First place — Grad student essay contest: Skylar Christensen
The ultimate argument from authority
FFRF awarded Skylar $3,500.
By Skylar Christensen
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” This passage at 2 Timothy 3:16 may, at first glance, appear to be benign compared to the homophobia in Leviticus or the sexism in Genesis and elsewhere in the bible. A short examination shows that it could be the most pernicious verse in the bible. This passage and others like it give the bible’s most destructive passages their epistemic authority and their rhetorical force.
The bible gives Christians the ultimate argument from authority. Arguments from authority are often considered valid when the authority supporting the argument is considered valid. What source could be more authoritative than the creator of the universe itself? To a believer, the bible is the direct word of an omniscient, omnibenevolent being. This belief forecloses the possibility of debate. A religious person cannot put the merits of the bible’s views up for discussion if those views originated from an infallible deity. That would be especially thin ice to tread on, given the jealous fire-and- brimstone God represented in the Old Testament. Never mind that concluding that the bible is unerring requires one to use the bible as the primary source, a circular argument which doesn’t slow down politically motivated Christians at all.
The bible not only forecloses debate on the basis of logical inconsistencies, but it also gives Christians unearned confidence in the righteousness of their views. The confidence is the result of the belief that they are not quoting the ravings of a pre-scientific writer from the fifth century BCE, but the unerring word of the creator of heaven and Earth. This level of epistemic closure can only lead to authoritarianism. One who is so certain that they have the right answer to all of life’s questions will not tolerate debate or delay in acting on those beliefs. Worse, the bible contradicts itself repeatedly and can, therefore, be used to justify almost any public policy. The bible, for the last 2,000 years, has been regarded by a large portion of our society (and a larger portion of its lawmakers) as a divine and infallible handbook for living. This attitude has had terrible consequences for women, minorities and LGBTQ individuals.
For the first time in at least 100 years, a bible study group has been established for White House cabinet members. The teacher is a basketball player-turned-theologian who believes that legislators ought to be guided by a book that never shies away from referring to women as chattel or urging the killing of gay people. The pastor reveals his own sexism by agreeing with scripture concerning women teaching religion, but stops short of supporting the death penalty for gay people. Another bible group was started for U.S. representatives and has 50 members, according to recent reports.
One assumes that these government leaders are not studying the bible for purely personal enrichment. They aim to justify their misdeeds by reference to the authority of the bible — not a bad strategy given that, according to the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of Americans believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God. This gives a special force to arguments in favor of policies decimating the civil liberties of women, minorities and LGBTQ individuals.
Bible-thumpers are filled with a dangerous sense of righteousness and a firm belief that their ends must be achieved, no matter how evil the means. It is 2 Timothy 3:16 that gives all of the homophobic, sexist, racist and amoral passages in the bible their force. Without this passage, and others like it, the bible could be considered another book written by mere men whose ideas could be reformed and cast aside as society develops. Instead, we are stuck fighting reactionaries from our own time and from centuries past.
Skylar, 28, is from South Salt Lake, Utah, and attends the University of Utah, where he is majoring in philosophy. He earned an associate’s degree in business at Dixie State University. After that, he worked as a freelance photographer and helped his father build a commercial lighting company. He currently works as a photographer for a real estate firm in Salt Lake City while going to college. He plans to go to law school after graduation.