The Bible through the eyes of an atheist

The Bible. No matter who you are, if you live in the west you’ve probably read some it, and if you don’t own one you probably did once.

Not many people have read all of it, though. I know I haven’t, and I doubt I ever will, for despite years of going to church religiously, I am an atheist. Perhaps the roots of my atheism lie in being bored during sermons and reading the bible instead. At first I was looking for amusing bits in Proverbs (“A nagging wife is like water going drip-drip-drip on a rainy day.” Proverbs 27:15) but the more I read of the bible, the less comfortable I became with it.

When I was a Christian I read the bits of the bible I was asked to read: the bit we were studying in the youth group, the bit the vicar based his sermon on, the bit my daily reading notes were about – but not the whole bible. Good heavens no! The idea of just sitting down and reading the bible in order was treated as a pointless and slightly crazy thing to do, at my church at least.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the bits of the bible where God has people killed are rarely selected for bible study groups. I’d love to hear a sermon on 2 Kings 2 23-24 (where God sends bears to kill children for the crime of laughing at Elisha for being bald) but I am not holding my breath. The more I read, the more bits I found that I didn’t like, and the more I struggled with those bits, the more I noticed that ‘real’ Christians had an ability to seemingly only process the ‘good’ bits of the bible. So when I read the story of the flood, I was troubled by the ethics of God drowning almost everyone, whereas Christians seemed able to ignore that bit and focus on the rainbow and God promising not to do it again.

It was the same with much of the Old Testament – I wanted to know why God would even think about asking Abraham to kill his son, why God was on such friendly, chatty terms with the devil that he ended up having a bet with him that caused Job such suffering and led to the death of his family, how he could regret the flood if he was omniscient, why he ‘hardened the heart’ of Pharaoh so he ‘had’ to kill all the first-born in Egypt and so on. ‘Real’ Christians only seemed to notice that God didn’t actually get Abraham to kill his son, and ‘gave’ Job a new family (with prettier daughters, so that’s ok) and set the Israelites free. It was like the ‘bad’ bits weren’t there.

In the end I stopped reading the bible, and so it sits on my shelf; slightly yellowed and slightly dusty. A testament to a time when I wanted to believe but found that the very book that was supposed to help me do so was, in fact, one of the main reasons I couldn’t. So you will understand, perhaps, why I can’t help but smile when I talk with Christians and they ask me if I’ve read the bible. In my head my reply is “Yes, have you? Mad, isn’t it?” but most of the time politeness wins out, and instead I reply with a non-committal “Not for a while” and try to talk about something else instead.

As an atheist I view the bible much like the Daily Mail. A lot of irrelevance (I mean – Numbers – that’s a dull book right there), a certain amount of hyperbole, a fair amount of self-reference, a degree of unpleasantness, a good dose of misogyny and a dressing of nonsense, all seasoned with a small amount of fact, resulting in a text that is unaccountably popular and often cited as ‘proof’ of something instinct tells me is merely supposition.

As endings go that one isn’t great. But I once read this book that was about an absent father who went on and on about how much he loved his kids how he and missed them terribly, but ultimately he planned to allow his sworn enemy to kill a load of them. Weird thing was my friend only noticed that he was planning to be really nice to the remaining few. Now that was a terrible ending. What was that book called again … ?