05 October 2011

Possibly the BEST description of the Bible

Biology professor Jerry Coyne is garnering a reputation for his public criticism of religion in general and accommodationism in particular (the Templeton Foundation is his arch-nemesis). Of course, this means that Coyne now attracts the attention of god-botherers who have had their pious sensibilities bruised by his arguments. Not that the good professor minds the (perhaps unintentional) publicity his opponents generate for him.

The latest sky-fairyist to take a snipe at Coyne is New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Being a Catholic, Douthat takes issue with Coyne’s blog post eviscerating the Christian doctrine of Adam and Eve being the first humans and thus the progenitors of us all. But Coyne’s scientific debunking of that myth wasn’t what made Douthat go “tsk tsk”. No, what Douthat objected to was Coyne’s inability to see the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor. It’s supposed to be viewed through the lens of ‘sophisticated theology’, not taken literally! Simplistic atheists like Coyne misrepresent the subtleties of Christianity by painting all believers as Biblical literalists, Douthat squawks. To these protestations, Coyne responds:

I don’t insist on a view of “true” religion as a literal reading of scripture, whether it be the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other holy book. What I insist on is that those people who see some parts of scripture as metaphor, and others as true, kindly inform us how they know the difference.

Indeed, how do religionists know which bits of their sacred texts are to be taken as fact and which are to be read as metaphor? Could it be that they don’t actually have an objective method to make that discrimination? That they just make up the rules as they go along?

Religion: the original Calvinball

Fallible readers of supposedly infallible books are necessarily going to come up with faulty, inconsistent, contradictory interpretations. Coyne gives the best description of the Bible that I’ve ever come across. It’s accurate, fair, and unsparing.

The Bible is a jerry-rigged, sloppily-edited, largely fabricated, and palpably incomplete collection of oral traditions and myths, once intended to be the best explanation for the origins of our species, but now to be regarded merely as a quaint and occasionally enjoyable origin fable related by ignorant and relatively isolated primitive ancestors. It’s a palimpsest that is largely fictional, a story reworked many times, but based on our ancestors’ best understanding of how we came about. It’s simply a myth, no truer than the many myths, religious or otherwise, that preceded it. Embedded in it are some good moral lessons, but also many bad moral lessons. And the “good” morality doesn’t come from God, but was simply worked into the fairy tale by those who adhered to that morality for secular reasons.


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