This post is a long one, which is why it has taken me so long to write it. Please bear with me.
Atheism and Christianity are often viewed as being at odds in the west. They are seen as at war with one another. A lot of this seems to be caused by the theists’ inability to imagine how anyone could not believe in their god, and a lot of it comes from the fact that atheists are actively fighting to create a place for themselves in Western society. However, some of it is caused by how atheists view the Bible.
It is not uncommon for atheists to hear comments like this:
“Recently, I have had a lot of conversations with atheists. Many express a strong hatred of God. I have been at a loss to explain this. How can you hate someone you don’t believe in? Why the hostility? If God does not exist, shouldn’t atheists just relax and seek a good time before they become plant food? Why should it matter if people believe in God? Nothing matters if atheism is true.”
This is a gross misunderstanding of how atheists view the Christian God. For one, criticizing God is not the same as hating God. It is merely saying that the things this God does are not good things. For another, it is possible to criticize someone who you do not believe to be real. For example, In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel’s favorite author turns out to be a very rude and cynical man. It is perfectly fine to criticize him for being a jerk to two teenagers who are dying. However, saying that he’s a jerk does not mean that you believe he exists. The same can be said of God. I can say that the things God does in the Bible are terrible without actually believing that he exists. There is also the misunderstanding of how much Christianity actually affects the atheists who are criticizing God. There seems to be this assumption that we are just looking for reasons to hate Christianity. This is not the case. Atheists don’t just “relax and seek a good time” because we do not live in a vacuum. Believe it or not, your actions affect us. And your actions are influenced by your beliefs. You think the Bible is against homosexuality? That affects your belief that homosexuality should be illegal. That means that you believe that your religious views should be imposed on everybody regardless of whether or not they are a member of your religion. Same with the view that abortion is wrong that is caused by your belief that all people are made in the image of God. If your actions come from your religious views, and your actions involve imposing your beliefs on others through the creation of laws, then you are affecting the lives of others. As a result, we must fight to hold on to the right to be free from your religion. And no, atheists do not believe that nothing matters. Atheism is not synonymous with nihilism (more on this later).
A lot of Christians are curious about how to convince an atheist that God exists. They will ask questions like “What if I can logically prove that God exists?” The biggest problem with these logical proofs is that you must come up with a clear definition of exactly what you mean by “God” before you can go anywhere. A lot of philosophical arguments that go out to prove that God exists assert that they show the Christian God exists, but, in reality, they can only show that a god exists. That is, provided you find them convincing. Some Christians may reply to this by saying “Everyone already knows that when I say ‘God’ I mean the Christian God!” But this is definitely not the case. There are many different religions that exist that have very different ideas of what a god is. And even how many gods there are. And even if everybody did know that you meant the Christian God, that doesn’t mean that they know what you mean when you say “God.” Christians often disagree about what God’s personality is. Is he wrathful or loving? Does he hate homosexuality or does he not care? Does he send people to hell for not believing in him or not? How is your God defined? An atheist might not know what you mean when you talk about God because they may have a very different conception of God than you do. At this point, it is necessary to define what “God” means. I find that a lot of people ask us what we mean when we say “God.” As atheists, this is a difficult thing to define. There are many different types of gods, and I don’t believe in any of them. So what do I mean? I mean a large number of things: creator of the universe, omnipotent, omniscient creature, intelligent cause of morality above humans, superhuman agent with magical powers, etc. Really, my definition changes depending on who I’m talking to. But atheists aren’t the only ones who need to define what they mean by “God.” Just because you say you’re a Christian, that does not mean that I know what your definition of “God” is. You too must define your terms before we can take the discussion any farther. Once we have our definitions known, then a person can attempt to logically prove that God exists. Many of the current logical arguments for God do not define what they mean by God, so, even if they could logically prove that a god existed, they wouldn’t be proving that their god existed. Take the Kalam Cosmological argument, for example. This argument does not define which god exists, so, even if you take the argument as true, we’re still left with the question “which god?” As far as I’m concerned, even after centuries of philosophical arguments, there are no convincing logical arguments for any god’s existence. This leads a number of theists to conclude that we could never be convinced that gods exist, and that we are just determined to not believe. This is not true. Our having not yet been convinced does not mean that we can never been convinced. However, being as we think we’re right, we don’t think we will ever be convinced. However, this is irrelevant to the Bible itself.
So why don’t atheists agree with the Bible. I find this to be the most important question to focus on, because this seems to be what confuses Christians the most where the Bible is concerned. The reasons why we don’t agree with the Bible is because we don’t think it’s accurate. In Genesis 1:16 it said that God made two great lights. The greater light is said to govern the day and the lesser light is said to govern the night. God is then said to have made the stars. God apparently set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth. However, we know that the stars would have given light to the earth immediately, even though the closest star beyond our sun, Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light years away. The light we see from the nearest galaxy to our own, Andromeda Galaxy, takes 2.2 million years to reach earth. That fact alone debunks the argument that the earth is only 6,000-10,000 years old (assuming you’re a creationist). It doesn’t take much to realise that this bit of the Bible is not accurate. But the scientific inaccuracies aren’t the only reason why atheists do not agree with the Bible. In Genesis 1:11-12 and 1:26-27 the trees are said to have come before Adam, but Genesis 2:4-9 says that the trees came after Adam. If the Bible is simply a metaphor, then this bit can be explained away as holding some deeper meaning. But if it’s not, if this was actually meant to have happened, then these inconsistencies are a real problem. Did the trees come before or after Adam? Genesis 1:20-21 and 26-27 says that the birds were created before Adam, but Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 says they were created after him. Genesis 1:24-27 says that the animals were created before Adam (because apparently birds aren’t animals?), but Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 says that the animals were created after Adam. Genesis 1:26-27 says that Adam and Eve were created at the same time, but Genesis 2:7 and 2:21-22 says that Adam was created first and Eve came sometime later. As a kid, I never learned the “they came at the same time” story. We were only ever taught that Adam came first and Eve was created from his rib because Adam felt lonely. This is a problem to me. Ignoring the inconsistency seems more problematic than addressing it, because it comes across as dishonest. And why go with that narrative. The “created at the same time” narrative seems far less problematic. Than again, if you want to tell women that they aren’t the equals of men, it makes far more sense to go with the story where women were only created to support men. On top of inconsistencies, there are also bit within Genesis that simply don’t make sense. In Genesis 1:31 God is said to be pleased with his creation but at Genesis 6:5-6 God was not pleased with his creation. So which is it? And how can an all knowing, all powerful God create something that they aren’t pleased with? And at Genesis 2:3 God is said to have blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. But in the Christian religion, God is generally said to be omnipotent. What did an omnipotent being require rest for? Genesis 2:16-17 says that God said to Adam that he was free to eat from any tree in the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why would God place temptation in front of two essentially naïve children? And why would he allow them to be tempted by the serpent? If God is all knowing, then he would have to know about the serpent and what it was planning or doing.
Genesis 3:1 says that the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals, and he told Eve that she could eat from any tree in the garden, including the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A talking snake is bad enough. But why would God bother creating the snake to be clever enough to trick the humans? Was he intending for the snake to trick them?
The Noah’s Ark story has its own set of problems. To begin with, according to Genesis 7:6, Noah was six hundred years old when the flood waters came down. And Noah entered the Ark with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives to escape the waters of the flood. So…eight people who were hundred of years old in the Bronze-Age built a ship the size of a football stadium with only felled trees and pitch? And they fit two of all the worlds animals on it? How did that work? In Genesis 6:19 it says that Noah was to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Genesis 7:19-20 states that the waters covered all the high mountains under the entire heavens. The waters apparently rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. According to science, constant, planet-wide, rainfall at the rate of 6 inches per minute or 360 inches an hour for 40 days and 40 nights would be required to cover Mount Everest under 22 feet of water. How did Noah even measure this for the record? And where has all of the water gone since? Then, in Genesis 8:8, Noah is said to have sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. Why did Noah require a dove to find land if he were able to speak to God to find out the state of the planet? At Genesis 8:15-16 God ordered Noah to leave the ark with the animals so they could multiply on the earth. When the ark landed, what did the carnivores eat? Creationists often tell us that the animals were all herbivores in the garden, but, after the fall, the meat eaters began to eat meat. This suggests that they must have been carnivores before they got on the ark. So what did they eat? And vegetation would have been destroyed by the flood, so what did the herbivores eat when they landed? God then tells Noah and his family to “be fruitful and multiply” in Genesis 9:1. So…eight people of middle-eastern descent had children through incest and produced over 5,000 of today’s ethnic groups in a few hundred generations? How did that work? Later, in Genesis 9:20, Noah is said to have planted a vineyard, then he drank some of the wine and became drunk and lay naked inside his tent. Why would the supposedly only guy worth saving spend his latter days drunk and naked? And why would this be worth cursing his son’s family over.
The Old Testament isn’t the only part of the Bible with problems. According to Matthew 1:20, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” This sounds like Joseph and Mary got married and had sex, then Mary got pregnant. It’s not so much that Mary was a virgin as it is that God blessed their child. But in Luke 1:28 it says that in the sixth month, God sent Gabriel to Nazareth to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin was Mary. Gabriel went said to Mary “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” So, in this scenario, Mary is a virgin who is not yet married, and the angle speaks to her directly. So who did the angle speak to first? And was Mary an unmarried virgin or not? The virgin bit is further confused when Isaiah 7:14 says that God will give a sign in the form of a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son named Immanuel. And Matthew 1:23 says the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son named Immanuel. This is interesting because the Greek Septuagint, which Matthew used, translates as “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” but the Hebrew word “almah” means “young woman of marriageable age,” not a virgin. So was Mary a virgin or just a young woman about to marry?
And what about the trip to Bethleham? Luke 2:1-3 says that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to their own town to register. Why would the Emperor bother with a census? And why would they make everyone go back to their home towns if they didn’t still live in them? And why doesn’t Matthew mention the census Jesus’ birth is also questionable. In Matthew 2:11, it says that upon coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But Luke 2:7 says she gave birth to her first-born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Which is it? Was Jesus born in a house or a barn? In Matthew 2:1-2 it says that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” But Luke 2:15 says as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. So was it magi or shepherds who went to meet the baby Jesus?
What about righteousness? In Genesis 7:1 it says that God said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.” And Job 2:3 says that God said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” Likewise, Luke 1:6 says that both of them [Zachariah and Elizabeth] were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. James 5:16 says confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 1 John 3:7 says do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. But Romans 3:10 says “There is no one righteous, not even one.” So there are righteous people, but no one is righteous? What about Jesus’ crucifixion? Mark 15:25 says it was the third hour, and they crucified him. But John 19:14-16 says it was the preparation of the Passover, and about the sixth hour: and he [Pilate] saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. So when was he killed?
These aren’t the only Biblical passages that lead people to question the Bible, but, as you can see, the accuracy of the Bible is questionable. You could argue that the inconsistencies are some kind of metaphor, but what is the metaphor? And why use a metaphor? But, if you think that the Bible is truly the inerrant word of God, how do you explain these inconsistencies? And why should I believe that the Bible was written as anything other than a fable created by people given the evidence that I have?
According to an article written by Chris Hallquist:
“One place where it’s worth saying a little more, though, is the issue of the historical reliability of the Bible. Or at least the New Testament. It seems that most people have gotten the word that the books of the Old Testament…may well have been written centuries after the events in them supposedly happened, so they’re not really historically trustworthy.
Many Christians, though, seem to just assume that the New Testament is historically reliable…It’s as if they expect atheists to agree, without any argument, that the Bible can be trusted.
“So let me say this very clearly: the vast majority of non-Christians…don’t regard the Bible as historically reliable…
“The Bible is divided into books. The majority of these books were actually inherited by Christianity from Judaism, and Christians call them the ‘Old Testament,’ though Jews don’t like that term. The books specific to Christianity are called the ‘New Testament.’
Different groups of Christians disagree about which Jewish books should be accepted into the Bible, but pretty much all Christians agree on the same twenty-seven books for the New Testament. The first four of these are the gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The next book is the book of Acts, an account of the early Christian church. After Acts are twenty-one letters, or epistles, attributed to leaders of the early church. And finally, there’s the famously weird book of Revelation.
“Nobody knows exactly when these books were written, but they’re generally dated to the first century A.D. on the Christian calendar. Since some people have misconceptions about the Christian calendar, here’s how it’s supposed to work: the year 1 B.C. was supposed to be the last year before Jesus’ birth, while the year 1 A.D. was supposed to be the first year after Jesus’ birth. There was no year 0…
“There are some problems with this. First, it’s generally thought that Dionysius Exiguus, the monk who came up with the B.C./A.D. system in the 6th century, he was a bit off in adding up the years. Second, outside of conservative Christian circles, it’s generally recognized that the gospels give inconsistent information about when Jesus was born. Still, it’s generally thought that Jesus was born within a few years of 1 B.C/1 A.D. So to say the books of the New Testament were written in the first century A.D. is to say they were written within 100 years or so of Jesus’ birth…
“It’s generally thought the books of the New Testament, in addition to having been written in the first century A.D., are the oldest surviving Christian writings. That is not to say Christians wrote nothing else in the first century, just that none of those other writings survived. Now that may not be quite right—there may be a little overlap between when the last books of the New Testament were written, and when the earliest surviving non-Biblical Christian writings were written—but it’s probably at least close to being right, close enough for our purposes.
“In addition to not knowing exactly when the books of the New Testament were written, we don’t know who wrote most of them. Certainly they were not all written by the same person. The gospels were traditionally attributed to apostles or companions of apostles, but this is widely doubted among mainstream scholars today. The authorship of most of the epistles is seriously doubted by mainstream scholars, but most scholars are confident that a number of the epistles attributed to the apostle Paul really were written by him.
“A final important point about basic New Testament scholarship is that the books of the New Testament were almost certainly not written in the order in which they appear in modern Bibles. In particular, even though the gospels appear first, they were very likely written after Paul’s (authentic) epistles: Paul’s maybe wrote in the 50′s, while there’s a good chance the gospels weren’t written until the 70′s or later (but again, we don’t really know).
“Now, in Christianity, usually when you hear someone called an “apostle” it means they were a follower of Jesus during his life. But Paul claimed the status of apostle based on his claim that Jesus had appeared to him after his death and supposed resurrection.
“So Paul’s (authentic) letters may be a good source of information about the early church as Paul knew it, if you take into account that Paul was taking a side in fights within the early church and that may have distorted his reporting. But Paul was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, and in fact says very little about the life of Jesus. That means that, in the eyes of almost all informed non-Christians, and may more liberal Christian Biblical scholars, the Bible contains no eyewitness reporting on Jesus’ life…
“The authors of the New Testament could easily have been just writing down legends about Jesus, and there’s good reason to think in many cases they were. The accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, for example, are both outlandish and hard if not impossible to reconcile with each other.
If you want a good introduction to how informed non-Christians, as well as many Christians, view the Bible, I strongly recommend Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted. (Ehrman has written many excellent popular books on the Bible, but I’d start there.) But here, my goal is just to get you to understand that when Christian apologist Josh McDowell calls it an “obvious observation” that the New Testament is historically reliable, he looks completely ridiculous to anyone with a basic knowledge of Biblical scholarship.”
I added this large section of Chris’s work because I hear quite regularly that the Bible is historically accurate, and that no historians question the accuracy of the Bible. I also hear that the Jesus story is historically accurate (which is funny given that history classes don’t teach about miracles). I don’t know where the apologists who make these claims get them, though I’d imagine that they get them from something not made for thinking. However, I can guarantee that it is a lie. There is no historical event from ancient history that all historians are in agreement on. To suggest that all historians agree on the accuracy of the Bible is the first clue that the claim is a lie. The second clue is that it isn’t one typically made by historians (I know of an “historian” who has made this claim, but he has also been discredited as a historian for plagiarism). This is the second clue that the claim is a lie. In fact, as a history student, I’ve heard more historians, including Christian ones, discuss the inaccuracies of the Bible then I have heard making claims about the accuracy of it. So, before you go claiming that all historians accept the Bible as historically accurate, please do some research. The book listed above is a good place to start. As are some of Bart’s other books. And you can also look into Richard Carrier, another historian who focuses on the historicity of Jesus. Thomas L. Thompson, Kathleen Kenyon, John Dominic Crossan, Ed Parish Sanders, all of whom are Christians and Biblical Scolars, and William G. Dever.
Before I finish this very long post, I have one more bit to add. While doing the research for this post, I came across an awesome plea from a young atheist to Christians. Here it is:
“I have read the bible from cover to cover. How many people can actually say that? I will admit that I have forgotten many of the small details and even some of the major events, but at one time my eyes did glaze over the entire thing.
“At school, I once had a girl in my class ask why I knew so much about Christianity. When I told her, she was astounded that an Atheist knew anything about her precious little religion, and could not bring herself to find any reason at all that I could be capable of not believing in her god, had I read all of his wondrous miracles in the bible.
“What is considered a wondrous miracle anyway? I’ll admit that the ability to turn water into wine is pretty cool, but it seems like that should be a magical spell in some Harry Potter type book with an alcoholic wizard.
“And then there is Kings 2: 23-24 ‘And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.’
“I guess if you are the bald man, the death of those who made fun of you for something you can’t help is a miracle, but it really isn’t fair to the kids. The reason we cannot even legally drink until we 21 is because children’s brains are not even totally developed until they are 21. God made us right? He is all knowing… so doesn’t he know they were just using their underdeveloped child brains to make the stupid decision of making fun of a chosen one of God? I mean, if anything, it is God’s fault that they made fun of the man. He made them to have underdeveloped brains!
“This is just one example of the many absolutely insane things that are written in the bible. I promise you that the language the bible is written in was made to bore, but if you want a violent story or just a little comedy, you can find it in your bible.
“But back to the original question of how I can read about the wondrous miracles of God and be an Atheist. It’s easy, all I had to do was actually read the miracles, and after reading them I don’t know how anyone could be Christian knowing what they say they think is true.
“So I encourage you to go out, whoever you are, whatever religion you are: read about your own religion, and read about someone else’s too. Maybe you will realize that you have wasted years listening to someone scam for your money, or maybe you become convinced that you have found the true answer. But at the very least, you will know a little more about the world. As the motto goes, knowledge is power.”
Atheists are often accused of not reading the Bible and of not understanding it. This gets very annoying very quickly. No, not all atheists read the Bible. In fact, most don’t. But most Christians don’t either. So accusing atheists of not doing something that most Christians don’t do is hypocritical. If I can’t know that I don’t believe in God until I’ve read the Bible, how can a Christian know that they do believe in God if they haven’t read the Bible? But it’s also a silly assumption to make. After all, a lot of atheists read the Bible despite the fact that they aren’t Christians and it makes no difference to their lives. This trend is why I added this last bit to my post. First, I want to point out that, yes, I can know I’m an atheist without reading the Bible. Second, it is hypocritical to charge atheists with not reading a book most Christians don’t read, especially when it is a book that has more relevance to Christians then to atheists. And third, the fact that I interpret the Bible differently than you do doesn’t mean my interpretation is less valid than yours. Please stop telling me that “I just don’t understand.” Maybe I understand better than you do. Or maybe we’re both wrong. Your assumption that you are right is not proof that you’re right, and the fact that you think it’s true and I disagree isn’t proof that I’m wrong.