Why Can’t Atheists Read Genesis Like Other Historical Texts?

I firmly believe that if the Bible were not the Bible, and if atheists did not have so much contact with fundamentalist Christians who take a literalist view of the bible (or, conversely, liberal Christians who take a far more allegorical view of the bible), that the books of the Bible would be read with much more care and study. But as it is, many atheists seem to fall into the camp of treating the bible only through a modern lens.

Pope Pius XII discussed reading and understanding the early texts of the Bible:

What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our own time. For what they wished to express is not to be determined by the rules of grammar and philology alone, nor solely by the context; the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East (Divino Afflante Spiritu 35–36).

I tried to make this point in this post here, although my attempt was admittedly feeble and lacked depth. I added on a video from Fr. Baron who does a much better job describing the “ham handed approach” atheists often take towards these ancient texts. That video is below (and highly recommended):

It is in light of this that I easily get pulled into discussions on the Bible when I see tweets like this:

https://twitter.com/Mattwaggy14/status/374975820693258240

Ok, so let’s ignore the obvious fact that the Genesis account never says that Adam and Eve had just 2 sons (poor Seth, always the forgotten one).  Let’s also ignore the fact that Gen 5:4 explicitly says that Adam had “sons and daughters”@prophetAtheist, a person who I consider to be one of the good guys on Twitter (and who has shown me just how clumsy I can be in debate), more explicitly pointed out what @mattwaggy14 was trying to say:

What baffled me here was why the assumption was that Adam and Eve didn’t have any daughters.

This reply actually made me stop for a minute: was he actually advocating for more than a literalist reading of Genesis? It is one thing to argue that Genesis should be read in a literalist fashion (although that is, as Fr. Baron states, “a ham-handed approach”), but to imply that if Genesis omitted something that therefore we should believe it didn’t occur?

The possibilities of a reductio ad absurdum argument here are just too plentiful. Do we believe that Adam and Eve went to the bathroom? Never says so in Genesis. We don’t have an account of Eve dying – is she supposedly immortal according to Genesis?

I have a certain affinity for atheists. I respect their call to logic and reason and using the human intellect, but, on the whole, their approach to ancient texts like Genesis is thoroughly clumsy and not thought out. In discussing these early texts with a few different atheists, and in viewing countless other conversations and opinions, most atheists seem to approach these texts through the prism of modern expectations. There is little to no effort whatsoever to understand the context, the philology, common literary forms of the day, culture, etc.

Atheists seem to want to put Genesis, and those who believe it to be the word of God, into two buckets: “literalist reading” and “allegorical” reading (akin to legend). What they dismiss is the literal (not literalist) reading that accounts for the style of historical writing. From Catholic.com:

It is impossible to dismiss the events of Genesis 1 as a mere legend. They are accounts of real history, even if they are told in a style of historical writing that Westerners do not typically use.

This doesn’t seem so hard to accept and understand. In academics we frequently cite the period, the civilization, the culture, the philology and cultural norms to understand texts, especially when those texts are more foreign to our modern way of writing and doing things. Why can’t we do these with the ancient texts of Genesis?  Keep in mind that Pope Pius XII advocates for more than just context and philology. Why can’t we use that reason, logic, and critical thinking to understand that the texts deserve, at a minimum, a fair reading before they are dismissed as pure fraud?

And just in case you didn’t click on that link above, I would recommend reading this on Catholic.com. Much better stated than I could ever hope to say.

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