I recently read a thought provoking article from The Atlantic by Jessica Lahey entitled To Read Dickens, It Helps to Know French History and the Bible. It is a fantastic argument for cultural literacy, and I highly suggest reading it. I had tweeted the article, as I often do, and within an hour Jessica had responded via Twitter stating, “Bummed to know I’m damned, but glad you read and tweeted my article. Thanks!” I explained that I was using the name @youredamned (and the name of this blog) ironically, and that I don’t believe that anyone is damned. I don’t even believe such a place as Hell exists! I suggested she read my Twitter bio to better understand my position. Her response came moments later and couldn’t have been better. She tweeted back, “Ah. Another failure to deeply read content on Twitter.” She was very polite, and we went on to share a brief exchange about the significance of both cultural and Biblical literacy in the context of understanding Dickens and other writers.
*Note: I grabbed this screenshot after I had changed my Twitter name. It said “You’re Damned” at the time.
To me, this simple anecdote serves to strengthen the argument that one must understand not only the words written on a page, but also the context of these words. Her mistake was not unique. Often I am followed on Twitter by people who mistake me for a theist who intends to warn others of damnation. Of course, these people often unfollow very quickly as they realize my intention is precisely the opposite.
I do not know what Jessica’s religious beliefs, and backgrounds are. Frankly, it does not matter. The point that she makes in her article resonates with me. It brings to the foreground a thought that I have had for some time. Often I will encounter atheists who insist it isn’t important for them to read the Bible, as they see it to be a work of fiction. I’ve encountered many who will ask, “Why read the Bible?” My response has always been in line with the points made in Jessica’s article.
So, why read the Bible?
There are many reasons to be familiar with the Bible. It may seem redundant to start off by reiterating the points that have already been covered above, but I feel I should elaborate. For at least the past 1,500 years, Christian beliefs, and the claims made by the Bible have permeated Western culture. Wars have been fought, and lives have been lost because of this one very influential book. Some of the most important works of art – paintings, sculptures, and musical compositions – have depicted the stories told in the Bible. (It is important to note William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first to translate the Bible to English, and before that, writers would likely not have had the same access to the text as it would be unlikely they could read Greek – Tyndale was killed for his translating the text, and his remains were burned). One could visit the Sistine Chapel, looking up at Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece, and appreciate the beauty, but without being familiar with the Abrahamic creation story, one would completely miss out on many contextual layers of the piece.
Of course, as a skeptical atheist who has read the Bible, I can immediately look at this picture and begin to question it with knowledge of the context. At first glance I notice Adam has a belly button, as he does in so many other paintings. Why would this be if he was created from dirt, and not from a natural birth? Indeed, this is probably just a mistake made by the artist, but without knowing the creation story, one might never notice the mistake.
This brings me to another point. Not all, but some atheists choose to engage in debates with theists. While often times it is easy enough to dismiss Biblical claims using one’s scientific knowledge, and reasoned logical arguments, it helps tremendously to be familiar with the context of these claims. Quite often a theist will interject, “atheists take verses out of context,” and quite honestly, there are times they are right to say so.
Atheists often make statements such as, “I am an atheist because I have read the Bible.” While this may be true for some, recent polling would suggest this is not as often the case as many of us would like to claim. In 2013 the Barna Group conducted a study of which books Americans had read before seeing the movie. The study focused on books such as Life of Pi, Twilight, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones, and The Hobbit, but they also included The Bible. The results were surprising:
“One in five of all American adults have read the Bible from start to finish. While it might not be shocking to discover well over half (61%) of evangelical Christians have read the Bible from start to finish, it may be surprising that nearly one in six (18%) of people with a faith other than Christianity and about one in eleven (9%) people with no faith claimed to have done the same.
Approximately one-third of politically conservative adults say they have read the Bible, compared with one-tenth of political liberals. Nearly one-third (29%) of black adults say they’ve read the Bible from start to finish, more than Hispanic adults (22%) and white adults (19%). Boomers are the group with the highest likelihood to have read the Bible from start to finish, with nearly one-quarter (23%) reporting they had done so.”
I suspect that atheists who feel compelled to debate theists about the Bible might be more Biblically literate than those who simply identify themselves as having “no faith,” but there is no poll or study to cite that I am aware of, so this is merely speculation. (If anyone is able to provide me with a study that confirms this suspicion, I will happily update this post to reflect that).
That being said, a study conducted in 2012 by LifeWay Research (a Christian organization) found that 90 percent of churchgoers agree with the statement, “I desire to please and honor Jesus in all I do,” but only 19 percent read the Bible every day. About 25 percent read the Bible a few times a week. Fourteen percent say they read the Bible “once a week,” 22 percent say “once a month” or “a few times a month,” and 18 percent rarely or never read their Bible.
It seems to me, that if an atheist were to be familiar with the Bible, they would be on more of an equal playing field with Christians, and may even have an advantage over believers who do not read the Bible regularly, or may not have read it from cover to cover.
Yes, the text is a bit daunting to read, and it is quite dry trying to get through all of the “begets” at the beginning, but there are many different reasons to read the book that I would encourage people to consider.
And if you need any more evidence that the Bible still continues to permeate popular culture today, you might be familiar with this song by The Byrds:
It is pretty clear where the inspiration for these lyrics come from when you compare them to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
King James Version (KJV)
3 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
By Dave @youredamned
This was originally posted on my personal blog, and can be found at: http://youredamnedtohell.com/why-read-the-bible/