Steve Allen, Steven Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality, 1990, Prometheus Books: Buffalo, NY
Copyright 2000 by Jeffrey Stueber, all rights reserved
This is part of a much larger essay to be published with a year-end collection of book reviews by Jeffrey Stueber. For information, including ordering information, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
One day as I browsed my local half-price bookstore, I came upon Steven Allen's Steven Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality. A book by Steve Allen? The comedian? Here I suspected I could find an unbiased useful survey of the Bible. I was truly surprised. Allen is a totally biased student of the Bible and my first clue should have been the publisher. It was Prometheus Books, a leading publisher of atheist and humanist thought. The second hint I should have received was the introduction written by Martin Gardner, a leading religious skeptic and naturalist. Apparently it doesn't disturb Prometheus Books to publish Allen's pulp on the Bible when he is not a scholar. Constantly I've heard, and read, atheist evolutionists say many Christians who don't believe in evolution don't understand it and those that write against it aren't scientists. Yet, apparently the non-scholar Allen has no trouble being thought of as a scholar of the Bible and his books are also advertised in humanist publications like those from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Undoubtedly you've heard the term "fundamentalist" which usually means anything from a non-Catholic to a "Bible banger," but usually among skeptics it means the latter. A fundamentalist is usually a stubborn Christian who prefers his own interpretation of Biblical events despite evidence contrary to his opinion. Usually a fundamentalist is a Christian who actually believes events in the Bible happened and is willing to defend his viewpoint. Skeptics like Allen don't usually say so; they hide behind this demarcation between "fundamentalists" and "Christians." This dichotomy is possible in Allen's world because humanism is presumed true by humanists like Allen regardless of any evidence for or against its tenets or philosophical dogma. Frequently the prefix "ultra" is added to the word "fundamentalist" to add even more emphasis to the point to be made as Gardner does when he asks, "Since the new ultra-extreme fundamentalists are so displeased by democracy, what, specifically, do they recommend as its replacement?" Gardner uses the term "reconstructionists" that Bill Moyers uses when he speaks of those who would reconstruct America in their image by believing, in Moyer's words, "every area of American life, law, medicine, media, the arts, business, education, and finally the civil government must one day be brought under the rule of the righteous." Allen also declares that, "Reconstructionists are ultrafundamentalists."
These people they discuss are Christians, plain and simple. You may disagree with them as I do with many of my fellow Christian debaters, but it never occurs to me to label each group I disagree with as "ultra" or "ultra-extreme." It wouldn't make sense for me to label a tax specialist with his own interpretation of the tax code as a "tax fundamentalist," but skeptics like Allen do much the same with Christianity. It suits their purposes. Maybe his interpretation is right or mine is, but that doesn't make either of us stubborn fundamentalists. We just have our own way of viewing things. This dichotomy will also show up in Allen's discussion of evolution, a topic to which I shall return later.
My study of Allen can't neglect some of his Biblical exegesis and it starts with his study of the book of Genesis. The non-scholar says:
As a host of devout scholars has clarified - at least to the satisfaction of one another even if their work has escaped the attention of many of the faithful - the two accounts given in Genesis are not only contradictory but were written by authors familiar with earlier Canaanite and Mesopotamian creation-myths.
I have looked hard and long for a sign that there are two contradictory creation accounts, only to come up with nothing. I don't mean that casually either. I mean, I looked hard. Genesis chapter one describes the creation of light, the earth, the stars, animals and plants, and finally man. Genesis chapter two opens up with this:
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. (Genesis 2: 1-4 NIV)
Thus, Genesis chapter two starts out reviewing the work done in Genesis chapter one, saying that all was completed and goes on to mention God resting on the seventh day and says all this is an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth. It then goes into more detail on the creation of man.
Genesis chapter two is not even close to being a creation account. It closes the account of chapter one instead of starting a creation account and does not even describe the creation of the animals, plants, stellar bodies, and the earth, as Genesis one does. It is instead an extension and summary of Genesis one and continues into a more descriptive account of the creation of man. Genesis chapter one and two are not contradictory because they are not accounts of the same creation or creating. What is worse is that early Hebrew texts were not divided into chapters; this was only added by later compilers and revisers. Upon eliminating the chapter segments, the whole creation account falls into line as one narrative with no contradictory accounts at all. It is that simple.
Steve Allen claims there are Biblical contradictions by quoting John the Baptist who said that nobody has ever seen God face to face. (p. 242) Allen states that Moses had seen God face to face, but has Moses really? In all the readings on Moses and the exodus from Egypt, I do not see that Moses ever saw God face to face. God cannot be seen face to face because God is a spirit. God appeared to Moses through clouds, probably dust or sand clouds. (1) Once God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Indeed, never once did Moses physically see God's face. Scholars Walter Kaiser, F. F. Bruce, and others say that many of the sightings "face to face" recorded in the Old Testament are visions. Some only see part of God or an after-image of him as He passes by. Moses at one point did not see God "face to face," but only saw an afterglow that His image produced. (2)
Allen attempts to back up his belief in this contradiction by saying that all who have seen Christ have seen God since He and the Father are one. Christ has said that all who have seen Him have seen God, but we must understand this in the historical context of the situation. When Christ said this he meant that those who saw him were seeing the qualities that God has and his intentions. Seeing Christ is not to see what God looks like facially, especially since Christ is the union of God and human flesh.
Of course, Allen can't leave the subject of Christ's resurrection alone either. Allen discusses certain "resurrection" myths by noting that some people believe others besides Christ have risen from the dead. He compares sightings of Christ to tales of sightings of Elvis and James Dean. (p. 370) I should perhaps mention that one other person has received that honor: Marilyn Monroe. The issue is not how many people have supposedly been sighted like this. The issue is whether Allen's comparison stacks up to the available evidence. Allen is incorrect because in no way, shape, or form do we find that the Christian church's belief in the resurrection of Christ is comparable to the mythical sightings of Dean, Elvis, or Monroe. Can anyone show me a group of people that have so quickly built a church out of sightings of Elvis and others and been so ready to preach the truth of their resurrections and proclaimed it far and wide even to the point of willingness to suffer to the point of death? Can anyone show me a group of people that built a church that claims to have originated in less than two months after a celebrity died and was supposedly seen alive, such that gravestones are found with the words of people who prayed to that celebrity as a god? (3) Can anyone show me a church built around the sighting of that celebrity which is still functioning today? I can't think of anything that fits those criteria which the Christian church demonstrates. Obviously Allen hasn't done his homework on this one either.
Now to his discussion of evolution, a favorite subject of mine. Allen states:
Just as it is absurd for the fundamentalists, who interpret the entire Bible literally, to deny the existence of evolution, given that the reality of that process is readily observable, it is equally erroneous to suggest that if evolution exists, the mere fact of its existence rules out the possibility that there is a God. In reality, there is no necessary connection or disconnection, between evolution and God. The majority of well-educated Christians and other religionists believe, in fact, that evolution has been God's practical method of creating and developing all aspects of nature that are alive, which is to say, plants and animals. It is apparently only fundamentalists who are confused about this.
Allen does score some points with me when he later says that evangelicals do draw a line at what they believe evolution can do because animals take on different forms - the Biblical "kinds" - wherein limited variation is possible. While there are many questions to be yet debated, one fortunate result, he says, is that both sides have more sharply refined their arguments. Yet, this wisdom is hurt by Allen's failure to understand the breadth of the concept in evolution as proposed by writers who speak for mainstream science - Gould, Dawkins, Sagan, and the like - science textbooks and magazines such as Discover, and television shows on many cable channels such as TLC (the Learning Channel) and PBS (the Public Broadcasting Station). While Allen believes that the majority of well-educated Christians believe there is no contradiction between evolution and Christianity, a recent poll in a New York Times report of August 29, 1982, stated 44 percent of Americans polled held to the Genesis account of creation and of those remaining, 38 percent believed that man evolved from lower life and God directed the process. Only nine percent believe in evolution in which God had no part. (4) That poll is old in comparison to Allen's book but it is doubtless the figures could have changed that much and they certainly don't show that the "majority" of Christians see no contradiction between evolution and creation.
One key teaching of the Bible is that God created the world and life on it and Darwinist evolution and non-Darwinist evolution teaches us that any god in the Christian sense had nothing to do with that process. How Allen might proceed to merge these two ideas, non-guided evolution with guided-evolution, I would appreciate having explained because it is like arguing random evolution created a motorcycle and then saying this does not interfere with the beliefs of millions who hold to the belief that Harley builders create them. Allen would pale in comparison to the likes of Phillip Johnson, Charles Hodge, Duane Gish, Robert Shapiro, Michael Behe, Alan Hayward, Robert Jastrow, Stephen Gould, Richard Dawkins, Michael Denton, and so forth who understand what is meant by evolution and what's at stake in this debate. Also interesting is the fact that in the discussion Allen has no quotations to back up his wisdom, something common in other parts of his book.
What we actually see in these words from Allen is the standard bait and switch. We're given Christianity with all it's glory - the creation, the fall, the redemption - and it is torn down by skeptics with few tears. Yet, in the eyes of skeptics like Allen, it's not Christians that believe that God created the world and that there's an irreconcilable contradiction between creation and evolution, it's just some fundamentalists that believe this. This same method can be used elsewhere. It's not all Christians who believe in Christ's redemptive acts and his resurrection, it's just some fundamentalists who believe this. It's not all Christians who believe God led Israel through history, chastising when necessary, it's just some fundamentalists who believe this. What is really most likely the problem is Allen loves Christianity, it's just Christian tenets and Christians he can't stand. That's why he so consistently calls them "fundamentalists."
The real problem with humanists is their inability to clearly understand Christianity and its tenets. They're often well versed in their Bertrand Russell or their Huxleys but know so little about "mere" Christianity (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis) or Biblical apologetics. To give an example, I start with Gardner who uses Jimmy Swaggart for his sample of Christianity when asking rhetorically, or so it seems, "Has not that biblical `authority,' Jimmy Swaggart, assured us that even Mother Teresa and most Catholic priests are on the road to damnation." Gardner mentions Swaggart in the context of discussing why some people can believe their entire life, lose their faith, and go to hell while the criminal can repent at the end and be saved. Undoubtedly Gardner finds this strange and finds it useful to quote Swaggart and Gardner's complaints may remind one of billboards frequently posted throughout the country which say "Jesus: don't leave Earth without Him" or the like. Yet there are differing views on this issue and I was reminded of this when I recently saw two Jewish authors on a morning talk show say that hell had few people in it because only those truly far from God went there. Others have praised Mother Teresa as one who is "laying up treasure in heaven" (5) There are many in charge of congregations over America who have differing views from one another and, in fact, the Christian community is as diverse as any religious groups. Different "sects" contained therein like Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists, dot the religious landscape as well as those who have their own view of end-times (pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, amillenialists, etc.). There are also those Christians of ill repute philosophically who don't know how to reason as are there atheists who are quite illogical. Also interesting is, if Gardner is seeking some representation of Christianity, why he doesn't choose evangelist Billy Graham, perhaps one man closest to the perfection of character Christ gave us (Mother Teresa would be the woman closest). Is Gardner only giving us Swaggart as the supposed norm, and if so, why?
So after I have quoted from Allen several times, what judgement can we make of his position on religion? Allen states that his research has not weakened his faith in God. (p. xxxv) I would like to know which god he is referring to. If it is not the God of the Bible, then which one? Maybe he is referring to some God that "is just out there" waiting to be discovered. Maybe it is some type of pantheistic god he hopes for. Allen speaks of a belief in a god but appears to talk like an atheist. Allen, in my opinion, is very close to being an atheist, despite his appeal to a god which he does not seem to know. This is the stuff of atheism is made of and Allen is dangerously close to it.
1. I used to believe that God appeared literally to the Jews in a cloud, as in the clouds we see in the sky. I now think that the cloud was a cloud of sand or dirt, as what would be expected when the Jews were in the desert. Since the cloud led them, this fact no way hinders the narrative.
2. Walter Kaiser et. al., Hard Sayings of the Bible, 1996, Intervarsity Press: Downer's Grove, IL, p. 155
3. I am referring to ossuaries, limestone boxes used for the redeposit of the bones of the dead. Two osssuaries from Talpioth, discovered in 1945, were called the earliest records of Christianity. These contain inscriptions which seem to be prayers to Jesus for the help and the resurrection. The find indicates that the tomb in which they were contained belonged to the period before 50 A.D. See Yamauchi, Stones and Scriptures, p. 121-122. As recently as 1995 Grant Jeffrey refers to these in his book Final Warning.
See also Jean Gilman's article at www.leaderu.com/theology/burialcave.html
4. Richard A. Baer Jr., "They Are Teaching Religion in the Public Schools," Christianity Today, February 17, 1984
5. Alvin Platinga, "Methodological Naturalism?" Origins & Design 18:1; www.arn.org