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. 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.

  2. 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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