In the contemporary culture wars, round one has gone to the atheists. It mostly does. For it’s depressingly easy to pull apart the claims of one-dimensional, fundamentalist religion. God is mad, bad and dangerous to know. Moreover, he – and yes, the fundamentalist God is pretty much always a he – doesn’t even exist. This is well trodden ground. And lucrative too, as the current crop of celebrity atheists have discovered. But it’s a funny sort of victory, nonetheless. Billions of human beings just keep going to their mosques, synagogues and churches uninterrupted by the certainties of the Enlightenment. The argument against God, so apparently convincing and immaculate, just seems to bounce off the surface of faith.

Cover of The Bible: A Biography by Karen ArmstrongThose seeking another sort of victory – a victory that might change minds, for instance – might want to review tactics. Here’s another approach: in order to defeat an enemy, it is important first to understand it. One must enter into the mind of the other, try and recognise the world as he or she does. Sympathise, even. For the most potent atheists are those who have once known the emotional and existential weight of faith. Take Nietzsche. It is often forgotten what an embarrassingly pious little boy he was. As a child he penned some of the most excruciating love poems to God – “Glowing with love, Your glance shines into my heart so dearly, So painfully: Lord, I come” – and in his first year at university he won the preaching prize. It was the perfect preparation for an atheistic genius. For it was precisely because Nietzsche understood faith that he was able to reject it with such accurate ferocity. In this regard The God Delusion is to Beyond Good and Evil as boys are to men. As Nietzsche once observed: “How much boundlessly stupid naivety is there in the scholar’s belief in his superiority, in the simple, unsuspecting certainty with which his instincts treat the religious man as inferior and a lower type which he himself has evolved above and beyond.” The problem these days is that the current crop of celebrity atheists don’t feel the need to understand the language of faith before they go in for the kill. Which is why they play to the gallery yet achieve so little damage.

Read with a sneer, Karen Armstrong’s new book won’t help sharpen the atheistic instinct. But read in a spirit of inquiry, there is much to gain. For mostly, the sorry state of contemporary atheism is brought about by a failure to appreciate the way the sacred text functions in the life of the believer. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the true God of faith, not His abstracted and bloodless cousin, the God of the philosophers. The Enlightenment mind, both of believers and of non-believers, mistakenly assumed that this lesser God was the real thing and that here was the true battleground of faith. No, the authentic God of the Christians and Jews and Muslims is the God of the book. In 1859, Darwin published his Origin of Species. It is commonly believed that Christians reacted with outrage. In fact, at first, there was remarkably little reaction. A few years later, in 1861, a group of Anglican clergy published Essays and Reviews, a work of accessible Biblical criticism. There was uproar. In 1888, the novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward released her novel Robert Elsemere, the story of a clergyman whose faith was destroyed by modern Biblical criticism. It was a bestseller. If atheists want to challenge faith, they must first understand the Bible and its use over time.

Armstrong’s book manages to offer a fascinating historical tour of how the Bible has been thought about by Jews and Christians from the formation of the Torah, through the debates of the Reformation, to the trials of modernity. Often narrow-minded scholars are sniffy about a work of this sort of range, as if, almost by definition, it will be superficial. Rubbish. Armstrong’s great gift is to give a sense of the historical trajectory of thought without the feeling that one is being bounced along or conned. It amazes me that there doesn’t seem to have been a book quite like this before, offering the general reader an insight into the historical struggles over the Bible’s formation, translation, interpretation and hermeneutics. I suspect many will learn a lot from Armstrong’s fine and unpretentious treatment.

Marx famously wrote that all criticism begins with the criticism of religion. I agree. I would only want to add that religion started it, that the criticism of religion was first of all a religious business. Criticism began as self-criticism; not as a philosophical exercise, but as a struggle over meaning. As the Rabbis and early Christian scholars pored over their manuscripts and argued with each other as to what was going on, the European mind was in the process of being created. Even those who now come to draw a conclusion against religion are themselves heirs to this long search for truth.

The Bible: A Biography is published by Atlantic