What Motivates the Skeptic’s “Study” of the Bible?

Many skeptical critics of Christianity fancy themselves as devotees of reason and dispassionate inquiry. From this perspective, it is those Christians and their apologists whose analysis should be distrusted because of their bias. The myth of the unbiased skeptic was challenged in an excellent book by Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism. His theory is that atheism as a philosophical movement was at least in part a reaction to perceived oppression. A state church linked to oppressive regimes was part of the problem and the denial of God’s existence struck at the heart of its authority. This would explain why atheism enjoyed more popularity in Europe, with its established churches, than in America, with its separation of church and state.

I had not thought about McGrath’s theory for a while. Then I started reading Jesus, In History and Myth, ed. by R. Joseph Hoffman and Gerald A. Larue. This book is published by Prometheus Books, the “go to” publisher for anti-Christian and atheist literary efforts. It was commissioned by the “Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.” Its goal is not original research but to “disseminate the results of scholarly investigation of the Bible.”

This talk of simply disseminating the results of modern scholarship into religion calls to mind “The Soviet League of the Militant Godless,” whose mission was to stamp out religious belief in the Soviet Union. In their hands, so-called scholarship and science was used as a propaganda weapon against Christianity. The League even changed its name after World War II to the more benign sounding, “All-Union Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge.” Apparently, as demonstrated by the latest “brights” self-branding, militant atheists have not yet mastered the fine art of public relations.

In any event, back in the 80’s, the Committee for Scientific Examination of Religion decided to publish a book on the historical Jesus. What caught my eye and reminded me of McGrath’s book was the frank explanation as to the Committee’s motivation. What prompts free-thinking individuals to spend so much time studying religion? No doubt there are a range of motivations and I have no knowledge about how many members of the Committee might be atheists, but as the Chairman of the Committee admits in the Preface, “it was, in part, in response to these threats to free and open inquiry from the fundamentalist right wing that the Bible project had its beginnings.” Id. at 8. The threat posed by “the fundamentalist right wing” includes insisting on the acceptance of Bible ethics, threatening the free choice of reading materials at public libraries and the teaching of evolution, and the freedom to enjoy a variety of sexual behaviors. Id. It was these perceived political threats -- threats of oppression -- that motivated the Committee to critically examine early Christianity. While members of the Committee would no doubt claim that their efforts are genuine and scholarly, the bias inherent in their motivation is undeniable.

This is not to say that all of the contributors to the book are consumed with the same bias. There are some decent articles from a variety of viewpoints (to the Committee’s credit), by – among others -- Morton Smith, David Freeman, and Robert M. Grant. But the more “skeptical” contributors often reveal the same pervasive bias as the Committee.

We learn from one contributor that an improperly scientific examination of the Bible is apparently responsible for “frontal attacks on the secular state” that threaten our “democratic republic.” Id. at 55. Also, naïve faith in the Bible is responsible for Ronald Reagan’s defense build up and Harry Truman’s foreign policy. Id. at 56. The same author’s scientific inquiry also reveals that the Protestant Reformation was at its core nothing more than “a gloss supplied by intolerant practitioners of religious exclusivism.” Id. at 61.

Another contributor writes about “the all-male theological establishment” proclaiming “an inherent sexism.” Id. at 73. Next, John M. Allegro – whose claim to fame (I am not kidding) is his work “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” – warns of “the strangely compulsive nature of a faith that can turn sinners into saints, and charming old men into ‘born-again’ politicians not entirely averse to blasting the rest of the world into philosophical conformity in the name of the Lord.” Id. at 90.

The Committee was nice enough to give the last word to a Christian contributor. Of course, the purpose of his article is to voice common purpose with atheists against “retarded adult” evangelicals. Id. at 211. The author has “grown out of” fundamentalist Christianity and is now interested in joining forces with atheists to oppose the “extreme conservative” evangelical attempts to teach creationism and impose “worship” in schools. Id. at 211-12. He expresses contempt for those who actually believe in the virgin birth and endorses an attack on Margaret Thatcher as “un-Christian.” Id. at 216.

The sheer volume devoted to the perceived threat posed by right-wing fundamentalists to liberal political goals compared to more straightforward notions of intellectual inquiry is revealing. The criticism is often not that the right-wing fundamentalists must be opposed because they get the Bible wrong, but because they take it so seriously that they might let it inform their vote on political issues. But if you destroy the Bible as a source of authority, you eliminate the threat to your own philosophical or political perspective.

Some of the same authors of the above-mentioned book remain active today. Other contemporary skeptics and Jesus Mythers share many of the political fears of their predecessors. For example, the political discussion board at Internet Infidels is a hotbed of far left political perspectives. One Jesus Myth crusader, Early Doherty, took a hiatus from his historical writings to focus on politics. His website still refers to the re-election of George W. Bush as the greatest catastrophe in American political history that will deal severe setbacks to “rationality and the struggle against the ignorance and superstition.” He expresses fear that conservatives will oppose attempts to promote gay marriage, stem cell research, and other "liberal progressive ideas."

How does this fit into McGrath's theory about atheism as in part being a reaction to perceived oppression? It seems that Jesus, In History and Myth and the examples of more contemporary skeptics (who may not necessarily be atheists) provide more specific examples of McGrath's general point. By their own admission, they possess a deep fear of the effect they think orthodox Christian beliefs will have on their philosophical or political agendas. Whether well-grounded or not, the effect is that orthodox Christianity is styled as an oppressive regime that must be resisted. How best to fight against such oppression than challenging its source of authority? If arguments can be crafted that the Bible is untrustworthy historically and, better yet, if Jesus may not even have existed, then these skeptics will have an effective way of combating the threat of oppressive, orthodox Christianity.

So the next time a skeptic complains about the bias of Christian scholars or apologists, recognize that they likely have their own deep and heartfelt biases with which they are contending. The perceived resistance to oppression discussed above may be one of them, but there are others.


CP said…
History, these days, is often an exercise in bias. The historian often approaches the even the documented record of events with a modernist perspective. The main criteria sometimes being, "Can I really be expected to believe that?"

Of course Schliemann proved that there were big holes in the default skepticism of his fellow archaeologists, who did not bother to look for the "mythical" cities of Troy and Mycenae.

Also time has shown that the "modernist" perspective in the 20th century has been all too gullible to the Renaissance writer's characterization of the "Middle Ages". With recent historical research, one could almost write about the "Incredible Disappearing 'Dark Ages'". I've heard it said that it can't last beyond the 800s, when the University system was born.
Lifeguard said…
If you want to find out if someone is biased, then just ask them. The problem is nobody, not an atheist and not a Christian, walks around thinking "Boy, am I biased. Any time I'm confronted with evidence, I unconsciously choose inferences that benefit my preconceived notions of what ought to be true."


Everyone thinks they are being completely honest with themselves and it's the other side that's biased and has some kind of agenda beyond a sincere search for the truth. Atheists think Christians are plotting world theocracy. Christians think atheists hate religion simply "because" and have some sort of ulterior agenda of evil.

The motive one way or the other is irrelevant if we cannot agree on the proper way to analyze texts for their veracity. I think many Christians feel that atheists take the bible too literally in their attempt to discredit it, while many atheists feel that Christians allow themselves some interpretive leeway in certain passages to maintain a convenient escape path in some of the more problematic passages. So neither side respects the integrity of the other.

Problem is, where does that leave us?

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