Is the Bible Stupid?

I have been quite busy lately managing a household of three teens with my wife, working full weeks and spending many extra hours in my work as a school board chair. As a result I haven’t been doing the reading, writing and discussing that I do in less busy times. So I have been doing a bit of catch up recently and something that caught my eye was a series over at Mike’s The A-Unicornist’ blog. Mike occasionally comments here so I stop by there when time permits and see what he is on about. Recently he did a short series called “Why Christianity is b***s***”. Obviously the title was meant to evoke the civil dialogue Mike always strives for.

Nonetheless, the series itself is the usual collection of Sunday school level objections that ancient people could never suggest anything of value to us obviously superior modern people. Most of it is just a vague re-hash of the New Atheist claptrap that every single New Atheist regurgitates to other audiences of New Atheists. It amazes me how constantly amused they are with such obviously limited material. Wouldn’t it be easier just to type ‘Ditto’ in the comments section of better known blogs like Jerry Coyne’s or PZ Myer’s?

Nonetheless Mike does say something at the end of his first installment (another intelligently named piece called The Bible is stupid – one can almost hear the third grader in him yuck-yucking at having thought up this title – “Hey, guys, I called the Bible stupid! Funny, huh?!”) which caught my eye. At the end he makes what I think is a somewhat intriguing point:

Think of all the things the Bible could be if it were really divinely inspired. Think of all the knowledge and insight such a holy book could contain that simply could never have been made up — profound scientific insights, timeless moral instruction, and revelation clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues, like how to attain salvation. Any sane, rational view of the Bible shows it to be little more than the confused scribblings of Bronze Age tribes.

I like this because it is one of the rare times when a skeptic actually puts on the table what they expect the Bible should say rather than merely criticizing what it does say. It’s allows us to explore the assumptions that go into rejecting Christianity.

Mike gives three things that he thinks would distinguish the Bible and give us warrant to accept it as revelation.

The first is “profound scientific insights”. This one comes as no surprise because if one has read Mike’s posts (or any New Atheist’s posts for that matter) one knows that scientific knowledge is his gold standard for knowledge. Ironically atheists most appreciate science because they think it allows them to explain the universe apart from God, so why profound scientific insight would lead us to believe in the Bible isn’t clear. However, atheists also tend to believe science has been the greatest boon to mankind, so if He truly existed, presumably God’s first order of business would be to fill our heads with scientific knowledge. But would this actually be so wise? As Mike himself points out, the Bible contains many insights into healthy living – disease controls like cleanliness and quarantine. It also talks about caring for the environment and how we might best use the resources we are given. Those are fairly profound insights which despite our own knowledge, we often fail to employ today. But knowledge isn’t merely a benefit; knowledge is power. The same knowledge which allows one to understand microbes and prevent disease can also be used to turn those those microbes into weapons. We expend a significant amount of effort trying to keep some societies – like Iran and North Korea – from gaining certain scientific knowledge about nuclear engineering because we understand they could use it for great evil. The same engineering principles that allow us to transport ourselves quickly across distances creates other societal problems like pollution and the breakdown of communities. So raw scientific insight isn’t all that helpful unless it occurs within a cultural context already tempered by moral considerations.

And to his credit Mike does mention “timeless moral instruction” as one aspect of revelation. Why he doesn’t find a set of instructions like the Ten Commandments to be ‘timeless’ isn’t clear. Quite obviously if we lived in a society where everyone was honest, avoided taking what wasn’t theirs, unselfish and respectful of others property as well as making truth the highest priority and occasionally resting from our labors, the world would be a deeply and profoundly better place. Imagine no third world corruption, no wars driven by greed, no murders over petty disputes, no fathers prioritizing work over time spent with family and friends and people respecting each other’s lives and property. No one can argue this wouldn’t transform human experience in the most amazing ways – humanity would have the ability to achieve in ways it never has before.

Jesus distills it down even further for those who can’t handle ten laws – He reduces all human morality to two simple rules – love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. A world that could follow the simple rule of loving others as we loved ourselves would be as close to heaven on earth as we could possible imagine – in practice it would eliminate greed, most poverty, the suffering we intentionally cause one another and a significant portion of suffering caused by neglect. It is nothing if not timeless and profound.

So in this respect the moral instruction Scripture gives certainly meets the criteria Mike proposes for a revelation from God. Like most atheists, Mike might point out that others have come up with similar rules, and so why should we consider the Bible to be special in this regard? But the fact that the rules are simple doesn’t make them any less timeless or profound. In fact if the precepts Jesus taught were actually the way humans were intended to live, then we would expect that we would have some inherent inclination to come up with such rules. The Bible makes it clear that all humans have consciences that instruct them in what is moral – so it doesn’t surprise me when others come to the same conclusions about the best ways for humans to live together.

So given the obvious benefits of the Bible’s teachings and its pervasiveness at least in the Western world, why don’t all men act morally? If mere knowledge were sufficient then we would expect the knowledge of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings to be sufficient to modify human behavior. And yet every single human continues to act selfishly and greedily in some form or another despite their moral and scientific knowledge. Knowledge is plainly not enough because what is wrong with humanity is not what we know, but our refusal to do what is right even when we know what is right. This is why the primary purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to convey knowledge, but to transmit the truths about our broken relationship with God and how it might be restored – because it is only through a restored relationship to God that we experience transformation and transformation is necessary to experience actual moral renewal for individuals, and for societies. This in turns leads to the stability and prosperity that allows us to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge and material wealth.

This leads to Mike’s third contention that a revelation from God would be “clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues”. Understanding mankind’s corruption and corruptibility explains why even though the Bible’s message of salvation is so simple a young child or mentally handicapped person can comprehend it that  people still fight over theology and traditions inside and outside the church. No one is above above this aspect of human nature – Mike wants atheists to have power and influence, and I want believers to have power and influence on our society, yet both groups can succumb to the corrupting influence such power brings.  No one is innocent in this regard. Such disputes aren’t evidence against the Bible but a primary evidence for it’s fundamental contention that human beings are sinners – that is they are corrupted in such a way that they don’t do what they ought. 

The Bible claims there is an escape from this downward cycle through spiritual transformation. Now the Bible may be wrong in this regard, but  if it is wrong nothing Mike suggests here will make a difference because humans already reject the knowledge they have. All civilizations fall and human endeavors grow corrupt and if and if there is no God, there is no escape from this. We are what we are and our fate is what it is.

Like most New Atheists Mike speaks as a beneficiary of the millennia long effort in Western Civilization to incorporate Christian values. He assumes because he inherited and internalized these values that they must be inherent to humanity and no outside agency is necessary to preserve these qualities – but this belies a profound ignorance of history, which has demonstrated again and again humans are always a generation away from barbarity. What is stupid isn’t the Bible, but the notion that knowledge is alone sufficient to transform human lives.

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8 Responses to Is the Bible Stupid?

  1. You make some valid points, but there are some things I’m sure you’d agree the Bible could/should have been a bit more clear on:

    1) Is human slavery a moral evil or not?
    2) In what circumstances is divorcing one’s spouse acceptable?
    3) Is non-abortive contraception a moral evil?
    4) Did Christ die for everyone or just for a subset of humanity?
    5) Is polygamy a moral evil or is it just “less than ideal”?
    6) Is masturbation a sin?
    7) What reasons are valid to engage in military conflict with another nation?

    These seem like basic questions to me, yet Christians can’t seem to agree on them. Couldn’t God have bothered to impart some clear, concise instructions regarding these topics instead of speaking in riddles and parables? Think of all the suffering, conflict and error that could have been avoided.

  2. jackhudson says:

    In many ways I have already answered these questions James. I think it’s evident if we adopted the morality of Christ that is to love others as we love ourselves, then slavery, war, and divorce would not exist.

    I also find instructive Christ’s answer to the Pharisee’s in Matthew 19 the Pharisee’s came to ask Christ almost the same exact question you did about divorce:

    Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

    There are a couple of aspects to Christ’s reply that lead to understanding about all those questions.

    The first is Christ points to what God designed us to do, what His original intention was for marriage – to creating a lasting unifying bond between a man and a woman so they might form their own identity as a family. If that is the case, then that would seem to exclude divorce and polygamy.

    But Christ goes farther – He explains why God allowed divorce under Mosaic law – “Because of your hardness of heart”. In other words God did the work that He did in the way that He did not simply to lay out a list of moral precepts but to transform the hearts of men. To a certain degree it was God’s way of saying, “You can’t handle the truth” – His revelation was laid out progressively because fundamental transformation had to occur before more truth could be understood and acted on. Thus He didn’t immediately eliminate slavery and polygamy, though the principles for understanding why those were wrong were always there. And with the full revelation that came with Christ, wherein polygamy and slavery are clearly out of bounds, people in the hardness of their hearts still attempt to justify certain activities by finding loopholes in the law. But Jesus reply to them is consistent throughout the Gospels – it’s not about a rule, it’s about how God intended you to live and your willingness to live that way.

    This has long been a misconception both Pharisaical Christians and atheists have about the Bible – that is it is simply a list of moral precepts and you can look up the answer to any moral conundrum and follow it. Jesus made it clear that the problem didn’t lay in our knowledge about certain precepts or lack thereof, but in who we are.

    Be honest with yourself James – you aren’t asking these questions because you are looking for truth in Scriptures, you are asking them for exactly the same reason the Pharisees questioned Jesus, because you are hoping to poke holes in the confidence people might place in Scripture. But in doing so you are showing you still don’t get it – people don’t agree on what the Bible says on matters of sex, and marriage and slavery and war not because such things can’t be readily discerned by the simple propositions Jesus puts forth, but because people want to justify their own desires for sexual pleasure, material wealth and selfish ambition. This is true of people who call themselves Christians and those who don’t.

    So if one goes through that list and say at every point, and engages one’s mind and asks “How was I designed to live by God?” and “Am I willing to live that way, and if not, why not?” one comes up with a set of very transformative answers, not just a list of rules.

  3. “you are hoping to poke holes in the confidence people might place in Scripture.”

    No. I’m hoping to poke holes in peoples’ confidence in their own ability to reach an “infallible” interpretation of Scripture. It’s not a small distinction.

    You’re also oversimplifying. Sure, if we lived in a perfect world, there would be no war. I doubt you’re advocating pacifism at an either individual or national level, though, are you?

    I’m not suggesting that the moral precepts of Scripture are irrelevant or useless. There are even a few passages that are quite lovely in their portrait of agape love (though they’re greatly outnumbered by the number of passages that seem to joyfully promise suffering and horrors for the human race).

    The problem is that merely relaying “ideals”isn’t going to be of much help when confronted with decisions that are not between good and evil but between competing goods or different evils.

    War may be evil, but sometimes one may concede to inflicting harm on others as a soldier for the protection of others (or freedom or some other abstraction). Lying may be a sin, but honesty can be used as a form of cruelty. Divorce may have been the result of selfishness, but it doesn’t have to be. Spouses who suffer the death of a child will sometimes be unable to continue in their relationship with each other. Should a woman consign herself to a lifetime of spinsterhood after such a divorce for the sake of following the literal word of Scripture? If so, why? Who gains anything from it?

  4. jackhudson says:

    No. I’m hoping to poke holes in peoples’ confidence in their own ability to reach an “infallible” interpretation of Scripture. It’s not a small distinction.

    If that’s what you are doing, then I would gladly support you, though I don’t know anyone who claims to have an infallible interpretation of Scripture. Except perhaps the Pope. But I don’t actually know him.

    You’re also oversimplifying. Sure, if we lived in a perfect world, there would be no war. I doubt you’re advocating pacifism at an either individual or national level, though, are you?

    No, because I agree we don’t live in a perfect world.

    I’m not suggesting that the moral precepts of Scripture are irrelevant or useless. There are even a few passages that are quite lovely in their portrait of agape love (though they’re greatly outnumbered by the number of passages that seem to joyfully promise suffering and horrors for the human race).

    None of the passages that warn of us the consequences of our immoral actions seem particularly joyful to me. And if someone is driving toward a cliff, you are likely to issue more warnings to them than you are to try to win them over to the wisdom of not driving over cliffs.

    The problem is that merely relaying “ideals” isn’t going to be of much help when confronted with decisions that are not between good and evil but between competing goods or different evils.

    I have found it is much easier to assess all moral decisions if one believes there are ideal moral standards to begin with, in much the same way that I find it easier to measure distances if I utilize a reliable standard of measure. This doesn’t mean it is always easy to make such measurements, but it is virtually impossible to do so if no agreed upon standard exists in the first place.

    War may be evil, but sometimes one may concede to inflicting harm on others as a soldier for the protection of others (or freedom or some other abstraction). Lying may be a sin, but honesty can be used as a form of cruelty. Divorce may have been the result of selfishness, but it doesn’t have to be. Spouses who suffer the death of a child will sometimes be unable to continue in their relationship with each other. Should a woman consign herself to a lifetime of spinsterhood after such a divorce for the sake of following the literal word of Scripture? If so, why? Who gains anything from it?

    This is why Christ differentiated the spirit of the law from the letter of the law, because even the supposed law-abiding righteousness of the Pharisees could be a cruelty to others. And what is the spirit of the law? To love God with all one’s heart, mind and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. A lot of people swallow a camel and choke on a flea – but this is why Christ starts with our hearts first, because we have all failed to follow the ideal set forth in the law.

  5. Tristan Vick says:

    If the Bible is read literally… Then, yes, the majority of it is undeniably stupid.

    If you read it for what it is… an ancient collection of archaic myths… then it reads like… Well, an ancient collection of archaic myths.

  6. jackhudson says:

    What part of “Love your neighbor as yourself” is stupid if read literally, or indicative of an archaic myth?

  7. subayaitori says:

    The wisdom and the saying, axiomatic as it is, is not stupid.

    I never said it was.

    Even bad literature can have good morals. Even mundane stories can contain morsels of wisdom.

    Meanwhile, talking donkeys? What is this, a Disney movie? Majorly stupid.

    Unless your a talking ass fetishist, then you have to admit, that’s on the stupid end of the scale. But maybe the donkey said something axiomatic and wise? Hmmmm… still, it doesn’t stop it from being stupid.

  8. jackhudson says:

    The wisdom and the saying, axiomatic as it is, is not stupid.

    Given it was according to Christ the summation of all that came before it, it would seem none of it is stupid.

    Even bad literature can have good morals. Even mundane stories can contain morsels of wisdom.

    Is the Bible ‘bad literature’? And if so, to what are you comparing it?

    Meanwhile, talking donkeys? What is this, a Disney movie? Majorly stupid.

    Unless your a talking ass fetishist, then you have to admit, that’s on the stupid end of the scale.

    Stupid in what way? Because you don’t believe it to be true, or because you think references to the miraculous in general are stupid?

    But maybe the donkey said something axiomatic and wise? Hmmmm… still, it doesn’t stop it from being stupid.

    “Don’t do what you are attempting to do or you will die” would seem to be an important bit of wisdom for the person who was about to die, don’t you think?

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