An Atheist Reads The Bible: In The Beginning

So I think the first page of the Bible is as good as place as any to begin. Chapter 1 of Genesis is probably the best known part of the Bible and most people could tell you that it’s about how God created the world in seven days.

The story goes like this: In the beginning, God said “Let there be light” and created the Earth. He then separated light from dark (aren’t they separate by definition?) and an expanse (called Heaven) to separate the waters from the waters (what water is this? Did someone look into the sky and presume that because it is blue that there must be water up there?). Then on the third day he created Earth and filled it with vegetation. On the fourth he created two great lights, the Sun and the Moon, which is strange because the Moon does not create light, merely reflects it. This also raises the question of where all the light was coming from before the sun was created and how did all the vegetation survive? How could he mark the days before the creation of the Sun? It seems that God/whoever wrote this doesn’t know the basics of how the solar system works. It’s probably a bit early for reaching conclusions, but it seems that at least this chapter was written by ordinary people, not the divine creator of the universe.

The most revealing part is how after making the Sun and the Moon, there is a throwaway line about “and the stars”. Now to an ancient society, stars probably seemed like little more than dots in the sky, hardly worth much attention, but we know that in fact the case is the opposite. Earth is not the centre of the universe as Genesis 1 says, but rather we are a tiny dot in a Universe so massive that it cannot be described by words. It is estimated that there are about 1022 to 1024 stars in the Universe. If it takes a day to create a planet or a star, then there simply isn’t enough time since the Universe was created for all these stars to exist. This small detail is one of the most damning parts of Genesis 1, and shows that whoever wrote this, did not know how the Universe was created.

Then fish and animals are created until we get to the sixth day when humans (a man and a woman) are created (something I didn’t know, the Hebrew word for man is Adam). Man is made in God’s image (don’t all people think that God exactly resembles them and how they think?) and will rule over all the animals of the world. All plants and fruits are given to humans to eat, which is odd, because most wild plants are not edible. Even crops like grain are actually poisonous to humans in their wild state and it took generations of selective breeding/evolution before they were transformed into modern crops. All animals are also given plants to eat which is odd, were all animals herbivores?

Then something odd happens. After the creation of the world is described in Chapter 1, it is described again in the second chapter, but this time the details are different. This time man (a single man) is created (from dust) first and then all the vegetation. In Chapter 1, livestock is created before humans, but on the very next page, livestock is created after humans. Which is it? It can’t be both. It is odd that after only two pages the Bible is already contradicting itself (and that this was not noticed by the editors). The only explanation I can find by apologists is that some plants were created and some after, which seems like scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Perhaps, at the time Genesis 1 was written, it seemed like a decent explanation of how the world was formed, but we have learned an awful lot since then. The world did not suddenly appear in an instant like Genesis says, but gradually over billions of years. The Universe was formed roughly 1 billion years ago, but Earth was only formed 4 billion years ago. If the Universe was created for us, then why was there a 10 billion year gap? It’s hard to look at a history of the Universe and not conclude that our existence is only an unintended side effect. Likewise, the idea that all of life was created in its current form has been completely debunked under the weight of the overwhelming evidence for evolution. Again, considering the billions of years it took to get from primitive life to Homo sapiens (humans) and the many times life nearly went extinct, makes it hard to claim that Earth was created for us.

What I think is the most important part of Genesis 1 is what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say who or what God is, or how he created the Universe. Nor do we get any insight into one of the greatest scientific mysteries, how did life originate? Questions about whether there is a God and how the world was created have been debated for millennia, but the Bible gives us no answers. Contrary to what religious people claim, the Bible isn’t that good of a way to “know” God or how he operates. One of the strongest arguments that believers use in debates against Atheists, is that Atheists can’t explain how the Universe was formed. But neither can the Bible. At least there are some hypotheses on the origin of life and evolution and the Big Bang explain a lot, whereas the Bible gives us nothing. The creation of everything is such an important event that it is bizarre that it only merits a single page, while whole books later on are devoted to the most mundane issues.

Thousands of years ago it seemed natural to think that the Earth was the centre of the universe, so the fact that other planets and stars don’t get a mention would have seemed normal. Humans like to think that there is something special about ourselves that puts us higher than other animals and puts Earth superior to other planets. But in the general scheme of things, we are quite insignificant. It’s impossible to claim that the Universe was created specially for us when you consider how massive it is and how small Earth is. (The following is thanks to Andrew Colvin and Wikimedia).

To put Earth in context, it is has only 0.2% of the mass of the planets in our Solar System.


Our Solar System is only one of 53 in the Solar Interstellar Neighbourhood.


This is only a tiny piece of the Milky Way which has an estimated 100 billion planets and 100-400 billion stars.


It used to be thought that all of the Universe was inside the Milky Way, but we have since discovered that the Milky Way is part of a Local Group of 54 galaxies.


This Local Group is only a small part of the Virgo Supercluster which has at least 100 galaxy groups in it.


This is in turn only one of many superclusters.


These are a part of the Observable Universe (there could be more to the Universe that we don’t know about).


Now considering the vast size of the Universe, does it seem likely that it was created in seven days by a single being who only cares about a single planet? If Earth is so special, then why are there so many billions upon billions of other planets? If they are not for us then why did God waste time and energy creating them? Knowing the size of the Universe is a truly humbling experience and makes it seem the height of narcissism to believe that humans are the only beings that matter. Comparing the silly story of Genesis 1 with what we know about the Universe, is to compare a dull and unimaginative with the wonder and splendour of reality.

For the rest of the series, see here.


Filed under Religion

16 responses to “An Atheist Reads The Bible: In The Beginning

  1. Pingback: An Atheist Reads The Bible | Robert Nielsen

  2. Partner, I don’t believe in atheists, and I surely don’t bel;eve that the christian church has discovered the truth either!

  3. Okay, you got it wrong from the start. Of course there are the “waters above” (how could the world be flooded in the Great Flood without all of that water), so if you can get through the firmament and then the water above there are seven heavens, yes, I believe that is right, seven heavens. Where you got all of this other nonsense is beyond me. I believe that this is because there is not one scientifically correct statement of physical reality in the bible. You would think that god might have required us to wash our hands and eating utensils before eating but no, in fact Jesus says not to, that nothing we eat can harm us (if this were so, why all of the dietary restrictions? just to piss us off?) He might have clued us in that if we were to dribble a little water on all babies they wouldn’t end up in Hell until they reached the age of decision and made the wrong one. This would have been especially handy for the 4000 years humanity existed before Jesus came along.

    By the way, if the universe is only 6000 years old the light from any starts over 6000 light-years away would not be visible, so each of those that are is one vote for the errancy of the bible.

    It seems as if the universe was fine tuned to make vacuum and stars.

  4. Robert. It is a joy seeing you read the whole saga as an atheist. In 2004-06 I read it so as to be an atheist. And I did.

    May I offer suggestions that I wish someone gave me when I undertook my project:

    1. The books, now collected together as Old and New Testaments should not be understood as one book. As the term ‘Bible’ means books we are to read each book within it cultural background, period, and context.

    2. Each book was written to a specific audience. It was written to them, not to us, but for all audience. Thus the message is cultural transcendent but the form is cultural embodied. If you understood this, you would not have faced the absurdities above on Genesis. Genesis 1-2:3 is a purely ancient Near Eastern cosmogony which is not about material ontology but functional. It is about bring order from disordered space. The outer cosmos was unordered space thus did not functionally existed. Classically creation begins with separating the land and the skies. The waters on the land are divided to water above and water below by a dome. & so forth Read Common English Bible printed in 2011, I believe, they kept the original concepts.

    3. The collections of OT are not there to teach us moral values per se. OT is a saga of God revealing Himself through particular people He chose. Thus OT ought to be read as a revelation saga. A story about God. A myth as properly understood by the term. Not as a false story, but a story that involves God. Myth became false when God was aprior rejected.

    These are my suggestions. I will be here if you need help or clarification.

    • Hi Prayson, Thanks for your comment, I would be very interested to hear your take on my project because a lot of what I’m reading is very bizarre. It’s interesting that you don’t think the Bible should be taken literally or is necessarily a guide for modern life. It’s never been too clear which parts of the Bible are supposed to be followed and which can be dismissed. Homosexuality for example. Perhaps you could help shed some light.

      • Thank you Robert. I would love to offer my take on your project. OT can prima facie be bizarre. If you think it is brutal so far, you are in for a wild ride. The worst of the worst is to be found in the book called the Judges. Most of OT sagas are like The Game of Thrones. Sex, brutal killings, and struggle for power would be played over and over. This is so because we are reading it as if it was writing to us. We read our cultural values into the text, and are repelled by what we encounter.

        This is backtracking reading. Which the only reading one has if not familiar with ancient Near East cognitive environment. It is like reading and judging Middle Eastern lifestyle with Western values.

        OT books are suppose to introduce the idea that a fallen world that was once created good. Out of the fallen world, God chose a nation, that would supposedly bring hope and in the end restoration. The dozens of prima facie meaningless laws given to that nation was to set them apart from other nations.

        A shy in saying Bible, because Bible is quite “modern”. First Christians for example did not have an idea of “Bible”. What we call Bible is a collection of writings placed together. Each writings thus must be read within its context, background and period.

        The message that transcend culture is to be followed but the form or concepts used is culturally bound and cannot be followed by generation posterior to when the writing was given.

        I do not like long comments, so I would end here to avoid it being too long.🙂

        • I agree, I also was strongly reminded of Game of Thrones while reading the Bible. I have the feeling that there’s a lot more awfulness to go through.

          • Yes, there is so much awfulness to come. OT is not written for us to find out how to live per se. It is a saga. A story about a particular people in a particular geographical place and particular period of time. Ancient Near Eastern was brutal place to live in that period. Their science is not our science. Well, much of our science would probably not be our great grand children. Science is dynamic. Ever developing. Ethics too is dynamic. Ever developing( for the best I hope).

            So for us to understand ancient text, we have to leave behind our modern biases and see the world as they so it. This helped me make much sense of OT’s ethics and naive(used in positive way) science.

  5. OK, the OT is mostly the tribal saga of the Hebrews, obviously told from their POV. The creation myths are really just there to set the scene. They’re based largely on pre-existing myths from Mesopotamia, Egypt etc. in which various gods and other entities representing physical forces work together or in opposition to create the world as understood by the peoples of the ancient middle east. The big difference is that the Jews became fanatical monotheists, so the myths had to be severely edited, which explains why they don’t always make much sense. Also there were different Jewish traditions, which are all jumbled together. Biblical scholars have tried to sort them out and have reference letters for them.

    As to how Yahwah did it, the answer is by naming things. Until a thing is ‘named’ (that is conceptualised) you can’t perceive it as a separate entity. So the world begins as a big random mess of amorphous ‘stuff’ which gets divided and subdivided again and again into an increasing number of ‘named’ entities. Light vs dark, heaven vs earth, land vs sea, living vs non-living etc. etc. So this is really a way of describing how we subjectively perceive our world, perhaps how we developed our consciousness (either as individuals or as a race?) rather than how the external world (does it even exist? how would we ever know???) was actually created.

    As to evolution, remember that until relatively recent times mostly nothing very much changed within a single lifetime or even within ‘living memory’. So people largely though of the world as a fixed and stable environment. E.g. an Ancient Greek brought forward to say c1500 c.e. wouldn’t find much to surprise him or her. A few techniques had been refined or extended but everything would be much the same. Ships might be bigger and have more sophisticated rigging but they were still build of timber and powered by sail. The most startling inventions might be the ship’s rudder and on land, the horse-collar (which meant that horses rather than oxen could pull ploughs without choking themselves). Only with the coming of steam power, modern engineering, the industrial revolution and the ever-increasing advance of modern technology, did the world begin to change noticeably within a lifetime, by now within a decade! Only then did the idea of an evolving world take root and seem logical. Previously it had seemed irrational and contrary to ‘common sense’.

  6. Street Preacher

    Adam and Eve were not the first human beings that God created.

    As stated in Genesis 1:26-28, 1:31

    1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

    1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

    1:28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

    1:31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

    If God had not created man in the sixth day, he would not have been able to see everything that he had made and beheld that it was very good.

    Please note in Genesis 1:28 that God gave man dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. These people were hunters and fisherman.

    Also in Genesis 2:1:

    2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

    It is clearly stated that the heavens and the earth were finished and all the host of them.

    Genesis 2:5, 2:7-8, 2:15

    2:5 And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

    2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

    2:8 And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

    2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

    As stated in Genesis 1:28, the sixth day creation of man were hunters and fisherman, this would most likely force many of them to be nomadic, to track game animals.

    In Genesis 2:5 it is stated “there was not a man to till the ground.” God had not created a man to be a farmer as of yet. At this time, in Genesis 2:7, God formed man (Adam) of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus creating the first farmer.

    Genesis 3:19-20

    2:19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

    2:20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

    Since God had created animals in Genesis 1:24-25

    1:24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

    1:25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

    Why did God create the animals in Genesis 2:19-20?

    2:19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

    2:20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

    In Genesis 1:24-25 God created wild animals to be game for the hunters and fisherman, in Genesis 2:19-20 God had created domestic farm animals to be used by Adam.

    • It’s simple enough to understand, and I believe has long been accepted by scholars in the field. What you have here are two separate creation myths that have been spliced together, but the joins still show. IIRC God is referred to by different epithets in each version, and so on.
      Moreover the whole thing needs to be viewed in the context of earlier creation stories, notably those of Mesopotamia, which have been edited and adapted to fit the Jewish monotheistic context.

  7. Street Preacher

    This is a common claim by Zecharia Sitchin. Scholars of Akkadian and Sumerian do NOT hold this view. They just know better since they have a much more accurate grasp of Akkadian and Sumerian, as well as Semitic linguistics. I recommend (unless you are a fundamentalist Sitchinite) reading the article “The Genesis of Genesis” by Victor Hurowitz. Hurowitz is a professor at Ben Gurion University in Israel (so he lacks that awful Christian bias). He is a recognized expert in the interface of the Hebrew Bible and Assyriology, and serves on the steering committee of the Melammu Project, which focuses on the study of the intellectual heritage of Assyria and Babylonia in the modern East and West. Guess what? He doesn’t agree with Sitchin and his followers that Genesis came from Sumerian and Akkadian works. What’s even better is that the article also includes quotations from Assyriologist Wilfred Lambert that say the same thing. Who is Lambert? He’s one of the scholars Sitchin likes to quote in his books to create the impression that he (Sitchin) is doing serious research when he isn’t. But please read it for yourself. Yes, there is a relationship between works like Enuma Elish and the book of Genesis — because they both come from the ancient Near East, not because of literary dependence. As the article points out, the real parallels to Genesis from non-biblical material do not come from Mesopotamia; they come from Ugarit.

  8. Atchika

    As you’ve tried to go all technical, you forgot to delve into the big bang theory where the whole universe is said to have started from a small singularity. How the first light happened with the free electrons that might have scattered light throughout the universe. When you’re trying to counter argue something.. let there be no loopholes.

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