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The Bible by Various
Our reviewer Les Reid finds The Holy Bible to be wholly unreliable.
What is the Bible? The Bible has been revered for centuries in its different versions and translations, and it still is today, by billions of people across the globe. Sometimes the reverential tone has become so hushed and obsequious that one feels that the ancient sin of idolatry should be extended to include Bibliolatry.
The oldest books of the Bible, the first five books, or ‘Pentateuch’, are thought to be nearly 3,000 years old, and are treated as holy scripture by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. But choosing which other books to place alongside those five is an important point of difference between the three main religions, and among the various sects which comprise them. Broadly speaking, there is majority agreement on the other books of the Old Testament; but then Muslims add the Koran, and Christians add the New Testament. Thus there is no single version of the Bible common to Judaism, Islam and Christianity. My remarks in what follows will refer mainly to the Christian Bible in its various forms, but can also easily be applied to the Jewish and Muslim versions.
The Bible: A Fount of Strife
Philosophers have long disagreed about the status of the Bible. John Locke, for example, accepted the orthodox religious view that the Bible records messages from God that are worthy of belief. But he did show some caution, distinguishing between ‘original revelation’ (direct communication from God) and ‘traditional revelation’ (commentary about or ideas derived from those direct communications). David Hume disagreed with Locke by according the Bible no special status, finding it not so much ‘holy and reliable’ as ‘wholly unreliable’. Hume saw its fantastic tales as merely typical examples of ancient mythologizing. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Hume described the Bible as “a book presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts which every nation gives of its origin.” Albert Einstein echoed Hume when he described the Bible as “a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish” (letter to Eric Gutkind, 1954).
That basic disagreement over the status of the Bible continues today and has been enlivened by the recent clashes between Creationists, who insist that the creation story of Genesis is literally true, and supporters of a science-based world-view who argue that our scientific understanding of the history of planet Earth and of the evolution of life on it has rendered a literal interpretation of Genesis obsolete.
Moses being heavy-handed with the Law while breaking up an ancient Israelite rave
The argument is not simply between religious believers and non-believers. Believers disagree among themselves on how the Bible is to be read. Thus evangelicals hold that, since God is its author, “All Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.” So Creationists, who are mostly evangelical Protestants, campaign against Darwinian biology because they read Genesis literally. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church stated in the Second Vatican Council of 1965 that “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings.”
Other believers have been more circumspect. The Anglican and Lutheran churches generally hold that the Bible is without error only in matters essential to salvation, and that guidance is necessary for the correct interpretation of apparent inconsistencies, either with itself, or with science. On this view, an appreciation of the historical context of writing may be required to understand a portion of scripture. Then there are some believers who reject the literal approach entirely and treat the Bible as a work of allegory and symbol. The ‘Sea of Faith’ movement, led by ex-Anglican priest Don Cupitt, takes this non-literal line.
I have no argument with the latter view. Those who say that the Bible is poetry and fable have renounced all objective truth claims and shelved it in the ‘Literature’ section, where I agree it belongs. My argument is with those who say that the Bible is true, whether literally and entirely, or only partially, and who insist on its supernatural status as a text directly inspired by Yahweh. They want a special shelf, marked ‘Revealed Truth’, but they have no logical brackets to hold that shelf up.
Problems with ‘Revealed Truth’
Like billions of other child believers, I was brought up to revere the Bible. Conventional religious teaching is that the Bible is an anthology of texts which have special authority because they record direct communications from Yahweh (God), the spirit controlling the universe, to specific human beings. The Bible (specifically, the Pentateuch) speaks of how Yahweh created the universe and of the origins of humankind and all other living things. It also lays down rules for human conduct, based on the likes and dislikes of this spirit; for example, homosexuality is forbidden, and homosexuals are to be stoned to death. Accordingly, the Bible is to be revered like Yahweh himself and its teachings are fixed for all time, because they have been laid down by the spirit – unless Yahweh amends them in a major revision, as he is said to have done in the New Testament or the Koran by those who believe those additions. Losing my faith in the Bible was an integral part of my teenage rebellion against religious belief and the tales of the supernatural it embraces.
The Bible suffers from two kinds of problem: (a) internal and (b) external. The internal problems are caused by statements and attitudes expressed in the Bible that are troublesome in themselves, without reference to facts and opinions derived from other sources; or they relate to the composition of the Bible itself. External problems are those which arise when statements in the Bible clash with what we know or value on other grounds.
Some internal problems:
1. There is no agreed canon of a Christian Bible between Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Catholic Bible includes books not included in the Protestant Bible: Tobit, Judith, Maccabees 1 and 2, Esdras 1 and 2, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach and Baruch. The Eastern Orthodox Bible includes Esdras 3 and 4, and Maccabees 3 and 4, which neither Catholics nor Protestants include in their Bibles. The various canons were fixed by councils of the churches themselves: the Council of Trent for Catholics (1546); the 39 Articles for Anglicans (1563); the Westminster Confession of Faith for British Calvinists (1647), and the Synod of Jerusalem for Greek Orthodoxy (1672). The fact that contents differ and that inclusion was a matter of committee decision weakens the claim that the Bible is the authentic word of the God who controls the cosmos.
2. Communications from the spirit have been secretive and sporadic, and the messages and miracles described in the Bible all happened centuries ago. If the great spirit is really concerned about humanity, as is claimed, then one would expect communications to be open, regular and clearly genuine. If there really was a benevolent spirit looking over us, its communications would be as clear as the sun in the sky. Secretive and sporadic communications to favoured individuals are probably fictions.
3. Yahweh is a biased god. As Hume pointed out (Enquiry, S.10), Biblical assertions that Yahweh favoured one tribe of people above the rest of humanity are hard to believe, but when the tribe (the Israelites) is that of the author himself (Moses), then the claim becomes ludicrous. If there were indeed a spirit in charge of the universe, it is unlikely that he/she would have favourites or act so childishly. The claims of Moses are vanity.
4. Does Yahweh change? The Bible itself says no. Yet the transition from the Old Testament to the New demonstrates a shift from a punitive, vengeful god (e.g., he wipes out nearly all animals and people in the Flood as an act of punishment), to a god of forgiveness and mercy. That’s a clear change of moral attitude. It seems that the spirit learned moral lessons from its time in bodily form as Jesus, so it has changed from its earlier position. Thus the Bible contradicts itself on morality.
5. The problem of suffering. God is said to be all-powerful and benevolent, yet children are born with painful diseases. Jesus allegedly cured a handful of people of their ailments, but millions of others since then have suffered similar ailments, and no God has intervened to cure them. The fact of needless suffering contradicts the notion that there is a benevolent and all-powerful God in charge of the universe. Either the God is not benevolent, or it is not all-powerful, or it is merely a fiction.
Some external problems:
1. The references to the ‘firmament’ at the start of Genesis show that the author, allegedly Moses, believed in a flat Earth. The firmament was a dome with holes in it to let the sun and moon pass through and to let rain fall. Likewise, when the god helped Joshua by making the sun stand still, the author of the tale must have thought that the sun moves across the sky, as in a Ptolemaic flat Earth cosmology. Flat Earth cosmology was a (false) primitive belief system common to many ancient cultures.
2. The moral code stated in the Pentateuch is supposed to have been delivered by Yahweh to Moses directly, by being etched by Yahweh on two pieces of rock. It is a primitive moral code, which demands that Yahweh must come first among gods, condemns misuse of his name, and orders Sabbath observance, for instance. While it prohibits trivial matters, it ignores serious moral offences, such as paedophilia. Therefore, as a moral code it is so deficient that any tales of its divine origin must be treated as fiction.
3. The Bible asserts that there is life after death, but our knowledge of the human body shows this to be a fantasy. People who have suffered brain damage, whether through accident or disease, often lose part of their mental life: they lose memories; they cannot recognise people they knew; they lose the power of speech, etc. The fact that physical damage to the brain causes such a loss to the person indicates that its complete physical destruction, in death, will entail the final end of the person. Stories of a second life beyond the grave are human inventions.
4. The natural sciences provide us with a rational account of the formation of Earth and the evolution of the biosphere. There is no longer any need to take seriously the speculations of Moses as recorded in Genesis. Iron Age texts such as Genesis record Iron Age ideas. The notion that all species began suddenly in the forms in which they exist today is demonstrably false. Likewise, science provides us with an account of the formation of the Solar System that has great explanatory power, enabling us to understand phenomena such as lunar craters, asteroids, the rings of Saturn and Sunspots, as well as the creation of the Earth. The speculations of Moses on such matters are childish by comparison.
Taken together, the internal and external problems of the Bible are such that any claims that it is an indubitably true record of communications from the spirit in charge of the universe must be regarded as unwarranted. There is no reason to believe that this text from the Middle East is a unique and special book. On the contrary, there are good reasons for thinking that it is nothing more than a collection of folk-tales, on a par with Greek myths and Norse legends. Trying to reconcile such tales with a scientific world-view is a pointless task. It is simpler and more rational to apply Occam’s Razor and relegate all such ancient mythologies to the Literature shelf. They are not true. They are merely the debris of obsolete paradigms.
All the main varieties of Christianity lay great store by the Bible. They do not agree on the value of church tradition, nor on ecclesiastical organisation, but they do all agree that the Bible is a book of divine authority. Yet their faith is misplaced. They may think that they have found a paradigm which corresponds to reality, but they have not. The religious paradigm was a human invention, and its central narratives are fictions. It may have been useful to societies in the past, but it has been superseded by a new paradigm, the scientific world-view.
Having reverence for an anthology of obsolete ideas is not a harmless folly. Religions divide people into tribes, thus generating social division and perpetuating other ancient tribal attitudes. Many long-running conflicts have religious rivalry at their core. We live on a small planet which is threatened by relentless population growth, pollution, deforestation, water shortage, fossil fuel depletion and climate destabilisation. That is the reality of our situation. It is better to face our uncertain future armed with a rational account of our place in the universe, than as feuding religious tribes brandishing our disparate versions of wholly unreliable folk-tales.
© Les Reid 2013
Les Reid is a member of Edinburgh Humanist Group. He teaches ‘An Introduction to Humanism’ as an Adult Education evening class.