Show Me How the Bible Hurt You

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I came across this page from an ad right here on Patheos. It’s another of those proselytizing Christian websites that seeks to convert people in the guise of “answering questions” they may have about the Bible and Christianity. Its creators have chosen to stay anonymous, except to describe themselves as “a diverse group who believes that, when engaged thoughtfully, the Bible can be one of the most exciting, surprising, and life-giving books in the world”.

This is all boilerplate-standard evangelical stuff, and normally I wouldn’t bother responding to it. But there was one thing that caught my interest, which is that the page begins with a video apology, described as “long-overdue”, toward people who’ve been hurt or mistreated by Christianity.

The people narrating the video – a diverse collection of suitably abashed-looking believers – say things like, “We’ve abandoned things that we’re supposed to be standing for… Some of us have used this book of love for hateful things”.

They don’t go into any detail about what these “hateful things” are. Possibly they expect that anyone watching the video can call their own examples to mind. However, I suspect there’s another motive for this vagueness: they don’t want to offer examples of Christian misbehavior that anyone in their target audience wasn’t already aware of. To my mind, this lessens the value of their apology. If you’re going to apologize, you should be clear about what you’re apologizing for.

Their article continues:

Okay. So … there are a lot of people out there who believe the Bible is judgmental, inconsistent, ignorant, and old-fashioned. Their issue is with the Bible itself. Some of those people have read the Bible. Some haven’t. And some don’t even want to, since some obnoxious Bible-beater has turned them off. Their issue is with Bible people.

Is it just me, or did they work in a jab at nonbelievers in the middle of their apology, insinuating that some people only dismiss the Bible because they haven’t read it?

Can the Bible judge us at times? Yes. And that’s not always fun. Sort of like a personal trainer pushing you to be your best self. But along with the judgment, there’s a stronger message of love. The two actually go together.

The implicit argument here is that people dislike the Bible because they dislike the feeling of being judged. The real argument we skeptics make is that the Bible’s judgments are wrong. Its rules are immoral, its punishments are cruel, and its system of law is devoid of reason and based on primitive superstitions about blasphemy and contamination.

When the Bible says that women should be silent and subordinate to men, or when it says that slavery is moral, or when it says that gay people should be executed, those are ideas that are rightfully rejected by all thinking people.

In contrast to the rosy picture this site wants to present, much of what the Bible contains isn’t a message of love, but a message of evil. The believers in the apology video say things like “Please don’t hold what we’ve done against this book,” but the problem is that so many of the things Christians have done come from this book.

Now, to the Bible people issue.

If someone’s been obnoxious to you, we’re sorry. Truly. Reading the Bible doesn’t make anyone perfect. In fact, the Bible tells us we are all far from perfect. And we are ashamed to admit that some people have used the Bible to justify a lot of bad behavior over the centuries. But the Bible has also spurred others to do incredibly loving, lifesaving, and heroic things.

We think there’s a big difference between (a) wielding the Bible as a sledgehammer and (b) letting it lead us into an authentic interaction with God. We’re aiming for the latter.

On the surface, this site’s authors want to offer comfort to people who’ve been mistreated by Christians. It ought to be a worthy goal. But this is where it goes off the rails into intolerable condescension.

It could be because fundamentalists have the excuse that they don’t care about the feelings of people they hurt; their desire to spread the message is all. But the authors of this site do care. They acknowledge that people have been mistreated and harmed by citing the Bible, and that this matters. Yet they treat this as just a bump in the road toward the goal of conversion. It’s as if, once an apology is been provided, all that suffering is in the past and is no longer relevant – even if the mistreatment they speak of is still going on.

Part of the condescension rests in the implicit claim that the authors of this site know the right (“authentic”) interpretation of the Bible, whereas those who use it to justify bad behavior have a flawed understanding. The video literally says that the Bible is “supposed” to be about doing the opposite of all these harms. It’s as if their message is, “Don’t listen to anyone but us. We’re the ones who are right, everyone else is wrong.”

And whenever I hear that claim, as an atheist, I ask: How do you know? What makes you so sure that you have the correct understanding of God’s will and those who disagree with you don’t?

Because you read the plain meaning of the text? Because you feel it in your heart? Because you received that message as an answer to your prayers? But people who hold the exact opposite interpretation as you do say all these same things. Every religion and religious sect in the world claims divine sanction for its peculiar beliefs.

The truth is that there is no such thing as pure, platonic Christianity that can be divorced from all the ways human beings might use or abuse it. Christianity is nothing but the way people who identify as Christians act. I’d agree with the authors of this site that some people have used the Bible to justify bad behavior, and others have used it to justify good. But you could say the same thing about literally any holy book or ideology on the planet.

If you’re concerned about the ways Christianity has been used to justify oppression – and you should be! – then you should be focusing on your fellow Christians who are responsible for the oppression. Prove you mean it when you say you care. Get them to stop that bad behavior. Otherwise, your apology rings hollow. If your only response to evil in the name of your religion is, “Oh, they’re wrong, don’t pay attention to them, just listen to us and believe what we tell you to,” then this isn’t a genuine attempt at recompense. It’s just another marketing tactic to get prospective converts in through the door.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.