By Plato Mamo
Many Christians and perhaps some postmodern relativists like to accuse the atheists of being just as fanatical in their rejection of God as the Christians are in their belief. We, they say, choose to believe; you choose to deny his existence. Your obstinate refusal to accept God’s own revelation renders you incapable of even conceiving of spiritual entities and condemns you to a life of emptiness and despair.
This, like so much of the theist’s discourse, is based on ignorance. Smug in their belief that it will lead them to eternal bliss, they make no effort to understand what the atheist is saying. It is true that both start from some basic principle, some premise that cannot be doubted. The theist makes his starting premise the existence of something for which there is no evidence, a being that cannot be perceived, an immaterial, powerful, male person, a creator, a being that is revealed only in an ancient book, the truth and validity of which is accepted by an act of the will. The thinking atheist begins much earlier. He is committed to a few basic propositions which he is obliged to accept simply because he is human and rational. And they are few and simple indeed:
These are the tenets that define civilization. The barbarian does not espouse them. He cares for himself, his tribe, his nation. All others can be exploited, enslaved, and, often enough, killed. He does not wish to learn or to understand anything. He follows a chief, a king. He accepts what his authority tells him and acts accordingly. He does not accept the evidence provided by our only reliable method of understanding ourselves and nature. He has his particular mythology, the “wisdom” of the elders perhaps; he believes, yet he claims to know. Worse still, he lacks empathy. He is unaffected by other people’s suffering and pain. If his faith, his ideology, his “way of life” are threatened, he will inflict grievous suffering on his fellow humans.
What does a rational and civilized person find if he looks into a book that is divinely inspired, that is entirely true, that contains the most valid, the only guide to spiritual growth, the only basis of morality? If he starts with the Old Testament, he will find, to his great astonishment and shock, stories reeking of barbarism. He will find there a “divine” being so despicable that to call him all-good, merciful and a loving father can only be cruel sarcasm. He appears to be a very powerful despot. He is, like most despots, arbitrary and cruel. He demands absolute obedience; he craves praise and admiration. He puts people to cruel tests. He likes to have animals killed for his pleasure; he enjoys the stench of burning flesh. He cares only for the Jews and only if they worship and obey him. This supreme creator of this vast universe, this absolute, necessary being is, we are told, particularly interested in the precise locus of a man’s ejaculation! If the locus is the ground, he gets angry and kills the man (having first killed his brother). (Genesis 38:9-10)
Most of the books of the O.T. contain either irrational rules coupled with harsh and inhuman punishments (Leviticus, Deuteronomy) or else horrendous atrocities committed with the full approval of the despot and often at his urging. If one is unconvinced, let him read about the slaughter of the Midianites (Numbers, 31) or the exploits of Jeshua (not Joshua, as he was renamed when it was realized that Yeshua or Jeshua becomes Iesous in Greek, Jesus in English (in the Septuagint, he is Iesous, son of Naue) and we could not have someone named Jesus committing atrocities.) It is enough to look at one story that fully exhibits the barbarous mind of its author. It is a story that has been told to children in Sunday schools and classes in “religious knowledge” for centuries. It is still told, I am sure, and believed by many. It is the story of the Flood. (Genesis 7-8)
God becomes disappointed with his own creation and decides to start over again. It seems that the descendants of Adam and Eve have become exceedingly wicked. It is not easy to see why he judges them to be wicked, since he has not given them a moral code, a set of rules to live by, as he did later with Moses. A person who does not know of the existence of a law cannot be accused of breaking it and of being wicked. However, we remember that the original sin, the act of disobedience to God’s word, involved the unauthorized acquisition of knowledge of good and evil. We must assume that the unfortunate descendants of Adam and Eve (and of Cain and his mysterious wife) have inherited this knowledge along with their sinful nature. It is this nature, we will be told, that makes them prone to choose evil, even in the absence of an official set of commandments. Still, one may wonder whether those two, still in a state of innocence, really understood how evil their act would be and how terrible the consequences would be for the entire human race. God told them that if they eat the fruit, they will die. Did they really understand what to die means, since no death had occurred yet? In any case, the sinful humans have displeased the Lord, and they must die.
However, he has one favorite, one Noah, and he gives him instructions to make a wooden box 150 meters long. He is told to make it spacious enough to accommodate his family plus a pair of all animals, birds, and reptiles. These few are to be saved and all others to be utterly destroyed. Is such a box big enough? Noah does not know that there are very big animals; elephants, hippos, giraffes, buffaloes, but God knows. He also knows that it would take Noah and his sons a couple of lifetimes to collect and bring to Palestine the thousands of species of mammals, birds, and the hundreds of thousands of insects. So why does he tell Noah to make the box so short? And how are all these animals to be fed while the collecting goes on? This is just the silly part, and it is not important.
What is important is what the loving father will do next. He will destroy all living things by drowning. If he was so angry, why not kill the bad people and give the children to Noah (who is so virtuous) to raise? The children are not the sinners, as any normal, rational person would say, so why punish them? And what possible justification could he have for killing all other living things? And why kill them in this painful way?
Here, we have two characteristics of the barbarous mind: no distinction between innocent and guilty, and the desire to inflict gratuitous pain. God has the power to stop people’s hearts so that they die without pain. But that is not enough for the cruel executioner. They must suffer, too. It was the good man Mark Twain who commented on the terrible fear, the agony of those doomed, the desperate mothers holding their babies high and the waters rising until they could no longer stand or swim, and their lungs filled with water. One can also imagine the similar agony among animals, swimming desperately until they, too, drown. How did these animals offend the Lord? Then, as soon as Noah gets out of the arc, he builds an altar and takes “of every clean beast and every clean fowl and offers a burnt offering” (he had taken seven of them, not just two). The Lord, who was not affected by the suffering and death of thousands of animals, is now pleased to see more animals killed and even savors the aroma of burning flesh.
It is truly a terrible story. Has it been discarded like so many earlier myths? I think not. I seem to remember hearing of expeditions going up Mt. Ararat looking for remains of the ark. But there is more. God apparently felt that drowning is not painful enough, for it does not last long. So, the next time he decides to destroy the bad people, he chooses a death that is exceedingly painful and most feared. He sends fire “out of heaven” and burns all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorah, all the animals (again), and even the things that grew upon the ground. (Gen. 19:24:25)
Interestingly, Abraham draws the distinction between the wicked and the righteous by asking God whether he intends to destroy both. After much questioning, God agrees that if he can find ten righteous people, he will not destroy the cities. It can be seen that the question of innocence is not even raised here. So, all the babies and toddlers of the two cities, who are innocent and cannot be either righteous or wicked, are burned painfully, because God could not find ten righteous people. Why were the descendants of Noah, in spite of their excellent genes, so wicked? No explanation is offered or needed.
But not all humans will be killed. God, again, has a favorite, one Lot. He tells Lot to take his wife and two daughters and leave the city. He tells them not to look back at the burning city. The poor wife, thinking of her friends, her home, her things, cannot resist one look. She becomes a pillar of salt. Evidently disobeying a trivial divine order is a far worse act than the ensuing incestuous copulation of the drunken Lot with his two daughters.
Surely, it is not necessary to cite other such stories. It is always the same: a jealous and angry God favors the Jews, or at least a few of them, and “delivers” all other tribes to the Jews to kill and torture in horrific ways. At this point, someone will say “Yes, these stories reflect the primitive mindset of an ancient pastoral people. They have to be interpreted in the light of later revelations, i.e. the teachings of Jesus Christ.” This appears to be satisfactory but will not do. The difference between the humane sayings of Christ and the savage temper of his father cannot be reconciled. This was already seen early in the second century as soon as the new Christians began reading the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Many Gnostic sects were troubled by the difference in the two texts. And, in fact, we find one Marcion of Sinope who was led to postulate two gods: The God of love and the Creator who was “capricious, wrathful, and violent.” Of course, this was totally unacceptable to the orthodox. Marcion was instantly branded a heretic.
Perhaps some form of Marcionism could be revived today. We could then forget about the Old Testament and worship the merciful God of love proclaimed by Jesus Christ. In fact, Catholics, I believe, rely on Church teaching and tradition and do not encourage the reading of the Bible. Perhaps some liberal Protestants are inclined to do the same. Unfortunately, even this will not do. And the reason is that the so-called teaching of Christ is incoherent. Together with the love and forgiveness texts, we have the most extreme expression of the savage, vindictive mind: eternal torture by fire for the wicked. (Matthew 13:42, 50 and 25: 41-42, 46) Notice that this monstrous conception does not even qualify as punishment. Normally, we think that punishment serves as a deterrent to others, or as a means of improving the criminal’s character. Here, at the end of things, both these elements are lacking. Eternal torture is, as Schopenhauer observed, sheer revenge.
What is so striking in this most barbarous doctrine is that it will last all eternity. Again, we normally think that the punishment should fit the crime. How can any crime, however heinous, merit eternal punishment? Moreover, we are not only dealing with the worst crimes, rapes and murders of women and children. Even one’s inability to accept these stories as true is enough to provoke God’s anger and to merit the punishment. (John 3:18, 38) Notice, too, that the torture involves the most extreme pain known to living things: fire. It is no wonder that Christians through the ages have been willing, even anxious to burn people alive who did not agree with them. They had proof that this most painful torture had solid divine sanction. It only gives the wretch a little taste of what is to follow.
I realize that most people today find this doctrine abhorrent. It has to be interpreted they will say. It is an allegory of some mental pain, of being separated from God perhaps. Is it not strange that for nineteen centuries, the readers of these texts saw no need to interpret what is perfectly clear in them? Could we then say that the burning of poor Tyndale (whose only crime was translating the “holy” book) was also an allegory?
A “teacher” who promotes and exalts irrational belief, a belief that is based on no evidence at all and then threatens you with eternal torment, should not be taken seriously.
The atheist does not reject the Christian religion because he is blind to “spiritual” realities. He does so because the Supreme Being, father and son equally, as portrayed in the Bible, is totally incompatible with his deepest moral convictions.
August 11, 2018
Dr. Plato Mamo, Associate Professor Emeritus, is retired from the University of Calgary, where he taught in the Department of Philosophy. During his retirement, he began writing short, non-technical essays to help people who were struggling to leave religion but did not have arguments to counter the official story.