>Atheists and the Bible

>In my interview with Jim West published in Biblioblog, I said a few words about atheists that caused Duane Smith’s heart “to skip a beat.”

In response to what I wrote, Duane wrote a post, “Who Can ‘Fully’ Interpret the Bible?” in which he takes issue with what I said about atheists and biblical interpretation. Read his post and learn the full scope of his argument.

Jim West comments on my statement and Duane’s response in a post titled “Duane Smith v. Claude Mariottini” and presents the dialogue as an adversarial argument between atheist Duane and Christian Claude. Jim concludes his post by saying that “in some respects Claude is right. In some respects Duane is right.”

I will begin this post by responding to some of Duane’s arguments. It is possible that I made a mistake by putting all atheists in one group. Duane classifies himself “as a secular student with an interest in the Hebrew Bible.” Thus, his position on the Bible makes him different from the strident atheist whose sole aim is to ridicule the Bible.

Duane is a secular person who believes “that the Bible has had a tremendous influence on Western civilization.” His view is completely different from Bertrand Russell who believed that every bit of human progress in law, morality, and science has been opposed because of the teaching of the Bible. In his lecture “Why I Am Not A Christian,” Russell wrote: “A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”

Atheists like Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens approach the Bible with such a negative view that for them, the Bible is a book of lies and contradictions and the work of a demon. Strident atheists share Voltaire’s view of the Bible. Voltaire defined the Bible as “what fools have written, what imbeciles command, what rogues teach.”

So, how can strident atheists interpret the Bible when they do not believe in God, deny the possibility of revelation, reject the concept of inspiration, do not believe in divine intervention, faith, prayer, the possibility of miracles, or the concept of divine justice?

I agree with Jim West when he said that atheists “can be extraordinarily good historians and philologians.” Atheists can relate some historical events of the Bible to Assyrian and Babylonian histories, but the Bible is more than just a book of history. It is a religious book written by people of faith who believed that God had entered human history.

Atheists can study the words of the Bible (either in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek) and understand precisely what the words mean and what the words communicate. But the Bible is more than just letters: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Duane has two criticisms which he believes disprove my argument. First, he said that “in order to provide as full an interpretation of a text as possible, the interpreter must be part of that text’s living tradition.” By this he means that for a proper interpretation of the text the interpreter must be alive when the text was written.

But this argument is not true. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is very complicated but scientists can understand the theory of relativity today even though many of them were not alive when Einstein developed it. In addition, the Bible is different. “The word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Because the word of God is living, then the believer does not need to have been alive when the word was written because the word is alive today, at a time when the believer is alive. The word of God makes itself contemporary with the believer. Thus, the believer becomes part of the text’s living tradition.

Second, Duane said: “Claude would be justifiably upset if I claimed he couldn’t fully understand Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens because he isn’t an atheist.”

But the fact is that I can. The works of Dawkins and Hitchens are only words and anyone can read words and understand precisely what the words mean and what the words communicate. Notwithstanding all the enthusiasm and the bravado in Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ words, they are, after all, only words.

The Bible, on the other hand, is the living word of the living God. And, that word became human and lived here on earth among us (John 1:14). This truth is hard for atheists to accept.

It is God who teaches us to understand his word. This is the reason the Psalmist prayed: “Teach me” (Psalm 119:12). So, the proper understanding of the Bible requires divine instruction. But how can people call on him in whom they have not believed? And that is the dilemma atheists face.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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11 Responses to >Atheists and the Bible

  1. Duane says:

    >Claude,Thank you for your response. I worry that I was not clear on a few of my points, so I will try to rectify that failure here.First, I agree that all competent scientists and even a few amateurs can understand Einstein’s theory of relativity and that you are competent of understand Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. In fact, that was exactly my point. And if both of us can, at least in theory, understand these things, I say, both of us can understand the Bible also. My complaint was that there seems to be a presupposition on the part of many Christians that one must be a Christian to understand and interpret the Bible. I suggested that behind your remarks was a presupposition that said in effect “in order to provide as full an interpretation of a text as possible, the interpreter must be part of that text’s living tradition.” Believing in God is, in my view, an important part of that “living tradition.” It was exactly this presupposition that I was attempting to discredit. Please forgive me for being a little crude; but both of us can understand and interpret the Ba’al cycle from Ugarit (at least at the level that the state of the text and our knowledge allows) even if neither of us believes in the god Ba’al and either of us is in the tradition of Ba’al worshippers. Second, naturally, I agree with both you and Jim that “atheists ‘can be extraordinarily good historians and philologians.’” Where we may differ is that I also think atheists can be great exegetes. I say this because atheists can be great exegetes (although the word is not usually used) of, say, Homer, just as people of faith can be. I don’t do much exegesis because I am still working to renew my skills after thirty years of atrophy. The problem comes in the area that is traditionally called “hermeneutics” in Biblical studies, or perhaps better certain hermeneutical theories that atheists would either reject outright or think meaningless. Jim’s “barthian hermeneutical circle” is an example of such a theory. There are areas in which we will likely always disagree. My comments on hermeneutics are one example. Another difference is that, unlike many Christians, with one important exception I see no difference between the various works that make up the Bible and any other set of ancient works. Unlike most ancient works, the Bible continues to influence views in a way that most other ancient works do not. That is not an unimportant point. I strongly believe that, because of its influence Biblical literacy is important. In addition, I believe that other ancient works that have influenced our civilization need greater attention and understanding than is currently given them. I suspect that we agree on one or both of these last to points but for different reasons.Actually, my views are closer to Russell’s than you may think or approve of. However, I do not blame the Bible for what I see as often limiting “human progress in law, morality, and science.” I do blame large parts of the tradition that has employed certain hermeneutical theories for these obstructions. I also believe that failing to understand the Bible as a product of history is the cause of many of these problems.Claude, even though there are things that we will likely never agree upon, I hope, as far as I have anything to contribute, that we can still learn from each other. As in all human intellectual pursuits, let us teach each other. If we can do that, then what you see as a dilemma for atheists becomes a source of strength for all who seek the truth no matter what that truth may be.Duane


  2. Iyov says:

    >This is an interesting discussion. I give my thoughts on the subject here.


  3. >Duane,Thank you again for your thoughtful remarks. I agree with you that secular people and atheists can be good exegetes of the biblical texts. The work you have written for your blog demonstrates that, in many ways, you can work with the biblical text in the same ways believers can.Because of our different approaches to the biblical text, it is clear that we will disagree in some issues. However, I can assure you that we will always learn from each other. Your perspective of the biblical text can provide me with different perspectives in matters of interpretation. For this alone, I am glad that, through our blogs, you and I can contribute to biblical literacy and at the same time teach one another and challenge others to become better students of the biblical text.I hope you understand that my words were not meant to offend you or any other reader of my blog. In the world of ideas, we offer our views on issues and people are free to accept or reject what we write.Thank you again for your comments. It has been a very profitable dialogue.Claude Mariottini


  4. >Iyov,Thank you for your post. The mystical experience James described in the passage you cited is very important to the proper understanding of religion. It is this experience with God in prayer or the personal encounter with God that comes through reading the Bible that separates the way believers and non-believers approach the Bible. If a believer establishes a personal relationship with God through faith, then that relationship affects the way one reads the Bible.Thank you for alerting me to your post.Claude Mariottini


  5. >Dear Claude,I must point out here that you have a very particular idea of what constitutes Iyov’s “mystical experience” that may not (nay, is not) shared by all. Not even all Christians. I do not distinguish my own work as a scholar from devotional reading. I have experienced moments in study that are as profound as any prayer experience I have ever had. That mystical experience has nothing to do with the Bible being sacred scripture, nothing to with my theology or creedal beliefs, and nothing to do with an interpretive tradition. In fact, I experience it when I listen to Brahms, too. And when I drink a really good port.I would agree with you that this experience is divine. I don’t think I would frame it quite the same way as you would. And I think the experience you describe is felt by many people who do not share your particular way of framing it. While I respect the tradition you come from, I would encourage you broaden your outlook. Many of us who expend the effort study Bible, no matter what our background, come at it from deep love of the text, even if we may not frame that love in the same catgories you do.


  6. >Angela,Thank you for your comment. The way we experience God differs. Explaining to others how we experience the divine presence in our lives is difficult because that experience is very personal and cannot be easily explained.I believe faith makes a difference in the way we experience God and it is that experience that also helps us when we read and study the Bible. I agree that we cannot separate our work as scholars from our devotional reading of the Bible, but there is a difference between giving a lecture on Psalm 23 and praying or singing Psalm 23 in praise to God.Those of us who have devoted our lives to the study of the Bible do so because of our love of the Bible. Some people study the Bible as scholars, others as believers, and some others as scholars and believers. Those who are members of a faith tradition study the Bible to deepen their faith in God.As for classical music, I love Johann Strauss, Jr.Claude Mariottini


  7. >Dear Claude,Thanks for your reply.Those who are not members of a faith tradition (or who are and study the Bible outside of the lens provided by the parameters of that faith tradition) often study the Bible to deepen their faith in God, too. I hope you may come to see this through sharing the experience of others.God is far bigger than any particular faith tradition. I think that may be an important message in this discussion. Thanks for raising it.


  8. >P.S. I also don’t (in some sense) distinguish giving lectures from preaching. Yes, they are done in different contexts and in different forms. But the ultimate goal of teaching, in my mind, is to help others learn to use all the tools they have—their brains, their insight, their wisdom—to love and pursue truth and God, to be more compassionate (etc.). All the same things one does (or ought to do) in a pulpit, at core.


  9. dave b says:

    >I have come to this discussion rather late (through the biblical studies carnival) and find it quite interesting. Perhaps the statements you made in the interview need to be refined somewhat. I fully agree that Christian biblical scholars need to drop the façade of objectivity in the academy and to engage in biblical interpretation fully informed by faith. We should not shy from goal of our interpretation which is to hear God’s address. All this is not to say that this makes us better interpreters or that we should write off the work of biblical interpreters who have faith commitments (including atheists) other than our own. In fact we must be most ready to use and dialogue with the work of interpreters from a wide variety of traditions and faiths.I am surprised that in the discussion nothing has been said about the atrocities that have taken place throughout history under the guise of Christian biblical interpretation, which if nothing else ought to make us very reluctant to say that Christians have a better understanding of the Bible. And faulty and embarrassing biblical interpretation abounds to this day: “Countdown to Armageddon”—need I say more?!


  10. >Dave,Thank you for your comment. The sad truth is that many Christians have abused the Bible by advancing interpretations that bring disrepute to Christianity. My criticism of atheists was addressed to people like Dawkins and Hitchens who despise the God of the Bible and who have no regards for the Bible.There are many interpreters of the Bible who are not believers but who have a deep appreciation for the Bible as a book which preserves the cultural traditions of ancient Israel. They have contributed much to scholarship and we have learned much from them. In the end, Duane and I agreed that non-believers who appreciate the cultural traditions of the Bible also make a contribution to biblical studies, more so than many Christians who are on the fringe of biblical scholarship.Claude Mariottini


  11. Ugo Cei says:

    >What a bunch of nonsense.No intellectually honest person, whether she is an atheist or not, approaches the Bible with a prejudice towards its truth. They study the evidence and draw conclusions from it.This can be done by atheists and believers.If you say that atheist cannot understand it because they are not inspired by God, it’s up to you to prove that the Bible is the word of God. So far you haven’t.And how can you exclude that, even if this was the case, God isn’t inspiring everyone, believer and not-believer, when they read the Bible? The “atheists dilemma” that you mention is a dilemma only in your limited mind. For us, the solution of the dilemma is simple: since there is no God, the Bible isn’t inspired by a God, therefore it doesn’t take a believer to understand it.


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