I’m going to be a bit light on science posts this week as I’m travelling and haven’t been keeping up with the literature. Instead, I’m immersed in religion and theology, so those will have to be my topics.
As Chris Mooney would say when a bunch of people posted at the Intersection criticizing him for his dumb accommodationism, “I must have hit a nerve.” But I think I really did hit a nerve in the case of Andrew Sullivan, who, at the Daily Dish, has gone after me for the third time for challenging him to distinguish what is true in the Bible from what is false or metaphorical (the two words are equivalent to theologians). In his piece “Must the story of the Fall be true? Ctd.” (this is the same title given to his second piece), Sullivan engages in a bit of semantic trickery to explain his point.
First, Sullivan admits that I was right on one point: Robert Wright’s book, The Evolution of God, did not show, as I asserted correctly, that human morality had improved over time. Wright claimed only that religious doctrine had become more conciliatory over time, and that’s different from a claim about people’s behavior. Sullivan now says that Steve Pinker’s book shows that kind of improvement in moral behavior, which it probably does (I haven’t yet read it). But still, Sullivan’s original claim was wrong.
But that’s not what I see as my most important point, which was always this: Sullivan, like many liberal and sophisticated theologians, doesn’t tell us how to distinguish in scripture between what is literally true and what is false (and now seen as mere metaphor).
But he finally gives an answer—sort of:
But the Catholic church has come to embrace evolution, and even ecumenism, suggesting again that doctrine, as Newman insisted, can develop as our minds and culture evolve. As to Coyne’s challenge to present a criterion of what is real in the Bible and what’s true , I’d argue that empirical claims—like, say, a census around the time of Christ’s birth, or the rule of Pontius Pilate in Palestine at the time—can be tested empirically.
Wait a minute! Sullivan claims that everything in the Bible is either “real” OR “true”? Aren’t those the same things? (More on that in a minute.) But yes, I’ll admit that some things described in the Bible are true—but only those few historical claims that can be authenticated from secular sources. He goes on:
But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories, especially in their mythological details (the Magi, the shepherds, the various sayings attributed to Jesus on the Cross, each of which suggests radically different interpretations), and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.
If you are treating these texts as if they were just published as news stories in the New York Times, you are missing the forest for the trees. You are just guilty of a category error—or rather of forcing all experience into the category of science.
Ah, the old “Bible is not a textbook of science” canard. Whenever you hear that, just translate it as this: “The Bible isn’t true.” And, as I’ve shown in my two previous posts on Sullivan, it’s not a category error to say that over the last two millennia the Bible was seen by believers as pretty much literally true. After all, that’s what most Christians over the history of Christendom really believed. Sullivan has repeatedly denied that, and he’s dead wrong. If he were intellectually honest, he’d admit it. But he’s not intellectually honest: he’s a coward who wants to have his Catholicism but look sophisticated, too.
And do note that Sullivan sees these false and metaphorical stories as nevertheless attesting to something that Sullivan sees as “true” (or as “real”, since he doesn’t explain the difference between those two similar words). Sullivan sees these false (i.e., “true”) claims as “ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.”
So Sullivan sees the miracle of God sending himself down in the form of the human Jesus as real (or true).
But then he immediately undercuts himself, saying that what is NOT true in the Bible are the miracles!:
The rub is the miracles, as Hume noted. Here we have clear empirical accounts of things that we cannot account for in nature, indeed stories that are told precisely because they defy the laws of nature. And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side. . .
When we are talking about coming back from the dead, we are entering non-real truths. And the most profound unreal truth is, of course, the Resurrection.
Get that, folks: “non-real truths.” Orwell would have been delighted! Black is white!
Okay, what we have here is the doublespeak of an intellectual who, so determined to save his faith in the face of facts, has to make up new meanings for “real” and “true”, and draw a distinction between them. I guess what he means as “real” is “what really happened,” and “true” as “the metaphorical meaning of things that didn’t really happen.” But those words do not mean what he thinks they mean. It’s like conflating “sprituality” with “God belief”—a deliberate ploy to buttress God. Sullivan continues:
One way of looking at this is to see pluralism in our experience. Some things, most things, we experience as real, like a Happy Meal or a bike accident (yes, I wiped out badly on Sunday). Other things we experience as true – a profound musical epiphany, or spiritual calm, or unexpected joy.
Does he not recognize a musical epiphany or an “unexpected joy” as subjective emotions, not truths about the universe that the Bible can relate to us? I was asking Sullivan to tell us how he distinguishes what really happened in the Bible from those things that didn’t happen, and his answer is confusing.
He now asserts that none of the miracles happened—except, apparently, for Jesus’s coming. (Does that apply to the existence of God as well? The second coming? What about heaven and the afterlife?). And if the Bible is just a book that evokes emotion but doesn’t tell us one iota about God, his character, or his intentions, then why is Sullivan a Catholic?
Let us notice, of course, that Sullivan is an outlier in thinking that none of the miracles of the Bible—save, perhaps, that of Jesus—really happened. He’s telling all other Catholics, including the Pope and the Vatican, that they’re just wrong.
Finally, Sullivan quotes a reader who frantically tries to demonstrate a difference between “facts” and “truths”.
There is a difference between truth and fact, and fundamentalism and fanaticism stems from a confusion between the two. Evolution is a fact. The story of the Fall is true. . . Notice that the fundamentalist and the militant Atheist both confuse truth with fact, the fundamentalist by insisting that truth overwhelm fact, and the militant Atheist by insisting that fact overwhelm truth. Neither, usually, have solid epistemological grasp of truth or fact.
What a thicket of obfuscation we must enter here! First of all, the Fall is neither fact nor truth. It didn’t happen. It is fiction—a story (or a lie, if you will). It’s true only if you redefine “true” to mean something other than what everyone thinks it means.
If Sullivan or his reader wants to pretend that there was some single event that doomed humanity to a state of eternal sinfulness, they’re welcome to think that, but there is no evidence for such an event. And if there’s no evidence for it, then in what sense it is “true”? It’s no “truer” than the delusions of the mentally ill who claim that they’re God or Napoleon. Both are simply subjective beliefs that don’t express anything the rest of us would agree on. And, as Hitchens has told us, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
The good news from Sullivan: he admits that every miracle described in the Bible is false (except, of course, for the Big Miracle of Jesus, Son of God). The bad news: he still tries to save miracles by describing them as “true” rather than “real”? That’s a shameful semantic ploy for someone as smart as Sullivan.
Now, Andrew, can you tell us how you know that the story of Jesus—that is, the idea that he was a physical incarnation of God—was real rather than true? Why is that the one exception to all those other bogus miracles? Was Jesus like a Happy Meal or not?