Paul Prather

Taking the Bible too literally might turn you into an atheist

Several gentle readers have suggested that reading the Bible might turn you into an atheist.

They were responding to a column I wrote recently about a 2011 article in Christianity Today, a theologically conservative magazine.

The article I cited in my column said research shows that regular Bible reading, particularly when people read their Bibles without interference from clergy, can cause readers to lean liberal on many, although not all, social issues.

After my column appeared, several atheists said reading the Bible was what turned them into atheists. Or, at least, the Bible played a role in that transformation.

Fair enough. I see how that could happen.

One polite correspondent, for instance, pointed to a bloody passage in the Old Testament in which God apparently directs Joshua to slaughter every man, woman and child (not to mention all the animals) in the city of Jericho.

I admit, this story indeed appears in the Good Book, as do any number of equally violent tales. Then there are those credulity-straining stories about the six-day creation, Noah’s ark and Jonah being swallowed by a fish. Those are all in the Old Testament.

Even in the comparatively peaceable, lucid New Testament, there are rants against women. There’s the acid-trip apocalyptic imagery of Revelation.

I get it. I’ve studied the Bible myself. For nearly 40 years.

But I’ve arrived at different conclusions than my atheist commenters. I say this respectfully. And I don’t pretend all atheists feel exactly as these particular atheists do.

Still, my experiences in discussing the Bible with atheists down through the years, and in reading their various writings about the Scriptures, is that, quite often, they make exactly the same mistakes about the Bible that Christian fundamentalists do.

That is, they read the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, far too literally.

Fundamentalists notwithstanding, the great majority of Christians don’t approach the Bible that way.

We see it as divinely inspired, yes, but not as a jot-and-tittle, inerrant transcription of history or science or even of God’s unalterable will. Many, probably most, mainstream Christians believe that God’s revelation to humanity continues to be progressive.

Which is to say that the way Joshua interpreted God’s will isn’t the way we’d interpret it today, because, living thousands of years later, we’ve learned (or so we pray!) a few things about God, history, ethics and so forth that Joshua didn’t have access to.

If Joshua believed that God told him to kill every living being in Jericho, that doesn’t necessarily mean God really told him to do it.

Let’s consider another difficult Old Testament story. I once asked a Conservative rabbi about the Genesis story of creation. Was it literally true?

To read the story literally is to entirely miss the point, he said.

And the majority of Christians probably would add to that: “Amen.”

Even when it comes to the New Testament, most Christians tend to make certain allowances. Nearly 2,000 years’ worth of biblical commentary, ever-developing church practices and hard-won experience mitigate many passages.

Certainly we take the New Testament more to heart than the Old Testament. But a lot of contemporary Christians wouldn’t interpret, say, St. Paul’s New Testament orders concerning women as applicable today.

I lead a Wednesday evening adult Bible study in a rural Pentecostal congregation. About a dozen people attend the study; they range from a Tea Party Republican or two all the way to a few left-wing populist radicals.

After we read Paul’s rules that women must keep silent in the church and exercise no authority, I took a poll to see who thought Paul was speaking for God. To my surprise, not one person believed that Paul was right about women.

“Maybe he was having a bad day, like we do,” one member said.

“Maybe he’d been in a miserable marriage,” offered another.

“Maybe it was the culture he lived in,” another said.

Many Christians also don’t interpret Revelation as a literal blow-by-blow account of the Second Coming. They see it as a veiled account of the church’s early struggles with Roman persecution. Or as symbolic of our journey through the trials of this world.

This, then, is my disagreement with atheists who dismiss the Bible because selected parts of it seem cruel, wrong-headed or implausible.

Dismissing the whole Bible because you read parts of it too literally makes about as much sense as dismissing Hamlet because nobody really talks in blank verse, and Danes didn’t historically speak Elizabethan English.

That, as the rabbi said about Genesis, would be to entirely miss the point.

There’s a lot more to Hamlet than the iambs.

And there’s a lot more to the Bible than there is even to Shakespeare. Whatever the Bible’s human errors, on the whole they’re comparatively minor.

On the whole, God’s word remains enormously valuable and powerful and, ultimately, heartbreakingly beautiful.

But, as longstanding practice has taught us, Christians try to balance what we read in the Bible alongside church tradition, history, common sense and experience. We recognize that Scripture can be divinely true without always being inerrant.

Part of our duty as disciples is to devote ourselves to parsing out — imperfectly, but in good faith — the divine gems, as we gently brush away the human grit that obscures them.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at