July 16, 2017

Atheists Using Bible Verses Out of Context

bible study
Many atheists have read at least one of the many versions of the bible some Christians characterize as "holy." Not surprisingly, this is especially true for those of us who are ex-Christians. Some of us have read it many times.

Many atheists have attempted to discuss certain portions of this book with Christians. We are fond of highlighting objectionable passages (e.g., those condoning slavery, rape, murder, genocide, and so on) and watching Christians squirm as they try to explain them away. I thought I'd share one of the ways I have observed Christians attempting to do this and see if you have had similar experiences.

In this post, I'll consider what I refer to as the "out of context" claim. An atheist presents a Christian with an objectionable passage, and the Christian responds with something like this:
Yes, that does sound pretty bad. The problem is that you are taking it out of context. You've quoted a couple verses, but you have to read the text around these verses to have the proper context to understand what they mean.
On the surface, this isn't a bad approach. We have all seen people being taken out of context in malicious ways, and it isn't pretty. A reporter quotes a politician saying something horrible. The quote provokes intense outrage and public shaming, but we later discover that what the politician said before and/or after the quoted portion drastically changes things. It might even make it clear that he or she believes the opposite of what the quote made it sound like. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that an atheist could selectively quote from the Christian bible to make things look far worse than they are.

But while I think it would be a mistake to dismiss this "out of context" claim without first examining the context, I have found that doing so rarely makes a difference. In fact, when the verses around those quoted are considered, the picture sometimes becomes worse. It is one thing to characterize homosexuality as "an abomination;" it is an entirely different matter to add that it should be punished by death. A verse that sounds supportive of rape might be followed by an admonition to kill the victim in some circumstances. The Christian bible presents many cases where the more context one has, the less moral the quoted verses appear.

The other thing to note about this "out of context" claim is that it is often used reflexively by a Christian who does not know the context of the quoted verses. It may seem strange that a Christian would claim that something is being taken out of context even though he or she does not know that context, but I have had this happen multiple times. I think it happens because the Christian has decided that the quoted verses sound bad and therefore must have been taken out of context.