Is It Intellectually Coherent to Call Yourself an Atheist or Agnostic and Read the Bible Sympathetically?

Of course it is!

Atheists and agnostics can see mythic archetypes in the Bible, and derive poetic sustenance from them. They can also read Greek myth and the Bhagavad Gita too. Shelly, an atheist, wrote a poem to Prometheus. And Paul Kurtz’s publishing house is called Prometheus Books.

If I were being drafted into the military, I might read the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna regarding war; and if I were ill, I might read the book of Job for reflection on suffering. You would have to have a very low regard for Western and Eastern religious culture to believe that the old stories have nothing to say to us, and nothing nutritious in them.

Take the story of Noah, for example. One apparent purpose of the story is to teach humility. Noah’s story teaches us not to laugh at others, and to not engage in cruel mockery and dismissal of others, because you might, afterall, and to your surprise and chagrin, be spectacularly wrong about them. That’s a true lesson for life—and a wise one—apart from any religious content. And if you’re a confidence atheist—a “faitheist”—you might do well to contemplate sympathetically the story of Noah. Before, for example, you laugh at me for being an agnostic sympathetic towards reading the old religious stories—and seeing real value in them—remember that they laughed at Noah too.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Is It Intellectually Coherent to Call Yourself an Atheist or Agnostic and Read the Bible Sympathetically?

  1. Bud says:

    1. The “Bible” is not an “atomic” things (meaning all or nothing). It has “good” things, it has “bad” things, and it has texts not associated with either.

    2. “One apparent purpose of the story is to teach humility” — how can one determine what’s the purpose of the original writers? Furthermore, the story has evolved and branched significantly…

  2. santitafarella says:


    I think you can make reasonable inferences about an author’s intent, even in ancient texts. You just have to be cautious. It’s why I used the word “apparent.”


  3. Bud says:

    Generally speaking you are right. With this particular story (the flood) there is lots of evidence to support the case of a story that’s evolved from even more ancient stories. Yet I think you are right: It’s pretty common to insert one’s values into a story, even if a later version.

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