What Is Wrong With Religious Texts? August 2, 2009

What Is Wrong With Religious Texts?

I’m going to be interviewing someone soon for a project. The subject is religious texts (mostly the Bible, but also the Koran and others).

I could use some help in compiling questions to ask.

I’m not focusing on, say, specific contradictions in the Bible. What I’m looking for are broader questions about the books.

Here are some that came to my mind:

  • What do we actually know about historical religious figures like Jesus and Mohammad? Did they really exist? Are the stories written about them accurate?
  • How were the holy books put together?
  • How reliant are the texts in terms of historical accuracy?
  • Is there anything wrong with taking a more liberal interpretation of the texts?
  • What are the biggest similarities between various religious texts?

What would you like to know about them?

What would be helpful for non-atheists to learn about their holy books?

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  • With the Bible, I’d like to know how they respond to the fact that a lot of the Biblical accounts of Jesus’s resurrection and his life appear in previous myths. I guess Mr. Maher asked that in Religulous, but why not you too?

  • Erp

    Well I’m not exactly sure what you are looking for, but, other
    possible questions are

    How have different people interpreted the holy books currently and
    through history? (it isn’t just conservative and liberal, some
    traditions even allow for multiple interpretations)

    What roles do different religions and denominations give their holy
    books? (sola scripture, the three legs of Anglicanism [scripture,
    tradition, reason], which books are holy)

  • Let me recommend these two books:
    “The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus ” by Earl Doherty, $22.95.

    “Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?” by Robert M. Price; Hardcover; $18.47.

    Doherty is more blunt than Price. There is no reason to believe that Jesus existed. [It’s not their topic, but I will add that there’s also no reason that any specific saying in the Koran was actually said by Mo.]

    The Brothers Grimm compiled many “Fairy Tales” from European culture. The Icelandic Eddas document the deeds and sayings of the Norse gods. What should we think of the courtier’s reply when he says we can’t challenge made-up stories until we know their details?
    The golden plates delivered by the white salamander? The deeds of evil galactic overlord Xenu? Why don’t all Christians and Muslims believe these? How are your questions different, in general, from these questions? I wish you good luck on this project.

  • I want to know how they know that their interpretation of their holy book is right and not, say, Fred Phelps’ interpretation or Joel Osteen’s? Honestly how can they test their interpretation to know that they are correct?

    This question may well be more relevant for the Qur’an that starts with lots of rules about trade and being excellent to each other and ends with swords and sad faces.

    Do they think that hell is fair? Why or why not? Can they think of anything better?

    What would they do if they were God for a day?

  • Very basic question:

    How can the veracity or falsehood of historical claims made in holy texts be seen as support for the supernatural claims made?

  • Thilina

    I’d suggest a few questions on the origins of the books.

    Who do you believe wrote the bible?
    god or man?
    was it divinely inspired?
    Then are all holy books divinely inspired?
    Why should we take them anymore seriously than the Egyptian book of the dead(or any holy book that isn’t used today)?

  • I’d like to know why it is acceptable to follow some parts of the text while disregarding other parts. Is it OK to pick verses of the text out of context as if from a smorgasbord?

  • How does one determine the difference between an accurate translation and an inaccurate translation of the text?

    (For example: there are some Christians who insist that the old King James Version of the Bible is the ONLY accurate translation of the text).

  • Richard Wade

    Your questions sound like you’re preparing to interview people with literary expertise on these texts. While it probably will be very interesting, by the way you’re phrasing the questions, you might only get their own personal opinion, and you may be missing out on broader insights they may have about how those texts affect different societies and groups.

    Texts have no life without people to read them and respond to them. When the books are closed and on the shelf, all the pages are completely black. Their meanings only exist inside the minds of those who read them. Phrase some of your questions to be about how people respond to the texts, rather than the texts themselves as if they have intrinsic meaning outside the minds of readers. They don’t. For instance, instead of asking,

    How reliant are the texts in terms of historical accuracy?

    Is there anything wrong with taking a more liberal interpretation of the texts?”

    try asking, “Do different people of this text’s faith view its historical accuracy differently? For instance, do some take it literally while others view it as metaphor? Beside that dichotomy, are there other differences in people’s responses to the text within the same religious group?”

  • Wim

    What is the difference between a religious text being the actual “word of god” versus being “divinely inspired” ? And how would you define “divinely inspired” ?

  • Your questions sound like you’re preparing to interview people with literary expertise on these texts. While it probably will be very interesting, by the way you’re phrasing the questions, you might only get their own personal opinion, and you may be missing out on broader insights they may have about how those texts affect different societies and groups.

    Richard — That’s a valid point. I will try to ask more questions with a sociological framework. Hopefully, that’ll allow for more objective answers.

  • The question I continually ask:

    “Given a string of words—by what method is it determined that string is ‘inspired’ or not?”

  • Revyloution

    Some other books to add to Dr Bruce’s list:

    The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos is an excellent book. He argues that genuine study of the scriptures as a scholarly pursuit ended years ago. Now all that’s left are the apologists who make stuff up to defend the faith. If you’ve never read any of Avalos’ work, its worth searching out. He grew up as a youth pastor in Mexico. His parents sent him to study in the US to further his religious education. Lucky for us, he learned too much and became an atheist.

    Another interesting take on the historicity of Jesus was Baigents ‘The Jesus Papers’. He gets a little mystical in the middle while comparing Christianity to Buddhism, but his history is well researched and indexed.

    I doubt that you could find much new material to add to the discussion. Repackaging these ideas in a way that gets in front of more religious people would be a good focus for a new book on the subject.

  • HP

    I’m curious about how a knowledgable person would compare recognized “religious texts” to the surviving texts of defunct religions — e.g., compare the Old Testament or the Bhagavad Gita to the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Illiad.

    I for one have gotten far more out of reading Homer and Hesiod than I have from Solomon and Isaiah, but is that because of my bias against Abrahamic religions, or because of inherent differences between living and ancient religions? If we were all Hellenic pagans, would I be telling everyone to read the Pentateuch for perspective?

  • What are the master myths that the Hebrew Bible and the NT incorporate and are these structuring myths believable.

    The Hebrew Bible is structured to present a “history” of the Judeans (masquerading as all of Israel) that is largely not historical. The NT is built around its own master myth, about the origins and development of the church, much of which is self-serving propaganda.

  • Hemant, I don’t know how combative you want to be, but I would ask the Koran scholar about Koran graves and probe the issue of the lie that one of the proofs of the Koran’s perfection is its lack of variations throughout history. Apparently Muslims recognize that textual criticism was the beginning of the end of the illusion of biblical perfection in Christianity and so have tried to insulate the Koran from textual criticism and deny that there are any textual variations and contradictions about which to worry.

    For this point and for finding more food for thought as you research your interview, I highly recommend this article from The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199901/koran

    Good luck, I can’t wait to see how your project turns out!

  • Jodie

    For “experts” I’ve always wondered what obstacles they encounter in receiving coverage for their information.
    For believers I would wonder what they are waiting for? Is there a smoking gun that would truly say, “Guess I need to re-consider.”?

  • CybrgnX

    How about the story about the Hebrews committing genocide at least twice and no archeology evidence that it ever happened?

    Sodom and gramora where are they located?

    What is the Sin of Sodom? No it aint what you think it is. But to find it in the text is an exercise in wading thru text.

    Why is the BuyBull always written in backward english? It doesn’t make it easy to read or poetic. Just silly.

    People claim BuyBull poetic. Where? I’d rather read Asimov’s book of limericks, they’re also more inspiring.

  • Joeph Davidson DDS

    Why did god kill all the 1st born as the 10th plague to induce the Pharoh to let the Jews go? I’m sure god could have obtained the same results if he had given the Pharoh a case of ED with genital herpes, and all the bloodshed could have been avoided.

  • DreamDevil

    Bring up the “Problem of Evil” by Epikouros (341 BC). And don’t allow them to use the cop-out “it’s a mystery”.

    “Epikouros: pwning monotheists since 341 BC”

  • Perhaps you shouldn’t ask what’s wrong with religious texts, Hemant, but what’s right with them. What messages that would be commonly deemed to be good aren’t contradicted within the book’s own pages; what thoughts aren’t shown to be false by modern science?

  • Michael Bernardo

    Them explaining the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of religious texts vs other nonreligious writings of the time would be very interesting.

  • llewelly

    A book recommendation: Fighting Words, by Hector Avalos.

  • Morgan55

    I can’t speak to other holy books, but I always wondered why the bible was so chock full of extraneous information. Open to any page, and you’ll find totally useless information that does nothing to advance an understanding of the story. What’s the point of divinely inspired filler?

  • I’d be interested to hear, if they’re religious, how the books have supported their belief/faith, and also how their faith influences their interpretations. How might they read and understand it differently as a secular scholar than a religious scholar?

  • Religious texts lack a proper checksum to ensure they’re copied correctly. Basis flaw, really.

  • Kaylya

    I think the fundamental problem with these texts in general is the idea that people thousands of years ago knew more than we do today (because of divine inspiration or something), and that we can interpret vague or conflicting statements from these works to mean that we shouldn’t do something now. Vague statements in a book thousands of years old are held up as reasons we shouldn’t do something now.

    Another problem is that in many cases we don’t actually know what the original says, and it’s pretty clear that stuff has gotten added and removed from the various Greek manuscripts of the Bible, let alone the translation. (See: Misquoting Jesus, Bart D. Ehrman)

    Finally, if we did have texts that were divinely inspired rather than just the stories of humans I’d expect them to be a whole lot more internally consistent than what we’ve got. If God can give Moses the text of the 10 commandments on stone tablets, or reveal the Qur’an to the illiterate Mohammed so that he can dictate it to others to write it down, or inspire the again illiterate Joseph Smith to translate the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, he can ensure that we have a clear, consistent picture of his will. Why don’t we?

    Edit: I suppose I could add in one of my major logical problems with religion: If the Bible/Koran/Book of Mormon/etc is the word of God, why did it only get revealed in one geographical location? Why did the people in another geographical location hear another version (involving, for instance, multiple Gods)?

  • Carol K

    I’ve always wondered about the gospels that were rejected in the final version of the bible. Why were they rejected? What was in them or not in them that caused their exclusion? Is the final version of the bible simply the vision of it’s editors and is this because of a desire for a particular social order? If so, is this social order relevant to modern times?
    (just a few of the curiosities that rattle around in my head. Good Luck Hemant.)

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Your religious text was written many centuries ago, for an audience with a very different culture and mindset than a modern reader. Your text often seems to endorse things that don’t sit very well with a modern reader (caste system, slavery, rigid authoritarian structures, genocide, misogyny, etc. . .) Can all the instructions and messages of your text be carried directly over to modern times, or do some of them need to be understood as specific to the time the text was written? If the former, how do you deal with the aspects of your text that seem, at face value, troubling? If the latter, how do you know which messages are specific to the time period, and which are general?

  • benjdm

    I’d ask non-atheists about this: When God Sanctions Killing, People Listen.

  • Bob H

    Check out “Caesar’s Messiah” by Joe Atwill. Link: http://www.caesarsmessiah.com/summary.html

    Jesus was an invention of the Romans to pacify the Jews after the war in 70AD. “..turn the other cheek…” and “..render unto caesar. . .”

    The book compares the new testament with Josephus’ account of the war of 70 AD. Jesus’s path almost exactly follows that of the Roman’s in Josephus’ account of the war. Similar events happened in the same places. A very interesting concept of religion as social engineering.


  • Dan W

    A question I’d want to ask them: How do you determine which passages of your religious text are relevant to modern society, and which parts to ignore?

    Considering the number of people who claim their particular religious text justifies the way they treat gays, women, and other groups of people, as well as the actions of said religious people in all manner of situations, I think this is an important question to ask them.

  • medussa

    1) If everything in the holy texts must be seen as literal truth, why don’t christians support capital punishment for children who curse their parents, or support stoning Governor Sanford for adultery?
    In the countries of extremist islamic government, women (though not men) are indeed killed for such crimes (even if the “adultery” was involuntary rape) and we (americans in general, christians in particular) roundly condemn them for it. Why? Christian holy texts require the same.

    2) If holy texts were inspired by god (Bible and Koran specifically), why are there so many contradictions and mutually exclusive moral positions? Anyones position can be justified by quotes from either text, effectively rendering them both meaningless.

  • Why is it that so few religious people actually read their bibles but rely on the teachings of their pastors instead? One source claims that fewer than 10% of Christians have actually read their holy book from cover to cover.

    According to Americans and the Bible: Bible Ownership, Reading, Study and Knowledge in the United States, the following is true:

    * Perhaps 15 percent of Americans participate in Bible studies.
    * The number of people who read the Bible, at least occasionally is 59 percent.
    * Less than 50 percent of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis).
    * Only 1/3 of Americans know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (more people identified Billy Graham rather than Jesus).
    * Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t know what is celebrated on Easter (the Resurrection of Christ, the foundational event of Christianity).
    * Twelve percent of Christians think that Noah’s wife is Joan of Arc.
    * Eighty percent of born-again Christians (including George W. Bush) think it is the Bible that says “God helps them that help themselves.” (Actually it was said by Benjamin Franklin.)

    Even historically the bible wasn’t available to read in English until a little over 500 years ago, a quarter of the bible’s existence. That meant that the bible and scriptural opinion was entirely in the purview of the Roman Catholic Church. Even with the rise of Protestantism the language of the Bible doesn’t lend itself well to reading by the layman.

    However shouldn’t a book that two thirds of Americans “say that the Bible holds the answers to the basic questions of life” at least be read by that many Americans?

  • Is there anything attributed to Jesus that is unique to Jesus?

    Or are the teachings of Jesus simply a compilation of ‘greatest hits’ from 100-200 CE?

  • If the religious texts were divinely inspired, why do they not contain any factual information that is advanced of what could have been known at the time it was written?

    In other words, why does this “divinely inspired” text sound *exactly* as if uninspired people wrote it?

  • Dr.Bruce

    As some of the others here have indicated, perhaps a better approach would be to ask what each book adds (if anything) to ethics or good behavior. Nobody had to wait for Exodus to know that killing and lying and stealing were bad. The “Golden Rule” was known to Jews, Greeks, and Chinese hundreds of years before Jesus. In fact, virtually every good point attributed to Jesus has been documented in the writings of the Greek Stoics by 400 BC.
    So, can anyone name anything good that was added by the bible?

    By the way, in answer to those who claim the bible gives both bad (e.g., slavery, genocide) and good (women shut up?!?), the obvious question is how one picks. The ignored answer is that all believers are worshiping the opinions of their preachers, not the bible. Since people worship their priests’ opinions anyway, the texts are irrelevant. The burden of proof is first upon the believer to persuade that they or anyone actually believe their text, not just their preacher’s views. The next burden of proof is again on the believer to establish what if anything their book says that is new.

    It has been said that the only new idea added by Jesus was hell. But hell was known to the Zoroastrians, so I guess Senator Joe McCarthy must have meant to say: “in Ahura-Mazda we trust.” Now let’s force everyone to say it, for community cohesion.

  • keddaw

    Who decided which of the ancient documents were actually “The Word of God” and which were merely fiction or history?

    Is it worth revisiting those decisions?

    Why are the main Holy Books so similar to older books from Egypt and Greece?

    Could you still be a Christian without knowing of The Bible?

    Is the existence, virgin birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus necessary for you to be a good Christian? Could you not follow his teachings without requiring him to be divine?

    Why was it necessary for the supreme being to have three goes at informing humans of His will?

    This one’s for me – why does God have to be omniscient and omnipotent? Why can’t he be a child-like being, capricious and vengeful, playful and mischievious?

    Is following God’s will good because it’s God’s will, or is it good because God can only be good? If the latter then where do we find that objective good?

  • jeffcia

    Do you believe that all people are completely honest? Do people embellish the truth and make up stories? If people make up stories and embellish the truth, how do you know they were not doing this when the wrote the stories of the Bible/Koran? Would you ever pick up a book off the side of the road and believe every word even if there was no author or other information saying that it was non-fiction? If so, how do you choose which books are accurate?

  • TJ

    Ask: If God is an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect being, why is his book so ambiguous? Shouldn’t he be able to write his word without leaving it so open to human interpretation? It should be 100% accurate and firm and say exactly what he means. Shouldn’t it? He should be able to articulate himself perfectly!

    Ask them how they disprove the existence of gods such as Apollo, Odin, Zeus, etc. Then ask them to explain why their God is different. Or ask if they also believe in Superman.

    Ask them for an honest and serious explanation on how a person cannot be good without God. Something other than yelling and screaming blasphemy, insult to Christians, burn in hell, blah blah blah. I’ve been waiting for that one.

  • georgie

    I don’t know if anyone already said this, but I would be interested in the translations from the original text into the different versions over the centuries. Are christians aware that the translations may have actually warped or completely changed the original text in some instances?

  • Gibbette

    I would ask about the source material for the Old Testament, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and some of the Egyptian texts. Most Christians (that I encounter) are never taught that there actually was source material for their sacred literature, and that it did not materialize directly from the mind of god.

  • medussa

    I just thought of another question, but I’m having a hard time formulating it, maybe Hemant can verbalize this better:

    Why is it that when people commit atrocities in the name of their holy texts (murdering doctors, killing their kids, flying into buildings) so few believers condemn the religious justifications for it?
    Granted after 9/11, there was a huge outcry from less extremist muslims, but for the most part it seems efforts at conversion or image spinning are directed at non-believers, and don’t reference the negative fallout from religion.

    Governor Sanford is a recent example: he misused scarce public funds to commit adultery and uses his religious texts to apologize and to justify staying in office, but I hear no outcry from christians that this is a misuse of holy texts. But when I want to get married, I get lectured on how that is not allowed per the Bible and the believers vote my rights away.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think you need to drag the Book of Mormon and it’s highly improbable beginnings into the discussion.

    Another book recommendation: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. (If you have time!)

  • Schmeer

    Since Christianity spread most successfully with the Roman Empire and the subsequent European colonialism, but never really expanded into the Middle East in the same way does that indicate that it was always European and not a development in Judaism? It seems like it supplanted Pagan beliefs but never got around to replacing Jewish ones until the Inquisitions in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

  • Alan E.

    By which methods and standards were books chosen to be included in or excluded from the bible, especially at the Council of Nicea.

    Have any precautions been made in recent years in translating the “original” bible knowing that many copies hand-transcribed by early monks are known to have a hidden agenda?

  • On the subject of translations what do you think of the LOLCat bible? It is a modern translation after all.

  • Crux Australis

    If the bible is supposed to be relevant to our lives today, why won’t it tell me how to fix my computer?


  • JimboB

    Assuming holy book “X” is infallible, wouldn’t such an infallible book be subject to fallible (i.e. human) interpretation?

  • Blair T

    I read a book many years ago call “The Great Code” by Northrop Fry. My recollection is that one the the major points he was making was that the texts in the Bible were not written at the time to be litterally true, but instead were written to convey a point.

    My question: did the authors of the bible actually care about factual accuracy? Or put another way – would reading the bible to assertain facts about the past be akin to reading a lyrical poem to assertain facts?

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