The Scriptural Illiteracy of Believers – The Young Atheist’s Handbook

Here’s another post inspired by Alom Shaha’s outstanding ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook’.

I hope that these will help a few to consider donating to the campaign to get copies of the book in all English and Welsh secondary schools, the website for which can be found here: http://yah4schools.org.uk/.

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“I find it astonishing and depressing that many people who lead their lives according to the ideas and rules laid down in these books have not read them” – Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook.

You may have guessed it, but faith often has a lot to do with religious belief. Strip even the most ‘educated’ theological argument down to its core, and what you’re often left with is ‘we just don’t know – therefore God’.

The ‘we just don’t know’ part is reasonable. The leap of faith required to justify the existence of a very specific, very personal deity is anything but… Yet, that is the argument many make. Even Theologians.

This argument is, essentially, Pascal’s wager. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular non-position, it goes a little something like this:

One should live as if God exists (even though this cannot be proved or disproved through reason), because there is nothing to lose and everything to gain from doing so.

Pascall's Wager

‘… So long as Mr Supposedly-Omnipotent can’t see through your deception.*Wink*

The problem is, it can be applied to pretty much every God our species has ever thought up; from Allah to Zeus.

In light of this, the wonderful* William Lane Craig has, on his ‘Reasonable Faith’ website, attempted to argue that:

“There are two possible responses to this objection. First, in a decision-theoretic context we are justified in ignoring states which have a remotely small probability of obtaining. Thus, I need not concern myself with the possibility that, say, Zeus or Odin might exist. If the odds of these other deities’ existing are negligible, then I would be justified in setting up a payoff matrix according to which the odds of the existence of the Christian God are taken to be roughly 50/50. The choice is effectively between Christianity and atheism.”

Needless to say though, he’s wrong. Sifting through the theological jargon, what he’s trying to assert is that asking the question of all gods is plainly silly – after all, ‘only the Christian God has any chance of existing’ anyway!

So we’re back, again, to ‘I just believe’… And this is from a man who has devoted his life to studying the Bible.

Very few of his fellow Christians are so well-versed. But, when it comes down to the core of it, they’re no better or worse off than he is. Neither ‘sort’ has evidence – Craig’s just spent more time trying to bleed it out of his favourite book’s pages.

The trouble is that this man, with how much more of a grasp he has on his Christian Theology than the casual Christ-fan, can argue more confidently. That is all, but it does make a big difference.

Biblically illiterate Christians are much more easily stumped by the often downright evil passages in their own holy book, for example. Perhaps, at Sunday School, they were only ever taught the nice bits - so having some godless heathen on Twitter point them towards www.evilbible.com can be devastating.

It’s worth noting that, on a personal level, I take no issue with this ‘type’ of believer’s beliefs. It simply doesn’t do any harm for them to occasionally think they’re having a chat with Jesus in the comfort of their own home. But, for the sake of transparency and fairness, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mentioning, in perhaps a friendly conversation, the flip-side – the truth of the nature of the words in the book they claim is divinely inspired, and good. It’s only right that they know, anyway.

Now, I don’t know of the statistics, but I suspect that many ex-believers – of all religions – come to their positions of non-belief for a few relatively common reasons. They may, in some cases, simply see through the truth claims presented in their holy books. Alternatively, there’s a possibility that it’s the supposedly moral teachings/acts with which they find they disagree with, catalysing a de-conversion (or at least moderation/accommodation) process… Or, they may have never believed at all – and then it clicks.

There are more of course, but I need not go on. The points to take away from this – all of this – are so:

  • Without a firm scriptural literacy level, it can be hard to defend one’s beliefs. (With ‘to defend’ of course meaning ‘to confidently ignore and worm away from questioning by redefining the parameters of the discussion and quoting other parts of said meaningless-to-the-other scripture back at them’ here, though.)
  • Reading scripture as literature – i.e taking in each word and reflecting upon it – let alone critically, has the potential to trigger serious self-questioning.
  • There are nasty bits in Bible, Qur’an, and other outdated, long irrelevant texts, and it’s not nasty to point these out to a well-meaning devotee. If anything, it should prompt interesting discussion.

All in all, religious identity is a funny thing however. There is, no matter how often the fundamentalists may insist, no right way to subscribe to a particular thought-style. Faith is what it is, and one can of course claim to be a Christian without ever having read the Bible or a Muslim without ever having read the Qur’an or Hadith – it’s just that, to go back to Alom’s point, it does astonish and depress me at how so many can live like this, content and without curiosity (although it may not be their fault).

I wouldn’t prefer it if these people were fundies, but if each person took the time to know their position for what it is (as well as the opposition), it would certainly help to reduce the dangerous and anti-scientific abundance of certainty without substance.

Carnun :P

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*I don’t really think he’s wonderful.

Apologies for the day-lateness of this post. Blame Peter Singer.

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The ‘Young Atheist’s Handbook 4 Schools’ campaign: http://yah4schools.org.uk

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