Coyne took up this Herculean task in June last year, and only completed it a few days ago. He joins that elite group of people who can claim to have read the Bible from cover to cover (a claim that not many Christians can make, I imagine). Here’s his review of God’s holy word:
I have realized, after finishing the Bible two days ago (congratulate me!), that theology is like modern literary criticism applied to a book by authors no longer alive. Faced with a text that says one thing on its face, but which can be “interpreted” in innumerable different ways, and with no recourse to the “true” meaning beyond what the words say—or to the author’s own take about what she intended (which, of course, can be misleading too!), Sophisticated Theologians™ simply make up their own interpretations. This is such a palpably obvious exercise that I’m amazed intelligent people fall for it. That’s why in some ways I have more respect for Biblical literalists than for clever and sophisticated apologists like John Haught. The former, at least, try hard to stick to what Scripture really says. (Readers don’t need to inform me that even literalists exercise some interpretation.)
Oh, and the Bible is not a great work of literature. There are some good bits—we all know them—but most of it is tedious and boring. In no way is it as good as Shakespeare or Joyce. Yes, it is a cultural touchstone, and yes, I am glad I read it, if for no other reason than I can say I did, and know what a terrible guide to “morality” it really is. But I did not come away with the thought “what a beautifully written book!” There are some good sentences, and a very few good verses, but the book as a whole is leaden. And its vaunted “moral teachings” are, when not repugnant, trite. I’m glad to be done.
In this I disagree with Richard Dawkins. We both agree that everyone should read the Bible for cultural reasons. But to me it’s like learning organic chemistry: painful but necessary. To Richard it is also a chance to be thrilled at the beautiful language. But that beauty is thin on the ground. If you want beautiful language, read Shakespeare or “The Dead”. For morality, try modern secular philosophers like [John] Rawls or [Peter] Singer. At least they don’t advocate genocide or the subjugation of women.
One can almost sympathise with Christians who choose not to read their Bible in its entirety. Apart from the tediousness and uneven literary quality, as Coyne has painfully discovered, there’s also the uncomfortable fact of reading passages where God commands, condones or turns a blind eye towards decidedly immoral actions.