Why argue over the meaning of the Bible?

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by Neil Godfrey

A change of pace here. After an online chat this morning I got to thinking of old thoughts of my conversion from Christianity to atheism.

How quaint and archaic to see in this century otherwise intelligent and mature people debating whether the Bible supports women’s rights, gay rights, civil disobedience, war or pacificism, genetic engineering, smoking and drinking, blood transfusions and medical treatment,  etc etc etc.

Don’t such debates testify our childishness (confused with childlikeness) and fear of intelligence? I don’t think everyone involved in such debates is really looking to the Bible for guidance. I suspect many have come to share the values of their communities and others and are really looking for assurance from the Bible for their prejudices or sentiments. We like the idea of having God on our side.

It’s easier to argue against those whose views we despise that way, too. No need to be too troubled by having to make truly informed decisions or researching, reflecting and constructing educative discussions and debates. Much easier to bring out the Bible and bash away at each other with our favourite proof-texts. Besides, the Bible clearly gives licence from its greatest heroes to freely engage in arrogant declamations and insults when things get a bit heated or the argument is going quite the way we want.

But what happens when people do take the Bible seriously and really do try to set it up as a guide? And what happens if those people are serious enough to be humble enough (self-negating enough) to abandon all sense of personal responsibility towards their fellow human society and decide to let “God speak to them” regardless of where it leads? Not a good idea for the mentally and emotionally unstable or for anyone who has it within them to detach themselves from their natural family and social obligations.

The whole scenario is crass immaturity. The very notion of doing right because an authority commands it is childish and fickle. What would happen if there were no Bible, no moral authority outside ourselves? The answer is all around us. We know first of all that where the Bible is taken the most seriously we find the higher incidents of domestic violence and child abuse, teen pregnancies and divorce and such. We know that where the Bible is not considered of any importance or relevance culturally in other parts of the world people do get along quite normally and healthily as societies after all. Humans are humans and by nature they have universal standards of right and wrong and social cohesiveness. It’s simply a matter of how we have evolved as social animals.

It’s hard to believe this when one is a believer, I know. When I was faced with the decision to leave God out of my life I truly had no idea where it would lead me. Would I become a murderer? Being a believer had screwed me up so much I no longer knew what it was to be human. I had feared being human. Believers are taught human nature is sinful. How liberating it was to discover people are people, good and bad, with needs and loves, and we all are just doing what we can to make the best of things. For some, perhaps many, that means putting in extra effort to help others along the way and learning to live with and control our faults.

The best part of this liberation was discovering I no longer had to live in a world divided between those in God’s camp, with my beliefs or values and authorities telling me how to live or backing me up, and the “others” out there in the camp of darkness or ignorance, the unsaved and the unwashed. The liberation was in coming to realize we are all one humanity with the same weaknesses and strengths (while not denying there are a few who really are bad news) and that we really are “one”.

The very idea of turning to a book to argue about this or that thing that we should or should not think or do or feel is so immature and symptomatic of inner fears about ourselves and others, surely. Little children need to learn that their bad dreams are nothing to be afraid of.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Why argue over the meaning of the Bible?”

  1. Although this is an involved discussion, I couldn’t let it go by without adding my two cents.

    “Don’t such debates testify our childishness (confused with childlikeness) and fear of intelligence?… I suspect many have come to share the values of their communities and others and are really looking for assurance from the Bible for their prejudices or sentiments.”

    This “childishness” is not a retreat to childish, invalid, ways of thinking, it’s more the comfort of staying with the religious beliefs acquired in childhood. It is an act of sentimental loyalty, of staying comfortably put with one’s basic belief system, unquestioned, untouched. Religion as a routine is very comforting indeed. Like a good snooze.

    This is what Bertrand Russell emphasized in “Why I am not a Christian”, as one of the most penetrating critics of religion and the whole Christian mythology.
    And Russell keeps repeating “What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason….As I said before, I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.”

    This point had already been highlighted by Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, the famous German-French 18th century advocate of atheism. “The source of man’s unhappiness is his ignorance of Nature. The pertinacity with which he clings to blind opinions imbibed in his infancy, which interweave themselves with his existence, the consequent prejudice that warps his mind, that prevents its expansion, that renders him the slave of fiction, appears to doom him to continual error” (The System of Nature, 1770).

    Thomas Edison, another great scientist, thought the same thing: “The great trouble is that the preachers get the children from six to seven years of age and then it is almost impossible to do anything with them.” (quoted by Joseph Lewis from a personal conversation).

    And so did Robert Green Ingersoll: “For the most part we inherit our opinions. We are the heirs of habits and mental customs. Our beliefs, like the fashion of our garments, depend on where we were born. We are molded and fashioned by our surroundings” (Why I am an Agnostic, 1896).

    In short, once the brain of a child is structured, it is nearly impossible to re-open it and work with it as if starting from zero. What is called for is restructuring an already solidly established framework of early beliefs.
    The basis of a brain’s framework — for making sense of life and its interaction with the world — is created in the early experience of life, from babyhood to infancy.
    Battling “people of faith” seems most of the time a futile exercise in attacking deeply-rooted beliefs that are immovable and immutable, and it is amazing with what patience and determination you and other crusaders pursue such joustings.
    Of course I can see the value this may have for us debaters, in honing and polishing our own argumentation, and giving an opportunity to our opponent to do exactly the same. Such debates seem more like so many training exercises for the brain’s calisthenics, than a genuine attempt to convince an opponent as firmly entrenched on his positions as we are. Think of Christopher Hitchens against D’Souza.

    This “restructuring” requires effort and work. You put your finger on this when saying further down in your text: ” No need to be too troubled by having to make truly informed decisions or researching, reflecting and constructing educative discussions and debates. Much easier to bring out the Bible and bash away at each other with our favourite proof-texts.” It’s this “researching, reflecting and constructing” effort to reach “truly informed” decisions, that is a new mental process requiring mental work and mental pain.

    One day you could have a look at this old classic SUPERNATURAL RELIGION, by Walter Richard Cassels, 1902 (available online.) It is an excellent description of how supernatural events, miracles, exorcisms, demons, etc… were completely natural beliefs in the first centuries, and were never expunged from the mental system of mankind. Not only did it flourish in the Middle Ages, but superstition still remains present in the modern populations of our Western world, as well as in Asia, Africa, South America.
    At the end of the 19th century there was a craze for spiritualism and occultism among the super-educated elite of European aristocracy, and they are still very much active among New Agers in the States. All kinds of superstitions, astrology, Egyptomania, visions of the Virgin Mary in many spots on the planet, miracle cures, etc.. are rampant in modern European countries.

    It is a kind of received wisdom to oppose faith versus reason, claiming that “yet at the same time we do have a spiritual and emotional nature, and without it rational thought in itself would be arid. It is a healthy balance between the two which seems the goal.” This is the same duality that you seem to assume between “childish” and “mature” thinking.
    But it is more appropriate to show that we do not have “two natures” but one, only styles of thinking in the same “nature”. One is “fast thinking” (faith, beliefs, biases, prejudices, habits, reflex reactions, etc..) and the other “slow thinking” (analysis, evaluation of evidence, construction of theories, etc…), in short critical thinking.

    You may one day be interested to add this book to your library “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a modern psychologist in the field of judgment and decision-making and a 2002 Nobel Prize in economics .
    His work resulted in getting rid of the thesis that there are different systems or structures of thinking in the brain: childish vs mature, emotional vs analytical, spiritual vs practical. Those are only different levels of activity of the same system in the brain. “Fast” thinking uses immediate, well-known knowledge, habits, routine skills, immediate beliefs from childhood or personal experience, etc…what you tend to call “childish”. “Slow” thinking involves the hard work of reflection, comparison, analysis, inference, what you called in your text “mature”. One is immediate and a prompt reaction to the environment. The other requires making a pause and process the information more slowly. The two modes are always at work together in the brain, with various levels of intensity.
    It looks as if religious belief belongs to the “fast thinking” process of the brain, while analysis and examination of evidence is indubitably (excruciatingly) ” slow thinking”.
    An adult can use his brain analytically on some issues and still use a huge quantity of responses based on “fast” thinking, including his religious beliefs from childhood.
    You’ll find excellent reviews of Daniel Kahneman’s book on the Web. Also his Nobel Prize autobiography (available online) is an exciting description of his psychological work. Wikipedia has also an excellent article on him, and a link to his famous Sept 27, 1974 article in Science which started it all.
    In any event do get his book, and start thinking about “faith” and “reason”, “childish” and “mature” thinking in a modern scientific way, as belonging to the same brain system, and no longer in terms of antiquated notions of “two natures”, or two “systems”.

    The critical thinking mode discovered and taught by Socrates and the ancient Greeks was hard and tiring mental work that most ordinary uneducated people were entirely incapable of. The wonderful thing about the old gods is that they let you live in a comfortable routine without asking for or making trouble. The “old gods” for the average Christian are the comfortable dogmas inculcated in childhood and never seriously questioned.
    No wonder that once the Greek schools of philosophy were shut down by Emperor Justinian, the spontaneous belief in the supernatural, the normal expression of fast belief, sprang untrammeled, and has persisted to this day. Critical thinking is not a spontaneous inclination of the human mind. Christian Churches have benefited from this inherent tendency of the human mind for quick and hassle-free “thinking”.
    I am pretty sure that the belief in relics was an adaptation of this supernatural propensity to the fantastic tales promoted by the Catholic Church in medieval times.
    This is also why Dawkins is in a sense justified to go on the charge on his white rationalist stallion, because he is facing a multitude of vegetative minds that are half-asleep in their church pews. By opposition to the thousands of easy-going, lethargic, affable Christians, it is good to have a passionate Dawkins or a strident Steven Pinker, or an irritating Chomsky. Come to think of it, Steve Jobs was of the same mould, and without it Apple would have never been created and revived.

  2. Much to think about and thanks for the thoughts. The quick/instant thinking reminds me of a concept I was recently introduced to at a e-research conference and that you probably are familiar with — abductive reasoning, that is, that gut moment of intuition that precedes inductive or deductive processes.

    As you say, the idea that we can be divided into a cold unemotive analytical side and an emotive side is a myth. We cannot really think without some sort of emotional input. Even doing mathematics has an emotional component.

    I was catching up with what’s going on in Nigeria this morning and came across this at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8172270.stm — reported words of Mohammed Yusuf, a founder of the Boko Haram:

    “There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam,” he said.

    “Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain.

    “Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism.”

    That brought back memories of my own experiences as a believer at one point, and of the subsequent reading I did on “cult mind control” and manipulations. It is a mistake to call these people charlatans or pretenders etc. Nothing could be more mistaken. They are very sincere and devout. They are also idealistic and understand the meaning of faith more truly than most who rationalize compromises with ideal faith.

    What is sometimes overlooked is that those who are attracted to these forms of faith are very often the highly intelligent and well off people — Boko Haram has attracted university graduates and middle and upper class persons as well as those not so well off.

    As you point out, attempting to engage the faithful with reason is misguided. Faith is about overcoming reason and “human understanding or wisdom”.

    1. One thing I overlooked is the relation between values and “facts” one believes. The reason most of us accept evolution is because we value scientific reasoning and naturalistic explanations. Rejection of evolution is not a matter of information or scientific argument or even education in the facts. It’s about values, I think. And values are very much a matter of aesthetics, idenitities, etc.

  3. I came to a similar conclusion many years ago. Being in the Christian faith from the age of 2 (I declared my own beliefs at age 4), I grew up in the Church. One of the things I began to see was the correlation between hypocrisy and belief. People who were more interested in furthering their own social standings were less inclined to seem all that devoted to me and were, instead, simply pious because people saw their religious stance. This was not true for everyone but it did cause me to question people more than belief.

    Where I am at now seems to be that people who are religious and were not born into a faith have chosen the specific church because it adheres to beliefs they already have. Militants from all religious ideals use whatever god they happen to serve as justification and will quote their scriptures or their dogmas towards those ends. People choose the politcian that says closest to what they want to hear, whether or not there is accuracy in the actions of the politico. People choose their scientific approaches based upon what they want to believe. People who like what McGrath has to say will side with him and those who prefer you will side with you (I am the latter). I know people who have turned away from a destructive lifestyle towards Christianity but they still have the same symptoms that drove them to their previous addiction(s), including family members,

    The issue at hand, at least to me, is no longer about religion or even faith, but simply preference, opinion, individual desires. These can be clouded by your upbringing, your culture, your own biases, etc. The details are irrelevant because people are still the problem with the world, and not their “faith”.

    1. Good points. It was when I left the faith that my eyes were opened to the real nature of so much that is touted as Christian love. It became clear that for most Christian friends I was really seen as a friend only to the extent I was a part of their own faith community. I had to admit that while I was with them that had been the extent of my Christian love for many others, too. Love is for something abstract and extended to the person only to the extent that the person is seen as a part of that faith, or a potential part of it.

      Not all are like this, but many are.

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