All or Nothing: Literal Interpretations of Religious Texts

Posted: March 10, 2011 by justmeangie in Atheism, General
Tags: , , , ,

I have a very difficult time understanding theists who base their lives on a particular faith and particular religious text yet do not believe that text to be inerrant. Personally, I much prefer when theists use a non-literal interpretation. Believing in the inerrancy of these texts goes against science, portrays a deity I would have some serious issues with if there were reason to believe in his existence, and is more often than not quite disturbing when it comes to issues of morality. But how can one possibly apply a non-literal interpretation?

First of all, that leaves only the individual (or religious leaders in the individual’s life) to determine what he or she believes to be true from their sacred text and what can be discarded as “human error”. How can there be any validity to any of it at that point and how can we ever get closer to what the deity in question was trying to convey? The “truths” supposedly conveyed in such texts would be far too important not to be communicated clearly. A moral, all-powerful, all-knowing God could have ensured a perfectly morally acceptable text including specific and reasonable moral principals and without contradictions or cultural biases no matter when the text was introduced to society. In fact, wouldn’t any communication from God to humanity be the perfect opportunity to point out cultural biases and immorality that existed at the time (slavery, genocide, sexism, racism, etc. etc. etc.) rather than supporting them…to move humanity forward rather than allowing us to be drawn backwards…even these thousands of years later?

I can see how one might interpret a religious text as vastly allegorical and metaphorical–in fact, that’s how atheists such as myself view religious texts and it is by far a much less disturbing approach–but once interpreted in such a way, how can one still believe the fundamental supernatural claims as truth? And besides, whether a literal or non-literal interpretation is applied, there is still not a single bit of evidence for the existence of a supernatural world or supernatural beings. Period. Sometimes, I just don’t understand how I was ever so convinced that my religion was true…

**Edit: Vaguely relevant thoughts from skepticalProgrammer**
As someone who was once upon a time a hardcore Christian who rejected the literality of the Bible, this post was very interesting for me to read. When I was younger I found myself performing incredibly complex mental gymnastics in order to sync my worldview with that which I was being fed at church. One thing that is most interesting is the ability I had to overlook and re-interpret the violent themes in the Bible in favor of the hopeful and encouraging themes which were more in line with my own moral code. One example of this is the story of Elisha and the bears, in which God violently murdered 42 youths for calling Elisha bald; I interpreted this story as an example of God protecting his faithful from even the small things which hurt our feelings. Looking back I can see how fucked up that whole story is, but because I wanted so badly to believe I was able to create positive spin for even the most barbaric stories in the bible while still believing in a loving God.

  1. Nate says:

    You’re absolutely right. What I don’t understand is how Christians who don’t believe in inerrancy can still think that other religions are wrong. Don’t they realize that if Christianity’s texts can have errors, then other religions’ texts can have errors too? There’s no way to tell which one is really “truth.” And to think that God would still send people in other religions to Hell when he didn’t even give us a clear message is too horrible a concept for words. I can only surmise that they just don’t think it through enough to see all the fallacies.

    Sometimes, I just don’t understand how I was ever so convinced that my religion was true…

    Amen! (pun intended)

    • justmeangie says:

      Welcome back Nate! It was actually an entry on your blog as well as a FB conversation among friends that prompted this post. So thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

      “I can only surmise that they just don’t think it through enough to see all the fallacies.”

      Or…they see the fallacies and try to reconcile them with elaborate explanations. The theistic mind is quite fascinating! But then again, people in general are fascinating.

  2. oldancestor says:

    Frankly, it’s not possible to take the bible literally. Each of the Gospels tells a different version of the resurrection.

    On the other hand, I know people who take the bible so figuratively that they don’t believe Jesus actually existed, even as a man. What’s the point of calling yourself a Christian at that point?

    • justmeangie says:

      True, but many Biblical literalists don’t actually realize the vast number of contradictions in their Holy Book. They hold to the traditional views they have been taught by religious authorities…and they memorize verses that back up those claims.

      The ones who view it figuratively (and I realize I’m generalizing here) probably only continue to follow the religion because it would be such a huge paradigm shift to completely reject their particular religion’s validity. Such a rejection would have major psychological and social effects.

      • oldancestor says:

        Makes sense. A friend of mine calls herself a Christian but doesn’t go to church and was angry when her mother gave her son a children’s book about Jesus. No religious literature in her house.

        I asked her why she won’t just take that last step, and she actually showed physical discomfort in mulling over my question.

  3. Ryan says:

    I can’t speak for all liberal Christians (we aren’t a particularly monolithic bunch), but these are my thoughts. I’m only going to focus on the main idea of the post and avoid peripheral issues like arguments concerning the supernatural. I’ll try not to ramble. 🙂

    The traditional, conservative position on scripture basically runs, “God communicates his perfect message to us in the Bible and if you want to know about the world and how to live in it, then the Bible is where you learn it.” I think that idea is utterly ridiculous. There’s a line in a Jimmy Eat World song that, briefly commenting on religion, says, “The good word seems everywhere.” God communicates in myriad places and ways. If you want to learn the truth about God and the world, yes the Bible is an important place to look, but you also have to look at the world and the great wealth of ideas contained in it.

    Becoming a liberal Christian required me to wholly change the way I thought about my faith. I learn and grow from life experience, from the wisdom of other intelligent people, AND from the Bible. That said, I do still give some special weight to the Bible as I think it is “inspired” by God. In it I learn the basic story that forms my religion. Of course it isn’t perfectly historically accurate and it was written by human beings with their own cultural biases. It is intellectually unsustainable to believe it inerrant. That means if I want to learn from the richness that is there (and there IS richness there), then I have to make determinations and sometimes I’m probably going to do a crappy job at that. All I can do is make the best judgement about what the scripture really says in its cultural context and then determine if it’s Paul talking out of his hind end or if I’m getting something from God.

    I do want to challenge on one thing you said. You wrote, “A moral, all-powerful, all-knowing God could have ensured a perfectly morally acceptable text including specific and reasonable moral principals and without contradictions or cultural biases no matter when the text was introduced to society.” There is a misconception a lot of people have, I’ve recently taken to calling it the “God-magic fallacy”, that God is supposed to be able to perform mutually contradictory actions. C.S. Lewis said in his book “The Problem of Pain”, that (paraphrased) “Nonsense does not cease being nonsense when you attach the words ‘God can’.”

    Here’s where I’m going with this. God seeks to allow people to make their own choices. In fact, I can’t think of a single instance in scripture of God FORCING someone to do anything. God does not intrude upon our freedom to make good and bad decisions (and I know this brings up loads of questions about whether God should intervene more than he does, but I’m not going to broach that topic right now, for now let’s just leave this at the fact that we both agree, though for different reasons, that God doesn’t).

    This means God did not either possess or otherwise force the writers (or compilers) of the books of the Bible to write to his exact specifications. One might then suggest God could hand down his Book on golden tablets or something. This would be tantamount to a pronouncement of God’s existence, which would very much intrude upon our freedom to make good or bad decisions (not to mention it would just be a crappy thing to do). Maybe God could have written the book, but left off somehow that God wrote it? Would it have, then, had any effect? All of this gets murky and weird,but the point of all of this rambling (sorry, I know I said I wouldn’t) is that things aren’t so simple as God’s all-powerful, so God can do it. He can’t wave his “God magic” wand and make a square peg fit into a round hole and he can’t make a universe where he lets human beings make their own choices and then make their choices for them (in one way or the other).

  4. Nate says:

    Those are good thoughts, but why would God letting himself be known to us take away our free will? If you believe the story that Satan was once an angel, then he disobeyed God after fully knowing who he was. Moses disobeyed God after speaking directly to him, as did David. Peter knew Jesus face to face, but still denied him. I was taught to obey my earthly father, but their were many times I didn’t, even though I know him intimately. If every person had a direct relationship with God, then we would all know who he is and what he wants, but this would not take away our choice to obey him.

    If the Bible doesn’t have to be perfect, how do you know it was really written by him and not just by people who are claiming it was written by him?

    Ultimately though, I don’t really have a problem with your system of belief. I assume that you don’t necessarily think anyone is wrong for their religious beliefs? That’s a position I can get behind…

  5. Ryan says:

    Hi Nate,
    I meant to communicate, and didn’t, that the free will portion of the argument is sort of theorizing on my part. The observation is that God, if he exists, doesn’t reveal himself openly. Anything I’ve written concerning why he doesn’t is my best guess.

    As to that theory, I think that God revealing himself in any really evident way, like writing a book and putting his name on it, changes the way the world works in a very pervasive way. Would we still have some measure of free will? Yes. The examples you gave were good examples of that. But when you consider what it seems that God is trying to do in scripture, which is to create a world full of creatures who have matured to the point that they want to be willingly involved in building a just world, it is hard to imagine that the revelation of an all-powerful, all-knowing being doesn’t force many to change their behavior out of fear, and not an honest desire to do what is right. Again, it’s a theory. I don’t have much to back this up beyond an idea of how many people work. Think about all the fundamentalist churches full of people “following God” out of fear of a God they can’t prove exists. Now imagine that they can prove it…again, it’s my best guess.

    And actually, I tend to believe that in some measure we’re all wrong in the things we believe, but that universal “wrongness” in varying areas of our individual belief systems is something that should unite us all in trying to uncover truth.

  6. Nate says:

    Thanks for replying Ryan.

    I agree with you that we should all be striving to uncover truth (though many people don’t seem to interested in the endeavor).

    I also agree that if there is a god, then surely he is pleased when people work together to build a better world. But how often does religion accomplish this? I know it may not be fair to judge it based on the imperfect people who practice it, but still… there are so many problems that have been caused by religion. The Crusades, 9/11, denial of science and climate change, etc. In fact, many of the progressive thinkers who seem to do the most toward creating a better world aren’t religious at all.

    If God were to completely reveal himself to us, I think it would potentially end a lot of squabbling. People would know which religion is right, and we could all get on with trying to follow it. People would also be able to knowingly choose to follow God. Right now, too many are obviously confused or ignorant of him to be able to do that.

    And as far as fear goes, elimination of the concept of Hell would go a long way toward wiping out all those fears. People would actually be able to make a clear choice. They’d be able to choose God based on what they have experienced with him first hand… not what an ancient, confusing text says about him.

    I know you’re just throwing out some theories, so I’m not really trying to hold you to all this. These are just the questions that come into my mind when I think about those possibilities. Your idea of religion sounds pretty good to me. If everyone had an outlook like that, I think our world would be a much more peaceful, productive place. But I do have difficulty squaring your position with what’s said in the Bible. And while you’re wise to not take that book too literally, what other basis do you have for your beliefs (assuming you’ve never had a divine revelation)?

  7. Ryan says:

    To start, I base most of my religious beliefs on the Bible. However, I think we have to put that book within it’s historical context. For instance, take the more violent portions of the Hebrew Bible. In places “God says” go in and kill every man, woman, child, and even all the livestock in a particular city. Is there any possible explanation that can make an order like that okay? Not likely. However, when you look at the archaeological data of similar cultures in the Ancient Near East, we see that pretty much all the other cultures in the area have similar stories in which their God tells them the same thing. In fact, wiping out everything in a city when you conquered it wasn’t uncommon at all in that region and it was also common to attribute these orders to your god.

    So there’s a lot to learn from the Hebrew bible. In many ways the Israelite people were wildly advanced in their time, particularly in their laws relating to the poor. Further, the overall message of the Old Testament provides the entire foundation for the New. But I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the Bible was written and compiled by people deeply involved in their own culture, that, for instance, there will be places where irreconcilably horrid things are “commanded” by God. The overwhelming bulk of the Bible is vitally useful…and even the parts that I expect attribute things to God that God didn’t actually do or say are useful in that they help me to get a more complete understanding of the culture the Bible came from. It’s a divinely “inspired” book, but it’s not a perfect book…there are human fingerprints all over it.

    If I have any other authority aside from the Bible, it’s that God gave me a brain to think with, and a conscience to ache at injustice.

    As for a complete Divine revelation, I think I’m still not convinced that such a revelation would be wise. Yes, God is working in the world to make it a certain way and I can see how it may be easier to guide the world in a certain direction if he were directly present, but I think he’s also working to make a certain kind of people. God wants us wholeheartedly involved in making a just world. When Jesus was asked what do I have to do to inherit life he almost always said to do something: take care of the least, give up your possessions and give them to the poor…rarely did he talk about believing in him and never about “accepting himself as lord and savior”. Jesus was consistently willing to accept questions. He may occasionally getting exasperated at his disciple’s lack of understanding, but when he rose he left the building of his movement to them. God is building people who have matured through seeking the answers on their own and through working against the corruption of this world. I can’t exactly say why this may be, but I sort of like the idea.

    I’ve always connected with the parenting analogy for God. If we are like teenagers who are just starting to get a handle on what the world is, then God is like the parent who lets them come to understand it for themselves. Yes, there is danger in that method, but there is probably more to guiding in a more present way. Overbearing parents produce either rebellious children (which I rather doubt would be the case with an omniscient God, but then there is the Satan story) or they produce dependent children. These children can’t walk without their parent. They aren’t the same people without their parent. God wants to build people who are who they are as people and who wouldn’t be different without him.

    I’m probably not adequately explaining this idea and part of that is that I don’t want to write a book with loads of scripture references and stuff in a blog comment. 🙂

    Oh, and I don’t believe in Hell as it is traditionally constituted, but I’m still thinking out all that, so I won’t talk much about it yet.

    Thanks for all the nice things you’ve said about my way of thinking on religion. I really appreciate people who honestly try to figure out this world we live in. I can totally see how someone would be an atheist. Just because that’s not the conclusion I’ve come to doesn’t mean that I should condemn the people who have. 🙂

  8. Nate says:

    You know Ryan, you actually remind me of myself — please don’t be offended at that 😉 — or at least where I was in my thinking about a year and a half ago. Have you ever read The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine? Your line of thought is very much in line with the great minds of the Enlightenment. In fact, you sound more like a deist to me than a Christian, and I think you’d find some things that resonate with you if you read Paine’s book.

    I’m still curious why you think Christianity is true over everything else, when you obviously see some of the problems in the Bible. I do understand that much of your reasons for that belief are faith-based — and probably even because you just like the idea of Christ. I don’t want that to sound offensive, because you obviously have solid reasoning behind your beliefs. I’m just saying that you obviously feel a connection to it that isn’t solely based on reason. Are you sure that connection isn’t just because of the culture you were born into?

    I’ve just started reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, and I’m not far enough in yet to say for sure that it would be of interest to you. But from what little I’ve seen so far, it might be something you’d like to check out.

    Take care

  9. I guess that is one of the things, I’ve been dealing with the errancy or inerrancy of the bible

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