Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible And The Horror At The Heart Of Scripture

The Bible is a giant triple fudge sundae of murder, rape, and destruction, and the love of a hippy carpenter is the cherry on top. This is - and I'm choosing my words carefully - the only decent way to describe the Bible. The book is soaked in blood, and a large portion of western cultural history has been a story of people scurrying to bleach down the crime scene before the CSI guys get here.

We know this. We've been told before. We ignore it, because it's in our nature. People are afraid of death, meaninglessness, and sometimes vaginas. Religion helps us deal. Visit the gift shop on your way out.

One of the most famous tales in the book is about how God drowned the whole world about five seconds after He made it, and we turned that into a cuddly word picture of two giraffes sticking their heads out of a goddamn boat. We covered up a genocide with a crayon rainbow. If you can't grasp how wrong that is, you don't have a functioning nervous system. But then again, many of us seem to get by without one.

All of this is why The Skeptic's Annotated Bible is an important public service. The website (run by one very pissed-off guy named Steve Wells) catalogs every awful item you can find throughout what is perhaps the most influential text in our society. You can read the entire thing straight through, or you can use the tags to browse through each kind of terrible verse - like violence, misogyny, logical contradictions, or intolerance. He also has annotated versions of the Quran and the Book of Mormon. I read large portions of it as I was preparing my novel. (I'll describe the process in greater detail later.)

I think Wells's biggest contribution is to put all this hideousness in one place. The reason is that the meaning behind the Bible is always a matter of argument. Because it's a collection of dozens of books in multiple languages over thousands of years, you can always make the case that the terrible thing you think you just read isn't really terrible at all. This is one of the more common tasks of the apologist. Elisha seems to have used his holy powers to have two bears rip a crowd of children to shreds. God seems to have planned a slaughter of innocents in Egypt. The Israelites seem to have committed atrocity after atrocity under the direction of the Almighty. But wait! If you translate the words differently and make a series of inferences and squint just right... Presto! The bad stories become "difficult" or "problematic." Or my favorite - they become "starting points for a conversation." The Skeptics Annotated Bible eloquently shows how this is nonsense. Because there is simply too much monstrous crap in that book for the horror to go away with a few arguments. The genocidal insanity really is the Bible's most salient feature. I know there's some good stuff too. Believe me. But if you stuck a chord progression for Charles Manson's favorite Monkees tune at the end of Helter Skelter, that wouldn't make it a music book.

Christians often say they don't believe in the Bible's infallibility - that they know it's the product of ignorant men in an ignorant time. And then there's always the question of how they define their God if they can't agree on what parts of the book describe Him. (And this is ultimately why I'm a nonbeliever.) But it's important to say that even though this attitude makes for a less coherent faith, it's really the only moral option. We start there. We can agree on that. It's immoral to believe in an infallible Bible. Believing that means you make excuses for the inexcusable.

And again, we all know this. The story of our society has always been about ignoring the obvious. We bring the horror on ourselves, and I wish we'd stop.

NOTE: I am the author of a novel about the dark side of Scripture. It is called The Black Book Of Children’s Bible Stories, and you can find it Amazon.


  1. The corollary to this is the impossibility of being a literalist Christian. When a Christian tells you that he accepts every word of the Bible as the literal truth you should respond, "Then why aren't you in prison?" The Bible requires its adherents to kill a variety of people, including disobedient children, blasphemers, Sabbath-breakers, and people who teach a different religion.

    This last point raises a conundrum. The writer of that bit was undoubtedly Jewish. So does that mean that the true religion in question is Judaism, and that Christians have to kill other Christians (plus Hindus, etc.), but not Jews? Or do modern Christians get to adapt that part and kill everyone else?

    In any event, any truly literalist Christian (read: serial killer) would be in shackles or a bag as soon as the police manhunt was over.

  2. When you get right down to it the greatest achievement of humanity in the past 200 years has been when and where the theocrats and their bloodyhanded adherents were driven into the wilderness, seeing that the entire notion of a religion as civil law makes the worst secular despotism look like a child's birthday party. Evil men do evil because it is in their nature, but it takes a pretty powerful faith in what you've been told is the "word of God" to make a good man work great evil.

    Also, this:

  3. "The genocidal insanity really is the Bible's most salient feature. I know there's some good stuff too." I agree. And I'm glad that you concede that there is good stuff in the Bible as well. Since I was a little boy, I've always felt that one would have to be severely retarded to believe that every word of the Bible had been written by God. And yet as an adult, I meet brilliant professionals, e.g., 2 people I know with Ph.D's in electrical engineering, who believe just that. Thanks for turning me on to The Skeptic's Annotated Bible.


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