Dialogue w Atheist on Biblical Exegesis & Christian Ignorance

Dialogue w Atheist on Biblical Exegesis & Christian Ignorance May 26, 2019

This is a follow-up discussion: brought about by an atheist’s response to my article, “Atheist vs. Christian Ignorance of the Bible: A Brief Observation.” The words of gusbovona will be in blue.


Atheist here.

1. Part of the problem atheists have with the Bible is that they suspect its god doesn’t care about communication with humans precisely because one must work to figure out exactly what the Bible means. Presumably the god of the Bible would know what would communicate effectively without the danger of mis-interpretation. And, a Bible that requires interpretation looks too much like a Bible with no deity behind it.

All books require interpretation, so why would it be the case, according to you, that somehow the Bible, granting for the sake of argument that it is inspired revelation from God, would be the simplest book in the world? I think that is actually the last thing we would reasonably expect in such a book. If the Bible were so simplistic that any young child could immediately grasp it, we can be assured that it would be roundly mocked by atheists even more than it is now. They would say, “you expect us to believe that this tripe was written by an infinitely intelligent, omniscient God?!” See my article: Why We Should Fully Expect Many “Bible Difficulties”.

It’s not so much a question of simplicity (although an argument can be made for the simpler, the better) as it is of the need for interpretation.

I grant that all writings need interpretation, but some need more than others, and the difference can be vast; the less interpretive difficulty, the better, in general, would you agree?; and the vast amount of interpretive difficulty with the Bible argues for a lack of divine influence.

There is a certain middle ground. I believe that the main doctrines of the Bible are indeed clear, once one attains a fair amount of familiarity with it (learns the basics of hermeneutics and exegesis and systematic theology). Then it’s relatively easy to interpret it. But history shows that folks, generally speaking, need guidance in terms of having definite answers: “the Bible / Christian faith teaches thus-and-so.” That is the role of an authoritative Church and tradition, which the Bible itself teaches the necessity of (I wrote four books about the topic of biblical and Church authority), and which is one of the strongest rationales for Catholicism and Orthodoxy, over against Protestantism.

Theological truth also entails complexities, the more one gets into it, just as science and philosophy do. Philosophers and logicians talk about elegant simplicity, but that doesn’t always hold. Relativity and quantum mechanics and black holes are very complex and counter-intuitive, but they are considered to be profoundly established in physics and astronomy, more so than Newtonian physics, which is simpler and far more intuitive.

The Bible also teaches that men do not understand the Bible and spiritual truths because of their own corruption and rebellion. Hence the Apostle Paul writes: “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14, RSV). And Jesus taught the same:

Matthew 13:10-13 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” [11] And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. [12] For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [13] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

This “spiritual” factor understood, it then becomes a causative factor in the ability to interpret Scripture properly. One has to be open to the things of God. If not, they won’t “get it.” And this is what I consistently see in atheist attempts to interpret the Bible. There is no willingness to properly learn (very little intellectual humility), and there is outright hostility. This is why I compare the atheist view of the Bible to a butcher’s view of a hog. The Christian views it as “Shakespeare from God” or as a wonderful painting, that has to be unpacked and revealed to be the marvel that it is. This takes some significant effort and labor, but it’s not at all impossible.

You are still conflating simplicity/complexity and interpretation. My point was about interpretation. Something very simple can still need to be interpreted correctly, and something complex can require very little interpretation.

Yeah, I agree. As I have argued, there are both simple and complex aspects to understanding the Bible and interpreting it.


2. Can you give an example of someone disrespecting the Bible?

I provided many in the links in the above paper. Here is one of my personal favorites, though, because of the astonishing and amusing ignorance of the view set forth: Flat Earth: Biblical Teaching? (vs. Ed Babinski).

It’s difficult for me to guess exactly what statement in the link you provided that was disrespectful. Can you just quote a single sentence or a paragraph? Or do you mean that mis-interpreting the Bible to contain an absurd cosmology is the disrespect itself?

The latter. But broadly speaking, to ask an apologist like me to list the ways in which atheists disrespect the Bible and Christianity is like asking me what I love about my wife (I’m very happily married). It’s very difficult to answer, because it’s a thousand things. So I provided a list of my articles that deal with this topic. The evidence is ample therein, and in many other dialogues of mine with atheists. Bob Seidensticker is Classic / Textbook Exhibit #1 of atheist biblical ignorance and hubris. And he challenged me to defend the Bible. Once I started doing so and refuting his nonsense, he fell off the face of the earth. What a coincidence . . . Please tell him “hello” from me if you ever talk to him, and let him know I’m still alive and kickin’. :-)

I didn’t ask you to list the ways that atheists disrespect the Bible. I asked you for an example. I can take the example of Biblical cosmology, but I didn’t want you think I was asking for a list, or even an exhaustive list.


3. You appear to trust your “long experience in dialogue” over a scientific study. Are you aware of the dangers of accepting one’s long experience in an empirical matter?

The topic is very complex. As I noted: “People have differing levels of understanding in all human groups.” It would highly depend on how the research was conducted (unfortunately, the link I thought I made to the study is not there), but, as with any large group, one has to take into account differing degrees of education. Thus, if we surveyed “Christians” completely at random, sure, we would see a lot of ignorance, since most Christians (to our shame) are poorly educated in theology: which is a large reason why I became a professional apologist.

The comparison needs to be between educated Christians, who understand Christian doctrine, and atheists who also have a fair degree of biblical knowledge (or claim to, anyway). This is where my experience in dialogue becomes quite relevant, because I think I have demonstrated over and over, that many atheists who make out that they are such experts on the Bible, are far from it. So, for instance, one could consider my 32 refutations of one atheist who makes these claims: Bob Seidensticker (I see that you follow his blog). He shows himself to be biblically and theologically ignorant (in matters of simple fact) and out to sea again and again.

Or one could observe how abominably ignorant Richard Dawkins: one of the most renowned atheists, is about Bible matters, in my paper on that: Richard Dawkins’ “Bible Whoppers” Are the “Delusion”.

In other words, what we need to do is compare the most knowledgeable in each camp, not take some survey of Joe Blow Christian on the street vs. the typical atheist, who is usually relatively more educated (because they are usually persuaded to be an atheist in hyper-secularized academic settings).

I think you misunderstand my comment. I wasn’t talking about you disagreeing with atheists like Seidensticker, I was talking about you reaching a conclusion based on your personal experience even though it differed from a scientific study:


If the average atheist’s knowledge of the Bible is abominable, the average Christian seems to be even worse off. (At least in the US.) [source from Pew Research]


So I reject a view that holds that they are more ignorant of the Bible (as an entire class) than atheists. It’s a joke. And I know so for certain, from my own long experience in dialogue.

The two things are not mutually exclusive. As I have explained my view in much greater depth, it is seen, I think, that it’s perfectly complimentary to any of these studies. I freely grant that Christians en masse are scandalously ignorant of theology, too. So it is necessary to compare the “cream of the crop” of both camps, to make a penetrating, insightful comparison. You have to get a theologian or apologist like myself up against a proclaimed atheist “expert” on the Bible, to see how each party fares.

It seems to me that a survey that says that Christians know less about the Bible than atheists do is mutually exclusive with a conclusion (in your case, drawn on personal experience) that rejects the idea that Christians are more ignorant of the Bible than atheists.



Photo credit: Tobias Van Der Elst (7-16-17): Morteratsch, Canton of Graubunden, Switzerland [Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 license]


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