Saturday, 12 January 2013

Atheism - proselytise or not?

I live in a country where we don't really have to worry much about an encroaching theocracy unlike many Islamic countries and the United States.  So there does not seem to be a strong imperative to persuade religious believers that they are wasting their energies devoting themselves to a deity.  Yet, as an educator dedicated to spreading truth and reason, I can't help wanting to reduce the religiosity of my society.  So, in an idle moment I had the fantasy of preparing and distributing a leaflet that would challenge two basic Christian beliefs: that the bible was true and that it was moral.  This is what I wrote.

Is the bible true?

Some people believe every word as the literal word of God.  Most people believe that at least some of the bible should be read metaphorically.  How should we decide which parts to believe and which to take as fables?  Indeed, why should we believe any of it?  The bible has a huge credibility problem  because it is riddled with inconsistencies.

Let's take just one example: the events around the discovery of the empty tomb.  The gospels describe the women who came to the sepulchre where Jesus' body lay but each of the four gospels tells a different tale:  John 20:1 claims that Mary Magdalene was first on the scene but Matthew 28:1  adds the mother of Jesus to the discovering party.  Mark 16:1 claims that Salome was also there whereas Luke tells us that there was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Joanna and 'other women' present.

A little later on that same resurrection day John 20:11 speaks of there being two angels in the sepulchre clothed in white, whereas Mark has it that there was just one young man clothed in a long white garment.  In other words, the bible does not give a consistent account of the most important Christian belief of all: - the resurrection of Jesus.  The gospel writers are in disagreement over many other aspects of Jesus' ministry.

Inconsistencies also occur in the account of the same writer.  In the gospel of John we learn that Peter (John 13:36) and Thomas (John 14:5) both ask  Jesus where he is going.  Yet in John 16:5 Jesus claims no-one has asked him where he is going.

These examples are the tip of a large iceberg.  If you would like to know more about the contradictions in the bible you only need to have internet access and a copy of the bible.  Just google "bible contradictions" and you will be overwhelmed with other examples.

The bottom line is that these contradictions and inconsistencies teach us that there is nothing sacred about biblical "truth".  The bible is a book compiled by many men (and apparently a very few women), fallible human beings with imperfect memories.  But it cannot have been divinely inspired or it would have told a more consistent tale.

Is the bible moral?

There are many good moral teachings in the bible.  The famous Ten Commandments have six commands that none of us should disagree with (although the first four seem to pander to Jehovah's jealousy).  The New Testament abounds with advice that we would do well to heed.

Yet there is much to condemn in the "good book".  The Old Testament is full of counsel to commit appalling acts.  In Isaiah 13:16 Jehovah proposes that "Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished."

But it is not only in the Old Testament that we find instructions to act immorally.  We hear the apostle Paul condoning slavery in Ephesians 6:5 "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ."

Even Jesus himself seems to cast away the cloak of forgiveness in Matthew 10:34; "I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law."  And he really loses it in Luke 19:27, "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me."

Most of us want to live an ethical life and to do this we need to consider our actions  thoughtfully.  It would be nice if there was an authority that would always guide us on the complex moral questions we face both personally and societally.  The examples above show us that the bible is not such an authority.  This is not surprising since it was written hundreds of years ago and today's society has become much more complex.

Some of the issues we face today (such as stem cell research and global warming) could not have been anticipated by the writers of the bible; others we grapple with (such as women's rights and how we cope with societal offenders) in the light of centuries of historical experience.  It would be folly to rely on the bible as our moral compass: it is too unreliable and blunt an instrument.

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