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Friday, 1 June 2012

Atheist urges people to read the Bible

Richard Dawkins, the athiest writer, has been encouraging people to read their Bibles.

In The Guardian newspaper this week, he writes:

"Whatever else the Bible might be – and it really is a great work of literature – it is not a moral book and young people need to learn that important fact because they are very frequently told the opposite.... Not a bad way to find out what's in a book is to read it, so I say go to it."

Whatever other differences I might have with Dawkins (and I have a few), I think he puts his finger on something very significant: Very few people in modern-day Europe have really made an effort to read the Bible for themselves.

A couple of years ago I was speaking at the '10,000 for Iași' event in Romania and we had an evening devoted to the subject of "Why Trust The Bible?", which included an open Q&A session. Though people asked questions for almost an hour, what struck me was that their enquiries were all coming from a position of almost complete ignorance about the actual contents of the Christian scriptures.

When I am invited to speak at similar events these days, my talks and presentations often culminate in suggesting to people that they read one of the biographies of Jesus (the gospels) for themselves, and that they do so with an open mind. I sometimes say "reading this biography of Jesus won't answer all your questions, but it will help you ask better questions".

Unlike Dawkins, I think that reading the New Testament can unsettle people towards openness to God and not only away from it. There is something beautiful and compelling about the person of Jesus which disarms many of the conceptions of Christianity widely held within our culture.

One friend of mine recently read one of the Jesus biographies for the first time and told me that Jesus was nothing like he expected - he was strong, attractive, had a compelling character and real backbone about him. Nothing like the wimpy pastel-colored Jesus he had previously expected. He felt compelled to read more.

It's interesting to me that Dawkins, whose arguments' power depends - in my view - partially on the fact that his readers and listeners know little about actual teachings of the New Testament and are therefore susceptible to his misrepresentations of basic concepts such as 'faith', is so ready to vocally encourage people that they read it for themselves.

Perhaps one reason he can happily do so is his conviction, stated in the final line of his Guardian article, that few people will actually bother to do so.

Hopefully he'll turn out to be wrong.

4 comments:

  1. Funny thing I've noticed, that you've put your finger on there. I can often tell when an interlocutor's knowledge of the Bible and particularly concepts like "faith" comes mostly from the New Atheists, precisely because their definitions of certain concepts are so idiosyncratic and alien to the actual text of the Bible, or how people in the Church view Scripture and their own beliefs. It's almost like hearing America described by a Soviet politchik circa 1979, or some Brit's impression of the Irish, circia 1879. As Mortimer Adler might put it, they use the same words, but they have utterly failed to share the meanings, and thus we cannot (literally) come to terms.

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  2. Hey Bennett, thanks for your comment. Yeah, I think you're right - basic concepts do seems to get entirely redefined. I think 'faith' is the one that gets most abused - Christians use it to mean a well-founded trust, but New Atheists often use it to mean an anti-rational hope-against-hope. Much as I value apologetics, I think it has to go hand-in-hand with the simple explanation of core Christian beliefs. Sometimes I think we jump too quickly to say "this is why I believe it to be true" without first pausing to explain what "it" is.

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  3. 'Very few people in modern-day Europe have really made an effort to read the Bible for themselves.'

    This is very true. Many Christians can't even name the 4 Gospels.

    A recurrent theme in the stories of people who lost faith was that they decided to study the Bible deeply.

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  4. 'One friend of mine recently read one of the Jesus biographies for the first time and told me that Jesus was nothing like he expected - he was strong, attractive, had a compelling character and real backbone about him. '

    Jesus was also a very heavy sleeper.

    He managed to sleep in a tiny boat through a storm of such severity that experienced sailors were frightened for their lives, while the boat was being swamped.

    Most people don't even think about how implausible this is....

    (Of course, the whole story is a rewrite of a part of the story of Jonah, even down to some of the phrasing used)

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