A Look in the Mirror

Marc Gellman, a Jewish rabbi and one-half of the “God Squad“, has recently written a solo column titled “Trying to Understand Angry Atheists” in which he takes up one of the oldest religious clichés – that atheists are “angry”.

It starts out well enough:

I think I need to understand atheists better. I bear them no ill will. I don’t think they need to be religious to be good, kind and charitable people, and I have no desire to debate or convert them.

There is nothing in that passage I can disagree with, and I wish more theists held similar views. However, immediately after this, he descends to predictable stereotypes:

However, there is something I am missing about atheists: what I simply do not understand is why they are often so angry.

I will first offer some specific comments on Gellman’s essay, then address the topic of “angry atheists” more generally.

I don’t know many religious folk who wake up thinking of new ways to aggravate atheists, but many people who do not believe in God seem to find the religion of their neighbors terribly offensive or oppressive, particularly if the folks next door are evangelical Christians. I just don’t get it.

I do not think that many religious people specifically intend to anger atheists, but Gellman must be aware that there are a great number of religious people who wake up each day thinking of new ways to evangelize, preach to, persuade and otherwise pester their neighbors, which works out to much the same thing. Personally I do my best to respond to conversion attempts with civility, but can an atheist really be blamed for feeling frustration and annoyance upon being bombarded with the same invasive and often obnoxious religious messages every day? In my experience, evangelical Christians frequently include in their message the implication or the outright assertion that nonbelievers are selfish, bitter, immoral, greedy, cold-hearted, closed-minded, deserving of God’s wrath, and so on. Surely it is not difficult to understand why the targets of such a message, atheists who are ordinary people just like everyone else, might feel offense at being told such things. Sometimes, we just want to be left alone to live our lives in peace.

And furthermore, we find some religious beliefs oppressive because they are oppressive. Again, there are a great many religious people who wake up each day thinking of new ways impose their narrow-minded, hateful, even theocratic views on society in general. Again, as Gellman must surely be aware, there is a loud, determined, and well-organized segment of society composed of religious people who think that I, as an atheist, should be compelled to pay tax money to support their evangelical programs and pay for maintaining their churches; who want to deny women the right to control their own bodies by banning birth control and outlawing abortion even in the cases of rape or incest; who want to censor and stifle science and replace it with thinly disguised religious dogma; who would rather see young adults get STDs than teach them how to protect themselves; who want to rape and despoil the planet and wage war on the grounds that Jesus is coming back soon anyway; and dozens more outrages that I could list. What is the appropriate response to these injustices if not anger?

This must sound condescending and a large generalization, and I don’t mean it that way, but I am tempted to believe that behind atheist anger there are oftentimes uncomfortable personal histories. Perhaps their atheism was the result of the tragic death of a loved one, or an angry degrading sermon, or an insensitive eulogy, or an unfeeling castigation of lifestyle choices or perhaps something even worse.

In other words, Gellman says that he does not mean to make a large and condescending generalization and then goes on to do precisely that. Is it any wonder that atheists often react with anger when we are treated in this way? We do not appreciate it any more than anyone else would to be labeled with stereotypes in this way, especially when it is a stereotype that he himself realizes sounds dismissive and condescending. When religious people consistently ignore the actual reasons we give to explain why we are atheists, and instead try to dig through our pasts to find the “real” reason, it is no surprise that we feel as if we are not being taken seriously, and feel resentment on that basis.

I have a suggestion for Gellman and those who agree with him. If you really want to understand atheists better, as you say that you do, then go find a collection of deconversion stories written by people who became atheists. (Ebon Musings has links to a large set.) Read them for yourself, and see why people become atheists, in their own words. In my experience, when we are not confronted with religious harassment and oppression, atheists are no angrier than theists, and possibly less angry. We are ordinary people, and in general we only want what everyone else wants: to live in peace and security, in a just world free of oppression and fear.

On the other hand, there are certainly are a vast number of theists filled with anger and hate, as evidenced by the blistering torrent of rage that inevitably targets everyone who opposes them. Here is an excerpt from a former post of mine, Filth-Based Initiatives, reprinting some of the e-mails sent to atheist spokeswoman Anne Laurie Gaylor after an appearance on CNN:

“You make me vomit and sick and I pray to GOD that you go to hell.”

“Your a complete moron if you can’t seem to understand the constitution of the United States that scum like you are trying to debase. All you liberal bitch’s, along with the homosexual ACLU scum should be lined up against the wall.”

“Your closed-minded bigotry is so unrepentantly sub-human.”

“I bet you’re a drunken whore.”

“You Ms. Gaylor, and people LIKE you are the scum of America. Ane if you are going to appear on any more talk shows, I would consider some plastic surgery and perhaps some dental work!”

“People like you who interpret the bible wrong and try to sell this BS to people should be ‘stoned to death’”

Or take some of the e-mails received by the Southern Poverty Law Center after successfully arguing in court that Alabama judge Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse building was a violation of the First Amendment and had to be removed (source):

“Dees is a godless s.o.b. jew and deserves to burn in hell.”

“You’re the lowest form of human waste – just human maggots! Enough is enough! Quit your ongoing battle against Christians and religion in American society. We true American citizens are going to be watching you and your organization closely now. Many Christians are just now realizing who the real enemy is, and there is no doubt – whatsoever – our #1 enemy in America is Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center. We Christians are watching you closely now.”

“May the wrath of God be delivered upon you.”

“I hope all of you who had anything to do with removing the Ten Commandments die in a car accident with a fuel tanker along with the rest of your filthy, stinking, traitorous families!”

Or consider this e-mail sent to atheist filmmaker Brian Flemming (source):

“You’ve definitely got some nerve. I’d love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for those like you all. I’ll get comfort in knowing that the punishment GOD will bring to you will be 1000 times worse than anything I can inflict. The best part is that you WILL suffer for eternity for these sins that you’re completely ignorant about. The Wrath of GOD will show no mercy. For your sake, I hope the truth is revealed to you before the knife connects with your flesh.”

I do not doubt for a moment that the seething hate displayed in these missives and others like them is far worse, and occurs in far greater volume, than anything Gellman has ever seen or heard from us allegedly angry atheists. Yet he does not seem to have devoted a column to asking why theists are so angry. As I have argued, whatever anger is displayed by atheists is more than justified, in light of the violations of human freedom that are going on all around the world even now in the name of God. Any person with a functioning conscience would feel anger at that, especially when those actions are inspired by a book or a belief system that is held up as the epitome of good. On the other hand, the anger displayed by many theists seems to lack any similarly rational cause, considering how much power and influence they wield. If a person really believed that God was on their side and that they would win in the end, there would be no reason for them to lash out with such vicious fury against those who disagree with them. The subtitle of Gellman’s column asks “Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?” I would turn that question around: Why do believers who are convinced that God is on their side seem to be threatened by the idea of atheists?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://franksatheisticramblings.blogspot.com frank

    Not only that, but he’s full of bs from the very first paragraph. If you check out the raving atheist’s blog history of the god squad, you will find this gem of a quote:
    “If there is no God, there would be no reason to do good. If there is no God, there would be no difference between people and animals. If there is no God, there would be no souls and no chance that souls could live on after death. Mostly, if there is no God, there is just no reason to get out of bed in the morning and no reason to believe that life has an edge over death, hope an edge over despair and love an edge over hate.”
    Hmmm, sound’s like you have to be religious (or at least believe in god) to be “good, kind, and charitable”.

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    I’ll tell you why atheists are so angry… because people keep insisting that they are so angry!

    While the above in a joke, I do think that the reason for most of the atheistic frustration comes from a very wide spread, perhaps intentional, misunderstanding of the atheistic worldview and the people who espouse it. Just as Mormons get so upset when people insist that they are not Christians in any way, so too the atheists get mad when people insist that they are not moral or that their lives don’t have any real meaning to them.

  • Oz

    Just put up a billboard saying “There is no god” and watch how angry theists get. Then say “All I did was tell you that you are wrong. Your kind does it to me daily.” The shoe, as they say, would be on the other foot.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If you check out the raving atheist’s blog history of the god squad, you will find this gem of a quote…

    Yeah, I remember that column. I wrote them a complaint after reading it, but never got an answer. Generally they’re harmless, but they write some real whoppers on occasion; there was one column I recall where they advised a correspondent to move out of his apartment because his roommate smoked marijuana and it was putting him in “spiritual danger” to remain there. Shades of Reefer Madness

  • Joe Anthony

    You’ve done a fine job of summarizing the galling hypocrisy in Gellman’s screed. I’ll just add a comment about this passage: “our world is better and kinder and more hopeful because of the daily sacrifice and witness of millions of pious people over thousands of years”.

    Anyone with the barest objective sense of human history understands that one of it’s most prominent characteristics is the sacrifice en masse OF non-believers BY the pious.

    I shake my head, not in anger, but in despair of humanity ever emerging from its self-imposed willful ignorance.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I think you should send them an email, Adam, and just start with something short, like “First, read these”, then list a whole bunch of theistic hate mail. Then at the end, ask something like “Can you give me an example of ‘atheistic anger’ that’s as bad as these theist’s emails?”. Just an idea.

  • Shawn Smith


    Yeah, Adam could do that, but it would be interpreted as an angry atheist disagreeing with a good theist. After all, no good or basically happy person disagrees with someone who has the all powerful creator and master of the universe on his side. Bleahhh. :-þ

    It’s kind of like one of the Posts of the Month on talk.origins which explained the debating tactics of William Dembski–just keep repeating the same wrong points over and over until your opponent gives up out of exasperation and then declare victory.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Well, but if it’s a polite and relaxed atheist, and written to reflect such, juxtaposed against some absolutely hateful theistic quotes, respectfully requesting explanation…

  • SpeirM

    You want angry? Take gander at Turkel’s website. (Skim through quickly or jeopardize your sanity and, perhaps, your health.)

    Gellman wonders about what turns us away from faith and suggests some kind of traumatic experience, as though that might nullify the implications of our abandoning religion. Strange, when an emotional crisis leads someone TO the Faith, Christians take that as well and good–incontrovertible evidence of the rightness of their beliefs.

    Fact is, it usually takes some such trauma to convert one way or another. Until we’re shaken loose from our emotional attachments to a proposition there’s no way to look at it objectively. We’re simply unable to entertain the possibility that we could be mistaken in our foundational assumptions until it no longer means anything personally to us that we’re right. That requires a degree of humility, not, as believers suggest, hubris.

  • Jim S.

    Just for the record: I happened to read Gellman’s column on the way into work yesterday. I was disturbed by it enough to fire off a letter to him countering most of his obvious errors in fact and judgement (only the second time in my life I’ve done that!). In closing, I suggested that if he was serious about wanting to understand atheists better, he should visit this site and I gave him the web address. At the time, I did not yet realize that the article was already being discussed here.

    I asked that he please respond to my letter and invited him to comment on this site. I’ll let everyone know if I happen to get a response.

  • http://eternalrevolution.com Chad


    As a follower of Christ, I can tell you that the article by Gellman you cited is offensive to me and it is obvious why sentiments like this would make atheists angry. I think what angers people – atheists and theists alike – is an arrogant and presumptive attitude taken toward them. Thinking people have good reasons for what they believe and don’t believe and don’t appreciate being disrespected. There are plenty of narrow-minded religious people who make me very angry, but I can assure you there is plenty of condescension to be cited from a cozy feeling of intellectual superiority from atheists as well.

    Anyway, you raise some very valid questions, particularly the last one. I think insecurity and fear is at the root here usually.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Yes, Chad, that is very true, but generally an arrogant, condescending atheist is just annoying. I think the real issue is that believers are the ones that get truly angry over their religion. Check out the following for a CALM religious nut;

    And that’s a nice one. As Adam has pointed out, there are alot of believers who get blood-thirsty. We all know that holy war is pretty common in history. So, yeah, atheists CAN be aggravating, but the theists who hold the vast majority of secular power in the US and who throw death threats at every critic…that’s angry.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I appreciate that, Chad. And I will say, to my chagrin, that the assertion that “atheists are angry” is not universally inaccurate. There have indeed been some very angry atheists – I’m thinking especially of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who did some good pioneering work in church-state separation but probably did more to bolster that stereotype than anyone else, atheist or theist. I ask only that the rest of us not be judged by her, just as I know Christians don’t appreciate being judged by the example set by Fred Phelps or Jerry Falwell.

  • http://atheism.about.com/ Austin Cline

    Linked to you here.

  • Shawn Smith


    That woman was scary, with that grin on her face most of the time during the “interview.” I had heard about Fred Phelps and his nut cases, but, man, to get even Hannity against her–man.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    You liked that eh? Someone else brought that to my attention, and yeah, that was amazing. It’s not as vulgar as the excerpts Adam has, but that she went on TV and talked about the cup of the wrath of God (is this the cup that “runneth over”? With what, blood?) and get a rather calm, tolerant liberal AND a hardcore conservative angry, that’s pretty creepy. And the fact that her church is like 70 of her family members and a few friends, that’s a little wierd too.

  • Archi Medez

    Gellman’s attack is simply ad hominem. Where’s the substance to his argument (i.e., what is his case against atheism)? He doesn’t deliver it. Without a substantive argument, people have a tendency to resort to various tricks and smoke-screens. Gellman’s tactics look to me like the classic “Stop being so defensive” routine. If you try to argue against it, they say, “Aha, you’re being defensive!” This is, of course, irrelevant. Has he shown that his theological system is better on ethical grounds than those of atheist philosophers? No. Has he shown that his theological system is better on scientific grounds than, say, any particular scientific theory in exlaining any given phenomenon? No. What remains of his claims? Nothing; the hot air has already dissipated.

    Gelman asks:
    “Why do nonbelievers seem to be threatened by the idea of God?”

    I don’t care all that much about the idea of God except as a psychological curiosity. My concern is what theists use the “God” word/concept for in the real world.

    As Wafa Sultan has said recently (to a theist): “You can believe in stones, brother, just don’t throw them at me.”

  • Rowan

    If I were by a Christian (or other theists) why atheists were so angry, I might start by pointing out that, on the whole, we aren’t – atheists are normal people, as angry or calm as anybody else. However, in the presence of theists, especially theists with a tendecy to try to convert us to their way of thinking, there are good reasons to get angry. Imagine how a Christian might feel if there was a powerful, well-funded organisation who believed that Father Christmas was real, and wanted everybody else to believe it and have their theories of Father Christmasness taught in schools.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Or a giant group of eggheads trying to use their “college” and “experience” to convince children into believing we came from early primates, like animals!

  • Philip Thomas

    “who want to deny women the right to control their own bodies by banning birth control and outlawing abortion even in the cases of rape or incest”

    Sorry to flog the dead horse, but Adam, you’ve said elsewhere that rape or incest are insufficient reason to abort if the foetus is viable, and that any reason is sufficient if its not, so isn’t this a moot point?

  • Mollie

    Sometimes, we just want to be left alone to live our lives in peace.

    I can understand your desire to be left alone. Having someone always telling you that their way is right and yours is wrong can be annoying especially if not done properly- with respect and kindness, not condemnation.

    However, the one thing I have noticed from posts on this site is how much you are against hypocrites. Yet, for Christians, it would be the highest form of hypocrisy to keep our mouths shut about the one thing that we believe is true- the one thing God has told us to share with others. Sorry- but I don’t think we’re going to stop sharing the love of Christ with everyone around us!

  • Alex Weaver

    If you (meaning Christians, as a whole) were to confine your sharing the Love of Christ to people who have indicated that they wish to listen, refrain from indoctrinating small children before they have the capacity to think critically about the religion they’re being forcefed, and refrain from attempting to have your beliefs and prejudices written into law, this would be reduced to a difference of opinion.

  • Mollie

    Again- the package deal is to share the love of Christ with the whole world- everyone included. We look at it as if everyone is in a burning building and we’re telling them the way out- we’re not just going to tell the people who want to hear. I didn’t say you would like it! :)

  • Mollie

    Also- I forgot to mention this in the last post.
    “[you should] refrain from indoctrinating small children before they have the capacity to think critically about the religion they’re being forcefed”

    You may not agree with me on this, but I believe that by telling children there ISN’T a religion or God, you’re forcing your beliefs on them (children) as well. I highly doubt that atheists present all religious options to their children and allow them to make an ‘educated’ decision. [They might present all religions and explain how stupid and how ridiculous they are!] Even if you could do that (present it without a bias), they would watch with your speech and actions and see what an atheist is like- and that is as good as teaching them. I don’t believe Christianity or any other religion is different from you in this aspect.

  • The Vicar


    So if we point out that the claims that religions make about the real world are false, that’s bias?

    Of course, if the claims were true, that would be something else entirely. So here are a couple of possible ways of proving the real-world claims of the new testament. I’m expecting great things of you, Mollie.

    Mark 16:18 says that if believers in Jesus “drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”. It’s a straightforward, nonmetaphorical statement Jesus gives before going and sitting on his father’s hand (which always struck me as uncomfortable, particularly since the two were supposed to be the same being anyway, but whatever). Surely that wouldn’t make it into print unless it was true, right? I mean, it’s a pretty obvious claim. So here’s the test: if you’re willing, we can meet in Chicago sometime, you can sign a legal waiver before witnesses saying that you wanted to do this and were sure you would take no harm and accept all responsibility for the consequences, and then I’ll give you three poisonous drinks of my choosing over the course of 72 hours. If any of them hurt you, let alone kill you, then obviously either the bible lies or else you don’t actually believe (in which case you should shut up). If, on the other hand, you survive without taking any harm, then you will have conclusively shown that the new testament has real-world force.

    An alternate reasonable proof would be for you to remove a famous mountain by faith alone, which the bible claims you should be able to do (Matthew 17:20). You’ll have to do it without any significant prior seismic activity, though, to be clear. (Perhaps it would be better if you could do two of them? That way you would run less risk of someone else taking the credit.) This claim, too, is not presented as metaphor. It reads as though you’re allowed to give a destination, too, although I’ll still accept it even if you can’t set the thing down outside my door. Some examples of acceptable targets: Mount Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, Mount Fuji, the Matterhorn, or Mount Washington (the one in New Hampshire).

    Of course, if you can’t do these things, then the new testament is just lying, or else it mixes metaphor and straight text with such abandon that it becomes useless. Either way, it should not be presented as a worthwhile guide to life.

  • Mollie

    Hello Vicar:

    You seem to find me wherever I go. :)

    I do not claim to be a textual critic scholar (I’ll leave that to my husband who has taken Greek and Hebrew), but I’ll do my best to answer your questions. The Mark 16 passage is one that many Christians do not actually believe SHOULD be a part of the Bible. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the manuscript evidences (the copies of the original texts). I’ll give a little background. There are generally two camps of people with views on which manuscripts should be used in cases of discrepancy. One says that we should use the ones with more of them- these tend to be the later copies (more recent to today). The other camp says we should use the older manuscripts (closer in time to the original writings). I agree with the latter. Typically the differences between texts are small- like changing a ‘for’ to a ‘from’. However, sometimes they are larger- in the case of Mark 16:8-19 or 20 (some of the earlier manuscripts include verse 20 for the ending of Mark).

    This passage, termed the Longer Ending to the Marcan gospel by comparison with a much briefer conclusion found in some less important manuscripts, has traditionally been accepted as a canonical part of the gospel and was defined as such by the Council of Trent. Early citations of it by the Fathers indicate that it was composed by the second century, although vocabulary and style indicate that it was written by someone other than Mark. (taken from http://www.nccbuscc.org/nab/bible/mark/mark16.htm)

    Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, both conclude the gospel at 16:8. Vaticanus in particular displays a long blank space after 16:8, rather than ending at the base of a page as if further pages were missing.

    Many of the early church fathers appear to use 16:9–20: Justin Martyr, Iraneus, Eusebius and Marinus, and Augustine. However, Mark 16:9–20 is absent in other early church fathers (e.g. Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Jerome). At any rate, all that can be concluded from this use of the longer ending is that, rightly or wrongly, Mark 16:9–20 had become part of Church tradition and scripture much like other apocryphal writings such as The Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, neither of which are now considered canonical.

    Now, If the point of your question was to get me to say that if we’re not sure that this passage should be in the Bible; how can we know about others?, then you should have just asked that. Otherwise, I think I’ve explained how I feel confident that what I have in the Bible is the true Word of God. Although this passage is printed in most Bibles, it does include a footnote or brackets indicating that only the later manuscripts have this text- so depending on your manuscript camp, you can take it or leave it. All this to say that since I don’t think this verse is part of the original text written by Mark, I don’t feel the need to pick up snakes or drink poison to prove my faith.
    (p.s.- sitting AT (not ON) the right hand of the Father indicates a place of position and honor)

    Secondly, You ask me to move a mountain and then you will believe in God (maybe?). I find this hard to believe. I do not see any of the New Testament apostles using this as a way to ‘prove’ that their way of thinking was right (can you imagine the upheaval on earth if mountains were moving around every day? ha ha). Why? Because people had GOD in their midst (Jesus on earth) and they still didn’t believe. What more proof could you need? But people still didn’t believe, so what did the apostles and the early church use? The love of Christ to win people to God.

    So maybe Jesus isn’t talking about literally moving a mountain. I think it is a metaphor. You might think this is a cop-out, but I think he is talking about doing something that is humanly impossible. Moving a mountain is impossible (for a human) but even if it did happen, what would be the point? (this is Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 13:2) People would still point to some kind of ‘scientific’ reason/explanation for what happened. This is what is happening right now with Creation, the Flood, etc. There is another verse in Philippians that says “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” MOST Christians would not say that ‘all things’ means the ability to fly, shoot lasers out of our eyes, or cause buildings to collapse just by thinking about it. Rather, that in whatever we are doing (all things), Christ is the one who gives us strength. Christ is the one who can help us ‘move mountains’ as it were.

  • PeterWR

    The Mark 16 passage is one that many Christians do not actually believe SHOULD be a part of the Bible.

    Aha. So you think that “the Bible is totally true” (ref. your post that Ebonmuse turned into an open thread) except for the bits that you don’t think are totally true.

    Sorry, but I can’t help thinking I’m crediting you with too much intelligence if I assume you can see the inconsistency in that…

    Otherwise, I think I’ve explained how I feel confident that what I have in the Bible is the true Word of God. Although this passage is printed in most Bibles, it does include a footnote or brackets indicating that only the later manuscripts have this text- so depending on your manuscript camp, you can take it or leave it.

    Don’t you think if the bible really was the Word of God, that he would be a bit less ambiguous and a bit more consistent? Or could it be that he’s a psychopathic son of a bitch who wants to set us impossible tasks that we can fail at so he can punish us? Or could it be that he doesn’t exist at all, and all this was just made up by all-too-fallible human beings and cobbled together into the inconsistent, incoherent mess that it is for motives less than pure?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    People would still point to some kind of ‘scientific’ reason/explanation for what happened. This is what is happening right now with Creation, the Flood, etc.

    I choked when I read this. You really think Charles Lyell came up with his geological theories as an elaborate way to discredit religious explanations? You’re mad. Lyell proposed an age of the Earth that was many times greater than the 6000 deduced from the Bible not because he wanted to discredit the Bible but because that was what his own observations, coupled with the assumption of some sort of continuity of conditions on Earth, strongly suggested. Lyell’s major work was done before Darwin, at a time when Lyell himself believed that animal species had remained constant since their creation. According to this source, Lyell in his later years was “troubled by the necessity of accepting Darwin’s evolutionary theory, th[r]ough this, he felt, conflicted with his religious faith”. Lyell didn’t want to believe in evolution when the theory came out. He was religious. To propose that he would have previously perverted his interpretation of his geological findings specifically in order to contradict the Bible is ludicrous.

  • The Vicar

    The Mark 16 passage is one that many Christians do not actually believe SHOULD be a part of the Bible.

    Ah, so your point of view is that the new testament contains some lies and some truth, and that there is no warning in the text about which is which. You, however, through some method or other, can detect these lies. (Correct me if I’m wrong, please.) When will you produce a corrected version?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Friends, criticism of people’s beliefs is okay, but some of these comments are very near the line of personal attacks. Lighten up, please.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Sorry, Mollie! I was kind of harsh, there, particularly given the preceding comment; you yourself have been remarkably courteous and honest. What I should have said, politely, is that Young Earth Creationism (which several of your comments seem to imply agreement with) is as fundamentally opposed to the work of Charles Lyell and subsequent geologists as it is to that of Darwin and subsequent biologists. Lyell’s influence on 19th century geology was exceedingly important. He was a religious man, and his major work was done before Darwin, so he wasn’t trying to show that humans and other animals were not created by God (because he thought they were). He was, I suppose, arguing against literal interpretation of the Bible, but I doubt it was from any reason beyond honest scientific conclusions. His writing is somewhat overly scholarly and abbreviated, but you can see him here, in a letter to Darwin, arguing that even with natural selection (i.e. evolution) in play there might have been some creation going on, too:

    I have been always in the habit of considering the dis[si]milarity of African & American species as the necessary resu[lt] of “Creation” adapting new species to the preexisting ones— Granting this unknown & if you please miraculous power acting as steadily as does extinction and all the consequences are the same as those of “natural selection.”

    It’s not really credible to suggest that he distorted his geological findings to disprove the Flood and such.

  • The Vicar


    Mollie has said that the new testament is the literal truth. She has said that it should be taught to children as such. (Well, okay, that second one isn’t strictly accurate: she has said that it would be wrong to not teach it. Same net effect.) This text contains certain statements about the real world, in particular that people who believe in Jesus can safely drink poisons.

    Now, either this statement is true or false. Given the nature of the claim, it seems only reasonable to assume it is false until proven true. I have asked Mollie to prove it true, and she has declined, and even backpedaled a bit from her earlier claim, which suggests that she believes it to be false as well, and said that others of her persuasion also believe it to be false.

    I have since then checked five different editions of the new testament. Only one of them, a scholarly edition with extensive footnotes, gives any sort of indication that this statement might not be true, and then only by noting that its inclusion is controversial. Furthermore, none of them included any statement noting that the contents of the book were not intended to be taken for literal truth. Legally, I suspect that either people who make claims of the literal truthfulness of the bible or else the printers who bring out these books without disclaimers are already guilty under the laws of any country in the developed world.

  • Mollie


    I am curious to find which 5 editions of the New Testament you looked at.

  • Mollie

    I just did a quick check of our Bibles and the New King James, New American Standard, New Living Translation, New English Translation, and English Standard Version all have either footnoted study notes telling how it is not certain it should be included and that it is controversial (thus, do not base doctrine on it), have it bracketed, or have a note saying only the later manuscripts include it.

  • The Vicar


    I’d love to give you publication information, but three of the bibles were in churches I walked into while I was out and one is a copy of the new testament handed to me on a street corner. It has a red cardboard cover, cheap binding and printing, and the only information about the book beyond the text and title are the words “Printed in China” on the outside back cover, and if I hadn’t seen your reply right away I wouldn’t even be able to tell you that, because I’m junking it. The last, which is the one with the footnotes, is “The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Edition with the Apocrypha, Third Edition”, and the one I use for reference when I’m not using the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (see the sidebar for a link). I’ll try to get back into the churches and get that information for you, but no promises — I don’t think they liked me doing it the first time. (Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that I was an atheist checking to see whether their bibles claimed they were immune to poison; I didn’t want to misrepresent myself so I told the truth.) Call me crazy, but as an atheist, I barely have a reason to personally own one copy of the Christian bible, let alone 5. (I bought the Oxford Annotated one back when I wanted to sit down and read the bible from cover to cover. That determination did not even last through Exodus, because the old testament obsession with lineage and leadership is frankly boring.)

    A subsequent question which occurs to me: why is the end of Mark even a controversy? Surely this can be tested directly — after all, the proper version of the book is only of serious interest to people who believe, so it should be quick:

    “Okay, everyone who thinks our book of absolute truth should contain a line about immunity to poison, stand over here. Good, now all of you have a nice cup of cyanide. Any of you feeling immune? No? Okay, that section isn’t true, so it can’t stay in there.”

    Why has this segment not been removed? I’m asking you to tell me because I can’t think of any reason which doesn’t assume that Christians are either dishonest or stupid.

    For that matter, if we’re going to start allowing criticism of the text, which you are employing already, then we run into many, many more problems. The very first one — not even starting on scholarship and authorship and history — is a serious one: the central event of Christianity is the crucifixion, but the new testament isn’t clear about it. Matthew and Mark both say that there were two bandits crucified at the same time as Jesus, and that both mocked him. (Matthew 27:32-44 and Mark 15:25-32) Luke specifically says that one of the bandits defended Jesus (Luke 23:39-43) and John doesn’t mention them at all (although that doesn’t prove anything one way or another — he doesn’t say Jesus was alone, either). Furthermore, the first three claim that the cross was carried by a man named Simon of Cyrene (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, and Luke 23:26), while John says specifically that Jesus carried it himself (John 19:17). So we have three versions of the story: Simon carried the cross and there were 2 mocking bandits (Matthew and Mark), Simon carried the cross and there were 2 bandits but one of them defended Jesus (Luke), and finally Jesus carried the cross himself and there may or may not have been bandits but we aren’t told (John).

    These are details, it is true, but they are “big” details. One would expect any Christian then living to be able to remember whether Jesus carried his own cross and whether there was somebody also crucified who defended Jesus, particularly given that this was such an important event.

    At best, the first story is true, meaning that only 2 of the 4 gospels are wrong about the central event in your religion (!). Or one of the other two stories are true, and 3 of the 4 gospels are wrong. Or all four could be wrong, which is my stance.

    Before I continue further: tell me, person who has gone on the record that the Bible is “totally true”, which version is right? They directly contradict each other, so they can’t all be true.

    P.S. !@#$% checkbox on this form… Grrrr!

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    You can access just about any translation you want at http://www.bible.com. It’s very useful.

    In all fairness, Mollie’s not just pulling that bit about the final part of Mark being a later addition out of the air — I can remember noting it, myself, and I get the impression that it’s not particularly controversial (they wouldn’t put it in Bibles, otherwise, believe me — look at the way no-one dares to translate ‘almah’ as ‘young girl’ instead of ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 after the uproar when the Revised Standard Version did it).

    Presumably, if you’re going to admit that there was one adulteration of the Bible, then you can’t discount the possibility that there might have been others. I’m not sure what Mollie thinks about that.

  • Mollie


    Why has this segment not been removed?

    I’m not saying this is a good reason, but it IS a reason: it has been part of the King James Bible, which has been (until more recently) the standard English text. Like I said before, the Bibles I have make it clear that there is at least a discrepancy in whether or not it should be there. It’s really an issue of textual criticism- which I don’t have space (or time) for here.

    Which version is right (of the Gospels)?

    I’m not quite sure why they can’t all be right. The man who carried the cross was ‘pressed into service’ as they were heading out to the hill where Jesus would be crucified. John merely says Jesus ‘went out bearing the cross’. It was typical for the person who would be crucified to carry his own cross, but since Jesus had been so badly beaten, he probably did not get far under the weight of the heavy wooden crossbeam. So though he started out with it, they asked a man who was standing by to take it the rest of the way.
    Second: the bandits who ridiculed him. The crucifixion lasted several hours. Surely a man seeing his dying hour coming to pass could change his ‘tune’ from “you’re just as bad as we are” to “I don’t want to receive judgment for the sins I’ve committed”. Again- I’m not saying that this is how it happened for sure. The text does not eliminate the possibility though. Also- the variances of perspectives are a testimony to the different authors. It is an indication of their authenticity. If all four Gospels were exactly the same, there would only be a need for one. However, John is a closer friend of Jesus. He gets to see firsthand more of the scenes of Jesus’ life. Each one has his own personality coming through (although inspired all the same).
    It is like- if four people were to observe the scene of an accident and fill out a report, they would have differing accounts. No account would be ‘more true’ than another. They would just have observed different things (perhaps at various moments during the accident). When you put all 4 together, you get a complete idea of what happened. Hope this helps.

  • The Vicar


    According to your version, these disciples obviously had memories like sieves; I mean, one of them says (Matthew 27:50-53) that Jesus’ death was accompanied by an earthquake and the walking dead seen by many. I would think that those would be pretty significant details, not to mention details that would be impressive tools for converting people, but none of the others apparently thought they were worth mentioning. (I mean, you see dead people walking around every day, right?) John doesn’t even mention the three hours of darkness that the others agree on, which is a little odd given that he was detail-obsessed enough to list the languages in which the cross was inscribed. Given the number of details which are unique to Matthew and Luke, they must have had trouble remembering their names, since their accounts of the birth of Jesus are distinctly different: Matthew has the star of Bethlehem and wise men, but no angels or shepherds, while Luke has angels and shepherds but no star or wise men. Apparently angels and new stars in the sky weren’t worth mentioning either.

    (Just as a side note: I’ve always wondered how the wise men “from the East” were supposed to know where to stop moving west if the star of Bethlehem was actually a star. It would have remained in the same place in the night sky no matter how long they travelled west. In order for a star to be clearly “over” a building, especially for days at a time, it would have to be moving with the earth, which is implausible for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that in those pre-spaceflight days, people would have remarked on a star moving quite quickly with respect to the background sky, which is how such a thing would appear. No records of such a thing at the time outside of Matthew, though.)

    Yes, you can explain this away with vast and worrisome absent-mindedness. (Worrisome because one has to wonder what else were they leaving out that might have been critical. They already mention the arbitrary detail of a requirement for baptism for salvation; what if Jesus also wants everyone to do a clockwise pirouette every day or something and they just forgot to say so? We wouldn’t know about the virgin birth at all if one of them hadn’t said something.) You could also conceivably explain why Matthew and Luke give explicitly different (and mutually exclusive) genealogies for Joseph (Luke 3:23 – 38 versus the beginning of Matthew) — and also why it’s more important to mention who Joseph’s great-great-great-grandfather was, even though Joseph was not supposed to be Jesus’ father anyway, than to mention that, oh yeah, there was a freaking earthquake and dead people walking around after the crucifixion — and why Luke says the birth of Jesus took place in a year that didn’t exist (when Herod was king of Judea and Quirinius was governor of Syria — King Herod died about 10 years before Quirinius became governor) and why the census which required Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem appears in no Roman records; Josephus (who I’m told some consider to be a forgery anyway) mentioned a census, but it didn’t require people to go to their hometowns and was in any case in a year which doesn’t match either of Luke’s mutually-exclusive chronological details.

    No doubt you will come up with some way to discredit this, just as you do the “immunity from poison” thing. (And this despite having claimed that the bible is “totally true” — you language-polluter, you! You really believe that the bible is mostly true.) But that begs a question: why does god allow people to play these games with the editing of what, according to you, is the only path to salvation? There is no record of Jesus’ existence outside of the new testament — the Romans didn’t notice it at all, no darkness or earthquakes or walking dead saints in the official records. The new testament is it. So how is it that god allowed people to add, among other things, the exhortation to accidental suicide which is the end of Mark? Why did the church put up with it, for that matter? One would think that the second-century church was in a shaky enough position, being illegal and all, without letting some idiot tell believers it would be safe to poison themselves. And then letting that stand for centuries until Christianity’s stranglehold on intellectual inquiry was sufficiently broken to produce criticism of the bible?

    Of course, you already believe a really peculiar narrative: god made two perfect people who almost immediately sinned despite being perfect; they were at fault for this despite the fact that god explicitly didn’t give them knowledge of good and evil. This sin makes all of their descendants for all time tainted. God decides not to fix this immediately, which would save all of humanity; instead, he first waits thousands of years in order to let the majority of us miss out on salvation because of geographical dispersion. In the meantime he also tries a bunch of other things, such as wiping out nearly all of the earth by physically impossible flood. Then his plan begins: he makes himself be born and has himself killed by some of us, except he isn’t really killed — he comes back and almost immediately vanishes instead of going to confront the local authorities who would actually give the story credibility by writing it down. The only record which is left is a book mostly consisting of the history of a bloodthirsty bronze- and iron-age tribe, followed by the semi-contradictory recollections of the followers he himself criticized as faulty, lots of text on the vital nature of faith by people who incorrectly believed that the world was soon to end, and visions from a drug addict. This book is then repeatedly badly edited, tinkered with, and mistranslated, and is open to interpretation as metaphor nearly throughout. He did this because he loves us all, and as a result, he can forgive a relatively small number of us who hear all this and believe, and probably also get dunked in water under supervision of a priest. The rest of us are given a small taste of his mercy by being condemned to eternal suffering instead of forgiveness or even oblivion.

    I don’t know what sort of cognitive dissonance you’ll employ this time, but Occam’s Razor says: it’s all a lie. You already believe that a majority of the world (combined, believers in the world’s other religions are definitely in the majority) live and fight and die for lies, mainly because a corrupt few use those lies as a meal ticket, although you would probably use gentler language than that. Well, although I know it’s probably a wrench — I’m not being sarcastic here; doubting a truth you have long accepted without criticism is hard — think for a minute about the possibility that the early Christians, as suggested by the story of Peter, Ananias, and Sapphira, were con artists living off their dupes (and occasionally activist dupes), and that you have been sucked into a structure built on top of their lies. It explains without any contortions all sorts of things which require a lot of hemming and hawing and headscratching otherwise. It doesn’t make you evil; it just makes you human, like the rest of us.

  • shifty

    Hi Mollie, I’d like to thank you for continuing to post here. Your views provide a lot of insight and perspective. I dare say that you show much bravery and commitment to walk into the lion’s den to defend your beliefs. I’d like to get back to your comment on children. I have three. I try to teach them about all of the worlds religions and beliefs in an objective fashion. In doing so they have developed their own sense of critical thinking. The similarities and contradictions are obvious, kids ask questions, we research the answers together. If they find a belief system to their liking they are free to choose. They are incredibly well adjusted and have a healthy respect for others. Imagine, all this in the absence of a strict religious education. I really don’t care if they become theistic or not as long as they are happy and treat others in the spirit of the law of reciprocity. What I’d like to know is: Do you have they courage of your convictions and are you secure enough in your own beliefs to offer your children the same opportunity? Are people’s religious beliefs so tenuous, so fragile that they are afraid that they can’t even stand up to logic, reason and the queries of children?