Category Archives: Flawed concepts

Mundane miracles

A miracle is a supposed event that is contrary to the laws of nature.1 The idea is that an event like that can only be explained as the work of a supernatural being like God. But what if it turns out that an apparently miraculous event can actually be explained in terms of ordinary natural phenomena? It may still be amazing, and it may be useful… But there’s no reason to think it’s a true miracle in that case, and it’s not very strong evidence of anything supernatural.

How many of the miracles reported in the Bible (supposing the stories aren’t entirely made up) have possible natural explanations?2

Knowledge

There are a lot of prophecies in the Bible. A lot of them have turned out to be false. A lot of them fail to specify a deadline for fulfillment, making it impossible to tell whether they’re false. Some of them seem suspiciously like they were written after the fact. Some of them predict events that are nothing out of the ordinary. Some of them are so vague that it’s no surprise that something happened that could be considered to fit the description. Some of them have only been fulfilled because people who knew about the predictions fulfilled them on purpose. And a lot of the passages that are considered prophecies weren’t even meant to be predictions at all. That doesn’t leave very many actual impressive predictions, if any.

Jesus and other prophets in the Bible are said to have been able to read minds and demonstrate inexplicable knowledge of other people’s pasts. It’s surprisingly easy to give the impression that you have abilities like that. When people want to believe that you’re psychic, they will perceive your readings as amazingly accurate no matter what you say. They’ll do most of the work for you, interpreting whatever you say as something meaningful and accurate. And they’ll ignore everything you get wrong.

Creation, destruction, and transformation

So, what’s up with that burning bush Moses found that wouldn’t burn up, before he started hearing God talking to him? Maybe it was some kind of Acacia. They can be easily flammable and slow to burn up, and they can even trigger religious experiences.

Moses and Aaron tried to prove that God had sent them by turning a staff into a snake. But the Egyptian magicians were able to do the same thing. So either they were prophets of God too, or that trick doesn’t prove anything. I’ve heard it’s possible to do the stick-to-snake trick by holding an Egyptian Cobra and applying pressure near its head. That makes it go stiff and motionless so it looks like an inanimate stick, until you put it down.

The Bible says during the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, the water turned into undrinkable blood and killed everything in it. That sounds a lot like a phenomenon known as a red tide, where a certain kind of algae causes water to turn red and toxic. That could explain some of the other plagues, as well. Frogs flee from the unhealthy water and die, bugs get out of control because of the lack of frogs, bugs spread disease among the people and livestock, etc. And the remaining plagues could be explained by food poisoning and a volcano.

The collapse of Jericho could have been caused by a convenient earthquake that the Israelites retconned as being a result of their own actions.

Why did the Philistines keep finding the idol of Dagon fallen over in the morning, bowing down toward the ark of the covenant, and eventually broken to pieces? Might one of the Israelites have snuck in and vandalized the idol during the night? It wouldn’t be the first time.

How could a crowd of over 5000 people eat and be satisfied if Jesus’s disciples only had five loaves of bread and two fish to offer them? Well, it never says nobody brought their own food. And why wouldn’t they?

Some branches of Christianity consider the Eucharist ritual to be a miracle. They believe the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus… which just happen to be completely indistinguishable from ordinary bread and wine for some reason. Least impressive miracle ever! No explanation needed.

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Everything wrong with heaven and hell

Perverse incentives

  • The expectation of being rewarded or punished in the afterlife is supposed to be a reason to be good in this life. But rewards and punishments are not good reasons to be good. Focusing on personal repayment distracts from the real reasons to be good, which leads to selfishness and moral apathy.1
  • Expecting to be infinitely rewarded or punished depending on what you believe is arguably the worst possible obstacle to true belief.
  • A lot of religious people say it’s very important to God that we have free will. And they say it’s particularly important for us to be able to freely choose whether to accept him. So what’s up with all the threats and coercion? It’s hardly a free choice if you’re threatening to torture people forever if they don’t make the choice you wanted them to make.
  • The knowledge that life is short is an incentive to stop wasting time, focus on the things that matter most, and enjoy your life as much as you can while it lasts. If you think you’re going to live forever, you have no reason to do any of that. Scarcity makes things more valuable, including life. The belief in an everlasting afterlife devalues this life.
  • If you were really going to go to heaven when you died, the logical thing to do would be to kill yourself as soon as possible, after encouraging everyone you care about to do the same. Or maybe you wouldn’t do that, since having all those deaths on your hands might prevent you from going to the right place. But still, it wouldn’t make any sense to fear death, to try to avoid it, and to be sad when people die. A rational believer in heaven would live recklessly. Who cares if you die if you’re just going to keep living? Death would be a good thing if it meant you were going to a better world. And you would be anxious for it to happen as soon as possible, before you had a chance to do anything that might prevent you from getting there. (Of course, death is not actually a good thing, and not caring about death is a terrible idea, since heaven isn’t real. But many people think it is real, which is quite a dangerous belief.)
  • Having children is a terrible idea if it means there will be more people who have a good chance of ending up in hell. The existence of hell would mean that by reproducing, you risk causing infinitely more suffering than you would cause by doing any other bad thing you can imagine. Even if most people weren’t going to hell, as the Bible says they are, allowing any risk of even one person going to hell when you could have avoided it is unacceptable, and makes you an infinitely worse person than every childless criminal in history combined. The risk of causing your children to suffer forever is especially bad if people who die very young go to hell by default.
  • On the other hand, if you believe that people who die very young go to heaven by default, the logical thing to do would be to reproduce as often as possible and then kill all your children as soon as possible, to maximize the number of people who go to heaven. There certainly wouldn’t be any reason to oppose abortion if you believed that. In any case, if people really believed in heaven and hell and acted logically on their misguided beliefs, believers would be extinct by now.
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Literal vs liberal interpretation

I was raised to believe that everything the Bible says is literally true, and as a nonbeliever I still tend to interpret the Bible pretty literally. Here’s why:

Literalism is the natural form of religion that results from reading the scriptures. When people read the Bible with no preconceived ideas about what it should say, they will tend to assume it means exactly what it says. Why would it even occur to anyone that the Bible might not simply mean what it says (unless somebody else told them to think that)? I think the main reason is that some people can’t accept what they’re reading because they already have other, more strongly-held beliefs that are incompatible with the Bible.

Non-literalist religion is a self-deceptive phenomenon that results when people consider themselves religious, but also have beliefs and values that conflict with the scriptures. If they don’t want to outright reject the Bible or admit that their values don’t come from their religion, they have to make up metaphorical interpretations of the Bible that agree with what they already believe, and ignore what the Bible actually says.1

In a lot of cases, what the Bible says was meant completely literally, and was originally interpreted literally, and no one saw a problem with that. But as humanity’s knowledge of the world and standards of morality have improved over time, it has become increasingly clear to most people that what the Bible says literally is absurdly wrong. So those who can’t admit that the Bible is wrong have had to increasingly reinterpret it figuratively. Some take it so far that they’re basically atheists in denial.

Even literalists are now so used to thinking of certain concepts and expressions used in the Bible as figurative that it might not even occur to them that those things might have once been meant literally. But compared to what the writers intended, literalists aren’t literal enough! Like most people in ancient times, the writers of the Bible actually believed that people literally thought with their hearts. And their kidneys.2

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Faith is not reasonable

Faith is commonly regarded as a virtue. But is it really a good thing? What exactly is faith, anyway? Let’s look as some definitions.

Faith: Complete trust or confidence in something. Believing something without question. Firm belief in something for which there is no proof. Faith can also mean an obligation of loyalty, and if we’re still talking about beliefs, that would mean being devoted to sticking to a particular belief (which goes along with believing something firmly and without question).

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.” —Bill Maher

So then, faith means you decide to believe a particular idea even though there’s no evidence for it, and then you completely refuse to ever question it or consider changing your mind about it, disregarding all evidence to the contrary. Faith means being gullible regarding some ideas, and closed-minded to others. Faith means abandoning reason, willfully ignoring the evidence, breaking the connection between your beliefs and reality.

“There is no virtue in accepting something on faith, since it may very well be false, and it is clearly not virtuous to believe the false.” —Charlotte Schnook

Clearly this is an unbelievably bad way to form your beliefs. Considering what faith actually is, I don’t see how anyone could possibly think it was a good thing. There’s absolutely nothing good or reasonable about it. Having faith is just like having a delusion, except you’re doing it on purpose. If you want to have true beliefs and avoid having false beliefs, having faith is probably the most counterproductive thing you could possibly do.

Unlike reason and evidence, faith provides no way to determine which things you should believe. Any belief can be “justified” by faith just as well as any other. If you have faith in one religion, why not have faith in another religion? Why not believe that you are a six-legged zebra from the planet Japan? Why not accept on faith that you should give me all your money right now?

You can probably think of some reasons not to accept those things, but why do you suddenly think you need to have reasons for what you believe? If I tell you that Ahura Mazda is the real God, or that you are a six-legged zebra from the planet Japan, or that you need to give me all your money, why do you question it? You don’t need a reason to believe; you just need to have faith, right?

“If something can be used as a justification for everything, then it shouldn’t be used as a justification for anything.” —Matt Dillahunty

When the inherent irrationality of faith is pointed out, religious people will sometimes protest that their faith is based on evidence. Well, if you’re trying to base your beliefs on reason and evidence, that’s great. You’re more reasonable than some religious people. But letting evidence shape your beliefs is not what faith is, and it’s not what the Bible tells you to do. The unreasonable way of thinking I described above is exactly the kind of thinking that the Bible encourages, and describes as faith.

The Bible on faith

The Bible says faith means confidently believing in something you hope is true, but that you don’t actually see any evidence for. To live by faith is to live blindly.

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