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The Toxic Creed That Unites New Atheists and Televangelists: Don't Bother With the Bible

10/07/2013 14:14 BST | Updated 09/09/2013 10:12 BST
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What can televangelists and new atheists have in common? Apart from the hyperbole and the cheap shots and the infuriating sense of certainty, that is... For me, they are also too often united in encouraging an unthinking dismissiveness of the Bible.

I'm sure you can picture what I mean: the sharp-suited preacher who slams home point after point about 'what God wants for your life', waving a Bible around for added rhetorical drama, without actually referring to its contents once. Or the sceptical polemicist (or keyboard warrior, perhaps) who reels out lazy clichés like 'what sort of idiot would pay attention to the scribblings of bronze age goatherders (lol amirite guize)?!' Both focus on soundbites that are designed to avoid, rather than encourage, engagement with the text.

(Of course, this is by no means true of everyone who might be put in these categories: Richard Dawkins, for example, is a keen advocate of Bible reading; one can't imagine Billy Graham doing a half-hour televised preach without digging into Scripture).

The problem comes when people endorse reaching a conclusion over-against exploring the source material. It's promoting ignorance: 'don't bother to investigate the Bible for yourself, just hurry up and agree with me'. Promoting ignorance is always patronising and often dangerous.

I find it a bit scary how 'sticky' some of these ignorance-fuelled preconceptions can be. To have no opinion on the Bible because you've never read it is fine - in fact, it's an exciting opportunity to go adventuring. But to not engage with Scripture because you're content to unquestioningly parrot someone else's assertions is dismaying.

For example, a 2012 Theos report summarised research showing that 82% of UK adults believed the Bible to be either a useful book of guidance (37%), the divinely inspired word of God (26%) or beautiful literature (19%), with 11% considering it 'an irrelevant and dangerous collection of ancient myths'. And yet, in the same survey, 61% of people admitted to 'never' reading the Bible. That means 6 out of 10 people have formed a pretty strong opinion about a hugely significant text without actually engaging with it - or at least probably not since a fleeting encounter during a school RE lesson or friend's wedding.

By contrast, take Penn Jillette. He's a prety hardened atheist, and claims it was reading the Bible that got him there. That, I can respect. I happen to disagree with his reading of Scripture but, fair play, he has considered it for himself. I'd be interested to talk with him about his take on the Bible because at least we'd be having an informed conversation, rather than just slinging empty-headed catchphrases back and forth.

The Bible is a remarkable thing, and all sorts of people, with all sorts of worldviews, would agree that it's vitally important not to be ignorant of it. Happily, if you can read this article (online, in English) you can read the Bible; it's freely available online in loads of different versions and languages; you can listen to it as well. That means we can do better than lazy polemic. Try an open-minded and even-handed engagement with Scripture. You might be surprised by what you find. At the very least, you'll be more informed. But don't just take my word for it. Go explore!