Editor’s Note: As we head into the more serious pursuits of autumn, we’re taking a look at the Bible for what it really is, instead of pointing out how wrong it is, as we did in Vacation Bible School. In this excerpt from his new book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, Clergy Project member David Madison explains that the Bible actually spreads atheism. And it’s not just for the usual reason that some sections of the Bible defy belief. Alexis Record will review David’s book in a future post and I have written a blurb for it, both of which should entice you to read it for yourselves. Here’s my blurb: “David Madison’s book, written from the perspective of a former Christian minister and scholar, is engaging, personal and erudite. I wish I had known about him when I was conducting interviews for the Dennett-LaScola study of non-believing clergy. He would have provided insights from a liberal Christian point of view that are hard to come by.”
By David Madison, Ph.D. (Excerpted from Chapter VI, pp. 138-139, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief)
The seeds of atheism are spread widely throughout scripture. There are Bible verses that should make even pious readers stop dead in their tracks: “How can this possibly be true?” Genesis 15:13 is an arresting, breathtakingly embarrassing text, a sharp stick in the eye for anyone who wants a good god.
First, a little about context. Genesis is one of the literary masterpieces of the ancient world. It tells the sweeping epic of the origins and progress of the Hebrew people. It is an elaborate patchwork of folklore. (Not a scrap of it is history, but this fact is not relevant to the point to be made here.) The Old Testament as a whole tells a story of the triumph of the Israelites, their high point being the kingdoms of David and Solomon, supposedly in the 9th century B.C.E. But the folklore also tells about slavery in Egypt and the heroism of Moses in rescuing the chosen people (not a scrap of that is history either, by the way).
By the time Genesis was written in the 7th century B.C.E., the theologians who preserved the epic needed to clean up the story. How could it be that the chosen people had been slaves? Their solution was that God had planned it all along, right from the beginning. Theologians had to sanitize the folklore, or at least try. That’s why we read in Genesis 15:13 that God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.” (NASB)
This story is set in a time when there were many gods, and supposedly Abraham had options. Wouldn’t slavery have been a deal breaker? Who could have blamed Abraham for tossing back a stiff drink and saying, “What the hell does it mean to be the chosen people? How is slavery part of that bargain? Can’t this god do better than that? Maybe other gods would try harder to take care of my offspring.” But even more staggering is the part about slavery lasting four centuries. Yes, it is folklore, and thus we expect predictions from gods and sturm und drang, but four hundred years? It didn’t dawn on the author of this Genesis text that he had wandered into bad theology.
One of my teenage moments of doubt was occasioned by this verse. Why would God allow the slavery of the Hebrew people to go on for such a long time? He planned that? It didn’t make sense. Doesn’t this puncture the idea that God is loving and powerful and can get things done? We’re supposed to believe the story about his Really Big Stunt at the Red Sea, but God is powerless to stop four centuries of slavery? This is the conundrum: The Biblical narrative is about a god who is not in a hurry when a whole lot of pain and suffering are happening right under his nose.
David Madison is an ex-clergy atheist who was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. Under the tutelage of his mother he was fascinated by the Bible and this prompted him to pursue the ministry. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology, one of which was a PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University). But by the time he had finished the PhD he had become an atheist; he shares the story of this transition in the Prologue of his book. He gave up his ordination, left the church and pursued a successful business career.
His interest in the Bible did not diminish, however. Not because he was still searching for God—far from it, he says. “Like Dan Savage has pointed out, ‘I didn’t lose my faith, I saw through it.’” Madison’s thinking about Christianity’s many points of vulnerability has resulted in his new book: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.