Atheists’ Favorite Parts of the Bible

There is a link on Debunking Christianity to an interesting article by Valerie Tarico on the topic of atheists’ favorite Bible verses. I thought that they would be the really horrid ones like II Kings, Chapter 2, where we have the lurid story of the prophet Elisha, who was approaching the town of Bethel when a group of children began to mock his baldness. Elisha curses them in the name of The Lord and two she-bears come out of the woods and maul forty two of the children. Now being among the hair-challenged myself, I would resent a gang of ill-mannered urchins, but having them mauled by bears seems a bit over-the-top.

Then there is I Samuel, Chapter 15, where Samuel orders Saul to subject the Amalekites to genocide—and kill all their animals too. I guess killing all the people wasn’t enough. The donkeys and sheep were evil too. Or I thought that the favorites would be all the bizarre rules and prohibitions from Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. You know: The ones about how you should stone to death a young smart-aleck who mouths off to his parents or how you should treat slaves, or how a man becomes unclean if he touches anything a menstruating woman has touched. Atheists like such verses because it is fun to watch fundamentalists practice logical and moral contortionism trying to explain them away.

No, the Tarico article plays it straight; it notes the portions of the Bible that atheists genuinely admire. For me, the best thing in the Bible is the Book of Job. Well, I don’t like the bizarre beginning with God and Satan making bets with each other or the sappy ending where Job gets everything back—I guess like the Who down in Whoville in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I understand that the prologue and epilogue were added later. Another later addition is the repetitious and tiresome speech of Elihu from Chapter 32 through 37. The rest of the book, however is magnificent.

The stuff you heard in Sunday school about how “patient” Job was is a lot of malarkey. Job is anything but patient as he rails at God and demands to know the reason for his suffering. In poetry far more splendid and powerful than the musings of latter-day existentialists, Job declares the meaninglessness and futility of life. His message is summed up in the slogan, “Life is a bitch. Then you die.” In no uncertain terms Job condemns a scheme of things that causes the innocent to suffer. He demands answers from God again and again and will not shut up or back down when his self-righteous “comforters” assail him. These “comforters”—tormentors, really—are the typical sanctimonious, unctuous blowhards who can make your worst tragedy even worse by blaming you. These vile characters insist that Job himself must be responsible for his own suffering since God is just and would not punish him unless he had sinned. Job gives no ground at all to his mental and moral inferiors, but insists that he is righteous and does not deserve his suffering.

When God speaks from the whirlwind, the effect is stunning. The quality of the poetry, which had been superb before, now becomes ineffable. You have got to read it in the King James Version. My favorite bit is where God demands of Job “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?” God has made the fearsome crocodile, so powerful that no weapon can harm him. Spears and arrows bounce off his armor, yet he is beautiful as well as terrifying: “Are not his eyes like the eyelids of the morning?” If none can stand before the leviathan, who can stand up before God?

Of course, this is no answer to Job at all. God has no answer to the question of why the innocent suffer and just tells Job to shut up. The author of Job as good as admits that there is no answer to the “problem of evil.” He refuses to embrace the facile, self-righteous theodicy of the “comforters.” God censures them in no uncertain terms. No, the innocent suffer and there is no explanation why, the author of Job admits. I admire this candor as much as I despise the concomitant suggestion that we should be so awed by God’s creation that we are cowed into not questioning His Ways. Rubbish. Job’s outrageous suffering gives him every right to demand an answer. The Book of Job, then, is an astonishingly candid admission—right in the middle of the Bible—that God rules an unjust universe and nobody knows why.

So, would any other atheists like to share their favorite parts of the Bible?