He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fair Questions: Will Reading the Bible Make People Atheists?

I found this video very interesting, mostly because I enjoy hearing people explain how they arrived at their beliefs.  There is something very valuable in understanding the journey people take to their conclusions.  And I have long enjoyed Penn Jillette as a speaker and an entertainer and a thinker despite having quite significant disagreements with him in many areas.

The Bible can't get you to atheism by itself; other factors must play a role. That much is very clear from the empirical evidence. I've read all those religious texts mentioned in the video and a long list of others. I've read them as an adult with the critical eye of someone with an English degree and an absurd amount of philosophy courses who also has a good background in science and technology. I'm still not an atheist, so I guess I'm missing something needed to get to atheism from reading the Bible. At this point we need to ask the question: what assumptions or intuitions would I need to carry into the reading with me to become an atheist based on reading religious texts?

Reading the Bible and reaching atheism concurrently seems to commonly happen when folks already have a moral framework which predisposes them to reject the sort of morality which is common to Abrahamic religions and other religions with a strong ascetical component.  In addition, it tends to commonly happen when they have little to no grasp of the varying literary styles, cultural context, and oral traditions upon which much of the Bible is based; they subsequently apply a plain reading which would not be suitable for any ancient text of any kind.  They frequently have no concept of morality as a developmental process, taking for granted the altruistic assumptions ironically inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition of moral philosophy.

So if a person carries in the sorts of assumptions common to those who find religious texts to be a compelling reason to abandon or reject that religion, what might they be able to conclude?

If we take the Bible as authoritative, it doesn't lead to atheism because it simply assumes that God exists. This is why the Bible can't prove that God exists; any argument for God's existence based on the Bible as an authoritative religious text is just a circular argument.  For the same reason, it provides no compelling evidence that God does not exist.

If on the other hand we treat the Bible simply as another old collection of various types of literature, it doesn't lead to atheism because we don't assume that it has any weight or bearing on the issue of whether God exists or not any more than any other old collection of books has any bearing on the answer to that question.  The Bible does not constitute either a rational or empirical proof or disproof of the existence of God.

We would only find the Bible to be a disproof of the existence of God if we assumed that the Christian or Jewish understanding of God are the only plausible understandings of God. That would be an extremely odd assumption to make if one is already an atheist, but a completely understandable assumption if one was a teenager who was really only familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition (which it seems Penn Jillette was). Without that assumption, finding content in the Tanakh which conflicts with a typical contemporary moral sense simply leads to a rejection of Judaism (and possibly certain kinds of Christianity that favor Biblical literalism as the only possible mode of interpreting the text).

At most, even accepting a set of problematic assumptions, the Bible might be good evidence to support a person coming to the conclusion that they disagree morally with parts of the moral prescriptions and proscriptions in the Old Testament.

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