August 22, 2017

Atheists Fail to Consider the Historical Context of the Bible

Holy bible with warning stickerPerhaps Christians' complaint of atheists using bible verses out of context is not terribly persuasive, but there is a different sort of "out of context" argument that seems to have some merit. Some Christians respond to an atheist pointing to objectionable passages in their "holy" book by claiming that we are failing to consider the historical context in which the verses were written. In essence, we are condemning what were once common practices through the lens of modern morality. At least on the surface, this is not a bad argument.

Suppose that slavery could be found in most of the civilizations in existence during the time period in which the Christian bible was written. If that was the case, it would make sense that the bible condoned the practice. The same could be said for all sorts of other practices that strike us as barbaric today but were once commonplace. According to some Christians, atheists are being neither fair nor honest when we focus on such practices without taking into account their historical context.

This sort of objection makes some sense. At least, it would make some sense if the person making it was prepared to let go of the absurd notion that the bible is timeless and/or serves as a guide for how modern Christians should live their lives.

When a Christian complains that I am failing to consider the historical context in which his or her book was written because the objectionable practice (e.g., slavery, genocide, rape) was common at the time, I'll listen. In fact, I'll often agree about the importance of historical context.
You're right. Many barbaric practices were common back then. Our sense of morality certainly has changed...for the better. One cannot help but wonder what sort of god would have instructed early humans to behave in ways we now recognize as morally unacceptable.
It seems to me that the Christian has two choices here. First, he or she can recognize that this book was written by humans living in another time who inhabited civilizations that did some pretty awful things and let go of the notion that Christians today should attempt to follow this book as a guide for how they live their lives. I don't know about you, but I'd be happy to agree with such a Christian. I see no problem whatsoever with acknowledging that the bible is an interesting book that has influenced Western civilization at least as much as any other book ever written. But I'd stop there. There is nothing "holy" about its contents.

Second, the Christian can insist that his or her bible is timeless, still relevant today, and that modern Christians should follow it. Obviously, the Christian who chooses this option can no longer whine about atheists ignoring historical context. After all, he or she is claiming that this book transcends historical context. The more serious problem for such a Christian is that attempting to follow much of his or her bible would undoubtedly result in a lengthy prison sentence. The book is barbaric and commands all manner of cruelty toward others. I'd prefer to keep my distance from any Christian taking this option.

I know what you are thinking. There is a third option. It is the one most Christians choose and the one that frustrates atheists to no end. It is the option of trying to have it both ways. It looks a little something like this:
All the morally objectionable parts of the bible with which you confront me have to be interpreted within the historical context. Do not question the morality of the authors because these things were common back then. They are not to be taken literally by modern Christians. The morally praiseworthy parts, on the other hand, transcend context and should be followed by modern Christians.
Never mind that this option is ridiculous. It is the one most modern Christians appear to select. It is what many atheists refer to as "cherry picking." The good parts are highlighted as evidence of divine goodness, and the bad parts are ignored or explained away.