Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Apologists just make it worse

Years ago, I was reading The Bible on BART  and a guy sitting across from me struck up a conversation. He was part of some Christian organization, and he said something along the lines of how he liked the fact that I was reading it. Don't misunderstand, he wasn't some kind of annoying proselytizer, but he definitely had a religious angle in speaking to me, as he asked if I attended church or something along those lines.

I think that he might have been a bit disappointed because I informed him that I was actually an atheist, and I was finding The Bible to be pretty messed up. (This was shortly after I finally "came out" as an atheist, and I was enthusiastic about having an opportunity to actually discuss it with some real Christians.) Of course, he defended it and told me that I had to take things into their proper historical context, an explanation that didn't wash with me then and helps even less now.

Anyway, the conversation was cordial, and one of my key sticking points was the story of Exodus. Many people are familiar with it, as it's the one where Moses demands that the Pharaoh free his people, only to have the Pharaoh refuse, and then Yahweh sends down a mess of plagues to get the guy to change his mind. A little detail that a lot of people don't know is that The Bible says, repeatedly, that it was God who "hardened the Pharaoh's heart". In other words, God makes it so that Pharaoh doesn't give in and obey his command. What the what?

In other words, the whole situation might have been avoided if God had just let the Pharaoh give his own answer. Or better yet, an all-powerful God could have teleported the Jews out of Egypt. But no, we've got a God who manipulates things in such a way that he can bring down all sorts of horrific plagues upon the people of Egypt, including the killing of the first born males. (And apparently God can't tell Jews from Egyptians, 'cause he needs some lamb's blood on the door.)

I pointed out the unnecessary cruelty and, let's face it, total randomness, of this story. The fella I was talking to gave me his email address and suggested that I read Romans, Chapter 9. Shortly after I did, I emailed him and said, "Yeah, that actually makes things worse."

Let's get past the whole thing about how Romans was written centuries after the book of Exodus, which means that if The Bible is indeed the inspired word of God, God didn't see fit to clarify things until hundreds of years later. The problem is that Romans 9 essentially can be summed up as: "I'm God. I can do what I want. Shut your face." The sad thing is that when the guy responded, he didn't even deny that's what the basic message was.

Before I go any further, let me say that I am well aware that there are Christians out there who don't think that The Bible is inerrant. They'll tell you that it's perhaps "inspired by God" or something along those lines. My point isn't to say that The Bible is a totally useless and worthless book. You can learn a lot by reading it, and I'm not just talking about the mythology of the Jews and the Christians. For one thing, you get a good sense of how much people respond to the idea of having some kind of ultimate authority and how leaders are eager to set up a system in which people don't question things. Of course, there are even a few good lessons scattered throughout all the barbarities. But this can be said about any work of mythology, from The Ramayana to The Odyssey. The only thing is, you don't have people making excuses for why it's not really so bad for Odysseus to have his female slaves brutally killed just because they had sex with the suitors.

To me, the sheer fact that Christianity even needs something like apologetics is your first clue that something is wrong. (I should also point out that there are apologists for Islam as well; they remind me of their Christian counterparts, and one of these days I'll write about them. Sample bit of silliness: The Koran is written in a language that's so beautiful and advanced for its time, that it could only have been dictated by a higher power!)

Apologetics are essentially an admission that things don't make sense. Whenever I hear a Christian defend slavery in The Bible, for instance, I can't help but think of the No Prize. For those of you not familiar with the old letters pages in Marvel Comics, a "No Prize" was awarded to anybody who not only pointed out a mistake in a comic book but then gave an explanation as to why it wasn't REALLY a mistake in the first place. Usually, the logic was tortured, but it was all in good fun and the winner received an empty envelope, from what I've heard.

Conan O'Brien does something similar on his show:

That's what apologetics are like. Yeah, The Bible says that you can make slaves out of your neighbors and that you can beat your slave since he's your property, but since the concept of a loving God and slavery don't make sense, "slave" doesn't mean the same thing blah blah blah bullshit bullshit.

The difference with Marvel Comics and Conan O'Brien, of course, is that nobody holds up either of those two to be infallible, and the "apologetics" for them are all in good fun. The apologetics for The Bible are supposed to be taken seriously.

And what I have to wonder is, do they do anything other than reassure the already-faithful? Has anybody been a skeptic and then heard the arguments of Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, or C.S. Lewis and went, "Oh hey! There's a good point!" For Pete's sakes, the first two guys talk about how the empty tomb must be evidence for the divinity of Jesus and their whole train of logic on that revolves around how other explanations as to why the tomb is empty don't make any sense. Meanwhile, every skeptic I know is sitting there wondering where this tomb was in the first place and how we know that it was empty when nobody even wrote about it until at least thirty years after the fact!

In the case of C.S. Lewis, I actually had a Christian throw his little trilemma at me one time. Basically, it goes like this: "Do you think that Jesus was a lunatic, liar, or Lord?" The point is to get the skeptic to answer either lunatic or liar and then show that's impossible, forcing them to conclude that Jesus must be Lord. It's a pretty logical defense if you ignore one gaping problem: the premise is faulty. Basically, my answer to the question was, "I don't even accept the premise of your question." He was confused.

I would have to think that there are some Christians who realize that this is a bad bit of making the case for Christ, even though I know that there are some who think it's foolproof. I don't think that you even need a skeptic like myself to point out what's wrong with it. If you're having trouble, ask yourself this: "Was Hercules a liar, lunatic, or son of Zeus?" See the problem there? If not, this video will elaborate:

This is why I think that so many debates between Christians and skeptics become frustrating. So many Christians get their brains filled with all of these apologetics and then get frustrated when the arguments don't work the way they hoped they would. Atheists get frustrated because they feel that Christians are going for the Divine No Prize.

1 comment:

Tony from Pandora said...

With our many discussions about Christianity, the only argument that you could really make about your atheism that would carry any weight with me is the fact that Ben Affleck is Batman. Why would God let this happen?