In 2000 the mayor of Westerville, Ohio, issued a controversial proclamation urging citizens to read the Bible. Although the mayor’s act violated the U.S. Constitution, many nonbelievers agree with him that people should read that book.
Some defenders of the proclamation pointed to the language of the First Amendment. It says “Congress” shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Constitution did, in fact, originally prevent just the federal government – and not the states – from involvement with religion.
But after the Civil War, enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment made the same prohibition applicable to state and local governments. This fact is recognized by a long line of court decisions.
In Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), the U.S. Supreme Court stated in a unanimous decision that the Fourteenth Amendment “has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress” to take actions violating the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.
The mayor’s proclamation was therefore unconstitutional. Other methods of promoting Bible-reading, however, are supported by many nonbelievers. A perusal of the book has led numerous persons to discard traditional religion.
The entertainer Steve Allen had such an experience. He wrote: “It was only when I finally undertook to read the Bible through from beginning to end that I perceived that its depiction of the Lord God – whom I had always viewed as the very embodiment of perfection – was actually that of a monstrous, vengeful tyrant, far exceeding in bloodthirstiness and insane savagery the depredations of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Attila the Hun, or any other mass murderer of ancient or modern history.”
Allen also stated: “There is scarcely a page of the Bible on which an open mind does not perceive a contradiction, an unlikely story, an obvious error, an historical impossibility of one sort or another.”
Similar views were held by Culbert Olson, who was governor of California from 1938 to 1943. He said: “I don’t see how anybody can read the Bible and believe it’s the word of God, or believe that it is anything but a barbarous story of a barbaric people.”
The philosopher William James likewise commented: “It is so human a book that I don’t see how belief in its divine authority can survive the reading of it.”
Thomas Jefferson felt the same way: “We discover [in the Bible] a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstition, fanaticism and fabrication.”
A strong proponent of common sense, the deist and American patriot Thomas Paine agreed with his friend Jefferson: “When I see throughout the greater part of this book scarcely anything but a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales, I cannot dishonor my Creator by calling it by His name.”
Reading the Bible can truly be a surprising and eye-opening experience. This is why nonbelievers often have no objection to private organizations and individuals encouraging people to read the book.
As one social activist in Columbus, Ohio, responded when asked why he is an atheist: “I read the Bible.”