Through a glass darkly: why do atheists love the King James Bible?

Sunday 30 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Lecture Theatre 2

2011 is the quadricentenary of the publication of the King James Bible, the most celebrated English language version, commissioned by James I in 1604. The new Bible drew on and developed six existing but disputed English translations from the original Hebrew and Greek to produce a definitive authorised version for a nation still traumatised by the Reformation and its after-effects. The result is hailed by the King James Bible Trust as ‘the book that changed the world’, and figures as diverse as staunch atheist Richard Dawkins, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and the Labour MP for Birkenhead are keen to agree on the King James Bible’s importance.

Trustee of the King James Bible Trust, Frank Field MP, argues the King James Bible is essential to understanding the English language and, in turn, British culture and history. This makes it not only great literature, but a foundation stone of who the British are (and perhaps what Western culture is) today. So is the importance of the King James Bible today as English literature, a ‘masterpiece of English prose’, which we appreciate in the same way as Shakespeare, for its language? Or if we read it as literature - or even as a source of national identity - are we missing the point? For Christians, the events described in the Bible reveal the nature of God, and that, rather than any poetic quality, is what ultimately counts. Many practising Christians therefore prefer to use contemporary translations, like the New International Version, which are more easily understood. So is the King James Bible better seen as part of our secular cultural heritage rather than a living religious text?

As for its contents, the Bible is more often seen today as a vast repository of stories, some inspiring, some bewildering. Do these stories have anything to say to non-Christians, and if we do look to the Bible as an ethical resource, will we find its message at odds with contemporary morality?

Listen to session audio:


Andrew Copson
chief executive, British Humanist Association

Dolan Cummings
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)

Elizabeth Oldfield
director, Theos, religion and society think-tank

Richard Swan
writer and academic

Justine Brian
director, Debating Matters Competition

Produced by
Helen Birtwistle history and politics teacher, South London school
Recommended readings
How the King James Bible Changed the World

No serious study of literature in English can neglect the impact of the 1611 Bible, and that is equally true for any century from the 17th through the 20th. All the great canonical authors are immersed in that Bible, even (or especially) those who reject its fundamental religious message. To put it ironically, the Bible they reject is the 1611 version, which created the literary air we breathe.

Philip Jenkins, Baylor Magazine, 2011

Atheist Hitchens Praises King James Bible

Hitchens is the second atheist, after Richard Dawkins, to laud the KJB in honor of the 400th anniversary of the translation. The prominent atheists recognized and expressed appreciation for its contribution to English literature.

Audrey Barrick, Christian Post, 2 April 2011

Forgive Me, Spirit Of Science

It has to be the King James version, of course. Modern translations break the spell as surely as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

Richard Dawkins, New Statesmen, 30 December 2010

The bible that even atheists worship

'What we hope is that the campaign will be so successful that nobody will have to be reminded of the importance of the King James Bible when it comes to the 500th anniversary. If you have to pick one book which shaped the English language and gave us a cultural commonwealth around the world, it's this book'

Andy McSmith, Independent, 23 December 2010

The King James Bible: reviews

Tom Payne on the influence of the King James Bible on the English Language

Tom Payne, Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2010

Optimism versus Pessimism

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