Robert M. Price – Is the Bible Mein Kampf?

August 20, 2010

Robert Price being off for the week, today we present a lecture given by Dr. Price at the Center for Inquiry’s annual Student Leadership Conferece titled “Is the Bible Mein Kampf?”

In his talk, Price suggests the Bible has much to offer even the most secular and non-religious of us. He discusses the value he sees in the Bible, and what we can learn from the mistakes and contradictions found within it. He explains that because he sees the Christian Fundamentalist
interpretation of the Bible as so wrong, a hated of this
straw man Bible might also make little sense. Price explains that critical examination of Biblical texts is what makes a true friend of the Bible—even if you’re an atheist.

Along with being a usual host of this show, Robert M. Price is professor of theology and scriptural studies at Coleman Theological Seminary and professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute. He is a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and the Jesus Seminar. Dr. Price is the author of a number of books, including The Reason Driven Life, Deconstructing Jesus, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, and The Da Vinci Fraud. He has appeared widely in the media, and was featured prominently in the movie The God Who Wasn’t There. His latest book is Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 20th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry think tank Advancing Science Reason and Secular Values and Public Affairs. And at the grass roots. You may have noticed that I am not Robert Price. Robert has the week off. And as a result, you’re stuck with me, the producer of the show, Adam Isaac. In Robert’s absence, we’re going to air a lecture that he gave this past summer at our annual Student Leadership Conference here in Amherst, New York. The title of the talk was is the Bible Mein Kampf? In it, he asks this title question. But also, what should we, the atheists, the non-religious, the free thinkers see when we look at the Bible? Is it best for us to dismiss it as a sort of collection of awful nonsense? Or does it all for us something? And if it does? Is it okay to admit that? I hope that thoughts are provoked and that you enjoy. And without further ado, I give you Robert M. Price. 

Wow, what a crowd. Let me assume the role of Rad’s fairly for a moment. Imagine yourself in a world in which there’s a powerful militant sect devoted to the worship of the gods of ancient Greece. These strange zealots not only believe in the literal personal existence of ZEW, Safina, Harar and the others, they also hold Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to be inspired and inerrant scripture, even though in the more educated among them, some time suggests that the epic start to be taken allegorically when things get too messy. For instance, all those seductions or rapes of mortal females by zus. These well-meaning but obnoxious believers are insistent in the media and from every public soap box that Western society was founded upon the culture of the ancient Greeks, and that in an age of moral decadence, only a return to the faith and scripture of the ancients can save us from wholesale ruin. Among others, or so they urge the hero, Achilles must have been a historical figure, or else how can one explain the well, the test and fall of Troy? 

Which Heinrich Sleiman vindicated. So archeology confirms script. What room can there be left for doubt? And wouldn’t you like to accept Asclepius as your personal savior? What would your reaction be? Well, you would No. One be astonished that 21st century men and women with any degree of education could take these myths and their attendant world view literally a second you recoil from their invitation to join them. And third, you might think it worthwhile, especially if this sect were gaining ground among the young and naive to mount a counter attack showing the untethered ability of the whole thing. And this part of this Freethought crusade, you probably delve into the historical and other inaccuracies in the Homeric epics. You would apply the canons of historical and literary criticism to show that we’re dealing with ancient fiction and that it is never inerrant history nor divine revelation. And you’d easily be able to enlist in this effort the aid of classicists who are most familiar with the ancient Greek writings. 

What would you expect those classicists to say? Well, I’m pretty sure you would hear none of them condemning the Iliad and The Odyssey as the bane of mankind as something better, never written in the first place, containing nothing edifying, but only the most perverse nonsense worthy of the attention of none but fools and knaves. 

Not one of your classes assists would say any such thing. 

And for the simple reason that they approach the old and Texas ancient human artifacts, warts and all, the products of a civilization still barbaric. But going with frequent flashes of dramatic and poetic genius classicists would oppose the thankfully imaginary Olympian fundamentalism, not because they hate the sources of the movement, but rather because they love them and bristle to see fools and names appropriating them for a perverse purpose. Now, outrageous is the whole scenario. 

Seems you knew minutes ago that I’m drawing an analogy with biblical fundamentalism, which is regrettably all too real. My point is not so much to invite you to marvel at the gross silliness of fundamentalism. The lie won’t much mind if you do, but rather to suggest a second look at the type of response we offer to it here just to use as a cameo of what I’m talking about. Let me just remind you of this incredible anecdote I told you about, the pro choice rally where where they had a Bible burning because the pro-life people had said they opposed abortion because the Bible was against it. Well, the pro-choice people took them at their word and had the Bible burning right down that Bible. But in fact, the irony is abortion never comes up in the Bible. We do know a lot of early Christians condemned it. So it’s probably just luck that it didn’t. But they didn’t. It’s not in the Bible. The pro lifers just inferred a ban on abortion from the commandment thou shall do no murder. And it’s not a bad inference, but the fact remains it doesn’t say thou shalt not aboard. That’s my point. Well, what’s interesting to me here is that the pro-choice CERs were making the mistake of accepting the fundamentalist caricature of the Bible and then vilifying that. The fundamentalists had already made a straw man of their own book and the critics just took them at their word. And I find that to many in the Freethought movement, do the same with the Bible generally, not just abortion there in an ironic position. They accept the fundamentalist reading of the Bible, though they don’t like it. Not believing the Bible is the word of God. They seem to believe it’s the word of Satan, even though they don’t believe in Satan. 

Well, maybe some do. Actually, I have met atheists who seem to have a shadow belief in God as the Satan of Athie ism. I remember once I was at a big annual conference out in Chicago or someplace, and there was a former Pentecostal minister who is now notorious atheist somewhere in Scandinavia. And I’m Myhrvold, as I heard the guy say, what liberty he now had as an atheist because he couldn’t say what it tormented him for years. And he said, I hate God. 

I thought, gee, I thought we were atheists here anyway. 

But that’s kind of what’s going on implicitly. He made it explicit. They pursued God with steak and garlic like Van Helsing after Dracula. This is no surprise, since many in the free thought movement, obviously, and properly are here because of a bitter disillusionment with fundamentalism. Me too. But this sort of pendulum swinging has gotta run out of steam after a while. It’ll take a while, though, because new recruits keep it swing and high. And it’ll be interesting to see if our movement ever collectively outgrows it. What will we achieve in that day? 

What will we even try to achieve? It’s interesting to speculate, but back to the Bible. 

I began studying the Bible avidly as a teenager, as a teenage fundamentalist, which I always thought would be a great monster movie title. I was a teenage fundamentalist because I believed it was God’s inspired word. 

It was largely the study of the Bible, however, that led me to reject that view of the Bible some years later. 

I can see the more closely I studied the thing that the actual texts just didn’t match the dogmatic definition of the Bible as evangelical theologian Clark Pennock, fascinating thinker, once so rabid fundamentalist who whipped up the Southern Baptist inerrancy crusade. 

But over the decades moderated his views and is quite open minded. He once quipped, The fundamentalists don’t like the Bible they’ve got. And that is the unspoken truth. And they really wish it were quite different. That that taught the Trinity or the Rapture or that that you should accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. What one would think listening to them is the very essence of Christianity, a notion utterly honored, tested in the Bible, as far as I can see, originated in some like the 17th century among German pieties that luck find it in the Bible. Some Bible societies organize Bible distribution things on campus where they figure, if you got a copy of a Bible, you’re halfway there. As if entering the wood pile of second chronicles, this can tell you anything about the Christian faith, much less give you this. Take the tape with with Jesus. 

Strange, but I by this time got disillusioned. Yeah, but I was hooked. I found the Bible fascinating and still do, in fact, more and more all the time. And as I’ve learned, new methods of biblical criticism, as we call it, just biblical analysis of the Bible has come to make sense to me in new ways because the very contradictions and errors that so threaten the dogmatic view of the Bible are in fact clues to a proper understanding of the thing. It’s a book that, like The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s well worth studying and has a lot to say. So it’s as a lover of the Bible, hayner of a Bible that I take exception to fundamentalists in their apologetics. Why one would hate the Bible as many do. I confess I cannot understand, except that I guess I do understand this error of blaming the Bible for what fools have made of it. 

We shouldn’t become fools, though. We’re repeating their error in reverse. The Bible is not, as some in our ranks seem to think, Mein Kampf. It’s not a compendium of evils spewed up from Hell’s bowels. Sorry. If you want to condemn such a book, you might try something by the marquee decide and inventive fellow. Oh no. Of course Hitler may be a good author to pick for that, but it would be as absurd to put the Bible on the shelf alongside such books as it would be to place Homer there. Do you recoil with Loathing to read that Jeff sacrificed his daughter to gain victory over the Ammonites? I understand that. But do you feel the same way when you read about Agamemnon pretty much doing the same thing to get victory over Troy? Both of them are fictive, ironic tragedies of the same type. We now get on our high horse to protest the gross immorality of these ancient epics because no one is surprised to read of barbarity in a book from a barbarous age. Why should the Bible be any more blameworthy in this respect than than other ancient books? 

I caution I got to sign on to believe that everything in the Bible that ought to be obvious by now. But but the price tag for for that freedom is not to just vilify it. 

Nor is there any use in pretending that there’s not plenty of ethical and socially profound teaching in the Bible. There are there are verses, sounds, Oracle’s maxims, which shine like torches in the dark mists of the ancient world. Dr. King didn’t seem to have any trouble finding material in the Bible. Well, what was he? Just some stupid bigot who had to quote things out of context? I don’t think so. Read the stuff he was quoting. Amos Miko’s sounds pretty good. The fundamentalists, like a stopped clock, are occasionally right, if only by accident. They dimly recognize the point I’m making whenever they point to this or that Bible verse and claim that it’s so advanced for its time that it must be a piece of divine revelation. Well, no, they’re they’re wrong about that. It’s not revelation and the way they mean. But such texts are flashes of human genius. The only kind there is and it’s against the barbaric background of the rest of the text. And it’s implied world that these insights shine when we pretend the noble ethics of Jesus or Isaiah are not sterling. We’re just as disingenuous or ignorant as the fundamentalists are when they claim there’s nothing reprehensible in the Bible. 

Again, we’re becoming fundamentalists in reverse. 

And in turn, they have a big debate the Dawkins and others have as to whether they’re fundamentalists, atheists on this topic. They sure are. And I don’t mean to say that I don’t have my statistics. 

I don’t know how many what percentage there are, but I’m sure met plenty of I say, well, in terms of our practical approach or response to fundamentalists, we can never expect to be taken seriously by zealots for the Bible as long as we pretend the Bible is what they know it is not, namely a book of evil. We need, if possible, if it’s true to tell them that precisely as people who care about the same book, we don’t want to stand by and see it misinterpreted and misrepresented. I mean, if you’re like me, it’s we who are the true friends and champions of the Bible, not those who invite ridicule for the scriptures by inflating them into a garage idol that you may not be a lover of the Bible. And I’m not saying you should be. I’m just saying that I’m the sort of person you want to call on for a debate or to recommend books by not some not. 

That makes its mind come the fundamentalists, as I always tell my students, that has no right to pontificate about the Bible until he or she has studied the Bible in great detail and from many perspectives. Remember this great line from a guy who was as much of a militant fundamentalist as the day is long back at a Baptist youth retreat? Brother Bill Doughty crew cut stereotype everything you can imagine. But he had some interesting points in the first evening he was given these talks. He said to the I guess, all high school age fundamentalist Baptist, how many of you out there believe the Bible cover that cover? And actually everybody’s hand went up. 

And then he said, How many of you have read the Bible? Governing? Pretty much nobody’s. 

And when you get those haggard, you believe in someone yet? I haven’t. Even when it’s a pretty good point. And then that cuts across all the camps here. 

Even if you have studied the Bible in great detail and for many perspectives says he’s sorry. Even then, you’re not really going to be able to pontificate. One, I have to pee HD. I learned with the first one that APHC is pretty much a learner’s permit. 

Really, it is not false modesty. 

It’s just Socratic realization, though, the facts that become obvious. The more educated you are, there is a past ocean of relevant stuff you will not live long enough to master. So you’ll you’ll never get the right to pontificate. You will have, though, come to realize pontification is a sport forever denied the intellectually honest individual. And the same is true for free thinkers. We dare not make the Bible into mine calm for whatever before we study it seriously. If there were religious fundamentalists who blindly accept dogmatic claims on behalf of the Bible that to save them the trouble of thinking for themselves? 

Well, there are plenty of sophomoric atheists, too. One suspects they’re eager to accept sweeping polemics against the Bible in order to give their immature consciences license to do whatever. Under the fundamentalist yoke, they dared not do well. 

What we need is a group of atheists, humanists, freethinkers, whatever, who will have rejected the right thing about fundamentalism, the myth, the sizing of the Bible as an excuse to make things easy for ourselves, when in truth, what we need to do is to rethink all the issues for ourselves. 

So let’s do that. With you asking me some questions or giving other views or. 

I was just wondering if you had a favorite passage. I’ve learned what it was. 

Well, it seems kind of anticlimactic, but I always think of a passage from Proverbs that has made my life much easier. That says a soft answer. 

Turn it the way, Rahaf. I don’t want unnecessary trouble with anybody. I don’t want arguments with my children or people. I’m debating if I can avoid strife. I’d like to do it. So wherever it says that in the Book of Proverbs, I’ve tried to live my life by that. And maybe that’s my favorite passage. 

I really appreciate some of the points you made. I teach Bible as literature at a secular college in a very highly fundamentalist area. So I’m dealing with a lot of Christians. I also do a podcast, Reasonable Doubts, where we’re talking to atheists oftentimes about the Bible. And my point for them is always the exact same thing, either to the Christians or the atheists, which is exactly what you said. The contradictions in the Bible are the keys to understanding these traditions, understanding the richness and the diversity in them. And so the Christians shouldn’t feel threatened by looking at these inconsistencies. And at the same time, the atheists and we’re going to the skeptics annotated Bible and pulling out contradictions just to go, ha ha ha ha, fundamentalist. We’re not understanding the situation any better. At the same time, even though that’s my approach, I still get called a fundamentalist atheist sometimes by some of my very liberal friends, because even though I believe it’s Allah arised and there are messages in there, I still say, well, the slaughters in Joshua were horrible things and bad and bad lessons. And they say, well, you’re just you’re not you know, you’re not Allegre rising, right? You’re not getting the true message. And I think, well, what could possibly be. The allegory arised message of genocide. What good message is going to come out of that? I was wondering how you how you deal with situations like that? 

Well, it’s either they would call you fundamentalist atheist for that. 

But I find a lot of these charges are utterly inexplicable. 

I you know, oddly enough, I am half way inclined to think there might be a point in Alec arising the genocides and Joshua, because as like as the as the origin, the great church father who picked this up from the Stoics says that all of the Jews and Christians did that. Origin said, why would there be something of an obviously outrageous nature in the text, like you said, dealing with a Garden of Eden? This is not what Delp thinks. This snake spoke to a guy who says that this is a red light ought to be going off to tell you see. This is symbolism for something and start thinking about it. And as he says, the historical absurdities I think you said in the piece, as they are numerous in the Bible, he says there are thousands even in the gospels. And this is a guy the believe was all verbally inspired. But he says when you’re getting slapped in the face by the text, that’s probably a clue. Something else is meant. That sounds somewhat reasonable. 

You can go hog wild with that and make the Bible and say anything you want. 

I think, though, sometime I absolutely agree. But sometimes when you find out, like what I think is going on in Joshua is if you look at from the dude agronomists perspective later on, they need a reason for their for their policy on preventing intermarriage and everything else, their racial purity in a part. And that that whole story. I think it is allegories. It’s actually trying to fit and justify their cultural program. But even after understanding it as an allegory thing, the conclusion is still a ghastly one. It doesn’t redeem the merit. I mean, I very much find a lot of merit and richness in the Bible, but there’s just some of these passages. You can allegories a hell, lot of them, and it’s still going to be a bad conclusion. 

Well, one of the things I remember out of that, what they made of the Bible and the fundamentalist churches I went to, they didn’t really care one way or another about the genocide issue. And they should have that was a moral failing. But but they they didn’t say that, that they dwell on it saying, God, that really did the right thing and kill them. 

All those pain and babies, little bastards like John Calvin once said that the unregenerate are little serpents in the crib. 

Well, they didn’t say that. They said, well, what this means to us is that Jesus and Joshua are the same name in Greek. 

And this is really about Jesus leaving the believer to victory over one besetting sin after another. And I thought, well, that’s all right as a Christian preacherman, but it sure isn’t what Joshua means. But then later on, I began to realize, wait a minute. After all the conquest niblets Krieg’s and stuff, Joshua is an old man. And he says to the assembled the Israelites. Well, we’ve done a pretty good job. There’s still a lot of territory yet to conquer any lists at all. And it’s the whole thing. It’s like a big wink. You see, this didn’t really happen, John. I mean, later on, the same in the Duder anomic history. David is credited with taking Jerusalem from the Jabba’s sights, and nothing much has made of it there. But in Joshua, it’s Joshua who does it hundreds of years before. Well, maybe they’re kind of winking at you. I don’t know. But the fact is that they had already reified the Cayman Knights. The Israelites apparently simply were Canaanites. There was never any exodus. There was never any conquest. But as they began to evolve out of the polytheism and the sacred prostitution and stuff of that that they had practiced along with their canine buddies, they began to eject that from their religion by saying those were wicked things our ancestors borrowed from those unregenerate Canaanites. We want nothing to do with it. And so God took no prisoners. That never happened. There was never any such genocide. It’s all a projection of their horror at what they used to be. And they’re sort of scapegoating ancient figures that never existed. 

So I I’ve come to think of it in a slightly different way, that it was rude and barbaric, that they thought the story of butchering everything that breathes, as it says, is not a problem. But I don’t know. I mean, it is a barbaric text. It’s not as bad as I once thought it was. 

I think we’re seeing things the exact same. Yeah. OK, sir. Thank you so much, Dr. Rice. Thank you. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in an online conversation about today’s show, visit our discussion forum at point of inquiry. Dawg views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac, an adverse New York, and our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Chabon. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard on your temporary house, filling in for Robert Price. Adam plays.