(RNS) Like lots of college students, Lauren has a smartphone loaded with some of the most popular apps around — Facebook, Twitter and eBay. And like a lot of unbelievers, she asked to not use her full name because her family doesn’t know about her closet atheism.

One of the apps she uses most regularly is YouVersion, a free Bible app that puts a library’s worth of translations — more than 700 — in the palm of her hand. Close to 115 million people have downloaded YouVersion, making it among the most popular apps of all time.

But Lauren, a 22-year-old chemistry major from Colorado, is not interested in the app’s mission to deepen faith and biblical literacy. A newly minted atheist, she uses her YouVersion Bible app to try to persuade people away from the Christianity she grew up in.

“I know of a lot of atheists who have come to their nonbelief by actually reading the Bible rather than just the fluffy stories they choose to tell you about in church,” she said. “Reading the full story with all its contradictions and violence and sexism, it should make you think, ‘Is this really what I believe in?’ At least it did for me.”

Lauren is not alone. No one knows how many atheists have downloaded YouVersion and other smartphone and tablet Bible apps, but it is enough that word of the phenomenon has reached the Edmond, Okla., headquarters of LifeChurch.tv, the evangelical megachurch that created the app.

“I have heard that people use the app in that way,” said Bobby Gruenewald, the church’s “innovation pastor” and the creative force behind YouVersion. “But I view it as a win to bring the Bible into the conversation. I think it is a positive thing.”

Lauren said she uses YouVersion to debate believers about once a week, usually during a study break. Typically, she searches Twitter for someone who uses a Bible verse to support their belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. Marriage equality, she said, is a pet issue for her.

Tom Amon, a 37-year-old atheist, opens his YouVersion app nightly to engage believers in verse-on-verse debates via Twitter and the internet. RNS photo by Beatriz Wallace

Tom Amon, a 37-year-old atheist, opens his YouVersion app nightly to engage believers in verse-on-verse debates via Twitter and the internet. RNS photo by Beatriz Wallace

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“I usually look up one of the many passages in the Bible that refer to different kinds of marriage” — like those of men with multiple wives — “and then I’ll screen shot it and send it to them,” she said. “Most of the time people just ignore it, but I hope they took a look at it and think about it in the future.”

Across the country in Pittsburgh, Pa., Tom Amon, a 37-year-old atheist, opens his YouVersion app nightly to engage believers in verse-on-verse debates via Twitter and the Internet.

“It’s free, it has good search features so I can search for certain words like ‘unicorns,’ and there are a ridiculous number of versions,” he said of the app. “It is supposed to be the Word of God, yet when you go from one version to the other you see how much the text varies.”

Not every atheist with a Bible app uses it to battle believers. Brian Abate, also of Pittsburgh, uses YouVersion on his iPad to follow the online sermons of a local Presbyterian pastor he knows and admires — but whose church he left years ago when he fell away from faith.

“I can get the church’s opinion and then I go read it for myself and see the difference” between the translations, he said. “The biggest thing for me is seeing how much the version will change the meaning of passage. It can make a pretty big difference in how you interpret it.”

Adam Wright, a 26-year-old nursing student in southern California, downloaded YouVersion because he felt he needed to be more biblically literate. Raised a Mormon, he never read the Bible in its entirety; since becoming an atheist a year ago, he felt he should know more about it.

“It has helped educate me,” he said. “I don’t know if I am a better atheist for it, but I am definitely more informed than I would be without it.”

Once in a while, he pulls out his iPhone and the app to debate.

“There was a girl in my math class who had a tattoo about Jesus and I asked if she knew Leviticus says you shouldn’t have tattoos,” he said. “She said that wasn’t true and I opened my app and showed her the verse.”

While it’s unknown how many atheists use YouVersion or other Bible apps, polls show atheists are among the most religiously literate Americans, topping Jews, Mormons and other Christians in a 2010 Pew Research Center poll.

But with Pew reporting that only 2.4 percent of Americans identify as atheists, all of them could download YouVersion and still be a small fraction of its total users.

Still, with the proliferation of Bible and other religion apps, young people — who are the most likely to both use personal technological devices and be religiously unaffiliated — the use of Bible apps by atheists is likely to continue.

“Young nonbelievers like to have those discussions,” said Hemant Mehta, a Chicago blogger and expert on young atheists. “They love to show the Bible can say anything you want it to say.”

And Bible apps, he said, “make stronger atheists.”

“Nothing makes you an atheist faster than reading the Bible,” he said. “It’s one of those beautiful side effects of having these Bibles free and easily accessible.”

But Elizabeth Drescher, a Santa Clara University lecturer who studies the nonreligious, is not as convinced. There is nothing new, she said, about atheists and believers using the latest technology — whether it is a leather-bound Bible, an online Bible or a Bible app — to engage and debate.

“All of the kinds of things that people have always done in other ways they are now doing with digital technology to the extent that there are apps to support them,” she said. “So yes, people are using these apps in the context of those conversations, but I don’t think those conversations are any more active than they have been in the last decade.”


The post Atheists use a popular Bible app to evangelize about unbelief appeared first on Religion News Service.


  1. Mark Hilditch

    People have always had the option of cherry-picking debate verses throughout the Bible, new apps just make that option quicker and more convenient. People have also long had the option of studying it in its entirety, learning the original languages, consulting centuries of learned and wise textual commentaries, and digging into the cultural and social histories of the Biblical places, peoples, and times. There is a world of difference.

    One of the many problems inherent in just reading the Bible without any tools is the great tendency folks have to give every word of the text equal weight. Lauren might find it much more helpful to try reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, instead of making it sound like the ancient tribal violence is as significant to the story as the love, peace, grace, forgiveness, and defenselessness of Jesus.

    Tom might benefit from an engagement with theologians and commentators over several centuries on the belief that Jesus is the Word of God, NOT the Bible. Would he be as put off from faith by the wide range of textual variations if he were challenged to consider the Bible as a sincere and heartfelt collection of stories seeking to point us to Jesus as the revealed Word of God rather than assuming the Bible itself is supposed to be some kind of inerrant, magical book?

    Adam knows that there is a verse in Leviticus that forbids tattoos. Does he know the history, context, and purpose of the Levitical Holiness Code? Has he given its modern-day relevance any thought? Does he weigh its importance alongside Jesus’ command to Love One Another and his dogged determination to do so and teach us to do the same? Or, does he just use that isolated verse, out of context, to clobber young, under-educated, church kids into feeling guilty?

    Hemant claims, “Nothing makes you an atheist faster than reading the Bible,” but the Bible is a strange book written by many authors with many agendas in many places over many centuries and to assume one can gain a consistent and respectable understanding of it by simply picking it up and reading it without any help is an arrogant folly of high order.

    Those from whom I have benefited the most in my 46 years of slow, humble, quiet, respectful, communal, prayerful, study of the Bible (in Hebrew and Greek with commentaries, classmates, elders, folks from other cultures, and socioeconomic levels) have been those wise and well-educated people who have trusted that God would help them understand the Bible more clearly as they lived out their lives in faith and trust.

    Anyone can cherry-pick, rip stuff out of context, and use it to clobber others. Anyone can.

    • Mark, step back from the verses a second, I’ve a slightly different question.

      If God is all-powerful, all-loving and so on and so forth… why is He such a bad communicator? It’s not you can’t explain the verses, it’s that you have no choice but to explain the verses, which isn’t easy because the text as written is nonsensical.

      You suggest “consulting centuries of learned and wise textual commentaries”, “learning the original languages”, digging into the cultural and social histories”.


      God gives us the most important book humanity will ever read, and the Bible was the best He could do?

      • Mark Hilditch

        Keith: Intriguing questions, thanks. I’m certainly in no position to speculate as to WHY the God of the Bible has elected to self-reveal in the manner in which it appears to have taken place. But here’s some questions in response. Perhaps it has more to do with people than it does with words on pages? If God is primarily concerned with human beings, maybe it follows that – throughout all the historic, cultural, and linguistic varieties that have been present – God in Christ communicates love, grace, and forgiveness best through the actual lives, actions, and behaviors of those experiencing God’s redeeming presence in their lives? Maybe the Biblical text is a secondary voice that conveys the message as well as it can, given all the baggage it carries? What if “the most important book humanity will ever read” is you and me?

      • Ernesto Tinajero

        Ernesto Tinajero

        What I say Keith is that Humans are the very bad communicators. Just have to look at the news and world around us. Misunderstandings, mistranslations, wrong connotations are all part of the human experience and certainly not limited to the Bible. Most people don’t fully appreciate how complex human language really is. If it were so easy, Google translate would work so well.
        Translate a couple of times :We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
        and then translate it back into english and get:
        We hold this truth to be self-evident: that all men among them life, liberty and the pursuit, that certain inalienable rights by their creator, that happiness is the same.

        • Ernesto: Sure, but are you arguing we shouldn’t expect better from God than we do from Google translate?

          Consider John 15:6, “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” According to Cullin Murphy’s book “God’s Jury”, this verse was used by the Inquisition to justify burning at the stake.

          God knows this verse will be used to justify a torturous death for thousands of people: would it have been so difficult for Him to add “the ‘burning’ part is just a metaphor, don’t actually burn anybody”?

          Clarity on the parts of Leviticus that (apparently) approve of slavery would have been welcome in the Southern United States around 1850.

          If an all-knowing, all-powerful deity can’t even get his meaning across when laying out the foundational document of His religion, what does that say about the rest of His Plan?

          Imagine for a second just how awesome a book would be if it were written or inspired by God. Maybe a chapter on math? Science? How old the Universe is and how it came into being? Specific, falsifiable prophecies. And then consider the Bible we have: lots of instructions on slaves, sacrificing animals, killing other tribes and visions of the end of the world.

          As Sam Harris said, “It is genuinely amazing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.”

          • Ernesto Tinajero

            Ernesto Tinajero

            Alan Greenspan just wrote a book on his journey of self-discovery and at the end he basically said all his judgements were correct (despite the the economic disasters they caused). You make a case with example from the Spanish Inquisition interpreting a text. Does there actions look like love to you. If not, didn’t they ignore the two commands of Jesus to love God and others?

            I do have to confess a dislike for Sam Harris. His intellectual dishonesty, his macho defense of guns, his ahoc attack on Francis Collins and his feud with PZ Myers and Sean Carroll (of all people) really left me with little respect for the man. That is just me, though.

            I do believe the Bible is about God human relationship and I know my own weakness as a fallen person do get wrapped in how I read and practice my faith. Human, all too Human, Freddy said and he had a point.

        • Ernesto: “If not, didn’t they ignore the two commands of Jesus to love God and others?”

          They did.

          Fortunately, Jesus also said “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword”, and Paul said “But God judges the outsiders; remove the evil one from your midst”, both of which give us a lot of wiggle room.

          That’s my point, actually: God doesn’t seem to be able to send a consistent message, does He?

  2. Mark Hilditch

    Keith: At the risk of repeating myself, let me remind all of us “One of the many problems inherent in just reading the Bible without any tools is the great tendency folks have to give every word of the text equal weight.”

    • Mark, I understand your point: it’s “arrogant folly of high order” to think one can “gain a consistent and respectable understanding of [the Bible] by simply picking it up and reading it without any help”.

      And here I thought the Bible was intended for everybody to read — maybe the Catholics were right about that whole translation thing.

      I’ll restate my point: if God cannot write a simple declarative sentence, when the consequence of His inability is humanity killing one another for 2,000 years over competing narratives and differing interpretations, then either He cares nothing for humanity or He desperately needs to take an introductory expository writing course.

      • Your post is pure arrogance. All your dialogue proves is that humanity, including “the religious” are evil and prone to deceit, lying and violence, just like God clearly and succinctly states in His Word. Misquoting and twisting scripture was one of satan’s favorite pastimes. To those born of the Spirit, understanding scripture is possible, but impossible for the unsaved. The Bible is clear about that, also. Check 1 Cor. 2:12-16.

        • Dennis: that argument would make more sense if Christians agreed on what the Bible says. Born of the Spirit or no, it’s obvious Christians can’t understand scripture any better than anyone else, and the fact there are 40,000 Protestant denominations is absolute proof.

          (And no, that’s not a typographic error: there are approximately forty-thousand different Protestant denominations, according to the CSGC at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Sola Scriptura may need some more thought.)

      • Mark Hilditch

        “the consequence of His inability is humanity killing one another” Wow, that’s a stretch! God loves humankind and strives to raise up a nation set aside to live together in a manner which demonstrates it. The nation repeatedly fails to make such a demonstration because individuals are alienated from God. God comes directly into human affairs in Jesus of Nazareth to show all people a way into a right relationship with God. People experience a new life individually and together. Communities write down various anecdotes which record and illustrate aspects of this experience of God’s love. And… you blame God directly for the compositional deficiencies of a handful of ancient storytellers?

        • Mark: I would only make that argument to someone who believes the Bible divinely inspired/authored (as the Bible repeatedly claims for itself).

          However, once we agree on “handful of ancient storytellers”, and “communities write down anecdotes”, we’ve discarded the only evidence there is for many (most?) of Christianity’s primary truth claims. For example, what evidence do we have for Jesus’ divinity or resurrection, other than the Bible?

          • Mark Hilditch

            Changed lives are the “primary truth claim” of the Christian faith. When I describe the Biblical authors as “ancient storytellers writing down anecdotes” I am intending to suggest that the Biblical record can most certainly be True and Inspired without any need to be held up as Inerrant or magical. The Bible is, indeed, “primary and unique” in its role of teaching us about Jesus, but the Bible is not about everything. Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible.

  3. Mark Hilditch

    “The various and diverse essays of the Bible were written long before we began to interpret historical accounts literally. This book does not read like an article in the New York Times, nor like a modern self-help book. In fact, much of the style of literature the Bible employs (and there are various styles which should be read and interpreted differently) are no longer used or interpreted the same way. These essays, letters, plays and poems were written to cultures that would have read and understood them very differently than the way you and I understand them today.” ~ Donald Miller.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.