If biology were like theology

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):

Picture 2

90 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Is it still thought that (parts of) the KJV were written by Shakespeare?

    Oh, and: Congratulations!

    /@

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Not Shakespeare, but Marlowe.

      Or Bacon.

      • Jonathan Dore
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        Marlowe died 18 years before the KJV was published, so his involvement is … unlikely.

        • Posted January 13, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

          Heck — if Moses could write Deuteronomy 34 describing what happened after his death, then Marlowe could write the KJV.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Not Shakespeare, but another writer with the same name ;-)

      The idea that Shakespeare “signed” the KJV comes from the fact that in Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning of the psalm is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear”. That kind of thing used to turn me on when I was a believer; now it makes me throw up a little in my mouth.

      Checking to see that my memory has not deceived me, I see the following on the Wikipedia page for Psalm 46:
      “For several decades a popular rumor has persisted that William Shakespeare placed his mark on the translated text of Psalm 46 that appears in the King James Bible, although scholars view this as unlikely. By coincidence, the 46th word from the beginning of Psalm 46 is “shake” and the 46th word from the end (omitting the liturgical mark “Selah”) is “spear”. Shakespeare was in King James’ service during the preparation of the King James Bible, and he was 46 years old in 1611 when the translation was completed.”

    • Posted January 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      It’s a nice idea and it might have been a lot better written if they were….

      Is there any historical evidence? Known acquaintanceships between known translators and Shaksp.? Since it’s suggested he was a closetted Catholic, how likely is it they would call on him?

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        “Since it’s suggested he was a closetted Catholic”

        I’ve never found that convincing, and I doubt that Walter Kaufmann would have, either; see his remarks on Shakespeare’s lack of religious feeling, in FROM SHAKESPEARE TO EXISTENTIALISM.

  2. Posted January 13, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    I’ve slogged through the Old Testament up until Chronicles where the white washing of previous biblical books and the writing stopped me cold. I need to remarshal my forces before plunging ahead.

  3. Lev
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    With all due respect, this evaluation of the Bible (and by that do you mean the Tanakh or the Testaments?) is both shallow and uninformed. Let’s take the Tanakh (what Christians refer to as the “New Testament.”) The Tanakh is primarily a dramatic history of the Jewish People, including its major events and characters (patriarchs, kings, prophets, etc.) as well as genealogical chains, laws & jurisprudence, etc. It is composed of many books which include historical accounts, descriptions of places and practices, measurements of buildings, agricultural and ritual techniques, works of allegorical and love poetry, genealogical lists, and corpuses of laws. The Tanakh is not considered by Jews to be a “religious” book in the Christian or Muslim sense, which is why The Talmud (interpretation of the Tanakh) deals with ethical and legal problems within the historical framework of rabbinical exegesis which is never enshrined into an established ecclesiastical doctrine. To call the Tanakh a mainly religious book is to completely misunderstand both the nature of Judaism over several millennia as well as the intentions of the many writers of the dozens of books collected in the Tanakh and subsequently in the Talmud.

    • Lev
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      Sorry, typo: the Tanakh is what Christians refer to as the “OLD Testament” of course!

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

        With due respect, you’re saying I’M shallow because I regard the book as Christians do: not only a true story, but a great fount of truth. Yes, you’re Jewish, but you’re telling us all that it’s not a religious book? Try telling that to Christians.

        And the description of how they built the Ark is boring, and probably not true. The moral dicta of the “Tanakh” are problematic at best.

        But you undercut your whole case by calling the New Testament “not a religious book”. Jews may see it as that, for they have to, but YOU are misunderstanding that it’s religious for Christians who, by the way, outnumber Jews by a substantial margin.

        • Lev
          Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

          Sorry for any confusion – there was a mistake in my original post which i corrected in a subsequent one: I was referring exclusively to Tanakh NOT to the New Testament, which is a clearly “religious” book in the sense that it announces and chronicles the coming of the messiah and the associated eschatology. Moreover, Christianity recasts/co-ops the Old Testament (Tanakh) as a providential text that predicts the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the way that Jews traditionally approach the Torah, Tanakh or Talmud. You’re right that it’s impossible to argue that the New Testament is NOT a religious text, as it is in fact the founding document of a new religion, whereas it is entirely possible to discuss the Old Testament stories of Moses, Saul, Ruth, David, Solomon, Esther, Job, Daniel, etc. without even invoking God (for example these figures can be discussed from a historical or allegorical or literary or sociological or ethical point of view without even considering the role of God, readings which are common.) My point is that it seems lazy to critique the “Bible” as a monolithic literary-religious text without acknowledging the difference between books, interpretations and even translations (Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek/the Vulgate/King James, etc.) It’s not enough to consider the often simplistic contemporary American Evangelical point of view, but also necessary to differentiate between traditional Jewish and Christian ones (which are very different and usually completely opposed) as well as the various denominations and secular/scientific textual interpretations.
          I say all this as a fan of your blog who’s in agreement with you about the fundamental truths.
          And btw it doesn’t matter whether I’m Jewish or not; it’s a matter of analytical rigor and historical sensitivity.

          • raven
            Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

            If you are going to treat the OT like Aesop’s Fables, you might as well just study:

            The Lord of the Rings.
            Superman comics.
            Batman.
            Starwars.

            The morality is better and they are at least coherent works written so moderns can relate to them.

            • Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

              +1

              • Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                Oops. Delete that, please. I had a brain fart, forgot what I was going to say and posted that trivial idiocy when trying to delete it…

            • Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

              It’s funny, but lots of Christians use the same argument as Lev. That the ‘Old Testament’ is all metaphorical and what not, especially the earliest parts…

              What I never understand is why they then use it to bash gays over homosexuality. Or establish Israel’s ‘right to exist.’

              I mean, if it’s just a metaphor, you’ve got nothing on which to hang your scholarly assertions vis the divine will the rest of your faith-assertions. If you’ve got stories, modern fiction (as you pointed out) is far better.

              But what we get is people who play both sides of the issue. First they’ll tell us the Bible tells us God’s will through its clear divine guidance (which is usually something more along the lines of conflicting instructions and inscrutable Rorschach metaphors (that is, the metaphor is what you wish it to believe, regardless that others have equally valid and conflicting interpretations)).

              Then they tell us it is ‘just a bunch of stories’ when problems are pointed out… Problems such as Exodus was impossible. The Sinai desert was Egyptian territory full of Egyptian soldiers and forts when that supposedly happened. No way 600K or so Jews are going to hide in that heavily fortified area. Or Noah’s arc and its impossible cargo. Or the Genesis stories don’t match… Or God routinely slaughters innocent women and children in an arbitary and capricious method…

              Suddenly, ‘it’s just a metaphor.’

              So, yes, I’ll take LotR over the Bible. The stories are at least coherent. Good and evil is clear.

              • Lev
                Posted January 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

                I never used the word ‘metaphor’ nor imputed a metaphorical excuse to the very real historical problems posed in Leviticus when it comes to the lethal condemnation of adultery or homosexuality and any number of other archaic crimes (not like death sentences for what we today consider minor controversies didn’t abound in the ancient world.) And if you’re so worked up about homosexuality as a capital offence, rather than hate the Bible why don’t you petition the governments of Iran or Saudi Arabia where they still kill homosexuals?

              • Posted January 14, 2013 at 12:30 am | Permalink

                “And if you’re so worked up about homosexuality as a capital offence, rather than hate the Bible why don’t you petition the governments of Iran or Saudi Arabia where they still kill homosexuals?”

                Where do you think they got the idea?

          • Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

            Lev,

            The Tanakh is most certainly a religious book! Just look at any Jewish Siddur or prayerbook: Jewish liturgy depends centrally on the contents and messages of Tanakh. The Shema, the closest thing Judaism has to a creed, is directly from Torah. The Jewish calendar and holidays often derive specifically from Tanakh, from Rosh Hashanah to Passover to Shavuous, and more.

            I don’t know what a religious book is if the books of Tanakh are not in the category.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

            The Dead Sea scrolls shows that early judaism and christianism wasn’t even separated at the time (~ 200 BCE) even less discernible sects, and that these texts were _all_ religious texts from the funding of these religions. (The funding likely happened in Alexandria btw.)

            I believe even religious “historical” scholars have had to agree on that.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

              … since Wikipedia describes that position in detail.

    • Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      “Uninformed”? Jerry read the damn thing! He’s earned the right to evaluate it as he pleases.

      Jerry: Very impressed that you persevered! Hope you enjoyed the acid trip that is Revelation.

      • Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        Revelation was always one of my favorites, back in my Jesus days. It reads like a Left Behind novel. (FREAKY)

        • Posted January 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          Someone (not Mel Gibson) should film it.

      • Old Rasputin
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Hesitant though I am to argue with one of the Torah’s original authors, I’m not sure having simply read a work means the reader is in a position to fairly evaluate its artistic merit. Many people are bored to tears by Tolstoy or, say, Mozart, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything worthwhile there. The situation becomes even more dire if you look at less accessible works like Chaucer or 20th century serial music. In both these cases the subject is further removed from our everyday culture and requires a correspondingly more rigorous approach to understand and evaluate.

        Having read the thing myself, I can’t say I’m in much of a position to fairly evaluate it because it was written by such a variety of authors in cultures that are so far removed from my own, that I suspect most of the meaning and “art” (if there was any) has been lost in the translation between cultures, if not languages.

        However, I can see the sense in Jerry’s reading and critiquing it from a modern standpoint that largely ignores the context in which it was written, because that’s how modern Christians are reading it. And I assume he is interested not so much in what the book can tell him about the peoples/cultures in the middle east 2000+ years ago, as he is in what it can tell him about Christians living in the US today.

        • Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

          I refer you to Sastra’s* reply to Lev @16. For the task that Jerry had in mind, reading it *is* enough to evaluate it (I contend).

          * @Sastra can I just say – your comments are almost always right on the money. A pleasure to read.

          • Old Rasputin
            Posted January 14, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

            Well, yeah. That’s what my last paragraph was getting at. And I think reading through it and pointing out how tedious and unappealing it is is sufficient response to the myriad believers who rave about the beauty of the Emperor’s clothes. Those people aren’t approaching it from a literary perspective either.

            I’m certainly in agreement with your footnote, though. Sastra’s commentary is always a pleasure.

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    “… is like learning organic chemistry: painful but necessary.”

    oh, one of those.

    why exactly do students despise organic chemistry in such a notable way? memorizing reactions, I can understand. but everything?

    • Miles_Teg
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      I hated organic chem because it wasn’t physical chem and wasn’t inorganic chem. Also, the organic labs stank. Seriously. Just walking in the door put me off. A friend who majored in organic said it ruined his sense of smell. The P&I labs smelled like the physics labs. That is, no smell.

    • Posted January 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t hate it, but I never came to grips with it. It was like a chess game in which every piece had different moves depending on which square it was on – and what other pieces were nearby, and…

      • Miles_Teg
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        The diffence between Org and P&I is kinda like the difference between differential and integral calculus. Differentiation is a science – standard methods just work. Integral calculus is an art – there are lots of “tricks” that work in individual cases but “cleverness is required”.

        Organic to me seemed like a lot of tricks and special cases.

  5. Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I am impressed, Dr. Coyne. I was a Southern Baptist for 24 years, and even I’ve never read the entire Bible. Why not? Because as you said, with the exception of a few books in the NT (imho), it’s SO BORING. I think the NT becomes more interesting to read if you actually believe, but the OT is boring whether you’re a believer or a heathen…unless you’re a believer AND a history fiend, in which case, you’re all set.

  6. Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Pardon the pedantry…
    “it’s best thought of” -correct.
    “it’s vaunted ‘moral teachings’” -wrong.
    It’s = It is / it has.
    Its = belonging to it.
    How to remember: You don’t write Her’s or Hi’s, do you?

    • komponist1
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      You may be overlooking the independent “minds” apparently possessed by computer spell-checkers set to auto-correct, which don’t generally take note of the niceties of grammar. (Having said that, I must say that the its/it’s problem and related ones annoy me when I encounter them, too.)

      • Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        I catch mine right after I make a post I can’t edit….

  7. Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on reading the Bible, and I agree with you sbout the large proportions of tediousness it contains.

    Shakespeare studies have been a bit theological in the past, with a nod to ‘divine authorship’. Some of the more interesting scholarship on Shakespeare has been about the amount of collaboration in the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre world, which highlights the fact that Shakespeare was one of many exciting writers who were bouncing ideas off each other. Most Shakespeareans are happy with the idea that there is no authoritive text, that the author/s adjusted their sources to make their point or make for better poetry and more excitinig story.

    Perhaps the tediousness of the Bible is one of the reasons why it’s been swallowed for so long: surely something that boring has got to be true! Luckily, the best science writing can show that writing about reality doesn’t need to be dull.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      “Some of the more interesting scholarship on Shakespeare has been about the amount of collaboration in the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre world, which highlights the fact that Shakespeare was one of many exciting writers who were bouncing ideas off each other.”

      That sounds like a fine direction to follow.

      One of the sore points I have with “Shakespeare idolatry” (at least in pop-culture terms), is the refusal to see his work in the context of its time: he was a brilliant writer surrounded by brilliant writers, in a culture that excelled at poetry and theatre. To study his work in isolation would be like focusing on, say, J. B. S. Haldane, while excluding every other brilliant geneticist around him.

  8. lwgreen1
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on reading the whole goddamned thing. When I was “saved” at age 14, I decided I would become the best Christian I could possibly be by reading the whole bible from start to finish. It was really hard to do, and I can’t say that I understood everything I read, but as Mark Twain said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” By the time I finished, I was an atheist.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      I would say that reading the bible, and actually paying attention to what is there, is one of the best ways to cure yourself of any religious feeling; and given that I’ve met christians who refuse to read the bible, I suspect that they feel the same way: they’d rather not see what’s lurking in the shadows of their faith.

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      “…the whole goddamned thing.”

      Subtle. :)

  9. BilBy
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    That cartoon is going on my wall – I am about to forward it to various colleagues who liked the recent ‘wrinkly finger tip hypothesis’.
    And congratulations on the whole Bible thing!

    • Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      I first heard about the wrinkly-fingertip hypothesis in a radio programme last night, and it seemed quite convincing at first.

      (For those who missed it, our fingertips get wrinkly on prolonged soaking becuase it enables us to grasp, e.g., shelllfish better, and likewise our toes to walk on slippery rocks. It would presumably be maladaptive for them to be wrinkly all the time.)

      Looking at it skeptically, if it were adaptive, wouldn’t our fingertips wrinkle much more quickly on immersion than they do?

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 14, 2013 at 12:48 am | Permalink

        Thanks for explaining that reference.

  10. George
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Even biology can be like religion. Gould’s and Lewontin’s biology, for example, was often such.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      How so?

      • George
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        Here is one recent “revelation” from Lewontin:

        “The other exception to random inheritance is not in the chromosomes, but in cellular particles called ribosomes that contain not DNA but a related molecule, RNA, which has heritable variation and is of basic importance to cell metabolism and the synthesis of proteins. Although the cells of both sexes have ribosomes, they are inherited exclusively through their incorporation in the mother’s egg cell rather than through the father’s sperm. Our ribosomes, then, provide us, both male and female, with a record of our maternal ancestry, uncontaminated by their male partners.”

        • Miles_Teg
          Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

          I don’t see how this supports your claim.

        • Keith
          Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          George: how does this explanation of maternal inheritance qualify as religion?

          • George
            Posted January 13, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            I didn’t say it was religion. It’s “like” religion, i.e., making stuff up.

            • John Scanlon, FCD
              Posted January 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

              Lewontin is actually unable to distinguish ribosomes from mitochondria? Or just doesn’t understand that rRNA is transcribed from DNA and isn’t a separate genome?

              Far out.

              • The Stolen Dormouse
                Posted January 14, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

                I wouldn’t accuse Lewontin of “religious” biology. One of the greatly enjoyable talks he gave at various campus biology departments in the early 1970s was titled “Some Things That Don’t Work.” (I heard it as a grad student at Yale.) It was quite interesting and fully in the scientific tradition of trying out ideas, discarding them if they fail to solve the relevant problem, and moving on to another approach.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      No, because neither of them evoked divine beings or divinely inspired books. Neither of them argued on the basis of revelation rather than facts.

      To compare strong scientific views (even if erroneous, like punctuated equilibrium) with religion is simply wrong. Gould, after all, adduced evidence and data, although his theory of how punctuated patterns came about was, I think wrong. And remember that Lewontin was my Ph.D advisor.

      Sorry, but it’s not kosher to say that scientists with strong views are like religious people. That’s a gross exaggeration–no, not an exaggeration: it’s not even wrong.

      • George
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Yes, Gould adduced evidence and data, sometime even data he simply made up (as in “The Mismeasure of Man,” for example).

        But the religion of “Political Correctness,” requires sacrifices, I guess. Gould was a true martyr.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

          Okay you’ve had your say and derailed the thread. Now shoo for now.

  11. John Marley
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I did not get the comparison to theology until you pointed it out. My first thought was that that conference would be perfect for aquatic ape theory.

  12. Mark Fuller Dillon
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Professor Coyne, I’m thrilled that you’re reading Kaufmann — and I’d recommend his work to anyone else who might be curious.

    I’ve heard scientists argue online that philosophy is outmoded, that it no longer serves any purpose as a way to understand life and the human condition. But against that view, I’d offer Kaufmann, with his clarity, his feet on the ground, and his refusal to sell conceptual snake-oil.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      But that is yet another opinion. What evidence would you offer for philosophy being correct about anything observable, exclusively and helpfully so?

      If not, it is outmoded as a way to understand any system.*

      *I guess you can do a last save and say that it helps us understand how people form opinions. But sociology does that too, likely better.

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

        “What evidence would you offer for philosophy being correct about anything observable, exclusively and helpfully so?”

        I can only offer personal evidence.

        By emphasizing the importance of making my own observations, of testing my own opinions, of reaching my own conclusions, even in the face of public opposition or incomprehension, Kaufmann helped me to learn to think.

        And more importantly, by showing the difficulties that others have encountered in doing just these things, Kaufmann made me realize that I was not alone, that the task at hand was a general human challenge most of us have to confront, sooner or later. In this, he helped me to endure a long period of frustration and confusion in my life, and in short, to survive.

        In that sense, philosophy might be considered less a way of knowing than a way of living. For me, that has value.

        • Mark Fuller Dillon
          Posted January 13, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

          I’d like to add, as well, that philosophy can also be useful as a tool for the *evaluation* of competing ways of life.

          How do we confront a world in which we know certain things very well, but other things hardly at all? How do we navigate through life with only a partial, provisional map?

          To fill in the blank spaces of that map, many people choose religion. I would argue, myself, that religion is no answer, and what’s more, that it creates more problems than it resolves.

          But the discussion that would ensue would be a philosophical discussion; and any replacement for religion *as a way of life* will have to face the challenge of what to do, of how to live, when certain essential answers are missing. Until we know more, empirically, about human nature, these will remain questions of and for philosophy.

  13. Miles_Teg
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Dawkins say that if he was to be stranded on a desert island the Bible is the first or second choice o take?

    I can take or leave large tracts of the OT but he NT is well worth the read.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps you’re thinking of his appearance on The Desert Island Discs BBC RADIO 4 programme back in 1995?

      You can hear it at this link:- Desert Island Discs Sun. 22nd January

      His choices of music discs, book & luxury item were as follows:-

      ** DISCS #6 was his favourite of the eight discs he chose

      1. Gabriel Fauré
      In Paradisum (from Requiem), Op 48
      Choir: Choir Of New College Conductor: Edward Higginbottom
      2. Paul Robeson
      Passing By
      3. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
      Sleeping Beauty – Aurora’s Wedding & The Bluebird
      Soloist: Raphael Wallfisch Orchestra: The English Chamber Orchestra
      4. Judy Collins
      Michael From Mountains
      5. Ralph Vaughan Williams
      Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis
      6. Franz Schubert
      String Quintet in C major
      Soloist: Christopher Van Kampen Orchestra: The Fitzwilliam String Quartet
      7. Vangelis
      Conquest Of Paradise
      8. Johann Sebastian Bach
      St Matthew Passion – Mache dich, mein Herze
      Soloist: Tom Krause Orchestra: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Conductor: George Solti

      ** Book [You are automatically given The Bible & the complete works of Shakespeare]
      The Jeeves Omnibus by P G Wodehouse

      ** Luxury item
      Computer (solar-powered)

      Also he discussed his #8 choice in The God Delusion:

      I once was the guest of the week on a British radio show called Desert Island Discs. You have to choose the eight records you would take with you if marooned on a desert island. Among my choices was ‘Mache dich mein Herze rein’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The interviewer was unable to understand how I could choose religious music without being religious. You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed?

      But there is an additional point that I might have made, and which needs to be made whenever religion is given credit for, say, the Sistine Chapel or Raphael’s Annunciation. Even great artists have to earn a living, and they will take commissions where they are to be had. I have no reason to doubt that Raphael and Michelangelo were Christians – it was pretty much the only option in their time – but the fact is almost incidental. Its enormous wealth had made the Church the dominant patron of the arts. If history had worked out differently, and Michelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn’t he have produced something at least as inspirational as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven’s Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart’s opera The Expanding Universe.

      And what a shame that we are deprived of Haydn’s Evolution Oratorio – but that does not stop us from enjoying his Creation. To approach the argument from the other side, what if, as my wife chillingly suggests to me, Shakespeare had been obliged to work to commissions from the Church? We’d surely have lost Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. And what would we have gained in return? Such stuff as dreams are made on? Dream on.

      • Miles_Teg
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Actually, I think it was in a book, The Blind Watchmaker. I’ve had a casual try at finding it again, no luck. But I’m pretty sure of what I read.

  14. James
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Congratulations Professor.

    Now I can tell my theist friends, “No, I haven’t read the whole bible. But I read the blog of someone who has.”

    That should work.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      I hope so. The biology tradition is to read the sources, even if they are so old that it is historically doubtful.

      It doesn’t work in physics. Try reading Newton! It can’t be done, we lack the necessary references to understand why he wrote like he wrote.

      I messed up on Newton’s “absolute space”, thinking he made a mistake. But it turns out he probably very well knew that relative space works too (and better as it turns out).

      Newton had to separate objects from an abstract space in people’s mind first, it was the first time someone did that! Eg, before him they used the distance between a table and a chair to portray a space, et cetera, so different and objectified “spaces”.

      Which is why I am so glad someone did the leg work on this one.

  15. komponist1
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I have great respect for Dawkins, but I rather strongly agree with Jerry’s view of the Bible. If anything, I find the NT (with the possible exception of Revelation) more of a crashing bore than the OT, since the more ridiculous aspects of the OT, which are many, often (for me at least) have the effect of a particularly absurd stand-up comedy routine, provoking peals of raucous laughter, whereas the absurdities of the NT are much less humorous. But that’s my $.02 worth.

    • komponist1
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Sorry; that was meant as a reply to #13.

  16. Lev
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Sorry for any confusion – there was a mistake in my original post which i corrected in a subsequent one: I was referring exclusively to Tanakh NOT to the New Testament, which is a clearly “religious” book in the sense that it announces and chronicles the coming of the messiah and the associated eschatology. Moreover, Christianity recasts/co-ops the Old Testament (Tanakh) as a providential text that predicts the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Obviously, this has nothing to do with the way that Jews traditionally approach the Torah, Tanakh or Talmud. You’re right that it’s impossible to argue that the New Testament is NOT a religious text, as it is in fact the founding document of a new religion, whereas it is entirely possible to discuss the Old Testament stories of Moses, Saul, Ruth, David, Solomon, Esther, Job, Daniel, etc. without even invoking God (for example these figures can be discussed from a historical or allegorical or literary or sociological or ethical point of view without even considering the role of God, readings which are common.) My point is that it seems lazy to critique the “Bible” as a monolithic literary-religious text without acknowledging the difference between books, interpretations and even translations (Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek/the Vulgate/King James, etc.) It’s not enough to consider the often simplistic contemporary American Evangelical point of view, but also necessary to differentiate between traditional Jewish and Christian ones (which are very different and usually completely opposed) as well as the various denominations and secular/scientific textual interpretations.
    I say all this as a fan of your blog who’s in agreement with you about the fundamental truths.
    And btw it doesn’t matter whether I’m Jewish or not; it’s a matter of analytical rigor and historical sensitivity.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Lev #16 wrote:

      My point is that it seems lazy to critique the “Bible” as a monolithic literary-religious text without acknowledging the difference between books, interpretations and even translations

      As mentioned above, Jerry was not trying to give a scholarly critique of an historical, literary work. He was instead approaching the entire Bible as a presumed sacred text inspired by God for the timeless edification of humanity — and asking the perfectly reasonable question as to whether the Bible seems to meet this standard. He was then giving us his answer to this question, doing so as an ordinary reader like ourselves, neither approaching the work as a scholar nor as a believer.

      That’s a legitimate goal, and approach.

      Someone could read Shakespeare and think him over-rated as a writer. It would be fair to say that this person might benefit from more history and insight into the text. But Shakespeare, remember, did not claim to be God delivering a message for humanity. Nor do Shakespeare’s fans generally think that a life lived without a familiarity and appreciation of Shakespeare is quite literally worthless, missing the entire point of existence.

      You may not have to approach the ‘Old Testament’ for its religious aspect — but you certainly can. Your criticism sounds a bit like the Courtier’s Reply.

  17. marycanada FCD
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Congrats on completing an arduous endeavour and thanks for the cartoon.

  18. Jonathan Dore
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    It’s worth remembering that Dawkins’s comments only refer to the 1611 translation into English — not the Bible per se. And even then he generally only mentions the poetry — so think Psalms, Ecclesiastes, maybe Lamentations and bits of the major prophets. No question there are some grand and resonant phrases there.

  19. gbjames
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    We both agree that everyone should read the Bible for cultural reasons.

    I’m afraid I can’t go with you guys on this idea. I’ve better things to do with my time than slog through leaden religious prose. But I’m glad you read it and suffered on my behalf.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      “He read for our sins.”

      Sorry, couldn’t help it. :)

    • Marta
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I couldn’t agree with you more.

      There is a mountain of theological bullshit that I refuse to climb (which is not to say that I don’t respect the achievements of people like Jerry who do).

      This is a genre that I rank somewhere below bodice-rippers.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      When I was a young teen I read a large book titled something like Bible Stories for Children. While this may not prepare you for Biblical criticism, I think it will pretty much give you everything you need to understand most popular references in the arts and culture.

  20. raven
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I have realized, after finishing the Bible two days ago (congratulate me!),…

    Well, at least the bible went out with a bang. Literally.

    Revelations is one of the weirder books of the bible, about the end of everything.

    It is written as future predictions. None of which have happened yet. Or are likely to happen. John goes on and on about Babylon. Babylon doesn’t even exist any more except as a bunch of ruins. Some say Babylon was a code word for Rome. Rome doesn’t exist either, at least as the capital of a mighty empire that ruled most of the known world.

    Revelations barely made it into the bible and Luther almost tossed it when he was editing the inerrant book. As most know, Luther tossed somewhere around 8 books of the Catholic bible out.

    • raven
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      That should be Revelation not Revelations. Not that it makes any difference.

    • Pete Cockerell
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      At the risk of being as annoyingly pedantic as the its/it’s guy (as though JAC didn’t know the difference!), it’s Revelation (singular, not plural).

      • Pete Cockerell
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Aargh. I should always refresh the browser before sending a reply to see if anyone else got there first.

  21. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Well done on finishing the whole thing. It really is a tedious book and you have to push yourself to finish it.

    Unlike a good book, now that you’ve read the whole thing, I suspect that, like me, you’ll never read it again. Good books are read over and over, you can’t read this more than once.

  22. Notagod
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on being finished reading the Bibel!

    We both agree that everyone should read the Bible for cultural reasons.

    I don’t understand. Culturally, today, the bible could be equated to a shadowy painting that no one is able to quite see what is there or intended by the artists (’twas an orgy that did the painting) to be there. By reading the whole of the damned god bible you are actually getting a view of the painting that the whole of the culture does not possess. The damned god bible is seen, purchased, sworn upon, used as a prop but, it is seldom read. So, I don’t understand, how the reading of the damned god thing could actually provide cultural understanding? Wouldn’t it be better cultural knowledge/reason, to understand how the bibel is used as a device to induce fear, confusion, obedience and, occasionally as a comforting device in a ‘give your mind a break sort of way’?

    I’ve considered reading the damned thing a few times. When I did I went into the chore with the intent that it was the word of a god and with the knowledge that It supposedly had commanded 10 items that Its followers must adhere to. I must add that I consider intent to deceive to be inclusive in the thou shall not lie command because if that isn’t the intended meaning then the commandment is frivolous. In the interest of brevity I will just state that I read the damned god christian thing until my mind has thrown up a gaggle of red flags warning that the content is filled with the deception and deeds of a character that is not worthy of my adoration and certainly not worthy of my worship. I have not however ever gone into the chore of reading the damned god thing with the intent of punishing my mind beyond exhaustion just so I could honestly state that I have read the whole bloody thing.

    I do however respect the internal fortitude of anyone that has read the whole bloody christian bible in the light of honest assessment while not wearing the blinders of christianity. I hope I never find myself in a position were I am obliged to do so.

    While on the subject of the christian bib, I wanted to send Dr. Coyne a link to the actual video of this as it was much better than the writeup which can be found here. It originally aired on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell (1/10/2013 I think, if anyone can find the video I would much appreciate a link), who I have found to be refreshingly critical of christian stupidity on at least several occasions:

    “This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendent of slaves. But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting someone near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.”

    Unlike, Rachel Maddow who seems too often to pay undue respect to christianity and/or the g-o-d word.

    • Notagod
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      The second paragraph was intended to be a quote from Dr. Coyne’s post:

      We both [Dawkins and Coyne] agree that everyone should read the Bible for cultural reasons.

      • Notagod
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        OK, so there is a link to the video, in the right margin, from the link to the story I provided above, it just didn’t work for me before. This is a link to the video but I don’t know if it is a permanent link or not.

  23. Mark Joseph
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations to Dr. Coyne for finishing his task. I would have liked a bit more commentary (not a mention of the main genocidal passages?), but it’s not my website.
    During my 23 years as a believer (including 15 as a missionary), I probably read the bible through 15 or 20 times. Yes, at times it was a chore. But I’m a little surprised at all the comments people make here about christians not reading the bible–in my circles many did. I know there are regions where religion is mostly black and gay-hating, church-going, and creationism, but I didn’t hang out there. Those who do read the bible, though, have a way of shoving the genocide, misogyny, and general ignorance into an unused room of the mind; they pretty much have to, or the cognitive dissonance would become overwhelming.
    So, what’s next, Doc? The koran? J/K.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 13, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Congrats, you are one of the few. Statistics shows that atheists are among the most knowledgeable about religion, with a few exceptions like Jews.

      And reading web commentary, you can’t but agree that it often shows!

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I see repeated references to this, and have no doubt that it is true, as many atheists are ex-believers, and (as I mentioned) there are areas in which religion is but an excuse for a “good ol’ boy” lifestyle. I just never realized it–as a fundamentalist missionary, one has little contact with atheists, except as religious targets. Since my entire family and previous group of friends are believers, I still don’t have much contact with atheists–I know four personally, but have limited contact with three of them. Most of my atheism comes from books (I’ve read pretty near all the usual suspects), this website (thank you to everyone!) and others, and some give and take with fundies (mostly creationists) on less salubrious websites.

        Your last point is extremely well-taken. As a fundie, we did not know much in the way of anti-atheism, as it simply was not an issue in our (anti-)intellectual ghetto. Now that I know (a fair number of) the arguments in favor of reality and against theism, I am simply shocked at how shabby a philosophy any sort of theism is. And the drivel posted by the religious makes your point for you quite nicely.

  24. MNb
    Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    The only way to understand the Bible properly is by reading it in its historical context. But yeah, that means giving up the idea that it’s coherent and consistent (bye theology) and implies a skeptical attitude towards its deeper meanings and towards the question what it has to say to us in the 21st Century.

  25. Posted January 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    “It’s one of the best critiques of religion I’ve ever read—perhaps the best.”

    I respect your opinion – but would respectuflly suggest you hold fire until you’ve got hold of a copy of “An Atheist’s Values” by Richard Robinson, Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. Based on a series of lectures it was first published in 1964; a quick search told me that it’s going on Amazon.com for $19.94. Well worth reading.

  26. Posted January 13, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations on completing the Bible Jerry. I’m about to undertake that onerous task myself. I just finished Steven Pinker’s brilliant “The Better Angels of our Nature” (a glorious Christmas present from my beautiful wife!), and I’m just finishing Dan Barker’s “Godless”. Steve Pinker’s book took me about a week, I’ll see how long the ‘Good’ book takes me.

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    “There are some good bits…”

    Indeed? When stuck in boring Sunday School classes, I sometimes used to leaf through the Bible looking for ‘good bits’ but aside from a few mentions in Leviticus, I never found any. This is probably because at the age of ten, I was ignorant of most of the euphemisms the Bible uses for various forms of depravity, so all the best horror stories were lost on me.

    I think maybe my rather questionable definition of ‘good bits’ is different from Jerry’s…

  28. Posted January 15, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations. I have just started Deuteronomy. It’s a real struggle to plough through it. I hope I have as much endurance as you.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] included in most Protestant Bibles), and he has some comments about the experience over at Why Evolution is True. I have done it myself about four times. The last time I tried, some fifteen years ago, I gave up [...]

  2. [...] If biology were like theology [...]

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