Biblical Literalism: Fast Track To Atheism

Personally, I am fundamentally (if you’ll excuse the pun) convinced that there are no genuine Biblical literalists in the world today – not even Ned Flanders on the Simpsons, who on the brillian episode “Hurricane Neddy” famously claimed “I’ve done everything the Bible says – even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff”. No one believes in the dome. No one believes that 14=13, that pi equals precisely 3, and so on. But to acknowledge that interpretation is always a factor does not seem black and white enough to some, and certainly isn’t a good advertising strategy, and so claims of being a Biblical literalist continue to be made, in spite of their inaccuracy and (in at least some cases) dishonesty (since I assume some of those using such rhetoric know enough about the Bible that they ought to know better).

My strongest reason for opposing these misleading claims about Biblical literalism and inerrancy is that they are a fast track to atheism. Many preachers say one must choose: “Either the Bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God, or it is a load of garbage and should be thrown out”. This sets up anyone who decides to study the Bible seriously and has been told this to either pretend the problems aren’t there, and thus compromise on honesty, or to do what they were told and throw out the Bible. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What happens if one tries to take various Biblical stories literally has been demonstrated more than once. Noah’s ark and the Exodus are but a couple of examples.

So, if you really want to encourage rather than discourage people from believing in God, then I’d drop the rhetoric of inerrancy and literalism. It is not only dishonest, it is spiritually toxic.

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  • Robert Schadewald has described flat-earthers, geocentrists, and young-earthers as the conservative, moderate, and liberal factions within the biblical literalist camp. I suggest telling the next YEC that engages you in conversation about “literal biblical interpretation” that they are too liberal to be a true literalist.

  • That’s a very good point! And a pretty amusing one too, considering that you are apparently not that Steve Martin. :)I took a look at your blog and have added it to my blogroll. For those reaching this page without noticing this new addition, the address is

  • Fast track to atheism?Geez . .. you make it sound as if atheism is a bad thing . . .(laughs). . .peaceÓ

  • BSM

    Atheism is not so bad but the health plan sucks. Regardless, I think Dr. M. is saying that certain fundamentalists from BOTH camps (i.e. religious or atheist) set up this false dichotomy. That is, the Bible is all literally true or all false. Yet they fail to acknowledge (or in some cases realize) that they are other ways of interpreting the Bible. When you look at the Bible in this black and white fashion it is a fast track to atheism. Unless your head is in the sand in which case you become a fundamentalist. Regardless, I took the slow track.~BCP

  • If you mean by atheism a lack of awe, wonder and mystery about the very fact of existence, as well as our place in it, and a sense that life is altogether shallow, then I do think that’s a bad thing! :)Sorry to go all Tillichian there. The one assumption I was making was that the majority of those who claim to be Biblical literalists would not wish to think of themselves as placing themselves or others on the fast track to atheism.The slope is slippery because such fundamentalists keep greasing it. As for me, I’ve found more than one place to stop along the slope between the extremes – whichever direction one happens to be moving! 🙂

  • Hey, Bob;I understood James’ comment the first time. I was indulging in a playful moment of levity above . . .But the subsequent points raised compel me to add a bit to the thread:1 – What “health plan”? (I kinda get the joke, but to my eyes, it only continues the error that “atheism” is “bad”).2 – I took the WAY slow track. There’s a Lou Reed tune which contains the line, “and since I don’t have to choose, I guess I won’t”. Seems an appropriate nutshell soundbite regarding the either/or (black/white) paradigm.3 – Never apologize for bringing up Paul Tillich, someone whose work I admire and find very inspiring.4 – Finally, and ultimately more importantly;James makes an attempt in his reply to my comment to define what one might (or might not) mean by “atheism”. I think this is the crux of the matter. Using that word as a general umbrella-term has its own slippery slope problems. Note the many accusations of “atheism” or “heresy” levelled at people like Bishop Spong, Dom Crossan, Don Cupitt, and even Tillich himself, for speaking of “god” (again – definitions seem to be the root of the problem) in such amorphous, almost-pantheistic terms as they have. The word has different meanings to different folks, is my point.I fear this might be getting a little long already, but I hope it serves to explain my little quip and to illustrate that I don’t disagree with the original essence of James’ post at all. I quite enjoy this blog and genuinely find his insights very helpful.peace be with youÓ

  • Bertsura

    Any unproven fantastic claim is a “fast track to disbelief” or atheism. Maybe you shouldn’t believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead then.

  • I don’t.Do you?If so . . . why?This is only half-facetious, by the way; I think it is an appropriate question (for Bertsura).Ó

  • Great blog.So what are us “Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants” (as BeliefNet would have it) supposed to do?1) Complaining about the state of religiosity in the States (or in general) among ourselves doesn’t do much good. “Preaching to the choir” problem.2) Also, how can we voice our concerns and views in a way that isn’t politically slanted? I’m a Sojourners (magazine) conservative Republican (maybe the only one), albeit not a neocon. What pisses off conservatives is that we get lumped together with neocons. The American Conservative magazine crowd is not the same as the National Review crowd; I’m in the former camp. Also, everything (correction: most musings) from the mainlaine-to-liberal camp seem to be anti-conservative, anti-Republican, way too political.In order to change things, we need to do so with our heart and soul, not a loud mouth. We need to show our concern for peace and justice, not just attack Bush and Cheney. I don’t believe in a theocracy or in dominionism; I separate my theology from my politics. For example, although I’m personally pro-Life, I’m pro-Choice (for our nation) for socioeconomic and libertarian reasons. If us/the mainline and liberal Protestants want to have a more active say in how Christianity is both practiced and perceived in the States, we also need to separate our personal theology from the sphere of politics. If we don’t, the Right will never listen to us … nobody will listen to us, except those already in our camp. Liberal non-believers scoff at us, conservatives (of all flavors) don’t trust us, think we’re theologically flawed.BTW, on BeliefNet’s quiz, I come out as 100% Orthodox Quaker, followed by mainline-to-liberal Protestant, and then mainline-to-conservative Protestant. Another example of separating personal theology from politics: Peace and justice theological, but I believe and support a strong national defense (although as a “true” conservative, I don’t support a national “offense”).

  • Thanks for your compliments about my blog, David, and for taking the time to post a comment. If there is something that has delighted me about my blogging experience thus far, it is that I seem to have regular readers representing a wide variety of opinions, and when I manage to annoy people, I seem to offend people on both extremes equally! :)I would like to believe that, although the statistics we are presented with suggest that the U.S. is fundamentally divided over matters such as politics and science, perhaps a different set of questions might uncover that there is a significant group which, even if more allied to one “side” or one “party” than the other, have in common that they are seeking to avoid extremes and find a balanced middle ground. Then I hear the rhetoric getting cranked up a notch and doubt that such hopes are realistic. I don’t think I’ve ever met a 100% Orthodox Quaker before (at least, not one that self-identified as such). I look forward to yet another perspective as part of this conversation we’ve got going on here.I won’t try to settle the political questions – that isn’t my field – but when it comes to finding my voice theologically, and more importantly becoming comfortable with it, no book helped me as much as Keith Ward’s What the Bible Really Teaches. Since reading it I have felt more comfortable articulating a “mainline to liberal” Christian perspective, without feeling the need to apologize for not being a fundamentalist, as though somehow by claiming to treat the Bible literally (even though not actually doing so consistently) the fundamentalists occupied a “Biblical high ground”. So even though I’ve done so before, let me recommend Ward’s book yet again!I just noticed your blog entry on nanotechnology. Do you watch the new series “Chuck”? I thought the moment with the nanobot-laced quiches was hysterical. That probably says more about my sense of humor than the show, though…

  • Alas, I won’t be able to see “Chuck” until it comes out on DVD here (in China), probably around mid-June … and probably for around $7.50 for the entire season. Might come out mid-season as did “Lost,” “24” and “Heroes” this year.All things “nano” are generally misunderstood. It’s an area which is simultaneoulsly both overhyped and underhyped. Bill Gates once made an observation that we overestimate the impact of technology in the short(er) term, and underestimate its impact in the long(er) term. But with “nano,” all bets are off.The downside about nano is that like biotech, the industry doesn’t employ a lot of people. So even though nano may (and likely will) have a tremendous and beneficial impact on our lives, it won’t create a lot of new jobs.This being said, nano apps will create opportunities for a lot of start-ups. I even see this is the renewable energy sector (I ran the panel on nano and MEMS at the recent GoingGreen conference). Hard to tell, but nano apps might lead to a lot of new jobs, but will more likely simply replace existing technologies and not necessarily create new jobs. However, replacement purchases will help sustain jobs, so that’s a good thing.BTW, the “evil nanotech” stuff is absurd, generally propagated by those who know absolutely nothing about this field. There are risks, but the risks will be mitigated from day one. There is much awareness about potential risks, so much so that they’ll likely be averted. China is number two to the U.S. in nanotech research, so I’d be more concerned about a “Prey” disaster originating in China.

  • newenglandsun

    “So, if you really want to encourage rather than discourage people from believing in God, then I’d drop the rhetoric of inerrancy and literalism. It is not only dishonest, it is spiritually toxic.”

    The question though should be what is meant by “literalism” and “inerrancy”. “Literalism” could just mean that the Bible’s “literal meaning is true”. Then what is the “literal meaning”? When you compare St. Augustine to St. Basil they both tend to diverge on what the exact “literal meaning” of Genesis is.

    Then there is the question of inerrancy. Does this relate to just in regard to moral values? Or maybe inerrancy refers back to the “literal meaning” of the Bible. I would say that some people definitely get a little bit too serious and nit-picky with the words “literal” and “inerrancy” and this ends up creating a lot of confusion.

    Suffice to say, there needs to be additional support other than just the Bible to back the Christian faith with. More Protestants are starting to highlight the difficulties with sola scriptura (aka Biblicism) but very few Protestants are actually trying to find solutions to the problem. This is also why atheists find Protestants easy targets.