• Christopher Tanner

Lessons Learned Atop Mount Carmel

Think of what follows as a kind of love letter to any Christian fundamentalists who might have stumbled onto the trove of impious wisdom that is AtheistAnalysis.

*In my best stained-glass Sunday-School-teacher voice*:

Boys and girls, let’s open our Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bibles (NRSV) to I Kings chapter 18 and read together this inspiring story from the Word of God, beginning with verse 17:


When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.” Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.


*dramatic pause*

OK, now: all of you who believe this story, raise your hand.

*drums fingers on tabletop*


Just as I thought. Of course you don’t believe it. No sane person living in the twenty-first century could possibly believe such a fairy tale. Despite that thoroughgoing brainwashing that you were subjected to from the time you figured out which of your parents was more likely to cave in to your semi-staged tantrums and buy you the shiny goodies you were demanding in the aisles of Wal-Mart, any one of its details would have been enough to tip you off to the fact that this story is a fiction. But you never thought about those details, did you? You never allowed yourself to think about them (and your god-intoxicated mentors certainly didn’t encourage such scrutiny).

You followed faithfully (“blindly” is no doubt the better descriptor) in the steps of your Sunday School teacher, who never asked herself where all that water came from in the midst of the severest drought on record – the very drought Elijah was trying to allay. It never occurred to her to wonder whether those gathered Israelites (how many hundreds of thousands of them?) might have balked at wasting so much water while they, their herds, their crops and their families were dying of thirst, or at sacrificing two bulls that might have fed quite a few of the people ravaged by the same famine that Elijah was trying to alleviate. (Don’t you know the smoke of that pious barbecue must have tantalized the hell out of them?) She never questioned this supposed divine account of stones and dust bursting into flame, to say nothing of the morality of killing hundreds of people for holding the wrong opinions about an abstraction. And since she never doubted those things, neither did you. You were a good and obedient pupil: chances are you won for yourself ample praise and not a few gold stars for knowing the “right” answers and believing the “right” things – does that all sound familiar? But now that you’re all grown up, you know it’s a fairy tale, don’t you? You know that it simply cannot have happened.

Not only do you recognize that it’s a fairy tale: you surely understand just how preposterous a notion it is – don’t you? – that the creator of a hundred billion galaxies would give a rat’s ass which of the hallucinated desert deities a bunch of ignorant Bronze-Age Palestinian goatherds would choose to worship (and in which deity’s name the killing was to be done).

And now that you’ve admitted those things to yourself, the hardest single step of your journey is behind you. (“Coming out” is also hard and you’ll no doubt pay a price for it, but there are people who can help you do that, and as is the case with so many of us, you’ll probably discover that the cost was worth it.) Congratulations! You’re now free to start using your mind to start grappling with the tough facts of the world as it really is. You can now join the rest of us who’ve discovered the joy of finding things out – not weird, impossible fictions such as one reads in Bronze-Age “holy books,” but actual facts about the amazing world we live in and about ourselves: how we came to be what we are, and whether or not our species has a future. Welcome to the realm of the rational.

I’d like to thank the author of I Kings for making it so blatantly obvious that the Bible is the “Word” of no god whatsoever.

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