by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017
I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.
The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?
I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?
This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.
- Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005)
- Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (2009)
- Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011)
- Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012)
- How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014)
- Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (2016)
Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.
Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy. They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.
Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.
Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.
Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.
I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.
When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.
11 thoughts on “Should I Abandon My Bible Study?”
I just ordered Fantasyland the other day…can’t wait. I agree 100% with your post today. I do think you can no longer talk to religious people as their mind is long made up. Same with politics anymore. It must be a form of brainwashing, truly. Study of the brain and certain personalities and life experiences combined with the firing of neurons, synapses and certain areas of the brain differing in size and makeup in people, maybe also even in the genes must attribute to this madness. By madness, I mean a true inability to think in a rational and questioning way and desiring real knowledge and information. Is it fear, guilt, some driven need to fit in or something else?
I guess the question becomes what would you rather spend your time on, something that raises your blood pressure or something that raises your hopes? 🙂
Most fiction or science fiction is not literally true,but is valued for it’s literary merits.Your reasons for reading the Bible,are more epistemological it seems.Should you deny yourself intellectual study,just because of those who regard it as absolute truth?
I think Richard Fahey hit the nail on the head. If your desire is an intellectual pursuit than why deny yourself the opportunity. If your motive is to inform yourself to the point where you are confident enough to engage someone who believes certain things to be true, and convince them otherwise, then I fear your enterprise will bear no fruit. Other than the satisfaction of having tried, and possibly the overall experience, including meeting some great people.
I’ve posted on this general topic before. Belief systems are as human as any other part of our nature, and are a very powerful expression of who we are. One theory has it that denial is one way our self awareness copes with the confusion generated by our complex world. Science (or the scientific method) is another belief system that allows the brain to interpret the real world in a way that makes sense to others. The point is our brain’s will find the most effective way to reconcile what our senses and our self awareness presents to us. Truth is a matter of interpretation.
My guess;….as our already dense complex and sophisticated societies become more so, the level of confusion will increase and brains will constantly seek ways and means to alleviate same. I’m reminded of the voice in the GPS that cuts in when we have lost our way,…recalculating,…recalculating.
After all its a matter of survival and that’s really what its all about.
I think, in green years of humanity, “God” was more or less honest attempt to give relatively “simple” explanation, or perhaps hide something, that was impossible to explain. In those “early days”, I’m sure it was more “faith” than anything else, but as part of the process of “progressive development”, faith transform to the “church” and “church” became, mostly, just a business.
I have started Fantasyland and it is superb!
Well written and researched and with some understated humor.
If people read the real history of all religion and not the dogma, they could not believe the fantasies if they had the slightest skeptical mind
I understand your point of view. I do. I’m a Christian and there are times I don’t want to read the Bible, let alone study it. But I do…to grow. At the end of it all you were doing the same…reading to grow. That desire isn’t futile. Keep it up. Feel free to practice talking to religious people. You can even talk to me if you want.
I agree with Micah. I don’t see how it can be a bad thing to study the Bible as a whole (as opposed to the cherry picking of verses that many Christians engage in) and I welcome conversations with reasonable atheists (not rabid Christian hating ones like Dawkins). The last book I read was the Atheist’s Primer which I read with exactly the same intent as you are studying the bible…understanding. Remember though that Christians in particular and religious people in general don’t place as high a value on rationalism as atheists do. I for example, don’t need a rational explanation for everything, and my best apologetic for my faith in Christ (and his existence) is my personal experience which generally gets rejected by atheists as invalid as evidence for the existence of God. I agree with that, but I am not trying to prove the existence, all I’m doing is saying that I believe, and my faith makes a difference in my life. I’m a better person because I decided a long time ago to follow Jesus. Sure I could have become a better person without Jesus, but thirty odd years ago when I was a drunk and a petty criminal who was obsessed with satisfying his own needs and who eventually came to feel that life was hopeless, Jesus saved me. I didn’t save myself. I could have grown out of such behaviour, but I didn’t, I was rescued. I could have become a better person without Jesus, but that is not what happened in my life.
Anyway, James, keep studying the Bible and keep on engaging constructively with Christians and other assorted deists (available in aisle 5), because in the end we are all stuck in exactly the same boat. We just have a little trouble agreeing on what sea we are floating in and how to reach the shore.
…a perfect example of how belief systems work to increase our potential for survival
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LOL. Where does religion and science fiction meet. My mother sent me to a Catholic school but I started reading SF in 4th grade. SF introduced me to the concepts of atheism and agnosticism. Consequently I chose agnosticism in 7th grade. But things may be more complicated.
Have you encountered The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ? Who were Melchizedek and Enoch? Maybe the Catholic Church has been dishing out BS for centuries and probably believe their own BS.