Philosophy meets Religion
Christianity and Islam form the basis of the spiritual beliefs of more than half the world's population. For all of their popularity, though, there are good reasons to doubt that either one of them is true.
This page introduces some of the most powerful among those, including the moral character of revelation, the inconsistency of revelation, the story of how revelation purportedly came to be in the world, and the way revelation has been structured and composed.
Religious criticism is an extremely challenging topic, for religions are core not simply to the way that billions of people see the world—they form a central part of how they see themselves as well. Finding a way to balance the interests of truth and compassion for the situation and feelings of others is one of the greatest challenges there is. Moreover, how any person believes is a matter that they decide. Still, by seeing what is implausible about religious descriptions of existence, we put ourselves in a better position to rethink the whole question of life and its meaning from a spiritual perspective.
The moral character of revelation
It stands to reason that if god truly was the author of either the Bible or the Quran, those books should come to us expressing only the highest moral ideas. Unfortunately, while they both contain many examples of truly excellent moral ideas (like being honest and just, refraining from evil, and helping the poor and the needy), they also contain some of the worst moral claims imaginable.
The Bible on Women
Women were created beneath men (Genesis 3:16, 1 Corinthians 11:3), and must submit themselves in obedience to their husbands (Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:22–24). In times of war, it is morally permissible to subject women to rape (Deuteronomy 21:11–14). They are to learn quietness and submission, and are not allowed to teach or hold any authority over males. If they have faith and love and holiness, they will be saved in the end through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:9–15).
The Bible on Hell
Unbelievers are evil (Hebrews 3:12) and suffer from the wrath of god (John 3:36). God sternly warns that the accursed will be cast into the furnaces of hell (Matthew 13:41–42) where they will experience everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9), be tormented with brimstone (Revelation 14:10–11), and suffer eternally (Matthew 25:41–46; John 5:28–29). As bad as hell is, god has “closed the eyes” and “deadened the hearts” of some so that they will never believe in him (John 12:37–41, 2 Corinthians 4:4).
The Bible on Death
Among the list of people whose deaths are required, the Bible tells us to execute all homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus 20:10), Sabbath breakers (Exodus 35:2), and blasphemers (Leviticus 24:16). It even goes so far as to demand the deaths of any virginal women who are engaged to be married and are raped in a city (Deuteronomy 22:23–25).
The Quran on Women
Men hold authority over women, for women were created a degree below men (4:34). They are to remain faithful and chaste, keep their gaze lowered, cover themselves in public, and avoid stamping their feet (lest their ankles and legs be revealed; 24:31). A woman’s value as a witness is half that of a man’s (for recording debts, at least; 2:282), and they may inherit only half of what a man is (4:11). Menstruating women should remain separate for the length of their menstruation (2:222), but at all other times may be used for sex (2:223). Capturing women as sex slaves during times of war is also permissible (33:50).
The Quran on Disbelief
Nothing is worse in the sight of god than those who do not believe in him (8:55, 6:21). Not only are unbelievers liars (43:20) who should be kept away from places of worship (9:28), to god they are quite literally the worst of all people (98:6, 30:45) and are unfit for friendship (5:51, 9:23, 4:89). Even most Jews and Christians (who are given special recognition in the Quran as “people of the book”) live terrible lives (5:59). Though god despises unbelief, he has set a seal upon the hearts of some people so that they will never believe in the truth of Islam (2:6–7, 14:4, 39:23).
The Quran on Hell
Hell is a place of eternal punishment and torture with fire (4:14, 4:168–169, 5:36–37). Those who reject god and “the revelations” will have yokes placed around their necks and will be dragged through boiling liquid while being taunted (40:70–76). They will have their skin consumed by fire, whereupon it will be replaced and then burned off again so that they may “taste the torment” (4:56). The inhabitants of hell will be made to drink boiling water (6:70) and will not be able to drive off the fire from their faces and backs (21:39). They will wear clothing made of fire, their skin and organs will melt, and they will be impaled upon iron hooks (22:19–22).
Inconsistency in revelation
Exhibit A: the story of the discovery of the empty tomb...
Jesus's body was taken down following his crucifixion and placed in a sealed tomb. Sometime thereafter, a group of women went to his body in order to anoint it with spices. Who went? It depends on which Gospel you ask. It was either Mary Magdalene and another Mary (Matthew 28:1); Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1); an unspecified group of women (Luke 24:1); or Mary Magdalene all by herself (John 20:1).
When whoever it was that went there got to the tomb, which had either been left guarded (Matthew 28:4) or unguarded (the three other Gospels), they found either that the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away already (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1), or that there was an angel there to roll it away in front of their eyes (Matthew 28:2). In the reports given in Matthew and Mark (Mark 16:5) there was a single angel waiting at the tomb. However, in Luke there was two (Luke 24:4), and in John there was none.
For those Gospels in which there were angels present, the women were either told to go and tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:7), to tell the disciples simply that he has risen (Matthew 28:7), or just to remember that Jesus had told them while they were in Galilee that his death was necessary (Luke 24:6–7). Since there were no angels in the Gospel of John to issue instructions or give reminders, the Gospel has Mary Magdalene go on her own initiative to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty (John 20:2).
Mary Magdalene + another Mary
Single angel present
Tell disciples Jesus would meet them in Galilee
Mary Magdalene + Mary, mother of James + Salome
Angel to roll away stone
Two angels present
Tell disciples Jesus had risen
No angel(s) present
Remember what Jesus said
It is impossible to hold (suppose) the same thing to be and not to be
Exhibit B-E: the Quran and contradictions...
A ≠ B ≠ C
The Bible’s New Testament consists of a series of reports and letters detailing both the life of Jesus and important religious information.
As anyone who has read the Bible will know, stringing together a bunch of writings from different authors addressed to different people, about varying topics and themes, and without any scene-setting or introduction, doesn't result in the most systematic, coherent, and clear picture of what god allegedly wants from us. It can produce the very opposite, in fact.
The Quran runs into the same problem. The book is written in chapters (called suras), yet confusingly, those chapters are not arranged in any meaningful order, such as by topic or chronologically from earliest to latest, but rather (with the exception of the very first sura) from longest to shortest.
The consequence is to make reading the Quran feel a lot like you've just walked in on a conversation halfway done between two people you don’t know, neither of whom bothers to stop and run you up to speed, and which flips randomly between different topics. It's hard to believe god would have wanted something like this.
The 111th sura provides a good illustration of just how bewildering reading the Quran can be. The sura is one of the shortest, and appears without any context towards its end. Here is what it says:
111:1 The power of Abu Lahab will perish, and he will perish.
111:2 His wealth and gains will not exempt him.
111:3 He will be plunged in flaming Fire,
111:4 And his wife, the wood-carrier,
111:5 Will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre.
Who was Abu Lahab in fact? We know from other sources that he was Muhammad's uncle. His crime was failing to believe that Muhammad carried a special message from god.
So what do we learn? His worldly demise aside, that some man we don't know and his wife were condemned to hell for doing something we’re never told about. That’s it. End sura.
The point here isn't so much what the Quran says as how it says it. Would any being wanting to be understood and convey important truths about existence to humanity do so in such a bewildering, contextless, and terse manner?
The story of revelation
The Gospels of the New Testament were not written by anyone who knew Jesus personally, but by unknown authors who wrote at least a couple of generations after Jesus died. While the Gospels all have names—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—these were people who were at one time mistakenly thought to been the authors. Since we don’t have anything else to call them by, those names remained as a historical quirk.
Whoever actually wrote the Gospels, their original writings did not form the basis of what is in the Bible. What did make it through were copies of the originals that were produced sometime later. Unfortunately, not only do all of them contain copy-errors (mostly harmless, but in some cases significant mistakes), it appears that scribes sometimes took it upon themselves to make additions to what they were copying.
The story in the Gospel of John (7:53–8:11) of Jesus saving the life of an adulterous woman (by proclaiming to those who would kill her that those without sin should cast the first stone) is one such example. Heart-warming as it is, this story doesn't exist in the earliest known copies of the Gospel. At some point, someone just added it in.
Even more of a problem is the fact that there are whole letters included in the New Testament that are known to be forgeries. For reasons ranging from considerations of style and content to forensic analysis of the language used, considerable scholarly agreement exists that Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Thessalonians were not written by the Apostle Paul, despite all alleging to have been.
What we have to imagine, then, is that Jesus would come to Earth to educate the world about god and save humanity from its sins, yet would not write a single word down about any of this himself. The writing task would be left to others to complete. And that they would, but only anonymously, only generations after he died, and only on the basis of what they had heard from others about him. Then, copies of what they had written would be made and the originals lost to history. Once that was done, the New Testament would be compiled from the surviving copies, but in doing so it would come to include both copy-errors and stories the scribes decided to invent for Jesus along the way. Finally, the New Testament would be permitted to include whole letters that were mistakenly thought to be authentic but were in fact forged in another's name.
It is hard to see the divinity in this plan for revelation.