Vastleft: David, thanks for making the time for this chat, which will be posted on Correntewire.com and Bible Study for Atheists.
David Plotz: I'm glad to be here. Fire away.
VL: Shortly after I began BS4A, I heard about your Bible-blogging at Slate, which had started a couple of months earlier.
At the time, I was avoiding outside influences — playing the Bible as it lays.
However, with my Bible blog on hiatus, I decided to make myself “impure” by reading your newly published Good Book, your take on the Hebrew Bible. (Second-edition jacket-blurb opportunity: “I made myself impure for this book.” — Vastleft)
The Bible is often held up as the ultimate guide to, and font of, morality. How do you think it stacks up in that regard?
DP: It depends how you define the Bible. If you say the Bible is entirety of the book, then it does not stack up very well, because there are all kinds of appalling laws, immoral heroes, and divine cruelties. That said, everyone makes their own bible. Every group that uses the Bible as its home scripture emphasizes some parts and deemphasizes others, and if you cherrypick the Bible, you can find marvelous moral principles (see the middle of Leviticus 19, for example). So it depends on whether you think you're allowed to pick and choose, or whether you have to take the whole book.
VL: Were you thinking much about Bible literalists as you read the Old Testament? Didn’t the many unsavory and inconsistent aspects of the book make the literalists scarier than you might have found them to begin with?
DP: It's hard for me, as a Jew, to take Biblical literalists too seriously. Judaism does not have the same fixation on Biblical inerrancy that American Christianity does. There are a few ultraorthodox who are literalists, but Judaism as a whole doesn't take that debate too seriously. That said, it's hard to see how any person taught an iota of science or history can remain a Biblical literalist. The Bible is so full of contradiction and chockablock with impossible events that it requires more than just faith, but a kind of willful divorce from the world, to accept the literal truth of the Bible.
Do I think Biblical literalists are a threat? Not really. But I think the antiscientism they represent is a huge problem in a nation that hopes to compete technologically. So the problem is not the beliefs in the Flood or the Garden of Eden, but the anti-rationality of those beliefs, and how it pervades other aspects of life.
VL: As I mentioned when we first spoke, my atheism used to be a rather private affair, until religion began becoming an increasing force in American public life. That put me on high alert re: the general acceptance of religion as a virtual synonym for morality (remember those hyped "moral values" exit polls?), since it serves to over-empower fundamentalists. Are you fazed by such developments, either on general principles or perhaps by the primacy it gives prominent Christians over members of minority sects (not that that's a strictly new phenomenon)?
DP: At different times I have been more and less fazed by that. During the early Bush years, I was deeply disturbed by it. (My wife, in fact, wrote a book, God's Harvard, that examined some of the implications of that.) Maybe I am gullible, but I think that conflation of religion and morality has subsided significantly in the past couple years. The combination of the Bush disaster, the reinvigoration of the progressive left, the rise of Obama, the economic crisis, and the success of left-wing churches have all undermined the notion that religion and morality (specifically a socially conservative morality) are the same. I think the conservative religious movement that championed that notion has crested, and is receding.
VL: Obama, though, was quite active in promoting his religious cred. Some chalked this up to a defense against "the Muslim smear," but all told there was quite a lot of religion in his campaign.
DP: He did, and he's not shy about invoking religious language and bringing in both the Rick Warren and Jim Wallises. But I don't think there is the same presumption with Obama and his people that religion and decency are the same.
VL: I guess as a skeptic, "presumption" doesn't sit all that well with me. [See note.] Anyway.... Unlike my skeptical starting point, you kicked off your Bible blog by stating “I have always been a proud Jew, but never a terribly observant one.”
In your book’s conclusion (as well as in some interviews, so I don’t think the Spoiler God will strike me down), you acknowledge that your opinion of God changed for the worse in the course of reading the Bible.
I didn’t get the sense, though, that your opinion of religion (yours or Judeo-Christian religious practices in general) was shaken. Is that a correct reading?
DP: I suspect I am trying to have it both ways. I was really disturbed by God, as I wrote, and you can't be really disturbed by God without calling into question a faith built around belief and trust in God. But Judaism, more than Christianity, I suspect, builds in room for the kind of doubt and anger I have about God. There is an honorable tradition in Judaism of Jews arguing and disputing and being contentious rather than obedient. So I try to slot myself in there.
But I should also say that I am not much of a Jewish practitioner anymore. We often do Shabbat dinners, we do Seders, I send my kids to Hebrew school, I go to synagogue on the high holidays. Those are fundamentally cultural and familial activities. But I don't have any great interest in diving deeper, as my more religious friends tell me I should. I am sure it would be intellectually rewarding, but religion is not important enough to my life to pursue it more. My year with the Bible made me realize that, too.
VL: One thing I really wasn't prepared for was how explicit the OT was about how the Israelites were to barge into other people's land, kill them, and take it over. It seems to fulfill the worst perceptions that anti-Zionists have, no?
DP: That's an unfair conflation, because it merges an ancient religious text with modern geopolitics. There are, of course, lots and lots of Jews who justify their claims to Israel and the West Bank by using the Bible. But most Israelis don't and the Israeli government doesn't. One of the oddest realizations I had while reading the Bible is that modern Israel occupies land that was not generally Biblical Israel. Modern Israel is where ancient Israel's enemies lived. The Biblical demands to kill and occupy are horrifying, and probably the most troubling part of the Bible. (Book of Joshua is hands down the most disturbing Bible book.) But it's succumbing to the literalist fallacy to extrapolate from that that Jews inherently are genocidal and seeking to expel and murder everyone on "their" land.
I guess your question is about whether it reinforces anti-Zionist views, and I suppose you are right that it could. My answer suggests that I think that would be unfair, but it may happen anyway.
VL: I don't mean to claim a certain cause/effect. But it was striking, and IIRC, you noted a time or two how the modern circumstances are reflected in the ancient text.
DP: Fair point.
VL: Thanks for tackling these weighty topics up front. I wanted to make sure that we had time to pick your brain about some large-scale issues. But, as we wrap up, please feel welcome to tell our (generally) religious-skeptical readers why they might want to read your book.
DP: First of all, you should read Good Book so you don't have to read the Bible itself. It's a much funnier, much more irreverent, and much more skeptical than the Bible itself, or than any Bible commentary would be, and it's a way to get a fast Biblical education without having to wade through the Bible itself.
More importantly, I think it's a useful tool for religious skeptics in seeing where the Bible's strong and weak points are. The crudest atheist position — this is a stupid book of mythology and immorality — misses that the Bible is textured and variegated in important ways. Good Book understands that texture, and shows why particular books and stories are appealing or appalling, how particular ideas were popularized and others were discarded, how particular characters were heroicized or villainized. Good Book will help skeptics understand, at an intellectual level, why particular aspects of the Bible have a hold on their fellow citizens. So think of it as a very useful tool for understanding your rivals. And because I am in the middle — neither skeptic nor believer, neither fundamentalist, nor atheist — I'm able to give a much subtler (and more fun!) reading to the Bible.
VL: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us!