longer people who had nothing to do with the decision of Adam and Eve will be made to pay for the choice of those two back in the day. In other words, when will the punishment fit the “crime”?

Answer by SmartLX:
Ah, the good old Problem of Evil. Trying to wrap my head around the continued existence of evil in a world with an all-powerful, all-knowing and entirely good deity is a major reason for my atheism. I didn’t simply renounce my faith because of the apparent conflict, though; the complexity of the problem caused my tween self to give up thinking about religion at all, and I had other things to focus on. This self-enforced sabbatical from theology went on for enough years that my emotional connections to faith faded completely. When I finally did come back to the subject, faith did not appear justified on an intellectual level, so there was nothing left to support it.

The story of Adam and Eve attempts to shift the responsibility for everything that’s wrong with our lives from God to the imperfect nature of humanity. Though you and I didn’t eat the apple, we’re marked with Original Sin as a result of the act itself, just so that God sees a reminder in all of us. Also, it could be reasoned (within the hypothesis of an actual Adam and Eve) that we’re of the same race as Adam so we are similarly flawed, and therefore liable to do something just as bad. God sees into people’s hearts, we’re told, so uncommitted crimes still count against us.

In a separate discussion over whether an eternity in Hell is justified for any possible sin, one Christian defense of God’s “policy” was that offending an infinitely powerful entity like God carries a punishment proportional to the entity, not the crime, and the punishment is therefore infinite. Whether or not this bit of logic is pure assertion, a Christian might apply this to Adam: as a finite being Adam could not absorb an infinite punishment, so it had to be extended to his descendants ad infinitum.

Speaking practically, Christianity will never allow humanity a clean slate. A large part of its pull is the idea that we all have work to do in order to redeem ourselves, and a relationship with Jesus is the only way to get that done. The threat of Hell is always there, even if Hell is seldom or never mentioned.

A Christian Plants His Feet

Question from Vern:
I’m a Christian. I think atheists have the wrong idea. I had a Near Death Experience involving Jesus. He told me the day my wife would have a baby boy, 3 years down the road. Sure enough it happened, he told me it would be a blond boy and sure enough it was. My wife and I have no family we know of with blond hair, so we were surprised. I have also researched Near Death Experiences, and they favour Christianity. This, plus read the Bible if you have not. Many historians and scholars agree that the Bible is true. Many many people witnessed Christ die on the cross, and they met him afterwards. He did rise from the dead. How can you deny it? There is lots of proof including the infamous shroud of Turin, the bible itself, and I met the lord. How can you dismiss it like this? Our religion has more proof than others, look at all the evidence.

Answer by SmartLX:
Everything but the kitchen sink here, it’s a pretty good jumping off point after a bit of a break. So let’s break it down.

– Thanks to some very persistent questioners we’ve covered every aspect of NDEs here: their place in Christian culture, famous claims, medical explanations and denials thereof, the information they impart and so on. Have a read if you want to consider experiences outside your own. From an atheist’s perspective, they favour Christianity basically because Christianity favours NDEs. (There are genetic and also potential practical explanations for your boy’s blonde hair which I won’t get into.)

– When a historian claims that the entire Bible is true, including the supernatural parts, he/she is not speaking as a historian (unless it’s as a really bad one) but as a religious apologist. Most of the arguments about judging the events of the Bible on their historical merit using the criteria of historians are totally invalid because historians have no standard of evidence for accepting supernatural events. Theologians, on the other hand, have to take it as a premise that God and Jesus are real to proceed with any of their work, because you can’t ponder the nature of God as anything but a moot point unless you think there is one. Consider how many of the scholars you refer to are in fact theologians.

– Post-crucifixion Jesus is documented as only appearing to a handful of people, except in just one passage in 1 Corinthians 15 where he appears to five hundred or so. An account of 500 witnesses is not 500 witness accounts. As for the greater argument about his divinity, it’s another popular subject here. Look.

– The Shroud of Turin appears to have finally bit the dust as a genuine relic in just the last few weeks, as reported here. Generally speaking, it goes through periods of high and low credibility based on studies and studies of studies. At the absolute best, it was really Jesus’ burial shroud, but tells us nothing about what happened after his burial as we have no idea where it came from.

– Your supposed personal experience of Jesus is not good evidence for anyone else. When you claim the supernatural you ask people to weigh the reality of the impossible against the integrity of your character and the constant impeccability of your senses and faculties. I don’t know you so I can’t even make that judgement, but it wouldn’t go well even for my dearest friends and family if they made the same claim. There are just too many ways that such an experience can seem real and not be.

If you want to follow up on one specific argument for Christianity, look it up here by keyword. If you think it’s less than done to death at this point, comment and we’ll talk about it.

What About Judaism?

Question from :
Shalom all, I see that you focus on many religions, but haven’t seen anything on Judaism. I wonder what your opinion might be on it, and, if to someone, if the be Torah divine. To me it is, but I’d like to hear any arguments against it, not that I may refute or debate it, but just to “see” what the other side has to offer.

Answer by SmartLX:
There are indeed only a few articles that involve Judaism, simply because not many people writing in identify as Jewish or ask about specifically Jewish topics.

Very little of my perspective on Judaism is unique to Judaism. It’s a theistic religion, reliant on claims of the existence of an interventionist creator god which I don’t think are justified. Nearly all of the Great Big Arguments for gods that I’ve covered can be used to argue for your god just as well as any other, and they have no additional merit when applied to yours.

My perspective on the Torah, as an ex-Christian, is that it’s a subset of the books in the Bible and specifically the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Many of the discussions I’ve had on the divinity and inerrancy of the Bible can be applied to these five books. To approach them from scratch, I don’t think they’re divine because I don’t think there’s a real god to bestow divinity on anything. To argue in the other direction for the existence of the god based on certain discernible qualities of the books is to argue that such qualities are impossible without the influence of a god, which I don’t think is the case.

If you’re looking for specific challenges to the material in the Torah, I’ve occasionally touched on Exodus, and all the stuff on evolution and cosmology has some bearing on Genesis.

What Would God Actually Write?

Question from Abdulmalik:
I have a question and I wish you to seriously answer me! if we postulated that God exists…and he sent down his word to humanity as a book…what do you expect that book to be like? or how would you test it to be a God’s book?
waiting for your awesome answers…\
my first suggestion that it should has no scientific mistakes…
do you have any other suggestions?!

Answer by SmartLX:
A book literally written by a god would in many ways be like the Bible or the Quran – as they are described by the people who think their gods wrote them. Specifically, they are claimed to be inerrant, internally consistent, full of divine knowledge or prophecies that either come true or are revealed to be true as time goes on, supernaturally beautiful in their prose and with an ability to influence the hearts and minds of readers and listeners that goes beyond anything the words actually say. Thus, people often claim these things about them explicitly as arguments for their divine authorship. As you can see by simply putting ‘bible’ or ‘quran’ in the search field of this site, after a great deal of discussion I’m still of the opinion that these claims are incorrect, unsupported or subjective.

Further speculation about what a real god’s writings would be like doesn’t tend to move the discussion forward, as such speculation can be dismissed outright by anyone who thinks it is unreasonable or doesn’t match their chosen book. But what the heck, I do have one idea on the subject: such a book would be timeless, such that it didn’t seem more and more backward the more society progresses. In the Bible, for instance, a modern reader has to confront references to slavery, incest, subjugation of women and entire ethnic groups, human sacrifice, demonisation of many sexual orientations and so on. A reader in the first century AD would have taken most or all of it for granted. I think a god would find a way to keep a fixed book from suffering the effects of a shifting moral zeitgeist.

Apostles, Therefore God?

Question from José:
Hi! I´m atheist, but I was born into a Christian family and It´s still difficult for me to answer too many questions. I don´t believe in the Bible, but there are a lot of websites claiming that is completely real because so many reasons.
Well, my question is about apostles. Jim Wallace claims that God truly existed because of the martyrdom of the apostles. He said, If It was a joke, no men would have been killed. They would have said that they invented Jesus or something like that. No one die when they know it´s all a lie. Could you explain that to me? I really want to know what your answers are.
Thank you so much.

Answer by SmartLX:
Jim Wallace isn’t the only one to make that claim, many prominent apologists have at least touched on it. I’ve covered it in a piece called “Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character. I even recorded audio for it. The shortest possible summary is that the possibilities are endless.

Check it out, then comment there or here if you need clarification on anything, or just to say what you think.

Have you heard the one about the stone tablets?

Question from Margaret:
What is the story where the atheists get slaughtered with the Christians and something about Moses coming down and breaking the tablets. Could you recap the whole thing in atheist language for me? and maybe tell me the verses?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, the tablet part at least is easy to pin down. It’s part of the story of the Exodus, and the tablets are broken in Exodus 32:19. Moses leads his people to Mount Sinai and goes up by himself to receive the Ten Commandments from God on stone tablets. He takes so long that by the time he gets back some of the others are worshiping a golden calf they’ve made. Moses is so mad he breaks the tablets, and orders the calf reduced to powder that is mixed with water for the idolaters to drink as punishment. God hammers the point home afterwards by hitting them with a plague. Eventually Moses re-inscribes the Commandments on some new tablets.

The other part is harder to identify, because there may be no self-identifying atheists in the Bible at all. All the non-Christian characters worship someone else. Atheism was at least known to the authors, or they wouldn’t have written things like, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” People could refer to others as atheists for not believing in their god or gods, and indeed the early Romans saw Christians that way because they didn’t believe in Jupiter and his pantheon. But I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue. If you know any more details on that story please put them in a comment, and maybe we can find what you’re referring to together.

From Archaeology to Apes

Question from Kristi:
What is R. Dawkins’ view on Biblical archaeology? Scientists use fossils as artifacts, dinosaur bones, etc., yet when archaeologists find relief carvings of the Hebrews being taken into captivity by the Assyrians? Manfred Bietak has uncovered Semitic people’s remains dating back to time of the Famine around 1880 B.C, which would align with the information in the Jewish records and with the Biblical records of Genesis. Should not any artifact be considered scientific?

If we evolved from a complex organism such as the egg first then later to simpler organism such as the chicken, why are we not evolving anymore unless we are evolving into robots? Do you foresee the human race as fading out and becoming intelligent machines? We were once apes so would it be too much to believe we will re-evolve to something else?

Answer by SmartLX:
Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to have made a public statement about Biblical archaeology as a whole, except to say there is no good evidence for any of the supernatural claims in the Bible, archaeological or otherwise. Evidence for non-supernatural elements of the Biblical narrative are another matter. There is plenty of evidence for the Assyrian captivity as you say. There were Israeli tribes about, no doubt, and they did leave their mark, but nothing in the archaeological record points to direct intervention by a deity with the interests of the Hebrews specifically at heart. Just because not everything in the Bible is untrue doesn’t mean the important bits for today’s believers are true.

Present-day human evolution is much like evolution at any other stage: so slow that any given generation doesn’t notice any major differences. We may be in the process of evolving into a very different form of organic life, but the process would take millions of years at least and research into the changes over the last few decades won’t give us much insight into that far future. Any transition to a machine or part-machine race is likely to be the result of deliberate self-alteration as a species, not Darwinian evolution.

Incidentally we are still apes. Leaving evolution and genetics aside completely, we meet the physical criteria to be classified as a “great ape”. Here’s a museum article.

Good Reasons To Believe

Question from Adam:
What is the best (in your opinion) argument that you have ever heard or had thrown at you about the credibility/correctness of the Bible? Obviously the Bible is full of crap, but, I’m trying to understand why a person would ever believe in it (logically). Not just from indoctrination, or blind faith, but an actual good reason.

Answer by SmartLX:
Who said people need good reasons to believe? For those who even consider why they believe and therefore need to give a reason at all, they just have to think their reason is a good one.

The most powerful and persuasive reason to begin to believe, by far, is an apparent personal experience of the divine. Never mind that it’s useless for convincing others and it’s objectively a terribly flawed reason. If you really think God’s spoken to you, you’re going to implicitly believe in God as the basic premise of what you think is true, and there’s little that anyone can do about it.

As for reasons that are convincing on their own merit, that you could use to convince others, I’ve been through them all in my Great Big Arguments series (tell me if I’ve missed any, of course) and each is fundamentally flawed, so I’m hesitant to call any one of them the best. That said, many of them sound very convincing upon first hearing, or else so complex that it seems pointless to try to rebut them. That first impression that the debate has already been fought and won for Christ can be all a proselytiser needs to elicit a religious experience; Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron are always talking about “bypassing the intellect”.

If there were a reason to believe in God which I thought was a genuinely good reason, I would believe in God. The fact that I don’t implies a certain upper limit on my opinion of any argument for God’s existence.

Science and the Bible

Not-a-question-as-such from Joel:
I don’t have a question as such. But I just wanted to point out my views…I am devout Christian.I am in fact very rational. I know the first thought that you will have when you hear the word Christian and Rational in the same sentence will be “Bull shit”. But I was on verge of becoming an atheist…And I had this thought.

Science is a continuous process of understanding the laws of nature and coming to a conclusion with a set of irrefutable equations. It is finding answers for the universe that we live in. Trying to explain the Universe that we live in.

But the Bible on the other hand (I will use the Bible cos Religion is an institution created by man and it is highly influenced by man’s thinking and principles) was written by God to answer and guide humans. It is the ANSWER and not a changing set of theories…It stood and it still stands and has been going on for thousands of years.

But science grows continuously, one theory postulated today can be nullified tomorrow. So unless and until science explains laws for everything (I MEAN EVERYTHING) in Universe and it contradicts the Bible. Till then people have no right to call the Bible false. Science is changing who knows what theory or findings might just come up tomorrow, Maybe someone will prove evolution false. We Don’t know.

The Bible never was against science in the first place. The Creation being the biggest of the problems…But I somehow feel that isn’t the problem..God didn’t specifically say ..There may be a hidden meaning? Maybe the days were the stages of evolution and creation of earth. first the light (maybe a big bang) then the separation of water and air and so on. May be god wanted to say that there were 6 stages of creation and evolution. We don’t know..But what Christians believe, is that. It is better to take the bible literally than to make assumptions and misinterpret it. They are correct in their way.

And the fact that it was written at a time when people were not knowledgeable to understand various complexities of physics and biology. It just makes sense that God wrote the process of creation in this manner..And the highlight of it not being the way he created universe but what he thinks of humans..a creation in his own likeness.

So lets just stop all this bickering. I don’t care what you believe. But do not blame Mans mistake on god. And science never contradicted religion.. for me its like

L.H.S (Science) = R.H.S (Bible.)

Answer by SmartLX:
Funny you should say that science is on the left hand side; in the context of God, Jesus is on the right, so the left is usually reserved for the damned.

Science adjusts its views based on new evidence, it’s true, so it’s always possible that the scientific facts we know today could turn out to be wrong. Putting it like this, however, unfairly categorises it as a dichotomy between knowing something absolutely (which might be impossible) and throwing it out altogether, when the truth is in between.

A good scientific theory explains a great deal while making as few assumptions as possible. If the facts explained by the theory or the assumptions on which it relies are found to be incorrect, the theory must itself change or perish. At any given point, though, a large amount of confidence in the theory can be well justified, especially if new evidence either supports the theory or only requires minor adjustments to it. For example, the age of the universe (since the Big Bang) had been estimated at 15 billion years, and there was a lot of evidence to back up the estimate. Then more evidence emerged, and the age of the universe was revised downwards – but only to 13.7 billion years. All the principles that led to the earlier estimate were still intact, but the measurements were better honed and scientists were able to be more accurate. Confidence in the means that led to the discovery of the magnitude of the universe’s age was unshaken, and likely even reinforced. There may be future revisions, but the next one is much more likely to be something like 13.6 or 13.8 billion years than to continue downwards at the same rate to 12.4 billion. The odds of a new estimate getting anywhere near 6000 years (with an inception period of six literal days for the Earth and all life on it) are infinitesimal.

You’re free to assert that the Bible is the word of God, but for people who don’t start with this presumption it’s just an old book, and if it wasn’t right on a particular point to begin with, then it never will be. The difference between the word of the Bible and a current scientific theory is that there is evidence contradicting a literal (sometimes even a figurative) reading of many passages from the Bible, whereas a current scientific theory is still current because it has weathered all criticism thus far without the need to change more than it has. The Bible simply ignores criticism because it is dogmatically unable to change.

It is a very weak position to say that the Bible is right because everything else might be wrong. Some aspects of science do have to be wrong for a literal reading of the Bible to hold up, but there’s evidence for these aspects of science and no good evidence that they’re wrong. Until contrary evidence turns up, the word of the Bible is not the rational choice over science in such a case.

Atheism by Email, Last Century

Question from Janet:
About 14 years ago, an email circulated about a number of contradictory and outrageous scriptures in the Bible. One I remember in particular was about Lot offering his virginal daughters to a bunch of men in Sodom. I forget the rest of the examples. Do you remember that email? It was written in narrative form, not as a list of weird things. Does anyone have a copy?
Many thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sorry. In 1999 I had no interest in either religion or atheism and few friends who were online, so I’m not surprised that this email didn’t reach me. I can’t track it down now either. Anyone else?

Don’t worry, because it’s extremely unlikely that the email contained any truly unique criticisms of the Bible. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible is an excellent compendium of contradictions, cruelty, intolerance and more from throughout the 66 books of the modern Bible. If anyone does find the old email, I’d be willing to bet that everything in it is covered in the SAB. It even includes links to Christian responses to each criticism, so it’s a one-stop shop.