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A humanist look at The Bible

Watch theologian Francesca Stavrakopoulou describe her study of the bible from a humanist perspective
I’m an atheist, I’m very left-wing in my politics, and I’m somebody who thinks that the humanist values are the values that I share as well, which can make for interesting conversations in my professional field, given that I study the Bible.
Studying the Bible is really important for somebody who shares humanist values and is interested in basically human ways of being in the world because the Bible is a human product. Religion is a human construct. In other words, religion is something that is very peculiar to human beings. It’s a big part of what makes us social - social beings and have relationships with each other. And religion, and particularly the Bible, can’t just be seen as the domain of the religious.
This is a collection of text in the Bible that has had a huge cultural influence on us in the West, from everything - from the way in which we think about our bodies, the way in which we think about power, the way in which we think about gender and sexuality, even politics - the Bible has shaped all of this tremendously. So the Bible belongs to all of us whether we’re religious or not and for that reason it needs people who aren’t necessarily religious to also think about why studying the Bible and critiquing those traditions is so important to make the world a better place.
My study of the Bible has shown that actually the Bible’s view of the past, its portrayal of the past, wasn’t written to be a history book at all. It wasn’t written to be factual in any way at all. It’s simply a collection - a very specialised selective collection of traditions over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years that have been added to or changed or adopted or adapted over many generations and that this view of the past was basically a way about trying to understand who these ancient societies were. They were no way intended to be instruction manuals for life, they were in no way intended to be a moral or an ethical guidebook.
It’s very hard to find ethics or morals, believe it or not, in the Bible. So my study really shows that actually religion is far more complicated, far more diverse, far more fluid then we tend to think and that the Bible isn’t sort of set in stone, it’s not kind of preserved in some kind of glass cage or case to be untouchable and somehow immutable. Actually the Bible has always been a very constantly fluid, changing collection of religious traditions and ideas - many of which conflict with each other and contradict each other.
And so for that reason alone we need to understand that the Bible isn’t necessarily the guide book to life and to society that some people would want us to believe.
I tend to prioritise things like archaeological evidence, comparative literary evidence, and ideas about socially, anthropologically what was going on in these regions at the time, and that’s how I decide what I think makes the best sense of the evidence that we have. What’s the most plausible way to understand some of these traditions and claims that are made in biblical texts? So in some ways what I do isn’t particularly contentious within professional, academic scholarship. It just tends to be a bit more controversial when that specialised academic discussion is brought out into the public sphere.
I think it’s essential that non-religious people take the time not just to understand religious points of view and religious communities, but also to get to know about those texts and communities and traditions as well as they possibly can, so that we can engage in proper conversations. Religion isn’t just for the religious, religion isn’t just about those who have faith or a belief in some kind of divine power. Religion shapes the world in which we live today, whether we like it or not. And religion isn’t going anywhere.
It seems to be something very fundamental to very social groups of animals, humans included, that we think about there being other ways of being in the world, other worlds if you like, that somehow religion can tap into or can help shape or control. So for that very reason it’s essential that non-religious people understand critically, robustly, intellectually and empathetically what is going on within religious systems and communities today, so that we can have better conversations and understand one another better and hopefully get along a bit better.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter. A leading expert in religion’s interpretations of the past and influence on modern attitudes, Francesca’s research is primarily focused on ancient Israelite and Judahite religions, and portrayals of religious history in the Hebrew Bible. She is a Patron of Humanists UK.

Question: What can an understanding of religion add to a non-religious life?

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