The Nativity Stories in Luke and Matthew Aren’t Contradictory — But the Differences Are Bizarre

In The Bible is Rife with Contradictions and Changes, we saw myriad examples of different biblical accounts of the same event that cannot all be true — they contradict each other. But we also saw how other discrepancies aren’t contradictions if you use your imagination. The following example was too long to examine in that already-massive writing, so we will do so now.

It’s interesting that while the authors of both Matthew and Luke have Jesus born in Bethlehem and then settle down in Nazareth, the two stories are dramatically different, in that neither mentions the major events of the other. For example, the gift-bearing Magi arrive, King Herod kills children, and Jesus’ family flees to Egypt in Matthew, but Luke doesn’t bother mentioning any of it. Luke has the ludicrous census (everyone in the Roman Empire returning to the city of their ancestors, creating mass chaos, when the point of a census is to see where people live currently), the full inn, the shepherds, and the manger, but Matthew doesn’t.

These stories can be successfully jammed together. But it takes work. In Matthew 2:8-15, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are in Bethlehem but escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter. Before fleeing, the family seems settled in the town: they are in a “house” (2:11) beneath the fabled star, and Herod “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” visitors concerning when the star appeared (2:16, 2:7). This is a bit confusing, as all boys from born-today to nearly three years old is a big range for someone who knows an “exact time” (2:7). But it suggests that Jesus may have been born a year or two ago, the star was over his home since his birth, and the Magi had a long journey to find him. Many Christian sites will tell you Jesus was about two when the wise men arrived. In any event, when Herod gives this order, the family travels to Egypt and remains there until he dies, then they go to Nazareth (2:23).

In Luke 2:16-39, after Jesus is born in Bethlehem the family goes to Jerusalem “when the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses” (2:22). This references the rites outlined in Leviticus 12 (before going to Jerusalem, Jesus is circumcised after eight days in Luke 2:21, in accordance with Leviticus 12:3). At the temple they sacrifice two birds (Luke 2:24), following Leviticus 12:1-8 — when a woman has a son she does this after thirty-three days to be made “clean.” Then, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39). Here they simply go to Nazareth when Jesus is about a month old. No mention of a flight to Egypt, no fear for their lives — everything seems rather normal. “When the time came for the purification rites” certainly suggests they did not somehow occur early or late.

So the mystery is: when did the family move to Nazareth?

Both stories get the family to the town, which they must do because while a prophesy said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, Jesus was a Nazarene. But the paths there are unique, and you have to either build a mega-narrative to make it work — a larger story that is not in the bible, one you must invent to make divergent stories fit together — or reinterpret the bible in a way different than the aforementioned sites.

In this case, Option 1 is to say that when Luke 2:39 says they headed for Nazareth, this is where the entire story in Mathew is left out. They actually go back to Bethlehem, have the grand adventure to Egypt, and then go to Nazareth much later. This is a serious twist of the author’s writing; you have to declare the gospel doesn’t mean what it says, that narrative time words like “when” are meaningless (in the aforementioned article I wrote of us having to imagine “the bible breaks out of chronological patterns at our convenience”).

Option 2 is that they go to Nazareth after the rites as stated. Then at some point they go back to Bethlehem, have the Matthew adventure, and end up back in Nazareth. Maybe they were visiting relatives. Maybe they moved back to Bethlehem — after Herod dies it seems as if the family’s first thought is to go back there. Matthew 2:22-23: “But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.” So perhaps it’s best to suppose they went to Nazareth after the temple, moved back to Bethlehem, hid in Egypt, and went again to Nazareth. Luke of course doesn’t mention any of this either; the family heads to Nazareth after the temple rites and the narrative jumps to when Jesus is twelve (2:39-42).

Option 3 is that Jesus’ birth, the Magi visit, Herod’s killing spree, the family’s flight, Herod’s death, and the family’s return all occur in the space of a month. This of course disregards and reinterprets any hints that Jesus was about two years old. But it allows the family to have Matthew’s adventure and make it back to Jerusalem for the scheduled rites (which Matthew doesn’t mention), then go to Nazareth. One also must conclude that 1) the Magi didn’t have to travel very far, if the star appeared when Jesus was born, or 2) that the star appeared to guide them long before Jesus was born (interpret Matthew 2:1-2 how you will). It’s still odd that the only thing Luke records between birth and the temple is a circumcision, but Option 3, as rushed as it is, may be the best bet. That’s up to each reader to decide, for it’s all a matter of imagination.

Luke’s silence is worth pausing to consider. The Bible is Rife with Contradictions and Changes outlined the ramifications of one gospel not including a major event of another:

Believers typically insist that when a gospel doesn’t mention a miracle, speech, or story it’s because it’s covered in another. (When the gospels tell the same stories it’s “evidence” of validity, when they don’t it’s no big deal.) This line only works from the perspective of a later gospel: Luke was written after Matthew, so it’s fine if Luke doesn’t mention the flight to Egypt to save baby Jesus from Herod. Matthew already covered that. But from the viewpoint of an earlier text this begins to break down. It becomes: “No need to mention this miracle, someone else will do that eventually.” So whoever wrote Mark [the first gospel] ignored one of the biggest miracles in the life of Jesus, proof of his divine origins [the virgin birth story]? Or did the author, supposedly a disciple, not know about it? Or did gospel writers conspire and coordinate: “You cover this, I’ll cover that later.” Is it just one big miracle, with God ensuring that what was unknown or ignored (for whatever reason, maybe the questionable “writing to different audiences” theory) by one author would eventually make it into a gospel? That will satisfy most believers, but an enormous possibility hasn’t been mentioned. Perhaps the story of Jesus was simply being embellished — expanding over time, like so many other tales and legends (see Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist).

In truth, it is debatable whether Matthew came before Luke. Both were written around AD 80-90, so scholars disagree over which came first. If Matthew came first, Luke could perhaps be excused for leaving out the hunt for Jesus and journey to Egypt, as surprising as that might be. If Luke came first, it’s likely the author of Matthew concocted a new tale, making Jesus’ birth story far more dramatic and, happily, fulfilling a prophesy (Matthew 2:15: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'”). If they were written about the same time and independently, with the creators not having read each other’s work, they were likewise two very different stories.

Regardless of order and why the versions are different, one must decide how to best make the two tales fit — writers not meaning what they write, the holy family moving back and forth a bunch, or Jesus not being two when the Magi arrived with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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Like a Square Circle, Is God-Given Inherent Value a Contradiction?

Can human beings have inherent value without the existence of God? The religious often say no. God, in creating you, gives you value. Without him, you have no intrinsic worth. (Despite some inevitable objectors, this writing will use “inherent” and “intrinsic” value interchangeably, as that is fairly common with this topic. Both suggest some kind of immutable importance of a thing “in its own right,” “for its own sake,” “in and of itself,” completely independent of a valuer.) Without a creator, all that’s left is you assigning worth to yourself or others doing so; these sentiments are conditional, they can be revoked (you may commit suicide, seeing yourself of no further worth, for example); they may be instrumental, there being some use for me assigning you value, such as my own happiness; therefore, such value cannot be intrinsic — it is extrinsic. We only have inherent importance — unchangeable, for its own sake — if lovingly created by God in his own image.

The problem is perhaps already gnawing at your faculties. God giving a person inherent value appears contradictory. While one can argue that an imagined higher power has such divine love for an individual that his or her worth would never be revoked, and that God does not create us for any use for himself (somewhat debatable), the very idea that inherent value can be bestowed by another being doesn’t make sense. Inherent means it’s not bestowed. Worth caused by God is extrinsic by definition. God is a valuer, and intrinsic value must exist independently of valuers.

As a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis put it:

+All human life has intrinsic value

-So we all [have] value even if God does not exist, right?

+No, God’s Love is what bestows value onto His creations. W/o God, everything is meaningless.

-So human life has *extrinsic* value then, right?

+No. All human life has intrinsic value.

That’s well phrased. If we think about what inherent value means (something worth something in and of itself), to have it humans would need to have it even if they were the only things to ever have existed.

If all this seems outrageous, it may be because God-given value is often thought of differently than self- or human-given value; it is seen as some magical force or aura or entity, the way believers view the soul or consciousness. It’s a feature of the body — if “removed [a person] would cease to be human life,” as a Christian blogger once wrote! When one considers one’s own value or that of a friend, family member, lover, home, money, or parrot, it’s typically not a fantastical property but rather a simple mark of importance, more in line with the actual definition of value. This human being has importance, she’s worth something. Yes, that’s the discussion on value: God giving you importance, others giving you importance, giving yourself importance. It’s not a physical or spiritual characteristic. A prerequisite to meaningful debate is agreeing on what you’re talking about, having some consistency and coherence. There’s no point in arguing “No person can have an inherent mystical trait without God!” That’s as obvious as it is circular, akin to saying you can’t have heaven without God. You’re not saying anything at all. If we instead use “importance,” there’s no circular reasoning and the meaning can simply be applied across the board. “No person can have inherent importance without God” is a statement that can be analyzed by all parties operating with the same language.

No discourse is possible without shared acceptance of meaning. One Christian writer showcased this, remarking:

Philosopher C. I. Lewis defines intrinsic value as “that which is good in itself or good for its own sake.” This category of value certainly elevates the worth of creation beyond its usefulness to humans, but it creates significant problems at the same time.

To have intrinsic value, an object would need to have value if nothing else existed. For example, if a tree has intrinsic value, then it would be valuable if it were floating in space before the creation of the world and—if this were possible—without the presence of God. Lewis, an atheist, argues that nothing has intrinsic value, because there must always be someone to ascribe value to an object. Christians, recognizing the eternal existence of the Triune God in perpetual communion[,] will recognize that God fills the category of intrinsic value quite well.

What happened here is baffling. The excerpt essentially ends with “And that ‘someone’ is God! God can ascribe us value! Intrinsic value does exist!” right after showing an understanding (at least, an understanding of the opposing argument) that for a tree or human being to possess inherent value it must do so if it were the only thing in existence, if neither God nor anything else existed! Intrinsic value, to be real, must exist even if God does not, the atheist posits, holding up a dictionary. “Intrinsic value exists because God does, he imbues it,” the believer says, either ignoring the meaning of intrinsic and the implied contradiction (as William Lane Craig once did), or not noticing or understanding them. Without reaching shared definitions, we just talk past each other.

In this case, it is hard to say whether the problem is lack of understanding or the construction of straw men. This is true on two levels. First, the quote doesn’t actually represent what Lewis wrote on in the 1940s. He in fact believed human experiences had intrinsic value, that objects could have inherent value, sought to differentiate and define these terms in unique ways, and wasn’t making an argument about deities (see here and here if interested). However, in this quote Lewis is made to represent a typical atheist. What we’re seeing is how the believer sees an argument (not Lewis’) coming from the other side. This is helpful enough. Let’s therefore proceed as if the Lewis character (we’ll call him Louis to give more respect to the actual philosopher) is a typical atheist offering a typical atheist argument: nothing has intrinsic value. Now that we are pretending the Christian writer is addressing something someone (Louis) actually posited, probably something the writer has heard atheists say, let’s examine how the atheist position is misunderstood or twisted in the content itself.

The believer sees accurately, in Sentences 1/2, that the atheist thinks intrinsic value, to be true, must be true without the existence of a deity. So far so good. Then in Sentence 3 everything goes completely off the rails. Yes, Louis the Typical Atheist believes intrinsic value is impossible…because by definition it’s an importance that must exist independently of all valuers, including God. God’s exclusion was made clear in Sentences 1/2. It’s as if the Christian writer notices no connection between the ideas in Sentences 1/2 and Sentence 3. The first and second sentences are immediately forgotten, and therefore the atheist position is missed or misconstrued. It falsely becomes an argument that there simply isn’t “someone” around to “ascribe” intrinsic value! As if all Louis was saying was “God doesn’t exist, so there’s no one to ascribe inherent worth.” How easy to refute, all one has to say is “Actually, God does exist, so there is someone around!” (Sentence 4). That is not the atheist argument — it is that the phrase “intrinsic value” doesn’t make any coherent sense: it’s an importance that could only exist independently of all valuers, including God, and therefore cannot exist. Can a tree be important if it was the only thing that existed, with no one to consider it important? If your answer is no, you agree with skeptics that intrinsic value is impossible and a useless phrase. Let’s think more on this.

The reader is likely coming to see that importance vested by God is not inherent or intrinsic. Not unless one wants to throw out the meaning of words. A thing’s intrinsic value or importance cannot come from outside, by definition. It cannot be given or created or valued by another thing, otherwise it’s extrinsic. So what does this mean for the discussion? Well, as stated, it means we’re speaking nonsense. If God can’t by definition grant an individual intrinsic value, nor other outsiders like friends and family, nor even yourself (remember, you are a valuer, and your inherent value must exist independently of your judgement), then intrinsic value cannot exist. It’s like talking about a square circle. Inherent importance isn’t coherent in the same way inherent desirability isn’t coherent, as Matt Dillahunty once said. You need an agent to desire or value; these are not natural realities like color or gravity, they are mere concepts that cannot exist on their own.

To be fair, the religious are not alone in making this mistake. Not all atheists deny inherent value; they instead base it in human existence, uniqueness, rationality, etc. Most secular and religious belief systems base intrinsic value on something. Yet the point stands. Importance cannot be a natural characteristic, it must be connoted by an agent, a thinker. The two sides are on equal footing here. If the religious wish to continue to use — misuse — inherent value as something God imbues, then they should admit anyone can imbue inherent value. Anyone can decree a human being has natural, irrevocable importance in and of itself for whatever reason. But it would be less contradictory language, holding true to meaning, to say God assigns simple value, by creating and loving us, in the same way humans assign value, by creating and loving ourselves, because of our uniqueness, and so forth.

“But if there’s no inherent value then there’s no reason to be moral! We’ll all kill each other!” We need not waste much ink on this. If we don’t need imaginary objective moral standards to have rational, effective ethics, we certainly don’t need nonsensical inherent value. If gods aren’t necessary to explain the existence of morality; and if we’re bright enough to know we should believe something is true because there’s evidence for it, not because there would be bad consequences if we did not believe (the argumentum ad consequentiam fallacy); and if relativistic morality and objective morality in practice have shown themselves to be comparably awful and comparably good; then there is little reason to worry. Rational, functioning morality does not need “inherent” values created and imbued by supernatural beings. It just needs values, and humans can generate plenty of those on their own.

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Actually, “Seeing Is Believing”

Don’t try to find “seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing” in the bible, for though Christians at times use these precise words to encourage devotion, they come from an elf in the 1994 film The Santa Clause, an instructive fact. It is a biblical theme, however, with Christ telling the doubting Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29), 2 Corinthians 5:7 proclaiming “We walk by faith, not by sight,” and more.

The theme falls under the first of two contradictory definitions of faith used by the religious. Faith 1 is essentially “I cannot prove this, I don’t have evidence for it, but I believe nonetheless.” Many believers profess this with pride — that’s true faith, pure faith, believing what cannot be verified. This is just the abandonment of critical thinking, turning off the lights. Other believers see the problem with it. A belief can’t be justified under Faith 1. Without proof, evidence, and reason, they realize, their faith is on the baseless, ridiculous level of every other wild human idea — believing in Zeus without verification, Allah without verification, Santa without verification. Faith 2 is the corrective: “I believe because of this evidence, let me show you.” The “evidence,” “proof,” and “logic” then offered are terrible and fall apart at once, but that has been discussed elsewhere. “Seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing” aligns with the first definition, while Faith 2 would more agree with the title of this article (though room is always left for revelation as well).

I was once asked what would make me believe in God again, and I think about this from time to time. I attempt to stay both intellectually fair and deeply curious. Being a six on the Dawkins scale, I have long maintained that deities remain in the realm of the possible, in the same way our being in a computer simulation is possible, yet given the lack of evidence there is little reason to take it seriously at this time, as with a simulation. For me, the last, singular reason to wonder whether God or gods are real is the fact existence exists — but supposing higher powers were responsible for existence brings obvious problems of its own that are so large they preclude religious belief. Grounds for believing in God again would have to come from elsewhere.

“Believing is seeing” won’t do. It’s just a hearty cry for confirmation bias and self-delusion (plus, as a former Christian it has already been tried). Feeling God working in your life, hearing his whispers, the tugs on your heart, dreams and visions, your answered prayers, miracles…these things, experienced by followers of all religions and insane cults, even by myself long ago, could easily be imagined fictions, no matter how much you “know” they’re not, no matter how amazing the coincidences, dramatic the life changes, vivid the dreams, unexplainable the events (of current experience anyway; see below).

In contrast, “seeing is believing” is rational, but one must be careful here, too. It’s a trillion times more sensible to withhold belief in extraordinary claims until you see extraordinary evidence than to believe wild things before verifying, maybe just hoping some proof, revelation, comes along later. The latter is just gullibility, taking off the thinking cap, believing in Allah, Jesus, or Santa because someone told you to. However, for me, “seeing is believing” can’t just mean believing the dreadful “evidence” of apologetics referenced above, nor could it mean the god of a religion foreign to me appearing in a vision, confounding or suggestive coincidences and “miracles,” or other personal experiences that do not in any way require supernatural explanations. That’s not adequate seeing.

It would have to be a personal experience of greater magnitude. Experiencing the events of Revelation might do it — as interpreted by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins in their popular (and enjoyable, peaking with Assassins) book series of the late 90s and early 2000s, billions of Christians vanish, the seas turn to blood, people survive a nuclear bombing unscathed, Jesus and an army of angels arrive on the clouds, and so forth. These kinds of personal experiences would seem less likely to be delusions (though they still could be, if one is living in a simulation, insane, etc.), and would be a better basis for faith than things that have obvious or possible natural explanations, especially if they were accurately prophesied. In other words, at some stage personal experience does become a rational basis for belief; human beings simply tend to adopt a threshold that is outrageously low, far outside necessitated supernatural involvement. (It’s remarkable where life takes you: from “I’m glad I won’t have to go through the tribulation, as a believer” to “The tribulation would be reasonable grounds to become a believer again.”) Of course, I suspect this is all mythological and have no worry it will occur. How concerned is the Christian over Kalki punishing evildoers before the world expires and restarts (Hinduism) or the Spider Woman covering the land with her webs before the end (Hopi)? I will convert to one of these faiths if their apocalyptic prophesies come to pass.

The reaction of the pious is to say, “But others saw huge signs like that, Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead and it was all prophesied and –” No. That’s the challenge of religion. Stories of what other people saw can easily be made-up, often to match prophesy. Even a loved one relating a tale could have been tricked, hallucinating, delusional, lying. You can only trust the experiences you have, and even those you can’t fully trust! This is because you could be suffering from something similar — human senses and perceptions are known to miserably fail and mislead. The only (possible) solution is to go big. Really big. Years of predicted, apocalyptic disasters that you personally survive. You still might not be seeing clearly. But belief in a faith might be finally justified on rational, evidentiary grounds, in alignment with your perceptions. “Seeing is believing,” with proper parameters.

Anything short of this is merely “believing is seeing” — elf babble.

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20% of Americans Are Former Christians

It’s relatively well-known that religion in this country is declining, with 26% of Americans now describing themselves as nonreligious (9% adorning the atheist or agnostic label, 17% saying they are “nothing in particular”). Less discussed is where these growing numbers come from and just how much “faith switching” happens here.

For example, about 20% of citizens are former Christians, one in every five people you pass on the street. Where these individuals go isn’t a foregone conclusion — at times it’s to Islam (77% of new converts used to be Christians), Hinduism, or other faiths (“Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population,” the Pew Research Center reports). But mostly it’s to the “none” category, which has thus risen dramatically and is the fastest-growing affiliation. In a majority-Christian country that is rapidly secularizing, all this makes sense. (For context, 34% of Americans — one in three people — have abandoned the belief system in which they were raised, this group including atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, everyone. 4% of Americans used to be nonreligious but are now people of faith.)

While Islam is able to gain new converts at about the same rate it loses members, thus keeping Islam’s numbers steady (similar to Hinduism and Judaism), Christianity loses far more adherents than it brings in, and is therefore seeing a significant decline (77% to 65% of Americans in just 10 years):

19.2% of all adults…no longer identify with Christianity. Far fewer Americans (4.2% of all adults) have converted to Christianity after having been raised in another faith or with no religious affiliation. Overall, there are more than four former Christians for every convert to Christianity.

This statistic holds true for all religions, as well: “For every person who has left the unaffiliated and now identifies with a religious group more than four people have joined the ranks of the religious ‘nones.'”

This is so even though kids raised to be unaffiliated are somewhat less likely to remain unaffiliated! 53% of Americans raised nonreligious remain so. This is better than the 45% of mainstream protestants who stick with their beliefs, but worse than the 59% of Catholics or 65% of evangelical protestants. (Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism again beat everyone — one shouldn’t argue that high retention rates, or big numbers, prove beliefs true, nor low ones false.) Yet it is simply the case that there are currently many more religious people to change their minds than there are skeptics to change theirs:

The low retention rate of the religiously unaffiliated may seem paradoxical, since they ultimately obtain bigger gains through religious switching than any other tradition. Despite the fact that nearly half of those raised unaffiliated wind up identifying with a religion as adults, “nones” are able to grow through religious switching because people switching into the unaffiliated category far outnumber those leaving the category.

Overall, this knowledge is valuable because the growing numbers of atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated are occasionally seen as coming out of nowhere, rather than out of Christianity itself. (And out of other faiths, to far lesser degrees: Muslims are 1% of the population, Jews 2%.) As if a few dangerous, free-thinking families were suddenly having drastically more children, or a massive influx of atheistic immigrants was pouring into the U.S., skewing the percentages. Rather, the 26% of Americans who are nonreligious is comprised of much of the 20% of Americans who have abandoned Christianity. The call’s coming from inside the church.

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Proof God is a Liberal Atheist

Sometimes natural disasters are presented as proof of God’s judgement, as when George Floyd’s mural is struck by lightning or hurricanes arrive because of the gays. God exists, and he’s an angry conservative. Naturally, this line of thinking is dreadful, as the weather also provides clear signs God is a Leftist and a nonbeliever.

What else could one make of God sending lighting to burn down statues of Jesus, such as the King of Kings statue in Monroe, Ohio? Or to chip off Jesus’ thumb? Or to strike Jesus-actor Jim Caviezel while he was filming the Sermon on the Mount scene in The Passion of the Christ? What of the bible camps destroyed by wildfires? The solitary crosses in the middle of nowhere erased by flame, or those on church steeples eradicated by lightning? These incredible signs can be interpreted any way you like — that’s the fun of making stuff up. God prefers statues of Christ smaller than 62 feet, he doesn’t like Caviezel’s acting, the camp kids didn’t pray long enough, these were all just innocent weather events with no supernatural power or mind behind them, like lightning or fire scorching an empty field or a tree in the woods, and so forth. Perhaps God doesn’t want you to be a Christian, he wants you to be a traditional omnist, recognizing the truth of all religions, not taking a side with one faction. Perhaps he wants you to be an atheist because he’s a big joker and only skeptics get into heaven. Perhaps the Judeo-Christian god does not exist, and Allah or Zeus is displaying his wrath against a false faith. That’s the problem with taking natural disasters and assigning meaning and interpretation as proof of something — other people can do it too, and their interpretation, their “proof,” is just as solid (read: worthless) as your own. No critical thinker would engage in this sort of argumentation.

Not only do such remarkable miracles prove God is anti-Christian, others clearly reveal he’s a liberal, and with a delightful sense of humor to boot. How else to explain the pastor who declared natural disasters to be God’s punishment for homosexuality seeing his house destroyed by flood? Was the pastor secretly gay? Or just collateral damage, an innocent bystander, in God’s wrathful fit against LGBTQ people? No, most obviously, God was telling him to cut it out: God has no problem with homosexuality. This is like the pastor who thought COVID was brought about by sex outside marriage and then died from the virus: it wasn’t that the preacher was right, falling victim to a plague caused by others, it’s that God has no issues with premarital intercourse and thus did not send a calamity as retribution. Even more amazingly, religious conservatives like Anita Bryant once blamed a California drought on gays, but the dry spell ended, it began to rain, the day after Harvey Milk, a gay icon, was elected to San Francisco office. What a sign! Same for when an Alabama cop was struck by lightning a week after the Alabama house passed a restrictive bill against Black Lives Matter protests and while the Alabama senate was considering doing the same. And wasn’t the U.S. hit by COVID, double-hurricanes, and murder hornets soon after Trump was acquitted by the GOP-led Senate in early 2020? That can’t be a coincidence. Hurricanes, by the way, tend to hit southern conservative states of high religiosity — perhaps that doesn’t have anything to do with U.S. history and proximity to the gulf, but rather it’s punishment for rightwing policies, not queerness and abortion. Finally, recall when a Focus on the Family director asked everyone to pray for rain during the Democratic National Convention in 2008 so God sent a hurricane to disrupt the Republican National Convention? Finding signs and proof that God is a liberal isn’t difficult, given how weather functions.

Although, admittedly, the stories proving God is a leftwing, anti-religious fellow are not as common, given that it’s mostly religious conservatives who turn off their thinking caps, see providence behind every tornado, and write stories about it. When the Left or skeptics do this, it’s usually tongue-in-cheek, as with here.

Now, it’s true that some events and their interpretations align better with what’s in holy books. The gods of the bible and Qur’an want you to be a believer, not an atheist. Other things rely on human interpretation and choosing which parts of the book to take seriously: is gay marriage intolerable because being gay is an abomination, or just fine because we are to love one another and do unto others? Yet degree of alignment doesn’t actually make a claim that X disaster is proof of God or Allah and his rightwing judgement more convincing. The holy books could easily be fictional, as bad as the weather at proving a deity exists and revealing what its values are. Thus, one is free to imagine any supernatural being one wishes, and ascribe any values to him or her based on natural disasters. Any idea is just as valid as the next.

The point is made. Not only can a weather event be interpreted in countless ways (was the George Floyd mural struck because God is racist, because he heartlessly approves of Floyd’s murder, because he dislikes the Black Lives Matter movement in general, because he finds street art tacky, and so on), but it’s also obvious that various weather events will give contradictory messages about what the higher power believes and favors. The faithful can see and believe any sign they like, but bad arguments garner few converts.

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Faith and Intelligence

Atheists and agnostics are sometimes accused of seeing themselves as more intelligent than people of faith. Which begs the question: as a former believer, do I consider myself to be smarter now that I am a freethinker? In a sense yes, in that I’ve gained knowledge I did not possess before and have developed critical thinking skills that I likewise used to lack. It feels like learning an instrument, in fact a good analogy. People who learn the violin are from one perspective smarter than they were before, with new knowledge and abilities, a brain rewired, and indeed smarter than me, and others, in that respect. But this is a rather informal meaning of intelligence. Virtually anyone can learn the violin, and virtually anyone can find the knowledge and skills I did. Now we’re talking about capacity. We’ve entered the more formal definition of intelligence, under which the answer is obviously no, I’m not smarter than my old self or believers. So the answer is yes and no, as is often the case with variable meanings.

Consider this in detail. There are many definitions of “intelligence” (“smart” can simply be used as a synonym). The formal definition of intelligence generally has to do with the ability or capacity to gain knowledge and skills. You wouldn’t grow in intelligence by gaining knowledge and skills, but rather by somehow expanding the capacity to do so in the first place. (Granted, it could well be that doing the former does impact the latter, a virtuous cycle.) The human and the ape have different capacities, a sizable intelligence gap. Humans have differences too, in terms of genetic predispositions granted by the birth lottery and environmental factors. An ape won’t get far on the violin, and some humans will struggle more, or less, than others to learn it. Human beings have greater or weaker baseline capacities in various areas, different intelligence levels, but most can learn the basics (the idea that enough practice can make anyone advanced or expert has been thoroughly blown up). So under the formal framework, the believer and the skeptic have roughly the same intelligence on average, with the same ability to discover certain knowledge and develop certain skills — whether that ever happens is a separate question entirely, coming down to luck, life experiences, environment, and so on. While studies have often found that religiosity correlates with lower IQ, the difference is very small, with possible causes ranging from autistic persons helping tip the scales for the non-religious to people of faith relying too much on intuition rather than logic or reason when problem-solving, a problem of “behavioral biases rather than impaired general intelligence” — and behavior can be changed, very different than capacity. If this latter hypothesis is true, it would be like giving a violin proficiency test to both violin students and non-students and marveling that the non-students underperformed. Had my logic and reasoning been tested before my transition from pious to dubious, I suspect it would have been lower than today, as I learned many critical thinking skills during and after, but this is not about capacity; it’s just learning anyone can do. Under the more serious definition of intelligence, I don’t believe I’m smarter than my former self or the faithful.

But now we can work under the informal, colloquial meaning, where growing intelligence simply has something to do with a growing base of knowledge and new skill sets. Do we not often say “He’s really smart” of someone who knows copious facts about astronomy or history? Don’t we consider a woman highly intelligent who speaks multiple languages, or is a blazingly fast coder? When we suspect that if we devoted the same time and energy to those things, we could probably hold our own? (Rightly or wrongly, as noted. Either way, we often don’t think as much about capacity as simple acquisition.) This writer, at least, sometimes uses these flattering terms to describe possession of much information or foreign abilities.

In that sense, I certainly believe I’m smarter than I used to be. I realize how insulting that sounds, given that the natural extension is that I consider myself smarter than religious persons. But I don’t know how unique that is. When the weak Christian becomes a strong Christian through reading and thinking and conversing, she may consider herself smarter than before — perhaps even more knowledgable and a more sensible thinker than an atheist! In other words, more intelligent than a nonbeliever (wouldn’t you have to be a fool to think existence, the universe, is possible without a creator being?). When a man learns vast amounts about aerophysics, he sees himself as smarter than before and by extension others on this topic; when he masters the skill of building planes that fly, the same. If intelligence simply means more knowledgable about or skilled at something, everyone thinks they’re smarter than their past selves and by extension other people, with, obviously, many clashing and contradictory opinions between individuals (the Christian and the atheist both thinking they are more knowledgable, for instance).

Some examples are in order from my personal growth, just to illuminate my perspective better. I’ll offer two. I used to believe that, among other reasons, the gospels could be trusted as being entirely factual because they were written 30-40 years after the alleged miraculous events they describe (at least, Mark was; the others were later). “Too soon after to be fictional.” But then I learned something. Other religions, which I disbelieved, had much shorter timespans between supposed events and written accounts! Made-up nonsense about what happened on Day X to Person A was being written about and earnestly believed just a year or two later, in some cases just a day or two later — birthing new religions and stories still believed today! That was just the way humans operated; it’s never too soon for fictions, things can be invented and spread immediately, never to be tamped down. So, I’d gained knowledge. I felt more intelligent because of this — even embarrassed at my old ways of thinking. Not right away, but eventually. How could anyone learn this and not change their way of thinking accordingly, realizing that this argument for the gospels’ trustworthiness is simply dreadful and should be retired?

Since the first example was in the knowledge category, the second can concern critical thinking skills, and is neatly paired with the first. I used to suppose that it was sensible to believe in the gospels (and of course God) because they could not be disproved. After all, why not? If you can’t disprove them, they could be true. So why not continue to believe the gospels to be full of truths rather than fictions, as you’ve been raised or long held? Eventually I started thinking more critically, more clearly. This was the argument from ignorance fallacy: if something hasn’t been disproved that’s reason to suppose there’s truth to it. It’s rather irrational — there are a million stories from all human religions that cannot be disproved…therefore it’s reasonable to think they are true? You can’t disprove that the Greek gods formed Mount Olympus, that Allah or Thor exists, that the god Krishna spoke with Arjuna as described in the Bhagavad Gita, or that we’re living in a simulation. The ocean of unprovable things is infinite and of course highly contradictory, with many sets of things that cannot both or all be true. There are too many fictions in this ocean — you may believe in one of them. To only apply the argument from ignorance to your own faith, to believe that the gospels are true because they cannot be disproved but not all these other things for the precise same reason, is simple bias. Mightn’t it be more sensible to believe that which can be proven, rather than what cannot be disproven? That would be, in stark contrast, a solid justification. Now on the other side of the gulf, I can barely understand how I ever thought in such fallacious ways. But better, more logical ways of thinking I simply developed over time, and as with the development of any skill I can’t help but feel more intelligent because of it.

One does regret how derogatory this may seem to many readers. Yet it is impossible to avoid. I consider myself more intelligent than I used to be because I have knowledge I did not possess before and ways of thinking I consider better than prior ones. By extension, it seems I have to consider myself more intelligent, in this area, than those who, like my past self, do not possess that knowledge or those habits of critical thinking. However (and apologies for growing repetitive, it stems from a desire not to offend too much), this is no different than any person who uses the informal meaning of intelligence in any context. If you use that definition, and believe yourself to be more knowledge of the contents of the bible or biology, or more skilled at mathematics or reading people, than before or compared to others, you consider yourself smarter than other people, in those areas but not necessarily in others. If you instead use the formal definition of intelligence, regarding the mere capacity to gain knowledge and develop skills, then you’d say you’re not actually smarter than others (as they could simply do as you have done) or at least not necessarily or only possibly smarter (again, there are differences in capacities between human beings; some will be naturally better at mathematics no matter how hard others practice). In this latter sense, I’m again compelled in my answer: I essentially have to say I’m not smarter than my former self or current believers who think as I once did.

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Review: ‘The Language of God’

I recently read The Language of God. Every once in a while I read something from the other side of the religious or political divide, typically the popular books that arise in conversation. This one interested me because it was written by a serious scientist, geneticist Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. I wanted to see how it would differ from others I read (Lewis, Strobel, Zacharias, McDowell, Little, Haught, and so forth).

You have to give Collins credit for his full embrace of the discoveries of human science. He includes a long, enthusiastic defense of evolution, dismantles the “irreducible complexity” myth, and the science he cites is largely accurate (the glaring exception being his assertion that humans are the only creatures that help each other when there’s no benefit or reward for doing so, an idea ethology has entirely blown up). He also dismisses Paley’s dreadful “Watchmaker” analogy, sternly warns against the equally unwise “God of the Gaps” argument (lack of scientific knowledge = evidence for God), stands against literal interpretations of the bible, and (properly) discourages skeptics from claiming evolution literally disproves a higher power. Some of this is different compared to the other writers above, and unexpected.

Unfortunately, Collins engages in many of the same practices the other authors do: unproven or even false premises that lead to total argumental collapse (there’s zero evidence that deep down inside all humans have the same ideas of right and wrong, if only we would listen to the “whisper” of the Judeo-Christian deity), argument by analogy, and other logical fallacies. Incredibly, he even uses the “God of the Gaps” argument, not even 20 pages before his serious warning against it (we don’t know what came before the Big Bang, what caused it, whether multiple universes exist, whether our one universe bangs and crunches ad infinitum…therefore God is real). The existence of existence is important to think about, and perhaps we do have a higher power to thank, but our lack of scientific knowledge isn’t “evidence for belief,” as the subtitle puts it. It’s “nonevidence” for belief. It’s “God of the Gaps.” The possibility of God being fictional remains, as large as ever. Overall, Collins doesn’t carry over principles very well, seeing the weakness of analogy, “God of the Gaps,” and literal biblical interpretations but using them anyway (it is possible Genesis has untruths, but of course not the gospels). Weird, contradictory stuff.

Overall, the gist of the book is “Here are amazing discoveries of science, but you can still believe in God and that humans are discovering God’s design.” Which is fine. While trust in science forces the abandonment of literal interpretations of ancient texts (first man from dirt, first woman from rib, birds being on earth before land animals, etc.), faith and science living in harmony isn’t that hard. You say “God did it that way” and move on. Evolution was God’s plan, and so forth. That’s really all the chapters build toward (Part 2, the science-y part, has three chapters: the origins of the universe chapter builds toward the “We don’t know, therefore God” argument, while the life on Earth and human genome chapters conclude with no argument at all, just the suggestion that “God did it that way.” I found this unsettling. In any case, “evidence for belief” wasn’t an accurate subtitle, as expected).

Finally, I was disappointed Collins didn’t dive deeper into his conversion to the faith, a subject that always interests me. He cites just one (poor) argument from C.S. Lewis that caused him to change his mind about everything, the right and wrong proposition mentioned above. I would have liked more of his story.

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A More Plausible God

Sometimes I worry I will burn in hell for not following the One True Religion. This lasts about two minutes, however. That’s all the time it takes to recall how unlikely — insane even — the idea seems.

If we assume that a deity or deities exist, it seems more reasonable to assume there is no punishment (of a miserable, torturous nature anyway) for non-belief. It’s simply a question of how likely it is that a higher power would be an immoral monster or a total madman. Whichever the One True Religion is, throughout history countless millions (almost without question billions) have been born, lived, and died without ever hearing about it. Even today, as Daniel Dennett points out in Breaking the Spell, “whichever religion is yours, there are more people in the world who don’t share it than who do.” There may be two billion Christians or Muslims, but the global population is nearly eight billion, and plenty in remote parts of the world won’t hear of either, and still more won’t ever be proselytized to or decide to study them (after all, how many Christians would undertake a serious, thoughtful study of Shenism, Sikhism, Santería, or Zoroastrianism, or grow beyond the most minimal understandings of major faiths like Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism?). The idea that a god would bring eternal suffering to such people is mind-boggling. It would have to be evil or insane. But that’s the deity described in various religions — an honest description, not a dogmatic one about how this God is one of love, justice, and forgiveness. Yet if a supernatural being of superior intellect and power exists, it’s likely a little more reasonable than that. If there’s a wager to be made (better than that faulty Pascal’s Wager), it’s that if a god or gods exist they’d be more moral and sensible than sending people off to be tortured for something they had no control over. Perhaps instead all people reach paradise regardless of belief, or there is no afterlife for some, or no afterlife for any of us, or some go to a place that isn’t paradise but not uncomfortable, or it’s all determined by one’s deeds, not beliefs. Who knows? There are countless options far more moral!

Careful readers will notice there’s a bit of an assumption there. When I was young and devout, I used to imagine the Judeo-Christian God found a way to make sure every person across the globe heard about him — and, after the resurrection, Jesus. People would read about them, someone would speak of them, or God would appear or make himself known in some fashion, to cover those in secluded and faraway places. If a deity exists, we assume it has the power to do this, so the above assumes it’s refraining — that could be a critical error. All true. Yet that may not ease the being’s moral culpability much. Suppose you go through your life and suddenly hear of Shenism — you saw it mentioned in an article somewhere. You read the article, but didn’t study the religion. You didn’t think to, you have your own religion you’re sure is true, you’re busy and forgot, you prefer learning about other things, and so on. Missing your moment, do you deserve eternal punishment? Have you “made your choice”? Let’s go further and imagine God ensures every human being receives enough knowledge about the One True Religion to make an “informed choice.” Suppose you learn about Islam in school, or have a Muslim co-worker. You hear all about the faith — you even study it on your own, earnestly. But you’re just not convinced, the evidence and reasoning don’t seem strong enough — no, thank you. You’ll stick to Christianity or atheism or Hinduism or whatever, inadvertently rejecting the One True Religion, sealing your fate. If this is how affairs are arranged, billions aren’t persuaded and will burn. Some people will be swayed, maybe everyone who gets a flashy visit from God himself will convert, but the vast majority of humanity is toast. (And surely not all those billions recognized the One True Religion as true but ignored it for sinful, selfish reasons — I can hear that ludicrous line coming from the Christians.) So, do you deserve hell? Because what you heard or read didn’t convince you? Did you “make your choice”? One could phrase it that way, but do you really choose to believe something is true? Or do you simply believe it’s true? In any case, what kind of being would torture good people for eternity because they weren’t convinced of something? Being unpersuaded…that’s your sin! Now burn. It would again probably have to be an immoral monster or a total madman.

So if it seems plausible that a deity is more likely to be a moral and sensible being, who wouldn’t issue everlasting damnation on people who didn’t hear about her or simply weren’t convinced by the evidence and reasoning available and presented, there isn’t too much work remaining. God is clearly a reasonable fellow, and in that light special cases can be considered. What of apostates? Perhaps you belonged to the One True Religion and left it. This is too similar to the above musings to warrant much discussion — if you can be forgiven for not being convinced, mightn’t you also be forgiven for no longer being convinced? But what of atheists and agnostics who don’t follow any faith? Same story, that’s simply not being convinced of something. If the gods are moral and sensible enough to not torture someone unconvinced by the One True Religion, why would they torture someone unconvinced by the One True Religion and all false ones? This is why my worry, as both apostate and atheist, dissipates quickly. If God exists, he’s probably good enough to not do X, and if he’s good enough to not do X he’s probably good enough to not do Y.

This could all be wrong, of course. It could be that a higher power exists and he’s simply a tyrant, completely immoral and irrational in word and deed, shipping people to hell regardless of whether they’ve heard of him, regardless of how bad the “evidence” is. (Or only tormenting atheists and apostates!) We should sincerely hope the Judeo-Christian god, for instance, doesn’t exist or is at least radically different than advertised in holy books (he has a long history of choosing less moral options and even punishing people for things they had no control over, such as the sins of the father). Or it could be the deity is mad and wicked in the opposite way. It may have been former pastor Dan Barker who wrote that a god who only lets atheists and agnostics into paradise, as a reward for thinking critically, while letting believers burn, could easily exist. Humorous, yet entirely possible (the “evidence” for each is of comparable quality). Millions of gods could be and have been theorized. But it makes some sense to suppose a higher power would be moral, because it presumably created us, and we have a moral outrage about all this, at least in modern times: most people, even many believers, are horrified at the thought of billions being tortured forever because they believed differently through no real fault of their own. We would figure out “options far more moral,” like those above, if given the power. Wouldn’t the creator be more moral, more loving and forgiving, than the created? Can mortals really surpass the gods in ethical development, in an interest in fairness and minimizing harm? Regardless, in sum, it’s simply up to us to decide if it’s most plausible that an existent deity would be good and sane — if so, damning the vast majority of humanity to hell for not knowing about, studying, or being convinced of the One True Religion seems highly implausible.

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Faith and Science

It’s a bit odd how religious persons say things like “Science is for understanding the natural world, faith is for understanding the supernatural or spiritual world” as if these two methods of learning what is real are equally valid. They clearly are not.

“Science” basically means “testing.” You formulate a theory, devise a way to test it, and judge the results to see what’s true about the natural world. Now, it is true that some theories can’t be tested or haven’t been tested and are inappropriately presented as fact or likely to be fact. It’s also true that sometimes science is wrong — tests are flawed, good tests yield inaccurate results due to unexpected phenomena, or results are misjudged or misinterpreted. Yet over time, science grows more accurate. Tests are repeated over years, decades, and centuries, giving us further confidence in findings. New individuals administer such tests, weeding out biases. New tests are designed, looking at long-studied phenomena from different angles and in new ways. In these ways, 1) the ability to actually test ideas and 2) improved understanding over time, science helps us know what’s true.

Faith has neither of these things. First, it might be noted that when you hear the statement in the first paragraph, the speaker is typically talking about one faith, his or her own. Christian faith helps you understand the spiritual world, the true spiritual world. Hinduism, Scientology, Islam, and Buddhism won’t help you know the supernatural world, those are of course all false religions. In any case, we’ll assume a more open-minded stance, because some do believe that there is truth in all faiths, that all roads lead to Rome.

Where science is an ever-growing body of knowledge based on testing over time and into the modern age, faiths typically present more or less fixed bodies of ideas based on writings from comparatively primitive ancient cultures — desert tribes from the Middle East, for example, in the case of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Such writings describe higher powers, afterlives, the meaning of life, and so on. Ideas, supposed knowledge, of the supernatural world. Unfortunately, there is no way to test to see if any of these notions are true. The ideas could easily be man-made fictions. You may believe your Hindu or Christian or Islamic faith helps you know and understand the spiritual world, but, to put it bluntly, that spiritual world may not exist. There is no test to run to find out. (And no, Jesus being resurrected is not a “test,” nor are miracles, answered prayers, or feeling God speaking to you. The obvious problem with this poor counterargument is that these things cannot be tested for validity either. They could easily be human fictions and imaginings as well, as explained in detail elsewhere. Think about it. If someone doubts photosynthesis, you can teach him how to test to see if photosynthesis is real; there is no test you can use to show him a god or goddess is actually speaking to you, that it isn’t just in your head. “Try faith yourself, you’ll see the proof, believing is seeing” is the best a believer can say, possibly just drawing the fellow into human fictions and imaginings as well — there is no way to test to know otherwise.) This is in stark contrast to science; we can have confidence that the natural world exists, and we are able to put ideas to the test to actually see what’s true or false, or most likely to be so.

Linked with the lack of “knowledge” verification or falsifiability, of course, is simply the fact that ideas about the spiritual world cannot grow more accurate over time. Ancient scriptures aren’t typically added to. (In modern times, at least.) Texts are of course reinterpreted, gods are reimagined, ways the faithful think they should live change. For most American Christians for a long time, God was fine with the enslavement of blacks and the bible was used to justify it, without difficulty given what’s in it. Today things are quite different. Religions may change as societies do, and the faithful may feel they gain more knowledge by studying the scriptures more deeply, but no one will ever discover that we only spend 1,000 years in heaven, not eternity. Christianity won’t change when someone announces, after much research, that God has a couple wives up in heaven. Newly discovered ancient writings won’t become holy scripture. As stated, it’s all a fairly fixed set of ideas about the supernatural realm. The immutable nature of religious “knowledge” is of course celebrated by the faithful — everything we need to know about the spiritual world was written thousands of years ago, we don’t need more than what God gave us or any improved accuracy, everything’s accurate and must be preserved. (This is in contrast to scientists, who can make history, really make names for themselves, by disproving long-held scientific theories; there’s a personal incentive not to preserve doctrine but to blow it up.) But the supposed knowledge and its assumed accuracy are untestable and could easily be false, and there’s no process of gaining more knowledge or improving accuracy over time to really hammer out if these things are false or true. Imagine if science was like this — no way to know if germ theory is correct, no centuries spent gaining more information and developing better and better medicines. In its ability to test ideas and improve understanding as time goes on, science, unlike faith, is an actual method of learning what is real. (All this should not be surprising, given that “faith” is often defined, by believers and nonbelievers alike, as “belief without proof.”)

In sum, science is a useful tool for gaining objective knowledge about the natural world. Faith is simply hoped to be a tool for gaining what could easily be imagined knowledge about an imagined spiritual realm. These things are hardly the same.

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Headlines From the United States of Atheism

Alternatively titled: If You Get Why Government Favoring and Promoting Atheism or Another Faith is Unacceptable, You Get Why the Same is True For Christianity. Lest the following satire be misunderstood, let’s state this plainly. All people have the right to believe what they like, and promote it — unless you’re on the clock as a public employee or trying to use public institutions. Government needs to be neutral on matters of faith, not favoring or promoting one or any religion, nor atheism. To be neutral isn’t to back or advocate for disbelief, unlike events described in these fictional, hopefully thought-provoking, headlines. It’s simply to acknowledge that this is a country and government for all people, not just those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Not all students, customers, or constituents are Christians or even people of faith. Freedom from religion is just as important as freedom of religion, which is why church and State are kept separate. If you wouldn’t want government used to push atheism, Islam, and so forth in any way, whether through its employees, institutions, laws, or creations, then you get it.

Florida Bill Requires Public Schools to Offer Elective on Atheist Classics. Why No Required Electives For Holy Books?

“God is Dead” to Appear on U.S. Currency Next Year

Christian Student Refuses to Stand For Pledge, Objecting to “One Nation, Godless” Line

Supreme Court Yet to Rule on Whether Refusing Service to Christians Based on Religious Belief is Discrimination

Why Does the Law Still Say You Can’t Be Fired For Being Gay, But Can For Being a Person of Faith?

Coach Lectures Players About How God is Fictional and Can’t Help Them Before Every Game

Little-known Last Verse of National Anthem Reads: “And Faith is a Bust” 

Believers Bewildered as to Why Students Are Studying Science and Evolution in Religion Class  

Sam Harris One of Six Selected to Lead Traditional Refutations of God’s Existence at Presidential Inauguration 

Lawmakers Want “The God Delusion” as This State’s Official Book 

Christians Fight to be Allowed to Give Invocations at the Legislature Too; Many Americans Wonder Why Invocations Are Necessary

Supreme Court Unanimously OKs Refusing Adoption to Straight Couples if Your God Says To

Bonus: Headlines From the United States of Allah

Oklahoma Legislature Votes to Install Qu’ran Monument on Capitol Grounds 

States Are Requiring or Allowing “Allahu Akbar” to be Displayed in Public Schools

Muslims Object to Removal of Big Crescent and Star From Public Park

With U.S. Supreme Court Oblivious, Alabama Ditches Rule That Death Row Inmates Can Only Have Imam With Them at the End

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Is There Any Actual Science in the Bible?

Someone once told me that the bible was the greatest work of science ever written. This is mildly insane, as anyone who’s read the bible knows there is more scientific knowledge presented in any grade school or even children’s science book. (And, given thousands of extra years of research, it’s probably more accurate.) The purpose of the bible, secularists and believers can surely agree, was not to acknowledge or pass down scientific principles. Finding incredible scientific truths in the text typically requires very loose interpretations. But as religious folk sometimes point to science in the bible as proof of its divine nature, it seems necessary to critically examine these claims.

In making the case that “every claim [the bible] makes about science is not only true but crucial for filling in the blanks of our understanding about the origin of the universe, the earth, fossils, life, and human beings,” Answers in Genesis points to verses that vary in ambiguity. Meaning some are more believable than others as to whether they could present valid scientific information.

Take Job 26:7, in which it is said God “spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.” One may wonder what it means to spread skies over empty space. Perhaps it’s referencing the expanding universe, as others think verses like Job 9:8 reference (“He alone spreads out the heavens”). But the second part matches well what we know today, that the globe isn’t sitting on the back of a turtle or something. Why this and other verses may not be as incredible as supposed is discussed below.

(It’s often asserted also that the Big Bang proves the bible right in its writing of a “beginning,” but we simply do not know for certain that no existence “existed” before the Big Bang.)

Answers in Genesis also believes the bible describes the water cycle. “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again,” reads Ecclesiastes 1:7. It also provides Isaiah 55:10: “The rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish…” Some translations (such as NLT, ESV, and King James) are missing “without,” instead saying the rains “come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,” which sounds more like a repudiation of the water cycle. But no matter; other verses, such as Psalm 135:7 in some translations or Job 36:27, speak of vapors ascending from the earth or God drawing up water.

From there things begin to fall apart (the Answers in Genesis list is not long).

The group presents Isaiah 40:22 and Psalm 103:12 as the bible claiming the world is spherical rather than flat (“He who sits above the circle of the earth”; “as far as the east is from the west”). But neither of these verses explicitly makes that case. A flat earth has east and west edges, and a circle is not three dimensional. “Circle,” in the original Hebrew, was חוּג (chug), a word variously used for circle, horizon, vault, circuit, and compass. A “circle of the earth,” the Christian Resource Center insists, refers simply to the horizon, which from high up on a mountain is curved. If biblical writers had wanted to explicitly call the earth spherical they could have described it like a דּוּר (ball), as in Isaiah 22:18: “He will roll you up tightly like a ball and throw you.” This is not to say for certain that the ancient Hebrews did not think the world was a sphere, it is only to say the bible does not make that claim in a clear and unambiguous manner.

The remaining “evidences” are really nothing to write home about. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11) is supposed to show an understanding of blood circulation; “the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8:8) is supposed to represent knowledge of sea currents; “the fixed order of the moon and the stars” (Jeremiah 31:35) is allegedly a commentary on the predictable paths of celestial bodies in space (rather than, say, their “fixed,” unchanging positions in space, another interpretation). But none of these actually suggest any deeper understanding than what can be easily observed: if you are cut open and lose enough blood you die, bodies of water flow in specific ways, and the moon and stars aren’t blasting off into space in random directions but rather maintain consistent movement through the skies from our earthly perspective. Again, maybe there were actually deeper understandings of how these things worked, but they were not presented in the bible.

The Jehovah’s Witness website has a go at this topic as well, using most of the same verses (bizarrely, it adds two to the discussion on the water cycle, two that merely say rain comes from the heavens).

The site uses Jeremiah 33:25-26 (“If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth…”) and Jeremiah 38:33 (“Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”) to argue that the bible makes the case for the natural laws of science. Perhaps, but again, this doesn’t demonstrate any knowledge beyond what can be observed and, due to consistency, called a law by ancient peoples. So maybe it’s one of God’s laws that the sun rises each day. It’s a law that water will evaporate when the temperature gets too high. And so forth. These verses are acknowledgements that observable things function a certain way and that God made it so. There’s no verse that explains an actual scientific principle, such as force being equal to a constant mass times acceleration, or light being a product of magnetism and electricity.

True, it’s sometimes said the bible imparts the knowledge of pi (3.1415926…) and the equation for the circumference of a circle, but this is a bit misleading. There are a couple places where a circle “measuring ten cubits” is mentioned, with it requiring “a line of thirty cubits to measure around it” (1 Kings 7:23, 2 Chronicles 4:2). Pi is implicitly three here. The equation (rough or exact) and pi (rough or exact) were possibly known, as they were elsewhere in the ancient world, as they’re not too difficult to figure out after understanding basic division/multiplication and taking some measurements (once you measure a few circles, build a few round structures, you’d likely notice a circumference is always a little more than 3 times longer than the diameter), but that is not an absolute certainty based on this text. Regardless, neither the equation nor the value of pi are explicitly offered. (Why not? Because this is not a science book.) If these verses were meant, by God or man, to acknowledge or pass on scientific knowledge then they either didn’t have much figured out or were not feeling particularly helpful. “Figure out the equation and a more precise value of pi yourself.”

The Jehovah’s Witness site further believes it’s significant the ancient Hebrews had sanitary practices, like covering up feces (Deuteronomy 23:13), keeping people with leprosy isolated (Leviticus 13:1-5), and washing your clothes after handling a carcass (Leviticus 11:28). However, if you read Deuteronomy 23:14, you see that feces must be covered up so God “will not see among you anything indecent” when he visits. It wasn’t to protect community health — or at least that went unmentioned. Noticing that leprosy can spread and deciding to quarantine people who have it is not advanced science. The guidelines for cleanliness after touching dead animals start off reasonable, then go off the road. Even after washing your clothes you were for some reason still “unclean till evening,” just like any person or object that touched a woman on her period! (If this was just a spiritual uncleanliness, why were objects unclean? They don’t have souls.) The woman, of course, was unclean for seven days after her “discharge of blood.” How scientific.

Finally, this list mentions Psalm 104:6 (“You covered [earth] with the watery depths as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains”) to posit that the biblical writers knew there was an era, before earth’s plate tectonics began to collide and form mountains, when the earth was mostly water — there is actual scientific evidence for this idea. The verse may be referencing the Great Flood story; verse 9 says of the waters, “never again will they cover the earth,” which sounds a lot like what God promised after wiping out humanity: “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). But if it does in fact reference the beginning of the world, it could be a verse a believer might use to make his or her case that the bible contains scientific truths, alongside Genesis 1:1-10, which also posits the earth was covered in water in the beginning.

There are of course many more alleged scientific truths, most more vague or requiring truly desperate interpretation. For instance, the “Behemoth” in Job 40 is sometimes said to describe a dinosaur, but it in no way has to be one. Hebrews 11:3 says: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” That can refer to nothing other than atoms — not any nonphysical possibility like, say, love and the breath of God. Others think a sentence like “all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 24:30) hints at the future invention of the television! TV is apparently the only way everyone could see an event at the same time — miracles be damned. Still others suggest that when Genesis 2:1 says the heavens and earth “were finished” that this describes the First Law of Thermodynamics (constant energy, none created nor destroyed, in closed systems)! When Christ returns like a thief in the night, “the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10) — that’s apparently a verse about nuclear fission. One begins to suspect people are reading too much into things.

We should conclude with four thoughts.

This can be done with any text. One can take any ancient document, read between the lines, and discover scientific truths. Take a line from the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Babylonia: “The heroes, the wise men, like the new moon have their waxing and waning.” Clearly, the Babylonians knew the phases of the moon, how the moon waxes (enlarges) until it becomes full as it positions itself on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, allowing sunlight to envelope the side we can see. They knew how the moon then wanes (shrinks) as it positions itself between the earth and sun, falling into darkness (a new moon) because the sun only illuminates its backside, which we humans cannot see. This line must be in the text to acknowledge and impart scientific knowledge and prove the truth of the Babylonian faith, likely arranged by the moon god mentioned, Sin, or by his wife, Ningal.

This argument is no different than what we’ve seen above, and could be replicated countless times using other ancient books. Perhaps the Babylonians in fact did have a keen understanding of the moon and how it functions. But that does not mean a sentence like that in a story is meant to pass on or even indicate possession of such knowledge. Nor does it mean the gods placed it there, that the gods exist, or that the Epic is divinely inspired. Its presence in a text written between 2150 B.C. and 1400 B.C., even if surprising, simply does not make the book divine. It could be the first text in history that mentions the waxing and waning of the moon; that would not make its gods true.

(By contrast, archaeological and ethnographic research points to the Israelites as offshoots of Canaanites and other peoples around 1200-1000 B.C., with their first writings [not the Old Testament] appearing around the latter date. Though believers want to believe the Hebrews are the oldest people in human history, the evidence does not support this. I write this to stress that, like Old Testament stories taken from older cultures, the Hebrews may have learned of the water cycle and such from others.)

A society’s scientific knowledge may mix with its religion, but that does not make its religion true. Even if the Hebrews were the first group of modern humans, with the first writings, the first people to acquire and pass along scientific knowledge, that would not automatically make the supernatural elements of their writings true. As elaborated elsewhere, ancient religious texts surely have real people, places, and events mixed in with total fiction. If some science is included that’s nice, but it doesn’t prove all the gods are real. The Hebrews knowing about the water cycle or pi simply does not prove Yahweh or the rest of the bible true, any more than what’s scientifically accurate in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Koran, the Vedas, or any other ancient text proves any of its gods or stories true. That goes for the more shocking truths as well, simply because…

Coincidence is not outside the realm of the possible. As difficult as it may be to hear, it is possible that verses that reference a watery early earth or an earth suspended in space are successful guesses, nothing miraculous required. If one can look up and see the moon resting on nothing, is it so hard to imagine a human being wondering if the earth experiences the same? Could the idea that the earth was first covered in water not be a lucky postulation? Look at things through the lens of a faith that isn’t your own. Some Muslims believe the Koran speaks of XX and XY chromosome pairs (“He creates pairs, male and female, from semen emitted”), the universe ending in a Big Crunch (“We will fold the heaven, like the folder compacts the books”), wormholes (“Allah [who owns] wormholes”), pain receptors of the skin (“We will replace their skins with other new skins so that they may taste the torture”), and more. (Like nearly all faiths, it posits a beginning of the universe too.) How could they possibly know such things? Must Allah be real, the Koran divinely inspired, Islam the religion to follow? Or could these just be total coincidences, lucky guesses mixed with liberal interpretations of vague verses? Supposed references to atoms or mentions of planetary details in the bible could easily be the same. If you throw out enough ideas about the world, you’ll probably be right at times. Could the Hebrews, like Muslims, have simply made a host of guesses, some right and others wrong? After all…

There are many entirely unscientific statements in the bible. Does the ant truly have “no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8), or were the Hebrews just not advanced enough in entomology to know about the ant queen? Are women really unclean in some way for a full week after menstruating, with every person or thing they touch unclean as well? Or was just this male hysteria over menstruation, so common throughout history? If the sun “hurries back to where it rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:5), does this suggest the Hebrews thought the sun was moving around the earth? Or was it just a figure of speech? One could likewise interpret Psalm 96:10 (“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved”) to mean the earth does not rotate on its axis or orbit the sun. If one can interpret verses to make people seem smart, one can do the same to make them look ignorant. Do hares actually chew their cud (Leviticus 11:4), or did the Hebrews just not know about caecotrophy? Did Jesus not know a mustard seed is not “the smallest of all seeds” (Matthew 13:32)? Likewise, seeds that “die” don’t “produce many seeds” (John 12:24); seeds that are dormant will later germinate, but not dead ones. Some translations of Job 37:18 describe the sky “as hard as a mirror that’s made out of bronze” (NIRV, KJV, etc.). One could also go through the scientific evidence of today that contradicts biblical stories like the order of creation. As I wrote elsewhere, the evidence “does not support the Judeo-Christian creation story (in which birds appear on the same ‘day,’ Day 5, as creatures that live in water, before land animals, which appear on Day 6; the fossil record shows amphibians, reptiles, and mammals appearing long before birds — and modern whales, being descendants of land mammals, don’t appear until later still, until after birds, just 33 million years ago).” Or one could note that the overwhelming evidence for evolution blows up the stories of a first man from dirt and a first woman from rib (if one believes in evolution, it seems one must accept Genesis contains falsehoods, written by ordinary people or spoken by God). Christians historically counted up the generations mentioned in the bible and put the age of the planet and our species at about 6,000 years, miserably, embarrassingly inaccurate according to all the findings of science. Or look at the biblical translations that mention unicorns, dragons, and satyrs, or just argue that supernatural claims of miracles, angels, devils, and gods are unscientific in general because they can’t be proven. But the point is made: the bible takes stabs at the natural world that aren’t accurate or imply erroneous things.

In conclusion, the science in the bible is about what one would expect from Middle Eastern tribes thousands of years ago. There are some basic observations about the world that are accurate, others inaccurate. There are some statements about the universe that turned out to be true, just like in the Koran, but that doesn’t necessarily require supernatural explanations.

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The Bereshit (Jesus in Genesis) Argument Has No Merit

On New Year’s Eve 2016, a friend introduced me to the term bereshit, Hebrew for “in the beginning.” It is the first word of the bible, and is believed by some to contain a secret message concerning the crucifixion of Christ. The bereshit argument is therefore also called the “Jesus in Genesis 1:1” theory.

The theory goes like this: Hebrew letters have special meanings, and when you examine the meanings of the six letters in bereshit (beyt-resh-aleph-shin-yud-tav) they form a sentence: “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”

I told my friend I was skeptical but would research it, and later came across this graphic and this video (minutes 10:00 to 17:00). Both assert the following meanings or associations of the letters: beyt (house, tent), resh (first person, head), aleph (God), shin (consume, destroy, teeth), yud (hand, arm, works), and tav (covenant, mark, cross). Beyt and resh, when combined, make the word “son.” So the bereshit sequence can supposedly be read “son-God-destroy-hand-cross,” or “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.”

I reached out to some of today’s most respected and renowned Old Testament scholars to determine the merits of the bereshit theory. I also spoke to John E. Kostik, a well-traveled Christian speaker, who created the video. He informed me that proving bereshit theory was as simple as looking up the meanings of Hebrew letters, which have matching Hebrew words. “Bereshit begins with the letter beyt. The Hebrew word for ‘house’ is beyt!”

I remembered a question John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, posited to me earlier that day: “Why would no one have seen it for thousands of years?” So I asked Kostik why web information on it is relatively sparse and why many pastors and believers don’t know about it. He said that because the original language of Hebrew is not widely known, and because Jewish scholars do not view Christ as the messiah and therefore do not have open eyes, the spread of this knowledge has been limited. I asked for sources on the topic, and Kostik directed me to Jeff A. Benner’s work.

Like Kostik (and myself), Benner is not a professional scholar. He works for an engineering company and lives in a log cabin, but like Kostik studying ancient Hebrew is his passion. He documents his studies on his website, which he dubbed the Ancient Hebrew Research Center. While disappointed not to find a university professor with findings published in peer-reviewed journals, that was the source I was given so I pressed on.

The first task was to see if the ancient Hebrew word for “house” indeed had the same name as the first letter in bereshit.

I looked up these words in Benner’s dictionary of ancient Hebrew words, and consulted Strong’s Concordance to ensure they were accurate, which they were.

The definitions below with ancient Hebrew lettering are both from Benner’s site, with a Strong’s Concordance number to crosscheck. Definitions without ancient Hebrew lettering are from Strong’s Concordance alone. Hebrew words are read right to left.

(ba-yit): House. (The structure or the family, as a household that resides within the house. A housing. Within.) Strong’s 1004.

 (rosh): Head. (The top of the body. A person in authority or role of leader. The top, beginning, or first of something.) Strong’s 7218.

 (a-luph): Chief. (Accorded highest rank or office; of greatest importance, significance, or influence. One who is yoked to another to lead and teach.) Strong’s 441.

(sheyn): Tooth. (Hard bony appendages on the jaws used for chewing food and forming of sounds when talking.) Strong’s 8127/8128.

 (yad): Hand. (The terminal, functional part of the forelimb. Hand with the ability to work, throw and give thanks.) Strong’s 3027.

Not pictured (tav): Frowardness (perverse thing) or mark (from tavah, Strong’s 8427). Strong’s 8420/8420a.

These then needed to be compared to the letters themselves. Here are Benner’s descriptions of the early Hebrew letters:

 (beyt, today ב): image of a house, tent

 (resh, today ר): image of a man’s head

(aleph, today א): image of an ox’s head

 (shin, today ש): image of two front teeth

 (yud, today י): image of arm and hand

 (tav, today ת): image of crossed sticks

You will notice the names of these Hebrew letters are indeed virtually the same as the Hebrew words above. We will get back to this.

Initial problems with the bereshit argument become evident fairly quickly. First, assuming these letters represent the items asserted, bereshit reads “house-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark [or perverse thing].” Benner himself does not include “God,” “consume,” “destroy,” “works,” “covenant,” or “cross” as definitions!

If we open the scope of the meanings to include Strong’s (Exhaustive Concordance), that gives us:

  • House (court, door, dungeon, family, forth of, great as would contain, hangings)
  • Head (band, captain, company)
  • Chief (captain, duke, chief friend, governor, guide, ox; chief is actually not included under a-luph here)
  • Tooth (crag, forefront, ivory, sharp)
  • Hand (be able, about, armholes, at, axletree, because of, beside, border)
  • Mark (very froward thing, perverse thing, desire, signature)

And still the key words are missing. “House-head-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is not all that close to the original bereshit claim. Even skipping Strong’s translations and using only Benner’s, a wide range of secret messages can be conjured. “Family-leader-yoked teacher-tooth-hand-perverse thing” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible!

Key words necessary for the bereshit argument are simply assumed without basis. Aleph, while having to do with leader, has nothing to do with God, as confirmed by my scholars. Notice a noun is transformed into a verb in the conversion of “tooth” to “destroy”! It’s merely “inferring a verb,” says John J. Collins, professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.

When I raised to John Kostik the fact that these words were missing, he sent me an image that depicted shin standing for destruction in another word, but could not provide a source. “Maybe common sense is to be employed,” he said, adding, “God doesn’t have to source everything through man. God is the source.” I pointed out common sense could also make shin stand for dental hygiene. I did not receive a reply.

You’ll notice “son” is missing here. As explained above, one must combine the first two letters to create “son.” Beyt and resh can join to form the word bar, son (Strong’s 1247). Thus, bereshit can at best be read “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” according to Benner’s definitions at least. Or “son-most important-tooth-hand-perverse thing” if you prefer.

Of course, opening the door to letter combinations, rather than moving bereshit closer to validation, can move it farther away. As before, many combinations and words, and thus secret messages, are possible. Beyt-resh-aleph could form bara’ (choose, Strong’s 1254). Resh-aleph could be used for the name Ra. We could combine shin-yud-tav to create shith (to put or set, Strong’s 7896). Yud-tav could form yath (whom, Strong’s 3487). Therefore, “The house of Ra is set” is an equally valid secret message in the first word of the bible, if not superior.

“I actually find this use of the Bible scary,” says Mark S. Smith, professor of Old Testament Language and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary, “because it ends [up] being made into meanings that its creators want, and not what the Bible really says.” A similar sentiment was expressed to me by Michael V. Fox, professor emeritus at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, John Goldingay (“One can prove almost anything by this method”), and Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary (“Sound[s] more like nonsense to me, pressing to [see] what is not there”).

Further, we must be sure to note there are no prepositions or verb tenses with bereshit. My example at best could be “house-Ra-set.” There is no “the,” “of,” or “is.” Same with “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross.” There’s no “the” or “of” or “is” or “by” or “his” or “own” or “on.” Where do bereshit believers get any pieces beyond “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark”? One could just as easily assert the meaning “The son isn’t chief until his tooth and hand are marked.” Even if we had “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” there would still be room to create other narratives, for instance: “My son God destroyed when his hands formed a cross.” He crossed his arms and a city exploded. And of course, even if prepositions and verbs formed a complete “The Son of God is destroyed by his own hand on the cross” there would remain the possibility that this was first discovered by some first-century A.D. scribe who then invented a story of Jesus to “fulfill the prophesy.” But no matter. While “son-god-destroyed-hand-cross” would be intriguing indeed, “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark” is the best we have.

I reached out to ask Benner if he was a bereshit believer. He replied, “I personally do not believe that secret messages are encoded in specific words of the Bible.”

However, Benner’s website does associate letters with certain meanings. Yet the scholars I spoke to were adamant that ancient Hebrew letters should not be viewed as “standing for” something. Ron Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at UC-Berkeley, says of shin, “It’s just a letter of the alphabet. It doesn’t stand for anything except the sound ‘sh.'” This is because ancient Hebrew was never pictographic (where symbols represent things), it was phonetic (where symbols — letters — represent sounds).

Early Hebrew letters (Paleo-Hebrew) came from the older Phoenician alphabet (“phonetic” is not a coincidence), which had 22 letters, all consonants, just like its Hebrew offspring. The Phoenicians lived along the Syrian, Lebanese, and northern Israeli coast, and spread their alphabet across the Mediterranean regions, setting the stage for the development of Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and later English.

In the phonetic Hebrew language the crossed sticks symbol, tav, represented only the “t” sound, as in “toy.” In a similar way, the Greek letter tau makes the “t” sound. English doesn’t generally spell out its letter names, but one could say the English tee makes the “t” sound. There is no evidence that the ox head, the crossed sticks, the man’s head, nor the others were actually used by the Hebrews in a pictographic way, where if one wanted to write the word house one would draw beyt. You had to use letters to form words, like  (ba-yit) above. And no one thought the word “house” contained the secret code of “house-arm-mark”! You were simply using three letters to make a “bh” sound, “y” sound, and “t” sound to make a word.

“The letters never really ‘meant’ those things” to the Hebrews, says Molly Zahn, associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, “because the whole point of an alphabet of only a limited number of letters (22 in the case of Hebrew) is to represent sounds, not ideas.” Pictographic languages like hieroglyphics require hundreds — thousands — of signs to be at all useful.

Other societies, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, did use pictographic language for a time (think hieroglyphics and cuneiform), but there is no evidence the Hebrews did. The best evidence points to the first Hebrew writing system being an offshoot of the Phoenician script, which aligns neatly with the evidence that the Hebrew people themselves were an offshoot of the Canaanites, a group that included the Phoenicians.

Now, that does not mean the symbols used by the Hebrews were never used in a pictographic way — they were just never used in a pictographic way by the Hebrews. There is no evidence (“None whatsoever,” emphasized Victor H. Matthews, dean of Religious Studies at Missouri State University) that the Hebrews as an independent people used a pictographic language; they were likely already armed with a Canaanite phonetic language upon their formation. We thus arrive at this question of how it is the names of these Hebrew letters are essentially the same as the words of the everyday objects they were modeled on. This phenomenon has certainly made the bereshit argument seem plausible to some.

If we were to look back in time, before the Hebrews existed, before Phoenicia developed its groundbreaking alphabet, we would likely see the people of the region using pictograms of objects. As Zahn explains, they used the image of an ox’s head to mean an alpu (ox) and a little house drawing to represent a ba-yit. These were eventually used by the first phonetic thinkers to represent sounds, specifically these words’ first syllables, the “ah” and “b” sounds. A drawing of an ox came to represent not an ox but a sound, a letter. It was a sound and letter that would then be used to create a brand new, multi-letter word for ox. That’s the transition from pictographic to phonetic language. Alpu evolved into different forms — aleph (Phoenician, Hebrew), alpha (Greek), alif (Arabic); so did ba-yit — beth (Phoenician), beyt (Hebrew), beta (Greek, today more vita), ba (Arabic), and so on. So it should not be surprising that objects and letters modeled off those objects should have nearly the same names. This is not unique to Hebrew, either. The Arabic word for tooth (sini) looks like سن and sounds, and appears, remarkably like the letter س (sin). The Arabic word for hand (yd) looks like يد and is somewhat close to the letter ي (ya). Other examples in Arabic and other tongues are not difficult to find.

Some will of course, regardless of evidence, argue that the Hebrews, being “God’s chosen people,” invented the pictographs (and/or phonetics) themselves and disseminated them to other peoples. Or that regardless of how biblical Hebrew came about God nevertheless orchestrated events so that whoever wrote Genesis unwittingly put a secret message of Christ’s story in “in the beginning.” That even if an ox head in an ancient language doesn’t mean anything except a sound, we should take it to mean something. But given the evidence it must be concluded that the message could at best be “son-chief-tooth-hand-mark,” which itself is an entirely arbitrary arrangement, leaving out other possible symbol meanings and combinations of words to form new words, simply word choice made by Christians wishing to construct what is not there.

The final verdict on bereshit? To quote Tremper Longman III, professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, “It’s bull.”

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Is Relative Morality More Dangerous Than Objective Morality?

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”

Psalm 14:1 neatly summarizes the anti-atheist stereotype held by many people around the world, and further laid the foundation thousands of years ago for this modern Christian belief. It says so in the bible, thus it must be true. While some people of faith trust that the nonreligious are just as moral as they, others believe atheism makes one more likely to commit unethical acts or even that no one can be good without God.

Having already examined how deities are not necessary to explain morality nor to justify moral decisions, and having cleared up confusion concerning objective morality versus objective truth, it seems relevant to address the idea that relative morality (humans alone deciding what is right and wrong) is so much more dangerous than objective morality (right and wrong as allegedly dictated by God and outlined in holy books).

First we will look at theists’ “relative morality in practice” argument and then move on to the theoretical or philosophical question of which is preferable, relative or objective morality. However, let us be clear from the outset that consequences have no bearing on whether something is true or false. Christians hope everyone will believe in objective morality because otherwise we’ll all kill each other and civilization will burn. Naturally, we should instead believe something is true because there’s evidence for it, not because there would be dire consequences if we did not believe (the argumentum ad consequentiam fallacy). There is, of course, no actual evidence for objective morality.

The “in practice” argument often centers around the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, and other mass killers. “These atheists were responsible for the worst genocides in human history,” thus any morality devoid of gods is dangerous prima facie. 

This falls apart for several reasons.

First, one notes the personal views of the worst despots are sometimes misconstrued. Hitler repeatedly professed his Christianity in his books and speeches, often to explicitly justify oppressing the Jews; he also publicly criticized the “atheist movement” of the Bolsheviks. Privately, however, he made clear he was an enemy of Christianity, calling it an “absurdity” based on “lies” (Bormann, Hitler’s Table Talk). “The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity,” he said, because it led to Bolshevism. “Both are inventions of the Jew.” Christianity would be “worn away” by science, as all “myths crumble.”

However, anti-Christian is not necessarily atheist. Joseph Goebbels wrote that while Hitler “hates” Christianity, “the Fuhrer is deeply religious” (Goebbels Diaries). Hitler said in private that

An educated man retains the sense of the mysteries of nature and bows before the unknowable. An uneducated man, on the other hand, runs the risk of going over to atheism (which is a return to the state of the animal) as soon as he perceives that the State, in sheer opportunism, is making use of false ideas in the matter of religion… (Bormann)

Hitler said to companions, “Christianity is the most insane thing that a human brain in its delusion has ever brought forth, a mockery of everything divine,” suggesting a belief in higher powers.

And while some of Hitler’s policies attacked the Catholic Church and German Christianity in general, only those who stood up to the Nazis, like some church leaders and Jehovah’s Witnesses, were in danger of extermination. And Hitler also persecuted atheists, banning most atheist groups, such as the German Freethinkers League. Again, fear of the link between atheism and Bolshevism was a factor.

With no real evidence Hitler was an atheist, what of Stalin?

The Soviet dictator’s case is more straightforward. He became an atheist as a youth, while studying to become a priest (also what a young Hitler wanted to do). “They are fooling us,” he said of his teachers. “There is no god” (Yaroslavsky, Landmarks in the Life of Stalin). “God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived” (Montefiore, Young Stalin). Later, he explained that “all religion is something opposite to science,” and oversaw “anti-religious propaganda” to eradicate “religious prejudices” (Pravda interview, September 15, 1927). Such efforts were meant to “convince the peasant of the nonexistence of God” (Stalin, “The Party’s Immediate Tasks in the Countryside” speech, October 22, 1924). As implied above, Communism in the Soviet Union typically embraced science and secularism.

Stalin thought religion was “opium for the people,” an exercise in “futility” that wrought “evil” (Hoxha, With Stalin). “The introduction of religious elements into socialism,” he wrote, “is unscientific and therefore harmful for the proletariat” (Stalin, “Party News,” August 2, 1909). He favored the “struggle” against religion. He also said he did not believe in fate, calling it a “relic of mythology” (Stalin, interview with Emil Ludwig, December 13, 1931). In terms of policy, Stalin shifted from a relative tolerance of religious freedom to a reign of terror against the Russian Orthodox Church and other faith organizations in the 1920s and 1930s. Countless priests, monks, and nuns were exterminated (100,000 between 1937-1938 alone; Yakovlev, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia).

We could go on, digging into the views of other tyrants. But moving forward to the second point, can it be reasoned that, all other factors remaining the same, Stalin would not have harmed anyone had he believed in God? If Hitler had been a Christian? It is logical to posit Stalin’s disbelief was a contributing factor to his holocaust against his own people, even the primary factor in his massacres of religious leaders, but considering what believers in God (and Christ) have been capable of throughout history it is difficult to conclude piety would have stopped Hitler’s war, the Holocaust of Jews, Roma, and homosexuals, or Stalin’s mass murder of political enemies, kulaks (wealthy peasants), and ethnic minorities (such as the Poles). Would faith really have cured the imperial ambitions, extreme racism, fanatical patriotism, authoritarianism, lack of empathy, and power lust of these men? This is the problem with arguing that atheism was anything more than a contributing factor, at best, to (some) of the worst crimes of the 20th century. There are countless other examples of horrific violence committed by men who were unquestionably religious yet exhibited the same evil, and whose actions had a much stronger connection to their faiths than Stalin or Hitler’s actions had to their more secular views (that is, faith was the primary factor, not a contributing factor).

The crimes of the sincerely religious are vast and unspeakable, stretching not merely a few decades but rather millennia. If we could step back and witness the graveyard of all who were killed in the name of God, what would that look like? How many millions have been oppressed, tortured, maimed, and killed because “God said so”? To please the gods? To spread the faith?

Look to the atrocities that no thinking person believes divorced from faith. The 700-year Inquisition, the torture and mass murder of anyone who questioned Christian doctrine in Europe or refused to convert in the Americas and parts of Asia. The 400-year witch hunts of Europe and North America, the execution of women supposedly in league with and copulating with the devil. The 1,900-year campaign of terror against the Jews in Europe, the “Christ-killers.” The Crusades, bloody Christian-Muslim wars for control of the Holy Land that spanned two centuries and killed millions. The European Wars of Religion during the Reformation that lasted a century (Thirty Years’ War, Eighty Years’ War, French Wars of Religion, etc.), killing millions. And these are just the major wars and crimes against humanity of Christians from Europe! (See “When Christianity Was as Violent as Islam.”)

We could look at Arabian Islam, from the bloody conquest to establish a caliphate across the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain to the murder of infidels, from the Shia-Sunni wars to the terrorist attacks of the modern era. We could examine the appalling executions and genocide conducted by the Hebrews, according to their holy book. We could study the human sacrifices to the gods in South American and other societies. We could investigate today’s Christian-Muslim wars and the destruction of accused witches in sub-Saharan Africa. The scope of all this so large, encompassing all people who believed in a higher power in all cultures throughout all human history. The crimes of 20th century tyrants were horrific, but is there really a strong case that they could not have occurred on just as large a scale had the tyrants been more religious?

You will notice that all these atrocities were more closely connected to the faiths of the perpetrators than the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin were to their anti-Christian or secular views. The Jews were not killed in the name of atheism. Hitler’s attempt to conquer Europe was not an anti-Christian campaign. Stalin wanted to destroy religion, but few would suggest that was his primary goal, ahead of eradicating capitalism, establishing Communism, and modernizing Russia into a world power. Secular beliefs may have contributed to atrocities, but unlike these other examples they were not the primary factors. If belief or non-belief only need be contributing factors to credit them for crimes, we could also look at religious persons who committed crimes against humanity that weren’t closely motivated by or connected to faith.

Doing so makes faith guilty of any crime committed by a person of faith. And why not? If the False Cause Fallacy can be applied to atheists it can just as easily be applied to theists! (Same with the Poisoning the Well Fallacy: these atheists were evil, so atheism is evil; these people of faith were evil, so faith is evil.)

The Ottomans committed genocide against the Armenians from 1915-1922, killing 1.5 million, 75% of the Armenian population. Prime Minister Mehmed Talaat was its principle architect, and because he was a Shia Muslim it must have been a belief in a higher power that enabled him to carry out this act. The Rwanda genocide of 1994 was not a religious conflict, but some Catholic faith leaders participated — a crime the Pope apologized for this year. Their belief in a god must be credited. Radovan Karadžić, president of Republika Srpska and a Serb, orchestrated the genocide of Muslims and Croats in 1995, during the Bosnian War. He saw his deeds as part of a “holy war” between Christianity and Islam. Would he have refrained from mass murder had he been an atheist? Would the old butcher Christopher Columbus? Would King Leopold II of Belgium? This Catholic monarch was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 10 million people in Congo. “I die in the Catholic religion,” he wrote in his last testament, “and I ask pardon for the faults I have or may have committed.” This game can be played with anyone in human history, from the Christian kings, queens, traders, and owners who enslaved 12-20 million Africans (which killed millions; see Harman, A People’s History of the World) to the Christian presidents of the United States who intentionally bombed millions of civilians in Vietnam.

One could make the embarrassing argument that those who committed such evils were not actually believers in God (a “secret atheist theory”). Yes, it is difficult to know an historical figure’s true thoughts. But one could just as easily pretend Stalin and others were secretly believers. We have to use the evidence we have.

So you can see how the legitimacy of casual connections is highly important. One who doesn’t care about the strength of such connections could easily attribute Hitler’s crimes to his belief in a higher power! (One could then argue Hitler’s belief was far more dangerous than Stalin’s atheism, as Hitler oversaw the deaths of 11 million noncombatants, versus Stalin’s 6 million — in the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, researchers have determined the death toll estimate typically associated with Stalin, 20 million, is grossly inaccurate.) It is illogical to blame secularism for being anything more than a contributing factor to Stalin and Hitler’s actions in the same way it is illogical to blame faith for being anything more than a contributing factor to the Armenian, Congolese, or other genocides committed by religious persons. There are many events in history with faith as a primary cause, like the Inquisition, but it cannot be said the Holocaust and the Russian purges were primarily caused by atheism.

Third and finally, one could refute the notion atheists are worse people using scientific research. Children from nonreligious homes were actually found in a 2015 study to be more generous than those from religious homes. A “Good Samaritan” study found religiosity does not determine how likely people are to lend a helping hand. A study on cheating found that faith does not make one less likely to cheat. A 2014 study showed secular and religious people commit immoral acts equally. Some atheists trumpet the fact they are underrepresented in U.S. prisons, but shouldn’t due to the fact atheists are predominantly educated, middle-to-upper class whites, a group that is itself underrepresented. Similarly, some point out nations like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Japan, and others have some of the highest rates of atheism and lowest rates of crime in the world, but this should be avoided as a False Cause Fallacy as well. These nations are likewise disproportionately wealthy and educated — low crime rates and atheism are byproducts; they likely do not have a cause-effect relationship (but at least those worried about society falling into chaos and crime as atheism spreads can rest easy).

So is the belief in relative, godless morality so much more dangerous than the belief in objective, God-given morality? In practice, it appears not. The capacity for horrific actions in secular and religious people seems equivalent. Same with kindness and other positive actions.

From a theoretical standpoint, however, there are two facts that make relative morality better. They help explain why atheists are not worse people than believers.

First, objective morality has a glaring flaw: it cannot be known. Just as one cannot prove the existence of the Christian deity, there is no way to definitively prove that Christian right and wrong is the objective standard humanity is meant to follow. Why not Islamic right and wrong? Because one can’t prove which set of ethics is actually objective and god-decreed, each simply becomes one option among many and thus we have to choose among them (it’s quite relative!). Even if you believe in objective morality, there’s no way to actually know what it is. The person of (any) faith thinks he knows but might easily be wrong. “I’ve looked at her with lust in my heart, I’ve done wrong.” Well, perhaps not. It could be the higher power that actually exists doesn’t believe in thought crimes. Therefore, saying we should try to follow an objective morality, offered by a particular religion, is not particularly compelling. Relative ethics are of course known because we create them for ourselves. Even within religions, the objective standards cannot be fully known — you may know not to kill, but the bible offers no guidance on many ethical issues, such as the age of consent for sex (probably a good thing, considering when it was written).

Second, relativity allows us the freedom to make our ethics better. I understand why people of faith see a risk in humans deciding what’s right and wrong, but religion clearly isn’t any better in terms of danger to others (if you ask me why it’s because religion is man-made, so it all makes sense). We have gods saying all sorts of things are right: killing homosexuals, those who engage in extramarital sex, and people who work on the Sabbath (Old Testament); enslaving people and oppressing women (New Testament); waging Jihad on nonbelievers and cutting off body parts for crimes (Qur’an). Well, perhaps humans would like to base what’s wrong on what actually causes harm to others, not what insults a deity, which makes all that killing and maiming wrong and makes things like working on the Sabbath, homosexuality, and sex outside marriage (and porn, masturbation, smoking weed, etc.) ethically permissible. We have the ability to continue to improve our ethics to a point where fewer people get killed for nonviolent “crimes.” Relative morality allows us to move past the absurdities and barbarism of ancient desert tribes. We’ve been very successful at this.

Yes, it also allows us to return to barbarism, with no thoughts of angry higher beings to stop us. Faith-based appeals can prevent barbarism too (“I can’t kill, I’ll go to hell”). But at least we’re free to move in a more positive direction if we choose. Religion doesn’t really offer that. God’s word is perfect and is not to be altered or deviated from; it has been set for thousands of years. Being paralyzed by religious ethics keeps us stuck in the dark ages, from oppressive Islamic societies in the Middle East and Asia to the lingering hysteria in the United States over homosexuality, which is a very natural trait of the human species and other lifeforms. Progress on such matters requires putting aside ancient faith-based ideas of right and wrong (Americans were no longer allowed to execute homosexuals after 1786). The more humanity does so the more safe and free each of us becomes.

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Kentucky Judge Refuses to Marry Atheists

In July 2016, Kentucky judge Hollis Alexander refused to wed atheists Mandy Heath and her fiancé Jon because they requested any mention of God be excluded from the ceremony.

“I will be unable to perform your wedding ceremony,” Alexander told them. “I include God in my ceremonies and I won’t do one without him.”

Alexander, being the only judge in Trigg County able to perform a wedding ceremony, advised Heath to seek out a judge in another county. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a leader in suits against violations of constitutional church-state separation, sent the judge a letter outlining the laws he chose to break, adding:

There is no requirement that such ceremonies be religious (any such requirement would be unconstitutional). Ms. Heath sought you out as the only secular alternative available to her under Kentucky law.

As a government employee, you have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral on religious matters while acting in your official capacity. You have no right to impose your personal religious beliefs on people seeking to be married. Governments in this nation, including the Commonwealth of Kentucky, are secular. They do not have the power to impose religion on citizens. The bottom line is that by law, there must be a secular option for people seeking to get married. In Trigg County, you are that secular option.

There is no word yet if a lawsuit will follow.

Kentucky is the state where Kim Davis worked as a county clerk; she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, citing her Christian faith. Alexander also refuses to conduct weddings for LGBT Americans.

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Atheists Sue Kansas City Over Payment to Baptists

On July 22, 2016, the American Atheists group and two Kansas City residents sued Kansas City Mayor Sly James and the city government for designating $65,000 in taxpayer funds for Modest Miles Ministries’ National Baptist Convention, taking place at Bartle Hall in early September.

Missouri’s Constitution forbids using taxpayer money to fund religious events and institutions: “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.” The lawsuit aims to prevent the city from handing over the funds.

“The National Baptist Convention is inherently religious — and it is clear under Missouri law and the First Amendment that Missouri taxpayers should not be paying for it,” argues Amanda Knief, legal director of American Atheists. The group’s website also notes:

Modest Miles Ministries claims in emails to the City that the funds will be used for transportation to and from the convention, making the funding purposes “secular.” That would mean, according to Modest Miles Ministries’ funding application, about 25% of the entire budget of the convention — $65,000 — is being spent on shuttles to and from the convention.

The $65,000 grant for the Baptist Convention was the second largest grant that the City gave in 2016. This was the fourth time the City has approved funding the National Baptist Convention: in 1998, the City approved $100,000 (about 32% of the convention’s total budget); in 2003, the City approved $142,000 (about 42% of the convention’s total budget); and in 2010, the City approved $77,585 (about 27% of the convention’s total budget).

The city government refused to comment to The Kansas City Star. But the paper says, “City spokesman Chris Hernandez pointed out no contract has been signed yet to spend the money. If and when that does happen, Hernandez said, the contract has language spelling out that the money would be used for secular purposes.”

The lawsuit says the Kansas City plaintiffs have a “right to be free from compelled support of religious institutions and activities,” and cites another Missouri case, “Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, upheld by the Eighth Circuit in 2015, in which this court refused to allow public money to be spent on a Lutheran day care.”

The contract between the city and Modest Miles Ministries is due this month.

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Foundations of Faith: A Comparative Analysis of Kohlberg, Erikson, and Fowler

Developmental psychologist James W. Fowler (b. 1940) posited in 1981 that the way in which men and women understand faith is determined by his or her construction of knowledge. One’s perception of self and one’s experiences in specific environments are more telling of how meaning is made from faith than how often one attends temple, mosque, or mass services, how well one knows church doctrine, or how much holy scripture one can recite from memory. While it is important to note Fowler writes from a Christian perspective (being professor of theology at the United Methodist-affiliated Emory University in Atlanta, as well as a Methodist minister), his vision of human faith development is not meant to be content-specific. It is meant to be applicable to all faiths, disregarding religious bodies to focus solely on an individual’s spiritual and intellectual growth. Fowler formulated “stages of faith,” drawing inspiration from the developmental theories of Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg, among others. Upon exploring Fowler’s stages, this comparative analysis will examine the ideas of Kohlberg and Erikson, analyzing how their theoretical structures influenced the formation of Fowler’s work.

According to Stephen Parker’s “Measuring Faith Development,” Fowler’s idea was that faith was formed by many interrelated and developing structures, the interaction of which pinpointed one’s stage (2006, p. 337). “Stage progression, when it occurs, involves movement toward greater complexity and comprehensiveness in each of these structural aspects” (p. 337). The structures include form of logic (one progresses toward concrete and abstract reasoning), perspective taking (one gains the ability to judge things from various viewpoints), form of moral judgement (the improvement of moral reasoning), bounds of social awareness (becoming more open to changing social groups), locus of authority (moving toward self-confidence in internal decision-making), form of world coherence (growing aware of one’s own consciousness and one’s ability to understand the world using one’s own mental power), and symbolic function (increasing understanding that symbols have multiple meanings) (p. 338). These are the bricks that build each stage of faith; as one is able to think in more complex ways, one advances up Fowler’s spiritual levels.

The stages of faith are primal faith (pre-stage), intuitive-projective faith (1), mythic-literal faith (2), synthetic-conventional faith (3), individuative-reflective faith (4), conjunctive faith (5), and universalizing faith (6). According to Fowler, during the pre-stage, an infant cannot conceptualize the idea of “God,” but learns either trust or mistrust during relations with caretakers, which provides a basis for faith development (Parker, p. 339). More will be discussed on this later. In the intuitive-projective stage, a child of preschool age will conceptualize God, though only as “a powerful creature of the imagination, not unlike Superman or Santa Claus.” During the mythic-literal stage, the child will develop “concrete operational thought,” and will view God as a judge who doles out rewards and punishments in a fair manner. In the synthetic-conventional stage, one will develop “formal operational thought”; the idea of a more personal God arises, and one begins to construct meaning from beliefs. The individuative-reflective stage at last brings about self-reflection of one’s beliefs. Parker writes, “This intense, critical reflection on one’s faith (one’s way of making meaning) requires that inconsistencies and paradoxes are vanquished, which may leave one estranged from previously valued faith groups.” As this occurs, and somewhat ironically, God is viewed as the embodiment of truth. Conjunctive faith is a stage in which one attempts to reconcile contradictions; while staying wary of them, he or she may see the nature of God as inherently unknown, a “paradox,” while still being Truth. Where certainty breaks down, acceptance of the diverse beliefs of others grows more pervasive. Fowler suggests the conjunctive stage may occur during midlife. Finally, if one can attain it, the universalizing stage is when one becomes fully inclusive of other people, faiths, and ideas. People hold “firm and clear commitments to values of universal justice and love” (p. 339).

It is important to note these stages do not represent a universal, concrete timetable for faith development. Each stage requires greater critical thinking and self-reflection (which is what makes Fowler’s model applicable to multiple faiths), and therefore not everyone will progress through them at the same rate or even attain the same level of development. Further, the model does not address those who abandon faith completely; it demonstrates only a progressive scale that suggests one either stops where one is or moves toward greater knowledge of self and one’s values, and more open-mindedness in regards to others and the nature of God Himself. For many, faith development may not be so simple, nor so linear. Regardless, Fowler’s work has had a great impact on religious bodies and developmental psychology (Parker, p. 337).

Fowler borrowed much from other theorists. Psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1902-1994) created a model for the psychosocial development of men and women, from which Fowler later drew inspiration. In lieu of a lengthy summary of Erikson’s (and Kohlberg’s) ideas, this comparative analysis will provide a brief overview, and focus more on the aspects that relate closest to Fowler’s finished product. According to Erikson’s “Life Span Theory of Development,” human growth goes through eight stages, each of which featuring a crisis that, if successfully conquered, will result in the development of a valuable virtue, such as hope, love, or wisdom. Erikson’s crises were: Trust vs. mistrust (infancy), autonomy vs. shame (toddlerhood), initiative vs. guilt (preschool), industry vs. inferiority (childhood), identity vs. role confusion (adolescence), intimacy vs. isolation (young adulthood), generativity vs. stagnation (middle adulthood), and integrity vs. despair (late adulthood) (Dunkel & Sefcek, 2009, p. 14). One’s ability to embody the more positive aspect of one of these pairs makes it likely one will do the same with the next positive aspect (p. 14).

Fowler liked Erikson’s trust vs. mistrust idea, seeing it as the very foundation of faith development. Clearly, trust becomes a critical theme as one is exposed to spiritual beliefs, the “known”-yet-unseen. Can one trust the holy book? Can one trust the priest, rabbi, or parent? It is interesting to consider how the development of trusting or distrusting relationships will affect future spiritual development. What are the results of the trust vs. mistrust conflict? Erikson felt that “for basic trust versus mistrust a marked tendency toward trust results in hope” (Dunkel & Sefcek, p. 13), which implies a lack of hope if unresponsive caretakers breed feelings of mistrust. While it was strictly Erikson concerned with virtues gained from each life stage, Fowler, in adapting Erikson’s first stage, provides in his model a single stage with conflict. It begs questions. Can one successfully enter the intuitive-projective stage without building trusting relationships in the infant pre-stage? If so, what is the impact of mistrust in stage 1, and all the following stages? Could it mean different perspectives of God (for instance, perhaps as less fair-minded during the formation of concrete operational thought in the mythic-literal stage)? Would one likely progress through the stages more rapidly, or more slowly? Hypothetically, one less trusting might be quicker to see problems and contradictions in faith, advancing to the individuative-reflective stage sooner. Further, Erikson believed “optimal psychological health is reached when a ‘favorable ratio’ between poles is reached” (p. 13), meaning a positive trust-mistrust ratio is all that’s needed to develop hope and move through the stage. Therefore, “a ‘favorable ratio’ indicates that one can be too trusting” (p. 13). What will be the impact on faith development for someone who has grown too trusting of people? By their nature, both Erikson’s and Fowler’s stages build upon each other. For Erikson, trust made it “more likely the individual will develop along a path that includes a sense of autonomy, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity” (p. 14). If Fowler’s model is built on the same principle of trust acquisition, what will happen to faith when the foundation is not ideal?

In reality, Fowler’s model parallels Erikson’s even more so, in regards to Erikson’s psychosocial crises. Erikson saw the individual as being pulled by two opposing forces in each stage, the favoring of the positive force leading to new virtues. On the surface, Fowler’s stages may appear simple and gradual, the progression seeming to occur naturally and expectedly, or at least without specifics on how or why individuals progress to higher levels of critical thinking and new perspectives on God. What takes one from an unexamined faith in the synthetic-conventional stage to taking a long, hard look at contradictions and controversies in the next? It cannot be simple maturation, or everyone would make it to the final stages. There must exist something that holds people back, or drives them forward. Que Erikson and his crises. Erikson would say the individual must accept the force pushing forward and resist the one pulling backward. In his fifth stage, for instance, that which Dunkel and Sefcek deem “the most important” (p. 14), an adolescent faces the crisis of identity versus role confusion. The adolescent must form an identity in the social world, build convictions, choose who he or she will be (p. 14). Confusion, temptation, and doubt will impede progress. In Fowler’s model, a crisis certainly makes sense, only perhaps less of a ratio or continuum and more of a single event or confrontation. For example, what better way to explain the transition from the intuitive-projective stage to the mythic-literal stage than the moment when the parent tells the child Santa Claus isn’t real? That could begin the shift from imagination to logic, and with it a change in the child’s perception of God. Personally, this author sees his own transition into Fowler’s individuative-reflective stage as beginning the afternoon he read a work by the late evolutionary biologist and Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould, who pointed out contradictions between the timeline of the Biblical story of Noah and modern archeology. Though different for each individual, such turning points provide Erikson-esque crises that explain one’s advancement through Fowler’s model.

The work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) also inspired Fowler. Fowler’s form of moral reasoning structure was an adaptation of Kohlberg’s “Six Stages of Development in Moral Thought” (Parker, p. 338). Kohlberg theorized that as one ages, the way in which one justifies actions advances through predictable stages. His Pre-Moral stage saw children motivated to make moral decisions through fear of punishment (Type 1), followed by the desire for reward or personal gain (Type 2). Morality of Conventional Role-Conformity was spurned by the desire to avoid the disapproval of peers and to abide by social norms (Type 3), and later the wish to maintain social order by obeying laws and the authorities who enforce them (Type 4). In the Post-Conventional stage, people acknowledge that laws are social contracts agreed upon democratically for the common good, and are thus motivated to behave morally to gain community respect (Type 5). Finally, one begins to see morality as solely within him- or herself: One must be motivated by universal empathy toward others, acting morally because it is just and true, not because it is the law or socially acceptable (Type 6) (Kohlberg, 2008, p. 9-10). It is not difficult to see how Fowler viewed the development of moral judgement as being a crucial building block to the development of faith. Universal morality, like universal faith, are byproducts of deeper critical thinking, reflection, and cognitive ability.

In that regard, it is easy to see how well Fowler’s six stages and Kohlberg’s six stages align. Both move from perceptions and beliefs borrowed from and influenced by others, and motivated by selfishness, to perceptions and beliefs formed in one’s own mind, motivated by empathy and love. They both advance toward justice for justice’s sake. One might think the stages are pleasantly compatible. What’s fascinating, however, is that Fowler believed the majority of people remained in his third stage, the synthetic-conventional (with the few who advanced usually only doing so in their later years), but Kohlberg showed in his studies with children that “more mature modes of thought (Types 4–6) increased from age 10 through 16, less mature modes (Types 1–2) decreased with age” (Kohlberg, p. 19). (With age, of course, comes factors such as “social experience and cognitive growth” (p. 18).) He saw youths who addressed moral conundrums (such as his famous Heinz Dilemma) with the Golden Rule and utilitarianism (p. 17), noting that “when Type 6 children are asked ‘What is conscience?’, they tend to answer that conscience is a choosing and self-judging function, rather than a feeling of guilt or dread” (p. 18).

Clearly, the post-conventional moral stage can emerge very early in life. While keeping in mind Fowler’s form of moral reasoning structure may not be a perfect reproduction of Kohlberg’s ideas, it is interesting to consider the contradiction between an adolescent in the synthetic-conventional stage, an era marked by unexamined beliefs, conformity to doctrine, and identity heavily influenced by others, and a “Type 6” adolescent in the post-conventional stage of moral thinking, who uses reason, universal ethics, empathy, and justice to solve moral problems. Would not such rapid moral development lead to more rapid progression through Fowler’s model? With Type 4-6 thinking increasing so early, why do so few begin thinking critically of their faith and analyzing contradictions, and so late in life? Perhaps it is simply that Type 6 children are such a minority; perhaps it is they that will go on to reach the individuative-reflective stage. It would be intriguing to compare a child’s ability to answer moral dilemmas with his or her perspective on God and faith. How did the children of Kohlberg’s research view God? Surely some believed in God (and thus could be placed on Fowler’s model) and some did not. Was there a positive or negative correlation between moral decisions and faith? Were the children moving through Fowler’s stages more likely or less likely to develop higher types of moral thinking? Or was there no effect at all? Fowler, of course, might say there are too many variables in faith progression, that it requires advancement in multiple interactive structures; even if a child makes it to Kohlberg’s final stage of moral development, there are six other structures that affect one’s spiritual progress that must be taken into account.

While this comparative analysis places an emphasis on Fowler, that is not to say Erikson and Kohlberg’s works do not stand on their own, or that their theories somehow automatically validate his. Placing them side-by-side simply provides an interesting perspective that both raises and answers questions. Whether examining the moral, the psychosocial, or the spiritual, it is clear self-reflection and critical thinking are paramount to development. Kohlberg, Erikson, and Fowler were leaders in their fields because they understood and based their research on this idea. Their combined theories present a convincing case that as one grows, greater cognitive power and the confrontation of new ideas can change perspectives in positive ways, from forming one’s identity to learning love, empathy, and respect for others.

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Dunkel, C. S., & Sefcek, J. A. (2009). Eriksonian lifespan theory and life history theory: An integration using the example of identity formation. Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 13-23.

Kohlberg, L. (2008). The development of children’s orientations toward a moral order. Human Development, 51, 8-20.

Parker, S. (2006). Measuring faith development. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 34(4), 337-348.

The Philosophy of Morality

Having explored how human morality — ideas and feelings of right and wrong — does not need a god to explain it, instead being the product of our evolutionary history and our unique societies, it is time to address a common criticism of godless morality.

It goes something like this: If morality is purely subjective, if right and wrong do not exist “beyond” or “outside” what humans determine they should be (in other words, are not set by a god), how can one justify telling someone else she has behaved in an immoral way? If a man says rape or murder is morally right, how can another justify saying he is wrong? With no empirical standard of what is ethical, ethics are simply opinions, and why would one human’s opinion have more weight or importance than another’s? Relative morality is meaningless morality.

We can first deal with the obvious point that even if a god-decreed empirical standard exists there is no way for us to know precisely what it is. We’d have to first prove (prove) which god is real and which gods are fictional, then get clarification directly from this being on issues not specifically mentioned in its holy text. So the same question of how one justifies telling another she is wrong haunts the theory of Objective Morality as well. Scriptures are often vague, open to interpretation, so even among those who believe in Objective Morality, and the same God, morals inevitably vary. Conservative and liberal Christians may have different views on right and wrong — on what God’s standards are — based on the exact same holy book! Some Christians firmly believe contraception is a sin. Others disagree. There are debates over what God really thinks about premarital sex and sex acts, masturbation, alcohol, and drugs, as well as issues ancient writers couldn’t imagine, from gun control to genetic engineering or cloning. While the range of acceptable ethical standards may be more narrow when everyone agrees that Yahweh set Objective Moral laws, individual morals are still very much opinion-based, a matter of human perspective, because such laws are often not comprehensive, clear, or even present in the scriptures.

More importantly, the common criticism is an incomplete thought, failing to comprehend the premise.

The premise is indeed that morality is opinion-based. Though rooted in evolution, the society and family one happens to be born into, life experiences, psychological states, and so on, right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion. The answer to this question (“If morals are human opinions, how can one justify condemning another person’s actions?”) is then obvious: no justification is needed at all. Opinions do not need this kind of justification.

Suppose I were to ask, “What is your favorite color?” and then demanded you justify it using an empirical standard, a standard beyond yourself, beyond humanity — beyond human opinion. The very idea is absurd. The concept of a “favorite color” does not exist in any form beyond our individual selves (do you think that it too was decided by God for us humans to follow?). What sense does it make to demand that the person who expresses a favorite color also “backs it up” using some mythological benchmark not set by humans? Opinions of the prettiest color rest on their own laurels — the subjective standards of man, not the objective ones of a deity.

In the precise same way, no external justification is needed to say, “What the rapist did was wrong, even if he didn’t think so.” If one states that another person behaved in an immoral way, that is a subjective viewpoint like one’s favorite color; there is no requirement that one justifies saying so using anything other than human thought and reason. Opinions, moral or otherwise, do not need to be measured or validated against standards “beyond” or “outside” humanity.

The religious may believe these things are different, because naturally an Objective Favorite Color does not exist but an Objective Morality does. That’s as impossible to prove as the deity it’s based on, but think that if you wish. Regardless, the statement “You have to justify judging others if you don’t believe in an empirical standard” makes no sense. It’s specifically because one doesn’t believe an empirical standard exists that one doesn’t need to justify judging others! If you don’t believe in an Objective Favorite Color, you do not have to justify your favorite color using that standard. If you don’t believe in Objective Morality, you do not have to justify why you think someone did something immoral using that standard. You can stick to human standards — both individual and collective, which you can use to justify your beliefs (for example, my morality — and that of many others — emphasizes minimizing physical and psychological harm, therefore rape is wrong, therefore the rapist has done wrong).

So if no justification is needed to state your opinion that a murderer has done wrong, if the very act of asking for justification is illogical because it ignores the obvious implication of the premise, what of the rest of the common criticism? If it’s all opinion, doesn’t one have to say all opinions are equal, if we look at things objectively? Any notion that Opinion A has more weight or importance than Opinion B is bunk. Is morality then meaningless?

It is true, if we view all this objectively, that Opinion A and Opinion B, whatever they may be, are indeed “equal,” “equally valid or important,” or however else you’d like to phrase it. How else could it be? If there is no deity, no Final Say, to give the thumbs up or down to moral opinions, that is simply reality. (Without an Objective Favorite Color, “My favorite is blue” and “My favorite is green” are both valid.) Now, this generally makes us uncomfortable or sick because it means that though I think the opinions and ethics of the child molester are detestable and inferior to my own there is no deity to say I am right and he is wrong, so our opinions are equally valid. But that’s not the end to the story, because while opinions are equal their real-world consequences are not.

Some moral views lead to death, physical and psychological pain, misery, terror, and so on. Others do not, or have opposite effects. These are real experiences. So while mere opinions, in and of themselves, can be said to be “equal,” we cannot say the same regarding their actual or possible effects. Some moral views are more physically and psychologically harmful than others. This is quite different than favorite colors.

See, the common criticism has it backwards. A lack of an empirical standard makes opinions meaningful, not meaningless. It’s where an empirical standard exists that opinions don’t matter. Consider an actual empirical standard: the truth (yes, atheists and liberals believe in absolute truth). Either George Washington existed or he didn’t. I say he did, another says he didn’t…one of us is incorrect. When it comes to the truth, opinions don’t matter. The objective truth is independent of our opinion. Morality is different: it is not independent of our opinions (it’s opinion-based, after all), and thus our moral views matter a great deal because some will cause more harm than others. If God exists and determined that killing a girl found to not be a virgin on her wedding night was right, your opinion about killing non-virgin girls on their wedding nights would be meaningless. It wouldn’t matter if you thought this wrong — you’d be incorrect. But if there is no deity-designed standard “beyond” humanity, your opinion is meaningful and matters a great deal because awful real-world consequences can be avoided if your moral opinion is heard and embraced.

“Well, so what?” one might ask. “Why is harm itself wrong? Who says we should consider death and pain ‘wrong’ rather than, say, life and happiness?”

The person who asks this has lost sight of linguistic meaning. What exactly does “wrong” (or “bad” or “evil” or “immoral”) mean? Well, it essentially means undesirable. To say something is wrong is to say it’s disagreeable, intolerable, unacceptable, something that should not be done, something to be avoided.

Why is harm wrong? Harm is wrong because it’s undesirable. To put it another way, asking “Why is harm wrong?” is really asking “Why is harm undesirable?” And the answer is “Because it hurts” — because we are conscious, organic creatures capable of experiencing death, pain, humiliation, grief, and so on. Now, this does not mean everyone will agree on what constitutes harm! That is the human story, after all: a vicious battle of opinions on what is harmful and what isn’t (and thus what’s wrong and what isn’t), with some ideas growing popular even while change awaits on the horizon. We even argue over whether causing harm to prevent a greater harm is right (desirable), as with killing one to save many or going to war to stop the evils of others. But the idea that harm is undesirable is universal, because each human creature has something they would not like to happen to them.

This includes those who bring pain and suffering to others or themselves. The rapist may not wish to be raped; the mullah who supports female genital mutilation may not wish to be castrated; the suicidal person may not wish to be tortured in a basement first; the masochist, who enjoys experiencing pain, may not wish to die; the serial killer may not wish to be left at the altar; the sadist, who loves inflicting pain, may not wish to be paralyzed from the neck down.

As soon as you accept the premise that each person has some form of harm he or she wants to avoid, you’ve accepted that harm is wrong — by definition. Even if our views on what is harmful (or how harmful something is) vary widely, we have a shared foundation built on the actual meanings of the terms we’re using. From this starting point, folk from all sides of an issue present their arguments (for instance, “It is wrong — undesirable — for a starving man to steal because that harms the property owner” vs. “It is right — desirable — for a starving man to steal because if he doesn’t he will die”). Though we individuals do not always do so, we often decide that what’s wrong (undesirable) for us is also wrong for others, because we evolved a capacity for empathy and are often smart enough to know a group living under rules that apply to all can actually protect and benefit us by creating a more stable, cooperative, caring society). The disagreements may be savage, but an important premise of harm being wrong because it’s undesirable is universally accepted. Things couldn’t be any other way unless you simply wanted to throw out the meaning of words.

The path forward from there is clear, despite the insistence of some that actions need external justification even if moral opinions do not. This is merely another go at an obviously flawed idea. If no external, objective standard is needed to justify moral views, why would you need one to justify actions based on those moral views? You wouldn’t. We justify our actions based on the subjective, human ideas that are our moral views, and then try to popularize our ideas because we think we know best. It’s simply what human creatures do, whether our ideas are in the minority or majority opinion, whether they lead to death and pain or peace and kindness.

Understandably, some may see no sense in individuals objecting to or regulating the ethics of others. If there’s no higher basis for whose idea of morality is true or better, the next question is oftentimes “How is it then logical to tell someone they’re wrong and force them to live by your moral code?” In a word, self-interest. If you think your morality is better, it’s not an illogical decision to try to convince someone else or even force him to abide by it through law. Even if you know there is no external basis to make your morality objectively “better” or “truer,” it’s still a reasonable action for you to take because you see it as better or truer, and know your efforts can work — minds get changed, so do laws, so do societies. For example, I know there’s no external, objective basis for police murder being wrong, but because I personally think it is, I act. I try to change minds, support law changes. The act is a logical step after opinion formation. If I act, I may help win a world I want, one with fewer senseless killings of unarmed people. If you would prefer a world with your moral code adopted, and know acting can bring that about, it almost seems more logical to act than to not act — even if you know all moral views are equivalent — to bring about that different world! “Logical” just means “makes sense,” after all. So each individual tries to shape the world in a certain way they personally like — a rational thing to do, given individual motives, even while knowing no one is “right.” Acting in self-interest is rarely considered irrational.

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Yes, Liberals and Atheists Believe in Absolute Truth

As America enters what has been called a “post-truth” age, when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” certain sectors of the populace — the liberals, the atheists, the youths — are being attacked for allegedly denying “absolute truth” in favor of “relativistic truth” (or “objective” for “subjective” truth).

Take for example an article from the conservative Federalist right after the election entitled “The Left Decries Our Post-Truth Society While Pushing the Ideas That Fuel It.” Naturally, no actual evidence is offered that the Left abandons facts for emotions more readily than the Right, but the sentiment is clear. The author asks the liberal media criticizing the witless Trump voters who believe most anything despite not a shred of evidence, from Obama being a secret Muslim to 3-5 million illegal votes being cast in the 2016 election:

Where have you been all these years as America has abandoned truth for relativism especially in higher learning (and now in all levels of education)? Haven’t you been paying attention as we have put emotion over facts in just about every sphere of society? Our nation has been abandoning objective truth for more than a century! What did you think would result?

This sudden outcry against post-truth reminds me of the vapors so many had when they heard the Trump “Grab her by the p—” tape. Suddenly, people who had been telling us there’s no right and wrong—no objective values or morality by which we can judge others—switched gears and became Puritans in a flash…

My response to those to those now worried about this “post-truth society” is “You reap what you sow.” This abandonment of objective facts for emotion is the inevitable result of our culture’s unrelenting commitment to moral relativism.

Likewise, one can’t help but notice no evidence is offered to support the notion that Americans of the modern era are more likely to accept emotion-based appeals over fact-based appeals compared to those of over a century ago. But more important to our purposes here is that the writer isn’t actually speaking of absolute truth (what is fact?), she is speaking of absolute morality (what is ethically right?).

The same conflation was made by the Christian satire site Babylon Bee, which ran the article “Culture in Which All Truth is Relative Suddenly Concerned About Fake News,” which featured a fictional interviewee:

American society, while typically rejecting concepts like absolute truth and objective moral standards, is suddenly showing grave concern for the rise of fabricated news stories…

One Oregon man, who rejects the idea that humanity can even be sure the universe exists in any meaningful sense, was nonetheless disturbed by the idea that websites could publish completely false information, for anyone in the world to read.

“It’s just absolutely wrong, in my opinion,” said the man who doesn’t believe in absolute ideals of right and wrong at all. “What if someone reads the information and gets like, deceived? That just seems totally wicked.”

“It just doesn’t seem right that they can publish stuff that’s just blatantly not true,” added the man, who also noted his firm belief that everyone has the right to define their own version of truth.

All this is one of the most poorly thought-out straw man arguments posited by the religious Right.

Most liberals and nonreligious persons believe in absolute truth (just another word for “reality”) just as most conservatives and religious people do. If we define relative truth in its most meaningful form — belief that reality is a matter of opinion — while putting aside other definitions — that we cannot know with certainty what reality is (are we in a computer simulation?), that different cultures in different ages have varying views on what reality is (where does the sun go at night?), and other ideas folks like Nietzsche mean when they say things like “There are no eternal facts as there are no absolute truths” — one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who takes the idea seriously.

As mortals, we try to understand the nature of reality, we believe different things concerning it, and we bicker among ourselves with enthusiasm on the subject. But very few human beings think different opinions equate to different literal realities. Liberals do not suppose that because they believe Obama is not Muslim and some conservatives do that both parties side with equal “truths.” Rather, one is correct and the other incorrect. Likewise, the notion that there both is no god and that there is a god is not something atheists suggest just because some disbelieve and some believe. They cannot both be true, and no one supposes they are. People are generally the same: they believe they know the absolute truth and others don’t. They don’t think reality is a matter of opinion.

However, when conservatives and religious fundamentalists speak of absolute truth this is usually and clearly code for something else entirely. As you see from the articles above, they often mean “absolute morality” or “objective morality.” Yet this is different from absolute truth (if we’re going to bother using definitions of any meaning).

Absolute morality is allegedly a fixed code of ethical behavior that did not originate with human beings. Rather, it was decreed by a god and we creatures are responsible for figuring out what it is — what is right and wrong — and living by it.

Naturally, no, nonreligious people of any political persuasion tend to not believe in absolute morality. They do not think there is any set right and wrong beyond what humans create for ourselves. They believe evolutionary biology and human interactions within unique societies change ideas of right and wrong over time, as evidenced by scientific and historical knowledge. With morality rooted in biological and societal influences, it is indeed purely relative, not absolute in any manner. We simply judge people’s actions as right or wrong on the basis that they do not align with our own, not because we have a guidebook from a deity. Morality is opinion-based. That is what I believe.

(And in doing so consider myself closer to the absolute truth on where morality comes from and how it functions than some! Do not think it clever to say, “Well, you don’t believe X is always wrong, so you don’t believe in absolute truth.” That is like saying, “You don’t believe winter to be the worst season, so you don’t believe in absolute truth.” Humans have different opinions, not different literal realities. Disbelieving in objective morality does not mean you disbelieve in objective truth. I think it is absolute truth that what’s right and wrong is not absolute: not objective, not set by God or independent of humanity.)

But one sees the muddle that conflating absolute truth and absolute morality creates in the articles quoted. A discourse on facts devolves for some bizarre reason into one on what’s ethical. So people believing ludicrously untrue things (“alternative facts”) is blamed on nonbelievers or more liberal people accepting that what’s ethical is subject to change and a matter of perspective. Do we see how absurd this is? How this is assigning a cause that is not necessarily true? Because I think what’s ethical is opinion-based I’m more vulnerable to thinking the precise size of the president’s inauguration crowd, whether the former president was born in Kenya, or whether God exists is opinion-based? Wouldn’t religious conservatives then be more immune to such rumors, rather than their main perpetrators? Might it be more sensible to suppose people believe ludicrously untrue things because they lack critical thinking skills, historical knowledge, or myriad other explanations?

At other times, however, “absolute truth” is simply used to mean God. “God is absolute truth, you don’t believe in God, therefore you don’t believe in absolute truth.” This is of course a definition that makes the term meaningless. “Reality” is really the only helpful definition of “absolute truth.” After all, anyone can simply make up a term for God and marvel that someone else doesn’t believe in it. “You don’t believe in absolute awesomeness? No wonder our society is falling apart.”

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The Atheist’s Soul: Hard Times in a Godless World

This writing should not be viewed as an exploration of how or why I became an atheist. I have written of both those things elsewhere; this is simply a reflection on how it feels to be an atheist compared to a believer. How does it change the way one copes with loss? Thinks about death? Thinks about knowledge or morality? That sort of thing. So no, I did not become an atheist because bad things happen to good people or because I wanted to decide for myself what is right and wrong. The following are thoughts and feelings that came after I decided God was fictional.

I start with some of the ways being an atheist is easier on the soul than being a religious person. Then I will discuss how it can be harder.

As an atheist, you are free to think more independently and make up your own mind. As a believer, knowledge is generally accepted or rejected after being crosschecked with ancient writings of primitive Middle Eastern tribes. The more fundamentalist you are the more consistently this is true. So if the bible indicates the years from Adam to today number about 6,000, a mountain of evidence for humanity’s presence tens of thousands of years ago must be labeled false immediately. If the bible says there was a worldwide flood, it happened, regardless of the fact no actual evidence can be found for it. As a nonbeliever, your mind is free. You don’t need to filter an idea through the bible, the Qu’ran, the Vedas, or any other book. You can weigh it based on its own evidence. You can decide if the evidence is strong or weak, and change your beliefs accordingly. You can change your mind without fear of crossing a deity. You’re free to doubt, to question, to say, without some big crisis of faith, “I don’t know” (even to the question of whether a higher being exists — atheists can believe one doesn’t, yet admit knowing is impossible, something most believers will not do).

Also, as an atheist you are free from worrying about the beliefs of others. As a Christian, I fretted over whether friends and loved ones were saved, because eternal life was on the line. This agitation prompted proselytizing, no doubt annoying at times. As a freethinker, as much as I enjoy deconstructing religious arguments and outlining different ways of thinking, what others believe doesn’t really concern me — whether someone is a person of faith or not is no skin off my nose. With no eternal consequences at play, who cares? It’s wonderful to be unshackled from that mental burden.

Further, you can decide for yourself what is right and wrong. A Christian determines what’s right and wrong using the bible, an atheist creates his or her own guidelines. For instance, suppose one were to say that what’s wrong is what hurts other people. In most places, Christian ethics and nonbeliever ethics would align with this idea, but not in all. Homosexuals who fall in love, have sex, and get married aren’t hurting anyone. Nor are a consenting man and woman having sex out of wedlock.

These things may be awful wrongs in the fundamentalist Christian view. Christians may conjure all sorts of ways they cause harm (“It’ll encourage others to be gay!”; “There’ll be a harm when they’re burning in hell”; “It drives them away from the Lord”; “If it’s just a fling for one of them, the other will be hurt”; “If she gets pregnant and he leaves, the child could grow up without a father or even be aborted”), but these types of reasons either already assume the act is wrong (which is circular reasoning, and therefore doesn’t make any sense when deciding if something is wrong) or is a possible, but in no way inevitable, outcome of the act, which isn’t an argument that the act itself is wrong (if the couple instead falls in love and stays together forever, was the act wrong? If the woman gets pregnant and the man stays and they start a happy family, was the act wrong? If you rescue a child from drowning, and the child grows up to be a serial killer, was your act wrong?). There is simply no way to say homosexuality or extramarital sex hurt people (and are therefore wrong) without relying on your religion or illogical arguments.

As an atheist, you can create your own set of ethics. Now, atheists will say they can create much better moral guidelines than Christians, who will say the reverse (and even spew nonsense like “When atheists choose their morality they’ll all be stealing, raping, and killing; no one can be good without God”). Christians will say morality only came from God in the first place, atheists will point out evolution and societal factors actually explain morality, no deity needed. My point here isn’t to resolve those arguments, only to say, having experienced both, it is liberating to make up my own mind on what’s moral, rather than consult and obey decrees from a book written thousands of years ago. You can think through things, change your mind, build a better code of ethics than you used to have. Just as Christians ignore the most cruel ethical guidelines in the bible (some even found in the New Testament), you can ignore ones that are backwards but still taken seriously. You’re free to base your ethics on, say, what does actual physical or psychological harm to others.

One last uplifting fact about atheism. As a believer, you sometimes struggle with what to make of the hard times, the horrible things that happen to you. Perhaps a loved one dies far too young, perhaps your spouse cheats on you, perhaps you lose your job right after your bank account takes a huge hit. Sometimes it is simple impatience (why have I not found the love of my life yet?), other times serious grievances (why was I born disabled?).

These events often conjure familiar questions: why would a loving God allow this to happen? How could this be included in his Plan? Why couldn’t his Plan not have involved me becoming paralyzed in a car wreck or my husband leaving me? That wouldn’t have been hard for him to leave out.

At times, darker thoughts arise. What did I do to deserve this? Why would God do this to me? Is it a punishment?

It can cause some believers to start to doubt God’s existence, but I have always marveled at how this can be (my own deconversion was a rather different story). Did you not realize horrific things happen to believers before they started happening to you? Were you so caught up in your own little world that you didn’t notice other faithful people losing loved ones to cancer, falling into poverty, being raped, and so on? If a personal tragedy makes you question your belief in a caring deity, why wouldn’t a tragedy that befalls other believers? How exactly are you different than they?

Regardless, the religious tropes in response to your questions are familiar, if varying. You must not be living according to scriptures; God’s teaching you a lesson you won’t forget (this is the most extreme fundamentalist view). Well, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, who are we to question it? In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God! Well, God didn’t do it, he just allows it. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer, but we live in a fallen world. He could intervene, but he won’t, because of Adam and Eve’s original sin. Well, we can’t see God’s Plan; don’t worry, he’ll make some good come out of it. It’ll bring you closer to him. Closer to your family. It’ll change your life path. It’ll help others, maybe even bring them to Jesus. And so on.

When it is all said and done, there remains a puppet master who either allowed something awful to destroy your life for his own purposes or caused it in the first place to punish you.

What a relief atheism is! What an immense mental burden that dissipates and simply never returns. When you believe there is no god who loves you and cares for you, the hard parts of life — from daily annoyances to the most painful real-life nightmares — start making more sense. There is no unseen being pulling the strings, deciding whether or not your daughter will be kidnapped, raped, and killed. There is no caring Father who decided no, you shouldn’t get that raise at work. There is no struggle with the question of why. Bad things happen because of human interactions (and natural disasters like viruses and tornadoes). That’s all. Why isn’t even a question worth asking anymore. No higher power gave a green light to your suffering. It’s just us — we human creatures do everything we can to avoid suffering, but since we cannot control all other people or natural events, there will be pain. Some experience more than others, but few avoid it completely before they die.

As someone who’s experienced the loss of family members while both a believer and a unbeliever, it is my personal testimony that it is easier to cope when you’re no longer asking, “Why did God let this happen?” Instead, there is no question. There is no why. It’s just life. It’s what it means to be human. It is sad, but life simply often is.

On the other side of the coin, of course, is the fact there is no God to comfort you when bad things happen. For comfort you must rely on friends, family, and yourself. This is not so bad — and not all that different from when you were a believer, as believers need and want a real shoulder to cry on. Sure, there’s no higher purpose to your little brother dying of Salmonella poisoning and no God to make you feel better, but considering if there was a God he could have prevented such a senseless death it’s really a beneficial trade-off. In the end, you don’t need a deity to cope with grief. It can actually be easier without one.

But what of the burdens on the atheist’s soul? Those things that are harder as an atheist?

First and foremost is the hardest truth any human creature can face: I am going to die. I will cease to exist. My mind will be no more.

If only I could be like Mark Twain, who said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Was this sincere? Was it just bravado? Who knows. But I am afraid of death.

The idea of returning to that state of nothingness — just disappearing forever — as we imagine the birds, the butterflies, our dogs, and all other creatures do is an uncomfortable, frightening, saddening thought. Accepting we are mortal and trying to go through life without fear of it all ending at some moment is a heavy yoke to bear. It is much easier on the soul of the believer, who thinks he or she will live forever, plus in a paradise, plus with all his or her loved ones. While I believe this is wishful thinking (“If something seems too good to be true…”) and is in fact the reason religion persists and will do so for a long time more, it is certainly a more pleasant belief than that in 80 years I’ll be gone forever.

How does one deal with something like this? Well, while the dread of nonexistence is something I haven’t conquered yet, I will say it encourages me to cherish each moment in a way I did not do as a believer. After all, if you have eternity, what is this mere “pit stop” on Earth? Each second just isn’t as valuable. Now I am more mindful of the time. I’m reminded to show more love and do more good in this place, to create a better world for people living now and my future children and grandchildren — should I live long enough to have them. With death, you also must accept that you will never see your loved ones again when they die. That’s hard and sad — but reminds me to spend more quality time with them in the here and now. 

Second, becoming an atheist can do a number on your relationships with those you care about. I consider myself lucky in this regard. Sure, it created a little tension here and there with family members, made some friends avoid me on social media, and a girl I wanted to marry did not appreciate my deconversion and moved on. But overall, I am still so close with many strong Christian friends and my changed beliefs were accepted, if sadly, by family, who still love me as much as before. It goes quite differently for many new atheists. It can destroy people and families. Throw this in with the feeling you’ve said goodbye to a dear old (if imaginary) friend, someone you fell asleep talking to, someone you trusted and knew, someone real and always looking out for you, and becoming an atheist can be a painful experience indeed.

Finally, purpose. Along with wishing to live forever, people tend to want a purpose for their existence. They don’t want to be a creature that only exists by chance, with no ultimate point to their being here. That’s the nature of being an animal, not a human! They would rather be foreseen, designed, existing to serve, love, and be loved by a higher power. Without God, life has no meaning!

The randomness and pointlessness of it all can seem depressing at times, leading to painful existential crises and nihilism. Why bother living? Why bother doing anything at all? Some nonbelievers struggle mightily with this, but to be honest I have not. I have my moments where these thoughts creep in, but mostly I am simply happy that I exist at all. I could have easily not been around to feel depressed about being around! As Richard Dawkins put it,

The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Because of this (to go back to the topic of death for a moment) he says, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born… We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

And since I exist, I can give meaning and purpose to my own life. That’s what’s wonderful about it. No, there is no “ultimate purpose” decreed by an invisible god. Instead, you have to decide what your purpose is and how you will spend the time you have. To give your life meaning, do something meaningful, as Carl Sagan once said — something to help make the lives of other human beings better or to just find inner peace and happiness.

To quote former pastor Dan Barker, “Asking, ‘If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?’ is like asking, ‘If there is no master, whose slave will I be?'”

Elsewhere, he said, “There is indeed no purpose of life. There is purpose in life… Life is its own reward. But as long as there are problems to solve, there will be purpose in life. When there is hunger to lessen, illness to cure, pain to minimize, inequality to eradicate, oppression to resist, knowledge to gain and beauty to create, there is meaning in life.”

Not everyone will choose the same purpose for his or her life. But the point is we all choose — and hopefully, given how short life is, we choose wisely.

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Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist

We’ve already seen that the Judeo-Christian God is described in the bible as committing unimaginable atrocities and ordering human beings to do the same (Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the BibleWould a God of Love Order a Stoning?God Ordered Abortions). We’ve seen how it was “God’s Plan” for (unlucky) humans born in one time period to be executed for sins and (very lucky) humans in a later time period to be treated with love — a cruel, sadistic plan for a deity who could have decreed all people in all times should be treated with love (Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New). These things are so disturbing we can hope many of them never happened, but all this is not an argument against God’s existence; it may be God exists and is simply an awful being.

We’ve seen how a deity is not necessary to explain human morality, and indeed that morality has varied so much throughout history it makes little sense to believe in a standard code of right and wrong given to us by God (Where Does Morality Come From?). We saw that the bible has many contradictions and recorded changes, as even Christian scholars admit (The Bible is Rife With Contradictions and Changes), how the science in the bible doesn’t require supernatural explanations (Is There Any Actual Science in the Bible?)and how secular writings about Jesus suggest he existed but don’t at all support his divinity (What Non-Biblical Sources Actually Say About Jesus). We saw that gardens like Eden, men made from dirt, worldwide floods, arks, monotheism, and even a god named Yahweh existed in human myths before the Hebrews or their bible even existed (Old Testament Tales Were Stolen From Other Cultures). We also noted that tales of gods being born to virgins, performing miracles, rising from the dead after three days, saving humanity from sin, and ascending into heaven existed long before the time of Christ (Other Gods Born to Virgins on December 25 Before Jesus ChristOther Gods That Rose From the Dead in Spring Before Jesus Christ). However, it is possible a god exists despite these things.

All that can be put aside. The question now is: Is it more likely God created man or man created God?

After 25 years thinking God created man, I slowly came to believe the opposite because I found atheistic arguments more convincing and reasonable (My Path to Atheism). This writing is meant to summarize some of those arguments.


Mankind Loves to Create Gods, Including Out of Men

The first reason to suppose it is more likely man made God, rather than the other way around, is that man has a nasty habit of inventing deities. Believers understand humanity concocted millions of gods throughout history (Hinduism alone has millions).

We all understand these inventions most likely originated to explain the happenings of the natural world, which human science could not yet explain, particularly terrors like thunder, lightning, floods, droughts, and so on. Yahweh himself may have been associated at first with volcanoes and storms.

We could also add the fear of death. Some psychologists suggest religion is useful in fulfilling psychological needs, that the dread of disappearing from existence sustains humanity’s “need for gods.” No one wants to die, everyone wants to see their deceased loved ones again, and most would prefer a higher purpose to his or her existence. Religions like Christianity give us everything we could ever want — another reason to be skeptical, for when something seems too good to be true… It’s often said that the universality or near-universality of religion is somehow proof that a higher power exists. All people “yearn for God” in some fashion. But this cannot be proven, and there are other, natural rather than supernatural, explanations for the common creation and persistence of religion. Its invention may have aided individual or group survival through increased cooperation and cohesion around shared values, better morale and perseverance (gods will comfort and help you), faster and more confident decision-making (divination, for instance, like the reading of sacrificed animal entrails), and even better health through the placebo effect (believing the gods will heal you may actually help you heal, even if such gods are fictions). See Breaking the Spell, Dennett. Even if faith didn’t help humans survive, its commonality doesn’t have to be miraculous — after all, one could likely find mythological creatures in all human cultures, too, but that would not make them real. Same for astrology or animism, quite common throughout early human existence. Likewise, think of other things that arose independently across human societies: sports, storytelling, language, music, art, song, political organization, and so on. Religion could simply be another phenomenon on the list.

Regardless, which seems more likely? That millions of fictional gods were produced across the globe but one worshiped in the Middle East during the Bronze Age just happened to be real? Or that that one was also make-believe, per humanity’s habit?

What a happy coincidence, after all, that your religion is the one true one (no matter what god or gods you happen to worship). What luck, also, that you happened to be born in the United States, where the true religion of Christianity is prevalent, or perhaps even into a Christian family. Or perhaps you were lucky enough to be born in Saudi Arabia, where the one true religion of Islam is so popular.

The atheist finds it a bit more reasonable to suppose you are not lucky. Most religious people follow the predominant religion of their nation or family, and most religions claim to be the only true one. It is more sensible to suppose you are experiencing what billions of others have experienced — the worship of a fictional character — than that you, by pleasant coincidence, have found the truth.

The atheist believes that because man has such an affinity for inventing gods, it is much more likely yours was invented than that he is real.

Further, humans love to take ordinary people, usually political leaders or religious teachers, and declare them divine or give them divine properties. We all know kings and queens across the globe were called divine and worshiped, such as the pharaohs of Egypt. Stars, meteors, and heavenly lights allegedly accompanied the birth of many man-gods and revered leaders, including Christ, Yu, Lao-tzu, and various Roman Caesars (Augustus was called the “Son of God” by 38 B.C., before he became emperor, being the son of the mortal Atia and the god Apollo). Plato was said to be born of a virgin and fathered by Apollo, Genghis Kahn was born of a virgin seeded by a miraculous light, founder of the Chinese Empire Fo-Hi was born when his mother ate a fruit or flower, Alexander the Great’s mother was impregnated by Zeus in snake form, and Buddha was born to the virgin Maya under incredible skies. These myths are recycled even today, for example Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, who died in 2011, was said to be born of virgin and to have performed many miracles! As discussed in the articles mentioned at the beginning, virgin births, man-gods, miracles, salvation from sin, and resurrections were nothing new by the time the stories of Christ appeared. Which seems more likely to you: that Christ was divine and his life just happened to parallel older myths or that the stories about him were plagiarized and he’s just another false god?

Sometimes people are given divine status while alive, other times after they die.

Buddha, who lived in the 500s-400s B.C., provides an interesting case study. Although in ancient texts Buddha says he is not God and renounces miracles, a sect of his followers almost immediately made him into more than a man. Richard Gillooly (All About Adam and Eve, p. 157) writes:

After Buddha’s death…his followers assigned a number of miracles to him, including healing wounds, making flood waters recede, treading on top of water or passing miraculously over it, and walking through a wall. Finally, Buddha was given the status of a man-god.

Today, Buddhism is largely a non-theistic religion, but there still exist certain denominations that consider Buddha divine.

Things were similar in Palestine centuries after Buddha. Unbeknownst to most Christians, in the first 300 years after Christ’s death there were sects that argued viciously over whether Christ was just an enlightened man, whether he was fully God, whether he was a normal man who became divine, whether he was an angel, whether he had always existed, whether his human body was raised from the dead or just his spirit, whether he was subordinate or equal to God, whether a Trinity existed, whether the Trinity was one God or three gods, and other enormous topics. It was adoptionists vs. antiadoptionists, docetics vs. antidocetics, seperationists vs. antiseperationists, etc. (read Chapter 6, p. 151-175, of Misquoting Jesus to see how these conflicting ideas affected the current bible). Over time, certain sects grew more powerful and certain beliefs came to prominence, solidified into the Christian doctrine we know after the councils at Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus (325-421 A.D.) assembled their official bible. The dogma of the bible was not inevitable; things could have gone very differently. At least, that’s what the atheist believes.

Francis Xavier (1506-1552) provides a more recent example of a man quickly receiving godlike powers after his death. Xavier wrote carefully of his missionary travels in Japan and India. He never professed to perform miracles in his writings, but after his death Christian writers spread stories of Xavier healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and calming a storm. Incredibly, even though Xavier’s writings describe his struggles with foreign languages and his reliance on translators, it was reported Xavier had the gift of tongues and could speak and understand anyone using the Holy Spirit (Gillooly, p. 162-163)! Xavier, like so many others drowned in mythology by their fellow man, was made a saint.

If humans had a habit of making political leaders and religious teachers divine, it seems more likely they did something similar to Christ than that he was actually a deity. More on him later.

The Arguments For God Rely on Faulty Premises

There are several faulty premises used in arguments for God’s existence that won’t be explored here, such as the idea that if there was no god then humans would have no morals (see article at the beginning). But these are some of the major ones. A faulty premise is one that has not been proven (open to serious doubts) or has been disproved.

That complexity and existence can only be explained by a creator

Existence, the universe, the butterfly, the human cell, and basically everything else are too complex to not have been designed and first built by a creator, so the argument goes.

My purpose here isn’t to convince a fundamentalist Christian evolution is true (read The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins, or The Evidence For Evolution, Rogers, or my article on the subject), nor that complexity and so-called “irreducible complexity” are natural byproducts of evolution, nor that DNA is entirely made up of biological matter, not nonphysical or supernatural “information,” nor that scientists are inching closer to determining precisely how life arose on Earth and replicating it in a lab, etc.

My purpose is to point out the flaw in the logic: If something complex requires a creator then God requires a creator, for if he exists he is quite complex indeed.

It’s the most important question in all religion and one children often ask: Who made God?

If God created the universe, he is infinitely more complex than the universe. More complex than a protein, a living cell, an eye, a human, or the universe. If you believe a creator, not natural processes, is vital to explain a butterfly, why would you give a deity — more marvelous, complex, powerful, and intelligent than a butterfly — a free pass?

To the religious, existence needs an explanation, but God does not. Something has to be the “uncaused.” So God has simply been around forever.

To the atheist, it is just as sensible to suppose existence has always existed, that it was “uncaused” (and that “nothing” was never a thing; see below). Actually, it is perhaps more sensible. Isn’t it strange that it would be something we have no proof of (a deity) that a thoughtful person would deem the “uncaused,” but not something we do have proof of (existence itself).

Religious persons will counter that God’s existence is different. Why can he be uncaused? “Because he’s God.” Because he’s not of the material world, he’s supernatural, etc. This side-step doesn’t seem particularly satisfying, only raising the question of what it means to exist. If God “exists” in some fashion, a mind creating and interacting with the material world from “outside it,” how his existence came about is not an illogical question by any means.

Overall, God has little explanatory value. All this just takes things back one step and raises the same question. I don’t see any reason why if one existence (ours) needs a cause the other (God’s) wouldn’t as well; conversely, if it’s possible for something to simply always exist, why not our existence?

It is of course possible a higher power exists (“almost certainly” is key here), in the same way it is possible we are living in a computer simulation (the “evidence” for either leaves something to be desired). But we simply do not know for certain that existence can’t exist without a creator. It’s perhaps possible that it can — and those who think a deity has always existed without cause shouldn’t find that idea too foreign or astounding.

That “nothing” was an actual thing

Existence started with the Big Bang and before that there was nothing. God is the only explanation for how our universe and existence began. Nothing comes from nothing! (Except, of course, God.)

All that needs to be said here is we do not know for certain existence did not “exist” before the Big Bang. Scientists have a decent understanding of what happened during the microseconds of the Big Bang, but not what came before it.

We do not know if there was nothing, nor if true nothingness — no physical space even, not even a single centimeter — is even possible. Can you prove for certain that there was true nothingness? That would be impressive, as astrophysicists cannot. It is, and perhaps always will be, beyond the scope of human science.

We may never be able to confirm if theories concerning existence before (or independent of) the Big Bang, that is, multiverse theories — parallel universes, daughter universes, bubble universes, infinite universes, and so on — are valid. But at the moment, in insisting that “nothing” actually “existed” before the Big Bang, religious persons are simply filling a gap in scientific knowledge with God (a strategy used by humans since we cowered at thunder) and relying on an unproven premise at the same time.

That because you can’t disprove God, it’s sensible to believe in him

Is it then sensible to believe in Apollo, since he cannot be disproved? Neither Shiva, Jupiter, Isis, Quetzalcoatl, Allah, nor Santa Claus can be disproved. Are we to believe in them? Any figment of the human imagination — like Bertrand Russell’s teapot orbiting the sun — can be asserted to be true and defended with “You can’t disprove it.”

That’s not how reason works. We should believe things we have evidence for and remain skeptical of things we have no evidence for (see below).

Yes, like Zeus, the Judeo-Christian god cannot be completely disproved (hence this is why God “almost certainly” does not exist — we can only rely on reason). But, as with Zeus, that is little reason to believe in him. It’s not evidence. It’s simply the case that being confident God exists is irrational; confidence in the validity of something that cannot be proven or with insufficient evidence is inherently not a reasonable thing to do. That something could easily be fictional. That’s the standard people hold for basically everything but their own god. (As I wrote elsewhere, “The ocean of unprovable things is infinite and of course highly contradictory, with many sets of things that cannot both or all be true. There are too many fictions in this ocean — you may believe in one of them. To only apply the argument from ignorance to your own faith, to believe that the gospels [or specific deities] are true because they cannot be disproved but not all these other things for the precise same reason, is simple bias.”) What’s most sensible is to doubt what is unfounded, not enthusiastically profess its existence.

The opposite idea that it’s irrational to disbelieve in something that cannot be disproved, or most rational to be open to something that cannot be disproved, is clearly not as rational as the idea that we should disbelieve or doubt things that cannot be proven. The first idea opens the door to not just your deity’s existence, but also to Brahma the Creator, the Easter Bunny, and the unicorns that roam my neighborhood. They are all in the same space, the same category, together. And perhaps these things are real. It wouldn’t be reasonable for me to say I objectively “know” God and these other entities aren’t real, as if I’d definitively disproved them, any more than it would be to say I “know” the opposite. But surely it’s more logical to disbelieve in them without proof or evidence. The second idea is simply smarter. It’s better, more reasonable. It keeps us in the real world and away from fantasy, closing the door to things that could easily be made up until there is proof or evidence to support them.

Related to this is Pascal’s Wager: Because you can’t disprove God, it’s safest to bet he exists, because if you believe you’re infinitely rewarded but if you don’t you’re infinitely tortured. So it’s more rational to believe. This obviously has less to do with trying to figure out if God is likely fact or fiction (like we do when supposing things with no evidence should be doubted because they may be man-made) and more to do with self-preservation, the human desire to avoid agony. It’s a fear-based appeal focused on consequences, rather than one that considers whether or not there’s anything to be afraid of in the first place — whether or not God actually exists. But Pascal’s Wager doesn’t make much sense because (1) you can’t actually “choose” to believe something in this way — you either believe it’s true or you have doubts, (2) a deity would see through this selfish, fear-motivated sham, (3) it assumes the bible can’t be wrong, when it is possible God exists but the book is full of misrepresentations of his plan — perhaps nonbelievers are actually welcomed into heaven (or perhaps only they get in, as a reward for being critical thinkers), and (4) it doesn’t help you decide which religion and god(s) to believe in — as pastor-turned-atheist Dan Barker pointed out, by the logic of the Wager, you should determine which religion describes the worst hell and follow that one. See, the Wager can be applied to any religion: “It’s better to bet Islam is true, rather than Christianity, because if you’re right you’re infinitely rewarded but if you’re wrong you’re infinitely tortured. Don’t risk being a Christian.” The Christian’s wager seems about as dangerous as the atheist’s.

That scriptures, feelings and visions, miracles, or answered prayers prove God exists

No, saying you know God is real because of what the bible says is not a valid or convincing argument. How seriously do you take the claims “We know Allah is real because of the Qu’ran” and “We know Brahma is real because of what’s written in the Vedas”? Other scriptures have gods and miracles and prophesies fulfilled; are these things true simply because the “divine work” says it is? I am often amazed at how believers send bible verses my way in an attempt to convince me everything in the bible is true. Even when I was a Christian, I didn’t try to convince people that way because it’s intellectually lazy and entirely unimpressive to any thinking person. One can’t use the bible as evidence the bible is factual (more alleged evidence, that for Christ’s divinity — from the bible and secular sources — will be explored later).

Personal feelings aren’t convincing either. Believers often “feel God guiding” them or “sense his presence” while worshiping or just going about life. First, I recall experiencing those things. Today I realize that was me feeling what I wanted and expected to feel, as someone who was taught (and believed) it would happen. If a woman can physically heal simply by believing she’s being treated (the placebo effect), why couldn’t she “feel” a deity speaking to her when she fervent believes (and wants) it to occur? If a man starts mistaking more cars for cops than usual because he’s on high alert for them (a mind trick most of us have experienced at some point while speeding), why couldn’t he hear the “whispers of God” in his heart because he’s expecting it? If you made up a deity right now and taught your children since birth she was true and would speak to them, do you not think they would feel her presence? Second, people of all religions describe such feelings of closeness with their gods. If I’d been raised in a Muslim family, I would have felt whispers from Allah. Countless people throughout history have felt the presence of countless gods — if other people can experience a fictional being, why can’t you? (In the same way, Jesus may have “changed your life,” but that’s not evidence: other religions — plus secular Buddhism, secular philosophy, meditation, psychedelics, and more — also change lives.) And is it really coincidence that people typically feel or see the dominant deity of the society in which they live? (As an American, I was a bit more likely to “feel” the Judeo-Christian deity. In India or Iran, people more often feel Shiva or Allah working on their hearts. Sometimes there are exceptions, and people are touched by religions relatively foreign to them, but probably not unknown.) Perhaps humans simply “experience” things that are not real. If there is some truth in all these experiences, then there likely is no One True Religion. Indeed, you are free to think your god is masquerading as others, the gods of multiple religions exist, or a god no one fully knows is trying to connect with all people, but this fact of universal feelings at the least means your feelings won’t convince anyone your god is real or the only real god (plus, what if another god is masquerading as yours? Or what if the evil one from another religion is tricking you, keeping you in the false religion — how would you know?). Third, actual evidence can be shown to other people to convince them; this does not qualify.

Related to all this are visions of God, Jesus, the virgin Mary, and so on, all of which can be explained in ways divorced from the supernatural: lies and embellishments (humans are skilled at this), hallucinations (as people who are ill and mentally ill, extremely stressed, sensory deprived, low on sleep, or on certain drugs often experience), psychological patterns of perception and misperception (humans tend to see faces where they don’t exist, for example, because of our evolutionary history; one study found religious people are more prone to this, which may explain why Jesus appears on so much toast), random chance (like the shape of a cross — quite a simple shape indeed — in nature), tricks (who hasn’t seen David Blaine and Chris Angel appear, disappear, walk through walls, or levitate), etc. These explanations seem more probable than a deity being behind such things. Consider that 4-5% of adults, regardless of whether they have a diagnosed mental illness, experience hallucinations, seeing and hearing things others cannot. That’s as many as 16 million Americans alone. If you believe in a specific deity, it’s not so stunning he or she might be included in your hallucinations. Still others claim to be visited by God or his voice in their dreams! A critical thinker would allow for the possibility it was just a dream. As with feelings, visions and dreams cannot be shared with others as evidence, and as people of all faiths experience them they would not help you decide which religion to follow if you took them seriously. Anecdotes like this can easily be devoid of truth — there are those who “feel” we’re living in a simulation (A Glitch in the Matrix), is that good evidence?

The case for modern miracles is not convincing either (past ones even less so, especially if your “evidence” is an ancient holy book). People being resuscitated from death, healing very suddenly, living through a disaster, and so on simply do not prove a higher power — whether Jesus, Allah, Shiva, or modern-day deities like Sathya Sai Baba of India. All religions claim miracles. Some of this is simple lack of knowledge; many “miracles” have scientific explanations that even the most fundamentalist religious folk would find reasonable if willing to learn, from psychogenic health problems (pains and illnesses that are “all in your head,” that you can cure by changing your attitude or mental state) to the spontaneous remission of some cancers (but only some — in others, remission without treatment has never been documented; why no miracles for those patients?). Even extremely rare events (those most likely to be called miracles, obviously) are often already understood through the collective work of scientists and doctors. In fact, most all the “miracles” you hear about theoretically have some scientific explanation — there is an entire website devoted to the question of why you never hear of an amputee regrowing an arm or a leg; perhaps it’s because it’s impossible and as a nonevent can’t be confused with a miracle in the way someone suddenly healing from illness can. Some events, like one person surviving a plane crash that killed 300, are simply fortunate happenings that are statistically unlikely but not impossible. Events that have no current scientific explanation likely will in the future — as humanity has found out over and over again. Again, the “God gap” — filling in a lack of understanding with the idea of a higher power — has always shrunk. Medical science is drawing closer to understanding why some people come back from the dead, for instance (and it’s important to ask why the resurrection always occurs minutes or hours after death, rather than weeks or months — yet another thing we understand to be biologically impossible for human beings; there are these limits to miracles because miracles do not actually exist). As with visions, we know that lies, delusions, and hoaxes can also explain many “miracles.”

Consider a miracle you hear much about: crosses or bibles that survive fires. When much of Notre Dame was recently burned, many of the faithful saw a miracle in the fact that a cross and a crown of thorns survived. Yet this isn’t evidence for the Judeo-Christian god, any more than a Qu’ran surviving a fire is evidence of Allah or superhero comics surviving a fire is evidence of Spider-Man. You can believe these events constitute good evidence for these existences (or just believe one of them, displaying personal religious bias regarding standards of evidence), but it’s not terribly convincing.

The fact is that during some fires some things survive. Many other items survived the Notre Dame fire (chairs, pews, candle holders, an organ), but we don’t really regard that as miraculous because they aren’t revered religious symbols like a cross or crown of thorns. We simply understand that in fires some things happen to be lost and other things happen to survive. Perhaps this includes religious items, too. In the case of Notre Dame, many religious symbols survived alongside non-religious ones because, while the roof collapsed in, the interior did not become an inferno; the fire mostly burned the spire, attic, and roof. Even though a fire like this certainly could have melted the gold cross and destroyed the crown, in this case it didn’t get the opportunity — it didn’t get big enough or hot enough inside the cathedral to do so (you can call this a miracle if you like, but then you’re just back to the Spidey problem and how valid such “evidence” is). Scientific or real-world, natural explanations are perfectly satisfactory to explain the survival of this cross and many of the religious items in the church, just like the non-religious items. Divine intervention isn’t the only (or simplest) explanation.

It didn’t have to go this way, of course. The interior could have become an inferno and the cross and crown could have been turned to ashes. That’s what happens in many fires: holy books and crosses and such are destroyed. This doesn’t often make the news, because, well, it was a fire. Same for any non-religious thing destroyed. It’s simply not very interesting. Something surviving is more interesting, surprising, or rare, but that in no way has to be a miracle, whether talking about a cross, comic book, or chair. But one thing to note is that no one says the destruction of a cross or bible is evidence that God doesn’t exist. One could say this with as much validity as supposing survival means God is real — the quality of the “evidence” is about the same. But it’s just as weak an argument as the reverse because, like taking a religious item’s survival as evidence for God’s existence, that connection may just all be in one’s head. It isn’t necessarily true. It could just be that in some fires some religious items (like non-religious ones) end up incinerated and in others some do not, and that’s just what happens, offering no actual evidence one way or the other as to whether a higher power exists — and indeed occurring that way even if such a being does not exist. (For a related discussion, see Proof God is a Liberal Atheist. If weather and natural disasters are proof of God’s existence and judgement, it’s easy to show he’s anti-Christian, destroying crosses and Jesus statues and churches and pastors. The weather, in its randomness, helps all comers.)

Answered prayers are likewise not evidence. What you’re praying to Christ for may actually occur, but there is no evidence it occurred because you prayed — even if the occurrence was extremely unlikely. This is in the precise same way that there is no solid evidence praying to Vishnu, Satan, Allah, or Aphrodite affects anyone’s life. Some studies have been conducted on whether prayer works, with no consistent results. For example, sometimes sick people being prayed for do better, other times there is zero effect, and sometimes they get worse. The largest study on this question to date found no effect. It noted that when patients knew they were being fervently prayed for by others, their health deteriorated because they thought if they needed prayer they were worse off than they actually were — the reverse placebo effect. In the same way, people who pray for healing or know others are praying for them may simply be experiencing a placebo effect — nothing supernatural — with optimism and confidence contributing to health benefits. (Even astrology provides placebo effect benefits. Belief itself, even of fictions, can aid human beings in certain ways.) God may not play along with human studies because he doesn’t want to be tested, but there is currently no good reason to believe prayer impacts real-world events.

That archaeology and secular histories confirm many events, people, and places in the bible, so why not believe it entirely?

This argument suggests that because Bethlehem actually existed, or because credible evidence exists for Hebrew captivity in Babylon, and as these things are mentioned in the bible, the bible should therefore be trusted when it describes the supernatural and divine. This is nonsense, as the bible could simply be a book written by people that includes both actual happenings (events, people, places) and fictional tales. If the Qu’ran mentions Mecca, or wars we have archaeological evidence for, or people with much historical documentation, does that somehow automatically make the deity and miracles mentioned in the book fact?

Alleged evidence for supernatural events themselves consistently disappoints.

The great flood and Noah’s ark are a prime example (nevermind the story was borrowed from older societies, thus evidence for it would make it more reasonable to believe in the gods of those cultures than Yahweh). There is no actual evidence a worldwide flood that wiped out the human race 4,000-5,000 years ago or even tens of thousands of years ago occurred. But every so often an article like “Noah’s Ark Has Been Found. Why Are They Keeping Us in the Dark?” appears on reputable sites like,,,, and That particular article declared a boat-looking structure found in the Turkish mountains was Noah’s Ark; it was the right dimensions and was found where Noah was thought to have landed after the flood. Of course, geologists determined the structure was made of natural rock, not petrified wood — and many similar rock structures existed nearby. It was another instance of the earth creating, over billions of years and through the random effects of geological processes, structures that appear man-made. It rivals rocks with faces carved into them, perfectly square holes in the sides of mountains, exquisitely sanded stone walls, etc.


Perhaps instead this rock formation is the birthplace of the myth. Imagine ancient peoples coming across something natural yet appearing man-made. Throughout history, man created fanciful tales concerning things he saw, didn’t understand, and had no scientific means to assess. How could one explain a massive “boat” sitting 6,300 feet high in the mountains? A great flood. What else?

What God Wouldn’t Know

Wouldn’t God wonder where he came from?

God, if all-knowing, would know he had always existed. But would he know how?

Above we wondered why God’s existence requires no explanation. Wouldn’t he also wonder how it was possible he, a thinking, complex, powerful being, came to exist?

If he asked a believer, he would get the answer, “Well, no one created you, that’s for sure. You’ve simply always existed.” Would that satisfy him? He would have no memory of a time when he did not exist, because such a time never occurred. He would have memories going back to infinity, with no end.

He would certainly never conclude, “I created myself!” or “Another god created me!” If he always existed, there would be no answer to his question, “How did I come to exist?” What can we say of God’s existence if he, an all-knowing and all-powerful being, would be unable to find an answer to this important question?

If God couldn’t conjure the answer for how he came to be, he is not all-knowing nor all-powerful.


Many argue Christ was all the evidence for God we need (in the same way the prophet Muhammad’s life and miracles were all the evidence for Allah we need and the life and resurrection of Attis substantial evidence for Phrygian-Greek gods). Let us consider Jesus Christ.

The Case for Christ’s Divinity Relies on Faulty Premises

First, I would like to point the reader to the articles mentioned above concerning contradictions and changes in the bible, and the similar stories, crafted before the time of Christ, concerning gods being born to virgins, rising from the dead, saving humans from their sins, and so on. The idea that the stories about Jesus are original is a faulty premise.

Even if the tales were original, remaining arguments for the belief in a divine Christ rely on premises that are questionable or downright absurd. Christians find certain arguments persuasive because they don’t slow down to question the premise, such as…

That Jesus must be one of three things

A classic example is from C.S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis recycled an argument from the 1800s, that Jesus Christ must either be a liar, a lunatic, or the divine Lord:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.

This seems logical, but relies on an unproven premise.

First, it assumes Jesus claimed to be God. A Christian doesn’t stop to question this. He or she knows, “Of course Jesus claimed to be God, it says so in the Bible.” Yes, in the same way everything described in the Qu’ran is true because it’s described in the Qu’ran! What if the gospels are fictional? What if they do not describe real people, words, or events? The non-biblical writings on Christ don’t indicate he claimed to be God (What Non-Biblical Sources Actually Say About Jesus). Lewis’ premise rests on the assumptions that Jesus claimed to be God and that the Bible is factual. These are no small assumptions. These are enormous assumptions.

Second, Lewis is also assuming Jesus existed in the first place. Now, I’m not one of the skeptics who believes a “great human teacher” named Jesus never existed (the non-biblical writings about him and the human tendency to turn dead religious leaders into divine beings make it safe to suppose he did), but there is still debate about it among scholars. It is possible Jesus is a fictional character. Though that is perhaps unlikely, the possibility does mean this premise isn’t reliable. People truly underestimate the uncertainty of history — it’s still uncertain what’s myth and what’s fact when it comes to the existence and deeds of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Shakespeare, to name just three English examples from over a thousand years after Jesus’ time.

I don’t mean to be redundant, but this cannot be stressed enough: inherent in both these points are Lewis’ assumption that the gospels cannot simply be myths. It’s not even an option worth addressing for him — it’s that unthinkable — unlike modern Christian scholars, who are forced to try to counter the idea (see next section).

Regardless of whether one believes the bible is factual, that Jesus existed, claimed to be God, and wasn’t a legend but rather the true Lord, one has to admit this argument’s premise already assumes these things true. Thus, the argument is worthless.

Let’s consider another faulty premise.

That the decades between Christ’s death and the writing of the gospels comprise too short a time for man to concoct a legend

“Legend” is the obvious fourth option. Perhaps the stories about Christ (and, inherently, the prophesies he allegedly fulfilled) are simply man-made falsities, like so many other tales of the supernatural in other religions. 

Christ died in A.D. 33 and the first gospel (Matthew) was written around A.D. 70, according to biblical scholars. Thus, a common sentiment is that 40 years is simply too short a time for legends to spread among primitive Middle Eastern peoples (similarly, 20 or 30 years, the supposed time between Christ’s death and Paul’s first epistles — the first New Testament documents, from A.D. 50s and 60s — is also too short). The stories about Jesus must be true.

This assumption has no merit. Humans have shown themselves all too willing to believe and spread complete fictions immediately.

Joseph Smith, a convicted con artist and self-described prophet from Vermont, wrote The Book of Mormon in 1830, in which he claims an angel helped him find buried gold plates in New York that told of Jesus’ visit to North America (he translated it from “reformed Egyptian” using a magic stone he used in his conman days), and that Native Americans used to be white and are descendants of Jews who crossed the Atlantic. In his other work, The Book of Abraham, he claims God lives with multiple wives near a star called Kolob, and in Doctrine and Covenants he claims Independence, Missouri, is the promised land where Christ will return. His works are full of historical inaccuracies, plagiarism, made-up languages, and are very poorly written. Yet these are sacred texts to the Mormons, all as divine and truthful as the bible. There are now over 6 million Mormons in the U.S., perhaps 15 million globally.

Thousands of Mormon believers were flooding Independence by 1831. In the same decade, some Mormons were willing to participate in violence to defend their homes, as Missourians tried to expel them by force from the entire state. Outlandish religious fiction can almost instantly produce thousands of gullible followers, people who are willing to traverse a continent, witness to others, pick up guns, and even die to defend beliefs based on new “sacred” texts. Those thousands can multiply into millions.

There is no reason to suppose if a man in the 1800s could whip up nonsense and immediately find it believed by thousands that someone in the first century A.D. couldn’t do the same in several decades. Despite the idea that 20 or 40 years is a timeframe short enough to ensure validity, it simply isn’t true.

Upon reflection, if closer proximity automatically meant greater validity, it would be much more sensible to be a Mormon than a Protestant or Catholic. There is far less time between Joseph Smith’s “divine revelation” (1823) and the holy book describing it than Christ’s death and the gospels, even if Smith did write his own scriptures (there is no way to know that Jesus himself didn’t write the first tales of his “miracles” and “resurrection”; plus, were there a Gospel According to Jesus in the bible, it is unlikely Christians would doubt its truth).

There are other examples, even more recent.

In 1950, a science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics, by 1954 devoted followers founded the Church of Scientology, and today somewhere around 50,000 supporters (or millions, if you believe the church) are involved in the religion. Followers pay large sums for training and teaching to progress through “thetan” levels, toward spiritual enlightenment and the supernatural abilities Hubbard promised in Dianetics and other books and “scriptures”: mind reading, mind control, telekinesis, heightened intelligence and senses, and the ability to create your own universe — similar to the “Supreme Being.” And, while the church denies it (because non-thetans aren’t supposed to know such secrets), Hubbard also explained that humans (and atomic bombs) were brought to Earth by “Xenu,” head of a “Galactic Confederation.” All this from a man pretending to have knowledge of heavenly truths and writing books about it.

If Americans in the 1950s could believe such foolishness without evidence, couldn’t first century people in Palestine likewise believe certain things without evidence?

Likewise, couldn’t seventh century Arabians? Consider that Muslims believe the Qu’ran is the word of God transmitted by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad from the years 610 A.D. to 632 A.D. (the year Muhammad died). Now, there is debate among Islamic scholars as to how much of the Qu’ran was actually written down during Muhammad’s life, but agree it was all compiled and canonized by the third caliph, Uthman, who reigned from 644 to 656. Our oldest copy of the Qu’ran dates to 645 or earlier. In other words, it only took from 632 to 645 — 13 years — to go from the death of a religious leader who proclaimed God was speaking to him to the completion of a holy text held sacred as the word of the one true deity. That’s so short a time, shorter than 40 years. Is the Qu’ran therefore totally factual, without a trace of fiction? Is that why it grew to 1.5 billion followers across the globe?

Even though in Mormonism, Scientology, and Islam there is less time between divine revelation and the scriptures, none of that matters. Religious fiction is religious fiction, and it can spread like wildfire, especially in ancient times — if it can happen in more recent eras, it can surely happen in older ones! Even individuals who blatantly recycle elements from established faiths can get believers, from brother of Jesus and other son of God Hong Xiuquan in 19th century China to the multitudes of men who today, in the 21st century, believe they are the second comings of Christ. If your critical thinking still hasn’t fired up, it may be valuable to consider how fast conspiracy theories form and spread in the modern, supposedly more rational age: for instance, within hours of 9/11 (see Summers and Swan, The Eleventh Day), or seven years after the moon landing (Kaysing, We Never Went to the Moon, 1976).

Considering modern times is in fact very instructive. Believers think that the stories in Paul’s letters, Mark, and other early Christian documents must be true because they describe real people who were still alive. “If a writer made up something about someone, it could easily be discredited. People would find that someone and ask him or her what happened.” Thus Christianity never would have survived, the stories would have been debunked — unless it was all true. But we know from conspiracy theories that’s not how this works. Even assuming the characters described were actual people, which is a big, often unfounded assumption, them being alive at the time of a wildly fictitious writing about them wouldn’t slow anything down. Today you could speak to people involved in the first moon landing, for instance. You could talk to Obama or Clinton and try to set the record straight: are you from Kenya, did you kill people? Interview the organizers of the inside job that was 9/11, like Bush, or the top Democrats who run the satanic pedophile ring out of a pizza shop. No matter what these living persons say, the mad beliefs persist. In the next section you will see a couple modern miracle stories, and in the precise same way you could speak to witnesses currently alive who would tell you the “miracles” were total bunk — but that wouldn’t stop the true believers from continuing to spread the good news! The same thing occurring in ancient times isn’t hard to imagine, with fictions about amazing miracles and soaring oratory being ascribed to people who were still around — such things spreading out of control would be even easier back then, with the slower and more localized communication and travel technologies inhibiting correction. Main characters could deny it all, but that wouldn’t end the fictions. 

Remember, all this applies to other religions as well. If early writings of Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, and so forth (arriving sooner after described miraculous events compared to Christian writings) mentioned real, living people, the same foolishness could be argued. “The real people would discredit false claims. The religion would have died out immediately if it wasn’t true.” A standard of validity applied to Christianity must be applied also to other faiths. Does this mean multiple faiths are true? Or simply that we have a terrible argument on our hands?

(I will here point the reader to The Bible is Rife With Contradictions and Changes, which documents changes to the gospels over time and speculates on whether the story of Jesus grew more embellished between gospels. If such things could occur after stories were written down, why not before?)

That having four (similar) independent eyewitness accounts within a short time means the gospel stories are trustworthy

This is similar to the last point, but adds a twist. Doesn’t having multiple people saying the same thing (within a few decades) make something more likely to be true? This of course rests on the unproven and possibly false premise that the writers of the gospels were actually associates of an historical Jesus — the gospel writers could easily have been random people concocting fictions about him later on. It also assumes the gospel accounts are independent — that the later versions aren’t copies of Mark, or that all of them aren’t copies of some earlier text (and perhaps that’s why they are similar, simple plagiarism). This is a real possibility. Finding Christian scholars who admit that we really have no idea who wrote the gospels, and acknowledge they may not be independent, is not difficult.

But even assuming that independent eyewitness accounts are actually independent eyewitness accounts, having four of them within a few decades does not necessarily mean a supernatural tale is more likely to be true. Consider the following examples in other faiths. Whether easily debunked or not, whether grand or small, miracle tales can be utter nonsense no matter how many independent eyewitnesses you have, no matter how close to the event the testimony is written down. (Or perhaps not. Perhaps faiths other than Christianity also experience real miracles, if the number of testimonies and years since the alleged event matter to authenticity.) The following examples also do away with the notion that the gospel claims are unique or special among faiths in their number of testimonies within X number of years.

The point is that these examples probably aren’t miracles; people may have witnessed things with natural, scientific explanations, but testified about them as if they were miracles. The gospels could easily be the same way. Or maybe the alleged eyewitnesses in these examples are making things up. Likewise, as stated, perhaps the gospels weren’t actually written by eyewitnesses of anything, but rather were stories that were simply invented. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

The Milk Miracle

A couple decades ago, Ganesha, the Hindu deity with the head of an elephant, performed an incredible miracle, global in scale. Newspapers around the world covered it. It was the Milk Miracle of 1995: statues of Ganesha everywhere began drinking milk. Plenty of first-hand accounts were documented in the book Loving Ganesha (1996), by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, guru and founder of Hinduism Today and the Saiva Siddhanta Church. The miracle story and eye-witness testimony from well over four people are included in the book’s preface, which you can read here. If more accounts increases reliability, is this story more reliable than gospel stories, by that standard? 

Many of these eye-witnesses (who have rather respectable careers) are alive today who you could track down and question about this event, including, unless someone has recently passed:

Rajiv Malik, Hinduism Today reporter
Aran Veylan, lawyer and judge in Canada
P.C. Bhardwaj, Indian Army Vice Chief
Aparna Chattopadhyay, scientist at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute

Stories of modern supernatural events are really instructive. They deal a huge blow to the reasoning of apologetics. For instance, if the gospels are trustworthy because they were written only decades after Jesus’ death, rather than centuries, then the Milk Miracle tale is far, far more trustworthy than the gospels, by that standard — the eye-witness testimony appears only one year after the event!

Likewise, people argue that the gospels have to be factual because they were written while eye-witnesses and others described in the texts were still alive (otherwise, they would correct the falsehoods). Well, here we have the exact same situation. I suppose since the eye-witnesses are alive, and were alive when the book was written, the Milk Miracle must be true! Clearly, looking at this story, we understand that human beings will give independent eye-witness testimony to total nonsense. (Or is it? Is the god with the elephant head real?) That testimony can then be written down, while they’re alive. They can be around to confirm or deny all this. (We can prove, right now, whether these folks claim to be eye-witnesses and what they claimed to have seen in 1995; too bad we can’t hop on Twitter and ask the gospel writers, whoever they were. Wouldn’t a supernatural event with living eyewitnesses be more reliable than one without?) Eventually eye-witnesses die, and the opportunity to ever recant vanishes. Or, another possibility: decades or centuries later, recantation documentation gets lost (or destroyed) while the eyewitness testimony survives! Many possibilities exist. But the point is clear. This impenetrable link between eyewitness testimony/“the writing occurring while alleged eye-witnesses are alive” and the truth doesn’t actually exist. 

And if all this can happen today, in a far more skeptical age full of advanced methods for finding and contacting eye-witnesses, there’s no question it could happen thousands of years ago, in more superstitious and primitive times (shorter lifespans to boot).

The Golden Plates

There are four individuals who saw with their own eyes and attested that the angel Moroni, after years of promises, gave Joseph Smith gold plates of hieroglyphics (which contained the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ and all its well-known nonsense) in 1827 in New York. Joseph Smith (prophet) is one eye-witness. The other three are Oliver Cowdery (teacher), David Witmer (militia sergeant), and Martin Harris (farmer), who signed a joint statement together in 1829 that they had witnessed an angel showing off the gold plates, and heard the voice of the Lord speak from heaven. This statement was included in the primary Mormon holy book.

This isn’t my aim right now, but proving these four U.S. citizens existed and testified to this event would no doubt be vastly easier than proving who wrote the gospels and determining whether they were associates of Jesus. If so, that would make this story more believable than any apostles’ story, if such things affect the reliability of historical documents.

As with the gospels, we should be open to possibilities beyond dogmatic assumptions. Perhaps these eye-witnesses weren’t real, perhaps their claims are nonsense, perhaps they recanted later. But none of that matters. Their accounts are in the holy book forever. “The Testimony of Three Witnessesis included in every Book of Mormon to this day (alongside “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith”). The Mormons today simply assume these four eye-witnesses were real and telling the truth in 1829, precisely as Christians view Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

While these may not be accurately called four independent accounts (it’s more like two accounts endorsed by four people), it can be said Mormonism asserts four eye-witnesses to a supernatural event, dated to within a few decades. With only a two-year period for all this to occur, it’s far more likely to be true than any event in the gospels, if the size of the “event-first writing” gap actually has something to do with the authenticity of claims! This example is pretty insightful, because it shows how a new religion can be born from tales of complete fiction — even if there are supposed eye-witnesses, even if those named eye-witnesses are still alive at the time of writing, and on and on.

Sathya Sai Baba

Sai Baba is God incarnate, a deity in the flesh, and is followed by Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and others around the world (“Sai” is a Persian word used by Muslims to mean a holy person, and “Baba” is Hindi for father). Being God, the Sai Baba, according to eyewitnesses, can levitate, remove and reattach body parts, raise people from the dead, make objects materialize, etc. The first Sai Baba incarnation was Shirdi Sai Baba (c. 1838-1918), who lived in India. 

The next incarnation was Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011). In the late 1940s, perhaps 1947, Sathya Sai Baba would stand on the hills near Puttaparti, India, and call forth a divine light, so brilliant and blinding that people fainted. The evenings would light up like it was day! It could grow so bright the divine figure would vanish from view. Sathya Sai Baba was in fact taking the form that the god Krishna had taken in the Bhagavad Gita

How do we know for certain Sathya Sai Baba had such miraculous powers? Because 30 years later, in 1977 and the late 1970s in general, ten independent eye-witnesses gave their accounts to Erlendur Haraldsson of the University of Iceland. Witnesses like Krishna Kumar, Krishnamma, Suseelamma, Amarenda Kumar, and so forth. Throughout the book he put together, Haraldsson was sure to include as many details about his witnesses as he could, such as names, birthplaces, cities of residence, jobs, and family relations. If the gospels are reliable with four accounts (more so than stories with, say, one account), then ten must make these tales even more reliable! (One might also argue that Haraldsson, being a researcher separate from the faith, might be a less biased collector and preserver of eyewitness testimony; it was, after all, religious leaders who put together the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, and Loving Ganesha.)

Haraldsson’s collection of eye-witness testimony (Modern Miracles, 1987) of Sathya Sai Baba’s supernatural powers is honestly impressive in its scope. (See p. 257-263 here for the dazzling light story and testimonies.) He essentially devotes each chapter to a miraculous event or ability and finds as many independent eye-witness accounts as possible for each one — that’s the book’s sole purpose. Thus, there are more supernatural happenings that meet our criteria in this collection than just one, such as teleportation/super speed. Haraldsson and many witnesses in the book are still alive today, which again supposedly lends trustworthiness to any miraculous claim. (Or does it? Again, if people attest to fictions in the modern era, or in pre-Civil War America, they certainly did in Roman times as well.)

That Jesus’ disciples suffered and died preaching that Jesus rose from the dead, and they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t seen it happen

This was one of the arguments that Strobel, in The Case for Christ, said ultimately convinced him to become a believer, and it was something I took seriously for many years. It is another unproven premise.

First, for this argument to work you’d need to prove without a doubt Jesus was not a fictional character. It’s likely he wasn’t, as mentioned above, but it’s not unquestionable. After that obstacle you’d still have problems.

Yes, Christian tradition says Jesus’ 10 closest friends saw the resurrection and were martyred for preaching around the Roman Empire (Judas was obviously not among the martyrs, nor was John, who it is said died of natural causes). But the bible only mentions the actual death of one of these 10, as Christian sites admit: the apostle James, brother of John. In Acts 12:1-2 (written A.D. 70-90), James is among those killed who “belonged to the church.” (We don’t know if this was a willing death, a refusal to recant.) Another verse makes a prediction about another apostle, as we will see. But as explored above, the bible cannot be used as evidence for its own claims, any more than the Qu’ran could. What do non-biblical sources say concerning the disciples?

Unfortunately for this argument, there is no non-Christian source in our possession that mentions them at all. Thus far in the historical record of the ancient world, only members of the religion asserted their words, deeds, and very existence. Only one person close to Jesus — his brother James — is mentioned by a non-Christian historian, Josephus in A.D. 93, as being tried and put to death by the Sanhedrin for a violation of the law. But Josephus does not mention the specific violation, and the bible does not mention this James’ death. He was not among the 12 disciples.

So one has to look at Christian sources, but these are not terribly helpful. Christian apologist and professor John Oakes, writing for the Evidence for Christianity website, says that “the specifics of the deaths of most of the apostles is either unknown or based on a Christian tradition which is of questionable authority.” Here he is agreeing with Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and skeptic. Beyond the aforementioned James, Oakes believes the only apostle among the 12 with any good historical evidence of being killed is Peter. Ehrman seems to agree. Bob Luginbill, an apologist and academic who runs the Ichthys website, agrees with Oakes, while making a grave bias known: “Nothing outside the Bible can be taken as reliable.” Luginbill writes that “we know very little about the deaths of the twelve (apart from Judas, of course, and James).” Other instances of Christians admitting the uncertainty surrounding the apostles’ fates, and the contradictory stories concerning some of them, are not hard to find.

Here it’s valuable to bring in Sean McDowell, who wrote The Fate of the Apostles and, with Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. McDowell is a Christian who uses this argument, that the apostles being executed for their faith bolsters the likelihood of Jesus’ resurrection being fact. To that end, he compiles, in these works, the sources concerning the apostles’ deaths. Yet of the 10, he can only address Peter, James, Thomas, and Andrew. He adds in James, brother of Jesus, too. “It is difficult to know for sure what happened to the remaining apostles,” he explains. It’s worth looking at the earliest sources McDowell can present concerning the deaths of these five:

  • Peter, died A.D. 64-67 — 1 Clement 5:1-4 (A.D. 96), John 21:18–19 (A.D. 90-100), The Apocalypse of Peter (A.D. 100), Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-2 (A.D. 110), The Ascension of Isaiah (A.D. 100-150), The Apocryphon of James (A.D. 100-300). The other three sources listed are dated to the late second century or later.
  • James, brother of John, died A.D. 44 — Acts 12:1-2 (A.D. 70-90). Two other sources are from centuries later.
  • Thomas, died A.D. 72 — Acts of Thomas (A.D. 200-220). No further specific source mentioned.
  • Andrew, died A.D. 60 — Acts of Andrew (A.D. 150-210). One other source came later.
  • James, brother of Jesus, died A.D. 62 — Josephus’ Antiquities (A.D. 93). Three other sources come from the late second century and beyond.

(McDowell also addresses Paul. However, the bible does not make the case that Paul ever knew or saw Jesus while he was alive, and thus Paul doesn’t have as much relevance to this argument. The apostles and James allegedly spent time with Jesus in physical form before and after his execution, whereas Paul doesn’t seem to have spent any time with him until, some time after the execution, Jesus appears to Paul in a blinding light from heaven.)

The nature of these citations vary. Some are specific, others vague. Some state outright, others imply. Some reference the past, others predict the future (as discussed earlier, such prophesy isn’t too impressive — all these extant documents were written after the apostles died, meaning they may not contain any actual predictions). The Acts of Andrew and the Acts of Thomas have full stories of the crucifixions of those two. Acts and Antiquities plainly speak of executions that, if lacking detail, are over religious affiliations. In the Apocryphon of James, Jesus tells Peter and James “you have not yet been…crucified…as I myself was.” 1 Clement 5:1-6:1 and John 21:18–19 imply Peter was executed. Jesus tells Peter in the Apocalypse of Peter to go to Rome and “drink from the cup that I promised you at the hand of the son of the one who is in Hades” (assumed to mean Emperor Nero). Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-3 suggests the apostles accepted death:

For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, “Take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.” And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason they despised death itself, and proved its victors.

The Ascension of Isaiah doesn’t mention Peter at all, but rather “Of the Twelve one will be delivered into his hands” is believed to be the reference to him and his martyrdom at the order of Nero.

There are two important things to note here. First, as we saw in the last section with Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, and conspiracy theories, there is plenty of time between events and first writings to allow myth-making. These writers are not necessarily conveying facts. Clearly, their sources could have been fictional texts or tales from earlier years, or they may have invented the stories themselves.

That brings us to the second point, which many readers likely noticed: many of these sources are Gnostic. So are many of the unnamed ones. That is, these are Christian writings that the church later rejected as full of nonsense, not divine and thus not canon. In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus gives Peter a tour of heaven and hell (where blasphemers hang by their tongues). The Ascension of Isaiah sees Isaiah get his own tour, led by an angel, of the seven heavens, and he later watches Jesus descend each heaven on his way to Earth to be born; in each heaven Jesus disguises himself in new forms to go unnoticed. Jesus reveals secret books to the apostles in the Apocryphon of James. In the Acts of Thomas, Jesus sells Thomas as a slave. These two men are in fact twins. In the Acts of Andrew, one of the titular character’s miracles is telling a woman pregnant with an illegitimate child to just believe in Christ and the baby would be born dead. Later, Andrew is crucified but preaches from the cross for three days. If these Gnostic texts are “of questionable authority” to Christians themselves, why should anyone take them as factual? Like the New Testament, there may be elements of real people and events in these works, but also much fiction, and deciding which category the apostles’ deaths fall into is arbitrary, solely for the convenience of argument.

As stated, the problem with this argument is that it relies on unproven premises. It simply assumes the existence of the apostles, their acquaintance with Jesus, and their martyrdoms over their professed beliefs. As hard as it may be to hear, the New Testament and other Christian writings of the time could be full of fiction. Perhaps the disciples were fictional characters, invented in the years or centuries after Jesus existed. Perhaps Peter and others were like Paul, who allegedly never met the historical Jesus and didn’t see a resurrection but died preaching about it anyway — unknowingly dying for untruths, as people of various religions have throughout human history. Perhaps, sword to the throat, the apostles recanted, admitting their conscious untruths, before being executed — not exactly something the church would publicize. Perhaps they were friends or allies of Christ, but went about their normal daily lives after his death, and fictional tales were concocted about them later. These are all real possibilities. Why are they less likely than someone coming back from the dead?

Because it cannot be established with certainty that the disciples were (1) historical figures (2) who knew Jesus and (3) died preaching his resurrection without refusal of recantation, this argument cannot be taken seriously.

That because we have more copies of the New Testament than any other ancient text, it is likely to be true

In this inane premise, the greater number of copies of a text somehow makes the original text less likely to be fictional.

So Christians argue that because archaeology has uncovered 24,000 copies of ancient New Testament manuscripts from multiple societies in multiple languages, and no other text even comes close (Homer’s Iliad, 700-800 years older than the New Testament, is in second place with just over 600 manuscripts), the miraculous stories of Jesus must be more likely to be true.

Well, to quote Barker, “What does the number of copies have to do with authenticity? If a million copies of [my] book [Godless] are printed, does that make it any more truthful?”

Indeed, if you were to write a book of fiction and thousands of years from now archaeologists dig up more copies of your work than any other, should your book be viewed as fact? If thousands of years from now more ancient copies of Harry Potter have been discovered than The Hunger Games, should the former be regarded as more true than the latter? If we take the New Testament most seriously because we have the most copies, should we then take second-place Iliad — with all its Greek gods and monsters — second-most seriously? Why should the work with the most copies be the only one taken seriously, if volume matters to validity? If the Iliad had the most copies in the world of any book before the New Testament came along, was the Greek religion then the one true religion? If one day man has somehow found more copies of Homer’s work than the New Testament, should that be viewed as more truthful?

Everyone understands that the number of copies don’t matter if the originals are full of falsities, when it comes to other religions anyway. “There are currently hundreds of millions of copies of the Koran in existence, in many forms and scores of translations,” Barker writes. “Does the sheer number of copies make it more reliable than, say, a single inscription on an Egyptian sarcophagus?”

A higher number of copies simply does not make the originals more likely to be nonfiction.

A similar argument is that because we have so many copies from the second and third centuries (the earliest copy of a gospel, or any New Testament text, is from the first half of the second century, a business card-sized fragment of John — Rylands’ Papyrus 52), we can be more confident of what the original texts said.

Obviously, a century or two is plenty of time to make significant changes, as the bible experienced in later centuries. But more importantly, whether the copies have many changes from the originals or none at all, this has nothing to do with validity either.

If it did, it would again be more sensible to be a Mormon, Scientologist, or Muslim. We don’t have any original New Testament gospel manuscripts, they were supposedly written 40 years after the events, and the earliest copy we have is from about a century after the events. But about 30% of Smith’s original manuscript exists, 100% of the printer’s copy survives, you can still buy first editions from 1830 at auctions, and it was written only seven years after the divine revelation. Even better, it was written less than 200 years ago (compared to 2,000) and we know published it: E.B. Grandin, 217 E. Main Street, Palmyra, New York. Scientology, with its 1950s texts, is likewise much better documented than the gospels. As noted, Islam has a Qu’ran manuscript written 13 years after Muhammad’s death — at the latest.

Weak or strong preservation of original texts through copies simply doesn’t matter. Perfect preservation wouldn’t make the originals nonfiction. Even if we had the originals they could be nonsense.

That the gospels are unique because they were the first stories of the supernatural deeply intertwined with historical fact, which makes the supernatural elements more likely to be true

This relates to what we’ve already noted, that religious texts likely contain some real people, events, and places mixed with fictional absurdities. Including Jerusalem or Pilate doesn’t mean someone rose from the dead. The above assertion, however, posits that the volume of historical detail in the gospels 1) make them unique compared to earlier tales of the divine and 2) make them more likely to be true because more details make stories more verifiable (if someone claims something happened in Jerusalem then people at the time could go there to investigate and interview witnesses).

All this is easily dismissed. First, even if the gospels had more historical details than any stories of the supernatural up to that point in human history (which may be utter nonsense) this fact would not make them any more credible. What of tales before the gospels that had the most historical details? Were they “more true” than texts that came before them? What of the stories after the gospels, from around the world? If they have more historical facts are they then more valid than the tales of Jesus?

Second, the level of historical detail in the gospels and other holy texts is difficult to measure, thus difficult to compare. The Sanhedrin was almost certainly a real body but did Joseph of Arimathea truly exist? Or was he a fictional character? The Sea of Galilee is real but did Peter exist to walk on it? The Roman Empire existed but would it really conduct a census where every man (millions of people) had to return to his birthplace, creating absolute chaos and contradicting the point of a census, which is not simply to see how many people you reign over but also where they currently live? The same problems exist in other tales: separating fact from fiction is a challenge. I don’t know of any analysis that lends credence to the notion that the gospels set a record for historical facts.

Third, with all the literature that existed before the gospels there are many texts that could be used to reveal the hopelessness of this argument. A Christian can say, “A writer wouldn’t say something happened when ‘Quirinius was governor of Syria,’ was witnessed by 500 people (‘most of whom are still alive’), or was caused by a well-known person like Paul if it wasn’t true. It would be too easy for people to investigate and discover it’s a lie or rumor.” Well, if we get to simply assume helpful details in texts are historical fact (such as Paul being well-known or existing at all), we can perform this same exercise to assert that the supernatural in, say, Homer’s Odyssey was true!

The Odyssey, written some 700-800 years before the gospels, is in the same format, with a cast of characters whose actions and words drive the narrative forward. It is full of both people who could have existed and events that could have happened alongside miracles, magic, monsters, and gods. The “level of detail” supports the precise same argument one could use for the gospels. We could easily say Homer, or whoever wrote the work, could not possibly have made anything up because the level of detail makes everything so verifiable to others.

For example, if it’s all a myth, why would you have your main character, Odysseus, be king of Ithaca? Kings can be questioned. Plus, people knew who was king and who wasn’t. Why have the king of Sparta as a character when Greeks who knew him could double-check to ensure accuracy? Why include the queen of Sparta, the former king of Mycenae, the king, queen, and princess of the Phaeacians? Why involve the king of Pylos? Why risk having as characters commanders of the attack on Troy, and soldiers who participated? Why have Menelaus, Nestor, and others? Why have your main character marry a queen and father a king? That lineage could be investigated, after all, like that of Christ. These characters are all so high-profile — even more so than characters in the gospels. Would one dare make up stories of the divine and include them in stories with real, famous people? Why set this adventure right after the war with Troy? Such a specific time would help people determine what was fabricated. Why mention locations, from Troy to Ithaca?

Again, some of these people, events, and places are likely fictional as well, but one gets the point! One could say the story has enough historical detail to argue all of it must be true because witnesses could verify and others could investigate. Homer had to be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But we know that is simply foolish to assume. The gospels are the precise same way. The argument that the level of detail means it all must be true because everything can be crosschecked doesn’t apply any better to them than it does to Homer’s book.

Now, one could argue Homer wrote this tale centuries after the events, much longer than the Jesus-gospels gap, but this same exercise can be done with other works around the globe before the time of Christ that have shorter gaps. (And we’ve already seen that short gaps between divine revelations and texts, wherein everything can be verified by “witnesses,” does not determine validity.)

That because you can’t disprove the gospel stories, it’s sensible to believe them

This amazing lack of critical thinking has already been touched upon above, so this section will be short. There are countless stories of miracles (including resurrections) throughout history and from many religions, and most of them, especially those of ancient times, you simply will not be able to disprove. Perhaps you won’t be able to disprove that the Greek Gods formed Mount Olympus after their ten-year war with the Titans. Or that Lord Shiva brought back his son from the dead with a new elephant head. Or any of Buddha’s miracles. All right, we can’t disprove such stories, so we should therefore assume there’s some truth to them? Of course not. After all, you could make up a miracle story right now that no one could disprove! Maybe it’s more reasonable to believe things we can prove, things we can provide strong positive evidence for. We shouldn’t believe fanciful stories just because no one can show they didn’t happen. We should be skeptical, as those tales could be made up.

That if you don’t regard the New Testament as accurate ancient reporting, you can’t regard any other ancient reporting as accurate

Well, at least we are moving in the right direction here. Indeed, ancient writings should be taken with a healthy amount of skepticism, especially if the author has a vested interest in glorifying someone’s life or deeds, whether a caesar or a “divine” religious leader, and doubly so if there aren’t alternative sources or archaeological finds supporting the specific claims.

Even so, it is nonsense to pretend like all ancient texts are the same — equally credible or incredible. Some ancient texts have gods, miracles, spirits, monsters, versions of heaven and hell, and so on. Others tell tales devoid of these things.

A text that claims a man performed a miracle cannot be held to the same standard as a text that claims a man conquered a foreign city. Why? Because extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As human beings, we understand that the idea of a man leading an army into battle and seizing a city is not an extraordinary claim. We are free to be skeptical of the source or doubt the event, but we accept that conquering others is not supernatural and has occurred many times in human history. The claim that a man performed miracles like raising the dead, or was a deity himself, is an extraordinary claim. It requires much more skepticism than a simple history of a battle precisely because it is a supernatural event being described. It requires more proof to believe precisely because it is so unbelievable, given what we know about the natural world and what human beings are normally capable of.

Even a Christian would rightly hold something like The Odyssey, full of gods, sirens, and cyclopses, to a different standard than he or she might hold Julius Caesar’s The African Wars, an account of his conquests that could be full of self-glorifying embellishments yet does not mention gods or supernatural happenings at all. One would certainly hold something like the Qu’ran to a different standard than, say, Sima Qian’s Basic Annals of the First Emperor of the Qin, a Chinese history that only mentions gods and spirits when describing what a person believed — it doesn’t credit the supernatural with real events. The nature of these texts are not the same. Otherworldly claims beg for more skepticism and a higher standard of proof. Conversely, the threshold of good evidence of natural happenings is much, much lower than the threshold of good evidence of supernatural happenings. This latter theoretical threshold or standard, here undefined, can probably never be reached. What from the past could be dug up that would convince you that Zeus is real? 

Different standards would be applied sensibly to modern texts, too (think of Hubbard’s ludicrous works). If someone wrote a book describing how she had encountered four gods who each spend three-quarters of the year resting and one-quarter controlling a season, this book would be taken much less seriously than one where someone describes her journey to South America and how she was kidnapped. It is fine to doubt both, but one is held to a very different standard because it is much more believable and can be proven with much less evidence — in fact, it can be proven, period, unlike stories of gods and miracles.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. That is why I cannot “just have faith.” It is why I am an atheist.

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The Bible and Qur’an Are Very Similar Books

It is perhaps no surprise the Qur’an (and another Islamic holy book, the Hadith) is very similar to the Bible. They were both written by primitive Middle Eastern tribes who lived relatively close to each other. The Qur’an was written later than the Bible, and contains copies of the same stories but with unique variations, in the same way the Bible borrowed most of its stories from older religions. No, the works are not precisely the same. The Qur’an is not an historical narrative like the Bible, nor does it feature God taking human form and sacrificing himself to forgive sins. Yet they are similar in an irrefutable and important way: their words can easily justify almost any action, no matter how horrific and evil or kind and loving.

Each book contains many verses that are moral and good, and many verses encouraging (on God’s orders) murder for nonviolent crimes, war on unbelievers, slavery, the brutal oppression of women and homosexuals, etc. These disturbing verses have been used to justify atrocities by Christians and Muslims across the world and throughout history, from the Spanish Christians who butchered and cut off hands of native peoples in South America who wouldn’t convert to the Saudi Arabian Muslims who flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York. When asking the question “Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of violence?” it seems obvious the answer could be “both” — the same answer to the question “Is Christianity a religion of peace or violence?” — because different people will act on different verses.

Christians and Muslims both stress these murderous verses must be taken in context. So Christians and Jews justify the (God-ordered) Hebrew slaughter of men, women, and children in foreign cities by saying, “If they let them live, their sinful pagan ways would have turned the Jews from God” or “God promised them that land!” As if that somehow justifies a genocidal bloodbath and Hebrew military conquests. Muslims often insist their calls to kill pagans were justified because the very existence of Islam was threatened — pagans were waging war against them. But some might feel the edicts in the following verses sound more like revenge than self-defense. In any case, Muslim armies would soon build a massive empire across the Middle East and Africa, using their holy books as justification — so much for self-defense.

So, the religious insist, mass killings were only appropriate in certain situations. But if we were to actually take these verses in context, we would see a context of primitive, warlike societies that often used their gods to justify atrocities, oppression, and imperialism. Many (but not all) human societies at this time behaved the same way across the globe, and their holy scriptures both encouraged and recorded this.

For every barbaric edict and act in Muslim holy books an equally horrific one is found in the Bible. The central difference between Christianity and Islam in today’s world is that the former has abandoned ancient barbarism to a greater degree than the latter, at least when we’re speaking of many African, Arabian, and Asian Muslim societies. Some day, after more years of reform, Islam will be where Christianity is now (in the same way Christianity used to be as violent and brutal as sharia Islam).

Here are some interesting verses that reveal Bible-Qur’an/Hadith similarities — both the admirable and the disturbing:


Protecting Life


Thou shalt not kill. (Exodus 20:13)


And do not take any human being’s life – that God willed to be sacred – other than in justice. (17:33)                 

Loving Others


Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)


None of you has faith unless you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself. (Sahih Muslim 45)

A Loving God


God is love. (1 John 4:8)


Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful. (4:96)

Killing Adulterers


If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Lev. 20:10)


A man who committed fornication after marriage…should be stoned… (Sunan Abu Dawud 38:4413)

Punishing Sex Outside Marriage


If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. (Deut. 22:20-21)


The [unmarried] woman or [unmarried] man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah… (24:2)

Killing Nonbelievers


 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. (Deut. 13:6-9)


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… (4:89)

Murdering Homosexuals


If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death. (Leviticus 20:13)


If a man who is not married is seized committing sodomy, he will be stoned to death. (Abu Dawud 38:4448)

Making War on Others


In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you…When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? (Deuteronomy 20:16-19)


But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (9:5-6)



You may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you…you may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever. (Leviticus 25:44-46)


O Prophet, indeed we have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have given their due compensation and those your right hand possesses from what Allah has returned to you [captive slaves]… (33:50)



Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)


And [mention, O Muhammad], the Day when the enemies of Allah will be gathered to the Fire while they are [driven] assembled in rows, until, when they reach it, their hearing and their eyes and their skins will testify against them of what they used to do. (41:19-20)

Oppressing Women


Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)


Men are in charge of women… But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. (4:34)

Slavery/Maiming For Theft


If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. (Exodus 22:3)


[As for] the thief, the male and the female, amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed as a deterrent [punishment] from Allah. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. (5:38)

Other Verses


If there is found in your midst, any of your towns, which the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord…stone them to death. (Deuteronomy 17:2-7)


Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous. (9:123)


Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel…go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:3)


Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9:29)


If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)


Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loves not transgressors. And kill them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for persecution and oppression are worse than slaughter… (2:190-194)


If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other Gods”…put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. (Deuteronomy 13:12-15)


He that leaves his dwelling to fight for God and His apostle and is then overtaken by death, shall be rewarded by God… The unbelievers are your inveterate enemies. (4:95-101)

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Old Testament Tales Were Stolen From Other Cultures

The first important lesson history can teach us concerning the pagan influences on modern religion is that the Jews were not the first monotheistic group. Not only did nearby cultures adopt the idea first, the Hebrews were not always monotheistic, continuing to worship many lesser gods long after they accepted Yahweh as their primary tribal god. This was a common event in ancient societies, as one god would rise to prominence among many. In Egypt it was Re, in Babylon it was Marduk, in Assyria Ashur, among the Hebrews Yahweh. Top gods, like all others, had specific associations that helped explain how the world functioned: Re was the god of the sun, Zeus the god of the sky, and Yahweh is believed by some scholars to be associated with storms, earthquakes, and volcanoes (All About Adam and Eve, Gillooly, p. 40-41).

As time went on, Yahweh became not just a god for one people and one geographic area (ancient Hebrew travelers would sometimes bring along a cart full of dirt from their land to ensure their gods traveled with them), but a universal god meant for all people and indeed the only god to actually exist.

The religions of some other groups would evolve along a similar route. Before the Hebrews professed Yahweh as the one and only god, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV in the 1300s B.C. destroyed the temples of countless Egyptian gods and forced monotheism, the worship of Aton, on his people. A century of archaeological and ethnographic research points to the Israelis as offshoots of Canaanites and other peoples during the 12th-11th centuries B.C. (Killebrew, Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity, Society of Biblical Literature, p. 181-185). There is no evidence of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt or an Exodus (p. 151-152), nor evidence of Joshua conquering the “Promised Land” after a long wandering in the wilderness (p. 152-154). And before one conjures the poorly used “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” chant, note the same can be said of Mount Olympus forming itself after the Greek gods defeated the Titans, or of Jesus paying a visit to North America, as the Mormons believe. “Absence of evidence” may not be “evidence of absence,” but it is still the very definition of myth and superstition.

Yahweh, worshiped since the 14th century B.C. in Canaan in a pantheon alongside Baal, Asherah, El, and other gods, was not declared the top god until after the State was formed under the rule of kings in 1,000-900 B.C. (Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, Betz, “Monotheism,” p. 917). A nation, the historical pattern suggests, desires a national god. The transformation was gradual, but by the time of the Babylonian conquest of Israel and the great Exile (an actual historical event supported by evidence) around 600 B.C., Yahweh was the Hebrew’s one and only god. Robert K. Gnuse writes in No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, “Until the exile the majority of Jews were polytheistic.” Indeed, most biblical scholars believe the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) were written between 600 B.C. and 400 B.C. The earliest Hebrew writing of any kind is from about 1,000 B.C. If interested in details of the most recent studies of Jewish monotheism, browse pages 62-105 of Gnuse’s book here.

History shows as cities and civilizations interacted, they shared many myths and adopted each other’s religious customs (think of the Greek gods taken by the Romans). Archaeology has provided evidence that stories from Babylon, Egypt, and other nearby cultures are older than Hebrew society itself and by extension the Jewish history found in the Bible. Dennis Morris summarizes the findings in a passage from Religion: The Greatest Confidence Trick in History (p. 97):

The following stories are far older than the Pentateuch and contain much the same elements. In the Persian story, God created the world in six days, a man called Adama, a woman called Evah, and then rested. The Etruscan, Babylonian, Phoenician, Chaldean, and Egyptian stories are much the same. The Persians, Greeks, and Egyptians had their Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. The Persians, Babylonians, and Nubians, all had the story of the fall of man and the subtle serpent. The Chinese account says that sin came into the world by the disobedience of a woman. Even the scriptures of the Tahitians tell us that man was created from the earth, and the first woman from one of his bones. All these stories are equally “authentic” and of equal value to the world and all the authors were equally “inspired.” We know that the story of the Flood is much older than the book of Genesis, and we know besides that it is not true and that the story was copied from the Chaldean. There we read all about the rain, the ark, the animals, the dove that supposed to have been sent out three times, and the mountain on which the ark rested. The Persians, Greeks, Mexicans and Scandinavians have substantially the same story.

Artifacts from these societies reveal versions of the stories that are older than the Hebrew people and their holy texts. The Sumerian flood story is 1,000-1,200 years older than the story of Noah (Gillooly, p. 104). The Epic of Gilgamesh, which may be as old as 2150 B.C., has a great flood story. Its flood hero is Utnapishtim. A Babylonian cuneiform tablet, found in southern Iraq and dating to the 1600s B.C., describes how the god Enki instructs Atrahasis to build a boat and save himself and all the animals before the god Enlil obliterates the human race. It is 400 years older than the Hebrew people and 1,000 years older than the book of Genesis. It can be found at the British Museum in London.

Even the Jews had an alternate flood story. In 1 Enoch, a Jewish text that was not biblical cannon yet provides a good example of how myths change, God sends the flood to wipe out not just humanity but also giants. These giants were the offspring of angels and human women, were hundreds of feet tall, and started doing disobedient things like teaching humans magic and metallurgy, and also eating them (see How Jesus Became God, Ehrman).

The story of Moses set adrift in a basket in the bulrushes originated in a 2,800 B.C. myth of King Sargon of Agade; myths far older than the Hebrews concerning man being formed from clay are found in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, as well as more distant civilizations in Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands, and the Americas; the Chaldeans constructed a tower which was destroyed by angry gods, who cursed the people with new languages, long before the Tower of Babel story was written (Gillooly, p. 75, 101, 107). Now, no matter how consistently ethnography and archaeology build a timeline of the human race for historians and sociologists, and the common person, the religious right will always insist all these cultures got the stories from the Hebrews and actual events involving the Jews and Yahweh, not the other way around. It is easier to insist Adam came before Adama, and Noah came before Utnapishtim, than to reconstruct your entire belief system based on evidence.

A good example of this is the chapter “Archaeology and Biblical Criticism” in New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Josh McDowell). In addressing the creation, flood, and other stories, McDowell, amazingly, attempts to convince the reader that the Judeo-Christian account is accurate and original because A) the stories of non-Jewish societies are too embellished, elaborate, and fanciful, and B) because non-Jewish societies have those stories in the first place.

So to that end, on p. 375, the author points to creation stories that have mankind, heaven, and Earth all originated by God or gods, but insists they are too imaginative to be true history. He writes of the Babylonian and Sumerian stories, in which man is formed from clay mixed with the blood of a fallen evil god: “These tales display the kind of distortion and embellishment to be expected when a historical account becomes mythologized.” He insists that while other stories are similar, their greater complexity indicates they are distorted versions of the “unadorned elegance” of Genesis. McDowell goes on to say, “The Bible contains the ancient, less embellished version of the story and transmits the facts without the corruption of the mythological renderings.”

He takes a similar tack with the flood story (p. 377), noting that cultures on multiple continents have a flood story, but that “the other versions contain elaborations, indicating corruption. Only in Genesis is the year of the flood given, as well as dates for the chronology relative to Noah’s life.” (The year is actually not given, only speculated about today based on the text’s tales of Noah’s descendants and how long they lived.) The length of rainfall in non-Jewish accounts (seven days) is “not enough time for the devastation they describe.” Further, “The Babylonian idea that all of the flood waters subsided in one day is absurd.”

This argument is hopeless. Simply terrible. Arguing that one supernatural tale is “too embellished” or “too absurd” compared to another supernatural tale is foolishness of the worst kind. With supernatural stories, one is literally dealing with magic. Whether a deity takes 40 days to flood the world or seven, it hardly seems to matter. Further, “embellishment” is a purely subjective description. McDowell may think that the mixing of an evil god’s blood with clay is infinitely more outlandish than a good god forming a woman from the rib of a man, but that is because he already believes the latter and thus must reject the former. But I may see both these supernatural stories as equally fanciful, or I might see the first story more “unadorned” or “elegant” than the second. The Babylonians and Sumerians may have agreed. All this is obvious.

As for the second part of the “argument,” which seeks to make the Jewish stories seem more likely to be factual because neighboring societies had similar, albeit corrupted, tales, the mere existence of similar stories is not evidence that one of them or any of them actually happened. We can all agree that many myths existed and were pure fiction. Does the fact that such tales spread to cultures nearby serve as evidence that someone in particular believed what was true and supernatural? The Greeks had many thousands of gods. When the Romans conquered Greece and adopted their stories, pausing only to rename the deities, did that somehow provide “evidence” that Greek myths were true? Or consider Native American nations. They all have in common powerful spiritual animals. You have an Earth born on the back of a turtle, talking ravens, humans originating from the feathers of eagles, etc. Is this evidence that a single tribe somewhere actually experienced something similar, perhaps something just slightly less “embellished”? And does the existence of myths of fire-breathing dragons in Europe and East Asia, perhaps not even shared, prove that such creatures existed? Most thinking persons, including most Christians, would say no.

Total fictions can be shared to other societies, or can originate in multiple societies independently. McDowell believes that the Hebrews wrote these tales and they spread to other cultures. It is, as we have seen, actually more likely the Hebrews stole the stories from neighbors. But to present an argument that boils down to “multiple societies have this story, so there must be truth to it somewhere” is inane.

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Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible

Religious texts often contain edicts, many supposedly directly from a higher power, calling for atrocities and oppression, a fact most Christian Americans are comfortable with when applied to the Qur’an or Hadith, less so when shown the Bible is not an exception.

Peaceful religious persons justify or explain these in many ways. Christians for example believe these ways of doing things were declared outdated, no longer necessary, after Christ appeared. That it was part of “God’s Plan” for it to be permissible to kill a homosexual in 200 B.C. but not A.D. 200 (see Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New).

Seems morally dubious, especially for an all-loving being, and of course ignores the fact that slavery and the oppression of women were upheld in scripture written after Christ died, and that God still killed liars on the spot and Jesus threatened to kill children.

Others insist these edicts and God’s actions must be “taken in context.” While that is usually just a way to excuse the horrific and sickening things a deity, scriptural hero, or religious writer said or did, it is without question a necessity. The context is obvious: religious texts were written in ancient times by very primitive, barbaric tribesmen.

Holy books describe a culture and a culture’s deity during a particular age. While it is a great relief that gods are total fiction, brutal man is not.

Readers are encouraged to look at multiple biblical translations when double-checking verses, in order to find the version used in this piece.



In the Bible sexual perversion and depravity occur and are described with nary a second thought, helpful to those who wish to understand what people, societies, and religions were like long ago, but tragic for the victims of such evil.

Hebrew “men of God” delighted in polygamy (Esau, Jacob, Gideon, David, Solomon), including concubines (Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Solomon). Solomon had 700 wives, 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).

Lot, the only righteous man God found in the city of Sodom, offered his two daughters to be gang-raped so a crowd of men wouldn’t gang-rape visiting angels (Genesis 19:7-8). In a vile twist of fate, the daughters later rape Lot on more than one occasion and get pregnant (Genesis 19:32-36). Moses orders that all Midianite boys and non-virgin girls should be slaughtered, but that virgins should be kept alive for his soldiers (Numbers 31:17-18). (They captured 32,000 virgins and “gave 32 of them to the Lord,” possibly to be sacrificed alongside the sheep, cattle, and donkeys they seized; see Numbers 31:32-41.) All a bit odd, since one poor Israelite-Midianite couple was run through with a spear for their involvement in Numbers 25:6-8. God warns his people to kill foreigners, “not intermarry with them” (Deut. 7:1-6). We commit a “great evil” and “transgress against our God in marrying strange wives” (Nehemiah 13:23-30).

The book devotes much space to private parts, genital mutilation, menstruation, sexual purity. You will see below that God personally threatens to expose people’s genitals.

God decrees that everyone who touches a woman on her period is “unclean until evening,” and any object that touches or is touched by the woman is also “unclean” (Leviticus 15:19-20). The woman is “unclean” while on her period, naturally (Leviticus 12:5). Not only that, she is unclean for seven days after her “discharge of blood,” and on the eighth day she must “take two turtledoves or two pigeons” to a priest, who will “offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge” (Leviticus 15:19-30). Menstruation is basically a sin. Men who have sex with their menstruating wives must be exiled (Leviticus 20:18). 

Ezekiel 36:16-17 shows just how highly this god thinks of the natural body function that he created: “Again the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, when the people of Israel were living in their own land, they defiled it by their conduct and their actions. Their conduct was like a woman’s monthly uncleanness in my sight.'”

God says that if a woman grabs a man’s genitals to break up a fight, her hand is to be cut off (Deut. 25:11-12); some Egyptian men are lewdly described as having donkey-sized penises that ejaculate with the power of horses (Ezekiel 23:18-21); God discriminates against men with crushed testicles or a castrated penis (Deut. 23:1); Song of Solomon is about love and sex, and doesn’t even mention God, with many mentions of breasts, and likely oral sex (4:16, 7:8-9) and anal play (5:4); and King Saul wanted David to bring him 100 Philistine foreskins as a dowry (1 Samuel 18:20-30). He brought more.

Circumcision was a serious business: “You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you… Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people” (Genesis 17:10-14). Moses’ wife saved Moses from being killed by God only when she cut off their son’s foreskin with a rock (Exodus 4:25).

Incest was common, for example Nahor married his older brother’s daughter, his niece (Genesis 11:29, NLT). Of course, if one trusts wholeheartedly this work, rampant incest was all part of “God’s Plan,” as Adam and Eve’s children had to populate the Earth somehow, as did Noah’s children later on.



Obviously, the Bible reeks of thousands of years of patriarchal society that deemed women subservient, less intelligent, and less worthy of life. The language of the text marks it as a book by men and for men. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” for example, speaks to the only important sex. The record of the ancestral line tracks the only important sex (Genesis 5:1-32, Matthew 1:1-16), as did the Hebrew census (Numbers 1:1-2). Inheritance was for sons unless none existed (Numbers 27:8-11). God is male, naturally, and when Israel drifts from him it is often referred to as a whore (see Hosea 1:2, ESV). None of the 12 disciples are women.

Scriptural heroes and God himself, judging by the laws and punishments they designed, were violent sexists. Male domination has been a major theme throughout world history, and the Hebrews were no exception — even though guided by an “all-loving God.” Upon reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy it becomes obvious “God’s Laws” are much harsher toward women; they are given the death penalty with far greater frequency. You will notice this throughout this article, but particularly in the next section.

God dictates the oppression early on. After her sin, Eve is told her husband “shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).

God decrees that the woman who gives birth to a boy is somehow “unclean” for seven days, but if she gives birth to a girl it’s two weeks! She must then take 33 days to be purified if she had a son, yet for some reason it takes 66 days to be made clean if she had a daughter (Leviticus 12:1-5). God doesn’t exactly explain why giving birth to a girl makes you more unclean.

Of course, a woman is by nature unclean, from Job’s perspective. “How can one born of a woman be pure?” (Job 25:4). “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean thing?” (Job 14:1-4). “What are mortals, that they could be pure, or those born of woman, that they could be righteous?” (Job 15:14).

When followers were “dedicated to the Lord,” a man was worth 50 shekels of silver, a woman only 30 (Lev. 27:1-7). God’s own Three-Fifths Compromise.

Divorced couples cannot be remarried if the woman has been “defiled” (Deut. 24:1-4). In other words, a divorced woman who sleeps with another man is unclean. But women whose husbands died were forced to marry and have sex with their deceased husband’s brother (Deut. 25:5-6).

Even in the New Testament, women are forbidden to preach; they are told to be silent and “submissive” while receiving instruction (1 Tim. 2:11-15; “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”). Woman was apparently made “for man” (1 Corinthians 11:8-9) and must submit to their husbands in everything (Ephesians 5:22-24). Colossians 3:18 says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands.” Wives should submit to their men and let their purity show men the truth of the Word (1 Timothy 3:1-2). In the same way that “the head of every man is Christ,” the “head of every woman is man” (1 Corinthians 11:3). 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 reads:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Men are instructed not to marry a divorced woman, as this would be adultery (Luke 16:18); apparently divorced women are meant to be alone until death.



Laws given by God dictated non-virgins, children, homosexuals, non-believers, and others be stoned to death, an excruciatingly painful death compared to alternatives (see Would a God of Love Order a Stoning?).

If you rebel as a youth against your parents and do not repent you must die (Deut. 21:18-21), if you curse your parents you must die (Lev. 20:9), if you commit adultery you must die (Lev. 20:10). At least if you sleep with a woman on her period you get to be exiled (Lev. 20:18).

A woman found on her wedding night to not be a virgin must die (Deut. 22:20-21).

If you are a psychic or a sorcerer you must be stoned to death (Lev. 20:27), if a priest’s daughter is a prostitute she must be burnt to death (Lev. 21:9), if your son gives false prophesy you must kill him (Zechariah 13:2-3), if you are deformed, blind, disabled, scabbed, a dwarf, have crushed testicles, broken limbs, or a flat nose you cannot go to the altar of God (Lev. 21:17-18); if you go too close to the Tabernacle you must die (Num. 1:48-51), and if you speak against these laws of God you must die (Deut. 13:5).

If your family tries to worship another god you must kill them (Deut. 13:6-10, 2 Chronicles 15:13); if you come upon a city that worships another god you must kill all the inhabitants (Deut. 13:12-15); you must kill anyone of a different faith in your own city (Deut. 17:2-7), and kill those who disrespect priests and judges (Deut. 17:12); if a girl is raped she must marry her rapist (Deut. 22:28-29), if you commit a homosexual act you will be put to death (Lev. 20:13), and if you work on the Sabbath you must die (Exodus 31:12-15).

One man made the mistake of picking up sticks on the Sabbath; he was executed (Numbers 15:32-36).

The Hebrews declared pregnant Samarian women must be “ripped open” and children “dashed” on the ground for disobeying God (Hosea 13:16, NIV). Coincidentally, a psalmist declared that exact action, dashing children on rocks, will make a person “happy” (Psalm 137:9). The author of Hosea prays for enemies to have “wombs that miscarry,” and God promises to “slay their cherished offspring” (9:11-16). 

Women suspected of adultery were forced to drink a “holy water” that God would use to “make your womb miscarry” — in other words, abortion (Numbers 5:11-23).



Then there’s slavery. Paul told slaves to “obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” That’s Colossians 3:22.

Verses upholding and outlining the rules of slave ownership can be found in Exodus 21. They are given directly by God (he begins speaking in Exodus 20:22 and continues throughout chapter 21). Exodus 21 verses 4 and 5 state children born to a man while enslaved will be the master’s property even after the man is freed (same with the wife), and if he wants to stay with his children he must become a slave for life.


When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21)

Exodus 21:7-11 allows a man to sell his daughter into slavery, and, according to scholars, implies she will be a sex slave to her new master. The master can also give her to his son as a wife. Sarah gave her husband Abraham her slave-girl Hagar as a wife, forcing Hagar to let Abraham have sex with her and impregnate her (Genesis 16:1-4). When Hagar ran away after Sarah punished her for being haughty, the angel of the Lord tracked her down and told her to return to Sarah and submit to her (Genesis 16:9).

A thief can be sold into slavery as punishment (Exodus 22:3-4).

For a Hebrew man, one advantage of getting married was you got your bride’s slaves. Leviticus 25:44-46 says, “You may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you…you may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever.” Some translations (KJV, NLT, etc.) of 25:45 say children can be bought and sold too. But verse 46 cautions only foreigners should be treated this way, not the people of Israel, yet Exodus 21:2 makes clear Hebrews can enslave other Hebrews. In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, it is decreed that Israeli soldiers can take home beautiful women captured in war — and even though she is being taken by force, “you must not sell or treat her as a slave”! Conquered people will be subject to “forced labor” (Deuteronomy 20:10-14).

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” says Ephesians 6:5.

1 Peter 2:18 commands: “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” 1 Timothy 6:1-2 declares:

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.

Titus 2:9-10 declares slaves should be “subject to their own masters in everything.” No escaping to freedom, no revolution for liberty.

In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus uses the “lashing” and “flogging” of a “slave” (NASB language) to make a point in one of his parables.

Why doesn’t the Bible simply ban slavery? Why didn’t Jesus? Would that not be most ethical? Perhaps because the Bible was concocted by pro-slavery men, in a culture and time when slavery was common.



God orders all these things.

The Israelites return from Egypt, and God commands them to “destroy” entire peoples in Canaan (Deut. 7:1-2 and 20:16-18; in the former he commands “no mercy,” in the latter, “do not leave alive anything that breathes”). He orders the same in 1 Samuel 15:3 (“put to death men and women, children and infants”) and includes instructions to also kill oxen, camels, sheep, and donkeys. “Slay utterly old and young,” showing no pity, God commands in Ezekiel 9:4-6, “both maids, and little children, and women.” “Utterly destroy,” he instructs in Jeremiah 50:21. Innocent people from city-state after city-state were slaughtered as Israel stole land and plundered, according to these tales anyway. This is genocide.

In Jeremiah 51:20-26, God promises to use the Hebrew armies to kill old men, women, and children. He promises “no mercy on helpless babies,” the rape of wives, and the murder of captives in enemy cities (Isaiah 13:15-18).

Only trees should be shown mercy: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” (Deut. 20:16-19). But for people? “Do not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deut. 20:16). This war god says he will “make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh” (Deut. 32:39-43).

Even when women and children are spared, men are not:

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

When a few Benjamites (one of the 12 tribes of Israel) rape and kill a Levite’s concubine, God orders the other 11 tribes to attack the Benjamites. Tens of thousands on both sides die (Judges 20). This is just one example of God punishing the many for the sins of the few. You will see more below.

God vows to “stir up” Jerusalem’s enemies: “They will cut off your noses and your ears, and those of you who are left will fall by the sword. They will take away your sons and daughters, and those of you who are left will be consumed by fire” (Ezekiel 23:22-25).

Even when it does not specifically state God ordered a mass murder, he does nothing to stop it.

David sacrificed 7 descendants of Saul to appease another tribe (2 Samuel 21:1-14). In Judges 21:10-24, Hebrew soldiers were sent to Jabesh-gilead to “destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin.” They rounded up and captured 400 virgins, later kidnapping more.

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down, then Joshua killed every man, woman, child, and animal inside (Joshua 6:21). He does it many more times in Joshua 7-11.

When Moses discovers his people worshipping the Golden Calf, he orders priests to take up swords, and they kill 3,000 people; God allows it and then joins in, sending a plague on the survivors (Exodus 32). He kills nearly 15,000 of his chosen people by plague in Numbers 16:42-49.

Human sacrifice was a part of Hebrew culture (Lev. 27:28-29). In Judges 11, Jephthah’s faith is put to the test when he promises to God to sacrifice the first person he sees after returning home from a big battle. That turns out to be his daughter. Jephthah is willing to go through with it (painfully obvious by the end of the story), but God doesn’t spare his innocent daughter, as he did Abraham’s son Isaac. She is burnt alive.

But how traumatizing for a boy like Isaac, as well, to think your father is going to kill you! And to live with that memory forever. In Genesis 22, God decides to “test” Abraham, and orders the human sacrifice, which Abraham is willing to do (how traumatizing for him, too, being forced to kill his own child). An omniscient god wouldn’t need to test anyone. He would know what Abraham would do. Perhaps it’s all for Abraham and Isaac’s benefit. What sort of being puts people through such things?



Of course, God’s hands are directly responsible for slaughter, to fill humans with “horror” (Ezekiel 20:25-26). Fire from heaven destroys entire cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, children and all. A flood destroys nearly the entire human race (God, all-knowing, creates mankind knowing he will soon destroy it, as with all his other killings). God sends plagues during which Jerusalem’s enemies’ “flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongue will rot in their mouth” (Zechariah 14:12). God smites humans with “fever,” “burning,” “tumors,” “madness,” “blindness,” “boils,” and so on (Deut. 28:15-68), and even crushes them with rocks from heaven (Joshua 10:8-11). Estimates of the death toll in this text are in the millions.

Many Jews and Christians have few qualms about this because the victims were supposedly warned to shape up for years or even centuries before judgement arrived, or ignored the obvious power of God demonstrated to them by prophets. Even killing the children was justified: “You can’t leave them trapped in such a sinful place. They’ll grow up to be wicked. Killing them is an act of mercy!” So it’s all permissible, even with more moral alternatives available: God using his power to simply move enemies to another spot on the planet, the Hebrews raising infants as their own instead of slaughtering them, and so forth. Any justification for why God wouldn’t choose a more moral option is undermined by his omnipotence. “The Hebrews adopting child would have led to overpopulation or the corruption of the Jewish culture and faith!” God could have made this not so. This applies to everything else God orders or does as well. He doesn’t have to engage in oppression, pain, and death for this or that, he chooses to. (Why must nonbelievers be tortured for eternity in Hell? Why not a year for every year they lived on Earth, followed by the relief of execution? Why not for a week? Aren’t those more moral options? Isn’t skipping the torture and just snuffing sinners out of existence more moral still?) Because of God’s omnipotence, because he had alternatives on the table that would have done less harm, God is immoral.

On a related note, it does seem difficult to justify calling one faith the only way to God (John 14:6 is cited often) and calling God a moral being. The philosopher Daniel Dennett reminded us that no matter what religion you belong to, the vast majority of humanity doesn’t share your beliefs. Two billion people may belong to Christianity, but nearly six billion do not. Same with Islam. Most humans will be born, live, and die without accepting or even hearing about the “one true religion,” whichever that is — and a higher power that would torture or even mildly punish people for that can hardly be called “good.”

It might also be said that God is an immoral being because he allows innumerable horrible things — rape, disease, starvation, murder — to occur day to day. (Generally, good things that happen to us are “God’s will,” bad things are simply allowed.) Can a divine being truly be good if it just sits by and watches, all while having the power to end such things? At the least, such a god seems less moral than a being that wouldn’t allow trauma, pain, and death on an unimaginable scale. Standard responses about free will and punishment for Adam and Eve’s original sin don’t seem to change this fact. Further, those responses are undermined when one considers miracles. See, God at times does interfere with free will and humanity’s eternal punishment. Can a being truly be good if it prevents some horrific things from happening to some people but not other horrific things from happening to others? A god that interfered in all circumstances for all people sounds more moral than one that is selective, letting some innocent people get tortured or paralyzed in car accidents or killed in the gas chambers of concentration camps. Further, the awful justification that “all terrible things are used by God for good” clearly doesn’t help. God is an omnipotent being. So the Holocaust or a child being raped will somehow bring about Good Thing X…but we know that an all-powerful deity could have brought about Good Thing X without such horrific events! A being that chooses the former path instead of the latter one is not moral — or at least is less moral than a being that would take the latter. Moving on.

This god frequently destroys innocent people for the crimes of others. An angel kills the innocent first-born of Egypt (and their livestock!) because of the pride of one political ruler; he even killed the first-born of Egyptian slave girls (Exodus 11:4-6, 12:29).

“I am about to unsheath my sword to destroy your people—the righteous and the wicked alike,” God tells Israel in Ezekiel 21:3-5.

All humanity is punished for the mistake of the first two humans. All women were given painful childbirth for Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:16-18), and God promises to punish generations of descendants for those who worship other gods (Exodus 20:3-5). He believes in “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Exodus 24:6-7, in the 10 Commandments). “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,” he says in Deuteronomy 5:8-9, “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” He promises to kill the children of sinners (Leviticus 26:21-22). All this is repeated in Exodus 34:6-7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Kings 21:28-29, Isaiah 14:21, Jeremiah 29:31-32 and 31:18, and elsewhere.

God visits a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites because a few people slept with Midianites, who worshipped Baal (Numbers 25:1-9). God doesn’t call off the plague until Phinehas commits murder (Num. 25:9). Saul killed Gibeonites during his reign, so God inflicted a three-year famine during David’s reign (2 Samuel 21:1). When David takes a census (apparently a grave sin), God sends a prophet to let David choose between three punishments; a plague kills 70,000 people (2 Samuel 24:10-17, also 1 Chronicles 21:8-14). But “what have they done?” David laments.

5 farmers looked inside the Ark of the Lord, and God killed either 70 or 50,000 people to get even (1 Samuel 6; translations differ). David sinned, so God killed his child via illness (2 Samuel 12:13-18). God also murdered Jeroboam’s son for Jeroboam’s wickedness (1 Kings 14:9-12). The households of Korah and his followers, who challenged Moses’ authority, were eaten up by the earth (Numbers 16:1-35). During the slaughter of the End Times, Jesus will destroy cities that ignored his miracles while he was on Earth (Matthew 11:20), even though all those foolish people are long gone. A “bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation” (Deut. 23:2)! God will not show love to children of adulterers (Hosea 2:4) — can they help who their mothers were? “The Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife Sarah” (Genesis 20:18).

It is also interesting that at times God hardens people’s hearts, making them less interested in letting the Hebrews live in freedom and peace. So God hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3), Pharaoh refuses to free the Hebrews, and God gets to send plagues that cause mass torture and death. Wouldn’t a loving deity have softened Pharaoh’s heart, helping the Jews go free and saving Egyptians from pain? God specifically states that “I have hardened his heart and the heart of his officials in order that I may show these signs of mine among them” (Exodus 10:1-2). He wants to continue his horrors. Between Exodus 9:28 and 14:4, Pharaoh agrees to free the Hebrews four times, and four times God hardens his heart to make him change his mind! In Joshua 11:19-20, it’s revealed nearly all nearby cities refused to make peace with Israel, but “it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy…” In Deuteronomy 2:30-31, God likewise hardens the heart of King Sihon so the Israelites could conquer his kingdom.

God’s other crimes are even more disturbing. In 2 Kings 2:23-24, after a bunch of youths made fun of Elisha’s baldness, God sent bears to kill 42 of them. Job faces “evil that the Lord brought upon him” (Job 42:11). God allows his family to be massacred, his fortune to disappear, and his health to deteriorate (painful boils) all to win a bet with Satan that Job would stay faithful. God sends lions to kill non-believing Assyrians (2 Kings 17:25). When Onan didn’t listen to Judah and declined to impregnate Onan’s sister-in-law, instead spilling “the semen on the ground,” God was displeased and killed him (Genesis 38:8-10).

This deity burns people alive in Leviticus 10:1-3, Numbers 11:1-3, Joshua 7:15-26, 2 Kings 1:10-12, Numbers 16:35, and Psalm 78:59-63.   

God admits to creating evil (Isaiah 45:7, KJV), speaking evil (Lamentations 3:38, KJV), dispatching an evil spirit (Judges 9:23-24, NASB), sending evil upon people (Jeremiah 11:11, ASV), sending poverty (1 Samuel 2:6-7), deceiving or misleading humans (Ezekiel 20:25-26, 2 Thess. 2:11-12) and even killing a person he deceived (Ezekiel 14:9), hating sinners not the sin (Malachi 1:2-4, Hosea 9:15), making people eat bread cooked over fires burning human poop (Ezekiel 4:12-13), and threatening to smear poop on people’s faces (Malachi 2:3)! God will “turn away from you” if you don’t “cover up your excrement” in your camp (Deuteronomy 23:12-14). Diarrhea is even a chosen curse in 2 Chronicles 21:14-15: “The Lord is going to strike your people, your sons, your wives and all your possessions with a great calamity; and you will suffer severe sickness, a disease of your bowels, until your bowels come out because of the sickness, day by day.” God afflicts people with “tumors” or “hemorrhoids” in 1 Samuel 5:6; translations differ.

When God tells a man to slap a prophet, and the man refuses violence, God sends a lion to kill him (1 Kings 20:35-36). A “man of God” was killed by a lion for eating and drinking at the wrong time and place, but an old prophet who lied to him went unpunished (1 Kings 13:16-24). God kills another for touching the Ark of God to ensure it didn’t fall (2 Samuel 6:3-7). When two people lied in the New Testament, they were struck dead (Acts 5:1-11). God vows to “send wild animals against you” to “rob you of your children” (Leviticus 26:21-22).

God even finds reason to “afflict sores on the heads of Zion’s women…and expose their private parts” (Isaiah 3:17, ISV; the original Hebrew word is “poth,” meaning vagina, literally “hinged opening”; see Godless by Dan Barker). In Exodus 20:26 (NIV), God warns, “Do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.” In Jeremiah 13:24-27 (MSG), God says, “I’m the one who will rip off your clothes, expose and shame you before the watching world.” He will strip the adulteress naked (Hosea 2:3). People “have been stripped and raped by invading armies” for their “many sins” (Jeremiah 13:22, MSG). God declares, “I will lift your skirts and show all the earth your nakedness and shame” (Nahum 3:5, NLT). “You will tear out your breasts,” God vows in Ezekiel 23:34 (NET).

Perhaps most horrifically, God himself threatens to bring calamity on David by giving his wives to other men to have sex with “in broad daylight” (2 Samuel 12:11-12). God vows to sinners that he will “give their wives to other men” (Jeremiah 8:9-10).

God even sees cause for cannibalism. When God is destroying people, it will be so terrible, “You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters” (Lev. 26:29). Another time, during a siege, “…you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters the Lord has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children” (Deut. 28:47-57). He promises that “parents will eat their children, and children will eat their parents” in Ezekiel 5:8-10. God says he “will make your oppressors eat their own flesh” (Isaiah 49:26) at one point and “I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them” (Jeremiah 19:7-9) at another. Cannibalism by God’s design. 

God intentionally gave or sold his people into slavery multiple times to punish them (Judges 3:8, 4:2-3, 6:1, 13:1). “I will sell your sons and daughters to the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, a nation far away,” God promises in Joel 3:8.

Jesus seems tolerant of beating slaves, castrating yourself (Matthew 19:12; implied in Matthew 5:29-30), or killing fig trees that won’t grow fruit out of season (Mark 11:13-14). In Revelation 2:18-23, Jesus threatens to kill the children of an adulteress in Thyatira. It was he who declared the man who marries a divorced woman is an adulterer (Luke 16:18). He also believes in thought crimes (Matthew 5:28). In Matthew 15:4-10, Jesus is upset that “human rules” have “nullified the word of God,” specifically, “Anyone who curses their mother or father is to be put to death.” He says the same in Mark 7:5-15. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says anyone who calls his brother a “fool” is in danger of burning in Hell! More extreme punishment for nonviolent crimes. It is also interesting that in Mark 14 the disciples have more concern for the poor than Jesus does; the messiah waves off their idea of selling an expensive ointment and giving the profits to the poor in favor of allowing the ointment to be used on his own feet.

Jesus uses the same violent language seen in the Old Testament: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more shall be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.” He resorts to violence in John 2:15, driving moneylenders from the temple with a whip and overturning tables.

Jesus does not seem to mind killing animals, like the God of old (who, after killing nearly all animal life in the flood, thought Noah’s burnt animal offering had such a “pleasing odor” that he decides to never do it again; Genesis 8:20-21). In Mark 5:12-13, Jesus casts demons out of a person into pigs, who promptly kill themselves. One would think an all-powerful being could have accomplished his tasks without animal abuse.

For a text many believe to be the infallible Word of God, it seems to have man’s fingerprints all over it, his cruelty and ignorance.

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Would a God of Love Order a Stoning?

Fierce debate between the religious and the secular over the justifications for God-ordered executions in the Old Testament sometimes ignores the morality of the method of execution itself.

That is, Jews and Christians argue that in the early age of human history, it was right and just for a God of Love to order his people to murder non-virgin girls, homosexuals, nonbelievers, disobedient sons, people who worked on the Sabbath or criticized God’s laws, and so on (see Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible); atheists and agnostics argue such orders make any (manmade) character an immoral monster — doubly so because later generations (after the intervention of Christ) were told to love one another as a response to such “sins,” meaning anyone born in the early days was simply terribly unlucky (see Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New). The debate then ends in a stalemate, naturally, and no one gets around to arguing over whether a loving God would select a stoning as the best method to carry out judgement.

And select it he does. In the bible, stoning is explicitly God’s idea. Take Leviticus 24:13-14: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then let all the congregation stone him.'” Other directives to stone nonviolent people, supposedly given by God to Moses in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and elsewhere, are numerous and easy to find.

So say for a moment that disobedient sons and the like did indeed deserve execution for their crimes, because they disobeyed God’s laws. We can give believers the benefit of the doubt for a moment and say the Judeo-Christian god exists and that ending a sinner’s life (and presumably sending him or her straight to hell) was appropriate, moral, and just. Now the question arises: how should the execution be carried out?

A loving, all-merciful deity would surely choose a method of execution less painful than stoning. He would probably order methods of instant death, or at least its attempt. Why not have the strongest man in the village smash the victim’s temple with an iron tool in an attempt to kill her immediately, in one blow? Why couldn’t the Hebrews march the sinner up to a cliff of such a height that it might guarantee death on impact? Why not hold the sinner down and suffocate him? It’s not instant, but it’s better than a stoning. And wouldn’t you rather be drowned than stoned to death? That’s also an option. Surely you’d choose a hanging, too, if given a choice. Even decapitation, with its risk of the victim living a few heartbeats after the blade comes down, seems preferable.

But no, even with less painful and quicker possibilities on the table, the deity of the bible goes with stoning — the method used by the likes of the Taliban and ISIS! It wasn’t enough that men, women, and children had to die for working on a particular day of the week. They had to suffer as well.

Such things are important to ponder. Perhaps God is not as merciful as you. Indeed, he is clearly not “all-merciful.” An all-merciful deity would be as merciful as any being (including us) could possibly be or even imagine at every given moment! Platitudes about how “God’s ways are not our ways” and “You can’t judge God using your own morals” do little to erase the facts of the case: God could have ordered less painful methods of execution, but chose not to. That says a great deal about his character. Either religious persons worship a being that is not all-merciful or perhaps, like so many other gods, he is simply a manmade fiction, and death penalty by stoning was simply primitive people behaving primitively.

We will never know how many people died by this brutal method because of the words of a deity in a scroll. But in the age of cellphones and cameras, we can get a sense of what it was like, this chosen punishment of the Almighty.

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Not a Christian Nation: How the Founders and Their Constitution Enraged the Religious

Many on the religious right insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, meaning the federal government and Constitution were intentionally founded on Christian principles by Christian men, who intended the faith to take a central role in governance and law.

The Constitution (and its Bill of Rights) was an important document in world history because it greatly expanded personal freedoms and slightly widened democracy (it kept political power in the hands of the aristocracy). However, and even more radically, the Constitution made no mention of God or Jesus Christ. This was a departure from the Declaration of Independence, the 1776 Articles of Confederation, and many state constitutions, which mentioned God, his glory, and the rights he gave man. It was very unlike most European states.

This caused much controversy. (Sources available in The Godless Constitution, by Kramnick and Moore.)


The Constitution enraged many Christians

The U.S. Constitution was signed in September 1787, to a mixed response.

One writer in November 1787 condemned the framers’ “silence” and “indifference about religion.” A Virginia newspaper warned of “pernicious effects” of the Constitution’s “cold indifference toward religion.” Thomas Wilson of Virginia called the document “deistical,” and lamented that the framers didn’t think of God during their work. A 1787 Philadelphia pamphlet declared “there was never a nation in the world whose government was not circumscribed by religion” and that “the new Constitution, disdains…belief of a deity, the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body, a day of judgments, or a future state of rewards and punishments.”

A delegate at the New Hampshire ratification warned that if the Constitution passed, “Congress might deprive the people of the use of the holy scriptures.” A writer in a Boston newspaper warned in January 1788 that God would turn his back on America, like he did with Saul in the Old Testament. Charles Turner of Massachusetts warned it would lead to “ruin.” Later, Timothy Dwight declared at Yale College that the War of 1812 would be lost because we “offended Providence. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of God.” Minister Horace Bushnell even blamed the Civil War on our “infidel” government!

When the Constitution and Bill of Rights did mention religion, it angered Christians further. The First Amendment said the government would not support one particular religion, nor prevent people from following any particular religion. Article 6 of the Constitution declared there would be no religious tests for political office. Amazingly, this law, according to Maryland delegate Luther Martin, was “adopted by a very great majority…and without much debate” at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, despite the fact that 11 of the 13 states had religious qualifications for being a politician. If you were not Protestant, you could not govern. And in Rhode Island, only Protestants could vote! One of the two states that banned religious tests, Virginia, did so because of earlier efforts by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. This led to some hysteria.

Protestant Christians were terrified that no religious qualification meant we’d see “a papist [Catholic], a Mohomatan [Muslim], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government.” Minister David Caldwell, a delegate at the North Carolina ratification, warned we’d have “Jews and pagans of every kind” in office. Thomas Lusk of Massachusetts, not seeing the irony, predicted “Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” A pamphlet in North Carolina cautioned that the Pope in Rome might be elected president! Many Christians feared the anti-slavery and anti-war Quakers would be elected. A New York newspaper denounced the idea of politicians who were Quakers (“who will make the blacks saucy”), Muslims (“who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity”), deists (“abominable wretches”), Negroes (“the seed of Cain”), beggars (“who…ride with the Devil”), and Jews (who might “rebuild Jerusalem”).

Fortunately, cooler, more tolerant, and less religious heads prevailed.

Proposals and petitions to have religious tests for federal office were struck down by the Constitutional Convention. So were ideas to add religious language to the document, like delegate William Williams’ suggestion the preamble be changed to: “We the people of the United States in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws…”

Some people pointed out that men of all faiths or no faith fought in the Revolutionary army. Jews and other groups protested for equal rights. Tenche Coxe of Philadelphia, former member of the Continental Congress, declared, “Ecclesiastical tyranny, that long standing and still remaining curse of the people, can be feared by no man in the United States,” and that we would become an “asylum of religious liberty.” James Iredell, future associate justice of the Supreme Court, called religious tests “discrimination.” Reverend Daniel Shute said they came from “bigotry.” Reverend Isaac Backus called them “the greatest engine of tyranny in the world.” Reverend Samuel Langdon called the lack of religious tests a “great ornament of the Constitution.”

The fact that the Constitution was secular, despite much precedent for religion in government, is overall a testament to the influence and power of non-Christians like Madison and Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention. Most of the famous founding fathers opposed religion in government, and some had some very nasty words for Christianity indeed.


The Founders’ Heresy Enraged Many Christians

In 1831, New York minister Bird Wilson lamented, “The founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels.”

Not what one usually hears from the religious right today.

The Founding Fathers, sons of the Enlightenment and followers of the more secular John Locke, were greatly influenced by deism. Some did not believe in the Judeo-Christian God. Deism is the belief that a higher power exists and created the universe, but does not intervene in the material world any longer. Nature is the only way to “see” God. Thus, miracles were impossible, prayer irrelevant, the Bible mythological. In this view, Jesus Christ was a fraud.

John Adams was a Christian, but condemned religious violence and religious dogma. George Washington, while writing little on faith matters, regularly made mention of God, and encouraged his men “to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier.” But there is some controversy over how seriously Washington took Christianity (many quotes attributed to him, such as “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible” and “What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ” are total fabrications). It is highly possible Washington was a deist. Jefferson wrote of Washington (Anas, February 1, 1800):

When the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However [Dr. Rush] observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion. I know that Gouvemeur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

James Madison and Ben Franklin were known to be deists, as were Jefferson and Thomas Paine, though these two flirted dangerously with atheism. Jefferson even rewrote the New Testament, cutting out all supernatural events, including the Resurrection (look up The Jefferson Bible).

Regardless of their differing views, the most famous Founding Fathers disliked the Church in some way. They generally believed in a secular government, well-documented in many places, from national treaties to personal letters. Not all of these men signed the Constitution, but those that did helped make it godless.


George Washington: Protect religion from tyranny, but beware its dangers

“No one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

Letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia, May 10, 1789

“Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”

Letter to Edward Newenham, June 22, 1792

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by the difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be depreciated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”

Letter to Edward Newenham, Oct. 20, 1792


John Adams: Be a Christian, but you’re not in a Christian nation

“Conclude not from this that I have renounced the Christian religion…. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.”

Letter to Jefferson, Nov. 4, 1816

“As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”

Letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816

“The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Treaty of Tripoli, approved by the Senate and signed by Adams, 1797

“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature: and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an æra in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or labouring in merchandize or agriculture: it will for ever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses…”

“Thirteen governments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favour of the rights of mankind.”

Defence of the Constitutions, 1786

“Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.”

Letter to his son John Quincy Adams, Nov. 13, 1816

“A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment as a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The Secret Whisper ran through them all the Sects “Let Us have Jefferson Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deist or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.[“] This Principle is at the Bottom of the Unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings, Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.”

“We Shall have the civil Government overawed and become a Tool. We Shall have Armies and their Commanders under the orders of the Monks. We Shall have Hermits commanding Napoleons. I agree with you, there is a Germ of Religion in human Nature So Strong, that whenever an order of Man can persuade the People by flattery or Terror, that they have Salvation at thier disposal, there can be no End to fraud, Violence or Usurpation.”

Letter to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812


Benjamin Franklin: No need to worship, and don’t let the church use the state

“I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it.”

Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion, 1728

“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1759

“When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

Letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780


Thomas Jefferson: Jesus was a fairytale, and separate church and state

“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”     

Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

“We find in the [gospels]…a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.”

Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say There are twenty gods, or no God. It neither breaks my leg, nor picks my pocket.”

“Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned… What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religious, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the Despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814


James Madison: No official religion, period

“What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.”

A Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.”

Federalist No. 10, 1787

“The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

Detached Memoranda, c. 1817

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize.”

Letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774

“Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785


Thomas Paine: A demon likely wrote the bible

“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”

“The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.”

“The story of Jesus Christ appearing after he was dead is the story of an apparition, such as timid imaginations can always create in vision, and credulity believe. Stories of this kind had been told of the assassination of Julius Caesar, not many years before; and they generally have their origin in violent deaths, or in the execution of innocent persons.”

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

The Age of Reason, 1794

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‘Atheist Delusion’ Review

The tagline of Ray Comfort’s new documentary, The Atheist Delusion, promised atheism would be “destroyed with one scientific question.”

Kirk Cameron said it featured “high-resolution logic,” Ken Ham called it “compelling.” The trailer featured atheistic young people calling Comfort’s questions “eye-opening,” saying “I’ll definitely consider this” and even “I’m lying to myself.” The movie was supposed to explain “Why Millions Deny the Obvious” (a second tagline).

As a former Christian and current atheist, such things caught my attention. What were these claims that were supposedly opening the minds of atheists to the “Truth”? Could they possibly take more than mere minutes to dismantle? Upon viewing the film, there is truthfully just one word in the English tongue to properly describe it: embarrassing.

The atheists whose gears are clearly turning at half-speed, who fail to see each of Comfort’s points from a mile away, who are left utterly struggling for words are embarrassing (though, in their defense, even pastors have off days sometimes).

Comfort’s arguments, which rely on hopelessly weak analogies, silly metaphors, gaps in humanity’s scientific knowledge, and meaningless semantics are all embarrassing. The only thing this film “destroys” is a segment of poorly prepared college students from the University of California — Irvine who apparently need to read this article as badly as Christians.

First, Comfort recycles the famous “watchmaker” analogy, here using a book. Could a book make itself? When the inevitable answer is No, that is somehow evidence that existence must also have a creator.

This is, to any critical thinker, rather unsatisfying, as the creator’s existence would by extension of this hopeless analogy also require a creator. But to the religious, existence needs an explanation, but God does not. Something has to be the “uncaused,” as Comfort calls God. Strange that it would be something we have no proof of (a deity) that a thoughtful person would deem the “uncaused,” but not something we do have proof of (existence itself). It is further strange that Christians deem life and planets and existence so complex they all must require a deity, while that deity, being able to create existence, would be even more complex and marvelous than existence! So how is it that we then give deities a free pass? To the atheist, it is just as sensible (if not more so) to suppose existence has always existed, that it was “uncaused,” and that “nothing” was never a thing.

“But the Big Bang — ” the creationist objects. Comfort doesn’t really discuss the Big Bang specifically, but does insist something can’t come from nothing. All that needs to be said here is that we do not know for certain that existence did not “exist” before the Big Bang. We do not know if there was nothing, nor if true nothingness is even possible. Can Comfort prove for certain that there was true nothingness? That would be impressive, as astro-physicists cannot. It is, and perhaps always will be, beyond the scope of human science. We may never be able to confirm if theories concerning existence before (or independent of) the Big Bang, multiverse theories — parallel universes, daughter universes, bubble universes, infinite universes, and so on — are valid. At the moment, Comfort is simply filling a gap in scientific knowledge with God (a strategy used by humans since we cowered at thunder) and relying on an unproven premise at the same time.

It would indeed be wonderful if a loving deity that required no explanation for his existence created our existence. But the idea has no real explanatory value concerning our existence. And there certainly isn’t hard evidence for it.

Regarding evidence, Comfort addresses another topic. He asks the atheists, “Are you open to evidence?” As sensible people, they say Yes. One woman said, “It would just have to be extraordinarily compelling.”

Comfort then presents his cringe-worthy “evidence.” He explains that DNA, as scientists say, is “the instruction book for life,” that there are 3.2 billion letters in the 46 chromosomes making up the human genome. “DNA is the genetic information encoded in the cells of every living thing,” he explains, “that instructs our cells in how to grow and how to function.”

“The fact that there is intelligent information tells us there must be an intelligent designer.” Such “intelligent information” works “to selectively arrange the building blocks of life. That knowhow and forethought does not exist in any of the materials from which life is made.” DNA has an “external nature.” He concludes, “Where did that specified information come from? It’s origin is certainly supernatural.”

The atheists struggle to even form words to counter this, to my astonishment. Allow me to assist again.

First, “intelligent information” is hollow semantics. Comfort puts the word “intelligent” in front of “information” to make his argument sound more reasonable, in the same way he emphasizes how DNA is like a “book” with “letters” to prop up his analogy. Yes, DNA contains “information,” but putting an adjective in front of it doesn’t make it supernatural. Neither does suggesting genetic coding has “knowhow” and “forethought” independent of its material nature.

Second, explaining that DNA determines how our cells grow, change, and function is as far as Comfort will go in his explanation of what DNA is, relying on vague terms like “letters” — and perhaps “information” is even too vague. Why doesn’t he explain the “information” is entirely made up of chemicals? Why not explain that the “letters” in the “book” are adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine, chemicals held together by sugar phosphate? Why not describe purines and pyrimidines, the organic bits that make up the chemicals? Why not talk about the nitrogen atoms of the purines and pyrimidines? Why not describe how the arrangement of A, G, C, and T determines what a cell is and does? How the arrangement is used by enzymes to make mRNA and then proteins, from which a cell is mostly built?

Because doing that would point out the obvious: the “information” isn’t external, it’s biological. It isn’t independent of matter, it cannot exist without it. The code doesn’t have “forethought”; it’s an interaction of chemicals. He doesn’t do this because “instructions” coming from the simple arrangement of mindless chemicals doesn’t help his case as well as pretending they aren’t rooted in matter, aren’t related to and could never have come from nature, and that therefore “God did it.” This is nothing more than a religious person believing natural biological processes to be too complex to exist without a designer, like the “gap” argument regarding the Big Bang (only in this case it’s more embarrassing, as much more is known about DNA and how it functions, even if we don’t know for certain yet how it arose).

I sincerely hope the people Comfort interviewed aren’t biology students, because otherwise it’s time to weep for the future of the American scientific community.

Third, I can’t help but mention that Comfort’s point that all life has DNA actually helped scientists prove once and for all that Darwin was right. By mapping the genetic code of Earth’s lifeforms, scientists determined — and continue to determine daily — that all life on earth actually shares the same DNADNA is passed on through reproduction. You share more DNA with your parents and siblings than you do with your more distant relatives. In the same way, humans share more DNA with some living things than with others. We share 98% with chimps, 85% with zebra fish, 36% with fruit flies, and 15% with mustard grass. It is not surprising that creatures similar to us (warm-blooded, covered in hair, give birth to live young) are closer relatives than less similar ones. But all life shares DNA, no matter how different. When mapped out by genetic similarity, we see exactly what Darwin envisioned: a family tree with many different branches, all leading back to a common ancestor.

Those are the two major arguments in The Atheist Delusion. Using a lack of scientific knowledge, then ignoring scientific knowledge, to build a case for a deity.

Yes, there is more to the film. Comfort insisting the Bible had some insights into science that man at the time could never have discovered; asking why, if evolution is true, do we not see creatures with “half-evolved teeth” or “half-evolved legs”; asking how a chicken saw without eyes or felt without a brain if it supposedly evolved; asking why trees just happen to provide oxygen and cows just happen to provide leather, meat, and milk; concluding that the atheists he was speaking with still wanted to be atheists because they wanted to continue looking at porn and fornicating. These things would take even less time to level, but as they were not the major arguments in the film, and in the interest of brevity, I will leave that to others.

At the end, some of the atheists said Comfort’s points made them think; others actually said they now believed in God’s existence, that Comfort had given them proof of an intelligent designer; a few said, “Yes, I’m no longer an atheist,” and one even prayed with Comfort to become a Christian.

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What Non-Biblical Sources Actually Say About Jesus

Ancient secular writings that mention Jesus Christ — or someone with a similar name or title (“Christ” meaning “anointed one”) — are important to both believers and nonbelievers.

For believers, non-biblical sources are icing on the cake, adding more evidence a divine Jesus existed to the evidence that is the New Testament. For nonbelievers, the gospels are full of fictions, like many other holy books throughout human history, and so it is only reasonable to examine writings by people who weren’t participating in the dissemination of fiction (though such examinations must also include serious scrutiny and skepticism).

Such a statement might raise the inquiry, “Why should writers who weren’t Christians be trusted over those who were? What if secular writers were crafting fiction — purging the story of supernatural happenings?”

That’s possible, and it makes sense that an historian might ignore stories of divine intervention, but there is no evidence secular writers were deliberately suppressing the truth. On the other hand, with multiple copies we can see some of these documents actually becoming more religious as time passes. Christian scribes embellished secular writings (they also modified the bible, by the way, as biblical scholars admit and mention in your bible’s footnotes). That is evidence of changing earlier writings to fit your belief system. We don’t have comparable evidence that the reverse happened, that nonbelievers altered texts that claimed Jesus performed miracles and rose from the dead (with so many diverse supernatural beliefs in the Roman Empire, one might wonder why they would bother).

Also, it seems obvious that the texts with the most extraordinary claims require the largest grain of salt (a parallel to the old saying — very pertinent to religion — that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to be believable). The most outrageous reports need more skepticism than the mundane. So if we have one text that says a man raised a friend from the dead and another text that says the man was a wise leader with a large following, those are very different claims and require different intensities of scrutiny and critical thinking. (Again, that does not mean the mundane claim gets a free pass and should be accepted as truth without question.) In that sense, it may be sensible to more readily accept mundane claims than incredible claims, as a Christian might be incline to do should a Hindu or Muslim speak of miracles or UFO enthusiasts speak of abductions.

Either way, let’s look at the non-biblical writings that mention Jesus of Nazareth, and the reader can decide for him- or herself if they actually aid the extraordinary claims of the New Testament (an important question to ask, I think, is would comparable writings about Muhammad give legitimacy to Islam and the Koran?). Sources include Evidence for the Historical Jesus by well-known Christian apologist Josh McDowell and Godless by pastor-turned-atheist Dan Barker.


Thallus: historian, allegedly writing between AD 50 and 100

None of Thallus’ histories actually survived to the present.

His name is only mentioned because Christian historian Julius Africanus, writing c. AD 221, claims in his Chronography that Thallus took part in the debate over what caused a great darkness to descend upon the earth at the time of Christ’s crucifixion: “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun — unreasonably, as it seems to me.” Africanus noted that “it was at the season of the Paschal full moon that Christ died,” arguing correctly that an eclipse cannot occur at the time of a full moon. Obviously, if such a debate occurred and Thallus was attempting to explain away the event, he would be acknowledging that the event occurred.

Yet none of the original writings of Julius Africanus exist, only copies. So we cannot know for certain if this was not inserted by religious scribes. If we were able to rule that possibility out, there would still be no way to know if Africanus was being truthful or accurate. There is no other ancient document that even mentions Thallus. Some believe one document written by Eusebius in the 4th century mentions him — though the manuscript is damaged and cuts off the beginning of the name, leaving merely “__allos.”

Dan Barker notes that there is no other evidence, beyond the insistence of Africanus and the gospels (with the possible exception of Phlegon; see below), of an eclipse when Christ died, quite surprising considering its natural impossibility and the fact that Josephus, and other secular historians, also recorded the events of that age.

(Some prominent historians of the age and time, it should be noted, did not mention Jesus at all. Philo of Alexandria [Philo-Judaeus], a writer who chronicled Jewish history during the time of Jesus’ life and was a resident of Jerusalem during all the Gospel events, never mentioned Jesus. Likewise, historian Justus of Tiberius was a native of Galilee. His history of the Jews is lost, but Christian scholar Photius complained in the 9th century [Bibliotheca, code 33] that Justus didn’t mention Jesus.)


Flavius Josephus: Jewish historian, Galilean military commander, aide to Emperor Vespasian, writing AD 93

A Jew named Josephus, in The Antiquities of the Jews, wrote of John the Baptist and his death by order of Herod. He mentions that John’s baptisms were not conducted “to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed” but as an outward expression of devotion coming only after “the soul was already cleansed by right behavior.” Later, Josephus writes of “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” and James’ trial and execution before the Sanhedrin. Josephus also writes a paragraph on Christ himself (now called the Testimonium), though many Christian and secular scholars agree it was doctored by later Christian copyists (for instance, Edwin Yamauchi acknowledges this in Lee Strobel’s widely-read Case for Christ). The passage reads:

Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day.

The pieces believed to be authentic by Christian scholars and some secular ones include Jesus performing wonderful works, leading many Jews and Gentiles, being condemned to death by Pilate, and his followers not forsaking him.

Yet biblical and secular scholars generally agree that the bit about it not being “lawful to call him a man,” mentioning “the truth,” him rising from the dead, and the use of the word “Christians” and the phrase “to this day” are all changes made to the text later on. The debate about what is authentic is quite long, but there are convincing reasons to be suspect.

For instance, the believer Origen, in the second century, uses Josephus’ book to defend Christianity from the views of Celsum, but never once used the invaluable paragraph! In fact, “no form of the Testimonium Flavianum is cited in the extant works of Justin Martyr, Theophilus Antiochenus, Melito of Sardis, Minucius Felix, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Julius Africanus, Pseudo-Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Methodius, or Lactantius. According to Michael Hardwick in Josephus as an Historical Source in Patristic Literature through Eusebius, each of these authors shows familiarity with the works of Josephus.”

The paragraph mentions “Christians,” a term not believed used until the 2nd century. The copies with the paragraph appear only in the 4th century, first quoted by Eusebius, who wrote elsewhere that it was all right for historians to insert fiction into their work (and the Testimonium contains word choices Josephus didn’t typically use but Eusebius often did). The Testimonium sits awkwardly between stories where Josephus condemns Jewish governors, rebels, would-be messiahs, and agitators, and offers lessons with his criticisms — yet the passage on Jesus has a different tone, being positive and supportive, without any sort of moral. After this affectionate paragraph, Josephus tells the story of “another outrage” — making the flow of stories much more sensible when the Testimonium is removed. Perhaps most importantly, despite the passage making it sound as if Josephus believed Jesus was the messiah and rose from the dead, he doesn’t bother writing about him anywhere else in his books! He even devoted twice as much space to John the Baptist.

Josephus’ mention of “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” being stoned was also possibly inserted later. Hegesippus, a Christian Jew, wrote in 170 AD that Jesus’ brother James was killed in a riot. Somehow, it is likely one of these stories is incorrect.

Since even faithful biblical scholars acknowledge Josephus’ paragraph on Jesus was doctored, it is possible the entire paragraph was inserted later by a priest or scribe.


Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Younger): writer, Roman governor of Bithynia, writing c. AD 112

10 volumes of Pliny’s letters survived to the present.

In Epistles, Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan asking what methods were permissible in punishing Christians, who refused to worship Roman gods and were thus withholding profits from the temples. “I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it, I repeated the question twice, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they persevered, I ordered them executed.” He writes those who recanted were made to worship Trajan’s statue and the Roman gods and “curse Christ.” But Pliny, interested in “the nature of their beliefs,” describes the Christians as indeed regarding Christ a deity. They sang “a hymn to Christ, as to a god” and believed in a “contagious superstition.” Emperor Trajan wrote back, saying the only way the accused could provide “practical proof” of their denial was by “invoking our gods.”

If this is accurate reporting, it tells nothing new: secular scholars know the term “Christian” was used in the 2nd century, that followers believed Jesus was God, and that the Romans didn’t care for them much in those years.


Cornelius Tacitus: historian, Roman senator, Roman consul, proconsul of Asia, writing AD 116

In his Annals, Tacitus wrote of the fire that swept Rome in AD 64. Emperor Nero, to eliminate a rumor that he himself had ordered the fire, allegedly “substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself.” The Christians were promptly “torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night.”

This is likely a valuable corroboration with the New Testament as to what happened to the historical person of Jesus. It may be encouraging to believers, who might ask why such a “superstition” would “break out once more” after being “checked” unless Jesus had actually risen from the dead, but of course there is nothing to say the “break out” didn’t occur after a fictional story of Jesus’ resurrection was concocted while he rotted in the ground like other mortals. Further, most other religions also fail to putter out after a revered leader dies, usually growing stronger (the rise of Islam after Muhammad’s death or the worship of past pharaohs in Egypt, for example, or the fact that Buddha was molded into a divine character after he passed despite his earlier insistence he was just a man).

But some scholars suspect that Tacitus, writing of a time when he was only 8, may have gotten a few facts wrong. Historians are unsure if Christianity reached Rome by 64 AD, nor that Nero actually persecuted Christians — though he likely did persecute Jews. No Christian scholars, priests, or writers quoted this passage in the 2nd century, which doesn’t mean it’s not authentic but may raise some small doubts. However, in the 4th century, one of Sulpicius Severus’ writings (which were full of mythological stories by anyone’s standards) contains an identical passage. The paragraph may have been pulled from Severus’ work and Tacitus’ history doctored with it.

But as we shall see with Suetonius, there may be reason to give Tacitus the benefit of the doubt.


Suetonius: historian, annalist of the Roman Imperial House, writing c. AD 120

Suetonius, in Life of Claudius, wrote: “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” Chrestus is suspected to be a misspelling of Christus, though there is much debate over the matter. However, it could be that hostilities between traditional Jews and Christian preachers led to the expulsion of Jews from Rome (c. AD 50), also mentioned in Acts 18. However, Suetonius may be more important in that his Life of Nero echoes what Tacitus wrote, that after the great fire “punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a body of people addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition.” This is evidence that perhaps Tacitus did write the words above and that they were accurate.

However, “Chrestus” was a common Latin name, and since Jesus is not mentioned by name, this could have been someone else. We also don’t know what kind of disturbances this refers to (simple preaching? riots?), nor if an historian would credit a man long dead with “instigating” anything (mightn’t it be more sensible to either speak of a current leader or clarify that it was the belief in Chrestus that was to blame?), nor why a writer from AD 120 would call the troublemakers “Jews” instead of “Christians” (a label believed to be used by that time).

Barker also mentions that Suetonius wasn’t the best historian anyway: he wrote that Caesar Augustus physically rose to heaven upon his death.


Lucian of Samosata: Greek satirist, writing c. AD 170

Lucian wrote in The Death of Peregrine, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguish personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed upon them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.”

Here Lucian is only repeating what Christians believed in the 2nd century. It doesn’t tell us much about Jesus as an historical figure.


Phlegon: historian, writing in the 2nd century

Julius Africanus reports in his Chronography (allegedly — recall none of his originals exist today) that Phlegon (in his Chronicles) “records that in the time of Tiberius Caesar at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth.” A Christian writer, Origen, wrote in the early third century (Against Celsus) that Phlegon mentioned in Chronicles the eclipse and a great earthquake at the time of the crucifixion, and even ascribed to Christ “a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus).”

Here we don’t have the original words of Phlegon, only a mention of his quote by one Christian writer (Origen) who thinks Phlegon was a bit confused as to who said or did what and (perhaps) another Christian writer (Africanus) whose texts might have been altered by others.


The Sanhedrin (Babylonian Talmud): written AD 70-200

This Jewish manuscript says, “It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu” because “he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray.” Hanged was often used at the time to mean crucified, according to scholars — another good corroboration of Jesus’ fate.

Although this is a religious book, like the next one, it seemed important to include because it comes from the Jews (some Jews didn’t take too kindly to the new religion) and because they come relatively soon after Jesus lived (Islamic holy books also mention Jesus, but they arrived many centuries later). This passage suggests Christ had some sort of convincing power, here explained as sorcery. Yet many other people in human history have practiced sorcery, or been accused of doing so, and a Christian would be reasonably skeptical if I suggested a sorcerer could only do what he did because he was God himself.


The Hullin (Tosefta): written AD 70-200

The Jewish Tosefta mentions that a man named Jacob “came to heal” R. Elazar ben Damah, who had been bitten by a snake, “in the name of Yeshu.”

If accurate reporting, this may simply tell us that there were followers of Christ who claimed spiritual powers. Or, like any other tale of the supernatural, whether in a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu text, it could simply be fictional.

Mara Bar-Serapion: Syrian, date unknown but likely 3rd century

This personal letter to Mara’s imprisoned son mentions that the Jews had killed their “wise king.”

However, there were many messiahs who were killed in Palestine in these times, for instance the Essene Teacher of Righteousness. Since the letter’s date is probably nowhere near the events of Jesus’ death, and since it does not mention Jesus by name, it is not particularly useful.

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A Guide For Christians to See If You’re Discriminating

Sometimes, it seems as if an important ethical maxim, the Golden Rule, is difficult for people of all religions (or no religion) to put into practice.

The Golden Rule is found in several ancient religious or philosophical texts. In Christianity, it’s found in the book of Matthew: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” In Islam, it’s in the Hadith: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” Far older than either of these are the words of Confucius, who said in the Analects, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” This idea helps create a more tolerant and peaceful society for everyone — if it’s acted upon.

A simple role reversal is required to put this rule into practice. All people must engage in this reversal, but in a nation with a Christian majority, the news is often chock-full of events where Christians are clearly failing to engage in it, which leads to discrimination against certain groups, and makes an article like this necessary, as embarrassing as that is.

In a decent and diverse community such as our own, religion cannot serve as an excuse for discrimination. You are free to practice your religion as you wish, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others or wander into the political sphere — this is, after all, a secular nation. It is a nation for all people and all religions, not just the majority faith. When you are forced to stop discriminating (yes, forced to go against the ancient edicts of your deity), that is not discrimination against you, just like if an atheist or a person of another religion was forced to stop discriminating against Christians it would not be discrimination against them. When the State enforces policies aimed to broaden equality, you are not a victim. Don’t think of yourself as one. Think of yourself as helping bring the Golden Rule to life.

Discrimination happens when you don’t apply the Golden Rule. Equality is what happens when you do. Therefore, the rule is a call for equality.

So without further ado, some role reversals.


You just refused to provide goods, services, or education to someone who’s gay.

If someone refused to provide goods, services, or education to you because you’re a Christian, would it be discrimination?


You just said keeping Muslims out of your country and monitoring mosques are smart ideas.

If someone wanted to keep Christians out of certain neighborhoods or an entire nation, or monitor churches, would it be discrimination?


You think people should swear oaths on the Bible, display the 10 Commandments on government property, and say prayers to God in Congress.

If someone said they thought people should swear on the Quran, wanted the words of Muhammad displayed at government offices, or wanted to allow prayers to Allah in Congress, would that sound like nonsense?


You think stores and schools that celebrate “holidays” instead of “Christmas” are waging a war on Christianity.

If someone said stores and schools celebrating “holidays” instead of Kwanzaa or Hanukkah were waging wars on African-Americans or Jews, wouldn’t you laugh at them?


You think trans people should be forced to use a bathroom that doesn’t match their gender identity.

If you were born one gender but identified as the other, and wanted to use the bathroom that matched your identity, but someone wanted to ban you from doing so, wouldn’t that be an unnecessary violation of your personal liberty and privacy?


You think Christian creationism should be taught in public schools, but not Greek, Native American, Hindu, or Islamic creation stories.

If someone wanted public schools to teach other creation stories but leave out Christianity’s, wouldn’t that be rude?

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The Bible is Rife With Contradictions and Changes

During discourse on religion, nonbelievers generally acknowledge that criticism of character doesn’t prove fictionality.

In other words, showing that the Judeo-Christian god is a monster because he murders innocent people for the crimes of others, commands his followers to commit genocide against women and children, orders the execution of nonbelievers, non-virgins, and homosexuals, or simply lies to people (see Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible) does not mean he does not exist. Showing God is an evil madman because he crafts a divine plan in which one age calls for followers to destroy their neighbors and the next calls for them to love their neighbors (see Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New) does not mean he’s complete fiction.

A deity could exist but simply be violent, morally inept, or unpleasant. Or, from the perspective of the religious, God could use violence and oppression out of “love” for his favored creations, wiping out civilizations so the Jews could get their land or destroying sinners so others would be scared straight.

Now, there are many sensible reasons to suppose the Judeo-Christian god, like so many others, is a man-made fiction, but they are not addressed here. Instead, our attention must turn to the common claims that the Bible has never been changed over time by various scribes nor contains internal contradictions.

Showing that it has and does will of course not disprove God either (just as showing changes to or contradictions in Homer’s works will not disprove the Greek gods). It could be a deity exists that does not mind flawed or edited scriptures. Yet showing such common claims are demonstrably false is valuable in itself, because the truth seems important to most people.



The Bible’s internal contradictions vary in their degree of debatability.

Take for example Genesis 6:3, where God says to himself, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Yet in Genesis 9:29, Noah dies at the ripe old age of 950. Other characters live for many centuries after this as well. Though this is strange, perhaps we can say God changed his mind (if that is even possible for a being that knows the future), only meant average people and not special folks like Noah, or was actually speaking of how many years remained before the flood that destroyed humanity.

When God says “And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female” in Genesis 6:19, but then says “Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate” in Genesis 7:2-3, was he changing his mind? Or was he simply clarifying, in that all creatures would have at least one pair, but some special ones would have more?

Sometimes reimagining the timing of events can help fix contradictions. (For a deep dive into one such example, see The Nativity Stories in Luke and Matthew Aren’t Contradictory — But the Differences Are Bizarre.) Why would Matthew 26:17-20, Mark 14:12-17, and Luke 22:7-14 explicitly state that Jesus and the 12 ate the Passover the evening before he was killed, but the pharisees in John 18:28, when Jesus is being convicted and murdered, be thinking of eating the Passover that evening — indicating it hasn’t happened yet? John 19:14 stresses the point: the crucifixion occurs on the “day of Preparation of the Passover” — the Passover meal is coming up. (Mark 15:42 mentions a day of preparation, but for the Sabbath, something different that occurs each week.) John 13:1 has a last supper, but it isn’t described as the Passover. So which is it, was Jesus killed after Passover or before? Well, one can imagine Jesus simply broke tradition and ate his own private Passover a day early (on the evening the Day of Preparation begins rather than on the evening it ends, when Jews were supposed to, for those of you who know how Jewish days worked). Jesus knew he would be killed the next day, after all, and wouldn’t get to eat the Passover on the appropriate evening. The first three gospels never indicate this is an early, non-traditional Passover, they simply say it was the Passover meal. The last supper in John is described as “just before” the Passover festival, but isn’t called the Passover at all. Still, the gospels never say it wasn’t an early Passover meal, so why not assume it was to avoid contradiction? People say the Bible has never been changed, but we can change it in our heads.

It has been pointed out, we should note, that placing the crucifixion before the Passover neatly makes Jesus the symbolic, sacrificial lamb — lambs were killed on the Day of Preparation, after noon. John is the only gospel to refer to Jesus as the “lamb of God” and also the gospel that moved up the execution to before Passover (Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman).

Now, consider who went to Jesus’ tomb with Mary Magdalene. Is Mary Magdalene seemingly alone (as in John 20:1), with “the other Mary” (Matthew 28:1), with the other Mary and Salome (Mark 16:1-2), or with Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and “the other women” (Luke 24:10)? Are these conflicting accounts? Or do some authors just not bother to mention some of the folks with Mary Magdalene? Likewise, it’s interesting that while both Matthew and Luke have Jesus born in Bethlehem and then settle down in Nazareth, the two stories are dramatically different, in that neither mentions the events of the other. King Herod kills children and Jesus flees to Egypt in Matthew, but Luke doesn’t bother mentioning either. Luke has the ludicrous census (everyone in the Roman Empire returning to the city of their distant ancestors, creating mass chaos, when the point of a census is to see where people live currently), the full inn, and the manger, but Matthew doesn’t. The family seems to move to Nazareth from Egypt in Matthew (2:8-23), after Herod dies, but in Luke (2:16-39) the move to Nazareth appears to occur just after the family visit to Jerusalem, which took place after Jesus was thirty-three days old (see Leviticus 12, which outlines the rituals conducted in Luke), no flight to Egypt mentioned. These stories can be jammed together into a mega-narrative successfully, but it takes some work. Other musings should be made concerning who buried Jesus. Was it Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin council, seemingly alone (Mark 15:43-46)? Did Nicodemus, also a member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1) help him (John 19:39-40)? Or was it seemingly the Sanhedrin as a whole (Acts 13:27-29), even though “all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death” (Mark 14:55)? Why would they all help bury him if they were the ones who pushed Pilate to kill him?

And what of the incident in the temple-turned-market? While Matthew (21:12-13) and Mark (11:15-17) have Jesus driving the merchants from the temple at the end of his ministry, John has it at the beginning (2:15-16), right after Jesus’ very first miracle! The stories are clearly the same: he overturns the tables of the money changers and dove sellers, then says, “It is written…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers'” (Matthew, Mark) or “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John). Are we to believe the same incident happened twice? And each author ignored one of them? Or does temporal sequence really not matter at all?

Next look at Matthew 16:24-28, when Jesus, after describing returning with his angels and rewarding all according to his or her deeds, says to the people with him, “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (The same is promised in Mark 8:38-9:1 and 13:24-30, with the same context of “after that tribulation” when the “stars will be falling from heaven” with “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”) This very much sounds like the Last Judgement discussed in Revelation, when Jesus will be “coming with the clouds” (1:7), the “armies of heaven” (19:14) with him, but also his “reward,” to “give to each person according to what they have done” (22:12-13).

Yet the people Jesus spoke to are all dead.

They tasted death before the Last Judgement. (The myth of the Wandering Jew, someone from Jesus’ time who is still alive today and will be until Jesus’ return, arose in the Middle Ages to “fix” this problem.) But we shall keep an open mind. Perhaps Jesus changed his mind or was speaking about his crucifixion and resurrection as many believers insist, despite blatant references and similarities to the Last Judgement story.

Consider another example. Although we are assured that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:16-18), we are also assured God can in fact “deceive” people (Ezekiel 14:9, Ezekiel 20:25-26), even that “God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thess. 2:11-12). So is it possible for God to “deceive” and “delude” people, but not “lie” to them? Perhaps a believer would insist a lie has to be spoken, whereas a deception or delusion doesn’t, so there is no contradiction. But others would say that because a lie is a deception, and God is capable of deception, that it is possible for God to lie — meaning this is a contradiction.

Excuses become a bit harder to create with other verses.


Mark 15:37-38: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!'”

Matthew 27:50-52: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”

Both describe the same event: the temple curtain is torn in two when Jesus dies.

Now to Luke 23:44-46:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

In Luke, the temple curtain is torn before Jesus dies. There is even enough time for Jesus to say his final words in between.

Believers may shrug this off (“What difference does it make?”), but this is precisely what nonbelievers mean when we talk about internal contradictions. Both stories cannot be true — unless we suppose the Bible breaks out of chronological patterns at our convenience (so Luke is accurate, and Mark and Matthew align neatly because “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” refers to an event before Jesus breathes his last, even though it’s positioned after, alongside other events that do happen after, such as an earthquake). In this effort, the word “then” is simply ignored as meaningless.

Other contradictions have even less wiggle room.

  • Matthew 8:5, Luke 7:3, and Luke 7:6 are confused as whether the centurion found Jesus himself or if he sent elders (or “friends”).
  • In Matthew 27:3-8, Judas hangs himself; in Acts 1:16-19 he falls headlong and his body bursts, spewing his bowels on the ground.
  • In Matthew 27:3-10, the chief priests buy a field (the Field of Blood) with the blood money Judas returned to them; in Acts 1:16-19, Judas himself bought the Field of Blood with the blood money, which he kept.
  • Mark 5:21-43 and Matthew 9:18-26 tell the story of a synagogue leader (named Jairus in Mark) who comes to Jesus begging him to heal his daughter. Jesus goes with the man, but is interrupted by a woman, who has suffered from bleeding for 12 years, touching Jesus’ clothing to heal herself. The woman is magically cured, and Jesus continues on and raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. But in Mark, Jairus says his “daughter is at the point of death” (5:23) to Jesus but is informed when he arrives home that “your daughter is dead” (5:35). But in Matthew, Jairus originally says to Jesus, “My daughter has just died” (9:18). Did Jairus believe his daughter was about to die or already had passed?
  • Exodus 33:20 and John 1:18 claim no one has ever seen God and lived, forgetting Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 other people (Exodus 24:9-11), Adam and Eve during their time in the Garden, Hagar (who seems amazed to have “stayed alive here after seeing Him,” Genesis 16:13, NLV), and Abraham (Genesis 18:1-13).
  • Matthew 21:12-19 and Mark 11:12-17 can’t agree on whether Jesus cursed a fig tree before driving merchants from the temple or the day after.
  • 2 Kings 8:26 says Ahaziah was 22 when he began to reign; some versions of 2 Chronicles 22:2 say 42. (Some Biblical scholars, even those at Ken Ham’s ultraconservative Answers in Genesis, admit this may be a copyist’s error!) Biblical footnotes acknowledge this error:
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via Biblehub

  • 2 Kings 24:8 says Jehoiachim was 18 when he became king; 2 Chronicles 36:9 says he was 8. (This difference has likewise been called a copyist error by Christian groups like Third Millennium Ministries.) This is also described as a mistake in Bible footnotes:
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  • Mark 15:25 says Jesus was crucified at the third hour (9 a.m.), after being convicted by Pilate, mocked, beaten, and made to carry his cross; John 19:14-15 says Jesus wasn’t even convicted by Pilate until the sixth hour (noon). Some apologists insist Mark was using Jewish timekeeping (so the third hour was 9 a.m., three hours after sunrise) and John was using Roman timekeeping (so the sixth hour was actually 6 a.m., six hours after midnight — not noon). Yet two dozen translations of John (NIV, NLT, MSG, etc.) say it was “noon.” Only four say it was “six in the morning” (GW, HCSB, ICB, NOG). Which is it?
  • 2 Samuel 6:23 says Michal had no children before she died; 2 Samuel 21:8 says she had five (at least, some versions do; as Answers in Genesis explains, some manuscripts have “Michal” but others have “Merab,” Michal’s sister, which is now widely used in modern Bibles).
  • Acts 9:7 says the men with Paul on the road to Damascus heard the sound of the Lord; Acts 22:9 says they did not.
  • In Matthew 28:2, the stone of Jesus’ tomb is rolled away by an angel in front of the women who come to visit, during an earthquake; in the other gospels, the stone has already been rolled away when they arrive.
  • Matthew 28:2-7 and Mark 16:5 say one angel (Mark actually says “man”) appeared to the women; Luke 24:4 and John 20:12 say it was two (Luke actually says “men”).
  • Mark 16:8 says the women said nothing of their experience; in the other gospels they report it immediately.
  • In Matthew 28:2-9, Mary does not see Jesus before going back from the tomb to the disciples; in John 20:2-14, she does.
  • Jesus first appears to all 11 disciples either on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:5-17) or in a room in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-39).
  • While Matthew 10 and Mark 3 include Thaddeus in the 12 disciples, he is not mentioned in Luke, John, or Acts (instead, there is a Jude/Judas, son of James, who is not in Matthew or Mark). Also, in John chapter 1, it is implied that a Nathanael joins Christ’s 12. He is not mentioned in the other gospels or Acts.
  • In John 13-17, the Last Supper scene, Jesus marvels, saying, “Now I am going to the one who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?'” (John 16:5) right after Peter asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” (13:36) and Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going” (14:5).
  • As Moses is trying to free his people from Pharaoh, God’s fifth plague is the “plague on livestock,” during which “all the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:6). But during the seventh plague, the hail, the Egyptians have livestock again: “Those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the field” (Exodus 9:21-22). After the hail, the firstborn of the livestock then died in the tenth plague (Exodus 12:29)!
  • Deuteronomy 5:1-22 makes clear the 10 Commandments we all know were written on the first stone tablets, the ones Moses later smashed apart (Exodus 20 and 31:18 imply the same). Exodus 34:1-27 makes clear that the new, second tablets have a very different 10 Commandments (“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk”). A rewrite isn’t necessarily a contradiction, but Exodus 34:1 says God was going to “write on them the words that were on the first tablets,” as does Deuteronomy 10:1-5. Did God change his mind last-minute?
  • In Acts 9:17-27, it very much appears that Paul, after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, spends some time in Damascus and then goes to Jerusalem and meets the apostles. But in Galatians 1:15-20, Paul insists he did not go to Jerusalem for years after his conversion and only met one apostle there. In verse 20, he even insists he is not lying — suggesting some controversy around this issue.

Though the human imagination can conjure explanations for why two stories are radically different (“Judas hung himself, but the rope snapped and his body exploded when he hit the ground”), this doesn’t rule out the possibility that one of the stories, or both, are flawed or fictional.



An easy way to begin this topic is to simply consider the names of biblical characters. Christians don’t want to believe that biblical translations over time altered original stories, but one small way they obviously did was by giving characters altered names. Jesus did not consort with John and James. They were in the Middle East, not an English pub. Instead, Yeshua (ישוע) consorted with Yohhanan (יוחנן) and Ya’akov (יעקב). Hebrew and Aramaic names were translated into Greek and then into English (and other tongues), resulting in names of different pronunciation than were actually used. Mattityahu became Matthaios and finally Matthew. (No, English speakers did not independently have a name like “John” and then “translated” Yohhanan [Hebrew] or Ioannes [Greek] to the pre-existing John, as if there was some magical lingual match or a “Hey, this name sounds a bit like one of ours” situation! Study the etymology of these names. The only reason John existed in English is because over centuries the name Yohhanan, thanks to the bible, spread beyond Palestine, through other parts of Europe, and finally to the English-speaking world, changing along the way.) If something as simple as names and their pronunciations could change from actual people to written text, and then translation to translation, could other things have changed, too?

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) was shocked to discover for himself the story of Christ and the adulteress (“Let he who is without sin throw the first stone”) is not in our oldest copy of John. He says:

The story is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John; its writing style is very different from what we find in the rest of John (including the stories immediately before and after); and it includes a large number of words and phrases that are otherwise alien to the Gospel. The conclusion is unavoidable: this passage was not originally part of the Gospel.

This is admitted by Biblical scholars and often found in footnotes to John in both physical and online Bibles:

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Likewise, the last 12 verses of the Gospel of Mark are missing in our earliest manuscripts. They end with Mary Magdalene and two women finding the empty tomb and meeting an angel who says Jesus has risen from the dead. The earliest texts end with verse 16:8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Perhaps we can give these texts the benefit of the doubt, and suppose they were included but were lost over time — even though many New Testament scholars admit this is probably not the case, and Biblical footnotes are quite open about the issue:

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In addition, there’s the Comma Johanneum. While later New Testament texts included an explicit mention of a Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8, earlier texts do not. The Latin Vulgate reads:

These are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.

But earlier Greek manuscripts read:

These are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.

Christian sites like Compelling Truth admit:

The evidence for this longer, more direct statement as part of the original text of 1 John, however, is not strong. Its presence was not known in Greek until manuscripts of the fifteenth century. Even then, most versions are found only in Latin translations. The Greek linguist Erasmus did not include this longer ending in his earlier editions of the Greek New Testament, yet included it in later editions (beginning with the third edition) after pressure from the Roman Catholic Church.

Today, some Bibles stick with the original Greek, admitting in footnotes that the later Latin Vulgate speaks of the Trinity but that it’s “not found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century”:

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In addition, as Ian McEwan notes in “The End of the World Blues,” one of the earliest copies we have of Revelations 13:18, the Oxyrhynchus P115, gives the number of the beast as 616, not 666!

The same is true of a few other younger manuscripts (Codex C/04 from the 1500s, for example). So even while Christian writers point out that many more manuscripts contain 666, they must admit that “two equally old papyri have both readings – 666 and 616” — our two oldest papyri, to be specific, both from the 3rd century. A famous bishop named Irenaeus, writing Against Heresies around 175-185 A.D., even had to argue that 666 was the correct number: “I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one.” Whichever number came first is up for debate (perhaps we can trust Irenaeus had seen the original texts or was incapable of error, though we have zero evidence of this), it doesn’t really matter to our purposes here.

What matters is that someone, at some point, changed something. Bibles with errors existed — and still do.

For more of the thousands of changes enacted accidentally (through translation and copy errors) and intentionally (to serve personal preferences and beliefs, and to try to create a consistent doctrine) by Christian scribes and church leaders, see Misquoting Jesus.

When you read the New Testament you may become suspicious right off the bat regarding changes to the stories. The following is more speculative than what we’ve seen thus far, but interesting to think about. Just as the earliest copies of Mark lack the final 12 verses, the book contains no virgin birth story or claim. Jesus first appears as an adult. It may seem odd that Mark, the earliest gospel, did not mention such an incredible, supernatural origin (nor did Paul’s letters, most written even earlier!). That tale isn’t told until several years later, with the Book of Matthew. Believers typically insist that when a gospel doesn’t mention a miracle, speech, or story it’s because it’s covered in another. (When the gospels tell the same stories it’s “evidence” of validity, when they don’t it’s no big deal.) This line only works from the perspective of a later gospel: Luke was written after Matthew, so it’s fine if Luke doesn’t mention the flight to Egypt to save baby Jesus from Herod. Matthew already covered that. But from the viewpoint of an earlier text this begins to break down. It becomes: “No need to mention this miracle, someone else will do that eventually.” So whoever wrote Mark ignored one of the biggest miracles in the life of Jesus, proof of his divine origins? Or did the author, supposedly a disciple, not know about it? Or did gospel writers conspire and coordinate: “You cover this, I’ll cover that later.” Is it just one big miracle, with God ensuring that what was unknown or ignored (for whatever reason, maybe the questionable “writing to different audiences” theory) by one author would eventually make it into a gospel? That will satisfy most believers, but an enormous possibility hasn’t been mentioned. Perhaps the story of Jesus was simply being embellished — expanding over time, like so many other tales and legends (see Why God Almost Certainly Does Not Exist).

Consider a similar example. The last gospel written, John (90-95 AD), is quite different from Mathew, Mark, and Luke (which are called the synoptic gospels because they are more similar in stories and phrasing — scholars suspect plagiarism). Not only does John contain tales and miracles the earlier authors don’t bother to mention, but Jesus is more clear about who he is. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus says he is the messiah (Christ), the Son of Man, and the Son of God (for example, Mark 14:61-62), but nowhere explicitly claims he is God himself. (This is not to say the gospel writers did not believe Jesus to be God himself — Matthew 1:23 gives Jesus a name meaning “God with us” — but rather this is about changes to the words attributed to Jesus, changes to make him more clear about who he was.) As such terms were applied to others who were not believed to be God (angels in Genesis 6:1-2, for example), scholars debate their meaning; one can at best say Jesus only implied oneness or equality with God. Regardless, all agree John is more explicit. Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and “The one who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Jesus refers to himself as “I AM,” the name God called himself with Moses. We know such things were bolder and more explicit because in the gospels the Jews only pick up stones to kill Jesus after he says this in John 8:58-59 — it was more blasphemous. All this raises an obvious question. If Jesus said such bold things (in public, to disciples and observers, not just to John), why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke not bother to include them? Jesus clearly calling himself God is a hugely important statement. The most sensible answer is that the story of Christ was growing more embellished — new words were put in his mouth to clarify once and for all who he was. There were in fact various Christian sects at this time that had different ideas of whether Jesus was God, less than God, just a man, etc. The author of John appears to be joining this debate, and taking a side. See How Jesus Became God, Ehrman.

The scriptures are still changing in substantial ways today, from the English Standard Version making it sound like women are the source of marital conflict to the Christian Standard Bible replacing male-centric language with gender-inclusive language (or “political correctness,” as critics put it). There have also been efforts to make the text less explicitly sexist. For example, most translations of Isaiah 19:16 (NLT, KJV, NASB, ESV, etc.) say that Egyptians will become fearful “like women,” accurately using the original Hebrew word nashim (women), the NIV changes it to “weaklings.” It does the precise same thing with Nahum 3:13.

The places where different translations of the bible substantially change the text are indeed too numerous to list here in full, but one common one is 1 Samuel 6:19, where God either kills 70 people or 50,070 people.

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Another is 1 Chronicles 20:3. Some translations have David putting captives “to work with saws” (NRSV), others say David “cut them with saws” (KJV). The psalmist is either instructed by his heart (NIV), his kidneys (JUB) or reins (KJV), or his mind (NASB) in Psalm 16:7. God has the strength of wild ox (NIV) or unicorn (KJV) in Numbers 24:8 and 23:22. Isaiah 59:5 speaks of either vipers (NIV) or cockatrices (KJV), a mythical dragon creature with legs, plus the head of a rooster. Isaiah 13:21 features either wild goats (NIV) or satyrs (KJV), the mythological half-man, half-beast creature. Multiple versions of Deuteronomy 32:22 say “poison of dragons” instead of “poison of serpents.” The King James Version is older, more seeped in ancient thought (though Job still describes a dragon in any version of Job 41:12-34).

Finally, does Isaiah 7:14 say a virgin will give birth to a son, to be named Emmanuel? Or a young woman? The NAB Revised Edition switched from virgin to young woman, as did the Revised Standard Version and others, to better reflect what biblical scholars mostly agree on: the Hebrew word almah did not have anything to do with virginity in this context. Even devout Christian scholars argue this, further insisting that Isaiah 7:14 is not a prophesy of the messiah at all. How can anyone believe their bible has never been changed when “Revised” is in fact in the title? The latest NRSV contains 20,000 changes.


The Most Interesting Contradiction of All

Finally, a closer look at one of the most fascinating contradictions in the Bible.

The lineages of the Hebrews offered in 1 Chronicles 1-3, Matthew 1:1-17, and Luke 3:23-38 are radically different, in the number of generations between certain people, and the people included. All use the “son of” or “father of” line, and all go back at least to Abraham, winding their way to David and later Joseph along different routes.

Matthew has 28 generations from David and Jesus, whereas Luke has 44. Only a few names in these lists are the same, and different people are given for Joseph’s father (Jacob v. Heli), grandfather (Matthan v. Mathat), great-grandfather (Eleazar v. Levi), and more. 1 Chronicles obviously doesn’t go all the way to Jesus, but after David it includes 5 people Matthew leaves out, and has only 3 people Luke mentions. (We’ll put aside the fact that Jesus, not being Joseph’s biological son, wouldn’t actually be part of David’s bloodline — not through his father’s side of the family, anyway.)

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via The Atheists

Believers think each list was recording something different. Perhaps Matthew was documenting the passing of the rightful title of king (not always biological descendants, some adopted, nor always direct between generations, as some were not worthy of the title and denied it), Luke was documenting Mary’s lineage (using the males, likewise adopted at times), and Chronicles the direct, biological descendants of Adam. 

Plausible enough. After David, the royal line goes one way with one of his sons, Solomon, Mary’s ancestors another way with an unlucky son, Nathan. Different lists, different people. Some people could end up on both lists, like Shealtiel and Zerubabbel, through adoption, marriage, remarriage, incest — the typical shuffling around of family in ancient times. Zerubabbel is called Shealtiel’s son in Matthew, Luke, and elsewhere, but in Chronicles it’s his nephew; believers speculate that Shealtiel adopted Zerubabbel. There is no problem imagining an adopted son, a nephew, would be called “son” in a lineage. 

Believers speculate, further, that a son-in-law would be called a son, so while in Luke it says Joseph was Heli’s son, perhaps he was Heli’s son-in-law, and the actual son of Jacob. They conclude Heli was Mary’s father, and though the Bible doesn’t say this anywhere, it is possible. And again, Christians claim part of the reason why Matthew has so few generations from David to Jesus is because the royal line could be disrupted or delayed, with the crown, literal or figurative, denied.

But questions persist. If you study the lineages closely, you will notice two interesting things:

First, Matthew leaves out 5 kings from Chronicles. Why doesn’t really matter. Believers claim it was no human error (because that’s impossible when it comes to the Bible), that there were valid reasons: 3 of the kings were evil and thus stripped of or denied their royal title, for example.

But perhaps it was on purpose for a different reason. By leaving out names, Matthew is able to say (Matthew 1:17): “All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” Implied in this is some sort of divine significance.

Perhaps it was indeed a miracle that the royal line was disrupted in such a way that led to numerical balance between major events in Jewish history. But it’s possible the author created the pattern, by leaving out people from the Chronicles lineage. It could easily be man’s miracle, not God’s.

Second, Matthew 1:17 essentially speaks of 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus: if you include Abraham’s generation and Jesus’ generation, that’s 14 individual generations in 3 eras, 14 x 3 being 42. Yet he only mentions 41 names, including Abraham and Jesus, in 1:1-16. It’s a mathematical contradiction. If you included Abraham and Jesus and everyone in between in your total time period in Matthew 1:17 (42 generations in all), you should list 42 specific names to match. The names don’t align with the generations.

  • Abraham to David: Verse 1:17 says 14 generations. The name list confirms: Abraham to David, including David, is 14 people.
  • David to Exile (which begins in Josiah’s generation): 1:17 says 14 generations, but you shouldn’t count David twice, in two generations. It must mean after David. So we don’t include David. The list says Solomon to Josiah is 13 people.
  • Exile to Jesus: 1:17 says 14 generations. Obviously, we can’t count Josiah again. Leave him out. Jechoniah to Christ is 14 people.

41 people total.

The only way to get to 42 names between Abraham and Christ (including Abraham and Christ) is to count someone twice. You can count anyone twice, but it’s usually David, since he is mentioned by name in 1:17. One has to say, “David counts for one person, but two generations” to make it all fit. That doesn’t make sense.

More reasonable? The author left someone out accidentally. A human error, dropping his name count to 41. Or perhaps it was a simple miscount of his total. Intentionality, positioning David back-to-back in 1:17 and hoping no one noticed there weren’t actually 42 generations, is possible as well, if less likely.

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God Ordered Abortions

The Judeo-Christian God instructs his followers to do many disturbing and barbaric things, and indeed does many himself, in the bible — mostly in the Old Testament, but to an extent in the New Testament (see Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible).

One interesting decree was in Numbers 5, where God is explaining to Moses how to maintain “The Purity of the Camp,” to quote the chapter title. According to the story, this is when Moses is leading the Hebrews through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, and receives laws of conduct from God at Mount Sinai.

God outlines a way for men to determine if their wives have been unfaithful, and it involves forced abortion for the women who became pregnant due to infidelity.

Women are made to drink a “bitter” “holy water” containing “dust from the Tabernacle floor.” If the woman is innocent of adultery, the water will not harm her. If she is guilty, it will cause her to miscarry, should she be pregnant.

Numbers 5:11-22 (NIV):

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—then he is to take his wife to the priest…

“‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse.

“‘Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”'”

For the people in Moses’ camp, God’s will was for adulterous women to be made to have an abortion, and God himself was the abortion doctor, as the magic potion is presumably magic due only to the power of God. Note that “he makes your womb miscarry” (pronouns for God are not capitalized in the NIV).

The woman, of course, must submit to this without question: “Then the woman is to say, ‘Amen. So be it'” (Numbers 5:22). Unfortunately for her, she may have to do this more than once, as this can occur whenever a man “suspects his wife,” even if there is “no witness,” the act being “undetected” — in other words, when there exists little or no evidence.

One might assume, whether a miscarriage or a swollen abdomen tells the priests and husband she is guilty, the woman will be afterwards put to death, given the law of adultery outlined in the previous biblical book.

For nonbelievers, who imagine God is fictional (like so many other deities), this is just another example of primitive peoples behaving in a primitive way. For believers, forcing suspected adulterers to drink a potion that will allegedly kill a fetus is just another example of a perfectly good, all-loving God behaving in a perfectly good, all-loving way. That is, that this law, like so many other equally disturbing ones, were all a part of God’s Plan, which involved humans being cruel to each other long ago, but loving and merciful in modern times (see Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New).

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