Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Atheist who Read Bible "Cover to Cover" Remains Unconvinced

I had an interesting exchange with an atheist recently on Google+ who, when I asked him if he had read the Bible he was so disparaging of, gave me the following reply, which I thought merited an extended answer here.
Yes I have from cover to cover. A couple of times. None of it corresponds with reality. The creation mythology for a start. The flood is pure bull@$#^. The rest is just confirmation of the Israelite belief that they are "chosen".The pervasive sense of self justification for the barbarity permitted in the name of "god" is disgusting.
It seems my atheist friend has managed to read the Bible "cover to cover" without understanding any of it. Such is equally tragic and common, I'm afraid. I will tip my hat to him for actually taking the time to read it. I don't know how many atheists I've talked with whose sole knowledge of the Bible is something they've heard Richard Dawkins quote or something they've read on some "debunker" website (usually itself in desperate need of debunking)

holy book
Perhaps it is worth nothing, however, that reading the Bible "cover to cover" is a great way to ensure you miss the point. In fact, there might be no better way to read the Bible while ensuring you will certainly misunderstand it than to read it "cover to cover." Why? isn't turning the first page and plowing through till we reach the end the best way to read a book? Perhaps, but it isn't the best way to approach a library. And the Bible isn't really a book - its a mini-library of books which were written by diverse people over millennia. As going to the local library and deciding to learn a subject by starting with whatever author's name happens to start with "A" would only lead to confusion, so too with the Bible. The best way to approach a new subject at your local public library is to start with introductory books and work your way to the more difficult ones as you master the fundamental material. Picking up an advanced calculus book without being able to add 2 and 2 will lead to frustration. That, of course, doesn't show something is deficient in the calculus book, it means something is horribly wrong with your approach to learning math.

Making things yet more complicated are the various genres contained within the Bible. Most people who pick up the Bible to read it "cover to cover" read all the books the same way, as if they were all the same kind of book. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Reading Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib" the same way you'd read Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principals or even Edward Gibson's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would result in absurd conclusions being drawn. Of course, such conclusions would say little about any of those works, but might say a lot about the readers mistaken approach. 

The Bible contains a wide variety of different types (genres) of writing. Within its "covers" we find: history, poetry, law, myth, interpretation of other Scriptures, theology, philosophy, and prophecy. Reading all these in the same flat (literalistic) manner leads only to confusion. But again, that isn't the fault of the sacred authors, the blame lies squarely at the uneducated manner the reader insists on taking when reading their words.

Yet further complicating matters, the books of the Bible were written in very different cultures, with very different standards for composition. The question, when looking at the literal sense of any passage of Scripture, must be "what was the sacred author intending to relate" not what would a modern American, writing in English, in the twenty-first century, be trying to relate here. A great example is drawn from the history of the Bible. Are the numbers given for the various armies exactly recorded? Or are they estimates given to provide a sense of the battle? Ancient historians of all stripes took the latter course, today's historians prefer the former. Or, when the sacred authors speak of things like the sun standing still - and atheists leap with joy to declare the sun always stays still, so the Bible is wrong in its assumption that it usually moves - they are using phenomenological language, the same atheists themselves use when they speak of "sunrise" and "sunset." Such isn't an error, but it does require understanding how the authors are using language.

A minute ago I mentioned that the Bible contains, among many other styles of writing, myth. Ah yes, the atheist will no doubt agree, it is all myth! Of course, we now see a modern example of the failure of language to easily communicate across even the divide that exists within our own culture (and which should cause us to hesitate to think such divides are unimportant in understanding writing from millennia ago). Myth here refers not to "something false" (which the word myth doesn't really mean in English despite frequent misuse), but refers to some truth being told in a poetical way. Such is the case for the first three chapters of Genesis. The events recounted happened, everything was created by God, including man, who then, through the temptation of Satan, fell and brought sin into an otherwise good world. These events though are not recounted in simple historical terms, as much else is in the Bible, but in symbolic terms - thus in "mythical terms" using the word myth in it's technical sense. The Bible certainly isn't trying to give a modern scientific explanation of how the world came into being (pace young Earthers), but is giving a theological explanation as to how and why God created everything ex nihilo. Examples could be multiplied, but I'll leave such a task to the reader.

All of this complexity exists on the purely mundane level of the Biblical texts, without even looking at the supernatural dimensions of the book, which are essential to understanding the Bible as Christians do. Here we see the texts as inspired not for your average "Joe Six-Pack" to set alone in his room reading the thing "cover to cover," but for the Church (to whom and for whom the Scriptures are written) to proclaim them in the Liturgy. Yes, the Bible ultimately is a liturgical book - meant for communal reading. Thus, we see why it was never assembled in such a way as to provide for a clear "cover to cover" reading. It isn't read that way at Mass. The order of the books were standardized so they could be easily found by the lector, not so that the Bible could be privately interpreted by someone (either fundamentalist or atheist) sitting alone in a room. Such a method, while meritorious, must be an addition to reading with the mind of the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia) not put in opposition to it. When such is done, when the author is ignored, the meaning is lost. Reading in such a manner is no different than going to Florence's Accademia dell'Arte viewing it's masterpiece and throwing your hands up in the air being completely unable to figure out who exactly this large naked man is supposed to be. Perhaps, it might be suggested, if you were to listen to Michelangelo the mystery would dissolve.
The David

To yet further cloud the mind of a modern "cover to cover" reader of the Bible, is the whole problem of hermeneutics. What worldview does the reader bring with him to the book? Is he a "Bible believing" Fundamentalist, intent on taking a literalistic interpretation of every passage (except John 6, of course) and already deciding such a interpretation is true? Is he, like our friend with the question, an atheist, already committed to an a priori rejection of the miraculous, intent on dismissing  everything as "bull" before even opening that first page? Again, only by reading with the mind of the Church, with the mind of the author, can we read the work correctly. Such isn't to demand acceptance of the truth of the Bible before reading it, but such is to demand reading it on its own terms before deicing anything. Such a demand brings us back to understanding what kind of book we are reading before being able to read it correctly (and reading it correctly is always prior to judging it correctly). Indeed, I've yet to meet an atheist who doesn't read the Bible like a Fundamentalist Christian. The only thing separating the two is belief. The Fundamentalist believes and the atheist doesn't, but neither can get past a literalistic (not literal, but literalistic) reading that sinks their hermeneutical ship from the start.

At the end of the day, however, I will tip my hat to the atheist. Reading is the first step to understanding. The first, but not the last. Now if only he could manage to read it correctly...


  1. In other words, it is not meant to be read critically. It is not meant to be examined for flaws, contradictions, outright mistakes, and other such issues. It is meant to be read by people who believe to support people who believe.

    Got it thanks.

    Tell me, which parts are literal and which parts need to be interpreted? You mentioned Genesis. So, the flood never happened? Adam and Eve never existed? Of course, if Adam and Eve never existed, the neither does Original Sin (read very carefully about what is said in Genesis 3:14... 'Because of you').

    However, none of that actually happened, so your god murdered everyone on the entire planet, let them repopulate, then murdered his own son, because only blood will appease him, all for no reason at all. Wow.

    Again, you say how it should be read. Other Christians (vehemently) disagree with you. So who is correct?

    1. I think that Nathan Barontini's post was very thoughtful and that he IS actually saying to read the Bible critically. Here is a link to the definition of "reading critically"

      By asking "who is correct?" you (wilfully) miss the point of Nathan's post.

      The so-called question also confuses the issue of whether someone has to believe in a God to read the Bible and get anything out of it. Many people read the Bible as a primary resource text, and not just to understand what happened before and during the Roman Empire, but because the Bible had a profound influence on Western Civilization. To understand everything from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the American Civil Rights movement you have to have read the Bible to get what artists, key thinkers, politicians and activist wrote, built, and depicted in art, buildings, literature or music.

      Many people do read the Bible and find truth in it, even if there are not facts. And yes there are many ways it can be read if someone actually understands what metaphor, simile, symbolism, and allegory actually mean. Let me give you an example, with a similar ancient work of literature: Aesop's fables. I don't actually believe there was a boy who cried wolf, but the truth of the story does not rely on his or the wolf's historical existence.

    2. We're not talking about the Bible as a work of literature or history (which is a terrible mistake), but as the fundamental Holy Book of one of the most important religions on the planet.

      This must be a new argument, because I've run across it several times in the past few weeks. The Bible is NOT like Aesop's fables. The Bible is either correct, in that God exists, his son (named Jesus) dies to cover the sins of fallen humans, and there is a heaven and a hell depending...

      While some people (notably people using this argument) seem to think that this book is just about how to live a good life, there are others who will kill you for making lesser statements about this book. There are people, in the US, who are basing policy decisions on things that were written in this book... including denying basic human rights to multiple groups. There are people who are perfectly happy screaming violence and "kill them all" about people who do not believe AS THEY DO, about this book.

      Regardless of the actual intent of the authors (which no one knows and can never know, despite claims of the OP to the contrary), there is a massive division, in the Christian religion over the veracity of the book.

      Again, I point out that, if the first few chapter of Genesis are not literal truth, then entire Christian faith is flawed. I'm not talking about deism here (a belief in any generic deity), but in the fundamental dogma of the faith.

      While I don't appreciate the Wilful part of your response, I will just note that you Wilfully miss my point, which I stated again in the paragraph above. Consider the other significant events that the Bible had a profound impact on, The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition and related events, The Salem Witch Trials, The Conquering of the New World... none of that had to happen if the Bible is a myth... which, thankfully you have both admitted to.

      The only remaining point is for you to admit the entire book is a complete fabrication. If you do this, then what do Christians worship? Without the Bible there is nothing in any history anywhere that suggests the Biblical Jesus even existed. Certainly no miracles that he did or that happened due to his presence were ever mentioned by anyone, even the Romans. I mean, we have grain records of the Roman Legions, but no one thought to mention that when a certain man was killed on the cross that earthquakes and other things happened?

      No, if the Bible is not literal, then the Christian faith is totally flawed.

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  3. I'd also like to point that, while I asked "Who is correct", the author of the OP strictly states that he is

    "The Fundamentalist believes and the atheist doesn't, but neither can get past a literalistic (not literal, but literalistic) reading that sinks their hermeneutical ship from the start."

    SO who is correct about how to read the Bible?

    Why Nathan is. Interesting how the person writing about it is always the one who is correct and everyone else is wrong. Typical.

  4. BTW: While we're talking, I'd like to see a citation for that definition of "myth".

  5. OgreMkV,

    1.You might try reading the article before commenting. I clearly am arguing for a "critical reading" of the Bible, one that accounts for the genres and the cultural context in which the books of the Bible were written. To read it in a flatly literalistic manner (which it wasn't written in) is precisely to read it uncritically. You've confused "thinking" with "doubt". The two are not the same, in fact they are in many ways opposite. To doubt is only to destroy, to think is to create.

    2. None of this is to dismiss the Bible as a book of morally edifying stories. I've never suggested that the historical books contain fictions. Again, you're failure to recognize the different genres contained within the Bible make it impossible for you to understand it. Reading the poetry or law contained in the Bible as history will lead to misunderstanding. Reading the history as poetry will too.

    3. Is this a "new argument?" Well, it is how the Catholic Church (who wrote the NT, collected all the books into a "Bible", and preserved it for 2 millennia) has been reading it for 2,000 years. I don't now about you, but I hardly consider 20 centuries "new."

    4. I find it absolutely hilarious that you can both attack me in the following way, "Why Nathan is. Interesting how the person writing about it is always the one who is correct and everyone else is wrong. Typical." AND write, "No, if the Bible is not literal, then the Christian faith is totally flawed." So, you're literalistic / fundamentalist interpretation "is correct and everyone else is wrong." Is this where I say, "Typical?"

    Besides, what kind of absurd argument is it to, in effect, say, "you think your right and other people are wrong" Is that even an argument? Of course I think I'm right. If I didn't think I was right, I wouldn't think what I think! And of course I think those who disagree with me are wrong. If I didn't think those who disagree with me were wrong, I wouldn't think what I think. You think atheism is right. Yet many people think God exists. What does it prove to say you think your atheism is right and theism is wrong? Nothing.

    5. But other Christians (and atheists) "vehemently disagree" with how the Church reads her own book. So? People disagreeing doesn't prove anything. People used to disagree about whether the Earth is flat or round. Does that mean it is neither? Does it mean we can't know? Of course not. People disagreeing just means somebody is wrong, it doesn't mean everybody is wrong. This is a complete non sequitur.

    6. Whose interpretation is correct about the Bible? Easy. The Bible itself gives us the answer. It is addressed to the Church and it is for the Church to interpret. The Church has provided the same interpretation for 2,000 yrs. That is the standard by which other interpretations, like your fundamentalist literalistic one, are to be judged. Your reading of the Bible, your hermeneutic, is only about 100 years old. Christianity existed without such a flat (and inaccurate) reading for 19 centuries. To suggest such a reading (completely unknown by the authors of the Biblical books) is the only valid one is ridiculous.