No, atheists do not interpret the Bible like fundamentalists

Libby Anne has a post replying to an earlier post of mine on fundamentalists vs. liberal Christians. She apparently didn’t read my follow-up reply to James McGrath, which explains my position a little more, but there’s another issue here that I’ve been meaning to address for awhile: no, atheists do not interpret the Bible like fundamentalists.

It true that I think on some issues, the “fundamentalist” position is a more plausible reading of the author’s intentions than the “liberal” one. But I’d be surprised to find an atheist who thinks this is generally true. As I point out at the previous link, the Bible contradicts itself a lot, something which atheists frequently point out in criticizing fundamentalists. I can enthusiastically agree with James McGrath that fundamentalist insistence on inerrancy ends up doing violence to the text.

Furthermore, while my impression is that liberals and fundamentalists alike would mostly like the issue to go away, the general position of liberal Christians at least makes it possible to admit that the Bible commands slavery (and is wrong about this). In the modern US, where slavery is widely seen as a Bad Thing, most fundamentalists can’t do that, unless they going to pull a Doug Wilson and insist that slavery wasn’t that bad. (The fact that liberal Christian Fred Clark has a similar view of what the Bible says about slavery should be the last atheists hear from liberal Christians about “but you’re agreeing with fundamentalists!”)

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  • MNb

    It shouldn’t bother us atheists if a fundamentalistic interpretation of the Bible is more plausible than a liberal one. I know I don’t give a damn.
    It’s really quite simple.
    There is no god. Thus the Bible is not divinely inspired. It was written by a whole string of fallible humans, who were products of their time and their political and cultural backgrounds. So the only interpretations we should accept are those based on scientific methods, which obviously include knowledge of Ancient History and literary criticism.
    Personally I find at least parts of the Bible much more likeable that way – not because I agree, but because I can relate to its human nature and the human issues it deals with. For instance: try reading the Gospels as a rebellious manifesto against the Roman oppressors and their collaborators instead of something that contains some eternal “truth”. Then it’s not so hard to forgive Jesus’ indifference towards slavery and animal rights.

  • JHendrix

    This is a really interesting thread, and I liked Libby Anne’s article quite a bit. I really should read her more.

    The thing that interests me is trying to get at exactly what they liberal Christians are trying to assert. They can agree that parts of the bible are morally odious, that parts of it are “just metaphor” – great.

    But don’t they also assert that there is a god, and that Jesus was his son, and that he died for the supposed sins of humanity?

    How do they assert that those parts of the bible are true but the others aren’t? At some point you’re looking at this ancient collection of texts, parts of which we know are wrong, were edited, and they come along and say “ahh yes, but THIS is the true part about the son of god who is our savior”.

    Exactly how is such a thing justified?

  • Tony Debono

    My favorite Liberal interpretation of Christianity of late is “Look, it’s *not* about what Jesus saves us FROM, but what Jesus saves us TO!”
    This was said to me by a postmodern liberal Christian when I made a very clear point about the fact that Original Sin and/or the concept of the Fall of Mankind make(s) NO SENSE in the light of Evolution. And if postmodernist liberal Christians can reinterpret fundamental notions of Christology and Soteriology THAT nonchalantly, then ANYTHING is up for grabs. The postmodern Christian movement has transformed the Bible, Jesus, and Church doctrines into water which inevitably slips through their fingers. While I find it intellectually repellant, I ultimately welcome that transition as an important step in the dissolution of Christianity.

  • smrnda

    My own feeling is that once liberal Christians admit that the Bible can be wrong about as many things as they are willing to say that it’s wrong about, it indicates that they must be using some source other than the Bible to make value judgments, and that (like any other text) they will agree with the Bible only where it more or less agrees with their existing morals.

    The same happens with factual accuracy – if there’s no external evidence or the evidence is to the contrary, they ditch what the Bible says or explain it away as a metaphor.

    But if they are using some non-Bible source for value and factual judgments, why treat the Bible as special at all?

    • DSimon

      I don’t think this is a reasonable expectation. If you assume that the Bible has a fair amount of useful moral and factual information, but also a fair amount of useless text, it’s reasonable to use a secondary source to sort wheat from chaff. We do the same thing in general to check one sense against another, e.g. if you want to know if you’re looking at a sleeping cat or a realistic model of one, you can touch it to see if it’s warm.

      This stops being as useful when you stop assuming that the Bible has a better signal/noise ratio than most other historical religious works, but that’s a separate issue.

      • hf

        See, anyone who did that consistently would conclude (contra Fred) that Jesus never rose from the dead, just like we can observe that real cats don’t feel like plastic. One might also have strong doubts about the existence of Jesus. See the story of the fig tree, Israel, and the destroyed temple.

  • kalim

    Comment removed for spam. -Hallq

    • eric

      Hmm, well, just off the top of my head:
      1. the ‘wise and artistic fashion’ bit is mere assertion.
      2. ‘it forms itself’ is perfectly reasonable, given QM
      3. there are an infinite number of possible explanations other tan these four; saying “A, B, C, or one all-powerful all-glorious God” is a false dilema

  • MNb

    @JHendrix: I think basically two things.
    1. The Bible is divinely inspired.
    2. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of agape, which is something like unselfish love.

    As an example I offer this little gem from BioLogos:
    “Discrepancies like this suggest that these passages are not to be interpreted historically or scientifically, but rather through a figurative, allegorical, and/or theological lens.”
    (about Genesis 1 and 2 – the bird thing)

    • Nox

      Or they could just be wrong.

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  • Steven Carr

    Christianity is :-
    ‘The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.’

    That is when you are talking to fundamentalists.

    Liberal Christians will add that the magical tree never existed.

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