It is a common enough refrain these days to hear someone burst into spontaneous anti-religious rants every now and again. It happens, especially to self-proclaimed rationally thinking atheists whose critical prowess is thus put on display in these extemporaneous discourses. Indeed, it is at this point as much liturgy as anything else, the point of such extensive expoundings being more to foster a sense of community among those who agree than anything else. Or, perhaps, to spark arguments with those who disagree, for similar performative reasons.
In either case, more and more of these self-styled atheists have come to a point where they have to make a choice. It is in all aspects a crisis of faith, and the choice stands between this style of loudmouthed atheism – or perhaps more properly Atheism – and the professed virtue of critical thinking. The two come to a head, and it is uncertain whether either will win out over the other. It could, like all crises of faith, go either way.
Truly, a discursive anomaly if there ever was one.
One flashpoint of this crisis of faith is the Bible. Focusing on it is natural enough from a capital-a Atheist point of view – given its status as the revealed truth of the dominant religions of the English-speaking world, it would be somewhat of a stretch to focus on other religious works. Focusing on far-off religious writings of distant religions wouldn’t have quite the same sting as battling the behemoth at home; at best, it would be an attempt to show off one’s familiarity with the big books of the world, at worst, it would be an attempt to pander to some manner of latent xenophobia and suspicion of unfamiliar things. No, to be a proper Atheist, only the strongest opponent will do, lest it all comes to empty gesturing.
The thing about the Bible, though, is that it is necessary to have read and understood it in order to understand the history of Western civilization. Trying to grapple with the trends and forces at work over the last centuries without understanding the influence of biblical teachings and metaphors will inevitably run into a brick wall. Not only will the motivations of many of the important actors remain inscrutable and opaque; the very language they use will be impossible to decipher, clad as it is in biblical imagery and allusion. Whether it be 16th century English parliamentary sessions or the 20th century speeches of Martin Luther King, any attempt at understanding will lack a necessary component, and thus fail in an undignified manner.
The challenge is obvious. If there is some well-defined contextual understanding necessary to make sense of past events, then not attaining this understanding leads to a deficient view of both the past and the present. Given the self-proclaimed adherence to rational and critical thinking, embarking on a quest that is doomed to fail is a self-contradiction of the highest order. Rationality demands that the proper tools be applied to the task at hand, and any critical approach that insist on failing by design is not critical enough. Indeed, willingly denying yourself the tools you need is the explicit opposite of the critical and rational method proclaimed to be preferred. Which is the crux of the matter and contradiction: a too dogmatic adherence to the Atheist creed that the Bible is Bad leads to a deficiency in the very values espoused by this very creed.
The way in which someone deals with this challenge reveals important aspects of their character. And, more so, the character of their beliefs. If they acknowledge the inherent historical significance of the bible as a text, and develop an understanding of it in historical context, then they have made a significant stride towards radically critical thinking. If they, on the other hand, stick to their Atheist guns and denounce the Bible out of hand, then they have chosen creed over critical and/or rational thinking, and should be approached accordingly.
Thus is the nature of this particular crisis of faith. The Bible is not the only flashpoint for this contradiction, but it is one of the most obvious. There are other issues where this dynamic comes to bear, to be sure, but the general pattern is that “rationality” and “critical thinking” become mere talking points. Whether you are a believer, agnostic or a lower-case atheist, this is not a development which aligns with your interests. Too much is at stake to leave these concepts to those who shout about them the most and apply them the least.