April 28, 2009

Loftus on “The Strange And Superstitious World of the Bible”

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 9:26 am by Andrew

I thoroughly recommend John Loftus’s Why I Became An Atheist. In my mind it fills the gap nicely between pop-atheist works (like Dawkins) and specialized scholarship (such as Michael Martin). Of course, any well-read atheist or theist should have all three authors on their bookshelves, anyway.

John has rightly trumpeted his “Outsider Test for Faith” as a new and unique contribution to atheist counterapologetics (and I agree). But I wanted to focus in on a less-celebrated but still insightful passage. This is from page 152 of the paperback edition:

The Bible is filled with claims that a few of our bodily organs are the seat of emotions. The Old Testament understands the liver, bowels and heart as emotional seats for mental states that were later reduced in the New Testament to the heart. What Jesus said is typical: “For our of the heart comes forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual sins, thefts, false testimony, and blasphemies.” (Matt. 15:19).

One scholarly reference tells us: “There is in the New Testament a rich usage of heart (kardia) for a. the seat of feelings, desires and passions (e.g., joy, pain, love, desire and lust; cf. Acts 2:26; John 16:6; 2 Cor. 7:3; Rom. 10:1; 1:24); b. the seat of thought and understanding (cf. Matt. 7:21; John 12:40; Acts 8:22; Mark 11:23; Rev. 18:7; Rom. 1:21); c. the seat of the will (e.g., Acts 11:23; 2 Cor. 9:7; Luke 21:14); and d. which determines moral conduct (e.g., Luke 16:15; Rom. 5:5; 8:27; Eph. 3:17; Heb. 8:10; 2 Pet. 1:19; as the heart of the sinner, Mark 7:21; John 12:40; Eph. 4:18; James 1:25; as the heart of the redeemed, Matt. 11:29; 1 Tim. 1:5; 1 Thess. 3:13; Coloss. 3:22; 1 Pet. 3:15; James 4:8, etc.)”

Every Christian I’ve ever asked to explain these sorts of passages replies with something on the order of, “well, those are just figures of speech,” or “Jesus was talking to people of their own time in their own idiom.” (I get the same explanation when I ask how the Earth can have corners or stars can fall from the sky.)

But have you ever thought how “I love her with all my heart” became a metaphor in the first place? John has. He notes:

Most prescientific ancient cultures believed that the heart was the seat of emotions simply because it beat faster or slower depending on the emotional state of people. They concluded that a person used it to feel and to think. The process of mummification by ancient Egyptian priests, for instance, involved saving all the major internal organs in urns (including the heart) but removing the brain through the nasal cavity and throwing it away as totally useless.

Why do we say “I love you with all my heart” today? Because people in the time of Jesus — including Jesus himself, if he existed — sincerely believed it as literally true.

Now, that doesn’t prove the Bible isn’t the “inspired, inerrant, holy word of God.” But — at least for me — it does contribute to an overall judgment that the Bible appears to be a product of ordinary people writing in their own time.


  1. Thanks so much Andrew, for the nod. It’s always interesting to me what strikes people as they read my book, since there is so much I included in it. Glad you noticed this to highlight it.

  2. danielg said,

    Are you kidding me? That is the lamest explanation and biblical criticism I have ever heard, and I’ve heard some whoppers. Perhaps Loftus and yourself don’t actually have hearts.

    Ever had a ‘broken heart’? It hurts right where the heart is. It is entirely possible, biologically, that that type of emotional trauma causes the physical heart to ache. That does not mean that the literal seat of the emotions is there, that’s just where it is felt.

    It most certainly is a figure of speech, but one that almost certainly has biological origins that people have experienced.

    And with regards to such things as ‘the four corners of the earth’ being interpreted literally, and as evidence for a flat earth, even the ancients did not believe such idiocy. It’s this kind of argument that weakens the good arguments against the bible. Please hide this post to save yourself from embarrassment. And I am NOT being a troll, this is beneath you.

  3. danielg said,

    And btw, a simple google search turns up some science to show why we have heartaches.

    Broken Heart Syndrome Is Real
    In their study, published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, doctors at Johns Hopkins University…reported how a tragic or shocking event can stun the heart and produce classic heart attack-like symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath and fluid in the lungs….The Johns Hopkins doctors documented how a days-long surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones can cause a decline in the heart’s pumping capacity. The researchers theorized that the hormones probably cause tiny heart blood vessels to contract, but other explanations are possible.

    Is a Broken Heart a Real Medical Event?
    A series of exams, including blood tests and angiograms, revealed that all of the subjects had a severe dysfunction of the left side of the heart. The same tests performed two to four weeks later, however, indicated that these defects had completely resolved.

    The investigators noticed that these individuals had abnormally high levels of stress hormones, which can be toxic to the heart muscle. They hypothesized that this temporary weakening of the heart muscle may be triggered by the stress hormones.

    • Andrew said,


      Your comment reinforces, rather than disturbs, Loftus’ point. To a fallible human from 2000-3000 years ago, it would be perfectly reasonable to think that the heart is the source of emotions because it is where we experience emotion-related symptoms, including the ones you describe.

      That’s pretty good evidence that the “heart”-related passages in the Bible were written by fallible humans and not an omnipotent God.

  4. Madeleine said,

    Resisting the urge to comment further (beyong grasp the concept of genre), your comment “Of course, any well-read atheist or theist should have all three authors on their bookshelves, anyway” answers nicely the critics on my blog who questioned why we published a post critiquing John Loftus.

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