Instruction Manual or Chronicle?

A few days ago, I had an epiphany that I think sheds considerable light on the difference between liberal and fundamentalist believers. This principle seems to me to be underappreciated, and if it was more widely understood, I think it might head off some of the misunderstandings which I’ve seen atheists commit. Here it is:

Fundamentalist believers view their sacred text as an instruction manual; liberal believers view it as a chronicle of events.

This difference is important in shaping the religious groups’ respective worldviews. In the eyes of the fundamentalists, the Bible (or Qur’an or Book of Mormon or whatever other text) is God’s word, dictated with infallible perfection to the minds of his followers. It’s meant to be the deity’s instruction manual, telling human beings everything we need to know about how to live. Therefore, every verse in it – whether explicitly directed at future readers or not – contains some lesson, some moral, whether implicit or explicit, that we should try to figure out and then apply to our own lives.

For liberal believers, by contrast, the Bible is not a direct pipeline to God, but a chronicle of events put together by human beings doing their best to interpret history in the light of their beliefs. God did not speak directly to his followers and tell them what to write down – or, at best, he only did so rarely. Instead, God’s followers tried to discern his will in the flow of events and infer what messages he meant to convey. Sometimes they guessed correctly, and therefore these books can provide valuable glimpses of insight into God’s character and desires; but other times they guessed incorrectly or let popular prejudices color their writing, and therefore these books, for all their beauty and complexity, inherit all the fallibility that human beings are prey to. To this group, scripture is a way to learn about human nature at least as much as it is a way to learn about God’s nature.

It’s the former group that atheists most often criticize, and with good reason. A person who reads about, for example, Joshua’s war of extermination against the Canaanites, and concludes that modern-day Christians have a similar mandate from God to subdue all nonbelievers, will likely pose a serious threat to the life and liberty of the rest of us. By reading the violent verses of scripture (and there are many such verses) as instructions to go and do likewise, believers become dangerously militant and dogmatic. Atheists are absolutely right to point out the evil and cruel nature of such a moral system and condemn the readings that inspire it. Granted, the fundamentalists are an easier target, but they’re also far more likely to be the ones trying to force their beliefs on others.

On the other hand, the liberal view is not subject to criticism in the same way, and we weaken our own case if we treat it as though it was. Pointing out how evil it would be to obey these violent verses is a meaningless criticism, because liberal believers do not believe these verses should be obeyed. They consider them just as flawed as we do.

However, that doesn’t mean the liberal position can’t be criticized. We just have to go about it in a different way, bearing in mind that the direct attack effective against literalists is not going to be effective.

First: Unless they believe that God spoke to one people exclusively – and most liberal believers don’t – then they should acknowledge that their own view of scripture as a chronicle implies that other cultures will also have had contact with God, and other religious texts will reflect the same interpretive process. Why, then, would a believer define themselves exclusively in the symbols and language of one particular religion? Why call yourself a Christian if just as much genuine understanding of God can be found in the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita as in the Bible? Why not rely equally on those texts in your weekly services? (Indeed, doesn’t any book, whether written in a religious context or not, convey something of humanity’s understanding of God?) Of course, most believers, whatever their views, rely mostly or exclusively on one text, which makes little sense given their own assumptions.

Second: What are the liberal believer’s criteria for deciding whether a given verse reflects God’s message or human error? Since they don’t credit all parts of scripture with equal truth, they must have some way to decide which verses to follow and which ones to disregard. In most cases this process is guided by the believer’s own moral intuitions and by the moral progress society has subsequently made. Now that we know slavery, racism and sexism to be evils, modern liberal theists disregard the parts of their text that teach these things. Other verses which have better stood the test of time are assumed to be true lessons from God.

However, once you’ve come this far, what do you need scripture for at all? Clearly, once a theist has reached this point, their own conscience is a superior and perfectly sufficient guide. And note that this approach works equally well if we assume that scripture has no divine revelation, but is wholly the product of fallible, conflicting humans. A reader can still employ their own conscience to decide which parts are good to follow and which should be rejected. Why, then, continue using the text which they have already admitted to be flawed? Why not discard it entirely and instead use reason to determine what ethical behavior consists of? At the very least, why not edit it, as Thomas Jefferson did, to keep only the good parts and get rid of the rest?

The final useful line of argument is one that works equally well against believers of all stripes. Namely, by what evidence do those believers conclude that their particular text reflects the will of God, in whole or in part? What makes them so certain that the text reflects any divine influence at all, rather than simply being the product of men, some of whom were benevolent and kind and some of whom were vindictive and cruel? Liberal believers acknowledge that the authors of scripture were wrong about many things. How do they know that those authors weren’t also wrong about the existence of God?

About Adam Lee

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

  • terrence

    At least for Catholics, the answer to your final question is “It doesn’t matter” — because Bishop Eusebius informed us that lying and forgery are permissible if it furthers the mission of the church.

  • velkyn

    The second point is the most important one to me. Most Christians, both liberal and literal, evidently use a magic decoder ring to figure out what parts of the Bible are “God’s Word” and which are simply from fallible humans. This magic decoder ring is called the “holy spirit” by both. Strange on how each side gets such different messages from what should be the same source. Both sides are simply projecting themselves on to their book. A decent person will always be a decent person and an evil one just that no matter what they read. They just get different excuses from the same book.

  • hb531

    Great post.You pose these questions in a very respectable manner. I hope that some religious folks take the time to post answers to these questions. This gets to the essence of questioning religion in general. Was it Dawkins or Hitchens that asked why religion is above scrutiny? This post clearly articulates the core questions that would be asked if religion was subject to the same criticism of any other statement of fact.

  • hb531

    Another important point worth asking is to what authority do the original texts get translated? AFAIK, the old testament was written in Hebrew (or Aramaic?). Who decides how passages are translated, when the meaning of the passage can be completely missed if the translator is not careful (or has ulterior motives)? Even the King James version is written in a language that many English speakers today have trouble with. And aren’t there even newer versions that are based on Kink James, opening the possibility of even further disparities with the original text? This is why I can respect the Jewish religion for maintaining the Torah in Hebrew, and it’s up to the religion’s constituents to learn the language in order to read the word of “god”.

  • bipolar2

    ** Without a context the word ‘god’ is meaningless **

    The ‘god’ of the state, the ‘god’ of theism, the ‘god’ of xianity are different, very different. To mark differences, I’ll use ‘MSG’, ‘Theos’, and ‘God’ as their proper names.

    Let’s first consider the presence of MSG in the Western cultural diet.

    Not the stuff that gives you headaches from Chinese restaurant take-out. No, I mean the Minimum Standard God. Philosophers can indulge themselves forever, and evolutionary biologists can await life’s arising from some self-organizing system. But, the U.S. Federal Courts have had to bring some reasonable specificity to the meaning of the word, ‘god.’

    And, the winner (surprise!) is one deistic divinity — what I call the Minimum Standard God within the Western Tradition, “MSG” for short.

    Courts have consistently held that ‘God’ as in the notorious “In God We Trust” refers to a one-size-fits-all unique deistic divinity — creator, sustainer of the universe consistent with Western tradition. The ‘god of the state’ belongs to no religion. It is an hypothesized philosophical entity.

    Just add personhood and meaningful interaction with human beings, and MSG thus “enriched” becomes SG, the supposed Theos outside of any particular big-3 monotheism. He (it’s default gender is male) is also an hypothesized philosophical entity. Mental slovenliness being what is, MSG takes on a coloration of Theos in popular culture.

    I expect U.S. courts to trot out MSG as precedent for beating back an atheist’s challenge to the ‘under God’ clause in the pledge of allegiance — MSG is today invoked before each Supreme Court session and each House of Congress opens with a prayer — recently by a Hindu who was booed from the House Gallery by radical xian know-nothings. (MSG not Theos was clearly the object of address.)

    The courts will argue that the concept of MSG does not violate the establishment clause. Traditionally, most Westerners averred that MSG would answer their basic notion of a ‘god.’ The MSG concept is certainly non-sectarian.

    No one is legally obligated to equate MSG with that moral monster embraced by the late (unlamented) “Rev.” Falwell. Or, the merely xian “God” of C.S. Lewis. Or, “God” as Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern.” And, deists can claim that their “God” has no more interest in the universe than the gods of Epicurus.

    >> “I ask God to rid me of ‘God’.” [Meister Eckhart]

    Unfortunately, tradition also dictates that MSG exists. It leaves open any god hypothesis, except of course denying the existence of a unique god, however bland. That is, however “logically weak” or “pared down” the concept. (MSG is “weaker” than SG.)

    Still remaining outside the sheepfold: secular humanists, Buddhists, Chinese ancestor worshipers, Shintoists, traditional Hindus, Wiccans, assorted polytheists, devil worshipers . . . those few too principled to be hypocrites . . . and legions of the wholly indifferent.

    The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution actually guarantees freedom of conscience to each citizen. Thus, each person is free to deny even the MSG of blessed tradition and to seek the foundations of morality in philosophy rather than theology, for example.

    Western tradition is also androcentric and paternalistic. That’s why MSG slyly assumes a masculine coloring (“He”), certainly not “She”, instead of the correct “It.”

    Some xians can perhaps jettison God’s misogyny and masculinity as culturally limited metaphor, but it’s hard to see how personhood could be eliminated as Hinduism has done with the Absolute (Brahman). And by parity of reasoning, Islam and Judaism are likewise inflexible.

    In general xianity has to grapple with how much of its so-called sacred text can be characterized as time-bound metaphor, myth-managed history, and quietly ignored. This task has been on-going for about 200 years under titles like “higher criticism” and “de-mythologicizing the NT.” [You can make evil spirits fly from the mouths of fundies if you dare to utter either of these phrases. Atheist exorcism!]

    bipolar2
    c. 2007

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    The dichotomy you’ve posited in this post does not match my former experience of Christian belief, nor does it match my experience of the beliefs actually held by liberal and conservative believers.

    For one thing, very conservative Christians with a proclivity for theocracy seem to believe (selectively, since few of them practice all of the OT laws) that the Bible is both an instruction manual and a chronicle of historical events. Less theocratic Christians who are nevertheless socially and politically conservative, don’t always hold to the “instruction manual” model, especially with regard to the Old Testament. They do, however, tend to believe that the Bible is a literal chronicle of actual events. Moderate and liberal Christians tend not to view the Bible as a chronicle of events. They generally read the book metaphorically and recognize that many of the “historic” books and passages in the Bible are more properly understood as legendary rather than historical. For them, the value of their scriptures lies in their capacity to inspire rather than to impart explicit moral instructions and historical data.

    Having said all that, you have articulated several good points with which to challenge liberal believers. It is difficult to challenge literalists effectively, because they usually fall back on the “I just believe because the Bible says it” sort of response. That type of unreason is not amenable to reasoning processes. It’s a waste of breath to try it. Liberal Christians, however, are generally more rational than their literalist compatriots. After all, they use reason to recognize that Genesis cannot be reasonably regarded as a literal account. Some don’t accept the virgin birth business at all and interpret resurrection as a spiritual phenomenon rather than a physical one. Having jettisoned this much of their scripture insulates them from one range of criticism, but leaves them prone to questions like those you’ve suggested.

  • LindaJoy

    Liberal Christians, to me, actually have the least correct interpretation or view of the Bible. They depend on being able to white-wash an awful lot stories in order to preserve a belief in the nature of Jesus and the resurrection. Fundamentalists have a more correct view of the nature of the God of the Old Testament (which liberals pretend isn’t there or is simply allegory) and the New Testament teachings of Paul and the other early church writers. It is impossible for liberal Christians to separate themselves from fundamentalists, as much as they protest and try, because they still hold up the same book as the “word of God”. The liberal/fundamentalist war raging within Christianity is simply a war of interpretation- who has the “right” interpretation of the nature of the scriptures. After reading the whole awful book, I’d say the fundamentalists are the winners…

  • Chad

    You’re correct that you are going to engage more Christians (like myself) in a conversation if you understand that it all starts with understanding the bigger story or reading “along” the whole Bible. To read along the Bible is to discern the single basic plot-line of the Bible as God’s story of redemption as well as the themes of the Bible that run through every stage of history and every part of the canon, climaxing in Jesus Christ. In this perspective, the gospel appears as creation, fall, redemption, restoration.

    Whereas, reading “across” the whole Bible is to collect its declarations, summons, promises, and truth-claims into categories of thought (e.g., theology, Christology, eschatology) and arrive at a coherent understanding of what it teaches summarily.

    The narrative understanding of scripture is where most of the Christ followers I know of fall. However, it’s a mistake to put up two camps: liberal and fundamentalist because most of us really are neither. As you and others correctly point out, the flaw with liberal Christianity is that someone is picking and choosing which parts they like. I think belief in the Bible as being the inspired word of God is essential for anyone using the word Christian. However, inspiration does not imply that every thing in it is literally true.

  • Serban Tanasa

    Some would argue that *Narratives* are important and that Atheists suffer from the lack of a narrative. The human mind is made to comprehend things presented in a narrative fashion, which is why Harry Potter is so much easier and more pleasant to read than a physics book, even though it’s all completely made up.

    Atheism needs a narrative.

    Since I posed the question, I will oblige. Read Stephen Hawking’s “A Bried History of time.” To top that, open your heart to the light and read Richard Dawkins. I won’t inflict the God Delusion, but I would recommend “The Blind Watchmaker” or “Unweaving the Rainbow.” That fills in for Genesis.
    Now, for the gritty and boring part at the middle of the OT that nobody reads, how about “History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell?
    Ecclesiastes? I would actually keep the Ecclesiastes.
    The Psalms? John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”
    Ezekiel’s Prophecies? That’s a tough one, but I would wager Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” perhaps? Just as twisted in meaning, passionate enough. And the part about men being a bridge is pretty prophetic.
    The New Testament? Again, this is still a work in progress, but I suspect that Ray Kurtzweil’s “Age of Spiritual Machines” is a good start.

    How’s that for a narrative?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Hey, interesting idea, Serban! Being freethinkers as we are, of course we have the right to choose our own ‘Scripture’ for inspiration, but I like your suggestion, not least because, by comparing it with the Bible, you’ve managed to stop it from needing to be even remotely perfect or always agreeable! I would have included some John Stuart Mill, though; I’m not precisely sure where . . .

    Nice distinction, Ebonmuse, and I’d have agreed with it on grounds of plausibility if we didn’t have Christians and former Christians here pointing out that categorising precisely what Christians of any stripe believe about the Bible can be quite difficult. Which makes things tricky for us, because it feels like they’re presenting a moving target.

    I’m waring of repeating the ‘picking and choosing’ claim precisely because it leads to comments like Chad’s:

    As you and others correctly point out, the flaw with liberal Christianity is that someone is picking and choosing which parts they like.

    No, no, no! The redeeming feature in liberal Christianity is that they allow their moral sense to supersede aspects of the Bible that might draw them towards evil! That’s much better than fundamentalist “consistency” based on an inconsistent book. Conscience and compassion forever!

    To read along the Bible is to discern the single basic plot-line of the Bible as God’s story of redemption as well as the themes of the Bible that run through every stage of history and every part of the canon, climaxing in Jesus Christ. In this perspective, the gospel appears as creation, fall, redemption, restoration.

    I disagree. The Bible makes much more sense when you understand that it does not have a single plotline. The authors of different parts of it disagreed on some things. It’s much more interesting when you can take the book as it is and see the fine distinctions, rather than trying to force it into a preconceived pattern.

  • terrence

    Zeus dammit, Chad, your comment is incoherent. “Belief is the Bible is essential, but not everything in it is literally true???” OK. I, TERRENCE, am the supreme Lord of the universe, as recorded in my holy book. You must believe. Of course, not everything in my book i9s literally true. WAY COOL escape hatch!!!

  • Robert Madewell

    I was raised fundamentalist and my wife is a liberal christian. That’s probably why my deconversion hasn’t affected our marriage drastically. You made a point that fundies use the bible as a manual, but I disagree. Fundies usually have “modern moral” guidelines too. However, when they are confronted with atrocities like dueteronomy 21:18-21, they simply use the “under grace” escape hatch. In other words, they also ignore the bad parts, but instead of saying that the offensive passage is not part of god’s word, they say instead that we’re under grace now and that verse only applied to jews living before Jesus. That’s a nice little escape hatch. My argument is a simple question, “Was it OK for parents to stone their children 2000 years ago?” The modern morality usually wins out. They usually say, “No, it’s never good to kill your children.”

  • http://mondodiablo.wordpress.com Hellbound Alleee

    I suppose you could say offhand that people were “doing their best” to chronicle events–if you believe that 1950′s school history textbooks “did their best” to tell the truth about the history of America. A person can always “do their best,” but the term “best” can mean an awful lot of things when there’s a group of people with weapons standing behind you. What did “their best” mean in mid-century Russia?

    And what if you have a big fat agenda–keeping a religion alive–while you’re doing your “best” to chronicle “events” like virgin births, or superhero gods? How best is “best” when you’re looking at someone else’s work and embellishing it? (Gospels)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Hi Chad,

    As you and others correctly point out, the flaw with liberal Christianity is that someone is picking and choosing which parts they like.

    Actually, I don’t think this is a flaw unique to the liberal denominations of Christianity. Every Christian sect and individual picks and chooses which parts of the Bible to follow, of necessity. They do this not just because there are many contradictory instructions, but because many parts are obviously bad ideas. As Robert Ingersoll put it:

    If a man would follow, to-day, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New, he would be insane.

    The difference between liberals and fundamentalists, as I see it, is that liberals explicitly proclaim the verses they don’t follow to be erroneous, whereas fundamentalists generally come up with contorted reinterpretations to explain why the verses they aren’t following are no longer applicable or don’t mean what they apparently say. I think you can guess which one I consider to be the superior method. My point isn’t to fault Christian liberals for their faulty method, but to point out their inconsistency in not following it to its logical conclusion.

    I quite agree with Lynet’s perceptive remark: the fact that people pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow based on conscience is a good thing. I’m glad that many denominations ignore the verses instructing women to submit to men and be silent in church. I’m glad that they ignore the verses about stoning gays and adulterers. I’m glad that they ignore the verses about handling snakes and drinking poison. I think these are all signs of a good person with a developed conscience and sense of reason. I just want to know why it is that they continue to believe in any part of a book as the word of God at all.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    For the Chaplain:

    For one thing, very conservative Christians with a proclivity for theocracy seem to believe (selectively, since few of them practice all of the OT laws) that the Bible is both an instruction manual and a chronicle of historical events.

    Oh, I’m not saying that conservatives don’t also believe the Bible is a history of true events. Obviously they do believe that, which is why we have creationists and other such groups. What I meant by the “instruction manual” remark is that, in my experience, many conservative Christians believe that every story in the Bible was put there by God in order to impart some moral to modern readers. Stories of godly people show what behaviors we should emulate; stories of wicked people show what sins we should avoid.

    Hence, the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is actually an argument against allowing gay marriage, the success of David and Solomon’s kingdom shows why we should incorporate religion into the state, the six-day creation is God saying that evolution is false, the Fall from Eden is there to tell us that good Christian wives obey their husbands, and so on. The point of reading the story, in their eyes, is not just to learn what happened but what lesson we should take away from it. (I’ve noticed that many fundamentalists apply the same morality-play approach to more recent events in history – like the ones who proclaim that any natural disaster is God’s judgment on the affected area for sin X.)

    Moderate and liberal Christians tend not to view the Bible as a chronicle of events. They generally read the book metaphorically and recognize that many of the “historic” books and passages in the Bible are more properly understood as legendary rather than historical. For them, the value of their scriptures lies in their capacity to inspire rather than to impart explicit moral instructions and historical data.

    Again, I wouldn’t disagree, but I think viewing many parts of the text as allegorical or literal doesn’t exclude my interpretation.
    Certainly many of the early parts of the Bible that have a mythic character, like creation, the Flood or the Tower of Babel, are best understood as allegories. However, I think it’s reasonable to say that most liberal believers consider these allegories to be people’s best (although fallible) interpretations of the messages God meant to convey to his people. And most of the later parts of the Old Testament and onward are generally viewed as historical, although error or amendment may have crept in where the authors wanted to make a particular theological point.

  • LindaJoy

    To Chad- OK, let’s not really read the Bible, let’s read “along” the Bible to find the “single, basic plot line”. God created the world and decided that a small group of desert dwellers (the Jews) were his favorite of all the humans he created. But, these Jews kept pissing him off and flirting with other gods that God didn’t seem to be able to do anything about. God finally decided that he didn’t like Jews anymore. So, he impregnated a virgin Jewish woman with his special Son to send one last message to his Jews. They didn’t listen, so he created Christians and they became his favorite humans. The End. Oh, yes- don’t forget- those Christians were finally able to solve that problem of all those pagan gods that used to get on God’s nerves. There you have it. The story of the creation, fall, restoration and redemption- not of mankind, but of God. Now, isn’t my interpretation of the basic plot line as good as yours?

  • DamienSansBlog

    Well said. I would caution against the use of the word “epiphany” to describe your insight, though…

    (Insert wink here.)

  • lpetrich

    terrence, where did Bishop Eusebius claim that lying and forgery are permissible if it furthers the mission of the church?

    Also, I find many “liberal” Xians almost desperate to defend the supposed absolute perfection of the Bible by being willing to come up with extremely contrived explanations for embarrassing parts of that book. That makes them seem like Biblical inerrantists, it must be said, given their reluctance to openly acknowledge Biblical errancy.

    And on that subject, I wonder if anyone ever claims that God had inspired some Biblical errancy in order to warn us against being too literal-minded about that book.

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    I agree with Chad on two counts: 1) Many Christians today (including me) read the Bible as narrative, and 2) Most Christians don’t identify as either fundamentalist or liberal.

    I would add that I personally don’t believe the Bible to be God’s Word and don’t think it offers proof of God’s existence. It is a book written by believers for believers, and hasn’t much use outside that context. It has its flaws, certainly, but it also has passages that can lead to serious re-evaluation of one’s priorities. As such, I wouldn’t say my own conscience determines which parts I should follow and which parts I should ignore. It’s more a wrestling with difficult parts that shapes both my conscience and my understanding of Scripture.

    At my own blog I’ve written a brief response to Ebonmuse’s criticisms of “liberal” Christians, for anyone who cares to take a look.

  • Chad

    Ebonmuse, I think the Ingersoll quote is interesting but incomplete:

    “If a man would follow, to-day, the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be a criminal. If he would follow strictly the teachings of the New, he would be insane.”

    Regarding the first part of the quote, the vast majority of what I read from Hitchens or Dawkins or others is that they are criticisms of religion and of the Old Testament. Christians are called to live by the New Testament not the book of Leviticus. It doesn’t mean the Old Testament is irrelevant, but it’s part of a bigger story which is centrally about love rather than wrath. Christ clearly taught “love your enemies” which is in direct contradiction to “eye for an eye” so, sure you can call it hypocrisy or selective understanding if you like, but it’s not if you look at it as a new covenant that did not so much eliminate the validity of the old, but rather flipped it on its head. Christianity starts and ends with Christ – any other criticisms are interesting, but usually tangential and miss the point.

    The second part of the quote states that a man would go insane by strictly following the teachings of the New Testament. In the case of someone like Tolstoy, this would very nearly be true. If you read Christ say “Be ye perfect”, you will go crazy trying to do that, but you’d also be missing the point. It’s not about us living perfectly or saving ourselves. If we were able to, there would be no need for Christ.

    Also, what of Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Gandhi (I know, I know he wasn’t a Christian, but from whose teachings did he derive his methods)? They tried as best they could to enact Christ’s teachings and, instead of going insane, they changed the world for the better. It’s always easier to criticize than it is to offer a better, more compelling vision. What other belief system inspires people to sacrifice themselves in service of others? And why is that automatically assumed to be such a horrible, repressive thing?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Christians are called to live by the New Testament not the book of Leviticus. It doesn’t mean the Old Testament is irrelevant, but it’s part of a bigger story which is centrally about love rather than wrath.

    Anyone who reads the Old Testament for what it says could not be blamed for getting the opposite impression. And even the New Testament, allegedly a gospel of love, contains the clear teaching that the overwhelming majority of humankind will be condemned to an eternity of unimaginable torture. You’ll understand if I don’t consider that a message of hope.

    The second part of the quote states that a man would go insane by strictly following the teachings of the New Testament. In the case of someone like Tolstoy, this would very nearly be true. If you read Christ say “Be ye perfect”, you will go crazy trying to do that, but you’d also be missing the point.

    I suspect Ingersoll wasn’t referring to the NT’s teachings about moral perfection, but rather the fact that following what it plainly says would result in the believer becoming a penniless, wandering vagrant, abandoning spouse, parents and children and traveling the world to cast out demons and preach bizarre parables about the imminence of the apocalypse.

    They tried as best they could to enact Christ’s teachings and, instead of going insane, they changed the world for the better.

    Please note that Ingersoll’s quote mentioned strictly following the teachings of the New Testament. Bonhoeffer and those others you mentioned did good works, yes, but they, too, picked and chose which verses to obey and which to disregard.

    It’s always easier to criticize than it is to offer a better, more compelling vision. What other belief system inspires people to sacrifice themselves in service of others?

    Many belief systems, of course, including atheism. As for the rest of your point, I’ll quote from a previous post of mine, “The Basis for an Atheist’s Morality“:

    Religion has inspired great acts of charity and selflessness, beautiful music, art and architecture, and countless examples of human kindness and compassion. It has also inspired horrific, bloody wars, brutal inquisitions, tyrannical theocracies, fanatical campaigns of terror, and countless incidents of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry.

    Far from being a force that pulls ceaselessly toward the moral apex of the universe, religion is more like a megaphone, amplifying both the good and the bad of human nature in equal measure. This is not surprising to an atheist, because there is no objectively verifiable evidence of any god who wants people to behave in any particular way. As a result, people can without fear of contradiction invent a god who speaks for them, who confirms all their opinions and prejudices – and this is exactly what all religious people do, the liberal as well as the conservative.

  • OMGF

    Also, what of Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Gandhi (I know, I know he wasn’t a Christian, but from whose teachings did he derive his methods)?

    I’m not familiar with Bonhoeffer, but MLK Jr. got his ideas from Gandhi, and Gandhi got his ideas from the Jains.

  • LindaJoy

    Chad- you have to be kidding about Jesus being a benign teacher of love only. As a child, he slipped away from his parents, and when they finally found him after searching frantically, he pooh-poohed their concern and never apologized for worrying them. He said at one point that he brought a sword that would divide families. He said that his mission was to minister only to the Jews, and initially treated a non-Jewish woman who came to him for help with contempt. He rejected his family when they came to see him. He was rude to his mother at the wedding in Cana when she mentioned the wine problem to him. When a new disciple asked for time to attend a family funeral before joining Jesus, Jesus said “let the dead bury the dead”- follow me now or never. Having said all that, I don’t think any of those stories are based on any fact or evidence. That’s probably why the character of Jesus was so inconsistent. As for Martin Luther, look up the history of this man. He wrote a book called “Jews and their Lies” along with many other anti-semetic litty dittys. He encouraged the people to burn the Jews temples. He sided against the peasants and with the wealthy landowners. His works were sited by Hitler as an inspiration. He also called reason, “the devil’s whore” and was very anti-science. One of the biggest problems with religionists is that they don’t know much about the history of their own faith (or of the so-called heroes of religion) and don’t study much of the historical context surrounding the texts that they hold in such high esteem. Mythologies throughout history from all kinds of cultures are full stories that teach the very same morals and initiate the same kinds of deep personal thinking that you say the Bible gives you. There is nothing lesson-wise that is original to this text, in fact, most of it is borrowed. Look up some of the pagan characters that were worshipped in that area of the world at that time in history. You will find the whole life story of “Jesus” in them, from birth to resurrection.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “They tried as best they could to enact Christ’s teachings and, instead of going insane, they changed the world for the better. ” — Chad

    Chad –

    I’m not so sure you’d ought to assert the goodness of Gandhi’s work. The main struggle in his life was for the eviction of British rule in the Subcontinent; yet when that independance arrived, almost a billion people promptly started murdering each other [over religious beliefs, naturally]. Of course, not his intent, but he certainly bears some of the responsibility.

    Thereafter, several wars were fought between the two emergent states, India and Pakistan. Finally, we live in an age where two nations now composed of hundreds of millions of fanatics are armed with rocket-mounted nuclear warheads. How this is an improvement escapes me, to be honest.

    In 1943, Gandhi advocated the cessation of the war against Japan — a morally ambiguous position even in the most generous light. His hunger strike, and the Brits going along with it, aroused riots that killed thousands.

    Additionally, according to Sam Harris, ole Mahatma advocated protest-suicides by Hitler’s victims as a means of stopping him. Thankfully, this advice was not taken; but can you see the resultant evil had it been adopted? I’ve heard of appeasement as a policy, but that’s a tad extreme for my taste. Of course, not a literal changing of the world — it never came to pass — but certainly a deficit to your assertion.

    The popular picture of Gandhi-as-good-guy may well be true [on an individual level], but his acts had evil repercussions. And as Dear Ole Dad used to say, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Lynda –

    I believe Chad is referring to Martin Luther King of the American civil rights movement, not Martin Luther of Germany, who, aside from your fine reminders of his bigotry, directly helped to bring about the third-bloodiest war in human history, the Thirty Years’ War.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Thump,

    Regarding ghandi, I never thought about it that way. That’s quite insightful and eye-opening, I gotta say.

  • Chad

    I’ll try to cover the recurring criticisms I see in the last several comments.

    First, Hitler invoking the name of Christ is a far cry from his being anything near a true follower of Jesus. People and politicians all over the world invoke Christ’s name to grab power as I know you are all aware. Besides, just as I wouldn’t associate atheists as a group with this whack job here in Colorado that just shot up a couple churches, I would hope all followers of Christ would not be associated with the worst possible examples ever to mention Christ when the atrocities they commit completely conflict with his teachings.

    Second, the whole idea of eternal damnation is much misunderstood IMO. That’s not to say there is no hell. According to the Bible, there definitely is, but it’s a matter of choice the way I read it. As C.S. Lewis says there are two types of people: Those who say to God, thy will be done and those to whom God says thy will be done. God’s wrath is not anything like human emotion or anger. It’s a theological statement about consciously breaking away from God and suffering the consequences of this isolation. God’s wrath is not like my getting mad at someone driving too slow in the fast lane. It’s not God gleefully throwing people into a lake of fire.

    Third, I completely disagree with the premise that Christ only preached to Jews or was at all discriminatory. Christ made a Samaritan the hero of his parable on how to treat “neighors” (Luke 10:29). This would have been unheard of at the time. Samaritans were racially mixed, considered inferior and largely despised at the time. Also, it’s easy to overlook just how revolutionary the apostle Paul’s teaching of “neither male nor female, slave nor free” was at the time. Very, very progressive stuff.

    Lastly, Christ bringing a “sword” has a very different interpretation than commonly understood. While the ultimate end of the gospel is peace with God, the immediate result of the gospel is frequently conflict with the modern world. Coming to believe in Christ has often resulted in strained family relationships, persecution, and even death at times. Following Christ presupposes a willingness to endure such hardships. The sword is a metaphor of struggle. Jesus demands total commitment from his followers.

    As an aside, I actually agree with Thump in terms of a lot of what he’s saying about Gandhi. I don’t mean to hold him up as an ideal in all ways. His proposed response to the Nazi’s was a disgrace. But, it remains that he adhered to certain teachings such as “turn the other cheek” in ways that profoundly and effectively revealed the evil nature of the perpetrator of cruelty. This brought to the life the true meaning of Christ’s teaching.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Besides, just as I wouldn’t associate atheists as a group with this whack job here in Colorado that just shot up a couple churches…

    Particularly since, from all accounts, he wasn’t an atheist but a disgruntled ex-member who was seeking revenge for being thrown out of the church’s missionary training program.

    That’s not to say there is no hell. According to the Bible, there definitely is, but it’s a matter of choice the way I read it.

    Even if that’s true, I don’t see how it mitigates the problem. Regardless of your view of the nature of Hell, the New Testament teaches that the large majority of people are going there for eternity, while only a comparative handful will be saved. Do you consider that to be a view that fills you with hope? Does that teaching strike you as cause for rejoicing?

  • lpetrich

    In the Gospels, Jesus Christ was rather consistently anti-family.

    Matthew 8:21-22, Luke 9:59-62 — he tells someone who wanted to bury his father “Let the dead bury the dead.” Is that supposed to be a joke? Sort of like “Burying dead relatives is for losers.”

    Matthew 10:34-37, Luke 12:51-53, Luke 14:26 — he announces that he’s going to break up everybody’s families, and that anyone who prefers their families to him are unworthy of him.

    Matthew 12:46-48, Mark 3:31-34, Luke 8:20-21 — his real family is not his biological family but his followers.

    Matthew 19:29, Luke 18:29-30 — he insists that his followers desert their biological families.

    Matthew 23:9 — don’t call your human father your real father.

    Luke 2:42-51 — he was very snotty to his parents. As a boy, he and his parents used to visit the Jerusalem Temple, and one time, he studied with the scholars there and forgot about his parents. And when they find him, he was not the least bit apologetic. “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” and he demonstrated how super-learned he was.

    John 2:4 — he was snotty to his mother.

  • LindaJoy

    Chad- I’m sorry, but your comment about Paul being “progressive”, ignoring all that he said about women, just bolsters my argument that you seem to read these texts with an automatic skip mode. And all the layering of intellectual interpretation that you heap upon this book makes it totally unrecognizable- like your “interpretation” of Jesus’ sword comment. Do you honestly think that all that stuff you came up with about conflict with the modern world, strained family relationships, etc. etc. is what Jesus meant when he supposedly said all that? This is what I mean about Christians who white-wash what is written in this book. They mind bend this stuff to the point of ridiculousness and make it all so mysterious and complicated and full of gobbily-gook, it gives one listening to it or reading it a headache. I supposed I sound disrespectful of your opinion, but I really do believe that if you put your ideas into a public forum, then you have to be prepared to have them scrutinized and held up to the measuring stick of reason and rationalism, especially if they are religious in nature. For all too long, the religious point of view as to how the universe works had held sway and been held above scrutiny. I really hope, Chad, that you take the time to read this texts with a skeptics eye, with the mind of a book reviewer who has no investment in whether this book passes muster or not. Maybe read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. At the very least, read the whole book. Paul- a progressive??? Really!!

  • OMGF

    Chad,

    First, Hitler invoking the name of Christ is a far cry from his being anything near a true follower of Jesus. People and politicians all over the world invoke Christ’s name to grab power as I know you are all aware. Besides, just as I wouldn’t associate atheists as a group with this whack job here in Colorado that just shot up a couple churches, I would hope all followers of Christ would not be associated with the worst possible examples ever to mention Christ when the atrocities they commit completely conflict with his teachings.

    Ebon already pointed out that he was not a atheist. I wanted to touch on something else though. I agree that we shouldn’t necessarily condemn a group of people for the actions of one or a few. Xianity isn’t wrong because Hitler was a bad person. That said, your statement smacks of the No True Scotsman fallacy.