Fuzzy skepticism

Although I don't follow the blog anymore, on a whim I was skimming some of the recent posts over at Debunking Christianity. I was amused by some of the comments following one of those posts on reasons why people lose faith. I would like to comment in turn on some of them, because to my mind they show that many people lose faith, not as a result of thinking critically, but merely of believing they are thinking critically, when in reality their thinking is confused and their statements riddled with skeptical cliches that don't mean much if anything.

For me the main thing is the barbarian nature of the punishments in the Bible. In particular psalms 137 that states: "Happy is the one who dashes your little ones against the rocks."
First of all, Psalm 137:9 does not describe a punishment at all. In context, the psalmist is lamenting the horrific loss of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, as the immediately preceding verse makes clear:

O Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy is the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies
and smashes them against the rocks!
The speaker is not pronouncing punishment for any transgression, simply giving voice to the perfectly understandable wish that those who caused him and his people such grievous harm should suffer harm in turn. Imagine what your response would be if a foreign people invaded your homeland, burning, pillaging, raping and killing, carried off everything you valued and paraded their triumph back at home.

(P.S. this same lack of appreciation of context is apparent in another commentator, who seems to think that Psalm 137 is "ancient poetry extolling the virtues of dashing the heads of infants against rocks"; how he thinks that the author of the psalm thought dashing infants' heads against rocks is a 'virtue' to be 'extolled' is beyond me: this is not a celebration of divine or human virtues, it is a spontaneous outburst of raw agony at the horrific loss of one's homeland. Even the most virtuous person in the world could be expected to have such a reaction, without that person 'extolling' the reaction as a 'virtue')

Secondly and more importantly, however, the commentator does not specify exactly what his problem is with there being horrific punishments in the Bible. Is it their mere presence in the Bible which causes discomfort and revulsion? Then I can't imagine this commentator has the stomach for much great literature or is able to recognize that good literature describes human experience in all its dimensions, including those that cause discomfort. Does the commentator have a problem with divinely mandated punishments for various infractions? Then we might have a more substantial conversation, but as it stands the comment does not make this clear. Instead this statement seems to be merely rhetorical, as if simply including words like 'barbarian' and 'punishment' in connection with the Bible suffices to justify his rejection of it.

Here's another one:

Studying mythology as a teenager pretty much stopped me from ever being able to take the Bible literally.
More confusion. What does it mean to 'take the Bible literally'? Does it mean reading the Bible as if every verse were a statement of historical or scientific fact? If so, this is a blatant misreading of the Bible as it consists of many genres with many different kinds of affirmations. If 'taking the Bible literally' means trying to read the Bible for what it's worth, as its original authors intended it to be read, why should the study of mythology be incompatible with that? The Bible surely does contain mythological imagery-for example in its depiction of God's combat with the Sea in Psalm 74:12-14-and if so, to take the Bible literally would be precisely to read it mythologically (at least those parts that are mythological; obviously we should read those parts which are historical historically and those parts which are poetic poetically, etc.), with an eye for the distinctive features of that genre and what we are meant to take away from it. So I fail to see how the study of mythology (I should add it does not inspire much confidence that this commentator studied mythology as a teenager, which could mean as little as reading the back cover of a Joseph Campbell book) has any bearing on being able to read the Bible literally.

Yet another one:

I walked away, when I reread the bible for the second time. I saw that when I compared the bible to actual reality that they didn't mesh.
Wow, this commentator read the whole Bible twice, probably straight through like a novel with few if any interpretive aids. That inspires real confidence in the thinking he did that lead to him walking away. But the real howler here is the idea of 'comparing the Bible to actual reality'. What on earth could this mean? What kind of comparison is he talking about? Is he comparing the physical object to other physical objects in 'actual reality'? For all I know that could be what he is talking about, as there is no clarification. And what exactly is 'actual reality'? He can't have done much study of the psychology or philosophy of perception, otherwise he would realize what a hopelessly vague, loaded term this is. Is he talking about reality as it appears to him? Is he talking about the accumulated theoretical apparatus of theoretical physics? I doubt he knows himself. Similarly the word 'mesh' is hopelessly ambiguous. What does it mean for the Bible and 'actual reality' to 'mesh'?

Last one:

When I became a 'born-again' in high school (early 70's), I started reading the Bible. The New Testament really puzzled me for awhile. Especially the treatment of Women. And also Jesus meek and mild running around with a whip in the Temple.
What exactly is the grammatical subject here in the 'treatment of women'? Who is treating women in what way? Is he referring to Gospel narratives like when Jesus rescues an adulteress from men's self-righteous legalism? Or when women were the privileged first witnesses to the resurrection? Or perhaps he is referring to Paul's degrading treatment of women by making many of them his most trusted colleagues in missionary work. Or maybe he has in mind Paul's statements that both husband and wife should be in loving subjection to one another? Long story short, this commentator is again hopelessly vague on exactly what his problem is with 'the New Testament's' treatment of women, and he seems to have a very reified view of the NT. He seems to think that there is such a thing as the NT 'treatment' of women. Again, no attention to context or proper interpretation.

The last sentence is not grammatically or syntactically correct, but I assume this commentator sees a contradiction between the portrait of 'Jesus meek and mild' and him wielding a whip in the Temple. For one thing, 'Jesus meek and mild' is a 19th Century moralistic caricature that is not found in the Gospels themselves. Jesus does call himself meek and lowly in heart, but what this commentator doesn't seem to get is that a person can be meek and lowly when dealing with the meek and lowly (as Jesus himself makes clear in context when he says "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden..."), when working with people who recognize their need for help, but also react with righteous anger at those who take advantage of the meek and lowly. These attributes are not inconsistent. On the contrary, they are perfectly complementary.

In a recent essay I was reading about the characteristics of teenage student rebellion (I am training to be a teacher), the author noted that most if not all student rebels lack the conceptual apparatus and the language to argue what it is they are rebelling against and why. I see the same characteristic in many of these commentators. They have some sort of problem with God and with the Bible, but they cannot formulate their objections clearly and rigorously and they cannot justify their rejection with concise, efficient argumentation. Since skeptics claim to base their position on logic and reason, I intend to hold them to those high standards from now on.


Layman said…

Nice post.

It brings to mind a statement I made in a previous post:

Perhaps the greatest lament I have about this whole affair is that the Debunking Christianity members tout what accomplished Christians they were and how they left the faith after objectively examining their faith or following the path of reason instead of faith. Too often in their disputes, on ground of their own choosing, they seem incompetent in judging the facts and hopelessly biased in their presentation of the material. How sad to throw your faith away on your own incompetent assessment of the relevant facts.

And I wouldn't be surprised if there was substantial overlap between the young (usually) male atheist deconverts and the subject of the study on teen rebellion.
steve said…
"Secondly and more importantly, however, the commentator does not specify exactly what his problem is with there being horrific punishments in the Bible. Is it their mere presence in the Bible which causes discomfort and revulsion? Then I can't imagine this commentator has the stomach for much great literature or is able to recognize that good literature describes human experience in all its dimensions, including those that cause discomfort."

Or, to take another comparison, consider the popularity of Hollywood slasher films.

My point is not, of course, is not to equate the two. Rather, it's incongruous that the pop culture is so tolerant (even celebratory) of gratuitously sadistic Hollywood fare, but then feigns outrage at harsh material in Scripture which, unlike slasher films, has a moral context.
Brad Haggard said…
You hit the nail on the head here, J.D.

I was involved in a few threads trying to show the importance of context, genre, and historical background on interpretation and I was accused about 10 times of "making it up for myself." Loftus himself even insinuated it in discussing Psalm 14:1.

How do you respond to someone who claims knowledge but won't engage you on academic grounds?
Layman said…

It is not Loftus' goal or even inclination to engage you or any Christian on academic grounds. We all have our biases and goals, but I daresay that you, JD, and I also do this because we enjoy intellectual discussion, especially when honestly engaged. Apparently not so with Loftus, at least not anymore if ever he aspired to that level.
RDM said…
Good Day,

Very interesting post. I would also have to add that it is particularily interesting how many of these atheists (and the many others that I have had discussions with), self-admittedly lost their faith in their teenage years. Not exactly a time of great intellectual and logical reflection, but precisely the time when a number of sins become quite attractive. It is certainly an interesting fact that many honest atheists admit to and one that should not be overlooked when engaging in such discussions with them.


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