A few years back I worked in a book shop to help to put me through University. It was manned mostly by students and as you know, a student can occasionally be a bit of a smart ass. One day we received a huge delivery of Bibles. Now, this was a brand new store that we had set-up and it was up to us to decide under what headings and categories we should put the books. So, when we got these Bibles, it was only a matter of time before someone cracked “oh, we should put them under ‘fiction’!”. Hell, it might have been me.
I have been an atheist since I was about fourteen. Before then I guess you could call me an agnostic (if we are limiting ourselves to those quaint little names) and as a young child I was, like so many, a theists that had never really thought about it. You’re not really given a choice growing up; when you’re old enough to understand the basic theology of it you’re told that there is this divine figure living in something called heaven which is paradoxically (a paradox to a child at least) above us in the sky and yet out of reach. You were probably given a colourful little book showing this ‘God’ person anthromorphised standing over two little people called Adam and Eve. This you were told was the fact, and this you accepted.
I cannot remember the time when I realised there was an option to this. My earliest memory in that respect is being at school when I was about ten or eleven, sitting around a table with a bunch of guys. One of them, a tough little SOB surprised me by asking the rather profound question “do you lot believe in God?”. I, almost instinctively, said yes. However, it made me think. Did I believe in God? Why do I believe in God? What evidence have I been given to believe in God? Fast forward a few years until I got into secondary school. This was when science really took off. We got to play with chemicals and fire and all that jazz. It was awesome. In this class I was also first told about this little thing called evolution. It made sense to me, I understood the basics of it and I passed the exam in that class with flying colours. Intelligent design was never even mentioned to me in those lessons. In retrospect, I’m glad because religious theology belongs in one classroom at school.
That class is of course Religious Education. Now, here’s a kicker. I loved R.E at school. I loved it because my teacher was incredible. He was strict, the class behaved, but he had a funny side too. The class respected him, and that says a lot. I’m not sure whether he himself was religious or whether he just taught the class because he also taught a number of other classes. Either way, our lessons with him were not tiresome occasions where we were forced to read and memorise line after line of scripture. Instead, he taught us about religion in the world today and the issues faced by those who believe in it. At no point were we forced to follow similar beliefs or belittled for being atheists. It was here that I first learnt that some in the religious community rejected the theory of evolution. He told us what they advocated instead, then he reminded us of what evolution stood for, then he told us to write a small essay saying what our own personal opinions were and why. I supported evolution and I got an A*.
I digress however. It was really due to those classes that I became confidently atheist. My later degree at university only served to strengthen this. At university however I also met a type of atheist which angered me. The militant atheist. The atheist that would turn around and say “oh the Bible is nothing more than a work of fiction that serves no purpose in a modern age built on science and engineering”.
I own a copy of the Bible (and coincidently the Qur’an). I bought this copy after I became an atheist. The militant atheist that I described above would laugh at this. “Why? You reject the theology and dogma of Christianity don’t you? What good does that book serve you or anyone else similar?”
Answer: A lot
The Old Testament teaches us the history of the Jewish people and of the Middle East dating back over thee millennia in the same sense as the Iliad offers us an insight to Greek history. If you ignore the accounts of divine intervention and basic theology what you have left is an almost chronological commentary of events that were occurring from 1,000 BCE onwards. For example, the Old Testament concurs with other sources and allows us to understand how the Jewish people were displaced from their homeland by the Babylonians, returned by the Great King of Persia Darius, and subsequently dispersed across Eurasia by subsequent Hellenistic kingdoms. Judea became a theatre of war between the Seleucid’s and the Ptolemy’s. Prisoners of war, refugees, entrepreneurs and settlers in new Hellenistic cities were among the Jews fleeing Judea. By the end of the second century, if not before, Jewish settlements were to be found throughout the eastern half of the Mediterranean.
For classicists and historians then the Old Testament offers intriguing commentary on everything from the relations of Hellenistic kingdoms to the development of the Jewish diaspora. 1 Maccabees 15.16-24 shows a Roman Consul greeting the rulers the Near-East- notably Ptolemy- and warns them, in friendly ways, to not persecute the Jews and if they have issues with them, they should take it out with Simon the High Priest so he can punish them according to Jewish Law. It is interesting as it shows how (around that time, second century BCE) the Jews were noted as living in many communities and how friendly Rome was towards them.
Moving on a bit, consider books from the New Testament. Admittedly, there is little in the Gospels that backs my point up here. But the Epistles of Paul and the Book of Acts do. The Acts in particular are intriguing as they were originally written in Koine Greek and mimicked the style of earlier Greek histories, such as Herodotus and Thucydides. It also shows influence from Roman sources as it is very subjective. Paul in the Acts preaches in Synagogues first wherever he goes as the Jews are God’s people and deserve to hear the news first. However, he is more often than not discarded and then preaches to Gentiles who are portrayed as much more open minded.
Are the synagogues only mentioned to highlight the ignorance of the Jews and the piety of the Gentiles? They are not mentioned in the Epistles at all, so we can question to what degree Paul interacted with the Jewish communities. Christian tradition holds that Paul is the author of the Acts but this seems unlikely as it seems to describe the church in the later half of the first century (50-100CE) when Christians were becoming a separate entity from the Jews. For a historian then the Epistles and the Acts offer an alternative (that is, non-Roman) source for the way Roman civil law worked in practice, the layout of the Eastern half of the empire, the way different communities interacted within the empire and numerous other aspects (too many to list here) at two different points in the first century of the empires existence.
I guess what I’m saying here in a roundabout way is that you do not have to be a Christian, or even a spiritual person, to appreciate the historical value of something like the Bible. I appeal to fellow atheists to not show such ignorance. I get enough of that from the zealous individuals who preach in the town center from the book of Revelations about how we’re all going to hell and from Christians who throw eggs at abortion clinics (ironic?!).
Oh, in the end, we put the Bibles under the philosophy section. K?