The parable of the priest at the atheists’ group

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.

14 thoughts on “The parable of the priest at the atheists’ group

  1. Lanth

    I think the sectarian atheists have a point, though. Or at least a use.
    I don’t have a problem with your parabolic priest, nor do I have anything against the majority of Christianity, Christian teachings, and Christians themselves. And most of them are certainly not going to call their faith into question on the basis of some carbon dating. But when the Biblical illiteralists try to suppress or control facts and research that call their literal belief into question, then I see nothing wrong with using their own tactics against them.
    Will that work? Would someone who believes Noah’s Ark is literally true be convinced by research and data? Maybe. Probably not. But if literalism is really a mindset–a failure to understand metaphor at some basic level–then the fact-based approach seems more likely to succeed than convincing them to switch to a more sophisticated reading.

  2. Justin

    The virgin birth and resurrection are indeed core Christian beliefs, as both are included in the Nicene Creed. I don’t know if that’s still considered the definition of orthodox Christianity, but it certainly was for quite some time.
    Lanth – I agree that literalists would be unlikely to be convinced otherwise by empirical data. But that sounds like a neat potential prank to play with Conservapedia, making a physics article stating that because Noah’s Ark is impossible, the laws of physics must have been different in certain ways 5000 years ago (or whenever the literalists believe Noah lived).

  3. Lemming

    Not to disrespect a serious topic, with both post and comments that I find interesting, but…
    I just read “parabolic priest”. Immediately, I thought…

  4. Chris L-S

    I do consider myself to be a Christian, and I view the vast majority of the Bible as allegory.
    The virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus are core beliefs of the Christian faith, as Justin pointed out, and ones that I’m not exactly sure I believe. But here is why: I am not wrapped up with the concept of the Bible being the literal truth, a document that perfectly expresses history. Instead, I view it as a human attempt to document God’s presence through parables and allegory. Ultimately, the Bible is a human document, and humans are inherently imperfect.
    I have far more faith in the ways I’ve seen God work in my own life, which have invariably strengthened my faith (though at times it has been strained). I’m also quite convinced by the numerous accounts of near-death experiences I’ve read. I also view God as a universal truth, and not a truth that can only be accessed through one particular faith. In that regard, I see Jesus as someone of great spirit and faith who showed the world a better way to access God.
    One of the things that Laura points out is that many Christians (those who accept scientific facts) draw the line between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Essentially, the New Testament, being far closer to our own time, is easier to confirm and believe. It’s authors are also known, unlike the Old Testament. So maybe that’s why there is a difference.

  5. Mason

    AG: In terms of reading the bible as you suggest and coming to atheism, why couldn’t one be just as sophisticated in the reading and come to agnosticism. (And for the few of you reading this who don’t know, I am very atheist. I just think you need to weaken your claim slightly and that it doesn’t quite reach that far.)
    In terms of other things that have been mentioned, I think that most parabolic priests are much more pleasant than hyperbolic ones. (They’re also more singular.) Elliptical ones, on the other hand, can have a much trickier bifurcation structure. Plus, their center manifolds have the potential to have a large number of dimensions. Point priests, on the other hand, are just degenerate.

  6. Justin

    Chris, is that entirely correct that the NT authors are known? The reason I was thinking about Conservapedia in regard to this post is because Crooked Timber remarked on how the Conservapedians are trying to argue that the story about the adulteress (Pericope Adulterae) is a later interpolation into the Gospel of John, and thus not a “legitimate” part of the Bible. “Inserted by time-travelling liberals around the 4th century” is how CT snarks the Conservapedia position.
    Checking wikipedia, “authorship of all non-Pauline books have been disputed in recent times”. Or not so recent; Luther brought up some textual disputes during the Reformation.
    AG, does de-emphasizing the Old Testament as Chris described get them partially off the hook on the problem of evil? In D&D terms I could definitely see OT God being an example of LE; not sure if NT God/Jesus is ever particularly immoral. Granted, I guess the problem of evil is always there in the background whenever you posit an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent entity; I’m just wondering about specific textual examples of evil like that Amalekite extermination, etc.

  7. Josh

    The big example of evil acts by a divine power in the New Testament is definitely Revelations in my book. Jesus also kills a fig tree once because he’s mad at it for not having figs. But he’s only human sometimes, and I imagine the trip to your own death has to come with a certain degree of stress.
    JSpur: regarding Rev. Falwell, I remember a certain old saying: “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

    He couldn’t have picked a lovelier day for it!

  8. Jenny

    It’s important to remember that the Bible is not really a book, but more like a library containing 72 works. Among the books are books of poetry, quotations, history, allegory, and correspondence. Just as the literalists make the mistake of reading every word as journalistic history, it is also a mistake to say that it is all metaphorical. A literal reading takes into account the literary style of the book. Genesis does fit the model of a just-so story. The book of Job is an allegory. The book of Numbers is history (recording early census data). The four gospels of the New Testament are written as the testimony of eye-witnesses to a historical event.
    P.S., that priest was definitely an atheist even if he hadn’t gotten around to admitting it to himself.

  9. Arcane Gazebo

    There are some good comments in this thread; I should really respond!
    Lanth: I think the trouble with the fact-based approach is, as Fred Clark points out, that the literalists see their worldview as contingent upon the historical truth of stories like Noah’s Ark, and so they’re unlikely to give up those beliefs. I think one needs both arguments: that some Bible stories are simply incongruent with reality, but at the same time one can read the Bible in a more sensible way by treating them as parables.
    Justin: I had thought about looking up the Nicene Creed for this post, but didn’t end up doing it.
    Mason: True, I have a bad habit of eliding over the possibility of agnosticism when I write about religion. This is partly because I see the line between agnosticism and atheism as very fuzzy: I myself must be agnostic about some types of gods (like the watchmaker god of Deism), but the Christian God is not one of them.
    Justin again: I think most of the evil in the Bible that comes about from direct divine action occurs in the OT. As Josh points out, Revelation is an exception (but this is one of those clearly allegorical books anyway). The doctrine of hell is also a big exception. The NT divine evil tends to be big-picture stuff, not the petty tribal evil of the OT God. (I’ve always liked the interpretation of some Gnostic sects that has the OT God as an evil, false God, and Jesus as the emissary the good, true God. Makes more sense than the standard interpretation anyway.)
    Jenny: Your point is well taken, the different books of the Bible certainly employ different narrative forms and one should take this into account. That said, IANA biblical scholar, but the Gospels don’t strike me as having the form of eye-witness testimony at all. For one thing, they describe events for which there were no eye-witnesses, such as Jesus praying alone in Gethsemane. Rather, the Gospels much more resemble heroic legend, in which the historical record of a larger-than-life figure is embellished with fantastical stories to illustrate the key traits of the main character. Indeed, they follow the Joseph Campbell template just as well as other heroic literature of the period (e.g. the Aeneid).

  10. Chris L-S

    Justin: I personally have little idea about the authors of the NT – it was a point Laura was making. From what I’ve read of the NT, a lot of it deals with ways of behaving and concepts of faith as opposed to the more allegorical OT.
    On the whole, I view the Bible as a slippery slope, as are any other attempts to truly codify God and faith. We as human beings are much more likely to try to create a “system” or “formula” for salvation or moral conduct, and both of these things defy any attempt to solidify them. In many ways I pity those who view the Bible as complete and utter truth and seek to understand it as such. I feel that it gets in the way of truly accessing God and realizing our own spiritual potential.

  11. Justin

    Right, another point about the Gospels as eye-witness accounts is the fact that they were first written 20-60 years after the death of Jesus. Jesus is surprisingly poorly documented for such an influential figure.
    Interesting, wikipedia has a Jesus_and_history page with some interesting links. I did vaguely remember Tacitus mentioning “Christus” in the Annals, but didn’t know that this passage is of disputed authenticity. *sigh* Stupid Dark Ages – I want clear and well-preserved 2000 year old documentation, dammit! 😉

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