Dealing with skeptics – and with bad Bible readers

There is a definite hunger for truth in the world right now. The debate about where to find it, and what processes would be most beneficial, is heating up. Radical atheists are becoming ever more vocal, and raising doubts and concerns in people’s minds about what to believe. Yet, Christianity (and other major religions) are responding. A battle for the hearts – and minds – of people continues. At this time of year, it’s worth reflecting on how best to engage in that interaction.

Christmas is a not a good time for atheists and skeptics these days. “The war on Christmas” has largely failed – we call them Christmas trees, greet each other with “Happy Christmas”, include a baby Jesus in school Nativity plays and say ‘Christmas’ rather than ‘Xmas’ on our greeting cards without too much come back. Once upon a time religion was equated with ignorance and superstition (it still is for many), which would eventually give way for science, fact, evidence and reason. Secular elites and thinkers especially explained that the world would be better off without superstitious belief in God. The last hundred years have not been good for them, though. The last century has been the most anti-Christian and most secular in history, yet it’s hard not to notice that scientific rationalism has not delivered a peaceful world to us. Denouncing God (and Jesus specifically) has not made the world a better place – but it has led to an increased spiritual hunger in the Western world.

But this is no cause for gloating amongst Christians (or other religions). The problem is that people who are going on a spiritual quest do not see traditional Christianity as a viable place to go looking (the same is probably true for other traditional religions as well). One of the major reasons for this is that ordinary Christians seem so happy to believe stuff that is just patently absurd or contradictory. By this, I don’t mean belief in some of the difficult to accept concepts that are integral to the Christian faith (such as the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ, or a personal God who both loves and judges us), but rather I am referring to the way many Christians continue to insist that all parts of the Bible are literally true (in a modern scientific sense). And the way that many Christians continue to claim that the way they interpret the Bible must be true in spite of all the scientific evidence to the contrary (the best example of this is the continued insistence by so many Christians that there either were never dinosaurs or that any that did exist were wiped out by a global flood just a few thousand years ago).

Those are bold statements that could easily be misunderstood, so let me quickly explain. Too many readers of the Bible do not take into account some of the key factors that need to be understood when doing proper and detailed Biblical interpretation. This is partly because evangelicals and Protestants have long encouraged everyone to do daily Bible “study” and rely on pithy devotional notes as the basis of their Biblical interpretations. Most of these people do not have the background required to analyse the original language and critique the translation they’re using, or delve into the historical and ancient cultural references and background that colour the story, or dig deeply into the literary context and understanding of the usage and forms of the specific genre of the passage they’re reading, or compare the Biblical text to other ancient extant texts of the day, and so much more that would be required to do a complete Biblical exegesis.


There’s a balance needed here. We certainly want people reading their Bibles and trying to understand it. But we also need them to know that not everything is as it seems at first reading. Ordinary Christians need to be a little more humble in their assertions based on their own private reading of the Bible – a little less certain that they have found ultimate truth without doing all the hard work required to do proper exegesis. Of course, we can also at the same time, improve the teaching in most of our churches, so that people get to go deeper and learn the skills that can help them do decent exegesis.

And those of us who try and spend more time digging deeper would do well to take seriously the hard work being done by skeptics, serious thinkers and seekers after truth who are pointing some of the weaknesses of our existing interpretations and interpretative methods. A site I discovered recently that would make a good starting point is Project Reason‘s “Scripture Project“, which aims to catalogue all of the problems with the Bible. The have even done the most amazing visualisation of contradictions in Scripture (see here).

There are many good, reasonable and reasoned responses to these skeptics, and it would do Christianity no end of good to engage with skeptics – and also to stop the devotional readers of the Bible from positioning themselves as experts in this field.

13 thoughts on “Dealing with skeptics – and with bad Bible readers”

  1. Interesting article Graeme. Quiet a few thoughts, at random:

    1. Skepticism should not be seen as an enemy and problem of belief or Christianity. It should be welcomed. I understand the threat that the Christian church (400 denominations plus… most thinking others are defective, innovative and correct in their interpretation) finds itself with the New Atheistic/ Skeptic movement. The problem is the ‘certainty’ of Christians, no different to all other religious claimants.

    “To believe with certainty we must begin with doubting.” – Stanislaus I of Poland

    2. The problem with scripture is not poor interpretation or ‘misinterpretation’, it is rather understanding it clearly. Inspiring, moral and good values as it may offer; it is an oral translation of translation of an interpretation of an interpretation, who’s origins, stories and fables are dubious and plagarised. Anyone can start a church by reading the Bible and believing (or vice versa;-) and decide that his way is the right way. I do not think the study of theology, with all its background and historical perspective, increases credibility for Christianity nor contributes education like subjects of sciences, education, technology, etc offer… philosophy may offer some ‘basic moral philosophy’ and ‘critical reasoning’ skills which is so much more useful. Telling someone to believe because you are sincere and well meaning, does not make something true and factual. The supernatural, religious, mystical (or tempered) claims of Christianity begs people to not believe all else, except that openly ‘jealous god’. Christianity is not just up against the Skeptic Movement, but its opponents are all other religious faiths and even its own Christian denominations.

    3. Getting to the crux of the message:-) I present myself as a casing point for your article: how to deal with skeptics. Do you:
    3.1 Respond with correcting me (welcomed. now you are engaging. any honest seeker welcomes that)
    3.2 Ignore (sometimes wise, sometimes cop out, but the unanswered points remain. sometimes ignoring is a career damaging move for many. let’s be honest and nail our beliefs as they are: whilst religious labels are accepted, they are becoming concerning in a more secular world)
    3.3 Delete me (maybe problem solved – its a battle victory not war in this case. i am amazed at how many are prepared to remove friends and jeopardise relationships over honest, respectful engagement)
    3.4 Play the numbers game (the more the majority and like minded can comment, there is seemingly safety and sanity in numbers.)
    3.5 Be open minded (this is the risk of playing the skeptics game, but its the best choice. if any claim to be honest free thinkers, we must be open to changing our beliefs (paradigm shifts). how can we smugly be convinced that our paradigm is unshakable, perfect and uncertain? that’s concerning)

    Let me end on a positive: thank you for opening the debate. I may not agree, but I commend you for your stance, caring and desire for a better world. Common humanism binds us all together.

  2. Anil,

    Thanks for the detailed and considered reply. Your point about skeptics is important, and reiterates a point I was trying to make. Faith is a prerequisite to spirituality and religion, and faith implies (healthy) questioning of belief. When I referred to “skeptics”, I guess I should have used a capital “s” to imply those who are deliberately and consciously skeptical and even antagonistic. But thanks for the clarity of your thinking on that point.

    Your second point about the Bible is an interesting one. My comments were aimed at Christians who base their spiritual beliefs on the belief that the Bible is God’s Word to us. Technically, this is referred to as inspiration. Christians believe that God inspired writers to write things down, and that God has guided the translators and formulators through the ages so that what we have today is a “good enough” version of God’s communication with humanity. I believe that. But my point is that those who do believe it can still be very wrong in how they then apply that belief. Believing that Genesis 1 is a God-inspired story of the Creation is not the same as saying that it is a scientific account of how the world began. One does not have to imply the other. And that’s the problem of interpretation.

    However, your points are worth reading for those who believe that all we need to do is understand (and explain) Scripture clearly and then everyone will believe. You’re right – that’s not enough.

    So, finally then to your third point. I choose 3.1 and 3.5 – I hope that’s OK 🙂

    Not much more to say at this point, but I appreciate the engagement, and appreciate even more the tone of your discussion. All too often these days, religious dialogue seems to move too quickly to shouting and close mindedness. It should go the other way completely.

    Graeme

  3. Graeme,

    You’re a terrific guy. I sense your goodness, with or without religion. I almost feel ‘repentant’ taking your post to task:-) But I felt an obligation in the spirit of integrity to respond to the content.

    It is useful to engage – to both your Christian followers and the Skeptics.

    You are right that often such discussions turn into ugly slugfests, with parties having little respect and consideration when engaging. Even I can improve with that (even my grammar;-)

    I would like to post your article on my Freethinker group (Durban Freethinkers & Friends)… you may receive a few extra hits on the site, and some responses. I think most will be responsible in the moderation of the postings if they do;-)

    Warm Regards,

    Anil

  4. Anil,

    It would be great if you would post it and provide a link back to my blog. The whole purpose of this blog is to spark discussion and interactions with issues of faith, and especially to challenge Christians to think and act more deeply.

    Thanks for engaging, and let’s do continue the conversation.

    Graeme

  5. PS – look out for my post tomorrow and about a moderate Muslim leader who may be trying to engage with Christians 🙂

  6. The reason, Neil, is that X is the Greek “chi” which for centuries (right the way back to early Christian times) was used as a symbol for Christ. So, no arguments about the historical usage.

    What I had in mind (and I think Billy Graham, too), is not historical usage, but rather the reason that some people use it in a deliberate attempt to remove the “Christ” from “Xmas” (if you see what I mean).

  7. Apologies, it seems like it was his son William Franklin Graham III, not Billy Graham who made the remark quoted in Wikipedia.

  8. Nonetheless, the real point is that sceptics can (and do) enjoy Christmas without believing in Santa, Easter without believing in the Easter bunny, Divali without believing in Lakshmi, Friday without believing in Frigga, etc. etc.

    None of these times of year are bad for sceptics and atheists! Good food, decorations and presents transcend all colours and creeds. I think you are confusing sceptics and

    Bad times for sceptics are when the religious lobby tries to impose laws against questioning religion. Or when protesters shut down our plays and films. Or when we are murdered by extremists. Or when we can’t teach science in schools.

    Y’know, thinking about it, radical sceptics have been murdered, tortured or oppressed at the hands of the righteous for most of the last 2000 years. In some countries we are free at last. But we cannot rest on our laurels because ‘the battle for the hearts and minds continues’.

    Take care,
    Neil

  9. Meant to say “I think you are confusing sceptics and the Scottish Free Church”

  10. Haha, Neil, nice points.

    I hope you understood the rest of my post, and not just the opening line (which you have very well refuted, by the way :-).

    My point was precisely that traditional Christianity sees skepticism as “the enemy” and engages in warfare, vitriole, murder, violence and worse. Obviously not a good thing!

    I’d be interested, though, to know which countries you feel are “free at last”. I can’t think of any (unfortunately).

    PS – you must have fun, living in Dubai 🙂

    Graeme

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