New Atheists on Genesis 1-11 and 19

Abstract: The New Atheists have repeatedly denounced the Bible as dangerously false, suppressive to scientific inquiry, and promoting problematic or even abhorrent moral values. The Genesis 1-11 and 19 narratives on the Creation, the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah are among their favorite targets. Is it possible to read these texts more rigorously, responsibly, and charitably than the New Atheists have done?  I think so, and discuss some possibilities here.

This summer I had the opportunity to publish an article with the Romanian Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, an up-and-coming refereed resource for inter-religious scholars and practitioners. My dissertation work is on the New Atheists, and publishing this piece was exciting for me, as is introducing the journal to SoFers as a valuable potential forum for their scholarship.

In my article, I probe the entire corpus of published New Atheist books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens for their polemics and criticism of the book of Genesis, which within the Hebrew and Christian canons remains among the most controversial books in the Bible not only for New Atheists, but in historic and contemporary public and religious discourse.

The New Atheists see much, though perhaps not all of the Bible as dangerously false, suppressive to scientific inquiry, and promoting problematic or even abhorrent moral values. Must Genesis and other challenging parts of the Bible be read this way, and are the New Atheists being responsible in their interpretations? Are there more rigorous ways of understanding these texts that might mitigate or even reverse New Atheist criticisms? I think so, and discuss my reasons here.

Yet I am still curious to hear from SoFers. Is this a conversation worth having? Does exploring and contesting the angry and uncharitable renderings of New Atheists and others regarding sacred texts have value for inter-religious dialogue? What are the implications for hermeneutics, theology, and theodicy?

Are New Atheists and other hostile critics better “ignored” by religious believers who prefer politer, more tactful interlocutors?  I look forward to your thoughts wisdom, as well as any comments on my article.

Image by m.khajoo, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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7 thoughts on “New Atheists on Genesis 1-11 and 19

  1. Thank you for your question, Ben.

    My answer is that believers should neither ignore or take lightly the challenges of the New Atheists. After all, this movement, like all movements, is a response, a push-back if you will, against centuries of religious dominance.

    Socrates is reported to say that “A life unexamined is not worth living.” I might extend that to say, a faith untested is not worth believing. What if these texts mean precisely what they say? Apologists could very well dilute these verses with so much modernity that they undermine the cultural and religious milieu of their day.

    My question in turn is, should we apologize and over-boil these texts to make ourselves more comfortable until their original flavor disappears, or face them head-on and accept them for what they are?

    For me, our so-called sacred texts are not sacred because they are from the mouth or mind of the divine, but because they represent humanity reaching for and pushing beyond the limits of imagination and understanding. Let’s not sugar-coat or apologize for their efforts, as abhorrent as they may be. Why not learn from them and reach for greater horizons?

  2. It seems to me that the New Atheists push their agenda with the same assumptions as the Fundamentalist readings. The inexpressible truth is apophatic. So the Torah of passages like Psalms 1 and 15 proceeds from a negative. How does one learn to read and hear without ‘losing the flavour’ of the salt in the text?

    In my youth it was the God of the gaps and the gaps were diminishing. God had nowhere to go. But God is not bound by either where or when. The ‘One who teaches humanity knowledge’ (Kimhi, Commentary on the Psalms) still knows how to open eyes and awaken ears.

    In my youth I loved Bertrand Russel – his necessary critique of Christianity has much truth in it. I have found his followers loud rather than effective. Yet Russell and Whitehead did not know Godel’theorem when they published their Principia Mathematica.

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  3. Ben,

    I read your article and appreciated it. Although I do not have time to get into detail, your invested interest in keeping the Bible “good and moral” comes through quite strongly. We all have invested interests, but I still cannot see how one can glean moral lessons from the biblical text (even if taken metaphorically, poetically, etc.). Even in the “nice” interpretations of the text, you still have a God judging and demanding obedience. No matter how you spin it, this will not bode well with atheists. The New Atheists could use a good lesson in biblical studies and criticism, but they are at least consistent in pointing out just how difficult and reason-bending it is to derive morals from a God who is depicted as jealous, wrathful, and generally exclusionary. We are talking about a God who, as Hitchens points out, is jealous, short of temper, and inconsistent. He notes that it makes more sense to think that the people who wrote about this God were actually jealous, short of temper, and inconsistent. Also, many believers out there do not “loosen their theology” to include evolution, the biblical “days” as “ages,” and a localized flood. They believe that Noah’s Ark somehow managed to keep the polar bears cold.

    In short, I don’t know how much we can hermeneutically squeeze out a good ethic from what appear to be very unethical texts. Just my opinion.


  4. Origen of Alexandria (185-254 CE) said, “who is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?” If a late 2nd-early 3rd century CE Christian theologian could have this insight why are we still having these debates today? Of course the Genesis writers anthropomorphized and projected their own short comings on God. But Genesis tells the Jews creation is good, why there is suffering and discord and assures the Jews that God will not abandon them. It’s a story, not modern history. That is something that neither the angry atheist or fundamentalist Christians seem to understand. There is absolutely no reason a postmodern Christian can not glean the essential truths from sacred scripture and accept scientific facts, evolution and the newest theories of cosmology. And I think we need to maintain a dialogue with atheists and agnostics for greater mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence.

  5. Andrew, Bob, Kile, and Charles,

    Thank you for your comments. I wanted to wait a while to respond, and still welcome further thoughts, also on the linked article itself.

    @Bob: New Atheists apparently ridicule Apophatic folk too. Do you think any theology might meet with their approval, and to what extent? cf. Jerry Coyne’s post on Dawkins’ website: How might you respond to New Atheists criticizing Apophatic theology?

    @Andew and Kile, one of the reasons I wrote the article was to get at what the texts mean precisely (more precisely than the New Atheists do) using leading resources, which did confirm that God in Genesis appears to exhibit considerably more ethical nuance than New Atheists and others often give God in Genesis credit for. Of course, some will object to God as judge generally and whether God’s judgment should ever involve death particularly. But one might extend this to ask if a God who never judges is more or less ethical than a God who does? To some readers, it would seem far more unjust if God forever fails or neglects to judge evil / injustice.

    There are also elements in many religious traditions that assert that God can take human life (and it would seem that God does allows us all to experience death at some point, leaving aside potential exemptions for the likes of Elijah and Enoch), but human beings are not to take their own or other human beings’ lives outside of self-defense or state-administered capital punishment. This, of course, opens up more lines of argument regarding whether capital punishment is ever justified, etc.. But I think that many believers would assert SOME actions might be ethical for God to do (including various forms of judging) but are not ethical for people to do.

  6. Well – they can have their joke about the via negativa. It’s not the end. The Psalms stand against the senseless (Psalm 14). The negative Torah of Psalm 1 exactly corresponds to the scoffing in the link you mention.
    וּבְמֹושַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָֽׁב
    and in the seat of the scornful does not sit.

    It’s not a seat that I need to enthrone myself in.

    The positive is also in the question of Psalm 15 ‘who will dwell in your tent’?
    הֹולֵךְ תָּמִים וּפֹעֵל צֶדֶק וְדֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבֹֽו

    One walking complete
    and working righteousness
    and speaking truth in his heart

    If one takes the Holy seriously, one will not be disappointed.

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