A Year-Long Atheist Bible Study December 31, 2010

A Year-Long Atheist Bible Study

A fellow Chicagoan and atheist, Bruce Critelli, has decided his 2011 Resolution is to read the entire King James Bible. If you’ve never read the Bible, this could be a comfortable way to do it: surrounded by other atheists.

Bruce will read a little bit each day, write about his thoughts, and ask some general discussion questions. Along the way, there will hopefully be a productive two-way dialogue.

The project begins on January 1st.

(Side note: David Plotz at Slate did something similar a couple years ago, though there wasn’t much of a dialogue; it was really just his own observations.)

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  • Jon Peterson

    I do hope this gets more non-Christians to actually go through and read the book. I made it a project of mine a couple years ago, and I feel much more confident and justified in my atheism now.

    It also helps that when the door-to-door fellows come around, I can honestly say “Sorry, I’ve read your book, and coming from a mindset where I wasn’t already a believer, all it did was reinforce my lack of belief. Please don’t waste your time here.”

  • James

    I hope he skips numbers.

  • Anonymous
  • stevesie

    This seems in keeping with Dawkins’ recent wish for atheists to honor the 400th anniversary of the KJV as a piece of literature. I wish those who partake the best of luck!

  • Angel

    What a fantastic idea. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, and I’m happy to participate!

  • Amarantha

    Trying to read the Bible (New International Version) from cover to cover was what put the first nail in the coffin of my Christianity. Those rape laws early on in the old testament were a pretty major wtf.

  • Brad

    Should read “The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs first. A great run through of seeing what it would be like to actually try to live a life exactly as the bible commands. Check it out!

  • Ben

    You can read the book, but if you really want to understand it (and all it’s many flaws) there are two excellent on-line courses available at Yale University via the Opencourseware initiative and best of all, they’re entirely free! They are:

    Introduction to the Old Testament (Prof. Christine Hayes)


    Introduction to New Testament History & Literature (Prof. Dale Martin)

    You can access (or download) the video files of the lectures, lecture notes, transcripts of the lectures – the whole works – and its entirely free and legal. These courses cover an impressive scope of background information for the period covered, including cultural norms, competing religious sects and political trends that influenced the content of the Bible.

    And great, resounding kudos to Yale University for such a generous contribution to public education! If you view the course, please give ’em a big pat on the back on your way out.

  • JD

    I don’t think KJV is a good choice, it always felt like the stuffiest reading. The “pure bible” people tended to be snobby about the KJV in an off-putting way.

  • Darryl

    For anyone attempting this feat, I do recommend The One Year Bible – it’s available in a number of translations, including, of course, the KJV, and it breaks the book up into 365 parts. Each day, you get a few chapters from the Old Testament, a few from the New, a couple of psalms and a handful of proverbs. It’s a fairly painless way to break the reading up into manageable chunks. I’ve done this several times (admittedly, back when I was a believer – and look where the exercise got me!)

    Many thanks, Ben. I think I will check out both of these courses!

  • Danielle

    Dude, Ben, THANK YOU. I just stumbled upon their free evolutionary biology course and I just finished the first lecture. Thanks man!

  • Beckster

    Meh. I think I will try to tackle some more Dickens and maybe Mark Twain’s autobiography instead. Reading the Bible once was enough for me.

  • Keith

    Any suggestions for places to download a Kindle (or any eBook friendly version). I downloaded one and the formatting was terrible.

    Also, Can I skip the begats?

  • I’ve added the feed to my Google reader and we’ll see how long it’ll hold my interest. I’ve read through the Bible straight through once, and with those one year plans twice, in addition to probably having read the entire thing just through out of sequence study a number of times… I doubt I’ll follow this for very long, I feel that I’ve put more than enough time into studying this mythology. The only thing that makes me interested in following this is that now I’ll be approaching it as an unbeliever “surrounded” by unbelievers.

    @JD: He addresses that point in his first post on the blog.

    @Keith: I’ve never used a Kindle, but check out Project Gutenberg, I know they have some ebook versions of stuff and the KJV should be there.

    Another source for reading online (not ebook) would be Biblegateway.com, they also have pretty much any language or version you could possibly want (including the ESV which he mentions in his first blog post). But, again, these are not ebook versions but web accessible versions.

    The “begats” are some of what they try to use to “prove” their young-earth theory!

  • The KJV is a terrible choice for a Bible read. When I read the entire Old Testament and a couple of Gospels, I used the New King James Version. It’s much easier to see the contradictions when they’re right there in plain modern English. For example,strip out the fancy Elizabethan words and the tale of Jacob and the “angel” clearly looks like a tall tale about how the Israelites’ ancestor was such a badass he beat God in a wrestling match.

  • Kamaka

    This is a very cool idea.

    I haven’t been bored to death in years.

  • Sarah

    You know what… I think I might actually do this as well. I probably won’t finish it since I have so many other books I want to read and there is no way I would be able to read it straight through.

    I am not sure what edition of the bible I have. Are the different versions really that different?

  • Amy

    I’m nearly at the end of a read the bible in a year project (see website).

    I did start reading the KJV but it was frustrating to understand so I now read a more modern translation.

    I’ve had a variety of Christian responses, some of them are amazed that a non-believer would read the bible when many believers won’t, while others get quite angry that I’m not being magically converted by reading it.

    I’ve only got a month and a bit to go (I started in the first week of Feb, not quite as neat as a calendar year read through!) and I can’t wait to finish!

  • How odd! I’m already in the middle of doing exactly this, except I’m not blogging it. I took a short hiatus after reaching Deuteronomy due to sheer burnout (and from being irritated by arrogant Christian jerks at work who see me reading a Bible, assume I’m Christian, and immediately start trying to gang up with me and talk trash about non-Christians). I’ve been reading The God Delusion in the meantime.

  • For dyslexics or those who spend a lot of time commuting there are always free audio books of the Bible available from places like librivox.

    Also i think that the KJV is the best choice. Not because it is the most accurate translation but because the language is so much more poetic and interesting than the more modern versions.

  • Ben,

    Thanks for posting those links. I listened to the first lecture of the Hebrew bible course and found it very interesting. I’ll probably find time to listen to all of both those courses.

    There is a risk that those just reading the KJV without understanding the cultural and historical setting of how those writings came to be and will miss quite a lot.

  • Peter M

    What is the point of reading it. It seems to me that if you leave a religion you leave all of it behind. It boggles my mind as to why some atheists leave christianity then study up on it to argue with christians. I left christianity behind some 50 years ago. I get along with my christian and non-christian neighbors just fine. I never saw the point in arguing because you won’t change their minds anyway and to do so just makes it a circus. Oh yes I did read the bible before I left and found it wanting.

  • Why? Just why?

    Really it’s just giving it more credence and respect than it deserves.

    While you’re at it, why not the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and every other holy book ever written?

    I think it’s a stupid exercise giving Christianity far too much consideration over other religions.

    I do encourage Christians to do this and it shouldn’t be a problem for those who believe in whatever holy book to actually read said holy book but why should nonbelievers treat it seriously? Just so they can debate it with theists? Give me a break.

  • Ibis

    My* advice is, don’t waste your time. You’ve got a limited amount of it here on the planet. Read something worthwhile. The Odyssey or Ovid or Aristotle or Plato or Marcus Aurelius or Dickens or Hugo or Shakespeare.

    *I say this as someone who has read the biblical texts many times and studied the history of Christian theology etc. at a graduate level. If you’re interested in the literary side of things, just go for some selections: Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Esther, some of the more popular Psalms, the Gospels of Matthew and John…don’t bother with the entire mess.

  • if one honestly has never read it “as literature” it’s a worthy project in a well rounded cultural education. but it should be balanced by other ancient mythological texts, for context and perspective. this is *one* ancient book of myths. there are 0000s of those, and some of the even have the same stories. i’ve always been fascinated by the ancient nature of the dying-god character. what’s up with that? religion is so important men have to kill their gods, or see them be killed? /immortality FAIL/ and the Flood story; clearly there is a kernel of truth in that one. i always strongly recommend this. it’s a great atheist “guide to the buybull.”

  • scott-k

    I read the niv about two years ago… The language of the kjv may be poetic, but seems a little too daunting.

    For better or worse, a lot of our history/literature/culture is intertwined with the bible… for that reason alone, I think it’s worth reading. It also carries some weight in discussions with believers… many of whom haven’t read their own holy text.

    Personally, I would recommend reading the other “holy” books too… at least the more popular ones. The koran, the book of mormon, and the bhagavad gita are on my shelf next to the ot & nt. (Although I haven’t gotten around to reading the gita yet)

    If you read this stuff as mythology, some of it’s pretty cool

  • Steve

    There are many common sayings that have their origin in the bible. You’ll inevitably stumble on them in pop culture. Either in titles of books/television episodes or in something a character says.

    But it’s not really necessary to read the whole book to get them. There are websites where you can look up any passage.

  • This sounds like a great idea. I’m actually reading the Bible right now (the New International Version) and I’m at Ephesians. I thought I’d read the NIV first and then the KJV (figuring the old English may be easier to understand if I already knew what it said). I’ll try to finish the NIV quickly and move on to the KJV and read along with this blog. However, it’s likely that I’ll fall behind once the semester starts. (It’s taken me about two years to get through the NIV.)

    As for why an atheist would want to read the Bible, personally I see it as a work of literature and I enjoy learning about various religions and mythologies.

    @Ben: Thanks very much for the links! I actually came across those lectures last summer and listened to a couple of the ones about the New Testament. The information is really fascinating. Unfortunately, the semester started and I got busy with schoolwork, but I plan to listen to all of them in the near future.

  • Rich Wilson

    I enjoyed the Bhagavad Gita, and after reading it intended to read the entire Mahabharata, but at something like five times the length of the bible, it doesn’t seem likely.

    Anyone interested in Christian history should check out the
    Historical Jesus lecture series from Stanford

  • I oppose random readings. If one does not begin with Genesis & conclude with Revelations, the liars for King James cultists will accuse us of taking matters out of context. Issac Azimov wrote a fine book on Genesis. One could reference it & only spend a few days there then spend weeks on Exodus, a really disgusting book with many contradictions including more than one decalogue. A month on Numbers will be enough to make any woman report their priest or rabbi or preacher for pornography, slavery & sex abuse. I’ve read this obscenity & it remains illegal to mail through US Mails against the Comstock Law. I’d read aloud the McKinley pardon of Charles Chilton Moore in 1899 too. 843-926-1750…Dial An Atheist…look for Ezekiel 23:20 & Hosea 13:16 if you like sex with donkeys & violent abortions “rip open the bellies of pregnant women”… yes this book is PRO-VIOLENT ABORTION in 5 passages including 2 Kings 15:16, 2 Kings 8:12, Amos, Nahum…pure puke….let’s read it all people, cover to cover….start to finish & protest every hotel/motel that keeps putting such vile trash in family rooms

  • Rollingforest

    Another great Atheist Bible study.


  • Dan

    Why the KJV? Use a modern bible, it is more up-to-date with the current knowledge of ancient languages and cultures. Only extreme fundies and amateur bible skeptics use it. Read the NRSV or NET bible if you want a scholarly translation, or the GNB or NIV for a more readable one. But for the love of reason, don’t stoop to the level of uneducated hicks.

  • Happy Spider

    I really enjoyed the book–“Good Book”– David Plotz made out of his reading the entire Old Testament. It was an informative, entertaining, quick read.
    I liked that he tried to see the big picture of what was going on in the books. When I was reading Robert Crumb’s illustrated version of Genesis last year ( it’s a comic book but the captions are exactly Genesis with no words left out or extra words put in) (Also very enjoyable, the pictures really bring the boring words to life) I got caught up in the paragraph to paragraph action and failed to grasp what was going on.
    The other skeptical guides to the Bible I’ve read were humor books that just pulled out all the awful things in the Bible and made fun of them. Not very illuminating. Plotz is actually curious. He knew the big famous Bible stories people learn as kids in mildly religious families (Jewish for Plotz, Catholic for me). One day he picked up the book while trapped at a family religious thing and found that it contained some brutal stuff. So he decided to read the whole thing, enjoy the colorful stuff, try to figure out the point of the boring stuff, and try to see it as a whole.

  • Freemage

    If you undertake this exercise…

    Yes, it’s okay to skim (not skip) the begats.

    Yes, you should be prepared at points to have your stomach turned.

    So, why bother?

    1: Intel. If you actively engage with debate with theists, then you should walk in armed, knowing what they are going to be saying. In the US, almost all such discussions are going to be with Christians (which is one reason the Bible should be pre-eminent; in countries where Islam is more popular, but it is still safe to debate the book, then the Koran would, indeed, be a better choice). There’s nothing more potent in such a debate than actually putting a cherry-picked quote in its full context. If you routinely go up against a particular brand of theist, you should read the most approved translation for that sect, of course–evangelical protestant churches tend to favor more recent translations; I believe the RCC currently favors the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition.

    2: Literary influence. From Chaucer forward, English literature has been strewn with biblical references. Some of the greatest writings in the English language (Shakespeare is simply the most obvious) lose a great deal if you cannot see the allusions to Biblical myth. If this is your reason, then yes, go with the KJV–it’s the most commonly used reference point for those other great works, and besides which, the Song of Solomon in the KJV is one of the great works of erotic literature. Enjoy!

    3: Moral edification. No, I’m not talking about learning God’s plan. I’m talking about reading a book of moral teachings in the same way you might read the works of Plato or Aristotle–as the product of their own period. I may not believe in Plato’s true forms, or Aristotle’s approach to science, but that doesn’t mean I can’t derive value and meaning from them; likewise, the teachings attributed to Yeshua bin Miriam (I think that’s the proper translation) are at least worthy of examination and consideration on their own right. For this, I would again urge a newer translation; the more clear the language, the more effectively the argument can be analyzed.

  • Lozen

    Thanks so much Ben for posting this.  I’m digging this stuff as well as some of the other courses offered here. 

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