A Bible Skeptic

It was in my second year of university that I began exploring my atheistic side.  I suppose it had been there for several years, rearing its head briefly at weddings and funerals, but the day-to-day perversions and guilty pleasures of one’s teenage years do not lend themselves to introspection or contemplating one’s beliefs.  As I transitioned from the couch surfing apathy of my teen years to the budding mind of an early twenties undergrad, I became eager to dissect my atheism and the beliefs of others.  I took advantage of any opportunity that presented itself to engage my peers on this topic.  Being enrolled in the sciences, I found myself in the presence of atheists more often than I would outside the university walls (which was almost never).  I was curious about what it was that had lead others to atheism and so this was always among the first questions I would ask.  I was surprised to learn that some of those who I surveyed had based their beliefs, or lack thereof, on reasoning that was just plain bad.  For example, some expressed a discomfort with being told how to live their life as a factor in their atheism, while others offered that the cruelty of the god of the old testament influenced their movement toward non-belief.  Not liking what is in the bible says nothing to whether it is true or not.

An individual’s reasons for becoming an atheist can be well thought out, based on logic and rational thought, or they can be illogical, off the mark and/or impulsive.  Being an atheist means that you have rejected the claims of every religion that you are aware of.  The rejection of Christianity is but one doctrine of many that I have determined to be unmerited with respect to truthfulness, but it is perhaps the most significant rejection as it is the doctrine I was brought up to believe.  In the remainder of this short essay, I will attempt to present a logical explanation for why I have become a bible skeptic, and thus a non-believer of the Christian faith.

In my opinion, there are two primary academic arguments against the legitimacy of the bible: the historicity argument and the contradiction argument.  I will not focus significant attention to either because they are not my thoughts and because I believe that a personal approach would prove more compelling in this context, compared to an academic one.  However, I do think it important to dedicate some time to covering off these bases, albeit at the highest level.  Following this terse sampling of the historical literature, I will provide a more thorough and personal explanation of the experiences, knowledge and decision making that has informed my own beliefs.

Historicity Argument

To my knowledge, the most comprehensive and convincing assessment of bible historicity comes from Bart Ehrman (see Jesus Interrupted, for example).  For purposes of brevity, I will focus on one particular line of argumentation of his that I find especially compelling.  Ehrman purports that in assessing the historical accuracy of the bible, it fails on all essential measures generally agreed upon by historians in determining the probability of an event having occurred: primary sources, multiple sources, contemporary sources, and unbiased (corroborating but not collaborating) sources.

It is widely agreed that historical confirmation of the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven is necessary for the validity of the bible and thus for belief in Christianity.  Simply put, if Jesus did not resurrect the sins of humanity would not have been absolved, the case for his divinity would be weakened significantly if not lost all together, and his relevance as a historical figure would be greatly diminished.  Therefore, this biblical event is ripe for historical analysis.

The gospel of Mark reports that there were two women and one man who were present at Jesus’s tomb following his ascension into heaven three days after his crucifixion.  It is important here to note that while these three people ostensibly witnessed the empty tomb from where Jesus is said to have resurrected, none of them recorded it.  It is likely that none of these people would have had the ability to write, so this is not all that surprising.

The four gospel writers who wrote of this event did not claim to have witnessed the resurrection or the empty tomb, and did not write of the event for decades after its alleged occurrence.  In fact, it is generally believed by biblical historians that the four gospels were written by unknown authors who had no direct association with Jesus.  So, in terms of having a primary source, the gospels fail quite badly.  On the measure of multiple sources, the resurrection story seems to fair better at first glance.  After all, it was reported by four different authors: Mark, Mathew, Luke and John.  But a more granular look presents a significant problem.  it is widely agreed, again by biblical historians, that the writings of Mathew and Luke were influenced by those of Mark, which weakens the corroboration measure by way of collaboration.  In addition, the gospel writers were themselves early Christians and so cannot be considered unbiased in their claims.  Finally, the gospel accounts are estimated to have been written 20 to 60 years after the death of Jesus, approximately 2000 years ago, thus scoring poorly in providing a contemporary timeframe.

Contradiction Argument

Building on the same example as above, contradictions between the four gospels present a major problem in demonstrating a high probability that the resurrection actually occurred.  Depending on which gospel you read, the resurrection was either witnessed by two women (Matthew), two women and a man (Mark), many women (Luke) or a single woman (John).  Obviously all reports cannot be true.  So at best, one or multiple women provided a personal and accurate account of Jesus’s resurrection to one of the gospel writers, or to someone who told the gospel writers (or someone who told someone who told the writers, and so on), while similar but wrong accounts were provided by someone else to the other three gospel writers (or the other writers took liberties).  This is problematic on its own, but is confused further by the fact that the reports also differ in the details of what was discovered at the tomb.  Matthew depicts a violent earthquake followed by the arrival of an angel who rolled away the stone.   Mark describes a man dressed in white waiting for the witnesses at the tomb, with the stone already rolled away.  Luke explains that the witnesses found the tomb empty, the stone already rolled away, followed by the arrival of two men whose clothes “gleaned like lightning.”  John simply states that the witness found the stone removed and the tomb empty.  Again, the writers of the gospels were not first-hand witnesses to the resurrection, which creates a major problem in and of itself.  Even if the four gospel writers spoke directly to the woman (or women) who witnessed the empty tomb, we must ask what is the most likely explanation?  That a miracle happened?  Or that the woman (or women) lied, was mistaken, or never existed at all i.e., the presence of the woman (or women) and the story of the crucifixion was manufactured by the authors.  The answer should be obvious.  If your neighbour came to your door in a panic, explaining that he had just witnessed a man die, raise from the dead and ascend into heaven, you simply would not believe him.  No, you would assume that this person was lying, mistaken or had experienced some sort of hallucination.

A Personal Experience

I was born an atheist and raised catholic.  I remained catholic until somewhere between the ages of 15 and 20.  Like most atheists, I presume, I did not convert over night.  It was an accumulation of information and thoughts, over time, that patiently led me astray.  I’m not quite sure if it was my unbelief in god that caused me to question the legitimacy of the bible or my discomfort with the bible that led to my unbelief.  The answer to this is not all that relevant as I have dedicated many hours contemplating the validity of the bible since losing my faith.

It was only recently that I became interested in the academic arguments against the legitimacy of the bible.  As compelling as they are, the sculpted arguments produced by academics from a wide range of disciplines (history, philosophy, theology, biology and physics) were not required for the formation of my own beliefs.  However, they have helped validate my own conclusions and from time to time have provided leverage in discussions with pious relatives or unwelcome door to door zealots pitching their spiritual wares.

My first steps in the direction of unbelief came at a young age, during a time when I was at my most pious, perhaps 8 or 9 years old.  I prayed to god regularly, and even spoke to him casually from time to time, not out loud but with the voice in my head.  I asked him for things, like most people do, be it advice, comfort, actions, rewards; the usual wish list.  Initially, it was ok that my voice was left unanswered, after all god is a busy guy right and he works in mysterious ways, ways a mere child might not recognize.  Well, it was only a matter of time before I started wondering if there was in fact anyone out there.  According to the bible, god was listening, waiting to answer my prayers because I believed in him, but while I kept my end of the bargain he did not keep his.  Looking back on this time in my life now I blush, both in recognizing my willingness to believe whatever I wanted to be true, and in remembering my unrelenting desire to live in a world that wasn’t real and, in retrospect, was not even all that appealing.

My next movements in the direction of atheism, and toward a stronger skepticism of the bible’s proclamations, came while studying the sciences in high school.  The beauty I had once seen as a chid in the bible was quickly and thunderously replaced by the awe I felt when learning about the mechanics of the universe and the workings of the living cell.  If you have not already taken the opportunity to situate yourself as a tiny speck, looking out at a broad unending sky, or a giant looking down into the depths of a microscopic wonderland of perfectly synchronized parts, I urge you emphatically to do so.  It will bring you great joy and contentment.  But I have digressed.  Learning of the vastness of the universe, in both time and space, and the relative smallness of one’s own life requires the student to take on a new perspective of life.  To refrain from doing so would be an invitation for cognitive dissonance to set up shop in one’s head.  Understanding Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity is empowering, unlike anything I’ve experienced.  To look at space and time and gravity and understand how they actually behave is proof that the human mind can achieve wonderful things; understandings that were once unimaginable.  To close one’s eyes and envisage DNA being read inside the nucleus of a cell and protein being assembled a small distance away is to understand life itself; its mechanics but also its meaning.

So, what does this have to do with the bible and my skepticism of its validity?  It’s quite simple really.  For me, a book that is said to be the greatest and most enlightening of all time in terms of explaining life and the universe fails with unfathomable severity if it says nothing of the laws of physics, trivializes the formation of the universe and planets, is wrong about the arrangement of celestial bodies or does not make reference to biological workings at the cellular level or the levels below.  However, this is in fact what the the Old Testament offers in terms of explaining the world in which we find ourselves; nothing.  While the New Testament attempts to explain little, if anything at all, about our physical environment, it does provide a moral code.  However, this code, to treat others kindly and as you expect to be treated yourself, is one that was not uncommon at the time it was written and had in fact predated it by many years – see the works of Aristotle, for example.

It can be said that the teachings of the bible are not concerned with the workings of the physical world and that any propositions in this regard should be read as metaphor.  On the former, I would ask why on earth would you (God) think that we would not be interested in questions of this sort – it is these very questions that had occupied the minds of leading thinkers for many centuries before you sent down your son.  And on the latter, the fact that biblical answers to empirical questions are explained as metaphors only after being proven wrong by scientific investigations should be viewed with suspicion, if not incredulity.

Finally, in university my eyes were opened to the world of evolutionary theory.  If my religious belief was not already dead at this time, it was surely now being given its last rights.  The wonder and beauty of evolutionary theory is revealed through its far reaching explanatory power juxtaposed against its surprising simplicity.  In the words of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  In my opinion it is the single most significant finding in the history of mankind, as it answers the single most important question that has ever been asked – “where did we come from?”  The bible’s rib and clay explanation is majestic, albeit incestuous, but it has not been supported by a single piece of evidence or even a rational guess at how this could be physically possible.  It is clear that the cashing out of this explanation is not meant to be found in the physical world, rather it is meant to be drawn out of faith and imagination.  While this might be an approach that brings great comfort at a low cost, it is my contention that it is not at all effective in discovering truth.