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Absurd!

In the comments for a recent blog post I repeated one of my favourite quotes by the famous enlightenment philosopher Voltaire who said “Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities” and my opponent agreed. Of course, I’m sure he only thinks that while most other people’s religious views are absurd, his (by some unknown process) are immune and make perfect sense.

So I guess the challenge is to show that Christianity is absurd, surely one of the simplest tasks I have ever set myself! But is it really? The problem is that Christianity doesn’t really exist. What does exist are various sects which have split off from the original belief system (the first major split was just a few hundred years after the founding of the church) and now number about 38,000.

That in itself is absurd because many of these sects show massive variations in their beliefs. Some believe in creation, some in evolution, some both. Some believe Jesus was some sort of supernatural god, some think he was a manifestation of God, some think he was just a man. Some interpret every word of the Old Testament literally, some basically ignore it.

So when preparing a case against Christianity it’s just too easy for my opponent to claim that I am disproving a version of the religion which he also disagrees with, but which isn’t “real” Christianity. And naturally, many people will never explicitly tell you what they believe because that would mean you can disprove that belief.

So I guess I just have to take a few of the more important and widely quoted Christian beliefs and show they are absurd. That’s not perfect and those who insist on denying the obvious will still no doubt still find some way to escape but it’s probably the best approach I have available.

So let’s start at the beginning. Genesis is absurd. Anyone with the smallest amount of intellectual honesty will agree that it simply cannot be literally true. Every branch of science contradicts it and anyone who still believes in creation (no doubt while still accepting the benefits of the science which disproves it) is showing absurd ignorance.

Some people will say it is metaphorical. OK, so what is the deeper meaning? There isn’t one because it was clearly meant to be the best explanation of the origin of the universe, Earth, and life that a primitive desert nomad tribe could invent at the time. To pretend that such a mechanistic story is a metaphor is absurd.

Most of the other origin stories in the Old Testament are also absurd. That applies to the Exodus and the Flood which clearly didn’t happen. I guess there might be some sort of case to say that these are metaphorical but there are two problems with that.

First, if they are metaphors how do we know? Maybe every story is a metaphor so is nothing in the Bible true? There would be absolutely no way to know. How absurd is that?

Second, what is the metaphorical message here? For the Flood it seems to be that if some people upset God he will kill practically everyone, plus almost every animal and plant as well. So the message is that God is a monstrous, evil tyrant? Somehow I don’t think that’s what most Christians want to believe.

So let’s move on to the more central message of Christianity from the New Testament. Surprisingly, in some ways this is even more absurd.

Maybe the basic belief of modern Christianity (and this is debatable for the reasons I gave above) is portrayed in that most famous Bible verse, John 3:16, which is “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (New International Version).

So what is this all about? Well here’s my interpretation (please correct me if I’m wrong). God saw that there were problems on Earth so he sent his son (not really, or was he?) Jesus down to sort things out. But part of this process was to sacrifice Jesus through his crucifixion. This was God’s ultimate sacrifice for the good of humans.

At this stage you might guess what word I’m about to use to describe this… absurd!

God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good right? So how did he let this situation get so out of control to start with? And who was Jesus? Some people say he was a manifestation of God. So God sent himself to be sacrificed to himself to convince himself to fix problems that he himself let happen in the first place? Absurd!

And what was the point of this sacrifice? Why not let Jesus stay on Earth a bit longer and spread the message more widely? Was his brutal execution really necessary? What does that tell us about God? That the whole idea of the sacrifice of Jesus is absurd!

I could go on for pages listing absurdities in Christianity but anyone who isn’t convinced by the flagrant abuses of logic and common sense I have already listed will probably never be convinced.

Clearly Christianity is absurd and, as my religious opponent agrees, that can easily lead to atrocities being committed. I’m not saying anyone who believes this stuff will become a homicidal terrorist, but it does encourage those who might be a bit unstable to begin with to act on those tendencies.

I’m also not saying that Christianity is all bad. There are some cool stories and some quite positive philosophy there, but there’s also a lot of completely absurd nonsense. If we gave it the same respect as a work of philosophy or mythology (Plato’s works or the Iliad for example) I think the atrocity aspect of it could be avoided, but I don’t think that’s likely in the near future!

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  1. November 1, 2016 at 11:59 pm

    “Anyone with the smallest amount of intellectual honesty will agree that it simply cannot be literally true…Some people will say it is metaphorical.”

    I think you have a category misunderstanding here.

    A metaphor to be a figure of speech referencing something else other than that what is described. A metaphor is objectively ‘false’ when interpreted at face value. But it is not the only figure of speech available. We also have hyperbole, personification, idiom, allusion, analogies like simile, etc.

    The “literal” (or plain meaning) is not as restrictive as you imply. Truth is not implied by being literal. For example ‘I am the smartest person alive’ is both literal and false. Nor does being literal imply only one explanation. The phrase ‘I am great’ can mean ‘I am fat’ or ‘I am awesome’.

    Not only are the individual words taken literally or figuratively, but so are the individual statements, paragraphs, chapters, etc. A paragraph describing a person actually taking a bullet for someone may be said to a metaphor for love in the context of a larger story. This is something literal being taken figuratively.

    Knowing whether to take something as literal or figurative is only the first step in determining the meaning of a thing. In the case of a pun, it may be both. A work of fiction may be literal, but we know that it is not to be taken as historical fact because it is fiction. When we read “Romeo and Juliet” literally, we see truths about relationships and love, but we don’t make the mistake of thinking the event actually happened.

    We need to perform literary analysis to determine the meaning of a text. The type of writing (narrative, poetry, summary, etc.), the structure (i.e. Chiastic pattern), and the context must be taken into consideration. This literary analysis is arguably more important for determining truth than it being literal or figurative.

    Genesis can be taken as ‘literally true’ without falling afoul of any of the objections you raise here or elsewhere. To say it can’t say anything at all that is in the domain of science is completely without justification.

    If your objection is actually that the text can’t be taken literally in the sense of a modern historical narrative account, then absolutely that is the case. It is not a modern historical narrative! That fundamentalist evangelicals do this and their detractors accept this in their rebuttals really doesn’t say much for or against the text itself. The whole argument is flawed.

  2. OJB
    November 2, 2016 at 12:26 am

    OK, I’ll ignore the first 6 paragraphs as they seem nothing more than an attempt to confuse the issue and avoid the unfortunate truth. Let’s move on to the specific case of Genesis. It describes a creation event (or a series of them) and it certainly seems like it was meant to be taken literally.

    By that I mean that people were really supposed to believe that God did this, and then that, and that explains the universe as we see it today. Remember that until science discovered what really happened most people accepted Genesis as exactly that: a literal description.

    It seems just too convenient that now that science has discovered the real “creation” events that suddenly Genesis is now supposed to be interpreted metaphorically. If science hadn’t done that we would still be using it as historical truth, wouldn’t we?

    I would also ask, if this isn’t meant to be a description of real events then what is it? And given that literal and metaphorical sections of the Bible are interspersed without any way to identify them, which parts are true and which aren’t?

    As I said in the original post… it’s absurd!

    • November 2, 2016 at 1:06 am

      “…suddenly Genesis is now supposed to be interpreted metaphorically”

      No. The first 6 paragraphs that you ignore are critical to understanding the mistake you are making. Repeating the mistake doesn’t actually help your argument. I’m not going to repeat what I said. It’s there in case you want to try again.

      “…if this isn’t meant to be a description of real events then what is it?”

      Who said it isn’t meant to be a description of real events? It may or may not be, just not the highly specific way you think it does.

      “it certainly seems like it was meant to be taken literally”

      Do you know what a chiastic literary structure is? Understanding this is absolutely critical to being able to read Genesis 1 intelligently. Compare it with the Song of Solomon while asking the question “Why does the sex apparently happen before the wedding?”

  3. OJB
    November 2, 2016 at 2:06 am

    I’m still not sure what you are saying (even after reviewing the 6 paragraphs). After reading Genesis should I think God created the universe? Does the set of events described have any relationship with what really happened at all?

    If yes, why does it not agree with the empirical facts? If no, what is the point then? What do I get from Genesis (I’m mainly talking about the early parts describing the 6 day creation) if not a description of how God created the universe?

    I’m not trying to be perverse here, I genuinely want to know your answer.

  4. November 2, 2016 at 3:22 am

    The most obvious apparent contradiction in Genesis 1 is that the light is created before the sun/moon/stars (as are plants for that matter). But the text is in a chiastic pattern in the form A-B-C-A’-B’-C’-D:

    Day 1: (A) Light
    Day 2: (B) Sky and Sea
    Day 3: (C) Land and Vegetation
    Day 4: (A’) Stars/Sun/Moon
    Day 5: (B’) Fish and Birds
    Day 6: (C’) Animals and Man
    Day 7: (D) God Rested

    Day 1: Light goes with Day 4: Stars/Sun/Moon
    Day 2: Sky/Sea goes with Day 5: Birds/Fish
    Day 3: Land/Plants goes with Day 6: Animals/Man
    Day 7: God rests

    These devices are used for easy of memorization in an oral tradition and to imply emphasis. The most important detail (D) is the culmination of the story when God finishes his creative work and rests. When we tell a story, we don’t always tell it in chronological order. Sometimes we tell it by emphasis, telling important details out of chronological order (“I’m building my new office on the second floor. Tomorrow they pour the concrete for the foundation.”). There is no reason to say absolutely that this is a literal seven chronologically sequential 24-hour day creation story. It’s not obvious that these are ‘events’ at all. (i.e. Saying God created man is not the same as saying how or when he did it)

    I mentioned the Song of Solomon which is in the form A-B-C-D-A’-B’-C’. In that case, ‘D’ is the wedding. The sex happens in other parts, but it isn’t a chronological story. It’s not advocating premarital sex. It’s not even part of the discussion. It’s a celebration of physical intimacy culminated by the joining in marriage.

    This type of device is all over the Bible, notably including the story of Noah and the flood. These are not modern historical chronological narratives. Genesis 1 is a literary narrative (not metaphorical poetry!), but not the kind we are used to. We don’t write our narratives with such rigid structure. We reserve that for poetry. The Hebrews did not. They should not be interpreted as strict exact chronological historical events.

    This is *just one* of the many issues at play. In my opening comment I listed a number of them. There are many other ways I could take this discussion, including talking about specific verses and how they should be interpreted, but this is a lengthy response already. I reject the fundamentalist ‘literal’ interpretation, not because it couldn’t be true, but because science is much better placed to answer questions of science. I don’t see the point in debating possible interpretations of the creation story that are compatible with science.

  5. OJB
    November 2, 2016 at 3:37 am

    OK, I’ve got to admit it: you creationists are the masters of the post hoc rationalisation! I have never heard that particular excuse before. How widely is this view held?

    I mean, even with your arbitrary hand waving explanation it’s still wrong, because humans evolved well after other animals and flowering plants were quite late. Also birds evolved after dinosaurs and mammals but before humans. There’s just no way this makes any sense.

    You know what this reminds me of? Trying to find the truth in a child’s nursery rhyme. I mean, like “Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water”. We know this is wrong because wells are never located on the top of hills. Maybe the hill was a metaphor for the challenges life poses and Jack and Jill symbolised humanity? Who’s to say I’m wrong?

  6. November 2, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    I’m not sure when the term “chiasm” was coined, but it is from the classical Greek. It is millennia old. The structure was widely used in many writings (including the Odyssey and the Iliad). It is widely known by scholars and seminary-trained pastors because it is ubiquitous. Call one up and ask them; it is where I learned about it.

    Imagine trying to read and understand a Limerick without knowing the rhyme scheme, meter, and that the content is often humorously obscene? You might read it literally, but you’d miss the intended meaning if you took it for unstructured prose. It’s equally ignorant to read Genesis without knowing this.

    You continue to read the Genesis account as if it was written in this century. All of your objections and conclusions reflect this. Saying that interpreting a text in its proper literary context is post hoc rationalization is equally silly. By failing to do this, both you and fundamentalists are necessarily guilty of post hoc rationalization. (Of course all interpretation of historical documents is post hoc by definition.)

    You are making the same kind of category mistake that fundamentalists make. You’ve accepted their flawed assumptions and then argued that the conclusions are wrong. Well of course they are!

    The text does not say that birds evolved before dinosaurs. It doesn’t say that light was created before the sources of light or that plants evolved without photosynthesis. It’s not saying that birds and fish are not animals either. That’s all nonsense. You come up with strange interpretations and then complain that they don’t make sense.

    Interpretation of ancient texts requires a lot of work. You are trying to oversimplify and insist on a particular interpretation. It doesn’t work that way. Your post reflects your ignorance of the topic you are attempting to discuss. If you want to refute views held by fundamentalists and slam them for being inconsistent and contradictory, go ahead. That is low hanging fruit. But if you want to reject the account in terms of a literary work, then you have to argue against it as a literary work.

  7. OJB
    November 2, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    I have no issues with accepting Genesis as a literary work but I got the impression you also thought it had some merit as a true description of the origin of the universe. Maybe that’s where the problem lies. So just to clarify, could you answer two questions: 1, is there any value in Genesis as a source of real information about real events (let’s stick to Genesis 1 and 2 at this stage); and 2, if there is could you describe briefly what it claims actually happened.

    • November 12, 2016 at 2:31 am

      I am using the term “literary work” to be a work of literature, that is a work of writing, not as the narrowly defined “imaginative fiction”. All writing, including science textbooks, must be viewed in light of its literary context. It is impossible to fully determine the truth in a writing without first understanding its literary context.

      “1, is there any value in Genesis as a source of real information about real events; 2, if there is could you describe briefly what it claims actually happened.”

      In short, yes. In long, how many months do you have? I’ll try ‘briefly’, but don’t expect a complete answer.

      Genesis 1:1 is quite plain: God created everything and it has a beginning. The steady state theory created metaphysical problems for Christianity. The Big Bang theory caused metaphysical problems for Naturalism. It has always been the case that Christians believed in a beginning to the universe, long before science arrived at that conclusion. So the first primary point is that God is by nature a ‘creator’. It is no mistake that one of the primary attributes of humanity is its creative power.

      We know from the literary analysis that the purpose of the creation story is to show that God did it and why: to highlight God’s relationship to man. The second primary point: God created man in his image and his method of communication with his creation is relational. It is no mistake that God sets up marriage as the type to his relationship with mankind. I can’t use science to get know my spouse. I have a relationship where she reveals herself to me. Naturalism explicitly excludes any possibility of relationship with God.

      As far as other scientific claims, it is hard to be definitive. God is responsible for the celestial bodies, for the water and the land, the plants, animals, and man. But we don’t know when or how. We can only speculate. There are a lot of hints that could lead to specific scientific predictions, but we are only talking about two chapters. How much could it say about real events?

  8. OJB
    November 12, 2016 at 4:07 am

    I have so many problems with this that I don’t know where to start. There is one thing you say that has always intrigued me though (off topic a bit) and that is what does “God created man in his image” actually mean?

    • November 12, 2016 at 2:34 pm

      “I have so many problems with this that I don’t know where to start.”

      I feel your pain. Over the last 10 days I wrote and rewrote my response a number of times. In the end I just went with something as brief as I could. I never once thought you’d accept it, but I gave up trying. I don’t think it can be done in a few paragraphs. I’d rather address specific claims if possible.

      I really don’t think Genesis 1 and 2 has a lot to say regarding science. Besides everything having a beginning, what else is there? I reject strict 24-hour day chronological days of creation. I don’t even think they were ‘days’ in any meaningful numerical sense. I see no need for it to say any more than this. Obviously many others disagree with me. Certainly there is not enough here to build a creation museum.

      “what does ‘God created man in his image’ actually mean?”

      Being created in the image of God means we are creative, relational, spiritual, and moral. The image is like a copy, or a shadow of the original, not the thing itself. We are not God, but we are ‘of’ or ‘like’ God. It is talking about essence/being/nature, not that God has a physical body like ours.

      To have a relationship with another person, you need to share things in common. The person in relationship with you must reveal themselves to you or you can’t really know them. No matter how much we try, there is an impassable divide between us and our pets. There is an even bigger divide between God and man.

      To bridge this gap, we are expected to be in relationship with God as the primary form of interaction, not through supernatural experiences and not through seeing God in the beauty of nature. Being created in the image of God means that we are, in some real sense, divine. We are ‘spiritual beings’.* I don’t think it is a great shock that most major world religions teach a path towards final ‘divinity’, although they call it different things.

      For someone as scientific as yourself, I’m sure this sounds like complete gibberish. If one holds to only scientific explanations, then that would necessarily exclude this. If you want to restrict the standards required for evidence and truth evaluation, fine. But in the opening passage of a holy book for 3 major world religions, it clearly states how God has chosen to make himself known.

      If you want to understand religious people you have to understand that they view themselves as spiritual beings. They really do believe this stuff. They think that a God can actually be in real relationship with them and interact with them on this spiritual level. Some do it more consciously than others, some are able to articulate this better than others, but the net result is the same whether they can explain it or not.

      Is this rational? Yes. It doesn’t contradict science. It is evidence-based belief as well. Of course it is metaphysically different from your core beliefs, there is no denying that. I don’t know if discussing metaphysics and theology with you will be beneficial in any way. I’ve not really wanted to do that because there is no way it can convince you. So I’m sorry if answering the question just fills you with aggravation and frustration.

      * A discussion of how Judaism and Christianity differently handle this is interesting, but I’ll skip over it for now.

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