When interacting with (some) atheists online, it isn’t a shocker to stumble upon some who begin a discussion with an overwhelming arrogance as they prepare to rain down their intellectual and moral superiority on you.
I mean, let’s be honest: Every group has its hard-core Calvinists, right? (That’s a joke people. I don’t need more hate mail from Calvinists.)
The other day I wrote a post on some things I wish atheists would stop doing, and one of those things was I wish they’d stop with the conversation-stopping claim that our belief system/the Bible is just a bunch of “fairy tales.”
To my surprise, this was the one point that seemed to get the most push-back. In fact, many atheists doubled down on this point– including Hemant Mehta from Friendly Atheist, who responded, here. Strewn throughout the comment section I found atheist after atheist saying, “Yup, I’m still calling it all a fairy tale.”
This, of course, invites a few more questions: First, is the Bible a fairy tale?
And second, a worthy question posed by a reader in the comment section: Do some atheists have an unsophisticated approach to literature?
As the Irish Atheist pointed out in the comment section (because some atheists can be atheists without being a total %$@! about it), calling the Bible a fairy tale falls flat, because fairy tale is a very specific, modern, English genre of literature. This specific literary genre is typically short stories, written specifically for children, and is designed to be complete fantasy. What’s a fairy tale? Think Shrek.
This isn’t the literary genre of the Bible. One can think the Bible is complete junk, one can disagree every word of it, some of it can be historically inaccurate or even untrue– but if one thinks the literary genre of this literature is “fairy tale” than I do wonder if such a person actually does have a horribly unsophisticated view of literature in general.
The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books (protestant cannon) written over a large period of time by different people, in different cultures, and for different purposes. In fact, there is a multitude of genres found in the Bible, and not one of those genres is “fairy tale.”
For example, in the Hebrew scriptures we find a wide array of genres that all center around a theme: the birth and development of a people group that came to be known as ancient Israel. Most of it was written in hindsight (I believe most was written in the post-exilic period) as they looked back at where they had come from. From this literature we see how they viewed government, what bronze age nomads considered good laws, how they viewed the divine, which surrounding cultures they clearly hated, and which ones they were happy to borrow from as they grew in their individual identity.
Within that, do they also include some myths (sacred stories that aren’t literally true)? Some legends (popular stories that can’t be historically authenticated)? Yeah, of course. That’s the kind of stuff we expect to find in ancient literature like this.
As we move forward we find them writing about their wars, and see that just like those around them, they grossly exaggerated their victories (as I demonstrate in this 2 minute video of an artifact I stumbled upon in Amman, Jordan). We also see them write beautiful poetry and wisdom, two more literary genres found in the 66 book library. We find them talking about their national problems, their struggles with leadership and how establishing a monarchy backfired on them, and even have an entire book dedicated to things they complained about.
Then we move into another interesting genre– the prophets. No, these weren’t exactly future tellers, but more like the social justice advocates of their day. After the wars, their culture became like ours- the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer, so ancient “prophets” came along to tell them that such selfishness actually pisses God off. One of them even told people that God hates religious people who mistreat the poor and vulnerable, and that they make God want to vomit. (These guys often got killed, FWIW.)
And, of course, we have the Greek Scriptures, where some Jews started a new religion that became known as Christianity. In here we see fans of Jesus who wrote about his life and teachings, followed by a collection of letters written to different churches around the world– each one addressing different cultural struggles and issues they were having as they began to establish this new religion. The Bible even ends with a truly strange genre–Jewish apocalyptic literature– which was a specific genre that was geared towards giving people hope when struggling through rough times, but is notoriously complicated to interpret in modern times.
That’s a ridiculously truncated version of the literature found in the Bible, but here’s the point: none of it is fairy tale, even if parts of it include myths or legends that are scientifically impossible or historically false.
So, back to the question: Do atheists have an unsophisticated view of literature? Well, if one really believes the Bible can be classified as fairy tale, than yes– one would be holding to an almost laughable lack of sophistication when it comes to ancient literature. It would be like visiting Egypt, looking at all the carvings on the walls left for us by ancient Egyptians, and then saying, “What a bunch of losers and their stupid fairy tales.”
It’s true that the ancient Egyptians may have believed and practiced some crazy shit, but such an arrogant, dismissive attitude actually makes one less enlightened, not more.
It’s such a waste of perfectly good brain cells when bias leads us to dismissiveness and over-generalization, especially in the world of literature. But hey, people do this with Shakespeare too, because dismissiveness is easier than seeking understanding.
But here’s the deal: I don’t think the average atheist is actually that unsophisticated. Instead, I would invite a little more honesty:
When you call the Bible a “fairy tale” you’re not saying it because you believe it’s actually in the same literary genre as Shrek, you’re using the word as a pejorative for the simple purpose of being a %#@! about things.
And I’m sorry, but I don’t see anything morally or intellectually superior about that. It’s ignorant, close-minded, and completely dismissive of windows into ancient history.
In fact, such attitudes remind me of how easy it is for any of us (myself included) to so blindly become the very thing we claim to hate.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.