How not to do atheism

Quite by chance I found myself looking at something that made me first rub my eyes and then burst out laughing.  I thought I would share it with you before it vanishes from the web.  From here:

The Bible was wrong. For evidence look to, well, the Bible.

Such is the conclusion of this stunning, provocative infographic, which maps contradictions in the Bible, from whether thou shalt not commit adultery down to the color of Jesus’s robes. Career skeptic Sam Harris commissioned the chart for his nonprofit foundation Project Reason, with graphic design by Madrid-based Andy Marlow. Whatever your religious views, it’s an incredible testament to the power of data visualization. It’s managed to make an ancient text — over which men have fought wars and women have sacrificed babies — look downright silly.

The organization here is pretty simple. You’ve got bars at the bottom representing the 1,189 verses of the King James Bible. White’s for the Old Testament, gray’s for the New Testament. Then a red arc links all the verses that contradict each other…. For the full key, download the chart as a PDF.

So to anyone who thinks the Bible’s the last word on anything, remember this: It isn’t even the last word on itself.

You’ve probably never heard of this Sam Harris, and I have never troubled to read anything he produces.  Those of his disciples that I have met have been very stupid people.

But back to the image, and let’s think about it critically.  What can it mean?  Someone draws a picture and that says, erm … what?  That a couple of atheists can compile a list of “bible difficulties” and represent it in graphical form?  Or that there are “bible difficulties”, as the Victorians used to quaintly call them?  There’s quite a bit of hubris in suggesting that what someone thinks is a problem, with something  he doesn’t want to believe, must really be one.

Mind you we should not be unfair.  Those exulting over this curious production seem to understand quite well that it is designed for emotional impact rather than intellectual impact.  But let’s have some fun!  Let’s see if we can actually get a sensible meaning out of this?

The lesser kind of atheist writers have been trying for some centuries to compile lists of “bible difficulties”. They would like us to believe that, if they can find or invent anything which looks like a contradiction, by whatever combination of ingenuity or wilful stupidity, in a library of books written over a period of several centuries and copied by hand — especially a numerical difference, and we all know how reliable is the copying of numerals in ancient texts –, then that proves … well, what?  They get quite hazy about what it proves, specifically, other than that “the bible is not true”. 

But the logic is never quite laid out for us to inspect.  Is it some sort of unspecified theological point, about how divine inspiration ‘must’ work?  If so, do these sort of atheists believe they can make valid theological statements about a God in whom they do not believe?  Or perhaps is it that this text cannot be the work of an omnipotent God, working through human hands to give a message and accepting that those humans may make mistakes in copying or reading, because… erm… sorry why was that?  It’s as if the argument falls apart, just as soon as you recast it into your own words and omit the slogans.  

To those who think of the crisp incisive prose of J.S.Mill when they think of atheism, this sort of argumentation will be a sad disappointment.

Intellectually — and we do “intellectual” on this blog, I think — the whole exercise of piling up “problems”, as a way to refute something, is rubbish.   It’s not going to tell you anything, and it will do injury to the person doing it, because it is unbalanced.  It is the favourite method of the hate-writer, and the process corrupts those who do it, as the “faults” of those they dislike grow larger and larger under the distorting lens of the microscope.  No sensible person looks for accurate information about wombles from

Consider the idea of a heap of “problems”, as applied to any ancient text or collection of texts.  Won’t any text of any length have “problems” of this kind?  Not because it’s, erm, whatever point they are trying make here, but because of how the world is.  People see things differently.  Typos creep in.  Cultural differences get misunderstood  by modern readers.  And so on and so on.  To make these  facts about the world into an argument against one kind of belief, while silently ignoring the same problem with every belief and everything we know, is rather silly.

It is not an argument against Christianity that the world is a flawed place.  It is an argument FOR Christianity, surely?  It is not an argument that the bible is unreliable that people make mistakes copying it  – that’s the same argument again. 

The argument also misses the point.  No-one comes to be a Christian because they discover the bible is inerrant.  They come to believe the bible is inerrant because they became Christians.  The argument thus becomes a form of jeering, rather than a discussion of the validity or otherwise of Christianity.

I need to get back to proof correcting the Eusebius volume.  I’m pretty sure Eusebius, author of Gospel Problems and Solutions, had heard that there were things that some people thought were diaphonia

8 Responses to “How not to do atheism”

  1. Marcel

    This seems similar to picking out errors and inconsistencies in the eye-witness statements about the World Trade Center attacks. I think in this case it’s meant to prove the atheist can cheat on his history test, or perhaps more notionally that he may sleep with his girlfriend.

  2. Roger Pearse

    I think you’re right. The methods used are the same.

    Indeed vituperation, as it used to be called, is a standard method of attacking something when you have decided in advance that you don’t want it to be true. But it has a hugely deleterious effect on the sense of balance of those who do it. We have to spend most of our time on our enthusiasms, not on things that are wrong, or (worse) things other people do wrong. Who wants to become a bitter twisted hater?

    I don’t think there is much doubt that much atheism is merely a rationalisation of a bad conscience from people with a religious upbringing. I admit I tire of hearing “atheism” which is of this kind.

    But we should not forget that there is intelligent atheism as well. In eras when Christianity — of a sort! — was the common currency of the age, atheism required a sort of courage and could be a protest against a corrupted, Erastian clergy.

  3. Peter

    Marcel, nobody claims that eye-witness statements about the World Trade Center attacks are words of God or inspired by God Holy Spirit, and which needs to be pushed to all people and legistlation.

    I’ve read Harris’ work and listen to couple of his debates. I don’t find that he or people who like his work are “a bitter twisted hater” or “very stupid people”.

    It worries me what people “come to believe the bible is inerrant because they became Christians”. Once they believe that Jesus’ last words are recorded correctly they might think they need to start burning witches.

  4. Roger Pearse

    I’m really sorry to say this, but your defence of Harris’ followers seems unfortunate to me. Because what I read is this:

    Para 1: an irrelevant introduction of theology into a simple question of how things that happen — whatever they are — should be examined. I think you just adapted this from some stock assertion that the claims of the bible should be held to a higher standard than other historical text. But that is not the issue. The point is that the approach taken to the bible is the same as that of 9/11 headbangers; same method, same motivation. It doesn’t matter what the object of their animosity is.

    Para 2: an argument by assertion that Harris and co are not haters, despite spending their time on hating someone else’s religion. Swiftly followed by:

    Para 3: a confused and grammatically incorrect claim that Christians are more likely to kill people if they believe the bible.

  5. Brandon

    I found ‘contradiction’ 439 rather hilariously funny; it claims a contradiction between:

    Ps. 9:11, Ps. 76:2, Joel 3:17, 21 (the Lord dwells in Zion)


    Ps. 123:1 , Eccl. 5:2 (The Lord dwells in heaven).

    Which seems to sum up the whole problem with the graphic in a nice and tidy form.

  6. Roger Pearse


    But what kind of muppet would solemnly sit down and spend hours of their life on compiling such a thing? If you aren’t a Christian, why do you care?

  7. Rob F.

    These atheist disvangelists always adopt a sort of fundamentalism-on-steroids when it comes to interpreting the Bible, don’t they? A Christian fundamentalist is tempted to believe the muppetry of “Bible codes” or the latest totalizing theory of the Apocalypse that makes so much sense of yesterday’s headlines. Apparently this is the sort of muppetry that tempts atheist fundamentalists.

  8. Roger Pearse

    I sometimes wonder if the Catholic position on this is true to some degree — that atheism is simply a form of protestantism taken to the final degree? Where that protestantism is entirely negative, there may be truth in this. Some atheists do behave as if they were extreme protestants of the old-fashioned Ulster kind, at least in their hatreds if not their affections and practice. They quote 17th century anti-papist literature, adapted to attack all Christians, not just corrupt renaissance popes.