Fundamentalist Atheists and the Dangers of Literalism

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“Guess what, mum.”


“Turns out… turns out that Jesus is a sheep.”

This was my three year old’s summary of a Holiday Bible Club story after a visit a number of years ago.

That he was three, or perhaps four years old at the time, makes his literalism understandable, as well as amusing; but if you have ever experienced the curiosity of the Christian/Atheist debate, especially with an ex-Christian, and especially on the Internet, you might be forgiven for thinking that Jesus is indeed a sheep, and it does lead one to wonder where debate can possibly lead. Don’t get me wrong, doubt can be a real dilemma for some, and biblical interpretation is far from easy, but questions like the number of women at the tomb or attempts to contrast the genealogies of Matthew and Luke as contradictory tell us as much about a reader’s unwillingness to engage with the text as anything else.

The purpose of this reflection is to try to understand the ‘mindset’ with which we are debating. The ‘Out with the Old Christian, in with the New Atheist Curiosity Shop’ is filled with many such artefacts, unearthed, as it were, from the sands of the Middle East, dusted down and set up for display before the mesmerised congregation. Hawked around the fairgrounds of new atheism, they are the relics of the irreligious:

The scarlet robe, or was it purple?

The disciples running to the tomb on Easter Sunday at dawn, or was it very early when the sun had risen.

A once in a lifetime opportunity to see what no other human eye has seen before, the pillars of the earth.

The young man at the tomb, or was it an angel?

“Now we see, now we see,” they cry. “We once were blind, but now we see.”

One can never be too careful in entering into debate with the fundamentalists of a lost faith – a robe can’t be both scarlet and purple at the same time, that much is obvious – God is proved to be a liar and Christianity clearly discredited.

 What we might note, however, is that while some have lost their faith, they haven’t lost their religious dogmatism, for the biblical literalism which was once required to hold their faith together, is the same biblical literalism which is now required to keep the shattered pieces apart.

One might have thought that the dawning of the new atheist light of godlessness would have led some to appreciate, or even consider, the possibility of nuance, context, deliberate ambiguity, rhetoric or metaphor without threat to their new found freedom in Christlessness: God isn’t real after all, so one wonders how allowing for the possibility of a metaphor or a little historical context, is going to make any difference to that; but, no, dawn can’t be very early in the morning, and Luke has contradicted Matthew, or was it the other way round?

But whither this debate? How many times can one seek to explain that it is reasonable to think of dawn as early in the morning, and then continue to face the reply that because the biblical writers used different words the text is unreliable and God isn’t real? It’s rather like trying to explain that Van Gogh wasn’t obliged to use a paint by numbers kit to create his sunflower series: variation in the shape, colour and tone – different artist! And then sometimes you realise something, sometimes people see what they want to see (Christians included); we can all prefer our own version of the Christian or Christmas story, usually the one which confirms our preconceived ideas and cossets us from the sting of faith.

And all this may explain one thing: it may explain why some people can ask Jesus into their heart, and then wonder why he isn’t there.


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