The Embarrassment of Noah
March 31, 2014
One of the persistent criticisms of the so-called New Atheists—Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al.—is that many of their arguments, although directed against religious belief in general, are really relevant only for fundamentalists. Sure, if you interpret the Bible literally, God comes across as a homicidal, genocidal, misogynistic monster, but this crude understanding of scripture is held only by ignorant believers, who, at most, constitute a substantial minority of the faithful. Therefore, the New Atheists present a distorted view of religion and show little understanding of the mindset of “moderate” religionists. The moderate religionists do not believe the Bible provides us with a literally true history of ancient times, nor do they regard the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, as providing an accurate conception of God and God’s relationship to humanity.
Mmm, OK. Well, now there’s the perfect opportunity for all those moderate religious leaders, including presumably Pope “Who am I to judge?” Francis, to publicize their rejection of the simplistic, literal interpretation of scripture. They can discuss the story of Noah and God’s destruction of the world by flood, and in doing so they can repudiate the depiction of God that’s set forth in this story.
The recently released film Noah, starring, among others, Russell Crowe, is being marketed aggressively and is receiving wide publicity. Millions of people will be watching it across the world. Although the film deviates from the biblical version in some details, the key parts of the story are represented just as they are related in Genesis: God kills most humans and (non-marine) animals by causing them to drown. He does so because he is angered by the wickedness of most humans. Noah, his immediate family, and representatives of the various animal species are spared. In their publicity, the makers of the film assure us that they have tried to stay true to the values of a story that is a “cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.” Having seen the movie, I think the filmmakers have stayed true to those values. It is also undoubtedly true that the Noah story, with its accompanying values, is a “cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.” The problem is these values are morally repugnant.
Let’s not mince words: if the story of the Flood is to be believed, God is a moral monster. To say his response to the alleged wickedness of humans is disproportionate is a gross understatement. Moreover, God engages in conduct that we would expect from the worst dictators, namely collective punishment that sweeps in the innocent along with the guilty. Children, presumably, were among those drowned (unless we assume that wicked adults had no offspring) as were most all of the animals, who bore no responsibility whatsoever for the misdeeds of humans. Intentionally drowning a kitten is conduct we’d expect of some psychopathic juvenile, not a loving deity.
For those who accept the truth of scripture, the “lessons” of Noah are that violence and destruction are perfectly acceptable means of addressing problems, human rights (let alone animal rights) are an illusion, and power is ultimately what counts. God could destroy humanity and all animal life because—well, who’s going to try to stop him?
Anyway, now that Noah is on the minds of many, it’s an opportune time for all those moderate religious leaders to set the record straight. Indeed, one would think these religious leaders would feel obliged to repudiate the literal interpretation of the biblical story, lest the faithful misapprehend the true nature of God. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing for the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other respected leaders to issue a joint statement declaring the Noah story to be a pernicious fable, not to be taken seriously by believers today? This would be morally edifying, and, of course, would put those coarse New Atheists in their place.
But we know this is not going to happen. Of course, there are many religious people, including some religious leaders, who do not interpret scripture literally. They don’t believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans, that God expelled us from Eden, that God destroyed the world by flood, that Noah built an ark that somehow housed representatives of all the animal species, and so on. They do not accept the Bronze Age myths found in the Bible. However, unless they are leaders of denominations which have expressly moved away from reliance on scripture (e.g., the Unitarians) religious leaders generally keep quiet about their skepticism. Because the dirty little secret of moderate religious leaders is that their authority ultimately depends on the continued loyalty of the naïve believer, that is, the person who does accept these Bible stories more or less at face value, and it would not be prudent to have these believers begin to doubt scripture. Once one begins to cast doubt on the veracity of biblical accounts, it’s hard to know where to draw the line. It’s one thing to be skeptical of the Noah story, but Moses? And what of Jesus and the Resurrection? And what happens when believers stop relying on holy writ entirely and actually use reasons and facts to come to an understanding of their world and their moral obligations? Without the authority of scripture to legitimize their positions, most religious leaders are out of business.
So best keep silent about some of the absurdities and embarrassments in the Bible. Oh, you can have some learned theologians write essays criticizing the New Atheists for their unsophisticated understanding of religion, waxing eloquent about how the Bible is only metaphor, and how God is not a personal deity but the ground of all Being, but for the ordinary believer, mum’s the word. Shh! It’s movie time. Pass the popcorn—and the collection plate.
#1 Bruce S. Springsteen (Guest) on Monday March 31, 2014 at 1:20pm
Well, done. This bears frequent repetition, until the moderate clergy accept their substantial responsibility for the continued influence of the immoderate, and the bamboozlement of the rank and file.
#2 ilikerox on Monday March 31, 2014 at 1:27pm
Well writ, Ron. Should’ve had “Spoiler Alert” added to the title though.
#3 Andrew (Guest) on Monday March 31, 2014 at 2:08pm
The assumption that the flood did not kill all the marine life is scientifically unsupportable. Even a small shift in salinity will kill most marine creatures more complex than macroalgae. So the ark would also have had to have modern aquatic facilities to keep all the corals, and pelagic species around.
#4 Brian (Guest) on Monday March 31, 2014 at 2:39pm
What a cop out. Next time I testify in court, I’ll be sure to say that principles of science that govern my work are able to be selectively applied, so that my outcome is correct, and anyone who disputes it is a substantial minority.
#5 drg (Guest) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 at 4:59am
Have you read the account of Noah in Genesis? The earth was filled with hybrid demon-men giants, taller than most single story houses today, who themselves and all others were very very violent. Yeah, just imagine if God DIDN’T step in and kill them all. None of us would be here today and the demon giants would rule the earth. Hence God used the flood to kill them all. We can assume everyone on earth, giant and normal humans, except Noah and his family, were extremely violent because the bible describes the earth was FILLED with violence. But even if you believe there may have been some innocent ones, Noah is described in 2 Peter 2:5 as a preacher of righteousness which meant he warned the people about the impending destruction and therefore people had a chance to change and join Noah in the ark and be saved. I won’t answer your other concerns as you can’t understand the simple things of God, let alone the deep things of God.
#6 drg (Guest) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 at 5:09am
May I add, whether you believe the story is true or not, I’m sure you love watching movies where a good guy comes along and kills a heap of bad guys/zombies/vampires or whatever. That’s pretty much the same thing here though in this story God even gives the bad guys a chance to survive (not the demon giants, just the humans).
#7 Andrew (Guest) on Tuesday April 01, 2014 at 6:08am
If you really believe the Nephilim were giants and that they were the result of angels raping human women, you also believe that this is part of God’s plan which makes your argument very spurious. These are fairie tales, and the flood is amongst the worst of them both in scope and message.
#8 David Atkin (Guest) on Thursday April 03, 2014 at 10:46pm
Mr Lindsay, I wrote the following, not as a defense of God; for God does not need to justify his decisions or actions to you or me. No, I wrote the following because you told me to “keep silent.” I cannot, and the church must not.
Title - April Fools
No joke, I only read two literary pieces on Tuesday, April 1st – the two could not have been more different! The first was Deuteronomy 32 – “The Song of Moses.” The other, a piece I saw on the Huffington Post web-site, written by a Ronald A Lindsay, entitled, “The Embarrassment of Noah.” I don’t usually quote other sources in my newsletter articles, but today is a good day to make an exception.
Lindsay writes concerning the new Hollywood movie, NOAH, “If you interpret the Bible literally, God comes across as a homicidal, genocidal, misogynistic monster, but this crude understanding of scripture is held only by ignorant believers, who, at most, constitute a substantial minority of the faithful.” The Song of Moses, found in Deuteronomy 32, was given to Moses by God (31:19), to be sung as a warning for those who would later decide to turn their back on their Creator. It says, “I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” (32:3-4)
Lindsay continues, “It is also undoubtedly true that the Noah story, with its accompanying values, is a ‘cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.’ The problem is these values are morally repugnant.” Moses sang, “They are corrupt and not his children; to their shame they are a warped and crooked generation. Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you? ...“You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (32:5-6,18)
Lindsay boldly asserts, “Let’s not mince words: if the story of the Flood is to be believed, God is a moral monster. To say his response to the alleged wickedness of humans is disproportionate is a gross understatement…For those who accept the truth of scripture, the ‘lessons’ of Noah are that violence and destruction are perfectly acceptable means of addressing problems, human rights (let alone animal rights) are an illusion, and power is ultimately what counts.” Singing a warning from God, Moses continued, “For a fire will be kindled by my wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. I will heap calamities on them and spend my arrows against them.” (32:22-23) This also reminds me of what Solomon said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1:7)
Lindsay goes on to tell religious leaders what would help ease the embarrassment caused by the Noah story (found in Genesis 6:1 - 9:17). He writes, “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing for…respected leaders to issue a joint statement declaring the Noah story to be a pernicious fable, not to be taken seriously by believers today? This would be morally edifying…” And, at the same time, these same leaders should disavow other Bible stories, like what Moses sang: “Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom and from the fields of Gomorrah. Their grapes are filled with poison, and their clusters with bitterness. Their wine is the venom of serpents, the deadly poison of cobras.” (32:32-33) Just to interject: I take this to mean that Moses believed that God did indeed destroy Sodom and Gomorrah! And, I’m pretty sure he believed the Noah flood story, too, since he is believed to be the author of Genesis. Further, if I, or anyone else, declare Scripture “untrue;” would it, therefore, automatically cease to be true?
Yes, if we doubt Noah, what’s next? Well, Lindsay responds with, “It’s one thing to be skeptical of the Noah story, but Moses? And what of Jesus and the Resurrection? And what happens when believers stop relying on holy writ entirely and actually use reasons and facts to come to an understanding of their world and their moral obligations? Without the authority of scripture to legitimize their positions, religious leaders are out of business.” Speaking of Moses and the Resurrection, hear these words from the Lord’s song, sung by Moses: “See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand. I lift my hand to heaven and solemnly swear: As surely as I live forever, when I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me.” (32:39-41)
Lastly, Lindsay has some wisdom of his own for you and me. He writes, “So best keep silent about some of the absurdities and embarrassments in the Bible.” Well, no, I can’t “keep silent!” For, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1a) Mr. Lindsay, sadly, I do believe you and I agree on at least one thing: It is, indeed, “a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God;” (Hebrews 10:31) having rejected a Savior, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, whom God sent as a sacrifice for sin, because He loves you. (John 3:16)
P.S. - Mr. Lindsay, I have a little booklet that we use here in Taiwan from the Gospel of John. I’d be happy to send it to you, if you are willing to e-mail me.
#9 Carlos Alvarez (Guest) on Friday April 04, 2014 at 7:22pm
Mr. Atkin could have spared everyone his litany of
ignorance if he would be better informed. It’s
better to read only one book that repeatedly
tells it’s followers not to use reason. And not to
ask the basic question ever human child asks
because it is the nature of our brains to ask,
“Why?” Why not use reason? Why not question
that which is at its core inhuman and inhumane?
Spare me heaven and a boring eternity in the
company of angels and billions of insecure
fanatical patriarchs - who by the way still think
that women are less than a slave, and are the
sole cause of all of humanity’s suffering
Who wrote the Bible? A bunch of barbaric,
illiterate and superstitious desert nomads.
If God (with a lower case “g” in my
vocabulary) was so wise, why was he
so unsophisticated in choosing such lot.
Or maybe it’s the other way around. The
illiterate lot created a god in their image.
We are the product of more than four billion
years of evolution. Obviously some of us
have not gotten past the first century of the
very arbitrary christian era. Thank you.
#10 Dave (Guest) on Monday April 07, 2014 at 7:20am
It’s a shame this all powerful wise and loving god couldn’t use its’s considerable intelligence to come up with a better way to save us from the giants he created than by drowning everyone and everything.
Even if there were any reason to believe these grim little stories about him such a being would not be worthy of worship.