A Facebook friend I recently made, who might be described as an agnostic atheist, enjoys commenting on Christian apologist Facebook profiles – people like Frank Turek, and other high-visibility members of that world. As a result, his comments show up on my Facebook feed.
Because of this, I have become more aware of some of the propositions featured within modern Christian apologetics – these are ideas I was aware of, but had no idea how zealously they were held within these communities. Evolution, increased secularization, subjective morality, and gay marriage are featured grievances in these clubs. These topics are also entry points to tap into the persecution and victimization modern Christians believe they experience.
One of the themes I’ve noticed in my friend’s interactions (full disclosure: I’ve jumped into a conversation or two, as well) is people in these apologetic circles feel little concern or embarrassment about what I consider to be their most obvious Achilles heel, the Old Testament. The 42 kids God killed on Elisha’s behalf, the Amalekites, the Midians and the taking of virgins, Job, Lot’s incestuous drunken sex with his simultaneously ovulating daughters, Jephthah’s filicide of his daughter, the plague that killed 14,700 – take your pick of the thousands of grotesque depictions in those awful stories. Apologists are not hesitant to celebrate these monstrosities.
Those 42 kids, for instance, were older than they seem, or the Amalekites were spreading disease, and therefore deserved slaughter. What else were the pre-teen virgins going to do after their parents were slaughtered by Moses and his men? Might as well be sex slaves. Oh, but the pre-teen girls could not have possibly been sex slaves because Israelites were not allowed to commit adultery. I’m sure the pre-teen girls’ weddings were completely consensual, too…
This desperate and pathological defense of such disgusting depictions borders on pathological compulsion.
But taking a step back from the echo chamber for a moment, I don’t believe most Christians celebrate the Old Testament the way apologists do. For most people, it is difficult to draw a coherent line between the Old Testament and New Testament, given the differences of concerns depicted in each of them. But the truth of the matter is that the Old Testament provides a mechanism for Christians to celebrate the New Testament precisely because it provides a counterbalance to the vengeful God depicted in the Old Testament…a good Christian would never phrase it like that, though.
Most modern Christians, as far as I can tell, do not have the time, inclination, or the willingness to bypass intellectual honesty for long enough to assemble such a narrative. In fact, I suspect most moderate Christians who are aware of these stories would prefer the Old Testament (save for a few verses) be left out of their holy books altogether. Who can blame them? I don’t recall many mentions of “take the virgins for yourself” or “kill the Amalekites” in Sunday school classes. Most Christians are never exposed to this sewer of immorality depicted in the bible, despite the fact that it is prominently featured in the book they claim to put above all others.
Most Christians would also be surprised to learn that history nearly accommodated their request for Old Testament exclusion. The Marcionites, those pre-Orthodoxy Docetics who elevated Paul to be the one true apostle, rejected the Old Testament entirely, and characterized the God of the Old Testament as a lesser God than the God who sent Jesus, once represented a sizable portion of Christians.
To get an idea of how powerful the Marcionites were in early Christianity, consider this detail: nearly every early church leader, including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, and Epiphaneus all wrote against Marcion. Even more interesting is that most of these writings occurred after Marcion was already dead; his death probably occurred before 160. In the case of Tertullian (c 208), he wrote 150,000 words, the equivalent of a moderately sized modern novel, against Marcion. Tertullian’s anti-Marcionite book was written in support of his own alternative to the emerging (and ultimately the victor) apostolic Orthodoxy, which Tertullian also rejected. This insistence on writing against Marcion was not something leading church figures would have done if Marcion was some marginal heretic. Marcion’s influence remained so strong that Constantine, in 330CE, forbade Marcionites from meeting. That’s a full 200 years after the height of Marcion’s power!
A few decades later, during the reign of Theodosius, a band of pious, Orthodox monks burned down a Valentinian church in Northern Syria for similar transgressions as the Marcionites – the Valentinians likewise had the audacity to believe that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God who sent Jesus.
My point in referencing this history is to insist that modern Christian feet should be held to the fire, even those moderate ones who disavow or ignore the Old Testament’s horrors. Like it or not, Christians own the Old Testament – it’s bought and paid for, and this payment was given in blood by those early Christians (perhaps the Christian majority at the time) who attempted to do exactly what reasonable modern Christians would like to do, to disavow the Old Testament. Alas, the early Orthodoxy would have had it no other way.
The Old Testament stays.
Many people died horrible deaths because of this simple desire to omit the tome chock full of atrocities, genocide, infanticide, rape, and a joyous celebration of murder.
For modern Christians, unless they are a Marcionite-revivalist or a new Gnostic, I’m afraid they should not be permitted to cherry pick the bible verses they like, and disregard the rest; these aren’t even my rules – they’re Christianity’s!
Don’t get me wrong, or mistake my point. I’m happy to debate against the morality prescribed by the New Testament. I adamantly contend the New Testament’s morality is inferior to the secular solutions on which modern societies rely; however, it’s Christianity’s paradigm, not mine, which makes such a debate incomplete and dishonest.
Another topic often swept under the rug is the stunning problems created by the belief in supernatural phenomena, and the concern that some people’s magical abilities could break the rules of the natural world. This presumption is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.
We continue to see associated problems in modern times, particularly in Africa, where Christian leaders routinely tell parents their children are infested by demons, and offer for-fee exorcism; why shouldn’t these Christians believe such possessions are possible, given childrens’ penchant for rowdy behavior, along with the fact that the community down the road sells magical services for those seeking good luck or other worldly benefits?
Of course, modern and reasonable people tend not to be too concerned about evil magicians, witchcraft, or supernatural goings on.
But this is not a universal truth for modern Christians, and it certainly was not the case throughout history; even after the enlightenment, this crazy and irrational fear about proper interaction with the supernatural realm was a major concern for otherwise reasonable communities.
Christianity never quite figured out magic and magicians. There is a magician depicted in Acts of the Apostles, named Simon Magus, who was a magician who tried to buy a seat at the apostles’ table (sound like anyone? Hint: Paul), but was rebuked by John and Peter.
By some accounts, particularly the Acts of Peter, Simon could “amaze the multitudes by flying at will”.
Church fathers and highly influential members of the early church, from Justin Martyr to Saint Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Ephiphaneus spent hundreds of years writing spooky stories about how evil and dangerous Simon the Supernatural Magician was, and how God-fearing Christians should fear anyone who stepped out of the line the Orthodoxy had drawn, because they would not want to engage in Simon’s heresies. Simon was the perfect boogie man, whose purpose was multi-faceted for the early church, but like most traditions invented by the early church, Simon’s purpose was to threaten the proverbial “coal in the stocking” for church members.
Even Justin Martyr was so committed to the idea of Simon that he rebuked the emperor of Rome for erecting a statue in Simon Magus’ honor. Justin made the claim in his 1st apology to Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161…my guess is before-142):
There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Cæsar, and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devils operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honoured by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between the two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome:—“Simoni Deo Sancto,” “To Simon the holy God.”
Given the early timeframe and absence of leverage the Christian “church” had at the time, one can presume Justin’s emperor-scolding was not the wisest approach. Beyond that, upon historical analysis, Justin’s persecution complex exceeded reality, because the statue was not erected on behalf of Simon the Magician, but rather it was a representation of Sancus, the Roman God of Trust, and all things fuzzy wuzzy.
These supernatural concerns about Simon’s magic constituted a major portion of the lens through which early Christian Americans interpreted the world. In early American history, when those true blue Christians, whose values modern Christians revere for being influential in America’s foundation, decided massive chunks of people in their communities engaged in witchcraft. This was no small claim – in fact, it was a claim taken so seriously, that witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by several colonial governments, as early as 1642.
Some of the suspects of witchcraft and sorcery, notably Rebecca Greensmith, had their hands and feet bound, and were thrown into the water, based on the notion that witches could not sink. Of course, Greensmith did sink. The court hanged her anyway. The court’s 1662 verdict: “According to the law of God and the established law of this commonwealth, thou deserves to die” because Greensmith didn’t look contrite enough to resolve her earlier lack of piety.
This early basis for witchcraft analysis came from both the Old and New Testaments, notably Exodus 22:18, which commands its readers: “Do not allow a sorceress to live”. The tradition of Simon Magus amplified this concern to the point where, despite all of the New Testament’s glorious claims of a new-and-improved covenant, these early Americans had no theological counterbalance to weigh the ethics of burning people to death or crushing them with boulders out of concern for their supernatural powers.
These ideologically committed Christians were so committed to their biblical-derived doctrines, it did not occur to them that the girls and women they burned or hanged might be innocent because…brace yourself for a profound and blasphemous claim I’m about to make…supernatural things don’t fucking happen.
Shh…don’t tell. We wouldn’t want the masses to perceive the world in a thoughtful, logical, and intellectually honest manner.
Because the earliest days and concerns of the post-apostolic Christian church were so wound up in concern and fear about witches and magicians, and because subsequent Christians inherited this worldview, it presented no ethical dilemma at all for these loving Christians to light people on fire out of concern that they were witches.
Christian beliefs are not benign, and they should not be looked at as artifacts of a more primitive time. They are alive and well, and to the ignorant, illiterate, uneducated masses, these ideas (all of them) are deadly and continue to manifest. They are a cancer which have persisted through the ages, and managed to survive despite our formalization of logic, development of the scientific method, and unambiguous debunking of these ridiculous ideas.
This persistent cancer, and the unapologetic celebration of the cesspool of depravity prescribed by it, not only deserves our scorn, but actually requires it. We should not allow these ideas to remain unchecked and unchallenged anymore. Modern atheists owe it to the historical victims of this barbarism to reject it.