Let’s start off with the correction, or at least the admission that a statement that I’ve made numerous times in the past was not supported by facts. The statement, in various forms, was essentially that before various empirical proofs came along, people generally believed that religious scripture was literal and factual; this was largely used when I was discussing the claims of some passages being metaphorical, the rather blatant dodge of the religious to excuse the countless inaccuracies. Not long ago, however, I came across a source that said that the idea of at least portions of scripture being considered metaphorical goes way back, and it was only very recently that the emphasis on, for instance, biblical literalism arose, largely within the US. I want to make some distinctions clear here: religion and christianity and even protestantism and its offshoots are not all interchangeable, and indeed, judaism has a long history of examining scripture to try and fathom the meaning (always with the assumption, however, that there is one, and that the source is ultimately a supernatural being.) Addressing things of this nature is always rather tedious. Every time an argument is put forth from any religious person, it is with the assumption that their religion is the only one; all others are false and not part of the discussion. However, any atheist who replies to this aspect will often be accused of not factoring in all religions – yes, this kind of fence-jumping happens all the time.
Now, I’m not even sure how accurate this correcting source is right now since they did not provide much in the way of supporting documentation, but I’m well aware that numerous theologians, going back centuries, tried to work out all of the anachronistic, contradictory, and just plain weird portions of scripture. So yes, any statement that “everyone believed it was literal in the past” is wrong – I’m not sure I’ve ever been this specific, but at least, the emphasis on literalism is not as supportable as I made it out to be, and I hereby correct myself. Yet, a lot of questions still remain, such as if the majority of religious folk believed, or if the work of these theologians could be considered representative of the greater populace (or even known?) And was there any consensus on which portions were metaphorical, and which were accurate?
And frankly, I don’t care – it’s an activity for historians, but producing an accurate statistic doesn’t really lead us anyplace. Because the overall point still exists: scripture is accepted as ‘the word of god’ despite any demonstrated inaccuracies, and a truly ridiculous amount of effort and machinations are put forth to try and justify this standpoint. I’ve already addressed the metaphorical excuse before, so I won’t go into that again, but I will reiterate some very basic points. The first is, there is no method by which the intention of any scriptural passage could be determined to any reasonable degree – the ‘metaphorical’ portions aren’t in quotes, or highlighted by asterisks, or whatever. The second is, the argument that this could be the intention is hollow; it could also be entirely mythical. Funny how that possibility never seems to be given any weight, isn’t it?
Seriously, let’s examine this one for a moment longer, because it’s very distinctive in itself. If a medical diagnosis was either an upset stomach or appendicitis, how stupid would it be to arbitrarily chose just one and ignore the other, for whatever reason? If someone gave you directions and said, “At the next intersection, take either a left or a right,” then everything’s okay? The correct answer is the one that is most liked? No, doing something to determine which of two or more choices is most accurate is the very definition of rationality. This will be the topic of another post later on, so I won’t belabor it here – I just wanted to highlight an aspect of behavior that, for all other topics, is considered signs of mental instability, but among religious subjects it’s just dandy somehow.
In fact, it is a symptom of the underlying problem with any and all uses of scripture (at least, I have yet to find an exception, anywhere): no matter how inaccurate, how inapplicable, how outright ridiculous any passage might be, the religious will find an excuse, any way of desperately avoiding the simple admission that it’s wrong. Because there’s the premise that god is perfect, so if scripture is imperfect it wasn’t written by god. Makes sense – yet this is an unacceptable conclusion, so any and all methods of salvaging the errors within scripture are fair game.
You think this is hyperbole? Let’s take a look at some examples – these are largely going to be about the abrahamic scriptures, the basis of judeo/christian/islamic structures, but I’ll try to mix it up a bit too:
Geocentrism – Or if you like, the Earth being the center of the universe. This mistake, to the best of my knowledge, is made by every religion that addresses location in the universe at all. And yes, it has always been considered literal, with the churches using force when necessary to suppress the evidence otherwise. In some quarters, it is still argued to be correct, often by claiming that it all depends on your measuring point, the relativity dodge. There are two problems with this. The first is, it would mean not just the sun and moon, but every star, galaxy, nova and dust mote, even space/time itself, dances around the Earth in a tight circle, voiding the concepts of gravitational mass and the conservation of both energy and momentum. The second is, relativism effectively destroys the concept of ‘center’ by nature.
The nature of the ‘vault’ or firmament of the heavens, the moon, and stars; night as a curtain or veil – Yep, literal; a big ceiling that these were all pasted upon (or in some cases, a fabric they were shining through,) one that would even open up at times to let the fucking rain come down – it’s impossible to find any wording that contradicts this in any way, actually, and the astronomical studies of planetary motion tried for centuries to accommodate these nonsense ideas. Once established as dead wrong, at least the religious only resorted to claims of metaphor and little else.
The day-age excuse – The universe was created in seven days, according to abrahamic scripture, but is pretty distinctly 13.8 billion years old according to literally hundreds of interlocking aspects of physics. “Day” doesn’t even have a meaning until you have a rotating planet. No matter, say the creationists, it says right here that a day is like a thousand years to god, so there you go. Even if we ignore the technical bits about, again, “day” and the very same issue with “thousand years,” there’s also the gross mismatch of what happened in each day, the wrong order of development, and some really ridiculous things like birds forming from the air.
Fossils are all fakes, planted to ‘test mankind’s faith’ – There’s really no need to explain this one, nor is there any passage referring to it in any way. The same excuse gets used quite often for anything that science has firmly established in contradiction of scripture.
Geologic strata was all laid down in the great flood, and the fossils within are arranged in layers mimicking evolutionary development by ‘hydrologic sorting’ – Yes, it contradicts the one above – don’t expect religious folk to be consistent, and you’ll avoid disappointment – but this one’s a beaut, so stay with me here. In stable geologic deposition (no folding, uplifting, etc.) the older stuff will be found deeper, and the newest stuff closest to the surface. True to form, the deepest fossils are all early forms, simple critters, while the shallower/newer fossils demonstrate evolved characteristics. No no, comes the reply – they all died at once, victims of god’s hissy fit over… something, it’s never been clear what. But the smaller ones settled to the bottom layers – yes, a global flood is supposed to have produced layers – and the big suckers like apatosaurs stayed closer to the surface. I’m not making this up. To the best of my knowledge, no one has managed to explain why all human remains, as well as every damn mammal in existence and those “just apes” like Neanderthals and Australopithecines, didn’t filter down past the dinosaurs with the rest of the ‘smaller’ critters. Sometimes the failures are so blatant you wonder what kind of a mind manages to miss or ignore them.
Racism/slavery/child abuse – These are not minor items, but pretty damn high on the scale of unethical behavior, no matter what the standpoint, and for the most part, the religious try to pretend these don’t exist. While this is certainly better than using them as ultimate authority to justify bigotry and abuse, it’s a long ways from admitting that these are remarkably damning evidence against being advice from a perfect entity. Not to mention that this blind-eye attitude is less than a century old in places (especially here in the southeastern states of the US,) which means a few thousand years where they were used as justification of abuse and classism, that wonderful “word of god” thing that has improved our lives so much. Sadly, homophobia has not yet joined its brethren in dismissal, even though jesus told us to love one another…
[Right away, some rabid nitwit is going to leap up in correction and say this was “as brothers,” unable to realize this does not salvage homophobia in the slightest. Seriously, this happens all the time.]
Now, there’s one aspect I haven’t addressed, though it comes up far more often than any of those above. It is frequently claimed that scripture is not, and was never, intended as any form of history, scientific tome, or information source, but only as a guideline to ethics and behavior – that it is, in essence, entirely metaphorical, an elaborate fable just to give mankind a cultural basis for morality.
Utter. Fucking. Bullshit. No, really, copious, unending, spraying green chunky bullshit. I’m actually going easy on those points above, because they’re usually passed on to the flocks of the devout from a trusted authority after hammering home the whole peer influence, one-of-us thing, targets with weak wills and no concept of making sense because blind stupid faith is “a virtue.” I’m not excusing this, but at least I understand how it happens. However, the claims of scripture being entirely parable and only structured to relate stories are nearly always put forth by people considering themselves scholars, who supposedly can understand what a metaphor is and why it would be used, and who speak on behalf of what is purported to be careful consideration. However, to arrive at this conclusion one would need to have never actually read scripture, be completely brain dead, or in pursuit of a particular agenda. There are pages upon pages of genealogies, historical events, and supremely petty behavior, from the devout right on up to and including god. There are direct connections to known figures and events, very obviously the attempt to tie everything in with history – not to mention that both the creation of the universe, and the eventual destruction of it (with very specific predictions, mind you,) serve no purpose in a metaphor, especially when the details are not only dead wrong, but completely unconnected to any other portion. The lineages of the special people are continually harped upon, clearly placing birthright well above behavior. And then there are the countless slaughters, not in any way examined through the lens of pointlessness, regret, or consequence, but openly glorified, often assisted by god in a vengeful and bloodthirsty way.
Moreover, the explanation/excuse of parable runs into another glaring problem – one, again, very often ignored in the pursuit of the status that being religious is supposed to impart. Even if we, just for the sake of argument, accept that scripture was exactly intended this way, only a brain-damaged fucktard could deny that it has failed, completely and spectacularly, to guide the devout towards good behavior. Aside from the very large number of people who managed never to grasp either the nature of the metaphor itself nor the message underlying it, we have the centuries of bloodshed and persecution, oppression and subjugation, that have all rallied behind “the word of god” – and still do. It’s more than insulting to keep hearing this feeble, whiny excuse from supposedly intelligent, educated adults, and I really can’t stress enough that we should be enthusiastically ripping new assholes over it, every time it appears.
Coupled with this is the hypocrisy of certainty. To the devout, such claims of metaphor are never couched as possibilities, or one of many interpretations – invariably, the language of “this is exactly what it means” is used, in complete denial of the myriad interpretations over the centuries, the various aspects which fail to support the metaphor, and the bare fact that only one person can tell you for certain whether a metaphor was intended or not, and that’s the writer. When theologians are in discussions with educated atheists, however, the certainty behind these arguments vanishes, probably well aware that it’s analogous to blind dogmatism, and instead we’re asked to, “consider the possibilities with an open mind.” It appears an open mind is useful in those who disagree with you, but absolutely unacceptable in those who you claim to be guiding.
We cannot ignore the other side of the coin, which is the metaphorical interpretation that so much of religious doctrine is based upon: abortion and birth control, blood transfusions and medical care, tithing, marriage, masturbation, circumcision… actually, just about everything that differentiates faiths from one another, under the broad groups of christianity or islam for instance (which are themselves just offshoots of the same scriptural sources) is owed almost entirely to interpretation, the remainder to selectivity. The hierarchy of holy men, the rituals, the idea of meeting houses and weekly schedules even, do not appear in scripture except as vague passages, certainly not in any form that would permit anyone to pronounce them as “the way.” Most of those mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph were entirely unheard of when written, and for many centuries thereafter. Yet somehow, we are told, god finds abortion and birth control a sin. Isn’t it amazing what can be found, especially what can be found when other sins like trimming your hair and beard were obviously just metaphors for, um, something else?
Scriptural scholars have examined all of these aspects, and many more besides, for the possibility of metaphors and translation errors and editing and so on, comparing usages and writing styles and even presumed attitudes. The first point of order is that, despite these efforts, no consensus has been reached on 90% of the possibilities outlined, so anyone that proclaims the ‘true meaning’ of any of it doesn’t have the weight of authority nor education behind them. The structure and style that would actually denote metaphorical usage, that would serve to distinguish such passages from literal or historical records, is nowhere to be found throughout the vast majority of it (but, curiously, can be found in limited passages, showing that it was indeed known and understood at the time of the writings.) But what is even more well known to scriptural scholars is how much of scripture has been changed, excised, cribbed, tossed about, and otherwise mangled over the centuries, from the arbitrary declarations of ‘canon’ through the vast missing portions to the blatant contradictions. Even if we blindly accept the premise that somewhere in the past there was a divine source, nothing that remains is trustworthy as representing it. I cannot give an adequate impression without writing a few thousand more words, so feel free to look into it on your own.
Now, there’s a salient trait of all of these that deserves to be highlighted very clearly. None of these interpretations are, nor have ever been, responsible for any form of special insight or guidance. All of them, and nearly every other explanation ever offered over scriptural inaccuracy, only exist to bring scripture up to speed with what we have determined by other means. This is like the kid in school who, when corrected, spits out, “That’s what I meant.” So, even if we accept the premise that these are what was really meant in such passages, we still never knew it until we found out through other methods, over a period of centuries, mind you – centuries filled with persecution and genocide and all sorts of divine guidance horseshit while we waited to decipher the fucking puzzle. One must reasonably ask how many other ‘proper’ interpretations we have yet to find, since it’s pretty clear from this premise that the gods weren’t actually trying to explain anything or guide the flock, so what conclusions should we draw from this? Or are we to believe that right now, we finally have it all correct? Based upon, what, the enormous advances religion is now providing to mankind?
Moreover, such claims of metaphorical intention have never been consistent – not among all of the adherents of any given faith (or even splinter sect thereof,) nor throughout history. Geocentrism is a metaphor? Too bad church doctrine persecuted people over proposing that the Earth orbited the sun. The seven day creation cycle refers to ages or millennia or whatever? So why do we have a seven-day week with one of those being holy? Nobody believed in literal witches or demonic possession? Good news to those that died, I suppose. But you know what’s even more telling? That these explanations are only considered important to defend religion from secularity – they’re only used when it is pointed out how worthless scripture is as a guide. They are not, ever, promoted to the faithful to try and correct them, so that any given faith is consistent and unified, everyone gaining the benefit of the True™ meaning. In other words, these are not offered as information or guidance, but excuses.
Or, of course, we could just toss scripture into the trash as being far too ridiculous to contemplate, realizing that the only bits of it that we find valuable aren’t exactly deep thoughts, and that the natural world demonstrates far more truths to us than every bit of scripture combined. I’ll be the first to openly call the idea of god, any gods, to be complete fucking nonsense, but will still point out that, if there’s anything that we can consider divine intent, it’s the basic dependable physical traits that we live with, every day – the real world.
But you know what’s ironic? The very thought that we apparently needed these stories to guide us, because we’re too fucking stupid to figure out some basic rules for getting along socially, yet the interpretation of them has required countless millions of hours of study (still without deriving a consensus,) and on top of that we feel we’re more than intelligent enough to handle this. Isn’t that wildly inconsistent? But imagine if, instead, we put all that effort into just building a useful social structure all on our own. What could we have accomplished then?