I became an atheist at the Cathedral of Avila in Spain. Standing in the cathedral, staring at the gilded alter, I overheard one of my travel companions say: “Just think. While this was being built, millions of Europeans were starving to death.” It was a simple comment, not directed at me, but it inspired something inside me. I’m being melodramatic claiming that this insight caused me to become an atheist. What it did do, however, is bring latent doubts to conscious thought.
I was raised in the United Methodist Church. My grandmother was very pious, as was my Uncle Darrell. I think it is best to describe my parents as “Sunday Christians,” Christians who attend church regularly, but who observe few other religious rites. We said prayer at dinner time, and at bedtime–”I now lay me down to sleep…”–but we were not a family who sat around talking about The Bible or discussing our faith.
As to the Methodist practice, I was baptize as an infant, but when I entered my teenage years, it came time to confirm my beliefs. As it was explained to me at the time, baptism was God giving me his grace, while confirmation was my acceptance of that grace. For three or four months, I took weekly classes in Christianity and I attended a summer Bible camp. One Sunday at church, as an addition to the regular service, the minister held the confirmation ritual. Six to ten of us were confirmed.
That was when I was fifteen or sixteen. After that ritual, I gave little thought to religion or my faith. Though I wouldn’t describe myself as an atheist for two or three more years, I believe even at that time, even as I was going through the confirmation process, I lacked belief in God. In truth, I never thought about the existence of God. People I respected–my parents, my grandparents, my siblings, my uncles and aunts, my teachers, my minister, and even my friends–believed. Since they never questioned God’s existence, why should I?
When I was seventeen, almost eighteen, at the Avila Cathedral, I overheard the comment about how millions were dying in poverty as this ostentatious church was being built, and the comment gave me permission to think about faith, about religion, about Christianity, and about my beliefs. For the next few weeks, as our high school group toured Europe, visiting several more cathedrals, I pondered these issues. By the end of the tour, I realized that I did not believe in God and that I have not believed in him for years.
Why read The Bible? Since I’m an atheist, why should I bother to read any religious text? This is not, as some might suspect, an effort to recover my lost faith. As every atheist knows: Nothing inspires disbelief faster than a thorough and critical reading of The Bible. I am reading The Bible in order to offer a particular point of view about what it contains, the point of view of a sceptic. For centuries, the faithful have been telling us what this book says, why it “proves” the existence of God, and why one should live by its precepts. We now live in an America where a growing number of believers uses The Bible as justification to reactionary political views that are not only repugnant to me but also dangerous to our democracy, a democracy founded upon the separation of church and state. It seems time to offer a counterpoint.
For this read, I chose the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which is the recommended Bible by the United Methodist Church. I’m reading the Kindle edition of this translation, published by Harper Bibles. Since it is the traditional practice, I will treat The Bible, Holy Bible, and Bible as book titles, capitalizing and italicizing them, as I would any book title. When talking about the god of Abraham, I will also capitalize God, as if that were his name. This is also for respect of traditional practice.
As I read and write about The Bible, I will analyze and criticize it. I will seek to separate historical facts from religious fables. I will offer my own interpretations about the various stories contained in The Bible, comparing and contrasting what they mean to the faithful with what they mean to me. It is not my intention to convert believers into atheists or to offend anyone, but I know many believers will be offended by what I write. As I have said, I’m offering an interpretation of their sacred book, The Holy Bible, from the point of view of a nonbeliever.
It is my intention to inspire thought. Socrates has said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To this insight, I will add: The unexamined religion is not worth believing. No one should hold any belief–religous, political, or other–just because it was what his parents believed. If the reader has never considered his beliefs and why he holds them, I hope these blog postings will give him permission to examine those beliefs, as that overheard observation in the Avila Cathedral had granted me permission to examine mine.