Ross Douthat doesn’t understand atheism

I am so honored that conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat has seen fit to go after me in a piece in yesterday’s New York Times: “Why atheists need fundamentalists“.   He’s received a lot of criticism for his views and his column (see here, for instance), but hey, publicity is publicity.  And it’s especially good because Douthat’s argument is really lame.

What he claims—and this is an argument I see all the time these days—is that both Biblical fundamentalists and atheists make the mistake of thinking that the correct way to read the Bible is literally, as do Ken Ham or Al Mohler.

Granted—as some commenters here have noted—nobody takes every word of the Bible as literal truth. But many take the stories pretty literally, including the tales of Noah and the flood, the Genesis stories, the tale of Adam and Eve and their Original Sin, and, of course, the whole Jesus mythology.

After all, if lots of people didn’t practice that kind of literalism, we’d have no creationism in America, and the story of Jesus would be a convenient fairy tale, like that of Santa Claus, rather than an object of universal veneration.

But Douthat criticizes New Atheism, and me, for thinking that we go after only the fundamentalist version of religion, ignoring the sophisticated versions propounded by sophisticated theologians like John Haught and sophisticated intellectuals like himself.

Douthat’s example is a piece I wrote on this website about Mark Shea and other Catholic theologians who try to rescue the Adam and Eve story—a linchpin of Christian theology that has been completely destroyed by modern genetics.  I faulted these apologists for simply making up stories to rescue Adam and Eve: asserting, for example, that the pair were simply two humans out of many that were somehow been singled out by God to not only be the sole ancestors of humanity, but the bearers of Original Sin.

Doubthat thinks, then, that all New Atheists conceive of religion as fundamentalism, of Christianity as Biblical fundamentalism, and so we ignore those many Christians who see much of the Bible as metaphor:

It was a peculiar spectacle, to put it mildly: An atheist [Coyne] attacking a traditionalist believer [Shea] for not reading Genesis literally. On the merits, Coyne is of course quite correct that some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict what science and archaeology suggest about human origins. (For instance, the claim that Adam and Eve were formed from the dust of the ground and a human rib, respectively, not from millennia upon millennia of evolution, the suggestion that they lived in a garden near the Tigris and the Euphrates, not a hunter-gatherer community in Africa, and … well, you get the idea.) But then again some of the details of the Genesis story seem to contradict one anotheras well, in ways that should inspire even a reader who knows nothing about the controversies surrounding evolution to suspect that what he’s reading isn’t intended as a literal and complete natural history of the human race.

Douthat goes on about the two conflicting narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, the missing wives of Cain and Abel, and all the other Biblical inconsistencies we know about.  But then he shows his ignorance by setting up a false dichotomy:

Now one can draw two possible conclusions from these difficulties. One possibility is that the authors and compilers of Genesis weren’t just liars; they were really stupid liars, who didn’t bother doing the basic work required to make their fabrication remotely plausible or coherent. The other possibility is that Genesis was never intended to be read as a literal blow-by-blow history of the human race’s first few months, and that its account of how sin entered the world partakes of allegorical and symbolic elements — like many other stories in the Bible, from the Book of Job to the Book of Revelation — to make a  theological and moral point.

In effect, he’s making an argument from ignorance, because though Douthat can see only two possibilities, there is in fact another—one that’s the crux of the New Atheist argument. His argument here reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s famous and equally specious trichotomous argument for Jesus as either “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.”  The problem with both of these arguments is that we’re not constrained to choose among only the choices on offer.  The Bible needn’t be either a complete fabrication by mendacious scribes, or a completely metaphorical account of the origin and fate of humanity. It could be something elese.

How about this alternative?  It’s one that Douthat doesn’t raise, but I believe one that’s more accurate than either of his alternatives:

The Bible is a jerry-rigged, sloppily-edited, largely fabricated, and palpably incomplete collection of oral traditions and myths, once intended to be the best explanation for the origins of our species, but now to be regarded merely as a quaint and occasionally enjoyable origin fable related by ignorant and relatively isolated primitive ancestors. It’s a palimpsest that is largely fictional, a story reworked many times, but based on our ancestors’ best understanding of how we came about.  It’s simply a myth, no truer than the many myths, religious or otherwise, that preceded it. Embedded in it are some good moral lessons, but also many bad moral lessons.  And the “good” morality doesn’t come from God, but was simply worked into the fairy tale by those who adhered to that morality for secular reasons.

That’s pretty much how, I think, most New Atheists regard the Bible.  And what is our problem with people who try to see the Bible as partly metaphorical? It’s just that: they see it as only partly metaphorical.  Yes, Adam and Eve is a fairy tale, and so is Noah, Jonah and the whale, and the creation tale of Genesis.  But, claim people like Douthat, not the whole Bible!  Some of it is true!  And those truths, of course, include the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his resurrection, as well as all that Original Sin and the Resurrection imply: we’ll be saved through belief in Jesus alone and, if we’re good, we’ll find ourselves in Heaven.

So the problem we have with “sophisticated” theologians and smart religious people like Douthat is not that we think that fundamentalism is the best interpretation of religion, but this:  there is no rational basis for seeing part of the Bible as literally true and part of it as metaphor.  As our increased understanding of the world gives the lie to bit after bit of the Bible, the rational conclusion is that it’s all doubtful, especially in the absence of historical evidence for parts still widely seen as true, like the divinity and Resurrection(or even the existence!) of Jesus.

Nobody, including Douthat, has yet given us criteria for determining which parts of the Bible are true and which are false.  (False parts of the Bible, of course, are not discarded, as they would be in science, but simply transformed into metaphor. This is what’s happening to the Adam and Eve tale as I write).

Until they give us these criteria, we need pay no more attention to the “metaphorizers” like Douthat than we do to Biblical fundamentalists.  The pathetic attempts of metaphorizers to transform Genesis into allegory deserve no more attention or respect than do the literal interpretations of Ken Ham and his ilk.  That’s what I mean when I say, “Give me a good fundamentalist rather than a waffler like Douthat or John Haught.”

In many ways, the torturous attempts of sophisticated theologians to save their Bible in light of its growing status as fiction are far more pathetic than the literalist ravings of Ken Ham or Al Mohler. For at least people like Douthat and Haught show signs of being intelligent, making it even more infuriating when they use their big brains to rationalize the truth of a fairy tale.  Think of all the things these apologists might have accomplished had they used that intelligence for the good of humanity instead of taking good salaries to find “truths” in the Bible.

So our problem is not that we see “true” religion as fundamentalism. Our problem is that we see no way to deconstruct scripture to determine which parts are literally true and which parts are fiction. That whole enterprise is fruitless—and contemptible.

In the end, Douthat even plays the Nazi card!  Referring to his preference for seeing much of the Bible as symbolic and allegorical, Douthat says this:

One can take the latter view and still argue that evolution by natural selection creates challenges for the way Christian theology (though less so Jewish theology, I think) traditionally interprets the Genesis story. (I’ve aired versions of this argument myself: Herehere and here, for instance.) But that’s very different from arguing that either the Genesis story or evolutionary biology has to be a “palpable lie,” and implying anyone who accepts Darwinian evolution has to dismiss the first book of the Old Testament as the ancient equivalent of the Hitler Diaries. This is the view of many fundamentalists, of course. But it’s extremely telling that an atheist like Coyne insists on it as well.

The Genesis story needn’t be either a deliberate lie or an intentional allegory. It was almost certainly the best attempt of our ignorant ancestors to understand their origins.  But, as science and reason have shown, it was wrong.  We’ve put away our childish things.  And we should put away the whole Bible as a childish thing, save for the stirring literary bits and whatever good moral lessons it teaches that happen to coincide with our secular ideas of what is good.

Douthat won’t do that.  While he sees much of the Bible as allegory, I’m sure that when he goes to Mass each week he recites the Nicene Creed, affirming his belief in these “truths”:

  • Jesus is the son of God
  • God is the creator of heaven and earth
  • Jesus was the product of a virgin birth
  • The crucified Jesus was resurrected
  • Jesus will come again to judge us all
  • Our sins will be remitted through baptism
  • There’s an afterlife for the good folks

Tell me, Mr. Douthat: are those allegories, too? When you mouth them in Church each week, are you saying what you really believe?  If not, why do you call yourself a Catholic?

I don’t insist on a view of “true” religion as a literal reading of scripture, whether it be the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other holy book. What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

197 Comments

  1. Muffit
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Probably the most defining factor of theology then is that they think themselves somehow serious when others are raving loonies with their shallow superstitions.

    For me it doesn’t matter how deep the hole of inanity is that you dig for yourself. The (regressive) digging is the problem, not the depth.

    • Marie
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Have you ever read any books by theologians? If so, then whom have you read?

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        Don’t we have a bingo card somewhere for these predictable responses?

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        For theology – “study of gods” – to even be relevant, it must be demonstrated that gods exist.

        Since no such demonstration has ever been forthcoming, to a priori dismiss theology as, for example, “the study of that which is wished to be true”, is perfectly valid.

        While I’ve not been able to bring myself to read entire books on theology (I prefer to read for pleasure, you see), the examples of theological thought found online, brought to my attention by people like Jerry and printed in papers and popular magazines throughout my entire interest in religious thought (+- 15 years) have been nothing less than embarrassing attempts to wave away the objections of the non-religious, ignore the findings of science or to circumvent the contradictions within scripture, within sects or between different religions. The articles and excerpts I’ve read by allegedly deep-thinking theologians have, once stripped of opaque post-modern language, resemble naive screeds by navel-gazing philosophy students.

        Frankly, if the basis of a field of “study” isn’t even in evidence, such study is pointless and engaging with it even moreso. Dawkins uses the example of being an “a-leprechaunist” without reading any leprechaunology; the same applies to the theistic, personal, involved gods that actual people believe in (the ever-changing & elusive vapourware gods of “sophisticated theologians” barely exist as concepts defined enough to actually engage with).

        • Marie
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

          By coming here to expend a lot of thought to theological beliefs, you have demonstrated that theology is relevant to your life and to the world around us.

          In many ways it is irrelevant whether any one theologian is correct. But the fact is that these beliefs have shaped history, and therefore it is important to understand the history of religious thought and its sources. Whatever you think of them, comparing the writings of Augustine or Calvin to magazine articles is like saying that all you need to know about psychology can be found in Psychology Today magazine.

          • Microraptor
            Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

            The difference is the psychology is actually founded on the study of something real and doesn’t depend on a bunch of hand-wringing about the correct interpretation of something that was written thousands of years ago.

            You can’t say that about theology.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted October 6, 2011 at 1:03 am | Permalink

            By coming here to expend a lot of thought to theological beliefs, you have demonstrated that theology is relevant to your life and to the world around us.

            nope. he’s saying that an underSTANDING of what it represented WAS relevant.

            and as you point out rightly in your very next paragraph:

            it is important to understand the history of religious thought and its sources.

            which states it just like he did; an interest in HISTORY.

            that is NOT THEOLOGY.

            you conflating the two is inane.

            there is nothing worthwhile or unique left to be found in theology; all relevant questions within have already been explored to the shallow depths they needed to be.

            what you have left is philosophy, history, anthropology, and maybe some psychology.

            Theology is defunct.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted October 6, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

            The Nazis shaped much of modern history, but that doesn’t mean everyone should read Mein Kampf.

            • Posted October 6, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

              but if one would profess to be able to rebut nazi theory one should be well read on nazi thought.

              It is funny that you would accuse christians or being ignorant when you yourself admit that you have not read any theological books.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted October 6, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                I’m not trying to rebut theology. I’m trying to rebut belief in the existence of gods. As far as I can tell, theology does not usually concern itself with providing evidence for the existence of gods – it just takes the existence of one or more as a default assumption.

              • Nick Andrew
                Posted October 7, 2011 at 5:35 am | Permalink

                If the Nazis didn’t exist, what would be the point of being well-read on their supposed philosophy?

                I don’t need to know all about Midichlorians before I can claim that Star Wars is fiction.

                Theology is hand-waving. It’s Emperor’s New Clothes stuff. It’s twisting the bible to mean what they want it to mean. Even if it weren’t, even if theology represented a profound insight into the meaning of the bible, why should that information be believed by us, without supporting evidence from the real world?

                Let me make an example. Suppose some theological study had determined that pork was not permitted to be consumed. I know, the Jews don’t eat pork. And the Christians do. The Jews point to the phrases which they interpret to mean “don’t eat pork” and the Christians interpret something different. Further assume that the “theological reasoning” is rock solid, and nobody can disagree. The book says, incontrovertibly, DO NOT EAT PORK. That wouldn’t be sufficient reason for any thinking person to obey. The first question, which even a toddler can manage, is “why?” And on this, the book is silent.

                There may be good reasons for not eating pork, but they will be found outside the bible. The bible itself, no matter how clearly it states something, is not the final word on any matter.

                The study of theology is a waste of time. Without empirical evidence of the existence of this deity, and the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, whatever the bible says on these matters is of no consequence, and the cathedrals of religious thought based on this and other documents, on unproven events, on discredited assumptions and outdated modes of thought, are spires with no foundation. You may climb to the top, but the structures hold no weight and your vantage is no better than that of the atheist who, laughing, refuses to enter the building.

                This approach works well for all religions: You do not have empirical evidence of the existence of god, gods, or the supernatural. When you can prove that a god exists, then you can talk about what it wants.

                The Christian story is basically nonsense piled upon nonsense, in thick layers. The omniscient deity couldn’t think of a better way to reveal itself to humankind than through stories and handwritten scrolls, retold through generations, hand-written, translated and re-translated through eons, corrupted and misinterpreted every generation. A story told before the invention of the printing press, to primitive tribes in the Middle East, yet strangely this deity chose to ignore the Chinese, the Egyptians, the ancient South Americans, basically every other race (who had their own deities and creation myths).

                A demigod came and, temporarily dropping his magical powers, managed to enrage the locals so much that they nailed him to some wood. Although I do believe the bar for the death penalty was set very low, in those times. A few days later he re-spawned and this event is somehow considered by millions as the best thing ever. This great sacrifice is no sacrifice at all, for a god. And the reason, the grand plan? It’s to avoid punishment for an act performed by the supposed parents of all human beings, a punishment placed on their children, and all their descendants without end. No matter that this act of disobedience has never been evidenced, or that evolution shows that these two parents never existed. The usefulness of Jesus’ resurrection depends on the existence of original sin and not only is there no confirmatory evidence for any of it, there’s evidence against it. No matter that Jesus never bothered to show up in South America and tell them the good news.

                The events described in the bible happened many hundreds of years ago, if indeed they occurred at all. If I were to lose my mind for a moment, and assume that the Christian deities exist and the events described in the bible are largely true, that would mean that these deities have laid low since that time, refusing to provide proof of their existence, and passively observing the slow ascent of humanity out of barbarism (in some nations) including the invention of technologies such as the printing press, and improved capacity to faithfully document events. These deities have declined to provide us with any information we really need to know; we have to figure it all out for ourselves. By not intervening in wars, natural catastrophes and many atrocities we can infer that these deities are callous. That is, if they existed.

                Of course they don’t exist. To think anything else is utter folly. Many atheists have studied theology. That’s often what changed them into atheists. So I recommend that religious people should study theology. If you’re not an atheist afterward, it means you weren’t paying attention.

              • Microraptor
                Posted October 7, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

                Well done!

            • ossicle
              Posted October 6, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              Though, it’s a fascinating book so I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone.

          • RR
            Posted October 6, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

            Marie:

            In many ways it is irrelevant whether any one theologian is correct.

            Can you please explain how to tell if a theologian is incorrect?

          • Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

            “In many ways it is irrelevant whether any one theologian is correct.”

            I would think that if any one theologian was ever correct about ANYTHING regarding the existence or nature of the god they have decided to believe in, it would be exceedingly relevant – not just to that theologian but to everyone.

            “…it is important to understand the history of religious thought and its sources.”

            Religious history – charting the inception, evolution & effects of religious belief, expression and tradition – is not the same as theology. Conflating the two is a category error. Studying something and believing it’s true are two very different things, as any comic book collector will tell you.

            “Whatever you think of them, comparing the writings of Augustine or Calvin to magazine articles is like saying that all you need to know about psychology can be found in Psychology Today magazine.”

            I did no such thing, as anyone who comprehended my second paragraph would be able to explain.

            The difference between psychology and theology is that one field studies the human mind while the other resides entirely within it.

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    In the end, Douthat even plays the Nazi card!

    has to dismiss the first book of the Old Testament as the ancient equivalent of the Hitler Diaries.

    I think you need to cut him some slack on this one. The Hitler Diaries are a famous 20th century forgery. There’s no need to dig deeper.

  3. Dominic
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Spot on.
    “the sophisticated versions propounded by sophisticated theologians like John Haught and sophisticated intellectuals”… Absolutely! At least the looney creationists have a clear idea of what they believe (even if it does contain contradictions), whereas Douthis & co make it up as they go along! Which is what theology is – I have an idea about an interpretation of the bible, ergo there is a god, so if I blether on about it in a seemingly profound way I must be right.

  4. Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    “The Bible is a jerry-rigged…”

    Ignoring the obvious joke here, this paragraph is not only another alternative to which folk like Douthat and CS Lewis are wilfully blind, but it’s by far the most likely of the alternatives on offer, if one looks at the evidence as a neutral outsider.

    • Duncan
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Neutral outsider? What rare beast is this?

    • Don
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      Good point, but the word here should be “jury-rigged.” It’s sometimes mistakenly mixed up with “jerry-built.” They’re separate words, however, and they have different meanings.

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        I disagree: I think it could be “jerry-built” (“badly or hastily built with materials of poor quality”) as easily as “jury-rigged” (“makeshift; improvised”). But “jerry-built” seems quite apt, on account of its etymology: “… sometimes said … to allude to the walls of Jericho, which fell down at the sound of Joshua’s trumpets (Josh. 6:20).”

        /@

        • Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

          PS. Of course, “jerry-rigged” might be regarded as a new coynage … 

          I’ll get my coat…

          • Tulse
            Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

            Presumably anything “jerry-rigged” would include kittehs and/or boots. Or be extremely tasty.

          • Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps it’s be to propounded alongside the–in Harry Potter fashion one imagines–new award, Doubthat, he earlier mentions.

            After all, this is the Hogwarts of New Atheist’s blog; linguistic magic happens here, people.

            From, “Doubthat thinks, then, that all New Atheists conceive of religion as . . .”

        • daveau
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

          Sorry Ant, Don is correct. Wishful thinking and all…

          It’s still too early for puns. Not before noon. ;-)

          • Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

            Well, Don is, of course, correct that “jerry-rigged” is wrong.

            But I think “jerry-built” is as apt as “jury-rigged” (as the article you cite says, “their meanings overlap”; all “my” definitions and etymology are from New Oxford American Dictionary, btw).

            In fact, given the article you cite says, “‘Jerry-built’ always has a negative connotation, whereas one can be impressed by the cleverness of a jury-rigged solution”, I think “jerry-built” fits even better!

            It’s well after noon here! ;-)

            /@

            • will
              Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

              I don’t know the etyomology of jerry-rigged but ALL the online dictionaries have it listed as a legitimate word or alternate of jury-rigged.

              Language changes. Jerry-rigged: organized or constructed in a crude or improvised manner (Merriam-Webster) which is precisely how Jerry used it. To convey the contrived, jerry-rigged, prefabricated way the jewish collection of oral traditions and myths are put together.

              • Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                Hmm… if you looked at MW you should know the etymology: “probably blend of jerry-built and jury-rigged. First Known Use 1959”

                NOAD seems oddly conservative, then. (And whichever one Don uses.)

                I have no quibble, then. And it is still apposite to the Bible.

                /@

              • Don
                Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                The word’s mention in online dictionaries doesn’t necessarily establish its legitimacy. Dictionaries, which are descriptive (not prescriptive) resources, routinely recognize nonstandard English. The language evolves, of course, but for the most part it evolves slowly. What’s more, most tentative usages die out altogether before they achieve widespread acceptance, much less legitimacy. “Jerry-built” may well suit the sense Jerry intends, but most usage experts will agree that “jerry-rigged” is a nonstandard word that confuses two standard words that have rather separate meanings. See Paul Brians’s excellent website (also linked above), “Common Errors in English Usage,” http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/index.html

              • Tulse
                Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

                But Don, for all intensive purposes the terms are the same, which begs the question of why you’re complaining. I could care less if a word or phrase has some ancient history. The prescriptivists just want us to tow the line, but by now real-world usage has made this a mute point.

              • Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

                @Tulse

                Very nice.

              • Don
                Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                Clever, Tulse, but they’re not the same, of course, nor am I complaining, exactly, just pointing out a pertinent distinction. Among others, Alfred Holt, in PHRASE AND WORD ORIGONS (Dover), says “This “adjective, for cheap, unsubststantial houses, has been connected with “jerry,” which is Romany (gypsy) for excrement, and with Jerry Bros., a Liverpool construction outfit. “Jerry” is also slang for a chamber pot.

                And there’s this from from WordOrigins.com: “These two terms have different origins and different meanings, although they are becoming conflated in common usage. Jerry-built, meaning shoddy construction, dates to 1869. From the 1869 Lonsdale Glossary: ‘Jerry-built, slightly, or unsubstantially built.’ Jury rig, while similar sounding, has a slightly different meaning, emphasizing the temporary nature of the solution and can imply an ingenious solution done with materials at hand. Jerry-built, on the other hand, is often used for a permanent, but poorly built, construction and has no positive connotation.”

                According to the AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY, “jerry-built” is unrelated by origin to “jury-rigged,” but stems from a dialect term “jerry”, an adjective meaning defective. “Jury-rigged” carries a connotation of emergency and necessity.

              • Tulse
                Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

                Clever, Tulse, but they’re not the same, of course, nor am I complaining, exactly, just pointing out a pertinent distinction.

                Sorry, Don, I was trying to agree with you in a humorous fashion, but I fear my message wasn’t clear enough. I bare full responsibility.

              • Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

                @ Tulse @ 1:08pm

                That’s the literary equivalent of dragging fingernails down a blackboard!

                But I can’t help being inconsistent here. Despite Don’s objections and prescriptive citations, in find it hard to object to a usage that’s older than I am. But most of your examples, and other eggcorns like “beckon call”, still grate.

                How strongly should we resist language change? Did our forefathers fight to retain “an ewt”? Yet “a newt” is entirely unobjectionable these days. More recently, who still objects to “spitting image” (1920s) rather than “spit and image”?

                So, I’m willing to push back on ignorant and rebarbative mistakes, but accepting “jerry-rigged” as a synonym for “jerry-built” (yet still distinct from “jury-rigged”) seems innocuous enough.

                /@

                PS. It strikes me, as we stray further OT, that what we have in “jerry-rigged” is a mixed metaphor, rather than something literally descriptive! ;-) (And Pinker would point out that many phrases are metaphorical anyway — The Language Instinct?)

              • Diane G.
                Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                @ Don (“… “jerry,” which is Romany (gypsy) for…”)

                Uh, if you ever have reason to come up with stuff on my name, please keep it to yourself, OK?
                ;)

  5. Tulse
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Jerry, was the misspelling of his name at the start of the seventh paragraph intentional?:

    Doubthat thinks, then, that all New Atheists conceive of religion as fundamentalism

    That’s a funny slip, although his problem does not seem to stem from an excess of doubt…

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      It was purely a typo, but now that I see it, I think I’ll leave it up..

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      I read this on my iPhone as soon as I woke up (still in bed). It’s what prompted me to start my day – there’s no snooze button on a good laugh.

  6. Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Excellent!

    “(False parts of the Bible, of course, are not discarded, as they would be in science, but simply transformed into metaphor. This is what’s happening to the Adam and Eve tale as I write).”

    I think it’s worse than that. Attempting to redefine A&E as two humans out of many is not just transforming the story into metaphor — “[an] account of how sin entered the world [that] partakes of allegorical and symbolic elements”, as Doubtthat says — but an attempt to preserve a literal core among the debris of the story in order to give Original Sin the same theological clout that it has in a completely literalist reading.

    /@

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      PS. My misspelling was intentional, and committed before I saw your comment, Tulse. A pity he’s not Thomas rather than Ross.

      /@

      • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        … that? That’s a pun(n)y Ant.

  7. Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    JAC:

    Nobody, including Douthat, has yet given us criteria for determining which parts of the Bible are true and which are false. (False parts of the Bible, of course, are not discarded, as they would be in science, but simply transformed into metaphor. This is what’s happening to the Adam and Eve tale as I write).

    Eventually one realises that most of it is metaphor, fictional, or often just wrong. At that point, one might realise that one is no longer “Christian”, except perhaps in a cultural sense.

    Are there interesting insights to be gained from the Bible viewed as mythology or just as literature? Sure. But that’s a far cry from believing in a magic saviour coming back to life or that there’s a magic sky parent who is watching over us, responding to our prayers.

  8. newenglandbob
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    The Bible is a jerry-rigged, sloppily-edited, largely fabricated, and palpably incomplete collection of oral traditions and myths, once intended to be the best explanation for the origins of our species, but now to be regarded merely as a quaint and occasionally enjoyable origin fable related by ignorant and relatively isolated primitive ancestors. It’s a palimpsest that is largely fictional, a story reworked many times, but based on our ancestor’s best understanding of how we came about. It’s simply a myth, no truer than the many myths, religious or otherwise, that preceded it. Embedded in it are some good moral lessons, but also many bad moral lessons. And the “good” morality doesn’t come from God, but is simply worked into the fairy tale by those who possessed that morality for secular reasons.

    Terrific summary. I am stealing that; with credit, of course.

    Nobody, including Douthat, has yet given us criteria for determining which parts of the Bible are true and which are false.

    Then let me be the first to define the parts:

    TRUE parts of the bible:
    “In the beginning”
    FALSE parts of the bible:
    -all the rest of the OT, NT, Koran, etc.

    • Don
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Terrific summary, I agree, but again, before you steal, bear in mind that it’s “jury-rigged,” not “jerry-rigged.”

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        Or “jerry-built”.

        /@

        PS. When is a blog a website? When it’s jerry built. :-D

        • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

          Or if you have to re-boot to visit.

          • Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

            :-D

            Incidentally, in the UK, something that’s jerry built might have been constructed by cowboy builders!

            /@

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Actually since inflationary standard cosmology have universes as zero energy, they are at least forward eternal and most simply backwards too as a multiverse.

      I think that is most likely FALSE.

      TRUE parts of the bible:
      “In”.

      (Because there is no “out”.)

      • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Oops. The physics is that zero energy object, quite naturally, are the ones that can last forever. (Modulo a quantum fluctuation or so – which shouldn’t affect the system energy but the “last” part.)

  9. Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

    Duh, the true parts are ones not proven false.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

      And the parts that are proven false are still “spiritually true.”

      • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        As in “true when imbibing a lot of spirits and looking askance”.

    • Marta
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      “What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.”

      I’m encountering this belief more often, and I’m really curious, now, as to what their real answer is.

      How DO they determine which parts of the Bible are true, and which parts are metaphor? Is it just, you know, OBVIOUS, but atheists are too arrogant (smug, etc., etc.) to learn? Or something?

      Could someone point me to the “Guide to Biblical Metaphor” I’ve missed?

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        I’ve never received a satisfactory answer to the “how” question either. Of all the screeds admonishing atheist writers to not act like fundies and take everything literally, not one believer has ever suggested a method for determining which parts are true and which are “true”. The closest I can imagine is that they use modern scientific and moral concepts to retain or discard, believe or consign to metaphor the various bits as they see fit. Of course, that approach sails them pretty damn close to the waters of non-belief but they wouldn’t admit it.

        • Microraptor
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

          Every time I ask what the difference is, I get accused of making an appeal to emotion or something.

  10. Insightful Ape
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I am always baffled when I hear catholics complaining the fundamentalist taking bible too literally. It is the catholic church, after all, that claims the bread and wine are truly, physically the flesh and blood of jesus; they are the strictest of literalists you can find. Even though any sane person understands transsubstantiation cannot possibly be literal.

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      As I recall, it’s the essense or substance that is transformed, while the physical bread and wine are chemically identical.

      Sounds like Platonic realism to me, and very conveniently unfalsifiable.

      • Tulse
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        A lot of early Christianity was influenced by neo-Platonism.

        • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

          It reminds me how it was a Greek invention (cue Ben Goren) and, as a newspaper here wrote in the context of the euro crisis and its current pivot (i.e. Greece), how poorly the greeks traded away their culture for christian dogma.

          The lament was not only for the modern greek culture of privileged leadership (supported by the christian texts), but also for how late the Enlightenment became. We lost a millennium to religious ransacking, culturally as well as economically. And many nations suffers yet.

          • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
            Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

            D’oh! Many nations “suffer still”.

            • Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

              A correction, and Ben Goren didn’t have to say a thing. =P

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Most of these ‘core’ Christian doctrines come from a naive, literal reading of the Bible. The sophicated justifcations for such nonsense came later.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      They also believe that Mary was literally a virgin and Jesus literally rose from the dead.

    • daveau
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      There’s some cracker that partially turned red, which is being claimed as part of Jeebus’ heart.

      “the substance of Christ’s body or blood has become available to the human senses

      What weasely language. So the literal transsubstantiation is not so literal after all, if this is the only time it has happened. I thought it happened every day during mass.

  11. Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    It’s just that “sophisticated” theists see their texts as (largely) metaphorical: it’s that they see these metaphors as divinely inspired. I’d like to see a rational justification for that claim!

  12. Adam
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    ” Yes, Adam and Eve is a fairy tale, and so is Noah, Jonah and the whale, and the creation tale of Genesis. But, claim people like Douthat, not the whole Bible! Some of it is true! And those truths, of course, include the divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his resurrection, as well as all that Original Sin and the Resurrection imply: we’ll be saved through belief in Jesus alone and, if we’re good, we’ll find ourselves in Heaven.”

    From the examples you’ve given, there’s a clear divide here between the Old and New Testament.

    • yesmyliege
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      What one finds is that much of the New Testament is a reworking of Old Testament (and Pagan) allegories and prophesies in order to shoehorn Jesus Christ, the Anointed Savior, in as the realization of the prophesies – the Messiah. The earlier scripture is essential to understanding what follows, as most of it was borrowed as the basis for supposedly new revelation.

      But there are still plenty of impossible truth claims in the New Testament which are quarantined off as mere metaphor today.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      Yes, they want to distinguish themselves from the “fundamentalists” who take much of the Old Testament literally. Sophisticated moderate Christians only take much of the New Testament literally.

      That’s much more reasonable, right?

  13. Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

    This is the fatal argument that exposes why religion and science are incompatible methods of inquiry.

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Religion is not, repeat, not, a method of inquiry.

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Btw, folks should check out Eric’s piece that covers similar ground to Jerry’s, prompted by Haught rather than Douthat.

        /@

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Science is a method of asking; religion is a method of being told.

  14. Martin
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

    Has anyone ever heard a theologian try to address this question? I think it’s a pretty fundamental issue they should be able to answer. Or just ignore it and hope it goes away, I suppose.

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      I was going to say that Aquinas addressed the question, but it seems that he insisted that the metaphorical interpretations — in three levels: allegorical, moral, and eschatological — presupposed the literal interpretation as well.

      In other words, Aquinas would have disagreed with today’s Catholics and liberal Christians who think they can have Original Sin without an actual Adam and Eve sinning in the Garden. The value of the metaphor rests on the validity of literal reading.

      Or as Aquinas put it,

      Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses. ST I:1:10

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        And a bit further down in the same section,

        Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48).

        Poor old dumbass, fundamentalist Aquinas. Perhaps Douthat can kick him for a while, too?

        • Martin
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

          So God intended it literally, but intentionally obfuscated the meaning of his words by writing unclearly? I…see.

          Augustine actually takes this a step further – see, God (through the Bible writers) apparently understood science and nature quite well. He just, you know, didn’t think it was important enough to share.

          “In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” – On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis

    • TK
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      I’ve been in dialogue with Catholics who have tried- and it most cases, they are decent enough to admit that there isn’t one, and suggest that part of the power of God-given (or suggested, or anticipated, or whatever) reasoning is to gnaw away at both physical and liturgical cruft to find what exactly the mark of God’s handiwork is. Of course, that comes with the unsubstantiated first principle that there are *any* such marks…

    • DV
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Everything is presumed literally true until proven a metaphor.

  15. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    “What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.”

    Answer: they don’t. They use instead this simple algorithm:

    If science proves that part of scripture is literally false

    -Part of scripture = metaphor

    Else

    -Leave faithful under the impression that part of scripture is literally true because inspired

    End

    I assure you. The faithful (including the sophisticated theologian) cannot spot the bug. Otherwise unbelief would beckon.

  16. Kevin
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Bravo. One of your best posts ever on this subject. And a quite clear and compelling explanation of what it is that us Gnus are all about.

    It’s all mythology. And just because a scant few of the settings are real, historical places, that does not make the stories any more truthful than the tales of the Achilles and the Trojan Wars.

    • yesmyliege
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Your example works better on many levels, but I really do prefer Harry Potter riding minibuses in London.

  17. TomZ
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t the fact that there’s this lack of clarity in the supposed “god’s word” a strike against god’s omnipotent-ness (and benevolence)? And doesn’t the whole process lead a rational person to conclude the basic premise is just getting silly?

    I mean, god goes through the trouble of creating the universe, creating humans with big brains so we can know god, inspiring them to write a book of god’s word, yet not bothering putting in simple footnotes of *Literal or *Metaphor?? Doesn’t that whole thing sound silly? If that kind of god did exist, he’d be an ass-hole. (Thankfully he doesn’t.)

    • TK
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      You can make an end run on that by limiting the amount of inspiration received from on-high. It’s a problem for the Koran, which has passages that essentially assert that this draft, in Arabic, is the literal language of a deity, but it’s my understanding that the modern Catholic line is more that the Bible is a fundamentally human document- which, of course, it is, just a few hairs more…

    • Microraptor
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      No, because that just means you’re not interpreting the passage in “the proper way” (which appears to be “while high”).

  18. Sajanas
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    People who argue for the Bible as a metaphor really frustrate me, because, from my experience, you always have to wrestle that concession out of them. When you’re a kid in the church, they just teach you the stories. None of this “this is a metaphor”, “this is just a story”. I had to figure that shit out for myself, with my own critical thinking, and *then* it becomes just a story. Just for fun, I opened up my old Bible to see what it prefaced the Torah books with, and it made no mention of them being utterly incorrect historically. The New Testament makes no mention of the fact that half the letters of Paul and a lot of other stuff are forgeries, and the Gospels weren’t written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Perhaps some Bibles do that… but for the most part, people have to struggle to learn these simple facts, that the theologians all know, from other sources.

    So, that’s why I call out people like Douthat for complaining that no one takes the Bible literally. If you really think that, why is it only atheists and agnostics that are the ones spreading the real historical and literary analysis of the Bible? Why do religious people not teach any of the science that contradicts it? The difference between the literal and the metaphorical interpretation of the Bible is really just the difference between a lie to ones face, and a lie of omission.

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Sajanas, that is a really insightful point.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      In truth, here it lies!?

    • derekw
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      ust for fun, I opened up my old Bible to see what it prefaced the Torah books with, and it made no mention of them being utterly incorrect historically. The New Testament makes no mention of the fact that half the letters of Paul and a lot of other stuff are forgeries, and the Gospels weren’t written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
      Can you point me to some good online sources for this research (Jesus Project?)

      • Sajanas
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        If you have to get stuff online, I think a lot of it you can find on Wikipedia. “The historicity if Jesus” has a lot of stuff, and really, the Historicity of ____ articles are all pretty interesting. Buddha, Mohammad, Jesus, Moses. In general though, the earliest bits of the Gospels date to about 125 – 150, Matthew and Luke copy wholesale from Mark, all the earliest versions of the Gospels lack names associated with them, and there is no contemporary reference to Jesus, even though writers existed at that time, and its lack was even noticed by early church fathers.

        I’ve done more book reading… Bart Ehrman’s and Israel Finkelstein’s books mostly. I’d love to read some of Avalos, but none of his books are at my library.

        • Marta
          Posted October 6, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

          Your library probably has an Inter-library Loan program. For a a dollar or two, you can ask your library to borrow the Avalos title from a library outside your library’s system.

    • Marie
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      That’s because up to about age 8 or 9, kids are unable to grasp the concept of what a metaphor is. I teach 4th graders, and with very few exceptions, most of them haven’t been taught about figurative language before I teach it to them.

      The human brain doesn’t develop the capacity for truly abstract thought until age 9. So teaching them about metaphors would be pointless. Even if you explain the concept to young childrenm in detail, they won’t understand it.

      • Juggler_Dave
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        Ignoring the fact that we’re still in limbo regarding a rule or set of rules for determining what is metaphor and what is literal, pointing out that young children can’t grasp metaphor doesn’t help much. Children are given the stories as if they are real, and there is no follow up (say, after age 12 or so) to explain that they are not real, but metaphor for something (metaphor for what? is also largely unanswered). Why is there no program from the Karen Armstrongs, Ross Douthats, and others to let those in the pews know when and how to teach their children that certain stories aren’t real? Better yet, why not a program to stick with what’s real from the bible (for various values of real) for small children to minimize the amount of correction needed later?

        Of course, there is no program of correction forthcoming in either case. Why would that be?

        • Marie
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

          Most Sunday School curriculum that I’ve seen has progressively more complex lessons as kids get older, just like regular school curriculum does. Maybe you went to a church that didn’t do that, but most do.

          The biggest difference I have seen is that Catholic curriculum tends to focus on the moral lessons behind each Bible story, while evangelical curriculum gets heavier into theology. So in a way Catholic curriculum doesn’t need to make the case that Adam and Eve are metaphors because the distinction isn’t relevant to how they are using them.

          Evangelicals, on the other hand, teach kids that there are definitive connections between the Fall and the Resurrection. So for them the distinction matters.

          • Juggler_Dave
            Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            Please note that I didn’t say that sunday schools don’t offer progressively more complex lessons. I’m saying that those who plead metaphor for various stories in the bible teach them as real to the young and never correct that. To claim that the distinction between metaphor and reality isn’t relevant to catholics is laughable – they teach the stories as real too. Are you suggesting that catholic schools then pull out Karen Armstrong’s book and take it all back?

            • TK
              Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

              It’s funny you mention Karen Armstrong- ostensibly, she’s all about sophisticated theology, but I’ve loaned out her “History of God” to friends coming over to the dark side, and it’s generally been regarded as a kicker- seeing the steady progression, sans new divine inspiration, from notions of Big Men in the Sky, to those of nebulous gobs of love, or ineffable first causes, or in general anything that no longer seems worth calling a being, make it clear that the sophistication of a theology seems to be inversely correlated to the number of claims it makes that are contrary to expectations from a godless universe.

              Actually, that has a nice Clarke’s Law ring to it: “Any sufficiently sophisticated theology is functionally indistinguishable from atheism.” :-P

              • Tulse
                Posted October 6, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

                Actually, that has a nice Clarke’s Law ring to it: “Any sufficiently sophisticated theology is functionally indistinguishable from atheism.”

                I am so stealing that.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

            Most Sunday School curriculum that I’ve seen has progressively more complex lessons as kids get older, just like regular school curriculum does.

            The distinction between fiction and reality is not a matter of complexity. And I’d be curious to know when the existence of God himself is treated as a metaphor in Sunday school curriculum. Age 12? 15? 18?

            • truthspeaker
              Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

              I’m really curious about your answer to this, Marie. When, in the typical Sunday school curriculum, is it explained to children that the God character they’ve been learning about doesn’t exist in reality, but is a storytelling tool?

      • Sajanas
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Age 9 is what, the 3rd grade? I think I realized that Santa was a myth by then, a story that was supposed to represent the good feelings of the world to children, and the joy of gift giving. And I certainly understood the concept of fiction when I was even younger.

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        So up until 9, kids can’t grasp the concept of metaphors. Fine – so why raise them to believe in a religion? Why teach them to accept scripture & dogma as fact before they have the proper cognitive tools to be able to tell fact from fiction, metaphor, simile or any thing which isn’t actually true? How is it fair to teach religious stories as true and then, later, reveal that some are metaphorical?

        One would think that the honest and fair thing to do would be to leave religious teaching until children are capable of differentiating between real and false, metaphor and fact, fiction and reality. This is patently not the case in the vast majority of religious kids’ lives.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

          They can certainly understand the distinction between fiction and reality before age 9. I saw Star Wars when I was 7 and I knew it didn’t describe events that had actually happened.

        • Tim
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

          Why, indeed. Could it be that if you don’t inculcate children with such nonsense at an early age, they tend to actually think about what they’re being told? Could it be that unless they reach maturity already emotionally invested in their status as a Catholic (or whatever else), it proves very difficult to convince them that this stuff isn’t utter bullshit?

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Good point. Hector Avalos, in his book The End of Biblical Studies, goes into some detail about the efforts of bible translators and theologians to deliberately hide contradictions and mistakes in the bible. The whole deceitful operation continues into modern times.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Maybe they think you have to take them literally before you can understand them figuratively, and the latter is only for the advanced students.

      My high school chemistry teacher taught us the orbital model of atomic structure, but he made sure to tell us it was an older model that was useful but not as accurate as newer models that we would learn in college.

      • Tim
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

        If you’re referring to the Bohr model, it really isn’t useful for much of anything. Unless you explain things about how it arose from the principle of least action, for example, there is little you can do with it and the students can’t appreciate the reasoning that led the developers of the “old quantum theory” where they went in their thinking. (You can talk about quantized energy levels and leave the question of “where” the electrons are out.) The Bohr orbits are intellectual place filler for proper orbitals.

        I hate spending my time as a chemistry professor having to “unteach” wrong things to students. There is always enough stuff to teach – just skip the stuff their not ready for and teach more descriptive chemistry, which (with a good teacher) is of much more interest to high school students anyway.

  19. Jim Mauch
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    This is the part that made me reject religious belief as a child. They force-feed a dogma to generation after generation of gullible children who are oblivious that real evidence has proven the facts to be untrue. When they are finally backed into a corner where they have to concede the validity of their teachings they pull out the ‘poetic allegory revealing a deeper truth’ card. When you question the logic of their arguments they accuse you of being woefully uninformed of matters of theology and they pull out their experts with PhD’s in myth spinning and logical fallacies. How in the world can anyone buy this stuff?

    • Matt Foley
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Amen to that!

  20. Sastra
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I think it would be useful to begin a dialogue with these sophisticated believers in Metaphor by informing them that we are going to begin with the assumption that they are, in fact, atheists. They believe that ALL the supernatural imagery and language in the Bible is simply poetic language which is used to describe purely secular emotions and relationships in this world — up to and including God. They are so sophisticated, in fact, that they’ve arrived at a naturalistic atheism through the back way of story and narrative.

    Now the ball is in their court, and none of these silly games about who is being too literal can be played. If they want to convince us that they are not atheists, they will have to bring on the crazy. Tell us what supernatural beliefs they DO hold — and defend them against the viewpoint that would instead be held by a rational person of the world.

    • Rick
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      “Tell us what supernatural beliefs they DO hold”
      Most of my friends and family in this category (sophisticated metaphorical believers) would argue for the warm and fuzzy, god gives me inspiration and meaning and an ‘authentic experience’. At this point they don’t believe god intervenes in the non-human physical world, just that god twiddles in the quantum mechanical woo-stuff in our brains. We leads me to think of them as de facto atheists. If you believe god only impacts your mind, then we’re in agreement.

      • JamesB
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

        I wish I could make fun of this particular view but it’s pretty close to what I held onto until the very end of my belief. And you’re right: at some point I realized, for all intents and purposes, I was an atheist, so I just dropped the warm and fuzzy god altogether and that was that.

    • yesmyliege
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Man, I had to attend a RC mass led by the Cardinal of Boston a couple of weeks ago, and I was listening pretty darned closely. And I can tell you that there was nothing metaphorical about what he had to say about Sin, redemption through the Grace of a suffering Jesus, and enjoying eternal afterlife in Heaven.

      • Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:07 am | Permalink

        It does make one wonder whether these people telling us what Christianity ‘really’ teaches ever go to an actual church and listen to actual sermons.

        I’ve heard thousands of sermons in several denominations, and a literal interpretation of the Bible is the norm. The basic and correct assumption is that the churchgoers want simple answers, whether they are correct or not.

        Yes, there are all sorts of books written by liberal Christians using other sorts of biblical interpretation, but you won’t find one Christian in a hundred who reads stuff like that. (I did, but I finally got tired of the lack of interest from other Christians.)

        And if a minister hints that “the gospel” is really just a metaphor, well, let’s hope he has a backup career plan. That metaphor talk scares the average churchgoer to death.

    • Marie
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      That’s pretty much the theological position that most modern Jewish people take.

  21. wunelle
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Bravo. I’d be hiding under a rock after a drubbing like that!

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Yes.

      Of course, to warrant such a drubbing you would pretty much have hidden under a rock _before_ for some time… Or be willfully ignorant.

  22. Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Douthat says that: “Shea touched off the dust-up by arguing that there’s nothing particularly radical, at least from the perspective of the Catholic tradition, about interpreting the first books of Genesis as a “figurative” account of a primeval event, rather than as literal historiography that requires that two and onlytwo human creatures were on the scene when mankind exchanged our original innocence for disobedience and shame.”

    Pope Pius XII wouldn’t agree however. In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis he states explicitly that all humans descended from Adam: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.” (paragraph 37)

    Is the pope also a fundamentalist loony according to Douthat?

    • Kevin
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      Oh dear…someone call the Inquisition. I think Douthat is in for a mild spanking. Or a session on the rack.

      • daveau
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        I wasn’t expecting that.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          No one expects etc…

          This was really just an excuse to subscribe to the thread.

        • Rick
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

          Well played. I didn’t get the reference at first, but truthspeaker’s hint helped.

          • daveau
            Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

            Monty Python references are compulsory in a 100+ comment thread. Read your handbook.

            • Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              Indeed. I, for example, am practicing not being seen….

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                Oh, you were doing so well until then!

                /@

              • Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                Oh, shit — you’re right!

                Damn. Baihu’s gonna kill me for this, especially after all the extra lessons he’s been giving me. He might even force me into the comfy chair!

                b&

  23. TrineBM
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    A nice, clear and effective post on this subject – very enjoyable read, prof. Coyne. Thank you :-)

  24. Jeffrey Shallit
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
    — Upton Sinclair (attributed)

  25. Hempenstein
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    …and the story of Jesus would be a convenient fairy tale, like that of Santa Claus, rather than an object of universal veneration.

    I kinda like to make the comparison to Paul Bunyan instead.

  26. Tulse
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Hey look, Andrew Sullivan took Jerry to task on his Mark Shea piece. A sample:

    There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn;t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally.

    I’m amused by that casual parenthetical comment, which of course covers a large portion of the US voting public, and likely the majority of believers historically.

    • penn
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s what I don’t get. Sullivan and Douthat both think that Genesis is obviously not a literal history and that one must be deluded to think otherwise. This clearly ignores the fact that mainstream Christians for centuries did firmly believe that Genesis was a literal history. Why was the Church opposed to heliocentrism if not because they read the Old Testament literally?

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        Bingo!

        That was, of course, the age before what Nicolas (#15) said became true.

        Which prompts an interesting question: Which was the first substantive part of the Bible or doctrine that (any part of) the Church accepted as being not literally true because of science?

        /@

        • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          They knew Earth didn’t follow the text description as flat, but that was common knowledge.

          Probably the fixity of stars then, as I remember it the churches were deeply troubled by comets and novas. The sun spots were also condemned as astronomers ‘trying to sully the Creation’, IIRC.

      • Marie
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        There’s a significant difference between the intention of the text and how its interpretation evolved over the centuries. What you’re overlooking is that the Adam and Eve story is at least 2,800 years old, and it’s absurd to believe that mankind maintained a static understanding of it up the last decade or two.

        Christian Fundamentalism itself is a relatively new phenomenon; a lot of what seems to be conventional Biblical theology (the rapture and a literal reading of Revelation, for example) has only been around for a few decades.Doctrines and interpretations fall in and out of favor.

        Scholars would answer your question in a few ways: first, ancient Hebrews did not ask the question whether a given Bible story was ‘true.” The question they asked was “does it teach us something about God, and does it glorify him?”

        Our fixation on “facts” is a western way of thinking. In the same way that Hindus do not fret over whether the legends of the Hindi gods in the Vedas are factual, ancient Hebrews didn’t stress factuality. Myth and allegory were more highly regarded literary forms, and Hebrews believed that once you try to describe God in factual terms, you are already off track, since a central tenet of their faith was that man is incapable of defining God or truly knowing or understanding him.

        Second, it was only after Christianity spread among the Gentiles and western thought emerged that people began to interpret Old Testament stories as more literal. But that’s a development that took place in a timespan of close to a thousand years. Generally scholars believe that the teachers of the Old Testament stories did not believe they were literally true, but the uneducated masses most likely did, just as you will find in less educated parts of India that the locals are more likely to have a literal take on the Vedas.

        But scholars agree that the stories in Genesis are written as myths. If it’s not obvious to you in English, then it should be more clear in Hebrew. In ancient Hebrew, the verse about Adam being formed from the earth is “adam” (their masculine word for red or blood) being formed from “adamah” (their feminine word for red). The verse literally means “The red man was formed from the red earth.” It’s poetic.

        • Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          That’s a nice bit of revisionism, seeing as how even Aquinas was convinced that the story of Adam and Eve — not to mention the way that the Gospels establish Jesus’s claim to the throne of David by tracing his lineage to Adam (granted, by radically incompatible genealogies). Indeed, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a single century in the past twenty without a leading Christian “thinker” (and I do use the term advisedly) reaffirming the literal existence of Adam and Eve — and emphasizing the importance of said literal existence.

          Are theologians obsessed with the metaphysical bullshit implied by the literal existence of Adam and Eve? Sure. But they’ve always started with the presumed factual reality of that literal existence and proceeded from there. It’s the foundation on which they build their sky castles, and they make no bones about it.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Marie
            Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

            Origen and Augustine are two examples of prominent theologians who rejected a literal reading of Genesis. Equally important is the fact that Christians aren’t the only faith that has adopted Genesis as a religious text, yet these debates always leave out Jewish theologians.

            It’s historically incorrect to claim that literalism was the most common way of reading of the Bible. It’s not even true now.

            • Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

              It’s historically incorrect to claim that literalism was the most common way of reading of the Bible. It’s not even true now.

              What on Earth could possibly compel you to lie so blatantly and transparently?

              Every single service, Christians everywhere recite in unison either the Nicene Creed or some variation on it, opening with a reaffirmation of a literal belief in Genesis 1:1, that Jesus literally beamed down from Heaven and was literally born of a literal virgin, literally zombified himself, literally beamed himself back up to a literal Heaven literally in the sky, that he’ll literally lead a literal zombie apocalypse literally any day now…

              …and that’s just the Credo!

              Have you never listened to a sermon? Virtually all I’ve ever heard in virtually every denomination, Christian and Jewish both, include something-or-other referring to a Bible passage that’s literally interpreted literally. Jesus literally reattached limbs that literally fell off the lepers, or YHWH literally mud wrestled with Israel, or a literal burning bush literally taught a literal Moses literally how to turn a literal magic wand into a literal snake. Yes, sure, they then bullshit about the implications of those literal events — but they always start with the literal, actual, honest-to-Jesus literal nature of those literal events.

              I mean, really. What do you think you have to gain by pretending otherwise?

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Microraptor
                Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, Origen and Augustine may have rejected a literal interpretation of Genesis, but they most certainly considered many other parts of the bible to be completely literal, Exodus and the New Testament being to examples that readily come to mind.

                Saying that there’s one part of the bible that’s not considered true by someone hardly negates all the parts that were (and still are) considered true.

                Hell, you can’t even lump Catholics into the “doesn’t interpret the OT literally” category, since most of the Catholics I know (including a few relatives) believe in a young Earth that was spoken into existence just like the Bible says and reject the notion that any form of evolution is true, even though that’s blatantly against current Church doctrine.

              • Tim
                Posted October 6, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink

                Now Ben, perhaps she wasn’t lying. Perhaps she, like most of the flock one sees reciting the Nicene creed in church, falls into a trance state when they recite it. That’s the point of the mind-numbing ritual – to so numb the mind that one doesn’t even notice what horseshit it is.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted October 6, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

              Augustine most certainly did not reject a literal reading of Genesis.

              • Marie
                Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

                Quote from Augustine:

                “With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures.

                In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation”

              • truthspeaker
                Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

                That really doesn’t make your point. Augustine still believed in a literal Adam and Eve and that the accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 described real events.

        • Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          “Our fixation on “facts” is a western way of thinking.”

          Does one have to come from a first-world nation to care whether something claimed as true is actually true? A fact is a fact whether you arrive it directly or through metaphor.

          • Posted October 8, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

            It is also a terribly racist and insulting view to think that “others” don’t care what is the case. (Also, how does one live if one doesn’t know how to get food to eat, where to find a mate, etc.?)

        • truthspeaker
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          Scholars would answer your question in a few ways: first, ancient Hebrews did not ask the question whether a given Bible story was ‘true.” The question they asked was “does it teach us something about God, and does it glorify him?”

          That very question assumes that parts of the Bible stories describing God are true: the ones that assert that he exists and that it is desirable to glorify him.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted October 6, 2011 at 1:12 am | Permalink

          Christian Fundamentalism itself is a relatively new phenomenon

          no, it isn’t.

          this is a convenient fiction built up by the same people that brought you the concept that somehow there was a “new atheism”.

          fundamentalists are as old as the stories themselves.

          • Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:14 am | Permalink

            Christian fundamentalism, as a modern movement, was an attempt to hold to traditional Christian doctrines in the face of mounting evidence that none of them is true.

            To imply that virtually no-one believed in those doctrines until “fundamentalists” started formally defending them is pretty silly, and yet this assertion is made frequently. And it doesn’t even make sense: would religious conservatives invent a set of traditional doctrines out of thin air and then fight to defend them?

            • Marie
              Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

              I’ve seen Karen Armstrong cited a number of times on these posts. Read her book “”The Battle For God.” The evidence that fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon is indisputable.

              • Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

                The Karen Armstrong is full of shit. As been repeatedly observed in this thread, even the Gospels have Jesus making fundamentalist declarations about the literal nature of Adam and Eve and other tall Torah tales.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • truthspeaker
                Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

                Fundamentalism can be seen as a recent phenomenon only because it was a 19th Century reaction against crtical literary analysis of the Bible. Before such analysis started becoming widespread, there was no need to make a distinction between a literal and non-literal understanding of Scripture, because the literal understanding was the only one that existed.

                Fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon in the same way that fascism was a “new order” – people reacted to what was new by promoting an ideology that reaffirmed and romanticized old ways of thinking.

    • Sajanas
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Not to mention that until the printing press, most of the stories were taught orally from the Bible, and the common folk probably didn’t even know that there were two Genesis stories. And even today, most of the teaching of the Bible stories is done with workbooks, videos, and the like, which use selective quotations rather than actually sitting down and reading the whole story. And even then, sometimes you miss the story being retold in another book.

      • Juggler_Dave
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        Emphatically this. Drives me crazy when I hear an argument about the bible holding up for thousands of years when only a tiny subset of people had access to any of it before the printing press, coupled with the lack of bibles in the vernacular.

  27. Peter Hoffman
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    This is one of Jerry’s best, and I cannot disagree with a word.

    However I’d like to (again) point out how a regrettable lack of precision in many erstwhile biologists (but also including a former pope below) could easily confuse an intelligent novice. Here’s the former pope from one of your correspondents:

    “…faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all…”

    He meant, but didn’t actually say that every person must believe the falsehood that EVERY one of his ancestry lines backwards went through Adam. (Forget about whether it stopped there.) A person could ignorantly, but correctly say, ‘Clearly, assuming that mitochondrial Eve had only one mate, that guy, whom I’ll call Adam, is, as the pope said “the first parent of all”, and so the pope is even backed up by science on this one.’

    Of course the pope did not mean merely that AT LEAST one of his ancestry lines backwards went to Adam.

    But I do get weary of sloppy verbiage which makes it easy for religious ignoramuses to deceive the novice, including quite bright ones.

    Peter

  28. penn
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Douthat also misses the obvious point that the literal interpretation of Genesis was the standard interpretation for centuries. Most of mainstream Christians over the last 2000 years certainly did believe it was a literal history. Were all of these people “really stupid” because they didn’t notice that the story wasn’t “remotely plausible or coherent”?

    • Hempenstein
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Maybe he’s who Sam Cooke had in mind in 1958 in his ode to the simpleminded:

      Don’t know much about history
      Don’t know much biology…
      ….What a wonderful world it would be

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Certainly not who Gershwin had in mind in 1935:

        The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
        To read in de Bible,
        It ain’t necessarily so.

  29. ManOutOfTime
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    The fact that this guy’s name looks like “douche hat” proves to me that God has a sense of humor.

    He’s David Brooks without the … whatever it is that people like about Brooks.

    Paraphrasing Emo Phillips, asked if he believes in God: “If you mean the literal bearded man in the sky of the Bible, intervening in human affairs, no. But if you mean as a metaphor, an abstract force for good in the universe – again, no.”

    • daveau
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Shout out for Emo!

  30. ManOutOfTime
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Maybebelievers and faitheists would like science better if it went with the “metaphor” dodge more: cold fusion? Metaphor! Vaccinations causing autism? Metaphor! Arsenic-based life, species selection, anything else scientists got wrong? Metaphors all! I hope if Douche Hat ever gets cancer, he is not treated by a metaphorical oncologist.

  31. vel
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I’d love to see a reply by Douthat, but I doubt it will ever come since Christians hate to be caught using their magic decoder rings, all certain that their version is the only “right” one whilst having no more evidence than the next theist. The “literal vs. metaphorical” argument strikes me as pointless as the “historical vs. mythical” jesus debate. *No* Christian is talking about some itinerant rabbi who may have had stories built up around him and neither are they talking about a metaphorical story. At some level they believe this baseless nonsense is true.

  32. Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Our study of the Bible, and it has been lengthy and quite interesting, is that it is simply a marketing and sales campaign — and one of the most successful.

    It is stories and ideology designed to respond to emotional needs to get folks to do and “buy” (into) stuff. Just very successful advertising.

    It pioneered, well borrowed actually, some of the best pre-history emotional marketing “hooks”. Such great marketing “promises” (lies) that they still work — sorta. Pretty ordinary and mundane sales stuff.

    It’s like the blues. Why are the blues so successful and the foundation of most pop culture now. Because the raw, gut bucket emotional hooks are universal. Same wid Da Bible

    • Hempenstein
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      As Pope Leo X is reputed to have observed:

      This fable of Christ has been quite profitable to us!

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes, apparently the Old Test priests/scribes were real adept at adopting myths popular at the time.

        It’s like all advertising, a bunch of silly lies to get ppl to buy stuff.

        There is a deeper idea that the religions of the book occurred at the same time as urbanization was increasing disease and that they all address the challenge of what to do with a sick neighbor.

        • Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

          Here in Oz we have a great TV shows, “The Gruen Transfer”, which deals with marketing, spin, PR and advertising and the tactics & psychology used by those fields. Whenever I watch I find myself, unbidden, applying all the methods discussed to the Bible and its propagation. Google the odd episode, replace whatever product/brand is under discussion with the Bible/Christianity and you’ll see what I mean!

  33. dunstar
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    It seems like that it is pretty much a strategy/tactic of “sophisticated” theologians to make rationalizations of what is in the bible as vague as possible so that it is almost impossible to call them out on any one specific claim. At least the creationists are quite explicit in what they claim to believe.

  34. Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Jerry do you ever debate guys like this? And I realize debating the Ken Hams of the world is a pointless pursuit, but it would be worthwhile to see debates with these sophisticated types.

    • Strider
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      On 12 October, on my birthday in fact, Jerry’s speaking at a symposium (“On Religion in the 21st Century”) at UK alongside John Haught. I assume there’ll be some form of debate. I am *so* looking forward to it.

      • Posted October 5, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        Great news! Will it be televised or show on YouTube, etc?
        Chris

  35. Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    It was almost certainly the best attempt of our ignorant ancestors to understand their origins.

    I think you’re too hard on our ancestors. My guess is they thought no one would ever know, so they made up stories instead.

  36. FootFace
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I know I’m not the first to ask, but if these stories are not meant to be literal accounts of historical events, but are instead meant to be read as metaphors, what are they metaphors for?

    Adam and Eve didn’t really exist, and they didn’t really defy god, and they didn’t really get cursed. That’s just a metaphor! But for what? What truth is it disguising?

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      None, of course. Like all human-written stories, it gives us some ideas on how the author(s) feels about the the human condition. It may even help the reader articulate her own feelings about the human condition.

      But they call it the word of God and exalt it over all other texts, and then wonder why people are reading it “wrong”.

      • FootFace
        Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        So the story of Adam and Eve is useful, instructive, and/or metaphorically “true” because it… shows that someone (God?) thinks that humans deserve the bad things that happen to them? (While not clarifying WHY they deserve the bad things that happen to them.)

        Thanks a lot, Bible.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

          At another level, it shows how we feel about existence – we feel like we have it pretty rough (even more so back when people started telling it), and we wonder why, and to some people it feels like “we” (or maybe just women) did something to deserve it.

          That offers a look into the darker parts of human psychology, and is interesting in that respect. That’s not how they teach it in church, though.

  37. eric
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Douthat’s type of believers think another type of believer has got the religion completely wrong, despite both groups looking at the same books for thousands of years. And we outsiders are supposed to take this disagreement as somehow demonstrating Douthat’s type of theology is on solid ground?

    It demonstrates the opposite. The fact of sectarianism is a strong argument that we should have low confidence in any sect’s conclusions.

    Some detectors might read high. Others might read low. Some may be highly precise, others less so. But when one has a detector that gives wildly different readings depending on who uses it, you’ve got yourself an ideometer, and you might as well throw it in the garbage. The variance in sectarian dogma indicates that Christian theology is more analogous to a dowsing rod than any sort of real detector: what you detect depends on what you believe. Its an ideometer. The question of whether one sect or another has got the right answer is irrelevant, because as an instrument the results of theology are too imprecise to be trusted.

  38. MadScientist
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t realize that ‘sophisticated’ is a new euphemism for ‘simpleton’. Simply replace all occurrences of ‘sophisticated’ with ‘simple(ton)’ and Douthat and others will make far more sense.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s much closer to “evasive.”

  39. BradW
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    1) I wonder how Douthat interprets Gen. {3:20} And Adam called his wife’s name Eve;
    because she was the mother of all living. {3:21}

    2) Something about which I’ve been wondering:

    If “God” begat himself in the form of Jesus via Mary, a woman who hadn’t “known” a man, and “God” did not marry Mary, what does that make “God” in the form of Jesus? Seems to me the answer is pretty clear. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  40. Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

    Exactly! This posting is one of the best summaries of what and why New Atheists do and say. You are spot on in stating that the dichotomy that faithists put up is a false one; it excludes other plausible scenarios that are better explanations.

    How about, as per the quoted paragraph above, you take a copy of the bible and a high-lighter pen to the debate, and as your opponent to highlight the bits of the bible that are real and factually true? I was going to suggest highlighting the metaphor bits, but I realised he would run out of pen too fast that way.

    • Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      “as your opponent” -> “ask your opponent”

      *sigh*

  41. Matt Penfold
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

    This is the main problem with theology. There is no way of knowing the difference.

    In science there is often disagreement about what observations mean and how they impact on theory. However the scientists who disagree will very often agree on what evidence would make them change their mind.

    I have asked those who tell us we need to understand “sophisticated” theology how we can decide between competing claims. I have never had a meaningful answer.

    • Marie
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      Of course there is a way of knowing. That’s like avoiding reading about science and saying that there’s no way of knowing whether global warming is taking place. There is a field of study called hermeneutics that is devoted to determining the interpretations and literary form of ancient writing. Most of the scholars involved in hermeneutics are not religious, in case you want to avoid apologetics.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted October 6, 2011 at 1:14 am | Permalink

        That’s like avoiding reading about science and saying that there’s no way of knowing whether global warming is taking place.

        that’s not what he meant by no way of knowing.

        and you know it.

  42. raven
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    “What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.”

    Oh. This again.

    They do have a way to determine what is literal and what is metaphorical. They used to fight wars, sometimes quite bloody. The winner was right.

    These days since we took away their heavy weapons, they just schism into 42,000 sects and growing by a few a year.

    Xianity evolves quite rapidly. IMO, multiple speciation events have already occurred and there are a number of religions with nothing in common but “xian” somewhere in the name.

  43. Tim Harris
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I think some enterprising person with a curious mind and some time on their hands should make a chart showing how the metaphorical content of the Bible has increased, and the literal content diminished, in the minds of certain of the faithful over the past roughly 200 years, between, say, Newman’s first university sermon, and Douthat’s latest lucubration; they might also prepare a graph showing the rate of increase – which has, I suspect, become quite a bit faster in recent years.
    I think that what irritates me the most about types like Douthat is what amounts to a dishonest refusal to actually address what is being said by people like Jerry and the immediate retreat into what they suppose to be the safety of the bog of metaphor, from which, knee-deep, thigh-deep, neck-deep, eye-deep they cannot be extricated and feel emboldened to insult and condescend to their opponents.

  44. Posted October 5, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    The “There’s an afterlife for the good folks” fantasy is what makes terrorism possible. For this reason alone it’s immoral to ignore or suck up to religious insanity.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Can’t be said enough.

  45. Diane G.
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Coincidentally, today’s “Freethought of the Day” includes this quote of Diderot’s. I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, but it bears repeating:

    “Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.’ This stranger is a theologian.”
    — Denis Diderot, Addition to Philosophical Thoughts (c. 1762)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    • TrineBM
      Posted October 5, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

      Now look! I didn’t know that quote. Very appropriate – thank you for posting it.

  46. Stan Pak
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    My take in literal-metaphor games with religious people is to throw the verses with slavery regulations. They are so direct and concrete that it is impossible to interpret them as metaphor. So usually the religious person struggles because he/she cannot find any refuge in metaphor. So finally (and usually) either admits that it is literal meaning and then develops rationalizations justifying slavery (I know blacks who do this and conclude that the slavery was OK – because god says so naturally) or just change the talks and try to move the subject to other direction (like: “you see the scripture to narrowly and its meaning reveals itself after longer reading, just do not stick to details because this is not the proper way” etc.) just to go as far as possible from giving the answer.
    The other answer is to say that OT was wrong and Jesus undone it, but then what about Eden and original sin. Well this was OK and right and true. My stomach always hurts from such twisted rationalizations. Yes I hate (metaphorically) those metaphorists more than literarists because they are so intellectually dishonest.

  47. Sean P
    Posted October 5, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Intellectually dishonest. The best term to describe persons like Douthat. Great response Jerry!

  48. Posted October 6, 2011 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Hoo-bloody-ray!
    I could not have put it better, Prof. Coyne.
    Well done on every front, especially the justified questioning of the wholly fictional Jesus’ existence.

  49. Ray Thaw
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    An large number of people are using “historicity” of nt and jesus as their basis of belief. This of course doesn’t explain their cherry picking of the good bits vs bad bits… Thoughts??

  50. Peter White
    Posted October 6, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    How’s this for criteria?

    Jesus allegedly made these two statements:

    (A) If you believe in me, you will have everlasting life.

    (B) If you have faith, you can say to this mountain, “Move”, and the mountain will move.

    Most Christians believe that (A) is literally true, while (B) is allegory. But why do they believe this? Both statements are absurd. We know of nobody who has lived more than about 130 years. We have not seen anybody resurrected. And we have not seen any mountain move as a result of a verbal command. But there is a criteria for believing (A) but not (B).

    (A) is not falsifiable. Even if we knew of a person who was 500 years old, or ten thousand years old, that would not be evidence that any person could have life everlasting. But since the claim of Jesus includes resurrection at some time in the future, we actually can’t prove the falsity of the claim. It’s not falsifiable. It can’t be tested. Even some 2 billion year old guy could always die tomorrow.

    But (B) is easily testable. All you need is a Christian with faith, functioning vocal chords and a mountain. What could be simpler?

    So the Christians can safely claim that (A) is true and not be shown to be delusional. But you won’t find many Christians who are sufficiently delusional to go about tell mountains where to move.

    So now the question is: Will any Christian admit that his criteria for deciding which parts of the Bible are literally true and which parts are metaphor is falsifiability?

  51. Posted October 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    They privilege one work of mythic storytelling above all others; as being something more. Fundamentalism is the caricature people can use to pretend that their “sophisticated” beliefs are above that, but the problem is what they’re doing with the bible – no matter how “sophisticated” they can say it with.

    “Sophisticated” theology is no less absurd than crude fundamentalism, just less certain about what it is they believe so they can avoid easy criticism.

    • Posted October 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      I’d really like a sophisticated Christian theologian to explain to me what precisely about a mystical Palestinian immortal-who-is-also-god allowing himself to be brutally murdered to appease his own wrath regarding a sin committed by his own naive innocent creation yet somehow inherited by all of humanity is more convincing or sophisticated or plausible than the story of Atlas holding the Earth on his shoulders, the Rainbow Serpent carving out all of ancient Australia’s riverbeds.

  52. Drosera
    Posted October 7, 2011 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    The difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that the former consists of myths, the latter of deliberate lies.


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