Questions from Theists: How Can the Universe be So Finely Tuned for Life?

When I launched this website a week ago, publishing my About page, I almost immediately got a comment from a theist, arguing in favor of theism. His comment made several different kinds of points in rapid succession. While each assertion and each question deserved its own considered reply, unfortunately, the flurry of them all at once made it hard to do justice to any of them. Assertions can usually be conveyed in a sentence or two, while countering them with substantive arguments takes much longer.

One of the things he asked was this:

How come the world fits together so exactly? If the Earth was a meter closer to the sun, life would not be sustainable, for example.

I picked this one section out, because I knew I could give a quick correction, and — regrettably — was too flippant about the underlying point, that he was asking how the universe can be so finely tuned for life to exist, without an intelligent, omnipotent force (i.e., God) designing the universe for life. I answered that part as follows:

This is false. The Earth has an elliptical orbit, not a circular one. The average distance of the Earth from the sun is ~92,918,000 miles. The Earth’s farthest point from the sun this year is 94,506,507 miles. The Earth’s closest point to the sun this year is 91,401,343 miles. So as you can see, in January, Earth was about one and a half million miles closer to the sun than the average, and right now we’re about one and a half million miles farther away from the sun than average.

He replied to this as follows:

OK, don’t take it as the exact one meter, take it as the principle of the way it works exactly with the seasons, the earth at a certain axle making the seasons as they are, the complete situation that works exactly like it should and with one of these missing it would not work at all.

There are many arguments to be made about fine-tuning, on both sides, and I gave him a several part reply. I’m not going to quote that reply, here, but instead give a similar, expanded and rewritten, reply, for any readers here who have these kinds of questions. [I might also make more posts on the topic, later, and / or add more to this post, since there are many other relevant arguments besides what I included here.] I can’t be certain that this response perfectly suits the gentleman who originally commented, but it might be relevant for readers who are interested in the fine-tuning argument.

(A) Let’s begin by noting how far off the original assertion was:

We don’t know how exactly how much nearer nor farther the Earth could be from the sun while still sustaining life, but we know that the nearest and farthest that the Earth was to the sun this year give us minimum bounds. The numbers are at least this much, and maybe more.

There are 1,609.34 meters per mile, and the difference between the nearest and furthest distances from the sun that the Earth is, this year, comes out to 3,105,164 miles.

3,105,164 x 1,609.34 = 4,997,264,631.76

So, the assertion was off by literally just shy of five-hundred-billion percent, at the very minimum.

I must respectfully suggest to those who both favor the fine-tuning argument and who also use the “meter closer to the sun” example, that finding out one of your primary examples is off by at least five-hundred-billion percent, might be cause for you to reconsider what you know about the topic.

(B) To the best of our knowledge, the universe as a whole appears to be incredibly hostile to life as we know it. The empty stretches of vacuum are almost unimaginably vast, with just tiny spots of matter here and there in between all of the emptiness. The temperature of the universe, on average, is barely above absolute zero. There’s harmful cosmic radiation almost everywhere. If the universe were finely tuned for life by an omnipotent creator, one might expect most of the universe to be habitable, and for life to be flourishing everywhere — an endless grassy plain or woodland, full of all variety of creatures, or something akin to that. Instead, we find that life is almost nowhere. I have heard it said that if the universe were a house, the area habitable for life as we know it would be equivalent to about one atom within that entire house. That’s obviously a very loose analogy, but it’s enough to help one grasp that life as we know it is hardly prospering as we might expect in a universe designed for such life.

(C) The “finely-tuned world is evidence of God,” argument undermines itself.

Why would God need to fine-tune the universe, or our little part of it? What is the reason for fine-tuning?

Think about an architect fine-tuning a house design, or electronics engineers fine-tuning a laptop computer design, or automotive engineers fine-tuning a car design. Architects have to fine-tune houses to make everything that must go into them (such as toilets, oven, electrical wiring, etc.) fit inside the available space, and then they have to fine tune the size of the house itself to fit within the size of the property; they have to fine tune the home to be affordable within the area where it’s being built, to handle the weight of the materials the house is made out of and perhaps handle the weight of things like snow loads on the roof, to withstand the stresses of earthquakes, to withstand local weather patterns, and so on. Electronics engineers have to fine-tune laptop computer designs to accommodate the weight limits of what a person can comfortably carry, the heat a chip can handle, the capacity a battery can store, the cost of memory, and the like. Automotive engineers have to fine tune cars to accommodate how much steel weighs, how strong plastics are, how wide street lanes are, how much air resistance impedes thrust, and the like. Simply put, the only reason one ever fine-tunes anything is because there are external factors that one does not and cannot control. Especially physics and economics. Why don’t architects just design houses with more space on the inside than they take up on the outside, that cost pennies to manufacture? Why don’t electronics engineers make laptop computers that can store an infinite amount of data and never run out of power? Why don’t automotive engineers design cars that travel at the speed of light and can withstand any crash? Because they can’t circumvent the way the world is.

An omnipotent God, on the other hand, would be under no such constraints. He could do whatever He wants. Thus, He would have no need for fine-tuning. He could, for example, just make people fireproof and shockproof by divine will, instead. (After all, gods routinely do miracles which defy physics as we know it, in many of the world’s sacred religious texts.)

Even so, you might think, perhaps God was just in the mood for some fine-tuning, anyway. But this still implies that the world had pre-existing characteristics that were outside of God’s creation. Furthermore, unnecessary fine-tuning would come at steep costs. Think about a laptop computer with infinite data storage capacity, infinite processing speed, and infinite battery power, in comparison to the laptops we have. Likewise, for a god to fine-tune a creation to operate within external factors, rather than divinely will a creation with impunity toward external factors, would be to greatly compromise the design from the absolute best possible, to the best possible within the severe constraints.

If God had to fine-tune the universe, it’s because He was restricted in what He was able to do. He was not omnipotent to make things any way He wanted. And the more fine-tuning was necessary, the more external factors must have been out of His control pressuring the directions of his choices, and the less powerful God was to make things His way. When you start contending that staggeringly huge levels of fine-tuning were required, you are necessarily arguing that God’s creative powers were infinitesimally small. It’s an argument that the way that the world is, was entirely outside of His influence, while God had no choice.

Questions from Theists: What are the Tenets of Atheism?

Question:

What are the tenets of atheism? If all atheism is about is not being a believer of a religion, or being against religion, then what are the principles of atheism? What do atheists stand for?

Answer:

Atheists are not one organized group, and thus they have no semblance of an agreed upon, homogenous set of tenets. Atheists are simply all the people without any theistic beliefs. Each one may have her or his own views and values. They each stand for whatever they individually find important. Like many others, they often stand for things like liberty, equality, and kindness toward others.

In my personal experience, most atheists prefer rationality to faith (which is not necessarily to say that they are always good at being rational), and prefer humanistic morality to theistic morality*. That probably also holds true as a broad generalization, but don’t expect every atheist to hold those views.

 

* I’ll have more to say about what rationality means, and what humanism means, in future posts.

Questions from Theists: Why Don’t More People Read the Bible?

Editorial note: One of the ongoing features on this website will be answering questions I come across, asked by theists. I may slightly modify these questions, for brevity and clarity, but these are their real questions. I will be providing straight answers, from my atheistic perspective. This particular question wasn’t addressed to me, but it’s a question I see believers ask often on religious forums.

Question:

Why do millions of people read bestsellers, cover to cover, but hardly anybody actually reads through the Bible?

Answer:

People read books for reasons such as enjoyment, catharsis, and knowledge. Hundreds of millions of people read the Harry Potter series because the books are entertaining, imaginative, emotionally engaging, resonant with themes that matter to readers, and occasionally wise. They read The Language Instinct because it’s fascinating, intellectually stimulating, full of useful information that helps people better understand ourselves and our world, and good fun.

Conversely, they don’t read the Bible because the Bible is none of those things. People don’t read it because, on some level, they recognize it for what it is. False. Ignorant. Barbaric. Irrelevant to their lives.

If people considered the Bible a worthwhile read, they’d read it. It’s that simple.

That’s not to say there are no beautiful passages, interesting metaphors, or pearls of genuine wisdom in the Bible. There are a few — remarkably few — here and there. But you have to wade through endless rubbish to get to them. Such as the many passages of God’s unparalleled cruelty, like thisthis, and this. And the God-commanded and God-enabled genocides, so myriad that the anonymous Bible authors sometimes had to just compile them into lists, such as this, rather than give full accounts for each. And the numerous divine legal codes ordering execution of non-virginal brides, stubborn kids, witches, blasphemers, beastialistsfalse prophetsfortune-tellersnon-believers, followers of other religionspeople who engage in homosexual acts, people who don’t listen to priests, people who work on weekends, and a variety of other kinds of people who have harmed nobody. And the endless genealogies filled with skipped generations and contradictions, such as this. And all of the primitive magic rituals and spells, as I discussed in my previous post. And the uncomfortably sycophantic flavor of the multitude of praises, such as thisthisthis, and this. And the countless dictates about how to sacrifice animals to God, such as this, with great repetition of the themes that God likes the aroma of burning flesh, but hates yeast. All interspersed with a collection of some of the most vile, perverted, sadistic, pointless stories to be found anywhere in the world history of literature, such as this.

People don’t read the Bible because they don’t want this reprehensible nonsense. Even most of those who begin to read it through soon stop, because it is so detestable. Perhaps those who lament how few people read it should be glad, since, as Penn Jillette has noted many times, the fastest way to make a Christian into an unbeliever is to get her / him to actually read it in its entirety.

A related question should be: If the Bible is what many people say it is — the inspired, inerrant word of God — then why is it so awful that even most believers avoid ever reading it?

Why is the purportedly “Greatest Story Ever Told” an utterly stultifying read, even for most Christians? Is God Almighty really a worse storyteller than J.K. Rowling and Stephen King?

Why is the Bible so unclear that 40,000 different Christian sects disagree with each other over every single point of biblical theology? Is God completely inept at clearly articulating His message?

Why is it filled with false and harmful beliefs, but devoid of any real knowledge that would’ve greatly improved people’s lives through the millennia? For example, why does the Bible attribute leprosy to a curse by God (such as 2 Kings 15:5), to be cured through divine intervention (such as Matthew 8:1-3) — rather than attribute leprosy to infection with the germ Mycobacteria leprae, to be cured with targeted antibiotics?

Why is the Bible filled with thousands of contradictions? For example, why does it give two different dates for when Jesus was born, one before 4 B.C., the other at least a decade later, after 6 A.D.? (Matthew 2:1 & the date of King Herod the Great’s death, April, 4 B.C.; Luke 2:1-4 & the date Quirinius became Governor of Syria, 6 A.D.)

These are questions believers will have to answer for themselves. For me, the answer is apparent: because the Bible was written by fallible, uninformed people, without Heavenly aid.

Open-Minded Versus Close-Minded

Attack of the Close-Minded Scientists

I read a fellow complain about how close-minded the scientific community is. Scientists don’t believe in the supernatural. They don’t believe in the paranormal. They close themselves off to so many possibilities….

Here’s my perspective.

Open-minded is, according to various online dictionaries, “willing to consider new ideas; unprejudiced.” Thus, open-minded people are willing to bring their opinions, views, and ideas they hold to be accurate knowledge in line with the best information available, no matter what that may be.

Imagine two people, an occultist and a scientist.

The occultist believes in pyramid power, crystal healing, astrology, the evil eye, chakras, seances, astral projection, numerology, palmistry, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and the law of attraction.

The scientist doesn’t believe in any of those.

From what little I’ve outlined above, who would you guess is more open-minded? The occultist or the scientist?

This may seem counter-intuitive, but the scientist is probably the more open-minded of the two.

How could someone who doesn’t believe any of that be more open-minded than someone who believes all of that?

Our scientist doesn’t believe these paranormal notions because they fail to withstand rigorous testing. However, if telekinesis, crystal healing, or the others had worked when tested, she’d have no problem accepting them. She’s not prejudiced against these possibilities. She is, in fact, open to them; they merely need to work for her to accept them. She’s very open-minded about modifying her views based upon the available facts. Our occultist, on the other hand, keeps these beliefs regardless of their failure when tested. He’s prejudiced in favor of these possibilities. It doesn’t matter what the results are. He doesn’t change his mind. He’s close-minded to the possibility that pyramid power, astrology, and the rest are erroneous.

The scientific approach is inherently an open-minded one in its willingness to adopt anything that works and reject anything that doesn’t. Scientists change their views based upon new information quite routinely. For examples, they switched from the Steady-State theory to the Expanding Universe theory, and from Catastrophism to Uniformitarianism. They’ve thrown away innumerable of their previously held concepts, such as phlogiston and phrenology. Likewise, they’ve adopted all kinds of hard to believe concepts when the best available data led toward them, such as quantum entanglement, and Godel’s incompleteness theorem.

Conversely, the approach occultists take is intrinsically close-minded, if there’s refusal to modify a currently held position based upon newer, better data. With the occultist’s approach, beliefs are held regardless whether they encounter fatal contradictions, regardless whether new theories supersede the ones they currently hold, with greater precision, better predictive power, broader explanatory power, and / or better corroboration.

Which do you think is more open-minded, one who keeps whatever ideas work and rejects whichever don’t? Or one who insists on keeping some and rejecting others, regardless whether they work?

Scientists actually tend to be more open-minded in their rejection of the paranormal than occultists are in their acceptance of it.

The same applies to theists who believe by faith as applies to our hypothetical occultist. To give two examples:

1) When Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis ministry, debated Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and the moderator asked them both, “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” Ken Ham answered, “As Christians, we can say we know. And so, as far as the word of God is concerned — no, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.” Meanwhile, Bill Nye answered, “We would need just one piece of evidence.” (Click here to watch the video of this.)

2) When an interviewer asked theologian William Lane Craig, “What advice would you give to someone who is experiencing serious doubts [about their Christian faith]?” Craig replied, “They need to understand the proper relationship between faith and reason. And my view here is that the way in which I know Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit, in my heart. And that this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence. And therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstances, the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit. In such a situation, I should regard that as simply a result of the contingent circumstances that I’m in, and that if I were to pursue this with due diligence and with time, I would discover that, in fact, the evidence, if I could get the correct picture, would support exactly what the witness of the Holy Spirit tells me. So I think that’s very important to get the relationship between faith and reason right. Otherwise, what that means is that our faith is dependent upon the shifting sands of evidence and argument…” (Click here to watch a video of this.)

Ham and Craig are not being open-minded in their religious beliefs, they are being close-minded in their refusal to be swayed by data toward any other position. Bill Nye, on the other hand, is demonstrating open-mindedness.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every scientist perfectly embodies the scientific method, nor that every occultist or theist perfectly embodies a faith-based epistemological methodology. But science itself is more open-minded in its methodology than occultism and theism, and tends to therefore attract a more open-minded community.

Rotten Cherries: Bible Magic

 

One of the unpleasant discoveries in store for intrepid theists who actually read the Bible cover-to-cover, is that the Bible is loaded with questionable magic ceremonies and spells. For example, here’s how God commands a priest create a magic potion to make a woman have an abortion and become infertile, if her husband suspects her of infidelity:

 

“If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife…”

‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”

‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children. — Numbers 5:12-28

I hope that most readers can recognize that this kind of shamanic voodoo is more likely the product of primitive minds alone than of a truly all-knowing, all-powerful, benevolent god.

Here’s another one, for lepers:

“…the priest shall command them to take … two live clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. And … kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water… take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water… sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field… And on the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb a year old without blemish, and a grain offering of three tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, and one log of oil … And he shall kill the lamb in the place where they kill the sin offering and the burnt offering… The priest shall take some of the blood.. and… put it on the lobe of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. Then the priest shall take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand and dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand and sprinkle some oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. And some of the oil that remains in his hand the priest shall put on the lobe of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot, on top of the blood of the guilt offering. And the rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed…” — Leviticus 14:1-32

And so forth. It goes on like that, as you will see if you click the link.

I should note here that apologists are quick to defend this passage by pointing out that it is not supposed to be a magic spell to cure leprosy, as it might appear. Heavens, no. Rather, it’s God’s instructions for how to spiritually cleanse a recovered leper — as though that makes it any less preposterous.

Scarlet yarn… sprinkling people seven times with live birds dipped in blood … dabbing people’s big toes and earlobes with oil… Can any theist read the passage above and affirm, “My Lord commanded that,” with a straight face? A God who would create such systems for people to interact with Him would be too inane to deserve your worship, even if He did exist. If you believe the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God, then you owe it to yourself to read through the entire Bible and see what it actually says. You’ll be amazed … and not in a positive way.

Quote of the Day: Martin Luther

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but — more frequently than not — struggles against the divine word, treating with contempt all things that emanate from God.” — Martin Luther

On at least this point, I can mostly agree with Martin Luther, one of the founders of Protestantism. Of course, I don’t think anything actually emanates from God, because I don’t believe in God, but I would agree that reason treats with suspicion all things that theologians claim emanate from God. As it should. More pertinently, he’s right that reason is the greatest enemy faith has — even if he means this as lamentation, while I see it as praise.

Notable Fact: The Hard-Hearted Pharaoh

Editorial Note: This is part of a regular series that shares notable and perhaps surprising facts that pertain to religion. Some amusing, others shocking. Many of them will correct misinformation that various religious groups like to spread, and / or reveal things they like to hide. A few of them might perhaps reframe people’s understanding about certain topics. Also, if you have any issues with what I’ve written here, please visit my caveats page.

Perhaps you’ve heard the Bible story of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement. God brings it up several times in reference to Himself, during significant occasions. For example, God starts the  original Ten Commandments by saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

If you aren’t familiar with the tale, you can find a synopsis of the story, as it’s usually told, in any of thousands of places online, such as here. Please take a few minutes to read one, then come back.

For today, I won’t dwell on God delivering the Israelites into more than 400 years of slavery before he later delivered them out from slavery. (Genesis 15:13) And I won’t dwell on the fact that there are no indications whatsoever outside of the Bible, no corroborating archeological findings and historical records, backing up that the Egyptians ever enslaved the Israelites, or that the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert, or that Moses even existed at all. Nor will I dwell on the fact that the first plague, leaving no water to drink in all of Egypt, would’ve killed all the people and animals in the country from the outset, ending the story. Nor shall I dwell upon on the fact that the livestock which the story explicitly says were all killed by the fifth plague were shortly thereafter explicitly killed a second time by the seventh plague, and then the firstborn amongst those twice-dead livestock were explicitly killed yet a third time by the tenth plague. We’ll save all such topics for another day.

Rather, let’s start by considering the odd behavior of the Pharaoh in this story. Based upon the way the story always gets retold, you might be scratching your head as to why the Pharaoh didn’t relent sooner. Was God’s first plague, turning every drop of drinkable water in Egypt to blood, not sufficiently persuasive? Was this not an adequate demonstration that God had the power and the will to make his demands met, and that He was not to be trifled with? Through one plague after another, Moses and Aaron sequentially warned the Pharaoh of exactly what horrors God was about to visit upon the Egyptians, and then God carried through on His threats. Through one plague after another, the Pharaoh seemed to capitulate, asking Moses and God to call off the plague, promising to free the Israelite slaves — then took back his word and refused to free the slaves, after God lifted the plague. While festering boils disabled the populace, fire and ice pelted down from the sky, and the land fell into complete darkness, the Pharaoh persisted in his folly. Through the loss of Egypt’s entire supply of water, the collapse of all its fisheries, the destruction of all of its crops, the death of all its livestock, the slaughter of every firstborn citizen, and ultimately the drowning of the entire Egyptian army, the Pharaoh dared again and again, eleven times in a row, to incur another round of God’s wrath.

Why was he such a glutton for punishment? Was he stupid? Was he insane? Was it a deadly mixture of wickedness and pride, as preachers preach from the pulpit and Sunday school teachers tell the children?

If we actually read the story in the Bible, rather than listen to people who revise it, we don’t need to guess. The Bible tells us exactly why the Pharaoh behaved this way: because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, making him refuse. (Exodus 4:21Exodus 9:12, Exodus 10:20, Exodus 11:10, Exodus 14:8)

What?! God was playing both sides, making Moses tell the Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves, and also making the Pharaoh refuse to release the Israelite slaves?! Yes, indeed.

Why would God do such a thing? Fortunately, the Bible also tells us exactly why God behaved this way: to demonstrate His power, in order to become famous. (Exodus 9:16)

It’s something theists usually prefer to leave out of the story. If you bring it up, savvy apologists will often try to spin it to a more palatable interpretation. That particular apologetic goes something like this:

“God doesn’t do that. It’s a matter of semantics. The further the Pharaoh went away from the word of Moses and God, in search of other thoughts, the more deaf he became to them. Then, the more his past experience changed his brain, the more likely it was that the Pharaoh would not listen to God and Moses the next time. The Pharaoh formed his intellectual perception to a particular way of thinking, thus the ‘hardening of his heart.’ It was the Pharaoh’s own actions that hardened his heart. Since the Pharaoh chose not to go to God’s way of thinking, it seemed like God placed more obstacles in his way, thereby giving the appearance that God did it. However, this was simply a natural biological function, helped along by things that the Pharaoh encountered in the environment.”

I can understand why people read interpretations into these passages to fit how they feel that a God they could accept should behave. However, the “Pharaoh did it to himself” interpretation simply does not comport with scripture. God bluntly, explicitly, and repeatedly takes credit for hardening the Pharaoh’s heart, and moreover explains that he planned this from the beginning, along with elucidating precisely why He did it. Then He brazenly says that He’ll have mercy on whom He will and He’ll harden whom He will. He notes that you can’t resist His will, and yet He’ll still blame you for doing what He made you do. Then He defiantly addresses anyone who takes issue with such behavior:

“I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden.”

‘One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist His will?’ But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” (Romans 9:17-20)

We are left with the uncomfortable fact that God interfered with the Pharaoh’s free will and forced his defiance, so that He would have an excuse to wield deadly supernatural might against the Egyptians, to demonstrate His power, to gain fame.

Exodus 38:26 tells us that there were 603,550 non-Levite, Israelite male slaves 20 years or older who left Egypt in the Exodus, and Numbers 3:39 tells us there were an additional 22,000 Levite, Israelite male slaves 1 month or older who also left. From this, I think we can sensibly surmise that the number of Egyptians killed (all of the firstborn males killed by the Angel of Death, plus the entire army drowned in the Red Sea, plus everyone killed in the the seventh plague’s hail and fire, plus everyone who starved to death when all of the livestock and fish died and all the crops were destroyed by locusts, etc.) would’ve numbered somewhere from several hundred thousand to several million.

So, in this story, God:

1) interferes with the Pharaoh’s free will to force him to behave defiantly, then punishes both him and his entire population for this defiance;

2) plays both sides, demanding that the Israelites be set free while thwarting this from happening;

3) causes at least several hundred thousand preventable deaths, including many tens of thousands of innocent children;

4) does all this for the express purpose of showing off his power, to make a name for Himself.

Why do revisionists leave out the critical part about God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart when they retell this story? And why do apologists strive to reinterpret that part to mean something different than what it actually says? Because God’s actions in the story, as the Bible tells the tale, offend their moral sensibilities. As they should. But the Bible does say that, and pretending otherwise is neither faithful nor honest. Instead, fundamentalist believers must grapple with worshipping a God whose morality contradicts their own.

Rotten Cherries: Elisha and the Two Bears

Editorial note: Believers like to cherry-pick favorite quotes from their religious texts, often ones they’ve heard from others, when they haven’t even read their scriptures for themselves. This is the first of an ongoing series wherein I’ll be sharing some of the less comfortable passages in the other 99% of their holy books.

You’ve all heard the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but have you heard the short, surreal biblical tale of Elisha and the Two Bears? Here it is:

“And he went up thence unto Bethel, and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up thou bald head.”

“And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.”

“And he went thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.” 2 Kings 2:23-25, King James translation

That’s the whole story. The Bible doesn’t mention anything about it again, later in the book. Really, what else is there to say after this?

So, to recap: The prophet Elisha came to the town of Bethel. Kids came out to him, taunted him about his baldness, and told him to go away. In response, Elisha called down upon them a curse from God. God’s curse miraculously brought forth two bears from the woods. These bears mauled forty-two children. Then Elisha nonchalantly continued on his way.

Don’t take my word for it that this is really in the Bible. Go see for yourself.

In case this needs to be said: Elisha was considered a righteous man, and this was not a transgression from righteousness. Indeed, the miracle of the bears slaughtering the youths could not have happened without God channeling his power and making it so.

Because. God. Approved.

It’s popular for apologists to justify this by purposely mistranslating to “young men,” and then spinning this story so that it was a gang of adult hoodlums harassing Elisha, the prophet of God, as an act of rebellion against God (which would still not justify the response, in my estimation). They will tell you that the ancient Hebrew word translated into English here as “children” was “na’ar” — which could mean a “youth” up to as much as 30 years old. What they won’t tell you is that “na’ar” is modified by “ketan” (“little”) into the compound word “na’ar-ketan” in the text, which does, indeed, mean “little children” — not young adults.

While this particular apologetic is a combination of reading what’s simply not there and distorting what is, one can hardly blame apologists for this. They realize the big problem here: they have to reconcile a loving and just God with the actions He takes in the story to massacre seemingly innocent little kids over practically nothing.

As is often the case, the problem of reconciling fairness, justice, and goodness, with God’s actions in the Bible, leads apologists to get a little too creative with their readings.

To my view, Elisha’s and God’s actions in this tale are unjustifiable. Even if I believed in the God of the Bible, this is one of many examples of why I would deem this God unworthy of worship. If you are a believer, it is incumbent upon you to take a frank look at God’s action here, and wrestle with the issue of justness  for yourself.