It’s been a long time since I’ve written an excessively long post on religion, but I was inspired today. Normally I would put most of it below the fold, but I haven’t posted in like a week, so I’ll just let it fill the empty space on the front page.
Fred Clark has a couple of interesting posts at Slacktivist: the first one about what he calls “Biblical illiteralists”—fundamentalist Christians who don’t understand literary device and insist that obviously metaphorical stories from the Bible are historical fact—and the second post about the same tendency among some atheists—those who claim that, because some stories in the Bible are risible when interpreted as historical accounts, this casts doubt on the entire religious enterprise. This latter struck me as a bit straw-man-ish at first, but when I thought about it I realized that I do hear these kinds of simplistic arguments for atheism at times. In fact, it reminded me of an experience I had when I first came to Berkeley.
During my first semester here I didn’t know very many people, so I sampled some of the student groups in the hopes of meeting some friends. One group that looked interesting was a kind of weekly discussion group for atheists with topics centered around morality, metaphysics, and religion (as a societal institution). Hoping perhaps for a continuation of the classic late-night dorm room bullshit sessions, I showed up for a few meetings.
Inevitably, the group contained a number of what Fred Clark calls “sectarian atheists”, which is partly why I was reminded of this. I was also surprised and amused to see an older man with a priest’s collar at each meeting. He was in fact a priest, ordained in the Anglican church, and attended the meetings not just to tweak us atheists (although he did seem a bit mischievous) but to participate in the dialogue, and generally made positive contributions to the discussion.
The standard format called for an invited speaker each week who would get the discussion started by talking on some topic of interest. One week the priest himself was invited to give his side of the story. He talked about his view of religion and his role as a priest, and some of his comments were strikingly similar to what Fred Clark says in the posts I linked above. He discussed literary devices, metaphor in particular, and emphasized that metaphor is a natural mode of communication for humans, employed heavily by the Bible, and it’s a mistake to try to read metaphorical passages as historical accounts. Of course he was talking not only about religious fundamentalists but about atheists who insist on this very naive reading of religious texts, some of whom were in the audience.
Two things struck me as I listened to his talk: first, that the priest was making a lot of sense even if I didn’t see things the same way, and second, that many of the people in the room simply didn’t understand what he was saying. Judging from the picayune and tangential objections they were raising, they had entirely missed the point and were convinced he had to be wrong simply because he was religious. When Fred Clark talks about sectarian atheists, these are the people I think of. That was the last meeting I attended; I was unimpressed by an atheists’ group where the most sensible person in the room was a priest.
Going back to Fred Clark, in the first of his two posts he points out that (for example) the Noah’s Ark story has precisely the form of a just-so story (in the original Kipling sense), where the point of the story is not an accurate recounting of facts but to pass on some more abstract principle. Whether one is religious or not, to read it as something other than a parable is crazy or obtuse. But because of the emphasis on Biblical inerrancy in some circles, people on both sides get hung up on whether Noah’s Ark happened exactly as it says. I agree with Clark that this is extremely silly.
But it seems to me that this silliness is not limited to the “Biblical literalism” crowd; in fact, it extends to almost all Christians. I imagine one can get a sizable fraction of Christians to agree that Noah’s Ark is just a parable, and likewise the creation story, and Jonah-in-the-whale and the story of Job and so forth. But what about the virgin birth of Jesus, or the resurrection? My sense (I don’t have polling data) is that the historical truth of the resurrection is a core Christian belief, and almost all Christians believe it. And yet, if Noah’s Ark has all the trappings of metaphor (and it does), so does the resurrection story. Journeys to the underworld and returning from the dead were extremely common tropes in ancient mythology, with clear metaphorical connotations. There’s no reason to read this particular instance as a historical account, but almost all Christians do.
Indeed, many will argue that someone who doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t a Christian at all. Reading the obviously-metaphorical parts of the Gospel as metaphor removes the divinity of Jesus, makes him perhaps a notable quasi-historical figure like Socrates or Buddha, about whom some tall tales were told to illustrate his teachings. And the same could be said about the Bible as a whole. Once we view the book as a collection of fantasical morality tales, God becomes a fictional character, a narrative conceit that links the stories together. And so it’s very strange indeed to turn around and say, well, this was all just metaphor but this one character in the story really exists!
So I don’t see why a sophisticated reading of the Bible, recognizing metaphorical passages as such, doesn’t lead directly to atheism. Probably in a lot of cases people set apart the sections corresponding to core beliefs, like the resurrection, and refrain from analyzing them in this manner, while freely interpreting more disposable stories (like Noah) as parable.
Can someone be a Christian and yet interpret the Bible consistently as metaphor? I once met such a person—the priest who spoke at the atheism group. As he explained his beliefs, the resurrection of Jesus was an illustrative story and God was a metaphor for a kind of collective property of humankind, not a distinct metaphysical entity. His Christianity was then based around his belief that this metaphorical structure was extremely valuable for understanding human nature. (This would be the part I didn’t agree with.) Nevertheless, if the word atheist has any meaning, it means someone who doesn’t believe in any gods as actual metaphysical entities, and so to my mind, this man was an atheist—one of us! Unfortunately the more dogmatic atheists in the room couldn’t see past his collar, and never grasped what he was trying to say.
And that’s the parable of the priest at the atheists’ group. Although this one did really happen.