On Refusing to Believe in “Atheism”

24 11 2009

In addition to having possibly rankled a few people (to whom I apologise, if my remarks were misconstrued), a recent post demonstrated what some mistakenly thought was an atheist perspective. As justifying myself in the comments thread was growing wearisome, I have decided instead to present my opinions on atheism in a separate post. While I do not believe in God, and am happy to publicise the fact, my being in agreement with some of the conclusions of this group does not make me a member. As my attitudes towards the biblical literature and my attitudes towards disbelief are so intimately connected, I would like to make a comment as regards my feelings for the former.

I purchased a book at the SBL conference in New Orleans yesterday: David A. Bernat, Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Priestly Tradition (SBL: Atlanta, 2009). He cites a scholar named Geller in his introduction: “Geller observes that the biblical authors, unlike their Greek contemporaries, did not articulate doctrine through systematic, philosophical discourse. Rather, they gave voice to ideology and theology through narrative, law, and other modes of literary expression. Consequently, the extraction of meaning from the Hebrew Scriptures is an exegetical enterprise requiring close reading that is sensitive to the lineaments of the text, and proceeds step by step within it” (4). That last part, in italics, is his quote from Geller’s Sacred Enigmas: Literary Religion in the Hebrew Bible.

That passage sums up beautifully exactly why I love the Tanakh. It is quite unlike other corpora of literature in the nature of the analysis that it requires. Given how heavily meaning is dependent upon cotext, and given how reliant that cotext is upon broader historical and literary context (not to mention the elusive and subjective nature of any attempt to establish the “meaning” of such contexts!), the pursuit of biblical information is fraught with all of the difficulties of other fields, yet compounded by the fact that it is an ideologically determined corpus in every respect.

Those of us who wish to promote an interest in the biblical literature must reckon with two phenomena. The first is the growing resentment of theology, which perceives in the Bible an intellectual enemy to be rejected. The second is theology itself, which perceives in the Bible the words of a creator. These two perspectives are not so dissimilar, for they both commence with presuppositions as regards the origin of the universe and they both ascribe meaning to the biblical literature beyond what the corpus deserves.

As I once described elsewhere, in a post that was intended to be frivolous, there are two different ways of construing non-belief in divinity. The first concerns the existence of God. That is to say, it suggests that the main protagonist of the Hebrew Bible does not, nor did not, exist. His actions belong in the realm of fiction, and his expressed opinions are the opinions of those who composed the text. The second, however, concerns the existence of god(s). That is, the existence or non-existence of a prime mover that initiated the process of creation, itself culminating in the establishment of the universe. While the first question is theological, the second question is entirely scientific. What is more, while I heartily add my own small voice to the list of those who disbelieve in God, I shrug my shoulders as regards belief in the latter. Did the universe have a creator? Not only do I not know, but I quite sincerely could not care less. Abstract speculation on that score, while it might prove entertaining as a diversion, is a waste of brain power – as can generally be evidenced by those who occupy themselves with the question.

Against the theologians, who profess a(n, admittedly qualified) belief in the biblical literature and in the existence of its chief character, I have nothing to say. It is their prerogative to think whatever they please about the books that they read and, while I may find some of their scholarship dubious, I am happily able to disregard those texts that do not appeal to me. This is the democracy of academia, in which no opinion should be overtly privileged over another, and within which all perspectives possess the right to be aired. My concern is not with convincing theologians of my perspective, for it is their right to think and to publish as they see fit. My concern, however, is with the ranks of unaffiliated individuals, whose antipathy towards the biblical literature is fuelled by misconceptions.

There are a large number of reasons as to why people may not enjoy the Bible, and a number of reasons as to why they might find it threatening. I would like to focus on one issue in particular, as I feel that it constitutes a major obstacle to the enjoyment of the biblical literature. Those who have been raised on reading texts in translation don’t appreciate the allure of Hebrew and Aramaic. Those who choose to embrace the Bible in English must reckon with its banality, and it is no surprise that many forms of religiosity are found, by those who were not raised on them, to be so very insipid. I’ve read the Bible in English, and considered it frustrating to the extreme. People who treat it as a source of intellectual enlightenment need to go back to school, and those who profess it to be great literature have evidently never encountered Milton, Shakespeare or Keats. The antiquated thinking of its authors shows through on almost every page and it is difficult to account for the book’s tremendous popularity. In short, I am not in the least surprised that atheism is such a global phenomenon.

What these people fail to realise is that much of what fails to work in English is oftentimes splendid in Hebrew. The economy of expression makes succinct the circumlocutory and the semantic indeterminacy opens avenues of investigation which, when coupled with considerations that concern the setting of composition, turns banalities into triumphant yearnings of the human spirit. What is more, those who read a text in their native tongue will never appreciate the subjectivity of their own reading, nor the full weight of all the intellectual baggage that they carry to the task. Those who must labour with a foreign grammar, and the parsing of words in a tongue long dead, will reckon with such crucial phenomena every day.

This is why I don’t subscribe to atheism. As a movement, atheism professes the non-existence of a divine being who interacts with creation. As stressed above, the existence of such a divine being is either a scientific question, the contours of which do not interest me in the slightest, or a question regarding the literalness of the biblical literature. This is a moot point, for any appropriately engaging analysis of the Hebrew Bible will reveal the fact that reception of the text is not commensurate with a belief in its literal truth. Furthermore, I can speak for Judaism when I say that religious affiliation can be broad enough to subsume those who do not subscribe to the tenets of that religion. While I cannot in faith speak for Christianity or Islam, or any other religion on the planet, it would be a sorry situation indeed if they were so rigidly defined as to exclude members who do not profess their creed.

Dawkins, the contemporary champion of disbelief, has never read the Bible in Hebrew. Indeed, it is doubtful whether or not he has even read it in English. As a result, his attempts at demonstrating the banality of the biblical literature are, in turn, banal. This is my message to “atheists”: your beliefs concerning what you call “God” do not concern me in the slightest, but your opinions concerning the Bible are lamentably misinformed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not caring about the biblical literature, but if you aspire to the singular honour of hating it, I suggest that you learn how to read it first.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

15 responses

24 11 2009
clayboy » Simon Holloway and the Humpty-Dumpty approach to atheism

[…] Holloway and the Humpty-Dumpty approach to atheism Simon Holloway posts a very interesting piece on why he doesn’t regard himself, or wish to be regarded by others as an atheist. In the […]

24 11 2009
Bob MacDonald

I love some of your turns of phrase : the semantic indeterminacy opens … turns banalities into triumphant yearnings of the human spirit. This is so true of the speeches of Job in contrast to the hearsay of his comforters.
‘The antiquated thinking of its authors shows through on almost every page …’ I have been reading the REB on Ruth and its dynamic equivalence completely fails to capture the beautiful repetitions of sound in the Hebrew story telling.

The native English speaker reading an English translation is isolated from the decisions of the translator and therefore subject to both translator and reader arbitrary or hidden decisions many of which support a religious or political status quo rather than opening the close reader to a truly human lament and longing.

Still – my longing to see what was known comes from the knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus – otherwise I would not have bothered. For what it’s worth.

I came here at clayboy’s stimulus – just another sentient bit of humus

24 11 2009
Simon Holloway

Thanks, Bob. My background is a little different to yours: it was my interest in the biblical literature that led me to become religious, once upon a time, and not the other way around. Your point, nonetheless, is a good one. There are so many different avenues by which one might make their way into the arena of biblical scholarship! One of the things that I love about these conferences is the fact that you meet so many different people, whose paths, while divergent, intersect at this one crucial juncture.

24 11 2009
Simon Gardner

“Dawkins, the contemporary champion of disbelief, has never read the Bible in Hebrew. Indeed, it is doubtful whether or not he has even read it in English.”

It is not the slightest bit “doubtful”. Prof Dawkins had the standard English public school [ie private] education of his generation and it would have been difficult for him to avoid reading the bible. It is quite clear from what he has said and written that he has a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the damn thing.

I have no doubt that’s why he knows what complete drivel it is.

25 11 2009
Gareth Hughes

Dear Simon, I like your Syriac manuscript banner!

I can completely understand your point of view. After all, atheism is getting far too trendy nowadays. With all those atheist buses and billboards, who would want to associate with such tawdriness?

You state that you do not believe in the existence of the God of Tanakh, but are agnostic on the existence of cosmic divine principle, or some such. It is a so-called ‘positive agnosticism’ (to borrow Mark Vernon’s term), in that one might affirm an intuition of something greater yet also hold that speculation on it is inadequate. It seems for you that this intuition is stimulated by reading Tanakh in Hebrew and through the practice of Judaism. Then you, like so many, find Dawkins hollow, and the tide carries you back to a kind of positive agnosticism that acknowledges certain ‘spiritual experiences’ while seeing no point in speculating on their cause. It makes total sense here.

27 11 2009
DuckPhup

This affair is a lot simpler than you make it out to be. There are books of ‘god-stories’. There are people who run around regurgitating scriptural bits and bon mots from these ‘god-stories’, and slogans derived from them, in an attempt to get OTHER people to internalize the conviction that these god-stories are ‘true’. Unfortunately, these god-stories are NOT accompanied by anything even faintly resembling proof or compelling evidence… or even CREDIBLE evidence… and it happens that there are SOME small percentage of people who are NOT stupid and gullible enough to ‘believe’ these god-stories, in the absence of those things. This skepticism… this lack of stupidity and gullibility… earns them the label ‘atheist’. That is IT… that is ALL… that is the ONLY thing which defines ‘atheist’.

SOME of these people who lack the necessary degree of stupidity and gullibility… lets call them ‘sane and rational’ people… think that it is a bad idea to abandon the field of public discourse, and leave the steering of the ship of humanity and the world in the hands of the stupid and gullible, who are bent upon leading us down a path that depends directly from the myths, superstitions, fables, fairy-tales and fantastical delusions of an ignorant gaggle of Bronze Age fishermen and peripatetic, militant, marauding, murdering, genocidal goat-herders.

It is best to think of Dawkins and the like as pursuing a SANE PEOPLE agenda, rather than an ‘atheist’ agenda.

27 11 2009
Simon Holloway

In some respects, DuckPhup, I appreciate where you are coming from, but you need to remember that atheists are defining themselves nowadays as well, and so it won’t do to have you define them on their behalf. Would Dawkins agree with you that his atheism is as simple as you have suggested? His rejection of religiosity is not restricted to his emphatic assertion that there is no god, but also entails his rejection of the Bible as a literary artifact worthy of ones occupation. His obsession with the amorality of stories like the “concubine at Gibeah” (Judges 19) and the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19) are poor readings of narratives, the authors of which are expressly lamenting the wickedness of both the townspeople and the protagonists.

As you have suggested, a belief in the Bible’s inerrancy requires reducing the text to a series of pithy sayings. The actual fabric of the narratives is noticeably fictitious (or at least freighted with fiction) to anybody not raised on its “message”. What is more, the barbarous nature of some of its mandates necessitates continual justification in order to maintain their divinity. My point is merely that enjoying the biblical literature need have nothing to do with “believing” in it, but so long as atheists continue to openly disparage and reject it, I could never swell their numbers with my own small support.

30 11 2009
Nooj

What about disparaging and rejecting certain portions of the Bible?

3 12 2009
Jordan Wilson

Let me get this straight. Trying to figure out if the universe had a Creator is a waste of brain power. But spending one’s life studying a book one doesn’t believe in spiritually is a life well spent?

Classic!

3 12 2009
Simon Holloway

Sorry, but I don’t agree with you, Jordan. Should a scholar of Beowulf feel compelled to derive spiritual meaning from the text in order to give his/her life meaning? What about scholars of Shakespeare, or non-Muslim specialists in the Qur’an? Almost all of the literature that I love falls into the category of “things in which I do not literally believe”, and those who restrict themselves to texts that do provide them with spiritual truths have probably only a very small bookshelf.

13 12 2009
slaveofone

>> The first concerns the existence of God. . . . The second, however, concerns the existence of god(s). <> Abstract speculation on that score, while it might prove entertaining as a diversion, is a waste of brain power – as can generally be evidenced by those who occupy themselves with the question. <> People who treat it as a source of intellectual enlightenment need to go back to school, and those who profess it to be great literature have evidently never encountered Milton, Shakespeare or Keats. <> those who read a text in their native tongue will never appreciate the subjectivity of their own reading, nor the full weight of all the intellectual baggage that they carry to the task. <<

I don't think this necessarily will be the case (indeed, many conclusions of the past such as the Documentary Hypothesis, were directly influenced and driven by subjective inclinations and biases of perspective like the evolutionary theory of religion and such, which were entirely taken for granted by those who espoused them) but I agree with the basic premise. Hebrew is wonderful. Reading the Hebraic texts in their own language and struggling to give them meaning in a way that makes sense in my own language and world-view, which is so entirely other than it, is challenging and rewarding in a way that no English engagement with the text can ever be.

any appropriately engaging analysis of the Hebrew Bible will reveal the fact that reception of the text is not commensurate with a belief in its literal truth.

Well said.

13 12 2009
slaveofone

Oops, I seem to have fallen victim to a little unintentional bowdlerizing. Here’s a better one:

– “The first concerns the existence of God. . . . The second, however, concerns the existence of god(s).”

I find it fascinating how you make use of the capitalization… Anything else might be god or a god, but the one in the Israelite texts gets the capital letter. Why the singling out of the Israelite deity YHWH as deserving the capital but not any other? Or would you lump any other deity that one can discern from a text as deserving the capital? Is the honor of the capital limited to the Israelite texts, a divine character in any text, or to something else?

– “Abstract speculation on that score, while it might prove entertaining as a diversion, is a waste of brain power – as can generally be evidenced by those who occupy themselves with the question.”

Actually, I find it is foundational to a lot of things—whether one is going with choice number one or choice number two. For instance, for those who happen to live in the United States, our founding documents are based upon the premise that a Creator (with a capital, although they seemed to capitalize a lot of things back then) has endowed humankind with natural, inalienable freedoms and rights. If a citizen of the U.S. does not believe in a “Creator” (of whatever kind) then they cannot agree with this principle of law and governance upon which their own nation stands. There is nothing in a non-creator driven or produced evolution that says a person of any evolutionary stage or development should or can have a right or a freedom inherent in their very existence. Rather, a non-creator driven or produced evolution says that we evolved to the places we are because we were better suited than others and because we were able to survive and adapt better than others. Should we fail to adapt or should we fail to be better suited to survival, evolution says we will be replaced by those who don’t fail in that regard. A “Creator” basis says no other person can take the place of another’s rights or freedoms no matter how more evolved or better suited or more fit or whatever they are. The results of these two are dramatic and will have effects in our actions in the world which are far more than mere abstract speculation. One doesn’t need to look at Pakistan to see the truth of that—where by behaving as if there is no creator or by behaving as if there is may mean the difference between life and death. It will effect how we view and work justice, how we understand and act on the differences or similarities between ourselves and other people or people groups, and many other things that create and move society, culture, and personal interaction. One of my heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr., only stood up against injustice of his African-American sisters and brothers in the U.S. because he believed in this principle. Had MLK considered there to be no Creator endowing all humankind with natural, inalienable rights and freedoms, he would have never took his stand, and my nation would be a very different place. I would even be so bold as to say that the recent activity by my own government in terms of torturing peoples labeled “terrorists,” holding them indefinitely without charge, and doing things to humiliate and degrade them which has nothing to do with making restitution for the wrongs that they have not even been charged with, is due to a lack of this principle of inherent, inalienable right and freedom that exists in all humankind because of a Creator.

– “People who treat it as a source of intellectual enlightenment need to go back to school, and those who profess it to be great literature have evidently never encountered Milton, Shakespeare or Keats.”

I wonder if you have severely undercut your own argument, considering some of these very people found “intellectual enlightenment” in biblical texts and their own literature was inspired in one place or another by the biblical texts themselves. I also wonder how it is possible that you could say any of the great intellectuals of the past thousands of years that dramatically changed society for the better because they found “intellectual enlightenment” in texts you say they shouldn’t have need to go back to school. I suppose Isaac Newton was brainless in your estimation.

– “those who read a text in their native tongue will never appreciate the subjectivity of their own reading, nor the full weight of all the intellectual baggage that they carry to the task.”

I don’t think this necessarily will be the case… (this is where my response post really begins)

13 12 2009
Simon Holloway

I use the initial capital when the noun is a proper noun and I drop the initial capital when it is not. Hence, I would never write something like “the Creator”, but am quite comfortable writing “gods”. I would capitalise the first letter of “Thor” and “Zeus” and “Yahweh” and “Diana”, and would likewise capitalise the first letter of “God” when it is functioning as the name of a character in the Bible.

As for your point about Newton, the man was pushed by his father towards a career in the church, which he rejected in favour of a life of science. On what grounds are you suggesting that I would accuse him of brainlessness? For the record, I have also not accused of brainlessness those people who do opt for a life of religion. I suggested that preoccupation with certain issues (is there a god? Does the universe have a soul? etc) is a waste of brain power, and that this is generally evidenced by those people who are obsessed with such topics. Don’t take my word for it: go down to the local pub or the surf club and you can talk to them yourself. I am sure that many religious people don’t fall into this category, but many religious people accept their premises and move on. Wasting time with speculation as to their veracity is precisely that.

Finally, my critique of the Bible’s banality was a critique of the Bible in English, not in Hebrew/Aramaic. I would not devote so much attention to this text, were I truly under the impression that it is a waste of time. While Shakespeare and Milton might have derived great inspiration from the words of the King James Version, they were both fortunate as to have been able to compose literature superior to it in every way. For one reason, unlike the translators of the KJV, they weren’t constrained to follow foreign syntax.

14 01 2010
Nooj

I’m going to speak as an atheist. I personally think the Bible is a great piece of literature. I love books, I love works of art, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I get chills when Abraham responds to God’s call with “Here I am” in the Akedah passage, or that I cried when Esau cried to Jacob for his lost blessing (in fact Genesis is my favourite portion of the Bible).

But there are portions of the Bible that I disparage and reject, and that’s because they honestly repulse and confuse me. Joshua oesn’t impinge upon my consideration of the Bible as great literature, but it does make me ‘hate’ the text that I am reading. And when many atheists attack the Bible, they often do so on that moral front.

26 02 2010
Johan Richter

“Would Dawkins agree with you that his atheism is as simple as you have suggested?”

I would be very surprised if he did not, I have never heard any atheist claim that atheism involves more than the disbelief in gods. Clearly Dawkins anti-religion views involve more than just atheism.

I also do not quite agree with your reading of Dawkins view on the Bible. He definitely thinks it contains some very immoral teachings. Perhaps he is engaging in poor readings in some places. I, no expert, did find a few places where his writings on the New Testament was sloppy so I would not find it very surprising.

But I do not see that he rejects it as a piece of literature, certainly not as part of his anti-religion campaign. (The value of the Bible as fiction being irrelevant to the point he was making.) Further he does point out the importance of the Bible for understanding many cultural works and clearly is not trying to discourage people from reading or studying the Bible.

I do not think he hates the Bible. Even his discussion of the immoral teachings of the Bible is trying to refute the idea that the Bible is needed as a moral guide by pointing to passages that no one follows, not arguing that the Bible has caused an epidemic of concubine partitioning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: