Monday, October 13, 2008

The moral failure of figurative theology

There is a school of "sophisticated" theology and scriptural exegesis, which holds that if some piece of scripture contradicts our scientific understanding of the world, the scripture must be read figuratively (e.g. as metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory, sarcasm, etc.). This figurative exegesis (figuratism) stands in contrast to literal exegesis (literalism), which holds that if science contradicts scripture, then science is mistaken, by virtue of practical or metaphysical error.

Figuratism certainly eliminates by definition any contradictions between scripture and science, but it's not sufficient to render religious scripture rational.

The most obvious problem is that figuratism seems most often wielded not against literalists but against critics of religion — atheists and secularists — especially those criticizing literalists. When an argument is applied not to those actually making an error, but to those criticizing others for making an error, one strongly suspects disingenuity. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the religions figurativists do not seem to be at all in front of the struggle to protect science and science education from religious literalists; they have left the atheists and secularists to lead this struggle, occasionally offering lukewarm support.

Furthermore, even those religions that ridicule atheist and secularist critics who denounce literalism have been very late to the science game. The Catholic Church, with a thousand-year history of figurative exegesis, officially embraced evolutionary biology only in the lat 20th century, and waited centuries to officially exonerate Galileo.

While the standard — if it contradicts science, it's figurative — seems superficially plausible, it is actually a very different standard than we apply to purely human works.

As an analogy, suppose I'm reading a work of historical fiction. Obviously the main themes and characters are fictional, they are not real, but the story is set in some real historical context. Suppose further that the author misrepresents some basic fact about the historical context; perhaps the author has the battle of Gettysburg occurring in mid-July. In a work of purely human origin, we would likely conclude that the author had merely made a mistake, especially if the mistake had no good narrative function. (And even if it did have some narrative function, we would still look askance; a writer of historical fiction is expected to fit her narrative to the facts.)

The point is, just being scientifically or factually inaccurate is ordinarily insufficient grounds for concluding that the author intended to write figuratively. We rely on more evidence to conclude intentional figuratism. We look for syntactic markers, such as simile words. We look for sense and meaning at the figurative, metaphorical layer: When Robert Burns says, "My love is like a red, red rose," we can see how comparing a person to a flower makes sense. If he had said, "My love is 5' 6" tall," and she were in fact 5' 1", it's hard to see how such a counterfactual statement would make sense at any figurative level.

And indeed we see such counterfactual statements in the Bible that just don't make sense at any figurative level. For example,
[In Exodus 12:37, and Numbers 1:45-46] The number of men of military age who take part in the Exodus is given as about 600,000. Allowing for women, children, and older men would probably mean that a total of more than 2,000,000 Israelites left Egypt at a time when the whole population of Egypt was less than 2,000,000. [Donald Morgan, Bible Absurdities]
There just isn't a sensible way to find any kind of valid figurative meaning for this passage.

Mistakes and errors pose no philosophical problems for a human work, but one expects better — indeed perfect — fact-checking from an omnipotent God composing His most urgent message to humanity.

One of the things I liked about Away With All Gods! is that Avakian zeroes in on the moral atrocities of the Bible. And it is in the moral dimension that figuratism fails.

Figuratism simply does not, indeed cannot, speak to moral pronouncements, because no moral pronouncement contradicts (objective) science. It is not scientifically false that we should stone disobedient children*, that we should put to death a man who gathers sticks on the Sabbath**, that we should engage in wars of aggression, kill the conquered men, women and infants and keep the virgin girls as sex slaves. Nothing in science contradicts the idea that, morally speaking, women are half as good as men.

*Bible Precepts: Questionable Guidelines
**Bible Atrocities

One of the essential semantic properties of objective truth is that true is true whether you like it or not. Nobody likes childhood leukemia, but like it or not childhood leukemia does indeed exist and even today kills hundreds of children in the US. So just the fact that nobody likes some scriptural moral pronouncement is not an argument that it's not objectively true.

Thus the theist is on the horns of a more severe dilemma than he is regarding just scientific truth. If scripture has any objective moral authority, then he must adopt moral literalism: we must hold — as do the Christian Dominionists and many Muslims — that we must hold and enforce those moral pronouncements regardless of our moral intuition.

But he adopts moral figuratism, if scripture is as subservient to our moral intuition — our evolved and evolving human moral, political and social beliefs — as it is to our scientific knowledge, then it has lost its last remaining authority; we can simply throw out the scripture. We are already relying on our human reasoning; we are already treating scripture in precisely the same way as we treat any work of human literature.

A difference that makes no difference is no difference. Either scripture has moral authority, or the supposedly religious believer is in no way different from any atheist.


  1. You make some very good points! I've attended several church services in which the preacher has struggled mightily to try to make sense of one or t'nother of the appointed Bible readings, and he just couldn't. Fortunately for preachers, most of the congregation is just there because they think warming the pews makes them magically righteous, and it's not much effort for the preacher to convince them he's making sense.

  2. Well put, Larry. One thing I find aggravating about figurativism is that it is an edifice of ever-shifting sand. Something written in scripture is taken literally until science shows that it cannot be taken so. It is then, all of a sudden, taken figuratively, but without substantive change to the original interpretation.

    It's just so much semantic prestidigitation.

  3. What a great read!

    This is an article I wish I had written; the insightful arguments you've expressed here are nicely punctuated by poignant and poetic conclusions. I'll be sure to check out your archive; if it's at all like what I just read, I think I'll be wasting a lot of my afternoon at work :)

  4. Riker: I'm glad you enjoyed the essay.

  5. It all comes together with this simple truth:

    Theology is bullshit - both literally AND figuratively.

  6. Theology [literally] is bullshit...

    Only if a bull were to eat a Bible, and then excrete it. ;-)

  7. Correction (nit picker!)

    Theology is bullshit whether you take it literally or figuratively.



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