The following is an interview with Very Rarely Stable of Atheist Biblical Criticism.
You are an ex-evangelical Christian who writes “a blog devoted to biblical studies without a confessional bias.” You may not have a confessional bias, but since no one can criticize completely objectively, what would you say your bias is now? How do you try to stay objective, if that is indeed your goal?
Firstly, many thanks for offering to interview me; as a new blogger, this makes me feel like something of a VIP, but on a fraudulent basis!
I agree wholeheartedly that no one can write without bias, and in scholarly literature this is often pointed out. But when it is pointed out, frequently that seems to be the end of it, and there’s no attempt to examine, reduce or counteract one’s bias. It’s as if we now have a mantra, “bias is unavoidable” which then justifies a “so anything goes” approach.
In the field that I’ve taken up, biblical criticism, most authors and scholars come from a Christian or Jewish background, and most of them practice their religion in some form. There are atheist and agnostic biblical critics (a few have become relatively famous, such as Bart Ehrman) but their numbers are much smaller than their confessional colleagues.
When I was an evangelical fundamentalist, I came across biblical criticism almost by chance, and found that it was a fascinating subject that very much challenged my assumptions and beliefs about the bible. At that time most biblical critics, it seemed to me, felt free to come to conclusions in conflict with their religious denominations, and I found this quite refreshing and indeed surprising. For example, a Roman Catholic, Raymond Brown, wrote a book that is still the major work on the birth of Jesus, in which he produced, amongst many other things, a very detailed critique of the virginal conception. In the first edition of this book he doesn’t give an opinion as to the veracity or otherwise of this doctrine, but it has been immensely helpful to anyone wishing to challenge it. So much so that by the time of the revised edition it seems (according to comments he makes in the preface) that there had been attempts to nobble him. I thought he set a very good example of how one can at least try to step outside of one’s inherent bias – no one can ever entirely succeed, but one shouldn’t give up trying.
However, at that time a few evangelical fundamentalists were joining the biblical critical fold and producing shoddy work trying to defend their presupposed doctrine of inerrancy. The rot, it seemed to me, had started in the UK with the late FF Bruce becoming professor of theology at Manchester University. He recruited another inerrantist to the faculty, and then this disease spread to other universities in Britain. There are now quite a number of inerrantists working in British universities churning out their apologetics.
I’ve always felt rather outraged by this, as I’ve found the work of these fundamentalists to be useful only when they happen to coincide with views of non-fundamentalists – which they do only on subjects they consider non-essential to the fundamentalist way of thinking.
Outside of the evangelicals, it has always seemed to me that there was a healthy variety of opinion which helped find a balanced way forward in the field. I suppose “peer review” is one of the key ways of assisting this. I have tried to be widely read in the subject, so that I’m not reliant on one narrow view. I do appreciate the works of Christians and Jews, although I grit my teeth when I start reading a fundamentalist work!
In the not-so-distant past, when the Richard Dawkins site had a user-friendly forum (which closed down in, let’s say euphemistically, “unfortunate” circumstances) I wrote a few posts there which were like mini-articles. I found writing these helped me reflect and often change my opinion in at least some respect – I might be sure my “opponent” was wrong, but when I set out to write down why, I found my opinions could be modified, at least to a certain extent.
These days unfortunately the various successor websites to the Richard Dawkins forum haven’t got the attraction that the big name gave to that site. I find they also tend to be invaded by single-issue groups, which are hard to keep at bay. So I decided I should start my own blog to help get my thoughts down on some issues, which will (and has) modified my thinking. I’m also hopeful that these thoughts will lead to some discussion, as a sort of substitute for peer review. At the moment my blog isn’t visited very much, and so this has barely started. But, for example, there’s been an interesting contribution from someone with knowledge about ancient weaponry, and I very much hope that I’ll eventually get more numerous visitors with helpful comments and criticisms.
You gradually left a series of churches. Leaving a religion usually means leaving a primary social group. Did you experience difficulty maintaining friendships or finding new ones after leaving your church? Do you have any advice for others facing this problem?
When I was a child my parents moved from Roman Catholicism to Anglo-Catholicism – it was in the post-Vatican II era, when lots of young couples made this move owing to a certain doctrinal disappointment (nuff said?!). So I guess, to a degree, I’ve always found it acceptable to move churches. Indeed for a short while during my 20s I returned to Roman Catholicism – I was desperately trying to retain some kind of christian belief, and an RC priest told me that his church would consider me always to be a Roman Catholic, as I had been baptised.
I think the hardest break I’ve had was with evangelical fundamentalism. Exclusive groups always have things in place to make it hard for people to leave. Largely I enjoyed my time as an evangelical, and in a way it was the form of Christianity which, contrary to what one might expect, got me actually thinking about what I believed and why. I also made great friends in evangelical Christianity, and was sad to leave them behind. In a way my greater sadness is that they couldn’t share in new understandings I had come to.
As I left the movement I had a few difficult conversations with evangelicals who tried to convince me I was wrong to challenge evangelicalism. Perhaps it was easier for me as I came out of evangelicalism with 3 friends. I no longer have a friend who is an evangelical, and I see this as fairly inevitable. I do have friends who follow less extreme forms of religion.
What would I say to others facing this problem? Yes it’s hard, but it’s also psychologically hard trying to believe 6 impossible things before breakfast. I’d also suggest not being too hard on those who remain behind in your previous religion – yes they can say hurtful things to you, but you were also one of them once, so you should know how these religions work and how they influence their adherents to say or do certain things.
Churches, just like many religious communities, provide a ready package of potential friends and a social outlet. I think for many of us atheists who have left a religion with all its creature comforts, we can find it difficult without this off-the-shelf option; and finding others with common interests and shared values who are open to befriending can be problematic. My only advice is to be creative about how you build up a network.
Dealing with family members is much more hard, and here I’d say I have no general advice – I think everyone’s situation is different; by all means take advice from others, but at the end of the day you have to do what you think is best. I’m not “out” as an atheist with my parents even in my middle age (!) although they might suspect. Personally I prefer it that way.
I find people who defend the bible do so from a very narrow perspective. Considering you’ve been interested in bible studies for some time and read both Hebrew and Greek, what is one of the more surprising misconceptions of the holy book?
I think when “defending” the bible, what people are actually defending is a human concept about the bible, most commonly univocality or inerrancy. The documents of the bible are simply documents of their time and their communities; they sometimes portray themselves to be older than they actually are, but this is usually betrayed in some form or other.
It’s difficult to know what to pick for the most surprising misconception – there are so many options; of course, many of them have been done to death on blogs and other Internet sites. Obviously for inerrantists, I could easily pick from the myriad of contradictions or errors of fact that are made. At the moment on my blog I’m going through “Who killed Goliath?” where, if you didn’t know that two different people are accredited with the killing, this subject might surprise you. However, my blog is not about going through the various contradictions, rather in this series I’m looking at how the various different stories evolved.
I think that one of the biggest misconceptions about the bible is concerning its “universality”. It’s probably fair to say that the New Testament authors were writing for a reasonably wide audience, as well as for the communities where the authors lived and practiced their religion. They wrote in Greek, which was the lingua franca of their day, a bit like English is today. Indeed many of the authors were rather limited in their knowledge of Greek – the grammar of the book of Revelation is all over the place! Nonetheless, they chose to write in Greek in order to increase their readership.
In contrast, the Old Testament or Hebrew bible was written by Hebrew speaking people (mostly men!) for Hebrew speaking people; I don’t think that any of the authors/redactors had any suspicion that people outside of the small Hebrew speaking world would take an interest in their work, that is until the 3rd/2nd centuries BCE. These people weren’t writing anything like a universal work; a lot of the meaning in the texts is bound up with the Hebrew language itself.
Take the book of Ruth as an example. It opens with a play on words: there’s famine in Judah, so a man from Bethlehem… Err, geddit? Probably not, unless you happen to know Bethlehem means “house of bread/food”. In verse 2 of the opening chapter Naomi’s two sons are called Mahlon and Chilion which mean “sickly” and “death” respectively; they die in verse 5, which is not a surprise if you know what the names mean, but in translation you’re left out of this information.
The Hebrew bible wasn’t originally meant for the wider world – just for Hebrews and their religion. That doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting to modern, non-Hebrew-speaking people. On the contrary I find it fascinating; but it’s fascinating as a historical work – that is what it reveals about the people who wrote it, their societies, their customs, traditions and beliefs.
Have you found yourself taking up other more atheist-typical viewpoints since dropping Christianity? For example, are you more socially or fiscally liberal today? Why do you think certain values that aren't necessarily linked to belief or disbelief tend to fall in line with theists or atheists?
Yes, I think some of my non-religious views have changed as a result of leaving my religion behind. For example, although I don’t think I was ever the most ardent anti-abortionist, I certainly kept to the party line when I was an evangelical; I would see things very differently now. Politically also I have moved significantly to the left, although I’m not sure that this is entirely due my rejection of religion, rather I would attribute it more to a greater experience in life as I get older.
I suspect that the correlation between certain beliefs/affiliations and particular values is not as total as people suspect. Even within evangelical fundamentalism in my day there were some who were pro-choice for abortion, although they tended to keep their heads down. The pressure to conform, or be seen to conform, along with the kudos that comes with being seen as zealous, can give a skewed view of what many religious people actually do believe.
To take another example, why do so many western Roman Catholics use contraception whilst at the same time defending to the hilt the Catholic Church on everything? Where is the clamour from the overwhelming majority of western Catholics for this wholly unreasonable doctrine to be overturned? Of course there are a few individuals or isolated small groups that do speak out; but this in no way matches the quantity of practice against the doctrine. It seems that on some things religions can live with a significant amount of dissent from the official position.
I think atheism is a more diverse stance. I doubt there’s much controversy about contraception amongst atheists, but abortion is more likely to lead to lively debates, with no “one” atheist position. I do feel more liberty to consider options I wouldn’t have before.
It's easy for atheists to feel superior to Evangelical Christians. Considering you were once Evangelical, is there any insight you can give about who you were at that time that might sway atheists from dismissing outright the character and intelligence of theists?
I very much agree with the thrust of this question, and find that I have to remind myself from time to time that I was once an evangelical fundamentalist; if I fell for it, I can hardly be too tough on those who are in this religious movement today! I feel also that one element of evangelicalism is a feeling of superiority as well; evangelicals have “discovered” the truth, which others need to discover too – once they do then they’ll “know” too. It’s akin to gnosticism. These competing senses of superiority don’t help either group.
I also remind myself that I met some very nice people in evangelicalism, many of whom were very intelligent. Just like I did at that time, they confined their intellectual ruminations to evangelically “sound” areas, and in this respect we were all victims of a complex system.
In the polemics between atheists and evangelicals – a necessary debate in my view – we need to find a way of helping evangelicals to broaden out their thinking without alienating them from the outset. We recognize their ugly traits all too readily, but sometimes it’s less easy to spot how poorly we can come across. I’m not suggesting that we refrain from ridicule, for example, but each technique has its place, and an overuse of one type of argumentation does us no favours.
I don’t have a magic bullet for getting evangelicals to think out of the box. For myself the breakthrough came because I had unanswered questions about my faith; I went looking for answers, at first in the typical evangelical way that consists of consulting other evangelicals and reading “sound” books; when I found that this failed to answer my questions, I started reading elsewhere. But the effort came from within me – I had to “own” my personal research.
I suspect that broadly everyone moves on in this kind of way. It is very hard to admit you were wrong about something, particularly when you have so much invested in it. Having someone else ridicule you is not always the best way of ensuring your own mind is opened to new possibilities. Having said that, I think ridicule does sometimes have a place, and can work as a wake-up call.
To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?
Of course, all over the Internet these days is the “Jesus mythicism position” (or perhaps I should say “positions”, because there are a number of them) that argues there was never an individual person behind anything that Jesus is represented to have said or done; rather the Christianity movement was either an artificially invented religion or grew up out of misunderstandings of various mythological stories. I’ve never been impressed by arguments for these positions, although some are of better quality than others (some are of remarkably poor quality).
That said, the question of the historical Jesus is tremendously complex. Any historical person who came to be seen by a movement (or again, more correctly, “movements”) as a hero, is liable to be subject to considerable exaggeration and invention, particularly if the individual lived in times where there were next to no external controls over historical reporting. Picking through the available texts for things which might have actually been said or done, is so difficult as to be next to impossible. And it is this degree of exaggeration and invention which lends some air of credibility to mythicist positions, who can point to it to claim that everything must have been invented.
In Jesus’ case, as this particular “hero” belonged to a peasant-class in something of an unimportant backwater for the time, it is fairly inevitable that information about him only came from “hero-worshippers” rather than more neutral individuals. Criteria for judging what may have been historical about the exaggerated accounts that have survived of his life, are in themselves very challengeable from all quarters, and it is easy to point out over-confidence that has been expressed on numerous occasions about such criteria.
Added into this mix are the strivings of evangelical apologists, who adopt from the outset the unscholarly position that everything in the New Testament actually happened. They seek to dress up their arguments in scholarly garb, which only serves to mislead. I find a number of arguments by mythicists are really directed against these evangelical apologists than against others who are more honest and open in their research.
Amongst the small number of scholarly paradigms that are adopted about the historical Jesus, I feel the most plausible is that Jesus was some sort of Jewish apocalyptic preacher; he may also considered have himself to be (or been seen to be) some sort of healer. I also think it very likely that he was crucified, although the reasons for this capital punishment are so debatable as to be irretrievable with any confidence.
The stories about his resurrection are likely to have evolved as a result of this “unacceptable” end to his life, according to his followers. Other miracles for Jesus are pretty much par for the course for heroes of the time – even the best historians of the time (and I wouldn’t count any gospel writers amongst these) reported supernatural events.
In this respect I like the story in Mark 8:22-26 – a less than spectacular miracle where Jesus takes 2 attempts to cure a man of his blindness, the first by spitting in his eyes. I suspect this might be a survivor (albeit subject to considerable modification) of Jesus’ rather unsuccessful career as a healer.
He was no more successful as an apocalyptic preacher, just like those who came before him. The events he expected to arrive imminently completely failed to materialize.
Overall, I think there is very little we can be sure about concerning his life. Nevertheless the most likely explanation for the rise of a new religion is that there was at one point a charismatic leader with followers.
What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?
Religion, at its best, gives a sense of community; it educates, alleviates poverty and provides healthcare.
Of course it is rather easier to spot its faults, and there are plenty of critiques widely available. From a rather long list, I would select the worst feature of religion to be its ability to keep its adherents in poverty, whether through educational ignorance, or opposition to contraception. But I would choose this aspect because of the sheer weight of numbers that it oppresses.
Needless to say, I think any rational judgement would see that the harmful effects of religion vastly outweigh the beneficial.