On Good Bits of the Bible, and of Religion generally.

Mar 30, 2013


Discussion by: Zeuglodon

According to the online version of the Skeptic's Annotated Bible, there are only 511 good verses or passages in the whole of the Bible, Old and New Testament inclusive. Given that there are about 1189 chapters, together making a total of over 31,000 verses, this means that just under 2% of the Bible has anything worthwhile in it. Of course, this is what the site owner finds good, but all the same, once you've gone through the long lists of atrocities, inaccuracies, and absurdities on offer in the rest of the bible, this doesn't exactly speak well of the "Good Book". However, that's not what I'm about here.

 

If you look at the list the site provides, you quickly notice that over half of the good bits (271 out of the 511 presented) can be traced back to just two Old Testament books: Proverbs (191 examples) and Ecclesiastes (80 examples). These include such iconic phrases as "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:" and "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up." While not everyone can agree with all of the items on the list (personally, I raise an eyebrow at the "all is vanity" line), I think we could come to a consensus that many of these lines are very good. Interestingly enough, Jerry Coyne suggested on his blog:

 

…is the Bible really great literature?  Well, in parts. I did read it cover to cover a long time ago, fighting my way through the early “begats” to get to the good stuff—only to find that the good stuff was thin on the ground.  When we hear about what great literature the Bible is, we hear about the same parts again and again: some of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the Proverbs, and so on.  Yes, many expressions in English parlance come from that book.  But much more of it is the tedious recounting of boring stories, and a slog to get through unless you’re a believer.  In that light, I judge the Bible as a literary curate’s egg: it’s good in parts.

 

For this discussion, I think I'd like to make a couple of cases, both about these two books and about the good passages generally. Firstly, do you agree with Coyne and think you have noticed a tendency for pro-christian people and apologists to quote these two books more often than any other? This would suggest that they avoid other books or aren't aware that these two books aren't representative of the horrors of the rest. Thinking more broadly, one might begin to make the case that, when people talk about "The Bible", each person has specific passages and books in mind rather than the whole mishmash, depending both on what they've actually encountered and on their own mindsets before they've even read the things (for instance, that optimistic people tend to notice the better passages and focus on them more). 

 

Secondly, if you agree that at least some of these examples are worthwhile, would you exclude any and why? Do you think we might do some good if we actually took up SAB's idle speculation and surgically remove the good bits to put into a pamphlet, even if only to demonstrate to others just how awful the rest of the bible really is? It might even, given the first point above, provide a checklist against which we can mark off when a bible quoter is using the same old passages over and over, and therefore conspicuously avoiding other, less admirable, passages. Or it might be simply for those who have given up one of the Abrahamic faiths, and who would at least like something positive to remember it by, while at the same time finally coming to terms with what garbage the rest of it is.

 

Really, this is interesting speculation. Similar points could be made for other faiths. To what degree could we surgically remove the good bits and leave the bad bits behind for, say, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.? Would it be better to come up with our own stuff independently, and simply consign religion to history? What do you think?

19 comments on “On Good Bits of the Bible, and of Religion generally.

  • 1
    QuestioningKat says:

    Hey Zeug, The Bible like any other religious text has rough diamonds hidden in the muck. I spent several years wading through the muck to get a few jewels of wisdom. At times, I had to extend hard labor chipping away rock. Some of what I thought was a jewel, I now realize it is also muck. Why do this? Isn’t life challenging enough to have to deal with other people’s perceptions of what is good or not good? It’s like searching through someone else’s excrement to find that gold filling that they swallowed. We can find other nuggets of wisdom free from agenda. The book of Mom or Grandpa has it’s value too. We can find meaning and importance in a poem, observing a friend overcoming a hardship. Even a novel may have one line that stands out and shifts a person’s view on how to live more fully, freely, or differently. The one thing I valued about my previous church is that they encourage finding your own spiritual path; we weren’t limited to one Book.

    Unfortunately, some people like the coloring book version of life. To be faced with a blank canvas and then told to create can be overwhelming – “where do I start?” The fact is religious or not, some people cannot think or create on their own in all aspects of their lives. Some have very few ideas or at least none that are original. Some have too many ideas and are confused “which do I choose?” Some follow peer pressure, fashions, rules, facts, group opinion, etc. How can one view fit all? Could one quote be positive for one person, but useless or harmful to another?

    To cherry pick the Bible is to impose a value judgement upon those lines saying that they are “better” than the rest. Are they? They may be – more loving, more positive. But can we actually say that they are more effective? (One man’s trash is another’s treasure.) I bet you could pick a few lines and find similar secular quotes, songs, stories, etc. so there is no reason to cherry pick out the good lines from the Bible except to have a visual in which one one pamphlet is smaller in size than the rest of the book. You could also do this with a bar chart.

    I’m not in favor of destroying art even if it isn’t very good. Artists used to paint religious themes and other mythology. In time, the history of art has moved away from these subjects towards various genre and subject matter. The field worker became as interesting as the crucifixion. Abstraction replaced realism. Though realism has taken a back seat in history, it still exists. I think instead we should focus on how to get people to think beyond the coloring book mentality towards life. In time, the creation of new materials will take care of itself. It already has and will continue to do so until the end of our existence.



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  • Why treat the Bible as anything other than Iron-Age mythology? If you’re going this far, why not start taking the good parts from the Greek Pantheon, or old Egyptian faiths? I’ll answer that: those religions aren’t well-subscribed to anymore. Giving these religious books additional value over their historical interest is something I would consider farcical for an atheist.

    I wouldn’t see any value in keeping the good bits of the Bible, it’s only considered good because people think that God wrote it.

    The bits of Christianity that have any value nowadays are the feelings of spirituality and connection to the world around them. Prayer is a powerful tool to them, they meditate on their feelings of compassion and forgiveness for flaws in relation to other humans, and the rote prayers act like mantras as a form of concentration and mindfulness practice, so basically they’re working towards keeping their brains healthy and happy whereas most atheists don’t. The organization of Christian churches is also a source of power. Christians meet up and reaffirm their group identity, they meditate and build on feelings of trust for one another, they take in the outcasts of society and give them some kind of support, basically a giant empathy-enhancing machine.

    The dogma and doctrine of Christian faith is the only reason it’s flawed, trying to keep any of that would be a terrible, terrible mistake.



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  • 3
    papa lazaru says:

    Reduce the Bible to a collection of words of wisdom? I suppose, purely for argumentative reasons, but I agree with Utopia, there’s more to religion than just a few well meaning intentions.

    How would you reconcile the other cannons though. Duality, life after death, sins, redemption, faith, communion. That stuff is really what religions are at the core, not the few good intentions sprinkled around. And that’s the addictive poison of it.

    I say, trash it all, start again, and teach kids some manners. What you’ll end up with what would be roughly what you suggested anyway. It would be a work in progress (and is, that’s what laws and philosophy are about), but that would be a good thing.



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  • 4
    whiteraven says:

    You can read the content of what Thomas Jefferson did with scissors and the New Testament at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/JefJesu.html and see the real thing at http://americanhistory.si.edu/JeffersonBible/

    Maybe you’ve heard the quote attributed without proof to Picaso “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”. A lot of people put a good amount of time into it and King James I had a version made up that’s considered a pretty good piece of work by a committee. Take what’s useful and leave the rest on the cutting room floor. Same goes for other sources. If you’ve got a piece of sensible advice or food for thought, why reinvent the wheel? You can replace “god says” with “I think” and give proper attribution for the rest.



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  • 5
    Nodhimmi says:

    Next, read the koran, sunnah, etc. I guarantee that will convince you of the absence of ‘good bits’

    Waste no more of your wonderful, precious life on drivel (‘great literature’ or not)



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  • 6
    canadian_right says:

    I think it it would be a lot easier to write down what you think is good and moral. Be a lot faster than sifting through the bible to find what you have already decided.

    A good way to convert theists is to get them to read the bible. Most haven’t, and when they do they are often shocked.



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  • 7
    jon.pianos says:

    The Bible is a bit like life – good and bad and quite a bit of absolute boredom. Taking the analogy further nobody actually likes the bad bits of life – illness, divorce, death etc but we would have very poor characters and empty personalities without the learning curve which they bring



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  • 8
    susanlatimer says:

    It would be fun to assemble a pamphlet of the “good bits” of the bible, just to see the bible cut down to size, so to speak. Even the good bits amount to nothing but folk wisdom and some lovely poetry, nothing that stands out as “divinely inspired”.

    The real trouble is that people believe it’s a magic book. If we begin with the assumption that it’s a magic book, then every part of it can be considered good, and any failure to see it that way is due to inadequate interpretation or worse, us believing that our ideas of morality can measure up in any way to those of a christian god. There’s no reasoning with that logic.

    I would hate to read Greek myths or the Arabian Nights with all the nasty bits removed. We’d lose the story. Myths are a wonderful thing that tell us a lot about ourselves and about the cultural forces that shaped and continue to shape our thinking.

    It’s a real problem when myths are taken literally. They become very dangerous and they lose their value as stories.

    We are not dealiing with one book when we read the bible. Much of it isn’t stories at all. There are ancient laws, genealogies, warnings, prophecies, social codes, letters, visions… a mish-mosh of bits.

    One thing it clearly is not is magical.



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  • 9
    matt.cavanaugh.262 says:

    I have many christian friends who say, ‘I don’t care what’s real or not — the teachings of Jesus are a good code for living a moral life.’ But most of Jesus’ sayings consist of ‘believe in me and you’ll get into Heaven’. As for the rest, it had already been said earlier and better by Seneca, Epicurus, Buddha, et al. My friends also heavy cherry-pickers, choosing to ignore when JC says, ‘if you can deal with castration, go for it’ or ‘it’s cool to own slaves, just try not to beat them too hard.’ I fail to see the benefit in relying on such a sloppy pastiche, when the original philosophies are accessible.

    As for the koran, for every sura saying one thing, there’s a sura that says the opposite. In koran study, newer suras trump the older ones, and it’s the newer ones that are so nasty.

    In short, searching the holy books for nuggets of philosophical wisdom is like drinking from a muddy puddle when there’s a fresh spring nearby. By all means, make up your own stuff, without bothering with these garbage books.



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  • 10
    Nodhimmi says:

    As for the koran, for every sura saying one thing, there’s a sura that says the opposite. In koran study, newer suras trump the older ones, and it’s the newer ones that are so nasty.

    In short, searching the holy books for nuggets of philosophical wisdom is like drinking from a muddy puddle when there’s a fresh spring nearby. By all means, make up your own stuff, without bothering with these garbage books.

    He he- that must be the same muddy puddle where Allah makes the sun set??



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  • 11
    Prophiscient says:

    The first thought I had would be to just trash the whole thing, but now I think that might be kind of cool. I would like to see how much shorter the bible is with only the good verses. I would also like a collection of particularly bad verses so that when Christians try to pretend like the good verses are the best representation of the rest of the bible we would have a much larger collection of bad verses to show them their ignorance.



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  • 12
    exReligiousNut says:

    Very good point. Also of possible relevance to these statistics is that the current version had some of its own nonsense purged along the way, for example, some info-masseurs like St. Paul cut out many sections relating to astrology. The percentage might therefore be even lower than 2% as a result.



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  • 13
    The Jersey Devil says:

    OK, so I was flipping through the list of 511 ‘good’ things in the link when I noticed a few things.

    First of all, there is some repetition. How many times is something like ‘Love one another’ on the list? So it really is less then 511 good things.

    Second, I don’t care for the whole ‘Don’t Judge’ non-sense. Some people are jerks. I’m not allowed to hold it against them? Nuts to that! Though I will say that I’ve found it beneficial to hold my judgements when I first get to know a person – or at least be willing to change my mind after a first impression.

    Third, some of the things may sound good but is it really helpful? Like # 477 on the list, “Do not error”. Yeah, great, thanks for the advice. Come on!!!



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  • 14
    bob_e_s says:

    Not being (or having any desire to be) an expert on the bible or christian theology, I’ve been wondering if it’s the case that thinking christians (i.e. who can see that taking the whole bible literally is ridiculous) take parts of the OT to have been superseded by the NT.

    I read something along the lines of Jesus being the perfect sacrifice, so all that stuff in Leviticus about animal sacrifice became irrelevent from that time.

    Is there any mileage in ignoring the nasty stupid bits of the OT by this means?



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  • 15
    Bandediron says:

    In reply to #9 by matt.cavanaugh.262:

    I have many christian friends who say, ‘I don’t care what’s real or not — the teachings of Jesus are a good code for living a moral life.’ But most of Jesus’ sayings consist of ‘believe in me and you’ll get into Heaven’. As for the rest, it had already been said earlier and better by Seneca, Epicurus, Buddha, et al. My friends also heavy cherry-pickers, choosing to ignore when JC says, ‘if you can deal with castration, go for it’ or ‘it’s cool to own slaves, just try not to beat them too hard.’ I fail to see the benefit in relying on such a sloppy pastiche, when the original philosophies are accessible.As for the koran, for every sura saying one thing, there’s a sura that says the opposite. In koran study, newer suras trump the older ones, and it’s the newer ones that are so nasty.In short, searching the holy books for nuggets of philosophical wisdom is like drinking from a muddy puddle when there’s a fresh spring nearby. By all means, make up your own stuff, without bothering with these garbage books.

    Matt,

    I’m not suficiently familiar with the bible to know where Jesus says it’s cool to own slaves, just try not to beat them too hard. Is that Luke 12: 47 – 48? If so, the King James version refers to servants, not slaves, and Luke 12: 36 – 46 puts 47 – 48 into context. Or maybe you’re not interested in context? My reading of this is that Jesus is not talking of servants or of slaves, but of each individual’s (lack of) preparedness for the hereafter. But then, I’m no philosopher, as clearly you are.



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  • 16
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to all comments:

    Yeah, I have to admit I had a rethink after posting this discussion, and since then I’ve become less sure about how good this would be as a formal project. For one thing, the point I wanted to emphasize – pointing out how poor a source the bible is for morality – has already been made various times, and with more economy and relevance than would be achieved by going through the whole thing with scissors. Not to mention that it’s a fruitless exercise, as the bible contradicts itself more often than not, so even sound bits get scraped against less sound bits.

    The second thing is that I wasn’t seeing the woods for the trees. The goal shouldn’t be proving that religious people can still be good by following their books. Far more important is making it clear the very notion of following the books is flawed, either because it’s irrelevant (if you’re a good person, you don’t need it to tell you what to do) or self-defeating (you either prove you’d be immoral without them or end up cherry picking).

    The third thing is that I confused accepting the bible as a historically important text with accepting the bible at face value. I wasn’t suggesting we replace the bible with this new version, but that we made it as a compliment. However, this overlooks the fact that the bible itself has been filtered so many times and so often revamped in translations that adding another version to the pile won’t really contribute to our understanding of it. To get that, you might as well get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

    My conclusion is that this discussion no longer has any meat to it, and I would prefer to get back to a more consequential issue: for instance, promoting reason and rendering religion itself as something that is done in private universally or mostly, and as something to be ridiculed and marginalized.



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  • 17
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #14 by The Jersey Devil:

    OK, so I was flipping through the list of 511 ‘good’ things in the link when I noticed a few things.

    First of all, there is some repetition. How many times is something like ‘Love one another’ on the list? So it really is less then 511 good things.

    Second, I don’t care for the whole ‘Don’t Judge’ non-sense. Some people are jerks. I’m not allowed to hold it against them? Nuts to that! Though I will say that I’ve found it beneficial to hold my judgements when I first get to know a person – or at least be willing to change my mind after a first impression.

    Third, some of the things may sound good but is it really helpful? Like # 477 on the list, “Do not error”. Yeah, great, thanks for the advice. Come on!!!

    These are, to be fair, the pickings of one person, subjective and not entirely flawless. I don’t have an answer to the repetition of points, though. I guess he must have been scraping the barrel for examples.

    Interestingly, many of them he turns against the rest of the bible, so some of the good points are actually bad news for literal christians.



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  • 18
    EthosAtheos says:

    Such a loaded question “What do you think?”. I will try to keep this short and hopefully not foot in mouth.

    I have a few points in your post that stood out at me the first was the quote of a blog post. “…is the Bible really great literature?” I would argue in the affirmative. I enjoy the stories not as lessons or as laws. But instead as short stories. I very much enjoy the story about the 2 she bears killing 42 children. It is a good horror comedy. No I don’t advocate the killing of children by bears. Yes it is a ridiculous story and should be ridiculed if anyone thinks it is a true story. But as literature it is interesting. When I read the bible I read it the way I read Othello. It’s a kind of tragic comedy. Admittedly I skip the long boring and useless bits. The bible is like any other religious text it is important and does show us useful things. I would not use it as my “Moral Compass” but it is a good read.

    The second part I wanted to address is “Would it be better to come up with our own stuff independently, and simply consign religion to history?”

    This question is one that I have spent considerable time pondering. I know this is not a new concept but it seems to me that “We” as not stamp collectors should offer alternatives to the institutions of religion. There is a positive in helping others and reaching out to the community. In it’s purest form I think some religious organizations do a good job of it. The salvation army for example or so many food banks and shelters. I am less sure about weather or not to just ditch religious ideas or to select for the best parts. But I am very confident that the way forward is to move the useful functions of religion into the secular.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my 2 cents.



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  • re 19 EthosAtheos. “But as literature it is interesting. When I read the bible I read it the way I read Othello. It’s a kind of tragic comedy. Admittedly I skip the long boring and useless bits.”

    Othello, or Shakespeare’s total works, have no useless bits, but they are not long or boring, they are too short.

    The reason that the Bible is regarded as great literature is that most people on this website read the King James version, translated at a time when English writing was at its very best, and Shakespeare himself had apparently a big hand in polishing the final version.



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