Does Reading the Bible Lead to Atheism? Does Losing Faith Save one from Fundamentalism?

Hemant Mehta shared this cartoon about the year after the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania:

Reading the Bible can indeed lead to people losing their faith, if their faith was placed in the Bible, which they believed to be inerrant.

But that is only a natural (or perhaps nearly inevitable) outcome if one has accepted the aforementioned view of the Bible, and placed one’s faith in the Bible, allowing it to become the foundation for one’s faith, despite the Bible’s own insistence that one’s foundation should be elsewhere. If one has been foolish enough to adopt a view of the Bible that one has to defend against evidence from within the Bible itself, then perhaps it is only fair that one’s entire misguided worldview come crashing down at some point. But what remains or is rebuilt from the rubble is often not a significant improvement on what was there before.

It is not merely the combination of wrong beliefs about the Bible, subsequently confronted with evidence from the Bible itself that those beliefs are wrong, that lead to a loss of faith. It is also having one’s faith almost entirely focused on and dependent on the Bible. If there is nothing beyond the Bible that constitutes your “faith,” then when that is taken away as an infallible authority, then obviously nothing remains of one’s faith.

But unfortunately, very often what does remain is the same desire for absolute certainty, the same penchant for dogmatism, the same black-and-white outlook. If those underlying issues are not addressed, then one may merely trade in a toxic and misguided religion for a toxic and misguided atheism.

If, on the other hand, there is more to someone’s faith than inerrant authorities – whether texts, creeds, dogmas, people, or a particular philosophy – then that can often constitute a faith that can survive and thrive as one’s beliefs change. You may or may not still think that what is the ultimate reality is helpfully depicted in personal terms. But you may be able to hang on to faith in the meaningfulness of life, the value of persons, the dangers of reductionism, and much else that, call it what you will, is part of the essence of faith for many whose worldview, whether theistic, pantheistic, polytheistic, panentheistic, atheistic or agnostic, is more than just the sum of their beliefs about religion.

What do readers think? Did your discovery that the Bible is not inerrant lead to a loss of faith for you? Or did your beliefs change, while your “faith” (or whatever you may prefer to call it) grew, evolved, developed and changed in ways that you consider ultimately positive? Please share your own thoughts and experiences!

  • http://twitter.com/willemjdewit Theologian in Egypt

    I deal with some of these questions (in conversation with Herman Bavinck) in my book On the Way to the Living God (which can be downloaded for free from http://willemjdewit.wordpress.com/english). Taking my starting point in Psalm 42:2, I extend the invitation to understand the thirst of the heart as a thirst for the living God, i.e. a thirst for a/the God who truly exists even if we cannot prove his existence nor define him adequately.

  • Mike B.

    It seems to me that you’ve defined faith in such a way that just about anyone, save a genuine nihilist, could be said to have faith. So if it’s between faith in “something” (the meaningfulness of life, value of persons, etc.), and nihilism, then I would of course say that critical reading of the Bible did not cause me to lose my faith. But I feel that to say this would be misleading, because this is not what most people mean when they say that they lost their faith. I absolutely lost my faith in the God of the Bible (in all of his various descriptions), in the value of Jesus’ teaching (save a few scattered gems of genuine moral wisdom), in the entire Judeo-Christian worldview… Just about everything that had defined what I described as “my faith” was gone. Sure, I have faith in some things, but not in any divine things. And this is what is usually meant by a loss of faith. It doesn’t mean that people give up on meaning. It just means that they give up on God.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Mike B., that is indeed how some would define “faith”, most famously theologian Paul Tillich, who described faith in terms of ultimate concern. There is a sermon by him in which he indeed says that the only real “atheists” are those who deny transcendence, who say that life and existence are shallow. And Tillich was a Christian who did not think of God as a personal being, or a being at all, but Being itself. And so in a sense, that is indeed by very point, that whether losing beliefs about the Bible and God represent a loss of “faith” depends on what one means by faith, and current English popular usage may not be definitive.

  • Russ Reeves

    Is that a cigar in the fundamentalist minister’s mouth?

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      @Russ and Loren,

      And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…
      :-)

  • Anonymous

        I think that cigar is in the mouth of the stereotypical politician. Note the cross lapel pin replacing the American flag pin.
        My small group is struggling with redifining our relationship to the New and Old Testaments, thanks in part to Rachel Held Evans “Evolving in Monkey Town”. Anger and resentment is part of what has been expressed as we look back on what we were taught about the bible in our younger years. I think without a more nuanced framework for understanding the role of the bible provided by progressive theologians (thanks James McGrath, Peter Enns, Scot McKnight and others) many may lose their faith.  The inerrantists leave me cold, with no  basis for faith because of the inconsistancies of their arguements and the suspension of reality required to make it work.  

  • Ebrown5

    As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist environment and was told, repeatedly, “if the bible is not completely true, then none of it can be trusted,” when I began to study the text outside of the protection of a purely devotional reading, it unraveled pretty quickly: well, that and understanding the necessity of epistemological consistency. I still wrestle with today with the concept of “faith”. I can’t seem to wrap my small southern town brain around it anymore. It is amazing how many people I am meeting like me in their history and struggle.

  • Daniel O

    Personally, moving away from a literalist and inerrant view of the Bible, my faith went into a journey of discovery. I moved from an evangelical faith to agnosticism and then into atheism. I found this to be very hard, was almost like losing a loved one and had to grief for my faith. That is at least until I encountered God, probably for the first time by myself, this confused the hell out of me for 3 months afterwards until I realized the immensity of that epiphany. This then lead me into faith, a new one, a deeper one, and one that doesn’t have to have all the answers. The Bible, for me, it is still the word of God, but that word is not dictated but whispered. It contains the message, it is not the message. 
    It is quite fascinating really because I lost my faith because of reading mythicists books, and it was serious scholarship (like yours James) that brought it back around again, or at least it was one of the major reasons.

  • Brian S.

    Excellent post James, though I have to agree [to a certain degree ]with the above commentor who expressed concern over your very “bare” definition of what faith is. It seems to me that taking on Tillich’s definition of religious belief, is probably not the safest thing to do in the long run. By his standards almost anything can qualify as belief and although I think that everything is a belief to some degree, I’m relucant to accept his definition as valid because I fear that it will make the word meaningless, and when we participate in discussions it is nice to have a word with a some what clear meaning.

    But this is just my own background speaking, since as you already know I classify myself as a moderate Catholic who has an enormous respect for the past and often uses it to frame my own state of mind but I also have an equal respect for what the present has to offer, hence my use of historical criticism and love of ecumenism.

    Reading the Bible has not damaged my faith,  but has in fact enriched it, even if I sometimes have to be extreamly critical of the text. My upbringing was non-fundamentalistic, so I don’t have the emotional scars that many others bear. This benefits me, I think/hope, by allowing me to appreciate tradition without associating it with an ultra-conserative and often times abusive past, and that is why I’m still rather “orthodox” in many of my faith commitments, with the added benefit of being able to approach my approach critically and appreciate those who see things differently than I do.

  • Dan

    Reading the bible is a factor in my deconversion. I first read the bible critically when I was trying to find out which denomination “got it right” (my dad’s a catholic, my mom’s an evangelical, and a close friend was a jehovah’s witness). I ended up rejecting them all and I ended up in agnosticism.

  • Mike B.

    Well then, according to Tillich, I am not a “real” atheist. But this still seems like a strange and unintuitive use of terms, and it is certainly not a nomenclature that has gained wide traction. I think that I can communicate better what my beliefs are by saying that I am an atheist, but not a nihilist (though granted there are some who would naively assume that one is implied by the other). There are things that I believe in. I just don’t believe in gods. I can use the word “atheist” to communicate my lack of belief in a god, and I can use other words, like “humanist” for example, to communicate other positive beliefs that I do hold. I feel that there is little ambiguity in this, unlike Tillich’s theology, which remains obscure to most people even after you explain it.

    There are, of course, other responses that people can have to a critical reading of scripture, various ways in which they can retain a belief in God in light of the dismantling of the idea of written revelation, but it seems that there is some point at which the object of one’s faith ceases to be a god at all, at which point using that word to refer to it obfuscates the issue unnecessarily.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Tillich, and many Liberal and progressive Christians before and since, gods, understood as supernatural beings, are not appropriate objects of human devotion. This may seem puzzling, but it is in one sense a natural outgrowth of the Judeo-Christian polemic against false gods, taken to the point where it recognizes that any attempt to depict the ultimate in human terms and anthropomorphically is a form of idolatry.

  • Patrick

    1. Tillich is a slippery guy, and all the difference in the world is found in what is precisely meant by words like “transcendent.”

    2. The OP fails to understand the problem of people who feel let down by the Bible.  They’re not just being idiots and worshiping the wrong thing.  They’re asking a legitimate question that the OP has ignored.  The problem is that if “why do you think that?” is a legitimate question to apply to a belief system, then unless there’s a decent answer, that belief system is irrational in the most basic and literal sense of the term.  Once Biblical study eliminates “because its in the Bible” as an answer, that leaves people stuck between two unpleasant alternatives: dropping content from their belief system, or embracing a willful irrationality.  Its true that both responses have long and storied histories in Christian thinking, but that’s more a testimony to the breadth of Christian thinking over the centuries than to any merit on their part.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Patrick, I may be wrong, but I am going to guess that you have never read Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. I do not see how anyone who had could describe him as “slippery.” He seems to me very clear as to the definition of faith he advocates and also why he advocates it. He seems to me very clear as to why he feels that Christians who recognize their myths as myths can still make use of such broken myths for symbolic purposes – because there is no avoiding symbolism when speaking of the ultimate.

      I don’t think that I have ignored the points you highlighted. I do not address everything I think in this particular blog post, but I don’t think that is the same thing as ignoring something.

  • Brian S.

    James, while I would agree that when speaking of God, you’re going to have to use inadequate language [since that is all we have]. The way Tillich [or you] is using words like “reality” or “transcendent” makes it hard to pinpoint exactly what you mean by God [and in many ways I think that is for the better].

    I mean what is reality anyway? Is it ordinary existence? Is it living according to certain principles? Or would it be better, as I think, to say that God can be experienced in some way or another in all forms of living, since the universe is a sacremental one, and thus God has to be present in it on all levels. Now, when the word expeirencing God is used, are we using it in the sense that the act of living itself can be decribed as “experiencing” God? Or is God encountered through the various ways in which we live but at the same time is seperate from them?

  • Patrick

    You assume that the problem people have once the Bible lets them down is a “desire for absolute certainty.”  You treat creeds, dogmas, and philosophies as if the role they play in people’s life is as a set of authorities to justify their beliefs.  Neither of these are necessarily accurate or fair.  You don’t need to have a desire for absolute certainty to feel adrift without the Bible as an authority, you just need a normal, every day desire for your beliefs to be supported by something.  And dogmas, creeds, and philosophies aren’t necessarily the authorities in people’s belief systems- they’re the content.  They’re often the things that need supported, not the things that do the supporting.

    You phrase your argument as if you’re chiding people for idolatry, and as if they can remain Christian and faithful if they give up their Biblical idolatry.  You phrase this as as if, if their faith only had MORE content, it could continue to exist after they gave up the Bible.  But that’s backward!  You’re asking them to have a faith with LESS content, in terms of propositional statements they believe.

    Someone who’s been through will recognize nothing of their experiences in your putative description.  Like so many religious writers, you’re describing someone else’s journey in terms that only make sense to yours.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Brian S., I thought that was well put – what we mean by God, in any sort of mystical theology as well as in Tillich’s existentialist one, becomes hard to pin down – and inasmuch as the term denotes ultimate reality, that is as it should and must be!

      Patrick, I can only view things from where I stand, and the combined perspective of my own experience and those of others who’ve shared theirs with me. I used to have a view of the Bible as inerrant, and can relate to the sense of feeling adrift with less content to one’s worldview (at least initially) and less certainty about much of the content that remains (which was what I was saying, and not the opposite, as you seem to think for some reason). And that is the whole point – one can respond to this experience by seeking absolute and comprehensive certainty from other authorities or another worldview, or one can learn to live with uncertainty.

  • http://www.thegreatestlieevertold.co.uk/ WH Uffington

    My problems with the Bible are mainly rooted in the irrational response of ‘believers’ to it, as intrinsically, the Bible not only makes little sense, but the Old Testament presents a violent, psychopathic God, whom I find a barbaric embarrassment. In spite of the atrocities and the obvious contradictions, the Old Testament is the part of the Bible most often quoted by ‘Christians’.

    The lack of compassion and morality in the Old Testament and the unbelievable fantasy presented in the New, and no inkling of spirituality anywhere, led me to reject religions and spend 15 years researching the stories’ origins. It was a relief to find I could keep my knowledge of God, follow the teachings of Jesus and develop my spirituality, whilst maintaining my sanity and my integrity. Understanding the Bible and rejecting religion, ironically, has strengthened my work within my local church.

    I published my research and conclusions in a book, which, I am pleased to say, allows others to bypass the fifteen years of research and make meaningful progress on their unique spiritual path.

    WH Uffington
    http://www.thegreatestlieevertold.co.uk

    • stevels_smith

      Who are you? What graduate program did you finish? What schools did you attend? Have your peers reviewed your work? Have you published in a notable journal?
      I can not find anything on your credentials to be working in this field although you appear to be setting yourself up as an expert historian on ancient monotheistic religions.

    • stevels_smith

      Oh that’s right! You’re the guy who believes ancient aliens helped build the pyramids and passed on their mysticism to the Egyptians and the mysticism is TRUE!

      You are a hack and likely a sociopath.

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  • Pseudonym

    Well, if you want another data point… I grew up in a progressive church, which was a mix of neo-orthodox and liberal. I’m now a scientist, and I’ve learned a lot about the natural world (including modern thinking on biology, neuroscience and cosmology) and find it all compelling and fascinating. I’ve also learned a lot about modern thinking on the history of the biblical text.

    My beliefs have changed substantially and radically over the course of my life. And I’ve never had a crisis of faith.

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  • Dave

    I was raised in church and became a devout Baptist and have read the Bible and listen to it a number of times on tape while driving. To say that I have lost the notion that the Bible is literal is a fact, however due to experiences in my life I still believe in a God/Creator that exists. The Christian community seems blind to the real truth, and I feel that their has been too much manipulation of the story’s to know the real truth in today’s time in history.
    I see things in the Bible that are broken by tradition. For example: Christians call the first day of the week their holy day when God calls the seventh day his. Are they going against the commandment of keeping Gods seventh day holy? Absolutely they are, but they will argue tooth and nail that it’s OK., Did Jesus not say his fathers house shall not be a house of merchandise, but a house of prayer?
    On any Sunday you will find churches with bookstores, bake sales, garage sales, bingo games, coffee shops, etc, etc, etc,. I once questioned this and was told Jesus was addressing the thieves selling merchandise cheating people. However I could not find any place that excused the church from this rule, So they excuse themselves from Rules they don’t think apply to them. On that note if Sunday is their holy day why would it be OK to work in a church bookstore or coffee shop on Sunday? I find that Constantine seemed to be responsible for many of these changes in the early church. A former Sun worshiper who converted to Christianity he was responsible for destroying many early writings he disagreed with, and declared himself head of the church. The Easter holiday is clearly a converted pagan holiday celebrating the goddess of fertility who’s signs are the egg and rabbit or bunny, her name was Ishtar I believe. As for Christmas well Christmas trees are sort of described in the Bible and according to the Bible are forbidden because they are Pagan. But today we embrace these things without looking into them. As for Christmas being on December 25th, They come up with these mathematical theory’s that sound good on paper but have no basis for any reasonable belief that Jesus was born on that day. My theory is that Jesus said he would return on the third day and Constantine most likely figured that he being a Sun worshiper figured he was talking about the time the Sun returned during the

  • Dave

    Cont. from previous post…

    Winter Solstice. Being the third day of the return of the Sun/Son. I think he may have thought Jesus was the Son of the God of the Sun.
    One could go through and find many contradicting statements the Bible makes about God and one could try an explain away these things, but my question is if God is not a God of Confusion, then would he not have a book that was not vague and would be clear to everyone. Look at what eve said that if she eat the fruit from the forbidden tree that on that day she would surely die. This is explained away as a spiritual death. However their is no verse stating that any spiritual death is possible. If you look at the bible the breath of God was breathed into Man and created a living Soul. Thus if God is eternal then the Soul of man being part of or from Gods breath then is it not true that it cannot die and it is eternal. Didn’t Paul suggest this by saying we are Gods? More than likely the rules for forgiveness came in here and God saw that they confessed their sin and didn’t lie so he made a sacrifice of animals and forgave them thru the blood


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