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The Bible repeatedly claims that God caused the death or injury of thousands of people, including those who had done nothing wrong but were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have suggested that rejoicing in such carnage is a human failing rather than an expression of divine wisdom. And it is striking that so many religious people manage to read these passages with an easy conscience.

We humans have a remarkable ability to distance ourselves emotionally from tragedy and cruelty, as long as it’s not happening to anyone we personally care about. I remember singing a jubilant song in Sunday school about Joshua and the battle of Jericho – “and the walls came tumbling down.” I identified with the Hebrew soldiers who gave a mighty shout that pulverized the walls of Jericho. But I did not think about what happened next, as the invaders stabbed and speared the city’s inhabitants.

Here’s another example: In Genesis 7:11-24, God becomes angry about human sinfulness and decides to kill every living thing that walks, runs, or slithers on the Earth, except for Noah’s family and two animals of each species.

As a child, I was captivated by the picturesque imagery of Noah’s ark, with cheerful little beasties marching up the gangplank two by two. Perhaps like me you sang that happy little ditty: “The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo.” Catchy songs can make it easier to “heartblink” evil, temporarily immobilizing our own moral instincts.

If I had reflected more deeply I might have considered what it would have been like if my dog had been caught in that flood, bewildered, terrified, struggling to stay afloat through exhausting hours or even days, and finally drowning. I might have imagined that tragic scene being multiplied by millions of living creatures who had done nothing to deserve such a fate. I would have realized that it made no sense to punish animals for human misbehavior and that this passage could not possibly have reflected the will of any God worthy of worship.

Some studies seem to show that as a general rule religion doesn’t make people more moral. Certainly churches try to teach us to be good. But if spiritual communities teach both adults and children to overlook troubling aspects of Bible stories, it is teaching them to dull their own moral faculties.

Churches should urge people to read the Bible with their moral instincts fully functional. If they see something that doesn’t make sense, intellectually or ethically, they should be encouraged to bring it up and talk about it. But that would mean abandoning Biblical literalism, the doctrine that every bit of the Bible is literally true.

It is not literally true that a perfect deity would destroy the innocent with the guilty. Congregations and clergy need to say so, clearly and courageously.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Steven Pinker, a distinguished professor of psychology, has written a critically acclaimed book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker claims that despite modern media’s emphasis on war and mayhem, over the long run violence has actually decreased. He begins by discussing violence in ancient days, and on p. 10 he talks about the Bible:

“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.”

All of this is easy to prove. But then Pinker claims, more controversially, that in the Bible “Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.” “Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.”

Pinker mentions “atrocitologist” Matthew White who estimates that mass killings which “are specifically enumerated in the Bible” amount to roughly 1.2 million deaths, not counting those who died when God drowned every person on Earth except Noah and his family. White says that would add another 20 million!

How do you react to Pinker’s charges? Is he overdrawing this gory picture? Is the Bible’s picture of God inconsistent? Is there a contradiction between passages that show God as terrifying and aggressive and those that depict deity as loving and merciful? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner