dinsdag 14 augustus 2007

David Heddle on Biblical literalism

David Heddle is having a field day. He starts off by making the point that (some) atheists have a tendency to regard any diversion from Biblical literalism from the part of Christians as hypocrisy, and as a concession to science:

In the seedy e-ghetto that I traverse, the person making this argument always has a goal: they want to show that science and the bible are incompatible. So, in their laziness, they demand that you except a vulnerable position or be declared a hypocrite. Anything else requires too much homework.

Sadly, YECs often play the useful idiot in this game. They will delight in trumpeting the fact that anyone with any credentials of note claims that their interpretation of Genesis is the only legitimate one, even if the person making the argument only wants, ultimately, to demonstrate what fools they are.

And then a Dave Mullenix wanders into the comment boxes apparently determined to prove Heddle's point:

We atheists prefer to deal with the actual Bible, not ad hoc, intellectually shabby stories that never even would have occurred to anybody if the Bible wasn't so clearly at odds with reality.


But who has done the jettisoning? Not the atheists. It's the more sensible of the Christians who re-wrote the Bible because it clearly dates the creation of the universe to about 4000 BC.

And after David Heddle gladly points out that non-literal interpretations of Genesis (thus not equating a "day" with 24 hours) were current among the early Church fathers, such as Irenaeus and Augustine, Mullenix continues:

Yep, Christians have been re-writing the Bible since Augustine's day. Probably sooner. If you find something in the Bible you can't stomach, either scientifically, historically, doctrinally or morally, just use your human judgement to re-write Scripture and explain what the words really mean. Who needs God or His Word?

Talk about building on sand.

The point is that, first of all, as David Heddle points out, Biblical literalism was current enough for Augustine to polemicize against, chiding Christians who would assert literal interpretations of Genesis in discussions with Pagans educated in natural philosophy, and thereby making fools of themselves. But even back then, it never was orthodox. Biblical interpretation in medieval times was very free, with allegories and metaphors pointed out anywhere. Biblical literalism is a quite recent phenomenon, and basically the flip side of Enlightenment modernism and its tendency to regard only empirically verifiable truths about things located in space and time as worth talking about. Biblical literalists and YEC Christians share the mentality while disagreeing about the nature of the truths, instead seeking in a constrained fashion to fit scientific, empirical truths about the world in a Biblical framework. And they're making fools of themselves (much like the philosophically ignorant Christians Augustine railed against). But historically, Biblical literalism has no claim to primacy.

Worse, it's highly dubious to assert a literal interpretation as some kind of neutral case, with non-literal interpretations needing special justification. Genesis is just not that kind of text. It's not intended to give some kind of neutral, objective view on how the world came about - the whole idea would be alien to the people who wrote it. Instead, it provides us with an analysis - in mythical language - of the human condition; of our nature as creatures with knowledge of good and evil situated in a violent natural world - yet spiritually disconnected from it. As such, it's very powerful.

Reading a text metaphorically is not "intellectually shabby". Philologists, linguists and scholars in literature have done it in an academically responsible manner for centuries. On a more basic level, anyone who enjoys reading poetry does it. An atheist or a YEC Christian who claims to deal with "the actual Bible" is not dealing with some kind of uninterpreted, neutral set of naturalistic, empirical claims somehow "really" there. He would also be dealing with an interpretation. And a pretty poor one, at that.

As Heddle points out, there's a highly disingenuous intellectual move going on. Biblical literalism is asserted to be the real thing, allowing the atheist to shoot fish in a barrel and have a cheap laugh at the benighted fundamentalists, while non-literalists interpretations of the Bible (which, to recap, have been mainstream throughout the history of Christianity) are done away with as hypocritical and as inherent concessions to "science" (of course science as a set of philosophically neutral empirical claims is confused here with science as an unconsciously philosophical worldview). Why, if a Christian departs from a literal reading of the Bible because of its incompatibility with empirical truths, surely, if he were to face facts coldly and rationally (as atheists are wont to do) he would surely abandon religion as a whole!

As intellectual method goes, it's not very pretty. It shies away from taking the opponent's positions at face value and trying to undermine them on their own ground in favour of focusing on the weakest representatives of the opposing position. There's a lot of intellectual laziness and rationalizing of intellectual laziness going on here (see also my previous remarks on the "Courtier's reply" move somewhere below). I'm all too sure that similar stuff goes on among Christian detractors of atheism. However, I hold atheists who often make a lot of science and what science means to a slightly higher standard.

3 opmerkingen:

Renegade Eye zei

I missed something, between this blog and your old. What happened?

Merlijn de Smit zei

As far as my political views are concerned, not that much, actually. But I felt I needed some space for more philosophical/theological ramblings.

I'll put up a post sometime soon dealing with marxism & religion, decent and indecent lefts, and all that.

Anoniem zei

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