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reflections on the video ‘Why I am no longer a Christian’ – part 1

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funny but not entirely relevant

funny but not entirely relevant

Why I am no longer a Christian

I ‘m on the mailing list for an atheist meet-up group which, sadly, I rarely attend, but recently an email was sent around recommending a video called ‘Why I am no longer a Christian’. The author has been adding snippets to the video over the years and it’s now over 3 hours long, but you can watch it in chunks. I’ve found it thoroughly compelling viewing so far. The author narrates the story of his deconversion in great detail, in soft-spoken, measured style, conveying the atmosphere and the feel of US pentecostal religiosity from the inside. To me, this was important because it’s easy, coming from a very different background, to be dismissive and contemptuous of that world – as  Dawkins is often accused of being (I note that he’s been keen to promote his loving, caring side lately).

Even so, and even though I was certainly not put off by the measured treatment of his faith days, his faith community, and the sacred music that accompanies these early sections (much sacred music is, of course, very beautiful and soothing), my interest really grew with his encounter with the ex-Christian academic, and his increasingly skeptical/curious readings of the Bible.

There are many outrageous passages in the Bible, so many in fact that the more subtle infelicities may easily go unheeded. And most of them aren’t so subtle when we decide to pause and examine them. For example, the author discusses Abraham, in Egypt, telling Sarah to lie to Pharaoh about his relationship with her (Genesis 12:10-20). The reason for the lie was that, finding Sarah very attractive, they might take her from him and kill him, if they thought she was his wife. If, on the other hand, they thought she was his sister, they would still take her, but would treat Abraham well, as the bearer of a gift of such a beauty into Egypt.

The author is struck by the passage because he believes (or believed at the time of reading it) that lying is never right, and he believed that this was a fundamental moral principle of the Bible, one of the Commandments. Interestingly, as a lifelong non-believer, I might’ve been struck by this lie (and I do recall being struck by it on first reading it) because it so contradicted the Commandment, but I doubt if I’d have been struck by its immorality. Abraham wanted to survive, first and foremost, and he considered that Sarah was doomed to be ‘looted’ from him anyway. Better to benefit from it than to die because of it. On the other hand, of course, he may have been wrong in his consideration that the Pharaoh and the Egyptians wouldn’t respect his ‘right of possession’ of Sarah. So we have a genuine moral dilemma here. In any case his decision to ask Sarah to lie doesn’t seem outrageous to me, given the patriarchal brutality of the era.

But it is the consequence of all this that the author is even more struck by, and rightly so. For Yahweh strikes Pharaoh down with illness because he takes the apparently single Sarah, rather than punishing the couple whose lies placed Sarah in such a compromising position. It doesn’t make sense to modern western morality, yet it makes perfect sense to those family honour-based societies that still exist today. The married Sarah’s honour has been besmirched, and Pharoah did it. Lying is as nothing beside having your way with a woman who is some other man’s possession, even if you didn’t know she was. It’s primitive and brutish, but that’s the Bible.

The author points out other questionable passages, including two contradictory ones about Judas that I hadn’t noticed before. In Acts 1:18-19, the unrepentant Judas is depicted as having his guts suddenly burst open in a field (bought by the proceeds of his betrayal), an Act of a wrathful Yahweh, but in Matthew 27: 3-8 , Judas, clearly guilt-ridden, tosses away his blood money and hangs himself from a tree. Completely incompatible stories, shocking to a discriminating, questing sensibility trying to understand this god’s book.

Later the author goes into aspects of the Bible’s production which I didn’t know about or the details of which I’ve read but forgotten, as an atheist who, knowing the books of the Bible are full of propaganda, fabrication and rescension, isn’t interested in the precise details the way many apologists are. Still they’re worth setting down here, to solidify them in my mind.

Some of this comes from Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, which I’ve actually read, but rather somnolently, probably because, like the video’s author, I was bored by the multifarious inventions of gods, or the qualities of gods, which she presents in the book, none of them based on anything but subjective speculation, albeit ingenious at times. It all started, from a historical perspective (rather than a pre-historic one) with the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian epic poem which presents, in a deliberately mythic way, a creation event, not out of nothing, but out of an eternal ‘raw material’. Armstrong claims that the creation of something out of nothing ‘was an idea that was alien to the ancient world’, including the writers of the Bible’s creation myths. An examination of the very first words of Genesis, however – at least in English – uncovers, at the very least, a vagueness about the issue. I quote from the KJV:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved  upon the face of the waters.

What we seem to have here is a beginning in which only the single supernatural agent exists. This agent (whose maleness isn’t revealed until verse 5, though it’s likely that in highly gendered Hebrew it was clear from the start) apparently created two things, at least initially, out of what we don’t know (magic happens!), and one of them was formless and void, whatever that may mean. In fact there’s enough ambiguity in these opening lines to keep theologians going for centuries. Ah, such is the inscrutability of brevity.

Anyway, moving along. The Enuma Elish is dated to around 1750 BCE, and is, importantly, a tale of polytheism. It was doubtless a highly selective representation of the polytheistic myths circulating around Mesopotamia at the time and previously. It speaks of a power struggle between gods and then a creation out of a primordial world that’s also formless and void, with a sequence including light, the firmament, land, the sun, the moon, and finally humanity. It’s believed that the first verses of Genesis, written most likely at the time of the Babylonian exile, more than a thousand years after the Enuma Elish was set down, were inspired by and derived from this ancient epic.

In my next post I’ll look at the emergence of Judaeo-Christian monotheism out of polytheism, with reference to this video.

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Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2013 at 9:20 am

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