When an atheist reads the Christian bible, he or she can expect to receive praise for doing so from many Christians. They think it is a good book, and some think that reading it might finally bring us around to Jesus belief. Of course, whatever praise we might receive for reading this particular book quickly turns to condemnation when we share our reactions to what we have read. What has always fascinated me about this are the approaches that many Christians take to an atheist who has read this "holy" book and not found it at all persuasive. In this post, I will consider two of the more common approaches I have encountered from Christians. My guess is that both will be familiar to you.
1. You Need Bible Study Materials
In my experience, the most common reaction from Christians when an atheist is less than impressed with their bible is an attempt to convince us that what we read does not really mean what it says. The idea here is quite simple: you are misunderstanding what you read, and you need help to do so. We are told that we are failing to consider the historical context in which the words were written or something similar. What is most interesting about this notion of context is how inconsistently it is applied.
According to many Christians, the bible means what it says when what it says appears to fit contemporary standards of morality. In these cases, context is irrelevant. Not only that, but we are told that the bible offers timeless wisdom. For example, consider a passage instructing us to treat others with kindness. This is a positive message, and it should be taken at face value. In fact, this will be pointed to as an example of the positive morality of the bible. We will be told that this is every bit as true today as it was when it was written.
On the other hand, the bible does not mean what it says when what it says conflicts with contemporary standards of morality. For example, it does not mean most of what it says about slavery, the subjugation of women, the murder of nonbelievers, and so on. Context suddenly becomes important, and these passages need to be re-interpreted in light of their context.
When an atheist encounters a questionable passage, the proper thing to do is consult bible study materials or the local pastor to learn what the passage really means. What the atheist must not do is assume that anything he or she reads in this book necessarily means what it says. Only the positive stuff means what it says. The bad stuff could not possibly mean what it says, and so it must be explained away.
I don't know about you, but I find this to be thoroughly absurd to the point where I have a difficult time believing that anybody could take it seriously. A book is a collection of words, and words have meaning. The words that make up the Christian bible are not presented in random order; they were arranged in a particular order by the authors in order to impart meaning. If we cannot extract this meaning by reading the words for ourselves, then entire thing would appear to be useless. None of us needs any bible study materials or input from pastors. Their role is one of apologetics. They aim to convince us that we should ignore or explain away the many awful parts of their book. And yet, none of this changes the fact that these parts remain.
2. You Cannot Understand It Unless You Believe It
I suspect you have encountered many variations on this theme. On the surface, I'd have to agree that it difficult to imagine a stranger reaction. How can I possibly believe anything a book says until I have read it so that I know what it says? What would it mean for me to claim to believe something I didn't understand at all? Doesn't understanding have to precede belief rather than the other way around? It seems like it must if the belief is to be sincere and meaningful.
I was recently told by a Christian on Twitter that if I wanted to have any hope of comprehending his bible, I would need to pray to his god for "revelation." That is, I needed divine intervention in order to understand what I was reading. This is a reaction I have heard several times from Christians who are unhappy with my reading of their bible.
Part of the problem with this reaction is that, like many ex-Christians, I was a believing Christian the first few times I read the bible. I was praying at the time, and I was certainly not looking for inconsistencies or atrocities. And yet, none of that prevented me from finding them. My prayers were never answered, and there was no divine revelation of any sort. There was no response whatsoever.
There is an even more fundamental problem with this reaction, however. Assuming that the god in which some Christians claim to believe is real and inspired the Christian bible as many Christians claim, this god could have produced a text different from the one that was produced. And if this god has the characteristics many Christians attribute to it, it would have had the foresight to know what sort of text would be most effective. This god could have created a clear, easy-to-read, consistent, morally laudable, and highly influential sort of text. I see little reason to think that such a god would have instead produced a book that was thoroughly indecipherable except by those who groveled before it in prayer.
When Christians attempt to explain away, ignore, or re-interpret passages from their book that are inconvenient for them in light of contemporary moral values, they reveal an important truth: their book is neither "holy," inerrant, or a paragon of morality. It is unfortunate that so few Christians seem to be aware of this truth. By being more familiar with how they respond to our criticism of their book, perhaps we can help to raise awareness.