The Truth of the Bible

This is an excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study.

♠   ♠   ♠

Do God and Jesus exist?“Let’s discuss the accuracy of the Bible.” Paul looked for approval from Jim, saw nothing, and continued. “Many say that the Bible contains the world’s greatest literature. It’s certainly the world’s most influential book—a book that has inspired mankind for thousands of years.”

“I won’t disagree.” Jim picked up what looked like a clumsily wrapped cigar laying on the sofa and put the soggy end in his mouth. It left a small dark stain on the seat cushion.

Paul wanted to continue but was distracted as the end of the thing bobbed up and down under Jim’s shaggy mustache while he chewed, making gentle crunching sounds. “Is that a cigar?” Paul asked finally.

Cinnamomum zeylanicum—cinnamon bark,” Jim said, his words garbled as he spoke while holding the cinnamon stick with his lips. “It promotes sweating.”

Paul had never considered sweating worth promoting. He tried to ignore the noise, deliberately looking down at his note card to avoid the distraction. “So what I’m saying is that the Bible is very accurate. Researchers have found thousands of copies, enough to convince them that errors introduced from copy to copy have been insignificant. And old, too—less than 400 years after the New Testament originals.* In other words, today’s English translations started with a copy that differed minimally from the original text. Aside from the different language, we read almost the same words as were originally written two to three thousand years ago.”

Jim shook his head. “That’s a foolish argument.”

Paul’s jaw went slack.

“I can say the same of Homer’s Iliad,” Jim said. “It’s quite long and very old—older than much of the Old Testament. We have many old copies of the Iliad, and today’s version may also be a decent copy of the original. Using your logic, must we conclude that the Iliad is correct? Must we say that Achilles really was invulnerable, that Cassandra really could see the future, that Ajax really was trained by a centaur?”

“But that’s not a good comparison,” Paul said. “No one believes the Iliad. Biblical fact is quite different from Greek mythology.”

“Don’t change the subject. You introduced the question of the accuracy of manuscript copies. Does your logic help us judge the accuracy of ancient books or not?”

“I don’t think the Bible and the Iliad can be compared is all.”

Jim sighed. “To your point, no one believes the Iliad now, but they once did. Achilles, Hector, Helen, Aphrodite, the Trojan War—the Iliad tells much of the history of the Greeks just like the Bible is a history of the Jews. And, of course, many of the places and people in the Iliad actually existed. Archeologists have found Troy, for example.”

Jim held up a hand as Paul opened his mouth to speak. “Of course I see the difference. While the Iliad and the Bible were the histories of their people, only the Bible is believed today. Here’s my point. Let’s assume that the Bible and the Iliad are both faithful copies. That doesn’t make them true.”

Paul said, “It’s not just the Bible—other sources confirm Bible stories. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, for example, writes about Jesus.” He glanced at a note card in his hand. “Also, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and other writers from that time.”

Jim jerked a hand as if dismissing a gnat, and his face showed an exasperated disgust. “I’ve read these sources, and they strengthen your case not a bit. They basically say, ‘There are people who follow a man named Jesus’ or ‘Jesus is said to have performed miracles.’ I already agree with that! I’d be interested if an eyewitness from the Jerusalem Times newspaper wrote a report the day after a miraculous event, but that didn’t happen. You’re left with four—not thousands, but four—written accounts that summarize the Jesus story after it had been passed around orally for decades, and they’re not even completely independent accounts. I need a lot more evidence than that.”

Paul thought for an instant how satisfying it would be to take their argument to the street, even though it would be an unfair fight. He rubbed his right fist against his left palm and strained the muscles of his upper body to drain away some rage. In five seconds he might remind this atheist of his manners. But he had to take the high ground and he pushed on, using a response that Samuel had given him. “Why do you need more evidence? You never saw George Washington, but you accept the historical account of his life. The Bible has the historical account of Jesus’s life—why not accept that?”

Again Jim shook his head. “We have articles from newspapers of Washington’s time published within days of events, and there are hundreds of accounts by people who met him. We even have Washington’s own journals and letters. By contrast, Jesus left no personal writings, we have just a few Gospels as sources of his life story, and those are accounts of unknown authorship handed down orally for decades before finally being written. They were even written from the perspective of a foreign culture—Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic, and the New Testament was written completely in Greek.”

“You’re overstating the problem. If you don’t like Washington, take Caesar Augustus—you accept the story of Caesar’s life even though he’s from the time period of Jesus.”

“How can you make this argument? Are you stupid?” Jim leapt to his feet. “The biographies of historical figures like Washington and Caesar make no supernatural claims!”

Paul opened his mouth to protest but retreated as Jim waved his arms as he stalked back and forth in front of the sofa like some hysterical prosecuting attorney.

“They were great men, but they were just men. Suppose you read that Washington was impervious to British bullets during the Revolutionary War or Caesar was born of a virgin—these claims were actually made, by the way. You would immediately dismiss them. Or what about Mormonism: Joseph Smith invented it just fifty miles from my hometown of Syracuse, shortly before I was born. We have far more information about the early days of his religion—letters, diaries, and even newspaper accounts, all in modern English—and yet I presume you dismiss Smith as a crackpot or a charlatan. In the case of Jesus, the most extravagant supernatural claims are made—why not dismiss those stories as well? The Bible has tales you wouldn’t believe if you read them in today’s newspaper, and yet you see them as truthful ancient journalism.”

Paul struggled to keep his hand steady as he glanced at his note card. He had no response but was not about to admit it. He decided to try a new line of attack and took a deep breath. “Okay, answer this one. The Bible has stories of fulfilled prophecy. Early books documented the prophecy, and later books record that prophecy coming true. There are hundreds about Jesus’s life alone. For example, the book of Isaiah details facts about the Messiah’s life, and then the New Testament records the fulfillment of that prophecy.”

“Show me.”

“Okay, let’s look at Isaiah 53.”

Jim walked to his bookshelf and pulled off a large leather-bound Bible.

Paul turned to his own copy. “Isaiah says, ‘He is despised and rejected of men’—Jesus should have been the king, but He was rejected by his own people. ‘He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth’—He could have proven that He was God with a word, but He chose to keep silent. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities’—this describes the beatings He endured before crucifixion. ‘With His stripes we are healed’ and ‘He bore the sin of many’—Jesus was whipped and took the burden of our sins when He died. All this was written hundreds of years before the crucifixion.”

“Unconvincing,” Jim said. “‘He is despised’ doesn’t sound like the charismatic rabbi who preached to thousands of attentive listeners and had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And I notice that you’ve ignored the part of this chapter that was inconvenient to your hypothesis: in the same chapter, God says, ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.’ Jesus is counted as merely one of the great ones and must share with them? That’s quite an insult to the son of God. And who are these equals? Most important, note that there’s no mention of the resurrection here. How can this be a Jesus crucifixion story without the punch line? This chapter is actually a very poor description of the crucifixion because the ‘he’ in this chapter is not Jesus but Israel.”

“But the Gospels themselves refer back to this chapter as prophecy of Jesus.”

“I don’t give a damn—this chapter isn’t about Jesus.”

Paul felt blindsided, as if he were lying on the ground, wondering where the haymaker came from. Samuel hadn’t told him about this rebuttal. Paul said, “Well, what about Psalm 22? It describes the crucifixion experience and has Jesus’s last words, exactly. It even describes the guards casting lots for his clothes. And this was written centuries before Jesus’s day.”

“Come now, think about it! The writers of the Gospels were literate, and they would have read all of the Law—what we call the Old Testament. They could have sifted through it to find plausible prophecies before they wrote the Gospels. Don’t you see? It’s as if they looked at the answers before taking a test.”

Paul leaned forward. “You’re saying that they cheated? That they deliberately invented the Gospel stories to fit the prophecy?”

“Think of the incredible boldness of the Bible’s claims,” Jim said, “that Jesus was a supernatural being sent by an omnipotent and omnipresent God who created the universe. That’s about as unbelievable a story as you can imagine. Deliberate cheating to invent this story—that is, a natural explanation of the Gospels—is much more plausible than that the story is literally true—which is a supernatural explanation. But here’s an explanation that’s more plausible still: suppose Jesus was nothing more than a charismatic rabbi. The original facts of Jesus’s life were then told and retold as they went from person to person, each time getting a little more fantastic. Details might have been gradually changed until they matched a particular prophecy. If people assumed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had to fulfill the prophecies, right? The Gospels were passed along orally for decades after Jesus’s death before they were written down, gradually translated into the Greek culture on the way. No need to imagine the deliberate invention of a false story.”

“But there was no oral tradition. The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.”

“Prove it.”

“Ask any minister!” Paul said with a chuckle that probably betrayed his unease. “It’s common knowledge. Matthew was an apostle, he was an eyewitness, and he wrote the book of Matthew. And so on for the other Gospel authors—all apostles or companions of apostles.”

“The names of the Gospel books were assigned long after they were written. No one knows who wrote them—each Gospel is anonymous, and the names are simply tradition. No Gospel begins, ‘This is an account of events that I witnessed myself.’ Even if they did, should that convince me? You take any fanciful account, put ‘I saw this myself’ at the beginning, and it becomes true? A natural explanation—that the Jesus story is just a legend—is far, far likelier than the supernatural explanation.”

Jim had been noisily worrying his cinnamon stick but now set it back on the sofa. “Besides, we have lots of examples of similar things in other religions—holy books that are really just myth. For example, we can probably agree that the Koran, Islam’s holy book, is mythology. Muhammad wasn’t really visited by the angel Gabriel and given wisdom from God. Did Muhammad invent it? Did a desire for power push him to create a new religion, with him as its leader? Through extreme fasting, did he have delusions that he interpreted as revelations from God? Any of these natural explanations and many more are much more likely than the Koran being literally true. Or Gilgamesh or Beowulf or the Hindu Vedas or the Book of Mormon. They all have supernatural elements and they are all mythology. How can you and I agree that these are mythology and that mankind throughout history has invented religion and myth, but you say that the Bible is the single exception? When you cast a net that brings up Christianity, it brings up a lot of other religions as well.”

“You can’t lump the Bible in with those books. It’s in a completely different category.”

“Prove it,” Jim repeated, and he slammed his Bible onto the table.

“Why should I have to prove it?”

“Because you’re the one making the remarkable claims.”

“Remarkable?” Paul paused, his mouth open, as he collected his thoughts. “How can you say that? You’re in the minority and you reject the majority view. Christianity is the most widespread religion the world has ever seen. Almost everyone in this country is thoroughly familiar with Christianity. They wouldn’t think the claims are remarkable.”

Jim smiled. “I wouldn’t make that majority claim too loudly. Within your own religious community, your views are in the majority, but your flavor of Christianity isn’t even in the majority right here in Los Angeles. Even when you lump together all the denominations of Christianity worldwide, the majority of people on the Earth still think you’re wrong.

“It’s true that the tenets of Christianity are widely familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. A God who can do anything, who has been around forever, and who created the universe? Take a step back and see this as an outsider might. You’ve made perhaps the boldest claim imaginable. No one should be asked to believe it without evidence, and very strong evidence at that.”

Jim picked up his cinnamon stick and waved it as he spoke. “Suppose someone claims to have seen a leprechaun or a dragon or a unicorn. Next, this person says that, because no one can prove him wrong, his beliefs are therefore correct. And since they’re correct, everyone should adopt them. This is nonsense of course. He is making the bold claim, so he must provide the evidence. In other words, we are justified—no, we are obliged—to reject extraordinary claims until the extraordinary evidence has been provided.”

“I have provided evidence!” Paul said.

Jim leaned back on the sofa and looked at Paul, for the first time at a loss for a quick retort. “Son, this is what I expected from you,” he said quietly, almost gently. “But this evidence barely merits the name. What you’ve provided is a flimsy argument that might satisfy someone who wants to support beliefs that he’s already decided are correct. But don’t expect this to convince anyone else.”

Paul sat back in his chair as if hit in the stomach. He had been preparing for a debate like this with increasing intensity for two years, and he thought that he deserved more. He didn’t expect accolades for his cleverness . . . but something? He tried to salvage the discussion and glanced at his note card, almost used up. His voice felt shrill and unreliable as he began. “But you must adjust your demands given how long ago this was. You can’t ask for photographs and diaries when the events happened close to two thousand years ago. It’s not fair.”

“Not fair? Suppose you come to me and ask to buy my house. I say that it’s worth three thousand dollars. You say, ‘I’ll give you five dollars for it.’ I say, ‘No—that’s ridiculous. I must reject your offer.’ And then you say, ‘But that’s not fair—five dollars is all I have.’”

Jim leaned forward, staring at Paul and with his arms outstretched. “That would be absurd. But it’s equivalent to the argument ‘since proving the fantastic claims of the New Testament is quite hard, you’ll have to accept whatever evidence we have.’ No, I don’t! I won’t accept five dollars for my house, I won’t accept pathetic evidence for leprechauns, and I won’t accept it for God.”

Jim paused and then said, “And while we’re at it, neither should you.”

I am the punishment of God….
If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
— Genghis Khan

*Older copies have been found since 1906.

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Word of the Day: Russell’s Teapot

does god exist?A couple posts ago, we talked about unicorns.  There are other things that we pretty much know don’t exist.  Some of these were deliberately invented—for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sacred to Pastafarians worldwide, or the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the new church of Kopimism.

But before those was Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

Bertrand Russell proposed the idea of a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars in 1952.  The teapot is too small to detect with any instrument, so it’s impossible to prove this claim wrong.

Russell pushes the teapot contention to the limit:

But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

How valid is the comparison of God with an orbiting teapot?  We know that there are teapots, and we know how to put things into solar orbits.  It’s just technology, and an orbiting teapot violates no scientific laws.  But the God hypothesis is far bolder because it demands a new category, that of supernatural beings.  They may exist, but science acknowledges no examples.

Is there such a teapot?  Maybe, but why live as if there is?  We can’t invalidate the teapot hypothesis, but that’s not the same as proving it true or even showing that it’s worthy of consideration.

We don’t give equal time to the orbiting teapot hypothesis, so why give equal time to similar claims that are equally poorly evidenced, like God?

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God is Nonexistent

who is god?Does God exist?  I don’t think so.  But can we prove that?

Proving that God doesn’t exist—or, more generally, that no supernatural beings exist—is impossible as far as I can tell.  An omniscient being wanting to remain hidden would succeed.  That’s a game of hide and seek we could never win.

To see what we can say about God, let’s look for parallels in how we handle other beings not acknowledged by science—Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, space aliens, leprechauns, fairies, or Merlin the shape-shifting wizard.  Any evidence in favor of these beings is sketchy, far too little to conclude that they exist.  Do we reserve judgment?  Do we say that the absence of evidence is no evidence of absence?  Of course not.  There’s plenty of evidence (or lack of evidence) to make a strong provisional case.  In fact, in common parlance we say that these things don’t exist.

While we’re at it, note the error in the adage “absence of evidence is no evidence of absence.”  Of course it’s evidence!  Absence of evidence is no proof of absence, but it can certainly be strong evidence.  If you’ve spent five minutes poking through that drawer looking for your keys and still can’t find them, that’s pretty strong evidence of their absence.

Note also the difference in the claim that Bigfoot doesn’t exist versus the claim that God doesn’t exist.  Science has been blindsided by new animals in the past.  The gorilla, coelacanth, okapi, and giant squid were all surprises, and Bigfoot could be another.  After all, Bigfoot is just another animal and we know of lots of animals.  But the very category of the Christian claim is a problem.  Science recognizes zero supernatural beings.

As definitively as science says that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, how much more definitively can science say that God doesn’t exist when the category itself is hypothetical?  Perhaps more conclusively, what about the claim that a god exists who desperately wants to be known to his creation, as is the case for the Christian god?

Let’s be careful to remember the limitations on the claim, “God doesn’t exist.”  Science is always provisional.  Any claim could be wrong—from matter being made of atoms to disease being caused by germs.  As Austin Cline said in “Scientifically, God Does Not Exist,” a scientific statement “X doesn’t exist” is shorthand for the more precise statement:

This alleged entity has no place in any scientific equations, plays no role in any scientific explanations, cannot be used to predict any events, does not describe any thing or force that has yet been detected, and there are no models of the universe in which its presence is either required, productive, or useful.

The Christian may well respond to science’s caution, “Well, if you’re not certain, I am!”  But, of course, confidence isn’t the same as accuracy.  This bravado falls flat without dramatic evidence to back it up.

Now, back to the original question, Does God exist?  Does this look like a world with a god in it?  If God existed, shouldn’t that be obvious?  What we see instead is a world in which believers are forced to give excuses for why God isn’t present.

Or, let’s imagine the opposite—a world without God.  This would be a world where praying for something doesn’t increase its likelihood; where faith is necessary to mask the fact that God’s existence is not apparent; where no loving deity walks beside you in adversity; where far too many children live short and painful lives because of malnutrition, abuse, injury, or birth defects; and where there is only wishful thinking behind the ideas of heaven and hell.

Look around, because that’s the world you’re living in.

But this isn’t an anarchist’s paradise; it’s a world where people live and love and grow, and where every day ordinary people do heroic and noble things for the benefit of strangers.  Where warm spring days and rosy sunsets aren’t made by God but explained by Science, and where earthquakes happen for no good reason and people strive to leave the world a better place than it was when they entered it.  God isn’t necessary to explain any of this.  Said another way, there is no functional difference between a world with a hidden god and one with no god.

Listen closely to Christian apologists and you’ll see that they admit the problem.  The typical apologetic approach is to:

  1. make deist arguments (for example, the existence of morality or design demands a deity to create it)
  2. argue that this deity is the Christian god rather than the god of some other religion.

Mr. Apologist, are your deist arguments convincing?  If so, you should be a deist, not a Christian.  And why is the first step necessary?  It’s because the Christian god is functionally nonexistent—you admit this yourself.

The God hypothesis isn’t necessary.  God has no measurable impact on the universe, and science needn’t sit on the sidelines.  There is enough evidence to render a judgment.

We apparently have natural disasters whether there is one god, 20 gods, or no god.  Prayers are answered with the same likelihood whether you pray to Zeus, the Christian god, or a jug of milk.  Religion is what you invent when you don’t have Science.

Can we say that anything doesn’t exist?  With certainty, probably not.  But with the confidence that we can say that anything doesn’t exist—leprechauns, fairies, or Merlin the wizard—we can say that God doesn’t.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect
if there is, at bottom,
no design, no purpose, no evil and no good,
nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
— Richard Dawkins

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  • August Cline, “Scientifically, God Does Not Exist: Science Allows us to Say God Does Not Exist,” About.com.

God is as Believable as Unicorns

atheist christian discussionA chapter in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995) is titled “The Dragon in My Garage.”  In the spirit of Sagan’s story, here is an imagined exchange between you and me about my unicorn.

Me: I have a unicorn in my garage!

You: Wow—let’s see!

Me: You don’t want to just take my word for it?

You: Of course not—I want to see.

(I open the garage door.)

Me: Okay, here you go.

You: Uh … this garage is empty.

Me: No … uh, he’s invisible.

You: Okay … can you make him make a sound?

Me: No—he’s silent, too.

You: Can we see food vanish as he eats it?

Me: Of course not—he’s magic.  He doesn’t need food.

(You wander through the garage with your hands out in front.)

Me: What are you doing?

You: Trying to feel for it.

Me: Uh … no—he’s really small and he scampers away.

You: Can you hear him running?  Like the sound of hooves on concrete?

Me: No—I told you he’s silent.

You: Well, how about spreading flour on the floor so we can see the footprints.

Me: Nope.  He can float.  And I’m sure he would, because he doesn’t like to be detected.

You: Can we can catch him with a net and weigh him?  Can we put a sheet over him so I can see him moving underneath?  Could we spray paint and see it on his body?

Me: No—he’s … he’s noncorporeal.  Yeah, that’s it.  Noncorporeal.

Of course, by now you’ve lost interest in this “unicorn.”  Still, you haven’t been able to falsify my claim.  I win!

But no one would accept this conclusion.  By slithering away from every possible test, this supernatural claim has no evidence in support of it.  Any unicorn that has this little impact in the world is pretty much the same as no unicorn at all.  We can’t prove it’s nonexistent, but it’s functionally nonexistent.

“You haven’t been able to falsify my claim” is true, but this is backwards reasoning.  The proper conclusion is: There is no evidence to support this claim, so there’s no reason to accept this claim.

Isn’t this how Christians evaluate the miracle claims of other religions?  Why not handle those of Christianity the same way?

Jesus is Santa Claus for adults
(seen on a bumper sticker)

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Word of the Day: Shibboleth

existence of GodThe Hebrew word shibboleth literally means “torrent of water” or “ear of corn.”  But its use in English comes from a clever wartime trick from the Bible.

Chapter 12 of the book of Judges records intertribal warfare between the tribe of Ephraim (on the west of the Jordan River) and the territory of Gilead (on the east side).  At the end of the battle, the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan.  To identify the Ephraimites, they demanded that everyone wanting to cross into Ephraim say the word, “shibboleth.”  The Ephraimite dialect of Hebrew had no “sh” sound, and for them it came out as “sibboleth.”  The Gileadites identified and killed 42,000 Ephraimites with this trick.

The word shibboleth can mean a truism or widely held belief, but the more interesting definition is an identity test or litmus test or test of belonging.

For example, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  Circumcision becomes a shibboleth.

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a public promise to never raise taxes, has become a shibboleth for Republican politicians.

Tattoos might be a shibboleth for a motorcycle gang, and a style of clothing or makeup might be a shibboleth for a high school clique.

The atheist community has shibboleths as well.  Like any such test, they can be too quickly used to dismiss potential members.  For example, the typical American atheist is in favor of same-sex marriage, is pro-choice, is liberal, and is a Democrat.  But I know atheists who don’t fit each of these labels, and I’d hate to see them shunned or have their (different) voices and ideas shut down.

Consider the case of Bill Maher, the writer of the documentary Religulous (2008).  He was the winner of the Atheist Alliance International’s 2009 Richard Dawkins award.  This caused a stir within the atheist community because, while his popular film was a powerful credential, Maher has rejected vaccinations in some circumstances.  His atheist credentials were in doubt because he had fallen victim to some of the biases that atheists dislike in those who accept superstitions or religion.

Shibboleths have their place, but make sure they don’t replace a thoughtful and reasoned analysis with a knee-jerk response.

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Biblical Slavery, Part 3

(See Parts 1 and 2 of this discussion.)

Let’s conclude this critique of a podcast titled “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” from apologetics.com that responded to Dan Savage’s criticism of the Bible.  Italicized arguments are my paraphrases from the podcast.

Slavery doesn't make the Bible look too goodDan Savage and other atheists distort the Bible by imagining it supporting slavery.  If Southerners used the Bible to support slavery during the Civil War, that was only because they distorted it.  Consider the anti-slavery books of that time: The Bible Against Slavery (1837) or God Against Slavery (1857), for example.

Let’s consider the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination.  It split with northern Baptists in 1845 because it insisted on maintaining its support for slavery.  In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the split, it published a resolution that repudiated racism and slavery.  (Good for them for admitting their error, though the delay puts this correction in the same bin as the Catholic Church’s tardy embrace of Galileo in 1992.)

Looks like support for slavery is a plausible message to take from the Bible even if not everyone accepts it.

Were there anti-slavery books at that time?  Were there Christians against slavery?  Sure!  How that gets the Old Testament off the hook, I can’t imagine.  The verses quoted in the previous post show that the Bible is very plainly pro-slavery.

Consider Philemon, a short book in the New Testament.  Here Paul sends a slave back to his master Philemon with the request that he be “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16).  This was radical stuff—it was designed to bring about change within the Roman slave system.

Wow—that’s wishful thinking.  If Paul shouted in public, “Don’t you get it?  Owning another person is wrong!  Free all slaves immediately!” that wouldn’t have changed the Roman system.  Paul instead asking in a private letter that one slave be freed wouldn’t change the system, and it’s not clear he’s even asking for this.

Abraham Lincoln convulsed America in a Civil War, in part, to free the slaves.  Jesus didn’t lift a finger to overturn slavery.  In fact, the New Testament is full of pro-slavery statements.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. (Col. 3:22)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect. (1 Tim. 6:1–2)

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything. (Titus 2:9–10)

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. … Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to. (1 Cor. 7:20–24)

The Christian can respond with nice verses in the Old Testament—“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), for example—but here again the Bible makes a clear distinction between Jewish neighbors and those other guys.  So back to Dan Savage and his claim that the Bible is radically pro-slavery: looks to me like Savage wins.  Whenever Christians make a careful distinction between Jewish slaves in the Old Testament and African slaves in America, they’re playing games.

Let’s take a step back to see where we’ve been.  On this podcast, two well-educated Christians spent an hour trying to shoehorn actual biblical slavery (that is: slavery for life; slavery not too bad considering that slaughter was the alternative; beatings okay unless the slave is incapacitated; etc.) into a package labeled “indentured servitude.”  They pretended that biblical slavery was far, far different from the slavery in America.

It makes you wonder if they’d be happy to see this godly biblical institution in effect here in America.  (Maybe when the theocracy comes?)

I don’t know whether to be offended that they think I’m so uninformed that I don’t see the deception or to be amazed that they honestly don’t understand.

But that’s not the crazy part.  Halfway through the second hour, the host and guest acknowledged the irony that they are both African-Americans.

So we have two African-American men defending slavery.  One of them likened biblical slavery to an “employment contract” (again, he seemed blind to the fact that the six-year Jewish slavery is not the interesting topic).  “We’re in a form of slavery when we’re working on a job for somebody else,” he said.  Uh, no—being a waiter is not even close to being a slave.  When people complain that it’s the same, they’re exaggerating.  Yes, we’re constrained when we’re employees, but who seriously equates present-day employment in America to the abhorrent kind of slavery we’re talking about?

So a white guy has to remind modern-day African-Americans on the problems of slavery.  Wow.  This is what Christianity can do to people.  It makes them check their brains at the door—not all Christians, of course, but some.  They defend the morality of biblical slavery, if such a thing can be imagined.  They reject science for creationism.  They support torture in proportion to their religiosity.  They reject stem cell research and the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancy.  They dismiss the injustice of eternal torment in hell by saying, “Uh … the gates of hell must be locked from the inside!”  They dismiss evidence that televangelists are charlatans.  They rationalize away biblical genocide.

Slavery is a bad thing, and the Bible condones slavery.  Dan Savage was right.  Just admit it.

Morality is doing what is right regardless of what we are told. 
Religious dogma is doing what we are told regardless of what is right.
Andy Thomson at American Atheists 2009 conference

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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