10 Skeptical Principles for Evaluating the Bible (2 of 2)

10 Skeptical Principles for Evaluating the Bible (2 of 2) March 18, 2019

Let’s conclude our ten principles for evaluating the Bible. This list is in response to a Christian version by Jim Wallace, “Ten Principles When Considering Alleged Bible Contradictions,” critiqued here. Part 1 of my skeptical list is introduced here.

Let’s continue.

6. Missed opportunities count

God could’ve given us soap or told us that the earth is a sphere. Jesus could’ve eliminated all disease—and poverty, war, and famine while he was at it. But they didn’t.

What does that tell you? Apologists will say that the Bible isn’t a science textbook (though many will then take the Creation story literally). They’ll say that it simply wasn’t part of the plan for God to make life easy or even make the Bible message obvious so that there would be no need for the thousands of denominations of Christianity.

Even though the Bible doesn’t tell us anything that wasn’t already known to people of that time and place, that doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist. But what can we learn from the fact that the Bible is ambiguous and contradictory, that life on earth sucks for many people, and that the “God” character has no more knowledge or wisdom than the primitive people who wrote his story? This world and all the problems in it do not look like they were created by an all-loving and omnipotent deity.

7. If it looks like a book written by a primitive people, it almost certainly is

The best explanation for the Bible is that primitive people of the time wrote the story and that the Bible is just the blog of an early Iron Age desert tribe. We can’t ignore the many examples of mythology from other ancient cultures, and the Bible looks like just one more.

We need an enormous amount of evidence to conclude that Babylonian Enuma Elish or the Hindu Vedas are mythology, but the Bible, which looks so similar, is actually history.

8. Natural evidence provides poor support for a supernatural conclusion

Many Christians “just believe,” but to get there by an intellectual route takes much evidence. On one hand, we can suppose that an omniscient god who wanted to convince us that he existed would be able to reach the most skeptical atheist. For example, God could reveal himself to everyone on the same day so that we would have everyone else’s verification that our senses are reliable.

But how would you rule out very intelligent aliens? Imagine if you went back just 200 years in time with today’s modern technology—antibiotics, telephones, CGI movies and Photoshopped photos, airplanes, weapons, and so on. It would be easy to convince many people that you were a god.

Now imagine how we’d respond to someone from a technology 200 years more advanced than us. Now make it two million years. If they wanted to convince us that they were the creator of the universe, how would we know any different? (More.)

Consider from a more abstract level the problem of finding proof for the supernatural. Using natural evidence to prove the existence of the supernatural may be like Flatlanders using evidence in their 2D world to prove that there is a 3D world out there. (More.)

9. Don’t read in your own desires

Was God wrong to demand genocide or not? Did God demand human sacrifice or not? Did God approve of slavery and polygamy or not?

Christians are often quick to come to God’s rescue to find counter-verses to argue that God shares our modern sensibilities on these matters. (One wonders why God can’t make things clear himself, but never mind.) These apologists are certain that they and God are on the right side of these moral matters despite what a plain reading of the Bible indicates.

And while they’re at it, they’ll find support for their own particular views on homosexuality, abortion, and other social issues—either pro or con, it doesn’t matter because the Bible can be mined to find support for just about anything..

The honest critic lets the Bible speak for itself. If it seems to contradict itself, that may be explained by the many books of the Bible coming from many authors from different cultures and with different ideas of God.

10. Don’t presuppose God

The Christian set of 10 principles ended with this one: “Remember who’s boss.” That is, don’t forget that God is in charge and that we aren’t empowered to judge him. Whether the problem is ambiguity or contradictions in the Bible or evil in the world, we can’t even understand the situation enough to convict him.

But of course this simply starts with the conclusion. We can’t start by assuming that God exists and the Bible is his word any more than we’d start a critique of Islam, Mormonism, or Scientology with an assumption that they were correct. We’re not trying to judge God but simply decide if the Bible is anything more than what it looks like, an ancient myth.

Bonus: #11. Don’t abdicate your role as judge

There is no objective authority to lean on. As a Christian, you might rely on a pastor, televangelist, or biblical scholar. You can read the Bible, trying to resolve its various interpretations applied by its various partisans. And still the problem remains—you take their input, but the buck stops with you.

You ain’t much, but you’re all you’ve got.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is,
it doesn’t matter how smart you are.
If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
— Richard P. Feynman

.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/16/15.)

Image from Martin Thomas, CC license

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  • But what can we learn from the fact (…) that the “God” character has no more knowledge or wisdom than the primitive people who wrote his story?

    Even worse, sometimes God’s level of wisdom (and morality) is lower than those of his worshippers – Abraham negotiating with God on behalf of Sodom comes to mind.

    • Michael Neville

      According to the propaganda Yahweh’s morality is lower than mine. I don’t kill people because I’m feeling annoyed, Yahweh can’t say the same thing.

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        This brings a great quote by Tracie Harris to mind:

        You either have a god who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a god who simply watches it and says, ‘When you’re done, I’m going to punish you.’ If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your god.

        • Chuck Johnson

          But Tracie, God gave us Christians the free will to be credulous.

        • nevbig

          angels and people r free spirits th e almighty deals as he may .

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          Huh?

    • TheBookOfDavid

      Not to forget Moses talking God out of snuffing out the entire population of the Exodus (Ex 32:10).

    • C_Alan_Nault

      And god cheats ( according to the Bible) when he wrestles ( Genesis 32:24-30)… and still manages to lose.

    • I’ll never cease to repeat it: the omni*** deity does not bother to mention the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, or the actual composition of the Milky Way -stuff that can be discovered with a rudimentary telescope so I’ll cut some slack and will talk about no mentions of the Higgs field, galaxies, etc.-, nor other continents despite claims of some Fundies. How odd.

    • Chuck Johnson

      Or God and Satan placing bets on Job’s reactions to their pranks.
      Youtube would have demonetized the both of them.

    • nevbig

      bible lit is history nd prophecies .

      • Greg G.

        The best of biblical history is political spin. The rest is fiction. Biblical prophecy depends on gullibility for the fiction designed to looked fulfilled. A man born of a woman is hardly a prophecy. A man born of a virgin is based on an LXX mistranslation.

        You are a basket case of religious brain damage.

        • nevbig

          rubbish .needs repeetin

        • Greg G.

          You are “repeetin” it because you can’t produce an intelligent response.

        • nevbig

          even atheists will share paradise earth .

        • Greg G.

          You keep hitting the Post button before you provide the evidence.

        • nevbig

          its gospel .

        • Greg G.

          It’s not evidence.

        • nevbig

          when desrts bloom u will be larnin and asked to choose .

        • Greg G.

          ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
              Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
          All mimsy were the borogoves,
              And the mome raths outgrabe.
                  –Lewis Carroll

        • nevbig

          mines better n ures .

        • nevbig

          harts afore smarts .

        • Or “be a ridiculous asshole before smarts,” as in in your case.

        • nevbig

          u allers loooz the subject .

        • Greg G.

          You put farts before smarts.

  • RichardSRussell

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could get these 10 principles displayed on the walls of every schoolroom and courthouse in America?

    • TheBookOfDavid

      Wouldn’t be sufficiently ceremonial or deistic.

  • eric

    Consider from a more abstract level the problem of finding proof for the supernatural. Using natural evidence to prove the existence of the supernatural may be like Flatlanders using evidence in their 2D world to prove that there is a 3D world out there.

    Meh, I try to not get too hung up on the “supernatural” label. If some devout Christians (and only Christians) could faith heal, walk on water, raise the dead, etc…. then I’d be willing to grant that there was likely something to the claim that Jesus could do those things too, and that this provides some initial, provisional evidence that Christian theology may have some other theological claims correct too. At that point, whether you posited that the mechanism for these events was ‘natural but not yet explained’, or ‘supernatural’, is irrelevant IMO – the point is, these are observations that tend to support the ‘Christianity’ hypothesis.

    The problem with supernatural claims like faith healing, ghosts, telepathy, etc. is not some definitional problem with the term ‘supernatural’ or a problem with human access to ‘supernatural’ things. It’s much simpler than that: the problem with these claims is a comprehensive record of empirical failure and negative test results.

    • JustAnotherAtheist2

      Meh, I try to not get too hung up on the “supernatural” label.

      As well you shouldn’t because it’s really just a shell game to imbue ignorance with phony legitimacy..

      At that point, whether you posited that the mechanism for these events was ‘natural but not yet explained’, or ‘supernatural’, is irrelevant IMO.

      Bingo. There is no distinction. “Supernatural” just happens to be a (poorly defined) subset of current untestable concepts.

      Frankly, saying things like “explanations have always been natural and never supernatural’ is the wrong tack to take because it unwittingly grants the flase credence theists are aiming for.

      • Greg G.

        “Supernatural” is a label that protects unsubstantiated beliefs from scrutiny.

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          Pretty much. Theists may be able to specify supernatural things that could be uncovered (souls, god) but they have no answer as to what differentiates thr supernatural from merely as-yet-undisovered natural, which makes blatant the illegitimacy of the term.

        • Chuck Johnson

          Stephen Jay Gould used to employ that trick.
          And then he pretended that the trick was scientific.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          ^^^Citation required.

        • Chuck Johnson
    • C_Alan_Nault

      I walk on water regularly….. but only in the winter.

  • NS Alito

    9. Don’t read in your own desires

    One fundamental subject I want all schoolchildren to learn, even before critical thinking and logical fallacies, are the properties of the human brain. The limbic system (or “reptile brain”, if you would) makes decisions that the cerebral cortex works to rationalize post-hoc, and there are beaucoup behavioral and fMRI studies to show that. You could give the student minor points for recognizing that thinking in others, and major points for recognizing that thinking in themselves.

    Our brains struggle to attain cognitive certainty, and it takes discipline to teach yourself how to accept and address uncertainty. It’s even harder to undo certainty after it has been established in your mind. (That’s why deconversion from being devout is so disorienting, and why “It’s easier to fool a man than to convince him he’s been fooled.”)

  • epicurus

    Anyone here old enough to remember Walter Martin and his Kingdom of the Cults book? That guy was a poster boy for applying Bob’s principles to other religions but couldn’t seem to use them on his own cult, err I mean faith system.

    • How they never apply their skepticism to themselves is amazing. The human condition, I suppose.

      • Chuck Johnson

        It’s the politics of self-aggrandizement.
        They are very strongly motivated to be on the winning side.
        To accomplish this, they fabricate a “winning side” practically out of thin air.

        Here is Fred Clark’s “Unbelievable” comment on this topic;
        https://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2019/03/19/unbelievable/

        • With that kind of nonsense believed, it’s hard to expect to make any progress on the Christian front.

    • Ficino

      I remember that! Weren’t the RCs one of the cults in Martin’s eyes?

      • epicurus

        Yeah, I think so.

  • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

    A little off-topic, but I wanted to disseminate here that I will be debating ‘Humanism vs Christian Faith’ on the You Tube channel ‘Modern-Day Debate’ tomorrow (3/22/19) at 8 pm eastern. Any tips are apreciated. This will be my first official debate.

    • Grimlock

      Good luck!

      I found this post, and the post series linked therein, to be very enlightening: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=1437

      What, precisely, is the subject? Is it which view is more accurate, or which is more beneficial, or..?

      • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

        My take is that I will be arguing against Christian faith and for humanism. I also wanted to say to you guys that the Q&A portion will be in the live chat (paying money is NOT necessary to get one’s question asked… and tap danced around:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCwhRRcAwdc&t=72m36s )

        • Otto

          Does morality prove God’s existence?

          Nope

        • Grimlock

          I hope you’ll share the video here when it’s out.

    • Otto

      Good luck!

      • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

        Thanks.

      • Greg G.

        I notice that your avatar and AGB’s photo are in the same pose and there is a resemblance. I upvoted a comment above and your avatar popped up side-by-side with his.

    • You’re familiar with the Humanist Manifesto 3, I’m sure, but I include the link for others who may not be familiar with it.
      https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/

      Another relevant document is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
      http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

      Or even the rights defined in the US Constitution (with amendments). Or even the tenets of the Satanic Temple.
      https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/tenets

      You might want to tick off the top 10 rights mentioned in documents like these, state that we likely are all in agreement that they are fundamental to Western society, and then ask where they are in the Bible. Or even to give the Bible’s position on those same rights. For example, democracy, voting, and freedom of religion and speech are core Western ideals. The Bible’s equivalent: autocracy/theocracy, rights (such as they are) to men only, and blasphemy.

      • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

        The format of the debate stands as thus:

        8 min openings
        4 min rebuttals
        4 min closings
        15 min of Q&A

        I’m not sure that I will get to most of those details, but I will reference all of them, broadly explain their common themes, and give my thoughts on how we came to these rights and protections and why they remain important to us now. Thanks for the links. If anything I hope that I can control my voice so listening to me won’t be grating and instead entertaining and enlightening.

        • Break a leg!

        • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

          Well, I crashed and burned, but my legs were the only things left of me, lol!

        • Susan

          Well,

          I was working and couldn’t check in.

          Do you have a link to the debate?

        • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz
        • Susan

          Oh, my.

          You let a pile of unsubstantiated assertions fly by without asking them to support their claims.

          And you let them make you defend your position in too many fields in which they have no expertise, (just demand) but are happy to insist that you erect an unassailable position.

          This is why I hate debates.

          They’re not interested in morality or truth, or even in what something like humanism might represent.

          They’re wasps defending their brand of Jesus.

          By attacking.

          Your error was in trying to have a discussion.

          And not being prepared for their strategies ahead of time.

          Don’t feel bad.

          They didn’t support their “moral” agent. They simply attacked your inability to explain morality without it.

          They didn’t show that they could explain morality with it.

          You never had to defend “moral relativism” (which has many different possible definitions, and it’s best not to bring it up. Just to ask them to be specific if they want to bring it up.)

          What they didn’t have to do was show their imaginary deity was a reliable standard for morality.

          That should be the focus. That’s their claim, implicit or explicit.

          Very good first attempt.

          I haven’t even tried it.

          I’m starting to consider it.

          All you can do is learn every time you enter the arena.

          You’re not dealing with good or honest thinking.

          They’re placing the burden on you for perfect theories for everything or Yahwehjesus wins.

          Which is insane.

          But they don’t see it that way.

        • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

          I see your criticism as wholly accurate. I was shit at preparation for this debate. I should have written more down rather than rely on memory. Thanks, Susan.

        • One thing that I’ve done is come with cheat sheets on the various arguments–the ones I’ve made in my opening and the ones they’re likely to bring up in theirs. As they do their rebuttal, I have those on the desk in front of me and I identify the responses I’ve already written up. Then, when it’s my turn, I can go through the marked-up pages and remember the responses to make.

          Several times, I’ve been able to say, “My opponent quoted person X talking about subject Y. But I notice he didn’t quote what he says on the very same page” and then read from my sheet. It makes me look like I’ve got an amazing command the minutia of all these arguments, but I’ve just anticipated the typical places he will go.

          Susan’s right, though–debates are more theater than education.

        • Susan

          I see your criticism as wholly accurate.

          I hope you noticed that I was mostly criticizing their tactics.

          You really have to gird your loins in these exchanges.

          Their tactics are designed to shift the burden… on a variety of complicated subjects, for which no one has perfect answers.

          That doesn’t make Yahwehjesus a good answer, which is what they’re trying to pull.

          I was shit at preparation for this debate.

          As Bob said, it’s a good idea to use cheat sheets, based on not letting them turn a defense into an offense.

          Keep in mind that I’m just a backseat driver, here.

          I didn’t prepare for a debate. You were the one who took it on.

          You thought reason would win out, and that would be the main part of the discussion.

          It never goes that way. They feign reason and shift the burden.

          Congratulations for taking it on.

          I hope you try again.

        • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

          I hoped my memory of what the hell was just said would win out. I can’t write down what people are saying as they say it. High school was manageable. This contributed a teensy part to why I gave up on university.

        • I hope it wasn’t as bad as that … but if it was, then you’re more experienced for next time!

        • Grimlock

          I listened to the first ten minutes or so. Would you be interested in some feedback?

        • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

          Yes.

        • Grimlock

          As a disclaimer, let me just say that I don’t have any experience with formal debates. I have a fair bit of experience with presenting and communicating, but would probably make an utter fool of myself in a debate. Anyhow…

          As I said, I only listened to the first 10-11 minutes of the debate. So I heard your opening statement, and the first few minutes of your opponent. So, based on thtat, a couple of observations, and corresponding suggestions:

          1. You talk at approximately half the speed of the other guy. I didn’t count, but if it was literally half the speed, I would not be surprised. In a debate contest, that means that the other guy can have twice your content. It also makes you seem hesitant by comparison.

          Thus, I suggest that you practice speaking faster.

          2. You spent a while getting to the point. I’d say that the first couple of minutes didn’t really contribute to you making your case. Your opponent went almost straight into his arguments, thus allowing him more content.

          I suggest pruning your opening remarks to make them more to the point, and keep your introduction and such to less than 30 seconds.

          3. I couldn’t follow your main argument against Christianity. Admittedly, I was multi-tasking at the time, but still. It was unfamiliar, long, and felt a bit rambling. Your opponent’s arguments were far more concise and to the point, not to mention easily digestible.

          I think you should make your case more concise.

          Your argument for humanism came off as you talking a bit about why you feel humanism is nice. Which is fine for a casual conversation, but a bit out of place for a debate. Once again, more concise is a good idea.

          That being said, it should be noted that I find it great that you’re not just arguing against Christianity, but also arguing for something.

          For next time – assuming you intend to do it again – I think you could consider getting someone to read through your opening remarks and give you feedback. It’s always useful to have some external input.

        • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

          No it doesn’t. I’d say the only thing I’d have a major problem with is talking faster. That is probably the fastest I have ever talked on the fly. My speach and even my concept of time tends to run much slower than everyone else. Unless I keep an eye on a clock, the minutes leave me in the dust. To this day I have only been diagnosed with a vague “processing disorder”.

          I think prep time before I even ask for a debate next time will be key. I feel like maybe I should practice by making some stand-alone videos, but getting to stuff after work is hard.

          Thanks for your feedback.

          Ps. My opening is based on my argument:

          The Supervisor Principle

          First rule concerning claims of and/or about the existence of any God and the supernatural:

          If a believer wants a non-beilever to observe media or public speakers claiming the existence of beings who are omnipresent (or at least not as spatially limited as humans) immortal (or at least still alive now and for the foreseeable future) persons (can receive, retain, and communicate information; has thoughts, likes, dislikes, and desires; can do most common human functions at least as well as the average human adult in otherwords) then those beings could do likewise for everyone to observe. If those beings can do that, then there is no necessity to rely on such media and public speakers as those medias’/public speakers’ non-existence would not hinder the observers’ consensus of the apparent existence of such beings.

          I Corrolary: Any such being not presenting the claims of and/or about their own existence can corroborate, contradict, or dismiss those claims made by humans.

          II Corrolary: Any human account of personal experiences with such beings necessarily implies such beings can give their own account corroborating, contradicting, or dismissing a human account. All accounts must be observed before any judgement can be made of the accuracy of the historical record directly concerning the claimed events.

          I think that tidily takes care of a lot of sophistry and scams as well if we use slightly different language (part of this rule was inspired by an associate at my former job who made claims about what the supervisor on duty said. All attempts to make the supervisor part of the conversation were interpreted by that associate as antagonistic responses).

        • Agreed: doing some practice presentations, either before a camera (better) or not, will help.

          Curiously, my problem is speaking too fast (and then slurring my words).

          Depending on the time allowed (formal debates can have up to 20 minutes for opening statements), you might want to pull in more arguments.

        • Grimlock

          That time processing thing sounds vastly frustrating.

          About your argument, it’s definitely easier to consume while writing. Could your argument be bottom lined a bit like this? If God exists and desires to make his existence known, he could do so in a way that everyone would find compelling. He does not. Therefore, there does not exist a God that desires to make his existence known. Christianity entails a God who desires to make his existence known, and therefore Christianity is false.

        • Adam: to add on to Grimlock’s point, you can find more by searching for “the argument from divine hiddenness” (or similar), including at this blog.

        • I find that making my points in a real-time environment like a debate isn’t the best for me, both because it’s just not my strength and because the debate concept is a bit of a waste of time. To get someone in the audience to change his mind is pretty much impossible, and you have the backfire effect as well. To even get them to walk away “with a stone in their shoe” so that they mull over your points at their leisure is hard to do as well.

          My conclusion: I’m better writing my arguments,so I’ll focus on that.

          But that’s just one data point. You could take the opposite approach and work at your public speaking and make it your best vehicle for conveying your arguments. Don’t let me dissuade you if that’s your passion.

        • Susan

          I’d say the only thing I’d have a major problem with is talking faster.

          Well then, accept that as your style and start from there. Talking faster isn’t necessarily more effective, but if you speak more slowly, you need to make your points very clear. Speaking slowly can be effective if you do.

          An excellent English teacher used to say repeatedly to the class (and it was a very important point), “Brevity is art.”

          It’s complicated. It’s a debate. I think that what Grimlock was trying to say (and Grimlock can correct me if he needs to) is that a debate requires establishing an argument early. If you speak slowly and your point is complicated, you are doomed.

          That doesn’t mean there isn’t a point there, just that you won’t make it if you don’t make it in in your opening statements. Fast or slow, it needs to be clear.

          I read the Supervisor Principle. It took a couple of reads to be fairly sure what you were trying to say.

          In the meantime, there’s someone claiming that if you can’t make a better point, Yahwehjesus wins.

          Do you see why that won’t win debates?

          You’re trying to refine an argument in debate format with a christian who will claim victory, if you can’t refute numerous points that the christian can’t support either.

          If you talk slowly, that’s ok. You can make that work for you if you work hard on communicating the point you are trying to establish.

          But if your written point takes two reads to begin to understand, that won’t go well in a debate format.

          That doesn’t mean there isn’t a good point in there.

          I’ve spent 10 years or more on trying to have an honest conversation on this subject.

          I’ve learned that all their energy is focused on demanding that we explain everything (physics, morality, biology, mathematics, etc. )

          or they win the point.

          That’s not how it works.

          You have to be very careful. And very clear and concise.

          And know your enemy.

          Again, this is from the peanut gallery.

          You are braver than I am. I hope you learn from the experience. (It’s a competition. Not a conversation.) And try again. When you’re up to it.

          Grimlock and Bob S. provided very good advice.

          Also keep in mind, debates are a way of pretending that they have a legitimate point of view. Intellectual credibility.

          But if you don’t play your cards right, they can just can claim the win because the audience doesn’t know what winning actually looks like.

  • MadScientist1023

    I’m always perplexed by Christians who assert that a) that it’s impossible for humans to judge God and b) the codes of ethics advanced by Christians are objectively true and represent a form of objective morality. These two are incompatible. If it is impossible for humans to judge God, then the Christian rules of morality don’t apply to all intelligent beings. If the rules are objectively true and are objectively moral, they should be equally applicable in any time period and to any subject.

    • Otto

      Additionally they do judge God, they judge him to be good…and they hate it when that is pointed out.

      • MadScientist1023

        Although why they judge him to be good is beyond me.

        • Otto

          Closely related to Stockholm Syndrome?