What do Christian fundamentalists and many atheists have in common? Both read the Bible as if it were meant to be taken literally, and both quote selected passages to buttress their case. Some atheists, for instance, cite biblical passages that justify stoning for heresy, blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality, working on Sabbath, worshipping graven images, and practicing sorcery.
While atheists might attack or make fun of the Bible because of biblical literalists, it is important to distinguish between the quality of a book and the behavior of its adherents. For better or worse, the Bible and the many religions it spawned have deeply influenced our culture and the world. For that reason alone, the Bible is worth reading. Although atheists rank highest in religious knowledge, atheists should try to understand why so many love the Bible even if they haven’t actually read it.
Some atheists make the same mistake as theists, treating the Bible as either all good or all bad. While it contains many boring, anachronistic, contradictory, and repetitive sections, it also has passages with rich and diverse meanings. The same can be said for Greek mythology–fictional tales that were once considered religious texts.
As a child, I enjoyed reading Aesop’s fables and biblical stories. Both have talking animals, along with moral lessons and universal truths. Leaving aside the question of which imparts better advice (though no Bible story was as consequential for me as Aesop’s “The boy who cried wolf”), at least Aesop’s stories are recognized as fables.
One of the most productive ways to read the Bible is by identifying and discussing its fables. Here are just three examples from well-known stories in Genesis, followed by my moral lessons.
1. Snake fable
God tells Adam he may eat anything in a garden but the fruit from one tree, saying he will die on the day he eats it. A snake convinces Eve that she will gain knowledge after eating the forbidden fruit. Eve eats, likes what she learns, and encourages Adam to partake. They discover many things, including sex, and God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden and tells them they need to work for a living.
My moral: God makes blind obedience the supreme virtue, assuming ignorance is bliss. God either lied or was mistaken when he said humans would die on the day they received knowledge. So don’t blindly believe, even if you pay a price for independent thought. It’s better to have freedom without a guarantee of security, than to have security without freedom.
2. Cain and Abel fable
Adam and Eve’s two sons bring offerings to God, but God gives no reason for accepting Abel’s and rejecting Cain’s. Cain gets jealous and kills Abel. When God asks Cain where Abel is, Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God curses Cain, who must then wander the earth, but God places a protective mark on Cain.
My moral: The first worship ceremony is followed immediately by the first murder, which shows we must not put our love and worship of a God above our love for human beings. Cain belatedly learns that humans should look out for one another, making each of us our brother and sister’s keeper. God recognizes his culpability in the first murder and puts a mark on Cain as a sign to those he meets that they must not do to Cain what Cain did to Abel.
3. Binding of Isaac fable
God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Abraham acquiesces, but God stops Abraham as he lifts his knife, and provides a lamb to take Isaac’s place.
My moral: God tests Abraham, who fails the test. Nobody should commit an atrocity, no matter who makes the request. It is better to do good than to have faith.
Atheists almost never put the character “God” in a good light, and God’s behavior is particularly egregious in Genesis. But God learns from some of his early mistakes and improves, as pointed out in Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. There are hundreds of biblical fables, and atheists might find some in which to “praise God.” Such praise would show that atheists don’t hate God any more than they hate Zeus.
A biblical fables book could stimulate conversation for atheists and theists of any age. An atheist’s insights would be different from those of either liberal or conservative religionists. But if we start with the assumption that the Bible is an important book, this common bond might help atheists articulate their differences more effectively with at least some theists. And I think such enhanced communication would be a worthwhile experience for all participants.