Maybe you aren’t actually an atheist? And other stories

Hi! My name is Chana Messinger, and I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any god or gods, and I scrutinize all claims through the lens of rationality: does the claim make sense? If so, does it have sufficient evidence? I’ve been an atheist for a while, at least since 8th grade, and began to be vocal about it in high school. I have been a part of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago for three years, as a member, then secretary, then president, and I’ll be president again next year. You’d think my atheist credentials wouldn’t be in question. And yet! Two anecdotes for your amusement.

Story 1: In blog comments at the Friendly Atheist. Disclaimer: I write for the Friendly Atheist. 

So I’m reading the Friendly Atheist, like I do, and I happen upon this post, in which a campus secular group chalked super problematic Bible verses on their campus as a response to the Christians chalking only the nice parts. I’m totally in favor of this, since the Bible (Old+New Testament, here) does indeed call for the stoning of adulteresses just as much as for all to turn in love to Christ. But I’m a Bible nerd, and I hang with an intellectual Jewish crowd, so I decide to point out that some of the verses are out of context. I say:

To be fair (and this applies to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Bible verses alike), it often is ‘twisting scripture’ to quote without context. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, if only to point out the danger in quoting selectively, but if we’re going to be intellectually honest, that should definitely be acknowledged. For example, the issue with the rapist marrying the victim is actually a matter of protecting the victim. That’s not true now, of course, but in the historical context, a woman who was raped would be an unmarriageable outcast, and so this, while immensely problematic, is actually protecting the social and economic status of the victim and her family. That’s why men like this (… are so awesome, even if we wish they weren’t necessary. I’m not sure about this next point, but I’m also fairly certain that this has been interpreted, at least in Jewish law, as obligatory on the part of the rapist, but not on the part of the rape victim, meaning that she can reject him if she wishes (though of course she would be under huge pressure to accept).

To which the response is:

“To be fair (and this applies to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Bible verses alike), it often is ‘twisting scripture’ to quote without context.”  Wow.  Just wow . . . I’ve heard this argument for years.  When Christians quote the bible, they are sharing God’s word.  When skeptics quote it, theyare taking the quotations out-of-context and twisting the meaning.  Proving once again, you just cannot win with a Christian.”

But I’m not a Christian! I am an atheist Jew! I am the furthest thing from a Christian! And I even said that it applied to ‘their’ quotes as much as to ‘ours.” I go on to be called intellectually dishonest, and that’s all fine, but it really struck me that I wasn’t a real atheist if I ever stood up for the Bible ever.
Story 2: Ask an Atheist Day
It’s Thursday, April 19. It’s Ask an Atheist Day, so I happily put as my status that anyone may ask me any questions about my atheism. There were many fantastic questions, and the conversation was spectacular. There was one exchange that was particularly interesting, though:

Friend: Chana, I’m confused. What do you fast for if not the remnants of a millenia-old desert cult? For someone who claims to be sans-religion, it sure does manage to intrude into your life.

Me: I’ve never claimed to be sans-religion. I am very with a religion. I am religious. (more on this later in Blogathon, perhaps?)

Friend: So, why are you hosting Ask An Atheist day? Is this some “Ally” thing? if you are not without a theism, then how are you an atheist?

Me: I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe everything in the bible happened. I believe some forms of religious practice can be fun/meaningful/interesting/enjoyable/beautiful, and the way I practice is all of those things for me, and if others feel that way about their religion or whatever else they spend their time on, then they should do that. The truth claims are still wrong, I’m still an atheist, and atheist activism is still important to me.

Friend: Chana, maybe you aren’t actually an atheist?

Friend: Especially since you say thing [sic] like “I am religious.”

Friend:  which is kinda a big red flag.

There you have it, folks, I guess because I engage in religious ritual I’m not really an atheist.
To clarify, I find these stories mostly amusing, not offensive. It is true that religious atheism is strange, and I’d be happy to explain it. But it’s a little ridiculous that I have to defend my nonbelief in god when I’ve made my stance so abundantly clear. I would argue that the problem is that atheists already know the answers to some important questions: Does God exist? and Is the Bible a good book for taking a morality from? Through what I guess is the inoculation effect, they then see arguments that look like those arguments like “atheists can enjoy religious practice” and “the Bible has a historical context” (which is a very atheistic claim, by the way, since I don’t think God is eternal and all-knowing and therefore the Bible is atemporal), and attack them in the same way. When arguing, keep in mind what the discussion actually is, not what it’s related to. Remember what qualities always go together and which do not. Listen to your interlocutor. And learn that there are a lot of ways to be an atheist, and mine involve being a super-religious Bible nerd.
This has been Post the Second of Blogathon
P.S. This wordcount of 500 thing isn’t going so well, huh?

7 thoughts on “Maybe you aren’t actually an atheist? And other stories

  1. Paul says:

    Do you think religious is the best word to use to describe yourself? For most people that word probably includes some sort of belief. Are there any better ways to characterize your affection for religious rituals and practices?

  2. […] atheist if I ever stood up for the Bible ever. Story 2: Ask an Atheist Day … … More: Maybe you aren't actually an atheist? And other stories « The Merely … ← I'm a Dad – What Does God Want Me to Do? | Christ My […]

  3. Mark says:

    Your first example doesn’t make you an atheist, just an annoying apologist (yes you can still be that even if you occasionally criticize the biblical text as being sometimes sexist).

    • Hi, thanks for commenting!

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Are you also claiming I’m not an atheist, but rather an apologist? Or that my actions in the first example should lead people to believe that I’m an apologist, rather than, as what happened, leading them to believe that I’m not an atheist?

      I’m sorry you find Biblical analysis annoying. Do you think any defense of the Bible (such as using arguments that come from a religious framework) as a non-wholly evil document are useless?

      • Mark says:

        I missed a not when writing my sentence. What I meant to say was that you were an atheist, but still an annoying apologist. Sorry for the confusion and my bad typing. The people who tried to question your atheist status were silly.

        I have no problem with biblical analysis and I do not believe that the bible is a “wholly evil” (whatever that would mean) document. However, yes, I do find your rank and file apologia for that particular verse (which I have heard in real life from Christians wanting to excuse any sexism that could be found within the text) to be annoying.

        The idea that this law was protecting the victim Is totally inexcusable:
        1. Being forced to marry your rapist would be extremely traumatic to the victim and basically amounts to a second victimization. I suppose you could argue that being a social outcast for being a non-virgin would be worse, but such an argument is not worth considering seeing as how horrible both are. Maybe the writers were not aware of the psychological effects on the victim (more likely they didn’t care) but that just means the law was intended to protect the victim but likely failed in practicality.
        2. The law could be just as easily read as a way to compensate the father for his property and as concerned with the the protection of the victim.
        3. The law does not at all challenge the idea that women are men’s property, and, like most old Jewish laws from the OT was probably more concerned with preserving the social order (including the idea that women are men’s property) rather then “improving” or changing it.

        Once again, sorry for my bad typing in my last comment as well as this one.

        • This is exactly the kind of discussion I think it’s useful to have! Not, is the Bible bad or good, sexist or not sexist (though those are important in other contexts), but what are the best readings of the text based both on internal religious analysis and external historical analysis.

          To that end, your first point seems nonsensical, since we can indeed compare bad things, and it is useful to pick, and in fact legislate, a lesser evil.

          Your second point is, I think, the most compelling, and most likely the true intentions of the writers of the Bible. That doesn’t mean, though, that the analysis I offered to the commenters at the Friendly Atheist isn’t also valid or accepted by some communities. How a reader interprets a text matters as much or more to what the text “really means” as authorial intent, as I wrote about here ( and that’s especially true when we’re talking about readers deriving religious law from a text.

          Your third point is correct, but irrelevant. I didn’t argue that the biblical passage in question was advanced for its time, or morally correct, only that within the historical constraints, it could be read as, and have effects that were beneficial to the woman in question.

          • Mark says:

            In your original post you said that the law was protecting the victim. That means that you obviously consider a victim being forced (later possible interpretations in Jewish law aside) to marry her rapist better than her being a social outcast and having no societal or economic value. I would be very interested in hearing your argument for why the first is better then the second. Please back up your argument with solid reasoning and evidence.

            I personally have no idea of how one would go about finding out which one is categorically worse for the woman, but apparently according to you it is indeed possible to do so.

            Maybe afterwards you can tell me if it would be worse to have your leg bitten off by a shark or to have right eye poked out with a knife.

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