Final thoughts before we start our romp through the Bible.
I’ve received an email from a Christian from Iowa assuring me that, as an atheist, I cannot possibly see the Bible objectively and therefore should give up the pretense of trying.
I assured her she was right on one count—I am not objective. Neither are Christians, of course, but that does not disqualify their opinions on the book. What I do is recognize their subjective bias and compensate for it. The old grain of salt.
In the course of eleven years teaching critical thinking, I ran into the bias question over and over. Students research capital punishment or gun control would throw up their hands. “I don’t know who to believe! Everyone on both sides is biased!” What they meant is “Everyone has an opinion!”
They had the common collegiate misconception that only neutral, dispassionate voices are worth listening to.
I asked whether the views expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” were invalidated by the fact that he was not neutral on the question of racism, whether Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was useless because she came down firmly on one side of the feminist question, and whether Christ’s bias toward mercy and forgiveness made him hopelessly irrelevant as a source of ethical guidance.
That always snapped things into focus.
The trick is to recognize that “bias”—an inclination to one side of a question or the other—is nearly universal, and is not in and of itself a bad thing. Most thinking and engaged persons will be “biased” in all questions that have any significance to them. Disregard those voices and we’ve limited ourselves to the apathetic and the stupid—probably not the best plan. The key is not to pretend we are unbiased, but to chose our leanings on the basis of evidence and ethics, to recognize the direction and extent of the bias, to reveal that bias as fully as possible, and to do our level best to ensure that it doesn’t blind us to good information from other perspectives.
When assessing others, we need to determine not whether they are biased, but whether their bias is so controlling that their ability to contribute to the conversation is disabled.
The most pernicious form of bias is confirmation bias – the tendency to see evidence that confirms the conclusions we’ve already reached. Scientific research has to build in all kinds of safeguards to control this one.
Engaging the Bible, interestingly, brings out confirmation bias in two different directions at once for me. My ever-increasing horror at its contents leads me to ever-less-charitable interpretations, something I must be aware of and guard against. But the far older bias that the Bible is the “Good Book” also leads me, and many others, to gloss over some genuine outrages because they are so very familiar. I’d heard the serpent-and-apple story hundreds of times before it occurred to me that Eve’s “sin”—the one that caused the Fall, the one that damned humanity to a separation from God—was one of my two highest values. No, not a hankering for apples; her sin was the desire to know.
And so, by way of full disclosure before we dive into bible study together, let me reveal my position on the Bible so you can take my input with a grain of Lot’s wife.
I am not neutral. As a result of many years of careful thought, attendance of churches in nine denominations, and conversations with theologians, ministers, priests, lay believers, nonbelievers, Thomas Paine, C.S. Lewis, Karen Armstrong, Don Bierle, Bertrand Russell, A.N. Wilson, and dozens more, I’ve concluded that the Bible is a mixture of good, neutral, and bad; that the good elements are easily found elsewhere in far less compromised forms; and that on balance, the overall influence of the book on humanity has been and continues to be so appallingly negative, in subtle and unsubtle ways, as to make me wish it reduced to a museum piece, a sobering object lesson in misplaced affections.
So go into this bible blog series with full knowledge that I’m a biased, wild-eyed extremist. I get bothered by little things, like the Good Book ordering believers to kill me (Lev 24:16, 2 Chron 15:12-13) and my wife (Deut 22:20-21) and my children (Deut 21:18-21, Mt 15:4). I am inexplicably bothered by its exaltation of obedience over autonomy and ignorance over knowledge. It’s too typical of me to fret about such trivia and characterize such a Good Book as somehow…well, bad.
But it will always be with us. So instead of wishing it weren’t, I opt for the widest possible readership in hopes that others will see my point and help me to work against its negative influence. Hence this odd little bible study.
We’ll start tomorrow with Genesis. I’ll give my thoughts in a sketchy stream of consciousness, focusing whenever possible on the implications for parenting and staying within 1000 words, then turn it over to you for discussion. Along the way, I’ll surely show bursts of impatience not only with the text, but with my central frustration regarding religious literacy – that it’s essential to be religiously literate, and I resent the fact that it is essential. I’d much rather spend my time and limited mental capacity elsewhere.
I will also take this opportunity to demonstrate that biblical literalism is not only alive and well, but predominant among believers in the U.S.
Until tomorrow, then.