A few years back, a cheeky Christian website named Ship Of Fools asked readers to vote on the worst verse in the Bible. The solicitation went out—“It could be a verse which is irredeemably naff, mind-numbingly boring, or a verse which you find offensive or cruel. Please send us your nomination.”—And contenders flowed in.
Ship of Fools is the brainchild of two Brits, Simon Jenkens and Stephen Goddard, who met in theology school and who hold among their sacred values a belief in self-examination. "Our aim is to help Christians be self-critical and honest about the failings of Christianity, as we believe honesty can only strengthen faith," says Jenkens. Their list of top 10 worst verses would cause many believers to flinch or to dive headfirst down a rabbit hole of rationalizations, but at “The Ship” it found a comfortable place nestled between quirky church reviews (“How long was the sermon? How hard the pew? How cold was the coffee? How warm the welcome?) and irreverent “gadgets for God.”
Bible believers are on shaky ground these days, which is growing ever shakier thanks to science (think Cosmos), biblical scholarship, and the internet. Church attendance and belief itself are eroding, at least among young people, at least where people are free and educated, and secularism is on the rise. So, if clear-eyed Christians can take the risk of exposing the Bible’s nasty bits, the converse should also be true—atheists should be able to acknowledge the parts that are timeless and wise.
To that end, I asked some outspoken anti-theists and other champions of secularism what they think are the best verses in the Bible, and why. Here are their responses.
My favorite verse is the same one my Catholic Dad quoted more often than any other, by far: “Do not judge lest you be judged." (See Matthew 7:1-5). When he quoted it his point was always the same, don't judge others harshly or you can and will be judged by those same standards. His stood against any double standards.
—John W. Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist and The Outsider Test for Faith.
Social justice and community activism are central themes of the Bible. It is imperative that we not forget those who are in need and are voiceless. We live amongst those who are in need, it is in our best interest to ensure that their needs are met. Two of my favorite verses are Jeremiah 22:3 "This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place." Proverbs 29:7 "The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern."
There are a couple from Proverbs I can share: “Keep hold of instruction; do not let go; guard her, for she is your life.” 4:13 “The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.” 10:14 “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”18:15
—Leighann Lord, stand-up comedian
I actually have an entire favorite book: Ecclesiastes. There's lots of beautiful stuff in it about nature, human nature, and good ways to live life. It has plenty of stuff I have serious problems with, too -- the God stuff, obviously, and some other stuff as well -- but much of the philosophy and poetry is quite lovely and moving. And much of it is oddly humanist, with an awareness of how small humans really are in the scheme of things, and how fragile our lives are, and the absurdity of how important we think we are ("all is vanity"), and how much our lives are shaped by chance, and the repeated reminders of our mortality.
I deeply love 4:9-12: "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken."
—Greta Christina, author of Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless
I like Ecclesiastes 9:10: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom." Context aside, it's a message to just live passionately and make the most of the time we have. Those are values any Humanist could get behind.
—Hemant Mehta, editor of the Friendly Atheist
Hemant and I chose the very same verse. Ecclesiastes is the best book of the Bible by far—such a genuine, honest human cry—and 9:10 is the best of many good passages. Doesn’t get more humanistic than that.
—Dale McGowan, author of Atheism For Dummies
There are many Bible verses that extol peace, justice, honesty, mercy, wisdom, altruism, and other basic human virtues, and in fact, I’ve written a whole article about verses I find excellent. Here is one that stands out: “And six years thou shalt sow thy land… But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy olive yard.” —Exodus 23:10-11 (KJV) The idea of empathy contained in the verse is even sufficiently broad to encompass wild animals – an important sign that its writer was thinking in terms of all-encompassing principles rather than simple reciprocity. It takes an enlightened spirit to have compassion even on birds and beasts.
—Adam Lee, Daylight Atheism
1 Corinthians 13.11: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” This phrase speaks to me. Many of us were indoctrinated as children with lies. These lies included things like Santa Claus, spirits, gods, monsters under the bed, boogie men, etcetera. As we grow older we are supposed to dump these myths. It's ironic that the Bible endorses this wisdom.
—David Silverman, President, American Atheists
One bible verse that I sometimes quote favorably, even in debates, is I Thessalonians 5:21 — "Prove all things: hold fast that which is good.” I interpret that, of course, to mean “experiment, test, examine” and “judge people by their [good] actions, not their beliefs” and “make morality your guide to what is good.” Of course, there are many other “good” teachings in the bible. “Love your neighbor,” and “do unto others,” but those antedate the bible, and appear in all cultures that respect human life.
—Dan Barker, Freedom From Religion Foundation
I love Bible quotes, my favourite versions being set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I only ever struggle with the solution being God in all of them. But if you replace "God" or "Faith" with "Life" you've got some great passages! Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” I love this chapter! I love this book. So miserable in a terrific way! We all feel like this sometimes. It reminds us that we won't be on the earth forever so to not get too wound up by it all. I mean, then it goes on to Heaven and stuff, but as a book, I think it's a nice reminder that everything is not, and need not be rosy all the time. It is the Eeyore to the Pooh.
—Pippa Evans, co-founder, Sunday Assembly
My pick is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” Truth, honesty, justice, beauty: “Think on these things,” the writer says! This really is a remarkable little passage, and if its wise advice were actually followed, the church pews would empty out even faster than they are now.
Though it is quite unspectacular, the biblical passage that has long shaped my approach to life is Proverbs 15:1, "A soft answer turneth away wrath." I hate needless friction and conflict with others. I much prefer to get along with people, not to antagonize them with caustic comments or stinging responses. Otherwise, you're just "putting out the fire with gasoline." I always look to say the reconciling, tactful word. I have to be honest. I don't butter people up. I sure don't mind being scathing in my responses to bad apologetics arguments. But I try not to make it personal. I'd prefer to keep things respectful and friendly. And this stance stems from that passage of scripture.
—Robert M. Price, The Bible Geek webcast
One of the last verses I read as a Believer was Eccl. 3:13. “And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” I remember being triggered by that word "labor" because as a "Quiverfull" Christian, I was intimately and frequently familiar with the labor of bearing and raising "arrows" for God's army. I was always so overwhelmed and exhausted that it was difficult to actually enjoy the fruits of my labor: my children. While I can't say that I "like" the Book of Ecclesiastes, I can at least appreciate that those words opened my eyes to the massive disconnect between my zealous idealism and my untenable reality; a revelation which set me on the path of recovery from spiritual abuse.
—Vyckie Garrison, founder, NoLongerQuivering
I've been performing secular weddings since 2004. Of course I don't use any supernaturalism in my ceremonies, but sometimes people have a cultural connection to the Bible and want to have something from it. I always suggest First Corinthians 13:4-8: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always preserves."
—August Brunsman IV, Executive Director, Secular Student Alliance
I sometimes read Gospel passages in the tradition of Zen koans. I like John 14:2, where Jesus says, "In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” Holding the paradox of many mansions inside a house gives me a sense of spaciousness, of welcome, of saying, “Everyone can find a home in my heart.” I have no idea if that’s what Jesus meant—it doesn’t seem to be what Christians mean sometimes—but it reminds me that we’re all one grand, human family and that we need to care for each other.
—Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir
The verse I find myself using the most is Galatians 4:16, “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” It's the unofficial motto of my book series "The Complete Heretic's Guide to Western Religion" and my sincere response whenever believers ask me why I'm picking on their beloved faith.
—David Fitzgerald, historian, atheist activist, public speaker and author
My favorite probably is Romans 12:9, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” The message here isn't groundbreaking (and certainly doesn't require godlike powers to formulate), but I find it admirable: Don't be a fake. Pursue that which brings about a positive result, for yourself and for others. Hold evil in contempt. Of course, I don't bind a supernatural connotation to the word "evil" but rather see evil as an action. I also like the proactive vibe in this particular verse, which (ironically) reminds me of the famous quote by Christopher Hitchens from his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian: "Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence."
—Seth Andrews, host, The Thinking Atheist
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” Proverbs 18:21. It reminds me that words can encourage and be a gift, but carelessly choosing words is painful and even deadly. It causes me to use humane language that is respectful of all people, by using the words they choose themselves to represent them.
—Rich Lyons, Living After Faith Podcast
To treat the Bible like a perfect and complete transmission of divine will should be embarrassinggiven what we now know about ourselves, the world around us, and the Good Book itself. But the fact is, our ancestors struggled with important questions that we still struggle with today: What is real? What is good? What is the meaning in our lives? How can we embrace love, joy, peace and wonder? How should we live in community with each other? The texts that were gathered into the Bible offer fragmentary glimpses of how that struggle evolved over the course of hundreds of years.
The writers were Iron Age tribesmen, members of a cruel and misogynistic society. They got a lot of things wrong. But they also got some very basic and beautiful things right. As is the case with many texts, both ancient and modern, those who have the fortitude to sift through the rubble can find real gems.
As a young adult, I struggled to recover from the crazy parts of my childhood. I once had a therapist who said, “You’ll know you are independent from your parents when you can do what you want for yourself even if they want it too.” To my mind, the Bible writers are like dysfunctional parents to our whole society, parents we have turned to, collectively and individually, for guidance. but who all too often instead have caused harm or trauma. One of the ways we will know that we have truly outgrown them is when we are able to claim what we believe to be useful and beautiful, even if they said it.