The Bible.  Over a billion people follow its words – many without question.  And many, without even having read it.

More than half of Americans think the Bible has too little influence on a culture they see in moral decline, yet only one in five Americans read the Bible on a regular basis, according to a survey by the American Bible Society.  The survey also discovered that more than three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) think the nation’s morality is headed downhill.

Apparently, the Bible is still firmly rooted in American soil: 88 percent of respondents said they own a Bible, 80 percent think the Bible is sacred, 61 percent wish they read the Bible more, and the average household has 4.4 Bibles.

The Barna Group conducted “The State of the Bible 2013” study for American Bible Society, using 1,005 telephone interviews and 1,078 online surveys with a margin of error for the combined data of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Who knows the most about religion and the Bible?

Christians don’t read enough about the Bible, but surely, their religious practices make up for the lack of understanding of the literature?  Christians surely know far more about their own faith and perhaps others, than, say, atheists?

The PEW Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life (2010), conducted a survey to find out.

Overall, the three groups that performed best were atheists and agnostics (who got an average of 20.9 out of 32 questions right), Jews (20.5 questions correct, on average) and Mormons (20.3 questions right). Looked at another way, 27% of Jews, 22% of atheists and agnostics, and 20% of Mormons score in the top 10% of all respondents in overall number of correct answers to religious knowledge questions, getting at least 26 questions right.

Source: PEW Research Center
Source: PEW Research Center

Interesting.  It would appear that perhaps atheists take the time to learn about other’s religion’s so that they can be sure their bases are covered before deciding – or reinforcing – their lack of belief in a God.

Maybe there’s another reason.  Maybe atheists and agnostics have taken the time to read the Bible and then, having seen the contradictions and suspicious moral code, then chose to become atheists.  It’s not an unreasonable argument.  Ask a few religious converts who became atheists what their “turning point” was – I bet a common answer would be, “I actually read the Bible.”.

Contradictions In The Bible

Over at Project Reason (founded by Sam Harris), Andy Marlow and Chris Harrison (no, not the host from The Bachelor), took the time and effort to not only read the Bible, but to visualize its contradictions… all 439 of them.

In the graphic below, the bars that run along the bottom of the visualization represent the 1,189 chapters in The Bible, with the length of each bar corresponding to the number of verses in each chapter. White bars represent the Old Testament and grey bars represent The New Testament. Each arc indicates a contradiction.  Click the graphic below to see a poster-sized version which is far more legible.

Contradictions in the Bible
Source:  Contradictions in the Bible, 2009.  Graphic design: Andy Marlow.  Inspiration: Chris Harrison

The Bible:  A Source of Morality?

If one can manage to tolerate the contradictions in the Bible, then perhaps one should also consider the absurdities, injustices, cruelty and violence, intolerance – among others – listed at The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible.  With respect to the 10 Commandments alone, Christopher Hitchens put it so eloquently:

Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing in the 10 commandments about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide?   Christopher Hitchens

God, however, allocates the first four commandments to himself (from the King James version):

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Where do we go from here?

american holy bibleWhat have we learned?

We have a large portion of the American population that says we are a society in moral decline and that we should rely more on the Bible to steer our moral compass.

However, most American don’t even read the Bible, and Christians don’t even know much about it.  Those who do read it and rely on its text ignore the hundreds of contradictions and “laws” within it.

Here, we invoke Richard Dawkins, because he so poignantly describes how believers reconcile with the contractions in the Bible, and the common retort that, “the bible should not be taken literally, but more… metaphorically”.  Really?  So Christian apologists get to keep the good parts and throw out the bad parts because “those ones were just metaphors”?  One does not get to pick and choose – it’s all or nothing:

Once again, modern theologians will protest that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac should not be taken as literal fact. And, once again, the appropriate response is twofold.

First, many many people, even to this day, do take the whole of their scripture to be literal fact, and they have a great deal of political power over the rest of us, especially in the United States and in the Islamic world.

Second, if not as literal fact, how should we take the story? As an allegory? Then an allegory for what? Surely morals could one derive from this appalling story? Remember, all I am trying to establish for the moment is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty.

But then we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not.

Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, p. 275 of the Black Swan paperback edition of 2007)

Alas, the Bible is not the only sacred text held up on a pedestal for morality.  The Quran has at least 32 obvious  contradictions.  The Book of Mormon is not exempt either, and neither is the Talmud, or any other.  Followers of any religion should take the time to read their sacred text, understand it, and think critically about what it commands.  No book should ever be so sacred that it is immune to critical scrutiny.