Addressing Assumptions

Thank you, Pascal, for your kind words and your patience during this busy time in my life. I’d like to address the questions posed in your “Challenging Assumptions” post.

Do I view the Bible like you view Shakespeare?

First, you asked if I consider the words of the Bible similar to how you consider Shakespeare’s words – often sublime, but the words of man, not God. It would probably be accurate to say, “Yes,” and move on. However, since one of the purposes of this blog is to better understand one another, I think your question deserves some deeper reflection.

The fact that I grew up believing the Bible was God’s word and invested so much of my life in it puts the Bible in a different category than Shakespeare for me. The few lines of Shakespeare I memorized are nothing compared to the time I spent pouring over scripture, seeking not just to know the words, but to understand and live them. I’ve never worshiped Shakespeare, cried over the joy of holding his manuscripts, or felt that the simple lines, arcs and dots made by his pen may one day save a very special unborn child from never-ending torture after death. I don’t view them in the same way because of their different claims and my previous experience with those claims.

The authority, veneration, respect, etc., that we feel when reading Shakespeare must come mostly from the accomplishment of the man and his mastery of a skill we admire. His words must stand on their own merit. As a Christian I did not place that same burden upon the Bible. It didn’t need to stand on its own for most of my Christian life because from childhood my culture (family, church leaders, etc.) led me to believe that its words were firmly backed by the heart, mind, and authority of the only eternal, personal, omniscient being. This perfect and holy being who yearns to be with us but not against our will. This being who is the very essence of Love itself. As a non-theist, the Bible and Shakespeare are on equal footing. The Bible does not get to rely on the feelings evoked from the assumption that it is the only perfect tangible thing in this universe, and that it is a story of Love written just for me. If I read Shakespeare with that presupposition, it would be a better comparison. So while you respect Shakespeare and I respect the Bible, it’s the claims about the transcendent true nature and meaning for us individually that sets the two apart.

In truth, I do love and respect the Bible – but at times I’m often very wary of its influence and pained by it. I appreciate what I see as both the good and the bad in its pages, and the manifestation of those qualities in the lives of those around us. You wouldn’t notice it through my calm exterior, but Bible studies occasionally feel like an emotional roller coaster to me. Even now as a non-theist I can read the Bible and take great wisdom from it that applies to my life in very meaningful ways. However, the reverse is also true. Some verses seem to offer really poor advice and there are many passages that tear my emotions apart for other reasons. For example, when I hear the Christian platitude that God is love, I often feel great sadness about the level of disconnect that must exist for someone to not see the deep chasm between what we mean by love and what the Bible claims that God did to the poor unfortunate souls (in other parts of the Bible) that he didn’t choose. Their only really understood crime was living next to those he did choose. Their punishment was to watch their children and infants be killed by their God-following neighbors at God’s command – followed immediately by their own slaughter. Whether it’s drowning everyone, killing them with plagues, “striking” them down, trapping them under buildings, mauling them with bears, or having others kill them with swords, stones or fire — this type of behavior is repeated over and over by the God described in the Bible – and not just in the Old Testament.

I don’t judge these Christians for their well-meaning platitudes. I was once in their shoes. Still, the dissonance is resounding and emotion-filled, and at times I just wish I could help them understand what this puts me through.

Right now a child under 5 is likely dying in agony in their parents arms. It happens every 5 seconds on average. Picture yourself cradling your own child, adding to his or her tears. Imagine you’re that parent lost in a desperation like you’ve never known — begging to a God who won’t save your child. That’s happening as you read this. I hope we can all pause to take that in. More than that, the parents (and likely the child) may suffer through this only to face an eternity of torment because they were born in the wrong place (and not chosen). They unknowingly prayed to the wrong God. If this version of God is true, it does not value human life, happiness, putting others needs before its own, or the avoidance of suffering. He is nothing like the love of 1 Corinthians 13, yet we call Him “Love” anyway and then pray for our team to win.

Honestly, Epicurus’ problem of evil (and Hume’s later revisions) had nothing to do with why I disbelieve the Bible. But being a non-theist in church has given me a different perspective on the logical conclusion of certain dualistic beliefs. It pains me to see my friends in the pew try to compartmentalize these ideas about God and I wish I could help them. But, in my experience, these topics that challenge more socially acceptable verses encourage skepticism and are thus extremely discouraged. When they do arise, the answers involve the words: sin, holiness, faith, grace, mystery and trust.

The Bible, filled with these inhumane examples from the divine, has a dramatic impact on the world-view of those who follow it, including the political and military perspectives of the societies in which they live. To be sure, its examples of love, justice wisdom and mercy are also plentiful and also reflected in the Christian culture. That’s why I still enjoy the Bible. I try to always take the good where I find it. My personal observation is that some of the contradictory anti-love parts of the Bible often manifest in a kind of unnecessary callousness to war, suffering, minority groups, etc. I know the New Testament attempts to remedy some of these issues, but it doesn’t make them go away.

Pascal, I believe you disagree that the Bible teaches these things when viewed as a whole or in context, and I do look forward to understanding your point of view. Perhaps I’ve overlooked something. Either way, Shakespeare makes no claims of divinity so (for me) his work is free of such baggage.

 

Is this how I feel about scripture?

“If there is no God, it follows that scripture cannot be the words of God.”

You said that in the last paragraph. I think this was an attempt to restate my position (which you were asking about). I’m fairly confident that you just meant this as a basic statement that seems self-evident – which it is. So please forgive me for what follows…

I agree with what I believe you intend by this statement, but I think it needs some qualifications since it follows the words “Russell must feel this way about scripture.” I don’t want any readers to think that statement represents the process by which I came to my conclusion. If the reader is tempted to think that I reject the Bible because I believe there is no God, here are some reasons why that is not the case:

  • I don’t claim there is no God, so that logic doesn’t apply to my position.
  • The premise, “there is no God,” is unknowable. If you doubt this, read iMultiverse.
  • Using the assumed premise (“there is no God”) to argue for the conclusion (“scripture cannot be the words of God”) would be a logical fallacy (petitio principii, or begging the question).

If I heard an atheist dismissing the Bible before assessing it and their argument for doing so was… “there is no God therefore the Bible cannot be the words of God,” I would recognize that it is fallacious. Since the Bible is what provides the description of the specific God we’re asked to consider, we can’t assess its validity until we read what it says. Actually, objectively I think all scriptural claims should be assessed before they are judged, including those of competing faiths. If one had the presupposition that a God does not exist, that could not be used as an argument against the Bible being the word of God (since a God not existing is unknowable and they haven’t sought to understand the specific God claim yet). Likewise, the statement, “God exists because the scripture that he wrote/inspired says he does” is an example of the same logical error. To take either position is to commit the “begging the question” fallacy, which is when the premise includes (assumes) the claim that the conclusion is true (i.e., “God does not exist therefore the Bible is not the word of God”, or “God exists because the Bible is his Word and it says so.”)

While we’re on the topic of assumptions, I’m not sure that the Bible claims to be the word of God. For many biblical works (in my view), that claim was not made by the authors, but was “assumed” long after they were dead. Some of verses in the Bible claim to be the words of God, and they could be. I cannot hold the position that none of the Bible reflects the thoughts, actions, attributes or desires of a God that exists. However, I do not find the Bible to be trustworthy, so if any of them are accurate I would have no confidence about which ones they would be. Further, I have no justification for accepting any of them as being the words of a God. Since this is the book that describes the God it is supposed to be the words of, I am highly doubtful that any of its various versions of that God are accurate. In my view, if the Bible is 100% accurate in relaying God’s message to man, God is necessarily deceptive, so which of his words are we to trust? If it is not 100% the word of God, which verses are, and how are we to know? The same goes for the writing of all other non-biblical scripture that claims a divine influence.

I recognize there are some atheists who do believe with varying degrees of likelihood that there is no God. However, when some people state, “There is no God,” they are really just rejecting a specific God. These people are often not intentionally dismissing the possibility of a deistic or otherwise uninvolved God, or even a deceptive God (or Gods). They just think that today’s culture is so overwhelmingly using God to refer to a specific interventionist God (Yahweh/Christ/Holy Spirit, Allah, etc.) that they can say, “God does not exist,” and everyone will know what they’re talking about. This is not the case and they are setting up their own straw-men by misrepresenting themselves. I think the fault here is on the part of those making that statement. If their position is that the God of the Bible does not exist for reasons X and Y, they should not say things like “there is no God” or “God is imaginary”. They should just say the God described in the Bible does not exist for reasons X and Y. I think trying to take it any further is a mistake. Anyone who attempts to positively assert that there is no super-human intellect out there is reaching too far. One can say it’s unlikely given Occam’s Razor, but that’s as far as one can justify disbelief in a deistic or deceptive super-human agent (including a supernatural one).

Pascal, I greatly respect and appreciate your reference to hypothesis testing. In my view, certain God claims are falsifiable and have been falsified. They cannot logically exist. I presently believe the God as described in the Bible is a failed hypothesis. While science starts from the assumption that our experience is explainable by natural causes, science is necessarily neutral on the topic of a deistic God (one that does not intervene). So to assert that any possible non-interventionist God does not exist is not a scientifically justifiable position. Also, there could be an interventionist God that was either deceptive, or whose plans as outlined in the scripture accurately describe what we see. Such a God claim would not be falsified scientifically, so it could exist. It would be a hypothesis that had not been disproved, but unless it was falsifiable it would not be science and could never be a theory. If it could be falsified then like all science, it could be proven false but never proven true (though belief could be justified). Unfortunately, I don’t have an understanding of a version of the biblical God that is both coherent and has not been falsified.

As far as the biblical God is concerned I don’t disbelieve just because I lack evidence — it’s far too ingrained in me from childhood to accomplish that feat. That could make me skeptical but not lead me to assert positive disbelief about this God claim. I disbelieve the God of the Bible because the Bible has been shown to be untrustworthy and some of the specific biblical texts describing Him have been falsified. Not only that, but I haven’t found a single statement in the Bible that could not be reasonably explained without the necessity of a supernatural intelligence.

It is presently my view that the Bible makes no claims about itself as a whole. Where biblical authors do make claims about scripture, they do not apply to the whole Bible and are sometimes demonstrably false. When they make claims about God, those too are occasionally demonstrably false. Shakespeare’s words are what they are. In my humble view, the Bible’s words aren’t what many modern Christians assume them to be.

I’m very open to evidence to the contrary. I am not delusional about the failings of my own intellect. We are all in this quest together and bring different experiences to this discussion, which are each immeasurably valuable to the whole (but only if we share them). I encourage your comments and respectful challenges. If Pascal or any of the other Christian readers can provide evidence that supports the claim that the Bible actually is inspired by the divine, I desperately want to learn about it. Perhaps I haven’t heard about it yet. Even if I have, I will do my best to evaluate it afresh, with an open mind.

Gentleness and respect,
-Russell

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