This is something I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, but I was inspired to finally do it by the American Freethought podcast. They put out a list of essential books, with the results taken from numerous important atheists/skeptics/freethinkers/whatevers. Their list is good, but there’s a lot of stuff on there that I have no interest in, or I think is overrated. (On the Origin of Species is an important book historically, but there are far better books on evolution for you to read, with up-to-date science.)
Tag Archive: Christianity
I went to a debate between Dan Barker (whom I wrote about briefly a couple days ago) and Dinesh D’Souza last night, in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis campus). The topic was “Can We Be Good Without God”, which I’m a little surprised is still a subject of debate at all.
My simple answer to that question? Of course; we do it every day. It’s just that many of us don’t realize it. What that question is really asking is, can we be good without a belief in a god. Specifically, the Christian version of God, although the debate wasn’t limited only to that. Dan took the affirmative position (yes we can be good), and Dinesh took the contrary position (no, we can’t).
Dan started out by trying to show why the Bible isn’t a reliable source of morality, and how most people ignore its immoral passages, proving that morality exists outside and independent of religion. However, I think he glossed over a few too many things, and may have made some assumptions he shouldn’t have. For one, I think too often he assumed that his audience was more familiar with the Bible than they actually were. Ironically, it seemed like the atheists in the audience knew exactly what he was talking about and which passages he was referring to, because many of us actually read the Bible and not just follow the current feel-good pop version of Christianity that basically ignores the Bible and focuses on Jesus as the ultimate invisible friend.
Series: Bevans The Atheist
NOTE: I’m currently re-writing this post. I don’t think I’ve adequately explained my true feelings on this matter.
If you read my previous posts in this series, you may have noticed that I’m basically explaining my belief system backwards, because I feel like that’s the best way to explain it. Or maybe I’m saving the really good stuff for the end. The root question of religion is whether or not there is a god/gods, and that will be covered in my next post in this series. Then there’s the “what’s he like” question, which is covered by specific religions, which I’ll be addressing in this post. Then there’s the “how do we know that X religion is right” question, which I at least partially addressed in my previous post in this series. That’s kinda confusing, isn’t it? Oh well. On with the show.
This is probably going to make a lot of people very angry.
People who accept some form of Christianity believe certain things that set it apart from other religions. Some of the most important are:
- God created the universe.
- Jesus is the son of God (or he is God…or something).
- Jesus is the savior of mankind.
- Jesus died to redeem our sins.
- Jesus came back from the dead.
- Jesus is coming back someday, and he’s totally gonna fuck us up.
- The Bible is friggin’ awesome.
I’m going to save #1 for my next post, because it’s a big’un.
Let’s start with #7. Christians believe many things about the Bible, like:
- It’s literally true.
- It’s figuratively true.
- It’s a guide to leading a better life.
Those are huge simplifications, and I’m not even covering all the angles, but I want to stay brief and readable here; if this gets too long, I’ll have to distribute this post in paperback form. (That’s a joke of course – there is no limit to how much you can write in a digital format.)
Well, we know that the Bible isn’t literally true; at least not the whole thing. Genesis is obviously completely wrong. We’ve discovered things like evolution and the big bang and archaeology and stuff. This fact shouldn’t shock you. Also, there are countless contradictions and errors.
So is it figuratively true? Well, that’s an extremely vague way to put it. I guess you could say that such an indefinable idea can be applied to the Bible. There are so many different stories in the Bible that you can read that you’ll inevitably come across one that makes you say “gee, that’s kinda like _____” and it can help you in your everyday life. But the same can be said of other ancient texts, or the Iliad, or the works of Shakespeare, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the 4th season of King of Queens (if there even was a 4th season) or whatever you have sitting on your coffee table.
So, does the Bible really help you lead a better life? Again, it basically comes down to which text you choose to guide you. There’s certainly a lot of good stuff in there, like “love thy neighbor as thyself” and all that. But there’s also a lot of horrible, insane stuff in there. Even ignoring the entire Old Testament, for every inspiring passage, there’s one that makes me wonder why the book has sold as well as it has. There are far more reasonable, well-written, and helpful books out there that can help you lead a better life.
To better understand the Bible, I strongly urge you to check out the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible.
Now, let’s examine the elephant in the room: Jesus.
Pretty much everything we know (or think we know) about Jesus comes from the Bible. And as we’ve established, the Bible is full of contradiction and error. Not only was the New Testament written decades after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, but it has been translated, mistranslated, reinterpreted, and rewritten numerous times over the centuries. For example, the idea that Mary was a virgin comes as a result of a mistranslation in the King James Bible. The word for “young woman” was mistaken for the word for “virgin”.
You know, I’m having a really hard time putting my thoughts into words here. I’ve read, watched, and listened to a lot of fascinating info on the origins of the Bible and the story of Jesus for my entire adult life, and there’s a whole lot of very compelling reasons to doubt it all, but putting dozens of sources together into cohesive sentences here is…daunting.
Well, to pull myself out of the corner that I’ve written myself into here, I’ll instead focus on what I DO believe about who Jesus was.
I don’t have a problem with assuming that he did exist. But his story has been so distorted over the years – adapted to fit the prophecies, merged with other savior stories, and so on – that it’s probably impossible to know who he really was. My guess is that he was just one of many charismatic philosophers of the time, and he happened to draw a bigger crowd than the others. He had a lot of good things to say, and a lot of people liked him. He upset the status quo, and was executed as a result. No miracles, no magic, no resurrection, no coming apocalypse (except that which we create for ourselves). To me, he’s a historical figure like Shakespeare or Homer (why do I keep going back to those two?) in that there are doubts about whether they even existed.
Maybe he believed that he was really the son of God. If so, he was unfortunately deluded, because (as I’ll explain in my next post in this series) there’s no such thing. All in all, he seems like he was a good guy, so I hate to have to take him down a few pegs like this. My ingrained Christian indoctrination is making this topic very uncomfortable.
If, right now, you’re thinking “that was all crap!”, I pretty much agree with you. In this post, I tried to succinctly explain my true feelings about Christianity, and I failed miserably. But I’ve laid down a framework, and I’ll be coming back to this post to revise and add to it as I am able. Really, there’s so much to talk about on this subject that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get everything written out definitively.
I also wanted to point out why I’m not providing any links to my sources for what I’m saying here. For one, I don’t feel like it. I’d wind up spending way too much time tracking down my sources and linking them here. And really, would it matter if I did? I’m not trying to convince anyone here; I’m trying to say why I’ve come to the conclusions that I have.
This is one of the first atheism-oriented books I read once I realized that I was probably an atheist and that it was ok to read books on the subject to learn more. If I remember correctly, it was #4, after The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (great), God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (I couldn’t get into it, even though I really liked his writing), and Harris’ own The End of Faith (mostly pretty good).
This book was written as a direct response to the criticism Harris received from The End of Faith. It’s written directly to “Christian America”, and attempts to address the biggest issues and apparent omissions from his previous book. As a result, it reads more like a conversation than a lecture, which really helps.
Though I enjoyed The End of Faith, I found Letter to a Christian Nation to be much easier to read, to understand, and to recommend to others. Harris addresses specific questions that you commonly hear when theists are questioning the atheist point of view (as they should, even though they rarely apply similar questioning to their own religion), and in a calm, matter-of-fact way.
In fact, this book seems more mellow and casual when compared to The End of Faith. This helps it a great deal, because the book can’t be as easily dismissed as the angry ranting of a “militant atheist” (a term which seems to refer to any atheist who doesn’t just sit down, shut up, and let the Christians do what they want).
The best part is that it’s short. It’s only 144 pages long (or 2 hours in audiobook form), which makes it much easier to digest for the common reader. Harris doesn’t ramble or tell unnecessary anecdotes or quote other books very often. He specifically focuses on Christianity (as if the title of the book wasn’t a big clue) in order to tailor this book to the general public. If you want to read his opinions on other religions, he covers them at great length (especially Islam) in The End of Faith.
I listened to the audiobook version on my MP3 player, which I think is a great way to go. (I’ll address my inability to actually read non-fiction in a future post.) The narrator is very good, and either believes the material he’s speaking, or he’s an excellent actor. His calm voice lacks any venom that could distort what Harris is really trying to say.
(I was just thinking…it must be hard finding book narrators who don’t have a problem with narrating an atheist book. It’s probably a good thing that they’ve never done an audiobook of Mein Kampf, because anybody who takes that job is going to come out of it sounding like a nazi. They’d have to get someone who can in no way be mistaken for a nazi, like Morgan Freeman or Woody Allen.)
The best thing about this book is that it’s actually something you can give to your believer friends to help them understand why you can’t believe in God. It specifically addresses the common Christian throughout its pages. Will it convert them? Probably not, unless they’re already on the fence. And true believers won’t be swayed by any of the arguments Harris makes, of course. But most rational believers will probably come away with a better understanding of who atheists really are, and they’ll probably never look at their own religion the same way again.
On a slightly unrelated note, I find it hilarious that someone wrote a book called The End of Reason in response to Harris’ The End of Faith. Guess they didn’t give much thought to that title, did they?