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The Argument Back to Top

The Argument from Scripture (also sometimes called the Argument from Authority) argues that one or other particular holy book, in and of itself, provides evidence supporting the claim that a particular god exists. Essentially, (to use Christianity as an example), God exists because the Bible says so, and the Bible is the word of God.

This might take various forms, for example by pointing to the supernatural events or miracles recorded in these books as requiring the existence of a god (see the Argument from Miracles), or by pointing to how influential the scriptures have been, arguing that this would not have been possible without the help of a god (also see the Argument from Common Consent).

Some believers claim that these ancient texts have made predictions about science or events which have turned out to be true, predictions which would not have been possible without supernatural help. Some take comfort from the fact that the holy books of all the major religions agree on substantial, important points, like the existence of a creator-god, even if not the minor details. Still others argue that their scriptures are somehow “perfect”, without flaws or errors, or are written in such a perfect style that they could not possibly have been created by mere mortal humans.

Other similar lines of reasoning include what is often referred to as the Appeal to Authority (“this is what our ancestors did or believed; therefore, it is the way we should act or believe”), the Appeal to Tradition (“it would not have survived so long as an integral part of every culture if it were not vital for our survival; therefore, we should not tamper with it”) and the Argument from Antiquity (“whatever is old must also necessarily be right or good, or at least better”).

The Refutation Back to Top

The Argument from Scripture is to some extent a re-packaging of some of the other arguments. It is not usually considered one of the stronger or more convincing arguments, and is mainly employed by fundamentalists. The argument at its simplest - “God exists because the Bible says so, and the Bible is the word of God” - is clearly a circular argument, and carries no credibility. It remains, then, to establish whether some of the other claims or variants of the argument are more worthwhile.

A belief that the Bible, for instance, is reliable in every detail, and thus the miracles and the resurrection of Jesus proves that God exists, runs counter to the current understanding of history and of biblical scholarship. Martin Luther and John Calvin both quoted the Bible as definitive evidence that the finding of Nicolas Copernicus (that the Earth was not the centre of the universe around which the sun and the stars whirled) were wrong. Its revealed wisdom, including its creation myth and its supposed prescient prophecies, is suspiciously constrained to the limited and often incorrect knowledge available to its ancient authors, and unworthy of the revelations of an all-powerful, all-seeing God.

Although this is not the place for a detailed critique of the Bible or any other scripture, which has already been exhaustively treated elsewhere, objectively analyzed, the Bible has been repeatedly shown to be both inconsistent and unreliable, and often at odds with the findings of historical and scientific research (just one such list of Biblical inconsistencies by Donald Morgan can be found at www.infidels.org).

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
- Richard Dawkins (2006)

What are we to think, for example, of a scripture that suggests that the Earth was made in one day (and the sun, moon and stars four days later) when we have evidence that the universe originated some 13.7 billion years ago and the Earth some 4.5 billion years ago? A literal reading of the Bible puts the age of the Earth as between 6,000 and 10,000 years (the 16th Century Irish Archbishop James Ussher managed to narrow down Day 1 of the creation to October 23 in the year 4004 BC). The ancient Chinese creation myth, whereby the heavens chaotically expanded out of a black egg, is slightly closer to the scientific data, but can hardly be called an accurate description.

And what are we to make of moral prescriptions such as those in the Book of Leviticus that the death penalty be applied for dire crimes such as cursing one’s parents, homosexuality or working on the sabbath day (among many others)? Luckily, few societies, even Christian ones, have chosen to interpret such injunctions literally. But in that case, how are we to choose which parts of the scriptures to take literally and seriously, and which to take symbolically?

It should be noted that, in the context of New Testament of the Christian scripture, Jesus himself left no writings and was almost certainly illiterate (as were the vast majority of the population in his day). But what is more puzzling, especially given the otherwise thorough historical records of the period and the sensational events which allegedly unfolded around him, is that there are absolutely no secular, objective, historical references to Jesus during his actual lifetime, only later Roman and Hellenistic references dating from well after the Jesus legend had already been established.

There are significiant discrepancies between the four Gospels, all of which purport to describe the life of the same man, and we know that they were not written until many years after the death of Jesus. For example, only two out of the four Gospels (Matthew and Luke) agree on something as fundamental and newsworthy as the virgin birth. Furthermore, it can be shown that some of the Gospels were deliberately “tweaked” in order to make Jesus’ life consistent with various Old Testament prophecies. Just one such example is the artificial construct in two of the Gospels whereby Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem to take part in a census (despite no such census having taken place historically during Herod’s reign) in order to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Galilea.

The Argument from Scripture in its broadest sense can be refuted by a consideration of many of the same contradictions inherent in the Argument from Miracles (the difficulty of defining miracles, and the quantum leap in logic required to attribute them to a god), the Argument from Common Consent (just because an idea or book is popular and influences people does not mean that it is even necessarily true, much less of supernatural origin) and the Argument from Religious Experience (the possibility that religious experiences are imagination, fabrication or false interpretation, and the competing claims of the religious experiences of different religions).

Quite often, the alleged “predictions” a scripture is supposed to foreshadow are grossly ambiguous, applicable to a wide range of possible events. Plus, there is always the possibility that that “true” predictions have been retained in the records, while “false” predictions have simply been excised, and prophets with poor track records have just been forgotten (“counting the hits and ignoring the misses”).

The recent discovery of alternative, apocryphal scriptures, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, many of which are strongly at odds with the "official" version of the Bible that has come down to us, has begun to unearth the rather tortuous process of editing and censorship which goes into the production of an accepted scripture. The choices of one scripture over another, and the active suppression by the early Church of those which were decided against, appears to have resulted from a lengthy process of political and sectarian infighting in which the "truth" was gradually molded and shaped by early Church leaders and committees, a "truth" which has been blindly accepted as irrefutable and God-given ever since.

The claim that the scriptures of all the major religions agree on the big issues, even if not the minor details, is doubtful at best. The holy writings of Buddhist and Jains do not even share with other major religions the basic premise that there is an almighty creator-god, and there are so many variants of Hinduism (ranging from monotheism to polytheism to atheism) as to make any attempts at comparison all but pointless. The fact that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have many common themes is hardly surprising when one considers their common roots and geographical and historical proximity.

What is perhaps less widely known is the extent to which different religions re-use and recycle stories for their own purposes, which somewhat militates against the claims of the scriptures of individual religions to represent the "one true faith". A commonly quoted example is the story of the Great Flood, which can be found in early Sumerian mythology as well as in the Christian and Jewish Bibles, the Hindu Puranas and in Greek mythology. But the story of Jesus, central to the claims of Christianity, also has it roots in other, much older myths. For example, the Hindu god Krishna was a carpenter, born of a virgin and baptized in a river, and the Zoroastrian divinity Mithra was born on December 25th, performed miracles, was resurrected on the third day after his death, and was also referred to as the Lamb, the Way, the Truth and the Messiah. Even greater parallels are to be found in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" dating back to around 1280 BC, in which the deity Horus was born to a virgin mother, baptized in a river, tempted while alone in the desert, healed the sick and the blind, raised people from the dead, cast out demons, walked on water, had twelve disciples, was crucified and resurrected after three days. These may be interesting enough as myths and folktales, but hardly provide material on which to base morality and life choices, much less a justification for the supremacy of one religion over another.

As to the idea that a set of scriptures are more “perfect” than is possible without divine aid, that is clearly a matter of personal interpretation at best, and competitor religions would presumably be the first to dispute any such claims of perfection. Most Muslims, for instance, believe that the Qur’an (Koran) was dictated to Mohammed by the angel of God and therefore represents the word of God himself. They claim that it is too sublime and too beautiful to have been written by anyone else, and also that it contains no factual errors and that it anticipates many of the subsequent findings of science.

These claims for the Qur'an's perfection rest on a whole host of improbable assumptions: that the Archangel managed to avoid any slip-ups in conveying the Word of God; that the Prophet Mohammed remembered the Archangel's words with perfect accuracy; that the Companions transcriptions of the Prophet's memories, actually written over a 23-year period of revelations, were also error-free; and that when they finally arranged the text in its final form, they were able to remember the correct sequence for all the different texts.

Unfortunately, it has been shown that the Qur’an was actually written in several different styles, and probably over a period of many years. The discovery of a very early Qur'an manuscript in Yemen in 1972, usually referred to as the Sana'a manuscript, has provided evidence (in much the same way as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library have for the Bible) that the Qur'an has - or at least had - numerous variants and erasings, making its claim to be Allah's unaltered word dubious at best. According to some experts in the ancient Arabic in which is written, substantial parts of even the currently accepted version of the Qur'an are all but incomprehensible without some rather loose interpretation, and there are many radical discontinuities within and between suras, suggesting that it was hastily cobbled together from several different transcriptions and sources. Furthermore, much of the Qur’an can be shown to be loosely based on stories from the much earlier Bible, and most of its supposedly prescient predictions have been largely disproved, being merely restatements of knowledge widely available at the time.

Indeed, it cannot be empirically argued that any written work is beyond human capability to produce, and neither has it been demonstrated that any set of scriptures from any religion is completely error-free.

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