The New Atheism: Holy Smoke

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters, the place where we constantly dive into the ocean of truth! We’re going through Victor Stenger’s book “The New Atheism: Taking A Stand For Science And Reason.” Tonight, we’re going to be going through the fifth chapter, “Holy Smoke.”

Stenger begins by saying that the Roman world was not steeped in sin prior to Christianity. Core values of polytheism were religious liberty and diversity.

Which explains the testimony of Tacitus about what Nero did to the early Christians and the testimony of Pliny the Younger on what he was today with the Christians he had captured.

Sources Stenger gives on the first-century world? Not a one. Nothing is mentioned about how families would have little girls left out in the wild to die simply because the father did not want to raise a girl. Nothing is said about how it has been said that one of the great miracles was that there even was a church in Corinth. Nothing is said about the sexual practices of the mystery religions.

We are told polytheism did not have holy wars, inquisitions, and crusades.

Although I would have thought crusades and holy wars were the same….

The world prior to Christianity had war just like any other time and it would often have been seen as the gods of one nation fighting against the gods of another nation. The very actions that Stenger will condemn in this chapter are the ones that were actually commonplace back then.

Stenger cites Jonathan Kirsch on the history of warfare between polytheism and monotheism. Kirsch says the following:

The men who hijacked and crashed four civilian airliners were inspired to sacrifice their own lives, and to take the lives of several thousand “infidels,” because they had embraced the simple but terrifying logic that lies at the heart of monotheism: if there is only one god, if there is only one way to worship that god, then there is only one fitting punishment for failing to do so: death.

In a way, Kirsch is right. If there is one God and one way to worship Him, the fitting punishment for failing to do so is death. The part where he errors is where he assumes that a religion will have its followers take that judgment into their own hands rather than waiting on God to judge.

The logic that lies at the heart of monotheism is simply this: There is one God. That doesn’t necessarily mean “Kill all who oppose.” In fact, for Christians, it means the opposite. Gather as many as you can into the fold of the one God so that all can find shelter in his arms.

We can readily show several examples of Islamic terrorism, but how numerous are the examples of Christian terrorism? When an abortion doctor gets shot, it makes headline news. One reason it can do so is because it is something that is extremely rare. Christian charities being formed around the world however don’t get any mention. In fact, speaking of the Crusades as Stenger does, there were people know as Hospitalers then who made it their goal to help the sick. In fact, reading about them in Jonathan Riley Smith’s “A Short History of the Crusades,” I can imagine some people would want to be injured for the fine cuisine and the excellent sleeping conditions. (I am not using sarcasm at all in this.)

Keep in mind that it’s not even brought up if this belief is true or not. It’s simply a belief with a consequence that is not even true that isn’t liked. I am a monotheist because I believe that is true and not because I necessarily like the view. I also see problems with atheism and polytheism.

Stenger claims that religious terrorism is found in the Bible. His first citation is Deuteronomy 13:6-11.

6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. 9 You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

This isn’t terrorism. Terrorism is one group trying to strike fear in another group. By this standard, a police force could be considered terrorist. Israel however lived in a theocracy and to live in the covenant with YHWH meant to live by the rules of YHWH. Anything against that was seen as treason. This was a charge that is still taken seriously today, and all the more seriously in a society ruled by God. The Israelites were not told to go out and slay the pagan nations around them for being pagan and engaging in polytheism. Preach against them? Prophecy against them? Sure. They were instead told to be priests for all the nations.

Stenger would have his readers believe this is to be a precedent for all time that all Christians are to take someone who comes into their home telling them to worship the Mormon god or the Islamic god outside and stone them. This is not the case. This is only for a theocracy.

Stenger then says Israel’s enemies were given no mercy, not even the innocent. Consider Exodus 12:29-30.

29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. 30 Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.

Okay boys and girls. What is Stenger leaving out? That’s right! He’s not mentioned that the Israelites were in Egypt at that time suffering under conditions of slavery. He also does not mention that this was after nine other plagues where God had shown his power to Pharaoh. He completely misses as well that God had even said that anyone could avoid the effects of this plague by the blood of a lamb on their door.

But no, Stenger just says Israel’s enemies were given no mercy, not even the innocent. Absent is any context. Had Stenger spent a few minutes looking at the surrounding context, he might have had a clue.

Stenger next tells of how the people of Betshe’mesh weren’t spared. What did they do? They looked into the Ark of the Lord. Stenger has a text that says the number killed was 50,070. It is questionable whether this is the actual number. However, these were Israelites also (Stenger places this right after Israel’s enemies not being spared so it’s unclear whether he’s ignorant that this was part of Israel). They would have known about the holiness of the Lord and how such actions were to be avoided.

Stenger also tells about how the Israelites suffered when a plague was sent when King David had a census. The plague took the lives of 70,000.

Absent from this is any mention that censuses were to be avoided. Absent is any mention on how plagues were normally far more devastating so what happened was light in comparison. Absent is any mention that the king suddenly dying with enemies all around would have been far worse for the nation as a whole. No. YHWH takes a life and he is automatically in the wrong. (It is amazing that those who often complain about evil complain just as much when God judges evil)

And of course, there’s a classic account these types always love to bring up. That is the judgment on Midian in Numbers 31. The text cited is as follows:

15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

Obviously, the Israelites were keeping the women alive who were virgins so they could be sex slaves.

Or maybe not….

Could it be that in Numbers 25 this nation had tried to bring about ruin for Israel by bringing about the judgment of God through seducing them sexually and leading them to worship other gods? Could it be that the virgins were spared because they had not taken part in the act? There is no context given to the statements by Stenger.

For a fuller look, I recommend the excellent article by Glenn Miller of the Christian-thinktank that can be found here.

After all of this, Stenger gives his source. What is it?
See for yourself.

Any scholarly material? Any commentaries? Any real attempts to study the text? Not at all. Stenger would not appreciate it if we treated his science as light-heartedly as he treats the Bible.

Moving on to the New Testament, we see the constant reference is Dan Barker’s “Godless” and Luke 12:47-48 is used to show that Jesus approved of slavery.

Or it could be Jesus was using a practice at the time in the Roman world that would have been understood.

We’re also told Jesus never spoke out against poverty. (Despite all he told about how money can lead to much evil and one should not be bound to their possessions and condemned those who robbed the poor and said that when we threw a banquet we should invite the poor) Stenger tells of the time ointment was sacrificed on Christ that could have been sold for a year’s wages. Stenger says in reply to Jesus’s words that we would not have Him with us always but we would the poor, “Pretty selfish and arrogant for a benevolent God, wouldn’t you say?”

Yes. After all, we should not honor God as God while He is with us. It is the kind of mindset at work that thinks it’s egotistical for God to expect us to worship Him. Instead, it is simply that we are to treat Him as the highest good because He is in fact the highest good.

Stenger then uses the example of Luke 19:27 and the slave to be beat in the presence of the king and tells us that Jesus is comparing Himself to that king. He precedes this by saying that this is the opinion of Dan Barker “who has studied the Bible far more deeply than I have.”

Nothing like second-hand research is there? Any contrary opinions cited? Not a one.

It’s the same situation however. This is referring to a king Israel had recently gone to protest being their king and was made their king anyway. Jesus is indeed making a comparison and speaking of judgment coming on those who oppose Him as the ruler He is. He is not advocating going out and beating with many blows political dissidents.

In defending the notion that atheism does not lead to deaths of innocents, he talks about the holocaust and says the reason that six million Jews died was because they were Jewish. If there were no religion, no one would be killed for being Jewish. Therefore, it is the fault of religion that six million Jews were killed.

So I suppose that if Muslims wanted to blow up a country of atheist infidels, it would be the fault of the atheists for being infidels. No. In this case, it would be the fault of the Muslims for being Muslims.

Thus, the deaths in the holocaust are blamed on religion.

Amazing the twisted logic that takes place.

Stenger also wants to talk about the atrocities of the Dark Ages. First off, no historian today would call that period the Dark Ages. It was a name given to set it in contrast to the Enlightenment. The so-called Dark Ages actually had a lot of light to them and were the foundation of what we have today.

For a look at supposed atrocities, I recommend the Christian crimeline found here . Naturally, I also have no problem with further study on any of these topics. A local library can be of great help here.

Stenger goes on to list atrocities that took place with Mormonism, and I do not deny those. I think there is clear evidence of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and I have a number of problems with the Mormon church. Stenger’s approach however is to show one case in the Mormon church that is by nature extreme, and then think that all other cases must be like this.

On a sidenote, he has a statement in this section about choosing a Mormon event since Mormonism is about 180 years old and ancient history is harder by comparison. He states that we know Joseph Smith existed but “We cannot be anywhere near as sure for Muhammad and Jesus, for whom there is really little if any historical evidence, and we can almost say for sure that Abraham and Moses are not historical figures.”

Again, no source listed on this. No citation of a scholar in history who really takes the Christ-myth hypothesis seriously.

Stenger says that the extreme example above however is “a detailed demonstration of how anyone who thinks he possesses absolute truth is capable of any horrible act, which is justified in his mind by that belief.”

First off, notice that Stenger does not say “absolute religious truth” but “absolute truth”, which would mean that the problem is not being religious but rather with having a truth claim. Of course, not all truth claims are created equal. I believe absolutely you should love your neighbor as yourself. Does that mean that I will commit horrible acts as a result?

Second, all people believe claims to be absolutely true. Statements like this just make me not take Stenger seriously. If he doesn’t think his position is the absolute truth, why on Earth is he writing a book trying to promote it?

Stenger does however make a statement eventually that I can sadly agree with.

Christians do not read the Bible either. If they did, they wouldn’t be Christians. They listen to selected verses read from the pulpit and taught in so-called “Bible Study” sessions.

I will say I have read my Bible. I have read it a number of times. However, I do agree that most Christians do not. Most Christians only know the verses their pastor reads. Most do in fact have so-called “Bible Study” sessions where it’s more studying our interpretations of the text rather than the text itself.

And these Christians don’t have a clue what to do when someone like Stenger or Barker comes up to them with the nonsense that we find in this chapter. The only reason Stenger can get away with this in any sense is because he is counting on his audience to be ignorant, and sadly, they usually are.

Let this be a call to Christians. We don’t need to be ignorant. A lot of these passages are tough. No doubt We need to look at them however and realize saying “I don’t like it, therefore it didn’t happen” isn’t an argument (For an excellent look at different views on the kind of texts spoken of here, I recommend “Show Them No Mercy.”).

The only reason atheism is gaining a foothold here is because Christians dropped the ball and got more interested in studying ourselves than studying the God who we claim to worship. We can do better.

We shall continue tomorrow.

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