Skepticism and the Bible

I am currently in the middle of reading the late Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark. Sagan tackles the superstitions and false beliefs that give rise to a kind of mental, if not political and economic, slavery. The way out of this word of superstition, often perpetrated by religion, is for a society to have broad scientific knowledge capable of asking relevant and critical questions borne of skepticism.

There is one section that caught my attention the most, and it it is this section that is worth reflection. In chapter 7, eponymously entitled “The Demon-Haunted World,” Dr. Sagan quotes the British historian Edward Gibbon who, commenting upon the philosophers who became Christians, makes this observation:

“The most curious, or the most credulous, among the Pagans were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers” (TDHW, page 126).

The result for Gibbon, and Sagan, was that superstition came to eventually replace reason and critical thinking.

In his The Mythic Past, biblical scholar Thomas Thompson makes the case that the authors of the Bible often tackled philosophical questions about suffering and our views as humans of the divine, as in the case of the Book of Job. Thompson asks if the God portrayed in the book actually answers Job’s questions, because it looks like he pulls rank on poor Job, in effect telling him “who are you to question me?” Thompson (if I am reading him correctly) sees this as the authors actually questioning the widely held human awe of the divine that all cultures share. When we look at Elijah, do we see a righteous man eager for the Lord (our standard view of him), or a zealot who slays others in contravention of the commandment not to kill? God has to teach Elijah in the silence of Horeb that he is not the God of fire, wind, or earthquakes (i.e., violence; see 1 Kings 19).

So, skepticism of human views of the gods (indeed, of superstition) and of human behavior is very much woven into the fabric of the Bible. It is a book that introduced skepticism of religious traditions, and the dangers of excessive piety long before modern science entered the scene (Mark 7. 1 – 13).

In earlier posts on this blog, it was established that Plato and his followers “did a number” on the human race. We are still paying for Plato’s dreams. Sagan is partial to philosophy, presumably as a critical and skeptical practice, but it seems strange, because at the end of the philosopher’s discussions, nothing remains resolved.

So, it is not accidental that when Paul goes to Athens (Acts 17), he encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” along with the rest of the Athenians.

I consider this passage to be one of the most indicting comments in the Bible of philosophy and how uncritical it is, as it is devoid of actual engagement with the real world. All the philosophers of Athens would do is talk, and frankly, behave like the rich man in Luke, ignoring Lazarus at the gate. That is, they would feed themselves and do nothing for the poor and needy who surrounded them, and who were invisible to them.

Scripture invites us to open our eyes — as Jesus says, to “look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6) — and be critical of the lessons we are being taught. Asking questions is very much part of the biblical tradition.


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