Believers, the Bible, the Internet, and Humanity’s Future

The writer is a blogger who deconverted from Christianity and is frustrated by discussions he has on the internet: Why don’t theists admit they’re wrong?

He’s reacting as I did earlier to the New Yorker article about how no evidence was able to correct false beliefs about vaccines. He notes strategies of religious apologists — faced with logic or evidence against their belief, they change the subject, or move the goalposts — and engages in some honest self-reflection about what could possibly cause him to re-convert. He suggests that in-group thinking (can 2 billion Christians possibly be wrong? [what about however many Muslims?]) and the sunk-cost fallacy, to explain resistance to reason by the faithful. And he goes on, as an example, with what strikes me as a fair description (from a nonbeliever’s perspective) of the Bible:

To paraphrase Sam Harris, there is nothing that is written in the Bible that could not have been conjured up in the minds of the people who wrote it; that is, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever which compels a rational skeptic to accept the claim that some quality of the Bible (it’s supposed cohesiveness, purported prophecies, etc.) was in any way influenced by or the product of any divine being. It’s a hodgepodge of mythology, hagiography, and uncorroborated history, and the overwhelming evidence demonstrates there is no reason to take claims of divine inspiration of ‘scripture’ even remotely seriously.

I think that’s a pretty damning problem for Christianity. This is supposedly the one book gifted to humanity by the all-powerful, all-knowing lord and creator of the universe, and that’s what we got? That’s to say nothing of the bizarre conundrums that are attached to claims of divinity, like why an all-loving God would go out of his way to have a ‘chosen people’, why he would choose people in the tribal Middle East (not exactly a beacon of enlightenment), why he’d tell them to just go around killing everyone else, and why all this stuff pretty much looks exactly as we’d expect it to if it were just a cultural fabrication and not actually a reliable account of history. Clearly, the Bible is much better explained as a product of mundane cultural affairs rather than a miraculous gift from an all-powerful deity.

I have often challenged Christians on this matter, and without exception the first tactical response has always been to shift the goalpost: I cannot disprove the claims of divinity associated with the Bible. Perhaps this or that scripture is meant to be understood in this or that context, etc. etc. And I sit there, flabbergasted. You’re not even close to addressing the central issue, I think to myself. I would think the distinction between providing incontrovertible evidence of divine inspiration and the weasel excuse that divine inspiration can’t be disproved (which is true for literally anything, including this very blog post) is obvious. But the discussion quickly reaches an impasse as we are, to pull from Tim Michin again, operating on completely different assumptions.

(Why would God go out of his way to have a chosen people? Well, obviously, because the authors of the Bible were writing in an era when it was assumed there were multiple gods, one or more for every tribe, and they were advocating their own one god — who had, of course, chosen *them*. Thus the First Commandment. Which doesn’t say “false gods”; it says “other gods”.)

I suspect that the reason the vast majority of people put their faith in the Bible (or any other holy book), and sign on to the local religion where they grow up, is simply that it’s the default position of their family and community. There’s no thought behind it at all. (This is Adam Lee’s Argument from Locality.) If they do think about it, and reflect later in life that while there are many competing religions in the world, all of them necessarily wrong, they must feel so, so lucky that they were born in just the right place to be exposed to the one true religion.

At the same time, there’s not much competition in western culture to the Bible (or its parts), except perhaps the Qur’an. The philosopher A.C. Grayling wrote, a few years ago, a fat volume called The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, composed of patched-together excerpts from many philosophers and other great writers from throughout history, divided into chapters such as “Genesis”, “Wisdom”, “Sages”, “Songs”, and so on, with each sentence assigned a verse number — but without (to my mind a great flaw) attribution of anything to particular authors. The result sacrifices the context of when and why the original authors wrote. Just as, of course, the traditional Bible does. Context should be essential, because knowledge, and wisdom, keeps expanding, as human culture and science grows and expands.

It’s been said that Religion may not survive the internet, and while I think human credulity and self-interest will endure despite the internet, exposure to competing ideas — and to the details of the ideas one has supposedly already signed up for (posts like this one and this one) — will help some of us see through the presumptions and superstitions of the ancient faiths.

The broad perspectives of human history and possible futures, the discoveries of science about the age and scope of the universe, and of the psychological biases the human mind is prey to, are consistent with the notion that religion is a primitive mechanism for dealing with unknowns and with aspects of life beyond human control. Just as a child grows up to learn that the world is not all about them, so might the human race mature over the centuries to live in and understand the universe as it is, not as it was imagined by our illiterate forebears. There are signs every decade and century that this is happening.

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