“We’re told that four fifths of American homes have a Bible, so go get it,” bellows Penn Jillette of the controversial comedy/magic act, Penn & Teller, on their Showtime TV series, Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!
“Really, no kidding! Go get your goddamn Bible! If you don’t read along with us tonight, you’re going to think we’re making this sh*t up.”
And so begins the controversial duo’s debunking of the holy scriptures of Christianity and Judaism—a twenty-eight-minute, foul-mouthed harangue exhibiting all the erudition of a biker bar and just about as much sensitivity.
Penn, a towering lumberjack of a man with a ponytail and Norris Skipper goatee, does all the talking in the show while Teller illustrates his points with little magic tricks.
“Tonight, we’re going to take you through the damn Bible and show you it’s full of inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and outright impossibilities … that it’s more fiction than fact,” he announces solemnly—and then, thumping his black leather Bible, he adds, “You know, being on TV, in a suit, and yelling with this damn book in my hand … I look just like one of those evangelical assh*les.”
On and on it goes.
Anyone who says that Christianity in general, and the Bible in particular, are not mocked in popular culture has not been watching TV in a while.
Penn & Teller trot out a handful of alleged Biblical “experts”—such as Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine—to make their case against the Bible.
“The more we learn about archaeology and history of Biblical times,” says Shermer excitedly, “the more we realize that most of the stuff in the Bible is fiction.”
In the first chapter of Genesis, Shermer points out, Adam and Eve are created at the same time. In the second chapter, Adam is created first.
See? Right off the bat, you know the whole book is a complete fraud. Inconsistencies like that just rattle your faith to the very bone.
“Sometimes the Bible is the word of God,” explains Penn, “sometimes it’s the word of one man, sometimes it’s the word of two men. Sometimes the Bible is literal, and sometimes it’s simply symbolic.”
Clearly, this makes it unreliable and a waste of time.
All of this might be merely amusing—yet another example of how high you can climb in Hollywood with a high school education—were it not for the fact that such village-atheist assaults on the Bible are now commonplace in public schools, universities, the media, and even some elite seminaries.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the these attacks on the Bible represented something genuinely new—something witty and entertaining on the level of, say, a Nietzsche or Swinburne—but instead they are merely repetitions of allegations made for about 1,800 years. They are as original as dirt—and about as interesting. The problem is, many of these new champions of enlightened reason, standing on high from the pinnacles of academia, don’t appear to be aware that their ideas are literally millennia old.
The Bible’s Enemies
The Bible was not exactly a raging bestseller when it was first “published” in the centuries after Jesus’s death. The Romans didn’t particularly like the Jews to begin with, considering them barbaric and quite primitive. In the Jewish Wars of A.D. 66–70, the Romans put down the Jewish fight for freedom with definitive ferocity: Up to a million Jews were slaughtered and the holy city of Jerusalem (and its world-famous Temple) was razed to the ground.
When Christianity came on the scene, it was viewed as worse—a bizarre, superstitious cult whose founder—a wild-eyed Jewish fanatic stirring up trouble—was sensibly put to death. His erstwhile followers were said to meet secretly where they ate human flesh and drank human blood. There were rumors of rampant immorality, even incestuous orgies, as the members of the cult referred to one another as “brother” and “sister.” Plainly, as “new religions” go, this Eastern superstition had little to recommend it when compared to, say, the elevated mystery rites of Isis or Mithra or the Stoics.
And then there was their holy book!
If there was anything designed to chase an educated Roman away from Christianity, it was the Christian Bible.
The Christian and Jewish scriptures had to be seen to be believed, they said: A rag-tag collection of folk tales, strange laws, badly written letters, biographies of wonder-working magicians—all written with no regard to literary style, verbal felicity, or the rules of rhetoric.
To educated Romans raised on the polished elegance of Virgil and Cicero, Ennius and Cato, the Christian writings were positively juvenile, filled with vulgar misspellings, absurd grammatical errors, and ridiculous plots. As the second century Latin Christian apologist Tertullian put it, “Men are so far from accepting our Scriptures, no one approaches them unless he is already a Christian.” St. Augustine, the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Christianity, was so put off by the Bible he ignored it (and Christianity) for a dozen years.
“It is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie, and that your fables are not well-enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction,” said the second century anti-Christian polemicist, Celsus. “I have heard that some of your interpreters … are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the original writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.”
As an example of the absurd stories found in the Christian and Jewish scriptures, Celsus cites Noah’s ark: “So too their fantastic story—which they take from the Jews—concerning the flood and the building of an enormous ark, and the business about the message being brought back to the survivors of the flood by a dove (or was it an old crow?). This is nothing more than a debased and nonsensical version of the myth of Deucalion, a fact I am sure they would not want to come light.”
Nor was Celsus alone in his contempt for Christianity and the Bible. Around the year A.D. 280, the Roman philosopher Porphyry wrote a fifteen volume work entitled, Against the Christians. It was a runaway bestseller for its time. Sort of a third century version of Penn & Teller, only with more education, Porphyry wrote a witty, sarcastic refutation of the Bible almost line by line. Modern day critics insist that science, archaeology, and critical scholarship have all “proven” that Moses did not write one word of the Torah. They then sit back, with a look of triumph on their faces, as though such a declaration will shock anyone.
The trouble is, Porphyry said the same thing—only he said it 1,700 years ago: “‘If you believed Moses, you would have believed me, for he wrote concerning me,’” Porphyry begins, quoting Jesus in the Gospel of John. “He said it, but all the same nothing which Moses wrote has been preserved. For all his writings are said to have been burnt along with the temple. All that bears the name of Moses was written 1,180 years afterwards, by Ezra and those of his time. And even if one were to concede that the writing is that of Moses, it cannot be shown that Christ was anywhere called God, or God the Word, or Creator. And pray who has spoken of Christ as crucified?”
Of course, repeating past criticism doesn’t make it false, but one might think that real journalists (assuming they exist), might be curious as to whether these criticisms evoked any responses over the millennia. There are literally thousands of books written by Christian apologists attempting to present rational answers to “Bible difficulties”—alleged historical or scientific contradictions, historical inaccuracies, textual variants, apparent misquotations or erroneous citations of Biblical texts by later authors, and so on. Some of these explanations are convincing, others less so—often depending upon how you understand the doctrine of Biblical inspiration and how the Bible came to be written.
Oftentimes, the “inconsistencies” and “errors” that critics allege are found in the Bible are little more than misunderstandings of what we mean when we say that the Bible is an “inspired” text. Believers do not mean, and never have meant, the Bible was “dictated” by God in the way that Mohammed says the Koran was dictated. Even Christians who affirm that the Bible is “inerrant” also agree that it was written by limited, fallible human beings within a real historical context, speaking a human language (with all its limitations and accommodations), making use of certain literary forms and social conventions, and possessing a certain worldview which they inherited from their time and place. In other words, proper interpretation and understanding of these ancient texts require patient study and analysis—something difficult to sum up during thirty seconds of Good Morning America.
Too often, critics of the Bible mistake descriptions of actual human conduct for God’s will. “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled,” wrote Thomas Paine in his notorious The Age of Reason. “It would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”
The notion that you can read an encyclopedia of ancient wisdom like the Bible—written over the course of 1,000 years, in three difficult ancient languages, by many different human authors spread across the breadth of the Middle East—the same way you read a newspaper article only reveals an astonishing (for lack of a better word) comic book understanding of the ancient world.
For Christians, therefore, these and similar attacks on the Biblical texts often just seem silly, not threatening. It would be as though they heard a TV news anchor on one of the major networks announce:
“This just in. Scholars at the University of Tubigen in Germany have discovered that there is actually more than one Christian gospel written about the life of Jesus. While Christians continually refer to ‘the’ Gospel, it turns out that there are actually many of them—and they do not always agree on all the details of Jesus’s life. The inconsistencies in the various accounts of Jesus’s life raise new, often troubling questions about the reliability and authority of these foundational Christian texts.… ”
The news that there is more than one Christian gospel and they do not always agree on all the details of Jesus’s life may be shocking and new to members of the elite media (or even to Penn and Teller) but does not, as astonishing as it may seem, really shake the faith of ordinary believers—most of all because Christians have known about these facts for two millenia.
The Elites Against the People
For approximately 1.8 billion people on the planet—roughly 1 billion Roman Catholics, 280 million Orthodox, 473 million Anglicans and Protestants, and 14 million Jews—the Bible is revered, in one way or another, as the word of God.
It’s a source of divine inspiration, moral guidance, and the foundation of Western civilization. There are differences among denominations, of course, but a general consensus exists among faithful Christians and Jews worldwide that the Biblical texts communicate vital, often shocking and unusual truths central for our self-understanding and the key to our eternal destinies.
But for an influential group of academic, government, and media elites, the Bible, far from being the cornerstone of Western civilization, is actually the source of most of the evil in the world today—a veritable cornucopia of superstition, obscurantism, and “bad taste.”
“Long before modern inquiry and painstaking translation and excavation had helped enlighten us, it was well within the compass of a thinking person to see that the ‘revelation’ at Sinai and the rest of the Pentateuch was an ill-carpentered fiction, bolted into place well after the nonevents that it fails to describe convincingly or even plausibly,” asserts the irascible but always entertaining British journalist Christopher Hitchens (at left) in his 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. “Intelligent schoolchildren have been upsetting their teachers with innocent but unanswerable questions ever since Bible study was instituted.”
The term recently coined for these dogmatic, inflexible, increasingly totalitarian ideologues is “secular fundamentalist,” those who believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that the triumph of civilization has been largely accomplished through the systematic debunking and elimination of religious belief, by force if necessary.
Of course, there have always been village atheists and skeptics in the West—some intelligent, others much less so—fulminating against Biblical prohibitions that inhibit their lifestyles.
The Marquis de Sade, for example, the eighteenth century libertine from whom the word “sadism” was coined, insisted that religions are “cradles of despotism” against which enlightened persons must rebel—primarily through lots and lots of extramarital sex. “Sex is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other,” he proclaimed.
In the past, the anti-religious rants were more or less confined to isolated individuals, fulminating in tracts against society and Christianity. The 1960s and 1970s changed that as the secular fundamentalists took control of the media and many academic and government institutions.
Thus, in the West and particularly in the United States, we have the increasingly combustible situation in which most people hold fairly traditional views about the Bible and religion, while a minority of privileged elites is not only indifferent, but actually hostile towards them.
If you think that judgment is too harsh, consider the case of Robert Reich. According to Reich, former U.S. labor secretary during the Clinton administration, the “greatest danger we face” in the twenty-first century is—not terrorism, not epidemic disease, not poverty or famine or war—but religious belief itself.
Writing in The American Prospect, Reich stated the secular fundamentalist viewpoint with admirable frankness:
The great conflict of the twenty-first century may not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the only danger we face.
If the “great conflict of the twenty-first century” is, as Reich says, between secularists and religious believers, that would put the secularists at war with virtually the entire planet . The world’s population is estimated at 6.5 billion. The number of people who claim some religious affiliation stands at about 5.8 billion. Reich and his fellow secularists see their as their enemy (real or potential)— the overwhelming majority of mankind.
And Reich is not unique in his extremism.
American universities and newspapers are literally bursting at the seams with a kaleidoscopic assortment of former ’60s “revolutionaries” or neo-Marxists who espouse similar beliefs.
According to Timothy Shortell, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, “religion without fanaticism is a logical impossibility.” In a brief essay published online in 2005, Dr. Shortell elaborated on the essential link between religious belief and murder:
“Anyone whose mind is trapped inside such a mental prison [as religion] will be susceptible to extreme forms of hatred and violence. Faith is, by its very nature, obsessive-compulsive. All religions foment their own kind of holy war. (Those whose devotion is moderate are only cowardly fanatics.).…It is no wonder, then, that those who are religious are incapable of moral action, just as children are.…Faith, like superstition, prevents moral action.…On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying—like bad taste. The immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude, and belittle. They make a virtue of close-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot.
The British champion of neo-Darwinian evolution, Richard Dawkins, likes to use the same sort of language. Opposition to evolutionary dogma, he says, “comes from an exceedingly retarded, primitive version of religion, which unfortunately is at present undergoing an epidemic in the United States.” The United States, he adds, is “slipping towards a theocratic Dark Age.”
Charming, no? In the early 1990s, media elites believed—as the famous quote from The Washington Post had it—that religious people were “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” Now, alas, they’ve become dangerous. The handful of “moderate” Christians and Jews are simply “cowardly fanatics.” There it is in a nutshell: the worldview shared in newsrooms and faculty lounges across America and Europe (although, truth be told, newspaper reporters have slightly better manners).
For secular fundamentalists, religion in general, and the Bible in particular, are not just wrong-headed but actually dangerous. That’s because religion and the Bible stand in the way of everything they value most in life—primarily unlimited sex, of course, but also the power to reshape society into a kind of secular utopia free from traditional ethical restraint.
The sudden eruption of Islamic terrorism worldwide has given secular fundamentalists the excuse they’ve long needed to basically draw a circle around all religious belief—from the Taliban to the World Council of Churches to the Dalai Lama—and insist that, well, it’s all the same thing. In principle, they imply, Mother Teresa was no different from Osama bin Laden: only her methods differed.
Thus, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan—a disgruntled Catholic upset that the Vatican won’t change 2,000 years of Christian teaching and declare homosexuality just another “lifestyle choice”—now writes routinely of “Christianist” organizations and figures.
Drawing a parallel with “Islamist” figures who advocate mass suicide-bombings, these menacing “Christianist” figures, Sullivan says, are now scheming to impose a kind of Christian theocracy on the enlightened secular societies of the West. Those who object to partial birth abortion, for example—or to the creation of animal-human embryos in laboratory experiments—are no different from Islamic terrorist groups. As the anti-religion crusader Sam Harris put it, “Those opposed to therapeutic stem-cell research on religious grounds constitute the biological and ethical equivalent of a flat-earth society.”
Harris—the author of the 2005 bestseller and National Book Award-winning, The End of Faith and, most recently, Letter to a Christian Nation—is merely one of a number of widely celebrated writers to warn the world about the growing menace of religious convictions.
According to his biography, Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University who is currently pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience at UCLA. The stated purpose of his book is not to describe an actual social reality (the end of faith), but rather to issue a call to arms to secular fundamentalists everywhere to drive religious persons of all persuasions out of the public sphere altogether.
Harris openly and proudly insists that what the world needs now is intolerance, not tolerance. He reminds the educated reader of the old menacing claim by the eighteenth century philosophe Denis Diderot that “men will never be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.” Or in Harris’s own words:
“To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world—to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish—is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.”
Harris’s solution is to eliminate biblical religion because “the degree to which religious ideas still determine government policies—especially those of the United States—presents a grave danger to everyone.”
Harris’s basic arguments are hardly original, but they have an unfortunate pedigree. For more than three hundred years, from the French philosophers to Marx, Lenin, and the “death of God” theologies of the 1960s, we have been assured that, freed from the superstitions and imbecilities of organized religion, rational secularists could render the world as utopia. The results have invariably been horrific—from the Terror of the French Revolution to the terrors of Nazism and Communism.
Contrary to what anti-religious Zealots such as Harris assert, throughout history far more lives have been snuffed out by faith-hating fanatics than by religious believers.
Historical demographers estimate that, in the 350 years between 1478-1834, the Spanish Inquisition was responsible for the execution of between 2,000 (Encyclopedia Britannica) and 32,000 people (Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, 1987).
That works out to about 97 people a year – a ghastly number, to be sure, but a far cry from the “millions” routinely cited by secular fundamentalists.
As for the “witch hunts,” another example Harris and others give of irrational religious fanaticism, the British historian Norman Davies estimates 50,000 people, primarily women, were executed as witches over a 400-year period – an average of about 125 a year.
Yet as horrible as these examples of religious intolerance may be, they pale in comparison to the single-minded, bloody-thirsty, satanic fury unleashed upon the innocent by secular fundamentalists – those militantly atheistic regimes that sought to expunge religion from society altogether and which, like Harris, claimed that religious belief and “bourgeois” morality represented intolerable obstacles to social progress.
According to research conducted by the political scientist Rudolph Rummel at the University of Hawaii, the officially atheist states of the Communist bloc committed more acts of genocide than any societies in history. The total number of people murdered by their own anti-Christian governments in the twentieth century—communist, socialist, fascist—equals about 170 million. :
- USSR: 61 million people murdered between 1917–1987
- Communist China: 35.2 million people murdered from 1949–present
- Mao’s Army: 3.4 million people murdered between 1923–1949
- Nazi Germany: 20 million people murdered between 1932–1945
- Communist Poland: 1.6 million people murdered between 1945–1948
- Communist Cambodia: 2 million people murdered between 1975–1979
- Communist Vietnam: 1.6 million people murdered between 1945–1975
- Communist Yugoslavia: 1 million people murdered between 1944–1987
- Anti-Christian Mexican Revolution: 1.4 million people murdered between 1900–1920
- Turkey: 1.8 million people murdered between 1900–1918
- Pakistan: 1.5 million people murdered between 1958–1987
- Japan: 5.9 million people murdered between 1936–1945
And these numbers don’t even include the people killed in the wars initiated by these officially anti-Christian states—such as the estimated 25 million soldiers killed in the Second World War.
These are the people lined up against brick walls and shot—often for the crime of merely believing in God—by the rational, more “scientific” social planners of Communist Russia and China, or anti-Christian Mexico and Germany.
Rummel’s conclusion is as shocking as it is inescapable: War wasn’t the most deadly evil to afflict humanity in the twentieth century. Government was! And not just any government, but atheist government.
As a result, ordinary people – whether religious or not — might be forgiven their general skepticism when today’s secular fundamentalists talk about the “intolerance” and “violence” of Biblical religion or the people who believe in it.
In terms of raw numbers—which is the only kind of evidence that rationalists such as Harris claim to accept—the evidence is incontrovertible: Freed of any moral restraint, believing that the ends justify the means, scoffing at the notion that they will ever answer to a Higher Power than themselves, the murderous dictators of atheistic regimes feel little hesitation in committing mass murder if they believe it will advance their more “rational,” more “scientific” social aims.
Christopher Hitchens in his book God Is Not Great lamely tries to deflect atheism’s contribution to global genocide by insisting that all tyrannies are really theocratic; and, in any event, Christianity, he says, didn’t do enough to stop fascism and Stalinism.
As for Dawkins, he is only slightly more candid. In The God Delusion, he concedes that Hitler was ferociously anti-Christian, and that Stalin, Mao, and the other Communist tyrants were dogmatic atheists. He agrees that they were among the greatest mass murderers in history. But, he says, the difference between religious people who kill and atheists who kill is that there is “not the smallest evidence” that atheism per se “influences people to do bad things.” Dawkins adds, “Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.”
But didn’t the atheist dictators of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries kill priests, nuns, monks, and believers? Did they not kill in the name of science, rational state planning, and revolutionary “morality”?
Indeed, it was their arrogant belief in the absolute power of the State—in direct opposition to the teaching of the Bible—that led to the horrors of their regimes. It was precisely atheism’s teachings that there are no “bourgeois” moral limits—no moral limits whatsoever—that allowed atheistic states to commit mass murder in the name of a higher cause. As Doestovesky’s Grand Inquisitor put it, “If God is dead, all things are permitted.”
Most Americans—and all believing Jews and Christians— believe that there are moral limits, that all things are not permitted. Some are sinful, some are evil; and we should put our trust not in an all-powerful government, but in all-powerful God who is Himself concerned with our morality and has in fact revealed standards of right and wrong.
We can only gasp in wonder at the wholesale historical ignorance displayed by contemporary secular fundamentalists – their utter lack of knowledge about events as recent as the fall of the Berlin Wall – when they start prattling on about how much more “rational” atheists are and how much more “moral” their social policies would be, freed from the superstitious morality of Biblical religion.
A century of first-hand, bloody experience with “rational” atheism has proven that it is atheism, not the Bible or religious belief, that is the greatest danger to world peace.
- None Found