Who’s Afraid of a (Mostly) Fictional Bible?

Christians who pick and choose what to believe in the Bible may be on a slippery slope to secular humanism — and that’s just fine by me.

A recent OnFaith piece by an anonymous pastor at a mainstream evangelical church asked, “Who’s Afraid of a (Partly) Fictional Bible?” I understand why the pastor might have wanted anonymity. See, for instance, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, where clergy reveal in confidential interviews how their lives of service are overshadowed by hypocrisy as they contemplate taking a leap from the faith of their congregants.

Although religionists often have heated arguments and even wars over holy book interpretations, our secular government does not condone killing for blasphemy. However, Christians may certainly fire sect leaders and shun family members for “incorrect” interpretations of their Bible. Literalists often disagree on what the Bible literally says, while non-literalists frequently disagree on which parts to take literally. Most Christians I know believe something equivalent to: “The Bible is literally true, except for what I say is allegorical.”

I agree with Pastor Anonymous when he criticizes people for reading “our twenty-first century lives into a book composed in an ancient and wholly different world.” However, we part company when he says that even the made-up stories “tell us the truth about God and his purposes.” Really? How can that be when the Bible mainly tells us the views of scientifically ignorant, misogynistic, and homophobic writers who were a product of their times? I regard the Bible at its best as akin to Aesop’s fables, with some positive moral lessons and universal truths (along with talking animals). I’ve written here about the value I find in the Bible.

But if an all-knowing God really inspired the Bible, why are parts of it so ambiguous or obviously wrong as to inspire people to behave so badly? Some passages should be ignored, and not taken literally or even allegorically. For instance, how does “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” tell us the truth about God and his purposes? That passage alone has been used to justify burning countless women at the stake. Christians in this country ended such persecution in the seventeenth century, but it still takes place in other parts of the world.

Pastor Anonymous might have views similar to Dr. Karl Giberson, whom I debated in 2011 on the topic “Does Science Make Belief in God Harder or Easier?” Dr. Giberson is former President of the BioLogos Foundation, founded by Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and currently directs the National Institutes of Health. The mission of the BioLogos Foundation is to show the compatibility of faith and science. In our debate, Giberson said he didn’t believe that God tinkers much with natural laws — one notable exception being the resurrection of Jesus. Giberson tells Christians to disregard the biblical miracles that science can prove false, but to believe in the resurrection because it is essential to Christianity.

I asked Giberson if God had arranged for an asteroid to hit the earth and wipe out dinosaurs so humans could evolve 55 million years later. He acknowledged that if the universe were again set in motion, humans in our present form might never exist, but opined that the laws would be fine-tuned enough so there would be some form of intelligent creatures. Many Christians in the audience cringed when I pointed out that God’s plan, according to Giberson, could just as easily have led to a chimpanzee Jesus coming to save other chimpanzees from sin.

After the debate, Giberson told me that atheists don’t get angry with him the way fundamentalist Christians do. That’s understandable, because atheists don’t feel threatened by scientific discoveries.

Despite not fearing a somewhat fictional Bible, Pastor Anonymous says he is absolutely thankful for much in our Scriptures that is literal. This includes the story that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose on the third day, and that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. I suppose Pastor Anonymous can take this literally because science can’t disprove it. Nor can science disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I have a number of liberal Christian friends who not only ignore uncomfortable passages but also agree with me on most progressive issues. One friend who favors gay marriage pointed out that that the Bible has countless passages about social justice and only five that condemn homosexuality. He didn’t have a good answer when I asked how many condemnations of homosexuality it would take to reverse his position. In comparison, the Bible has many passages in support of slavery, with nary a verse that condemns it.

Either the Bible is the inspired word of God, or it’s not. If it is, then it should only take one passage to condemn an action or an entire class of people. If it isn’t, then a reader should choose only what make sense from the Bible or any other book. Fortunately, liberal Christians often focus on passages where God acts like a mensch, and ignore the rest. Perhaps these Christians are on a slippery slope that will lead them to secular humanism, which sounds to me like the real “Good News” — but that’s probably what literalists fear is happening to thoughtful and questioning non-literalists.

Maybe one day Pastor Anonymous will traverse this slope and come out of the closet into the light of reason.

Herb Silverman
Written by

  • Ed Buckner

    Dr. S does it again–a fine biblical essay. I’d have thrown in more about slavery, but Herb has addressed that before and an essay on *all* the immoralities supported by literal or reasonable interpretations of biblical passages would have been way too long. To my good Bible-believing Christian friends, I’d say about Silverman’s essays what the triumphant poker player says to his defeated opponents: “Read ’em and weep.” Of course, Herb Silverman IS nicer than me, so ….

  • RichardSRussell

    I recall a “free university” day at my alma mater when any student could organize a discussion around any topic he or she felt like, and anyone was free to drop in. I went to one on religion. It was just a fine hallelujah fest for the majority Christians in attendance for about the 1st 15 minutes, until a Muslim student stood up and said “I just want to ask you one question. The Koran came along long after the Bible, it’s also from the Supreme Being, and it contains many updates and improvements. Why aren’t you all Muslims?” Dead silence ensued, as it became apparent that the ⅔ of those present who’d actually heard of the Koran had never read it.

    Since then we’ve also had Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the Book of Mormon, and whatever it was that David Koresh was smoking. They all purport to have a direct pipeline to the unquestionable, unchanging, inerrant will of God. And, of course, they all disagree with each other. They can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong!

    So, in addition to trying to explain which parts of their favorite holy book religionists are justified in believing, they first face the task of deciding which book to look at to begin with. I recommend reading ’em all. Also Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain, Atheism: The Case against God by George H. Smith, Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (no relation, regrettably), and The True Believer by Eric Hoffer.

    • nwcolorist

      The Old and New Testaments have an excellent track record. In fact the best of any of the world’s religions. All the benefits that western civilization offers have been built on the a Biblical foundation, including science and technology, medicine, art and literature, the free enterprise/capitalism system, just to get started.

      With due respect to Islam, please point out the great universities, world ranked hospitals, space programs, and people from all over the world trying to get citizenship in Muslim countries. And please don’t be a shill for atheism. This website already has enough of them.

      • RichardSRussell

        “Don’t be a shill” says the shill.
        “Don’t be an apologist” says the apologist.
        “Do as I say, not as I do” says the hypocrite.

        • nwcolorist

          Point made. RichardSRussell, I owe you an apology. At times I have a tendency to get off topic and make personal attacks. My above comment was an example. The problem lies not with you or On Faith, but my own expectations of what I wish to see on this website. My apologies to you and the On Faith staff.

          • RichardSRussell

            Well, every time I go in to give blood, the Red Cross assures me that I’m a rare blood type: one who actually donates.

            You, my friend, are en even rarer Internet type, one who will back off of a hasty comment with grace and aplomb, for which I thank you.

          • nwcolorist

            Thank you.

    • John Childs

      It must be very common among liberal “believers” to go through rationalizations for how it can all possibly work. I’ve wasted many years doing this and listened to a minister who I will respectfully keep anonymous discuss the same. When one decides to legitimize the supernatural and explain it by picking and choosing from a book written by questionable sources from antiquity they have already lost the rational battle but can’t see it. It would seem much easier to just drop it all and get on with life based in reason. That is what has happened to me since my wife introduced me to the writings of skeptics and I began tagging along with her to SHL meetings and listened to the clear and refreshing thinking of the humanists who established and have nurtured that organization. It has been very refreshing intellectually. i just don’t have to deal with the fantasy anymore even though I still enjoy a good fantasy.

      • RichardSRussell

        Fantasy is my 2nd-favorite fiction genre, right behind science fiction.
        In my experience, most SF fans are pretty good at being able to tell the science from the fiction.

  • bdlaacmm

    I know of no other “book” (although it is actually more like a library) that can stand up to such relentless scrutiny as does the Bible. You never, ever get to the bottom of it – there is always layer after layer of deeper and deeper significance and insight to be found. It can never be read enough times. Name me any other work of literature in all of history that so thoroughly rewards thoughtful attentiveness.

    And this to Mr. Russell: I have read the Koran. No comparison – not even in the same league. Comparing it to the Bible is like comparing Rhode Island to Eurasia. And by the way, I’ve read all the books on your list. (Loved the one by Mark Twain!) Might I counter with my own suggestions? The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton, He Came Down From Heaven by Charles Williams, and Jesus – A Pilgrimage by James Martin. If you truly have an open mind, you won’t flee from them.

    • Dog Almighty

      “I know of no other “book…”
      OK, maybe you should read more.

      “… that can stand up to such relentless scrutiny…”
      I do. Every single scientific publication ever produced.

      “… there is always layer after layer of deeper and deeper significance and insight to be found.”
      Well, that’s just your opinion. Anyone can say that about any book. It’s just a matter of interpretation. The Muslims will surely say that about the Quran.

      “Name me any other work of literature in all of history that so thoroughly rewards thoughtful attentiveness.”
      The phone book comes to mind. (And I’m completely serious about this answer.) It’s so informative.

      “I have read the Koran. No comparison – not even in the same league.”

      This one I agree with. I have also read both the Quran and the Bible, and I have often been known to tell my friends that the Quran is easily the worst book I have ever read. The Bible, however, is only the second worst book I have ever read. So yes, you’re right, The Quran is worse than the Bible.

    • RichardSRussell

      The Bible is not really “like a library”, nor is it even like a novel. It’s definitely not like a biography or a history, and it’s certainly not like a scientific textbook. What it is is a thematic anthology — a collection of 66 (or 73, or 81, depending on which church you go to) short stories by various authors, representing the fullest flowering ever seen of the Rorschach Test. You are correct that it keeps going deeper and deeper (down the rabbit hole), because you can find anything you want to in it — and people do. I guess it’s rewarding in the same sense that a kaleidoscope is — a big jumble of sparklies that some people have trouble looking away from.

    • rtfazeberdee

      oh good grief, “there is always layer after layer of deeper and deeper significance and insight to be found.” what a load of nonsense. when you are stuck in a delusion you can read anything into anything. its just a book of hate and fantasy, Harry Potter is far better.

      • bdlaacmm

        Newsflash: Harry Potter was partly inspired by the Bible, according to its author, J.K. Rowling.

        • Herb Silverman

          The difference between Harry Potter and the Bible is that all who read Harry Potter know that the stories in it are mostly fictional.

          • bdlaacmm

            You are correct. And the flip side to your comment is that most open-minded people who read the New Testament realize that the narratives in it are NOT fictional.

          • John Childs

            Next you’ll be telling us that Voldemort is not real.

  • Helen Kahn

    Please remember that “religion” is a business. The U.S. government subsidizes any self-declared religion with Tax-Exemption without regulation. Religions don’t have to file a 990 form and the IRS hasn’t been enforcing Separation of Church and State regulation of not politicking from the pulpit… And, secret Faith-Based funds… who get how much for what “charitable” work?? It would required legal suit freedom of information suit to find out! There are thousand of religions in the US… some crazier than others having unfair advantage that is often laundered to lobbies, PR firms, media, congressmen that “Conserve” “Traditional” “Values”… that means keeping the money and power for themselves. Do we know how Religions benefits others than there own? for example, how do Mormons or Scientologists (among most others who profess to “feed the poor”) use the money except to “evangelize,” “proselytize,” to get more adherents… more tax-exempt business. Please tell me what charities, “good work” they are doing that is not really”for profit” Are they selling “Hope,” “ritual,” “community,” or keeping people otherwise occupied instead of getting politically in order to change their lives???… Like Black churches praying to the same white Jesus whose churches perpetuate persecution of Blacks…
    Thank you Herb Silverman for provoking this bag of worms… Please keep up the dialog.

  • Marilyn

    Makes me wonder, could there be a Humanist Bible??? Something that could be/have been written for now and for next generations as others wrote THE Bible…

    • nwcolorist

      The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital come to mind.

  • anamericanundernogods

    I prefer pick and choose than the literal implementation of

    The problem with Islam is that “pick and choose” is not
    allowed which creates Ayatollahs, Al Qaeda and ISIS.

    If all so called Gospels (Torah, Bible, Quran, and others)
    can be subject to pick and choose for voting and debate, I am all for it.

  • http://WWSHP.ORG William Dusenberry

    It appears that Dr. Silverman is trying to start an argument, amongst the non-superstitions (atheist-types) as to just how long ago, the dinosaurs were rendered extinct, by a god; was it 55,000,000 years ago; or closer to 65,000,000 years ago?

    In regard to the Bible being “error-free” — more has been done, arguably, to undermine Biblical literalism, by the science of evolution, than perhaps anything else.

    But, after doing extensive “freethought work” (aka, missionary work) in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Arizona, I feel entitled to offer the following hypothesis.

    The main reason Bible-literalists oppose the proven science of evolution, is because evolution proves that all white USA’ns, can trace their ancestry back to Africa.

    So as long as Bible-literalism persists, in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Arizona — at least — racism will continue to be alive and well in the USA.

    My hypothesis: Biblical-literalism enables racism to endure;

    However; why non-white minorities, continue to be attracted to such a racist book (the Bible) requires some additional “freethought research.”

    Why? Because evolution (and science) clearly shows that all of mankind can trace its origins, to Africa.

    And, that’s the main reason why so many, in the Red States, oppose evolution — most conspicuously, candidates for public office..

    So, Dr. Silverman; please interview some of your African-American religionists; ask them: Why they reject evolution; and instead believe a book, which, contrary to science, shows that the first human beings were white.

    All of you readers, should look forward to the results of such research.