Dear Internet Atheists: Be Better Than This

Here is an unfortunately all-too-common sort of meme one finds on the web

So much of internet atheism is ex-Fundamentalists declaring their rejection of things no non-Fundamentalist cares about. My wonderment is over what is meant by “that time” since you might as well say the Flood happened Once Upon a Time. It seems to me that it is obvious that some catastrophic flooding, perhaps of the Black Sea, perhaps of the Tigris-Euphrates, perhaps of both (and multiple times) lies at the back of this tale.

Indeed, one of the commenters on this meme over on the Book of Face, forgetting the overall direction of this particular “It never happened, Stoopid Bible Writers!!” sneer also complained that everybody in the ancient Near East has a similar legend. He said it to tag on a good solid “AND FURTHERMORE THE BIBLE IS UNORIGINAL!” kick in the prostrate victim’s ribs but what he really wound up doing is acknowledging that the Noah account has corroboration which strongly suggests that there is some real memory of flood catastrophe at the back of it. When multiple cultures and languages all have very similar stories about some gigantic catastrophe, the smart money is on thinking they are remembering something rather than nothing. This is also something anthropologists are discovering about the oral traditions of Pacific Northwest native people concerning both the huge floods in eastern Washington and Cascadia fault megathrusts. The 19th century white colonialist impulse to assume that the browns and savages know nothing and Euro-American scientism is the All-Explaining Paradigm dies hard. There is no reason to think Black Sea and Mesopotamian flooding would not have spawned similar memories and mythologies about such a massive communal trauma.

What matters is how the theological imagination of the Israelite mythmaker worked on the material and gave us this story, so very different from related tales in other legends. In Sumerian mythology, the gods send the Flood because they are pissed about the racket from their downstairs human neighbors. In Genesis, the Flood takes on a decided cast of Iron Age morality: it is a punishment for sin–and one that appeals to the child in all of us: namely, just kill the Bad Guys and the problem will be solved! (I once knew a little girl who remarked that she would have told Hitler to be good and, when informed that he would not have been good, solved the problem by saying that she would have poked his eyes out and cut his head off.) Who has not wished the Almighty to resolve things by this means. Indeed, countless atheist critiques of God center precisely on the fact that he so rarely solves the problem of evil by using his omnipotence to simply annihilate Bad Guys.

Genesis tells what happens when that simple plan is followed. The result of “just killing the Bad Guys” is the extinction of the human race except for eight people. (For, of course, as far as the author goes, all that matters is the destruction of his world and the meaning of the disaster.) And the real point comes in after all the cinematic stuff that later art would dwell on with the “ark” (note that highly significant choice of words) riding the breast of the deep and pathetic masses of wretched sinners clinging to the pinnacles of the highest mountains.

None of that is particularly of interest to the biblical author. The real point of the story (which is, like everything else in Genesis, a prelude to his main story–the Book of Exodus–is to tell a second creation event in which a new world again emerges from the waters of the deep, a second Adam again finds himself in a garden, and he again consumes a fruit which again immediately leads to sin which again redounds to his progeny with catastrophic effects. Killing the bad guys doesn’t work because sin has infected everybody, including the Good Guys.

It’s going to be something Israel sees again and again when they are Chosen, and the future of their people is likewise contained in an Ark after they too are drawn out (“Moses” means “to draw out”) of the Promised Land through water, lead to a land flowing with milk and honey, and likewise immediately fall into sin and rebellion.

In short, this is how an Iron Age rabbi sets the stage for his story of the Exodus by pointing out both the creative will of God for his people and the weird fact (plumbed more deeply by the doctrine of original sin much later) that there is something about us that is broken and keeps committing the same sins over and over. It is the Iron Age way of articulating what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The sort of flat-footed debunking in this meme is, as Chesterton remarked, like thinking you have really scored a devastating rhetorical point by asking a Hindu, “When were you last a donkey?”

Internet Atheists: Be better than this! It’s embarrassing!


5 Responses

  1. God bless you, Mark. I read your blog, in part, because it is like a short, daily examination of conscience for me—especially because we don’t always agree. (Not yet anyway, give me time.) Often you lead me to see things in a new or slightly different way. But sometimes, like today, you simply remind me of the deepest truths I know to be true. How long it seems I’ve been wrestling with the idea of further reducing, or cutting off altogether, my intake of the news. I want to be informed of what goes on in the world and at home, of course. But the sheer stupidity and evil of it so often leads me (mea culpa!) to think: well, there’s no other way: these people just need to be rounded up in front of a firing squad. But I know in my bones, confirmed by the story of Noah and the Flood, that—if I can trade images—setting up the guillotine will probably end with me and all I love under its blade. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!

  2. Well, that’s a rather long-winded way of saying that you agree with the central premise of the meme: that the Biblical account of a global flood does not accurately portray a historical event. Also, if you have to shift the goal posts that much in order to make your point, then you’re not.

    But if you want to have a substantial conversation on the topic, I recommend reaching out to Jonathan MS Pierce, who has written extensively on the subject. He writes at OnlySky at:

    And since if left to your own devices, you two biblical nerds would go all over the place for perpetuity, I recommend narrowing the discussion to the following subjects: the historical consensus, the range of acceptable Catholic positions regarding the flood and your personal take on the flood account.

    Who knows? You might both walk away learning something from each other instead of playing another round of internet one-upmanship.

    1. I get the impression that “We know the Biblical flood never occurred” is a different statement than “The Biblical flood narrative is most likely a mythologized account of a real event corroborated by similar legends from other cultures, not a literal extinction event” are two markedly different statements, the former of which is both more meme-worthy and less accurate.

      Besides, the sarcastic tone of the meme suggests that it is intended as an own or a gotcha, not a mere statement of historical fact. I don’t think addressing the clear implications of the meme in addition to its literal content is moving the goalposts, but if it is, it’s only to put them back where the author of Genesis (if Mark’s analysis is correct) intended them to be.

  3. Until a decade ago I would have thought “Why did the Biblical authors think it affected the entire world, when it was only their own country?” but now, having seen Americans from right and left alike in the Internet (“Runoff elections are racist, because Alabama 1967!” “Australians are living under COVID lockdown tyranny, and not having guns are being terrorised by armed home invaders!” etc etc etc etc) I can totally see how Noah’s chronicler, lacking a stable power supply to access Google News, took a Rick Grimes-eye view of the devastation around him.

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