Thursday, 2 September 2010

Interpreting The Bible

On a recent episode of Point Of Inquiry, it featured a talk by Robert Price on how atheists should view The Bible. His argument, in a nutshell, was that just because fundamentalists take a literal interpretation of the Bible it doesn't mean that we as atheists should accept that. The analogy he used was if people did that for the Homeric literature, it would be a mistake to be dismissive of The Iliad just because some people took it as being inerrant truth.

Unlike Robert Price, I don't have any particular desire to protect The Bible any more than The Iliad or The Koran or any other book of mythology. And for that reason I am guilty of being one of those who was overly dismissive, taking the fundamentalists at their supposition and not actually challenging them beyond making the obvious point that a talking snake is a strong indicator that something is myth and not inerrant truth.

Let's suppose the Inerrant Word Of GodTM...
Presuppositional apologists use this literal interpretation as a means to defend their world-view. Does a talking snake really matter to the question of salvation through vicarious atonement? Not really, but if the talking snake becomes a metaphor then what's to stop the resurrection being seen as one too? Make it the inerrant word of God from start to finish and such pesky questions can be avoided. It's then the heretic's word against God's, and if God says there was a talking snake then there was a talking snake.

The problem with this type of reasoning is that it's there not because there's value in it truth-wise, but that there's value in using it as a shield. In doing so real knowledge is relegated to the musings of mere mortals, and as mere mortals they take their beliefs as the divine.

This doesn't tell us anything about the world and at times even be misleading. It's forsaking what is known for the ability to push a moral and existential agenda. It's not even the possibility of revealed knowledge rather the actuality of possessing it. It doesn't take much to see how this can be problematic, people going to faith healers instead of seeking real treatment or the persecution of others who for whatever reason happen to go against what is considered Revealed TruthTM.

A popular falsehood
To get back to what Robert Price was trying to illustrate, by taking believers at their word of what The Bible means I miss what the book is meant to be. The sad fact, however, is that while I've frequently fall into discussions with those who believe The Bible is inerrant (or at the very least divinely inspired), I don't see many believers defending the book as a socially-constructed human-edited mythic narrative.

While this isn't an excuse, it is at least a reason as to why there's a focus on the book in that manner. It's vocally defended as such, talking snake and all. Those contradictions that are on the Skeptics Annotated Bible are relevant when The Bible is defended as being inerrant, and while this is not engaging in serious biblical criticism it is taking on a popular view. And that's okay.

To illustrate this, consider the arguments against homoeopathy that there's nothing in it. A homoeopath could just say that they are aware that homoeopathy contains no active ingredient, but there are many who defend homoeopathy as a form of herbalism where ingredients are listed on the packaging. Arguing against homoeopathy in the pure form would miss a lot of people who take the "remedy", but to argue against the conceptions that are popularly-held addresses what is being proposed.

Setting the record straight
As a non-believer I'm in a very awkward position when I point out that someone is interpreting The Bible incorrectly. It's me telling them how to define their beliefs and their dogma. At the end of the day my beliefs remain the same irrespective of how believers interpret The Bible, or any other text for that matter.

The best I can really do is talk about the logical implications and point to absurdities that arise from what position is taken. For example what it means in the context of all other cultural myths, what science and archaeology have to say, or point to documentaries or books by experts in the field. Beyond that I simply don't have the expertise, let alone the desire to obtain it.

Yet from my perspective there really isn't such thing as a right or wrong way to make dogma out of a holy book, or any book for that matter. It's a problem of authority, not of interpretation. It's taking a perceived authority in authorship and interpretation as justification of the belief, and that only works if others play along. In that respect it's important to at least make the case for the absurdity of biblical inerrancy because it's giving undue authority to a book that doesn't have it. It privileges a belief beyond what it's entitled to, and for that reason Robert Price has a point. There's nothing holy about any holy book unless we grant it that, or allow others to do so without protest.

1 comment:

=^skeptic cat^= said...

I agree with Robert Price but not necessarily the reasons he gives. As PJ O'Rourke put it: "making fun of born-again christians is like hunting dairy cows with a high powered rifle and scope."

The peculiar interpretation of the Bible which has led to such monstrosities as Young-Earth-Creationism is a thoroughly modern innovation dating to the late Nineteenth Century with the Schofield Learning Bible and dispensationalism which caught on with the Tent Revival Movement of the 1920s in the Southern United States.

MediƦval scholars such as Augustine and Aquinas were adamant that the Creation stories and such not be taken as a literal or historical account and even the early Protestant reformers agreed with them: Calvin despised the Book of Revelation calling it a "book of ravings" and Luther called James an "epistle of straw."

I don't wish to misrepresent the views of these men as there are other events they did take at face value, such as Joshua bidding the sun to stand still in the sky, we now know to have been ahistoric but Young-Earth-Creationism came about in the 1960s and appears to have disseminated from the Seventh-Day-Adventists.

Though it may not seem like it watching Fox News, the overwhelming majority of persons who call themselves "Christians" belong to Catholic and Mainline Protestant denominations whose traditions take a good deal more pragmatic view of scripture.