Does the Bible make people 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.

This issue was brought to my mind by a recent article on the Friendly Atheist, which reported that the British secretary of education is sending a new copy of the King James Bible to every school in England in order to help students appreciate England’s cultural heritage. Richard Dawkins surprised many by coming out in full support of the initiative for the reasons I mentioned above:

I have an ulterior motive for wishing to contribute to Gove’s scheme. People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality. … I have even heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem.The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.

American Atheists’ Dave Silverman took this same idea a step further several years ago in a New York Times article:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.

Thus for Dawkins and Silverman, reading the Bible is “the surest way” to lead people to question its use as a moral authority or even to lead people to become atheists. Dawkins of course does clarify that he’s especially talking about “people who do not know the Bible,” but Silverman saves no punches in stating that reading the Bible is “how you make atheists.”

When I asked for questions for the Raised Quiverfull project, one reader suggested that I ask how often the project participants read the Bible growing up:

Also, I’d be interested to know how free women and children in this movement are to actually read their bibles? Are they guided away from “dangerous” passages or downright forbidden from reading any particular parts without authorisation, or is this one aspect of life that isn’t strictly controlled? I come from a liberal Christian background but was made an atheist largely thanks to reading the bible. I understand that a lot of other people have had the same experience and that many Christians simply don’t bother to open it. What I’d like to know, is the percentage of people who can read the bible, in all its most gruesome detail, and not question their beliefs.

This reader was echoing what Dawkins and Silverman said, and the way she asked the question she clearly expected to hear the participants say that they had been restricted from reading the Bible or kept away from certain passages. If I’m correct about this, her expectations were definitely not met when the Raised Quiverfull project participants responded:

Joe:

Suffice it to say that I have read through the whole Bible about forty times. …

Latebloomer:

We kids had to read the Bible by ourselves daily as part of our homeschooling curriculum.  …

Libby Anne:

We all read the Bible daily. It was sort of a requirement. …

Lisa:

… Us kids, we were encouraged to take off a few minutes each day for private prayer time. Reading, studying, interpreting certain chapters was also part of our daily home schooling. …

Mattie:

We were supposed to read the Bible every day. …

Melissa:

… We each received a King James Bible of our own at around age 8 or so, and we were expected to read it privately and consistently. …

Sarah:

… We were also expected to read our bibles alone. Any mistakes we made were attributed to fact that we “hadn’t spent enough time in the word.” I read my bible multiple times a day….

Sierra:

I was raised to read the Bible every day and have a personal relationship with Jesus. …

Tricia:

In my home, Bibles were everywhere and they were constantly being read, that is we read them daily or sometimes a couple times a day, both as a family and individually. …

Indeed, I read the Bible every day the entire time I was growing up, and in the process I read straight through it multiple times. My mom read the Bible aloud to us every morning after breakfast. We went to a Bible club called AWANA and memorized hundreds of Bible verses. We learned about the different books of the Bible, learned to find our way around the Bible, learned what the Bible said about everything.

It’s not a mistake that fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are often called “Bible believing Christians.” For fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, the Bible is of foremost importance. They know what is in the Bible, including the crazy Old Testament laws and the genocides. They read it. They almost worship it.

Based on my experience at least, the idea that if a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical just read the Bible for once they would see that it’s a bunch of hooey strikes me as ludicrous.

I wonder if it’s perhaps different for moderate or liberal Christians, who do not, after all, grow up in a climate where reading the Bible daily is emphasized almost above everything else. Perhaps for those whose pastors have glossed over things like the Old Testament genocides, reading the Bible would indeed come as a shock. Perhaps for some, reading the Bible might lead to a questioning of Christianity itself. Or, as a reading of yesterday’s post indicates, perhaps not.

What are your experiences with this issue?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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