As an atheist, I think we should leave the Mormons alone. They cop a lot of flak for being racist, ridiculous, gullible, and basically mad as a bag of clams. But if you are religious or “spiritual” in any way, whether you’re a Christian, Jew, Hindu, or Muslim, you’ve already bought into your own barrel full of crazy. And if you’re going to believe any old nonsense, why not go for broke? Shoot the moon, I say! Have Jesus go to America. Why not? The Garden of Eden is in Missouri. Course it is. But don’t stop there — let’s have Jesus flying spaceships and Moses riding on the back of a dinosaur. If you’re going to be properly nuts, at least have some imagination about it.
The alternative is, of course, to hold all religions to the same skepticism we reserve for the crazy ones like Mormonism and Scientology. Because if Mormonism and Scientology are ridiculous, so are all the rest. You can’t tell me that talking animals and ritual circumcision are any more sensible than sticking your head in a hat and reading gold tablets.
I’m not an angry atheist. I don’t believe in attacking others for their religion, but I do form opinions about people based on what they think. Religion is part of how people present themselves to others. It’s hard to have respect for blind faith because that is the definition of madness — believing in something regardless of what evidence is presented to you. A madman might believe the government is watching him through his TV, and he won’t change his mind even if you dismantle the TV and show him the parts. Religious people are similarly impervious to logic. It always comes down to “I believe it because I have faith.”
It’s not necessary to read every holy text in order to reject the mad claims that are presented to us every day by one religion or another. It’s common to hear Christians say you have to read the Bible (and other theological texts) before you can reject them. Nonsense. If you are a Christian, you probably didn’t read every Hindu text before deciding that Hinduism was a bunch of codswallop. But that said, I’ve always felt a certain gap in my knowledge around the Bible. Although I’m an atheist, the culture I live in has deep roots in Christianity and modern America is still a strongly Judaeo-Christian world. I decided to read the Bible for the sake of my own education and to discover to my own satisfaction how the book presents itself.
For the past few months I have been reading one chapter a day (and live-tweeting the experience as @BreakingBible). It will take over three years to read the whole thing, but then I always was a slow reader.
The thing that has struck me so far is all the stuff that religious people conveniently leave out. According to the Bible, Noah’s Flood was only 22.5 feet deep — and it covered all the mountains in the world1. The Bible hints (and later Christian dogma confirms) that Nero Caesar will come back from the dead as the Antichrist in the End of Days2. We’re always told to keep the Ten Commandments, but which ones? The Commandments are printed twice in Exodus alone and they’re different each time3. One of the Commandments actually tells us to keep Passover, the festival of unleavened bread, and eat no leavened bread for a week each year. How many Christians do that? And yet it is a Commandment. You’re not getting into Heaven at this rate.
The best I can do for Christians is suspect that most of them do not accept the Bible as literal truth, even the people who do claim to take it literally. It’s the most generous benefit of the doubt I can give to religious people of all stripes — that they are not mad enough to believe things that are obviously wrong, but simply appreciate the moral and emotional guidance their religion gives them.
But if you know it’s not true, why be religious at all? Why claim to be Christian or Jewish or anything else if the book you chose to live by could have been any book? Harry Potter presents the same kinds of moral code that you might extract from the Bible — don’t be cruel, don’t kill, don’t bear false witness… It’s all in there. I know someone who lectured on the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, and he claimed the same thing was true of Tolkien’s Silmarillion. If people are already picking and choosing which bits of their religion they want to believe, why not read a book that doesn’t have the divinely endorsed murder, genocide, rape, and incest? The moral guidance and emotional support you can get from a work of fiction is just as powerful as those you can get from something you “believe”.
I’ll keep reading the Bible. To be Francis I’m enjoying it, in the same way that I enjoy settling in for the night with an Indiana Jones movie and a bottle of wine. Actually reading a religious text is one of the best arguments for atheism I can imagine.