When I was an undergraduate in Sri Lanka, I was also president of the Student Christian Movement, a national body of Christian students on all the university campuses. We used to organize annual residential conferences lasting for about five days and they were great fun. We had mostly secular activities with some talks on social issues as well as outdoor activities and games. It was more like a summer camp with lectures than a serious conference.
The program did include a daily Bible study. One year we had a visiting American missionary named Reverend Alan Gilburg and his Bible study dealt with the Old Testament book of Jonah. He started by saying flat out that Jonah did not really exist as a prophet, that this was a piece of fiction, a story created by an unknown author to illustrate the complexity of god’s relationship with humans. I recall thinking it was pretty good series of lectures, intellectually stimulating and thought provoking, and enjoying the sessions. Most people, including me up to that point, never read the book of Jonah, even though it is very short and takes just a few minutes. It is actually quite a good adventure yarn, and includes some funny bits because Jonah is quite a character, good at blaming others for the various plights he finds himself in and expecting them to bail him out.
But after the last session, when we had a general discussion, I remember a good friend of mine telling Gilburg that she could not accept his premise that the events never happened. For her, the Bible had to be literally true and so she had essentially tuned out the series of lectures. The funny thing is that by insisting on the literal truth, she had to reject what, to me at least, were the far more penetrating insights about human nature and how we perceive our relationship to god that Gilburg had provided. Taking a story literally had led, as it often does even in non-religious contexts, to shallowness of understanding.
I was reminded of this episode when reading the tragic story of a man who was executed in Iran because he too had claimed that the story of Jonah was symbolic. Apparently, orthodox Islam requires treating even the minor books of the Bible as literally true and so for his heresy, he was punished.
It is this kind of literalism that is religion’s fatal weakness. As time goes by, it will become increasingly impossible for most people to accept the literalness of biblical or Koranic stories. By insisting on it, religions are inviting skepticism of the entire enterprise.
I remember reading about an ex-clergyman who said that if you attend a decent seminary and do not emerge as an atheist, that means that you were not paying attention. This is because a lot of people decide to become clergy because of a strong belief that the Bible is almost entirely factually true. When they attend a seminary and learn that there is little or no evidence for much of the events described in it and learn how the Bible was cobbled together and the various versions that exist and how its meanings have evolved, their faith in something they thought was rock solid is severely shaken. It does not take much for the entire edifice to crumble.