Why Does the Bible Now Seem Foolish?

The eminent scientist Stephen Jay Gould writes:

But if we laugh with derision, we will never understand. Human intellectual capacity has not altered for thousands of years so far as we can tell. If intelligent people invested intense energy in issues that now seem foolish to us, then the failure lies in our understanding of their world, not in their distorted perceptions. [My emphasis.]

This comes from “Wide Hats and Narrow Minds,” about a 19th-century French fascination with hat size as a potential way of determining brain size — in the context of exploring any possible connection between brain size and intelligence. But Gould’s point, it seems to me, applies here as well.

Apparently intelligent people over the past 30 centuries invested intense energy in writing and promulgating the Bible. Yet their efforts seem foolish to many today.

Is this because the people involved with the Bible were not as intelligent as they appear? Is this because Gould was wrong? Or have the people to whom the Bible seems foolish misunderstood the ancient world that produced it?


How Not to Learn from The Bible

Dr. Richard Dawkins opens chapter 7 of his The God Delusion with the unsupported declaration that there are only “two ways in which scripture might be a source of morals.” One is by “direct instruction,” he writes, the other by “example.” Though this approach is widespread, it strikes me as incredibly naive.

In chapter 31 of my The Bible Doesn’t Say That, I draw an analogy to a well-known story about young George Washington who didn’t lie when asked about cutting down his father’s cherry tree.

The original source of that story is the 1800 publication by Parson Mason Locke Weems called The Life of George Washington; With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. In that account, George Washington’s father asks, “Do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?” George replies, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”

From the title of the book (“…Exemplary to His Young Countrymen”) we know that this is a book of stories with morals; we also know that George here is “honourable.”

But that obviously doesn’t mean that the moral of this story is to cut down cherry trees with a hatchet, the way George Washington did. Nor does it mean that we should destroy that which is most valuable to our fathers, the way George Washington did. And it doesn’t mean that cutting down trees or destroying property is honorable, in spite of the title of the book. Those are obviously absurd ways to read the story.

Rather, the moral is to tell the truth, that is, to be like George Washington in some ways but not in other ways.

This method of reading is, in fact, so obvious to most people that it literally goes without saying, just as most people would openly mock someone who used this story about George Washington to prove that we should chop down cherry trees. Yet intelligent people nonetheless insist that the only way to read the Bible is as a book that promotes all of the behavior it contains.

Why is the Bible judged, and then rejected, by methods that are so superficial that we would reject them in any other context?

And it’s not just Dawkins who does this.

In his widely viewed Vanity Fair video on the Ten Commandments, Christopher Hitchens makes the same mistake around 2:45 when he contrasts “Thou shalt not kill” (which is actually a mistranslation) with Moses’s actions thereafter, when, Hitchens says, Moses ordered all his supporters to draw their swords and kill their friends and brothers. Hitchens’s narrow implication is that the subsequent killing is inconsistent with the commandment, and his broader point is that the Bible is so massively inconsistent that it is without value.

Hitchens’s mistake here is to assume that the Bible is meant only as a simplistic “do this” message in which we are to mimic every character. We might equally observe that Moses ends up getting punished (though whether for this or for something else isn’t clear). More generally, we note that direct mimicry is only one way a story might convey a moral.

Again, why is the Bible alone judged and condemned by such shallow standards?

Welcome to The God Confusion

At a recent dinner I had with friends, an ardent atheist and a member of the clergy rehashed an argument that most of us are familiar with:

Believing in God is an inexcusable lapse — said one person — a blatant retreat from the obvious advances of science. So religion and God properly belong with superstition in the trash-heap of history.

The other countered that such a position is based on a naive misunderstanding of God and religion. There is no conflict between God and science, or between religion and modernity. It’s ignorance that makes some people think they have to choose.

The first person retorted that he knew exactly what God was. It was the clergy member, he said, who was trying to redefine God in a last-ditch effort to salvage religion.

And so it went: God isn’t a white-bearded magician in the sky. No, it’s worse: God is a vindictive and petty tyrant. God is the source of morality. Atheists don’t need God to be moral. That’s because atheists learned about morality from religion. Religion is the root of all evil. What about Stalin? There are evil priests, too. And on, and on.

Though it had the structure of a conversation, it was, in fact, two tirades, with each interlocutor underscoring sometimes valid observations, but neither one listening to the other, with the result that each one walked away in bewilderment: How could anyone believe that?!

Episodes such as these have become commonplace, bringing the din of confusion and misunderstanding to dinner parties and on-line forums, to prime-time television and even legislative bodies.

“The God Confusion” is a start at turning tirades like these back into a productive conversation. I hope you’ll add your voice.