Should Reading the Bible Make One an Atheist?

Over the last few weeks I have put up links to a couple of videos placed on YouTube by Big Think. The video of Francis Collins on science and faith has received something like 12,000 views on YouTube, the video of Tim Keller on a literal reading of scripture 15,000. In contrast the following video has received more than 770,000 views … more than three quarters of a million! Admittedly Jillette’s video has been online one year longer than Collins’ and two years longer than Keller’s, but that isn’t the whole explanation. Jillette’s story hits a nerve. I think it is one we would do well to consider carefully.

Today I would like to look at this video and some of the questions raised by the clip.

Jillette describes how and why he left the church he grew up in, why he became an atheist and an outspoken one at that. He grew up in a Christian home and community, at least nominally. His youth pastor wanted the kids to do serious inquiry into theological questions.

1:26-1:51 And I read the Bible cover to cover. And I think that anyone who is thinking about maybe being an atheist, if you read the Bible or the Koran or the Torah, cover to cover, I believe will emerge from that as an atheist. I mean, you can read the God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, you can read God is Not Great by Hitchens. But the Bible itself will turn you atheist faster than anything.

Why would reading the Bible make you an atheist?

1:54-3:26 I think because what we get told about the Bible is such a lot of picking and choosing. When you see, you know, Lot’s daughter gang raped and beaten and the Lord being OK with that; when you actually read about Abraham being willing to kill his son, when you actually read that, when you read the insanity of the talking snake, when you read the hostility toward homosexuals, towards women, the celebration of slavery; when you read in context that thou shall not kill means only in your own tribe. I mean there’s no hint that it means humanity in general. That there’s no sense of a shared humanity, its all tribal, when you see a God that is jealous and insecure, when you see that there is contradictions that show that it was clearly written hundreds of years after the supposed fact and full of contradictions. … read what the Bible says. Going back to the source material is always the best. When someone’s trying to interpret something for you they always have an agenda. So I read the Bible.

There is more to the video worth considering, but I want to concentrate here on this portion of his reflection.

I disagree with Jillette that reading the Bible will make one an atheist, but I do agree with some of the points he makes here.

Picking and Choosing. What we get told about the Bible is such a lot of picking and choosing, no question but that he is right about that – at least for many of us. We are given out-of-context sound bites. Blessing and promises, applications for 21st century life, select verses forming a road to salvation (fire insurance perhaps). The story is not taught, or not taught well. To find that the Bible does not live up to the image we’ve been given can be devastating.

Jillette gets the story of Lot a bit wrong – Lot was willing to send his daughters out but it didn’t happen and there is certainly no sense that God would have been OK with it (Gen 19). But, except for the part about “God was OK with it”, this and many other passages like it (Jeptha’s daughter anyone?) will raise questions for almost any reader.

This is a problem that has gotten worse, and doesn’t look like it will get better anytime soon. As I noted in The Measures of Success, in depth Bible study will never get big crowds. The virtual elimination of Bible from worship (a few verses around a sermon theme doesn’t count), and adult education from church doesn’t really help matters.

Celebrating Slavery. Jillette’s characterization of the Bible as celebrating slavery, hostile towards women, and as “all tribal” misses the point, as does his characterization of God as insecure (jealous is actually a good description – but only if we choose the appropriate definition: “intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness” or “vigilant in guarding a possession” not in the sense of envious or resentful). The Bible does condemn sexual immorality (the story of Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah is one case in point), quite often in the same breath with a condemnation of greed.

Full of contradictions, written hundreds of years after the supposed fact … here we have the issue of expectation once more. If we expect the Bible to be a perfect (magic) book of propositions and facts we will be disappointed. If we expect the Bible to convey God’s mission in the world we will find the “contradictions” far less troubling.

Go to the source material, read what the Bible says. Again I agree with Jillette. But, and this is a critical but, realize that it wasn’t written in English to a 21st century suburban (rural or urban) crowd. It was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic for an ancient Near Eastern or first century Roman and Jewish crowd. (Jillette’s reference to the constitution written in English is a bit odd.) We may need to be aware of an interpreter’s agenda, but we also need interpreters to help us understand the text in its ancient context. The Garden in Ancient Context makes a great deal more sense than the garden through modern eyes.

Read the Bible cover to cover, or listen to it (my preferred method these days). In large chunks for the theme and message of each of the authors and books. Regularly. Once is not enough. Contrary to Jillette I have found that far from making me an atheist it has given me a deeper appreciation for the mission of God and the nature of the scriptures. And for the importance of the reading of scripture. It isn’t for nothing that Paul instructs Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of scripture (1 Tim 4) or tells him that the scriptures were able to make him wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3).

I will admit, however, that reading the Bible cover-to-cover with attention to the themes, progressions, and arguments is dangerous, not to faith in Christ but to some of the received “truths” within our churches. The proof texts for many propositions don’t hold water (as proofs) when the context is appreciated. And the emphasis that is placed on what we might call sanctification and on care of the widow, orphan, poor, and stranger, and on the condemnation of greed is inescapable.

What would you say to someone who suggests that reading the Bible will make one an atheist?

When might this be true?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see Should Reading the Bible Make One an Atheist? at Jesus Creed.

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