Why Becoming an Atheist Made Me Appreciate the Bible More

Why Becoming an Atheist Made Me Appreciate the Bible More July 2, 2015
photo Artondra Hall (CC BY 2.0)
photo Artondra Hall (CC BY 2.0)

I’m the child of a Baptist minister, and as such, the Bible was an intimate part of my childhood. In my experience, Baptists (especially the Southern Baptists that I grew up around) are intensely Bible-focused, in ways that might be considered a bit obsessive. Psalm 119:11 wasn’t just a verse; it was a lifestyle.

I can remember many Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible Schools where we spent an excessive amount of time on what might seem like the most ridiculous exercises. I mean, Bible memorization was one thing because those were the kind of things that you needed to be able to pull out in appropriate situations (like my mother frequently admonishing me with “Recompense to no man evil for evil…but overcome evil with good” – in the King James, of course). That was at least substance.

But no, we spent a ridiculous amount of time on memorizing the books of the Bible – generally starting with the 27 books of the New Testament and then moving on to the longer list of 39 in the Old Testament. I even remember learning a song for the New Testament (for some reason, we never learned the OT song) that – and again, all of this is completely true – my elder brother and I sang as special music for a service in a tiny country church where my father was pastor.

And the Bible drills – oh, the Bible drills. I still could probably find any randomly selected psalm in under 30 seconds.

photo First Baptist Nashville (CC BY 2.0)
Okay, I might miss these a little. (photo First Baptist NashvilleCC BY 2.0)

None of this was particularly useful, of course. What on earth is the practical use of being able to locate a book of the Bible quickly? Did our parents and church leaders think that some day we’d be in a life or death situation where someone would give us a Bible reference and we’d have to locate it with speed or else be executed? (Given some of the eschatological fantasies of the coming persecution of Christians that I heard so much, I wouldn’t actually be that surprised if someone really believed something like that.)

No, the point wasn’t practicality. It was discipline. We were being trained to be good little soldiers for Jesus, and our fight was for the hearts and souls of the lost around us.

For me, it kind of worked in a sense – the Bible has stuck in my mind in ways that very few other things ever have. Of course, it also didn’t work in that I, well, kind of washed out of Christianity.

In the time after I deconverted but before I came to the conclusion that talking about religion with my mother was inadvisable, I continued to participate somewhat in such conversations with my mother and my wife. At one point, after I had pulled out some reference, my mother turned to me and said, “It’s a shame that all that Bible knowledge is wasted on you.”

Translation: It’s a shame that you didn’t stay in the faith after we spent all that time teaching you about the Bible.

Of course, my initial thoughts were quite different: It’s not wasted at all. How do you think I became an atheist?

In truth, my background with the Bible has been very useful to me. As I’ve mentioned, I was once a literature teacher, and my Biblical knowledge gave me a good grounding – far better than even my most Biblically literate students, sadly – for understanding and explaining the ways that Christianity appears in Western literature. (And yes, we even talked about some Bible stories in my classes as background material where appropriate.)

But when I deconverted, I actually found myself more fascinated by the Bible and religion in general. (Part of me wonders how common a response this is for ex-Christians.) In the first few months that I was a nonbeliever, I dug into works about the Bible and about religions like Mormonism.

In a way, discarding Christianity made me appreciate the Bible more.

I don’t mean that I came to esteem the Bible more highly. Quite the opposite – I felt (and still feel) that the Bible was a thoroughly human compilation, a work which had great pretensions to wisdom and secret truth but which reflected the limited knowledge and the prejudices of the cultures in which it developed.

What really happened is that I no longer felt obligated to treat the Bible with kid gloves. Before, the Bible was a place for sussing out apologetics, for finding justification for doctrines, for picking apart verses to see what the Bible really said about an issue – homosexuality or evolution or how to treat the poor or whatever. The Bible was too important to screw up – it was the way we could actually come about truth.

I had already started to shift my stance even before deconverting, rejecting strict inerrancy and adopting more metaphorical ways of interpreting passages like the Genesis creation account(s). But once that milestone was passed, nothing was sacred about the Bible to me anymore. I had no fealty to it. It was just another book, albeit a popular one that a lot of people took pretty seriously – too seriously, in many, many cases – and which contained a lot of abhorrent content in addition to some more innocuous things.

There is very little chance that anything in the Bible will ever pull me back to Christianity. (Sorry, evangelists, you’ll have to try a different tack with me.) Consequently, I can now look at it somewhat dispassionately and analyze it like a piece of literature, just as I might analyze T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

I can look at it and recognize where it contains wisdom. I can identify where it advocates for utterly immoral positions. I don’t have to rationalize what it says anymore. I don’t have to pretend that the context of the Ancient Near East makes the Levitical regulations of slavery moral (it doesn’t) or that the various genocides in the OT were justified because of divine moral authority or preservation of the Israelites (they aren’t). I can just read it and see where it matches up with observed reality. I don’t have to feel any pressure at all about it.

That is liberation. Freed from the necessity of putting the Bible on a pedestal, I can now take it down and just…read it. (Or not read it, even.)

And I’ll take that over Bible drills any day.

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