The Bible is not my word.
Do you believe that Yahweh wrote that? Or do you think I wrote it in order to make a point? Are you willing to accept my word that Yahweh intervened in Microsoft Word to communicate a message to you?
I would submit to you that you have no more reason to accept that Yahweh wrote the Bible than you do that he wrote the sentence above. The evidence for both is the same: the word of other people.
I’ll come back to that in a moment.
A frequently heard criticism of the Bible is that for a book written by a supreme being it sure is full of nonsense, and for a book that is meant to be holy it sure is full of evil. Rules carved in stone never change, which I suppose is the point, but they never change even after they stop making sense.
No modern Christian obeys all of the laws in the Old Testament. In Exodus, the Lord announces the ten famous commandments, catches his breath, and then he continues with several other commandments that were destined for obscurity. We are commanded to put to death anyone who curses their parents, to celebrate three specific festivals each year (the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of harvest, and the feast of ingathering), and to sacrifice firstborn livestock. He commands that if a man beats his slave there should be no punishment unless the slave actually dies, since the slave is his property. There are similarly outmoded laws in the other books of the Bible. Deuteronomy is full of gems, e.g. if a virgin is raped she is compelled to marry her rapist, unless of course she fails to scream for help during the rape, in which case she must be hauled to the town gates and stoned to death. Lovely.
It is telling that the omniscient deity of the Old Testament lacked the foresight to create any laws specifically about tailgating, negative political ads, mowing the lawn before 9:00am, recycling, or crowding at soccer matches.
As for the purported inerrancy of the Bible, unlike other religious claims this is a testable, falsifiable hypothesis. All we must do is find a single error anywhere in the book. Passages in Leviticus mention fowls that creep upon all fours and hares that cheweth the cud. Wrong! Birds walk on two legs and rabbits don’t chew cud. 2 Kings says that King Ahaziah was 22 years old when he began to reign over Judah, but 2 Chronicles says he was 42 (probably a scribal mistake). And why does the book of Samuel give two conflicting accounts of the death of Saul? There are numerous other factual errors and contradictions. The book is obviously not inerrant, and those who wish us to believe otherwise will have to prove that birds have two invisible legs to match the two we see, and that rabbits are secretly ruminants.
The silliness and the offensive parts aside, though, the big problem with the Bible, or with any holy book, is the notion that the book is the “word of God” and therefore it is inappropriate to think critically about the content. For Christians, everything stems from this point. And it’s an incredibly weak point.
How do you know that the Bible is the word of God?
For Muslims, how do you know that the Koran is the word of God?
You know because you were told. By people. By ordinary, fallible, flawed people. How would they know? They don’t.
To believe in the inerrancy of the Bible you must first believe in the inerrancy of the people telling you to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and that would be a grave mistake.
Is it any wonder that Christians would tell you that the Christian holy book is divinely authored? Or that Muslims would tell you that the Koran is divinely authored? Why would you believe them? To believe that God wrote a certain book just because somebody told you he did involves a stunning suspension of critical thinking. The fact that Christians believe God wrote the Bible, and Muslims believe God wrote the Koran, and Mormons believe God wrote the Book of Mormon, is brainwashing, pure and simple.
Imagine that a woman you’ve never met before handed you a new book and told you it was the word of God. Would you believe her? The woman’s name is Janet. The title of the book is “The Werd of God by the Proffet Janet” and right off you notice spelling mistakes. The first page of the book reads, “Give all your money to Janet immediately. If you do not, you will go to Hell. I am God and I wrote this.” Would you obey? Would you allow yourself to be intimidated by the proposition that God authored the book, or that you’d go to Hell if you disobeyed? Couldn’t it be that Janet wrote the book, not God? Isn’t it possible that Janet is trying to con you out of your money?
Janet says, “Hurry up asshole. I’m waiting for my money. You don’t want to go to Hell, do you? You had better obey the book God wrote.”
The proper response is something like this:
“I am not going to obey your book. I am not going to give you a dime. I see no evidence that God wrote this book. All I have is your word, and that’s not good enough for me, because you are another human being like me, and you are not God.”
It is clear that people wrote the Bible. Human beings. Flawed human beings. And it is human beings who put forward the theory that God in some way wrote the Bible. And they’re wrong.
Muslims believe the Koran is the ultimate word of God. Christians believe the Bible is the ultimate word of God. They cannot both be right. Even holy book theists themselves, or rather especially they, believe the following: a) there are religions based on other supposed holy books, b) those holy books were not written by God and have no purchase on the truth, c) the only reason adherents believe in the authenticity of those holy books is because they were brought up with those beliefs; in other words, they were brainwashed by their families and societies. Theists make the best atheists, as soon as they manage to turn the light of their critical thinking, which they shine freely upon other religions, upon their own.
Here is a thought experiment for fundamentalist Christians:
Let us suppose that your particular Christian theology is a completely accurate description of reality. Suppose I accept your concept of God. I accept the blurry confused blob of the Trinity. I accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. I accept that Jesus is my lord and saviour – the one and only path to eternal salvation. And I accept the divine authorship and the inerrancy of the Bible. It is the one and only Word of God.
In this thought experiment religions other than Christianity, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, are flat wrong. Adherents of these religions are in spiritual peril. Jesus is the one and only path to salvation. Christianity is Christ’s one and only valid religion. Other religions are based on misunderstandings of God or on outright fiction.
And there is one religion that is particularly evil. Satan himself devised it to lead mankind away from God. The religion is called Flamflim. Satan authored the “holy” book of Flamflim and filled it with lies and incitements to sin. It’s called the Flamflim Law Book.
Now, suppose that you were born into a Flamflim family in a predominantly Flamflim country. You’ve never had the opportunity to read the Bible. You’ve been told the Flamflim Law Book is the one and only Word of God. Your parents and siblings believe it. Your friends at school believe it. From birth to adulthood you are programmed to believe in the inerrancy of the Flamflim Law Book.
Remember, for the purpose of this thought experiment we’re assuming that the Bible is the one and only Word of God. The Flamflim Law Book might contain beautiful poetry, but it is not divinely authored. It is not inerrant, and your Flamflim society is mistaken in thinking otherwise. But if you were born into a Flamflim society, how would you know?
What you need here is a reliable method by which to ascertain that a certain book is authentically the one and only Word of God. If you possessed such a method then even if you were born in a Flamflim country to a Flamflim family, and even if you never had access to a Bible, you could at least get far enough to reject the Flamflim Law Book.
What method do you propose to use to ascertain that a certain book is truly holy? Will the following method work?
Accept what I am told without any critical thought. If I am brought up to believe a book is holy then it must be holy. If my parents, my friends, my neighbors, and my priest tells me that a book is holy then it must be holy.
Clearly this method will not work unless you happen to be born into a Christian family in a Christian society. In this thought experiment, though, you were born into a Flamflim family in a Flamflim society. If you accept what you are told without critical thinking you will end up erroneously accepting the divinity and the inerrancy of the Flamflim Law Book.
We must conclude that regardless of the family and society into which you happen to be born, it is not safe to automatically accept the assertions of others that a certain book is the one and only Word of God.
Let’s add another wrinkle to the thought experiment: not only are you erroneously taught from a young age that the Flamflim Law Book is holy, you are also taught that it is a sin to have doubts. You are taught that you would be a worthless human being, so hated by God that he would condemn you to an eternity in Hell-fire, if you were even to pose the mildest question as to whether the Flamflim Law Book were truly holy. High stakes indeed! But of course none of this is true. It is simply an age old mind control technique. Cult leaders have always known that critical thinking is dangerous to them, and so they demand blind belief and outlaw doubt.
How would you know that having doubts about the Flamflim Law Book is not a sin, you will not be sent to Hell for questioning Flamflim, and in fact your only hope for salvation is to reject the faith into which you were born?
Let’s add one last wrinkle to the thought experiment: despite the pressure to believe blindly in the Flamflim Law Book, you happen to be endowed with a pernicious facility for critical thinking. It keeps giving you troubles. It makes it difficult to go with the flow.
If you were created by God then isn’t it possible that critical thinking is actually a gift that God bestowed upon you? Perhaps God hopes you’ll have the courage to think for yourself even in the face of supernatural threats (which are fake but you believe in them).
If you follow the idea that you were created by God, including your facility for critical thinking, to the logical conclusion, then despite your religion’s emphasis on blind belief, you must conclude that God gave you your doubts!
If you have the courage to celebrate your doubts instead of hiding from them, and if you insist on reasoning from the evidence rather than slavishly believing what you’re told to believe (or what you want to believe), then you have an outstanding chance of escaping the tyranny of the false religion into which you were born. From there, a curious and open mind will expose you to other faith systems and give you the best possible chance of discovering the one true religion, which in this thought experiment is Christianity.
Of course, this experiment could be tailored for Jews, Muslims, or any other religionists. We could say, for example, that the Koran is the one and only Word of God and Islam is the one true religion. The conclusion is the same.
The point is that since there are multiple religions that contradict each other and cannot all be true, then even if we assume that God exists and that one religion is true, it is illogical for you to assume you happen to have been raised in that religion. Even if everyone around you is utterly convinced that a certain book is the one and only word of God, whether that book is the Koran, the Bible, or something else, it doesn’t make it so. If there is a God, then to find this God you must fully engage your critical thinking, embrace your doubts, and have a curious and open mind.
If you cannot rely on your society to determine whether a certain book is truly holy, then how can you know?
Another thought experiment:
A burning bush appears unto you. The burning bush speaks in a booming voice,
“Draw not nigh hither: put off they shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. I am God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I am God, the alpha and omega, the omniscient and omnipotent creator of the universe.”
As you walk around the burning bush you are utterly convinced that it is authentic. The bush burns but it is not consumed. If it is a magic trick then it’s a very good one. The voice of God continues,
“We’ve got to do something about people with freckles. They’re ruining my divine plan. I don’t want you to question this, just do what I say. Remember, it’s a huge sin to question me. Round up all freckled people and execute them. I don’t care if they suffer pain during the process. I just want them dead.”
Would you do it? Would the magic trick be enough to convince you to suspend your critical thinking? What if the burning bush turned out to be a special effects gimmick devised by sinful Hollywood liberals to fool you? However convincing the messenger, doesn’t the content of the message matter at all?
If there is a God, then you cannot trust other people to tell you God’s word, nor can you trust in holy books, nor even in burning bushes. The one thing you know God must have made, if there is a God, is you, your whole self, which must include your faculty for critical thinking. Even fundamentalist Christians, who claim they take the Bible literally, interpret the stories (it’s impossible not to), and pick and choose those parts of the Bible they allow to inspire them. Jesus made a prediction that the world would end within a few years, which did not come to pass, so either the Bible was wrong or Jesus was. This discrepancy cannot be addressed by votaries except creatively. Christians do not get their morality from the Bible; they find scriptural bases for a morality they hold for other reasons, and then they pretend the relationship is reversed.
Even if God exists there is no such thing as a book written by God. Our righteousness does not come from our holy books. Our holy books, rather, are a reflection of the righteousness (or lack thereof) of certain individuals and groups in history. Many of these books contain beautiful poetry and are valuable from a literary point of view, and they might contain pearls of wisdom that continue to illuminate; however, they ought to be enjoyed with our critical thinking fully engaged. If there is a word of God, it is written in our hearts and not in any one inerrant book.
If you insist on believing that God writes books through people, and that the testimony of an author is sufficient evidence to accept a certain book as holy, then I have good news for you. This book, excepting this paragraph, was written by God. An angel of God came unto me. The angel gave me a laptop made of solid gold. A bright light shone from the laptop, and the keyboard began to clack though no fingers touched it, and this document was typed directly by the Holy Ghost. I then transferred the document using a USB thumb drive to my personal laptop. Unfortunately I wasn’t permitted to keep the gold laptop, but trust me, it was awesome.
- For a list of errors and contradictions, see http://www.freethoughtdebater.com/tenbiblecontradictions.htm↩
- Incidentally, it’s very common for cult leaders to make predictions that don’t come true, so the false prophesies of Jesus put him in bad company.↩
- In the interest of maintaining the peace between truculent religious factions, I shall not reveal whether the laptop was a Mac or a PC.↩