Monday 26 October 2015

Metaphorical Bible Stories

As I and others grew up in church, bible stories that we would read from each week were given, read and discussed in Sunday school. These would be portrayed as literally true, with no evaluation or critical thinking about the story perhaps not being an historical event, but rather metaphorical. Verses were memorised in exchange for sweets or other rewards every Sunday when I was very young, to stories of God’s literal provision of the various characters in the books of the bible as I got older. As far as I can remember, no one ever outright explicitly stated, or even hinted, that some qualified people and Christians around the world do not take large portions of the bible as literally true and perhaps therefore, neither should we.

Studying science and biology as I got older and at university, I began to find evidence that conflicted with the literal stories and words within the bible, such as the genetic evidence for the impossibility of the whole human race having two ancestors by which they descended. (I don’t intend to discuss the evidence here, but suffice it to say, the evidence against the literal existence of Adam and Eve is clear-cut and anyone can contact me if they need further convincing.)

Further reading by myself on history and linguistics, seemed to cast huge doubt on stories in the bible book of genesis and exodus. Linguists tell us languages are not created in an instant, but evolve over years, casting doubt on the story of the tower of Babel.

It is clear to most people that the story of Noah is also not meant to be taken literally. The huge number of problems with the logistics of fitting the number of animals on an ark, combined with the science of biogeography and other similar criticisms of the story, also show this story to be figurative. The concept originally was perhaps based on a large flood in the area at the time, adding to the knowledge of other such flood myths from other cultures based in the same area, with the Noah story being passed down through generations and combined with a story of God’s providence.

One of my favourite parts of the bible, the whole of the exodus story, from Joseph being taken into Egypt to live under pharaoh and the Egyptians, to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land, is now considered to be one huge metaphor and literary device. The evidence of this coming from archaeology and the lack of a presence of a large society in the area at that time, leading experts to believe that these were figurative, non-literal stories told at the time and passed down, to express the oppression of the Egyptian civilisation in the area during that time-frame.

“Cheated” or “betrayed” are perhaps a too strong or emotional words to use to describe the feeling, but Church and Sunday school preachers have a responsibility to inform themselves on the facts of the issue which they are teaching to children. Myself and the generation of children in my age group (and large amounts of others by which this misinformation is continuing today) were ultimately let down on this issue.

I am not saying these adults misled children deliberately to brainwash kids, (although the effect is largely the same, whatever the intention and cause) but were simply ignorant of the issues themselves and therefore saw no need to inject critical thinking of the bible verses they already clung to, as truth, themselves. The leaders and teachers were nothing but wonderful people during my years at church and I will never say a negative word about their well-intentioned personalities and conduct. However, a wider research and reading on the issues preached fell far short and it still does today.

I’m sure as people read this, they will be disagreeing, out of hand, with the large list of known metaphorical and non-literal stories in the pages of scripture, showing the need to address the problem and educate. The sheer number of events in the bible that formerly were taken to be historical and now are accepted to not be, seems to deal a death blow to the tenants of Christianity and large aspects of theology. If large amounts of scripture, such as Adam and Eve, Moses and the Exodus, Noah and the tower of Babel be taken as figurative and allegorical then why should the rest be taken as literal. This leads to fundamentalist, literalist Christians having to jump through intellectual hoops and deny large portions of the evidence which supports this, to escape the consequences of these revelations, or as the only alternative, believe almost the entirety of their bible is metaphorical and perhaps deny their faith altogether- a step too far which they will not take.

The response of “We always thought these stories were figurative, no one ever thought they were literal” I find to be intellectually dishonest. This was never made clear in the years of me going to church and I wasn’t too young to hear and understand this perspective if it ever was enunciated. This smacks of back peddling in the light of new evidence given by science and archaeology in the 21st century, to hold to the belief in the Christianity at all costs, rather than jettisoning the belief as would be done with all over ideas when evidence of this type comes along.

To also hold to the belief in the literal truth of these bible stories and deny the evidence that shows these beliefs to be misguided shows intellectual dishonesty. People should reject beliefs they hold when conflicting evidence is discovered that casts them into doubt. I can often almost see the thoughts in Christian’s minds as they happen, in real time, when explained the evidence contradicts these events being literally true, as they come to realise they would have to reject the whole of scripture and theology, if they accept the evidence for these stories being metaphorical. What’s to stop the entire bible being in the same category if some parts have been shown to be metaphorical, they think, and so I can’t accept that any of it can be metaphorical.

It is also not my responsibly as an Atheist to try to work out my theology and which parts I agree and don’t believe- this is for Christians to work out amongst themselves. I neither sit on the “believe all parts of the bible are literal” side of the coin, nor “most of it is figurative” side, such as some very liberal theologians and vicars do. I have rejected the entire bible as fundamentally untrue, despite some nice, useful parts, as an atheist and this makes it far simpler. 

It is clear what the bible writers were trying to do, in writing these stories, by trying to explain the world to which they found themselves in, thousands of years ago and we should not blame them for writing a figurative story that Christians coming later mistook to be literally true. However, people need to be told the extent to which many of the bible stories are not considered to be literally true, so they can teach this perspective to children and others in the church, to keep my experience of finding out years later from happening over and over again.

Sunday 5 July 2015


Since becoming an atheist and engaging with Christians within churches in evangelical circles, the suggestion almost inevitably surfaces that I and others go on an “Alpha Course” to explore the Christian faith and deal with our doubts. For those who don’t know, the Alpha Course is a course run over several weeks, by which people interested in the Christian faith get invited along, to eat a meal and discuss the Christianity in a relaxed context and which has shown to be incredibly successful in adding to members of the church around the world.  This course seems to be the default method of conversion in a Christians mind and often the only method they have at their disposal, leading to a “one catch all” method in trying to convert individuals to Christianity. Failing to realise that people have different mind-sets, different ways of thinking, are in different situations and are at varying degrees of belief or non-belief before signing up and attending the Alpha Course each week.

For ex-Christians like myself, there seems to be a problem. Having known the gospel message, been saved and baptised, believed and trusted the bible, been along to church weekly for years and even help run alpha courses, it’s not the lack of knowledge in God and Jesus and the claims of Christianity that has made me an atheist, but the knowledge I do have that has made me doubt the claims of Christianity after years of further study. Saying to sceptics, “You cannot comment as you do not know enough about Christianity to discuss it and you haven’t been on an alpha course- I’ll invite you to explore the claims that Christianity makes”, does not apply in my situation- (although I do not know how many hours of study of leprechauns you need to engage in before you doubt their existence…).

In my mind, there are several major flaws in the course and it is shockingly ineffective in actually addressing the issues it should address, leaving a huge market needed for other ways to engage with sceptics, atheists and agnostics. Most fundamentally, it fails to be an effective resource for engaging with the “big questions” in life, as it claims in the adverts. The weekly outline has been set out for all churches running the course, going through issues such as “why did Jesus die” to “how can I find meaning in my life”. These topics seems to be geared towards people who already are open, susceptible and interested in finding out about the Christian faith and are interested in converting to Christianity at the outset. As others have said elsewhere - “I thought the Alpha Course was supposed to be aimed at people who were sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity - but to my disappointment, found the course to be aimed more at the casual Christian, someone who is looking to have his or her faith boosted, someone in need of a spiritual enema. I certainly don’t think that the course caters well enough for non-believers, and certainly not at all well enough for the informed sceptic”.

Lots of what is said on the alpha course is also un-substantiated claims, based on Christian theology and nothing else. Not particularly effective when engaging with non-Christians, who don’t have the belief to begin with. Talk of the devil, angels, demons, sin, salvation and other such talk and bible verses are, to my ears, completely pointless. A quote from Christopher Hitchens seems appropriate- “What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

If persuaded to attend an alpha course in the future, after lots of thought, I would go along. But have to lay my cards on the table from the outset and explain that if I don’t hear good evidence for the beliefs and tenets of Christianity, such of the category that I have never heard before, I will not be persuaded. If the only benefit to attending an alpha course is that Christians feel I can comment and discuss with them on an informed level, then going forwards, this will be worth that effort. Of more interest to me is to engage, chat and enjoy chatting with people who have different views to me and try to get to the root of why people believe such things. 

I always enjoy debating and discussing the big questions of life, often for its own sake, without any hidden agenda and this would be no exception. I wholeheartedly agree with C.S Lewis who said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important” and so comments such as “Haven’t you got something better to do”, or “why bother debating religious people, they don’t hurt anyone” I feel are nonsense, nothing can be more important to occupy our lives.


Friday 6 March 2015

The Hiddenness of God

The God of Christianity, as defined as an all-powerful, all-knowing being, has been observed over the centuries to be more absent, hidden and distant than people expect. A supremely powerful (God) being would know the intricate workings of the brains of the creatures that he created and cares for.  Due to this, God also knows what argumentation and evidence is the most effective at bringing these individuals freely into relationship with him and into his ultimate goal of salvation for eternity. He knows the argumentation and evidence that would convince myself and others, what arguments I respond best to and what evidence in nature would persuade. However, he hasn't done so and so far, seems to have refused to give me evidence which would convince me and others of his existence. Others have died after never seeing convincing evidence to be persuaded. The character of an all-loving God would surely not deliberately withhold information and evidence from individuals or not provide evidence which he knows would convince. This seems immoral for a supremely moral being.

I want to make it absolutely clear that no part of my mind is closed to the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, or the truth of Christianity or religion overall. Drastically changing my mind on a particular issue and making a U-turn is not just a hypothetical issue that I only give lip service to. Examples of this happening to me in reality include accepting the evidence of evolution and moving from a theistic evolutionist to an evolutionist and changing my mind on the overall truth of Christianity to become an atheist, amongst others, showing my desire to change if the evidence presented itself. Other individuals and atheists have quite clearly stated that they are desperate to believe, but just can’t bring themselves to do it based on the lack of evidence and seem very sincere in saying so.

I have heard responses by religious people, who say that even if the evidence was given to me and others, we would not change our mind, which I strongly disagree with. This is one of the defining hallmarks of science- the ability to change minds and only accept given facts tentatively, never dogmatically holding on to previous understanding when contrary evidence presents itself and as I scientist, I strive to make sure this is what I do in reality.

I am not denying there is evidence for God, Jesus and Christianity given by various philosophers and theologians over the centuries. However, this evidence is far from the quality of evidence given for other basic truths about the universe. As an example, take the evidence science has given us for the truth of a round, not flat earth. This evidence is practically universally accepted in civilisation and it seems almost comical to even suggest, or outright deny that the earth is round. This is not in the same category as the existence of God, divinity of Jesus or truth of Christianity. Hundreds of religions around the world and in history have radically differing views on all of the tenants of religions; with practically nobody knowing whom is correct.

The truth of the existence of the God of the bible and the many doctrines related to this seem far more important, with far more eternal significance, to humans and to god, than some of the more obvious facts of the world given by science such as the truth of evolution or the truth of a flat earth. The famous quote by C.S. Lewis seems relevant here- “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” I agree. If Christianity is true, it is enormously important. So why doesn't God provide the evidence to substantiate this?

Another common response to this objection is, “God doesn't want to overwhelm us with convincing proof. He needs to leave space for choice and freewill and that’s why the evidence doesn't seem too strong and obvious.” However, I find this response lacking and inadequate. We are not talking here about a slap on the wrists for not accepting the truth of Christianity and the salvation of Jesus and then being let off. The doctrine of hell or eternal separation from God is the punishment, or logical consequence for this decision and outcome. Whatever your theology on rejection of salvation, whether annihilation or eternal torture, it doesn't seem to be justified considering the severely lacking evidence.

In addition to this, nobody says, “The evidence for a round earth is too overwhelming. It doesn't leave people with the choice of accepting or rejecting this fact. We need to give people more of an chance and opportunity of freely accepting this, without feeling compelled to do so, as we may cause them to turn their back on this fact.” Obviously not. The truth of the overwhelming fact of a round earth is plain to see, based on the huge field of evidence supporting it and people can only reject it, perhaps based on a massive conspiracy theory or suchlike. The evidence to support the truth of this particular belief should not be censored, to rather patronisingly, protect humans from the body of evidence that we do have, from science in its favour. If the issue at hand is objectively true, whether the question of the shape of the earth, or the truth of Christianity, it is irrelevant to what extent the evidence should be broadcast or revealed to society. This example shows God could give overwhelming evidence for his existence and no drastic consequences will result from people having plenty of evidence at their disposal, but he simply doesn't choose to.  

Over the years of searching for evidence for the truth of Christianity, I have consistently been given evidence which is far poorer in quality and quantity than expected. Answers like, “all the evidence you need is in the pages of scripture”, or “it’s not about evidence, faith is all you need”, seems to be on the bottom end of the scales of the hierarchy of rational evidence. It is a poor reflection on the character of this deity, who only seems to be able to whisper in his followers’ ears, drastically poor arguments for his existence and which seem to give myself and other less confidence in the rational basis for this belief, than if they hadn't tried to give these poor answers in the first place.  
Now of course, the explanation for the lack of good quality evidence may be God doesn't exist in the first place, (the belief taken by atheists) or that God is deliberately hiding himself for an unknown (and immoral) explanation. 
To end, the quote from Delos Banning McKown seems very appropriate - “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”

Monday 2 March 2015

A word of introduction...

Numerous friends I know on social media have blogs online which they regularly update and several well-known scientists and philosophers I know do the same. I have increasingly felt the need to join them and so, I intend for this blog to be my thoughts and responses to Christian arguments and thoughts for and about God. Simply posting on social media I have increasingly found to be inadequate with too little room, with the addition of various people giving me feedback that these posts are too in their face and “depressing” (This smacks to me of hitting a raw nerve due to the intrinsic truth in what I post and the extreme insecurity of their faith that can’t stand up to criticism). However, an area to criticise and exchange ideas without being too in people’s faces I feel will be helpful, without individuals having the feeling of a personal attack on their particular social media site.

I also intend to lay out the various arguments against the existence of God that I have heard over the years, that I consider to be the strongest against such a deity and that any reasonable person if heard and accepted these arguments based on the evidence, would have to reject such a deity that they believe in. I am also incredibly motivated to openly criticise and dismantle some of the more pervasive and dangerous arguments for God that I see today, with various more serious connotations if these are accepted and believed without question. Some positions I have briefly argued against or for on social media, however, a consolidation and clear gathering and lay-out of the issues on this blog I feel will be very helpful.

I find myself at an advantage due to being a born-again Christian for many years and then losing my religion and becoming an ex-Christian, as I feel I can adequately represent and lay out the arguments that both the “everyday” Christian deals going to church each Sunday and the sophisticated theological lays out in defence of the Christian faith. Having also spent years researching apologetics and the responses given by the atheistic/agnostic side, I can also adequately give a representative view on these issues, these having ultimately convinced me.

I also wrote a long essay a while back, to lay out my journey from belief to unbelief. It was suggested from the comments given on this that I needed to answer several more questions and perhaps write a second part on the arguments which I laid out. Due to the length I had written already, I intend to write more about these experiences and arguments on this blog, responding to the objections and concerns accordingly. I will always feel that no argument or belief system is immune and not open to criticism, and so where others may be able to leave religious people and arguments alone and to themselves, I cannot (this being very different from attacking somebody personally). This engagement would be exactly the same for me if large amounts of people I know believed in other misplaced and pernicious beliefs for society, such as ghosts or fairies or homoeopathy and this affected their beliefs and actions like religion and other forms of dangerous pseudo-science does.