Over the years I have been confronted by numerous bibliolaters: people who take the Bible to be inerrant and, thus, put it beyond intelligent criticism. Since theirs is a particularly pernicious religion (absurdly claiming that certain antique documents are divinely inspired), it has seemed important to me to develop strategies for dealing with such manifest foolishness.
Bibliolaters should not be humored by being allowed to prattle on unchallenged but should be put in the position of having to put up or shut up. Positive good can come from making them suffer what sociologists commonly call cognitive dissonance, for it is out of intolerable intellectual and emotional conflicts within oneself that deliverance often comes.
In the early 1970s a former student of mine named Terry, mad as a hatter, returned to see me, as was his custom. This time he brought a dirty, wraith-like little man who stank to high heaven. “This here’s Alphonse,” Terry said, “Alphonse Rossignol. We want you to test a spirit.”
“Test a Spirit,” I said, thinking, why me? “Our university has a religion department now,” I said, happily. “Why not get one of those guys to test your Spirit?”
“No!” thundered Terry. “They’re hypocrites. Better an honest atheist any day than a hypocrite.”
“Put that way,” I said, “I don’t see how I can refuse. What is this Spirit I’m to test?”
“Alphonse here’s been fasting for six weeks,” Terry said.
“Yes, that’s right,” Alphonse agreed. “I’ve been taking nothing by mouth except my own urine, sweetened with a little branch water from the creek behind my cabin. The Bible tells you to do it.”
“Surely not!” I expostulated, then rued my outburst as some of the weird stuff in the Bible skittered through my mind. Taking a Bible from my bookshelf, guided by dim traces of memory and a hunch or two, my eyes soon alighted on John 7:37-38, in which the King James Version (KJV) has Jesus say:
“If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me … out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
Alphonse beamed, having been justified in drinking his own pee by the very word of scripture itself, at which point he pulled a small plastic glass from his shirt pocket. The glass stank mightily and was ringed by a dirty yellowish precipitate.
“That’s his communion cup,” Terry announced exultantly.
Deciding it was time to throw a little cold water on these proceedings, I asked Alphonse, “Do you know what follows John 7:38?” He didn’t, and it occurred to me that he might be illiterate, having only heardthe hypothetical imperative.
In the KJV John 7:39 appears in parentheses, which I read to Alphonse:
“But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believed on him should receive.”
“See,” I said, “the Bible itself tells you in verse 39 not to take literally what it says in verse 38. It’s just a metaphor. You’re not supposed to be drinking your own urine.”
“Jesus told me to do it,” Alphonse replied.
“Where did you see Jesus?” I asked.
“Out back of my cabin,” said Alphonse.
“How can you be sure it wasn’t the devil?” I shot back, getting down to business. “The scriptures say that the devil can disguise himself as an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14). Why couldn’t he dress up like Jesus and try to fool a person like you?”
Behind his grimy exterior, Alphonse blanched. He sank down in his chair, obviously rattled by the prospect that he might have met the devil. Meanwhile, banging hard on my desk, Terry cried out, “Now that’s testing the Spirit!” as though they were getting their money’s worth in Spirit-testing for the first time.
Recovering from his nasty shock, Alphonse said in the sweetest, most self-assured voice imaginable, “Oh, it was Jesus all right.”
“Very well,” I said, “I can test the Spirit no further,” and ushered them out of my room. As they went rejoicing, I closed the door and dashed to open my windows in the hope of catching a strong cross draught. Much more of Alphonse’s essence lingered than I cared to retain.
Many moons later a very bright and clinically sane student, possessed nonetheless by fervent fundamentalism, asked if he could meet with me to discuss some bible passages. I awaited the encounter with enthusiasm, but when the appointed hour arrived, he brought with him another student of mine, also very bright and clinically sane, but suffering a worse case of Christianity than the first one. As though this were not enough, they also brought an elderly divine with them, Pastor Russell of the Maranatha House.
Pandemonium quickly overtook our discussion. I would no sooner begin a rational exegesis of a passage than one of them would say, “Yeah, but what about Nehemiah 6:16?” or “How about Lamentations 3:42?” or “Haven’t you forgotten Malachi 2:10?” Meanwhile another one would be rustling through Deuteronomy or Obadiah commenting on how he was about to find a verse that would put a stop to what I was saying, and all the while Pastor Russell would ask above the din if I knew the Hebrew for some English phrase or other. After three or four starts of this sort, resulting in hop-scotching through the scriptures, I had had enough. I decided to get them out of my office pronto.
I knew it would be painful to do what I believed necessary to rid my office of the rabble; but one has to suffer for one’s faith. So, I fibbed. (I still try to make it less a moral offense than it really was. I didn’t fib; I told a lie.) I told them that I had committed the “unforgivable sin” (Matthew 12:31). I told them that I had blasphemed against the Holy Ghost, that there was, therefore, absolutely no hope for me, and that they were wasting precious time that might more profitably be spent on others more susceptible to their blandishments than I.
At this they stood stock still. They were silenced in the twinkling of an eye. Pastor Russell was the first to rally from their collective dismay. He asked me precisely what it was that I had done when I had blasphemed against the Holy Ghost. “Well, you should know, being a Bible scholar,” I retorted, giving him no help at all.
“I don’t think you really have blasphemed,” he said, offering me hope that I could still profit from the gospel, and offering hope that their efforts had not been utterly in vain.
“Oh, I’m absolutely positive I have,” I said with a stern countenance, suffering the pangs of conscience bravely. The thought that they were in the presence of a blasphemer, more loathsome than a leper, was too much for them. They fell back as though to avoid contact with a virulent and deadly infection, and they fled my office. My secretary saw them hastening single file down the hall, looking sideways at the wall, unnerved and hardly knowing where to turn next in their zeal to depart the infested building.
By the way, to blaspheme against the Holy Ghost one merely has to ascribe to Beelzebub responsibility for certain healings Jesus allegedly performed (see Mark 3:20-29), an ascription I could never honestly make. In any case, if you can tolerate the pain of such a fib (lie), then you too can rid the spaces you occupy of similar Christian zealots.
On January 27, 1987, I was led as a lamb to the slaughter, having been set up to debate the Rev. Dr. Norman Geisler of Dallas Theological Seminary on the subject, “Humanism vs. Christianity.” Dubbed by its promoters as “The Main Event,” the debate was held in the ballroom at Auburn University, a room overflowing with perhaps 2,000 people, some of whom had been bused in, courtesy of local churches.
Geisler had trouble staying on the general topic, focusing rather on abortion, in the most grisly terms. Humanists, he tells, are right in there with the Nazis in disregard of human life. Their despicable deeds are made likely, if not inevitable, by their moral relativism. How much firmer is the ground under Christians, who stand on moral absolutes!
During rebuttal, I said that my favorite moral absolute in scripture was in Luke 6:30 where Jesus is reported to have said, “Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.” I then turned to the Rev. Dr. Geisler and asked him for his money. Since it was not forthcoming, I knelt on one knee and begged for it, trying to cover all spiritual bases.
With a pale look about his gills, he finally pulled out a dollar bill and waved it wanly at me to which I said, “No, not a dollar; I want all of your money. But I’m not mean; I won’t keep your wallet or credit cards.” Geisler did not, in fact, comply with the moral absolute in Luke 6:30 (also see Matthew 5:42 and Luke 6:35). If he had given me his money, I would have taken it and kept it. Thus, we would both have been blessed, I with extra cash and he with a clear conscience for having met the challenge of obeying a moral absolute of his lord. I fear his conscience still troubles him over this episode, something I would gladly have spared him by keeping his money.
Bibliolaters are so fond of moral absolutes that I believe the rest of us should oblige them by giving them every opportunity to act thereupon. When you next hear a Christian extolling the rock of moral absolutes upon which he or she stands, go for the cash. It has a sobering effect that may in the long run be beneficial.
I keep hoping Geisler will come back to Auburn. I know where there are other moral absolutes in scripture to use on him and his ilk, and so shall you.
Imagine that you are fired up to encounter some bibliolaters. Imagine that one or more of these evangelists come to your door peddling their beliefs. Here are a number of challenges you can issue and rejoinders you can make.
1. Take a bottle and put some harmless ingredients in it that, when mixed, look pukey and smell the same. Then, when an unsuspecting bibliolater rings your doorbell and starts to set you straight, ask this person to take a big swig of your concoction. If the person is reluctant, refer to Mark 16:17-18 where Jesus is supposed to have said that believers will be able to pick up or drink any deadly thing without harm. If the evangelist quotes the stock answer, “Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God . . .” (Deuteronomy 6:16), point out that you are not asking the Bible-god to drink your brew but are merely checking out the credentials of one of his alleged servants.
2. A nice variation is in Luke l0:l9. Here we are told that Jesus’ disciples can tread on serpents and scorpions without being hurt. This test, of course, is not for everybody. You may not have a rumpus room knee-deep in snakes or scorpions. However, you could get a large empty jar, camouflage it so that one cannot look into it and then ask the bibliolater to thrust a hand into it blindly. For that matter any harmless thing that looks threatening will do, because Luke 10:19 ends by saying that “nothing shall by any means hurt” Christians. Any reluctance on the part of the evangelist can be taken as a sign of weak faith–not the sort of person you would want to listen to.
3. If you aren’t too embarrassed to bring up sex, and if this person is wearing a wedding ring, ask if sex with the spouse is still going on. If so, look horrified and point out that St. Paul clearly said (I Corinthians 7:29) that Christians should cut it out, because the end of the world is near at hand. After all, who would want to get caught Doing It when Jesus comes again? Think how much closer to the end we must be now than when Paul first made this important point. Naturally you don’t want to listen to a bibliolater who pays no heed to St. Paul.
4. In Matthew 10:18 Jesus sends out his disciples with the words, “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils . . .” Take on a skeptical attitude and ask the evangelist for his or her credentials. Is this person really from Jesus, or maybe from a false teacher, or, worse yet, perhaps from the devil himself? If the evangelist assures you that he or she was sent directly by Jesus, ask for a demonstration of healing the sick, raising the dead, or casting out devils. If lepers are hard to come by in your neighborhood, AIDS patients could surely be substituted.
5. After a few pleasantries, the evangelist will probably turn to the bottom line: your happiness or misery after death. Ask how you can know that this person is presenting a picture of the real, true hell. You will need the following as background:
I have written a story called, “Oops, Wrong Hell,” in which a young chap named Rolf Smegmaa goes by the book, believes everything in the Bible, then dies, and wakes up in hellish circumstances. “Why?” he asks. He protests and asks for a review of his sentence. When a voice booms out overhead, it is in Arabic, the language of Muhammad. Too late Rolf realizes that the Moslem hell is the true hell, not the Christian one, and that in trying to avoid the latter he made himself a prime candidate for the former.
It goes without saying that you don’t want that to happen to you. So, challenge the bibliolater to clear up this matter beyond all doubt. As the evangelist leaves, express your suspicion that he or she may be trying to escape from a phony hell.
6. Although you may appear to be pleased to see a bibliolater at your door, you must express concern over not being duped. After all, there are so many evangelists saying different things. You want to know all you can about this person’s spiritual legitimacy. Ask, “Does this describe you?” Then read Luke 14:26:
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
How does this fit in with loving others? If the evangelist really hates his or her ;ife, why all the concern about living forever in heaven?
7. In your never-ending quest to make sure that the evangelist is the genuine article, ask if this person has ever been flogged in a synagogue or dragged before governors and kings for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 10:17-18). The answer is almost certain to be no. But go on and read Matthew 10:21-22:
“And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father the child; and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death, and ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake…”
Look the evangelist squarely in the eye and ask, “Have you had family problems like these?” Then, still looking very grave, ask, “Does everybody hate you because of Jesus?” The answer to both questions is almost certainly no. Say sadly that you are afraid this person is not the real article, that you must learn about Jesus from the right kind of person as described in Matthew.
8. After the evangelist has made an opening spiel, just ask, “Are you morally perfect?” Christians make a big deal of saying they are “not perfect, just forgiven.” Read Matthew 5:48 where Jesus says:
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
(Even though Matthew made up things for Jesus to say when it suited him, you don’t need to let on. In a red-letter edition of the Bible, Matthew 5:48 is in red, and therefore Jesus must have said it.) Then solemnly note that this is an imperative–no if’s, and’s, or but’s at all. Bible-believers should thank you for pointing out another moral absolute. Tell the bibliolater to come back when he or she has become perfect.
9. If the evangelist is a woman trying to get you to join her congregation, ask if women are allowed to speak aloud there. If the answer is yes, cite Paul’s first letter to Timothy 2:11-12 (many New Testament professors don’t think Paul wrote this letter, but you don’t have to let on that you know this) which says:
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
If she still says yes, then ask why this passage is being ignored. If it can be ignored, why can’t other Bible passages be ignored? Indeed, why can’t the whole thing be ignored?
10. Bibliolaters can be quite wily. They will want you to believe everything in the Old Testament (OT) that is agreeable to them. But if you quote something that they don’t believe or practice, they will tell you that they are not under the old covenant (OT law) but are under the new covenant of the New Testament (NT) religion. Ask for the principle by which they cast off whatever they cast off in the OT and keep whatever they keep. Why do they ignore what they ignore? It helps to know that the NT generally misinterprets quotes from the OT, not taking it as the literal word of the Bible-god at all but twisting it to fit Christian propaganda.
11. If a bibliolater pleads with you to do something, such as to pray for enlightenment each day, or to read the Bible, or to attend church, present a proposal of your own. Say, “Sure I will, if you’ll do something for me. Go out into the woods where you won’t be embarrassed by being seen or heard and call upon the wood spirits and water nymphs to give you good luck.”
Since this is idolatry to the evangelist, it will not be done, and you won’t have to keep your part of the bargain either. Also, this person will leave.
12. It is a great delight to quote the Bible to people who say that they believe all of it (but don’t) and most definitely don’t like what you are quoting. First, they will charge you with taking it out of context; but they won’t know the context either. When this charge is made, ask them how the context shifts the meaning away from what it seems to say. Be prepared to witness some squirming and some double-talk.
Second, you will be told that what you have read wasn’t meant literally, but is an allegory, a parable, etc. If this ploy is used, ask why you are supposed to take what they quote as literal but they are not supposed to take what you quote as literal. After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
13. Ask the bibliolater, “Are you a fool for Christ?” If the answer is yes (and it often is), simply say that a fool for Christ is still a fool and that you don’t take advice from fools. If the answer is no, tell the person that he or she ought to be a fool, according to I Corinthians 3:18:
“Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise [logic, philosophy, science, etc.] let him become a fool! [moron in Greek], that he may be wise.”
In other words, murder your mind, reduce yourself to the level of a terrified moron, and you will live in endless bliss after you’re dead. Remember, the fear of the Bible-god is the beginning of true wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Since St. Paul picks up on this, the Christian should exhibit fearful foolishness in all things.
14. There are three approaches you can take if you want to have a little fun–and just possibly bring the bibliolater to right-mindedness. (1) Get this person to explain some god-awful (so to speak) passage from the Bible; (2) create cognitive dissonance, confronting the person with two or more inconsistent ideas both or all of which this person wants to believe but really can’t; or (3) pretend to try to convert the person to some zany, cuckoo doctrine that you claim as your own that comes, of course, from the Bible. In other words, turn the tables.
An example of a god-awful passage is in Exodus 21:7 where the Bible-god gives instructions to fathers about selling their daughters into slavery. Since “maidservant” in the text means “slave,” don’t let the bibliolater tell you that this is something less than slavery (see Deuteronomy 15:12 to clinch the case). Point out that you have heard how big the Bible is on the importance of the family. Is selling a child into slavery what one expects of a good family? If the bibliolater says that this is what the Bible-god told the Jews but that it doesn’t apply to Christians, ask why Jesus never once had anything critical to say about slavery, or Paul either.
In I Corinthians 5:1-5 Paul tells believers to deliver a certain not-so-evildoer to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Just how were they to do this? Did Satan maintain a pick-up point somewhere in Corinth where Christians could hand evil-doers over to Satanic transport and delivery, or did the Old Nick himself pop in now and again to harvest sinners personally? Would the bad guy have been alive at this time or already dispatched by some approved method? Imagine how this passage must have warmed the heart of the Grand Inquisitor doing the holy work of burning heretics alive. What are the flames of a half hour compared to those of eternity?
Here is an example of cognitive dissonance. A bright high-school student once took a summer seminar in science at Auburn University. Upset by something I said in a special lecture, he told me that he believed everything in the Bible. I knew that he was interested in geology and had seen a tiny bit of moon rock, so I said, “Well, I guess you believe that moon rock will turn to blood some day.”
“Why should I?” he asked.
Turning to Acts 2:20 I read:
“The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come.”
Knowing what he knew about the atomic and chemical structure of moon rock and how different from blood this is, and knowing he believes everything in the Bible, I left him to stew in his own juice. It may seem cruel, but this is a good way to help people come to their right minds.
Millions are stewing in juice like this, and if we can’t always plunge them under, we can turn up the fire under their stewpots. Whatever else happens, the moon is not going to become one big blood clot in the vacuum of space.
The following is an example of how to use something cuckoo in the Bible to turn the tables. Of course, you have to be willing to tell a little fib, to suffer even as I suffered with Pastor Russell, and to play a role without smiling or giving yourself away. Remember that bibliolaters have certain assumptions: they are ambassadors of the Bible-god. They are merely telling you what he wants you to believe: you are a sinner (or unbeliever, same thing), you are really miserable deep down (whether you know it or not), and you will be thankful someday that the evangelist set you straight. Nothing bothers evangelists more than to have the tables turned or to have to take their own medicine.
Ask the bibliolater if he or she believes that the earth Noah’s ark settled down on was the same as the one that existed when the flood waters began to rise. It’s almost one-hundred percent sure that the evangelist will say yes. Then, with a knowing look, read II Peter 3:6:
“Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished.” (The Greek word “perished” also means “annihilated” or “abolished.”)
Then read verse 7:
“But the heavens and the earth, which now are . . .”
So, you see, while old Noah and his menagerie were up on those flood waters, poof! The first world disappeared and the Bible-god made a new earth for the ark to land on. Call this the doctrine of Two-World Creationism and claim stoutly that it must be believed for salvation. (This ought to have special effect on the “scientific creationists” in your neighborhood.) By this time the evangelist will need to be going, pressing business, many other lost souls to be reached, etc.
15. The evangelist may say that the Bible is true because of its fulfilled prophecies. Don’t be stunned. You can be sure that the evangelist won’t know the actual dates of the so-called prophecies, or whether the predictions were written before or after the events in question. In general the books of the Bible do a poor job of dating things. Moreover, neither of you will know the details of how a particular book got from its origin(s) into the edited form it is now in. The likelihood is great that some predictions were made after the events in question (such as those in Daniel). Others were written with a very short-term fulfillment in mind, and still others were never fulfilled.
A short-term prophecy is found in Isaiah 7:14-16. In this famous prediction it is said that a “virgin” shall conceive. The Hebrew word (almah) does not require us to believe more than that a certain “young woman” is either about to get pregnant or already is. (The RSV, Smith and Goodspeed, and the translation of Moffatt all use “young woman.”) The curds and honey that the babe shall eat (7:15) are royal foods, so this must be a royal baby. In any case, by the time the baby knows how to distinguish good from bad (at his bar mitzvah) a certain military threat to Jerusalem will have faded away. So, here is a prophecy that has a time span of about fifteen years. (Nine months gestation, plus thirteen years, plus leeway for the time of the actual conception.) The events occurred more than seven hundred years before Jesus and had to do with a certain Emmanuel, not with Jesus.
In Isaiah 53 there is a famous passage taken to be a prediction of Jesus. Too bad, the whole chapter is in the past tense. It has to do with somebody who has already died, not with somebody in the distant future.
In Jeremiah 31:33-34 we are told that the days are coming when the Bible-god will write his law in the hearts of his people. Jews won’t even need to be taught to know the Lord, for they shall already know him. Alas, in nearly 2,600 years this has not happened. Jewish babies still have to be taught Judaism. They don’t pop out of the birth canal knowing the Bible-god and ready to do his bidding automatically. Here is a prophecy that clearly has not been, and is not about to be, fulfilled.
16. When somebody quotes scripture, say that you don’t believe the Bible because its prophecies are mistaken. This will hit hard, because the bibliolater is programmed to believe that prophecies are a strong recommendation. Point out that Revelation 1:1 says that it contains things that must shortly (or soon) come to pass. But here it is 1,900 years later and these things still haven’t happened. Does anybody think this is soon?
Hearing this, the evangelist will routinely quote II Peter 3:8:
“. . . one day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.”
Don’t be stymied–this is a dodge. If the word “shortly” has a meaning to the Bible-god different from the way humans commonly measure time, then this god has failed to communicate anything. If he is thinking of a thousand years when we think of a day, or vice versa, then we don’t know what he means. What kind of revelation is it that systematically confuses you? What is true of the Bible in this instance is true of it in general: it is no revelation at all.
I remember a day in the late ’70s when three hulking youths, built on the football lineman model, entered my office. “We’re from the Campus Crusade for Christ,” one said.
“How interesting!” I replied, showing keen enthusiasm but not giving them a chance to get started. “Why, just a couple of weeks ago there was a delegation here from the Brotherhood of Buddhist Bricklayers, and then last week some folks came by from the Cartel of Confucian Carpenters.” By the time I got to the Junta of Hindu Hammersmiths, one began to grin, thus giving up the jig, and as I began to tell them about forthcoming visits from the Syndicate of Sikh Salmon Seiners, they wheeled and departed from my office, and I hadn’t even gotten around to the Junta of Jewish Gymnasts or the Menage of Moslem Morticians.
Yes, Friends and Fellow FFRF Freethinkers, even humor sometimes helps in handling bibliolaters.
Professor Delos McKown, Ph.D., gave this speech at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 12th annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia, October 7, 1989. Delos has been Head of the Philosophy department at Auburn University (Alabama) since 1979. A former clergyperson, he has written extensively in philosophical and rationalist journals, and has been a Foundation member since 1982.