There is an old saying to the effect that the two topics you should never discuss with your friends are politics and religion. The reasoning behind this, presumably, is that when it comes to these topics everyone already has a strongly held opinion and no one is likely to change their mind, so arguing over them will merely anger and frustrate all parties without accomplishing anything. Some issues, it seems, are so divisive and polarized that rational, productive debate about them is simply impossible.
This tendency to polarization is a regrettable human failing, and not just when it comes to religion and politics. Criticism of our deeply held convictions, on any issue that is important to us, sometimes feels very much like a personal insult. And once we perceive an insult, it is all too easy to respond in kind. Over time, this can develop to the point of demonizing our opponents, regarding them not as fellow human beings with whom we have a difference of opinion, but as evil, wrong-headed miscreants with nothing useful or worthwhile to say.
Regrettably, the atheist-Christian debate in America today is, for the most part, aptly characterized by this situation of polarization. For most people, no conviction is more deeply held or more dear than their belief in God, and the very existence of people who do not share that belief is perceived as an affront. Perhaps this is because they feel atheists, by virtue of their very existence, are saying something about the strength of the evidence for God and, by extension, the character of those who believe regardless; perhaps it is because people who can live happy and confident without theism raise the specter of doubt in their own minds, and anger ensues as a response to fear; or perhaps it is because they are offended at what they see as the ingratitude of one who would deny everything God has done for them.
Whatever the reason, the existence of atheists offends some religious people to the extent that the very word has become a synonym for wickedness in some quarters. (In John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost, Satan and the rest of the rebel angels are referred to as “the atheist crew”, although their belief in the existence of God was presumably not in doubt.) For many theists, the idea of listening to such people, much less seriously considering anything they have to say, is unthinkable.
In the spirit of overcoming this impasse and opening a productive dialog, allow me to say that I do not find the Bible all bad. I do not, of course, believe its supernatural claims, nor all of its historical claims; however, it does contain a great many pieces of moral advice which I find to be excellent and praiseworthy. I have listed some of these verses below, along with a brief commentary on each one. It is my hope that doing so will persuade Judeo-Christian theists that there is more common ground between us than they might have thought. In addition, it may cast into sharper relief the parts of the Bible which I do not accept and perhaps illuminate the reasons why.
Feeding the Poor and Wild Animals
“And six years thou shalt sow thy land… But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard.” —Exodus 23:10-11 (KJV)
“And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger.” —Leviticus 19:10 (KJV)
I find no worthwhile moral advice in Genesis, so this verse from Exodus (and a corresponding one from Leviticus) is the first laudable directive I know of in the Bible. This is a wonderful idea for an agrarian society, both kind to the poor and good for the environment. The idea of empathy contained in the former verse is even sufficiently broad to encompass wild animals – an important sign that its writer was thinking in terms of all-encompassing principles rather than simple reciprocity. It takes an enlightened spirit to have compassion even on birds and beasts.
The Golden Rule
“Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” —Leviticus 19:18 (KJV)
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” —Matthew 7:12 (KJV)
As “The New Ten Commandments” points out, the Golden Rule is the simplest and greatest moral maxim humanity has ever come up with, as well as one of the oldest. It is hardly unique to the Bible, though no less valuable for that. Even without any additional guidelines, this world would be a much better place than it currently is if more people learned to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. In a tragic irony, the place where this rule is most sorely needed is in the so-called Holy Land, the very place where the Bible that contains it was born. There, to a degree hardly matched by any other place on the Earth, hatred of one’s neighbors runs rampant.
Give to the Poor
“If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.” —Deuteronomy 15:7-8 (KJV)
Most good moral rules spring from the concept of empathy, the idea of treating other people as you would want to be treated in a similar situation, and this Old Testament dictum is one such. One of the most serious problems in today’s world, and one of the ones which in turn leads to many other problems, is the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor. While an elite few continue to accumulate wealth beyond all possible justification, the overwhelming majority of the world’s people suffer in poverty. Worse, the rich and powerful who could so easily do so much to help the less fortunate so rarely do, and more often act to prolong their misery, selfishly increasing their own gains at others’ expense. If the world’s wealthy instead followed this law from Deuteronomy and “opened their hands wide”, how much good could be accomplished?
How to Be Wise
“Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: but he that hateth reproof is brutish.” —Proverbs 12:1 (KJV)
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise.” —Proverbs 12:15 (KJV)
“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” —Proverbs 18:17 (NIV)
“The simple believeth every word: but the prudent man looketh well to his going.” —Proverbs 14:15 (KJV)
Not all of the good verses in the Bible have to do with acting morally toward others. While the importance of this is not to be denied, I firmly believe that the other, equally important half of being a well-rounded human being is to acquire wisdom, to always seek to be learning something new. Of course, no one, believer or atheist, denies that getting wisdom is a good thing – we merely disagree on what constitutes wisdom and how to go about obtaining it. Therefore, I have not included the Biblical verses that extol wisdom, but instead have focused on the ones that discuss how to find it.
The principles of the scientific method, the only reliable way humans have to gain knowledge, are not in the Bible as such. However, there are verses that teach the rudiments of scientific thinking, as above. The first two make a very important point, one that many believers in the Bible would do well to heed – “the way of a fool is right in his own eyes”, but the wise listen to and consider other viewpoints and accept correction when they are mistaken. The third makes an important point about considering all sides of an issue before making a decision, ascertaining truth through rational debate rather than unquestioningly accepting the pronouncements of the first side one comes across. And what is “the simple believeth every word” if not an endorsement of skepticism?
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
“Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” —Ecclesiastes 8:15 (KJV)
The humanistic values taught by the book of Ecclesiastes are some of the best in the Bible. It teaches the simple pleasures – happiness, honest work, love and companionship, and delight in the good things of this world – that are available to everyone, such as in this verse. Ecclesiastes rightly teaches that happiness is not attained through material wealth or fleeting temporal fame, but can be found anywhere.
Pray in Private
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” —Matthew 6:5-6 (KJV)
While it is more narrowly applicable than the preceding verses, this entry is especially relevant in light of the resurgence of the Christian right in America in recent history. Public figures of all sorts, but most especially politicians seeking office, seem to feel the need to showcase their piety in order to reassure their constituents that they are people of faith and not immoral atheists. Furthermore, many prominent members of the religious right propose using the machinery of the state to enforce religious orthodoxy, by agitating for coercive prayer in public school classrooms. In the New Testament, the term for all such people is “Pharisee”. Jesus, by contrast, instructs his followers to pray in private, out of an awareness that the motivation for such arrogantly public prayers has everything to do with gaining secular power and esteem and nothing to do with true spirituality. Those Christians who believe public prayer is the solution to all problems would do well to read this passage.
“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” —Matthew 7:3-5 (KJV)
Jesus’ words in this passage skillfully express both the moral wrongness and the inherent ridiculousness of hypocrisy. We should all strive to be consistent, for an incongruity between words and actions is usually the sign of either a moral system that cannot stand up to the real world, or dishonesty on the part of one who holds it. Making an occasional misstep is forgivable; maintaining that one is morally superior to those who believe differently regardless is not. It is very often the case that those who preach most loudly about others’ immorality end up exposed as committing the same acts or worse themselves, and this in itself says something about the virtues of humility.
Good Works and Charity
“And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him…. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” —Mark 10:17-21 (KJV)
As “Faith Alone” discusses, the Christian Bible does not present one clear path to salvation; however, of all the conflicting routes it proposes, this one is by far the best. Most notably, this list of requirements does not even include belief in any specific god! It does, however, promote humanistic values such as empathy and generosity. In contrast to those evangelicals who believe the one and only means of salvation is acknowledgement of one’s abject sinfulness followed by a brief one-time prayer for absolution, this passage instead suggests a far more rational approach: that life consists of doing good works, doing whatever is in one’s power to help one’s fellow humans. Rather than the selfish focus on individual salvation, rather than the ceaseless and constant flattery of a god who cannot possibly need anything it is in our power to give, we should recognize that we live in the midst of a community whose members we can and should assist. To act with kindness toward one’s fellows and to increase the common good is the true meaning of morality. Salvation, such as it is, must ultimately be a group effort.
The Good Samaritan
“And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” —Luke 10:30-37 (KJV)
The story of the Good Samaritan is by far the best parable in the Bible. However, its basic message of compassion is even more significant in light of the social circumstances surrounding it. The Samaritans were (and are) a breakaway sect of Judaism, believing only in the Pentateuch and rejecting the authority of the Jerusalem temple system, considered by most Jews of the time to be apostates and racially inferior. In this parable, however, it is one of the despised Samaritans rather than one of the priests or Levites that helps the wounded man. This story teaches that what is important is neither race, nor social class, nor pretensions of holiness or superiority stemming from slavish adherence to legalistic rules, but compassion and the humanity we all have in common.
Do Everything with Love
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” —Romans 12:9-10 (RSV)
“Let all that you do be done in love.” —1 Corinthians 16:14 (RSV)
Love, it might be argued, is the highest and the best of human emotions, and the one that gives rise to all other positive traits: the love of one’s fellow humans produces compassion, the love of knowledge gives rise to wisdom, the love of beauty leads to art and an appreciation of nature, and so on. Likewise, one might rightfully say that an absence of love causes almost all the problems that plague this darkened world. We can only hope that humanity will one day be wise enough to follow the instructions given in these verses from the New Testament epistles.
Have Empathy for Others
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” —Romans 12:15 (RSV)
We human beings have always been a social species, living together in groups. Cooperation and caring for each other is part of our nature. In a world where suffering is so often inflicted on us by forces we cannot control, our only solace, our only hope, is that we are here for each other. We must be, because if we do not help each other, no one else will. Regardless of what some religious people say about their relationship with God, what really makes life worthwhile and bearable is our fellow human beings, those whose presence multiplies our happiness in times of joy and softens our grief in times of tragedy. As one writer put it, shared pain is lessened, shared happiness increased, and the book of Romans recognizes this truth when it tells us to show empathy toward others.
Speak Kindly and Forgive
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” —Ephesians 4:31-32 (KJV)
“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”
—Colossians 4:6 (KJV)
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” —2 Timothy 2:24-25 (RSV)
As the introduction to this article discusses, religion is such a polarized subject that debates about it, even those that begin in a spirit of honest rationality, all too often break down into unproductive personal attacks. Such venom does nothing to further the cause of truth and therefore serves no purpose in human discourse. Instead, we should stick to the facts and speak kindly and gently, not overlooking the flaws in an argument but pointing them out without unnecessary rancor. Those who speak with malice, atheist and theist alike, should keep in mind that such tactics never win converts or allies but only further harden the positions of those who think differently.
Prove All Things
“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” —1 Thessalonians 5:21 (KJV)
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” —1 Peter 3:15 (NIV)
The Greek word used here for “prove”, dokimazo, carries the sense of “to test, to scrutinize, to recognize as genuine through examination”. Despite its simplicity, this is a powerful and revolutionary idea – the idea that we should not blindly accept the pronouncements of others, but that we should test and examine and try things out for ourselves, accepting only those propositions which are backed by evidence and commend themselves to our own reason. Adherence to this principle has driven all the progress humanity has ever made.
Unfortunately, this excellent advice is neglected by many. Many people believe in their religion not because they have carefully scrutinized it, but because they were taught to accept it unquestioningly through faith. How many theists can honestly say they have considered the alternatives, as opposed to joining whichever religion they happened to come across first or was dominant in the region where they live? (The same question applies to atheists, of course; however, since there are very few, if any, places in the world where atheists outnumber theists, it takes a certain amount of “swimming against the tide” to become an atheist in the first place, and thus it is far more likely that a person will have chosen to become an atheist as the result of a process of investigation.) This is not to say that a person’s first choice is necessarily wrong, but reaching a conclusion for the right reasons is at least as important as being correct about that conclusion. More theists should follow Paul’s advice and “prove all things” through a process of critical scrutiny, their own beliefs not exempted. The verse from 1 Peter further supports this, saying as it does that all people should be able to give reasons for why they believe what they believe.
Mind Your Own Business
“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.” —1 Peter 4:15 (KJV)
This is another excellent verse which is all too often ignored by Christians who believe in the book that contains it. No one is advocating murder, theft, or evildoing, but many members of the religious right today seemingly do feel it is their right to meddle in other people’s business, by attempting to write into law their moral disapproval of behavior that harms no one. The most obvious example of this is some Christians’ fierce lobbying against gay marriage and equal rights for homosexuals generally, but all varieties of intrusive proselytizing and legislative attempts to establish a de facto theocracy (Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses, official state-sanctioned prayer in schools, affirmations of religious faith in the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on) could be said to fall into this category as well. What could be a clearer example of a “busybody” than a person who seeks out those who believe differently and who have never harmed him for the express purpose of prying into their private lives, attacking the sincerity of their convictions, and demanding they convert to his beliefs?
The verses listed above are only a sample of the morally good passages from the Bible. There are many that extol peace, justice, honesty, mercy, wisdom, altruism, and other basic human virtues, and their authors rightfully deserve praise for including them. Though it is easy to criticize, it is important for atheists not to lose sight of this fact. The flaws that the Bible undeniably does contain do not remove from it all value, and though we should wholeheartedly reject its bad parts, the good verses that it contains deserve a place in everyone’s moral system.
I must stress that I do not believe the Bible’s ethics are superior to those of other traditions. Its best ethical teachings are as good as the best ethical teachings from other religious traditions and from the writings of prominent figures of freethought. Teachings such as these, from whatever source, are what I would expect a book written by a benevolent god to look like. Were the entire Bible written in this way, one of the major roadblocks to my believing in it would be removed.
However, the entire Bible is not written in this way. The positive ethical message of these teachings is enormously weakened and diluted – indeed, essentially drowned out – due to their being interspersed with the far more numerous verses commanding intolerance and bloodshed. The massacres of Joshua have echoed through the ages as inspiration to tyrants and murderers. The idea of a promised land has caused rivers of blood to be spilled in crusades. The New Testament’s depiction of the Jews as “Christ killers” motivated Christians to inflict upon them twenty centuries of racism, persecution, and retributive bloodshed, culminating in the Holocaust. Belief in an eternal fiery punishment beyond this life inspired pious inquisitors of the medieval ages to torture nonbelievers in horrible ways, under the reasonable theory (reasonable, at least, from the perspective of this belief system) that a little earthly suffering, if it inspired the victim to recant, was much preferable to an infinity of suffering in the hereafter. Old Testament verses that established and regulated the institution of slavery led to the kidnapping, torture, and death of millions of indigenous peoples. Belief in the Bible, in short, has filled the world with blood and fire.
The writers of the Bible had enormous power to shape history for the better. If all of it had been written in the spirit of the verses listed above, one can only imagine what kind of utopia this world might have turned out to be. Instead, their words plunged humanity into a dark age from which we are only now – gradually, and struggling for every step of the way – emerging. To be fair, the biblical authors probably had no idea of the power their words would wield, but that does not excuse the malignant spirit with which they penned them. As this essay has shown, even the earliest writers understood the true essence of morality, and there is no excuse for those who came later not to live up to that standard.
Of course, even if the morally questionable verses were to be discounted, I would not find the Bible worthy of belief on the strength of these good verses alone. Regardless of their value as moral advice, they still do not speak to the existence of the supernatural. But then, that is precisely the point. The Bible is a human book, written by humans, and it always has been. Like other books of its time and of all times, it reflects both the good and the bad inherent in human nature, and our widespread belief in it has amplified both these facets enormously. There have been believers in the Bible who were among the kindest, most ethical and most compassionate people that have ever lived; there have also been believers in the Bible whose evil actions shame the human race. Belief in the Bible has produced extraordinary acts of devotion, magnificent and inspiring works of art and architecture, and wars, witch-hunts, crusades, inquisitions, intolerance, and innocent deaths beyond counting. We need not take the bad with the good, however. There is no need to believe in the supernatural in order to be a moral person – all it takes is to be a human being with a functioning conscience.