Lecture Series | Dr. Mark Brimblecombe

Next month (October 2020), I begin a lecture series, which will be one lecture every month (or two):

  1. The Emergence of Christianity and the Jesus Myth
  2. Breaking down two-thousand-years+ of Christian Theology
  3. The Atheist and Scientific Argument against Religion: Strengths and Weaknesses
  4. Early Taoist Philosophy – An alternative to Religion

The first (and the last) lecture is ready to go. This is a topic which I have researched over the last thirty years, and especially in the last few months. I owe much to the recent works of Biblical scholars such as Dr. Richard Carrier and Dr. Robert Price.

This is somewhat speculative and raises the question of whether there was an historical person called Jesus… the alleged founder of Christianity. Maybe, maybe not. Whichever is the case, Christianity emerges from a ‘soup’ of many different traditions and trajectories in the first century A.D. The dominant strain becomes the one which we are most familiar with, with the Jesus of the four Gospels (itself a very contradictory story), and the writings of St. Paul who knows virtually nothing of this story. In the last one hundred years we have discovered literature from other early Christian traditions, especially from the Gnostic Christians. This gives us a clearer picture of the ‘Celestial Christ’ myth and the reasons for the development of an ‘historical’ Jesus.

The Jesus Myth Lecture is here.

I hope that Christians will be interested to attend these lectures. If nothing else, it will provide an opportunity for their ‘defending the faith’ and testing out ‘Christian Apologetics’.

A post-Christian Reflection

I am an atheist and an ‘unbeliever’ having been a Christian, a bible scholar, and a theologian for most of my life. So, I am now an apostate. This may offend those who are ‘adherents of the faith’ because I’m saying that I’ve been seriously deluded for much of my life, and so by implication think that you are too if you’re a Christian. Many will respond by saying that it does not matter. I partly agree, because we’re all practical atheists anyway. Besides, people are free to believe or not believe what they want in this part of the world. And, who wants to live in the real world anyway? Well, for me it matters because I want to know what is real and true, and I believe that the world would be a better place to live in if people thought the same.

My journey ‘coming out’ has followed two routes: (1) the argument from atheism and science, and (2) studying the Bible. I agree with Isaac Asimov who wrote, “properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

1. The arguments made by atheists, which are based on reasoning, logic, and the discoveries of science. Some of the best resources on this are:

  • God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2008)
    Audio Book on YouTube, Part 1, Part 2.
  • Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide by Richard Dawkins (2019)
  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (10th edition, first published 2006)
  • Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett (2006)
  • Why There is No God: Simple Responses to 20 Common Arguments for the Existence of God by Armin Navabi
  • Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927). Recorded lecture.
  • The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, selected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens
  • Why I am Not a Christian by Richard Carrier (2011)
  • The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails edited by John W. Loftus (2010)

2. The Bible is the product of an evolving religious tradition from early Judaism to early Christianity. It is mostly mythological, and mostly unhistorical, i.e. mostly fictitious religious propaganda. Some of the best resources on this are:

  • Seeing Through Christianity: A Critique of Beliefs and Evidence by Bill Zuersher (2014)
    An excellent YouTube lecture here: https://youtu.be/_AdPoHDebjU
  • Dr Richard Carrier’s books and videos (see YouTube). https://www.richardcarrier.info/
  • The Christian Delusion; Why Faith Fails edited by John W. Loftus (2010) – Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word / The Cosmology of the Bible / The Bible and Modern Scholarship / What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate (“the Bible debunks itself”).
  •  God: The Most Unpleasant Character in all Fiction by Dan Barker (2016)

Some may want to pray for me, though according to Hebrews 6:4-6 this would now be a waste of time. It is better that you think with me. I welcome the opportunity to discuss with you why I am not a Christian. Privately exploring the material listed above is a good place to start, especially if you’re afraid of being stigmatized for doing so.

God: Love and Justice

According to the Bible, God is love. This looks like a ‘hand in glove’ trick, the hand (or fist) being the justice of God, and the glove being the love of God… and so disguising or ‘dressing up’ the so-called justice.

In the Old Testament, “love” is truly an alien word. In context, love for God almost always means cowering commitment, self-denial, and sacrifice, not a freely chosen joyful adoration… God requires his lovers to fear him, which turns adoration into a compulsive disorder. (Dan Barker, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in all Fiction, 2016)

According to the Bible, God commands us to love him. It is the same as in any abusive relationship… “you must love me”.  What about the notion that God is just? Well, it is more of the same. Here is a short list of God being ‘just’ (and presumably being love at the same time):

  • God punishes children for the ‘crimes’ of their parents. The parents worshiped the ‘wrong’ gods (e.g. Deuteronomy 5:8-9).
  • Babies and unborn fetuses are killed because their parents have rebelled against God (Hosea 13:16).
  • Babies are killed and wives raped to punish pride (Isaiah 13:11-16).
  • Sons and daughters (children), are sold off or killed off for offending God (e.g. Joel 3:8).
  • Children born of a ‘forbidden’ marriage are discriminated against (Deut. 23:2).
  • Egyptian children are killed because of the actions or in-actions of the Pharaoh (whose heart God hardened!).
  • King David is punished for his sin by God, by God arranging to have David’s wives raped by the neighbors (2 Samuel 12:11).
  • King David is forgiven his sin, but irrespective of that his next born child must die (2 Sam 12:13-14).
  • David’s wife criticizes him for exposing his genitals to other women, so God punishes the wife with barrenness, i.e. not being able to have children. (2 Samuel 6:20-23).
  • God punishes a whole nation with a three-year famine, because Saul slew Gibeonites (2 Sam 21:1). Saul hands over seven of his men to the Gibeonites to be hanged, which ends God’s famine punishment.
  • God deliberately makes bad laws (impossible to obey) to ‘scare the shit out of’ people, and so that they will “know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 20:25-26).
  • God indiscriminately kills both the righteous and the wicked (Ezekiel 21:3-5).
  • A person is killed for believing a lie, not the person who told the lie (1 Kings 13:18-24).
  • God deceives a prophet, then kills him for being deceived (Ezekiel 14:9).
  • God discriminates against the physically handicapped (Leviticus 21:16-23).
  • Everybody 21 years and older, is to be taxed the same amount (a half-shekel), both the poor and the rich (Exodus 30:14-15).
  • Cursing a parent is punishable by death (Exodus 21:17).
  • If a person has sex with an innocent animal, both the person and the beast are put to death (Leviticus 20:15-16).
  • Witches must be put to death for being witches (Exodus 22:18).
  • God causes environmental degradation and destruction (punishes the planet) because of people’s wickedness (several stories).
  • God drowns all living things and people on the planet, apart from the fish or course… one family of humans… and a boat-load of animals, because of the great wickedness of the human race and their evil thought-crimes (Genesis 6-7).
  • One ‘sin’ erases a lifetime of goodness (Ezekiel 33:12-13).
  • Nonbelievers, and believers in other gods, should be put to death (Exodus 22:20; 2 Chron. 15:13; Psalm 78). God is jealous of these other gods getting attention.
  • The property (including the wives) of nonbelievers are confiscated (Jeremiah 8:9-10).
  • God persecutes and kills people for not listening to him (Jeremiah 29:18-19).
  • God’s racism is a just reason for commanding divorce, and genocide! Genocidal rape is also okay.
  • You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite (Deut. 23).
  • If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but you can’t take any home (Deut 23).
  • Slavery is okay, and sometimes commanded by God. It is not once in the Bible condemned or considered unjust. There are laws on how to treat slaves nicely. Sexual violence against female slaves is okay, by forcing them into marriage. But if they no longer bring you pleasure then you can ‘free’ them from slavery and send them away (Deuteronomy 21). Young virgins are a special prize (Numbers 31). Daughters can also be sold as slaves (Exodus 21:7).

Perhaps we could get a little more philosophical about God’s justice and consider the amicable conversation between God and Satan over Job’s loyalty. In order for God to prove his point, justly of course, he allowed his debating partner to basically destroy Job’s life and cause him a great deal of suffering. Anything to win a wager eh?

Finally I come to the Christian claim that Jesus is the incarnate God of the Old Testament. Need I say more, or just sing as I did in Sunday School, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tell me so.” Here is a ‘country’ rendition that might bring back indoctrination memories.

Racist Ideas and Religion

Racism is arguably one of the greatest evils on the planet. A much-cited example is the Nazi antisemitism that resulted in the atrocities at Auschwitz. Another is the long history of ethnic cleansing based on the belief that a god has chosen a particular ethnic group of Semites to be his chosen people, and has given to these people a land that should be ethnically cleansed (currently of Palestinians). Racism will always be worse when people believe in a racist and genocidal god. These beliefs, espoused by many Christians, Jews, and Muslims are intolerable.

Some of the best words spoken against racism, discrimination, and prejudice, come from the teachings of Jesus, especially the stories that include Samaritans, even Samaritan women. Though, ironically, even Jesus sadly lapsed into racist and derogatory comments about non-Jews (Canaanite people are ‘dogs’ and should not be helped). He was after all a victim of his own religious and ideological beliefs.  

Our best fight against racism is to expose and destroy the idea of racism, discrimination, and prejudice. Opposing the people we call racist is like putting the ‘cart before the horse’. The ‘cart’ goes nowhere if the horse that pulls it, racist beliefs and ideas, is dead.

It is imperative, in my opinion, that we deconstruct myths, stories, and religions which have for so long poisoned our minds and have legitimized bad behavior, especially killing people. A recent example is ‘The Great Replacement: Towards a New Society’ by Brenton Tarrant. He emailed a copy of this to the Prime Minister of New Zealand shortly before murdering 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch on 15 March 2019. His ‘manifesto’ gives his rationale for committing this atrocity, in a similar way that the Bible and the Quran provided the manifesto for Christians and Muslims to murder each other during the middle-ages. It was unfortunate that Tarrant’s ‘manifesto’ was censored and banned here in New Zealand, denying the public an exposé of his reasoning and beliefs. Here is a 5-minute summary of that 74-page document. By the way, the document itself is not dangerous, but the ideas in it are.

The best way to prevent future atrocities like this is to expose and condemn the thinking and reasoning that drives such atrocities. There is nothing disrespectful about that. Actually, it is disrespectful not to do that. Brendon Tarrant is behind bars, and may he always be so. But the killer’s ideas are still ‘on the loose’. They are found lurking in religious and ideological thinking. Some are not so discreet, shouting very loudly. We must put these ideas and beliefs on trial, call them out for what they are, and condemn them.

I understand the following children’s rhyme. It is of course literally and physically true. But it is also false.  

    Sticks and stones may break my bones
    But words will never hurt me.

Words and ideas can be very dangerous and hurtful. Whereas inert and mindless sticks and stones (or guns for that matter), NEVER hurt anyone.

Debunking Sacrifice

For as long as humans have been carnivores, animals have been killed and eaten by humans. Cooked meat has been a feature of festivities, cementing relationships and agreements between people, and used as offerings to impress people and gods. The belief that food offerings make gods happy, or calms them down when angry, seems to go back to the earliest religious rituals. It is within that context that the idea of ‘sacrifice’ emerges.

The biblical Noah sacrificed ‘clean animals and clean birds’ to his god after leaving the ark, thereby causing their extinction if the story is to be believed, as a token of thanksgiving. We are told that the smoke from the burning flesh was a pleasing aroma to God (Genesis 8:20-21). That is all relatively innocuous. But it soon becomes bloody awful, nocuous, and wrong.

What is ‘wrong’? We are all able to differentiate between right and wrong, just as we can between light and dark, and good and bad. In fact, you would never know one from the other unless both always existed. When it comes to right and wrong in moral and ethical terms, this is always about relationships. Not just people, but other life on the planet, and our relationship to the planet itself (the Bible sadly neglects this almost entirely). Understanding this requires no religion and no god. This is nature; this is natural (see my other blog posts on Taoism).

But this does not serve tyrants and political control freaks, and the gods fashioned after them. So it was found necessary, in order to maintain their authority, to invent laws to control people… or at least codify the common sense ones that always exists (e.g. killing people is harmful, stealing from people his harmful, etc). Right and wrong is then measured by abstract laws and abstract punishments. Wrongdoing becomes disobedience against a lawmaker, who demands retribution and punishment. Compensating the victim (if it happens at all), and seeking reconciliation between the offender and the victim take second place to an ‘offended’ ruler and lawmaker who is not the victim at all.

The story gets worse when wrongness becomes sin, when we bring in superstition and magic, when ‘sin’ becomes a noun (rather than a verb), some stuff, some ‘thing’, and is separated from the dynamic of relationships between people. Sin becomes easier to deal with when it is believed to be a thing. Now you can charge money for removing it by developing a professional priesthood, and build ‘cathedrals’ from the profit.

In an early form the business worked this way… Step 1: you take an innocent animal, a goat; Step 2: the sinner lays their hands on the goat; Step 3 (optional): a prayer or incantation is spoken; Step 4: there is a transfer of the ‘sin’ to the goat, by laying hands on it; Step 5: it is sent off into the wilderness to die there along with its new infection. Problem solved! ‘Out of sight and out of mind’. What happened to the ‘sin’. Perhaps it defiled the land where the animal perished. Anyway, this was the mystical mechanics (metaphysics) of purification from it.

So, the ancients turned the abstract concept ‘wrongdoing’ into a substantial thing: sin. This is the reification fallacy.

Reification is when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating something that is not concrete, such as an idea, as a concrete thing. (Wikipedia)

According to the Bible this sin stuff is physically transmitted from parent to child (through sex) so that every child born is contaminated. All of humanity is therefore infected.

Given that it is a contaminant, the best and most effective way to deal with it is some other thing that can cleanse it away… like a detergent with special properties and powers. This requires the same magic as reification, but in reverse (counter-magic). We must retrofit some thing so it has properties that it never had before. We make it holy by endowing it with unseen powers. A special incantation or ritual does the job, especially if performed by a qualified practitioner.

The magically retrofitted stuff from the animal or human sacrifice is blood, turned into a cleanser. My guess is that blood was chosen because it was symbolic of life. But so is ‘breath’ symbolic of life (Genesis 2:7). Anyway, blood it was. The working formula entailed sprinkling it on buildings, or furniture, or clothing, or people. More specifically sometimes, “on the lobe of their right ear, and on the thumb of their right hand and on the big toe of their right foot.” (Leviticus 8:24). It was a cleansing agent. It purified. Ironically, it putrefies or decomposes if not soon washed off. But let’s not get ‘modern’ and hygienic about it. This does however demonstrate that the magical and superstitious views about blood are pre-scientific, and almost certainly would not and could not develop in a modern non-religious world. Here are a few more ‘old time religion’ beliefs about blood, now shown to be pre-scientific and false:

  • that babies are conceived from the mixing of blood
  • that a woman’s menstrual blood is dirty and defiling
  • that bloodletting prevents or cures disease

Let’s return to animal blood. Rather than animals just being a convenient mode of transport for carrying away sin (the scapegoat), they were put to death because there is magical power in the blood itself. The animal becomes a blood sacrifice with not only the power to appease an angry and offended god, but to also magically cleanse or wash away sin with its blood.

Jesus was born into this cult. And I might add, was conceived without sex so he was sinless (uncontaminated), or so the story goes. He grows up within this religious and sacrificial system and apparently supported it. His contempt for some fauna and flora may be related e.g. cursing a fig tree not fruiting out of season, and sending a large herd of pigs to their death. Anyway, the whole Bible story is constructed around the idea that sacrifices worked, and that Jesus was the ‘lamb of God’ who removes the sins of the world. I would go further and say that the whole story was invented to magnify the myth, and that it is essentially a marketing campaign to give it supremacy over competing mythologies and religions. Whatever you think of the Bible (and my reading of it), if you are an adherent of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity then you believe in the efficacy (effectiveness) of blood sacrifices, even or especially a human sacrifice. I mean real sacrifices, not ‘symbolic’ ones. There is no disclaimer like in the movies… “No animals or people were tortured or killed in the making of this movie.” Millions of animals (including humans) have been killed, and still are today, because it is believed that there is “power, power, wonder-working power in the blood.” You can sing along here if nausea and vomiting doesn’t overwhelm you. I find this abhorrent and disgusting. It is morally, spiritually, and intellectually reprehensible in the modern scientific world. I confess to you, with remorse, that I have ‘been there’ myself. This is my absolution.

Another Bible study, with reference to Jesus and C.S. Lewis, from the late great Christopher Hitchens

[the following is an extract from Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great: Religion Poisons Everything]

JUST AS THE SCRIPT of the Old Testament is riddled with dreams and with astrology (the sun standing still so that Joshua can complete his massacre at a site that has never been located), so the Christian bible is full of star-predictions (notably the one over Bethlehem) and witch doctors and sorcerers. Many of the sayings and deeds of Jesus are innocuous, most especially the “beatitudes” which express such fanciful wish-thinking about the meek and the peacemakers. But many are unintelligible and show a belief in magic, several are absurd and show a primitive attitude to agriculture (this extends to all mentions of plowing and sowing, and all allusions to mustard or fig trees), and many are on the face of it flat-out immoral. The analogy of humans to lilies, for instance, suggests — along with many other injunctions — that things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time. (“Take no thought for the morrow.”) This is why some of the Gospels, canonical and apocryphal, report people (including his family members) saying at the time that they thought Jesus must be mad. There were also those who noticed that he was often a rather rigid Jewish sectarian: in Matthew 15:21-28 we read of his contempt for a Canaanite woman who implored his aid for an exorcism and was brusquely told that he would not waste his energy on a non-Jew. (His disciples, and the persistence of the woman, eventually persuaded him to unbend, and to cast out the non-devil.) In my opinion, an idiosyncratic story like this is another oblique reason for thinking that some such personality may at some time have lived. There were many deranged prophets roaming Palestine at the time, but this one reportedly believed himself, at least some of the time, to be god or the son of god. And that has made all the difference. Make just two assumptions: that he believed this and that he also promised his followers that he would reveal his kingdom before they came to the end of their own lives, and all but one or two of his gnomic remarks make some kind of sense. This point was never put more frankly than by C.S. Lewis (who has recently re-emerged as the most popular Christian apologist) in his Mere Christianity. He happens to be speaking about the claim of Jesus to take sins on himself:

Now, unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden-on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.

It will be noticed that Lewis assumes on no firm evidence whatever that Jesus actually was a “character in history,” but let that pass. He deserves some credit for accepting the logic and morality of what he has just stated. To those who argue that Jesus may have been a great moral teacher without being divine (of whom the deist Thomas Jefferson incidentally claimed to be one), Lewis has this stinging riposte:

That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman and something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I am not choosing a straw man here: Lewis is the main chosen propaganda vehicle for Christianity in our time. And nor am I accepting his rather wild supernatural categories, such as devil and demon. Least of all do I accept his reasoning, which is so pathetic as to defy description and which takes his two false alternatives as exclusive antitheses, and then uses them to fashion a crude non sequitur (“Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”). However, I do credit him with honesty and with some courage. Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that. Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. This means that many of the “sayings” and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.

For further enlightenment, read the whole book:
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Allen & Unwin, 2007).

This book is now out of print. But it can be purchased as a Kindle edition from Amazon.

A Bible Study with the late great Christopher Hitchens

[the following is an extract from Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great: Religion Poisons Everything]

The foundation story of all three faiths [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] concerns the purported meeting between Moses and god, at the summit of Mount Sinai. This in turn led to the handing down of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. The tale is told in the second book of Moses, known as the book of Exodus, in chapters 20 – 40. Most attention has been concentrated on chapter 20 itself, where the actual commandments are given. It should not perhaps be necessary to summarize and expose these, but the effort is actually worthwhile.
  In the first place (I am using the King James or “Authorized” Version: one among many rival texts laboriously translated by mortals either from Hebrew or Greek or Latin), the so-called commandments do not appear as a neat list of ten orders and prohibitions. The first three are all variations of the same one, in which god insists on his own primacy and exclusivity, forbids the making of graven images, and prohibits the taking of his own name in vain. This prolonged throat-clearing is accompanied by some very serious admonitions, including a dire warning that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children “even unto the third and fourth generation.” This negates the moral and reasonable idea that children are innocent of their parents’ offenses. The fourth commandment insists on the observance of a holy Sabbath day, and forbids all believers — and their slaves and domestic servants — to perform any work in the course of it. It is added that, as was said in the book of Genesis, god made all the world in six days and rested on the seventh (leaving room for speculation as to what he did on the eighth day) . The dictation then becomes more terse. “Honor thy father and thy mother” (this not for its own sake but in order “that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee”). Only then come the four famous “shalt nots,” which flatly prohibit killing, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally, there is a ban on covetousness, forbidding the desire for “thy neighbor’s” house, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, wife, and other chattels.
   It would be harder to find an easier proof that religion is man-made. There is, first, the monarchical growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge, of the sort with which a Babylonian or Assyrian emperor might have ordered the scribes to begin a proclamation. There is then a sharp reminder to keep working and only to relax when the absolutist says so. A few crisp legalistic reminders follow, one of which is commonly misrendered because the original Hebrew actually says “thou shalt do no murder.” But however little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible. (The same unanswerable point can be made in a different way about the alleged later preachings of Jesus: when he tells the story of the Good Samaritan on that Jericho road he is speaking of a man who acted in a humane and generous manner without, obviously, ever having heard of Christianity, let alone having followed the pitiless teachings of the god of Moses, who never mentions human solidarity and compassion at all.) No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai. Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts. One can tell that this, too, is a man-made product of the alleged time and place, because it throws in “wife” along with the other property, animal, human, and material, of the neighbor. More important, it demands the impossible: a recurrent problem with all religious edicts. One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much. In particular, it is absurd to hope to banish envy of other people’s possessions or fortunes, if only because the spirit of envy can lead to emulation and ambition and have positive consequences. (It seems improbable that the American fundamentalists, who desire to see the Ten Commandments emblazoned in every schoolroom and courtroom — almost like a graven image — are so hostile to the spirit of capitalism.) If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species.
   Then there is the very salient question of what the commandments do not say. Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly “in context” to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended? In verse 2 of the immediately following chapter, god tells Moses to instruct his followers about the conditions under which they may buy or sell slaves (or bore their ears through with an awl) and the rules governing the sale of their daughters. This is succeeded by the insanely detailed regulations governing oxes that gore and are gored, and including the notorious verses forfeiting “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Micromanagement of agricultural disputes breaks off for a moment, with the abrupt verse (22:18) “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” This was, for centuries, the warrant for the Christian torture and burning of women who did not conform. Occasionally, there are injunctions that are moral, and also (at least in the lovely King James version) memorably phrased: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” was taught to Bertrand Russell by his grandmother, and stayed with the old heretic all his life. However, one mutters a few sympathetic words for the forgotten and obliterated Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites, also presumably part of the Lord’s original creation, who are to be pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel. (This supposed “covenant” is the basis for a nineteenth-century irredentist claim to Palestine that has brought us endless trouble up to the present day.)
   Seventy-four of the elders, including Moses and Aaron, then meet god face-to-face. Several whole chapters are given over to the minutest stipulations about the lavish, immense ceremonies of sacrifice and propitiation that the Lord expects of his newly adopted people, but this all ends in tears and with collapsing scenery to boot: Moses returns from his private session on the mountaintop to discover that the effect of a close encounter with god has worn off, at least on Aaron, and that the children of Israel have made an idol out of their jewellery and trinkets. At this, he impetuously smashes the two Sinai tablets (which appear therefore to have been man-made and not god-made, and which have to be redone hastily in a later chapter) and orders the following:

“Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.”
   And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses, and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

A small number when compared to the Egyptian infants already massacred by god in order for things to have proceeded even this far, but it helps to make the case for “antitheism.” By this I mean the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it. The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.

For further enlightenment, read the whole book:
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Allen & Unwin, 2007).

This book is now out of print. But it can be purchased as a Kindle edition from Amazon.