An atheist Biblical scholar?

Via Sullivan (can’t find the exact post, it’s in there somewhere). Cambridge Professor Matthew Wright began to study the Bible (already an atheist since childhood) when he became an academic to better understand Western philosophy:

From the medieval period through the early 20th century, virtually every Western philosopher of any consequence presupposed that his readers were intimately acquainted with the Bible. While studying Philosophy as an undergraduate, I was particularly struck by the fact that nearly all the great figures of the early modern era – Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, George Berkeley, and so forth – were thoroughly grounded in the Scriptures.

A pretty insightful thought. I concentrated in political theory as a political science major, and obviously read a ton of philosophy. The familiarity with (if not foundation on) the Bible of many major Western thinkers, and their deference to God at the time struck me as sort-of lipservice; as an atheist (and a less-experienced undergraduate) I couldn’t really imagine that these amazing theorists thought God was real, let alone at the center of everything. By the end of college I had learned to put things in context a little more, but not to the extent that Wright did when he finished college. 

The abundance of rebarbative passages in the Bible is another reason for atheists to familiarize themselves with it. Although my commentary seldom gives voice to the atheistic repugnance that I feel toward God, my systematic study of the Bible has made me thoroughly familiar with the numerous discreditable aspects of the Biblical texts. Thus, I can retort knowledgeably to believers who suggest that moral principles are in need of God and the Bible as their foundations. Even if the correct basic principles of morality were somehow in need of foundations, the Bible would be too nefarious for the purpose. Those principles would not be strengthened by being associated with the genocidal directives of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, or with the scurrilous fulminations of Christ against his opponents, or with the Stalin-like gloating of the God of the New Testament at the thought that everyone who has not been sufficiently deferential toward Him will suffer torture for all eternity.

This passage reminds me slightly of JS Mill’s point in Three Essays on Religion that I read while writing about so-called “intelligent design.” Mill argues (and I don’t have the book in front of me, apologies) that a simple survey of the world is a pretty good argument against a sentient, merciful God: why would a benevolent God create natural disasters, parasites, lions eating the defenseless young of other species, etc.? If I’d read the Bible itself, I could see that the same evidence is right there in the holy book. 

Wright’s assertion that morality doesn’t need foundations also caught my eye. Moral tradition in humans existed long before the Bible (or the Koran or any of the sacred Eastern texts), and lasts today even among unbelievers. I love morality; I love that people help people and I do believe in that, even if I don’t believe in any supernatural creator. My morality is informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition (among others), but that was in turn informed by what makes a good society. Humans were smart people even way back in the day, and even if morals were couched in religion, our distant ancestors knew that not killing each other, stealing from each other, etc., was a good thing. 

Anyway, I gotta go get me a Bible.


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