Asking Atheists About Their Favorite Bible Verses
I ended last semester with a selection of awful Bible verses, and what I picked was only a small handful. But I’ve maintained that there’s much good in the Bible, too. It’s a complex book that is too easily reduced to a symbol by both Christians and non-Christians. Journalist Valerie Tarico asked some prominent atheists what their favorite Bible verses were.
What were some of the verses selected? John Loftus picked Matthew 7:1-5, which includes, “Judge not lest you be judged yourself.” Kim Veal selected Proverbs 29:7: “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Both Hemant Mehta and Dale McGowan chose Ecclesiastes 9:10: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”
Tarico interviewed many more atheists, and they all follow the same ethical theme. Obviously, they are not interested in the spiritual verses, but nearly every chosen verse was about being a better person, being compassionate and making the most of your life. This is in contrast with Christians’ favorite verses. The website Bible Gateway keeps track of its most popular verses, and they are almost all about finding comfort in God (e.g., John 3:16, Jer 29:11, Rom 8:28, and Phil 4:13).
As an atheist, I do find this worrisome — it looks to me like they’re putting faith above ethics. But for many Christians, faith is the highest ethical value. This cultural difference is worth investigating, especially as non-believers become more prominent in American society.
So what’s my favorite Bible verse? Matthew 7:3: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” One theme I keep hammering in my column is being aware of our own biases and prejudices. We make mistakes all the time, and while it’s easier (and more fun) to try to prove other people wrong, we have to be equally aware of our own intellectual and moral failings.
The Bible is not some infallible answer to all of life’s questions, as many Christians believe. Nor is it wholly worthless and irredeemable, as many atheists believe. Both positions are extreme and uncritical and are not evaluating the text for what it is. I certainly don’t use it as a guide for my life, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t diamonds in the rough throughout. Those are worth salvaging.
Really, you can look through any of the world’s holy texts and find agreeable passages. For example:
“Righteous is he who…gives wealth…to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free.” (Quran 2:177)
“If a man commits evil let him not repeat it again and again; let him not delight in it, for the accumulation of sin brings suffering.” (Dhammapada, verse 117)
“And even if, because their minds are overwhelmed by greed, they cannot see the evil incurred by destroying one’s own family, and the degradation involved in the betrayal of a friend, How can we be so ignorant as not to recoil from this wrong? The evil incurred by destroying one’s own family is plain to see.” (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 1, verses 38–39)
And so on. I’d argue that the goodness of these verses doesn’t come from the fact that they come from holy books. Rather, they recognize the importance of understanding each other’s humanity, and from that starting point, we can create a practical and effective system of ethics.