Atheism’s Apparent Literary Impoverishment & the Need for Sophisticated Biblical Analysis

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The Bible is a work of literature composed by many authors, making many claims, and telling many accounts. As a work of literature, it must be interpreted, evaluated, and analyzed. This is not a simple task. Scholars cannot come to a consensus on how to interpret works such as Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Yet the outspoken Loftus and his brand of atheists seem to think that they have decisively arrived at the proper interpretations of the Bible. The latest in atheist fashion seems to be accusing the Bible of making absurd scientific statements (accusing the Bible of teaching the earth is flat is especially popular at the moment) in order to accuse Christians who do not believe them of not truly believing the Bible. But this methodology fails to handle the Bible with the same literary sophistication with which we would treat any other work.

In the article found in Chapter 5 of Loftus’ Christian Delusion, the author, Mr. Babinski states, “In light of the preponderance of evidence presented here [regarding Hebrew belief in a flat earth and a geocentric universe as a result of ancient Mesopotamian influence] it’s clear that the Bible is a product of the prescientific period in which it originated. . . if there are any “words of God” in the Bible it appears that human beings are the ones picking and choosing among them as to which those might be, which to emphasize, which to deemphasize, which to praise, which to question, and how to interpret them.”

It seems as though Mr. Babinski (as well as Mr. Loftus who praised Babinski’s article as “the best chapter on the subject”) thinks that the allegedly inaccurate scientific beliefs of ancient Biblical authors suggest that the Bible is not divine and that Christians choosing how to interpret the Bible is a problem. Are they aware of the fact that reading literally any piece of prose requires interpretation? Interpretation of a famous work is hardly (if ever) unanimous, and interpreting the Bible is no place for dogmatic, biased, superficial readings.

...interpreting the Bible is no place for dogmatic, biased, superficial readings. Click To Tweet

Making a decisive claim in this post about whether the Biblical authors were flat earthers or not would be distracting. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that the Biblical authors in question really did believe the earth was flat – just like the author of Deuteronomy 32:1 who apparently believed that the sky has an ear.

But so what?

Suggesting that the Bible is fatally in error and cannot be inspired by God because some of the authors made an allusion to the earth being flat while reflecting on the greatness of God and His creative power is like completely discrediting a hypothetical ancient love letter in which a man claims that his love for his wife is brighter and more radiant than the sun which is the brightest and largest of all the stars in the sky. Sure, his science was off. But so what?

The point of such a hypothetical love letter is clearly not to make a scientific treatise on the size of celestial bodies. The point is that the man greatly loves his wife.

Similarly, a Biblical author referring to God’s greatness because He created the earth, which the author happens to believe is flat due to ancient cultural influences, is not writing a scientific treatise on the shape of the planet. The author is making a claim about God’s glory and creative ability. To focus on the passage as though it is a scientific treatise reveals a lack of literary sophistication — or even competence.

The principle of disqualifying the messages of Scripture based on the fact that its authors believed in irrelevant falsities would be laughable if applied elsewhere. Should we discredit Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in its entirety because at one point he suggests that some men are best suited to be slaves? Promoting slavery seems like a much more grievous error than believing that the earth is flat, yet we do not count this one error as reason to strip Aristotle of all authority.

Should we apply this kind of logic to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species because he proposes slow gradual changes in evolution yet punctuated equilibrium theory is now in vogue? Or perhaps we should disqualify Darwin’s entire body of works because he claimed in The Descent of Man that, “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman.” I certainly hope that any reader, whether atheist or theist, takes such a sexist claim to be false. And yet we still read Charles Darwin and take him seriously as an influential author despite these erred claims.

(Now I can hear the atheist responses already, “But the Bible is sexist, and Christians have been sexist for centuries!” but that’s a non-sequitur and a topic for another time.)

What’s more absurd is that atheists are not just using literarily inconsequential errors against the author’s intended messages, they are also using these errors to discredit other authors within the canon of Scripture who had nothing to do with those errors. Loftus clearly called the entirety of the Bible into question because a handful of the authors make allusions to a flat earth, and Babinski did the same in his chapter of The Christian Delusion.

If the author of Isaiah believed in a flat earth, how would that discredit the testimony of men centuries later who lived and died for the claim that a man they had seen publicly crucified was now alive again? There is absolutely no logical connection here. It is perfectly reasonable that we could find the author of Isaiah to be in error, yet still have justification for the belief that Jesus lived, died, and rose again as well as justification to trust the authors who recorded such events.

But perhaps I as a Christian am conceding too much. How can I even entertain the possibility that an error, no matter how trivial, could persist in Scripture? If God really did inspire the Bible, then we should expect to find perfect accounts of the natural world that are in full accordance with modern science, shouldn’t we?

But this is not as commonsensical as we might first assume.

We would not expect God to educate the author of Isaiah on cosmological issues such as the shape, size, and composition of the earth, the vastness, of the universe, the fact that it is ever-expanding, and the fact that the earth is a sphere that rotates around the sun in order to simply show Isaiah a divine message entirely apart from any scientific interest. Divine inspiration intended to convey any kind of meaningful message would be drowned out by the confusion created as God tried to fit thousands of years of scientific progress into the minds of ancient Hebrews. This is the accommodation theory which is essentially that God permitted the authors of Scripture to retain some of their misbeliefs because correcting them would be irrelevant and distracting to the point God was actually trying to get across.

God did not treat the authors of Scripture as mere robots by taking over their minds and writing through them, and He did not sit in the same room as them dictating everything He wanted said as if the authors were mere scribes. While some authors of Scripture were writing in response to visions or dreams or direct appearances from God, they all had their own distinct style, quirks, vocabulary, etc.

Paul had a habit of writing long rambling sentences and never finishing them. But, we would never expect God to write a fragment or a run on sentence if He dictated every word and every line of Scripture Himself. Therefore, divine inspiration must leave room for the characteristics of the authors who were inspired.

We see the stylistic differences between various Biblical authors and yet Christians do not question that the Bible is inspired. We see grammatical errors on the part of Biblical authors and Christians do not question that the Bible is inspired. So why should Christians question the Bible’s divinity when we allegedly see beliefs that the authors would have held in common with the rest of their society which we now know to be false through modern science but are entirely irrelevant to the message of what the authors were writing (or were inspired to write)?

If the purpose of Revelation 7:1 was to be a scientific exposition on a square flat earth then indeed modern science would have proven Revelation 7:1 wrong (if it truly is a reference to a flat earth as opposed to a use of figurative language). But, alas, that was not the point of Revelation 7:1 or any other verse which allegedly references a flat earth. There is not a single verse that says, “Thus sayeth the Lord, the earth is flat and all Christian doctrine hinges on this single truth.”

Of course, atheists would likely point out that many fundamentalist Christians do hold a view of inerrancy that is so strict that even the most trivial of errors would bring Scripture’s divinity into question. But so what? If they want to argue against hyper-literalism, that’s fine. But if atheists actually want to disprove Christianity and bring the entirety of Scripture into question then they need to deal with a reasonable literary analysis of what Scripture intends to say, what it means for Scripture to be inspired, and what it means for Scripture to be infallible. Trying to knock down all of Christianity by picking such low hanging fruit is tacky, amateurish, and desperate.

The debate centers around whether it is reasonable that God would permit people to retain false scientific beliefs if He in his omniscience and benevolence truly did inspire some men to write pieces of religious literature. Loftus acknowledges the view of accommodationism, but he challenges it with the following argument in his blog article, The Accommodation Theory of the Bible:

“If God exists, what was so wrong to tell these ancient people about the true age and vastness of the universe, or in giving them the knowledge of penicillin right from the start, or by unambiguously condemning slavery? By not doing so, God has produced many unbelievers who don’t see any true divine revelation in the Bible! And here’s where my previous comment applies, when I wrote, “I suppose then the Bible was also accommodating to its hearers when God never condemned slavery, or witch, heretic and honor killings either, eh? Can God justify all of this accommodating? Why must God accommodate to his creatures? Why can’t he simply tell them the truth, especially since because he didn’t, there have been so many problems, including the Galileo affair, and the fact that we who want to assess the Bible’s accuracy in today’s world doubt it’s from God because of this. This God is not too smart for an omniscient being.”

It is difficult to figure out exactly what Loftus wants here. Since God was working through humans with imperfect knowledge, there would have been only two options in order to prevent any and all inaccurate allusions to the natural world. Either He could have expressly forbade any and all references to the natural world in case the inspired authors got anything wrong — which we can hardly consider reasonable. Or He could have divinely imparted all possible knowledge of the natural world upon them so they didn’t make any erroneous references to the natural world. Or, He could have done exactly what He did with the understanding that anybody who does not take the time to separate the scientific inaccuracies which allegedly happen to be in Scripture from the actual point of what the Bible says would be culpable for their own literary incompetence.

Perhaps we might question why God didn’t just cut out the middle-man and write everything Himself. In order to avoid scientific misunderstandings in the future, this leaves two options. If God had handed down the entirety of Scripture Himself without any human authors involved, He could have made no references that could ever be of concern to science in order to avoid potential conflict or misunderstandings. Or He could have revealed all scientific knowledge there possibly is to know.

The first option bears striking resemblance to the ten commandments (which Christianity teaches came directly from God) or Jesus’ earthly ministry in which He said little to nothing in regards to factual statements about the uninterrupted processes of nature. Yet even without any scientific conflicts, the teachings of both are still widely disregarded. So it seems like what Loftus really wants is scientific prophecy in the Bible so that scientific discoveries thousands of years after the Bible was written would confirm it.

But at what cost would this come? If the Bible had taught unequivocally that the universe is not geocentric, then how many centuries or millennia of scoffing would the Bible have endured before science finally caught up? How many millennia worth of people would have made the exact same charge against Scripture as Loftus — “why can’t the Bible just teach what we so obviously know to be true which is that the universe is geocentric in order that we could believe it? Surely if it were written by God then it would not say something as foolish as the universe not revolving around the earth” — just so that we in the twenty first century would finally, maybe believe in the Bible based on the Bible’s scientific accuracy.

Would it not be more effective for God to just send a man born of a virgin to perform miracles, declare the truth of Scripture, and rise from the dead and appear to people after being publicly crucified? This seems like much more conclusive evidence than scientific statements which would almost certainly be constantly contested within the scientific community as most scientific ideas are.

And if God were to reveal scientific truth in Scripture in order to avoid the human struggle to obtain knowledge, at what point should we expect the Bible to stop in this scientific revelation? Why would it stop before or at the knowledge we have obtained up to our current age? By this logic, shouldn’t it just keep going to include all knowledge so that there would never be anything new to cause controversy? But then the Bible would be incomprehensibly long and would be even less suitable for its intended purposes which have nothing to do with being a divine scientific textbook.

Couldn’t God just make us omniscient in order to account for the impossibility of reading the divine textbook that Loftus apparently desires? If He didn’t then there wouldn’t even be a guarantee that we would believe in this divine scientific textbook.

While Loftus’ request for just a little more knowledge of the natural world sounds reasonable on the face of things, it is actually entirely the opposite of what we would expect to find if the Bible were true. We’ve already seen that for purely practical reasons it would make little to no sense for God to reveal scientific truth to us through the Bible in order persuade us that the Bible is true. But it also makes no sense to think that we are somehow entitled to God’s knowledge about the natural world that we would find advantageous for our survival and comfort.

Christianity teaches that mankind is in a fallen state separated from God due to our own sinfulness. It would make no sense whatsoever for God to separate mankind from Himself due to our own disobedience yet still grant all knowledge to us that might ever be useful thereby effectively saving us from our fallen state. Loftus’ disbelieving in the Bible and Christianity because God did not do something that He would not have done if the Bible were true is simply asinine.

It is only reasonable to expect that the authors of the Bible would remain ignorant in areas such as the sciences, and their views in those fields would quite reasonably be shaped by the culture around them. A sophisticated handling of the Bible as a piece of literature demands that we ask what it actually says and whether the natural human ignorance of the authors actually discredits their messages.

In the case of possible Biblical allusions to a flat earth, we see absolutely no passages of Scripture intended to teach a flat earth as essential doctrine. Therefore, even if Loftus and Babinski are correct in their assertion that some Biblical authors happened to believe in a flat earth, the Bible does not therefore teach that the earth is flat. Rather, those passages which arguably allude to a flat earth teach something entirely different and a reference to a flat earth is entirely inconsequential to that message. Therefore, believing in the Bible and all its intended messages does not oblige a Christian to accept the idea that the earth is flat since the Bible never actually teaches that the earth is flat. At worst, the Bible only provides evidence that its authors just so happened to believe in and make reference to a flat earth.

This is not a matter of intellectual gerrymandering or shoehorning belief in the Bible into our age of modern science. It is a matter of reading any piece of literature in a reasonable way – a concept that seems to have been forgotten by Loftus and other atheists who use the same kind of literarily destitute arguments in their haste to find reasons to justify their disbelief in the Bible.

Author’s Note: John Loftus’ “reply” can be found here.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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