The Most Anti-Religious of Scriptures

The Christian Bible is surely the most anti-religious of all the world’s scriptures. This often goes unnoticed because, unlike the critiques made by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, the biblical hermeneutics of suspicion is religiously motivated. It is not for that reason any less devastating. In the Old Testament the prophets tell the people that God cannot stand their worship. In the New Testament, Paul wages war against the religion of being good, to which James responds with a sharp critique of those who would abuse the gospel of grace. But the most thoroughly anti-religious texts in the Bible are the Gospel narratives in which the piety of the Pharisees, of the Jerusalem power elite, which was dominated by the Sadducees, and of Jesus’ own disciples is relentlessly exposed as self-righteous and self-centered.

Our concern in this context is not the biblical polemic against the idolatry and immorality of pagan religions. Each of the instances mentioned above involves, rather, a biblical critique of what takes itself to be the biblical religion. The prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself direct their own critique of religion primarily to the covenant people of God. It is for this reason that I accuse the modern atheists of plagiarism, since they tend to repeat in their battle with biblical religion the criticisms already directed to pious Jews and Christians by the Bible. I do not make this accusation in order to silence the atheists but in order to persuade the church to read them with an eye toward repentance and renewal rather than refutation.

– Merold Westphal, Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, 265 (bold emphasis mine)