Why Do Intelligent Atheists Still Read The Bible Like Fundamentalists?

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Before I begin, if you’re an atheist coming here looking for a fight, I’m the wrong guy. Yes, I’m a Christian (okay, the Religious Right would take issue with that claim, but whatever), but I have the utmost respect for my atheist friends and colleagues– especially the fruitful dialogue we have, and the many areas of common ground that can be discovered when we take the time to listen to one another.

One of those colleagues I respect is Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist (and in further disclosure, Terry Firma at Friendly Atheist is one of my real-life best friends).

Hemant has given me some thoughtful and friendly push-back from time to time, and in this case, I need to do the same.

So here is the question I can’t figure out, and was reminded of when reading a piece Hemant wrote: Why do intelligent atheists often insist on reading the Bible like a fundamentalist– as if there’s only one way to understand and apply it to Christian living?

Case in point: Friendly Atheist today is poking a bit of fun at a Miss Teen USA contestant who happens to be a devout Christian. Their issue with her?

That she has a tattoo.

Hemant writes, “I just want to point out that, for all the comments about her “devout” faith and dedication to the Bible, she breaks a pretty famous biblical rule…” Furthermore, the title of the piece asserts that she “clearly hasn’t read the Bible.”

As a theological scholar and a Christian with a boatload of tattoos, I take real issue with Hemant’s hard-line take on this. It’s a classic case of when atheists insist on reading the Bible like fundamentalists. It is unenlightening and causes one to become judgmental of others, such as the judgment that she “clearly hasn’t read the Bible” or by putting “devout” in quotation marks as if her having a tattoo actually calls into question the sincerity of her faith. 

It’s as if there’s only “one way” to read and interpret the Bible– and as the one they call Formerly Fundie, let’s just say I’ve seen this approach before.

So, let me break it down for you as to why this entire argument is deeply flawed– whether it’s a fundamentalist or an atheist making it:

First, this argument fails to take into account the historic context of these ancient Scriptures.

The area of Scripture in question is describing the birth and organization of a nation and people group that happened long, long ago. It is descriptive, instead of prescriptive. The Hebrew people arose as one culture among many others, and one of their cultural values was to live differently than the people groups around them. In the case of tattoos, the prohibition first discusses “cutting” your skin for the dead, and then lumps tattoos in with it– both were popular religious practices to honor the dead and to get the attention of the gods, particularly of the Canaanite people they were trying to distinguish themselves from.

Thus, when we see this prohibition of tattoos what we’re seeing is a description of an ancient people group establishing a new religion, and who wanted to make sure they lived and looked differently than the people groups around them. Had the Canaanites all worn funny yellow hats and 80’s style basketball shorts every Saturday, I’m sure they would have prohibited that, too.  The only way the ancient Hebrew prohibition on tattoos (or on wearing mixed fibers) is relevant to the life of a modern Christian is only if one finds cultural anthropology interesting– that’s because it is descriptive of an ancient people, not prescriptive for Christians.

The second reason this argument fails, is that it operates on the assumption that in order to be a good Christian, one must follow ancient Jewish customs. Ironically, the Bible *actually* deals with this issue later (you have to read waaaaaay past Leviticus, though) when the Christian religion is born out of Judaism. In fact, the early Christians argued over this issue– but the position that won the day was that gentiles (that’s us) do not have to follow these ancient customs (shout-out to all the uncircumcised folks out there). In fact, there’s even a famous story in the New Testament where early Christians claim that God himself told St. Peter to no longer follow some of the ancient customs. Oh, and let’s not forget the inconvenient truth that the founder of Christianity (you-know-who) was actually executed, and that one of the reasons why the religious leaders colluded to see that happen was because he wouldn’t interpret the ancient customs the way that some Baptist churches, and now Friendly Atheist, say we should.

Long story short: the vast majority of Christians for the past 2,000 years have felt little compulsion to follow most of the ritualistic and cultural practices of our religious ancestors. Alyssa Williams is well in line with Christian tradition.

The Friendly Atheist article says that Alyssa Williams “clearly hasn’t read her Bible,” but the irony is this is a case of pointing one finger, only to have four pointing right back at you.

Because if you finish reading the Bible, it actually tells you that Christians are not under obligation to follow these ancient customs.

I love my atheist friends, and I respect my colleague Hemant. But as a Christian I’ll say this: we give you plenty of good and valid hypocritical reasons to make fun of us, but going after a teenager who seems like a good kid, simply because she’s a Christian with a tattoo, probably isn’t the most compelling argument you could make today.

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