In online conversations with many atheists, I have found a recurring trend among the Bible versions they like to quote. In my experience, the King James Version is by far the most popular version used by Atheists. At one point in my life I owned the Skeptic’s annotated Bible, which is a commentary written by an atheist on the Bible and it uses the King James Version. Now, it could just as easily be that the KJV is not copyrighted in the United States, making it the easiest translation to use in published works. But I think there is more to it than that.
The KJV uses Archaic Language
The King James Version, being an English translation completed in 1611, will obviously use words that have changed in meaning over time as English has developed. This makes the KJV prone to misunderstanding to the modern reader who is not familiar with the development of the English language. One example of this is the KJV’s usage of the term “unicorn” nine separate times in five different books. When you hear or read the word “unicorn” the first thing that comes to your mind is probably something like this
However, If you were to look at Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1828, you would read the following under “unicorn.” An animal with one horn; the monoceros. this name is often applied to the rhinoceros. The modern dictionary defines Rhinoceros as A genus of quadrupeds of two species, one of which, the unicorn, has a single horn growing almost erect from the nose. This animal when full grown, is said to be 12 feet in length. There is another species with two horns, the bicornis. They are natives of Asia and Africa. There is no evidence that any of the translators believed in the mythical creature that we think of when we see the word “unicorn.” This, however, is not enough for some skeptics. They will continue to mock you and accuse you of being an apologist for a myth. The King James Version in this regard is an easy target for lazy criticism.
Atheists Do Tend To Actually Admire the KJV This article is more than “Atheists love to criticize the KJV”. It also is a reflection on why some popular atheists do actually love the KJV, as opposed to mass-marketed Bible translations that are prone to money-hungry copyright law. One of the last things Christopher Hitchens ever wrote before he passed was a praise to the King James Version. He stated in the 2011 edition of Vanity Fair “Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really issomething “timeless” in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect…A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter?” Dr. Richard Dawkins says of the KJV “Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation, is one of the glories of English literature (I’m told it’s pretty good in the original Hebrew, too). The whole King James Bible is littered with literary allusions, almost as many as Shakespeare (to quote that distinguished authority Anon, the trouble with Hamlet is it’s so full of clichées). In The God Delusion I have a section called “Religious education as a part of literary culture” in which I list 129 biblical phrases which any cultivated English speaker will instantly recognise and many use without knowing their provenance: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how are the mighty fallen.” While both Hitchens and Dawkins would say the Bible is a myth, they still recognize the literary masterpiece that the King James Translation was. Conclusion While the newer versions correct some archaic language that would make it easier for the average reader to understand, (such as not using the word unicorn), the King James still holds a place as one of the best English works and played a huge role in the development of the English language. Pick one up and read it.