Should Reading the Bible Make One an Atheist? (RJS)

Over the last few weeks I have put up links to a couple of videos placed on YouTube by Big Think. The video of Francis Collins on science and faith has received something like 12,000 views on YouTube, the video of Tim Keller on a literal reading of scripture 15,000. In contrast the following video has received more than 770,000 views … more than three quarters of a million! Admittedly Jillette’s video has been online one year longer than Collins’ and two years longer than Keller’s, but that isn’t the whole explanation. Jillette’s story hits a nerve.  I think it is one we would do well to consider carefully.

Today I would like to look at this video and some of the questions raised by the clip.

Jillette describes how and why he left the church he grew up in, why he became an atheist and an outspoken one at that.  He grew up in a Christian home and community, at least nominally. His youth pastor wanted the kids to do serious inquiry into theological questions.

1:26-1:51 And I read the Bible cover to cover. And I think that anyone who is thinking about maybe being an atheist, if you read the Bible or the Koran or the Torah, cover to cover, I believe will emerge from that as an atheist. I mean, you can read the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, you can read God is Not Great by Hitchens. But the Bible itself will turn you atheist faster than anything.

Why would reading the Bible make you an atheist?

1:54-3:26  I think because what we get told about the Bible is such a lot of picking and choosing. When you see, you know, Lot’s daughter gang raped and beaten and the Lord being OK with that; when you actually read about Abraham being willing to kill his son, when you actually read that, when you read the insanity of the talking snake, when you read the hostility toward homosexuals, towards women, the celebration of slavery; when you read in context that thou shall not kill means only in your own tribe. I mean there’s no hint that it means humanity in general. That there’s no sense of a shared humanity, its all tribal, when you see a God that is jealous and insecure, when you see that there is contradictions that show that it was clearly written hundreds of years after the supposed fact and full of contradictions. … read what the Bible says. Going back to the source material is always the best. When someone’s trying to interpret something for you they always have an agenda. So I read the Bible.

There is more to the video worth considering, but I want to concentrate here on this portion of his reflection.

I disagree with Jillette that reading the Bible will make one an atheist, but I do agree with some of the points he makes here.

Picking and Choosing. What we get told about the Bible is such a lot of picking and choosing, no question but that he is right about that – at least for many of us. We are given out-of-context sound bites. Blessing and promises, applications for 21st century life, select verses forming a road to salvation (fire insurance perhaps). The story is not taught, or not taught well. To find that the Bible does not live up to the image we’ve been given can be devastating.

Jillette gets the story of Lot a bit wrong – Lot was willing to send his daughters out but it didn’t happen and there is certainly no sense that God would have been OK with it (Gen 19).  But, except for the part about “God was OK with it”, this and many other passages like it (Jeptha’s daughter anyone?) will raise questions for almost any reader.

This is a problem that has gotten worse, and doesn’t look like it will get better anytime soon. As I noted in The Measures of Success, in depth Bible study will never get big crowds. The virtual elimination of Bible from worship (a few verses around a sermon theme doesn’t count), and adult education from church doesn’t really help matters.

Celebrating Slavery. Jillette’s characterization of the Bible as celebrating slavery, hostile towards women, and as “all tribal” misses the point, as does his characterization of God as insecure (jealous is actually a good description – but only if we choose the appropriate definition: “intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness”  or “vigilant in guarding a possession” not in the sense of envious or resentful). The Bible does condemn sexual immorality (the story of Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah is one case in point), quite often in the same breath with a condemnation of greed.

Full of contradictions, written hundreds of years after the supposed fact … here we have the issue of expectation once more. If we expect the Bible to be a perfect (magic) book of propositions and facts we will be disappointed. If we expect the Bible to convey God’s mission in the world we will find the “contradictions” far less troubling.

Go to the source material, read what the Bible says. Again I agree with Jillette. But, and this is a critical but, realize that it wasn’t written in English to a 21st century suburban (rural or urban) crowd. It was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic for an ancient Near Eastern or first century Roman and Jewish crowd. (Jillette’s reference to the constitution written in English is a bit odd.) We may need to be aware of an interpreter’s agenda, but we also need interpreters to help us understand the text in its ancient context. The Garden in Ancient Context makes a great deal more sense than the garden through modern eyes.

Read the Bible cover to cover, or listen to it (my preferred method these days). In large chunks for the theme and message of each of the authors and books. Regularly. Once is not enough. Contrary to Jillette I have found that far from making me an atheist it has given me a deeper appreciation for the mission of God and the nature of the scriptures. And for the importance of the reading of scripture. It isn’t for nothing that Paul instructs Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of scripture (1 Tim 4) or tells him that the scriptures were able to make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3).

I will admit, however, that reading the Bible cover-to-cover with attention to the themes, progressions, and arguments is dangerous, not to faith in Christ but to some of the received “truths” within our churches. The proof texts for many propositions don’t hold water (as proofs) when the context is appreciated. And the emphasis that is placed on what we might call sanctification and on care of the widow, orphan, poor, and stranger, and on the condemnation of  greed is inescapable.

What would you say to someone who suggests that reading the Bible will make one an atheist?

When might this be true?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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  • david carlson

    which, imho, was the exact point of Rachel Held Evens book “biblical womanhood” What we get told about the Bible is such a lot of picking and choosing, no question but that he is right about that – at least for many of us. We are given out-of-context sound bites. Blessing and promises, applications for 21st century life, select verses forming a road to salvation (fire insurance perhaps). The story is not taught, or not taught well. To find that the Bible does not live up to the image we’ve been given can be devastating.

  • MMattM

    Sadly, I saw this happen as a dear friend started keeping questions like “what were those spies doing in the house of a prostitute anyway” to herself. I’m sure blatant misogyny from church leadership didn’t help either. Penn hits the nail on the head when he mentions interpreters, kind of. You do need historians and experts in ancient languages to close the distance, but bad interpreters have done so much damage. I hate to pick on the crowd who says “The Bible clearly states”, but I’ve spent too much time in that crowd and seen at least one person too many pushed away by it. If you do a read through of the whole Bible with a “clearly states” mentality, then I think you’ll fulfill Penn’s prophecy.

  • The Leap of Doubt

    Having read the Bible through many times (as well as listening), being involved in church for decades, graduating from Christian high school and Christian college… I find that while I still love the Bible for many reasons, I cannot believe that it is in its entirety “inspired” by God (whatever magic that phrase means).

    It’s obvious that men wrote it from their understanding of God and creation in their time and place. And while they may have convinced themselves that God “told” them something, that ploy has been used throughout history to justify all kinds of things that are out of harmony with the way the universe really is.

    I’m not an atheist – far from it – I’m more of a “Jesus-following agnostic”. Just because Joshua said God told him to “slay every living thing that breatheth” in Canaan doesn’t mean that God actually told him to do that; it’s just an authoritarian power play. It’s good to have the freedom to question those kinds of things now.

  • Phil Miller

    It seems to me that there would be many, many more atheists if this were true for the majority of people who have read the Bible. I know I’m just speaking from my personal experience, but I have known many people who have read the Bible through from front to back, and they are not anything close to atheists.

    Personally, I think it greatly depends on your personality as to whether you’re bothered by these things – the depictions of genocide, rape, etc. I remember reading those stories when I was young, and for whatever reason, I never recall being upset by them. I suppose I imagined that there were simply good explanations, or perhaps I just didn’t have the capacity to imagine the people being killed as real. I had no frame of reference that corresponded to reality for such events, I imagine. I think that people tend to read those stories as something like myth even if they insist that they are historically accurate.

  • Norman

    For one thing, I doubt that OT literature by and large should be considered as representing actual history. These were by and large embellished propaganda stories designed to formulate narrative that we typically don’t grasp without extensive research. We ask a lot out of moderns to transpose themselves into the mind of the authors.
    Another point is I am very careful with whom I engage in discussing even the concepts raised here I JC. I take seriously my responsibility in protecting people’s faith where they currently reside. It takes a prayerful responsibility to teach much of what may be taken for granted by many of us that interact here.

  • AlanCK

    I would ask whether reading the Bible makes one philosophically an atheist or does it merely make one a disbeliever in one’s own understanding of the God of the Bible. It seems that Jillette’s points emerge from the departure of a criteria of trustworthiness regarding the Bible.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Well, I think it’s literally impossible to NOT pick and choose from the Bible because the Bible is NOT always consistent (I wish there was a way to use italics for emphasis rather than caps, but oh well). Apologists have very clever hermeneutic devices by which they try to smooth over the contradictions, but they nonetheless remain, and we all ultimately pick and choose based on our own value systems.

    Thus the absurdity when people talk of “biblical values” or thinking through something “biblically” . . that means nothing. What a person who uses that term is really saying is “biblical values are the values I cherish through which I will utilize certain interpretations of select Bible texts to substantiate my claims.”

    I think it may help for Christians to think of the Bible as a) containing the best sources for the teachings/ministry/story of Jesus we have, who through faith we believe to be the ultimate revelation of God
    b) a guide/reference book showing mankind’s struggle with seeking the divine. We often love to divide into OT/NT but that is way too simplistic. The OT is a treasure trove of often very difference conceptions of what God is and represents. Much can be learned from it, as from the NT, but I think its utility crumbles when you supplant a veil of authority upon the text that it doesn’t claim to have. Once that occurs, you wind up with the same problems cited in the first paragraph. If the whole Bible is the authoritative “Word of God” then you will end up disobeying God because of those inconsistencies mentioned. It’s a no win situation.

  • Joe Olachea III

    Great read! What audio version of the Bible do you recommend?

  • Phil Miller

    I wish there was a way to use italics for emphasis rather than caps, but oh well

    You can use italics 😉 … You have to use a bit of html code. Whatever you want in italics, you have to put [em] before the section and [/em] after it (replace the [ ] with , to get it to work).

  • Andrew Dowling


  • Chris Crawford

    It seems to me that atheists like Penn and Fundamentalist literalists approach the world with the same kind of rationalistic thinking. They both feel the bible must meet modern criteria of science and history to be valid. The trick to interpretation isn’t reading something mysterious INTO scripture – it’s reading cultural and personal biases OUT of it.

    Even Penn seems to miss this simple thing. For instance, he mentioned taking “thou shalt not murder” in it’s full context but failed to consider context in any other example.

  • Phil Smith

    Sound like Jillette should really only go as far as Marcionism. His position doesn’t necessitate atheism. In fact, by critiquing certain (mainly interpreted from the OT) portrayals of “god” he’s doing some theology, he’s just 1300 years behind the church in his efforts.

  • Guest

    Jillette is a bit disingenuous here. Nowhere do I get the sense that he read the Bible while thinking about “maybe becoming an atheist.”

    It’s analogous to many of a committed creations reading “On the Origin of Species” while thinking about maybe becoming a Darwinist.

    The same criticisms hold. Survival of the Fittest has been misinterpreted to celebrate domination of one race over another, there are “no transitional species”…
    there is contradictory evidence, etc., etc.,

    Jillette is practicing what I would term willful ignorance, just as Creationists often do when they say Evolution is “just a theory.”

    But I do give him credit for at least reading the source material instead of relying on some authority figure to tell him what to think.

  • AHH

    Or if you are too lazy like me to remember “em” (for “emphasis”) you can replace it with “i” for italics. Similarly, “b” will give you bold. And “u” will give you underlining.

  • Matt Kovach

    it worked for me lol

  • tedstur

    In my seminary hermenutics class Dr. Bill Webb started by showing us a clip from the movie Armistead in which slaves are wholesale thrown overboard. He then asked us, “Is this what your Bible teaches us is okay?” And then he dismissed us for the weekend, telling us to be ready to discuss it on Monday.

    That got our attention! I recommend his book “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals” as it gets to this issue of “picking and choosing” rather directly.

  • Rick

    Are we able to approach it objectively? I don’t think so.
    What is the role of the Holy Spirit in this?

  • RJS4DQ

    I’ve been using the audio option through the Bible Gateway App. I can listen wherever I am through my phone, especially when driving. There are several possible versions (ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV) some dramatized others read.

    I’ve generally used the dramatized NIV, but not always. I would be interested in what others find for audio versions though.

  • Rodney Reeves

    Cherry-picking texts and pretending to read them without interpretation . . . . Welcome to the club, Penn.

  • Ian

    They both feel the bible must meet modern criteria of science and history to be valid.

    That’s backwards though. Penn or any other ‘fundamentalist’ atheist doesn’t think the bible must meet modern criteria of anything ‘to be valid’. The point is that the bible reads as no more than a religious book of its time and context. It is no more special in its time and context than the book of Mormon is in its, or the writings of Baha’u’llah, Gurdjieff, Adi Da, or LRH; the Bagavad Gita, the Analects or the Qur’an. All of which may be deeply profound to some, but all of which would be utterly pointless reads to most.

    The point is, if you actually read the bible without some holy haze it is not very impressive. It is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, and so on. Most Christians barely if ever read it. Because it just isn’t very interesting or edifying. Most Christians don’t read it because they don’t enjoy it or get much out of it.

    Of course there might be a small proportion of exceptions. But if you’ve spent any time with Shakespeare scholars, or (especially perhaps) fans of Joyce, you’ll see the same passion for the subtleties, the same willingness to be moved by the deeper interpretations.

    The average person would simply not make it through the bible, and most of the few who did would be utterly baffled at what the fuss is about. So if the bible is the scripture of Christianity, Penn is right, if the average person read it without religious preconceptions, they wouldn’t be flocking to Christianity.

    Its not about interpretation at all, its about what is the point of reading it in the first place. Most people who claim to love it, and live by it, do no such thing. You may be an exception, but if so, you are not in the majority.

  • Susan_G1

    I think Penn Jillette is picking and discussing incidents out of context, as many atheists do, but many Evangelicals do exactly the same. It’s unfortunate in both cases. Just reading the Bible without context is indeed very problematic; it’s often difficult to see the forest for the trees.

    The Holy Spirit has some role to play here. Reading the whole Bible from start to finish was very helpful for me to see the arc of God’s love and holiness throughout. But I can easily see how some might see the opposite; it depends somewhat on your heart while doing so. If you’re disinclined to believe, justification for your inclinations will be noticed. Confirmation bias, etc. On the other hand, I read the Book of Mormon as well, and thought it was gibberish. The Holy Spirit? Confirmation bias? I must admit I didn’t pursue understanding it as I had the Bible. I didn’t feel any leading of the Holy Spirit in that direction.

    I came to faith as an adult, and God definitely had the greatest hand in it; I wouldn’t, couldn’t have done so otherwise. In fact, looking back on my life, I wondered why I hadn’t received the word before, why people who were clearly Christians had not reached out to me to try to evangelize. But upon reflection, they had, many times. It was me who wasn’t ready to hear.

    30 years after the beginning, I’m again undergoing a significant change in my faith. Again, I need God to help me, and I need to try to be open to truths I have not seen before. This time, I do need the help of those with more understanding than I have.

    I trust there are many paths to Christ. My guess is the Holy Spirit had to do with all of them. Why some and not others, I don’t understand.

  • Lars

    Phil, what do you think about those stories now, as an adult with a broader frame of reference? Do you have any reservations or do you still feel that that there are probably good explanations?

  • RJS4DQ


    I agree that the Holy Spirit plays a significant role.

    I also think reading the Bible without context or with bad context is problematic. This is why I think churches need to do a much better job than many are currently doing at providing a context, and not a “bad” context.

  • RJS4DQ


    I remember as a child being quite upset by the story of Achan. His kids were killed along with him because of his sin!

    Today I view the story a bit differently. (No I don’t think my kids should be killed for my sins.) I may put up a post some time looking at these troublesome passages with respect to the Exodus and conquest of Canaan.

  • WTS

    A video like this should inspire Christians to continue to think through the most difficult questions. Honestly, this debate has not moved very far beyond where it was when Marx/Engels first wrote about dialectical materialism. What I mean is that in most cases the atheist is still bringing up the same arguments and the Christian is often still responding with the same retort that countless others have made. It’s time to progress this conversation along.

    I believe that Marx/Engels were wrong. But I think they brought up legit concerns. Concerns that the Christians should have been bringing up. The church does have a tainted history. There are men who call themselves Christians who have done horrible things.

    That being said, these sorts of arguments (like this video) always attack the OT. Or they attack the church. We should be steering them towards and understanding of the NT and how the NT writers (and Jesus) understood the OT.

    This is why actually studying the Bible is so important. Paul had no problem sitting down and having a legit conversation with the skeptics. Christians are called to study the Bible, to pray, to think through these things. Too often we rely on just repeating the theology of Augustine or Calvin or others. It’s that theology that the modern atheist is often attacking.

    If we really study the NT, I think we will find that Jesus–and later Paul and the apostles used the OT in all sorts of ways. No central figure of the NT agreed with the Sadducees interpretation of the first 5 books of the OT, when it came to several key issues. (the books where most of the atheistic complaints come from.)

    What Christians need to be talking about today is the same thing Paul was talking about. —everything has to be rethought because of what God did through Jesus! There is a resurrection! And there will be one for those who trust in Jesus as well! That’s the hope of Christianity! That’s Christian theology in a nutshell.

    Debating genocide or Adam or whatever else is useless.

    We know, because of Jesus, what the character of God is like. And that character clearly loves all people, Jews and gentiles. God loves us so much that he gave us the gift of Jesus. He also gave all of us freedom of choice. And there are good and bad results that come from those choices. Jesus is the greatest expression of love, and freedom is probably the second greatest gift.

    We know that whatever happened with humans in the beginning of our existence lead to some sort of separation from God. And the line between good and evil runs through the heart of each individual man and woman. Cognitive studies are showing that even infants have an understanding of good and evil. We all choose ourselves or something over the Creator. Why debate evolution? We are here. For some reason God made creatures that could chose to have a relationship with Him or could chose against it. And make no mistake, the universe is massive in size. And it took a lot of time and life and death of other creatures to get this creature we know as ourselves.

    When a theologian starts going down the Augustine road of original sin, or when they start saying Jesus only died for some people, or when they start defending genocide because of the way they interpret a story from the OT, they are ignoring the entire theme and message of the NT.

    Paul teaches us to start with the Gospel and shape everything around the fact of what God did through Jesus. And by everything, he means the OT, history, philosophy, politics, science, family life….EVERYTHING!

  • WTS


    In response to this: “The point is, if you actually read the bible without some holy haze it is not very impressive. It is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, and so on. Most Christians barely if ever read it. Because it just isn’t very interesting or edifying. Most Christians don’t read it because they don’t enjoy it or get much out of it.”

    I agree with your final sentence. But I that it is a result of them not knowing how to read the Bible.

    But as for it not being impressive….I would say that the Gospel is the greatest story ever told. Paul’s letters stack up against anything anybody has ever written. Romans is a masterpiece by anybody’s definition.

    I would encourage you to take some time and read through the NT with an open mind. Give it another chance and allow the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you through reading it. Pray about the parts that don’t seem to make sense. Take a look at the culture of the 1st century. And try to allow yourself to read it with that society in mind. (the same way we read Dickens or Shakespeare or anybody else. ) Without context, a lot is lost.

    There is a hope and a freedom that can only be found in Jesus. And that gift is there for all to take part in.

  • Lars

    If two people are led by the Spirit to opposite conclusions, who is right? That’s been a mystery for me for decades. The Mormons also believe that the Holy Spirit guides them in truth but many mainstream Christians believe they are in error. Who is right, or, as Susan suggests, are both completely legitimate and the path is relative (even if the sacrifice was not)?

    As a fan of Peter Enns, I agree context is crucial, but we still bring our biases, our “bad context” with us because it’s impossible to know definitively what happened or what was meant. Who then, given equal scholarship of viewpoints, determines bad context from good? There are countless disagreements, even here in this Evangelical Channel, about such things (most recently, MacArthur vs Driscoll). Seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in determining God’s Will was, more than anything else, what drove me to agnosticism (or soft atheism). Ultimately, I simply could not distinguish His will from my own, no matter how much or how hard I prayed. Agnosticism saved my sanity, if not my life.

  • Phil Miller

    Do I have reservations? Not really… I guess I’ve read a number of explanations for those passages that are plausible, and none of the criticisms have ever been convincing enough for me to feel like they are threatening to my faith. But like I said, I never really read them through the eyes of a fundamentalist anyway.

  • Lars

    WTS, when you say “We know, because of Jesus, what the character of God is like,” are you saying that the OT is superfluous, and the character of God will not be found there? I think debating Adam and genocide are of tremendous importance because those writings informed the writers of the NT and inform our understanding of Christianity today. And isn’t another way of looking at Revelation essentially genocide? The destruction of non-believers is a common theme throughout the NT so our freedom of choice (to choose ourselves) does not appear to be all that “free” but rather comes with some serious strings attached.

  • Susan_G1

    Lars, you have stated the problem well. If God uses different people for different reasons, it seems likely that they will be led differently.

    Having said that, I don’t know that everyone who claims to be led by the Holy Spirit is actually being led in this way. I don’t always feel led and have struggled with a lot of things this past year, hoping that, using my mind only and putting my hope in a loving God, moving toward Christ’s example is the right thing for me to do.

    I feel very blessed that when I have been led, it was unmistakable and clear; all I had to do was allow myself to be dragged along (sometimes quite against my will, I assure you.) When doors opened almost miraculously for me to do what I did not want to do but felt led to – there is a long story about going to Africa during my residency when I absolutely had no interest or desire to go, in fact I just wanted the HS to leave me alone (I was an idiot) – that kind of experience does a lot for one’s faith during drier spells. I don’t know where I would be without them.

    Agnosticism is intellectually honest, and I respect that position.

  • WTS


    I will attempt to answer your questions.

    I do not believe the OT is superfluous. It would be impossible to understand Jesus without the story of ancient Israel. What I do think is that we should follow the model we see with Paul and the other apostles—meaning we should read the OT with the Christ the savior being thought of throughout our reading of it. (this is a major problem and much of church history has failed to read it this way.)

    In 2 Cor 3, Paul explains this point much better than I could ever explain it. In v 14 he is essentially saying that when we turn to God with and open and honest heart we will then be able to understand the true meaning of the Bible.

    On your question about debating Adam and genocide. I used the wrong wording. I am all for debating these issues. What I meant to say was to debate them in a way that denies evolution or that denies that genocide is in the OT is the wrong way to go about it. That is the mistake that I get so frustrated about with many of the guys like Sproles, Piper, etc.

    Revelation would require a very lengthy response. Maybe this entire conversation requires one! But I don’t read the final book of the NT as genocide. It is a deeply symbolic book that should offer hope to Christians who are facing persecution. Hope that there will be a new heavens and earth.

    If we chose to live a life that rejects the model given to us by Jesus, I think we are choosing death. And God ultimately allows us to chose to reject Him. If that is what we choose, then an eternal separation from Him is the only right and just option. Correct? (Please do not think I am using Calvinst or Lutheran language here.)

    Nobody will ever have a perfect theology. But I do hope that we will all see that the dominate theme of the NT is that God loves us so much that he offers us a way to regain our relationship with Him. Jesus does what the Law (OT) could not do. This is Paul’s thesis in Romans!

    Justification is offered to all, by putting our trust in Jesus. If we trust or believe in someone, we aren’t just saying that we believe that person existed. We are saying we believe in that person’s way of life; that we believe in that person’s witness or life as an example of what we are striving to be like.

  • Ian

    I agree with your final sentence. But I that it is a result of them not knowing how to read the Bible.

    I agree. I love the bible, particularly the NT, because I’ve studied it for 30 years. I learned the original languages to understand it better. I’ve read dozens, maybe hundreds of books of scholarship about it. So, I agree, there is pleasure and interest to be had in it.

    But my point about Shakespeare scholars or Joycians was also true. If you talk to people who’ve put the same effort into Joyce, or Bach or architecture, you’ll find the same passion and discovery of insights.

    And none of that diminishes the point I think Penn is making. That if you just read the bible from cold, without being told it is important, true, or profound, you’ll not be impressed by it, or by Christianity.

    I would encourage you to take some time and read through the NT with an open mind

    Well I would encourage you to read through the NT again with a properly open mind. One not encumbered by your religious context. If you are able to read and understand what it really says, not filtered, sanitised and remodelled through your theology, you’d understand and agree with me! 🙂 [the ‘you’re not doing it right, if you do it right, you’d agree with me’ argument is rather silly, don’t you think?]

    Or perhaps try and read other scriptures with the same reverence and patience and effort to uncover the profundity as you do the bible. That’s harder, because dropping your own preconceptions of other religious systems and your strong commitment to the hegemony of your ‘truth’ is, I think, much harder. One reason there are far fewer evangelical (with a small e) christians at the forefront of comparative religious studies than NT scholarship.

  • Phil Miller

    Looking back at it, I think one reason these stories never bothered me too much is that I think that many Evangelicals have Marcionite tendencies whether or not they admit it or not. I guess I remember thinking when I was young something along the lines of, “this is the way God used to be before Jesus came, so it’s good He’s not so angry now…” or something along those lines. I also think, too, like I said that I must have always had a problem with suspension of disbelief while reading the Old Testament. And I actually did read the Bible quite a lot when I was young. But I never felt that the whole enterprise would fall apart if certain stories in the OT turned out to be myths or exaggerated retellings or whatever.

    Today, I think there are good ways to read these passages, and there are certainly better ways to explain them to children. But, honestly, it’s hard for me to relate to people who say they have a crisis of faith because of these passages. Even though I was raised with many of the trappings of Fundamentalism, somehow we weren’t really Fundamentalists when it came to inerrancy. I guess we were just crazy Pentecostals.

  • Phil Miller

    I’m not sure I believe there’s any such thing as “a properly open mind” anymore… What does that phrase actually mean? Everyone is bringing presuppositions and assumptions into the text when they’re reading it. Even if they’re not religious in nature, they’re still there.

  • Ian

    I was aping WTS’s use of the term.

    I agree, there is no such thing as an approach without presuppositions or assumptions.

    I do think there is a problem with your response though. A practical, rather than a theoretical one. I’ve seen that response a lot from people who are determined that their presuppositions and biases are not challenged. So the response is a variant of “everyone does it, so I don’t see why I should do it less.”

    It is true that removing all bias is impossible. But it is also true that one can strive to bring less bias to a text. Nobody can run the 100 meters in an instant, but that doesn’t mean some people aren’t faster runners than others, nor does it mean that it isn’t worth striving to run faster.

    So I agree, but I get frustrated that your answer arrives too quickly in these discussions. You can read, say, the Bhagavad Gita without positioning the whole of Christian theology in front of you.

    It isn’t possible to read it without your Christian culture affecting you at all, but if you strive you can minimize (not remove) the effect it has on your reading. And I genuinely think that those people who work hard and have some natural talent at minimising their biases, will get a different experience of the text than those who are happy to hitch it to their existing worldview.

    There’s no such thing as a ‘properly open mind’, but that does not mean that some minds are not more open than others, nor that you have no responsibility to approach things without revelling in your biases.

  • Phil Miller

    In a way I agree, but on the other hand, I don’t know that I see anything wrong with a person who is a Christian simply reading the Bible out of a devotional sort of way. From the Christian perspective, it kind of gets back to what we believe the purpose of the Bible is. I think that approaches that are systematic in nature are mostly unhelpful to people. I think that’s where people see the Bible as a collection of propositional truths that they can use to win debates or shout down opponents.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that to me, I’ve not seen there’s much use in reading Scripture apart from the context of faith. I’m not saying there isn’t any value in approaching the Bible as literature. But to dissect it like that apart from faith seems like an odd endeavor. Personally, I’ve always wondered what the goal of historical criticism from a purely skeptical position is… I have to believe that if my underlying belief was that the Bible was simply a collection of ancient religious texts and nothing more, it would be odd to dedicate my life studying that. At the end of the day, it would ultimately seem like a waste of my time in some way.

  • DMH

    No definitive answer here but perhaps instead of looking at this issue individualistically we need to approach it more communally- seeking God with other people. This too can get fuzzy- which has pushed me to consider and have a greater appreciation for the “great tradition” of the church. Here too there can be problems. It has led me toward humility rather than agnosticism.

  • Ian

    I don’t know that I see anything wrong with a person who is a Christian simply reading the Bible out of a devotional sort of way.

    Nor do I.

    I’m merely pointing out that devotion is the key factor in finding the bible supportive of one’s faith. In the absence of that devotion the bible is nothing special. And, in fact, in the presence of that devotion, the bible is largely irrelevant, as I said above: most Christians don’t voluntarily spend a lot of time with their bibles.

    So overall, I think Penn is right, the bible is a liability to faith. It takes a fair amount of pre-existing devotion for the average person to be able to a) even make it through the bible and b) be in any way edified by the experience.

    I have to believe that if my underlying belief was that the Bible was simply a collection of ancient religious texts and nothing more, it would be odd to dedicate my life studying that.

    There are people who spend their lives studying all kinds of things that they don’t believe are divine. I don’t think it is odd at all. No more odd than passionate Shakespeare enthusiasts and scholars, or a friend of mine who is obsessed by the intricacies of Bach harmony.

    On the other hand, the majority of people who believe the bible gives some privileged access to the divine, don’t spend their life truly studying it. They might read a verse a day in a bible notes series, put in context with a page of explanation of how to find it relevant. Or they might read a few verses in a bible study group here and there, and answer some simple comprehension questions that allows them to project the whole of their theology onto the carefully chosen text. If you ask 100 average church goers when the last time they just sat down, with no ulterior motive, and read a book of the bible, I think you’d find the answer depressing.

    And the reason for that, as I said originally, is that, even if you believe it is divine in some way, the bible isn’t that good.

  • Phil Miller

    There are people who spend their lives studying all kinds of things that they don’t believe are divine. I don’t think it is odd at all. No more odd than passionate Shakespeare enthusiasts and scholars, or a friend of mine who is obsessed by the intricacies of Bach harmony.

    I would find it odd if people dedicated their lives to such things and they think there was some sort of higher principle behind them. I would think that such people would at point to things such as beauty or enlightenment of some sort.

    On the other hand, the majority of people who believe the bible gives some privileged access to the divine, don’t spend their life truly studying it.

    I don’t know – I’m just speaking from personal experience, but in my experience the Christians I grew up around read the Bible quite a bit more than this.

    And the reason for that, as I said originally, is that, even if you believe it is divine in some way, the bible isn’t that good.

    This is simply a statement of preference… What do you even mean by this? Who’s to say what makes it good or not?

    In some ways, I find these sorts of arguements self-defeating. If the Bible is simply nothing more than piss-poor religious literature, than quit obsessing over it. For some reason, the Bible stills seems to capture quite a lot of our attention. I don’t, for instance, see the same sort of fascination with the Bagavad Gita or Qur’ann in the wider culture.

  • Ian

    Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear

    I was waiting until it was published here. Though I’ve heard such good things about it, I may have to read it in dead-tree form.

    I can’t work out where I recognise your username from. You’re not a Bunkerite are you? (If the question means nothing to you, that’s fine).

  • Susan_G1

    No, not a Bunkerite (whoever they might be). 🙂

    It is easy to see why Wright won the Pulitzer. He writes so well and is very thorough.

  • Nemo

    If “kill that guy for sleeping with a guy” and “you can beat your slave hard enough that he’s out for two days, he’s property after all” are not the beautiful, holy, perfect commands of a perfect deity, then the entire New Testament is worthless. The Old Testament can stand alone. There’s a whole country full of people who believe it does. The New Testament is hitched thoroughly to the baggage of the Old. Can you not see the cop out of saying “ignore the bad stuff, just think about how much Jesus loves you”?

  • Phil Miller

    If “kill that guy for sleeping with a guy” and “you can beat your slave hard enough that he’s out for two days, he’s property after all” are not the beautiful, holy, perfect commands of a perfect deity, then the entire New Testament is worthless.

    Don’t see how the conclusion “then the entire New Testament is worthless” even follows from the statements you’re making about the OT. There is a whole spectrum of value between completely perfect and worthless.

    The New Testament is hitched thoroughly to the baggage of the Old. Can you not see the cop out of saying “ignore the bad stuff, just think about how much Jesus loves you”?

    Understand what you’re getting at, but this is a caricature as well. I actually don’t know that anyone is saying to “ignore the bad stuff”. In actuality, if some people had chosen to really ignore the bad stuff, it probably would have been for the better as far the behavior of Christians throughout history.

  • Luke Breuer

    First, trying to get a ‘plain reading’ of a document written 1800+ years ago is an awfully iffy business, because your reading of it will likely not be the reading of the original hearers. It might be good enough in some spots for an initial approximation (I claim we only ever approximate a perfect understanding of anthing). But if you really want to dig into e.g. Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac, you gotta ask how the ancient Jews would have interpreted it. And you have to not make Kierkegaard’s mistake of thinking that Abraham had never heard God speak to him and verify that it was God speaking by obeying the voice and getting blessed as a result.

    Second, I get the idea that Jillette has a rosier view of humanity than that which is portrayed by e.g. the trio of the Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and The Third Wave. I find this a common belief among atheists: it is religion which poison’s everything. The Christian says that humans poison everything. The OT reflects the horribleness that is in man. So if the Jillette is objecting to this, he is in denial of human nature—of what is in the heart of man.

    Third, atheists love to say that OT law was horrible. In a sense it was. But we must not err by thinking that:

         (1) All you have to do is give people a perfect law and they will start approaching it.

    This is a denial of observed evidence. It is irrationality. People do not do (1). They just don’t. They give up if they’re given standards they cannot hope to reach. Christians only have a hope of Mt 5:48 because they believe God himself is helping us approach perfection.

    If we examine the Code of Hammurabi, we find that it establishes three classes of humans: nobles, freemen, and slaves. The OT, on the other hand, establishes only two classes of humans: freemen and slaves. That is a huge difference that must not be approximated away! Furthermore, Jillette’s idea of slavery in the Bible is likely colored by New World slavery, which is nothing like the slavery described in the OT. To my knowledge, the American South never obeyed Deuteronomy 23:15.

    “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.

    The idea that there is really justification in the OT for New World slavery is utterly and completely laughable. Cherry-picking people will cherry-pick, and they’ll always declare some set of people to be sub-human in order for those people to not have rights, be made in the image of God, etc.

  • Lars

    This has been such an interesting conversation! I’ve been thinking that another way of looking at “should reading the Bible make one an atheist” is “should reading the Bible, or any other sacred text, lead one to God”? If you had never been exposed to religion and were presented with all the beliefs of every religion ever practiced, which one would you choose? Would you choose? Could you choose? Would the Truth be so evident from the text alone that you would recognize it immediately, or would the Truth need someone to explain it in context? Does Truth require context or can it stand alone?

    If Truth exists, is objective, and is knowable by subjective beings, it should be identifiable across beliefs, assuming, of course, that Truth is not fully contained within one specific religion or sect (which I hope most would agree is not the case). If we then assume that no religion or sect has complete and sole ownership of absolute Truth, does each communal belief system maintain at least some essence of that Truth (which, once imparted or learned, may have over time become ‘accessorized’ to make it more distinctive/tribal, and has, in the process, become less identifiable to an outsider)?

    Unfortunately, I suppose, hardly anyone gets the chance to find out where the Truth lies. Most of us are geographically and culturally predisposed to accepting a particular story or mythology as truth and then we interpret everything else in light of that truth. I think this sort of ‘time and place’ advantage helps explain why it is so easy for people to assimilate and integrate into their surrounding religion and why it can be so hard to break away or switch religions/beliefs once that belief no longer satisfies (the risk of scorn, ostracization, physical threats, etc.). Countries seem to be relatively homogenous in their belief systems, which you would expect if “truth” were localized rather than universal (

    I’m sure this is overly simplistic but maybe the question isn’t if reading the Bible will make you an atheist, but if growing up in America (or Western Europe) will make you a Christian?

  • Susan_G1


    if I had to pick by stand alone texts, I would definitely pick the writings of Siddhartha Gautama.

    It is not an overly simplistic question. If 76% of Americans are Christians, a large number of America’s youth will be brought up in that culture.

  • DMH

    Were I not a Christian I would definitely be a philosophical Buddhist.

  • DMH

    You said, “And I think that one good way to try is to read other scriptures in the same way as you read the bible. To get in the habit of switching between an aloof outsider, and an invested devotee. ”

    Late to the conversation so I won’t enter in except to say I think this is an excellent idea as a way to exercise your own objectivity/subjectivity.

  • Chris Crawford

    I agree somewhat, but only to a point. The new atheists push that the bible can be discarded because it does not meet the modern criteria of reliability. Fundamentalists believe that the bible is a miracle due to its inerrancy; new atheists seem to demand the same thing from it, and of course see it as anything but inerrant.

    There is much to admire about the bible that has nothing to do with inerrancy or viewing the bible as Holy miracle. What I see is that it takes a different mindset than either party above to see those things clearly.

  • Ian

    Can you give an example where the new atheists demand the bible be inerrant, as opposed to pointing out that the inerrancy doctrine of substantial parts of american Christendom are merely false? You may be right, but I know both Dawkins and Harris, for example, have said that they are addressing popular piety when they talk about biblical problems. So I don’t get where this ‘demand’ that the bible match modern standards come from. I suspect you’re interpreting it backwards.

    I agree that the new atheists are guilty of narrowly addressing the loudest and most politically toxic variant of Christianity in the US, but I don’t find that surprising. It is important to remember that a *third* to a *half* of americans, when sampled, believe human beings were created in largely their current form within the last 10,000 years (depending on the poll and form of the question asked). So in at least the question of scientific origins, a particular interpretation of biblical inerrancy is in no way a straw-man.

  • Russell Jones

    I listen through the YouVersion app, which allows for a number of different versions. The last few months, I’ve been listening mostly to the NLT. Although I use the ESV for study, I find the NLT’s language flows a little better for audio.

  • Chris Crawford

    I know I’ve read criticism of “accomodationism” where the accuser states that it leads to loose interpretation where the bible can be made to mean anything at all; or, that accomodationism “evolves” the meaning of the bible to match science. I swear I read Jerry Coyne say those very things, but I can’t find the exact posts.

    I see your point, though I do think there is a mindset that is common between new atheists and hardcore creationists.

  • Ian

    Good point, I recognise that sentiment too, but hadn’t thought about it in terms of ‘demanding’ literalism. Interesting, thanks.