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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive An Atheist's Dilemma: Should We Bend the Bible for Justice?

Michelle Krejci

An extended version of this paper was delivered to the Bible and Social Justice Conference on 31 May 2008 at the University of Sheffield.  I am grateful to the participants of the conference for their comments.

It used to be said that the devil has all the best tunes, but now it seems that maybe the Christians do. Whether it is Democrats, with their high flung rhetoric and their bleeding hearts, or Republicans, with their vast conspiracy and bottomless corporate support—the grass is always greener on someone else's ideological lawn. Unless, of course, that someone is an atheist, whose ideological lawn appears to many people to be dry and arid. Indeed it is almost impossible to glean a healthy crop of social consciousness with so little to work with.

Instead, those atheists who feel called to mobilize the masses turn to other stories. We dabble in the eastern philosophies where it is possible to talk about peace, justice, and mindfulness without tripping over words like God and sin. We pilfer the attributes of courage and honor where we find them in science fiction and fantasy and, far less frequently, in history. But despite their commercial success, neither Luke Skywalker nor Harry Potter and company have been able to pack the same moral punch as Jesus. The social gospel has been far more influential at drawing up legislation (on matters concerning child labor, minimum wage, and fair labor practices) then the Buddha has. Just last month, when Benjamin Skinner, author of a new book chronicling the horror of modern-day slavery, was asked how he thought Americans could be stirred into action, he replied:

I think when you start getting the 700 Club talking about how the slavery of a young man in a quarry in India—or in a brick kiln or on a farm—is equivalent to the slavery of the Israelites and you start quoting Bible verses, then maybe we'll be getting somewhere.[1]

It reflects a great deal about our culture when the primary solution to overcoming inaction on such a heinous issue necessitates the employment of a text that had for hundreds of years justified the same issue. Nevertheless, if Skinner is correct and quoting the Bible is the best way to address this type of social concern, then it invites serious contemplation for those who otherwise do not root their moral duty in the Bible.

Perhaps Paul foresaw this problem when he advised: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:2). Indeed, there are plenty of atheists (and even Christians) who just think on the pleasant things. And why shouldn't they? Stories are mental gymnastics; they thrust us to the moral margins and ask us to rethink our worldview. The fact that thousands of people read Horton Hears a Who as a simple and elegant pro-life message demonstrates precisely how stories should work. "A person is a person no matter how small," is an appropriate "Dr. Seuss reference" on which to base a conversation about abortion.

The anti-abortion activists, who are moved by a story of a gentle elephant who hears small voices in a speck of dust and becomes determined to save it despite those around him who cannot hear the voices, are not hacks cozening a benign story for their own ends; they are people who have allowed a story to speak to them. And the appropriate response from those who disagree is not to seek reassurances from Theodor Geisel's widow that Dr. Seuss had no political intentions but to oblige the legitimate invitation for discussion and explore the story at greater depth. The issue that should concern us in this instance is not what Dr. Seuss is saying through the story Horton Hears a Who but what the anti-abortion activists are hearing in their reading.

Anyone should be willing to discuss a story; that is what they are there for. But this is not how the majority of people view the Bible. The Bible is an authoritative rather than inspirational text. Most people are more concerned with "what the Bible says" or "what the Bible meant" than perceiving the biblical stories as the impetus for conversation, answers being preferable questions. If we really could see the stories of the Bible as merely thought-experiments and explore together all the ways we could answer the riddles, then this paper would be called "The Good Atheist: How Jesus and the Prophets Inspire the Heathens Among Us." But instead, we have a dilemma.

Given the Bible's impressive propensity to inspire thousands to rush to the aid of the less fortunate, you might ask, what are atheists so afraid of? Many people, including myself, grew up in a Christian tradition where a spoonful of service helped the theology go down. Such early social justice training in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and retirement homes is undoubtedly a strong reason why non-profit organizations such as Salvation Army, Bread for the World, Tearfund, World Relief, Medair, Samaritan's Purse, Catholic Charities and many others continue to be so successful. But ever since Constantine painted the sign of the cross onto his soldiers' shields and marched them off to kill the Arabs, we have had good cause to consider the implications of employing religious discourse to fight our battles.

We know that the recipe for creating a more socially just biblically based message involves overthrowing single-thread narratives with a focus on the overall message or spirit of the Bible. Unfortunately it is the same recipe for creating a more bigoted, patriarchal biblically based message. So while there is a chance that we may be able to whip up a batch of freedom cookies, we risk the possibility that others may deduce our methods and introduce a whole new loaf of fruit cake into their social and political discourse.

Genesis 1:28 has been the basis of Dominion theology; Gen 9:6 has been used to support the death penalty; Luke 3:14 and Eph 6 in favor of a strong military; and Prov 13:24, 22:6, 23:13-14, and 22:15 are used to support corporal punishment for children. These are not the remnants of some misled, bygone era; these are "live" biblical references, active in the late Rev. D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministry, C. Peter Wagner's Global Harvest, James C. Dobson's Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and Michael and Debi Pearle's bestselling book To Train Up a Child. Until and unless there is an intellectually coherent reason why I can use the Bible to advance my causes while simultaneously critiquing another's use of the Bible to advance their cause, I will not do so.

Even if we were to inadvisably shrug off the history of atrocities built on promises of biblical utopias, we are left with the more personal bruise of condescension. Some atheists or non-Christians may be perfectly happy to accept the responsibility of hypocrisy and beat the drum of biblical reference if that rouses the masses to march their way dutifully to equality and social, political, and economic justice—they just don't want them to get giddy with the music and start gathering to dance together on the weekends. Large groups of people gathering outside working hours generally make atheists suspicious. But the pious atheists would never consent to such a compromise. This is intellectually legitimized patronization. As any music teacher would advise: if you don't feel the rhythm, you have no business making music.

You do not need to be an atheist to struggle with the ethical implications of adopting the language of another faith. As Richard Dawkins has repeatedly attempted to remind others, we are all atheists in relation to some other religion. Consider the story of Elizabeth Oram, a United States Peace Corps volunteer who went to Mauritania to curb the incidents of female circumcision. Not able to address the issue herself as an outsider, Oram solicited the assistance of Zainaba, a local midwife and a Muslim, who, at a workshop for local midwives, instructed them that the Prophet Muhammad had taught that only one third of the clitoris should be cut off. "If a woman's entire clitoris is cut off," she told the women, "it leaves her cold, lazy, and without desire, without interest, humourless. Doing that is like killing her, it is a sin. That is why the Prophet tells us that only one third should be taken off and two thirds left. Those of you who are cutting off the whole clitoris are clearly committing a sin."[2]

This method proved to be an effective way to halt the incidents of some of the most severe forms of clitoridectomy in that area, but it begs some serious ethical questions.

Oram believed that to successfully address an issue that grew from within the sacred canopy of this community, she needed to work from inside it. But what are the implications of replacing one myth with another? Is it not cultural condescension to fail to address the myth head-on—the myth that a clitoris is a superfluous male organ that, if not swiftly removed, causes a woman to be a sex-crazed monster? Does it not renew the power of these myths, rather than informed choice, to dictate the lives of women in this community? Is this just the path of least resistance or the difficult decision of a pragmatic person not blessed and burdened with the luxury of academic moral hesitation, someone who is working to achieve incremental change? These are the questions not only of the atheist's dilemma but of any one determining whether or not to work with the narratives of another culture in order to achieve ends that they themselves have decided are for the greater good.

Perhaps for this reason the Maples family from southern California has taken a different approach. They have set up a missionary church in northern Kenya with the goal of converting the Saburu people to Christianity; they hope that by introducing their narrative to this local culture they will be able to address female circumcision. "Once people have accepted the Lord, we'll talk about how God created sex and ordained sex, that sex is to be enjoyed," Rick Maples said. "It is a gift to a man and a woman who are married, and to take away God's gift of pleasure is not right." [3] So far the Maples family has been unsuccessful. Their strategy—to plant the narrative first, address concerns for the community later—has not been able to override the local narrative that holds them so tightly together. One can only wonder if the success rate would be any different if it were an atheist family in a similar position talking to the New York Times reporter ("Once people have accepted our current view of human anatomy and the evolutionary function of our organs…"), but there is a difference between the two.

Biblical speech, like all hortatory speech, seems mostly concerned with creating what the sociologist Felton Earl refers to as "collective efficacy." We do not want to be paralyzed by idealism and a relenting desire for consistency. We want to live in this world, and if you want to create action in many parts of this world, you need to talk the Bible talk because the Bible is the narrative machinery that can turn talk into action. In what places around the world is the Bible doing so much hard labor? How do all these different types of Bible machines work, and who creates them? Can we replace it with newer, clean-burning, less polluting machinery? These are questions that we should ask ourselves because it matters what the end product is.

Tweaking the Bible machinery to produce a world moved by a sense of communal responsibility and ethical consciousness is an entirely different product than a world moved by a sense of divine judgment. Employing the Bible to reduce the prevalence of HIV is an entirely different goal than employing the Bible to prevent unmarried persons from engaging in a sinful act. The raw materials are similar, but because the product is so different, the process is necessarily entirely different as well, as is the willingness of those who use this mechanism to adapt when the product turns out to defective.

In southern Uganda and northern Tanzania, the HIV infection rate fell 60% between 1992 and 1997—and it was not because of Western effort. It was because of the collective local effort of preachers, politicians, women's activists, and health officials to send one message to the locals: "Zero Grazing," be faithful to your partner. Marriage was not a primary concern. Both Christian and Muslim leaders searched the Bible and the Koran for quotations about adultery, supported by billboards, radio ads, and newspaper editorials—all to tremendous effect. According to Helen Epstein, who has been researching the efficacy of various HIV intervention programs, "The Zero Grazing message recognized the vital importance of partner reduction but also the difficulty of promoting lifelong monogamy in a culture in which polygamy and informal long-term concurrent relationships were common."[4] But in 2003, First Lady Janet Museveni went to Washington to secure one billion dollars for abstinence programs. Several months later, she marched down the streets of Kampala promising all women who pledged their virginity a free washing machine on their wedding day. President Museveni said that AIDS was "a moral problem" caused by "undisciplined sex" and that condoms should be reserved for prostitutes. As a result, condom distribution is ineffective because it does not address the moral concern, and abstinence education is ineffective because it does not address human realities. No one wins.

Despite a postmodern "incredulity toward metanarratives," it is impossible to overlook the importance of a moral narrative in driving collective efficacy. It is difficult, too, to see the blaring but inevitable inconsistencies that arise when narratives are so linked to their context. Encouraging one community to overt their puritan eyes away from the Bible and embrace comprehensive sexual education, while simultaneously imploring another community to embrace the Bible's ambiguous call to fidelity—all in the name of public health—is the Orwellian doublethink that keeps power in the hands of our select but benevolent brotherhood. Yet the stakes are so high, the statistics so heart wrenching, that I am tempted to turn to an antidote to George Orwell's warning that F. Scott Fitzgerald provided when he wrote, "The test of true intelligence was the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in one's head and still be able to function." Perhaps it is possible to believe that the Bible is both a destructive and ameliorating force. Still, I doubt that Fitzgerald was sanctioning speaking out of both sides of our mouths. He went on to write that we "should see that things are hopeless yet still be determined to hope." And in that spirit, we should see that our stories destroy us and still allow ourselves to hope that they may one day save us.

Michelle Krejci, University of Sheffield


[1] Interview with Hannah Wallace, "Modern Slaves," n.p. [cited 27 March 2008]. Online:

[2] Zainaba, "Lecture on Clitoridectomy to the Midwives of Touil, Mauritania," in Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (ed. M. Badran and M. Cooke; Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 64.

[3] Daniel Bergner, "The Call," New York Times Magazine n.p. [cited 29 January 2006]. Online:

[4] Helen Epstein, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West and the Fight Against Aids (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 195-96.

Citation: Michelle Krejci, " An Atheist's Dilemma: Should We Bend the Bible for Justice?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2008]. Online:


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