At first I thought this cartoon could be a metaphor for the Epigenetic Revolution, or for the more disreputable forms of evolutionary psychology.
But then I realized that it’s best thought of as showing what science would be like if it resembled theology.
I have realized, after finishing the Bible two days ago (congratulate me!), that theology is like modern literary criticism applied to a book by authors no longer alive. Faced with a text that says one thing on its face, but which can be “interpreted” in innumerable different ways, and with no recourse to the “true” meaning beyond what the words say—or to the author’s own take about what she intended (which, of course, can be misleading, too!), Sophisticated Theologians™ simply make up their own interpretations. This is such a palpably obvious exercise that I’m amazed intelligent people fall for it. That’s why in some ways I have more respect for Biblical literalists than for clever and sophisticated apologists like John Haught. The former, at least, try hard to stick to what Scripture really says. (Readers don’t need to inform me that even literalists exercise some interpretation.)
Oh, and the Bible is not a great work of literature. There are some good bits—we all know them—but most of it is tedious and boring. In no way is it as good as Shakespeare or Joyce. Yes, it is a cultural touchstone, and yes, I am glad I read it, if for no other reason than I can say I did, and know what a terrible guide to “morality” it really is. But I did not come away with the thought “what a beautifully written book!” There are some good sentences, and a very few good verses, but the book as a whole is leaden. And its vaunted “moral teachings” are, when not repugnant, trite. I’m glad to be done.
In this I disagree with Richard Dawkins. We both agree that everyone should read the Bible for cultural reasons. But to me it’s like learning organic chemistry: painful but necessary. To Richard it is also a chance to be thrilled at the beautiful language. But that beauty is thin on the ground. If you want beautiful language, read Shakespeare or “The Dead”. For morality, try modern secular philosophers like Rawls or Singer. At least they don’t advocate genocide or the subjugation of women.
As a palliative to the Bible, I’m reading my second book by philosopher/atheist Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy ($23.71 on Amazon, or get it at the library). It’s wonderful: erudite but not difficult, and loaded with original thought. It’s one of the best critiques of religion I’ve ever read—perhaps the best. Here’s the take of one Amazon reviewer, and I heartily agree:
It is appalling that the imperious academic philosophers of our time, as well as more emotional fanatics such as the previous Amazon reviewer, scorn the original philosophic works of the late Professor Kaufmann. I share the view of a still earlier Amazonian that this is a genuinely great philosophical work. Any reader who has openmindedly explored Kaufmann’s work in some detail cannot help but marvel at his erudition, his clarity, his humor, his poetry, and his illumination, here, of the realms philosophy and religion. Who would be so bold as to critique both realms in a single tome? Yet Kaufmann pulls it off. One may not concur with all of Kaufmann’s conclusions, but any sensitive reader cannot help but be challenged, awakened, and energized by this magnificent book. I love Plato; but I love Kaufmann just as much. Kaufmann belongs in the canon of the few philosophical greats.
Cartoon (not an afterthought!) from SMBC (h/t: Matthew Cobb):