Whenever Americans of the fundamentalist Christian flavor get caught saying something that is bigoted, judgmental, or ill-informed, they usually offer the standard defense that God made them do it. “I’m just following scripture”, they say, and then quite often quote the Bible to prove it. Or do they? Actually, this defense falls flat because it ignores three very important facts about the Bible.
Fact # 1: It’s often impossible to know exactly what the Bible says or intends.
If it were always possible, then there wouldn’t be much variation in Christian dogma. Instead, there are as many as 41,000 denominations and sects. Some believe they’ll be whisked up somewhere past Deep Space 9 at the end of time. Others believe that paradise will be established here on earth. Some handle snakes, speak in tongues, sprinkle water on each other or dunk each other in it. Others think that any or all of these things are a bit wackadoo. All believe that their own doctrines are right and all the others are wrong. And all believe they get their authority straight from God — as funneled through the Holy Bible.
Trouble is, the book known as the Bible isn’t just a book. It’s an entire library of books, written by many authors in many genres over many centuries. Some of it is very poetic. Some of it is anchored in obsolete or even unknown cultural references. (How many Christians believe that “spare the rod and spoil the child” — which isn’t even a biblical quotation — means to spank children? Or that “take God’s name in vain” means to swear?) Some of it is obscure and even deliberately cryptic. All of it is written in a dead language — at least three of them altogether. And all of it has been heavily filtered through many centuries of translation, translation of translation, conjecture, textual corruption, copyist’s error, and editorial tampering.
The end result is that we have an approximation of an approximation of the original, but we really have no idea how approximate. The exact interpretation of the text is questionable at almost every turn. Need an illustration? Well okay, let’s look at, er, um… how about the very first sentence? Traditionally quoted as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, the original text is probably more accurately rendered as “When God began creating the heavens and the earth…” What seems at first blush to be a slight grammatical/ syntactical variation actually could have a tremendous impact on whether believers subscribe to the anti-science mindset known as creationism.
Many versions of the Bible — including many editions of the notoriously staid King James Version — run a sidebar column of alternate interpretations like this in fine print throughout. How many “alternate” readings are really the true ones? How many times do alternate and accepted interpretations both miss the mark? We have no way of knowing. Anyone who claims to know exactly what the Bible says is practicing self-delusion.
Fact # 2: The Bible is full of apparent contradictions.
There are many lists of such contradictions, sometimes numbering several hundred. Some of them can be resolved by context, but many can not. There is definitely a textual inconsistency, for instance, about the content of the so-called Ten Commandments, and even about their exact number.
Some Christian apologists have attempted to address these discrepancies, and sometimes their explanations sound logical. But a great many other times, their arguments are nothing more than speculation, presumption and interpolation. Sometimes they can’t even offer that, and instead have to resort to declaring the problem an obvious copyist’s error.
They don’t seem to realize that if they admit of even one such error, they are opening the door to the possibility of many others. And when they open that door, out flies the notion of the Bible’s supposed infallibility. Moreover, the average Christian does not have the kind of erudite background that would enable him or her to untangle such problems in like manner; so naturally, you can expect Christians to entertain many contradictory beliefs. Which brings us to the big enchilada…
Fact # 3: It’s possible to find something in the Bible to support anything you choose to believe.
Absolutely anything. Wanna believe the center of the earth is a creme-filled chocolate coated cherry? There must be something somewhere in the deliberately vague and ambiguous Book Of Revelation to back you up.
Some Christians believe that musical instruments should not be used in religious services. Others wouldn’t dream of conducting services without them. Some believe alcohol and/ or caffeine are wrong. Others serve them at church functions. Some believe that gays are evil; others are themselves gay. Growing up in a Southern fundamentalist sect, I heard preachers quote “scripture” to support their own convictions that it was a “sin” to play checkers, go bowling, listen to pop music, wear makeup or jewelry (even a wedding ring) and even — I kid you not — wear glasses. While quoting passages to support segregation, patriarchy, and other things that seemed to serve their own interests at the time.
In the words of Susan B. Anthony:
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
So in light of these three facts, and particularly this third one, we have to ask…
The Million Dollar Question…
Why do Christians so often zero in on biblical passages that seem to condemn entire groups of people — most of whom they know nothing about?
Aren’t there also passages about loving your neighbor and judging not and doing unto others? Why not focus on those instead? Why are so many Christians obsessed with biblical injunctions against homosexuality, but totally willing to ignore biblical injunctions against shellfish and pork? Or the endorsement of slavery, or the death penalty for homosexuality, “blasphemy”, adultery, rebellious kids, or working on Saturday? The only explanation they can offer is that some parts of the Bible have become obsolete. Fair enough. So why not the rest of it? Who gets (self-) appointed to make that determination?
The logical conclusion is that instead of believing what they find in the Bible, fundamentalists first believe, and then find it in the Bible. As you’ve surely noticed, when you challenge the beliefs of dogmatic individuals (of which there are quite a few), you’re likely to be met with defensiveness, hostility, and abject loathing. That’s because their beliefs aren’t just things they’ve adopted after examining the evidence; they’re things that have grown into their bones over a lifetime. When fundamentalists thump the Bible, they’re not probing for truth; they’re sounding out an echo chamber.
So sorry, thumpers, but you don’t get to hide forever behind God or questionable quotations lifted from an Iron Age literary artifact. You ultimately are responsible for your own beliefs. If you hate gays or Muslims or gays or atheists or gays or “liberals” or gays or homosexuals or gays, it’s not because God told you to. It’s because you’ve decided to hate gays or Muslims or atheists or gays or “liberals” or gays or homosexuals or gays. (And if there’s a God as vengeful as you maintain, you’re probably really pissing Him off.) And no, it’s really no less arrogant or judgmental to offer the popular defense that you “hate the sin but not the sinner”. It’s no easy task to separate (in the words of Yeats) “the dancer from the dance”. And besides you’re still the one deciding that someone else’s life is “sinful”, no matter how many Bible verses you stack up behind you. Or in front of you.
Again you have discussed a topic that is crucial as far as accepting reality goes, and, somehow many fundamentalist religions have managed to become aligned with Republican interests—which tout the importance of material success and their spotty willingness to follow basic Christian values.
When I use the phrase (basic Christian values) I am referring to the basic theology most of us have frequently associated with the teachings of Christ—humility, compassion, caring for the poor, and acting nonviolently towards others. I am not implying that everyone must be a Christian to realize the values in these virtues, just that, the Christian Church today has become more of a political weapon, that discriminates against the generosity, compassion, and forgiveness, that those in fundamentalist faiths seem to believe (quite delusionally) their religions alone represent.
Unfortunately it really is very possible to find a Biblical phrase or verse that affirms almost any belief one might have, and, the self-centered madness that most Christians buy into—claiming the idea that their’s alone is the one true faith, has become much too much, a part of the norm.
As for myself, I don’t care about going to Church, but I also see no reason to expect public schools to teach children about “intelligent design,” since most of us have already grasped the basic concept involved after attending only a few church services. And, the proven knowledge amassed by scientists represents the set of ideas and observations that are appropriate in public schools—not junk science while circulating religious bias, or even, religion itself—obviously!
But personally I would like to mention why I see clear value that is also present in Christianity, Buddhism, Islamic faiths, and many other schools of religious thoughts—but, that, usually are spoken truthfully about only by the Iconic figures that we volatile human beings have insisted to use the teachings of, for political, psychological and social endeavors—which, as you say, always seem to have more to do with affirming our own opinions and desires rather than real open minded discussions.
What I have come to realize is that there are those Christians, as well as many of other faiths, who are very decent human beings. Some of them were Freedom Riders in the civil rights era, who bravely challenged the authority of southern bigots and Jim Crow morality (or lack of it) and many like them today are busy delivering emergency food supplies to refugees in war torn areas where inhabitants are exposed daily to unthinkable cruelty and amazing disregard for human life. Many of these dedicated people rely on their faiths and/or spiritual philosophies in order to help the sick and the dying—while exposing themselves to enormous physical danger. So, what I believe about the frailties of various faiths, is that, regardless if they believe women came from the rib of Adam, that the world was created in 7 days, or that, Jesus died and was reborn–let them believe those things!
As long as they live lives that exemplify compassion and concern for the suffering, as well as teachings about the importance of love—which are usually the basic messages that religious Icons everywhere have tried to convey anyway—who am I too judge?
Of course one does not need to espouse all of these often metaphysical beliefs in order to live a life full of faith and love—it would be absurd to believe that atheists are not also concerned with the ethical values in life, or how to make this a better world a better place—its just that we should not be too harsh about how we criticize people of faith—because undoubtedly, many of them are not merely concerned about assuring themselves a place in heaven as the result of doing only the “right” things which are dictated by their faiths. Some of them obviously, are interested primarily in love and love alone.
For myself, I realize that much of the Bible was written centuries after the facts(or supposed facts) took place. And it would be absurd to believe that the only reason we do not deserve to be killed while mowing the lawn, is because parts of old testament have become obsolete, and that God has now provided us a spiritual “loophole” which exempts us from such cruel punishment. As you mentioned, who exactly has the right to determine what parts of Biblical texts are now obsolete? Not only that, but, what kind of a loving God would EVER condone blind obedience to such a violent religious edict?
But even though i recognize the legitimacy of most of the criticisms mentioned in your January article, I have found that the four Gospels dealings with the life and teachings of Jesus (speaking for myself) are similar enough to stand as being valid references to the same teachings from the same teacher.
What touches me about Christ’s story, is not necessarily any particular matter of how certain activities and/or beliefs are taught and required by the people who head our various churches and religious doctrines, but rather, the utter beauty and wisdom conveyed in the words and actions of Jesus! I admit that there is no rational way to prove the truth of these words, or to convince others of that truth. Either that’s the impression you get, or, that you don’t! My response is more like how one might react to a beautiful poem or, to a song that “just blows you away.”
Although most religious people could benefit greatly from the criticisms of atheists and, from basing their theologies on what is discovered objectively by scientists, rather than judging the knowledge revealed by science only as it measures up to the preconceived “literally true” edicts of their faiths, I would hope that we can also give some credit to the many people (of various faiths) who have used their beliefs to act lovingly in a world full of way, way too much, hate and division.
Thanks for listening and thanks for another thoughtful article!
And thanks for some well spoken words as usual, Peter.
I’m now returning to this article on 6-12-16 to comment once more about this particular topic—simply because after reading through some of the things I previously wrote in it, I was puzzled by this particular statement of mine:
“Freedom riders who bravely challenged the authority of southern bigots and Jim Crow morality (or lack of it).”
It occurs to me that I should not have included the words, (or lack of it).
Because I Know how disorganized my thoughts often are, I can only conclude that when, I used such negative and contradictory statements (very different than the kinds of things I would normally say) I must have been specifically referring to the word “morality,” when referring to “Jim Crow morality” (or lack of it). Unfortunately, the way I expressed this idea seems to criticize Southern Jim Crow society, by lamenting both about its existence, and/or lamenting about its eventual lack of its existence at the same time?
So just let me just say that I don’t approve of the Jim Crow madness which infected the south during the civil rights era, and which was violently expressed by southern bigots who tried to defend it against all morality, and against all reason! That’s all.
[…] we discussed in the previous post, they try to blame God for their bigoted and unenlightened doctrines, and quote cherry-picked […]
[…] themselves) are scrambling to cherry pick biblical passages they can brandish in support of their prejudices and their declaration that because President Obama defends constitutional protections for all […]
[…] all-too-common form of Christian arrogance: the presumption that cherry picking an out-of-context biblical passage that seems to support your prejudices makes you an instant expert, more knowledgeable on a […]
[…] who are far less likely to stay married? Quite often, the topic is framed as a debate over religious beliefs (which are prohibited by the Constitution from being the basis of law) rather than about […]
[…] many people claim they can do just that. And the results are often profoundly disturbing. (Anyone remember 9-11?) I […]
[…] Furthermore, we have seen all too well that religious individuals who are motivated by fear can convince themselves that their actions are just and righteous no matter what; and can be readily manipulated […]