Today’s post is excerpted from a post written by my friend Brian over at his A Pasta Sea blog.
It is my opinion that the greatest impediment to the intelligibility of the Christian faith is, in fact, its foundational set of documents. Far from being an asset, the Bible is the Achilles’ heel soft underbelly of most Christian systems of belief, especially the more fundamentalist ones. It is my observation that the more reliant upon the Bible a brand of Christianity is, the more easily it is collapsed upon itself. Even brands of Christianity that aren’t closely tied to it like Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Mainline Liberal Protestantism largely fall victim to it as well, often via the very arguments those other denominations more closely tied to the Bible would use against them. Time and again the Bible will contain material that just completely wrecks otherwise coherent systems of Christian doctrine and often the heavy-lifting has already been done by some other group within Christianity.
Want to blow molinistic excuses for the problem of evil out of the water? Calvinists have already done the work. Want to undercut Sola Scriptura? Catholics have that covered. Want to illustrate the absurdity of the Trinity? Ask those Jehovah’s Witnesses that come to your door next Saturday. Want to show how evolutionary theory isn’t compatible with Christianity? Look no further than Answers in Genesis. What do all of these groups have in common? They all use the Bible to knock down each other’s theological systems. Not all of the arguments are that great, mind you, but my point still stands. They all show that the Bible can be an effective weapon against nearly every form of Christianity.
I sometimes find myself suppressing laughter when Christians quote portions of the Bible at me or other unbelievers like a Hogwarts student casting a spell. They’ve been told the Bible is a weapon by none other than the Bible itself. Well, I agree. The Bible is indeed a weapon. In fact, it’s the weapon of choice for ex-Christians like me because studying the Bible is one of the things that led me to reject Christianity. It’s why I wholeheartedly agree with Isaac Asimov:
If you suspect that my interest in the Bible is going to inspire me with sudden enthusiasm for Judaism and make me a convert of mountain‐moving fervor and that I shall suddenly grow long earlocks and learn Hebrew and go about denouncing the heathen — you little know the effect of the Bible on me. Properly read, it is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
It’s why I spend so much time talking about the Bible on [A Pasta Sea]. It’s why I still take an interest in Biblical scholarship and regularly study the Bible. It’s the reason why I encourage Christians to actually read their Bibles (all the parts) and to think about what they are reading.
Will reading the Bible always do the trick in making a Christian rethink his belief? Of course not. I read the Bible all the way through myself on multiple occasions and managed to navigate the cognitive dissonance quite well. That doesn’t mean everyone will. I suspect that for many, simply encountering passages like Numbers 31 might be enough to rattle them out of notions they may have had about the god of the Bible being a swell dude. For the more thoroughly shielded and indoctrinated, it’s going to take a bit more than the divinely-ordered slaughter of little boys and enslavement/rape of little girls to push them over the edge.
For many it will never happen. There typically exists some sort of rationalization that can be appealed to in nearly any circumstance. Christianity has had almost 2,000 years to hone these excuses. Even so, it’s simply an impossible task to try to make complete sense of a collection of that many truth propositions when so many are either contradictory or empirically falsifiable. However, if a person always begins by assuming there absolutely must be a solution for any problem a skeptic poses, she will eventually discover one to her liking. She often only needs one, as the standard for demonstrating error is usually insurmountably high. The proposed solution only need be possible, not merely likely. Any solution, regardless of how improbable, is still more likely to the believer than the alternative.
When it comes to this stuff, greater intelligence often seems to merely guarantee that the process of seeing these problems for what they really are will take longer and require more nuance. Indeed, the person may never find their way out as they move deeper and deeper into self-deception with each “solution.” Their minds will begin to just assume that since they’ve been able to address every objection in the past, they will have no problem deflecting subsequent criticism. Thus we have the “properly read” qualifier in Asimov’s quote above.
To me, “properly read” means studying the texts critically while seriously entertaining the notion that they may, in fact, be solely the product of human beings and at least some parts may lack any sort of divine origin whatsoever. It means setting aside straw-grasping at the excuse of “metaphor” while looking for some deeper, spiritual meaning for a passage and instead positing that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It means not simply shifting one’s hermeneutic approach every time something doesn’t fit the usual method of interpretation. It means taking the time to seriously consider the points made by critics without presupposing that those critics are instruments of Satan out to lead people astray. It means being open to the idea that an apparent error in the so-called “inerrant” Bible is exactly what it appears to be: an actual error. It means at least momentarily suppressing whatever go-to backstop one has for continuing to cling to one’s current core belief system, whether it’s Pascal’s Wager or the Sunk Costs Fallacy or peer pressure or just the desire to avoid that sinking feeling that’s experienced when exploring these topics. It means letting one’s desire to know what’s really real override one’s desire to remain comfortable, at ease and certain of oneself…
To read more, click here to see the rest of Brian’s post.