How to Read the Bible Like an Atheist
I have spent a great deal of time in writing this blog responding to atheists or the claims of atheists when it comes to the Bible and what it says. And in those years I have noticed common practices that unbelievers seem to have when it comes to reading the text of Scripture and so I thought that it would be interesting to put those observations into one post and make some comments on them. There is no particular order to these, so it may seem somewhat in the form of stream-of-consciousness, but it should be fun nonetheless.
1. Assume that every term has the same implication or meaning that you want it to have in the worst possible sense.
Probably this is most clearly seen whenever an atheist brings up texts that use the term “slave”. They will automatically impose the understanding of US-experienced, antebellum slavery that was largely African. It is also seen in how the term “rape” is used in passages like Deuteronomy 22:28-30, depending on the translation. Now, while I have written extensively on both of these—see here, here, here, and here—and no telling how many others have as well, atheists keep doing this. This is not to say that these terms don’t have any meaning whatsoever, it’s just that atheists are…well…uncharitable in their handling of the texts where these terms appear. Needless to say, to read the Bible properly as an atheist, one merely has to import the worst possible implications into the text.
2. Cherry-pick translations.
This also goes to the first one when it comes to terms and how they’re understood. Modern translations, especially translations that are somewhat “free” in their translating of the text—like the NIV, or the CEB—tend to have an abundance of terms that pack a lot of freight into them, like “slave”. I realize that they are trying to be efficient in their use of language, and sometimes they do a lot better job of bringing across an idiom by actually translating it rather than just the words, but it suffices to say that every translation has its hits and misses, even really good ones. However, an atheist who picks the worst possible translation(s) of a passage will go far.
3. Ignore context.
There’s any number of contexts that have to be considered when reading the Bible at any given time: the context of the type of literature, the overall historical context, and the immediate context, just to name a few. Poetry defines a particular context of understanding, as does narrative. Where a text appears in history, and the actual historical context goes to another. Even where a statement occurs in a conversation determines a particular context. For an atheist to read the Bible paying attention to the varieties of contexts is simply too difficult a thing to do.
4. Assume the text is incoherent.
The structure of many of the larger books of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, demonstrate that multiple hands, both authorial and editorial, were involved. The result is that sometimes there is no transition between one text and another. Sometimes stories just end, sometimes they’re rearranged when there’s a parallel account, sometimes there’s uneven narrative that makes the text hard to read. To some, this makes the Bible seem like a jumbled mess, to others—like myself—it is a testimony to the antiquity of the text and the expectations of an ancient audience. To some, this makes the text appear to be incoherent, especially if all that anyone has ever read is singular works by singular authors. So, to read the Bible efficiently, as an atheist, just assume that the Bible has no coherent structure, argument, or message.
5. Assume that the text is coherent.
I know what you’re saying right now: “But he just said, ‘assume that the text is incoherent’!” Yes, I did, and I did so because there’s a whole other class of unbelievers that recognizes that the Bible has a coherent message. The problem is that they just assume the worst. It’s not that the Bible exists as God’s authoritative revelation of himself and his desire for his creatures to know him, it’s that everything that God wants us to know about him is that he’s going to get you and send you to hell if you don’t love him and worship him, even though such a statement exists no where in Scripture. So just assume that the text is coherent and you’ll be a good atheist when it comes to reading the Bible.
6. Assume the most literal interpretation of a passage, regardless of how clearly metaphorical it may be.
The authors of Scripture employ various devices to transmit their message, and some seem to be intended to be taken in a very literal sense. The problem is that they’re not meant to be taken that way. For example, Jesus’ statement that he came to bring “a sword” is not a command for his followers to go around stabbing unbelievers, rather it speaks to the divisiveness of the gospel. This is not to say that there are texts that are clearly meant to be taken literally (ie the creation accounts) but that also have a metaphorical dimension to them in what they are attempting to communicate. But the good atheist will take everything literally, because they cannot be bothered to actually think through the message.
7. Ignore commentaries.
Unbelievers just love wild speculations about what a passage says or doesn’t say. They love to import all kinds of false understandings into the text of Scripture, and will completely ignore the mountains of commentaries that have been written on every passage of Scripture. I’ll admit, not every commentary is a good one, but even the most liberal commentary is better than nothing. The internet gives us great access into all kinds of scholarly data and commentary on the biblical material, and most of it is free. Much of the nonsense that unbelievers spout can be easily rebutted with a cursory look at most commentaries. Commentaries also provide background information that is often not present in the immediate context. A good atheist will ignore and dismiss commentaries because they will often refute any argument they make.
As I said, this is not an exhaustive list, it’s merely a few of the observations that I’ve made over the years of the blunders that atheists often make when they approach the Bible. Most likely, especially for those who were raised in church, it was because they never actually learned how to read the Bible, which is no more difficult than reading any other book, nor were they taught about backgrounds or even basic textual criticism.
Want to learn how to get a consistent and coherent interpretation of the biblical text, check out this video from a class that I taught at my church.