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James Wood and the Magic Metaphor

Oh, not James Wood again. Wood is a literary critic who, like Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish, dislikes those darned New Atheists on the strange grounds that they criticize a religious belief that weirdly cloistered literature theorists cannot and will not understand. I’ve already covered the pretentious follies of Wood at some length, and I don’t feel like doing it again (especially since Wood’s primary writing talent seems to be noodling along academically at excessive length — ‘spare’ and ‘lucid’ are not terms that will ever be associated with his writing style), but I will at least mention his latest, tritely familiar effort. Once again, he accuses the New Atheists of attacking an irrelevant religion that doesn’t exist, via anecdotes. Like this one, which we could call the parable of the One True Christian.

I met the religious affairs journalist, who had for several years been a parish priest. During the course of our conversation, he asserted: “It is impossible to be a serious Christian and believe in heaven and hell.” When I, who was raised in a strongly and conventionally religious home, expressed surprise and suggested that once one stops believing in heaven one might as well stop believing in God, he said, more vehemently: “It’s exactly the opposite: not believing in heaven and hell is a prerequisite for serious Christian belief.” Trapped in the childhood literalism of my background, I had not entertained the possibility of Christian belief separated from the great lure and threat of heaven and hell.

Please. Please, let this journalist or even James Wood come to Morris, Minnesota on a Sunday morning. We will sit and peruse this handy map of the town, in which the local churches are the primary landmarks, and he can pick any one of them that he likes: the conservative Evangelical Free Church on the west side, or the liberal Federated Church southeast of me, or the Catholic church a few blocks away, I don’t care. And then we will go there and declaim to the congregation the non-existence of heaven and hell, and see what kind of reception we get. There might be a few at the Federated Church that will go along with it — there are people who are the next best thing to atheists there — but anywhere else, and we will probably be accused of being satanists. If his religious affairs journalist is correct, then America is not a seriously Christian nation.

It is not simple-minded literalism to accuse Christians of believing in the divinity of Jesus, an afterlife, or sin and redemption. These are explicit claims made in the published creeds of almost all Christian faiths. Yet somehow Wood can hear one rather bizarre outlier in the spectrum of Christian belief and come to the conclusion that atheists have been railing against a strawman version of Christianity.

Wood is completely blind to what the actual practice of religion looks like, and he has this imaginary world of faith in which everyone is a peculiarly philosophical freethinker with mere sympathies for Christianity. And his understanding of the atheists he despises is even worse. This is his Dawkins anecdote.

There is an amusing clip on YouTube, in which Dawkins confronts Rowan Williams. Dawkins asks the archbishop of Canterbury if he really believes in miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, happenings in which the laws of physics and biology are suspended. Well, not literally, says Williams. But, says Dawkins, pouncing, surely Williams believes that these are not just metaphors? No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, “spaces” when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a “miracle” might occur. Dawkins rightly says that this sounds very nice but is surely nothing more than poetic language. Williams rather shamefacedly agrees. The scene is amusing because both men are so obviously arguing past each other, and are so obviously arguing about language and the role of metaphor.

Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection. And Williams insists that such literalism misses the target, and instead has recourse to the metaphor of “event”, of a “space” opening up in history, an indefinably miraculous aberration. One feels sympathy for both sides – and perhaps simultaneously a plague on both their houses – because Dawkins seems so bullishly literal, and Williams so softly evasive. Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God’s presence in the world, God’s intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.

“Dawkins is dead to metaphor.” Has Wood ever read anything Dawkins has written? One of the hallmarks of the explanatory power of his books is his use of powerful metaphors to communicate — if there’s any criticism to be made, it’s that his metaphors are sometimes too seductive (and sometimes they trap people who aren’t very clever: Mary Midgley, case in point).

I’ve heard this ‘metaphor’ defense of religion so often, but usually from theologians, not from unbelievers. I usually reply with one simple question:

“Metaphor for what?”

You would expect a literary critic to understand the concept. A metaphor doesn’t just sit there, alone, looking pretty: it’s a proxy for a more difficult or unfamiliar idea, a way to introduce the reader to a new way of looking at something by relating it to something comfortable and old. So what, exactly, is the virgin birth a metaphor for? What does it help us understand? What is the actual underlying phenomenon being described by this peculiar insistence that Jesus’ mother had never had sexual intercourse, if not a literal claim that Mary ‘s vagina had never felt the intrusion of a penis? That’s the mystery here. Williams wasn’t able to explain it. So what good is this metaphor?

Try reversing it sometime. Confront Dawkins with one of his metaphors, like, say, the Selfish Gene, and ask him what he means by it. If he doesn’t just tell you to go read the book, he’ll be able to tell you it’s a metaphor for a gene-centered view of evolution that you can also find in George Williams’ book, Adaptation and Natural Selection, and that it refers to the selective propagation of replicators. It’s a simple language hook to get you thinking about the meat of his story, and he certainly won’t be as bewildered and lost as Rowan Williams on being asked to explain a key concept.

Dawkins wasn’t being excessively literal, and he wasn’t demonstrating a failure to understand the nature of a metaphor. He was being far more aware of the significance of metaphor than Rowan Williams and James Wood, and was trying to decipher actual meaning. Which, apparently, is irrelevant to Williams and incomprehensible to Wood.

Comments

  1. D9000 says

    I suspect that the kind of religion that actually exists in most churches in Morris is discounted because it is the religion of the proles, who don’t count. Probably they didn’t even go to a decent college. Maybe even not to one in Oxford or Cambridge (shudder).

  2. raven says

    Roughly half of all US xians don’t believe satan, hell, or the Holy Spook exists.

    I don’t know how many of them bother going to church though.

    The number of people who go to church runs around 25-35%, meaning half of all self identified xians don’t bother.

    Most U.S. Christians don’t believe Satan, Holy Spirit exist

    in.christiantoday.com/articles/most…christians…believe…/3704.htm – CachedSimilar
    Apr 14, 2009 – In contrast, about 35 percent of American Christians believe Satan is real. … Polling “Christians” who don’t attend church or demonstrate daily ….. lies is that the dead are not really dead but go on living in heaven or hell. …

  3. Abelard says

    Shorter Wood: “Damn you Atheists and your thinking about meaning! Every religious person knows that Belief is meaning unto itself and need not be explained at all!

    The more I think about the writing of Fish and Wood et al. the more I blame how they were taught philosophy.

  4. says

    Well, he did get one thing right in the article (although, he was summing up Sam Harris):
    As long as America remains swamped in Christian thinking, it will never defeat militant Islamism, since one backward religious system cannot prevail over another backward religious system.

    That’s got to count for something, right?

  5. says

    This a nearly perfect illustration of the intellectual bankruptcy and solipsism at the core of liberal Christianity. It is all about what you have personally decided to use as the convenient and morally acceptable variant of the religion you were raised with. It is not a system of thought that could enhance or compete with Humanism, or any well-considered ethical system.
    The faith of Rowan Williams is non-entity; so of course free thinkers will go after Rick Perry and Pastor Mike- they actually have a negative influence on our world.

  6. Stonyground says

    A reading of the New Testament would have informed him that the teachings of Mr. Jesus don’t make any sense if Heaven and Hell don’t exist. Most of his less than sage advice is about how to get to Heaven or avoid ending up in Hell, the whole religion revolves around being ‘saved’.

    In any case my atheist activism, such as it is, is not really needed because of what Christians believe or don’t believe. It is their negative political influence in my country that I have a problem with and the fact that religion continues to cause millions of needless deaths.

  7. draketungsten says

    I think P.Z. is giving Williams too much credit. His thinking isn’t even clear enough to call him out on using meaningless metaphors. According to the quote, Williams says the two cited miracles are not to be taken literally, but in the next breath says they are not just metaphors. Then what the hell are they?

    “They are openings in history, “spaces” when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a “miracle” might occur.” Mealy-mouthed word salad that can be interpreted to support either the literal or the metaphorical view. That there is some sophisticated theology.

  8. Mike de Fleuriot says

    I’ve heard this ‘metaphor’ defense of religion so often, but usually from theologians, not from unbelievers. I usually reply with one simple question:

    “Metaphor for what?”

    It’s a get out jail free card, for when atheists press the issue, because at all other times, it is used to talk about a literal birth, which the believers accept and need. For a media interview, the religious leader has to be viewed as wise and learned, so use of metaphors and other twisty word plays, will increase his status and impress his believers.

    It’s what we all know con artists do, it’s just one step away from “you are persecuting me for my beliefs”.

  9. StuartVO says

    It seems that “It’s only metaphor” is pretty-much the same as “It’s just satire” – A “get out of jail free” card used by the intellectually dishonest.

  10. Owlmirror says

    Also, this is another post with a title that could be a band name.

    I still say “Harry Potter-like titles”.

    “James Wood and the Salad of Words”

    “James Wood and the Frantic Handwaving”

    “James Wood and the Incoherent Apologetics”

    (etc.)

  11. draketungsten says

    It seems that “It’s only metaphor” is pretty-much the same as “It’s just satire”
    It’s an atheist tweak!

  12. brocasbrian says

    It’s a metaphor or a hard to describe cognitive state. The problem is that people mistake that cognitive state as an extension of some real force in the universe.

  13. Sam Salerno says

    This metaphor argument is outlandish. I’ve heard it so many times. Enough. These people need to write a book separating the literal from the metaphor, and, as P.Z. says, explain the meaning of each metaphor. Until they can create such a beast I’m calling bullshit on the whole metaphor argument.

  14. says

    “Metaphor for what?”

    He says, “There is no ‘last train to Amsterdam, they run 24 hours a day.”
    So I said, because I didn’t know that when I wrote my song in Poetry, “It’s a metaphor for Death.” And the critic gave me 5 stars.
    – Ray Wylie Hubbard

  15. says

    Yes – it’s the “religion of the proles” problem. The sophisticated believers really think everyone is like them, able to subsist entirely in an indeterminate theological fog.

    In my experience, taking them to a random evangelical service will work. They will be horrified.

  16. Shaggy Maniac says

    raven wrote: Roughly half of all US xians don’t believe satan, hell, or the Holy Spook exists.

    I don’t know how many of them bother going to church though.

    (Sorry I have not HTML-fu)

    N of one and all that, but this was a good description of me through most of my christian life and I was a regular church attendee. The attraction was, I think now, largely aesthetic and also belonging to a community of pretty awesome folks.

    Being “saved” was never meaningful to me in the sense of “going to heaven” which always struck me as nonsensical. It was always about what I experienced as salvation in the here and now. Now I simply understand being saved, forgiven, etc. as accepting and embracing my own humanity – no god-talk required. So, maybe I was really an atheist all along, but it sure feels much better to embrace it than to continue to pretend otherwise.

  17. draketungsten says

    This metaphor argument is outlandish. I’ve heard it so many times. Enough. These people need to write a book separating the literal from the metaphor, and, as P.Z. says, explain the meaning of each metaphor. Until they can create such a beast I’m calling bullshit on the whole metaphor argument.

    And, for our amusement, they also need to explain how they decide what’s literal and what’s metaphor. And in Williams’ case, he should also be required to explain his criteria for deciding something is greater than a metaphor but less than literal. Is he talking “truthy”?

  18. fmitchell says

    This sort of ethereal religion, I suspect, is a manifestation of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Generations of people have spent thousands of years memorizing and arguing about the Holy Trinity and the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth and Transubstantiation and the rest of this illogical crap, so (voice mimic=”shatner”) IT. MUST. MEAN. SOMETHING! (/voice)

    All it really means is that that Emperor Constantine ordered a bunch of guys to fit inconsistent doctrines together and this is what they came up with. Curiously, all the bits about blind obedience and obeying civil authority stayed in, and several bits encouraging independent thought and personal experience became “heresy”. (Admittedly, several bits too weird even for mystics also got the boot.)

    But that can’t be right, surely? Surely its sheer absurdity (and in these times increasing irrelevance) must be yet another Mystery that we must meditate on, while we defend its truth, for some value of “truth”, with other people’s very lives.

  19. peterh says

    It’s quite refreshing to find at least one other person realizes the Nicene Creed is a political document. Or, perhaps, a document of political expediency.

  20. Midnight Rambler says

    No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, “spaces” when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a “miracle” might occur.

    What the fuck does this even mean? Literally or metaphorically? It sounds like he’s saying “we don’t have a historical record of what really happened, so let’s just insert a miracle because hey, you never know!”

  21. says

    And besides there’s a lot of exaggeration about how “metaphorical” Williams’s religion actually is (at least in public, which obviously is where it counts). Williams himself has said “people think I don’t really believe it but I do; I’m very literal about it.” Words to that effect.

  22. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, “spaces” when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a “miracle” might occur.

    What the fuck does this even mean? Literally or metaphorically?

    This kind of gobbledygook is not uncommon in modern “sophisticated” theology. I think it means they’ve been reading Derrida, or maybe that Derrida had been reading them.

  23. draketungsten says

    Yes – it’s the “religion of the proles” problem. The sophisticated believers really think everyone is like them, able to subsist entirely in an indeterminate theological fog.

    In my experience, taking them to a random evangelical service will work. They will be horrified.

    Did you really witness such a thing? My impression is that the sophistric sophisticated believers know what belief in the real world is like, but make the socially (or commercially) calculated decision to not confront the masses with the error of their ways and face certain ostracization, and instead focus on how they differ with atheists, which can only win them points with the legions of “unsophisticated” believers.

  24. Myron says

    A metaphor is nothing unless one can say nonmetaphorically what that is for or of which it is a metaphor.

  25. says

    Well, I googled “what is God a metaphor for?” and found this quotation attributed to Joseph Campbell:

    God is a metaphor for that which trancends all levels of intellectual thought. It’s as simple as that.

    So if I understand correctly, God is an abstract concept defined not so much by what it is, but what it isn’t. A bit like “the smallest integer that cannot be identified in less than 3000 words”.

  26. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, “spaces” when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a “miracle” might occur.

    Finally, the veil is lifted and we get a peek at the mysterious sophisticated theology known only to theological apologists. In other words, bullshit.

  27. anthrosciguy says

    Wow, eleven churches in that small an area really seems like overkill.

    Never drive through northern Arkansas.

  28. says

    James Wood:

    Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God’s presence in the world, God’s intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.

    God is not just a metaphor. God is a misunderstanding.

    God is the piece of us that wants to know the truth of our world without the hardships of studying our world. God is the desire to know right from wrong in every situation, when right and wrong is not a binary proposition. God is the hope there is something there to catch us when we fall, against all reason.

    God is not just a metaphor. God is the intellectual embodiment of evil.

    God is a thought that is corrosive to personal responsibility. God is the bit of our brain that yearns for protection, and a promise there is no monster under our bed. God is the wooden stake we drive through the heart of morality and conscience. God is the scapegoat to which we pin all our personal evils.

    God is not just a metaphor. But that doesn’t mean God exists anywhere outside our own brains.

  29. anthrosciguy says

    And to illustrate, Morris is about 5,000 people. Huntsville Arkansas is about 2,000. There are 19 churches in Huntsville. This is not unusual there.

    I’m sure Woods would be most welcome there; they probably haven’t had someone to lynch for a while now. :)

  30. says

    bnimble #33

    Wow, eleven churches in that small an area really seems like overkill.

    You don’t understand. They can’t join together because EACH IS THE ONE TRUE CHURCH.

  31. Josh says

    Yeah, arensb, that’s called “negative theology,” characterizing God by all the things He ain’t. Derrida gave a long lecture in Jerusalem in 1986 teasing out the paradoxes in various expressions of that point of view. Seems to me there are three directions you can go from there: 1) De facto atheism. If this God character is so far beyond human comprehension, I’m not gonna worry about Him: I’ll go do something else with my time. 2) A variation on Einsteinian “cosmic religion.” “God” represents our awe in the face of the new questions that arise the more we discover about the universe. 3) Complete intellectual shutdown, with “goddidit” and “God has His reasons” as instant explanations for everything (as I write this, I see nigelthebold thinking along similar lines). None of these, not even the third (because it gets used so selectively), seems to have much to do with religion as it’s actually practiced by billions of people, which leaves Eagleton’s and Wood’s three-card-monte game unconvincing.

  32. raven says

    You don’t understand. They can’t join together because EACH IS THE ONE TRUE CHURCH.

    I looked at the list from the chamber of comerce.

    There are actually 16 churches listed. Including 4 or 5 different One True Lutheran varieties. They have some real winners including a WELS and JW’s.

  33. cag says

    #42 Raven – pretty impressive for a godless community, but then the whole world is godless, as is the universe.

    “in the beginning god created the heaven and the earth”. Imagine how quickly the earth would have fallen into the 332,000 times heavier sun on day 4. It takes major ignorance of natural order to believe the bible, metaphor or not. Celestical mechanics trumps the genesis nonsense every which way.

  34. kpidcoc says

    There might be a few at the Federated Church that will go along with it — there are people who are the next best thing to atheists there —

    I wonder how many you’d find there today. I used to be one of those people in one of those congregations and, while it was easy enough to identify fellow nonbelievers, they were mostly elderly. As they died off, the congregation became more conservative theologically, and I resigned myself to declaring my apostasy. Wood and Williams represent the view of what is literally a dying breed.

  35. Anteprepro says

    The Great List of Sophisticated Metaphors, finally revealed!

    Virgin birth: God’s love, wisdom, and the power of miracles!
    Resurrection: God’s love, salvation, and the power of miracles!
    Miracles: God’s power and goodness!
    Heaven/Eternal life: God’s goodness and love for human kind; power of the human spirit.
    Hell and the Fall: God’s high moral standards and hatred of sin.
    Sin: Humans breaking God’s laws and rejecting his love.
    God’s orders for genocide: God’s mysterious nature, strong desire for for people to follow God’s laws.
    God’s laws: God’s concern for mankind to avoid sin; see God’s love.
    Salvation: God’s love and wisdom; eternal life.
    God’s power: Our motivation to love God, expression of God’s love.
    God’s wisdom: Expression of God’s love.
    Spirit/Soul: Positive feelings.
    God’s love: Good fortune in life, positive feeling about life.

    And, remember, God is love. It’s warm and fuzzy woo all the way down. At least for those trying to use the possibility of figurative language to deflect criticism. The very fact that they are invoking metaphor is itself saying that atheists are closer to the truth than those who take the things dismissed as metaphor as both literal and true. But you’ll never hear these mealy-mouthed sophists ever admit that that is what they are effectively saying.

  36. Classical Cipher, OM says

    God is not just a metaphor. God is a misunderstanding.

    God is the piece of us that wants to know the truth of our world without the hardships of studying our world. God is the desire to know right from wrong in every situation, when right and wrong is not a binary proposition. God is the hope there is something there to catch us when we fall, against all reason.

    God is not just a metaphor. God is the intellectual embodiment of evil.

    That’s extremely beautiful, nigel.

  37. Anteprepro says

    Just for clarity’s sake: the above list was supposed to be intentionally self-referential definitions, offered tongue-in-cheek.

    What it might look like, but is not:
    an authoritative list of what these terms “really mean” chucked out by an indignant, condescending Christianist who actually believes that the garble above is supposed to “really mean” something.

    And now that I’ve blandly explained the joke, my day is complete.

  38. Spunmunkey says

    Williams sounds like he’s been reading Chopra… I guess biblical miracles are just quantum events… Shit! I may have given believers an out… *heh*

  39. says

    I think you will find that in academics (or those in closely related fields) there is an emphasis on originality (or else you won’t get tenure, a job, published, etc.). This system encourages writers to try to be contrarians at all turns–they can’t be seen as unoriginal. I think Woods is falling into this group of people. It is probably a frequent attempt in science only science is restricted by reality–in literature or philosophy it is easier to get around pesky reality.

  40. =8)-DX says

    I’m coining the phrase “having a magic metaphor with my James Wood”.

    Everyone can guess what I’m doing, but if anyone asks I’ll just say they’re arguing against a manly straw-man..

  41. =8)-DX says

    “God is not just a metaphor. God is the intellectual embodiment of evil.”
    Oh? Well I’d agree except I think I’ll go with:
    God is the worst-case result of extremely clever pattern-seeking mammals identifying patterns that just aren’t fcking there.

  42. SirBedevere says

    @NigelTheBold #37

    God is the piece of us that wants to know the truth of our world without the hardships of studying our world.

    I think this is large part of theistic thinking. And what’s more, they want to understand everything now. When they criticize science because it doesn’t know (fill in the blank) they can’t accept the answer that science probably will know the answer eventually. We’re all going to be dead before many of science’s greatest discoveries are made; they’re too far in the future. But if you fill in the blanks with “god did it” you can have all the answers now!

  43. PeteJohn says

    Here’s a link to the Nicene Creed. I was taught in my fairly moderate Methodist Church as a young’un that the Nicene Creed was something I would one day be required to memorize b/c it held the bases of Christian faith. It was essentially the things I had to believe to be a True Believer.

    http://www.creeds.net/ancient/nicene.htm

    The Nicene Creed asserts that there is an eternal life for Jesus and for those who follow Him, a literal reading of the Resurrection narrative in the Gospels, the existence of a place called heaven, and the existence of a triune expression of God. So does that make all of the members of the church I attended fake Christians or something?

    I never fail to be stunned by the conceit of some liberal believers. They seem to have no problem letting science and history and other academic disciplines chase their beliefs all over the house and into a deep, dark corner of the attic, and then claim that that corner was the best place of them all. They’ll go along with nearly any cookoo thing all but the most extreme faitheists say, and then condemn us atheists for disagreeing and for our tone. It’s ludicrous and should not be tolerated. The evasion makes me want to yack.

  44. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    By the way, for a beautiful example of how religious language can and should be understood metaphorically, take a look at this article from the Spring ’83 issue of Creation/Evolution. I’ve read other writings by the same author and disagree with him on a lot of issues, but (with the disclaimer that IANABS – where “BS” is short, in this case, for “Biblical Scholar” – I think he’s nailed Genesis 1 here.

  45. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    The Nicene Creed asserts that there is an eternal life for Jesus and for those who follow Him, a literal reading of the Resurrection narrative in the Gospels, the existence of a place called heaven, and the existence of a triune expression of God. So does that make all of the members of the church I attended fake Christians or something?

    Furthermore, the Apostles’ Creed, which is still used by many Western denominations, states that after his burial and before his resurrection, Jesus descended to the place of the dead (Greek: τὰ κατώτατα “the lowest”; Latin ad inferos “to those below”). If this isn’t the Dante’s hell, it’s at least something below and beyond simply being buried. But of course you can’t be a True ScotsmanChristian and believe such tripe.

  46. says

    So…

    Essentially his argument is that atheist arguments cease sounding reasonable and become the strident overreacting nonsense that Christians want them to be, at the same point that there ceases to be any meaningful distinction between atheist and Christian beliefs.

    I mean, sure, remove all non-rational and supernatural beliefs from Christianity and you basically get an obsessive-compulsive book club who refuses to switch books.

    But you also lose the point of religion to exist. At that point, there are plenty of other fictional books with far greater narrative weights and moral lessons that don’t require reading in a wholly unique method of skipping around randomly and having an authority figure tell you what they mean.

    At that point there is no point going to Church and certainly no point in listening to a pastor, because there is nothing there that he can tell you that would be worth returning every Sunday for. You can stay at home, divine whatever fictional content you desire in a long weekend and be done with it.

    At that point, the Church becomes a sadder version of a Harry Potter fangroup demanding everyone read Book 3 chapter 6 for the 19th time so that the dream will never die. I mean, at least throw in some cosplay, LARPing, or some fan-created content if you’re going to be that lame.

    And that’s the thing about these people. They want to argue that their religion is harmless and attempts to antagonize it are completely out of the blue. Why, take it seriously, we would never. But they refuse to rationalize that to its required conclusion. If you are truly taking nothing seriously, why bother defending it. It becomes the most useless wasted activity on the planet and it represents nothing but a combination of wasted productive time and wasted leisure time to be the most useless timesink known to humanity.

    Oh, suddenly at that time, the morals, lessons, and teachings become “critical”. Uh huh, and why do those lessons trump say the lessons of Watchmen or American Gods? Oh, Jesus is Lord and these are the words of God. And why are those important? Uh huh, suddenly all that meaningless supernatural stuff is all right there in the forefront.

    They can’t have it both ways.

    Either its useless and they can shut up about it in public and private company and treat it like the third rate fan group it is or its a serious heavy hitter that deserves “respect” and most importantly outside criticism and resistance from the groups to be negatively effected by its “teachings”.

  47. PeteJohn says

    @Hercules

    I’m starting to realize that the No True Scotsman is the thing all theists turn to when they’re cornered by the wacky beliefs of other theists. They can say “Well, that’s what that person believes, I don’t believe in anything that silly!” They then pat themselves on the back and say “Whew, escaped that one” or “That silly atheist, what does he/she know?!?!” It’s pretty lame in my view, and lets people get away with wishy washy thinking.

  48. says

    It’s also amazing that the UK “sophisticated Christians” are making a game out of never hearing about Evangelicals.

    Maybe I’m over-estimating the state of UK newspapers, but to me, here in America, that seems to be a statement of overwhelming ignorance.

    I mean, the whole point of their “why, no, literal, I would never” stance is to argue that they are intelligent and non-superstitious, thus their religion must be the same. But the raw proof that there are a huge number of aggressive idiots calling themselves Christian and believing very literal interpretations of rules and doctrines is everywhere in national news. It dominates why American politics is the way it is. It shows itself whenever an official of the Vatican makes a pronouncement or explains its policies in third-world nations. It pops up whenever missionaries fuck up another third world nation or whenever some nutcase makes a big overt literal gesture to their “One True God”.

    To ignore all this evidence and truly be “dumbfounded” at the thought of literal believers as they claim to be would take a rather active ignorance on par with that of Rapturists when they argue that the UN is an evil organization hell bent on world domination. To know so little of their supposed topic of fixation would argue that they are not merely dumb, but almost deliberately stupid. Aware enough to remember to avoid all periodicals and information that would damage their self-delusions.

    This does not say to the world: “Now here’s a capable fellow who is not at all silly unlike those lower-class American chaps, here’s a good boy”.

    It says: “Here is the winner of the upper class twit of the year contest from that Monty Python sketch.”

    It really makes me wonder who they think they are fooling.

    Is there just something going on in Britain’s water right now and there’s a big propaganda campaign going on saying “Christianity here is no longer silly and is totally atheist as long as the atheists agree to join us on a Crusade against those filthy brown hordes who dared give us good tasting food.”

    Cause it seems like it sometimes.

  49. Anteprepro says

    Cereberus: “. I mean, at least throw in some cosplay, LARPing, or some fan-created content if you’re going to be that lame.”

    Cosplay: Catholic church clerical vestments.
    LARPing: Pentecostal “speaking in tongues”, faith healing, Communion, exorcisms.
    Fan created content: The Rapture, Mormonism, all the fancy, detailed depictions of angels, demons, the devil, and the afterlife.

    Hey, they are being lame with a particularly lame book.

  50. consciousness razor says

    When they criticize science because it doesn’t know (fill in the blank) they can’t accept the answer that science probably will know the answer eventually.

    Even when science does have good answers which they accept, some crotchety old fuckers just can’t get no satisfaction.

    So a bunch of physicists figured out a bunch of stuff about relativity and quantum mechanics. Sure, we gained knowledge, which you’d think is good for its own sake, but what good does any of that do? Why’d we spend our money on those trifles, rather than eliminating the deficit and cutting taxes even more? What do you mean, they made it possible to have computers, cell phones and satellite TV? What do you mean we didn’t have to know in advance how to apply such knowledge to something useful? Bah. It’s not like that stuff has made the world significantly better anyway. No, no, you don’t understand, I’m very pro-science. But there are still wars to be had against brown people, and now gays want to marry, and I still don’t have a flying car that wipes my ass for me….

    Nothing is enough for some people. They may claim they have no problem with science per se, but continue to rant and wheeze about their every ache and pain, every issue they don’t understand in disciplines they’ve never studied. They seem to have this weird expectation that science ought to offer magic, and to the extent they understand that it never will, they somehow find themselves disillusioned with science rather than magic. Meanwhile, religion gives them an endless smorgasbord of any magical bullshit they want, whenever they want it, which is especially convenient if they don’t even know what they want. Never mind all those problems hurled at science a moment ago — those don’t apply to religion, because, well, it’s magic. That’s just a given; and being magical, religion has no problems that it cannot “solve” with yet more magic.

    I guess it’s a similar situation with Wood, besotted with his ability to pontificate impotently about descriptions of a fictional whale. He wants to feel like there’s magic involved somehow, like he has some deeper connection to some part of human nature in literature, which scientists (and we, his unwashed “literalist” heathen strawmen) will never be able to touch. He wants to feel like there are some things for which he, or at least Melville et al, simply cannot be wrong — not that others are wrong and he is right; but that those things, whatever they are, just are ineluctably beyond description or explanation. No matter what scientists or “New Atheist literalists” know, even if they knew everything, he suspects there would still be these magical remnants which are a “real” part of the human experience, presumably hidden in metaphors or images or whatever pretentious waffle is most convenient.

    Total bullshit, of course, but that’s as far as I follow before I start to doze off.

  51. says

    Anteprepro @59

    Touche.

    But I still maintain that their activities are the lamest incarnations of activities already viewed as silly to begin with.

    When “Lightning Bolt guy” looks like he’s spending his time more worthwhile and carries more dignity than you, its time to pack it in and just order a D&D book already.

  52. Sneak says

    When a church elder says, “the virgin birth is just metaphor,” I cannot help but think they’ve already given up on their own religion.

    Aren’t they talking about the grand architect of the (geo-centric, flat) universe? Hasn’t asexual reproduction been witnessed in other species? How could someone claiming an intimate relationship with ALL THE POWER turn around and say that same power is unable to knock-up one teenage girl, when some lizards can self-impregnate without resorting to prayer?

    It’s like getting a tattoo of your favourite band, then telling everyone how much they suck.

  53. says

    nigel @37 — Excellent and passionate prose. After I showed it to a friend of mine, I had to explain that it was not (just) a rational argument, but a passionate expression of gnu atheist feeling, and that yes, we do have feelings. ;-)

    I liked it enough that I formatted it up as a single-sheet sign (the fonts may not come through, depending on system settings). Hope you don’t mind!

  54. says

    Sorry, link didn’t work; this one should work (it asks for an email address to download (presumably for spamming purposes), but seems to accept Mailinator, at least under the domain: suremail.info) This is the better link.

  55. Erulóra (formerly KOPD) says

    I thought James Wood was the guy that made those cheesy sci-fi movies. I was a bit confused through the first paragraph or two.

  56. brokenSoldier, OM says

    Pierce R. Butler says:

    Metaphors be with you.
    — Yoda, JK

    Incidentally, this is one of the things that first made me realize how silly my Catholic upbringing looked to the outside world, because seeing Jedi Knights in Star Wars say ‘May the Force be with you’ immediately reminded me of the incantations you’re required to repeat during mass. As in, when the priest says, ‘May the lord be with you,’ the congregation answers, ‘And also with you.’ I remember thinking that if it look this silly in the movie, why is it any less silly on Sunday?

    So I guess, in part, I have Obi-Wan Kenobi to thank for beginning my exodus from the church! :P

  57. Iain Walker says

    SirBedevere (#52):

    And what’s more, they want to understand everything now.

    I think that’s definitely a significant part of the theistic mindset, although it’s probably a wider human failing. There’s a kind of person who is more interested in having answers than in finding things out.

    On top of that, there’s this hankering after not just having answers, but having ultimate answers, answers which bring the regress of explanation to a close. You see this all the time in “philosophical” theology – the obsession with First Causes, Final Causes, Necessary Beings etc etc.

    I sometimes wonder if at least part of the explanation for this lies in the authoritarian, top-down thinking so typical of theism. Just as the moral order of the universe is seen in terms of everything coming from above, our understanding of how things work must likewise be anchored from the top. Related to this, most forms of theism are closed ideologies – they try to be self-contained and complete, because they seek to provide all the answers for their adherents, the better to ensure their continued adherence. In such a world-view, open-endedness is a big no-no.

    The idea of building up our understanding reality by unpeeling it layer by layer, and witholding judgement on ultimate answers until we actually reach them (assuming of course that there are any ultimate answers to be had) seems to be quite alien to such people.

    PeteJohn (#53):

    They seem to have no problem letting science and history and other academic disciplines chase their beliefs all over the house and into a deep, dark corner of the attic, and then claim that that corner was the best place of them all.

    In some cases it’s worse than this. Not only are liberal believers happy to proclaim their metaphorical or even non-realist versions of religion the best form of religion (which to be honest I’m not entirely unsympathetic towards as long as they’re consistent about it), but some of them will even try and claim that this is always what religion has been about, and that far from reinventing their faith, they’re actually taking it back to its roots. In a certain sense, they see themselves as the True Christians (or whatever), as traditionalists rather than innovators.

    And it’s this kind of ahistorical intellectual imperialism that tends to piss me off more than their woolly, oh-so-not-literal pieties.

  58. Erulóra (formerly KOPD) says

    Actually, I think I may have been thinking of his even older brother, Ed.

  59. nostradumbass says

    There’s got to be a name for this reverse straw man ploy used by Wood.

    My analogy:

    A: The porn industry is exploitive, misogynistic, lacks artistry and is often run by criminals.

    B: Why do you criticize porn based on the worst examples? I have a friend who produces porn. She is a feminist, an artist and creates very tasteful porn in an ethical manner. Therefore your characterization of the porn industry is a straw man.

  60. truthspeaker says

    Midnight Rambler says:
    28 August 2011 at 1:31 pm

    No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, “spaces” when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a “miracle” might occur.

    What the fuck does this even mean? Literally or metaphorically? It sounds like he’s saying “we don’t have a historical record of what really happened, so let’s just insert a miracle because hey, you never know!”

    I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Williams meant. Since we don’t have complete historical records, it’s perfectly rational (to him) to believe miraculous stories as long as they take place in one of the gaps.

  61. Howlin Wolfe says

    They’re not metaphors, they’re myths. No less mythical than the chimera, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. I suppose you could say the virgin birth, notwithstanding its occurrence in other mythologies, is a metaphor signifying that because no human was the father, we are all children of Yaweh, or whatever the glorified thunder god is called, whom Christians and Jews call “God”. But that’s way too garbled and certainly not how it’s interpreted.
    But as a myth, it stands on its own pretty well. And whatever historical, archaeological or literary interest it contains doesn’t make it something that is true, factual or historical. That’s the real question. What is the mythographic significance of it?
    Robert Graves, for all his faults as a mythographer, nailed the mythographical flaws of “Chrestianity” very well.

  62. Michael says

    You say that neither you nor Dawkins are literal-minded, but are perfectly interested in metaphor.

    Why, then, do you think that a metaphor’s figuration is irrelevant, that only its literal meaning matters? “Metaphor for what?” is not a question, its a command: “Junk the metaphor, and tell me only what you literally meant.”

    Just as the religious fanatic treats the figural element of the metaphor too literally, and believes that Mary literally conceived on a particular day by visitation of an angel, you treat the literal element too figuratively, and forget that the figurative element holds a large part of the meaning.

    Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” is a patently ideological image. We might recall that “survival of the fittest” is not a Darwinian phrase, but a Malthusian one. For all his protestations, Dawkins’ view of the impersonal universe is charged with moral meaning: he sees reality through the lens of individualistic liberalism, but wrapped up in his ideology, thinks he is anti-ideological.

    James Wood makes the elementary point that the New Atheists are right to be skeptical of religious ideology, but wrong to be ideologues themselves.

    I would have thought that, as a good sceptic, you would find this an edifying argument.

  63. Anteprepro says

    Michael: In what way is seeing Myers and Dawkins asking religious handwavers to explain what their supposed metaphors mean, what things they supposedly reference, sufficient evidence for you to regard Myers and Dawkins as literal-minded ideologues? Are you seriously proposing that metaphors in general have no meaning? I agree that the “metaphors” invoked by the religious probably have no meaning, but no writer worth his salt uses metaphors that don’t, to some degree, reference something “literal” (be it concrete or abstract).

    I would have thought, as a good skeptic, that you would not rush to the defense of those who make arguments as dishonest as James Wood’s. For fucks’ sake, he pointed to one (ONE) person who considers themselves Christian and denies the afterlife as an indication that New Atheists were somehow wrong to attack those who do. But guess fucking what? Somewhere around 70% of Americans believe in hell, heaven, the devil, and angels. See here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/11770/eternal-destinations-americans-believe-heaven-hell.aspx
    Which, surprise surprise, is around the same percentage of the population that are Christian. Also, of regular churchgoers, 98% believe in Heaven and 92% believe in Hell (no accounting for cafeteria Christians). But James Fucking Wood doesn’t care about statistics, because he has an anecdote and buckets full of condescension! That roughly 10% of Christians that don’t really believe the bullshit is sufficient enough for him to beat up on New Atheists for being too literalist, just like those durn fundamentalists. It gets a bit tiresome to deal with this tripe from people who pretend that Christianity has merit because there is some vague, nebulous alternative interpretations that only a handful of actual Christians actually support.

  64. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    Michael #76

    “Metaphor for what?” is not a question, its a command: “Junk the metaphor, and tell me only what you literally meant.”

    That’s the problem with religious metaphors, they’re usually so nebulous, so tenuous, so vague that their metaphoricity is quite opaque. Take the virgin birth, a concept central to several Jebusite sects (particularly the Catholics). What is it a metaphor of? It’s quite well known that “virgin” is a mistranslation of a word which really means “young girl.” But the Marist cults all insist that virgin means someone who never had sexual intercourse and the Mother of God™, even though married, never had sex with Joseph.

    The question “metaphor for what?” isn’t really a demand for a literal explanation but rather “why is this important?” or “what is the significance of this metaphor?” What difference does it make if Mary was a virgin when Yahweh raped her? What difference does it make if Mary never fucked Joseph? Mary’s virginity is a concept utterly vital to Catholics and other Jebusites of that kidney but utterly meaningless to those of us who don’t revere Mary as a demi-goddess.

    Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” is a patently ideological image. We might recall that “survival of the fittest” is not a Darwinian phrase, but a Malthusian one. For all his protestations, Dawkins’ view of the impersonal universe is charged with moral meaning: he sees reality through the lens of individualistic liberalism, but wrapped up in his ideology, thinks he is anti-ideological.

    When I read The Selfish Gene I completely missed the political aspects of the book. Of course, I was reading it as a scientific book, not a political treatise. I suspect you, like Mary Midgley, are reading something in the book that patently isn’t there. But I forgot, you had to find Dawkins’s professing an ideology in The Selfish Gene, otherwise your slam at him and Myers as ideologues would be extremely weak.

    James Wood makes the elementary point that the New Atheists are right to be skeptical of religious ideology, but wrong to be ideologues themselves.

    No, Wood makes a whine that atheists don’t believe in God and he really, truly thinks that we should. What you’re missing is the majority of atheists, certainly the majority of the regulars on this blog, aren’t ideologically driven “we don’t believe in god(s), so there, nyah!” atheists. Rather we’re “we don’t see any evidence for the existence of god(s) so, until such time as reasonable evidence is presented, we don’t accept the existence of god(s).” Our atheism isn’t a premise, it’s a conclusion based on logic and evidence (or the lack thereof).

    I would have thought that, as a good sceptic, you would find this an edifying argument.

    It would be a good argument and, if that was the argument Wood was making, we’d be a lot less disdainful towards him. However, since Wood’s argument is more than we’re conflating the fundamentalist, Biblical-literalist view of God as a guy with long, white beard who’s obsessed with peoples’ sex lives with the rarefied, philosophical, sophisticated deity who’s more appealing to Wood himself.

    Wood does have a point. His god and the god who cures acne if prayed at hard enough are two completely separate entities who share few attributes. However, the vast majority of Jebusite goddists do believe in a guy with a halo who decides which football team will win the game.

    There’s the further point that liberal deists like Wood are not the ones using religion to push a particular socio-political agenda. If all the goddists were like Wood, we’d have no problem with them. But too many goddists are like Ken Ham and Pat Robertson and Rick Warren, right-wing extremists trying to turn the country into a third-world theocracy. Those people have to be stopped. And Wood is not helping by whining at the people trying to stop the Dominionists.