Biblical Literalism and Atheism

I’ve recently come across a book called Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life by Louise M. Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Christianity Today has recommended this book to Christians who want to understand why some people reject theism.

Most of the authors grew up in Christian or Jewish families, and as children many of them took everything in Scripture literally. Joseph Levine, for example, “was taught that the world was literally created in six days almost six thousand years ago, and that the theory of evolution was mistaken” (p. 17).

College was often the turning point. In religion classes students can take the time to carefully examine sacred books, and they are often shocked at what they find. As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong recalls: “I was convinced that studying the Bible would enable me to argue better for my Christian beliefs. It had the opposite effect” (p. 72).

When we read a book slowly and thoughtfully, we spot things that we formerly missed. Dr. Antony, for example, discovered that Genesis says God lied to Adam and Eve: “… He tells Adam that if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘in the day that thou eatest, thou shalt surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). The serpent (who is never identified as evil, only as ‘more subtil than any beast of the field’ – Gen. 3:1) is the one who actually tells the truth: that they won’t die if they eat from the tree and that the reason God has forbidden them from doing so is that He is afraid of their becoming ‘as gods, knowing good and evil’ (Gen. 3:5)” (p. 58). (Notice also that according to this story, humans do not know the difference between good and evil until they eat the forbidden fruit, but God punishes them terribly anyway.)

Many of these authors acknowledge the positive aspects of religion and religious books. Stewart Shapiro emphasizes that there’s “a lot of wisdom in the Torah. It has enormous insights on how human beings should treat each other, centuries ahead of its time. The laws concerning gossip and idle speech (lashon hara) are jewels, well ahead of the mores of our own time.” But Shapiro is disturbed by many other teachings. “Democracy, freedom of speech, and religious tolerance are not among the values of the Torah. Within Torah Judaism, all serious decisions, even personal decisions, are vested in a male-dominated hierarchy. The Torah tolerates and, indeed, encourages and in some cases require slavery, and the laws concerning divorce, illegitimacy, and other issues related to women are nothing less than pernicious” (p. 9).

In earlier posts I have quoted several Bible passages in which God allegedly orders humans to commit mass murder and even genocide. Levine saw a link between these passages and the idea that Israel belongs to the Jews. “We came into another people’s land – admittedly, after enduring centuries of oppression ourselves – kicked them out brutally, and treated those who remained like dirt. We continue to oppress Palestinians horribly, and shamelessly exploit our own history of oppression and guilt-trip the rest of the world into letting us get away with it. This is how God’s people act? Not any God I wanted to have anything to do with” (p. 27). “My point is just that the Torah, to which I used to look for moral guidance, seemed to be part of the problem here, not the solution” (p. 28).

Many people cling to the idea that all of the Bible is literally true, fearing that people will lose their faith if this is not so. They also worry that we will begin relying more on human wisdom than on supernatural guidance. I understand these concerns, but in a great many cases it is actually Biblical literalism that drives people away from traditional spirituality.

Roger Christan Schriner


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