Monday, July 16, 2012
I Still Like The Bible
Atheists have nearly made a sport of ragging on the Bible, and I think rightly so, but in this post I will attempt to show the flip side of that same coin. I want to push back against the understandable misunderstanding, held by some Christians, that atheists hate the Bible and, as such, cast aside everything it says as a matter of atheist principle. This simply isn't true.
It's been some time now since I rejected the hypothesis that the Bible is the "word of God". In fact, I've written against that idea on numerous occasions already. One might even say it's been one of my persistent themes on this blog.
But, as I have gained more intellectual distance, from my old beliefs, I have come to realize that there are still some things in the Bible that I very much appreciate. Let me offer three examples, and these will suffice to make my point...
The Book of Proverbs
I remember my Dad (a pastor) telling me, many years ago, that the book of Proverbs spoke only of likelihoods. At the time I thought this a little strange, since essentially my Dad was admitting that there are clear statements, found in the Holy Bible, that may seem like promises at first blush (especially to the untrained eye), but really they were never intended to be promises to start with. I mean, when you think about it, a keen sense of observation is all that's needed to write about mere likelihoods. So, where exactly does Yahweh come into play? A good illustration of this dynamic is found in Proverbs 22:6, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (KJV) Clearly, this isn't a promise. One need only look around at all of the children who "depart" from their parents ways. Many of them do come back, mind you, to something at least resembling their parents ways, so I still think the axiom is worthwhile in a more general sense.
Of course, now that I am older, and much better read, I realize that the book of Proverbs is basic wisdom literature. Nothing more, nothing less. As wikipedia states, a proverb itself is "a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity". (In what sense then, is the book of Proverbs "the word of God?")
With that little misunderstanding out of the way, I must say that, even as an atheist, I still love the book of Proverbs. Probably my favorite verse comes in Proverbs 15:1, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (NIV) As far as wisdom sayings go, this is great stuff. I can't tell you the number of times I have applied it in everyday life. For example, at my place of employment, I am the unfortunate one who gets to deal with customer complaints if/when they arise. It's not an official part of my job description, it's just that my colleagues have figured out that I'm really good at it (lucky me) so I am frequently elected to respond. Proverbs 15:1 has become indispensable to me, at times like this, and it comes often to my mind. I've found that, when interacting with an angry person, the absolute worst thing you can do is return anger for anger. The "secret" to talking someone down, if there is one, is to thank them (sincerely) for their feedback, show that you clearly understand things from their point of view, and then, calmly and rationally, explain where it is that they may be misguided. Nine times out of ten, when handled in this manner, you can take the wind out of a complainer's sails (and, to my surprise, often even convince them that they were the one in the wrong to begin with).
In other words, "a gentle answer turns away wrath...". It really does work, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I learned this from the Bible.
1 Corinthians 13 (the "love chapter")
The first thing to note, when talking about 1 Corinthians 13, is that this passage is actually about spiritual gifts, not romantic love (despite its popularity at weddings).
Even still, what a great description of love it is (and love is something that is notoriously hard to capture in words). Starting at verse 4, "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...". Excellent!
Think of the divorces that might have been avoided, for example, if both husband and wife had lived according to the creed, "keep no record of wrongs". Or think of the spousal abuse that could be prevented if the perpetrators truly *got* the fact that love "is not easily angered", "is not proud", and "does not dishonor others".
When my kids are old enough to enter into romantic relationships, I can think of no better chapter (in any book) to read to them, than 1 Corinthians 13.
"Love is patient, love is kind", can I hear an atheist "amen"?!?
Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery
I still remember how shocked and disappointed I was, to discover that this wonderful story (found in John 8:1-11) does not appear in the original manuscripts of the gospel of John. Did this event actually happen, while Jesus was on earth, or does it merely represent things that later Christians believe Jesus stood for? I'm not sure that any of us knows the answer to that question (or that we ever will).
Even still, it's always been one of my very favorite Jesus stories. Still today, when I am dialoging with Christians about the various problems with the Bible (contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and so on), I find myself quite reticent to use this story as an example of New Testament difficulties. I don't want them to lose faith in it, I guess, since I personally like the picture of Jesus that it paints. In other words, if they're going to continue believing in Jesus anyway, these verses represent the sort of Jesus I want them believing in. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone". This is classic stuff, and for good reason. It is true that I no longer believe in the concept of "sin", per se, but I still acknowledge of course (as do all atheists) that there are pro-social and anti-social behaviors. I would like to live in the sort of society where we take the log out of our own eye, before attempting to remove the speck from our brother's eye (to use another Biblical reference).
Well as I said, at the beginning, my goal in this post is not to take back anything that I have previously said about the Bible. I still don't think it's "God's word" or, frankly, that God had anything to do with it at all. If you believe that he did, the onus of proof rests firmly on you. This is a point that I have made, and attempted to convincingly demonstrate, numerous times over. But, in my zeal to debunk my old belief system, I would never want to give the impression that I have some sort of hate on for the Bible and/or for God. It may be that some atheists do feel this way; I certainly can't speak for all of them. But, even in those cases, I suspect the hate is mostly reserved for what the Bible represents, and how it has been used over the years and still is today (to justify all sorts of bigotry, violence etc.). This is also something I have written about previously and, if god does exist, than Christians need to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that he himself is partly to blame. Having said that, contrary to what some might think, it's literally impossible for a thoughtful atheist to hate God. Since atheists no longer have faith in his very existence, it would be something akin to hating the tooth fairy. Imaginary beings, in and of themselves, tend not to elicit strong emotion (unless/until other people use them for destructive ends).
The challenge for me, moving forward, will be in passing these good principles along to my children without using the "God said it" shortcut that the Bible provides for Christians. Some days I'm not sure if I'm up to the challenge (parenting can be a scary endeavor), but I'm going to give it everything I've got.
To the atheists reading this blog, are there other Bible passages that you still like? What is it about them that you appreciate?