Strange, isn’t it?
Why am I, an atheist, encouraging Christians to read their holy book? Shouldn’t I be telling them to toss it aside instead?
No, for a very simple reason with which fellow skeptics would wholeheartedly agree: the Bible debunks itself. It is this I believe which lies at the bottom of the highly shallow knowledge Christians exhibit about a work they, on the surface at least, maintain is either “inspired” or “authored” (depending on their sectarian persuasion) by the creator of the universe. Modern ethics have evolved so far beyond many of those laid down in the Bible – even those held by most Christians – that pastors and Bible instructors understandably pass over the large swathes of scripture which run contrary to them. It is not easy, for example, to reconcile the popular narrative of a god who loves children with one who murders them (e.g., Exodus 12:29; 1 Samuel 15:2-3, etc.). The apologetic disassembling required to harmonize such examples of God’s schizophrenic personality is truly herculean.
There is another, more self-serving reason for Christians’ growing Biblical amnesia. If you lead a flock of believers for whom the Bible is the literal Word of God, a position as its sole authoritative interpreter affords tremendous power. The Catholic Church recognized this truth long ago by severely restricting the teaching of Latin, which the Bible was written in for most of its existence, and banning its private possession and mass production. Today’s Christian clergy and leaders need not resort to such drastic measures; soft-censorship and the repetitive harping on a few chosen themes accomplishes much of the same. Every Christian knows God surely detests homosexuality, but to learn He just as surely condemns shrimp and cotton-polyester blends rather deflates belief.
This is not to say that Bible-reading automatically converts one into skepticism, but that it can lead one down such a road. The idea is to create enough cognitive dissonance that the believer is forced to relieve it by conducting a fuller investigation of the Bible, which, thanks to the ubiquity of information on the internet, is more easily accomplished than ever before. It’s true, only a handful will end up rejecting their religion, while another handful will end up more faithful than ever before, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the former is far likelier to happen than the latter. Still, those who become hardcore, fire-and-brimstone literalists indirectly help the skeptic’s cause as Christianity subsequently becomes increasingly associated with intolerance and hypocrisy.
A third possible outcome is just as important. Having been exposed to the vast diversity of scholarly views on the Bible, both from within Christianity and outside it, the believer becomes less confident of its claims, increasingly interpreting them as metaphors rather than dogmatic truth. From there, it’s not a great leap to rejecting them altogether, though the process proceeds piecemeal. Europe may very well be a harbinger of such a trend, where polls show an increasing divergence in beliefs between clergy and laity. Many fundamentalist Christians recognize this slippery slope towards skepticism, consequently insisting on literal interpretations and upholding inerrancy at a time when such positions are wholly untenable.
How unorthodox it must be to the lay Christian mind to be told by a non-believer to study their Bible. The suggestion alone is a powerful message, disarming in its invitation to simply examine the basis of their religion. “What do they know that I don’t?” While there are some efforts by believers to improve Bible knowledge, I think those skeptics who were former theologians and apologists can and should join in by ensuring that a complete picture is presented. But even those who are less proficient in Bible studies can assist, by 1) reading the Bible themselves (a good place to start is at The Scripture Project) and 2) improving one’s knowledge about the Bible, both from critical and Christian liberal scholars (who often debunk themselves). When skeptics demonstrate superior knoweldge of the Bible to believers, not just about scripture but how and why it was created, the effect can only be disconcerting.
The Bible consistently remains the number one best-selling book. Christian, time to brush the dust off yours and start reading it today, so the next time your pastor or bishop tells you things like “God defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” you can firmly correct his nonsense, citing God’s long support of polygamy. Won’t that be fun?