Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Either way, Christianity shoots itself in the the face of nonbelievers

One of my wife's atheist friends posted this article on his Facebook page. It's...not a good read from the perspective of a nonbeliever. Let's first go through Mr. Lose's points.
  1. "Nowhere does the Bible claim to be inerrant."

  2. This is most likely true. However, the author goes on to make some damaging statements.
    We normally use the language of inspiration in just this way, describing a painting, a performance of Chopin, or even a good lecture as inspired.
    While he did not say it or likely intend it, he essentially puts the Bible on the same level as a "painting, performance of Chopin," etc. The Bible becomes no different than any other piece of art; it's nothing particularly special. (And I frankly couldn't agree more!)
    There is no hint that the authors of the Bible imagined that what they were writing was somehow supernaturally guaranteed to be factually accurate. Rather, biblical authors wrote in order to be persuasive, hoping that by reading their witness you would come to believe as they did (see John 20:30-31).
    ...Because there is nothing more persuasive than texts that are not factually accurate!!! All kidding aside, he does actually have a bit of a point because humans, unfortunately, tend to be persuaded by presentation more than facts. Someone with good presentations skills could possibly convince people that shit smells like roses (***EDIT*** By the way, you can take this both literally AND metaphorically. Can you guess what the intended metaphor is?) in situations where the target audience has never smelled both. However, for people who are more analytical like myself, we are more persuaded by the facts. Just take a look at the passage he referenced: "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." This and any of these signs that are written are unimpressive to the analytical. I need some good reason to believe the author isn't just making stuff up, wasn't tricked (including being tricked by himself), or hallucinating. ...This is all assuming that the authors were indeed trying to persuade like Lose suggests. (How he figures he can determine the intent of the authors is a question that should be asked here.)

  3. "Reading the Bible literally distorts its witness."

  4. In itself, this makes no sense. Thinking about it, it reminded me of this scene from "My Cousin Vinny":

    Magic Grits My Cousin Vinny —

    When the guy (who I will be calling Mr. Grits throughout this post) was cooking grits, he wasn't literally cooking grits! That 5 minutes was a metaphor for how time flies when one is cooking grits! Taking him literally distorts his witness!

    I hope that helps clear up the problem here if it were not obvious before. We expect witness testimonies to be as accurate as possible and we expect them to be literal! Though the movie is fictional, the consequences of errant testimony, in this case, sending innocent men to jail, are real.

    We shortly find the real reason for this point: "Inconsistencies..." As with the "My Cousin Vinny" example, inconsistencies in testimony are damaging to the testimony. Likewise, inconsistencies in the Bible are damaging to the testimony, as they should be. So, this second reason turns out to also be a true statement.

    HOWEVER, the problem is that this is not a good reason. Never mind that Mr. Grits was off on the time it takes to cook his grits. He still saw the defendants go into and run out of the store. That's all that really matters, right? There is no need to discount his testimony over a small discrepancy like the time to cook grits. ...Right? For anyone who is familiar with the movie, Mr. Grits likely saw different people leave the store, and those different people are the actual guilty party. We should be taking his testimony literally and criticizing it for any inaccuracies. So why should the Bible be treated differently? It shouldn't, and the author fails to give us a reason to treat it differently.
    But if the primary intention of the biblical authors was not to record history -- in the post-Enlightenment sense we take for granted today -- but instead to confess faith, then these differences are not troubling inconsistencies to be reconciled but rather helpful clues to understanding the confession of the author.
    OK, good for them for confessing their faith. I don't really care, much like I don't care about Mr. Grits confessing that he saw the defendants enter and leave the store. What I want to know is if what Mr. Grits or the gospel authors are confessing is true. No amount of "faith" that they had in their witness is going to convince me of that. Accurate testimony, on the other hand, would be nice (though ultimately not convincing in itself, as witness testimony isn't very reliable from the beginning). Inaccurate testimony, however, is going to raise my doubt level. To use another analogy, what if you had a history book that said George Washington was the first President of the United States, but said he was only president for one month because he was assassinated. Wouldn't you become suspect about every other so-called fact that book presents?

  5. "Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally."

  6. Before Martin Luther, most Christians didn't have access to the Bible!!! So, this is another factually correct point, but not for the reason Lose implies (therefore it is a misleading statement). And his explanation doesn't help any.
    Earlier Christians -- along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity -- simply didn't imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate, a concern only advanced after the Enlightenment.
    I'm confused as to what he is trying to say here. Is he suggesting that pre-Enlightenment Christians were wiser than those that have lived between the Enlightenment and today? Is he suggesting that we are silly to think that "something [has] to be true to be factually accurate"? For those early Christians, they didn't need Mr. Grits' testimony to be factually accurate to be true! Now, in a moment of fairness, Mr. Grits scould have been wrong about the time between seeing who he thought were the defendants enter and leave the store (the time it took to cook his grits) and the part about seeing the defendants still could have been right. Likewise, that history book could be accurate on pretty much everything else besides George Washington's presidency. However, the whole problem with Lose's argument here is that he is suggesting, using the analogies, that we should not be discrediting Mr. Grits testimony at all just because he got his grit cooking time wrong, nor should we be discrediting that history book. Need I explain again how wrong this is?

    The last sentence is also damning. It reads, "As Karl Barth, arguably the twentieth century's greatest theologian, once said, 'I take the Bible too seriously to read it literally.'" Let's change this sentence around a little to see if it really makes sense. - "I take the Koran too seriously to read it literally." - "I take Mr. Grits too seriously to take him literally." Hopefully I am beating a dead horse at this point and need not explain any more.

  7. "Reading the Bible literally undermines a chief confession of the Bible about God."

  8. In short, the argument is that the heroes of the Bible are flawed, so we should expect the writings of the Bible to be flawed, too. For the most part, it is a reasonable argument. However, it has the same problems of #1 in that he is admitting that the Bible is no better than any other writings. Lose also asks a very silly question: "Why, then, treat the Bible itself differently?" He then goes on to say, essentially, that the Bible "bear[s] an extraordinary message." This would seem to answer his own question of why the Bible should be treated differently, yet he fails to recognize this problem. And in case you can't yet see it, I'll make it clear. If there is this extraordinary message to deliver, why is this god using ordinary means to deliver this message? Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this god exists, it would seem it either doesn't really care that much about the delivery of this message or is incompetent. (Of course, if this god doesn't literally send non-believers to a hell because hell is a metaphor, and likewise no one literally goes to heaven because heaven is a metaphor, then delivering that message isn't all that important anyway, I suppose...even if Lose considers it "extraordinary." On that, I wonder what Lose thinks of heaven and hell. Are those the parts of the Bible we are supposed to take literally, in his opinion?) Let's also not forget that these ordinary means we are talking about were ordinary 2000 years ago, and don't live up to today's standards for a non-fictional book!

    On a side note, I ask all Christians to remember this the next time one of your own criticizes Islam because they claim Mohammad was a pedophile. As Islam has Abraham and Moses as characters in its story, you can just say that Allah "chooses ordinary vessels to bear an extraordinary message."

In summary, Christianity shoots itself in the foot when Christians suggest to take the Bible literally due to the errors in the book. But, it still shoots itself in the foot by suggesting that a person can overlook the errors by not taking the Bible literally because this causes (or should cause) it to lose credibility.

Though, this is only in regards to non-believers, especially ones with good (for humans) critical thinking and reasoning skills. For anyone who read Lose's post, you may have noticed that his target audience does not include non-believers. He's only targeting people who already believe (though he does claim the goal of the Biblical authors is to persuade). Going back to the "My Cousin Vinny" analogy, this would be like the prosecutor addressing members of the jury who believe the defendants to be guilty to overlook the errors in Mr. Grits testimony. "Sure, Mr. Grits was incorrect about the time it took to cook his grits, but he was still correct about seeing the defendants enter and leave the store!" Such an argument would likely allow the jurors to keep their belief in the defendants' guilt. However, it would do little, if any, to persuade those who do not believe the defendants to be guilty. Likewise, for his audience, Lose's post is probably helpful for Christianity in terms of those who believe but not for those who don't.
- "Sure, Genesis doesn't accurately describe the formation of the universe, but it is still correct that God created it!"
- "Sure, the gospels disagree on who saw Jesus at the tomb after His resurrection, but they are still correct that Jesus was resurrected!"
And so on. Believers will gobble this up, but non-believers like myself look at this and think, "Wait a minute! How can we be sure the resurrection is correct when all the other details are wrong?" Likewise, with Mr. Grits, how can we be sure he saw the defendants leave after he was wrong about the time? We can't. To do otherwise is cherry picking.

Consider the other possibility (in terms of the analogy -- literal vs. not literal/metaphorical) that the prosecution tells the jury that Mr. Grits' testimony was inerrant after Vinny clearly demonstrates it to not be. How might a juror (again, one who already believes the defendants to be guilty) react to that? They may still cling to their belief that the defendants are guilty or this may rattle that belief if they recognize that the prosecution is out of touch with reality.

And that is the best reason of all for Christians to not take the Bible literally -- to preserve belief!

Other resources:
Jerry Coyne had done a breakdown of this piece, too. It goes more into St. Augustine, a person I didn't cover because (1) I don't know a lot about Augustine and (2) I didn't find it necessary, even if Lose was correct about Augustine, because his other reasonings were flawed regardless. But, for those who are curious, I recommend checking it out.

Finally, this post seems to really call for the following Mr. Deity video. Enjoy!

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