How many fundamentalists actually read the Bible, and what do they make of it?

Really interesting thread at Love, Joy, Feminism that starts with Libby Anne questioning whether the Bible really makes people into atheists:

I’m often confused by two assumptions I have heard many atheists make: first, that Christians don’t actually read the Bible, and second, that if they did they couldn’t help but see the inconsistencies and atrocities and become atheists. Why am I confused? First, because while I’m sure there are plenty of Christians who don’t read the Bible, everyone in the evangelical community where I grew up read it on a daily basis, and not just the easier books like the Gospels. Second, because I read the Bible through numerous times before I even graduated from high school, and doing so didn’t shake my fundamentalist/evangelical faith one iota.

Libby Anne also quotes people from the Raised Quiverful project saying they read the Bible a whole lot growing up, but then acknowledges it may be different for moderate and liberal Christians.

Some of the comments are quite interesting. One claims that, “Yep. I know a lot of people who lost their faith through reading the Bible, from all sorts of denominations.” Another asks Libby Anne what she made of the Bible when she was a fundamentalist, and Libby Anne responds:

Well if God says to do it…then it’s right and good. Because what’s right and good is what God says is right and good, and what God says is right and good is, well, right and good. It’s the command theory of morality, and it’s what we were taught. “Sin” is “disobeying God” and “righteousness” is “obeying God.” Period. End of story. So…I think that’s why growing up I could read those passages and not find my faith shaken.

And then there’s this person’s story:

Here’s an interesting, and somewhat related, story:
I learn Torah every week over the phone. My study partner was brought up Orthodox Jewish, while I came to it later in life. One day, I brought up the story of Jacob meeting Rachel, and then kissing her. My partner’s response–No he didn’t! I had to point out chapter and verse before she’d believe me. The scary part is, she’d studied Torah her entire life, while I’d started at the age of 18.

This last story is telling. I strongly suspect that plenty of people “study” the Bible without managing to actually learn its contents.

Other thoughts: there may be a divide within fundamentalism between the fundamentalists and hyper-fundamentalists like the Quiverfull movement that Libby Anne came from. One of my friends back in my hometown once claimed he had read the Bible, but later admitted that he had just read a few large chunks. Not surprising, since so much of the Bible is boring.

Also, while I would expect most Christians in the US to be shocked by the atrocities in the Old Testament, I wouldn’t expect them to notice most of the contradictions, because human memory isn’t perfect and it’s easy to forget the details of what you read two books or even several chapters ago.

Beyond that, though, I’m still puzzled. I have vague memories of Dan Barker having really interesting things to say about how he reacted to the Bible when he was a fundamentalist, but I can’t find the quote right now. Anyone have it? Who has other relevant quotes? Firsthand experiences?

  • unbound

    Well, I wasn’t raised as a fundamentalist, but I did read the bible here and there out of curiosity. As a Catholic, we do go over a significant chunk of the bible as part of a schedule (3 years long if I remember correctly). But at the end of each set of 3, the priest tells us how to interpret what was just read to us. I think this is very telling in its own right.

    The bible passages that were read could say the sky was dark purple in the middle of the day, but what everyone remembers is what the priest told us it really meant and, therefore, what we were supposed to take away from it. I wonder if other denominations are in a similar boat.

    I have a strong suspicion that bible study groups have already been informed (via indoctrination as small children) how to interpret what they read…essentially “poisoning the well”. Even for myself, the problems with the bible weren’t something I saw on my own due to my own indoctrination as a child.

    It wasn’t until someone pointed out some problems (the first one being the 2 Kings 2 verse about children being killed by bears because they teased a bald man) that my brain really started thinking about what I was actually reading. When I confronted my uncle (a priest) about it, he had no idea about such a passage and couldn’t identify it himself at the time.

  • Dunc

    There’s a big difference between reading and reading critically. It’s perfectly possible to read something that’s chock-full of glaring contradictions and simply not notice, if you’re not used to reading critically. How much time do you think is devoted to critical reading in the average fundie home-schooling schedule?

    • Jay


      “There’s a big difference between reading and reading critically.”

      This is true, but the problem is deeper than that. For someone indoctrinated as a fundamentalist early on, it doesn’t even so much matter if said person has the ability to read critically, because you are taught as a fundamentalist NOT to read critically. Doing so is a sin; you’re not allowed to question the bible’s veracity. The bible is true and consistent (they say); it just is. Period. Now it’s on you to make sense of all the ways it actually isn’t.

      So even for those who might otherwise find the glaring holes or moral conundrums troubling (like me when I was a Christian), if your indoctrination was strong enough, you quickly dismiss those “evil” thoughts that pop into your head and tell the Devil to stop messing with you.

      You’re taught from day one that the “Word of God” has no errors or inconsistencies. If you ask how one knows this… “Because it’s the Word of God”. So anything in the bible that might make you question your faith, you’re trained to find how it might can mesh with the rest of your interpretation of the bible, not to question whether it meshes at all. In those instances where you or your pastor don’t know how to make it mesh, well, “his ways are not are ways” and “we can’t understand an infinite God with finite minds”.

      This is how it’s done. This is how an otherwise intelligent and skeptical person, who finds rational ways to explain all that other hokum like psychics and spoon bending, even when his religious brethren are convinced they’re demonic powers, can not seem to apply the same level of skepticism to his religious beliefs. You’re simply not allowed to, on pain of eternal torment. It’s psychological terrorism at it’s finest.

  • csrster

    ” One day, I brought up the story of Jacob meeting Rachel, and then kissing her. ” (Genesis ch29 v11 btw)

    Yes, but any money says that there is a rabbinic commentary on how it wasn’t really a kiss, or not that sort of kiss, or didn’t count as a kiss, or maybe even _was_ a kiss and Jacob’s labours were a divine punishment for it.

    • Anat

      The correct answer is ‘not that sort of a kiss’. He was kissing his cousin in greeting, so it was obviously all chaste and modest. Of course he later went on to marry her.

  • machintelligence

    In the 2012 debate between Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans, Ehrman talks about reading the bible “horizontally” rather than “vertically” comparing various versions of the same story.

    It is about 45 minutes into the debate.

    Ehrman started out at the Moody Bible Institute, a very fundamental and literal school. He is now what most folks would call an atheist.

  • RW Ahrens

    I think a large majority of christians are guided by their clergy in their readings of the bible, with specific lessons to be gleaned from the day or week’s readings. I would think that the closer a congregation is “guided” by its clergy in its teachings, the closer the bible lessons would also be guided. Clergy can’t have that captive audience going off and studying on its own, but one needs to have them understanding the bible the way clergy wants them to understand it.

    That was certainly my experience in the First Christian church (a bible-oriented but liberal version of christianity) We were urged to read, but were given “assignments” to guide our understanding.

    While reading that way, there is little danger of noticing those contradictions, and one is guided away from the more horrific stuff that contradicts the politics of the clergy of your particular brand of christianity – and, incidentally, things that may contradict the basic morals of the secular society we come from that may lead you astray.

  • James Sweet

    If you recall, I brought a similar issue in my comments to the intro to your book. It is indubitably true that the Bible has turned many people into atheists. It is also indubitably true that there are many people who study the Bible thoroughly and do not become atheists. It is unclear to me what makes the difference. I think it is a potentially fascinating topic, but I don’t know where to begin to scratch the surface.

    This last story is telling. I strongly suspect that plenty of people “study” the Bible without managing to actually learn its contents.

    I think the story is telling, but I have a slightly different spin on it. Let me tell you a different story. I am sure you are aware of the Lucy Harris story in regards to early Mormon history: Joseph Smith had “translated” the early part of his narrative with Martin Harris transcribing it, and it was told be Lehi, the patriarch of the family. Lucy Harris came up with a bright idea to hide/destroy the early pages, to see if Smith could re-translate it identically. Smith became furious, said he had to go pray for a while, then came back with the inventive story that, to punish the Harris’ lack of faith, the Book of Lehi was now sealed to humanity — but never fear, because there followed a book written be Nephi, Lehi’s son, which told basically the same story, albeit in different words. Dah-herp.

    Now, Mormons do not keep this story a secret. I learned it in Sunday School, maybe even in Primary (which is for kids from toddlers up to 12). But the Mormons have this balls-out way of presenting it — as an allegory about the importance of faith — that is obscenely effective in clouding the mind, or at least it was on my mind. I was in my late 20s and had been an open atheist for years, and it wasn’t until South Park did their version of that story that it’s full import hit me. It just seemed like some murky story in the murky history of Mormonism, rather than full-blown slam-dunk proof that Smith was faking it. Not that at that point in my life I had any doubt Smith was faking it, but I didn’t consider the Lucy Harris story particularly relevant to it.

    So. What does this have to do with anything. Well, I think that, in more moderate churches, the clergy are embarrassed by the horrible things in the Bible, so they try to hide it from their flock. This probably has the highest success rate, if you actually keep people from reading the whole damn thing (which is usually no problem, considering it’s long, mostly boring and stupid, and loaded with tedious “begats” and such), but when someone does read it, they are likely to have their faith challenged.

    On the other hand, other churches (including the LDS church where I was raised) take a different approach: “This is exactly what the Bible says, and IT’S FUCKING AWESOME!!!1!!111!!!!” It’s basic Orwellian-ism. The Lucy Harris story proves the importance of having faith in the Book of Mormon. God’s commandments to the Israelites to slaughter untold thousands shows how important the afterlife is relative to worldly things. The contradictions in the Bible prove the mysteriousness and complexity of God, and how inadequate we humans are to understand Him on our own.

    Rather than sweeping the flaws under the rug, the flaws are trotted out as strengths. This is somewhat less effective in the nominal case, because you get a fair number of people (particular those who haven’t been raised in it from birth) saying, “Woah, hold your horses, that doesn’t make any sense.” But you’ve got no problem with Bible reading, because it’s all hanging out there.

    • Bronze Dog

      So. What does this have to do with anything. Well, I think that, in more moderate churches, the clergy are embarrassed by the horrible things in the Bible, so they try to hide it from their flock. This probably has the highest success rate, if you actually keep people from reading the whole damn thing (which is usually no problem, considering it’s long, mostly boring and stupid, and loaded with tedious “begats” and such), but when someone does read it, they are likely to have their faith challenged.

      That’s pretty much what happened to me. The church I went to was relatively liberal and avoided the horror stories. Heck, some of the well-known stories got whitewashed: Isaac asking about where the lamb was framed as him knowing what’s going on and that they’d be sacrificing something other than himself, rather than being ignorant that he was the original intended sacrifice.

      One day I got in an argument at a family reunion with some distant cousin I had never met before. He told me to read Acts. I wasn’t impressed, and went to reading some chunks I hadn’t read before, like the genocides in Numbers. For a while, I mentally edited out the bad parts I knew of as being later corruptions, but after that bit, I pretty much gave up on trying to save the bible from itself.

  • plutosdad

    I agree with her to a certain extent. They are not the only ones taught the command theory of morality.

    Growing up catholic and attending a catholic school until 9th grade, I read most of the Bible by that point, including most of the old testament. And I came up with the same excuses for God’s violence as William Lane Craig does. And whatever people in the old testament did, we never took them as moral guides, except perhaps in how not to do things.

    It was never the Bible that made me leave Christianity. But what makes more sense is the arguments of Richard Carrier. If god is good, why doesn’t he do this? You would do this wouldn’t you? etc. After awhile the “God doesn’t interfere with free will” doesn’t hold up, not if you are going to believe in the parts of the Bible where God does intercede.

    Maybe the type of people who don’t read their Bibles might be shocked, but maybe not. They are the same people that don’t take a lot of their religion and it’s proclamations and dogmas seriously. Just like the majority of Catholics don’t follow the church’s morality regarding women, most do write off the old testament violence, and anything in the new testament they say “well that’s Paul not Jesus so who cares?” and “meh it was along time ago” and don’t think any harder about it than that.

  • mikespeir

    I was raised Pentecostal. Believe me, I read the Bible. I taught it. But I also taught that we should be “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (I Cor 2:13), which is to say that the Bible speaks with one voice. One passage must be interpreted to accord with another. Basically, by fiat, there can be no contradiction. If there appears to be, you’ve just interpreted one or both passages incorrectly.

    And, you see, that’s what you have to make yourself believe. God creating the world in six days, making Man from dust, talking snakes and donkeys, parting bodies of water, people rising from the dead, and such the like are all secondary propositions. If you can maintain a belief that, first and foremost, the Bible is true cover to cover, then it follows naturally that all those things really happened. But it’s a hard pose to hold under the relentless assault of real-world evidence. When you look at it from the other direction, when you begin to let the improbability of those things having actually happened reflect on the reliability of Scripture you step on the banana peel starting you down the slope toward atheism.

  • Kevin

    I basically became an atheist at age 8, so read the bible in my teens to try to figure out if I had somehow gotten my wires crossed.

    Yeah. You know the result.

    Even with metaphorizing the early myths, it was still dreadful and did nothing but solidify my disbelief.

    I think another issue is also at play. I’ll be willing to bet that the denominations that read the bible cover-to-cover use the KJV. With all of the “thees” and “thous” and “begats”.

    The language itself confounds the meaning.

    I do find it interesting that the most-conservative churches hew strictly to the KJV. I even had it suggested to me that the original writers in the original Hebrew and Greek were incorrect, and that god had intended the English KJV to be the one and only inerrant version of both the OT and the NT.

  • vel

    I have had Christians who have told me that they have read their bible completely and then turn around and be totally flummoxed when I show them something like, oh, Luke 19 where the parable of the minas ends with Jesus commanding anyone who doesn’t accept him as king be brought before him and killed. That simply shows that they are lying.

    Most christians blindly accept that the only things in the bible are those that their pastors/priests mention, their daily prayer books mention, and that’s it. They have never actually cracked it open at all. I can sympathize why one wouldn’t want to read the thing. It’s really a badly written collection of stories that glorifies violence, is repetitive where it isn’t contradictory, and is filled with primtive lunacy. No wonder they don’t want to have their willful ignorance shattered and realize that their magic book isnt’ all *that*.

    As a side comment, i wonder if the reason that really conservative churches prefer the KJV is that they can lie more easily about what it supposedly “really” means, depending on the confusing language therein.

    • jamessweet

      I have had Christians who have told me that they have read their bible completely and then turn around and be totally flummoxed when I show them something like, oh, Luke 19 where the parable of the minas ends with Jesus commanding anyone who doesn’t accept him as king be brought before him and killed. That simply shows that they are lying.

      Not necessarily lying… They may just not have been reading carefully.

      My family and I would sit down each night and read one chapter from the Book of Mormon or the Bible (we did each of them sequentially), maybe two or three if they were really short chapters. We took turns reading it aloud. So I can assure you we read every bit of it, because there was no way we could have missed any of it.

      But did all that stuff sink in? Nah, you are just reading it to get it read at that point. You are not thinking about everything you read. Especially, as Kevin points out, with the way the KJV obfuscates everything a bit, it’s very easy to just be like, “Huh, that was weird. I guess I didn’t understand that part. Oh well, time for bed..” and then you forget all about it.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I like this theory about the KJV.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I read the Bible as a teenager in a Biblical literature class and it didn’t immediately turn me into a non-believer. Why? Well, I was very good at rationalizing how the Bible could be so terrible and still be a divinely inspired work.

    I was also Catholic and so had no doctrine about it being inerrant to contend with. Catholics view the Bible as being infallible only in matters of salvation. A nicely un-testable position.

    It was also the early 80s and there were no visible atheists around to confirm my suspicions that the whole thing might be bunk. (I now know that many of the public figures I respected were atheists or agnostics, but didn’t know it back then.)

  • iknklast

    My brother knows the Bible almost as well as I do – I say almost, because he misses all the nice, liberal, sweet Jesus parts, and skips straight to the nasty bits that he agrees with.

    I remember one time when I was travelling with a colleague, working on a project 3 hours from home. We were driving back, and he wanted me to help him on his Bible verse memorization project. One of the verses he was working on was one of the nasty bits from the old testament about killing all the men and women, and keeping the girls who were virgins for themselves. I couldn’t believe he knew this verse, and was OK with it, so I asked him about it.

    His answer? If God says to do something, it isn’t evil, it’s the right thing to do. He wouldn’t do something like this describes on his own, but if God said to do it, he would. I asked him, so, what if God told you to kill me? He said, and I quote, “I would have to kill you”. I guess I was expecting him to say something like “God would never tell me to do that”, but he calmly and cooly informed me that he would do it. I moved as far away as possible in the truck, and never travelled with him again. The obvious question, of course, is “How would you know it was God?” His response? “I would know”.

    I do think that Bible reading can create atheists, but I don’t think it’s a given. I think some people are so far gone that even the nasty bits are OK to them, because it’s God doing it, so there must be a reason.

  • Sgaile-beairt

    I wonder how many of the William Craig style whitewashers-by-fiat would still defend, or would they blench? if you made them read the Brick Testament in toto…?

  • mas528

    The KJV difficulty approximates the Pakistani Muslim obeying the command “read!” who reads the quran in Arabic, but doesn’t understand a word of Arabic.

    If they don’t understand it, they are told “what it means” by their parents and authority figures.

    These are kids that are literally taught that if god commanded it, it is moral by definition

    Thus we have William Lane Craig excusing genocide.

  • wholething

    When I read in Isaiah that God created evil and nobody could give a reasonable answer to my questions about it, it helped me stop believing. There were other things, too, that were going on that made me question all aspects of religion and some were bigger influences, but that verse clued me in that the Bible wasn’t going to be any help.

  • William Taggart

    Did you ever bother to look up evil in the HEbrew? Do your homework and think please think the Bible was not inspired in English… calamity is a better rendering

  • William Taggart

    what you are missing from in the PARABLE (which is what Luke 19 calls it)… is the in between … we will not have this man rule over us.. was what the JEWS with their leaders said and then delivered Christ to be Crucified. On the cross He said Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Then God raised Him from the dead and when He returns: 2 Thessalonians 1: 6 since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, 7 and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, 8 in
    flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on
    those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe,[a] because our testimony among you was believed. Believe the Gospel now and the Bible promises Jesus will deliver you from the wrath to come !

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