The Humanist Dilemma: Why Should Humanists Care What The Bible Says?

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Fed Up with Fundamentalism: I was going to send this as a letter to the editor of the Humanist magazine, but then I thought your column might be more appropriate. Typically, I read the Humanist from cover to cover, but in the March/April 2017 issue I found myself getting really impatient with “Fundamentalism on Trial: How Twelve Claims of the Christian Right Fail under Strict Secular Scrutiny” by Brian Bolton.

Why do we humanists care what the Bible or fundamentalists say about things like abortion, capital punishment, creationism in public schools, marriage equality, etc.? Why do we spend time and paper writing about these specious claims and asking readers to spend their time first processing what those extremists say and then considering contorted arguments against their contorted arguments? Why are we devoting all this attention and inadvertently legitimizing their views? Doesn’t it just empower them? If you want something to wither away in darkness, don’t keep shining a light on it.

—I Also Don’t Care How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin


Dear Don’t Care about Angels,

I must admit I had a little trouble with that article myself, for some of the same reasons you state and some additional reasons. In particular, I couldn’t get into any of the arguments about sexual orientation and marriage equality when, as the author notes, the Bible calls for the execution of homosexuals. What’s the point of arguing whether it’s okay to be gay or for gays and lesbians to marry if fundamentalists, unfettered by modern civil laws, would claim it’s their duty to execute them? It also struck me that some of the points applying biblical, historical, and constitutional arguments were about as distorted and self-serving as some of the points they were intended to refute.

As I was musing on how this whole exercise was probably gratifying for the author, it occurred to me that none of the twelve claims was about masturbation, which the Bible is against (even though it didn’t make the top-ten list — of commandments, that is). Many understand Genesis 38.9-10 to mean that masturbation is a sin punishable by death, but no one seems terribly interested in raising that point. Must be related to that thing about throwing the first stone, or living in glass houses.

We all know that people who cite the Bible to support their views are cherry picking. As Bolton points out, there are sixty crimes calling for execution in the Bible, not all of which fundamentalists are hot to enforce—lucky for us, since they include blasphemers and unbelievers. And in addition to looking the other way on masturbation, modern fundamentalists (is that an oxymoron?) aren’t big on promoting the biblical acceptance of slavery. But counterarguments against fundamentalist positions tend to involve cherry picking as well. The article focuses on twelve claims, not ten or twenty. No doubt there are additional claims, but perhaps they aren’t as objectionable to secular humanists as these twelve. And I suppose you could reason that if the magazine is going to devote pages to responding to Christian fundamentalist views, there should also be some attention paid to Jewish, Muslim, and other fundamentalist tenets as well—and maybe also throw in some conspiracy theories for good measure.

Many wise people have observed that it’s futile to tilt with any kind of fundamentalists because they refuse to restrict themselves to facts and logic and reason. But others find the practice entertaining or instructive. So while you may find articles like this one infuriating or a regrettable expenditure of your time, other readers may find them enlightening, thought-provoking, or otherwise worthwhile.

It’s actually quite important for humanists to be familiar with the Bible, the Koran, and other foundations of human beliefs. Understanding how others view reality (regardless of how unreal) is critical to understanding and coexisting with them, whether or not you share their perspectives. And although you don’t have to agree with a viewpoint to learn something from it, you also don’t have to read every word of every article in any publication, no matter how loyal a reader you may be.

Speaking of which, did you proceed to the following article, “The Arts for Humanists” by Daniel Thomas Moran? He notes, “My Bible is called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and my Koran is the works of the Romantic Poets.” Humanists are free to make of the world what they choose, without any compunction to comply with or refute any purported authority, be it the Bible, the Koran, The Prince or The Little Prince.