Atheist Biblical Illiteracy

reading_bibleI am a former believer and in my Christian days, I studied the Bible in fair depth.   But most nonChristians are not familiar with the Bible, including (I’d wager) most atheists.  Though there are many bible literate atheists, most were former believers like me.  But for those atheist and nonbelievers who haven’t learned about the Bible, here are a few good reasons to learn about the Bible.

  • Allusions to the Bible abound in western literature
  • Symbols from the Bible can be seen commonly in every city or town
  • Influential Ideas from the Bible inform many cultures
  • American Politics is replete with Biblical influence
  • Raising Skeptics:  If you raise children with critical skills, the Bible is part of a full education
  • Fun Stories:  The Bible is full with all kinds of fun and rich stories
  • Knowing Others: Understanding the Bible will help you understand Jews and Christians better


Christians may argue that you need to read the Bible so as to decide if it contains the truth or not.  But that argument has several problems with it.  The Christian means by this that one religion has to be true and if you read the Bible, you will see that Jesus is the answer.  However one would have lots of literature to read, if one wanted to be faithful to that challenge.  There is a daunting amount of religious text out there contending to the THE TRUTH:

  • The Analects & 5 Classics (Confucianism)
  • Tao-te-Ching (Daoism)
  • Mahabharata (Bhagavad Gita), Ramayana, Vedas, Upanishads (Hinduism)
  • Koran & The Hadith (Islam)
  • The Book of Mormon (Church of the Later Day Saints)
  • The Avesta (Zoroastrianism)
  • Pali Canon (Theravada Buddhism)
  • Mahayana Canon (Mahayana Buddhism)
  • Dianetics (Scientology)
  • The Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism)

And these are just some of the texts.  It would be virtually impossible to read all these.  So people who think they are making a decision are really never make a fully informed decision.

The counter argument to that is that one could quickly decide on obvious principles and discard many text quickly.  For instance, Christian doctrine states that humans are born sinful and a perfect sacrifice (Jesus) is necessary for God to forgive us and allow us to live for eternity in heaven.  Thus, if some religion does not have this principle, it can’t be true.  They don’t want to even doubt that “principle”.  Or some atheist may think that since there is no clear evidence of any miracles happening, any religion based on miracles can easily be rejected.

We can see the problem in discussing these issues.  Nonetheless, I contend that if you live in a largely Christian culture, learning about Bible stories can be very helpful for the reasons above.  But likewise, if you live in a Hindu culture, for the same reason, one needs to be familiar with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, or in a Buddhist land, the Jatakas (stories of the Buddha’s previous animal reincarnations), and so on.

But as cultures quickly change, and the Internet becomes the source of info, to be culturally savvy can be hugely burdensome — you need to be up on many music styles, movies, TV shows and more in every land.  Fortunately it is a little easier when it comes to religion.   Smile.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

4 responses to “Atheist Biblical Illiteracy

  1. Ian

    I guess you could probably pick up most of the allusory bits from a ‘stories from the bible’ book. I can see intelligent people dropping Sampson, The Writing on the Wall, The parable of the talents and the Seven seals in conversation. If someone made a passing allusion to Shibboleth, I’d know they had ‘beyond cultural’ levels of biblical knowledge.

    What were you thinking about when you said it influences our politics? Can you give an example that wouldn’t make much sense without knowing the bible?

    I was chuffed that I’ve read decent chunks of most of your list of texts (we could add the writings of Baha’u’llah, Short Course on Miracles, Gardner’s Book of Shadows and a ton of other NRMs too). What strikes me about (almost) all of them that I’ve read is that their English translations tend to ape biblical rhythms. The Christian bible is so intrinsically connected to what western culture thinks of as a sacred text (even if you don’t hold anything to be ‘sacred’ personally) that translators of other religion’s texts subconsciously take on its feel.

    So, out of the texts you list (and any others), do you have any favourites beyond the bible?

  2. @ Ian
    I love the mythological wealth of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana — not to mention they made my time in India, Indonesia and even parts of China more meaningful !

    I have found many Buddhist texts inspiringly insightful (but texts from that time are painful to read with all their redundancy and formula fit for oral tradition).

    For divination playfulness, the I-Ching offers so much that it acts like tofu and picks up the flavor of the reader. (boy, that is obtuse, isn’t it?)

    Concerning politics — politicians are influenced by the Bible and politicians affect us deeply (from abortion, gay politics, war, justice …) — pretty straight forward, nothing heavy.

  3. Ian

    I-Ching like Tofu – I like that. I’ve never read the I Ching – I really should

    Re politics – I keep forgetting you Americans are so embroiled in that 🙂 … we’re largely spared pseudo-‘biblical’ morality here in Europe.

    Yes, I have to agree the Mahabharata is one of my favorites too. The clever metaphors and imagery are quite masterful.

  4. Reading the I-Ching is tough. But THROWING the I-Ching is the way to get to know it. But it is like Jesus, you can only really get to know Jesus if you believe. I use to pursue the I-Ching with about 3/4 of a believer-mind so it was much more interesting to me. But you don’t “read” it, you use it to answer questions — it is a divination tool. I also had a Oriental Medical teacher (very wealthy Japanese man in Kyoto) who used it and we would discuss it. Best luck “reading” it. You don’t sound like you are at the stage of life to sacrifice rationality again enough to really appreciate the I-Ching ! Smile.

Please share your opinions!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s