The Range of Permissible Acts — Part 3

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Religious apologists would accuse in both cases that any critic of such passages was taking things out of context, or misunderstanding them.

But in words that are hard to misunderstand, one says that it’s okay in certain specific circumstances to cut off a woman’s hands, the other says you should beat women, in situations where you fear they may leave you.

Believers would argue two more things:

One, that these passages are not taken seriously by anyone today. Second, that the good their religion does far outweighs any little aberrations written down in some more primitive time.

The problem is, this business about cutting off a woman’s hands IS written down. And not in some obscure commentary by a distant weirdo who happened to belong to an obscure little splinter sect of Christianity, but in the main source book of Christianity.

Think about the significance of that for a moment. The Bible is not “a” book of Christianity, it is THE book of Christianity. It is the written foundation, the holy handbook, the one and only ultimate authority, of Christianity. Entire ways of life hinge on mere phrases found its pages.

If Christianity was a country, the Bible would be its Constitution.

As one group of believers puts it:

We believe that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” by which we understand the whole Bible is inspired in the sense that holy men of God “were moved by the Holy Spirit” to write the very words of Scripture. We believe that this divine inspiration extends equally and fully to all parts of the writings—historical, poetical, doctrinal, and prophetical—as appeared in the original manuscripts. We believe that the whole Bible in the originals is therefore without error.

IN THE BIBLE, there is a clear justification for cutting off the hands of women.

And this is after translations and retranslations over the centuries, passing under the eye of learned authorities deciding what stayed in and what got taken out. Even after all that, it still says you should, in certain circumstances, cut off a woman’s hands.

There’s no way around it: The Range of Permissible Acts in Christianity includes cutting off women’s hands. The Range of Permissible Acts in Islam includes beating women to keep them from leaving you.

Here in the predominantly-Christian U.S., we see stories a couple of times a year in which people refuse medical care to critically ill children, who then die. There are stories in which people practice exorcism on children, who die or suffer psychological harm. A story a couple of years ago had a woman bleeding to death after giving birth to twins, because she and her family refused a blood transfusion that would have saved her life. Growing up in the South, I must have seen a dozen stories over the course of my lifetime in which some backwoods believer died from handling poisonous snakes.

Each time, though there is some public condemnation, we seem to assume that these things are aberrations. Something OUTSIDE the bounds of the religion.

But they’re not. They are written down — there for everybody to see, there for anybody to believe and act on — right in the Bible.

Though they may be outside the core beliefs of most Christians today, they are absolutely, provably, without doubt, within the Range of Permissible Acts for Christians.

Sure, nothing and nobody is perfect. But given that this is a widespread system of belief, something so good it must be visited upon the rest of us at every public occasion, taught to every child whether their parents want it or not, you’d think someone would want to clean it up a bit. Shouldn’t some effort be made to see that the handbook of the religion is as perfect as possible? To, for instance, close down those boundaries of permissible acts so that each new generation would get the clear message that beating your wife is NEVER permissible? That refusing medical care to children is NEVER acceptable? That mutilating a woman by cutting off her hands is so abhorrent that only a disgusting psychopath would even THINK of it? That slavery is NEVER okay?

And yet it isn’t. Whatever good they might do, like that generous cousin, the Range of Permissible Acts in Christianity includes beating women and children. Burning unbelievers in fire. Allowing children to be torn to bits by bears. Performing unnecessary elective surgery on babies. Torturing and killing helpless enemies. Keeping slaves.

Things that should never-never not-ever be allowed. Things that should never, not ever, be believed.

CONTINUED: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Print Friendly

  • aziraphale

    I like this series of posts very much, but I think you overstate the case at the end. The Bible does not say that “Allowing children to be torn to bits by bears” is permissible for human beings. It says that God did it, once. If you believe in a God of that kind (I don’t) it’s reasonable to say that, because of his superior knowledge, he may be right in doing things which are wrong for humans to do.

    • Kiwi Sauce

      Hi aziraphale
      he may be right in doing things which are wrong for humans to do.

      The believers go one step further and make a stronger assertion, namely that he is right in doing things which are wrong for humans to do. The logic is, goddidit therefore god’s action is right. Even if it appears wrong, it is right because of some unknowable master plan that god has, into which the act must occur in order for the plan to succeed.

      The worst example I encountered of this was when I asked why god allowed the holocaust to happen, and got told basically “but look, it enabled the nation of Israel to be created”. That’s not just a stupid response, it’s also psychologically sick.

  • martha

    I’m enjoying this also. The following is a devil’s advocate question related to the discussion of defining atheism negatively on the Greta Christina & Cuttlefish blogs, and not intended in a mean spirited way:

    Does atheism have a ‘range of permissable acts’? Does one consider the actions of former & current atheists when asking this question, as you considered the actions of the cousin,etc.? Or by defining atheism negatively, as not-theism, does one, should one, get to avoid that?

    • machintelligence

      We might start with “those acts permitted by law and not rejected by personal conscience”.

  • Art

    “To, for instance, close down those boundaries of permissible acts so that each new generation would get the clear message that beating your wife is NEVER permissible? That refusing medical care to children is NEVER acceptable? That mutilating a woman by cutting off her hands is so abhorrent that only a disgusting psychopath would even THINK of it? That slavery is NEVER okay?”

    Sounds nice and clear, and decisive, and applicable. But it isn’t.

    You can’t establish constraints on what people can think. Doesn’t work and it is the siren song of tyranny.

    There is also the problem of nomenclature and excessive specificity. Slavery is bad, but the ‘new and improved’ slavery after 1864, sharecropping, is often as bad or worse than traditional slavery. Owning slaves means you have to feed, clothe, maintain, and shelter them. Sharecropping, at its worse, can have all the profits of slavery while freeing the exploiter of any need to worry about maintenance and upkeep.

    Company towns, where people are kept trapped and maintained as slaves in every way but name, can impose a labor/monetary system that is as cruel and demeaning as anything slavery had to offer.

    … “refusing medical care to children is NEVER acceptable?”

    Really? Simple as that?

    So if the homeopaths take over your local hospital and they tell you that bathing the child’s feet in blessed organic oregano oil, for a nominal donation of $5000, will cure cancer you don’t have any right to refuse?

    While I generally agree with banning violence in the home I’ve known at least one couple that was routinely violent to each other with both sides giving and getting. Bloodletting was, by all indications, a regular part of their romance.

    Show me a rule and I’ll show you an exception.

    I think that all these issues spin round normal human tendencies. People have always developed systems that increase their wealth by exploiting others. Families and religions have always tended toward tribalism and nothing says member quite like a time consuming ritual that imposes a physical difference. Parents, and the dominate side of a couple, have always established and maintained their rule by regular imposition of edict and manipulation up to and including open violence.

    Instead of writing rules a more profitable enterprise might be to recognize these natural tendencies and to establish ideals to work toward. Give up entirely on thought control. Other things can be worked with.

    On the economic, relational, family side something along the lines of a declaration of ideals might work:

    To the extent practicable people should be allowed and encouraged to live free from physical, mental, emotional, coercion and violence. That such coercion and violence should not be imposed by action or inaction.

    To the extent practicable people should always be allowed a way out of any physical, mental, emotional or relational relationship or situation.

    Let the declaration of ideals stand while letting the commentary and applications change as needed to continually advance toward those ideals.

  • Lynda M O

    It is impossible to convince anyone in my family of origin that the Bible is not the best manual for life-so many abhorrent practices are espoused and other good traditions not mentioned. Fortunately I have a number of sane friends here in the Bay Area who speak my language…

  • Pen

    I really appreciated this series of posts. I’m not quite comfortable with some parts of your argument, because I’m not sure we would apply the same standard to traditions we feel more sympathetic towards.

    For example: America’s most treasured founding documents include a declaration of intention to dispossess American Indians and to operate as a slave society. Is the 13th amendment sufficient as a clean-up, for the latter at least? But then, the New Testament has been held to completely supersede the Old Testament and its laws by many Christian traditions over a long period of time. It is some American Christian groups who have decided fall back on the Old Testament. According to the traditions of Christianity I don’t believe in (i.e. which I grew up around), they have missed the point, and do not understand the meaning and consequences of Christ’s presence on Earth and sacrifice.

    And then, how can you clean up something like the declaration of independence? Is it enough for Americans to say ‘we have distanced ourselves from some of the content of our founding documents, while still holding them to be foundational to our society and generally positive forces (and we’re still Americans)’? Does the fact that some Americans are not doing this distancing mean that all others need to deny their American-ness if they don’t want to get tarred with the same brush? If not, shouldn’t we accept the distancing by some religious groups or individuals from parts of their traditions?

  • Nice Ogress


    I take issue with the idea that ‘some of these problems can’t/won’t/shouldn’t be fixed, or are analogous to stupidly tiny problems everyone else ignores; therefore, none of them can be fixed and we shouldn’t try’.

    That is BS.

    Hank is pointing out problems that can be addressed, RIGHT NOW, TODAY, that are huge and glaring and ugly. Poking at the lesser problems under their feet and saying, “but what about these? what about these?”, neither helps your argument nor addresses the problem.

    Furthermore, it doesn’t take into account that we don’t have to FIX EVERY PROBLEM NOW. Social issues are solved incrementally. Lemme ‘splain:

    150 years ago, our forefathers wrestled the idea of outright slavery to the ground. WITHOUT THAT VICTORY, there would have been no Civil Rights movement. NONE. It would never have even begun.

    At the same time, if you’d taken a Civil Rights-era protestor in your time machine back to, say, the 1750′s, and asked him to expain his difficulties to the local population, they’d have said, “Look,we’re getting captured and starved and beaten and raped and worked to death and transported across two oceans and sold as chattel, nobody even thinks we’re human beings, and the biggest problem your generation is facing is riding the effing buses and getting turned away at the polls? Really? REALLY? WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU.”

    Now, it may be that sometime in the nebulous future, some of our Descendants may take issue with the greatest, most troubling problems of their day, and they SHOULD. Wouldn’t it be great if those problems were shallow and trivial compared to the problems we have now?

    • Pen

      I really did try to understand how this applied to what I said, but I failed so completely, I actually wondered if you were responding to someone else instead.

      • Nice Ogress


        I am pretty incoherent, looking back on it. Lemme see if I can sum up.

        My point is twofold: Part one, why would pointing out that other documents need revision invalidate the premise that the Bible, that untouchable, sacred cow, needs revision too? Your argument seems to be that we can’t touch the bible because the bill of rights has scary bad stuff in it too, oh oh oh, and we could never ever touch THAT.

        Part two – (Lawz, I’m not really being more concise here, am I? Dangit, there’s got to be a way to get this idea across that doesn’t require a freakin’ novella. Bear with me!) Worrying about the Bill of Rights is silly. It works fine, right now, in this time in our history, for what it is. Think of it this way: The Bible made perfect sense to someone, at some time. That’s why it was written down. Theoretically, at least, at some point in history the rules written up in the Bible were considered an improvement on what was there previously. (otherwise it’d never have caught on, right?) In the modern day, though, it seems horrific and barbaric.

        Likewise, the Bill of Rights is a product of its time. When it was drafted, it was a revolutionary (no pun intended, but there you go) new idea. In our present state of civilization, we see a few things wrong with it. Eventually, though, everything in it will seem silly and outmoded. That’s why I say that even though we COULD conceivably fix it now, it’s not really our row to hoe. At some point in the nebulous future, our descendants will trade it in for a better model (Like we’re attempting to do with the Bible. Analogy! It’s what’s for dinner!)

        - or they won’t, I guess, and we’ll see the same dumb cycle perpetuate itself.

        Hm. I dunno if this post will be an improvement on the earlier one. Well, anyway, I think you’re going after the wrong document. How’s that?

        • Pen

          Ok – well as far as part 1 is concerned, my point was that many Christian groups hold that the New Testament revises the Old Testament. Therefore, they can’t be held to the Old Testament. I was actually intending to say that both the Bible and the Constitution include revisions and this is a good thing, it shows societies open to change, etc…

          If I understand point 2 correctly (I’m not sure I do), you’re saying that at some stage the US could abandon the Bill of Rights, write something new, and go with that. In the meantime, they’re just getting along with it and doing their best.

          Well on the one hand the constitutional amendments may be revised here and now by an established process. There was something about alcohol that was in-again, out-again. This can still happen, I know of movements to introduce or cancel amendments. I believe it is theoretically possible to cancel the 2nd amendment, for example, though it may be extremely unlikely to happen.

          On the other hand, religious documents can also be revised. The New Testament revised the Old, and the Quran – I believe – revised both of them, from the point of view of the believers. The process of change is frankly, informal and bloody. But in the meantime, believers just try to get along with it and do their best.

          So what are we debating? I’m not sure actually, but really I was just trying to establish if Hank was holding a common standard. Because, you know, it seems important to me to be coherent with standards across groups I do and don’t approve of.

  • ralphwiggam

    Christian belief is as varied as atheist belief. Just because it says it in the Bible doesn’t mean that Christians believe it.

    If you want to make the claim that cutting off the hands of women is in the range of permissible acts for Christians, you need to specify which group of Christians you refer to. It certainly does NOT apply to all of them.

    The flip side of this has been applied to me several times. Dawkins, Hitchens, or Sam Harris said it so I must answer for it. But I refuse to defend any of those authors. I am not the stereotype of an atheist.

    And I know many Christians who refuse to defend the authors of the Bible. They are not stereotypes of Christians. You can’t hold them responsible for everything written by some religious nut 2000 years ago.

    I sympathize with your argument, but I have doubts about its validity.

  • Johnny Vector

    Ralph Wiggam, you are not obliged to defend anything Dawkins has written; none of his writings are held as sacred. Christians, on the other hand, pretty much by definition believe the Bible is sacred. What fraction of people who call themselves Christians will argue that the Bible is not inspired by God in any way, and should be considered just another book?

    It is the primary, founding document of Christianity. And you’ve completely missed Hank’s point: yes, most modern Christians in the US at least do not ascribe to most of the barbaric rituals and proscriptions contained therein. Just like the teachers at his parabolic school would be “highly unlikely” to let a boy child beat a girl child. The point is the rule is still there. The fact that you are choosing not to follow it doesn’t change the fact that the document says it’s okay.

    And speaking of founding documents. Pen, the Declaration of Independence is not a founding document of the USA. That would be the constitution. Which yes, has some pretty bad shit in it (3/5 compromise, I’m looking at you). And so, how do we clean that up? (Answer left as an exercise for the reader.)

    • ralphwiggam

      I’ve never met a Christian who believes EVERYTHING in the Bible. There is no consensus among Christians about which parts are true and which are allegory, parable or metaphor.

      I get the point that the rule is still there, carved in stone so to speak. My objection is that it is not proper to hold people accountable for beliefs that they do not hold. It is guilt by association.

      Consider this. My country attacked Iraq because, as a group, we believed that Iraq had WMDs. I did not share that belief even though I am an American. To what extent can I be held responsible for that belief? It was carved in stone before the UN by Colin Powell. It was the official policy of my government. Am I responsible for the war crimes that followed even though I protested long and loud? Am I guilty simply because I am an American? The resolution passed by Congress said it was OK to attack Iraq, and that rule is still there. Will I continue to be responsible until the resolution is repealed?

      Also, you used the term “Christians…by definition believe…” It is my opinion that it is impolite to define the beliefs of others. I don’t like it when others tell me what atheists believe, so I try very hard not to tell Christians what they believe. My experience is that asking Christians what they believe is less offensive than telling them what they believe. It works for atheists too.

      Thank you for your polite reply.

      • Johnny Vector

        I think you’re still missing the point. To return to the child care parable, Hank is not holding the current teachers accountable for the rule, he is saying the rule still exists and as such he would not trust the organization to care for his child. Were I a non-American, I would not hold you accountable for the actions of your country, but I damn sure wouldn’t trust the USA to limit its warmaking to justified causes. You (and I) are responsible for the country’s actions only to the extent we support them (including failing to try to change them).

        As for defining Christianity, you’re clutching at split hairs. We have to have some definition of “Christian” to even have a conversation. “Follower of Christ” is a start, but “believer in the divinity of Christ and the gospels” is more accurate. Are you seriously arguing that the place of the Bible in Christianity is congruent to the place of The God Delusion to atheists?

        And to answer your other reply, yes, many people claim the old testament rules no longer apply, but I have yet to see them quote an actual Bible verse in support of that claim. In fact as far as I know Jesus explicitly claims the old rules still apply (in the sermon on the mount, IIRC). And in any case, if the OT is superseded, why is it still part of the Bible? And finally, it’s disingenuous to shrug off the OT misogyny as if the NT had none of that. The point remains that even in the NT, there are plenty of permissible (required, even) acts that are abhorrent.

        The point is not that someone who calls himself Christian is responsible for those rules, the point is to point out that it is his own sense of ethics that guides him, not his religious text. In Hank’s parable, the day care provider is religion, and the teachers there are the followers of the religion. And the moral is that even if the followers are good people, the institution has specifically allowed immoral acts as permissible. And that makes the institution non-trustworthy at best.

        • ralphwiggam

          I see your point. I hope you see my point that the Bible is a confusing contradictory pile of nonsense. And when any one from any side tries to make sense of it, they are caught in the contradictions. It is used to oppose abortion and to support the “Just War” theory. So which is the “real” Bible message?

          I think we can also agree on his last point in Part 4, the Bible is a terrible source of moral authority.

        • ralphwiggam

          I’d like to add that the argument sounds somewhat similar to the argument made by theists: Pol Pot was an atheists and a mass murderer. Therefore mass murder is within the range of permissible acts for atheists. Therefore atheists can’t be trusted.

          Each person in a group holds their own beliefs. We are not tainted by Pol Pot any more than Methodists are tainted by Fred Phelps.

          At least that is my opinion.

  • Didaktylos

    In respect of the US Constitution, it can be argued that certain specific provisions are replaced/modified/overridden by orher specific provisions. However there is no passage in the Bible that actually says “This one replaces/modifies/overrides that one.”

    • ralphwiggam

      That’s not entirely true. Many Protestants believe that the New Testament supercedes and negates the Old Testament laws–except where they are reaffirmed by the New Testament as in the Ten Commandments.

      The concept is that Jesus rewrote the contract with god and replaced the old contract that Moses negotiated(or maybe it was Abraham). At any rate, it is like being held accountable for a lease that expired several years ago. Those terms no longer apply. Only the new lease is binding.

      • Kiwi Sauce

        Hi ralphwiggam,

        Which parts of the OT still stand, and what are the relevant NT verses?

        • Kiwi Sauce

          Hmm I seem to be able to answer my own question with some more digging. Hebrews 8:
          1 Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,
          2 and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.
          3 Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer.
          4 If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law.
          5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”
          6 But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
          7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.
          8 But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
          9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors
          when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
          10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
          11 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
          12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”[c]
          13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.

          So my reading of that is that nothing from the old testament applies.

          • ralphwiggam

            Thanks for doing my homework.

            The Bible is rather fluid and full of contradictions. Whenever anyone uses it to justify anything, they come face to face with the contradictions. That’s why I try to discourage atheists from using the Bible in their arguments. We don’t have to be concerned about the correctness or consistency of the Bible. We don’t have to care what rules it proposes. Until I am presented with a reason to care, I just don’t care what the bible says. I don’t believe it.

  • Kiwi Sauce

    Hi ralphwiggam,

    replying to your reply to my replies here as the reply threading has maxed. I hope I see where you’re coming from. My question is: if xtians don’t care about the bible, or the content of it, then under what definition are they xtians? Does it simply boil down to belief in god and jesus?

    • ralphwiggam

      They are Christians because they say they are Christians. That’s all. There is no single statement of belief for all Christians any more than there is a True Scotsman.

      Ascribing beliefs based on that label is like saying that Koy are man eaters because they are in the same phylum as Great White Sharks.

      It doesn’t make sense to me, but some people like to do it.

      • Kiwi Sauce

        So you are saying that some xtians self-define on the basis of a lack of belief in the xtian god? Seriously?

        • ralphwiggam

          I do not know the criteria for Christians to self-define. That is their business. My experience tells me that there are no universal criteria for Christianity to which they all agree. If you know of such a criteria, please enlighten me.

          It also amuses me that the people who are most certain about Christian belief are found on atheist message boards.

  • Hank Fox

    ralphwiggam, I never argue using the Bible either. It bothers me that we atheists are expected, even by our own, to know the Bible better than your average Christian.

    So as to be better at arguing it, I guess. But I don’t see the Bible as any sort of authority, and I just hate the idea of people filling their heads with Bible-stuff in order to argue against Bible-stuff.

    It’s like saying that you have to molest kids for a few years to really understand NAMBLA well enough to argue against it.

    If the believers aren’t expected to be experts, I don’t think atheists should be expected to be experts.

    As to Old Testament belief, I think we can safely say that any Christian who buys into Genesis or Creationism gets a package deal. If if were any other book, you could justifiably pick and choose the true parts from the false ones. But a HOLY book, it has to be all or nothing: It’s either a holy book, and you have to defend the whole thing, every single god-inspired word …

    … or it’s just NOT, and it’s hardly worth talking about.

    If there’s ANY part of the Bible believers say is not holy, they’re cutting the throat of any argument they might make that they can pick and choose other parts to identify as holy.

    • ralphwiggam

      But you used the Bible to argue against Christianity in this very thread. You used an example from the Bible to demonstrate the shortcoming of Christianity. And you seemed to make the assumption that a common belief in PART of the Bible indicts people with culpability for all of the sins of the Bible.

      When dealing with superstitious people, it is well within the range of possibility that they will hold conflicting view points. Part of the Bible may be holy and part is just story telling. If you are superstitious, that is not a problem. So if you want to understand Christians you should recognize that they hold within themselves two conflicting views and they are quite comfortable with that. You can’t pin them down to one position and you can’t make them adopt a rational position. That’s superstition.

      And that’s why I hate arguing against Christianity. The details are irrelevant. I don’t see any evidence to support any of their positions so their positions don’t matter. The Bible doesn’t matter. It is all based on superstition and we should be fighting superstition, not Christianity.

  • JesseW

    Here are links to the 4 parts:
    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3
    Part 4

  • Pingback: The Range of Permissible Acts — Part 1 | Blue Collar Atheist

  • Pingback: The Range of Permissible Acts — Part 2 | Blue Collar Atheist

  • Pingback: Attention Religious Believers, THIS Is What It’s Like For Atheists Reading Your Holy Books: | Camels With Hammers