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Robert Stanley, Dale, and I sat down to talk about three issues. As it happens, they all go back to the Bible. I believe this is the case for almost all discussions that matter between Christians and atheists. After all, without the Bible, there is no Christianity whatsoever. Moreover, there is no belief in the Christian god. After all, we don’t get these things from nature. It requires a special relation of some sort. And for Christians, the Bible is it.
When it comes right down to it, all debates on the bible end with the same conclusion: The bible is unclear at best. There is no method for interpreting the bible that makes it easy to understand. This is very literal. This is very nonliteral. How do you determine which is which? It is all very ad hoc. I am not being dismissive. I have listened to the best of them explain their idiosyncratic theories. I have read a number of books and sat through a number of lectures and workshops. No scholar has a consistent hermeneutic that makes sense of the whole bible. On the show, we didn’t do any better.
Being the only believer on the panel, Dale’s answers were often the most interesting because they were not always what you would expect to hear from a Christian. We talked about three topics. At the end of the day, it was really just one topic. Here’s how it went:
Reliability of the bible
We started by going right after the big question: Is the bible reliable. The original question was, is the bible true. I called that an ill-formed question and got some initial pushback from Robert. He tends to view the bible as a book making scientific and historical claims about what actually happened. I pointed out that not all Christians view it that way. They recognize that much of the material in the bible is allegory and mytho-historic. It uses metaphor and hyperbole to deliver true messages. But is not intended to be read as hard fact in all its details.
The interesting thing was that all three of us come from literalist backgrounds. So we, more or less, saw the bible the same way, as something to be taken literally and direct. I’m just not sure if that is how most Christians see it these days. I believe it is more complicated than that. Every Christian believes the bible is literal and direct in some parts. Every Christian believes there is some level of allegory and mytho-history. Whether or not the bible is true depends on the type of material you believe you are seeing.
Unsurprisingly, Robert thought the bible was not true or reliable and Dale thought it was. I wanted to dig a little deeper and find out the sorts of things Robert thought was untrue. He brought up the creation story, the flood, and the big fish. Dale surprised Robert by agreeing that the creation story was likely inaccurate. He also said the same for the flood while suggesting that the big fish was a literal miracle of god.
Needless to say, there was some interesting discussion. Being charitable, I concluded that at best, the bible is unclear.
Church and state
It turns out Robert is a bit of a political expert. So it was nice to have his perspective. We didn’t see eye to eye on history. But we agreed on the goal which is to have a secular state rather than a religion-friendly state. What Dale wants is a theocracy. That is a system of government where god is the ultimate ruler. He recognizes that is not the system we have today. It is, however, the system that will be in place after the second coming.
I pushed back by asking if what Dale really longed for is a return to a monarchy. Almost all developed nations have abandoned that system of governance. Also, what does heaven need with a king? Are we going to be serfs? What does a king have to do in perfected utopia? There are no roads to fix or build, no taxes to collect, no crime to control. It is just looking regal and being worshiped. What’s the point of a government in heaven?
After some back and forth, Dale suggested that the problem I was creating was merely semantic. Robert suggest Dale was trying to fit a Bronze-age vision into a modern context. I suggested that the bible was a book with a time-locked vision of the world that simply didn’t connect with modern readers. And if god didn’t mead to promote a vision of a feudal system, he could have picked a more timeless metaphor. At best, the bible is unclear about heavenly expectations and political hopes.
I really tried to keep this from becoming just another debate about slavery and the like. It is super tough to accomplish that goal when the subject is biblical morality. To our credit, we mostly avoided that topic. I brought up the issue of using a book as a moral guide in the first place. My objection applies to any book. For a biblical example, I used the practice of shunning. It is immoral. And like most Christians, I ignored the rules for it laid out in the New Testament.
Robert went to the Old Testament and chose the death penalty for violating the sabbath. He cited the time when a man was caught gathering took on the sacred day and god ordered him to be stoned to death. Robert thought it unconscionable that the death penalty should be applied to a man who picked up sticks on the sabbath. Dale defended church discipline. And also defended the death penalty for picking up sticks. He had an explanation for why that was a special circumstance and why god was justified and not immoral for having the man killed.
The problem is that even if we grant Dale his explanation, which I don’t, it leaves the bible unclear at best on the matter of when violating the sabbath required death. With Dale’s explanation, one simply couldn’t know. I’ll let you listen to the podcast to see what he had to say.
We should all try to listen charitably as Dale does his best to make his case against two well-equipped skeptics. He gives us some interesting ideas to consider. Even if you don’t think Dale presented the best arguments for his side, take a moment to steel man the arguments and consider the best arguments you can come up with. I have done this. And in the best case scenario for the Christian, the bible is unclear. And for me, unclear is indistinguishable from unreliable.
And that’s the view from the skeptic.