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The Argument from Mundanity

Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are among the most intellectually formidable, witty and persuasive atheists currently writing. Although Harris tends to attack theism from a philosophical standpoint, and Hitchens prefers consulting history and using religions’ own texts against them, both have elegantly articulated a sound, unanswerable argument against Christianity (and every other religion currently vying for adherents among people who ought to know better). I shall call it The Argument from Mundanity.

In the minds of many Christians, the Bible was written (or, at the least, inspired) by the creator of the cosmos. This fantastical entity, children have been inculcated to believe, is comprehensively aware of the thoughts and inner conflicts of every individual roaming the planet. Certainly, considering its author, one might expect the Bible to be full of dazzlingly specific information (of which none of its readers previously had been aware). Considering the author, it should be the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, featuring innumerable accurate tidbits about events and discoveries still to come. Yet, this certainly is not the case.

More eloquently than could I, Sam Harris articulates the point in Letter to a Christian Nation[1], writing, “… just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy would be, if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make perfectly accurate predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage such as ‘In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers–the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus–and this system shall be called the Internet.’ The Bible contains nothing like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. This should trouble you.”

Indeed, it should.

The reference to the first century should immediately grab one’s attention. It is easy to forget just when modern religions, such as Christianity, were invented. The Bible was written some 2000 years ago (obviously with some texts older and some more recent). During the time Jesus is alleged to have walked the earth, our species suffered from embarrassing, comprehensive ignorance. The most basic of scientific truths eluded our distant ancestors, who concocted a vastly smaller universe of which the earth was the center, a demon theory of disease, and a climatic paradigm from which rain-dances sprang. The most knowledgeable individual in the first century now would be a pitiable fool–an ancestral curiosity.

Christopher Hitchens observes this very fact in god is not Great[2], writing, “One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody–not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms–had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think–though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one–that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”

The Bible presents plenty of positive assertions that are plainly false, and these have been mined by atheists for decades, if not centuries. I shall not regurgitate those. This essay’s focus is Christianity’s sins of omission, the punishment for which should be universal apostasy among all intellectually honest individuals.

Let us start with Genesis, which has been corrupting the United States’ science classrooms for much too long. Hitchens demonstrates the level of ignorance Genesis reveals.

Why, he asks, can Genesis be proven the mundane work of ignorant humans in merely a paragraph? “Because,” he writes, “man is given ‘dominion’ over all beasts, fowl and fish. But no dinosaurs or plesiosaurs or pterodactyls are specified, because the authors did not know of their existence, let alone of their supposedly special and immediate creation. Nor are any marsupials mentioned, because Australia–the next candidate after Mesoamerica for a new ‘Eden’–was not on any known map. Most important, in Genesis man is not awarded dominion over germs and bacteria because the existence of these necessary yet dangerous fellow creatures was not known or understood. And if it had been known or understood, it would at once have become apparent that these forms of life had ‘dominion’ over us, and would continue to enjoy it uncontested until the priests had been elbowed aside and medical research at last given an opportunity.”

Harris picks up the argument, making the salient point that a great deal of human misery could have been wiped out had the Bible simply provided a single nugget of previously unknown medical knowledge. “Why,” he asks, “doesn’t the Bible say anything about electricity, or about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will be easily summarized in a few pages of text. Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? Good, pious people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, and many of them are children. The Bible is a very big book. God had room to instruct us in great detail about how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. To one who stands outside the Christian faith, it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.”

Here, one thinks of the approximately 10,000 distinct religions infecting our otherwise-sophisticated species. Of all the religious texts I have ever read or heard of, none has been the source of new knowledge about natural principles or the miraculous impetus for a scientific leap. Rather, each has been the work of mere humans, serving up large doses of primitive superstition, baseless moralizing, useless commandments and promises just beyond the reach of confirmation. If one religion of the 10,000 actually were true, I should think its veracity would be proved by its unique ability to reveal (think ‘revelation’) factual information before scientists had discovered it. Then, religion would spread by the power of its evidence, rather than spreading, passively, by the coincidental geography of one’s place of birth and, actively, by parents’ talent for inculcating their defenseless, trusting young.

To this point, I have presented The Argument from Mundanity mostly from the perspective of Christianity’s failing to reveal accurate information about the natural order. Let us now take a different tack.

Although no scientifically aware individual would even give Christianity’s metaphysical claims (human resurrection, talking nonhuman animals, et al) a second look, some such people might have previously credited the faith with some measure of creativity and imagination. Sadly, this can no longer be done. Virgin birth, to take just one example, turns out to be a cheap knock-off of preexisting lunatic derangements. Human parthenogenesis is the very height of mundanity.

Hitchens sets off with a verse from the book of Matthew, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” “Yes,” Hitchens begins, “and the Greek demigod Perseus was born when the god Jupiter visited the virgin Danaë as a shower of gold and got her with child. The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother’s flank. Catlicus the serpent-skirted caught a little ball of feathers from the sky and hid it in her bosom, and the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli was thus conceived. The virgin Nana took a pomegranate from the tree watered by the blood of the slain Agdestris, and laid it in her bosom, and gave birth to the god Attis. The virgin daughter of a Mongol king awoke one night and found herself bathed in a great light, which caused her to give birth to Genghis Khan. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka. Horus was born of the virgin Isis. Mercury was born of the virgin Maia. Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia.”

So, now, not only do we have infinitely various god characters, boasting infinitely various skill sets, demanding infinitely various behaviors, promising infinitely various rewards (and haunting impressionable children with infinitely various torments), we also have a historical landscape (perhaps, in this instance, ‘fairyscape’) littered with virgin births and fatherless offspring. Advocates of one man-one woman households would be positively aghast–were they not unlettered. Let it be declared: The Bible is not imaginative, even on the level of a book of ancient Jewish folklore. Rather, it is tiresome, pernicious, obnoxious and–most unforgivably–utterly mundane.

A shockingly brilliant man called Carl Sagan, whom the world misses greatly, took considerable interest in UFO abductees’ tedious tales. The aliens described, far more advanced than we, always related the most humdrum drivel to those they took aboard their spacecrafts. They neglected to mention HIV to abductees taken in the late ’70s. They carelessly omitted Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction when they abducted individuals in the late ’90s. It seems the only knowledge they wish to impart is that which humans already have–or philosophical platitudes of which we have too many. They never divulge new information for which scientists had been struggling mightily. Sagan, in fact, suggested the following request for anyone who ends up meeting a highly advanced alien: Ask it to deliver a short proof of Goldbach’s Conjecture. To my knowledge, E.T. has been stumped so far.

Next time you read the Bible, which allegedly was inspired by the creator of the cosmos himself, remember this uncomfortable fact: its utter mundanity betrays its decidedly terrestrial origin.

Works Cited

[1] Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Knopf, 2006.

[2] Hitchens, Christopher. god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Warner Twelve, 2007.