This morning I read an article by Shulem Deen titled “This is how I lost my faith: Science helped, yes — but finally I accepted the holy texts were written by man.” Deen is writing about the Hebrew Bible, but his observations would apply equally well to the Christian Bible. He begins by noting the corrosive impact that science had on his Jewish faith. Next, he observes,
“Nothing, however, had a more shattering impact on my faith than the realization that, stripped of religious exegesis, our primary religious text, the Hebrew Bible, had the markings of human rather than divine authorship; it was beautiful, intricate, layered in poetry and metaphor and heart-stopping drama, but human nonetheless.”
The false dichotomy assumed in this passage — either God or human beings — is maddening, but alas it is also all-too-common. Indeed, I frequently detect this same false dichotomy underlying atheist/agnostic/skeptic critiques of the Bible. One assumes that either the Bible is all divine or it’s all human. A decade ago Peter Enns provided an excellent critique of that false dichotomy in Inspiration and Incarnation, a book which is being released in a second edition in September. Yoram Hazony provides another great critique in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (which I review here).
Despite the fact that mainstream Christian and Jewish scholars like Enns and Hazony offer thoughtful and sophisticated critiques of Deen’s simplistic dichotomy, I have noticed that many in the atheist/agnostic/skeptic community prefer to perpetuate the dichotomy. In some cases this may be because the only expression of Christianity or Judaism with which these atheists, agnostics or skeptics are familiar is a fundamentalism that perpetuates the dichotomy. But in other cases I have noticed that they are aware of these mainstream rejections of the dichotomy and they simply choose not to engage them. Alas, this reduces their critique of the Bible to nothing more than a disingenuous knocking over of the fundamentalist strawman.
Now I will direct my comments to those atheists, agnostics and skeptics who continue to critique the Bible based on the fundamentalist false dichotomy even as they know that there are far more sophisticated, defensible (and I would argue orthodox) conceptions on offer such as those of Enns and Hazony. Let’s put it in perspective by considering another false dichotomy, in this case one that works against the atheist.
So here’s the scenario. Imagine an atheist who converts to Christianity and then describes his conversion as being driven by a rejection of what he sees to be the nihilistic implications of atheism:
“Nothing, however, had a more shattering impact on my atheism than the realization that, stripped of all the rhetoric about a scientific worldview and liberation from the chains of religion, atheism had the markings of nihilism rather than meaning; it sounded bold, courageous, and appropriately scientific, but it was nihilism nonetheless.”
There are atheists who would accept this dichotomy. That is, they would agree that if there is no God then the truth of nihilism follows ineluctably. Indeed, this scenario comports well with J. Budziszewski’s conversion to Christianity as outlined in his essay “Escape from Nihilism.” It’s a very interesting, well written and thoughtful essay and Budziszewski makes many salient points. But it seems to me that it nonetheless assumes a false dichotomy. And many atheists would agree that this is a false dichotomy. They would insist that it is possible to develop non-theistic conceptions of meaning. Moreover, these atheists would resent Christians (or Jews) limiting their critique of atheism to those forms that assume a nihilistic entailment.
This would be an understandable objection. If Christians recognize that there are forms of atheism that reject the dichotomy then they have a responsibility to engage with those forms. Mutatis mutandis for the atheist/agnostic/skeptic who recognizes that there are Christians (or Jews) who rejects Deen’s “God or man” dichotomy as false. Consequently, the atheist/agnostic/skeptic who wants to engage with the most defensible views of biblical revelation should engage with those scholars who repudiate that false dichotomy.