I find it ironic that so many atheists agree with the fundamentalists on one issue –that fundamentalist literalism is the only correct way to read and interpret the Bible and that those Christians who are liberal or who believe in science and evolution, or who support gay rights are either hypocritical, cherry picking, in denial, using special pleading and/or are not true Christians.
Although I am still surprised at such agreements, it is now a resigned sort of surprise since I have encountered this so often.
I had meant to write a lot of my own words describing why I find this ironic, but a blog I subscribe to – Love, Joy, Feminism by Libby Anne – had a post on something very similar. So, to save myself some work I thought I would just quote parts of her excellent blog to start mine off …. and then add my own words.
“We claim that we are treating the Bible with great respect as the final arbiter of all things. What we are really doing is making our interpretation of the Bible the final arbiter of all things. Therefore what we are ultimately arguing is that WE are the final arbiter of all things. Our assertion, in other words, is not really that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, but that we are.”
“And this is where Fred’s quote comes in. Evangelicals and fundamentalists claim that they are simply following the Bible and holding it to be inerrant, but because there is disagreement on what the Bible actually says, Fred suggests that what they are really doing is holding their own interpretations as inerrant. And in doing that, they are holding themselves as inerrant.
There are two contributing factors that help convince evangelicals and fundamentalists that their interpretations are inerrant. First, they will claim that they are not “interpreting” the Bible at all, but simply accepting what it says at face value. This seems to make sense until you realize that that’s often not actually what they’re doing, and that besides, those claiming that they are simply accepting the Bible at face value inevitably contradict each other. Second, they will also claim that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, which helps them interpret the Bible and guides them to the correct understanding. Once again, this makes sense on some level until you realize that they all claim this and yet often contradict each other.”
“What does all this tell us? Do all Christians who believe the Bible is inerrant in effect fancy themselves inerrant? The only way to get around the problem would be to arrive at the True and Correct Interpretation of the Bible. And there are Christian scholars who do study the history of the Bible, its cultural context, and the original languages in which it was written. There are Christian scholars who engage in higher criticism of the Bible, examining it as a text. Is it possible, then, to arrive at an objectively “true” and “correct” interpretation of the Bible?”
The trouble I kept running into is that there are verses and passages that are downright contradictory. Whatever view you take, you’re going to have to explain some other passage away. You point to the verses about female submission to support complementarianism (i.e. patriarchy)? Okay, but what about instances of female leadership in the Bible? You have to explain those away. You point to instances of female leadership in the Bible to support egalitarianism? Okay, but what about the verses about female submission? You’re going to have to explain those away.
At this point it honestly appears to me that people find what they want to find in the Bible. You believe that women should be stay-at-home moms and homemakers? There’s an interpretation of the Bible just right for you. You believe that women should be able to get jobs alongside men, and that childcare should be shared between men and women? There’s an interpretation of the Bible just right for you, too! Personally, this is a huge part of why the Bible appears to me to be no more than a man-made book.”
Now, what does all of the quotes above had to do in regards to the fact that so many atheists seem to believe that any Christian who is not a literalist is not a real Christian or is a hypocrite?
A liberal Christian, or one who supports evolution and science, who supports gay rights, who believes in universal salvation or the non-existence of hell does the exact same thing that the literalist is; he interprets the Bible and chooses certain verses to do so and either ignoring or explaining away the other verses that disagree with his interpretation. He follows the same methodology yet his beliefs and honesty are questioned by both the literalist and the atheist. She is seen as blind to the problems, as hypocritical, or as being a weaker believer than the literalist and inconsistent in her beliefs by both the literalist and the atheist.
Further, this idea that the Bible has to be interpreted literally ignores the long tradition Christian thinkers and believers who did not do so. Lets take a look at a common sticking point, the correct way to interpret Genesis 1 and 2, the creation stories. Should you look back at history you would find that the following theologians and church fathers are just some who did not believe that Genesis should be interpreted literally.
- Origen, a third century theologian from Alexandria Egypt, in his works “On First Principles” and “Against Celsus” argued strongly against the idea of taking the creation stories as literal expressions of historical truth.
- Saint Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century bishop in North Africa, who is best known for writing “Confessions” also wrote “The Literal Reading of Genesis”. In this book he argued that the creation stories were written to the understanding of the people of that time; that, in order to better communicate with the people of that time the creation story was told in a simpler allegorical fashion.
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century theologian, believed that God created all things to have potential. From his “Summa Theologica”
“On the day on which God created the heaven and the earth, He created also every plant of the field, not, indeed, actually, but “before it sprung up in the earth,” that is, potentially.…All things were not distinguished and adorned together, not from a want of power on God’s part, as requiring time in which to work, but that due order might be observed in the instituting of the world.”
Aquinas did not believe in a literal interpretation either. Further his idea of God as creating potential is one that can easily accommodate the findings of modern science, including evolution.
- John Wesley, an Anglican minister who became a leader of the early Methodist church also believed that the scriptures were written to the understanding of their initial audience. In his Notes on the Bible he wrote:
“The inspired penman in this history [Genesis] … [wrote] for the Jews first and, calculating his narratives for the infant state of the church, describes things by their outward sensible appearances, and leaves us, by further discoveries of the divine light, to be led into the understanding of the mysteries couched under them.”
- John Calvin was also one who believed that Genesis 1 and 2 were written as allegories and were not meant to be taken literally.
- In the 19th century, the noted Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield, who argued strongly for conservative Calvinism and for the absolute authority of scripture, also accepted the findings of science, including evolution. He did not view the two spheres – science and the Bible –as being in conflict. As historian Mark Noll puts it, “B. B. Warfield, the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.”
So, given the fact that there is a long history of non-literalist interpretation of the Bible stretching back to Christianity’s very beginnings and including some of the most prominent Christian thinkers – both Protestant and Catholic – then why do so many atheists accept the arguments of the fundamentalist literalists that theirs is the only proper way to read the Bible? Especially since, as the Love, Joy, Feminism blog pointed out, they do not even agree on what the Bible is saying?
Why do atheists give so much credence to the most ignorant of Christians and blow off the rest?
Part of the reason is that it fills our need to see religion as clearly being silly and contrary to science. It is easier to argue that God does not exist to a creationist than it is to a Christian who supports the findings of science – the big bang, the age of the earth and universe, evolution. Man
Another part is that this plays into our sense of superiority. It is much easier to be superior, ethically and intellectually, if you believe your opponent is either a deluded hypocrite or else an ignorant believer of superstition who rejects science.
Finally, a lot of it is also ignorance; ignorance of the true variety of religious belief as well as its history.
Now, obviously I believe that both the liberal and the literalist Christian are wrong in their belief in the existence of a God and of a life after death. So, why do I care about this? I care because:
1) We can often work with liberal Christians on many social issues – gay rights, contraceptive rights, against creationism, etc. However believing that you are working with a hypocrite who is blind to his own contradictory beliefs is not conducive to such partnerships.
2) To believe the liberal Christian as a hypocrite or blind is to commit an injustice to their integrity and their honesty. I do not like to commit injustices.
3) If an atheist wishes to engage in discussions about God, life, the universe and everything with Christians then they need to know and understand the liberal Christian as well as the literalist.