A few months ago, Patton Dodd highly recommended two books for Christians who are experiencing acute and painful doubt. Though I’m an atheist who experiences no such painful doubts, I do experience painless curiosity about books meant to “cure” such doubts. Eternally behind on my to-read list (if I believed in eternity), I decided to read one of these books.
Both recommended books promote liberal Christianity. I only read excerpts of My Bright Abyss, about Christian Wiman’s spiritual growth when confronted with his own mortality, coupled with suggestions on resolving faith paradoxes. I fully read the book with the more intriguing title, The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns. Maybe I was inspired by childhood memories of the song by the same simplistic title.
Most atheists would agree with much of what Enns says about the Bible. I’ll first mention my points of agreement before explaining why we come to opposite conclusions.
Points of agreement
I agree with Enns that the Bible largely consists of made-up stories by unknown authors attempting to explain their views of the world and its origins. These authors sometimes modified stories from earlier cultures to shape their present needs and goals. There are countless biblical contradictions, as well as historical and scientific falsities.
Enns and I also agree that we should not accept the Bible as literal truth or attempt to make sense out of nonsense, a view that offends Christian fundamentalists. The God of the Bible is no role model. God can be a tyrant who orders the enslaving or killing of innocent people (including children) because they worship the wrong gods or live in lands that God wants his chosen people to occupy. God commands the Israelites to kill everything that breathes in Canaan.
While reading Enns’ book, I was at times reminded of the Richard Dawkins quote in The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Enns concludes that God wants us to take the Bible seriously, so we should not suppress questions about it. We must respect the ancient voices and their stories. We need to trust the Bible to say what it says and allow God’s word to challenge us. Followers of God meet him where they are, so they experience him differently.
Storytelling is how to understand the Bible, not as history writing, concludes Enns. The Bible is God’s word, but not God’s final word or the center of Christian faith. Access to God comes through faith in Christ and obedience to him, not through Torah-keeping. Jesus didn’t do what a Davidic messiah was expected to do. Instead of defeating the Romans, he was crucified by them and became a resurrected messiah. The reality of a risen Jesus necessarily transforms Israel’s story, as he is savior of the world, not just of Jews.
My atheist conclusion
Enns understands that biblical authors were products of their times and made things up to promote their views, but he maintains that the entire Bible is God’s word. How does he know this, especially when “God’s word” has inspired a multitude of atrocities throughout the ages? If you believe that God inspires everything we do or write, then he equally inspired the Quran, Why I am Not a Christian, and Mein Kampf.
The reality of a risen Jesus? Enns fails to mention that other resurrection stories preceded Jesus’ resurrection story. Early Christians, like Justin Martyr, acknowledged that basic Christian doctrines (gods having virgin births, performing miracles, being crucified and raised from the dead, ascending to heaven) existed in earlier Greco-Roman religions.
The best explanation they could offer was that such stories came from demons and were false, though the same beliefs in Christianity are believed to be true. The idea that Satan placed these earlier stories with other cultures and religions to confound later Christians became known as “diabolical mimicry.”
I think we should accept the parts of the Bible that make sense to us, as we do with any other book. Some books make more sense than others, but many individuals give unwarranted credibility to so-called “holy” books.
I understand why people want to discard or reinterpret outdated and nonsensical passages as long as they can remain part of a religious family tradition, but I think it’s especially difficult to maintain as a core belief that someone rose from the dead and that he will grant everlasting life to faithful believers of such a story.
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I’ve often heard religious people say, “You seem like such a nice intelligent person, so how can you not believe in God?” I used to be dismissive and a bit puzzled by such “compliments,” but I’m frequently tempted to say the same thing to religious people, only without the “not.” I don’t know why Enns and I can agree on so much about the Bible, and yet draw such different conclusions. (Shouldn’t a nice, intelligent person like Enns be an atheist?)
I’m more likely to accept a person’s atheist than religious claim, in large part because being an open atheist in our culture is generally not a good career move. For instance, it requires a lot of faith to believe that there are no atheists in Congress. Whatever Enns or anyone else believes about God, I think that Enns would agree with me that behavior is more important than belief.
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