Since my deconversion I have heard it repeated over and over. In atheist circles from YouTube to Reddit, it is the most overplayed trope: "the quickest route to atheism is reading the Bible." I had always taken this as a fact, and further extrapolated that it was of better use as kindling than as any literary work. I had read the Bible when I was much younger, and while it didn't kill my faith, I do remember being blindsided by its content. It's thick with misogyny and xenophobia, exaltations of seriously immoral behavior, and still it manages to be boring -- to an overzealous sixteen year old, anyway. Now, after a recent rereading of the ancient scripture, I have to question the theory that the Bible is poisonous to faith. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Bible is some of the greatest literature mankind has produced.
See, I am an atheist through and through, but I really love religious lore. Truthfully, I love adventure cartoons, but in the words of my Kierkegaardian friend, "The Bible is an awesome comic book." Fire raining down from the skies destroying whole cities; supernatural beings saving God's chosen from mobs and slow death and a roaring furnace; the rise and fall of the chosen nation in frustrating, excruciating detail. Smack in the middle of it is an erotic poem the makes absolutely no mention of God, and then God makes his big appearance as a helpful if not eccentric drifter. There is philosophy that rivals its Eastern contemporaries in timeless relevance and poetry that is beautiful even today. A philosopher I know even said to me "those writers had genius," and I think I only appreciate it now, having deconverted and read the alternatives. It's a shame so many people take this book so seriously because it really is an amazing read.
Over the Spring, I took a Bible as Literature course with a hymn writer, a doctor of divinity, and a whole slew of Catholics, Unitarians, and undefinable believers. Many of my classmates struggled with needless and confusing stories, such as the Levite's concubine in Judges, God's compensation to Job, and basically everything from Leviticus through Second Kings, but no one lost their faith. Besides me, there was one other atheist in the class, and due to my self-identifying as a "post-theist" as well as my English Major tendency to indefinitely suspend my disbelief, the rest of the class thought I was a vague theist until the very end. Despite wildly differing backgrounds and irreconcilable interpretations, we never had a fight, never an awkward moment. We understood each other and worked off one another, and while I think we all left more secure in our own beliefs, our edges were rounded off.
Truth is, I liked the Bible so much that it nearly brought me back. I had been really angry at Christianity and the Bible since my deconversion. For the first 20 years of my life, I took my Episcopalian upbringing about as seriously as one can at that age. It was a liberal church, and God was a friendly dad. I had been head acolyte and a lay minister, which meant I could serve you wine and it was still blood. I would go to my pastor's rectory after school and discuss theology with her, and for a decent period of time, I even wanted to go to seminary. My eventual deconversion had nothing to do with figuring out evolution or making gay friends or discovering the existence of jerks like Fred Phelps. I found it impossible to reconcile the image of a being that has the movements of every mote of dust planned out with the indefatigably random and bewildering unfolding of my own life, the planet, and the universe before me. I didn't want to do it, it was an Occam's Razor thing, automatic and unchangeable. Either there was a being in the sky with a seriously convoluted plan to achieve something we can't understand, or it was all made up in an ancient effort to comfort ourselves, the only sentient beings in a cruel and lonely landscape.
I didn't choose to believe this, it was the only reasonable conclusion my brain could reach. I've heard deconversion compared to mourning a loved one, but I don't really think that's appropriate. When a friend dies, the pain comes from knowing that no more memories of yours will involve that person. Plans are made to commemorate the dead's lasting influence on so many lives and, in expansive and subtle ways, the world has to adjust for the sudden void, a grand acknowledgement of that person's former, but definite existence. When you come to the conclusion that you don't believe in God, the realization isn't that you don't have God anymore, but that he was never there in the first place. You, like a sucker, have been throwing your money away and talking to yourself like it was doing something helpful, Sunday after Sunday and then some, giving credence to the less savory adherents to Abraham's God. It's truly one of the most opprobrious experiences I can remember in my lifetime, and what made it so scary was that I knew there was no going back. I was inevitably atheist.
But the world didn't end. And I didn't really feel that different. In fact, if anything, I felt a bit lighter. I began to see my place in things, as the instigator of small chaos and as a cog in a giant clockwork. Things that I thought were coming to me became things I started reaching for. This is not to say that people can't motivate with God, the art and charity that pious people have given us throughout history are truly awe-inspiring and need no excusing. I only mean that if the brain is a fleshy computer then I think God is a program, and some OS's just aren't compatible with it. No single book is going to change that in either direction. It's a silly thought, as if people are incapable of entertaining ideas without adopting them.
Even as a believer, I didn't understand why God provided meaning to one's life. Was it because there were only two possible outcomes? Life is a game show? Nothing in reality indicated to me that the smartest being in anywhere ever was keeping score on such an expansive and petty level. That our universe could be a science experiment, or a computer program, or the unknowable workings of a greater being are all so limited to me. Atheism provided a path towards being okay with not knowing, and enabled me to stop worrying about it altogether. There will never be a reason to stop searching because we will never run out of things to discover. As the billboards say, stop worrying about it and enjoy yourself. Being more concerned with knowing the truth than feeling good about it, I am more than satisfied with evolutionary morality and Big Bang cosmology. The more evidence we amass that indicates existence is a giant accident, that we forged our way from a dust cloud to the moon, the better I will feel about all of it. It makes the whole experience feel all the more extraordinary.
I get it though, I do. Not in a condescending "Oh I wish I could believe in something like that" way. I mean when I read Exodus 3:14 and I see in the footnotes that YHWH is derived from the Hebrew verb "to be," that YHWH is not a noun but a verb, I know what that means. The metaphor of God creating through speaking and Jesus' being "the Word" is so poignant because language is that important to humanity. It is what makes us unique in the animal kingdom, everything from agriculture to the internet owes its existence to language. I really do understand all of it. I just don't think that it validates the whole Bible because I can make an intellectual connection with a long-dead author. That's the miracle of books, that's what makes reading so thoroughly profound. I can do that with the Tao Te Ching and the Epic of Gilgamesh, too. I can do it with Howl and the Sound and the Fury. What the Bible has in common with these books is not their revelations of the divine, but what they reveal about what it means to be human.
Reading the Bible as literature prevented me from taking the words literally, and in doing so helped me to end my anger at the passages depicting great violence and clearly outdated morality. The more one learns, the more one sees that no idea is original (to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 1:9), and so trying to credit any one source as the epicenter of knowledge is as futile as it is ill-advised. You risk losing your sense of humor about it, and yourself. And isn't that what we have now? A bunch of people who refuse to admit that their ideas might be wrong? Honestly, I think we believe the same thing but, in the words of Albert Einstein, "What separates us are only intellectual props." If you really believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, how can you properly live by it without knowing the language for yourself? If you think the Bible is a useless stack of fairy tales, how can you denigrate it without examples of its obsolescence? And absent any spiritual motivations, how can you justify not knowing about the foundation of Western culture? Stop making excuses. Read a book a day, read about the books and their individual histories and translations. Grant these hidebound desert-dwellers the right to be wrong and I think you'll see what I did: Not a God trying to reach his creation, but a man trying to tell his distant ancestors the truth as best as he knows how.