“Religions are contradictory”, or, “Bible is contradictory, the Quran is contradictory”, is what we say, but sometimes we fail to notice that this is not enough, that we definitely need to deal with this with more depth. Are all contradictions the same, revealing the same type of mental process? Can we think of contradictions that are not really that contradictory, but betray a common theme and mentality underneath? Is it enough to point out a contradiction as a failure of rationality, and is that enough for understanding? Can contradiction justify different readings because there is a contradiction per se? and most importantly, do contradictions matter to us, the atheists, more than useful tools to deconstruct religion?
I think we mean different things when we talk about contradictions, and thinking about contradictions and what they mean is very useful when we talk about contradiction.
So what different things we are talking about, when we talk about contradiction?
One simple form of contradiction is continuity errors. The Bible is ultimately a narrative text, telling a story from the Genesis to the end of times and also the life of Jesus. This story sometimes has continuity errors. This website lists many of them. Here is an example:
3. How many fighting men were found in Judah?
- Five hundred thousand (2 Samuel 24:9)
- Four hundred and seventy thousand (I Chronicles 21:5)
4. God sent his prophet to threaten David with how many years of famine?
- Seven (2 Samuel 24:13)
- Three (I Chronicles 21:12)
These continuity errors can be used to prove that Bible is not a word of god, as an omniscient entity would not make such silly mistakes. Whether you consider Bible a divine symbolic story or the actual history of the world, the contradictions disprove it and show that it cannot be written by a divine and omniscient story teller.
But continuity errors are not the fascinating contradictions. Fascinating contradictions are those that seem to convey a contradiction in values, like verses that seem to advertise violence, next to verses that seem to ask for peace. Take a look at these verses, both from New Testament:
But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence. (source)
If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. (source)
Both of these verses are from the same book, Luke. Surely, if someone is supposed to turn the other cheek, then they can’t support killing someone simply because they don’t believe? There is an apparent contradiction between the violent intolerance of the first verse with the masochistic pacifism of the second one. Now, let’s take a look at these two verses from Quran:
They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah . But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper. (source)
There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. (source)
Again, the second verse seems so lovely and tolerant, yet the first verse seems completely intolerant. How do we explain these? Here I can think of some reactions we atheists can have towards contradictions like this.
We can say that yes, this is a contradiction, and there is indeed no coherence explicit and implicit in the religious texts, and therefore anyone is free to pick and choose any of these verses as they like and nothing is wrong, because that shit is all made up. I find this answer mostly unsatisfying. I find it hard to believe that something lacking a unified organic theme would mean so much in history, and would shape the minds of so many people. The fact that they are made up stories doesn’t mean much here, because stories have unified themes and organic wholes too. The stories are open to various valid interpretation, all stories, however, there are many factors that limit the number of possible interpretations and yet there is some common spirit to all of those valid interpretations, and people can discuss them.
We don’t treat any other text like that. We are aware that Homer was most probably a number of different people, and that Iliad and Odyssey were written throughout the ages, like the Christian myths. But still we try to find a common theme and a common meaning, even though this pursuit might result in various valid answers. The reason is that we ultimately consider the text before us a living entity in the present, which is treated as a unified whole by the modern reader and understood as such. The history of the writing of a text does not invalidate its unity.
This does not mean that there is no merit to the attitude I described. It is quite possible that there are parts and passages in the religious texts that are simply too contradictory, and that we can find no unity between them. But the problem is, sometimes atheists don’t even try, they look at the textual contradiction and that is easy and enough for them.
There are many ways to deal with such contradictions.
One way is to provide historical context and show how the passage of time explains that. Like, some experts say that the verses belonging to Mecca period are more pacifistic and the verses belonging to Medina era are more violent, which signals Mohammad’s change of attitude as he rose to power.Or I have read some scholars mentioning how a particular verse was added at one point in history and what was the purpose of the person who added that. This is of course something that should be handled by history experts like Dr. Richard Carrier.
And sometimes the context might genuinely justify the contradiction. I mean, you might be against one war and for another, few people are uniformly hawkish or pacifist, and your reasoning might be justifiable. Maybe if someone took your words out of context and dealt only with their immediate meaning, they would appear contradictory too, while they’re not. Again, that is something the experts in history should do.
The other way to explain contradictions is to consider them as manipulation and preemptive defense. Now, you all have heard people who say “I’m not sexist/racist/homophobic but…” and have followed that up with something extremely sexist/racist/homophobic? That’s simply because that they are, and they seek to manipulate you, or to shun the derogatory label, or to deceive people into listening to them, however ultimately this is not really a contradiction that undermines their coherence. Maybe if one of these people became prophets, their liberal followers would loudly advertise the “I’m not sexist” part but ignore the second part, while atheists for pragmatic and/or genuine reasons said “Well, the holy text is contradictory, so you can’t say the liberals are wrong in choosing the moderate verse”.
Which is not true. When someone claims to not be a sexist, this is simply a claim, and when it is followed by multiple sexist remarks, it is completely valid to say that they have provided a completely coherent text which only has a false headline and disclaimer, and that liberal interpreters are wrong because they stick to the claim and ignore the textual evidence.
This is the way I felt about Quran. As I mentioned before, Surat Al-Nissa starts with the claim that women and men are equal, but then goes on to present the misogynist manifesto, saying that men are lords over women, that women’s inheritance and blood money should be half a man’s, that men can beat their wives if they are not obedient enough. To me, this is not much of a contradiction but more of a false claim. The same can be said about the verses dealing with things like violence. As I’ve said, the verse which says “religion is not compulsory” is immediately followed by a threat to send unbelievers to hell, which I think is the exact opposite of tolerance – you are free to choose another religion just in the same way that you are free to say no to a thug holding a gun to your head. It’s not a contradiction, rather an implied threat.
The other way to read these contradictions is to notice that forgiveness always goes one way, that is, a religious person is supposed to tolerate all the wrongs done to him/her but not those done to the religion. You are supposed to turn YOUR cheek when YOU are slapped. The stories like the Good Samaritan all suffer from the main thing.
Jesus (as the figure in the text with whose historicity we are not concerned here) doesn’t really oppose poverty, he fetishizes poverty, he never says “Help poor people” but says “become poor”, he never says “sinners are not repugnant and low”, he says “realize that you are a sinner”. Ultimately, the message is not one of tolerance but one of internalizing the slave mentality, to realize that you are worthless, sinful, and you can never save yourself without Jesus. New Testament is no less fascistic than the Old one or the Quran, it simply asks the followers to put their individuality at the door before they enter. And that shows that there is actually a unified purpose behind this contradiction and that is to create good soldiers for the ideology, the masochist part and the sadist part complement each other.
Quran is the same as well. Most people don’t catch it as contradictory, because Quran doesn’t garb the mentality in a shroud that might appear to a modern mind as tolerant, but Allah invokes the concept of forgiveness and mercy no less than Jesus. Every Quran surat begins with “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, and the fact that Allah is forgiving is advertised the entire time. But let’s a take a look at some verses:
But if one fears from the bequeather [some] error or sin and corrects that which is between them, there is no sin upon him. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. (source)
Those are the ones who have exchanged guidance for error and forgiveness for punishment. How patient they are in pursuit of the Fire! (source)
Then depart from the place from where [all] the people depart and ask forgiveness of Allah . Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. (source)
And this is my favorite in its passive-aggressiveness:
Then We forgave you after that so perhaps you would be grateful. (source)
Can we claim that there is contradiction between Allah claiming that he is forgiving, and then asking for unbelievers to be beheaded and have their fingers cut, and constantly talking about torturing people in Hell, is that a contradiction that frees Muslims to choose the forgiving Allah over the repressing Allah if the so choose?
I think the answer is manifestly no, because the forgiving Allah is indeed not tolerant. Forgiveness is reserved for those who “repent”, and who needs to repent? Indeed, everyone. You need to deny your own individuality and develop a slave mentality, and then you are “forgiven”.
One of the things we were taught in school and university was that we are all so sinful that we need Allah’s forgiveness, and if not then everyone excluding the Prophet would go to Hell. This is a very good repression tactic, making it clear that you are nothing in the eyes of Allah but a good soldier.
What I mean is, ultimately the “tolerant” parts of the Bible and Quran are a complement to the intolerant part. They are complete totalitarian ideological systems, and the system needs both parts. Ultimately, they might seem contradictory to the person coming to them with a purely rational attitude – but the cohesion is more emotional than rational, and they serve as two parts of a unified goal.
The feeling of worthlessness and righteousness at the same time, of being sinful yet above the sinners and capable of saving them, this is a mentality that sounds and looks paradoxical and contradictory, but it is ultimately not, it is a unified mentality geared towards one goal.
Religions are not as contradictory as some atheists perceive them to be, and ultimately, the contradictions do not give liberal theists a perfect opportunity to get away with their faulty interpretation. The three Abrahamic religions are inherently totalitarian, and in that they are cohesive.
What do you think?