Bad Arguments Against the Bible

which we atheists should stop using

Roger M. Wilcox
Last modified on 31-January-2016

I am an atheist. There is no evidence that any gods exist, and plenty of reasons to assume that the gods described by any major religion don't exist.

Like most people who grew up in America, the one religion I've been exposed to more than any other is Christianity. (Although it may be a mistake to refer to all denominations of Christianity as "one religion" — but that's a subject for a different article.) Christians use the Bible — the old and new testaments — as their holy book.

Now I'm not someone who thinks the Bible is the inerrant word of the omniscient omnipotent creator of the universe. The Old Testament was written down from the oral traditions of bronze-age sheep herders, and the New Testament was written by one of many messianic cults that sprang up in first century Judea. I've heard many good, solid arguments against the Bible over the years, and have used several of them myself. Arguments like "Leviticus 11:20-23 says that crickets and grasshoppers walk on four legs" and "Leviticus 11:6 says that rabbits chew their cud" and "God created Satan and allows Satan to roam the Earth unchecked, deliberately luring people into the Hell that God Himself made" and "If Jesus was only dead for 3 days, he didn't really 'die' for your sins, did he?".

But all too often, I've seen arguments against the Bible that really shouldn't be made, because they're either wrong or show a misunderstanding of what was actually written there. Whenever you use any of these arguments, it undermines your efforts to expose the true awfulness of the Bible, and ultimately hurts other atheists.

Here is my personal list of anti-Bible arguments that should not be made:

Bad argument: The Bible says that pi (π) is 3

In two different places in the Old Testament, we find this verse:

"He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it."
— 1 Kings 7:23, and 2 Chronicles 4:2 (NIV translation)
On the surface, this verse seems to be describing a circle that is exactly 10 cubits in diameter and 30 cubits in circumference. From your geometry class, you doubtlessly remember that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is exactly π, a transcendental irrational number equal to approximately 3.14159. So, in the real world if a circle is exactly 10 cubits in diameter, it will be about 31.4159 cubits in circumference; and if a real-world circle is exactly 30 cubits in circumference, it will be about 9.549 cubits in diameter. But in this biblical account, the circle is 10 cubits in diameter and 30 cubits in circumference. For this to be true, π would have to be exactly 3 — not 3.14159..., just 3. Ergo, the Bible contradicts reality here, right?

Well, not so fast. While the ancient Hebrews did have the notion of fractions, and there are even a few Bible verses that mention halves of cubits (e.g. Exodus 25:10), in general they tended to measure things in whole numbers. Was the colonnade in 1 Kings 7:6 exactly 50 cubits long, for example? Almost certainly not. It was probably rounded off to the nearest whole number of cubits. And that same rounding-off was probably done when describing the sea of cast metal in these two verses. Its diameter rounded off to 10 cubits, and its circumference rounded off to 30 cubits.

If the actual diameter was only 9.6 cubits — which rounds off to 10 cubits — then the actual circumference would be about 30.159 cubits, which rounds off to 30 cubits. Since the Old Testament wasn't an engineering blueprint, it would have been perfectly reasonable for it to report such an object as being 10 cubits across and 30 cubits around.

Bad argument: The Bible says that bats are birds

In two different passages in the Old Testament, we find these verses:

"These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean:" [long list of birds omitted] ... "and the bat."
— Leviticus 11:13-19 (NIV translation)
"You may eat any clean bird. 12 But these you may not eat:" [long list of birds omitted] ... "and the bat."
— Deuteronomy 14:11-18 (NIV translation)
Both of these passages list bats as a kind of bird. But in the real world, bats are mammals. Yet another example of something the Bible gets wrong! Right?

Well ... no.

The word translated into English as "birds" in Leviticus 11:13 is the Hebrew word 'owph. This is a general word for any flying creatures. It can mean birds, but it can also mean winged insects, or any other creature that flies through the air.

Now, the passage in Deuteronomy is a bit more damning. The word translated into English as "birds" in Deuteronomy 14:11 is the Hebrew word tsippowr, which is more specific — it's supposed to mean only birds or fowl. It cannot be used to refer to flying insects.

However, it's important to remember that the Old Testament was written by the ancient Israelites, for the ancient Israelites. They would have used the animal classification system that the ancient Israelites had imposed. To the ancient Israelites, bats were classified as birds due to their size and the fact that they fly, and that was good enough for them. So, any book written for them — even a book allegedly dictated from an omniscient creator — would have classified bats the same way the ancient Israelites did, as belonging to the group that they called "birds" (tsippowr). And tsippowr, as used in ancient Hebrew, did include bats.

Bad argument: One of the Ten Commandments says not to bear false witness. Stop lying for Jesus!

It's true that a Commandment exists against bearing false testimony:

"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor."
— Exodus 20:16 (NIV translation)
In the King James version, "testimony" is rendered as "witness":
"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."
— Exodus 20:16 (KJV translation)
But "witness," or "testimony," only refers to things that are said in court, when you're on the witness stand and have sworn to tell nothing but the truth. It does not refer to things said when you're not under oath to tell the truth.

This isn't a Commandment against lying in general. It's a Commandment against committing perjury. Your debate opponent is not breaking this Commandment if (s)he lies to you.

Bad argument: Why should God answer your prayer about your car keys, when there are natural disasters that He should be dealing with first?

This isn't so much a bad argument against the Bible, as it is a bad argument against the common Christian practice of praying for everything.

The problem here is that the God of the Bible is supposed to be both omniscient and omnipotent. Not only would such a being have flawless knowledge of everything that was happening in the world, such a being would also be able to intervene flawlessly in an infinite number of places all at the same time. God would be the ultimate multitasker.

There is no reason why an omniscient, omnipotent God couldn't point you to your car keys and save 13 children being swept away in a flash flood simultaneously.

(The fact that some children aren't saved from being swept away in a flash flood is another matter entirely. But that has no bearing on this specific argument.)

Bad argument: If you fight a war, you're breaking the sixth Commandment

In the King James bible, the sixth Commandment (using the traditional commandment numbering system) is rendered as:

"Thou shalt not kill."
— Exodus 20:13 (KJV translation)
In the New International translation, this verse is rendered as:
"You shall not murder."
— Exodus 20:13 (NIV translation)
The Hebrew word translated as "kill" or "murder" here is ratsach. This word can mean to kill in general, but as used in the Commandments it refers exclusively to murder, that is, the crime of killing someone whom the law forbids you to kill.

In a war, the soldiers are sanctioned by the state to go forth and kill the enemy. When a soldier kills an enemy soldier, he is not committing murder. Going to war does not violate this Commandment. Similarly, an executioner does not violate this Commandment when he kills a condemned person in accordance with the law.

(The morality of state-sanctioned killing is another issue entirely, but has no bearing on this argument.)

Bad argument: The King James bible is sexist, because it calls a woman deacon a "servant."

This argument was made on an episode of The Golden Girls. The King James translation contains this verse:

"I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea"
— Romans 16:1 (KJV translation)
The word translated as "servant" here is the Greek diakonos, which in many other English translations of the New Testament is rendered as "deacon." For example, in the New International translation:
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae."
— Romans 16:1 (NIV translation)
This sounds pretty damning at first. The translators of the King James version couldn't stand to have woman as a church deacon, so they actually dared to fiddle with the text of the Bible itself!

The problem with this argument is, the Greek diakonos is translated as "servant" in every place it appears throughout the King James bible. Not just this verse, every verse. It is never translated as "deacon." The word diakonos, as originally used, meant a Christian designated to serve with the overseers/elders of the church in a variety of ways. It's only in the modern world that the role of deacon has evolved into a position of power within a church.

There is plenty of sexism throughout the New Testament, but the King James translators didn't introduce any of it.

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