Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

No, Atheist Friends, The Bible Isn’t Just “Fairy Tale.”

 

When interacting with (some) atheists online, it isn’t a shocker to stumble upon some who begin a discussion with an overwhelming arrogance as they prepare to rain down their intellectual and moral superiority on you.

I mean, let’s be honest: Every group has its hard-core Calvinists, right? (That’s a joke people. I don’t need more hate mail from Calvinists.)

The other day I wrote a post on some things I wish atheists would stop doing, and one of those things was I wish they’d stop with the conversation-stopping claim that our belief system/the Bible is just a bunch of “fairy tales.”

To my surprise, this was the one point that seemed to get the most push-back. In fact, many atheists doubled down on this point– including Hemant Mehta from Friendly Atheist, who responded, here. Strewn throughout the comment section I found atheist after atheist saying, “Yup, I’m still calling it all a fairy tale.”

This, of course, invites a few more questions: First, is the Bible a fairy tale?

And second, a worthy question posed by a reader in the comment section: Do some atheists have an unsophisticated approach to literature? 

As the Irish Atheist pointed out in the comment section (because some atheists can be atheists without being a total %$@! about it), calling the Bible a fairy tale falls flat, because fairy tale is a very specific, modern, English genre of literature. This specific literary genre is typically short stories, written specifically for children, and is designed to be complete fantasy. What’s a fairy tale? Think Shrek.

This isn’t the literary genre of the Bible. One can think the Bible is complete junk, one can disagree every word of it, some of it can be historically inaccurate or even untrue– but if one thinks the literary genre of this literature is “fairy tale” than I do wonder if such a person actually does have a horribly unsophisticated view of literature in general.

The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books (protestant cannon) written over a large period of time by different people, in different cultures, and for different purposes. In fact, there is a multitude of genres found in the Bible, and not one of those genres is “fairy tale.”

For example, in the Hebrew scriptures we find a wide array of genres that all center around a theme: the birth and development of a people group that came to be known as ancient Israel. Most of it was written in hindsight (I believe most was written in the post-exilic period) as they looked back at where they had come from. From this literature we see how they viewed government, what bronze age nomads considered good laws, how they viewed the divine, which surrounding cultures they clearly hated, and which ones they were happy to borrow from as they grew in their individual identity.

Within that, do they also include some myths (sacred stories that aren’t literally true)? Some legends (popular stories that can’t be historically authenticated)? Yeah, of course. That’s the kind of stuff we expect to find in ancient literature like this.

As we move forward we find them writing about their wars, and see that just like those around them, they grossly exaggerated their victories (as I demonstrate in this 2 minute video of an artifact I stumbled upon in Amman, Jordan). We also see them write beautiful poetry and wisdom, two more literary genres found in the 66 book library. We find them talking about their national problems, their struggles with leadership and how establishing a monarchy backfired on them, and even have an entire book dedicated to things they complained about.

Then we move into another interesting genre– the prophets. No, these weren’t exactly future tellers, but more like the social justice advocates of their day. After the wars, their culture became like ours- the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer, so ancient “prophets” came along to tell them that such selfishness actually pisses God off. One of them even told people that God hates religious people who mistreat the poor and vulnerable, and that they make God want to vomit. (These guys often got killed, FWIW.)

And, of course, we have the Greek Scriptures, where some Jews started a new religion that became known as Christianity. In here we see fans of Jesus who wrote about his life and teachings, followed by a collection of letters written to different churches around the world– each one addressing different cultural struggles and issues they were having as they began to establish this new religion. The Bible even ends with a truly strange genre–Jewish apocalyptic literature– which was a specific genre that was geared towards giving people hope when struggling through rough times, but is notoriously complicated to interpret in modern times.

That’s a ridiculously truncated version of the literature found in the Bible, but here’s the point: none of it is fairy tale, even if parts of it include myths or legends that are scientifically impossible or historically false.

So, back to the question: Do atheists have an unsophisticated view of literature? Well, if one really believes the Bible can be classified as fairy tale, than yes– one would be holding to an almost laughable lack of sophistication when it comes to ancient literature. It would be like visiting Egypt, looking at all the carvings on the walls left for us by ancient Egyptians, and then saying, “What a bunch of losers and their stupid fairy tales.”

It’s true that the ancient Egyptians may have believed and practiced some crazy shit, but such an arrogant, dismissive attitude actually makes one less enlightened, not more.

It’s such a waste of perfectly good brain cells when bias leads us to dismissiveness and over-generalization, especially in the world of literature. But hey, people do this with Shakespeare too, because dismissiveness is easier than seeking understanding.

But here’s the deal: I don’t think the average atheist is actually that unsophisticated. Instead, I would invite a little more honesty:

When you call the Bible a “fairy tale” you’re not saying it because you believe it’s actually in the same literary genre as Shrek, you’re using the word as a pejorative for the simple purpose of being a %#@! about things.

And I’m sorry, but I don’t see anything morally or intellectually superior about that. It’s ignorant, close-minded, and completely dismissive of windows into ancient history.

In fact, such attitudes remind me of how easy it is for any of us (myself included) to so blindly become the very thing we claim to hate.

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

It's not the end of the world, but it's pretty #@&% close. Trump's America & Franklin Graham's Christianity must be resisted.

Join the resistance: Subscribe to posts and email updates from BLC!

It's not the end of the world, but it's pretty #@&% close. Trump's America & Franklin Graham's Christianity must be resisted.

Join the resistance: Subscribe for posts and updates from BLC!

Books from BLC:

You Might Also Like:

Books from BLC:

What you think

Post Comments:

  • Depends on how you define ‘fairy tale. Much of the Bible is made-up nonsense and folklore to answer inconsequential questions like “Rabbi! Rabbi! where did humans come from?”. So the Rabbi made up some story. It got repeated and written down, and now we have asshats who want to teach it as science in public schools.

  • Wow, I find it altogether fascinating that so many atheists, agnostics, and general non-believers find the candle flame of Benjamin’s posts so irresistibly attractive that they come here in flocks to singe their wings.

  • The modern Christian religion is just that fairytales. It is a creation of Constantine the roman emperor

  • I can’t tell whether the conceit is a bit clunky in how it’s presented or if the basic thesis is serious. The focus on people describing the Bible a (literal) fairy tale is just about ridiculous except for it’s introduction of some ideas about the Bible that cannot help but invite progress towards seeing the Bible’s stories as nothing but literarily or anthropologically interesting. I thought it was brilliant until the end, when the conceit was taken seriously.

  • I’ve always viewed the Bible as a propaganda piece. It’s been revised and omitted so many times throughout the years by kings and other “leader types”. These changes were meant to hijack it and keep their peasants in line based on the evolution of mankind and based on the rules of the land.

    People cherry-pick the bible all the time. Honestly, I’m okay with that if they are cherry-picking all the good things within it. But they should never ignore the terrible things condoned in it such as slavery, killing, incest, etc.

    As a secular humanist, I appreciate someone who actually asks the question “What Would Jesus Do” and act kindly to others, as opposed to perverting the religion for political intent. I don’t care if people are religious or not, but I do care when religion is used as a shield and weapon to inflict harm or even death on others.

  • Arguing about the type of literature found in a book designed to enable leeches to get rich and exert their immorality over the world is pointless.

  • It’s not a book of fairy tales. But it is a book of angel tales. Fairies and angels both have wings, magical powers, vary from benevolent to indifferent to malevolent towards humanity, and don’t exist.

  • I have always found a lot of common ground with liberal Christianity when it comes to issues of social justice. But you are choosing to draw a very peculiar line against the phrase “fairy tale”.

    As I commented on your previous post, insisting that a “fairy tale” is an isolated, narrow genre is a false conceit. The vast majority of uses of the phrase “fairy tale” are informal; but even academic uses are not limited in the way you describe.

    While some studies or associations of “fairy tale” might refer to Western European children’s story, you are demanding a limited technical definition for “fairy tale” that is simply false. Scholars of both literature and cultural anthropology use the term “fairy tale” frequently in ways that include mythological roots and don’t fit in the tight little “modern, English genre of literature” box you suggest:

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonianmag/fairy-tales-could-be-older-ever-imagined-180957882/
    http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/brothers-grimm-story-proven-right-many-fairy-tales-stem-ancient-oral-traditions-005220
    https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/the-irresistible-fairy-tale-the-cultural-and-social-history-of-a-genre/419722.article
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/6142964/Fairy-tales-have-ancient-origin.html
    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/030908928601103402
    https://books.google.com/books?id=K8X2DymK5UcC&pg=PA43&lpg=PA43&dq=fairy+tale+genre+bible&source=bl&ots=-OKoTY5o1b&sig=JAu15DNF0eV30OOl9PeJZS3Iy-I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjb-93_ydTRAhWI6oMKHbW1Cek4HhDoAQhJMAk#v=onepage&q=fairy%20tale%20genre%20bible&f=false

    And speaking of unsophisticated approaches to literature, even if you did limit yourself to, say, the sixteenth century, since when were fairy tales limited to “English” literature?!

    There’s something more going on in your protestations than you are letting on. You argue that the issue is one of incorrect genre, and cite as evidence a “multitude” of biblical genres – as though a lack of sophistication on the part of atheists were truly the problem.

    If one were to call, say, Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey or the Enuma Elis a fairy tale, you might correct someone in a moment of conversation (a dubious correction, I might add), but you would not devote an entire blog post to the issue, nor call it “ignorant, close-minded, and completely dismissive of windows into ancient history” or “being a %#@! about things”.

    Because, speaking of honesty, it is clear that this is not a “literary” issue for you. You’re not upset at the use of “fairy tale” because your literary sensibilities are offended. You would not take such offense if someone called the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts fairy tales.

    You are offended because the Bible means something more to you than a collection of literary genres; but (in this post at least) you are being a bit cagey about what that something more is.

    You are clearly offended by the use of the phrase “fairy tale” to describe anything biblical, but I seriously doubt this is a “literary” offense.

    • Good point. “Fairy Tale” has far more nontechnical uses than technical literary uses.

      “denoting something regarded as resembling a fairy story in being magical, idealized, or extremely happy”

      “a fabricated story, especially one intended to deceive.”

      If Corey really thinks that using “fairy tale” as a descriptor for the bible is “being a %#@!”, it has nothing to do with genre!

    • It’s not fairy tales.

      I think a lot of it is propaganda eg the Old Testament is pro-Jewish in contradiction to historical fact eg the figures of moses and joshua whereas the New Testament is anti-Jewish eg the destruction of the temple is God’s judgement against Judaism.

  • the bible is most likely mostly fake though, i have no issue with you just telling my personal opinion

  • “fairy tale is a very specific, modern, English genre of literature”

    Fairy tales are English? I don’t think you can presume to school us on the meaning of “fairy tale” if you’ve never heard of the Brothers Grimm. Or perhaps you didn’t know they were German. Hans Christian Anderson? Danish.

    I can’t tell you if “some atheists” have an “unsophisticated approach to literature.” But you certainly do.

  • First, Don’t you ever call me an atheist, you antirealist, second: I am not nor will I ever be your friend and third: yes, it is and it is my opinion so I cannot be wrong.

  • Cliff’s notes: “I don’t have anything to say, so I’ll just slam rationalists for their understanding of literature with a pathetic semantic argument and make a few concessions to sound hip.”

  • No buddy, a fairy tale is not “a very specific, modern, English genre of literature”. Fairy tales go way back, and come from all over the world. Hell, even your example of a fairy tale, Shrek, does not even fit your definition. Amazing that you have the gall to talk about others having an unsophisticated view of literature….

    In any case, I’ve been looking around all over the place at every definition of a fairy tale I can find. Absolutely none are the definition you are using. I have found some though, maybe you could tell me if they apply to the Bible or not:

    – A story, often with a moral or happy ending.
    Well, whether or not you would think the stories in the Bible have happy endings, many consider them to be moral stories, and so would fit this definition of a fairy tale.

    – A story, usually for children, about elves, hobgoblins, dragons, fairies, or other magical creatures.
    The Bible features things such as dragons, gods, demi-gods, angels, devils, unicorns, and talking donkeys and also makes mention of things like wizards. So it definitely fits the “magical creatures” part of this definition. It does say that the story is usually for children. But “usually” doesn’t mean “always”, and so this definition of fairy tale would apply to the Bible.

    – An incredible or misleading statement, account, or belief.
    Yeah, this definition absolutely applies to the Bible.

    – Something resembling a fairy tale in being magical, idealized, or extremely happy.
    Yup, this one absolutely applies too. Also, the definition makes note that this use of fairy tale is “often as a modifier”, which is to say, a way of describing something (eg. Fairy tale romance). So to describe the Bible as a collection of fairy tales is just fine according to this definition.

    – A fabricated story, especially one intended to deceive.
    Even Christians will admit that many stories in the Bible are fabricated and didn’t actually happen. Even without the “especially to deceive” part of this definition, fairy tale works to describe the Bible.

    – A story involving fantastic forces and beings.
    Yeah. I’ll just end with this one. This will be the definition of fairy tale I will use.

    So in the end I guess there’s just one thing to say: The Bible is a fairy tale.

  • After reading the Bible, I’ve tended to refer to it as “historical fiction” but I can see how it could be described as a fairy tale when applying the definition “fabricated story, especially one intended to deceive.”

    It’s not a big deal though. I’m fine with folks who require a belief in any number of gods, leprechauns, Santa, but don’t expect anyone to take you seriously when making “truth” claims regarding these characters —
    and expect a fight if you attempt to inject your beliefs into other people’s lives.

  • I agree that it is fallacious to refer to The Bible as a series of fairy tales. Fairy tales are obvious fiction intended primarily for entertainment with additional goals of some degree of morality instruction. The Bible is better characterized as a grouping of myths. Myths are stories with the primary intent of explaining one’s environment, instructing on a society’s ethos, and explaining how a society’s deities came to be and how those deities conduct themselves.
    The biggest problem I see with many current members of the Christian churches is their insistence on considering the biblical myths as being factual descriptions of history. As such, the myths lose much of their power for instruction. In addition, those not subscribing to the Christian belief systems find this tendency to believe myths as facts makes of the myths fairy tales.

  • Dr. Corey, on a personal level I admire your truthfulness, your humanity, and your willingness to question dogma that discourages introspection and searching in the worst possible way (i.e., “you’ll burn alive for eternity, heretic!”).

    But this is arguing semantics. “Fairy tale” would be a step up for the Bible…and before you ask, I’m not an atheist. Not even close. I’ve studied the Bible in some depth, some of it even in Koine (NT) and Hebrew (OT).

    Yes, there are 66 books (and a bunch of those are pseudepigraphical, which is how you guys in the Bible club refer to fraud). Yes, they represent several genres. *And this isn’t relevant.*

    When the atheist refers to the Bible as “fairy tales,” s/he is using it as a shorthand, very much the same way someone might refer to all politicians as “a bunch of lying scum” when in fact there are some politicians who are NOT lying scum. It’s a generality, but it’s a generality that has a lot of truth to it.

    And you can’t escape the Bible’s horrors by “reinterpreting” it or attempting a cultural-relatavism dodge along the lines of “but that was acceptable BACK THEN.” At least not without utterly vitiating it.

    Furthermore, If the horrors of, say, Numbers 31, passed across your God’s mind in even the slightest little bit, he’s responsible for it. He could just as easily have, you know, not inspired that bit. Or any of the other horrors. He is, after all, omniscient, omnipotent, absolutely sovereign, etc. This omniscience brings with it a knowledge of what people would do with the material they even THINK he inspired them to write.

    As it is said, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. An omniscient being “walks past” EVERYTHING, observes EVERYTHING, and so to let ANYTHING like this pass is to accept and endorse it wholeheartedly.

    No, on the whole, “fairy tale” is much too charitable an epithet for the Bible. And not even your progressive attempts to define away the problems in it will save it.

  • Books from BLC:

    >