Can the Bible be read objectively?

I’m posting this to facilitate a conversation that I began on the wonderful blog, Darcy’s Heart Stirrings.  There, a commenter going by the name Josh made the following statement (emphasis mine):

If you really understand the whole narrative of the Bible it will always point to two things. God Loves you and He is always working for you to destroy evil, to destroy sin. If you honestly look at the Bible objectively its impossible to not see the love and care God has for us.

Josh went on to insist that, if I held a view of god that did not include his love and care for humankind, then I must be reading the bible in a biased and subjective way.  Now, I agree with Josh that my view of god as described in the bible is subjective.  However, I assert that his view is subjective as well. I disagree that Josh and everyone who agrees with him about god are somehow immune from bias in their reading of scripture, while everyone who comes away with a different opinion are failing to be objective. We could debate about how the character of god is depicted in the scriptures, but to me, it’s a purely academic exercise. We could argue about whether we felt that King Lear from Shakespeare’s play is a sympathetic character or not, but there is no such thing as reading King Lear objectively to find the real opinion of his character. In the same way, there is no way to objectively surmise the character of god from the bible. The very act of reading the bible and interpreting the words into meaning imposes our own biases and subjective values onto it. Josh claims that I can “objectively” read the bible and, if I do, it will be impossible to come to a conclusion other than his regarding the nature of the god depicted there. I just don’t see how that is possible. By what manner do I objectively read the bible? How can I test my level of objectivity or his?

He might object a little to my King Lear comparison if he claims Shakespeare’s play describes fictional events, while the bible describes historical events. That’s a fair objection, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. All it means is that there is a “right” answer to the question “what is the nature of god?” but it gets me no closer to figuring out how to objectively obtain it from the bible. For example:

The bible states that “god is good” and the bible also states that god ordered genocide against entire nations. There are a million viewpoints to take on this. One might say “clearly this is a contradiction and god can’t both be good and genocidal.” Others might say “those people deserved to be wiped out because they were evil. Therefore, god can both be good and order genocide.” Others might say “the bible misrepresents god here; he never ordered the genocide, but the Israelites claimed he did.” Others might say “clearly when the bible says god is good it means he is good only to people he likes.” Others might say “I don’t know why god committed genocide, but since he is good, we must assume he had good reasons.” On and on.

My question to Josh is not “which one of these is right” but rather “which one of these viewpoints (or others) was obtained objectively, without any bias from the person proposing it?” I claim none of them were. All of them are affected by biases: either biased because of our personal opinion of what “good” means, or biased by our assumptions that god must be good, or biased by our opinion of whether the bible is god’s word, or biased by our assumption of if the bible is telling the truth, or biased by our very understanding of what “god” means, etc etc etc. If there is an objective interpretation, I wouldn’t even begin to know how you’re supposed to find it. So Josh can tell me his preferred interpretation if he wants (I’m not telling mine or if mine is even on the list :P) but unless he can explain why his opinion is objective it’s not really answering my question.

One last thing: I do think that some people approach the bible more objectively than others. In other words, you can open the bible thinking “I believe that god is good/evil and the bible is going to prove it!” and read it that way and you will definitely be more strongly biased in that one respect than someone who says “I’m going to form my opinion after I read the book.” But even the latter person will be subjective in his or her assessments, no matter what they try to do to avoid it. It’s inevitable.

I am inviting Josh to respond here on my blog if he wishes to clarify his statements or answer my questions.

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3 responses

  1. One thing I’d like to point out is that bias as Josh is using it implies that your view is invalid because it improperly skews your view of the facts. The problem with this charge is that it ignores your reasoning entirely, and it is irrelevant to the issues you raise. Bias only matters when you are alleging: (1) someone is saying something untrue; and (2) you are putting forth a reason why the person is saying that untrue thing.

    As long as you can provide evidence for your assertions and disclose what assumptions you’re making, bias will never be an adequate response to what you’re arguing.

    1. YES I was hoping to eventually lead to this exact point that you have just made succinctly. Everyone brings some level of bias to the things they read and the interpretations they glean. Having a bias isn’t wrong. And indeed, if Josh is willing to admit that he also has his own biases when he reads the bible, this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong about the nature of god. Maybe he’s completely right! But to prove this would require something better than just being able to claim “if you’re unbiased you will reach my conclusion, therefore my conclusion is true.”

  2. Reblogged this on …..temporary…. and commented:
    This was my main reason for eventually becoming an atheist. There’s not even objectivity within varying sects of religion. And it’s bathed in the supernatural, which has no objective tools with which to investigate its existence.

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