Denis Alexander tells us the right way to read the Bible

UPDATE:  Eric MacDonald, with his much greater theological erudition, has analyzed Alexander’s argument at greater length over at Choice In Dying.  A snippet:

If there was no first Adam, in the sense required, then Jesus Christ cannot be the second, and all the sentimentality and hollow joy of Christmas will not make up for this deficiency at the heart of the Christian theory of redemption — which, for good reasons, has never been solidified into dogma. The simple truth seems to be that there is no satisfactory way of doing it. Had this been attempted, the very implausibility of Christianity and the redemption it promises would have been obvious long ago.

________________________

Denis Alexander is a molecular biologist who is director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University, an institute founded with a grant from Templeton and sustained by further infusions of Templeton cash. Its purpose is the same as Templeton’s: to conflate science and faith.

In the latest Guardian, and just in time for the Christmas season, comes “Evolution, Christmas, and the Atonement”,  Alexander’s own exegesis of the Bible—the right one of course.  Part of it is metaphorical, part not.

Science tells us, of course, that the Adam and Eve story is bogus, though Alexander still tries to squeeze some meaning out of it (they can’t not do that, can they?). After admitting that modern evolutionary biology has decisively refuted the idea that the human species ever bottlenecked at just two people, Alexander begins his frenetic apologetics:

So do we then just shrug our shoulders and say “well so much the worse for theology – science wins in the end”? Surprisingly, perhaps, the Bible suggests otherwise. The tradition of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis figuratively – as a theological essay, not as science – goes back to two great thinkers from Alexandria: the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, and the third-century church father Origen. In 248 Origen wrote that Genesis references to Adam are “not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race”. Figurative understandings of the Genesis text have been part of mainstream theology ever since.

The first mention of Adam in the Bible is clearly referring to humankind (Genesis 1:26-27) and the definite article in front of Adam in chapters 2 and 3 – “the man” – suggests a representative man, because in Hebrew the definite article is not used for personal names, with Eve being the representative woman.

The Genesis narrative tells the story of humankind going their way rather than God’s way.

He doesn’t mention the longer tradition of interpreting the Bible literally, one that continues to this day with fundamentalists like Al Mohler and his Baptist minions.

I’ve already banged on enough on this site about how people like Alexander are always making theological virtues of scientific necessities, as well as telling people the right way to be a Christian. (Really, is that “humble”?)

The curious part of Alexander’s article, though, is the subtitle—an admission that parts of the Bible are NOT to be taken metaphorically:

Evolution, Christmas, and the Atonement

We are not descended from Adam and Eve – but still, Jesus was born to save us

Now how, exactly, does he know that second part?

42 Comments

  1. Paula Kirby
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Exactly. And that’s the fundamental problem with religion. In any field of human endeavour that is not rigorous about demanding evidence for its claims, there is nothing whatsoever to stop people pronouncing their own pet theory as though it were fact, for there is no reliable means of assessing its validity.

    How does Denis Alexander know there was no Adam and Eve? Scientific research has produced evidence from genetics showing that we are NOT all descended from two individuals.

    How does Denis Alexander know Jesus was born to save us? Er …

    Behold the much-vaunted compatibility of science and religion in action!

  2. Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Genesis has indeed been interpreted metaphorically as allegory.

    But those interpretations are from crazy-ville.

    You just have to read some of Origen’s weird intepretations to see that Alexander has simply jumped from the frying-pan of literalism into the loony-bin of non-literalism.

    Perhaps Denis Alexander approves of people of today who claim that various creatures in Revelation are Bush, or Obama, or the EU or the UN.

    Hey, they’re not taking the text literally, are they?

    Why do liberal Christians think that their allegorical interpretations are any more worthy of respect than literal intepretations?

    When they are often even more from Planet Zog than people who think Adam and Even existed?

  3. Brian Hinson
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Even more to the point, if Adam and Eve ain’t so, then the genealogy of Jesus is a sham, original sin can’t be true, and there was no fall to speak of, just to name a few.

    Further, I suspect his quote from Origen is either taken out of context, or doesn’t have to be understood in this sense, i.e. most literal creationists would also agree that the whole human race is what Adam represents since his sin is why we all need redemption, and we all have our origin from Adam (including Eve).

  4. Boko999
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Mr. Alexander obviously hasn’t studied enough sophisticated theology. I found his hand waving unconvincing and his special pleading left me cold.

    • Posted December 24, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink

      That means he has indeed studied enough sophisticated theology.

  5. Christian
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    He should try doing this interpretative gymnastics with other creation myths (Egyptian, Sumerian, Norse, Greek, etc.). Maybe then it will dawn on him how crazy that is.

    But of course, no one really believes any of those anymore so they don’t have to be made to agree with modern science by hook or by crook.

    • Mattapult
      Posted December 24, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      It’s amusing to read Bullfinch’s Mythology. In the introduction he puts a disclaimer along the lines of: we can safely call these gods mythological beings because nobody believes they are real anymore. And we have scripture to know the truth.

  6. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    This still doesn’t get round the basic point of christianity. Jesus apparently had to be tortured to death to “save” us from original sin, but, without Adam and Eve, where does original sin come from?

    No Adam & Eve, no original sin.
    No original sin, no need of a saviour.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 24, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      In other words, Jesus H. Christ died to save us from an allegory.

      • sasqwatch
        Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        …a problem quite easily resolved by declaring JHC to be similarly allegorical. This way you can have an allegory allegedly tortured to death over an allegory.

        It’s kind of like dividing by zero. Makes for impossible infinities unless you can find a limiting case where the expression within the limit evaluates to zero over zero. Under certain tortured conditions such an expression may evaluate to a simple number.

        Or maybe it’s not like that.

        • Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          “This way you can have an allegory allegedly tortured to metaphorical death over an allegory.”

          FIFY

          Or do I mean “metaphysical”?

          /@

          • sasqwatch
            Posted December 24, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            I think I prefer the first. What’s a meta phor, anyway?

            • Chris Booth
              Posted December 25, 2011 at 12:54 am | Permalink

              It is like a semi phor–only moreso. Much moreso.

  7. Posted December 24, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Alexander is not just ignoring the actual beliefs of millions and being inconsistent about what he accepts as literally true. His metaphorical interpretation is at best ridiculous and at worst monstrous. If one does not believe the story to be actually, literally true, no one but a fool or a monster would choose to believe Alexander’s metaphorical about interpretation.

    Our way or God’s way

  8. paul fauvet
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Jesus was born to save us – from what exactly?

    Surely these very modern and sophisticated theologians don’t believe in eternal damnation any more, do they?

    And if we are “saved” from hellfire, are we supposed to be grateful to Jesus for sending us to heaven – which, to judge by all that Christians have written about it, must be a place of stultifying boredom.

    I think it was the late Christopher Hitchens who compared the Christian heaven to a celestial North Korea – but that comparison is rather unfair to Kim Jong-Il, who did at least have the grace to drop dead, opening up the possibility of some sort of change.

    What does Dennis Alexander plan to do for all eternity? Perhaps he can tell us whether there are any good restaurants or pubs in heaven.

    When I ask my christian friends if there’s any beer in heaven, they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Chatter about “eternal bliss” is supposed to satisfy me. But I don’t think a place is blissful if it doesn’t have good food, good drink, good sex, good company, and lots of books and newspapers.

    Perhaps Dennis Alexander can enlighten us on such topics.

    • raven
      Posted December 24, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      “Jesus was born to save us – from what exactly?”

      From himself. Jesus is god and god will send us to hell and torture us forever for not believing that…jesus is god.

      If you actually try to make sense out of xian mythology, you can’t do it.

      1. Why does god need to torture himself for a few days to save us from himself? He is claimed to be omnipotent, so why can’t he just forgive us for being what he created us to be?

      2. Sacrifice of a humanoid godman is barbaric.

      3. And just how does sacrificing one godman forgive our sins anyway? Does he get a bag and we just toss them in?

      My best guess is that someone named jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who ended up crucified. His followers had to explain how god on earth ended up on the wrong side of Roman law and cooked up some improbable story.

      • Microraptor
        Posted December 24, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        The standard answer to that is something about how there “must” be a punishment for every crime. Of course, this is a completely bogus idea, because almost nobody is really interested in punishing someone for a crime that they know the person didn’t commit (ignoring other biases). It also completely ignores that modern justice systems frequently do have ways that people can be let off after being convicted of a crime without punishment- the Presidential pardon, for example.

  9. Notagod
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Christians pray for all manner of wants but, apparently not for knowledge of how to read their gods’ book (just one in all these years). The christians will spill forth with all manner of vast and great personal interpretations but, unlike their cure prayers or war prayers, few christians report to have received their interpretive biblical statements from their gods. Nothing like:

    “Hey, dudez. Yeah, I just heard back from one of our gods as to the correct interpretation of genesis. Yeah dudez It said unto me that the One guy and his rib really are all of humanity but, It didn’t say how many humans ate one apple or talked to that snake, yet.”

    You want a christian touchdown you, got It. You want Its interpretation of Its book, jebus no way.

  10. Ralph Gentile
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I love the especially pithy comments here, but along the same lines of reasoning:

    Aside from entertainment and stress relief, what’s the value in we atheists grumbling to each other on blogs?

    and

    When will Believers all understand that they’re playing a losing game?

    Since it’s lame to throw in questions but no answers, I just now decided to reach out to whatshisname from the American Atheist Alliance or whatever they’re called to propose Adopt A Believer so we can sign up to disabuse the afflicted. Who’s on board?

    • Hempenstein
      Posted December 24, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      Well, we kinda already adopted Uncle Karl, and we’ve joined in the engagement with Albert Mohler and John Haught, among others.

      • Ralph Gentile
        Posted December 24, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Who is Uncle Karl?

        • Christian
          Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          That’s this gentleman here: Karl Giberson

        • sasqwatch
          Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          Uncle Karl.

          • sasqwatch
            Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            Boy, you gotta be fast here.

    • Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      A value of our grumbling to each other on blogs is that we learn from each other, the better to dispute with religionists!

      ;-)

      /@

      • Ralph Gentile
        Posted December 24, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        My deeper question is: why do hundreds of millions of people subscribe to bronze age myths and sloppy metaphysical apologetics, and when will this nonsense end? Is there a silver bullet?

        • Microraptor
          Posted December 24, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

          Not really. Legal restrictions would just feed their persecution complex, so the only real method is the slow slog we’re already engaged in. There’s hope, though, since the percent of the population that identifies as religious in the developed world continues to shrink.

          It’s probably going to take generations, but some day we might actually see a United States where political candidates who try to emphasize their belief that the planet was poofed into existence 6000 years ago will get lose their shot at office for that reason alone.

          • Alexander Hellemans
            Posted December 24, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

            “It’s probably going to take generations,…”

            It can happen much faster, just in one generation. Belgium was traditionally a Catholic country. I will have now a hard time to find anyone who calls himself or herself a Catholic, definitely not among my relatives. And from statistics of old-age pensioners in care, only a minority will refer to themselves as religious.

            • Microraptor
              Posted December 25, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

              I supposes it’s possible, though it seems pretty firmly entrenched here in the US.

              Of course, as with Steven Hawking and black holes, I’m making the bet with the hopes that I’m wrong.

        • Posted December 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

          A silver bullet for a bronze-age myth? No, I don’t think so.

          Ridicule what’s ridiculous. Be outraged by what’s outrageous. Inform the uninformed.

          /@

  11. Jerry
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    I think Christians of Denis Alexander ilk are extremely dishonest intellectually.

    Their form of Christianity, in some ways, is even WORSE than the literal fundamentalists.

    Theirs is one of rationalized accommodation and apologetics, with the rationale having no other foundation to stand on than what has been formulated and pieced together in their minds, joined with what they comfortably want to believe.

    That’s why, as Christian, they are comfortable with accepting evolution, and still able to maintain religious beliefs, in spite of the fact you can’t really accept evolution and honestly HAVE them.

    The ENTIRE Christian myth is DEEPLY ROOTED in the Genesis story. The moment you disavow Genesis, you’ve kicked the blocks out from under the foundation of Christianity.

    Christians like Mr. Alexander create their own myth regarding the fall of man (that necessitated the Crucifixion of Jesus).

    It has no Biblical foundation whatsoever, just rationalization grabbed out of the thin air.

    I call that being intellectually dishonest…In the extreme.

    And yet, that’s EXACTLY how Christians that accept evolution reason it all out as justification for believing.

    I had a scientist friend, who is Christian (and also fully accepts the fact of Evolution), explain his position on the issue this way.

    He said that naturally he believed that man evolved from lower primates. There’s no doubt about it.

    He went on however, that he believed at some point after man evolved from said primates, that God made himself known to man, and man rejected him, and THAT was the moment man fell and sin entered into the world.

    Honest Injun, he ACTUALLY SAID THAT TO ME!

    What can you do when people pull their rationalizations out of their ass?????

    At least the fundamentalist , however infuriating he may be, has the integrity to stand by the Bible they profess to believe in as their SOURCE and foundation for faith.

    Christians of Mr. Alexander and my scientist friend’s stripe feel perfectly comfortable in rejecting parts of the Bible that present problems for them, and create their own mythology and theology.

    Because of this, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to have a truly honest discussion or debate with them.

    Theirs, essentially, is a position of deviousness and always will be.

    • Microraptor
      Posted December 24, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      All Christians everywhere pick and choose which parts of the bible they actually accept. They just differ in which part they go with.

      • Jerry
        Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        @Microraptor

        “All Christians everywhere pick and choose which parts of the bible they actually accept. They just differ in which part they go with.”

        No argument there, I agree…

        My point was that at least the fundamentalists use the Bible itself as their ammunition, source for argument, and sole justification for their beliefs, whereas the accommodationist/apologist feel free to pull out of thin air ANY rationalization that suits them, without any firm Biblical connection or footing to stand on whatsoever.

        They fully believe that whatever they make up as they go along is ok.

        (As in the example I cited with my scientist friend.)

        The fact that they too cherry pick the Bible is just a given..As you said, ALL Christians engage in that practice no matter what doctrinal background they hold to.

  12. Daniel Shrader
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    If one can’t believe Genesis, then were do’s one draw the line, how do one tell what is true and what is myth. If parts of the bible aren’t gods words, then maybe none of it is. If you do away with Adam and Eva, the talking snake and magical tree, then you do away with Original Sin, no need for salvation, no need for Jesus. So throw it all away.

    There is no archeological or literary indication that Jesus ever existed, much to indicate that he didn’t.

  13. Jonathan Smith
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Look it’s a simple equation and the reason as a Christian you HAVE to accept Adam and Eve.

    No Adam and Eve= No original sin
    No original sin= No need for redemption
    No need for redemption=No need for a redeemer
    No need for a redeemer NO NEED FOR JESUS

    It is the single basis on which Christianity is founded.All sin,all evil,is inherited from the first pair. Remove that and the whole system falls apart.

    • raven
      Posted December 24, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      “It is the single basis on which Christianity is founded.All sin,all evil,is inherited from the first pair. Remove that and the whole system falls apart.”

      Actually it doesn’t.

      Religions are usually very flexible in their beliefs and can change them and keep going. A lot of modern xianity is very different from the older versions. Religions evolve.

      1. The ancient Jewish religion was based on animal sacrifice in the Second temple by a priest caste. When the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, they just reinvented the religion and kept on going.

      2. The Mormons sacred duty was polygamy. When it was outlawed, they just reinvented themselves and kept going. Same thing with nonwhites being cursed by god.

      3. The Catholics gave up Geocentrism and the Protestants gave up the Popes. No big deal in the long run although a few tens of millions of people died in the process.

      4. John Weslayan, founder of Methodism, once said, if we give up killing witches we have to give up the bible. We gave up killing witches and nothing much happened.

      It turns out all those core beliefs central to a religion can be tossed if need be and everyone forgets about it and moves on. It’s all just make believe and let’s pretend after all.

  14. Alexander Hellemans
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    “Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University”

    I agree with the French banning astrology and theology from their state universities as non-academic pursuits. I agree with the concept of state universities as well, as in Paris you have a shyster private university funded by guess what? The Templeton Foundation.

  15. Posted December 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Origen cut his own nuts off, did he not?

  16. Robert Hagedorn
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

  17. Jose
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    There is a TALKING ANIMAL ffs. It’s obviously a fable, a folk tale.

    What’s sad is that he believes the Jesus part.

    It was interesting to read at Choice in Dying about the different denominations’ take on what’s up with the dead. Just for the record, roman catholics believe the body and the soul can’t be separated-they are one. That’s why, according to the doctrine, catholics shouldn’t believe in spiritism or ghosts. The dead don’t know anything or feel anything, they are outside the normal flow of the world, and that includes outside time. Supposedly, to the dead it would seem they had arised on judgment day just an instant after their death because that’s what death means, nothingness, so once they die they can’t be aware of anything including time. That’s the church’s take. However I have seen plenty of priests on funerals contradicting the doctrine and telling relatives that the deceased “is right now in a better place”. I guess they will say whatever they think will gain them the favor of the audience…

  18. Posted January 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    It’s kinda ironic that he picked Philo and Origen. Philo’s more radical exegesis was unpopular among Jews and Origen was a borderline Christian heretic. As a matter of fact, “Origenism” was a heretical form of Christianity after Nicaea, which is why Origen is one of the only church fathers who wasn’t declared a saint.

    If he was going for representative samples, he failed badly.


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  1. […] just received notice that Jerry Coyne has also addressed himself to Alexander’s remarks. Well, they do just cry out for commentary, don’t they? Perhaps someone will explain how […]

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