Friday, November 21, 2014

The Basis of Religion

(Author’s note: I started writing this post a loooong time ago. Sometime in the middle of 2012. I originally planned to have this follow my posts on crazy Bible verses since it’s largely related to the validity of the Bible. However, as I’ve discussed here recently, I felt a bit bad about all the blatant blasphemy in this blog and the fact that it bugged some buddies who believe in the Bible, so I became a bit bashful about blogging about this. This is a rather important facet of my reasoning for atheism, though, so here goes.)

As I’ve written previously, the Bible is not exactly a perfect document. It’s full of contradictions, has not held up well over time, and is clearly inconsistent in its moral teachings. Most Christians want to believe that their god is a loving god, but there are a multitude of examples where this god is indisputably cruel. Deuteronomy and Leviticus are undeniably overflowing with pure ridiculousness. You know--all that jazz about how eating bacon and menstruating are sins that need to be atoned for by killing goats and stuff. I covered it in this post, which was so much fun to write that I wrote another post about other crazy shit in the Old Testament. Then, to be fair, I wrote another post detailing the pearls of wisdom that can be gleaned from the New Testament.

Three posts may seem like a lot, given that the general theme of all three was “lookit how batshit insane the Bible can be!” In reality, I could write another three posts on the subject since it’s a pretty big book and there’s more than enough crazy in it, but I hope I’ve made my point: the book that Christianity is based on has a ton of passages that most people disregard outright because they’re so crazy, and it also has a ton of passages that require a silo full of salt to rationalize.

This means that the Bible as a whole cannot be completely trusted because we know that, as a whole, it is fallible. Having established reasonable is it to believe in any of it? What sense does it make to try to derive a code for morality from the same book that condones slavery? How can one point to this book that is clearly full of errors and use it as a rationalization for believing in any form of Christianity? If you gave the Bible to a college graduate who had never heard of Christianity before, let them read it, and then asked them whether they believed in the Holy Trinity, how could they possibly say “yes” by using the Bible as justification?

Other than the Bible, what evidence is there for Christianity? Most people hold on to Christianity because of personal experiences and stories from other Christians--times when a prayer has been answered, or comfort was found in times of sorrow, or deep reserves of motivation were accessed. Even if you’re convinced that the only explanation for these experiences is a “higher power,” how do you know it’s the Christian god? Without the Bible, there would be no reason to attribute anything to the Christian god because Christianity would not exist. Religions require a common thread to tie people together, and it’s usually some selection of writing that the members agree is “holy” in some fashion.

Everything that we as a society “know” about Christianity is derived from the Bible: God created everything, got really mad and killed almost everyone, allowed His “chosen people” to be slaves for a while, and eventually mellowed out and knocked up a broad named Mary who gave birth to Jesus who had some sweet magic powers and then died so that all of us lowly sinners could go to heaven even though we’re terrible people and should stop sinning even though we’re already forgiven for our sins that we haven’t yet committed. Also there’s something called the Holy Ghost. Got it? Good. Christians generally agree on some version of that stuff.

However, there’s a bunch of stuff they don’t agree on. Catholics prohibit the use of birth control, but Protestants don’t. Why? Because it’s not in the Bible (and because many Protestants are reasonable enough to admit that birth control, in its myriad forms, is right up there with vaccines among the most convenient medical advances in the world). Then again, Baptists disagree with many moderate Christians on the topic of homosexuality even though that is in the Bible because they “interpret” the Bible differently. The Bible is ultimately what ties all Christians together, but it’s so messed up and controversial that they had to split into a bunch of denominations based on how they interpret it. Still, the Bible is the common source for their religious beliefs and practically all Christian worship services directly reference the Bible.

Here’s the next question: what differentiates the Bible from the Koran (or any other holy book) in terms of validity? Not a thing, if we’re being honest. The Bible is less extreme, but that doesn’t make it more correct. Muslims believe just as strongly in the Koran as Christians do in the Bible (and in many cases, they believe much more strongly--you may be familiar with a little thing called jihad that some of them support). Muslims have “religious experiences” that are just as vivid and “real” as the experiences of Christians, yet they have an entirely different religion. There are a billion Muslims and a billion Hindus in the world, and there is not a single thing that makes their religions any less valid than Christianity. These religions have a holy book (or set of books) that they claim contains the words of the only real god(s). They cannot all be right...but they can all be wrong, which is way more likely than any of them being correct.
The question of why Christianity was correct while Islam or Judaism or Hinduism was not was one of the toughest questions for me to answer when I was still struggling with the idea of religion, and it's one of the things that makes it practically impossible for me to ever believe in Christianity again. I never had a better reason for believing in Christianity over Islam other than "that's what I was brought up with." I can't honestly say that Christianity has been definitively proven incorrect as a whole, but it's also true that there's nothing to prove that it is correct. The most recent books of the Bible were written ~1900 years ago, so the validity of the book as a whole is in question simply by virtue of its age. There's a bunch of stuff in there that is outright wrong, and there's also a bunch of stuff that modern Christians tend to ignore completely. One would think that an all-knowing and all-powerful god would put a little more effort into making sure that his book was more robust and credible. Even if He didn't want to write the book Himself, He could have made some simple decrees like "Don't rape anyone. Ever." and "No one deserves to be born into slavery. Stop that nonsense." But He didn’t. He thought it was more important to stress that making idols of other gods is a big no-no.

(And don’t give me the bullshit about how He was making rules that “fit the time,” as if humanity was so depraved 2000 or 3000 or even 6000 years ago that they were incapable of stopping themselves from banging everything that moves. You know what would convince them to stop raping people? The creator of the universe threatening them with eternal damnation if they did it and smiting some assholes who ignored Him. Problem solved.)

When people like me point out all the ridiculous nonsense in the Bible, apologists often retort “Yeah, but you can make the Bible say anything you want,” with the insinuation being that the Bible is so big and so old and so open to interpretation that one can find a passage to justify any standpoint they want. If that’s the case...what good is the Bible? Saying that you can make the Bible mean anything you want is the single most damning thing you can say about it. If you can use it to argue for both sides of an argument and it’s nothing more than a matter of opinion as to which side is interpreting the Bible “correctly...” then it can’t be used to justify anything.

I just don’t get what’s even remotely redeeming about the Bible. Jesus was a good dude, but so was Buddha. The Golden Rule is delightful, but that’s why it’s also in hundreds of other religions and easily predated Christianity. The story of Jonah is kinda fun, but not nearly as fun as the story of Spider-Man. We’ve got laws that we came up with independently of religion since this is not a theocracy, so we don’t need the Bible to tell us what to do (which it does a terrible job of anyway). Most importantly: there’s no good reason to believe that it’s actually divine in any way. It hasn’t been updated in ages and didn’t predict anything other than some crazy shit in Revelation about dragons that (spoiler alert) hasn’t come true. If it’s not reasonable to believe in the Bible, how is it reasonable to believe in Christianity?

I’d like to think that, as a society, we should be smart enough to move past the idea that the old religions are valid. I know there are a ton of stupid people in the world, but it’s not just stupid people who are religious. There are millions of people in this country who are of above-average intelligence yet still believe that Christianity is valid...even though it’s based on a book that unquestionably contains a bunch of bunk. I avoided finishing this post for so long because I don’t particularly like calling my friends and family crazy, but I honestly don’t know how I can take an objective look at a religion based on something as spurious as the Bible and come to a different conclusion. Maybe “crazy” is not the right word as I know they all have their reasons, but objectively religion just doesn’t make sense. They’re great people, and I still love ‘em...but they’re lending credence to the jackass fundamentalists by treating any form of Christianity as valid, and I don’t love that. Most Christians are good people, but they’re enabling the ones that aren’t for illogical reasons. By extension, they enable all kinds of objectively bad stuff done in the name of religion throughout the world. We could be much better off without it.


  1. Kyle, interesting post. You raise some good issues. Here are some thoughts I had in response.
    On the Bible, your position seems to be that because parts of the Bible are irrelevant, offensive, or even appallingly wrong when considered from a modern perspective, that nothing in the Bible is credible. Either God wrote it or didn’t, and clearly it is impossible today to believe that God is responsible for everything in it. But it is much more helpful to recognize that the many different books of the Bible were written by a variety of different people for different reasons over roughly a thousand years, give or take. From this perspective, the Bible contains inspired writings written by people struggling with the significance of God in their lives and communities. Some of these writings are not relevant or helpful to us today, but some of them contain profound and timeless truths that continue to be important today. And, yes, it is a matter of how we interpret them. But that is true of any writing, ancient or modern. Interpretation is simply the process by which we understand the meaning of a text, and different interpretations are inevitable. You seem rather disillusioned that God did not make everything clear cut and simple like you learned in Sunday School or Campus Crusade or wherever. But that does not mean the Bible holds nothing of significance or of sacred truth, or that anybody who doesn’t reject it completely, as you do, is an idiot.

    On the Bible, the Quran, and other world religions, you write that “They cannot all be right...but they can all be wrong, which is way more likely than any of them being correct.” How about a third option: no religion is entirely “correct” or exclusively possessive of divine truth, but there is much wisdom and insight into the sacred in many different religions. No one of them has to be the “right” one, despite the tribalist impulse of many believers to insist that theirs is the only one.

    Finally, you are right that there is much moral evil, hypocrisy, and offensiveness that has been done and is still being done under the umbrella of “Christianity” let alone all religion. But such things are not endemic to religions or churches per se, but rather, are endemic to all humanity, and most of humanity is religious in some sense. Nonreligious people are hardly more innocent as a whole than any other group. You see remaining in the Church as an act of enabling “jackass fundamentalists.” But if that is all you see it as, then you are willfully ignoring the tremendous good countless Christians are responsible for precisely because of their Christian faith. Rather, any Christian who takes seriously the witness of Jesus as expressed in the New Testament and in the traditions of the Church has committed to Christ and the Church precisely because of Christ’s response to the evil and “sin” endemic to humanity. If the Church often fails to reflect the grace of God in the world, then working to improve it is at least as respectable a choice as taking potshots at it.

  2. Thanks for the response, Seth. Despite the fact that I disagree with some of what you wrote, I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind it.

    My main point with this post was not that nothing in the Bible is credible, but that I don't think it makes sense to buy into the religion that's based on it. If it were all divinely inspired by a god with the power described in the Bible, it wouldn't be so preposterously full of holes. Having been away from religion for a number of years now I'm obviously biased against it, but I find nothing divine about it. If it's not divine, why base a religion around it? Yes, it contains some stuff that can be inspirational or uplifting in the right light, but so do a multitude of other writings that have come around in the last 2,000 years that have nothing to do with deities.

    To clarify one other thing on that point, I don't think being a Christian automatically makes one an idiot, and I've tried to stress that. I do, however, think that being Christian is irrational is some fashion. I also think that most smart Christians recognize that there's some irrationality in their beliefs but continue to believe anyway for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with simple logic.

    I have a really hard time wrapping my head around the argument for religious pluralism or the idea that multiple religions can be partially right and it's OK if none of them are entirely right. The following statement is either true or false: There is a heaven, and one must accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior in order to get in when they die. If that's true, Christianity holds infinitely more value than any other viewpoint in the long run. If that's false...that doesn't necessarily make Christianity useless, but that makes it waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay less worthwhile.

    I don't mean to totally discount the value that Christianity provides to some people or the good done in the name of Christianity, so I take your point in the last paragraph. If religion were 90% "love your neighbor as yourself" and 10% goofy traditions then I wouldn't have much reason to rail against it. And, to be fair, that's mostly what it is for many moderate Christians. The problem is the rest of them, as well as fundamentalist Muslims. Those are the groups that I have a problem with. Even if you're not in those groups, I find it hypocritical to criticize them as a Christian when they have just as much justification for their beliefs about the supernatural as you do.

    I admire the effort to try to make Christianity more about acting like Christ and loving everyone; it's objectively better than being prejudiced against people or pretending like sex is something that only happens between married heterosexual people and justifying that stance because of what was written in a book 2,000 years ago. I just don't know how the former is more justifiable than the latter when both ideas come from the same book.