More on Who changed the Bible and why? Bart Ehrman’s startling answers

March 23, 2007 | By | 23 Replies More

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I have been following much of this recent conversation regarding the puzzling willingness of many believers to believe silly-seeming things (silly-seeming to people like me) with which they are then inspired to do great good (or sometimes great mischief). Why the "silly" beliefs? Why not just go out and do good works? It's a question that has been on my mind for years. I've suggested in previous writings that the silly-seeming beliefs function as flags, chances to demonstrate social loyalties to each other. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=217 It has to do with the multiple uses of language. Sometimes, no matter how strenuously believers deny it, their religious talk is not really about literal religious beliefs. Don't try to argue about this with them. They are blinded to this multiple function of language. If you push the issue you'll annoy them and they'll try to "fix" you by dragging you into their churches!

    I recently spoke to a kindhearted female relative who, in the face of the many Bible contradictions, insisted to me over and over that these are just stories. She explained that you should read the stories in order to find those that make sense to you and use them as guidance in your life. What about the other stories? Just ignore them. They are not history and you don't have to believe them. The good stories, however, are accurate stories about what Jesus said and did.

    I commented to this relative that this is her version of how the Bible is to be used and it horribly contradicts the versions espoused by many fundamentalists who would consider her version to be misguided and even sinful. She shrugged and repeated her advice: use the good parts and ignore the bad parts.

    I found it curious that she would reduce the use of the Bible to such a pragmatic one: using some parts and discarding the others as one sees fit. I found a curious because her advice would put the Bible on the same level as any other source of stories. Certainly, her advice is the advice I use when reading any book. I use the good advice and a discard that which I find unusable, especially if self-contradictory or inhumane.

    It would seem that my relative and I could find common ground. Why don't we both read all books in the way she suggests? Well, actually we do both use that approach, but, as is the case with so many believers, she actually does go further in her conduct then she preaches. She attends church regularly. She believes that certain stories in the Bible are literally true. These "mere" stories of the Bible are not just stories to her. Her religion holds a spell over her that requires her to attend special services where she must proclaim that bread and wine constitute a person's body and blood, and she eats it and drinks it to obtain some special position with some sort of God.

    As I wrote at the beginning, my relative is a goodhearted person. She would not hurt a fly and she is truly kind and gentle. I do believe that she finds inspiration in many of the religious stories that I find impossible to believe. If everyone were like this relative (it seemed like many more people used to be like her), it wouldn't bother me much at all.

    There always seems to be something more to religious people than their invitations to agnostics (or whatever I am) to "believe as one chooses and to quit thinking so much." I am intrigued by this notion that moderate believers enable fundamentalists to sprout. The relative I described told me she is distressed by the actions of fundamentalists. She was certainly not want to think that her own actions would give the fundamentalists a platform for pushing an even more radical agenda.

    However, I do have some sympathy with the writings of Sam Harris. I do wonder how many of the current fundamentalists would lose the energy or initiative to push their radical literal beliefs and agenda if they didn't have the benefit of a huge overlap of religious literature, religious symbolism, religious language, religious ritual and religious history with religious moderates. This overlap might very well allow fundamentalists to feel that they are the "especially inspired" part of a huge movement.

    Here's where I would put my chips: If the religious moderates (such as the relative I described) dropped out of the religious game to became agnostics, the religious radicals would stand out and look even more like kooks than they currently do. Without the religious moderates providing a huge overlap, the fundamentalists would look "different" rather than "the same" as the electorate and politicians with whom they currently share power.

    Am I correct on this? I would point to the state of religion in Europe. The same relative I described above spends much time in Europe. She indicates that the politicians do not invoke religious imagery as they do in in the United States. She told me that many of the churches have been converted to nightclubs.

  2. Ben says:

    Well, that pretty much sums the moderate-fundamentalist-enabling-thing for me. I'm assuming we will be able to hear good wholesome Christian-Rock at the nightclubs? Or, maybe here the churches will turn into country western line dancing and karaoke clubs here in America. On second thought, nevermind, I think I disdain the line dancing more than the ignorance and unsupported belief systems of Fundamentalist Christianity. Viva Jesus!

  3. Vicki says:

    Erich, I don't think you understand the history of christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalists spent the last 100 years separating themselves from the "apostate" mainline churches. They worship separately, go to separate colleges, summer camps, and theological schools. Now they are actively engaged in a covert campaign to discredit and support ecumenical mainline denominations.

    Your desire to have religious moderates "drop out of the game" is shared by the right wing funders of the Instute for Religion and Democracy. I'm sure these folks would love to have you on their team:

    "..the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation with long-time family ties to the John Birch Society, the Smith-Richardson Foundation with CIA links in the early 1980s (Nation, 1981) and radical right billionaires Adolph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and Howard Ahmanson (Blumenthal, 2004; Cooperman, 2003; Media Transparency, 2004; Howell, 1995). "

    All quotes here lifted from here:

    "The National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCCC) represents 36 member communions – encompassing Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, and African-American traditions – including more than 100,000 local congregations and 45 million persons in the United States. This 55-year-old ecumenical body has been a primary target of an orchestrated attack by determined right-wing ideologues since 1981 (Weaver and Seibert, 2004a,b; Howell, 2003).

    The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a neoconservative-led Washington "think tank," has relentlessly used unethical propaganda methods to carry out the radical political agenda of a handful of secular benefactors opposed to Christian prophetic voice and social witness (Weaver and Seibert, 2004a,b; Howell, 2003). …

    The IRD has doggedly sought to neutralize and overturn the social justice tradition of the mainline Protestant churches as well as the NCCC and the World Council of Churches. In the 20th century, mainline churches and ecumenical institutions played pivotal roles in advancing the civil rights of African-Americans (Findlay, 1993) and women, as well as opposing the Vietnam War and the anti-democratic policies of the Reagan administration in Central America and Southern Africa. More recently the NCCC has focused on issues of peace, poverty and pollution (NCCC, 2005).

    In 2000 the IRD prepared a covert funding proposal (sent to one of the authors by a United Methodist bishop) to raise millions of dollars from radical right benefactors. In the proposal the IRD asserted, "A major priority during 2001-2004 year will be to push for the final dismantling of the National Council of Churches …"

    If you think that convincing religious moderates to "drop out" is the way to reclaim politics from the right wing/christian coalition, then good luck. I think that participating in hands-on activities like coalition-building, getting out the vote and basically SHOWING UP for political life, unexciting as it may be at times, will turn out to be more effective.

    There's another good article contra Sam Harris on talk2action:

    "…his claim that moderate religion is responsible for the extreme views and activities of others smacks of the kind of out-of-context-of-life abstraction one sometimes gets from arm chair generals and people whose experience of the political world is limited to grad school. Where the rubber meets the road of political life is people working with one another towards common goals and preferably with some sense of what has gone before, and how politics actually works so they can steer events toward the best possible outcomes — even when trying something new.

    Finding ways to better contend with the religious right in America; finding ways for wide swaths of people, religious and non-religious, Christian and non-Christian to be able to communicate with one another, learn with one another, and finding sufficient intellectual and political common ground — is a rational and common sense way to go. Here at Talk to Action, religion-bashing and secular-baiting are banned, in part because they are significant obstacles to broadening and deepening our capacity to find and work that intellectual and political common ground.

    I believe that the divisive rhetoric and antireligious bigotry of Sam Harris plays directly into the hands of the religious right, turning people who follow his lead into caricatures of the the very sort of sneering characters that religious right preachers and ideologues warn their followers about. Harris's antireligionism is not merely a philosophically rationalist case against religion; a venerable take on life. Rather, Harris's argument is political, and framed in the context of the war on terror. He wants to blame the extreme views and activities of some, on the many — the many who have nothing to do with it. His method is glib demagoguery and argument by assertion. His core premise is dead wrong, and his political reasoning is as flawed. "

    For more, see here.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    So to review the 2 assumptions Erich makes are

    1. That fundamentalists are encouraged by the existence of religious moderates " to feel that they are the “especially inspired” part of a huge movement."

    I would argue that the actual historical record. at least of Protestantism in America, shows that fundamentalist view their movement as separate from, and hostile to, religious pluralism and ecumenicalism, The "dropping out" of religious moderates from the religious/political discourse is one of the goals they actively work toward.

    2, That disappearance of religious moderates would make religious radicals "look like kooks." A cursory look at the hairstyles and clothing choice of some of our most prominent televangelists indicates that the prospect of "looking like kooks" is not really going to be a deterrent.

  5. Ben says:

    "I believe that the divisive rhetoric and antireligious bigotry of Jane T. Smith…"

    Gee, that's a loaded beginning to a paragraph, sort of reminds me of the stuff I write when I am just ranting and not thinking. I will have a look at the article though, and I will keep an "open" mind. As open as a mind (like mine) can be.

  6. Ben says:

    I believe that the fundamentalists have as much right to freedom of thought and speech as do the moderates. However, this does NOT mean that they have a right to practice aspects of their religion which are harmful to others. My interpretation of the article: it sounds to me like the "moderate" who attacks Sam Harris here, actually fits the bill of extremism more than he will ever admit (or realize). The best place to start is to spread the word that God does not exist. Everybody can understand that message, if enough people get behind it. I mean, they were able to get behind the idea that He does exist, they are clearly like the Sheep from "Animal Farm", and will get behind whatever we tell them. Lets tell them the truth about Christianity (and other religions based on ancient scripture), they breed ignorance and mob mentality.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Vicki's quotes from talk2action contain more heat than light. The first quote urges us to believe that the IRD is some dire threat, yet fails to explain why anyone is likely to follow its radical right-wing political agenda. Also unexplained is why "a handful of SECULAR benefactors" (emphasis added) is financing an ultra-right-wing, neo-con think tank to try to destroy moderate, socially-beneficial Christian churches. These omissions make talk2action appear more about propaganda than fact.

    The second quote, about Sam Harris, is little more than ranting and name-calling (a classic ad hominem attack) combined with self-congratulations. My favorite part is where it says, "Here at Talk to Action, religion-bashing and secular-baiting are banned…" yet the *very next sentence* begins with the obviously inflammatory and insulting, "I believe that the divisive rhetoric and antireligious bigotry of Sam Harris…." I wonder what their so-called "ban" on secular-baiting actually covers.

    I agree with Erich's comment at the top of this page: moderates give religion credibility by softening its harsh edges, thus making it seem more reasonable and less like what it is: Bronze Age myth and superstition. Fundies then exploit that credibility, trying to cloak themselves in it while simultaneously spreading their radical agenda. If the moderates would leave the fold, then the fundies' would have no cover to hide under and they would look more like the sociopaths that they are. In some sense, moderates are the Neville Chamberlains of religion, trying to practice appeasement while the lions are at the gate. Fundies exploit this reasonableness to try to gain power, much like the Nazis did.

  8. Vicki says:

    Grumpy writes:

    "Vicki’s quotes from talk2action contain more heat than light. The first quote urges us to believe that the IRD is some dire threat, yet fails to explain why anyone is likely to follow its radical right-wing political agenda."

    The IRD is supporting various "spiritual renewal" campaigns in the mainline denominations, sending stealth delegates to the governance meetings of denominations that have liberal stands on gay marriage, right to choose, and ordination of women and gays The goal is to move those denoms to the right, or at least destablize them and cause schisms. It's the same MO as the stealth takeover of the Dover PA school board by creationists. The motivation, beyond the obvious political one, is the substantial amounts of real estate and pension funds controlled by those denominations.

    "Also unexplained is why “a handful of SECULAR benefactors” (emphasis added) is financing an ultra-right-wing, neo-con think tank to try to destroy moderate, socially-beneficial Christian churches.

    A possible explanation might be that the World Council of Churches' strong stand for fair trade as opposed to "free trade", and for debt relief for the global south, are a threat to the bottom line of some of these funders. This rationale is explained in this article and others on the IRD.

    If you click on the link to the article, you'll see that it actually contains footnotes!
    http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/3/3/18370/1

    There's lots of valuable info on talk2action about the fundamentalism and the dominionist movement, and what to do about it. Far from being "Neville Chamberlains, these folks are actively exposing fundamentalism and discussing practical ways to reclaim the public square. Its policies are a different than lots of other blogs in effort to keep the discussion productive and the rationale is explained in their guidelines. I agree that Clarkson's post pushes the envelope of the site's policy.

  9. Vicki says:

    OK, let's say for the sake of argument, that I concede that 1.) "religious moderates" (whatever that really means) "enable" religious extremism. 2.) the best way to reclaim the public square from the religious extemists is to make all of Jerry Falwell's paranoid fantasies come true by orchestrating a campaign AGAINST religious belief itself (rather than FOR separation of church and state, good science education, more tolerance of non-believers, etc.)

    Where do we start with this campaign? In real life, I mean, not the blogosphere? Go door to door in pairs spreading the good news of atheism? Hire a plane to drop leaflets as people are leaving moderate or mainline churches? Put a copy of Sam Harris's book in every hotel room, as Ben has suggested? Is there a reasonable chance that this campaign will have a noticeable effect before the 2008 elections? Before the US invades Iran, or before Iran builds a nuclear bomb?

    I guess I still feel doubts whether telling people "Religion is stupid. Just say no!' in an effort to get them to drop out of church is really a good use of our time. I can't help feeling that building a "big tent" of opposition to the religious right is the way to go, even if it includes some people whose beliefs differ from ours.

  10. Ben says:

    "Where do we start with this campaign? In real life, I mean, not the blogosphere?"

    I think it has become apparent that the "blogosphere" is indeed "real life". Barack Obama's internet contributions were real, the Daily Kos influence is real, Pharyngula is real. The internet is here to stay, the blogsphere is a great place to conduct the war on ignorance, it's arguably as influential as the other forms of media (such as radio).

    I have recently been learning of the vast diversity of opinions included under Christianity, some being much more moderate and contemporary than others. The definition of Christianity has become so broad that is now becoming amorphous (to me) in terms of who can use it to describe themselves.

    Common phrases we hear nowadays include "I'm Christian, but I don't take the Bible literally" or "God works in mysterious ways" or "I believe in a personal God".

    The quotes actually seem fair/peaceful enough, and I concede that I love the warm feeling I get during holiday celebrations. In fact, one could rightly say that I'm still a good Christian/Jew at heart even though I don't take religion/God literally anymore. (In terms of my cultural backround, I usually refer to myself as half-Jewish, or half-Christian, or Atheist, but it MOSTLY depends on the situation.) So I guess that makes me an Atheist-Christian (Jew?). Again, "I'm still a good Christian", I just don't take the Bible literally (or believe in God or the Afterlife or Guardian Angels or Miracles or Moses).

    In fact one could argue that we are all "Christians" under the newer moderate definitions of Christianity, even the Islamic Fundamentalists!(Though, don't spoil their delusion of Muhammed or they may bleed you.)

    VIVA CHRISTIAN ATHEISTS!!

    VIVA JEWISH ATHEISTS!!

    VIVA MUSLIM ATHEISTS!!

    VIVA ATHEIST ATHEISTS!!

    VIVA SPIRITUAL ATHEISTS!!

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    I'm uncertain what Vicki means by a "big tent" of opposition, but let's remember that religion…Christianity, for example…has been around for two millenia. Even American-style Christian Fundamentalism, as radical as it is, has been around for nearly a century. Believers have infiltrated the inner circle of the White House, as well as every branch of the military, and most state and local governments, too. They are in the U.S. Congress and the federal judiciary. They control a wide variety of assets, including a lot of prime real estate, which also benefits from tax-exempt status. They are highly organized and have their own systems of government. Some polls report that 40% of Americans call themselves evangelicals, and about two-thirds (nearly 200 million people) call themselves Christians. Worldwide, there are more than two billion of them. And that's just the Christians.

    Against this phalanx, Vicki asks what form and shape an atheist opposition should take to wipe out religion — or, to use her words, "Where do we start with this campaign?" The question is both astute and ridiculous. Astute, because it is an important question; indeed, THE important question. Ridiculous because…well, where does one start to fish the ocean? Where does one start to count the grains of sand on a beach? Where does one start to cure AIDS in Africa or to end world hunger? Given the size of the task, the starting point simply doesn't matter.

    Vicki then asks about a timetable — before the 2008 election, for example. How can this be a serious question? Organized religion has persisted in human society for more than five thousand years. It has withstood natural disasters, state-sponsored religious persecutions, genocides, the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Enlightenment, an uncountable number of religious wars, not to mention pedophile scandals, homosexual priests, financial frauds…and Vicki asks about having a "noticeable effect" toward ending it in the next eighteen months, bearing in mind that the primary opposition is comprised of atheists who have virtually no unified organization that represents their views and who, in any case, don't really care about ending religion so much as just keeping it out of public legislation. Have a noticeable effect in the next eighteen months? Vicki must be joking.

    Of course, this doesn't mean we can't try. Blogs like ours can at least raise issues which are intentionally ignored by the so-called mainstream (read: corporate) media. Will we change the world? Maybe not the whole world, but maybe a small piece of it.

  12. Vicki Baker says:

    A "big tent: of opposition to the religious right might look like the First Freedom First campaign for separation of church and state: http://www.firstfreedomfirst.org/

    A number of religious and secular organizations have signed on to "call upon elected and appointed officials to join us in reaffirming America's religious freedom by demonstrating a commitment to the following:

    * Every American should have the right to make personal decisions — about family life, reproductive health, end of life care and other matters of personal conscience.

    * American tax dollars should not go to charities that discriminate in hiring based on religious belief or that promote a particular religious faith as a requirement for receiving services.

    * Political candidates should not be endorsed or opposed by houses of worship.

    * Public schools should teach with academic integrity and without the promotion of religious preference or belief.

    * Decisions about scientific and health policies should be based on the best available scientific data, not on religious doctrine."

    The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, has the following insight: "secularization goes hand-in-hand with an increased existential security in economic and social living conditions; according to this expectation, more developed countries provide more secure life patterns and have a greater proportion of secularized people. " He explains the "surprising persistence" of religion in the U.S. as a result of "a higher level of risk-taking and personal vulnerability in an environment of increasing pressures for competition and increasing inequalities in distribution."

    In other words, if you want to get rid of religion, work for single-payer health care and a negative income tax. You'll probably find more coalition partners for that effort among religious liberals than among some of your Ayn Rand -inspired atheists!

  13. Dan Klarmann says:

    I'd never heard of Negative Income tax before (thus the link). Now if only those who would have to pay the most under that system could be persuaded to legislate it.

  14. Vicki Baker says:

    Grumpy says of my comments: "bearing in mind that the primary opposition is comprised of atheists who have virtually no unified organization that represents their views and who, in any case, don’t really care about ending religion so much as just keeping it out of public legislation. Have a noticeable effect in the next eighteen months? Vicki must be joking."

    Grumpy, I'm really not joking that there are things that all people "of good faith" need to work on together NOW and that telling Methodists or Episcopalians or Mennonites that they have to be something like Full Gospel Baptists to be "real Christians", or that they are just as stupid and dangerous as fundamentalists is NOT how to do it. Many religious people, even some evangelicals, are concerned about keeping organized religion out of legislation. There are a number of groups working on it on a national level.

    On the "Act Locally" front: The religious right did not get where it is today through some kind of spiritual mojo but through grassroots organizing techniques that any group can use. (Though under-handed techniques like the Dover School board case can often backfire.) There is a group we have locally, People Power, that has operated for years under the $4,000 a year donation limit so they don't have to deal with all the paperwork of 501c3 incorporation. They are very useful in getting people to turn up to public meetings and hearings where public testimony can sway votes of elected representatives. They also have candidate questionnaires and endorsement forms, and local candidates do care about being able to put that "Endorsed by People Power" on their campaign literature.

    Grassroots organizing doesn't even have to be that organized. I'm sure candidates for your local school board, county superintendent of schools, (if an elected position in your area) and state leg. would be quite happy to come to a "meet the candidate" night hosted in somebody's home. Just invite 20-30 neighbors or like-minded folks, serve them coffee and dessert, and let them hear what the candidate has to say. They also have the opportunity to express their concerns to the candidate. Make sure to clear with the candidate whether a fund-raising pitch at the end is OK or not. That's it.

    Blogging may be a good way to raise issues and clarify our views, but so much of politics is still about showing up.

  15. chiron613 says:

    It seems to me that Fundamentalists (I mean, ordinary folks, not spokespersons for a Fundamentalist cause) hold to the Bible for reasons that are not based on reason. I don't mean this in an insulting or disrespectful way, but only to say that their motivations are strong and emotional.

    I've known many Fundamentalists over the years. I now live a block away from Moody Bible Institute, so we have many Fundamentalists living in my building (although many of these are studying to become evangelists).

    A large number of these people are coming from troubled situation – addiction to drugs or alcohol, psychiatric illness, physical illness, victims of domestic violence or other abuse, ex-prisoners, and so on. They find some comfort in the fellowship of a group that accepts them regardless of their history or flaws or social stigmas. Some may be attracted by the promises of miraculous healing of their various illnesses or wounds. For many, a Fundamentalist group is the only one that will accept them. Troubled people are often given a lukewarm reception at a more conventional church; in other social settings they may be rejected outright.

    These people often cling to their group – and to the rules of the group – like a drowning person clinging for dear life to a bit of flotsam. They may not know what the Bible says, but they will defend the group and the rules as though their lives depend on it. Because, in fact, their lives *do* depend on it…

  16. james says:

    Follow this link for the supposed difference in the last supper account

    why is it so hard to believe in God? Is it easier to believe you came from a monkey?? Personally, I feel better believing in God and Jesus Christ, and that I was created by them http://users.aristotle.net/~bhuie/po-eat.htm

  17. grumpypilgrim says:

    james writes, "…I feel better believing in God and Jesus Christ…."

    Unfortunately, james, church leaders throughout history have recognized that there is money and power to be had from inventing fanciful stories that make people feel better, so they become very skilled at inventing such stories. And, obviously, when the measure of success is making people feel better, telling the truth becomes a secondary concern.

    But you're not alone in treating the truth as a secondary concern. We all do this. Case in point: I often feel better believing that I am smart and handsome….

  18. Arthur says:

    Good day, have you ever considered that the bible, in it's entirety has a unique feature. It is the only book, ever. that tells you the whole truth about things, before, today, and for the future. even though there are some, minor things that we're of questionable origins. Does this make the bible, un worthy. Don't worry about this minor things, because as it was written in Rev. 22:19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. Please consider this verse so your doubts will all go away. Also, please research about this man, Eliseo F. Soriano, he will guide you in all of your, questions. Please visit him @ http://www.truthcaster.com for English speakers. To GOD be the Glory, thru Jesus Christ. Amen

  19. Erich Vieth says:

    Arthur: did you actually read the Erhman post before sitting down to post your comment? Just wondering . . .

  20. NICHOLAS.SIMPSON says:

    Why dont we go out and tell the people, meny who dont belive,but how will they belive if they are not told,not my quot but st-pauls lets go out brother knock on the doors and give people the good news,please explain why we dont do this,i have been trying at the zion chaple for the past six years,from nicholas.simpson@yahoo.co.uk God bless you

  21. Ahmed SIRaj says:

    Muslims will neither be altogether surprised nor scandalized when reading ‘Misquoting Jesus’. The fact the Judaeo-Christian scripture has been corrupted and its original meaning distorted is well attested in the Qur’an which . . . more than 1400 years ago . . . stated:

    ‘Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say: “This is from Allah," to traffic with it for miserable price! – Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby’ (Surah Al Baqarah, 02 : 79).

    For further elucidation on this, read ‘The First & Final Commandment: A Search for Truth in Revelation Within the Abrahamic Religion’ by Dr. Laurence B. Brown.

    [Admin note: This comment was edited slightly because the original comment violated this site's comment policy regarding "preaching."]

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