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An Atheist Reads the Bible

2007-10-07
I've been an atheist for more than a decade. I grew up a Christian, and had read the Bible through a couple of times before realizing that it was all probably not true. Since then I haven't been quite sure what to make of my copies of the Bible. Where does this book belong in my world, and what does it mean to me? In my first years as an atheist I never read the Bible at all, it was too soon for me to approach it as anything other than the manual of a misguided and somewhat immoral theology. But with distance, I've become interested in exploring different ways to read and understand the Bible.

As a Christian I knew only One Way - the Bible is the word of God, a unified and consistent work of Lutheran theology. I came to dislike that way, and I still do. I'll happily tolerate your following it, and nod as you tell me how important this belief system is to you, but it's not for me. You see, I can't help following the Christian tenets to their logical conclusion, and that conclusion is evil and inhuman. Luckily Christians don't do this, they color their theology with their own personal characteristics, good or evil depending on the person, but always human: Some bring compassion, others authoritarianism. Some bring their level heads and common sense, others their fanaticism. I brought my skepticism, and there was just no way for me to reconcile that with Christian theology.

How then should an atheist read the Bible? Not as the Devil would, I think. The Devil is a revolutionary free-thinker, a rebel against the injust regime of a cosmic tyrant. The Devil looks for ways to discredit the tyrant, so he searches the Bible for contradictions and faults. But the Christian God does not exist. If he did, I think we humans would need a Devil to stand up for us, but he doesn't, so we don't. The Church does exist, and perhaps in some places it is so powerful that we need human Devils to fight it - atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But here - Norway - is not one of those places. As far as I'm concerned, the war on Heaven is over. The place is still there, in the minds of believers, but I'm fine with that.

Which makes it possible for me to approach the Bible as a truly independent reader. Many can't do this. Christians are the most restricted Bible readers of all - they need to see their theology reflected in every word and paragraph of every book of the Bible. The consequences of finding something that contradicts their theology are so profound and disturbing that they must close their minds to even the possibility. It's all coherent and consistent, otherwise what have I built my life on? There's a neurotic tension here, between the need to respect this ancient collection of books and the need to twist it into something it clearly isn't, that makes it hard for Christians to read the Bible as it really is.

That doesn't mean that what Christian scholars have to say about the Bible is uninteresting. It depends on how heavily their theology chains down the Bible for them. Many Christians are comfortable with reading the Bible as a historical document. By that I mean not claiming that it is historically true, but applying historical methods to it to determine how reliable it is. In Biblical scholarship, there doesn't seem to be a clear line with believers on one side and nonbelievers on the other. There's a mainstream of scholars, believers and nonbelievers, who agree on many important things. For instance, they agree that the Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - are more reliable as historical documents than the Apocryphical Gospels, the ones that were left out of the Bible. (Dan Brown-style theories are for cranks.) They agree on the methods to use when analyzing the Bible, how to determine the validity of a source, the strength of a claim. If you want to understand the Bible, you can't ignore Christian scholars.

But it would be hard for a Christian scholar to acknowledge that Luke and Matthew tell different stories about the birth and childhood of Jesus, and that both stories have many signs of legendary storytelling. After all, if those stories were made up, what else might be? So they rationalize. They'll point out that the stories don't actually contradict, so they might both be true, and reflect the different target audiences of the authors. Which is dishonest from a scholarly point of view, but it let's one sleep at night. You don't need the least bit of knowledge about Biblical scholarship to see that the stories are different. But you probably do need to be a nonbeliever, or your mental defenses won't let you see it. So I'm not saying, Christian scholars don't understand the Bible, I'm saying, from their point of view, arriving at certain conclusions in their research might land them in Hell for eternity. So they probably won't reach those conclusions. There's a strong incentive not to. (Then again, your theology may hold that it doesn't matter what happened to Jesus as a child, but then you've moved some distance away from the Christian mainstream.)

There are, I think, five ways to read the Bible, and I've mentioned three of them. You can read it as theology: what does it say about how God wants me to live my life today? You can read it as the Devil does: how can I use this to show that Christianity isn't true? And you can read it as a collection of historical documents: who wrote this, and what does it tell us about actual historical events?

And then you can read the Bible as literature: entertaining and/or insightful stories, legends and poems. And finally you can read the Bible as ancient theology. The difference between modern theology and ancient theology is crucial: Modern theology is about our beliefs, it is about what believers in our time see reflected in the Bible. This changes from decade to decade, and is important for nonbelievers only for what it tells us about Christianity today. (A nonbeliever can't learn about Christianity by reading the Bible oneself, you have to look at how Christians read it.) Ancient theology is about their beliefs, the people of ancient Israel and Palestine, the people who wrote and read these books.

The difference can be dramatic. Early Jews probably believed that there were more than one god in the world, they just didn't worship the others. What we think of as Judaism today was crystallized during and after the Babylonian captivity, by which time most of the Torah had probably already been written. In the same way, much of Christian theology as we know it was formulated after the New Testament had been written. None of the New Testament writers said anything explicitly about the Trinity. Nor do you find much of Paul's theology in the teachings of Jesus - many believe that Paul should be considered the true founder of the Christian religion, and that Jesus was merely his inspiration and focal point.

One New Testament scholar I would recommend is Bart Ehrman. He has written many popular books on early Christianity, and also made several good lecture series for the Teaching Company. Ehrman's focus is on the New Testament (and the Christian Apocrypha) as historical documents and ancient theology. Some of his ideas are controversial to Christians, but they are not speculative. If you look for books about the "historical Jesus", you'll find entire bookshelves of speculation, a separate Jesus for every Jesus author. Ehrman is widely respected, also by Christian scholars, even when they disagree. I consider that a good sign.

Keep in mind though that Biblical scholarship is a difficult subject, so don't attach yourself too strongly to any particular interpretation, by Ehrman or others. For a believer it is important to find the One True Way to understand the Bible. They're putting their souls on the line here. Us nonbelievers do not. We can live with uncertainty. We can live with not knowing for sure what Jesus really believed. We'd like to know, but it doesn't really matter. We can afford to withhold judgement. It is enough for us to know what the plausible alternatives are, and not which one is true. You should know off Bart Ehrman's theory that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted the end of time and an earthly Kingdom of God in his own immediate future, but what's most important is that you realize that we can't know any of this for sure. And we don't need to.

If you want to take the historical approach to the Old Testament, you should learn about the Documentary Hypothesis, (also known as the JEDP theory), the idea that the Pentateuch was assembled (redacted) from four different sources, which were written at different times in different places, and represented somewhat different beliefs. This has been the consensus view since the 19th century. The JEDP theory explains why there are two Creation stories, or why God is referred to by different names in the original Hebrew. It is fascinating to read the Bible through the eyes of the Documentary Hypothesis - one verse here is from source J, and then the next is from source E, this reflects a practice of the Northern Kingdom, this of the Southern Kingdom, and so on.

But I was intrigued to come across a lecture series on the Book of Genesis by Gary A. Rendsburg. Rendsburg approaches the Bible as literature, and not so much as historical documents. He believes that the JEDP scholars have focused so much on the sources that they've lost sight of the Pentateuch as a literary whole. If there were different textual sources, the redactor did not just dumbly cut and paste from them, he put considerable thought into the process. He was closer to an author than to an editor.

Rendsburg believes there are themes and stylistic devices in Genesis that make sense only when you see it as a whole. There are patterns in the stories of the Patriarchs, there are recurring themes, such as the lesser person - a barren wife, a youngest son - who is favored and elevated by God, symbolizing the need for the weak Jewish nation to rely on God. And what may seem like contradictions springing from the difference in sources, may actually be intentional literary and theological devices. The Creation story is told twice not because the redactor couldn't decide which one is true, but because he needed both perspectives: The cosmic perspective, which takes the large view, the view of God the all-powerful creator, and the human perspective, which leads into the Adam and Eve story.

I have no opinion on how these books where assembled. But I believe that by reading the Pentateuch as literature, we can properly honor it alongside the other major works of ancient humanity, such as the Illiad and Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. We read the Iliad today because it is a powerful story, and a founding work of our culture. We don't care too much how it was put together, we care about the end product, and we read the end product for its own value. This is no less true of the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible. As theology the Bible is just plain untrue, as historical documents it is a puzzle for scholars - as literature, it is a powerful work of art.

Rendsburg recommends seeking out translations of the Bible that emphasize its literary qualities, such as this one of the Pentateuch by Robert Alter. There are many kinds of Bible translations, and all have their uses. Some focus on capturing the meaning of exact words, others on expressing clearly the ideas behind the words. What Alter aims for is to reproduce the stylistic devices of the Pentateuch, to make it sound more like the original. For instance, the original authors would often use the same word (such as "seed") over and over again in a story, each time having a slightly different nuance of meaning. In English you try to avoid this, you use synonyms to create variation in the text, so translators often replace such ambigous words with ones that are more accurate for their context. Alter tries to retain them. And in the original text you often find sentence after sentence beginning with the word "and". And this is bad english, so modern translators restructure the sentences to avoid it. And Alter retains the "and"'s, and, look, it gives the text a strange and interesting flavor. For instance, from the story of Noah:

That very day, Noah and Shem and Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the tree wives of his sons together with them, came into the ark, them as well as beasts of each kind and cattle of each kind and each kind of crawling thing that crawls on the earth, and each kind of bird, each winged thing. They came to Noah into the ark, two by two of all flesh that has the breath of life within it. And those that came in, male and female of all flesh they came, as God has commanded him, and the Lord shut him in. And the Flood was forty days over the earth, and the waters multiplied and bore the ark upward and it rose above the earth. And the waters surged and multiplied mightily over the earth, and the ark went on the surface of the water. And the waters surged most mightily over the earth, and all the high mountains under the heavens were covered.

Here's the same passage in some other translations: New International Version, English Standard Version, and New American Standard Bible. The effect is somewhat similar to the King James Version, which had a similar literary philosophy, except it is in modern English and incorporates 400 more years of Biblical scholarship. Robert Alter's translation of the Pentateuch is certainly a very beautiful work. And it is full of interesting footnotes.

So that's the literary perspective. As I wrote earlier there are many ways to read the Bible, and the ones that I find relevant are the ones that treat it as historical documents, as literature, or as ancient theology. Of those three, I've come to prefer the literary one. It may seem like I'm belittling the value of the Bible by doing this, that I'm dismissing it as "mere entertainment". What I'm doing is rather to place it on the same bookshelf as the Iliad and other ancient works. I'm honoring it in the way that makes most sense to me as an atheist. I refuse to read the Bible as modern theology. I refuse to scrutinize it for faults (fish, barrel, smoking gun). I choose instead to honor it as the wonderful creative output of some 1000+ years of Hebrew and Mediterranean culture.

As for the "Devil's way" of reading, I understand why some people prefer it. The Bible is to many a symbol of authority, and authority encourages rebellion. And yes, the Bible is full of embarassing passages, (my favourite involves two rampaging bears). But this is a superficial way to read the Bible, and nothing new has been said on that front for a century or so. Do it to confound your literalist friends, but for any other purpose I believe it's a waste of time.

(Update: I just finished Robert Alter's translation of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Pentateuch. What a book! I never noticed before how rhetorically powerful it was. I swear there are sparks flying off the page.)

51 comments

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  1. Gateless Gate, 2007-10-07
    One way of reading the bible that you haven't covered is to consider the message in it comparable, and part of, the writings of Buddhist and Zen lineages of wisdom and misunderstood wisdom composed together into a culture. It is possible the bible has been born independently but that is not significant.

    In terms of written wisdom and written wisdom misunderstood, there is always both included and the people who put together the bible were comprised of those who really considered it and some where motivated by other things. Thus the mishmash. The only way to get to the bottom of it is to work hard with what is being said.

    Some helpful keys to getting there. One would be to read the Gospel of Thomas that was left out of the bible. It says things a bit too clearly and is the closest thing to the eastern way of looking at things. The other would be to understand that as Jesus speaks his shit, he is being completely and utterly rational to utmost degree. If he had tried to explain things by accommodating the false beliefs of his disciples, they would either kill him or leave him in their ignorance. His disciples do not understand him. His teachings are saved by them but poorly understood. As the history in bible goes on for a couple of centuries and the material ends up in writing, a more politicized version of a now manifested church is being written down by Paul and others.

    Most christians can not pass the first commandment. There are just about the same number of idols as there are people out there.

    Maybe you should read some eastern material and compare notes.

  2. Kil, Japan, 2007-10-07
    I always find it interesting that people still really think that the two testaments belong together. Even Jesus mentions briefly in the sermon on the mount that we should basically forget about "an eye for an eye" and "turn the other cheek".

    With this harmless but key teaching he on a sidenote basically disposes of the old testament and tells us to forget about it, the times have changed.

    I also say if you want to learn anything about how Christianity is supposed to be, ditch all the other crap and focus on Jesus' teachings. Which are quite revolutionary even nowadays. So revolutionary that to this day most people couldn't live by it.

    Except maybe for Ghandi and he was not a Christian by all means; he even said once "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

    Nothing has changed ever since.

  3. TimeTraveller Canada, 2007-10-07
    Ok, get serious.

    Any Christian I know realized long ago that there are inconsistencies and contraditions in the Bible. Yes for many, faith was shaken. But shaking of faith is always a good thing, because it grows back stronger. omigosh...contradictions in the Bible!!..I think I'll become and atheist!!!.

    The authors view of Christians a caricature, a stereotype. Yes I know many Christians who might have characteristics that fit parts of the stereotype...but they are in the process of having their faith shaken. You don't get faith by beleiving things without questioning them. That is stupidity. That is not what God wants. That is not what Christians do. You get faith by taking an idea and testing it. Kind of like science...kind of..Whenever you think you understand God, He throws you a curve, and you have to start over again. What is real about your beliefs survives and grows and is refined, what is not is discarded.

    The problem I think may be in the way todays adult Christians were trained to think when they were children. While rational thinking is a wonderful tool for understanding and manipulating the natural world, it cannot be used as the only tool for understanding the Bible. The error comes, maybe, from thinking that facts and truth are one and the same. They are quite different. That is why the contradictory accounts can both be true even though the facts may differ. Think of the old story about the blind man and deaf man describing the elephant. They tell 2 different stories, but the fact that their stories may not agree in fact in no way alters the fact that there is an elephant.

    The correct way to read the Bible, is without prejudice and be prepared to let the passages that do not make sense, just not make sense. Reading the Bible is a bit like planting a seed. You cover it up, add water and wait around, and eventually, if you continue to water it, bears good fruit....but it takes time. It's easy to look at a 3 week old tomato plant and say..ha! no tomatos! .and toss it on the compost heap.

    But Jesus says all this anyway, you should read his version, it's better said...if you really want to know why Christians insist on following a religion that makes no sense.

  4. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-07
    TimeTraveller Canada: "omigosh...contradictions in the Bible!!..I think I'll become and atheist!!!."

    You missed my point. I am not saying that most Christians believe the Bible is without contradictions. I'm saying that their reading of the Bible is tied down by theological considerations. What those considerations are depends on the person. You solve the problem of contradictions like many Christians do, by believing that it all makes perfect sense on some higher, spiritual level, which may not be apparent to the reader right away. That is your theology. But what if there is a passage or a contradiction that doesn't make sense on any level? That was never put there by God? That is just plain false, and doesn't contain even a single grain of divine wisdom? Your theology does not allow that, and so you shut out the possibility of it. Only a nonbeliever, or someone with a less constricted theology, can consider that possibility.

    Besides, "it doesn't have to make sense" is a cop-out. I'm not saying that this is a very bad thing - go ahead, believe whatever you like, that's what most people do anyway, believers and nonbelievers alike. But I think it does illustrate my point that there are some levels of understanding of the Bible that are closed to Christians. If the best you have to offer is that "yes, those stories are different, but if you place your trust in God you'll see that they're actually both true", then I hope you'll understand why I don't think that's a valuable analysis.

  5. Maddy, CT, 2007-10-07
    Ever tried The Book Of Mormon?
  6. TimeTraveller, 2007-10-08
    again the stereotype. I'm not saying "place your trust in God" because you don't know what that means. You would have to know who God is. In fact probably very few people do and I'm sure I don't have a good grip on it. It's something you do because you come to realize it's the best solution.

    that the stories are both true is common sense, has nothing to do with theology or placing trust in anything, the point is, don't rush to conclusions because there are inconsistencies..you've noticed the inconsistencies and contradictions, that's a good start. Deciding that the whole thing is a crock is only one possible option. You quite rightly discern that religion isn't always such a good thing, but you may be surprised ( or not) to notice that the people that annoyed Jesus most were the religious leaders of the day.

    the idea that you alone can be the judge of truth or what is reasonable is a problem, because it puts you in the position of God, and although I can see you are a smart guy, I don't quite want to put my trust in you yet.

    >>But what if there is a passage or a contradiction that doesn't make sense on any level? There are several possible responses to this, one of which is ignoring it and singing loudly, and hoping it makes sense on some higher level (I'm being facetious..I thought I better spell it out because it doesn't always come across in text ) What I think is certainly influenced by my theological framework, but it is no more confining than any other framework. In fact I have the benefit of my theological framework and rationalistic framework of contemporary secular culture to look at it with. So I might argue that I have more resources with which to consider these questions, since I haven't ruled any out.

    That was never put there by God? What for example? Your assuming I think it was put there by God. You assume my theology is the one you rejected. I don't have this view of the Bible.

    That is just plain false, and doesn't contain even a single grain of divine wisdom? Well how can you judge what is false or true. And since you don't believe in God, how can you say what is divine wisdom? If I see a passage that appears to be inconstent with my view of God, then obviously I have to adjust my world view to accomodate it. To if wisdom is divine, you have to know God.

    Your theology does not allow that, and so you shut out the possibility of it. Again you are arguing about what you think my theology is, but you have know way of knowing that...unless this thread goes on a lot longer than you probably are interested. You may have some assumptions about me, but I'm not that important, it's the ideas we are interested in anyway.

    Only a nonbeliever, or someone with a less constricted theology, can consider that possibility. I consider every possibility. That God doesn't exist a possibility I consider everyday, it just doesn't make sens though. I read atheist commentaries all the time and they have some perceptive and sometimes painful observations, but for the most part they don't find any traction in my thinking, because for the most part they are arguing against straw men, stereotypes and caricatures of Christians or Christian beliefs. Rather than undermine my faith,they strengthen it.

    Theology is the result of a lot of very smart people, dealing with the Bible for a couple of thousand years. If I choose to disagree with that, and go my own way, I better have pretty good reason. Theology, at it's best, it is a description of reality, or framework to help us deal with God. Dealing with God helps to deal with life. Theology doesn't constrict thinking, but provides valuable tools with which to expand it. Everything that is labelled Theology isn't theology tho. I would have to agree, there are many narrow thinking religious leaders who do not want people thinking outside the box. In the end though, it's not the thinkng that matters, it's doing and saying and living.

  7. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-08
    Time Traveller: that the stories are both true is common sense, has nothing to do with theology or placing trust in anything, the point is, don't rush to conclusions because there are inconsistencies..you've noticed the inconsistencies and contradictions, that's a good start. Deciding that the whole thing is a crock is only one possible option.

    No that's not how I'm thinking. Why I'm an atheist is a whole different story, and has little to do with such minor problems with the Bible. I'm just interested in what is correct and what isn't. The only relevance to me is that those stories don't give an accurate picture of the early years of the historical Jesus, and that's all.

    Common sense to me would be to say that the Gospels are not either reliable or unreliable, but that they can be both. When Matthew, Luke and Mark all agree almost down to the wording of something Jesus said, then I think it's fairly reliable that he did say that. I wouldn't base my life on it, but it's at the top end of Biblical reliability. But when Matthew and Luke tell two different stories about the childhood of Jesus, and both stories are legend-like, (history is full of such stories about famous people), then I think they're both unreliable. Perhaps if we knew more about the authors, we could take these stories on trust - but we know barely anything of who they were. All we know we've extracted from what they wrote, and the only way to get reliability out of that (without resorting to circular reasoning) is to look at things like how well their claims are backed up by the other Gospel writers. And the childhood stories aren't.

    What for example? Your assuming I think it was put there by God. You assume my theology is the one you rejected. I don't have this view of the Bible.

    I'm sorry if I've put words into your mouth, but in my experience most Christians believe that the Bible was divinely inspired. Some still believe that it is all practically the literal word of God, while the majority believes that God's message was filtered through the minds of imperfect human authors. Otherwise why pay any particular attention to the Bible at all? Your theology may be different - but whatever it is, it places restrictions on your understanding of the Bible. Arriving at certain conclusions (I don't know what they are) mean having to abandon beliefs that are important to you, and that is at the very least a high obstacle, and a good motivation for finding reasonable-sounding ways around it.

    And since you don't believe in God, how can you say what is divine wisdom?

    I'm stating a hypothetical, one that would be difficult for most Christians to seriously consider. They can hold the thought in their head, for instance (again hypothetically) that the entire Gospel of John was written without God's inspiration and included in the New Testament against God's will, but it would crash up very hard against their belief system, and I think few Christians would be truly open to the idea. They would reject it as ridiculous, whether they had good reason to or not.

    Rather than undermine my faith,they strengthen it.

    I know how important doubt and the struggle with doubt is to Christians - remember, I've been one. It's kind of a process of inoculation, one exposes oneself to weak strains of a dangerous virus, and that makes it easier to stand up against the stronger variants. This isn't unique to religion, though, it happens everywhere. When people on the left think of people on the right, they picture the worst and the stupidest of them, not the smart ones who might actually post a threat to their belief system. And vice versa with people on the right. It's universal, which is why I can't be bothered to be too worked up about it. I'm just happy as long as your worldview/ideology/religion doesn't get in the way of you being a kind person.

  8. Abdul, 2007-10-08
    You see, I can't help following the Christian tenets to their logical conclusion, and that conclusion is evil and inhuman.

    Interesting, then, that Bjorn has spent so much time and energy defending Islam from criticism - even going so far as to accuse reasonable Islam critics of suffering from the mythical mental illness called Islamophobia - taking into account the evil and inhuman ideology that is the logical outcome of following the Islamic tenets to their logical conclusion.

  9. Gateless Gate, 2007-10-09
    TimeTraveller:

    "Rather than undermine my faith,they strengthen it."

    Faith takes you nowhere. You shouldn't need strength at all. You must first be weak and then it matters no more.

    Theology is worthless. It's only a name for bad philosophy. Philosophy is worthless.

    Don't worry. Atheists project too. Worthless Christians... spoiling the seeds of great men like that. Look at them, in their glory unable to any longer remove their shoes. Your church is to blame.

  10. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-09
    Abdul, you've missed my point entirely. The fact that following Christian tenets to their logical conclusion leads to something evil and inhuman is a good reason for me not to become a Christian - but it tells me absolutely nothing about actual Christians. Because they do not do that. Christians are not evil people, or at least no more than ordinary. The same goes Islam, and if you've paid so close attention to my views that you remember those old posts, and yet you didn't even understand what I was saying, then I can only hope that you take the time to read them again.
  11. Matt, UK, 2007-10-10
    Bjorn

    Interesting piece and interesting comments. I'm a Christian only by the very broadest of definitions (OK, I'm probably only really a sympathetic agnostic) and for me, the Bible only has a limited role in defining what it means to be Christian. Just look at all the very different brands of Christianity and Christians- all setting up their stalls around the same tired text. If the bible was in any way a defining work, surely all would have the same outlook.

    I see established religion as a body of scholarship and literature (the bible being the linchpin, that's true) that provides stories and allegories that in turn provide useful insights on how to live well. The example of Jesus Christ given in the New Testament is a fine description of how to live well- if we all followed the example, everything would be hunky-dory. The crucial thing is to get everybody to follow that example- hence the associated mythology, the old testament, the saints, the interpretations, the various early councils of the Church, all establishing and/or reinforcing the common principles with which to live by.

    I like Christianity because I think Jesus' life, as described in the New Testament, with it's emphasis on love and humility is a decent example to follow, whether 'true' or not.

    I also think it's healthy for humans to believe in something greater than themselves: a God, if you will. I suspect such a thing (or things) may well exist. It may be a Gaia-like 'Earth System', or aliens elsewhere in the galaxy, or simply a collective 'higher order' of collective functioning of human society. I don't know, and it certainly won't be the classic Christian God, I'll freely admit that.

    But that combination of an appreciation of Jesus' message and a vague conviction (if there can be such a thing) of something 'higher' than mankind is where I define my religiosity, such as it is.

  12. Gunnar, MD, 2007-10-11
    >> I can't help following the Christian tenets to their logical conclusion, and that conclusion is evil and inhuman. I'm curious, what are those logical conclusions? I'm not trying to start a big discussion with you. I'm really just curious, because my journey has been in the opposite direction. I became an aethiest when I was 16 and remained so until I was 32.
  13. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-12
    Gunnar: I'm curious, what are those logical conclusions?

    Well, my most important problem with Christian theology is that they worship a God who condemns people to an eternity of suffering merely for accidentally being born into the wrong religion, or for being born with a skeptical character. If you're born in a Muslim country, anyone who knows anything about human nature understands that you're likely to remain a Muslim, or at least not abandon it for the Christian religion. And if you're born with the kind of personality that seeks rational reasons for everything, like me, and you live in a society where this is permitted and encouraged, there's a fair chance you'll think your way out of your faith, like I did. So I would be punished for no more than using the gifts that God gave me. Perhaps from a Christian point of view I've used those gifts poorly, but I've used them honestly, the best way I know how, and it seems evil to me to punish people in such an extreme way for such an innocent crime.

    I know how this is rationalized by Christians. "We do not really know who God will choose to save, perhaps he will make an exception for those who never had the chance to choose." And to people like me, who have had a chance and a choice but still don't believe: "It's harsh, but it's your choice not to go to Heaven, you have free will, and it's out of God's hands". The first is a cop-out, but I'm glad Christians think that way, it tells me that they're more compassionate than their God. What they're saying is basically "yes, I know it's evil to send Muslim children to hell, and I know that's kind of what our theology implies, but God is compassionate and I'm sure he'll think of something, I don't know how, but I'm happy to leave that in God's hands". The second response is just illogical: As an atheist I do not choose not to go to Heaven in the afterlife. I do not believe there is a Heaven or an afterlife - there's a difference. If there is, and if it is a nice place, I'd probably like to go there, but I have no reason to believe there is, so I won't build my life on that assumption. So no, I haven't "chosen" Hell - and the burden of providing evidence for his own existence remains firmly in God's hands. (Pascal's wager is not a solution - it leads logically to an evil conclusion of its own.)

    So my problem with Christian theology is that God is evil. You see it in the Old Testament, where he massacres innocents by the thousands, but the Old Testament God is actually far less evil than the God of Love in the New Testament. The OT God is grumpy and mean, but all he does is kill and enslave some people here and there - he's actually a very human God, ambitious and materialistic. The NT God rains infinite torture on billions, reaching a cosmic and unfathomable level of evil. There's nothing human about that evil, nothing at all.

    You Christians don't think like this, and bless you for that. All the Christians I know are kind and level-headed people. I wouldn't have you any other way. But you accomplish this by not thinking rationally about all the aspects of your faith. You rationalize, hide behind plausible-sounding excuses, which allow you to infuse that theology with good ideals and human compassion. I can't do that. I'm not made that way. Now maybe my reason is flawed, but I hope you see why, having reached that conclusion, I could not love and worship your God even if I did believe he existed, (which I don't, but that's another train of reasoning.)

  14. mika., Canada., 2007-10-14
    The Hebrew Bible is an archive of a nationalist history. The nationalist history of the Jewish people. The Romans tried to redact this Jewish history to make it anti nationalist and internationalist. The whole Christian psychological edifice is based on a lie. The lie of empire and collectivism.
  15. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-15
    "Well, my most important problem with Christian theology is that they worship a God who condemns people to an eternity of suffering merely for accidentally being born into the wrong religion, or for being born with a skeptical character." Are you sure about this? Can you cite some evidence for this view? Thanks. Good column, btw.
  16. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-15
    Mark: "Are you sure about this? Can you cite some evidence for this view?"

    Evidence? I'm not sure what you mean. This is the religion I grew up with. Nobody dwelled on this aspect of it, (remember: I'm taking Christian tenets to logical conclusions actual Christians shrink from). Mine was as down to earth and moderate form of protestantism as you can imagine, but I never doubted this: If you're saved by Jesus, you go to Heaven when you die. If not, well, there's Hell. We don't know for certain who goes here and who goes there, (and this is where human compassion makes its stand: maybe, just maybe God will make lots of exceptions), but that's the rule of thumb.

    There are many strains of Christianity, and some don't believe in Hell. Good for them! But my understanding is that the mainstream of believers, that is, people whose faith go deeper than an occasional Church visit, still does. And that has precisely the consequences that I mentioned.

  17. Gunnar, MD, 2007-10-15
    You have a distorted view of these things.

    >> condemns people to an eternity of suffering merely for accidentally being born into the wrong religion,

    God does not send anyone to Hell. Hell is a place chosen by those who knowingly and willfully turn away from God. So, people born into other religions certainly do not "knowingly" turn away. Therefore, there is no mortal sin in these cases, so they don't go to hell.

    >> or for being born with a skeptical character ... there's a fair chance you'll think your way out of your faith, like I did. So I would be punished for no more than using the gifts that God gave me.

    No, similarly, you most likely didn't knowingly turn away. That is, the environment you grew up in was so luke warm, that you didn't form your conscience properly. Besides, you have not yet had your last chance. So, your whole reasoning here is based on a false premise. In the end of the Chronicles of Narnia, there is a perfect illustration. Some surprised followers of Tash were sent to the equivalent of heaven. When asked, Aslan explains "Calormenes who have done good in the name of Tash are rewarded after their death for having really honoured Aslan"
  18. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-16
    Gunnar: "No, similarly, you most likely didn't knowingly turn away. That is, the environment you grew up in was so luke warm, that you didn't form your conscience properly."

    Far from it - I grew up surrounded by genuine Faith. Not the flashy evangelical kind, but perhaps more of a moderate descendant of pietism, quiet and intense. I've felt the presence of God, I've taken part in that feeling of being in the presence of the Holy that descends over a congregation during a lengthy session of worship-songs and testimonials. I had a thirst for theology that could only be satisfied by a good sermon. I was devoted to my belief, and I wanted to spread it - it shouldn't be hard to see how my style of writing could have been adapted to theology. And still I rejected it. Because it wasn't true, and whatever or whoever made me as I am, made me a truthseeker before anything else.

    Let's not discuss the differences between my theology and yours. I ask that you respect the genuine devotion of the Christianity I knew, and not insult your fellow Christians by dismissing all these people - aged, wandering preachers, learned pastors, missionaries, choir singers, Sunday school teachers, youth workers - as "luke warm" Christians. I would be deeply offended on their behalf. I wasn't made to be a Christian, but they were.

    One question, though: If only those who deliberate reject God go to Hell, then who does? Atheists and followers of other religions obviously don't - they don't believe there's any Christian God to reject. You would have to believe in God to reject him, and I can imagine only two reasons for doing that: Because you're Evil, or because you believe God is. The first group makes sense, even though there can hardly be any such people. The second group is the one I would belong in, if I believed that God existed, and wouldn't that be ironic? I would be thrown in Hell for (mistakingly, in your view) believing that God is so evil that he throws people in Hell for no good reason.

  19. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-16
    I am not a theologian and, being Catholic (thanks to priest intermediation), I'm more relieved of that duty than my christian coreligionists. Still, I've internalized enough from cathechism to recognize Gunnar's theology as more representative of the Catholic faith (surely deemed a mainstream one?) than the one that you stated. Certainly since Vatican II, no right thinking Catholic believes in some Limbo (benign hell) for virtuous pagans... I think you may be painting with way too broad a brush in your categorical statement of the evils logically implied in mainstream christian theology. I think you may be constructing something, if not a strawman, then something not compellingly representative of major portions of christian faith.
  20. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-16
    Let me say, though, that, broadly considered, you make a very good point. In terms of a calculus of suffering, think about the evil involved in condemning even one diabolically evil human to an eternity of suffering. Surely that's punishment well disproportionate with any crime. My own believe, probably heretical, is that free will allows for removing yourself from God's love for eternity. God will never give up on attempts to have you reconcile with His love; its just that your free will causes a rejection of His love for all eternity. Now, this begs the question; what kind of God with create in His creatures a flaw that condemns them to an enternity of isolation from the love of the creator? btw; I grew up in the Vatican I Catholic faith, rejected it, and have gradually cultivated it back into my life in a more measured and (IHHO) intellectual way. In reviewing other belief systems, I am generally convinced, to paraphrase Churchill, that Christianity is the worst belief system except for all the others.
  21. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-16
    Bjørn, I'm generally persuaded that most atheists I run into have generally self-delude themselves into thinking that they've logically reconstructed for themselves a self-consistent moral philosophy that makes no appeal to religion. I ask them to explain this self-constructed philosophy and what I find is that the cultural christian antecedents are all there but completely taken for granted. I am frankly skeptical of people who claim to have transcended these moral cultural antecedents. They think their operating in a conscious morally autonomous manner based on their self-creation but what they fail to acknowledge is the debt of 2000 years (if not longer) of moral cultural evolution as the real underpinning of their belief system. Tbere's a case to be made that, for reasons of darwinian natural selection, (a mechanism that God, the Meta-Engineer, saw fit to embed), the desire for transcendence which forms the basis of religious belief is genetically imprinted in humans. If that is the case then it is unsurprising that human culture would give expression to an number of cultural experiments in founding and culturally evolving religious institutions. Of these, we can certainly take a stab at assessing which ones are, shall we say, less evil than others; let's include atheism in this review of belief system, also. Btw; nothing new here, mostly warmed over Hayek.
  22. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-16
    Mark: "I think you may be constructing something, if not a strawman, then something not compellingly representative of major portions of christian faith."

    I don't need a strawman. This has nothing to do with why I don't believe in God - what it means is that if I believed that he existed, I wouldn't worship him. Now, "God" here is the God of the Christian theology I'm familiar with. I have nothing to say about other theologies, except that the multitude of different "God"s illustrate a problem. We say "I believe/don't believe in God", but we don't specify which particular interpretation of God we're referring to - is it a god that represents ultimate Love, or one that represents unimaginable, inhuman Evil? Christianity finds room for both, (and again I'm talking about logical consequences, not self-image - all Christians worship what they believe is a good God, that's not the issue.) In any case, Hell is very much a Christian concept. It's going out of fashion in some parts of the world, but that doesn't make me pointing to it a strawman.

    The second reason I don't need a strawman to attack here is that I don't have anything against Christians. Not as a group. As individuals they're more or less as other people. As a group they have some good qualities that other groups have less of, and some bad ones that other groups have less off. I'm not sure how it balances out, but it doesn't come out very bad. Christians don't think rationally, but nobody does that - me neither. I'm happy as long as they think irrationally in a non-harmful way.

    "your free will causes a rejection of His love for all eternity"

    For what possible reason would I reject the eternal love of a powerful deity? This doesn't make sense, it's pure rationalization. But .. please. All this about an evil theology was a line or two out of a long post. This is not an important issue to me. I happen to believe it, and I'll defend it because it makes sense, but my whole point of bringing it up was to make clear how unimportant it was. Atheists are always talking about how evil the Christian God is. I believe that such an obsession with a God they don't believe in is immature and boring. I'm tired of it. I want to do something different. And that's why I wrote this post.

    So, does anyone have anything to say about different ways to read the Bible? Or is it impossible to talk about that, except between people who agree perfectly about whether it is true or not?

  23. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-16
    Mark: "Bjørn, I'm generally persuaded that most atheists I run into have generally self-delude themselves into thinking that they've logically reconstructed for themselves a self-consistent moral philosophy that makes no appeal to religion."

    And that should teach you to stay out of atheists-vs-Christians debates.. Atheism does not have representatives, it does not have tenets. People who defend atheism on internet forums are a small and unrepresentative subset of atheists in general, who have in common only that they happen not to believe in one more god than you don't.

    I certainly don't believe in logically constructed ethical systems. Nor in divinely constructed ones. I'm not going to get into this here, it would take a lot of space and be very off topic, but if this "how can atheists be moral" thing really bothers you, I recommend you move on to the more interesting question "are atheists more/less moral than others?" When you've answered that, then you're ready to ask why whatever you found is so. I'll give you one piece of data, myself, to start with: I see myself as morally superior to (many interpretations of) God. If God told me to do something wrong, I would say no. That's data sample 1, interpret it as you like. Now go and find some more.

  24. Franko, 2007-10-17
    Bjorn you said: "Well, my most important problem with Christian theology is that they worship a God who condemns people to an eternity of suffering merely for accidentally being born into the wrong religion, or for being born with a skeptical character." Just an FYI Bjorn: Not all Christian sects believe you have to be a baptized Christian to go to heaven. Most significantly, Catholics to not believe this. The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of other religions and believes that god judges us based on our actions not church affiliations. This change was made by Pope Paul IV in 1965 during Vatican II. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html You should find this link interesting and informative. I suspect that you may actually have no real working knowledge of what Christian Theology is. If you think that Christians believe only baptized Christians go to heaven, you are wrong and in need of education. If you are indeed interested in Christian theology and philosophy, put down the bible and pick up "The Phenomenon of Man" by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. http://www.amazon.com/Phenomenon-Man-Pierre-Teilhard-Chardin/dp/006090495X/ref=cm_lmf_tit_1/105-9333079-4677229 Muddeling through the Bible by yourself is no way to get familiar with Christian theology. Ironically.
  25. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-17
    "And that should teach you to stay out of atheists-vs-Christians debates..." Why should I? I find it intellectually stimulating. My point is that I have left such discussions unpersuaded by the atheist's position. I guess I misconstrued the intent of your column as I thought it was an invitation for such a discussion. I was unfortunate in my choice of the word "strawman". The point I sought to make was that I thought you had passed off a very narrow interpretation of christian theology and claimed it to be mainstream... something that I question.
  26. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-17
    "For what possible reason would I reject the eternal love of a powerful deity? This doesn't make sense, it's pure rationalization." Well, more prosaically, don't you know people who act irrationally? People who reject the honest & persistent efforts of those who truly have their best interests at heart? Surely you must know someone, a drug addict, who, despite his loved one's best interest single-mindedly pursues and achieves his self-destruction?
  27. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-17
    Franko: "I suspect that you may actually have no real working knowledge of what Christian Theology is."

    So Christian equals Catholic? You're right, I have little knowledge about Catholicism. I know some branches of Protestantism fairly well, though. I don't presume to say anything about anyone else.

    Mark: ""And that should teach you to stay out of atheists-vs-Christians debates..." Why should I? I find it intellectually stimulating."

    That doesn't make them useful. You probably know the kind of atheist who hangs around on the web to convert Christians very well. But that doesn't tell you much about other forms of atheism. And that whole "how can atheists be moral"-discussion that is so popular in such places is a waste of time. It's "stimulating" because both sides want to have that debate, but that doesn't make it an interesting question - not even philosophically interesting, and equally irrelevant to understanding real-world atheism. Just as my personal views on Christian theology (as I said at the very beginning of my post) are irrelevant to understanding real-world Christianity.

    "Well, more prosaically, don't you know people who act irrationally?"

    Everyone acts irrationally. Is that your answer? Who specifically are we talking about here? I've given you a clear picture of my personal dislike of the Christian God - does it apply to me? If not me, who?

    And again, doesn't anyone have anything to say about what I was actually writing about, the Bible? Not even Christians? I suppose that's another problem with those atheists-vs-Christians debates .. they teach you a certain kind of debate you can have with atheists, and then you stick to that even when you meet entirely different atheists.

  28. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-17
    "...So that's the literary perspective." Yes, the bible as great literature stirs us with this sense of mythic grandeur much like the greatest myths and legends. Joseph Campbell (and Jung) identified this cross-cultural timelessness and universality common to the greatest myths of humanity. The bible certainly seems to qualify in this sense. Not only is it great literature. Its more. Its a great myth. And Myths, as Campbell has instructed us, tell us a great deal about ourselves; our most sublime hopes and desires and our greatest fears. Tolkien's view, shared with C.S. Lewis, was that the Christian Myth was everything that other great myths were along with one other thing; it was true.
  29. Mark, Bellevue, 2007-10-17
    I wanted to give a example. Jesus is a mythic figure who was either historically real or mythopoetically real. His reification as a character in a myth of great resonance marks a very important stage in the evolution of human moral consciousness. The timing was exactly right for the profound moral courage of Jesus to be understood and to provide a sense of awe. Any earlier and his sacrifice would be unintelligible engendering not awe and devotion to his ideals but contempt ("what a pathetic wretch"). Likewise, there must have been a time when the code of Hammurabi was radical to the point of being unintelligible to earlier societies "What do you mean strict proportionality? I am justified in killing them all for causing the loss of my eye".
  30. Franko, 2007-10-17
    Well Catholic certainly equals Christian. The vast majority of Christians are Catholics. The Bible was compiled by Catholics and almost all great Christian theological thinkers and philosophers over the last 2000 years have been Catholic. So when you say that you reject Christianity because Christians believe unbaptized people go to hell.....you are wrong. Worse you help perpetuate the stereotype of Christians as zealots who have no ability to reason. You can reject God or Christianity for what ever reason you like, I am totally ok with that. The Church I go to believes you can still go to heaven if you lead a good life. Just don't paint all Christians with the paint brush of bigotry. Sure there are some weirdo’s out there speaking in tongues and waiving rattle snakes around. But those guys are a very tiny minority.
  31. Petter, Sweden, 2007-10-19
    As a christian (who used to be an atheist, or something like it), I found your post interesting and well written. Since you seem ineterested in theology and inetrpretations of the Bible I would like to recommend to you the writings of Karl Barth (1886-1968) who is generally ranked as the most important modern (though, indeed, classic) theologian. Perhaps you already know him and his writings, otherwise I hope you'll trust me, that reading him will be worth while. Kind regards /Petter
  32. Matt, 2007-10-23
    The question in your article -how an atheist should read the Bible- is an interesting and provoking one. I wonder if it's a question somebody fully reconciled with their atheism would really need to ask. After all, most of us outside the worlds of art/literary criticism/journalism etc don't go around asking 'how we should read' a particular piece of writing. We just, well, read it. You describe five perspectives: theology,'Devil-discrediting-Christian-God', historical, literary, and ancient theology. Presumably a confirmed atheist wouldn't be interested in reading it as theology, nor as ancient theology for that matter. Your 'Devil' perspective I don't fully understand. It's interesting that differing Protestant/Catholic interpretations have come up in the discussion, because the language you use here- talking about hell and damnation and an active Satan-character, presumably with horns and the like- seems to come from quite an old-fashioned Protestant kind of view of religion (in case you're wondering I was raised in the Anglican so-called 'middle way', went to a methodist school, live with a committed catholic and have attended a number of catholic services in recent years... I'd class my own experience of different brands of Christianity as fairly broad if not deep). I was always given to understand, by Christians and non-Christians alike, that reading the Bible as a historical document is fraught with difficulty. While it may contain a few historical nuggets, it should in no way be treated as a historical authority. That leaves the literary perspective, which you eventually settle on as your favoured 'way to read the Bible.' Surpise surprise! As it happens I agree with your conclusion entirely... but I do wonder why you need to ask the question.
  33. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-23
    Matt: "After all, most of us outside the worlds of art/literary criticism/journalism etc don't go around asking 'how we should read' a particular piece of writing."

    You do when that piece of writing is emotionally resonant for a large number of people. It is difficult to even mention the Bible in a religiously mixed company without provoking angry discussion - as this post illustrated. The problem is that so many of us associate the Bible with Christianity, so your opinion of the one is determined by your opinion of the other. That leads many non-believers to just ignore it alltogether, or read it only for laughs.

    "It's interesting that differing Protestant/Catholic interpretations have come up in the discussion, because the language you use here- talking about hell and damnation and an active Satan-character, presumably with horns and the like- seems to come from quite an old-fashioned Protestant kind of view of religion"

    No. Mainstream protestantism, or any branch of Christianity that believes in a Hell, for that matter. I'm not talking about fire-and-brimstone Satan-with-horns theology, which is old-fashioned. Few people do that nowadays, certainly none in the environment I grew up in. But they still believe there is a Hell. They don't like to talk about it - because normal, good people don't take pleasure in such ideas - but they believe it's there. And my point was simply that if you believe there is some sort of eternal suffering in the afterlife, even if only for the "worst" sinners, then your theology leads to an evil conclusion. The only way to avoid that is to reject the idea alltogether, and believe instead in mere annihilation for sinners - but even then there are morally questionable consequences, such as why some people "deserve" an eternal life of happiness, and others do not. The only moral action is to send everyone to Heaven, or let everyone just die. Anything else is at best questionable.

    But this is of course a distraction - it's not interesting, because it has nothing to do with the actual beliefs of Christians, which are more convoluted, and has nothing to do with reality, which is that you live and die and that's it.

    "As it happens I agree with your conclusion entirely... but I do wonder why you need to ask the question."

    Who's asking questions? I'm writing about a subject I find interesting. Don't you find it interesting? Then perhaps we don't agree so much after all.

  34. Matt, 2007-10-24
    There is a very clear question in your piece: how should an atheist read the Bible? OK, it's a rhetorical question which you go on to answer yourself very effectively. And as a starting point for discussion on religion and atheism it's a very good question too (yes, I do find the subject interesting and thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay and the subsequent comments). I suppose the point I was trying -not very effectively and probably too antagonistically- to make was that as well-argued as your essay is, and as much as I agree with the conclusion, I can't help thinking there is some straw-mannery going on. The 'alternative perspectives' you describe for reading the Bible are not very attractive to atheists, nor to the questioning agnostics among us and nor, indeed, to many less literal-minded Christians. The Devil-discrediting-God perspective I guess is really an alternative theological view, albeit a bizarre, satanist one... convoluted theology (ancient or modern) with lots of assumptions and presuppositions about hte nature of God isn't really an option for a convinced skeptic... and of course the Bible isn't historically 'true'. How else you read it is up to you, and exactly where you draw the line between theology and literature and philosophy I don't know: good literature is full of emotional resonances and profound ideas and myths and allegory and moral lessons (think Shakespeare) and can be laden with 'truth' of sorts, and can help us to be better people, even when not overtly presented as divine truth. Looking again, I think what you're trying to say in your essay is simply 'atheists should look at the Bible, it may not be divine truth but it's a rewarding read'- but that didn't come across clearly when I first read it. From the way the discussion developed I don't think I was alone. (There's a lesson here: next time I'll look though your essays more than once...) As for Hell- well, interestingly, I don't think Hell's been mentioned at all in the last few church services I've been too. But whether or not it's still considered a mahor part of Christian thinking I guess proper Christians should still believe in a Hell of some kind, even if not the old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone variety. After all it's in the rulebook and maybe there still needs to be stick as well as carrot. It's one of those Christian ideas that's always seemed shaky to me- at best it encourages people to the right things for the wrong reasons, at worst, well... I guess that's why I'm not a proper Christian.
  35. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-24
    Matt: "The Devil-discrediting-God perspective I guess is really an alternative theological view, albeit a bizarre, satanist one..."

    Actually, what I had in mind is the normal perspective of dedicated atheists. Describing it as the "Devil's way" of reading the Bible, representing a revolutionary Devil's point of view, was tongue-in-cheek. What I meant was, scrutinizing the Bible for inconsistencies and wrongdoing. If you ever meet the kind of atheist who believe that atheism is something that needs to be actively promoted, that you need to fight all forms of superstition and religion, this is probably an approach you'll encounter. What these people do is to say that Christianity is dangerous, and the Bible is the holy book of the Christians, so we have to undermine that book in every way we can. I wouldn't call this a common view, but it's common with people who call themselves atheists. And what I'm saying is that the Bible does not belong to the Christians, it belongs to anyone who's interested in ancient literature. In fact, we're able to appreciate it in ways they're not, because we're free to read and appreciate it for what it is.

    "As for Hell- well, interestingly, I don't think Hell's been mentioned at all in the last few church services I've been too."

    That's my experience too. I think most Christians I know would find it distasteful and somehow perverse to play up that aspect of their belief. Yes it's there, but we don't really know who's going there, and it's not the reason why you should be a Christian. The idea of Hell appeals to a certain kind of believer, but luckily most Christians I know aren't like that.

  36. Gunnar, MD, 2007-10-24
    >> If only those who deliberate reject God go to Hell, then who does?

    those who deliberately reject God and His Love.

    >> Atheists and followers of other religions obviously don't

    But if they knew that God was real, and then decided to reject Him to become an aethiest, and never turned back towards Love...

    >> So Christian equals Catholic? You're right, I have little knowledge about Catholicism. I know some branches of Protestantism fairly well, though. I don't presume to say anything about anyone else.

    Franko is correct. Catholics are the mainstream of Christianity, from many points of view. For example, since Protestants started around 1500, they can only account for about 1/4 of all christians who have ever lived. Even since 1500, Catholics outnumber Protestants, so the 1/4 is a maximum. From a theological point of view, the vast majority of the main tenants of the Christian faith were identified by the Catholic church. From a "martyrs to the faith" point of view, the vast majority are Catholic. Protestants define themselves only in relation to the Catholic church (Protestant), or with names associated with individual people. Protestants cling to the "bible", but the bible itself was defined by the Catholic church. Some say that the whole reason for the Protestant movement was less about theology, and more about nationalism. So, when you say "I have little knowledge about Catholicism", you are really saying that you don't know all that much about mainstream Christianity. I'm the most skeptical person I know, so for me, a true doubting Thomas, I could not tolerate a religion that was inconsistent in any way. For example, I could not tolerate a religious structure which is not Unified (not split from anyone), Holy (sacramental), Universal (catholic), and Apostolic (continuous line from Apostles).

    http://www.creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm (4th line from the bottom)

    >> seems to come from quite an old-fashioned Protestant kind of view

    This is correct. So, you have not followed Christianity to it's logical conclusions, you have followed Lutheranism to it's logical conclusions. Since Norway is down to 3% church worship, you are not alone. And because Norway has lost it's Lutheran faith, it will always be true that Norway was Catholic for longer than it was Lutheran.

    >> my point was simply that if you believe there is some sort of eternal suffering in the afterlife, even if only for the "worst" sinners, then your theology leads to an evil conclusion. ... The only moral action is to send everyone to Heaven, or let everyone just die. Anything else is at best questionable.

    I believe that the moral code you are presenting is evil, since it is not based on Justice. In your moral code, pleasure is the good, and pain is evil. In your moral code, it is evil that a person who raped and killed numerous innocent people ends up in Hell. You even claim that it's wrong that Hitler should end up in Hell. I would like to point out that it's hard to understand the afterlife, since it is outside of time. So what does eternity mean? Your premise is that it's a really, really long time, but what does that mean if one is outside of time. I think that significantly changes your premise about "torture".

    >> let everyone just die

    Bodies do die. The belief is that there is an immortal soul. As such, it cannot die. I agree with Matt's initial instinct: there is a fundamental non sequiter in your position, as described in this post and comments. If one does believe in an immortal soul, then one accepts that it is from God, and God has the right of association. If one does not believe in an immortal soul, then there would be no reason to criticize Christianity for asserting that there is a hell. It's like saying "I don't believe that the Borg exist, since if they did exist, they meanly assimilate everyone". It's reversed, the logic can't work that way.
  37. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-25
    Gunnar: "In your moral code, it is evil that a person who raped and killed numerous innocent people ends up in Hell."

    Yes. Because the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. Any crime. Nobody deserves that, whatever "it" is, and however you redefine "eternity".

    "If one does not believe in an immortal soul, then there would be no reason to criticize Christianity for asserting that there is a hell."

    I haven't criticized Christianity at all. I am explaining why I personally wouldn't admire the Christian God, but as I explained above, this is irrelevant to understanding actual Christians.

  38. Gunnar, MD, 2007-10-25
    >> the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. Any crime. Nobody deserves that, whatever "it" is, and however you redefine "eternity".

    This is an illogical form of Justice. What would the appropriate punishment be for raping, torturing and painfully killing an innocent child, so precious to his parents and his God? I'm really anxious to hear the divine Stærk proclamation on Justice!

    By your logic, killing someone, ie condemning someone to an ETERNITY of non-life is not balanced by an eternity of hell. Even condemning 20 million people to an eternity of non-life isn't enough to warrant one person spending an eternity in Hell.

    By your logic and premises (specifically, that there is no afterlife), sentencing a young man to life imprisonment for killing an older person is not justice, since the older person lost only 20 years of life, while the younger one loses 80 years. And assuming no afterlife, life imprisonment is equivalent to an eternity. I'm just following Bjørn Stærk's morality to it's logical conclusion. I can only conclude that Stærk's morality is not superior to that of Jesus.

    The reality is that you, like all of us, lack knowledge. We're like the people walking around in the Matrix. The actual reality will be revealed in the afterlife. Therefore, we don't know how bad killing the child is, and we don't what hell is like, and whether it is justified. My understanding is that once people see how bad their sins are, they try to go to hell of their own free will.

    In Jesus, we have Truth, Justice, Mercy and Love. Heaven is being in the presence of God, and hell is being excluded from his presence. God has the right to free association. My understanding is that God didn't create hell, it's what the souls there have made of it. Therefore, God doesn't punish, he simply excludes them from his presence, which is His right.

    >> I haven't criticized Christianity at all.

    Don't take it the wrong way, I'm not taking offense at your criticism, I am taking it as you mean it, your view of Christianity. However, you cannot redefine the word criticism, which is in fact, what you are doing. Again, I take no offense, and you are right to express your views. To be consistent, your criticism also applies to other religions that have the concept of hell. For example, look at some of the things that will cause one to end up in Islamic hell.
  39. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-25
    Gunnar: "By your logic, killing someone, ie condemning someone to an ETERNITY of non-life is not balanced by an eternity of hell. Even condemning 20 million people to an eternity of non-life isn't enough to warrant one person spending an eternity in Hell."

    You're mixing theologies. Either my view is correct, and life is short for everyone, or your view is correct, and life is eternal for everyone. Assuming that my view is correct, the only punishment a criminal can receive is what we humans are able to hand out, here and now. I haven't said anything about crime and punishment in a non-eternal world, and I don't intend to. It is irrelevant to this discussion. Maybe we agree, maybe we don't, but it is a different discussion.

    Assuming that your view is correct, however, there's punishment in life, and then there's punishment in eternity. Compared to infinity, any finite number is insignificant, so what happens to us in life is fairly irrelevant, except as how it determines our life in eternity. If I live 30 or 80 years, it doesn't matter, what matters is what happens afterwards. Let's look at the possible outcomes for the victim: 1) A child is murdered - and goes to Heaven. Wonderful! Why is this bad? Infinity trumps anything. And longer life might have led that person astray and to Hell - now they're safe. They've "won". Hurrah! 2) A child is murdered - and goes to Hell for some reason, but might have gone to Heaven if allowed to live longer. Horrible! Injust! Only an evil or amoral God would allow this. Sure, it's the murderers "fault", but God is really to blame for creating such eternal outcomes from mortal accidents.

    As for the murderer, I don't believe anything any human does would justify infinite punishment. It just doesn't make sense. Why? Because infinity is unimaginable. How can I determine whether a punishment is justified when I cannot even imagine it? I cannot imagine a million years of pain - and that number is insignificant next to infinity. And how can you talk about a "deserved" punishment that is always infinitely harsh, without also equalizing the different crimes that might lead to it? If the murder of one deserves eternal punishment, you've already maxed it out, and murdering another 20 million carries no additional punishment. That doesn't make sense to me either.

    "Therefore, God doesn't punish, he simply excludes them from his presence, which is His right."

    Right? You mean power. Of course such a powerful being decides who to associate with. That doesn't make the choice right or admirable. At least I'm not willing to assume that it is. God wants to be admired? Fine, do something admirable. God wants to be a moral judge? Fine, demonstrate your moral superiority. I see nothing admirable or morally superior in the concept of Hell, so I conclude that this God, if he were to exist, has much in common with the all-powerful humans of our own history. The power has gone to his head - or perhaps we don't matter to him at all, except so far as he finds our worship enjoyable. Our own human dictators like to see the masses march past in lockstep by the thousands - God likes to hear them sing his praise by the billions. No difference, except the scale.

    "Don't take it the wrong way, I'm not taking offense at your criticism, I am taking it as you mean it, your view of Christianity. However, you cannot redefine the word criticism, which is in fact, what you are doing."

    My only criticism has been that Christians don't think rationally about the moral consequences of Hell. This is not a heavy accusation - nobody thinks rationally, me included. I have not criticized Christianity from a moral perspective. This is all hypothetical theology, it is about how I would feel about this God if I thought he existed. It has nothing to do with the actual religion of Christianity. So when I say that "God is evil", I mean "if I accepted your evidence for your God's existence, I would conclude that he's evil", not that "you believe in an evil God", or "the religion you belive in is evil". The religion you believe in is whatever you make of it, and this is not locked in by my hypothetical theology. Judge the tree by its fruits, Jesus said, and that's what I do.

    The same with Islam, of course. If you remember the debates I had here about whether Islam was "evil" a few years ago, you'll remember that I was saying pretty much the same thing then: It is meaningless for outsiders to read the holy texts of a religion, and conclude from that that the religion based on those texts is evil. The people who read the Bible and conclude from it that Christianity is evil make the same mistake as those who read the Quran and conclude from it that Islam is evil. You have to look at how actual Christians and actual Muslims think and act, and judge from that. And whatever the answer is to that, it is much more complex than the discussion above.

  40. Gunnar, MD, 2007-10-25
    I think your core premise is that you believe that the afterlife is just a continuation of time after this life. I believe that's a mistake, but of course, I don't know.

    >> A child is murdered - and goes to Heaven. Wonderful! Why is this bad? Infinity trumps anything. And longer life might have led that person astray and to Hell - now they're safe.

    You are assuming that the gift of Life on earth and Life in Heaven are equivalent. I think that they are two separate, different and unique gifts from God. An analogy would be a person's childhood versus adulthood. What if someone took away a person's childhood, and said "Wonderful! Why is this bad?"? They just get to start their adulthood that much earlier and it's a lot longer. Well, but what if who we were in Life defines who we are in Heaven? A person who was brutally murdered as a child would have their whole afterlife experience affected.

    >> If the murder of one deserves eternal punishment, you've already maxed it out, and murdering another 20 million carries no additional punishment. That doesn't make sense to me either.

    We don't know that. There are certainly different experiences in Heaven. If contentment is represented by a full cup, everyone in heaven has a full cup. But people's cups are different sizes. It could be the same in hell.

    >> Right? You mean power.

    No, I mean right. You are apparently negating all morality with this. Do people refrain from invading your house and eating your food because you are powerful, or because they have no right to do so?
  41. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-25
    Gunnar: "I think your core premise is that you believe that the afterlife is just a continuation of time after this life."

    Well, I don't believe the afterlife is anything. But if Heaven is such a wonderful place, then I don't think a child would mind growing up there. And no, I don't see how this life would worth anything at all, if it could be immediately replaced with something much better. I can't imagine such an existence without doing some basic rewiring of human psychology, ie. without losing what makes me who I am, and that's another objection I have, but if we assume that this is possible and desirable, then that puts this life pretty much in the shadow.

    The way it looks from my point of view is that most believers act as if there is no after-life, or as if the after-life is at best a minor affair. They seek to make their earthly life as long and pleasant as possibly, instead of doing everything they can to ensure an after-life in Heaven. This is of course something they're being reminded of by their priests and preachers all the time, but the idea seems to go against something very fundamentally human, so it takes a uniquely strong faith to make it happen, to make believers behave rationally in the perspective of an after-life. They even mourn when their loved ones die - yes, they comfort themselves that they will meet the dead again later, but it sounds unconvincing, as if they know on a gut level that the dead are truly dead, and that their faith is only intellectual. To me this is not difficult to explain: Evolution has hard-wired a fear of death into us. It has hardwired a certain common sense, just as it has given us a moral sense. There's little Christian theology can do about this in most people - it can make us believe that there is an after-life, and that a good God allows Hell to exist, but it finds it difficult to convince us to act as if this was true.

    "Do people refrain from invading your house and eating your food because you are powerful, or because they have no right to do so?"

    You misunderstood me. An individual who controls a huge amount of power can pretty much make their own rules. If the individual is good, the rules will be good. If the individual is evil, the rules will be evil. Let us assume that all the Christians who claim to have spoken to or experienced the presence of God are correct - they've communicated with a very powerful entity. How do we know this entity did not lie to them? How do we know this entity is good, and wishes us well? Or to put it differently: What do you do when God commands you to do something evil? Do you convince yourself that what used to be evil is now good, and what used to be good is now evil? Or do you say "no, I refuse - this is wrong"? If you obey, you could fall victim to a supernatural phony. So we need to hold God to the same moral standard as we hold ourselves. At least that is what I would do. And actually I think most Christians do this in a way too, by making their God as human and compassionate (or, in the case of others, inhuman and cruel) as they are themselves. Of course they can only do this because God is theirs to make and unmake - a truly evil supernatural entity that actually existed would have smitten us long ago, and a truly good supernatural entity would have done more to help believers stay on the right path. (For instance, if he disagreed with Luther, I'm sure a quick chat in person would have cleared things up.)

  42. Bjørn Stærk, 2007-10-25
    This is well put:

    The most promising term used by some atheists to describe a more positive outlook is humanism, evoking a rich tradition going back to the Renaissance. But this won’t serve as a label for the non-religious for the simple reason that humanism does not preclude religious faith. Indeed, those of us with a positive belief in the human potential do not especially need to distinguish ourselves from others who share that belief while also identifying with a religious tradition. Certainly we will object to religious bigotry, but then so do most avowedly religious people. And equally, we will share opposition to antihuman ideas propagated by some atheists, such as biological determinism: the idea that humans are little more than fleshy machines.
  43. Gunnar, MD, 2007-10-29
    >> But if Heaven is such a wonderful place, then I don't think a child would mind growing up there. And no, I don't see how this life would worth anything at all, if it could be immediately replaced with something much better.

    As I've stated, the two are unique, heaven is not just an eternal continuation of our life on earth. A child does not continue to "grow" in heaven. As such, your second sentence is non-sensical, since our life is not replaced. You have a fundamental misconception which you refuse to correct, simply because it would undermine your position.

    >> as if they know on a gut level that the dead are truly dead, and that their faith is only intellectual

    Your illogic forces you into contradictory assertions: faith is only intellectual. It's clearly the opposite. People mourn because of the separation, and our loss of their presence. If they felt they were truly dead, they would not recover from the loss.

    >> An individual who controls a huge amount of power can pretty much make their own rules.

    I think we got down to the core disagreement. You don't accept the fact that there is an objective morality. I'm convinced there is, from personal experience and reinforced from the secular source of Ayn Rand, and from the Christian concept that God wrote the law onto our hearts.

    >> How do we know this entity is good, and wishes us well?

    This is not a scientific phenomena, so just like a court case, we need to determine the truth, based on evidence, especially witnesses. We have a very long list of witnesses to attest to the fact that He is good. Some find the witnesses credible, some do not.

    >> If you obey, you could fall victim to a supernatural phony

    That's always possible, since demons may appear in disguise, but we have our own moral compass to guide us.

    >> most Christians do this in a way too, by making their God as human and compassionate ... because God is theirs to make and unmake

    The testimony of the many witnesses says that God is not ours or make or unmake.

    >> a truly good supernatural entity would have done more to help believers stay on the right path. (For instance, if he disagreed with Luther, I'm sure a quick chat in person would have cleared things up.)

    But then we would be nothing more than pets. He gave us the greatest gift of all: free will. If you love someone, set them free. On the other hand, some would say that He has done an incredible amount to help believers stay on the right path.
  44. josh, NC, 2007-11-03
    Amazing how a simple article written by an atheist about objectively reading the bible could upset so many christians. If they had any faith I doubt they would let one atheist's point of view rile them into argument. I cringed when I began reading the blogs because there is only one thing certain that happens when Christians try and challenge an atheist. It goes on forever. Why? Because you can't use reason and logic to explain a point of view to someone whose belief system includes a "grown-up" version of Santa Claus. The religious will always side step the mines of logic but Bjorn, from one atheist to another, I really appreciated your writing. I have not picked up the bible since I became atheist, hell, I could barely stand to pick it up when I WAS trying to adhere to what I was "taught". Anyhow, someday when I'm really bored and have no good non-fiction to read like "THE GOD DELUSION" by Richard Dawkins, I just may pick up the Bible and read it from an atheist's point of view. Good luck engaging these people.
  45. mitch mobile Alabama, 2007-11-15
    I became a follower of Jesus when I was 25 after a life of hedonism. One of the greatest things about God is that he has given man "free will" to choose how to live and what to believe. I think that in the U.S., Christianity has become a materialistic religion where people are "in" to get the benefits of a prosperity gospel and heaven. Many people who claim to be Christians have made an intellectual decision in their mind because they have been offered eternal life if they believe in Jesus. The result of this form of Christianity is a Church that is powerless and pathetic and "Christians" who lack depth and substance. I think this is why many choose to be athiest or whatever because they see this and dont see what a genuine follower of Jesus looks like. Jesus taught if anyone wants to follow him he must deny himself and take up his cross. In my personal experience, the bible did not make sense until I was born again. Born again meaning I made and intellectual decision but also surrended my heart and life to Him. The Power in Christianity comes when a person denys himself and lives his life for Jesus. A person who makes an intellectual decision only is fooling themselves and will eventually fall away because they dont have the power of the Holy Spirit. All have free will to choose...Enjoy your freedom while you can!
  46. josh, NC, 2007-11-20
    I can appreciate your position and think that you are right about luke warm christians. You sound like a genuinely faithful person. I hate to say this, but your assessment of an atheist's motivation to be atheist is typical of Christianity. What I mean by that is the explanation is extremely self centered, like the world revolves around Christians. I hate to disappoint you but atheism is not born from observing "shitty" Christians. Christians had nothing to do with my decision. Do I think most of them are hipocrits and are self-righteous? I answer with a resounding YES. However, observing these things didn't "turn me into an atheist". Atheism arises from studying both sides of the fence, observing the evidence, observing religion as a whole, and making an EDUCATED DECISION. An atheist once said that atheism doesn't come from a lack of biblical (or religious) knowledge, atheism comes from knowing the bible (religion) too well. I took four years of seminary where I studied the bible. Not studying Christians, but studying the Bible. I resent the idea that such a monumental decision would be based on the actions of the average christian. I won't even start to add what I think motivates Christians to be Christian. All the same, I respect your genuine faith and think it is quite rare.
  47. Gunnar, MD, 2007-12-04
    >> could upset so many christians To set the record straight, I'm not aware that anyone was upset. The typical Christian does not get upset at the non-christian. If he/she did, they would go crazy. FWIW, when I became aethiest, I also did not do so because of what I saw in Christians, but I think it is possible. Like josh, I made an intellectual decision that the existence of God was impossible. This served me well for nearly 20 years, until I came across a situation where I could not deny that God existed.
  48. so..., 2007-12-07
    Gunnar, MD:

    "But if they knew that God was real, and then decided to reject Him to become an aethiest, and never turned back towards Love..."

    If someone knows that God is real, he is not an atheist. An atheist does not believe in God. Defying God is not atheism. Defying God means that you think he exists, which is not what atheism is at all.

    "If they felt they were truly dead, they would not recover from the loss."

    So atheists do not recover from the loss of their loved ones?

  49. Gunnar, MD, 2007-12-07
    >> If someone knows that God is real, he is not an atheist.

    I didn't phrase that well, or you missed the context. It should be: If a person at one point believed in God, and then decided not to believe in him, then...

    >> So atheists do not recover from the loss of their loved ones?

    That's not what I meant at all. The point was that it was asserted that religious people intellectually decide that God/afterlife must exist, so that the pain of a loss would not be so great, and that emotionally, people realized that they were truly dead and gone.

    I countered that and said it was the opposite. People intellectually suspect that the person is dead, but emotionally don't believe it. By emotionally, I don't mean in an irrational sense. I mean that this reflects what they truly believe, in their heart of hearts.

    People who don't have this underlying belief tend to fall into a deep despair, especially after their loved ones have died. Mark Twain might be an example of this.
  50. so..., 2007-12-11
    So you did mean that after all. "People who don't have this underlying belief tend to fall into a deep despair" you claim, but based on what? Based on your won ignorance, of course. Or rather, this is another groundless claim without any base in reality which is used as an attempt to convert people to Christianity. Despicable.
  51. Gunnar, MD, 2007-12-11
    First of all, I was not trying to convert anybody. I think your bias against religion makes you want to distort reality. There is now extensive research suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed.
    Finally, a recent systematic review of 850 research papers on the topic concluded that "the majority of well-conducted studies found that higher levels of religious involvement are positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being (life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and higher morale) and with less depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, drug/alcohol use/abuse."
    So, based on this, my statement should be non-controversial.

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