Atheists' problem with the Bible

Published: Sunday | September 13, 2009

Ian boyne

In editorials, the Gleaner, among others, has slapped successive governments for pandering to the Church on casino gaming, forfeiting multiple millions which could have been pumped into our anaemic economy. Many women are forced to undergo unsafe abortions, some even die, just because the Government fears offending the Church by changing our abortion laws, pro-choice advocates lament.

Christians recite biblical texts to justify their moral positions, but is the Bible a good guide to morality? Sure, there are some select passages regularly quoted about loving our neighbours, doing good to even enemies, looking after the poor, etc, but are there many passages which preachers conveniently ignore and about which many Christians are ignorant? A major part of the arsenal of the militant New Atheists whom we have been profiling in these columns is the Bible itself - This two-edged sword which is now increasingly being turned against the Christians themselves!

grotesque biblical God

A number of the New Atheists, including the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett - quote many biblical texts which they say demonstrate a grotesque biblical God. The New Atheists employ a variety of methods in their unholy war against Christianity. They draw on science and evolutionary theory; history (showing the barbarities Christians have committed in the name of God); sociology, showing how Christian teachings have victimised minorities such as blacks, women and gays; philosophy, showing the implausibility of the God hypothesis and attempting to demonstrate that all the classic proofs of God's existence have failed; and also the Bible itself to show that it is riddled with contradictions, historical inaccuracies, absurdities and atrocities.

Never before has such a wide range of armaments been used in the war against Christianity. And there are historical factors which have come together to produce this perfect storm for the atheists - globalisation has shrunk the world, exposing more people to the rich diversity of beliefs and values; migration across regions has brought different religious ideas, holy books and traditions in contact and conflict.

People now get to ask: What's so special about our beliefs and sacred texts? How more inspired is the Bible than the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Sanskrit texts, the writings of Bahaullah or Swedenborg? Radical Islam and its use of terrorism has also heightened people's revulsion to fanatical religion and blind devotion to holy texts.

In addition, biblical scholarship itself has significantly undermined belief in the Bible as the authoritative word of God. Unknown to most people is the fact that their pastor, if he is in mainline Christianity (like Methodists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics or Presbyterians and even evangelical churches), is likely not to see the Bible the way congregants do.

Many pastors preaching on a Sunday don't believe the Bible is God-breathed the way members uneducated in theology do. But they are not telling. In the latest of his books showing how unreliable the Bible and orthodox Christianity are, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, Bart Ehrman, fundamentalist-pastor-turned-atheist, and still distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says: "Most Americans are almost completely in the dark about what scholars have been saying about the Bible for the past two centuries. This is because many pastors who learned this material in seminary have, for a variety of reasons, not shared it with their parishioners once they take up positions in the Church."

discredited claim

So militant atheists have drawn on the work of professional biblical scholars and theologians themselves who since the 19th century have cast serious doubt on the authenticity of the Christian scriptures. Then, there are the archaeological works which have discredited the Bible's claim to being historically accurate. Archaeologists have rejected the story of the Exodus, the patriarchal narratives (that Abraham, Jacob and Isaac were real persons) etc. (though it must be mentioned that there are conservative archaeologists who have contested the claims of liberal archaeologists.)

Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, in their two best-selling works promoting the New Atheism, draw on some of the texts one encounters in atheistic literature questioning the Bible as a basis of morality.

How can we use the Bible to judge whether we should accept homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, abortion or gambling if we can't take it as authoritative in dealing with slavery, for example? The Bible, in both old and new testaments, charge the atheists, accepts and condones slavery and even tells Christians to obey their slave masters and don't chat back to them but please them as unto Christ. This is reprehensible as a moral treatise, say the atheists (and some Christians are quietly embarrassed over these texts).

Says Hitchens in his book, god is Not Great: "The Bible may indeed and does contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it for it is put together by crude, uncultured human mammals." Christians get ballistic over statements like these! But Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, gives actual quotes from the Christians' own Bible to prove his point that the Bible is barbaric.

Noah's willingly offering to hand over his two daughters to a group of ravenous men knocking down his door (Genesis 19:7-8) is seen as grossly obscene. Lot did the same thing. Judges 19 has a particularly chilling story of a gang rape and a brutal, dastardly murder: "He took a knife and laid on his concubine and divided, together with her bones, into 12 pieces and sent her into all the coasts of Israel." Talk about X-rated content!

A story which has been celebrated by both Jews and Christians for millennia is also cited by Dawkins in The God Delusion as grotesque: God's asking his servant Abraham to slit his son's throat - and the man of God agreeing and setting about to do it. What acts will religious people not do? cry the atheists in disgust.

insult to human dignity

It reminds me of what the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steen Weinberg said: "Religion is an insult to human dignity. Either with or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and bad people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion." And Dawkins quotes the philosopher Pascal as saying, "Men never do evil completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

Dawkins talks about passages where God orders that even women and children - even hapless beasts - were to be slaughtered. The Canaanites were not only uprooted from their land, but slaughtered - by God's edict. These things are deeply repulsive to many people and the New Atheists seize upon them with much emotional effect. Joshua 6: 21 says under Joshua's leadership, the Israelites "utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass, with the edge of the sword."

Asks Dawkins: "Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral rectitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it?" When, for example, Christians vehemently point out that homosexuals were killed under Old Testament law, showing how heinous homosexuality is, people like Dawkins point out that the Old Testament also prescribed the death penalty for cursing one's parents, adultery, premarital sex, witchcraft and even Sabbath-breaking.

rhetorically effective

In a major essay in the Christian philosophical journal Philosophia Christi, Paul Copan, professor of philosophy and ethics and Christian apologist, takes on the New Atheists in a piece titled, 'Is Yahweh a Moral Monster: The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics' (Vol 10, No. 1, 2008). Admits Copan: "The new atheists are certainly rhetorically effective, but they have not handled all the biblical texts with proper care."

Yet their arguments are taking on much traction and are getting much play in the Big American media, including the leading magazines and newspapers. (My purpose in this series is not primarily to give rebuttals, but to acquaint you with what the new atheists are saying.)

God saves the Israelites, but kills all the innocent Egyptian firstborn on that first Passover night (and then do their little souls burn in hell forever?) Psalm 137 talks about dashing little ones against the rock. How do Christians deal with these moral dilemmas? That's what the New Atheists are asking.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at or

The Bible has been criticised for its passages that endorse slavery. - File