For those of you who have not caught my previous posts on religion, I am an avowed atheist. However, I grew up in a deeply religious family, one that spans both Christianity and Islam. For much of my childhood I regularly attended church with my mother, and some of my greatest conversations with my grandfather were over religion and Islam. I can’t remember exactly when I started becoming sceptical, nor can I remember exactly when the scepticism overtook belief, but I can remember a lot of the reasons that I turned away from religion. Having just finished the book “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris (review forthcoming), I have been inspired to create a series outlining what drove me away from religion. First up: the bible.
Already when I was very young I had an epiphany. I had been taught in church that in order to get into heaven you must believe in God and Jesus, and alter your thoughts and behaviour in accordance with their wishes. However, the bible is the only source of information concerning God, Jesus and their message. So, I reasoned, access to heaven has less to do with belief in God and Jesus (and listening to their instruction) than it has to do with belief in the bible. We must first believe the bible is divinely ordained by a super intelligent and omnipotent God who wants to “rescue us”, before we can believe in God himself (as belief in God will naturally follow belief in the bible). But, even leaving aside quibbles over scripture and an obviously out-dated “moral” code, there are common sense examples of how the bible cannot be the work of someone super intelligent, let alone omnipotent. It is simply not an intelligent way to spread the message.
In primary school we were taught that literature could be interpreted in an almost infinite number of ways. This is due to a number of factors that result in individuals having unique experiences and takeaways from literature, including: pre-conceived notions and other cognitive biases, experience interpreting literature, interest level, grasp of the language etc. For example, there have been diverse interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, with some saying that his 20th Sonnet is evidence that he was a closeted homosexual, that The Taming of the Shrew shows that he was a misogynist, and that The Merchant of Venice shows he was anti Semitic, personally I experienced none of this. This has been quite nicely mirrored in the Christian world, where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different sects that believe in (and practice) a diverse system of beliefs and behaviours. Many of the beliefs practiced by some churches are even considered blasphemous by others, and vice versa. Surely, God cannot appreciate all the ways in which he is being worshipped. Some of these people will be punished even though they think they were doing the right thing. For example, either the Mormons or the wider Christian world are right about the correct number of wives, either the Catholics are right about their cult of Mary and absolution through clergy or the wider Christian world is right, either the Amish are right about growing beards and not using electricity or the wider Christian world is right, presumably at least one side of each of these debates is wrong, and will be punished for not fulfilling Gods wishes. But how did this happen? Well undoubtedly one reason is that the bible has not been written as a clear-cut instruction manual, but rather as a set of stories and parables. Literature. A form that is up for interpretation. Oftentimes it is unclear whether the stories are meant to be allegorical or not. But surely an intelligent God would have foreseen this problem? Surely God would realise that many of his followers will be punished while thinking they have the correct interpretation of his wishes? Couldn’t a super intelligent being have come up with a more clear-cut way to write down his wishes?
But then again, why did God pick a book as the vehicle of his message in the first place? According to a number of sources, even today there is a global illiteracy rate of close to 20%. And historically, this is a staggeringly low number; as for much of history only the elite/men could afford/were allowed to be educated. It is only in the last few hundred years that more and more people have been allowed/were able to get a decent education. As an example, Jesus was not literate, and nor were most of his disciples. Furthermore, until the invention of the Gutenberg Moveable Type Press (and if you ask me, even today), books were prohibitively expensive. Until the Gutenberg press, most bibles would have been either painstakingly copied out by hand, or printed with some variation of woodblock printing, both of which are incredibly time consuming and expensive. And it is only a relatively new phenomenon of Christians handing out bibles in countries where the people cannot afford them. So then, why would a super intelligent God choose a vehicle to spread his message that even now is unavailable to more than 20% of the world’s population?
Also, what about language? Even if you were literate a thousand or more years ago, what are the chances that the bible (or the wider commentaries and guides) was available in your language? And what about mistranslation? In his book “A History of Christianity” (which I am currently reading, review forthcoming) Diarmaid McCulloch makes it clear that much of the early Christian discourse was done in Greek, Latin and a little bit of Hebrew. Furthermore, Jesus spoke Aramaic. So already we have four distinct languages. Ripe for there to be misunderstandings. Furthermore, for a long time bibles were kept in these closeted languages so that only the clergy could read them. It was not till much later that bibles were widely available in English and other (vernacular) languages, most notably thanks to the work of Martin Luther. However, the bible was not translated into every language. Who knows if there ever was a Mayan version of the bible, or an Australian Aboriginal version? How would they get saved? And what about the many errors and changes in message that come about when books are translated? Diarmaid McCulloch has been able to fill a good 100 pages of his book just on the mistranslations that happened when the Tanakh was translated into Greek. And anyone who has ever compared the King James Version of the bible to some of the newer translations has witnessed the large discrepancies that can occur during translation. Why would a super intelligent God choose a method of delivering his message that was so susceptible to the thousands of languages that exist? Why would he choose a method of delivery that allowed the clergy to withhold his word in order to concentrate power? Why would he choose a method of delivery so susceptible to the “Chinese Whispers” that happens through translation?
And why does God seemingly ignore children? As stated before, the bible is an incredibly complicated piece of literature, highly up to interpretation. In other words: not the domain for children. So why isn’t there a children’s version? Or at least easier to understand sections designed for children? Recent generations of Christians have recognised that childhood is an important part of the development of faith, and have sought to fill the gap through cartoons of biblical stories (go Veggietales!), picture books, shorter and easier to understand versions of the bible etc. But why did this deficiency exist? Why is it only in the age of capitalism and mass media that children’s need for Gods message was catered to? Surely a super intelligent God would have foreseen this? What about all the kids who lived before the age of Veggietales?
While we are on the topic of the lack of other versions of the bible, why is there only one? Surely if the bible is divinely inspired, multiple people around the globe could have been simultaneously inspired to write their own versions of the bible, identical in message but with slight aberrations to account for geographical and ethnic differences. Why didn’t the super intelligent God inspire a Mayan to write a bible? Or someone from a sub-Saharan culture? Or an Australian Aboriginal? That would have negated much of the need for translation, and allowed Australian Aboriginals to experience God’s message more than 1600 hundred years before the Europeans turned up. It would have allowed Christianity to gain a foothold long before the Europeans turned up to confirm it. It would have allowed Christianity to spread long before the Greek and Latin speakers decided to give up their monopoly. And if the various bibles had made mention of other cultures and other parts of the world, exploration would have been a lot easier, and given early European explorers more in common with the people in the “new world”. Perhaps it could have even stopped some of the massacres. As a side note, why couldn’t the bible have turned up pre-history so everyone could have a crack at it, and why was there a 400 odd year gap between the writing of the Old and New testaments?
And now we come to the most important point I have: why could there not be a little bit more evidence to back up the bible? As I pointed out in my last post on religion, I have recently been trawling Christian sites for “archaeological evidence” proving the existence of Jesus. And even the most rabid Jesus freaks seem not to be able to come up with more evidence than an offhand quote by Josephus and evidence that a few towns Jesus visited are actual towns. Granted, Jesus was not well known enough in his time for historians to take note, but surely God could have done something about this? Furthermore, Noahs flood is backed up by neither geological nor biological evidence, the Egyptians don’t record (nor is there physical evidence of) there ever being such a massive number of Jewish slaves (nor that they left), there are thousands of animals out there that disprove the idea of an “intelligent designer”, and the existence of dinosaur bones are either God’s attempt at a sick practical joke or a big middle finger to the young earth theory. Why couldn’t a super intelligent God have constructed a narrative that is at least similar to the evidence we now see before us? Just the fact that God would know many people think about things the way I do should be enough for him to try and nudge reality and the bible a bit closer together.
Let me conclude with this: retroactively, even a normal human could find a more intelligent, and possibly more successful, method of spreading the word than the bible. Meanwhile, God both had the ability to look into the future, and is far smarter than the smartest human, so surely he should also have been able to come up with a better system. I have pointed out many faults with the bible that show it is not an intelligent way to spread the message, and is therefore not a divine construct. Furthermore, there are assuredly many more problems with the bible that I have not thought of, and this is before we even bring up contradictions within the book itself. The bible is faulty. It is not an intelligent way of spreading a religion. If it is not intelligent, how can we believe it is divinely ordained? If it is not divinely ordained, how can we believe its message about God? Since the bible is our only source of information about God and Jesus, if we cannot believe it, we cannot believe in God and Jesus. If we cannot believe in God and Jesus, we cannot believe or follow their instructions.