There’s Crap in the Bible

In my last blog post I made the argument that it’s important to try to evaluate moral questions objectively (as much as that is possible) and, to the extent that something is objectively good, it should be promoted to other people. For example, it’s good to aggressively and unwaveringly promote the idea that spousal abuse is bad, but it’s absurd to promote the idea that apples taste better than bananas.

In this blog post I’m going to argue that the Bible contains bad verses. These bad verses are so bad that they cause harm just by being in the Bible. And these bad verses are so obviously (objectively) bad that religious freedom (individuals subjectively choosing their own religion) is an insufficient reason to perpetuate these Bible verses. In other words: there’s crap in the Bible.

Christians that consider the Bible inerrant use it as a basis for all sorts of harmful beliefs and actions. Recently there has been increased media attention on the misogynistic nightmare that are Purity Balls. But of course, that’s an extreme example. My experience in the church was defined by the ideas of love, forgiveness, welcoming others and building community. In practice my church abhorred any notion of gender discrimination or patriarchy. In these important ways I think that my former church was – and still is – a lot better than more fundamental churches.

But the Bible remains a key cornerstone of all types of churches. And the Bible says a lot of things, some good, many useless and some things in the Bible are absolutely terrible. There are many repugnant lessons, themes and individual verses in the Bible. For now, let’s just focus on one verse:

“If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Leviticus 20:13 (NIV)

Certainly most Christians I have ever met would – at some level – wish that this verse wasn’t in the Bible at all. It’s abhorrent, violent and terrifying. This Bible verse is in every way as bad as Nazism. Of course this verse is not a defining scripture for modern Christians. And of course there is certainly some context and historical framing that should be applied to these words. And of course many Christians find it very convenient to forget about this verse and just talk about “the good stuff” in the New Testament.

But there is only one good reason to reject this verse outright: we can use very basic moral reasoning to decide that this is a terrible Bible verse. Consenting adults should be able to “lie with” whoever they want to without fearing a fatal beating. The idea that through prayer and study people can understand the Bible better and then learn that this verse is not to be taken literally (and others verses are) is absurd. This verse is obviously terrible, and I would be frightened of anyone who couldn’t figure that out themselves and needed to pray to realize this.

And yet, Christians (even those that agree with the above paragraph) continue to treat the entire Bible as the inspired (even if not inerrant) word of God, and have faith that the entire Bible still has some relevance to their modern lives in the twenty-first century. This faith in an immutable Bible that is somehow made up of so-called “living words” was very hard for me to take seriously when I was a Christian and now that I am an Atheist it seems absolutely insane.

When I was eight years old I proudly walked to the front of my church and I received a Bible from my pastor. My church had a long tradition of giving a Bible to all kids entering grade three. And in that Bible were these words in Leviticus about beating gay people to death. As I and the other children stood at the front of the sanctuary – holding our brand new Bibles – we were encouraged to read the whole Bible and to spend our lives trying to understand it better.

At no point during this ceremony did my pastor remind us that some of the Bible is insane, evil crap. In fact, at my church it was standard practice to have a large decorative Bible laying open at the front of the sanctuary. Children were always taught to treat the entire Bible with love and respect.

Again, of course I know that there were good people surrounding me and teaching me to be a good person and not to kill homosexuals. But giving children a Bible is like giving them a gift of matches and gasoline, telling them to go exploring, and then just hoping you can teach them not to burn down any buildings. It’s stupid and dangerous to give children these violent words no matter how loving and well-meaning the context. There is simply no amount of teaching kids to be good that compensates for continuing to accept these words in Leviticus.

I truly believe that Christians are constantly making reasonable decisions about what actions they should take based on how they affect other people. That’s why most Christians I know do not believe that God will judge, punish and kill homosexuals. And yet, Christians cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that some parts of the Bible are so evil, so dated and so irrelevant that they should be removed and left to be forgotten by history.

The reason for this is simple: it’s much easier for Christians to leave the Bible immutable and unchanged and then use post hoc reasoning to rationalize (or theologize) about what it all means. It would be far more difficult for Christians to make all the needed changes and omissions for the Bible to provide a modern and useful moral compass.

In case you think that I’m exaggerating about the negative effects of the bad parts of the Bible, let me share with you my personal experience. It is with great shame and regret that I must admit that at one point in my life I did entertain the thought that perhaps God was using AIDS as a means to punish homosexuals for their sins. I didn’t consider this idea for very long (perhaps a few months) and I did eventually reason my way out of it (in part thanks to the “good stuff” in the Bible). But I had this thought long enough to believe that it may be true, and to share the idea with a few other people.

In my case, my family and church were reasonable and moderate enough to prevent me from taking this idea too far. However, I was primed to be open to very fundamental and dangerous ideas about Christianity. I didn’t start thinking this way because I accidentally changed the channel to a Bible-belt televangelist one day. It was, in fact, my liberal Christian upbringing which taught me that:

  • God is mysterious and hard to understand.
  • God is real, alive and at work in the world today.
  • The entire Bible is important, even if it is hard to understand and contradicts itself.
  • God punishes people for their sins, sometimes severely. To be fair, this point was not the focus of any Sunday School class or sermon that I can remember, but I did learn this during my childhood in a few other ways:
    • reading the Bible by myself (which I was encouraged to do)
    • one of my camp councillors harped on this for an entire depressing week of summer camp
    • many other Christians believed this, and it’s part of the popular understanding of Christianity
    • and most importantly: no one ever taught me that this was not true, or if they did I was unconvinced (because it was true enough to still be in the Bible)

All of these building blocks set the stage for me to be open to receive this idea of God condemning homosexuals to die from disease. And while the strong and loving community around me did (in my case) choke out this evil idea, for other people this idea does not always have a happy ending. And that is precisely why the Westboro Baptist Church exists. Because there’s crap in the Bible.

For these reasons I think that it is objectively bad to use an immutable Bible as a basis of faith. On this topic I am very confident in promoting Secular Humanism as an (not the) objectively better choice than Christianity – even the moderate and humble Christianity in which I grew up.


Promoting Objective Worldviews

In my last blog post I mostly compared worldviews as if they were subjective personal choices like ice cream flavours. And in the same way that I have a favourite ice cream flavour (praline) I also have a favourite worldview (Secular Humanism). For my own reasons I think that both of these things are right for me. These are subjective choices.

But whereas evaluating ice cream flavours will always be only a matter of personal taste, evaluating different worldviews can – to some extent – be done objectively. Go ahead and think of a common “ism”, religion or philosophy that people you know identify with. Now compare it to Nazism. Clearly Nazism is worse than the other thing you were thinking of. Because the other think you were thinking of did not promote the idea of an Aryan master race.

Of course, not all worldviews are mutually exclusive, and perhaps the best thing about Nazism is better than the worst thing about some other belief system. But there are definitely objectively better and objectively worse belief systems. The same cannot be said for ice cream flavours.

I like my belief system because I think it is well-reasoned and useful. I want to promote it. But I do not want to just be another annoying Atheist that goes too far in promoting Atheism. So I decided that my framework for promoting Atheism and Secular Humanism is as follows:

I will promote my worldview to the extent that it is objectively better than other worldviews.

Obviously, every single word in that sentence is up for interpretation and has many shades of grey (especially “promote”, “objectively” and “better”). Also, this is almost certainly not an original idea. I probably heard it somewhere else and just thought about it long enough until it felt like an original thought. I also think it sounds quite pretentious. But I don’t really care what it sounds like, I only care if it’s a good idea or not.

In order to use practical examples, I’ll try to apply this framework to three different ways that Secular Humanism and Atheism compare to my former worldview: liberal Christianity. This way we can discuss real issues rather than making easy hypothetical arguments against Nazis.

CASE ONE: The difference between Christianity and Atheism and Secular Humanism is only subjective

A Christian may say that their faith provides them with happiness, feelings of community and a reason to get up in the morning. Since these things are subjective experiences of faith there’s not really any reason for me to think that Secular Humanism would be any better for this person.

Now that’s not to say that if someone tells me of these great benefits of Christianity that I’m not allowed to say anything. In fact, I would probably respond by telling them that I am happy for their positive experiences, and say that I also have these positive experiences as a result of my Secular Humanism.

The analogous ice cream conversation sounds like this:

Other: “Wow! I love mint chocolate chip ice cream!”

Me: “Awesome! I love praline ice cream!”

No one is really trying to convince the other of anything, it’s just an exchange of subjective choices. Maybe someone will try a new flavour of ice cream to see if they like it, but there’s no argument to be made. But there’s also no need for annyone to be ashamed or awkwardly silent about their favourite flavour of ice cream. Certainly no one would label me an “annoying praline person” after that conversation.

CASE TWO: Christianity is objectively better than Atheism and Secular Humanism

One area where this may be the case is with charitable giving. My understanding is that religious people give a lot more time and money than non-religious people (link to first relevant hit on Google). This is easily quantifiable, and donating time and money is objectively a good thing.

In this area I think that the godless community could learn a few things from religious organizations. When the religious get on a soapbox and laud their own efforts to relieve poverty and suffering in the world, Atheists should listen and congratulate them. I think that most Atheists do genuinely value and promote philanthropy but often not nearly as much as we should (note: Peter Singer is a counter example).

EXAMPLE THREE: Atheism and Secular Humanism are objectively better than Christianity

The use of the Bible is one very basic issue on which I think that Christianity (yes, even moderate and liberal Christianity) is objectively worse than Atheism and Secular Humanism. My worldview aspires to increase human flourishing by promoting reasonable morality based on how our actions affect others in the real (natural) world. Christianity also does this (which is good) but Christianity is also restricted by and dependendant on faith and magical beliefs in a God that is by definition outside of the real world inwhich we live.

Christian morality is like an engineer that uses math, science and measurements to determine how strong to build a bridge, but who then also includes some randomly generated numbers into their calculations. There is mostly sound reasoning in this process but there is always at least some amount of belief in magic that dilutes and confuses the conclusions.

In cases like these, I feel my worldview is objectively better than other worldviews. Of course it’s possible that I’m partially or completely wrong about this, and I’m open to criticism at every step in my thinking. But (unless I’m very wrong) I don’t think that it’s appropriate to dismiss this point as just my subjective opinion.

I still have many questions about in what way it is appropriate to promote one’s worldview. I’m not always sure how loudly or with what tone people should speak about their worldviews. But I think that the framework described above is the right way to begin deciding in which areas people should promote their worldviews.