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Religious texts as metaphors

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about those religious believers who try to explain away some of the incredible events reported in the Bible as simplifications that were appropriate for the naïve people of thousands of years ago, and why that explanation was not credible.

Those believers who realize that even the simplification explanation is inadequate and that they need to go further in distancing themselves from the literal words of their text sometimes say that the Bible should be treated as metaphor. They assert that the stories are not meant to be taken as historically true but as vehicles to reveal underlying meaning, somewhat like Jesus’s parables, and so any contradiction with science is not an issue. The catch here is that such apologists are often not willing to specify precisely how far they are willing to go along this metaphorical road. For example, are they willing to concede that the entire story of Jesus’s life a metaphor? Or are there at least some elements of that story that they hold back as historical fact (Virgin birth? His miracles? Resurrection?) if the Bible is to retain any credibility to them at all as the word of god?

Greta Christina finds that those who argue for metaphors are often disingenuous:

Progressive religion says, “This is simply a story”… but it isn’t sincere. You can tell that it isn’t sincere by how bent out of shape it gets when people point out that it’s just a story, and therefore isn’t really true. Progressive religion uses the “metaphor” trope as a slippery way of avoiding hard questions when engaged with skeptics… and as soon as the skeptics turn their backs, it slips right back into actual, non-metaphorical, “belief in immaterial entities or forces that it has no evidence for” religion. Progressive religion is ultimately just as willing to ignore evidence that contradicts its comforting story as hard-line conservative religion.

Truly secular “religion,” on the other hand, says, “This is simply a story” — and means it.

The difference is this:

If you say to a “Religion is a useful metaphor” believer, “Your religion is a story, it isn’t factually true, a lot of the history is mangled and some of it’s flatly wrong, and all the God stuff is totally made up”… chances are they’re going to get seriously defensive. They’ll tell you how intolerant you are, how you’re just as dogmatic and proselytizing as religious fundamentalists, how disrespectful you are to point out the flaws in religion and try to persuade people that it’s mistaken, how close-minded you are to reject ideas just because they’re not supported by dumb old evidence.

She uses an apt comparison with Star Trek to point out that you can always tell the difference between those who apply the “it’s just a metaphor” line sincerely and those who advance it as a rhetorical ploy. Avid fans of Star Trek act in ways that are very similar to religious believers, except that they can tell the difference between truth and metaphor.

Think about it. Trekkies are devoted to a story that they find entertaining and inspiring, even though they know it isn’t factually real. And there’s great diversity in their devotions, similar to those among religious beliefs. Some Trekkies are intensely dedicated to the story, to the point where it takes up a substantial part of their lives: going to conventions, making costumes, buying memorabilia, watching the shows again and again. Others are more casual followers: watching the shows when they happen to come on, maybe taking in a convention or two. And different Trekkies follow different variants of the story. Some are more interested in the original show with Spock and Kirk; others care more about The Next Generation. Some weirdo fringe cultists even follow Voyager.

But they all have one thing in common: They know that “Star Trek” isn’t real. Unless they’re certifiably mentally ill, they know that the story they’re devoted to was made up by people. And they act accordingly. Avid convention-goers don’t treat casual fans as apostates; Original Showians don’t treat Next Generationists as sinners and blasphemers; and none of them write editorials lambasting people as immoral sociopaths if they prefer documentaries to any sort of science fiction. And they — okay, fine, we — don’t insist that “Star Trek” is just a story… and then get bent out of shape when people point out that it is a story, and hence that it’s not true. Trekkies have a good time trying to fit the inaccuracies and inconsistencies into some sort of continuity (that’s half the fun); but we understand that the show is a fictional story, with all the flaws that fiction is heir to, and we don’t treat it as a divinely-inspired guide to reality and life.

That’s what “it’s just a metaphor” religion would look like.

Unless religious believers specify which parts of the Bible are metaphors or stories and which parts are historical (something they find hard to get agreement on even amongst themselves) the “it’s just a metaphor” argument just won’t fly. And they also have to address the even more difficult question of how they decide what is historically true and what is not.

In some ways, those who take the Bible as strictly a record of historical events, those people who are labeled as creationists or fundamentalists, have a more well-defined challenge. They have to create an entirely alternate science that conforms to their history. Doing so leads to its own insurmountable contradictions such as how they can live and take advantage of all the benefits that “standard’ science provides while denying its validity. But at least they have drawn a clear line. Those who argue for the metaphor model have no clear and agreed-upon beacons of what should be taken as historically true and are thus navigating blind.

POST SCRIPT: And now, here is some person with his opinion

For some reason, news operations like CNN have decided that it is newsworthy to read the tweets of random, anonymous people expressing their opinions on news stories. My local newspaper, the Plain Dealer also devotes a considerable amount of its rapidly decreasing page space to actually soliciting such terse opinions, most of which are ignorant, banal, or smart alecky. Whoever coined the proverb ‘Vox populi, vox dei’ (‘The voice of the people is the voice of god’) clearly had no idea what the vox pop would sound like in the 21st century.

That Mitchell and Webb Look has the appropriate response to this trend.

Comments

  1. says

    “are they willing to concede that the entire story of Jesus’s life a metaphor?”

    How about this: there was probably a minor historical figure named Jesus who lived during that time period and taught. He attracted followers who kept his movement alive after he died and some of these attempted to recreate his teaching. The people of the time were superstitious and therefore made up some stuff about magic; the “resurrection” meant that his movement survived his death.

    So, in the Jesus stories, there is a kernel of truth buried under a lot of embellishment and superstition; it is impossible to tell which events were actual but it makes for a good story (and of course the supernatural stuff is pure fiction).

  2. Bruce says

    I really enjoyed the Star Trek analogy – I used to use devotees of Bob Dylan as my example, but the Trekkies are more apt

  3. Bill says

    What? Star Trek not divinely inspired? But, Rodenberry (the Blessed Gene) ascended to the sky after he died to sit at the science station on the right hand of the Kirk (May He…always…use…His phasers…with Judgement)! And those that do not believe, shall be consigned to Rura Pentha for Eternity while the True Trekkers shall Live Long and Prosper!
    ;)

  4. says

    Saul,

    Thanks for the link. Flew’s (and other people’s) suggestion that god is a ‘simpler’ (and hence more plausible) explanation for some difficult scientific questions such as the origin of the universe and of life has been widely challenged. Richard Dawkins does so in his book The God Delusion and I will be addressing it too in a later post.

  5. says

    When one tries to see the Bible through the lens of the scientific process then there would always be gaps, inconsistencies, and controversies. In today’s modern world, faithful believers are seen as religious freaks because they choose to remain steadfast in their faith despite what science has shown and proven. There will never be a reconciliation especially when each side presents the logical argument that in Biblical faith, one has to believe and see but in the Scientific side, one has to see and believe.

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  6. says

    The writers of the New Testament (Paul in particular) had absolutely NOTHING to gain from doing what they did. They were living in a time when Christianity was publicly opposed by the Roman government, where Christians were thrown to lions for public sport, where they were skinned alive for not accepting Caesar as a deity (which they were commanded to do by Roman law), and where the mere profession of their faith in Christ meant basically guaranteed execution. I find it hard to believe that anyone would endure those kinds of perils just for the sake of “making up a story”. Something that THEY believe was real fully compelled them to do what they did, even in the most inhumane and hostile surroundings. Whether you’re a religious person or not, it doesn’t make much sense to say that people would go through all that trouble for the sake of a “metaphor”.

  7. says

    Neil,

    I would agree with you that Paul and others like him (assuming those accounts are historically accurate) did not think their beliefs were metaphors. But every religion has its martyrs. The people who flew buildings into planes clearly did not think their beliefs were metaphors either.

    The fact that people are willing to suffer and die for their beliefs does not prove those beliefs real. If they did, then all religious beliefs would be true and that cannot be since they contradict each other.

  8. says

    I also have found the historical existence of Jesus plausible because of contemporary analogues. However, as I have read more I find it unlikely that Christianity was originally based on a teachings of a prophet figure named Jesus. My understanding of the history of Christianity is that there was no mention in Christian texts of the name “Jesus” (as opposed to “Christ”) until the second century AD. Up until then Christianity’s beliefs were in line with many other mystery cults of the time such as Mithraism and others. The practices of these religions tended to worship a divine being and there was usually no effort or even interest in tying him or her to a material event/person. I think that the invention of a founding mythology came later in order to appeal to the less mystically inclined masses.

    The history of theology is much more interesting than the theology itself, IMHO.

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