Andrew Sullivan claims that Bible stories are “true” but not “real”

October 12, 2011 • 7:32 am

I’m going to be a bit light on science posts this week as I’m travelling and haven’t been keeping up with the literature. Instead, I’m immersed in religion and theology, so those will have to be my topics.

As Chris Mooney would say when a bunch of people posted at the Intersection criticizing him for his dumb accommodationism, “I must have hit a nerve.” But I think I really did hit a nerve in the case of Andrew Sullivan, who, at the Daily Dish, has gone after me for the third time for challenging him to distinguish what is true in the Bible from what is false or metaphorical (the two words are equivalent to theologians). In his piece “Must the story of the Fall be true? Ctd.” (this is the same title given to his second piece), Sullivan engages in a bit of semantic trickery to explain his point.

First, Sullivan admits that I was right on one point: Robert Wright’s book, The Evolution of God, did not show, as I asserted correctly, that human morality had improved over time. Wright claimed only that religious doctrine had become more conciliatory over time, and that’s different from a claim about people’s behavior.  Sullivan now says that Steve Pinker’s book shows that kind of improvement in moral behavior, which it probably does (I haven’t yet read it). But still, Sullivan’s original claim was wrong.

But that’s not what I see as my most important point, which was always this: Sullivan, like many liberal and sophisticated theologians, doesn’t tell us how to distinguish in scripture between what is literally true and what is false (and now seen as mere metaphor).

But he finally gives an answer—sort of:

But the Catholic church has come to embrace evolution, and even ecumenism, suggesting again that doctrine, as Newman insisted, can develop as our minds and culture evolve. As to Coyne’s challenge to present a criterion of what is real in the Bible and what’s true , I’d argue that empirical claims—like, say, a census around the time of Christ’s birth, or the rule of Pontius Pilate in Palestine at the time—can be tested empirically.

Wait a minute!  Sullivan claims that everything in the Bible is either “real” OR “true”? Aren’t those the same things? (More on that in a minute.) But yes, I’ll admit that some things described in the Bible are true—but only those few historical claims that can be authenticated from secular sources. He goes on:

But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories, especially in their mythological details (the Magi, the shepherds, the various sayings attributed to Jesus on the Cross, each of which suggests radically different interpretations), and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

If you are treating these texts as if they were just published as news stories in the New York Times, you are missing the forest for the trees. You are just guilty of a category error—or rather of forcing all experience into the category of science.

Ah, the old “Bible is not a textbook of science” canard. Whenever you hear that, just translate it as this: “The Bible isn’t true.”  And, as I’ve shown in my two previous posts on Sullivan, it’s not a category error to say that over the last two millennia the Bible was seen by believers as pretty much literally true. After all, that’s what most Christians over the history of Christendom really believed. Sullivan has repeatedly denied that, and he’s dead wrong. If he were intellectually honest, he’d admit it. But he’s not intellectually honest: he’s a coward who wants to have his Catholicism but look sophisticated, too.

And do note that Sullivan sees these false and metaphorical stories as nevertheless attesting to something that Sullivan sees as “true” (or as “real”, since he doesn’t explain the difference between those two similar words). Sullivan sees these false (i.e., “true”) claims as “ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.”

So Sullivan sees the miracle of God sending himself down in the form of the human Jesus as real (or true).

But then he immediately undercuts himself, saying that what is NOT true in the Bible are the miracles!:

The rub is the miracles, as Hume noted. Here we have clear empirical accounts of things that we cannot account for in nature, indeed stories that are told precisely because they defy the laws of nature. And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side. . .

When we are talking about coming back from the dead, we are entering non-real truths. And the most profound unreal truth is, of course, the Resurrection.

Get that, folks: “non-real truths.”  Orwell would have been delighted!  Black is white!

Okay, what we have here is the doublespeak of an intellectual who, so determined to save his faith in the face of facts, has to make up new meanings for “real” and “true”, and draw a distinction between them. I guess what he means as “real” is “what really happened,” and “true” as “the metaphorical meaning of things that didn’t really happen.”  But those words do not mean what he thinks they mean. It’s like conflating “sprituality” with “God belief”—a deliberate ploy to buttress God. Sullivan continues:

One way of looking at this is to see pluralism in our experience. Some things, most things, we experience as real, like a Happy Meal or a bike accident (yes, I wiped out badly on Sunday). Other things we experience as true – a profound musical epiphany, or spiritual calm, or unexpected joy.

Does he not recognize a musical epiphany or an “unexpected joy” as subjective emotions, not truths about the universe that the Bible can relate to us?  I was asking Sullivan to tell us how he distinguishes what really happened in the Bible from those things that didn’t happen, and his answer is confusing.

He now asserts that none of the miracles happened—except, apparently, for Jesus’s coming. (Does that apply to the existence of God as well? The second coming? What about heaven and the afterlife?).  And if the Bible is just a book that evokes emotion but doesn’t tell us one iota about God, his character, or his intentions, then why is Sullivan a Catholic?

Let us notice, of course, that Sullivan is an outlier in thinking that none of the miracles of the Bible—save, perhaps, that of Jesus—really happened. He’s telling all other Catholics, including the Pope and the Vatican, that they’re just wrong.

Finally, Sullivan quotes a reader who frantically tries to demonstrate a difference between “facts” and “truths”.

There is a difference between truth and fact, and fundamentalism and fanaticism stems from a confusion between the two. Evolution is a fact. The story of the Fall is true. . .  Notice that the fundamentalist and the militant Atheist both confuse truth with fact, the fundamentalist by insisting that truth overwhelm fact, and the militant Atheist by insisting that fact overwhelm truth. Neither, usually, have solid epistemological grasp of truth or fact.

What a thicket of obfuscation we must enter here! First of all, the Fall is neither fact nor truth. It didn’t happen. It is fiction—a story (or a lie, if you will). It’s true only if you redefine “true” to mean something other than what everyone thinks it means.

If Sullivan or his reader wants to pretend that there was some single event that doomed humanity to a state of eternal sinfulness, they’re welcome to think that, but there is no evidence for such an event.  And if there’s no evidence for it, then in what sense it is “true”? It’s no “truer” than the delusions of the mentally ill who claim that they’re God or Napoleon. Both are simply subjective beliefs that don’t express anything the rest of us would agree on.  And, as Hitchens has told us, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

The good news from Sullivan: he admits that every miracle described in the Bible is false (except, of course, for the Big Miracle of Jesus, Son of God).  The bad news: he still tries to save miracles by describing them as “true” rather than “real”? That’s a shameful semantic ploy for someone as smart as Sullivan.

Now, Andrew, can you tell us how you know that the story of Jesus—that is, the idea that he was a physical incarnation of God—was real rather than true? Why is that the one exception to all those other bogus miracles? Was Jesus like a Happy Meal or not?

h/t: Dave

220 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan claims that Bible stories are “true” but not “real”

  1. Andrew, I’m sure you’re reading this. So perhaps you can also answer another, related question.

    You’re clearly passionate about the “truth” of these stories in the Bible, stories that you yourself admit are fiction.

    Whence, therefore, the truth of the stories? How is the Bible different from, say, Harry Potter? How is whatever truth there is to the story of Moses turning the Rod of Aaron into a snake any different from Lord Voldemort turning his magic wand into a snake?



    1. I get the feeling that Harry Potter would be “true” but not “real”.

      Let me come right out and say that the idea of redefining “true” sounds like an act of sheer desperation bordering on lunacy. Certainly it supports Dawkins’ decision to call it delusion. There’s something in AS that compels him to defend the bible as “true” but he’s honest enough to understand that this simply is not possible. Conflict! Tension! Pressure! How to resolve it? AAAARRRGH!


      Resolution: redefine “true” so now AS can say “the bible is true” while his rational mind can still say “the bible stories are not real.” Dissonance resolved.

      1. I get the feeling that Harry Potter would be “true” but not “real”.

        In other words, like he thinks most of the Bible is. But if that’s the case, why not prefer Harry Potter over the Bible?

        1. Or Star Trek? I have long thought that there is more “truth” in the fiction aisle – Twain, Thoreau – than in non-fiction – where one finds Cheney and Coulter. Moral truths, distilled and disconnected from real-world messiness, are satisfying and inspiring. Good art is “true.” Sully’s bullheaded refusal to acknowledge fundamentalism and literalism really undermines what could be a valid point.

      2. ‘I get the feeling that Harry Potter would be “true” but not “real”.’

        Statements about the characters in the stories are true, if they correspond to the events as portrayed in the books. So “Hermione Granger was the daughter of two dentists” is true, but “Neville Longbottom played the piccolo trumpet” is false. The characters themselves are clearly fictional (therefore not real), but is it correct to say that the statements are not real, if all that you are doing is verifying statements that actually appear in a real book? I don’t know the answer to this.

        1. The “logic of fiction” is difficult, however;
          it has to accommodate at least (1) truth value gaps [e.g. Mary Magdalene was left handed. True or false?] and inconsistency: who slew Goliath? Not an easy matter.

      3. I love how you describe Sullivan’s position: “sheer desperation bordering on lunacy.. delusion.” Except he seems not to merely border on lunacy — I think he’s smack-dab in the middle of it!

        Reading this piece leaves me not knowing whether to laugh or to cry. I really feel sorry for someone who must resort to such ad hoc nonsense to defend an otherwise untenable position. Perhaps Sullivan’s convoluted double-speak represents a bittersweet victory for JC in this debate. One might hope it’s just one small step further before he can admit that the resurrection story is made up too — the darkest night before the dawn.

      4. All this sounds like is the old po-mo “everyone has their own truth” idea. Utter rot unless you redefine truth to mean “has some sense to me but not you” – the same thing people do when they tend to talk about “spiritual truths”

    2. Reading, yes.

      Paying attention? Honestly evaluating JAC’s arguments? Being self-aware enough to realise he’s been skewered? Reading his own damn rebuttals for comprehension? Not so much.

      It appears that Mr Sullivan’s great strength in these debates is avoiding very clear points and ignoring very simple questions.

      Y’know what? I think he’s earned himself an honorary doctorate of theology.

    3. Interesting that you would equate the wisdom of life in the bible to “Harry Potter.” Are you serious man? No movie director, writer of other would ever believe that “Harry Potter” is great art. It’s a profitable franchise, period. Is it entertaining? Sure. Is it Shakespeare? No. Not even close as a matter of fact. Very obscene trying to make an argument by comparing an apple to a hunk of metal… Seriously, learn literature and real art before you insult everyone’s intelligence by equating the bible with “Harry Potter.” Amusing argument, but please, well read individuals know the difference. If you do not see a difference then you’re reading for a story, not for the encoded, “connotative” message written in the words… And if you do not understand what that sentence means then you have no place in a debate about literature, the bible or other. I believe this fundamental idea of great literary works is what Mr. Sullivan is trying to harp on in his arguments that the bible stories are not literally true. Although I do not share his views, he is right in the sense that the bible has a serious abundance of connotatively encoded messages.

      1. Interesting that you would equate the wisdom of life in the bible to “Harry Potter.” Are you serious man? No movie director, writer of other would ever believe that “Harry Potter” is great art.

        Strange you say this, since the primary themes in the Potter books are:

        avoiding stereotyping…

        hell, the end scene in the last book is most often compared to…

        well, I’m betting you can guess?

        OTOH, you’re pretty damn dense.

      2. What, you again?

        I’m sorry, but I’m short on time, so let’s cut to the chase, if you don’t mind.

        Kindly explain to me what great literary purpose is served by Jesus commanding Thomas to fondle his intestines through his gaping chest wound. How much of it is homoerotic fantasy and how much of it is plain ol’ zombie snuff pr0n?



      3. Having read both Harry Potter and the Bible (cover to cover 2X), it’s obvious to me that Potter is much more interesting and teaches important moral values more effectively. There’s actually a story there, the characters are developed, and the magic is at least vaguely plausible. In almost every respect it’s better. Probably even contains less factual errors.

        People don’t want to read the Bible because it’s so poorly written, often to the point of incoherence. Contradicts itself on nearly every page, and can’t even keep its story straight. Even fervent believers have usually not read the whole thing, cover to cover. Christian groups put up billboards imploring people to read the thing, but to no obvious effect. Conversely, Potter is eagerly read and enjoyed by millions.

        Potter may not be Shakespeare, but it’s closer to the Bard than the Bible is.

        1. Well, Potter was written by one person with an end in mind, while the bible was written by everyone and their brother for their own disparate reasons. It’s hard to stay interested in a story when the whole thing changes every few pages, and the main character is a petty tyrant.

          The only reason it has imagery seen elsewhere (I assume this is what he was trying to say amidst the incoherency) is that it was forced to be the basis of cultures that developed literary styles using images that people around them would recognize.

          I do love the elitist “don’t read for the story but for the higher message” line. Kind of like the “a movie isn’t good unless it’s in a foreign language” bit you often hear from critics and poseurs. If the story is crap, who cares what the message is. Not entertaining, not educational, not reading.

  2. I sent Andrew Sullivan this email yesterday because he provides no other way to comment.

    “Some things, most things, we experience as real, like a Happy Meal or a bike accident (yes, I wiped out badly on Sunday). Other things we experience as true – a profound musical epiphany, or spiritual calm, or unexpected joy.”

    Come on.

    You can’t just use words any way you like so that “True” doesn’t need to comply with reality. Look it up.

    The first definition I get when I google “define: true” is:
    In accordance with fact or reality: “a true story”; “of course it’s true”.

    Hop onto Wikipedia.
    Truth, the state of being in accord with fact or reality

    You guys are just making shit up and pretending it is profound. Nothing but deepities, all the way down.

    1. “True” is in accord with the deeper nature of the world and the human condition in it — it need not conform to some dryly empirical notion of “reality” in order to convey the profound meaning of humanity and our relationship with the Ground of Being.

      Or something like that.

    2. You can’t just use words any way you like so that “True” doesn’t need to comply with reality

      I beg to differ.

      — Humpty Dumpty

  3. I admit what he’s saying does seem like some rank double-speak but before we go galloping off in that direction, is there anyone who wants to defend Sullivan’s distinction between ‘true’ and ‘real’?

    Even if no one thinks Sullivan is right, can anyone hazard a guess as to what he thinks he’s talking about?

    I’m guessing that he is using “true” to be “emotionally potent, significant-seeming” and “real” or “fact” to be “actually happened”. Does that seem right?

    By this reasoning, is it “true” that Jodi Foster loved John Hickley, even though it isn’t “real” since their relationship was certainly meaningful and serious to him?

      1. I’ve encountered this before from “sophisticated” theists. If it feels true, then it is true, even if it’s not real. However, feeling true also makes it every bit as real as something that is real.

    1. The only thing I could possibly think of, if I am being terribly generous about it, is that certain things are true within the context of the story. That is, “Jesus rose from the grave” is true within the Jesus mythology the same way that “Harry fights Voldemort” is true in the context of the Harry Potter universe, and “Superman can fly” is true in the DC comics universe. These things are true, without being real.

      But if this is what Sullivan is trying to get at, he needs to explain why those truths should be relevant outside the context of those stories as well. Or why we should take those biblical truths any more seriously than the truths from fantasy novels or comic books.

      1. Hmmm; the oral or written words would be “true” in the sense that they were spoken or written, but the story being conveyed is still a work of fiction and therefore (within that genre) untrue. It would, in other words, be “true” that a work of fiction had been spoken or written.

    2. When I’m talking with people I try to use common definitions of words. If in doubt a dictionary provides ample assistance, especially for words like “true” and “real”. Sullivan is just trying to support an untenable set of ideas by pretending that these two things are profoundly different. The dictionary disagrees.

    3. “I’m guessing that he is using ‘true’ to be ’emotionally potent, significant-seeming’ and ‘real’ or ‘fact’ to be ‘actually happened’. Does that seem right?”

      It sounds right to me, and it’s a defensible approach if he sticks to it and doesn’t pretend later that things you’ve agreed are “true” are also historically factual.

      I guess that if one starts with the certainty that all fiction is lies, then this sounds contradictory, but that would surely be the symptom of an hysterical rationalism. It’s really only contradictory if you go on to play fast and loose with the terms.

      It’s not exactly a new idea. I think that most of us understand that Robert Burns is neither lying nor crazy when he says that his love is like a red, red rose. At the same time, it’d be completely inappropriate to advance his poem as supporting a purely botanical approach to romance.

    4. As a long-time AS reader, I don’t think he even really believes the “real” vs. “true” distinction. I think he believes the stories of the Incarnation and Resurrection are “true” from a metaphysical standpoint because they’re also “real” in his terminology, i.e., they really (in some manner) happened. It’s just that AS admits the Bible isn’t a reliable record of that reality, so the biblical accounts aren’t “real.” Thus we get phrases like “ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.” That entrance is, to AS, an historical fact, i.e., “real,” so the stories are “true,” even if they get the details wrong.

      If you try to get him to explain how his “true” facts happened, if not as described in the bible, he immediately cries, “Mystery!” So, shorter AS: “no, I’m not dumb enough to believe things happened like the bible describes, but I insist that these things did actually happen in some metaphysical sense, but I can’t tell you how.”

    5. I think Andrew is assuming some sort of non-physicalist philosophy of reality. So he would claim that there are truths about the world that can’t be derived from facts about physical particles and fundamental laws. Godel’s proposition comes to mind as a potentially fruitful analogy.

      So physically relevant truths would be “real” and “true”, but there would also be… aspects of the world that are, like Godel’s proposition, true but not provable. And since here “provable” means derivable from particles and laws, these things would be “true” but would never have happened.

      I think folks are a little too dismissive of this kind of possibility. However, Andrew has done absolutely nothing to show that these stories about Jesus have some strange “true but not real” quality like Godel’s proposition provably has. As I see it they almost certainly don’t. He just makes a bald assertion. And that, rather than his fumbling and unclear attempts at “true versus real” ontology, is the real problem.

  4. Was Jesus like a Happy Meal or not?

    There is little happiness in the Jesus fairy tales. Ask PZ Myers if eating a Jesus wafer makes him happy.

    1. In the first of the quotations of Sullivan in your post, you left the word “true” out. leaving “… what is real in the Bible and what is , I’d argue…” which is pretty confusing.

  5. …Terry Pratchett called it. Have you read Small Gods? The “grand vizier” type villain uses the exact same reasoning, of outer truth and inner truth, to justify all sorts of torture and treacherous slaughter. Double speak indeed, Sullivan clearly hasn’t thought through the implications of that line of reasoning.

  6. Perhaps he is trying to use the term ‘true’ as a way of saying that is possess a moral value, a ‘moral truth’, so that the stories, while being fiction, have some important lesson for us.

    The problem is that they don’t have just one interpretation or lesson. For me, the story of The Fall has huge, sinister overtones. The God of the Bible, rather than creating an equal partner, creates lobotomized pets, which he feels infinitely entitled. He places a temptation and a tempter next to these fresh, naive creations, and then curses them for falling for the temptation that God himself put next to creatures that he made ignorant of the notions that would have prevented them from eating it! That’s what I take away from the story. Is that also ‘truth’, and is that ‘truth’ equal to the ‘truth’ that Sullivan gets out of the story?

    Of course not… he needs to stop redefining words to support his beliefs.

  7. as I’ve shown in my two previous posts on Sullivan, it’s not a category error to say that over the last two millennia the Bible was seen by believers as pretty much literally true. After all, that’s what most Christians over the history of Christendom really believed. Sullivan has repeatedly denied that

    Actually, he backtracked enormously:

    I am sure plenty of Christians today and in the past (and many today) believed in the literal truth of Genesis, down to the seven days and Adam as dust and Eve as his rib. They believed it to be real and true. But it is quite obvious to me in the 21st Century that this is not real, even though it may, in a deeper sense, tell us a metaphorical truth.

    Of course, he didn’t have the intellectual honesty to note that this retreat completely undermines his original complaint about your piece. Instead, he makes the “real vs true” distinction so that the Fall can preserve some sort of significance without literally happening.

    1. That is a great find because it makes this look ridiculous:

      There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn;t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable… It certainly makes me want to take Jerry Coyne’s arguments less seriously. Someone this opposed to religion ought to have a modicum of education about it. The Dish, if you recall, had a long thread on this subject in August. No one was as dumb as Coyne.

      I think it’s clear that Sullivan owes Jerry an apology.

  8. In all seriousness, how can he argue something is ‘true’ if it’s not ‘real’? I think Picasso said something like, “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” I think we can understand what Picasso means there, and generally agree with it. So, is Sullivan saying the same thing about religion? It’s a lie that tells the truth?

    If nothing else, Professor Coyne, I think he’s suggesting that your book should have actually been titled ‘Why Evolution is Real’.

  9. Jerry Coyne quoting Sullivan:

    But the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories, especially in their mythological details (…), and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

    Really? They scream that to you? To me, it only screams “they just made it up because it made for a better story”.

    And as I said in some other thread, just calling something “metaphorical” doesn’t make it “true” (in whatever meaning of the world). Metaphors can easily be false.

  10. Sullivan:

    … and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

    For something that’s inexpressible, there’s sure been a lot of ink and computer time wasted writing about it.

    Generally, “factually contradictory stories” indicates that such events never happened, unless there is other evidence to support them. In this case, there’s no evidence except the contradictory stories.

    1. And notice the out he gives himself by expressing it as “inexpressible”.

      It’s an automatic defense to the usual question of “what is it a metaphor of? How does a metaphor of god becoming human help me with any real problems I experience on a daily basis?”

      Answer – “lol, srsly, inexpressible god is inexpressible!1!”

  11. Sullivan’s toying with the word “truth” is indeed Orwellian, but after re-reading his post he seems to using the word to mean metaphorical truth of the kind that can be found in fiction. In fact at one point he seems to equate the truth of the Bible with the truth of the Star Wars movie. If this is where he really is, then I don’t see what the gulf is between his position and mine. They’re both fiction. Let’s move on.

    Of course the problem is still his weaseling of the word “truth.” I agree that we can find “truths” in fiction, but we already have an established vocabulary for describing those truths without conflating them with facts. Furthermore, the notion of worshipping a work of fiction is simply bizzare.

    1. Exactly. If his meaning of the truth is “Speaking to the heart of the human condition regardless of literal accuracy” well there are many better selections than the bible. Simply start with Shakespeare…

      1. I wish I could like posts here. You are exactly right. Any decent work of fiction should reveal some fundamental “truths” of the human condition. Why build a morality on the Bible, when I could build one based on the Jedi Code?

        There are numerous fundamental “truths” in Star Wars canon. Truths about courage and hope in the face of overwhelming odds. Truths about the corrupting nature of power, and how passion and self-interest can blind us to the immorality of our actions. Truths about how redemption requires sacrifice.

        Anyone could easily do this with almost any decent work of fiction.

      2. Exactly. I sometimes attend a UU church so my daughter can have “Sunday School”.

        I found out they were using the story of Cain and Abel to teach morals (I thought they’d simply be familiarizing the children with the stories in religious books).

        I discussed the curriculum with the director and suggested if they wanted to teach morals they should use something other than the Bible.

        Now I’m teaching her about those stories in a much different way.

    2. I think there is a huge difference between the metaphorical “truths” in literature and the metaphorical “truths” that Sullivan claims can be found in the Bible. A good metaphor in literature is considered profound because it offers us a deeper way of understanding or a new way of looking at something that we already know to be true in real life. If a writer puts together a clever juxtaposition of words that sound lovely but have a ring of falsehood — because we know that real people just don’t behave that way — it’s not profound, it’s meaningless.

      What the Bible has to say about “God’s entrance into human history as a human being” is therefore not a metaphorical “truth” in any sense, because God never existed in the first place. There’s nothing at all in the real world that this metaphor refers to.

      That’s not to say that the Bible contains no metaphorical “truths” at all; just that those it does contain are ordinary literature, while the supposed supernatural “truths” are utterly empty and devoid of meaning.

    1. Not necessarily. “True” in Sullivan’s sense appears to mean “truthiness” in Colbert’s sense – something that feels true or important, regardless of any underlying reality.

      1. On reconsideration, I think what he means by “true” is what he previously referred to as “metaphor.” And, unless I’m mistaken, he still hasn’t answered Jerry’s question, which was how do you tell which parts of the bible are true (now redefined as “real”) and which are metaphor (redefined as “true”). Sullivan obviously thinks that by changing the definitions of the words he has obfuscated enough that no one will notice. He’s probably even convinced himself that he’s answered the question, but he hasn’t.

  12. Sullivan’s post is mostly an extended semantic dodge: he wants
    his own private definition of the word “true”.
    He insists on the legitimacy of his
    idiosyncratic meaning of truth, vagueness and reality notwithstanding.
    Sullivan wants “to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side,”
    but he does not say how to tell true from false without recourse to the real.
    He implies that we just have to trust to faith for that. He doesn’t say why we
    can’t trust to empiricism.

    Sullivan emits a squirt of godly bafflegab:
    “I have no doubt that … those who experienced Jesus’ touch and message were transformed in ways perhaps only expressible in terms of physical miracles.”

    He is mistaken. Those with that experience were
    transformed in ways expressible not only in unreal, counter-factual,
    yet-somehow-still-true miracles, but also in candy cotton sculpture and in
    trout fishing in America.

    Sullivan says that Lazarus’ resurrection is, like the other Resurrection,
    a “non-real truth.” A more straightforward formulation is “fiction.”

    Sullivan himself won’t state the dire consequences if we reject his notion of
    non-objective, non-factual, unreal “truth.”
    He has someone else warn us to accept Lazarus, the other
    Resurrection, and the legend of Luke Skywalker as true, or else we
    “can leave a trail of blood in [our] wake.”

    But not real blood, I’m sure. Not physical, factual, protein-rich deposits
    of hemoglobin from a bleeding person. Not, you know, TRUE blood.

  13. I think he is using the word “true” in the Pat Roberton sense.
    “Haiti Made A Deal With The Devil! True Story …”

  14. Oh, Jerry. Don’t you see that there is no hope when dealing with weasely fantasists such as Sully?

    He reduces “truth” to a sensation – it’s the loving gaze of your newborn; it’s the tingle of excitement of a perfectly executed dominant 7th by a stellar vocal quartet (well, for some of us, anyway); it’s the stirring of the soul as the Death Star explodes (I’d love to hear why it’s also not the righteous indignity of the cut-rate bigot when watching Fox News, but that’s another conversation, I guess).

    Calling this “truth” isn’t entirely outside of the bounds of English usage, at least in the vernacular, but it’s certainly cheating in a most underhanded fashion. It gives this weak, totally subjective “truth” the imprimatur of respectability that the more quotidian meaning of the term ‘truth’ has justly earned: namely, that truth is backed by reality. Sully and the correspondant whom he approvingly quotes wish to claim a type of “truth” that is completely detached from reality. Well, we already have a word for that. That word is fantasy.

    Here’s what comes next, if he deigns to respond; he’ll pull out the doubt card. To fantasists such as Sully, who can no longer distinguish reality from the bullshit that they invent, religious doubt is a like a heroic quest – a spiritual journey (really not unlike the haj in Islam, when you get down to it), where they pretend to struggle with their faith in a most dramatic fashion. Because they are making it all up anyway, the outcome is never in doubt (so to speak) – but because they won’t even consider the possibility that they are caught in the throes of their own fantasy, it feels very serious and dramatic, and provides a wonderful tingle of self-congratulatory smugness when you emerge victorious still holding on to your faith. Sully has already named that tingle, of course – for him, it’s “truth”.

    In short – don’t bother. He’s in the thrall of his own passion play, and has no incentive whatsoever to bring it to an end.

    1. He reduces “truth” to a sensation – it’s the loving gaze of your newborn; it’s the tingle of excitement of a perfectly executed dominant 7th by a stellar vocal quartet (well, for some of us, anyway);

      Which is usually followed by an assertion that those vulgar atheists must not believe in love or excitement or enjoy music or anything else.

    2. perfectly executed dominant 7th by a stellar vocal quartet (well, for some of us, anyway)

      Me too. Just last night, actually.

    3. Excellent comment, but I think you mean ‘righteous indignation’ rather than ‘righteous indignity’, though the latter would seem to describe AS’s climb-down, such as it is, rather well.

  15. His contrast of the Gospels with NYT articles is full of fail. If four different people wrote down their observations on the same event, the differences between their stories would not lead you to believe the story was of a mythical (vis “real”) event. It would lead you to believe one or more of them got important details about a real event wrong, either unintentially, or intentially to make some sort of point.

    More bending over backwards and mental gymnastics to avoid simple and obvious conclusions: four contradictory accounts of the same events are most easily explained by human error or confabulation.


    As an aside, I haven’t read Pinker’s book either but I think one can probably explain the historical drop in violence without invoking some improved psychology or behavior. You really only need two things: more outlets/options for humans to prosper without violence. Agriculture and modern social structures certainly gave us that. And specialization/economy of scales. Waging war has, like many human activities, gone from something everybody did a little bit to something a few people do full time. There are less war deaths per capita for the same reason there are less sheepherding injuries per captica: fewer (more specialized) participants.

  16. “Other things we experience as true – a profound musical epiphany, or spiritual calm, or unexpected joy.”
    Those are caused by the release of endorphins, not god.

  17. As others have pointed out, his original rant has been pulled apart by his own admissions; he said “Ross sees the exchange as saying something significant about the atheist mindset – and I largely agree with everything he says…” when complaining (and missing the point) about literalism, but since he now admits many *theists* have been literalists, any significance is rendered insignificant.

    Now the retreat to contradictory claims to try to justify his contradictory beliefs.

  18. Also, too – you’ll never get anywhere with someone who feels as if he has been visited by God Himself, who has personally bestowed upon his vistor the magical superpower of distinguishing these deep “truths” from more plebeian sensations like deep panic, drug-induced ecstatic mental states, or acid reflux.

  19. WOW!

    Ain’t the homo brain wonderful?!

    To be able to take two terms meaning the same thing and think that one has drawn any distinction of merit is just “FANTASTIC”(“fantastical?)!

    Certainly have to admit that he has the good ole apologetic double speak down! Unfortunately, that is a sure way to make certain that what he writes(in this case)is not real, true, or factual(just included both “real” and “true” for Andrew’s benefit).

  20. Let’s cut Andrew a little slack and contemplate what he’s trying (not very well) to say: viz, that the fables found in the bibble express profound truths, even if they are fiction. [PS: If I understand dear Andrew aright, then dear Andrew has just lowered the bibble to the level of, say, Lord of the Rings, which also expresses profound truths via fiction. Or even down to the level of any cheap pulp fiction.]

    The difficulty, dear Andrew, is that these bibblical truths are couched in such obscure and ambiguous terms that they cannot be accurately understood by anyone. Show me any one bibblical episode and I’m sure that (with some work) I could show you a host of different interpretations by theologians, many of them at complete odds with others.

    If the bibble is supposed to be God’s instruction manual telling humanity what to believe and how to behave, He did a piss-poor job of writing it. A decent deity would have used unambiguous language which could only be understood in one way.

    For example, instead of saying “don’t seethe a kid in its mother’s milk”, a clear thinking God would have instructed “do not eat meat and milk or milk products at the same meal”.

    Or is it that Andrew’s God is a shambling idiot like Cthulhu? Or thinks like Apollo at Delphi and deliberately offers up his prophecies in puzzling language?

    Does God get a charge out of watching people mis-interpreting the instruction manual so he has more souls for Satan to sauté in molten sulfur?

        1. Correct. What does the story of Job mean? Depends on which theologian/apologist you ask:

          It could mean God is mysterious and seems unjust, but don’t question His power you insignificant little worm. You’re lucky the Boss doesn’t kill you right now. He made you, so no telling him He can’t. So shut up.

          Or, it could mean if you keep your faith long enough through tough times, good things from God (who DOES love you, don’t you know)will turn your life around.

          Or, it could mean a half-dozen other “truthy” things, which all seem contradictory.

          If the Bible’s a massive Rorschach Test, it simply can’t (honestly) accomplish the heavy-lifting that Sullivan claims it does.

  21. There’s a limited point to be had: that what is, the ground reality, is not the same as what it means, to a human being, as filtered through observation of data, interpretation via theory, and even intuition and emotion (which, as evolved forms of mental activity, are not completely bogus, just heuristic).

    In that sense, there’s a difference between what is (“Real”) and what is meaningful (“True”).

    But then:

    * The quality of being “True” is subjective, and increasingly so the farther it ventures from the objective (“Real”) data.

    * If one gives up any anchoring connection between what is “True” and what is “Real”, the utility of the category “True” (to anyone outside your own head) goes out the window.

    That’s what I find sad about the (dogmatically) religious, trapping themselves on what once was a plausible peninsula, now a tenuous island, still refusing to acknowledge the rising tide of reason.

    1. I would add that for me, the metaphorical and emotional power, such as it is, in these old tales is seriously diluted by what we have discovered is ‘Real’ about humans and our world.
      Even leaving aside literature, I am much more fulfilled by reading scientists recounting their discoveries about the world and humans than any of the old stories.
      What is ‘Real’ is also ‘True’ if you take the time to understand it.

      1. For me, the personal meaningfulness of any story is killed by people browbeating me with their interpretations. Psalms might be kind of nice, along the same lines as some of the Sufi poets, but not if I have to swallow a lot of baggage along with them.

        As in so many things, dogma is a killjoy, not a friend of learning.

        And transcendence, fulfillment, meaning — subjective truth in general — aren’t these largely matters of taste? Except when meaning is rooted in utility, coming back to objective reality.

  22. “and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.”

    Is God’s entrance into human history as a human being something that actually happened, or is that a metaphor too?

    How about the existence of this God character? Literally true, or metaphor?

  23. Andrew is not an intellectual.

    Not in the least. Just because he has a blog, that doesn’t qualify him to be called anything, other than verbose.

    He also seems to not have learned the First Rule of Holes.

    So, now instead of metaphor versus reality, we get true-true, true-real, real-true, and real-real decisions that must be made. Again with ABSOLUTELY no way to distinguish true from real from batshit crazy except this one individual’s personal theology. Which, FWIW, is almost completely at odds with his Catholic catechism, and virtually every Catholic theologian over the past 1600 years or so.

    Give it up, Andrew. You’re in way above your pay grade.

  24. I wonder if Sullivan would apply this same… er… “methodology” to the Quran, or any other holy book. You know, the moon being split in half (Quran 54.1-2) is not “real” but it is still “true”? Or that Jesus himself declared that he is not god nor the son of god (Quran 5.17) and that we are not supposed to worship him (Surah 5.116) is not “true” but “real”? What about how Jesus wasn’t really crucified according to Islam, but only an image of him was on the cross while the real Jesus was bodily taken up to heaven. (Quran 4.155-159) “True” but not “real”?

    I mean, if this dogma of Islam is “true” but not “real”, then the many Christian docetist heresies in 2nd and 3rd centuries are also “true” but not “real”. Where does it stop? By his own admission, this means that there is no such thing as “heresey” in Christianity since any outright falsehood can just be reinterpreted to be “true” but not “real”.

    Why can’t some things just be false? Or mistaken?

    1. Surely, any “sophisticated theologian” shouyld know all of this stuff. Maybe they’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes by assuming that none of us has studied theology or Christianity in depth? Or maybe they really don’t know this stuff.

      Either way, shame on them.

    2. Exactly. Sullivan hasn’t answered the fundamental question namely “How do you know which parts of the Bible are true?” He just said there is a distinction between “real” and “true”, and that real events and claims are supported by outside evidence. But, he never said how one knows if a claim is “true”? As I said further down, is the moral necessity of stoning gays as described in Leviticus “true”? Or is an ancient relic from a different culture at a different time? How can he tell? Are “true” claims just those that do not contradict secular 21st century western morality?

    3. Actually, it is my understanding that the Islamic belief relative to the Crucifixion is that Judas Iscariot was the man on the cross, not Yeshua of Nazareth.

  25. “Does he not recognize a musical epiphany or an “unexpected joy” as subjective emotions, not truths about the universe that the Bible can relate to us?”

    In reading Andrew Sullivan’s explanations of his idea of truth, I get the feeling that he still believes subjective experience and emotion is made possible by the soul, and that soul connects him to God.

    In his discussion of truth that is not real, in all fairness, any great work of fiction, from Shakespeare to Twain to Melville, really any decent work of fiction at all, contains representations of or allusions to human emotion and experience that we recognize as true, but not real, if by real we mean objects in the natural world composed of matter and energy, as opposed to objects exclusively of language and thought.

    There are many subtleties of human subjective experience that are, as Sullivan says, inexpressible in words. Not exactly expressible, but you can point at them or circumscribe them with words so that an intelligent reader grasps something of the meaning by inference.

    So the category confusion seems to be Sullivan’s in that he does not recognize human subjectivity as a product of the brain. A hurdle of resistance people often have to this recognition is that to accept human emotions like love and elation as chemical reactions seems to rob them of their significance and render them “meaningless”.

    For anyone who has taken drugs, and Sullivan has acknowledged using psilocybin, I would think such an experience should “scream” the fact that human consciousness is the product of chemical reactions.

    This post of Sullivan’s, on Feynman’s sense of awe over the wonders of nature, is a rebuttal to the idea that we are somehow robbed of this sense of ecstatic wonder by recognizing the underlying structure of the world we experience.

    He certainly doesn’t accuse Feynman of having a crude epistemology. But we all know that Feynman comes down on the side of Coyne, Science, and Atheism when it comes to the existence of God and the soul.

  26. Sullivan’s last words from this most recent post of his: “Because their epistemology is too crude, in my opinion.” The their is both fundamentalist atheists and Christians/religious people. What an odd and ironic statement. I guess what he means by “crude” is clear and direct. What’s more, though, Jerry has given Andrew Sullivan the opportunity to explain himself, to layout an epistemological explanation. Jerry specifically asked the most important question: “How do you know what you claim to know?” And Sullivan’s answer? Something about the difference between things that are real and things that are true? Really, is that really his answer? That’s very annoying. Is my epistemology too crude since I want a clear answer to the following questions: “Which parts of the Bible are literally true and real (i.e., they happened; Sullivan can redefine true and real however he wants, but in the sense that Jerry meant, and in the sense that these words are used in daily language, they are indeed synonyms) and which parts are simply metaphor? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you know this?” Mr. Sophisticated Epistemology over there (Sullivan) still hasn’t addressed that second question. Perhaps that’s the key to not having a crude epistemology–for some things, you stick to a materialistic approach (reality is the only thing that’s real, etc.), but for issues of faith and religion, well, it just is. Is that his version of non-crude epistemology? If so, no thanks! I’ll stick to having a clear, reliable, and universal method for understanding what is and is not.

    1. Actually, the key to a non-crude Epistemology is to posit of realm of, er, something, that stands in contrast to our human world of temporal phenomena. It’s not just the stuff that we don’t know – it’s the stuff that we can’t possibly know, experience, describe, or eff (’cause it’s ineffable, dontcha know). But wait – there’s more!

      Because it is simply unacceptable, psychologically, that such a realm is really truly beyond reach, then there must be some other way of “knowing” about it (I call this branch of epistemology TAPGOAINI – stands for “there’s a party going on and I’m not invited!” – and believe that it animates a tremendous amount of theology and philosophy, even in modern times when you’d hope that most of us could, you know, grow up). So we further must posit the existence of strange supernatural not-quite-real but still “true” conduits to inform us of this ineffable realm. And maybe also we pretend that if we’re good, maybe once we die then we’ll be invited to the real party, and we won’t have to just listen sadly with our ears pressed against the wall, trying desperately to make out how everyone else is having so much more fun than we are.

  27. the Gospels themselves have factually contradictory Nativity and Crucifixion stories … and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible – God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

    Passing over Sullivan’s jaw-dropping distinction between reality and truth, he appears completely ignorant of the fact that the Bible offers no way for us to tell if Sullivan’s “truth”—”God’s entrance into human history as a human being”—is actually true.

    Christians themselves have killed many Christians fighting over what Sullivan’s calls “truth”. Gibbon writes chapters on the deadly fighting between Christians who fiercely held that “God [entered] human history as a human being” and their eternal Christian foes who fiercely maintained that God did no such thing. For example, here is Gibbon on the battle between the dueling bishops Macedonius and Paul of Constantinople: “The factions immediately flew to arms, the consecrated ground was used as their field of battle; and one of the ecclesiastical historians has observed, as a real fact, not as a figure of rhetoric, that the well before the church overflowed with a stream of blood, which filled the porticos and the adjacent courts.”

    The “orthodox” faction of Paul prevailed, which is why Macedonius and his “Macedonian” sect of Christians are now called “heretics”. Had the tide of battle turned the other way, history would label these Christian sects oppositely. Making sense of the catalog of “heresies” disputing the divinity of Jesus from early Christians is even more dizzying that attempting to read Sullivan parse reality: Arians, Semi-Arians, Homoousians, Homoiousians, Heteroousians (!), Trinitarians, Macedonians.

    How can we tell which of these Christian sects knows the truth? I mean besides just taking the side of whichever one won the religious civil war, as Sullivan does, and simply assert that the winning position is “truth”.

    Sullivan’s “truth” depends on the random outcome of war, not because of anything written in the Bible, itself a product of this conflict. Other Christian sects do not accept this truth at all—what kind of “truth” is that?

    1. It’s my belief that a big chunk of “what’s wrong with Christianity” is due to the Greek influence on xtian theology. There’s an old truism, “the Greeks have a word for it”, that celebrates the rich vocabulary of Greek. The same characteristic leads to an insistence that every i be dotted and every t crossed, thus the endless disputes in early centuries of the CE over the exact nature of Christ and his relation to God. One nature? Two natures? Two natures mixed or two natures in the same body but unmixed? Yadda yadda yadda.

      Go read on Wikipedia about the various theological disputes during the first millenium CE and you will stagger away wondering how on earth grown men can get themselves worked up into such a lather over points that are fundamentally meaningless.

      1. a big chunk of “what’s wrong with Christianity” is due to the Greek influence

        You’re being unfair to the poor Greeks. Any of us put in the impossible position of formulating a coherent explanation of how or why God became human would necessarily resort to all the fraudulent confabulations used by Christian theologians of every sect from the start. By the insistence that there is something either real or true in the Bible not found elsewhere is how otherwise intelligent people like the Greeks or Sullivan come to drool out laughable nonsense like “that which is like can never be the same as that to which it is like” and “when the real and true conflict we must rely on the true”.

        It’s a tragedy, but at least it’s a funny tragedy. I hope Sullivan finds his way out and comes to laugh at himself someday the way we’re laughing now.

    2. How can we tell which of these Christian sects knows the truth? I mean besides just taking the side of whichever one won the religious civil war, as Sullivan does…

      IOW, the old ‘trial by combat’ definition. God will make/did make sure the right side wins. There’s nothing like using 14th century logic to justify one’s beliefs!

  28. So the bible is entirely a work of fiction that might have some value in the same way any piece of fiction can.

    So there is as much reason to believe in god as Ewoks.

    I think we are all done here.

    1. Could you kindly point me toward the Ewok temple? My 11-year-old son and I would love to make a pilgrimage, in costume, of course.

  29. “Here we have clear empirical accounts of things that we cannot account for in nature, indeed stories that are told precisely because they defy the laws of nature.”
    Sullivan’s use of the term “empirical” is particularly egregious given his supposed intellectualism because empirical observations, according to an amalgam of multiple definitions in M-W, are based on observation or experience and can be verified by observation or experimentation. We all know how reliable eyewitness accounts are with respect to religion, don’t we? In addition, these accounts aren’t even accurately *atributed*. As for biblical accounts being verifiable through experimentation welll, not so much.
    “And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side. . .”
    Isn’t that convenient?

    1. Hmm… Is Sullivan saying that claims that can be tested empirically are real? Don’t they actually have to pass such an empirical test? Well, I suppose you could categorise claims, viz: verified, thus real (a rather small set, I think); unverified but verifiable, potentially real; unverifiable, unreal but true. But what about claims that are “verifiable, but falsified” — and I think A&E falls here — clearly unreal, but can they still be true?


  30. I also just want to add that this is really depressing and painful. As someone who works in the humanities, it makes me very sad to see someone with such influence and popularity, as a commentator and thinker, often at least somewhat deservedly, offering such “thoughts.” I truly wonder what’s going on in Andrew Sullivan’s head. Does he realize the mental gymnastic going on in order for him to justify his beliefs. And not only is he refusing to be clear–stop using vague language, if by “true” you mean “has some sort of symbolic meaning or lesson,” then just say that instead of trying to be intentionally confusing by defining “truth” and “real” as opposite!–he’s still ignoring history (yes, Andrew Sullivan, for the majority of time, Christians did treat the Bible like the New York Times, the stories in that book, to them, were real, and true, and all the other words you can think of that mean these things literally happened). I think Jerry’s right, if these are the true (per my computer dictionary: “in accordance with fact or reality”) beliefs of Andrew Sullivan, at the very least he needs to stop calling himself a Catholic, since these views are clearly is strong opposition to both mainstream Catholic views, as well as the views of the Church leaders. I can’t tell if it’s that he wants to believe so much that he must have such convoluted beliefs (because he knows that anything less convoluted would be in clear opposition to modern science/reality, not that his convoluted beliefs aren’t in such an opposition, either), or if he truly does have these convoluted, and unique, views. Either way, Sullivan’s personal religion/faith is starting to sound like Deepak Chopra, just meaningless claims about the universe. The more he distances himself from a literalist Bible, especially without telling us how to discern literal truth/reality from metaphorical truth/reality, his religious views, at least as a Catholic/Christian, are going to become less and less relevant. I don’t mind disagreeing with him, it’s just not fun (or productive) if he’s going to intentionally overcomplicate this.

    1. I think Sullivan wants what a lot of faitheists want – to have the beliefs of atheists but still be able to tell their family they haven’t left the faith they were raised in.

      1. But I’m sure his current views, his current form of Catholic faith and all that it entails, are not the same thing as the faith he was raised in. Wiki says his family is Roman Catholic and of Irish descent. Sullivan is extremely vocal about the times when he disagrees with the Catholic Church, so it’s not like this Sophisticated Theology of his is fooling his relatives. I guess he gets to use the same words, “God,” “Church,” etc., and while he doesn’t mean what the average Catholic means when they say them, I guess maybe that lets him off the hook with his family? But still, his disagreements with mainstream Catholicism are very public; it would be odd if his family simply accepted that he believes the same things that they do (and this is all, of course, based on the assumption that his family is (still) Catholic, and that they believe the things that mainstream Catholics believe, and that Sullivan’s disagreements with such views might/could/would/have caused problems). I don’t necessarily mind when people say “this is what I believe, I take it on faith, I have no evidence for it, but it’s what I want to believe.” It bothers me when they try to make it sound as if they have faith/reason/evidence. Religion is faith, Sophisticated Believers, so stop trying to convince us that it’s true, because if that’s your tactic, well, then you’re going to fail. No one here wants to outlaw religion or religious practice, we just wish that those who wish to partake would go do whatever it is they do in a private place. But if they want to talk about their religious beliefs, and to try to argue that those beliefs are logical or the best understanding of reality, the universe, or the meaning of life, then they better get ready to fight a losing battle. I guess Andrew Sullivan’s simply not ready.

        1. “But I’m sure his current views, his current form of Catholic faith and all that it entails, are not the same thing as the faith he was raised in. ”

          No, but he and his family can pretend it’s the same. That’s what he wants.

          1. ‘faith/reason/evidence’: but I recall AS laying down the law a little time ago to some weasel who had questioned his religion, by asserting in bullying smackdown fashion that the RC church didn’t rely on mere faith but had throughout the centuries respected Reason and that therefore his faith was reasonable. Perhaps he had just been reading John Hardon, SJ, on Mariolatry or the Sacred Heart, the latter of which Hardon would always consult or notify before answering the telephone.

  31. “And when the real and the true seem to conflict, I think we need to rely on the true, and leave the real to one side”

    Around here we call that being insane.

    Me, I’ll take the real every time.

    1. So you’re not into astrology? Tarot cards? Crystal balls? Psychic friends? Reiki? The Magic 8 Ball?

      I’m shocked. Shocked!

    2. He still hasn’t provided a way to determine whether or not a claim or story is “true”. Why is his very liberal 21st century “Catholicism” “true” and other types of Christianity or religion are not?

      1. Maybe he thinks more than one are true – again ignoring the catechism and the official teachings of the religion he claims to belong to, which clearly do NOT embrace ecumenism.

        1. Well, I suppose one could create a definition of “true” that include contradictory claims, but then how does someone define “false” in such system? And what good are contradictory truths?

  32. Of course, disavowing the miracles allegedly performed by Jesus also completely undermines any claim that the person in question was a god.

    Virgin birth? Miracle.
    Insemination of a human with “godly” (ie, nonhuman) DNA: Miracle.

    You just can’t get to “god on earth” without a miracle. Period.

    And then there’s the whole resurrection thing. Miracle.

    If the resurrection didn’t happen, then Jesus is just a 1st century crank who ran afowl of the religious and civil authorities. There’s absolutely nothing in his teachings that is unique. Love one another? Rabbi Hillel said it earlier and better.

    So, without miracles, Jesus is not god, but human.

    Ascension of a living (well, undead) human directly into heaven. Miracle.

    Frankly, a WAY better miracle would have been for Jesus to stick around for 2,000 years, letting people fondle his intestines and curing people. But if you have the resurrection, you have to have the ascension in order to explain why the guy never shows up at parties any more to turn water into wine (metaphorically, of course).

    And transubstantiation — each and every time each and every Catholic priest performs mass. Miracle. Says so right in the Catechism, Andrew.

    Disavow miracles and you disavow your religion.

    You know what’s an even bigger miracle? An entire religion popping up in a primitive strife-ridden area that preached universal salvation. Nobody would ever want to go to heaven with all the other gods, would they? After all, only heros and emperors were named gods. Everyone else got Hades. Who would possibly buy into a religion that said everyone could have heaven? Whether or not there was actually a “real” person named Jesus (hint: there most likely wasn’t.)

    Oh wait. That’s not a miracle, either.

    1. An even bigger miracle – after Constantine’s conversion, which among other things provided the nascent religious movement with both a police force and an army, the most contentious of the heretical controversies melted away for good, the canon firmed up quite nicely, and Christianity began its inexorable and rapid march all the way across the globe.

      Why, that just screams miracle, dunnit?

  33. Are things in the Bible “true” because they are in the Bible, or is there still some objective way to measure “truth”? Is there “truth” to the moral necessity of stoning gays? Or is that just a falsehood that got slipped in? Is “truth” just dependent on whether or not some story or claim is compatible with secular 21st century western morality? This makes sense since he appears to define “real” as those claims that do not contradict 21st science.

  34. It almost seems like Sullivan is arguing that the Bible should be approached as a work of literary fiction.

    There’s a name for that approach, Andrew. It starts with “a” and ends with “theism”.

    1. It seems that for Sullivan, “a theism” is infinitely preferable to “atheism”, even if he follows “a theism” that he just makes up on the fly and which doesn’t jibe with what the Catholic overlords would consider legitimate.

  35. All (good) fiction contains truths. Truths about the human condition, about the times we (or the authors) live in, about what matters most in life.

    To which I add: Yeah? So?

    If the Bible’s just a bunch of stories (which it is), then what’s the point of Christianity? The world is full of stories with something powerful or meaningful to tell us. Many talented people craft these stories for a living. It’s not like we’re about to run out of them.

  36. “true” … “real” … two words that, to me, express the same thing

    Without going into the morass how facts connect with observation and evidence, the last is taken as modifier by Coyne later: “if there’s no evidence, then in what sense it is “true”?” I take that to mean that in the absence of evidence we can’t be sure of true or real.

    For myself I can agree with the article here, even though my definition of reality and facts differ.

    – Reality seems to be basic to physics as I have claimed here many times (“constrained reaction on constrained action”), while other observed facts are real as being consistent with such physics. ‘Tainted by reality’, if you will.

    – Facts are as consequence to the ties with observation and theory many-valued, not simply truth values but admitting uncertainty and time dependence, in the extreme case “we don’t know yet”. Unless you are entertaining platonic dualism, seeing we have contingent facts means facts can come into, and go out of, existence as well.*

    * Actually forced on us if we want to have a realistic relativistic quantum theory as well, since then observables does not exist between interactions. (Instead the wavefunction or more specifically fields does.)

  37. I think I’ve determined that Sullivan is a Religious Fictionalist.

    That’s the only thing I can conclude from the fact that he thinks things can be true without being real. Compare to another familiar example.

    (1) “Harry Potter has a scar on his forehead” is true.


    (2) Harry Potter isn’t real.

    The reason this makes some sense is that we are fictionalists about fiction.

    The obvious problem for religion is that there is no reason to take a fiction seriously because there is no reason to care about things being true in this way. We care about what the world is like, what is real. If Jesus didn’t really die for your sins and if “God exists” is true in the same sense that “Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker St.” is true then what is the point of any of this practice.

    Another thing that we are able to do is break out of a fiction. We can say “Harry Potter has a scar on his forehead” is true in the fiction but false in real life, because there is no Harry Potter. Sullivan seems to deny any perspective outside the fiction.

    Lots of people find meaning in fictional works or greater and lesser literary merit. There are plenty of Star Wars fans who attend Star Wars conventions, but even the most fervent Star Wars fans acknowledges that it is a fictional story. What the religious fictionalist would have us do is treat religious claims as fictional but still live as if it’s all real. If I did that with Jane Eyre rather than the Bible, I would be diagnosed as delusional and be given medical help, but that is what Sullivan seems to seriously propose regarding how to be religious.

    1. I’m sure there are a few Star Wars fans who don’t quite grasp that it’s fictional, but we classify them as deluded people who need help; we don’t respect their sincerely held beliefs and wish that our faith was as strong as theirs.

      1. Oh, if only that were the case for all religions.

        well, it will be, I think, someday.

        probably not in my lifetime, but I think, inevitably, as the sheer weight of the successes of science overshadow the “successes” of religion like a redwood tree overshadows the forest floor, and people continue to naturally gravitate towards the thing that actually offers them something tangible, all modern religion will indeed be relegated to the same status as the greek pantheon, if not even less.

    2. “‘Harry Potter has a scar on his forehead’ is true.”

      There’s the according-to operator:

      “According to the story, Harry Potter has a scar on his forehead.”

      This statement is literally true despite the nonexistence of Harry Potter.

      1. Are you claiming that I silently uttered the extra words “according to the story”? I understand that the semantics of fictional claims is complicated, but adding silent words to the utterance doesn’t seem like a methodologically sound way to go about things.

        1. No.
          My point is that “Harry Potter has a scar on his forehead” is literally false because Harry Potter doesn’t exist (and nonexistent persons don’t have any properties), whereas “According to the story, Harry Potter has a scar on his forehead” is literally true.

          1. But cut people some slack, and for most purposes “According to the story” can be assumed.

            On other fora I debate with religious people without wanting to challenge their relgion head-on (answering fools according to their folly, as Solomon may or may not have said), so to salve my scruples I have to keep saying “But Jesus (reportedly) said…”

  38. All this “sophisticated” theology makes attending catholic mass with my family all the more entertaining. lol.

    1. well, at least you have that going for you.

      If you really want to have some fun, have a sit-down with your local clergyman and toss out Andrew’s arguments to him as if they were your own.

      see what kind of reaction you get.

    1. Is it Andrew going after you, or is it you going after Andrew? Or maybe is it both of you having a spirited debate?

      or none of the above?

      Marketplace of ideas, eh?

      So long as you consider that in this marketplace, one thing is like a fresh cantaloupe, and the other like a rotten banana that the seller keeps tossing out for people to step on.

  39. This seems like a good time to give an interesting quote from one of the novels by Jack Vance, the great SF writer.

    From Vance’s “Planet of Adventure” quartet of novels. The characters on board a ship are having a bullshit session over the nature of religion:

    “The man and his religion are one and the same thing. The unknown exists. Each man projects on the blankness the shape of his own particular world-view. He endows his creation with his personal volitions and attitudes. The religious man stating his case is in essence explaining himself. When a fanatic is contradicted he feels a threat to his own existence; he reacts violently.”

    [And the atheist?]

    “He projects no image upon the blank whatsoever. The cosmic mysteries he accepts as things in themselves; he feels no need to hang a more or less human mask upon them. Otherwise, the correlation between a man and the shape into which he molds the unknown for greater ease of manipulation is exact.”

    Thus, when dear Sally Kern whimpers about her fear of gays, she’s really projecting her own persona, what she thinks she would do if she were gay.

    1. RFW, if we are going to do Sci-Fi authors, this may also be a good time to bring up Zelazny’s “Agnostic Prayer.” It would seem to be the perfect prayer to Sullivan’s true-but-not-real version of Jesus:

      “Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.”

  40. There’s another angle, or, at least, another consideration. Who’s writing all this stuff we call “scripture” anyway? How often to we hear the logical fallacy of argument from authority purportedly supporting positions about the “truth or real”-ness of the assertions in the bible. Who’s to say that all, most, or much of it, wasn’t, in fact, forged? Bart Ehrman. Especially in his book, “Forged.”

  41. Yeah, “nonreal truths” made me laugh as well.

    Trying to help the poor guy out, I then assumed that “nonreal truths” are rather like passages in pieces of literature that speak to us as indicative of truths about the human condition (emotionally, morally, or otherwise). But if this is the proper meaning it raises the question of how the “nonreal truths” of religion are any different from those of other forms of literature or art. How are these religious doctrines greater in stature epistemologically? I leave that to the sophisticated theologists. My hunch is I won’t understand their verbiage because my epistemology is too crude.

  42. Andrew sounds like a Gnostic.

    Or, god finds the gaps of science a little too confining and prefers the wide open spaces of Orwellian semantic gaps instead.

  43. If there were multiple universes, would the Magic Bearded Man be king of all of those universes? or just our universe?

    If He’s king of all the universes, can he rule and preside over all of them at the same time or does the Magic Bearded Man go from one universe to the next in order to hear and answer prayers? lol.

    Maybe that’s why prayers don’t work! The magic bearded man is just in another universe and if there are an infinite amount of universes then I guess He’s never coming back because I guess it wouldn’t be fair to the other universes if he came back to ours again without having making his rounds at least once to all of them.


  44. Much of it is neither “true” nor “real.” It’s forged. Bart Ehrman elucidates in his book, “Forged.” He calls it like he sees it, has little patience for equivocators or apologists, and, in the end, takes no prisoners.

  45. The religious blind-spot Andrew has is truly impressive. It’s not as if he doesn’t recognize the silliness of his own argument. He must. We are, after all, getting this obfuscation—this “true” versus “real” gobbledygook—from a man who regularly (and properly) railed against people like Dick Cheney for such language games as re-defining the word “torture” to suit Orwellian arguments. This is kind of the same thing: re-defining words so that you can say reality is not reality.

  46. “He now asserts that none of the miracles happened….”

    What about revelation? Isn’t revelation a telepathic miracle? Yes of course it is. But then if we follow Sullivan no revelation could have “happened” for we would then be encumbered with yet another non-allegorical miracle. Please don’t get him wrong. The bible still remains “true” in a way beyond the grasp of the unbeliever. A mystery has taken the place of a miracle and the unbeliever remains as stubbornly unsophisticated as ever.

    1. Yes, about on the level of any work of fictional literature.

      But, unlike every other piece of literature in existence, this set of stories is so important that we must revisit them every Sunday.

      And that’s how most Christians view the Bible. Right, Andrew? Is that what you’re saying?

  47. “Let us notice, of course, that Sullivan is an outlier in thinking that none of the miracles of the Bible—save, perhaps, that of Jesus—really happened. He’s telling all other Catholics, including the Pope and the Vatican, that they’re just wrong.”

    I think there’s at least one Catholic, i.e. Prof. George Coyne, who would agree with Sullivan. He did an interview with Dawkins where he said the same thing.

    “Here we have clear empirical accounts of things that we cannot account for in nature, indeed stories that are told precisely because they defy the laws of nature.”

    As far as I can tell, “miracles” don’t really defy or break the laws of nature. They just involve things we cannot possibly explain/do with our current understanding of nature. I could for example imagine an alien race with an advanced technology that is able to split a sea or bring a corpse back to life after three days.

    1. A miracle in the supernaturalistic sense is an event which couldn’t have been brought about by the powers of nature alone. That is, miracles are physically impossible events.

      1. “That is, miracles are physically impossible events.”

        Are there claimed “miracles” you could point to that are “physically impossible”? I don’t mean impossible for us to achieve at present, but impossible no matter the level of technology.

        1. NO. None of the miracles are “impossible”.

          They’re STUPID.

          The amount of power inherent in the “miracles” and the uses to which that power was allegedly put to is what damns the consigns the miracles to the fiction aisle.

          Imagine: You have the power of nuclear fusion in your brain. At a mere glance, you can change the elemental structure of molecules without so much as breaking a sweat. And what do you do with that unimaginable power?

          You change water into wine.

          Seriously. If that’s not the most egregiously idiotic way to use that kind of power, I don’t know what is.

          Every single miracle is like that. Unimaginable power used in unbelievably trivial ways.

          Why, it’s almost as if the miracles were conceived by a First Century primitive who had no understanding whatsoever of the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, or medicine. …

          Oh wait.

          1. Thank you for agreeing that “miracles” would not be physically impossible, i.e. do not “break the laws of nature”.
            I would agree with you that they’re stupid, i.e. bear the hallmarks of the people who came up with them.
            I guess, in response to the triviality of the miracles, a Christian who really believes in them would argue that all that was needed was to convince the people of that time in order to get the religion off the ground.

  48. Sullivan:

    “Some things, most things, we experience as real, like a Happy Meal or a bike accident (yes, I wiped out badly on Sunday)

    aha! The extreme cognitive dissonance he is experiencing is distracting him to the point where careless errors are leading to serious accidents!

    I’ll take that as evidence that religion is bad for your health.


  49. What I want to know is:

    Where is Ken Miller in all of this?

    He’s Catholic.

    so, why isn’t he either yelling at Jerry or Andrew?


    Please go see if you can goad Miller into jumping in on this action?

    I think you can more than take on two Catholics who share a predilection for mushy-thinking when it comes to their professed religion.

    besides, Andrew is getting boring on his own.

    Miller would add new spice to the game.

    maybe even some Quantum Woo!

  50. A truth is a true proposition (statement/declarative sentence), and the word “fact” is used either synonymously with “truth” or to refer to that which is represented by a true proposition, i.e. an actual (real), obtaining state of affairs.

    Sometimes, “fact” is used in the sense of “known fact/truth” (= “given piece of information”), but in the general philosophical sense being known isn’t an essential part of the concept of a truth/fact so that one can consistently speak of unknown truths/facts.

  51. I suspect hat you start from a deep intuitive or mystical sense (belief) that your faith is real. Even after you peel away the scaffolding (evidence for your faith), the faith itself remains. So you continue to embrace the idea of god entering the world, not because evidence supports it, but because, however you got to your belief, and even if those reasons are no longer valid, the belief has become a sort of “ground of being.”

    We all have these beliefs, and we are only sometimes open to rethinking them. This is especially true when the belief is part of “sacred truth” in the sense that Jonathan Haidt uses it. So real means something for which evidence can be produced, demonstrating that a thing actually exists or that some thing actually occurred in history, while true includes beliefs which we still hold on to, even after we’ve come to see they are no longer supported by the facts.

    1. I suspect hat you start from a deep intuitive or mystical sense (belief) that your faith is real.

      but… nobody actually starts with that.

      1. I suspect this happens more often than not – this is the substance of most “new age” faiths, right? It it all intuition and emotion.

        But I do suspect that most sophisticated theologians started with a more literal faith, and then, when they came to see the actual nature of the evidence for faith, took the metaphor route (as opposed to the atheist route), retaining faith but not belief. This is one reason why liberal religions tend to not grow- it is hard to generate belief using metaphors alone.

          1. nobody ever starts with a concept of faith; this is introduced to them by others to reinforce particular belief structures.

            this is what I meant; nobody really starts with religious concepts in mind, though of course we all start by applying deductive reasoning and experience (which is all “intuition” is) to things.

          2. Well, I like the article, and think it makes my point. We reach intuitive, culturally validated conclusions. Even when presented with evidence that our beliefs are wrong, we resist the evidence. In the case of sophisticated theologians, we grant the evidence (the bible is factually inacurate), but retain the belief (god entered the world in Jesus).

      2. The claim that “mystical apprehension” or “mystical intuition” is a source of knowledge sui generis cannot be substantiated.

        1. I never said it was. But people do in fact, base their beliefs on emotional or intuitive experiences, and they tend to interpret those experiences using paradigms prevalent in their culture. Often, the emotional and social reinforcement given to these experiences provides an effective buffer against the irrationality of their faith.

          Given this powerfully reinforced faith, it is easy for us to accept things as true, even if they cannot be proved as real. Real may even provide roadblocks to faith, as it constrains what form faith can take. You don’t have to spend much time with the adherents of various faiths to realize that the lack of any facts to support a claim simply results in a robust range of beliefs (interpretations) around that claim.

          1. Greg, can you do us a favor and define what you mean by “intuitive experience”?

            I think that would be helpful in trying to understand what you are saying here.

            1. As the article you linked to above notes, we all have “common sense” ideas about how the world works, and receive ideas about the world from authority figures that reinforce many of these ideas. On top of this, many of is have experiences that are difficult to explain- coincidence, unexplained occurrences, auditory or visual hallucinations – that we assign to supernatural agency, usually in accoramce with beliefs popular In our culture. These beliefs (the sound of footsteps on the stairs and the tingly feeling I just had was a ghost, the unexpected gift of money was god answering my prayer) provide robust support for faith, even when we learn that the facts of the belief system we embrace are disprooven.

              This is not limited to religious belief. Social and political beliefs have a similar arc.

  52. Contemporary theology is so bloody pathetic and vacuous, and reading “sophisticated” theological books is virtually the definition of “waste of time”! 🙁

  53. I know you didn’t literally mean “Orwell would have been delighted”, but I get the picture: Sullivan surpasses even O’Brien, Orwell’s fictional character who tortured Winston Smith, in his bizarre, twisted, “doublethink.” It’s disturbing that human minds that work this way even exist.

  54. You might want to watch this guy if he ever swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in a court of law. He apparently has a different understanding of what truth is.

    I find it somewhat appropriate that the oldest surviving piece of the New Testament is a small scrap of the Gospel of John: “Pilot said to him, ‘What is truth?'” (alternate translation “What is the truth?”)

    If AS accepts that the Bible is largely not factual, especially in regards to the miraculous accounts, from where does the Bible derive its truthiness? Is it just the collective truths of various authors? If so, what sets its truth apart from and above any other sources of truth? Are not the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, and Dianetics as equally true as the Bible, and if not, why not? Which truth is most true and why?

    Of course the red herring about “true” is a dodge to avoid answering the original intent of the question: How does one determine what is factual from what is otherwise in the Bible? (What actually happened, and what is made up for truthiness sake?)

  55. The Catholic Church’s embrace of evolution (which is amended to include divine tinkering) is at odds with monogenism and Original Sin.

    Its embrace of ecumenism extends to the pope stating that other Christian churches are defective, and making very public encroachments on the Anglicans.

    In summation its embrace on these matters is about as firm as its embrace on truth.

  56. “… some things described in the Bible are true—but only those few historical claims that can be authenticated …”

    The last time I checked, the number of validated historical claims was 0. There are some names of real people and real places, but times are wrong, claimed events never happened, etc. It’s like claiming the movie “Baron Munchausen” was historical fact simply because there really was a baron titled Munchausen.

    1. The last time I checked, the number of validated historical claims was 0.

      pretty sure it’s higher than that.

      but it IS looking like it’s weighed heavily towards invalidated rather than validated.

      1. Well, there really was an Augustus, a Quirinius, a Pilot…at least those characters are real.

        Kind of like General Sherman in “Gone With The Wind”, though. One does not then conclude that Rhett Butler was either “real” or “true”.

  57. Eesh.

    Although the argument is fascinating, I’m struck by the compete absurdity of it.

    I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone work as hard as Sullivan has to slice this particular banana.

    If any single bit of the Jesus stuff Sullivan so desperately needs to believe is true, were, in fact, true, would it be necessary for Sullivan to pound his brain to paste like this?

    True vs. real? What kind of intellectual integrity is this?

  58. “he’s a coward who wants to have his Catholicism but look sophisticated, too”

    HIS Catholicism, not the Pope’s Catholicisim, in which homosexuality is an “objective moral disorder”. So is Catholicism like New Age reality, everybody has their own?

    (The Rugby World Cup is on here in New Zealand, with our National Anthem sung – in Maori then Englis and simultaneously in NZSL – before every game in which we play; still there so far. The English version, but not, mercifully the Maori or NZSL, begins “God of Nations, at Thy feet…” So after you’ve sorted out Adam and Eve and the apple, does God have feet? Really or truly, Andrew?)

  59. Again I am attempting here to introduce the idea of “anosognosia” to the discussion. This phenomenon has been documented to have occurred with people who have suffered strokes, injuries, etc., but I think it is a category such as autism…we all have a degree of anosognosia, I believe, but some people simply have a …. let’s describe it as a ‘pronounced case.’ Through religious practice, they have produced an internal brain injury, resulting in anosognosia.
    Gerald Edelman, in his “Bright Air,Brilliant Fire” book (1992) describes a reported case of anosognosia. In summary, the patient denied the existence of his own hand. When the patient was asked to explain his own hand, held between the hands of the interviewer, the patient said, “Well, every arm has a hand. And since you have three arms, that hand is yours, not mine.”

    Such are the denials of these “truth/fact” people.

  60. “[T]he Catholic church has come to embrace evolution[.]” (Sullivan)

    What they have come to embrace reluctantly is only the natural evolution of biological bodies, of organisms, since the still believe in directly, supernaturally God-made human souls.

  61. It is true that Spiderman’s uncle was named Ben, but neither Spiderman nor Uncle Ben are real. Likewise, it is true that God has a Son named Jesus, but neither God nor Jesus are real.

    1. No, “Spiderman’s uncle is named Ben” is false because Spiderman and Ben are nonexistent persons. But the following statement is true: “According to the Spiderman story, Spiderman’s uncle is named Ben.”

  62. Andrew is not the only one to make this type of distinction. Nelson Goodman, for instance, pointed out that it is possible for something to be metaphorically true, but literally false. An example he gave was, “this lake is a blue sapphire”. Various combinations of literal and metaphorical truth are possible. Science is concerned with literal truth. Art is concerned more with metaphorical truth. Both offer something of value, and I think we can and should stretch the definition of “to know” to include the discoveries of both.

    So, the problem is maybe not that Andrew tries to claim an important role for the metaphorical truth of Biblical narrative. The problem is that he fails to address whether metaphorical truth alone is sufficient to support the religious edifice. One could take the entire Bible as a work of literature, that dispenses metaphorically true statements about the human condition, in the manner of all great literature. One might read many of the stories in the Bible as metaphorical truths about, for instance, what it means to be descended with modification from an animal whose survival on the African Savannah depended on both intra-group co-operation and the capacity for violence. We write poetry and piano sonatas, and act altruistically, sometimes, but we also still sometimes define and kill the other.

    To sign on to the broader Christian baggage, however, it seems necessary to accept certain biblical propositions as more than merely metaphorically true. At an absolute minimum these would seem to be 1) that god exists; 2) that god created the universe; 3) that god cares daily about his creation; 4) that humans occupy a special place in the creation; 5) that humans have a choice between salvation by faith, and something else; and 6) that the consequences of this choice will play out in some way in a life after death.

    Nothing else in the Bible has to be literally true for “christianity” to be logically possible as something other than religion, say as one moral philosophy among others. Adam and Eve, the talking snake, the miracles, and even maybe the crucifixion itself could all, perfectly reasonably, be read as metaphors illuminating the concept of the “good”.

    But, if any of the above propositions is treated as mere metaphor, then the grounds must immediately dissolve for being a “Christian” in the religious sense. As I see it, therefore, the problem for Andrew is that if he wishes to be a religious “Christian”, he is forced to accept at least these propositions as literal truth claims; and then, to any rational audience, they must be defended with evidence. And there isn’t any that he can offer.

    So, it seems that Andrew’s necessarily literal, as opposed to metaphorical, “truths” quickly become Nietsche’s truths: “illusions whose illusionary nature has been forgotten, metaphors that have been used up, and have lost their imprint, and that now operate as mere metal, no longer as coins”.

    If there is a category mistake at work here, it would seem to be Andrew’s mistake.

  63. Funny, I went to Sullivan’s site to find his latest article (having missed Jerry’s link in his post above), and for a moment thought Sullivan had seen the error of his ways with a post entitled, “How Long Can Fantasy Remain Mainstream?”

    It was about Game Of Thrones, though.

  64. Sullivan: and so scream that these are ways to express something inexpressible—God’s entrance into human history as a human being.

    And yet they express this as a concrete event – why did they not indulge in the deepities that modern “sophisticated” theologians use?

    I think we can safely say that quantum mechanics (for example) was something inexpressible to the authors of the Gospels, and yet we’ve made progress in expressing this concept.
    Theologians seem to have gone into reverse – they offer even less of an explanation than their forebears.

  65. The whole thing is about recognizing that the Adam and Eve story is now known to be untrue and this is really going to screw up the established dogma. Who needs Jesus anymore?
    No ‘Original Sin’ to expiate…no Jesus

  66. I am the writer of the quote listed as “Sullivan’s reader.” Jerry quotes me partially, cherry-picking that portion of my comment that supports the argument that Sullivan is an idiot, and removing the rest. This is intellectually disingenuous. A defense that the mental contortions of religious believers is equally mentally disingenuous does not mean that selectively editing what someone wrote in order to win an argument is not disingenuous.

    I am not a Christian. I blog a lot about belief and atheism. While personally a theist, I feel at home among atheists and agnostics as long as they are not antitheist, and therefore hostile to my personal practice. I regard the story of existence from the Big Bang, through the formation of the sun and the earth, through the evolution of life on earth and the emergence of humanity to be a Creation Story more profound than that in the Bible. I have a math and science education, and my work is in medical software. I have never read this blog previous to someone notifying me that I got quoted here. experiences, and that the pure philosophical ex

    I place value in spiritual progression, which is hard to define. I would regard our consciousnesses as evolving over time, and just as vertebrates would be unimaginable in a world of blue-green algae, the further scope of higher consciousness is unimaginable to those who dwell in the righteous indignation of bivalent value systems (us vs. them). If you asked a paleolithic hunter-gatherer ten millennia ago to describe a skyscraper, they would have trouble doing so. Similarly, humans have always had trouble describing the future evolution of consciousness. That narrative is deeply flawed, and has often led to brutal ideological wars. At my current level of understanding, it makes subjective sense for me to work with the God metaphor in analyzing the trajectory of consciousness, both personal and global. I do not insist that anyone else does, except insofar as to show how it has been useful to me. The Christian metaphor does not make sense to me, and I don’t use it. I often find in conversations with antitheists that they argue with my religious beliefs as if they were Christian, projecting Christian belief onto my belief as if Christianity were the only possible theism. I think that is sloppy.

    Here is my original quote: “As my friend, Dr. James Tresner says, there is a difference between truth and fact, and fundamentalism and fanaticism stems from a confusion between the two. Evolution is a fact. The story of the Fall is true. Interestingly, the Fall is treated very differently by Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who each have their own truth about the Fall. Religious truths can differ from poetical truths, but both truths resonate in the person who contemplates the truth in question. The legends of Hamlet, Luke Skywalker, and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker are true, even though none of them are factual (although the existence of Amleth of Denmark was most likely a fact, if Saxo Grammaticus is to be believed). Forcing the Fall to be factual is crazy, and makes for craziness. When believers try to force fact to succumb to truth, or force truth to succumb to fact, they can leave a trail of blood in their wake.

    The sign of a civilized person is to allow others to have different truths than themselves, and to respect the truths of others, even when they differ from their own, especially when that respect is reciprocated.

    Ignorance is ignorance of fact. A Pashtun soldier who does not know how to count to ten is ignorant. Superstition is ignorance of truth. People who think their Creator created their daughters with flawed genitalia that require clitorectomies or worse in order to be presentable are superstitious. Fanaticism is confusing the two and insisting that others do as well. David Barton is a fanatic, as was Lenin. Notice that the fundamentalist and the militant Atheist both confuse truth with fact, the fundamentalist by insisting that truth overwhelm fact, and the militant Atheist by insisting that fact overwhelm truth. Neither, usually, have solid epistemological grasp of truth or fact.”

    Jerry’s omissions in quoting me are striking.

    1. I stand by what I said about this quote. The sign of rational person is not to allow people to have “different truths than themselves” [sic], especially when those people try to force those different truths on other people. This is precisely what is going on in Mississippi tomorrow, when people who believe in the “truth” of a soul are going to redefine a fertilized egg as a person.

      1. How exactly does one “not…allow people to have ‘different truths that themselves'”? That process is often violent. My argument is that both the fundamentalist and the antitheist strive to force their version of truth on everyone else, which is what makes them both dangerous, and both state-sponsored fundamentalism and state-sponsored antitheism (like in Albania under Hoxha) have been violent.

        The idea that you are going to somehow not allow me to have a truth different from your truth worries me. It implies upcoming violence, since you have not at present managed to impose your truth upon me by gentle debate.

        The fact that many religions with state power have imposed their truth on others by violence does not mean that antitheists with state power have not done the same. I disavow both. It seems that I am arguing for allowing for differences of perception and you are not. I have studied logic and mathematics, and I know that there are multivalent logics with many types of truth, and I know that there are hyperspatial geometries as well and infinite-dimensional geometries, and that limiting consciousness to three dimensions and bivalent logic is at best counter-productive and at worst a kind of prison.

        Without defending Sullivan (who is a big boy and can defend himself), it is curious that the commenters on this blog seem to regard him as a vicious fanatic. If you do not understand the difference between Sullivan and the adherents of the Personhood movement, then you might be failing to take in sufficient data to make rational assessments.

        1. Are you deliberately misunderstanding so you can have the pleasure of bashing Mr. Coyne? I’m sure, and you must know, that he used the word “allow” in the sense of not allowing it to go unchallenged in the public discourse, in the sense of no longer allowing the misguided truth claims of religion to assume the mantle of authority without being exposed.

          I can’t read his mind, but I read his blog, and I know that he believes in the first amendment, and that he is no totalitarian or advocate of state sponsored mind control or censorship.

          And you dared to use the term intellectually dishonest! Physician heal thyself.

    2. I think you (47th_problem_euclid) are torturing the English language in order to maintain your belief in a deity.

      Your personal experience of “resonance” of fiction nor more establishes truth of the “Fall” story than the wonderful music of Puccini’s Turandot (which resonates greatly with me) demonstrate the truth of the absurd story found in that opera’s libretto.

    3. 47th_problem_euclid: It’s very easy to toss about the term “intellectual dishonesty”. The word truth has different meanings, and when you are shifting between them without specifying what you mean, that is intellectually dishonest, or else intellectually confused.

      There is no evidence that the Fall is “true” in the sense of having actually happened, or being in accord with fact or reality. The same is true of Luke Skywalker. To choose to believe these things are true in this sense of the word don’t make them true. It makes the believer deluded.

      There is also “truth” in the sense of being true to one’s ideals or history, in the sense of maintaining fidelity to some norm. We see this sense in expressions like “true bullshit” and “true nonsense” or “true to form”.

      One might feel that narratives have “truth” if they provide a symbolic framework that one finds useful in thinking about the world, and it may even provide some guidance in making decisions or coping emotionally with real events.

      But this symbolic “truth” is purely subjective, and is a creation of the human mind, and has nothing to do with the scientific notion of truth, which means to be in accord with fact and reality, which means that it exists outside of your head, independent of what you think, and can be observed by anyone else who makes the effort required to see or measure it.

      1. By the way, I read Sullivan daily, and I like him. I just think he’s still clinging to inherited beliefs about God and Christianity because they are important to him emotionally.

        I don’t think his beliefs are true though. Not in the sense that most people actually mean when they say true, which means in accord with fact and reality, rather than a subjective creation of the human imagination.

      2. I agree with everything you have written in this reply, Jeff. Luke Skywalker is a fictional character written by a person who studied comparative mythology and wanted to create a fictional character akin to “the hero with a thousand faces”, a concept described by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. He took the plots of kung-fu movies, the life of the Buddha, various Grail legends, and shaped them into a modern-day myth. Today, Jediism is an upcoming new religious movement (often but not always tounge-in-cheek). But how many people have had their lives shaped and core values cemented by watching the original Star Wars trilogy? I would say at least a billion people. I have friends who throw up a little in their mouths at the mention of God who talk about The Force all the time.

        1. Yes, and there are several billion who believe that God or Allah loves them.

          Do you think this makes it true in the sense that it really exists outside of the symbolic linguistic framework and the corresponding emotional responses in these people’s minds?

          Do you think this makes the narratives believed by these billions as true in the same sense that stars and black holes and atoms are true and real?

          It is something obvious about the human mind and the culture it creates that people can invest narratives with tremendous amounts of meaning and emotional power.

          The only thing atheists object to is that people tend to slip from this subjective meaning and emotional power into believing these things actually exist outside of human subjectivity.

          1. Quantum mechanics, in the Copenhagen interpretation, suggests that the material world is inextricable from consciousness and perception. I have made a semantic distinction between “true” and “real”. I have tried to be consistent in the usage of each, but if I am shown where I have been inconsistent, I will accept this and correct it. You ask: “Do you think this makes the narratives believed by these billions as true in the same sense that stars and black holes and atoms are true and real?”

            I have already stated that I do not. Truth and reality are not entirely congruent with each other. My construct of the relationship between reality and truth is fairly similar to Sir Roger Penrose’s in “The Road to Reality”. Phenomenological reality is interpreted by the senses, measured by instruments, and modeled by physical laws created by the mind. The mind strives towards truth, but phenomena are real. Reality ultimately cannot be directly experienced: our perceptions kick in at least 1/30 of a second after any given event, and are otherwise perceptible to us only through instruments. The senses are ultimately objective, although we can be fairly scrupulous about making our measurements accurate. Theory and physical law is a mental construct (and thus closer to truth) that seeks to find validation through objective measurement. We can measure the trajectory of a photon with great accuracy. We can affix EEG devices to a person who is meditating and monitor brain activity, but cannot yet accurately map what their brain is doing. This is where phenomenological epistemology fails. At this stage of human evolution (both biological and cultural), we have huge gaps in our understanding. Atheism is a reasonable hypotheses, especially since belief in Deity is preposterous. I do not find that my understanding of truth coheres without axiomatic theism, but I understand that axiomatic theism is at least as problematic as the axiom of choice.

            I am convinced that consciousness has a theocentric element, and this accounts for the ubiquity of theism. I have no interest of convincing anyone else of this, especially not against their wills. I merely want to be left to pursue this hypothesis without hostile interference. Similarly, I want atheists to be left to pursue their hypothesis without hostile interference.

            1. Quantum mechanics, in the Copenhagen interpretation, suggests that the material world is inextricable from consciousness and perception.

              No, it doesn’t.

            2. Your first sentence is based on a misconception. This is pop-physics that wishful thinkers seize upon to try to justify all kinds of claims about consciousness. To quote, you wrote: “Quantum mechanics, in the Copenhagen interpretation, suggests that the material world is inextricable from consciousness and perception”.

              The mistake here is to confuse the fact that “observation” changes the quantum state, with the idea that human thought somehow has a physical effect. The word “observe” in this context is to be taken as a figurative representation of physical techniques of measurement.

              In this context, “observation” means firing a particle at the thing you are “observing”, and “seeing” what happens (by reading a counter on some kind of electronic sensor, for example). By trying to determine either the time or place of something, or the energy or momentum of something, you have an effect on the system you observe, but you don’t do that with your mind. You do it with tiny physical entities known as electrons, or protons or photons or something else physical.

              So your idea about consciousness and the material being woven together is not science, nor is it true, it is Deepak Chopra-style mystification and mythology that benefits from a shallow patina of science-esque pseudo-legitimacy.

              There is nothing in quantum mechanics or any other branch of science that says you can change or effect material reality with your thoughts.

              Atheists believe, because of mountains of evidence, that consciousness is produced by electro-chemical reactions in our brain. There is no known science, no radiation or other projection of mass or energy caused by thought that can possibly effect the state of matter or energy outside of your skull.

              Think about what happens when you get drunk, or are put under anesthesia, or are knocked unconscious, or sleep without dreaming. If there is some kind of mind/body duality, if the mind can exist outside of the physical activity of the brain, why would this biological change to your body effect your mind so? If you also consider carefully the changes to consciousness that are caused by brain injuries and diseases, it becomes impossible to believe that the mind (or soul) can exist outside of or without the material body.

              So yes, human consciousness is a marvel, as is language, narrative, emotion, imagination, memory, reason, humor, irony, meaning, and all of the other subjective qualities of our experience. But it is not derived from some distant magical source. It is the activity of the brain, which makes it even more remarkable and seemingly fantastic.

              It seems you are still striving to integrate your consciousness and emotional experience with things outside your skull, i.e. you are blurring the subjective and the objective, in ways that are simply another layer of the wonderful imaginative story telling our linguistic cognitive processes are capable of.

        2. But how many people have had their lives shaped and core values cemented by watching the original Star Wars trilogy?

          But so what? The fact of being affected by things in one’s environment is not confirmation in any reasonable sense of “truth”. I can be affected by someone’s lie. Does that make the lie true?

        3. I have friends who throw up a little in their mouths at the mention of God who talk about The Force all the time.

          If your friends think that the Force is ‘real’ or ‘true’, they are delusional, even if they don’t think Yoda’s instruction of young Luke Skywalker is necessarily a ‘fact’.

  67. What I understood this as, is that reality is the informative, empirically factual world, and truth is the moral truth or an idea that influences virtuous behavior. In this way, Christianity isn’t factual, but it’s a system of beliefs and ideas that inspire a person to act decently and be happy about doing so.

    Just as Plato said, if we have art in society, we should only permit the arts that encourage us to be virtuous. So worship music praising the supreme idea (God), movies that move us to be good, etc. The ideas in Christianity give us moral patriarchs that all people strive to emulate. It also teaches in a way that should lead to a life where we can universally love all and be content with a very simple way of living; bread, water, and your bible. It is a form of reasonable delusion because you see its fantasy, but it motivates more virtuous behavior than the sober idea that there is no God and whatever I think is good is good. Without the idea of God and the idea of immortality of the soul, there cannot be absolute morality. In which cause anything is permissible as fyodor doestovesky put it in the brothers karamazov.

    As Chester said, “we can live without non-fiction, we cannot live without fiction”. May peace and love find you. Christianity is morally true, who cares about factual information? If you really care so much about facts read the phone book or the dictionary, try laying down your life for the love of math; become a mathematic martyr lol you see that these ideas give purpose and life, and ideas have consequences! Europe has fallen into immoral ways and look at them? Look at the world! Nihilism, atheism, and moral relativism are ideas and systems of thought that ruin lives! If you want to be happy, contemplate morally true ideas. God bless

    1. Erm…have you ever actually read the Bible?

      All the murder and mayhem and rape and warfare and pillaging and genocide and what-not, expressly at the command of YHWH and with his approval before and after, carried out by his most respected lieutenants? And Jesus! Commandments to kill all non-Christians as he himself will do come Armageddon, for he brings not peace but a sword. And love only him, for to love another over him is to bring his eternal wrath upon you as he came to set father against son, mother against daughter, and rip families asunder.

      Fuck that shit. The world can’t afford to have people take seriously that type of violent degenerate pornographic filth. That’s what’s gotten us into this mess, and only calm and rational analysis of objective observations have ever even given a hint of being a viable solution.

      As Chester said, we can live without non-fiction, we cannot live without fiction.

      May I suggest an experiment? It is not a fiction that unsupported bodies in proximity to the Earth accelerate towards the center of the Earth at approximately ten meters per second per second, ignoring aerodynamic and other effects. It is a fiction that, if you truly believe, you can spread your wings and fly. So, if you really believe that childish nonsense from Chester, you can climb the tallest cliff you can find and see whether you can live without the non-fiction of Newtonian gravity, or if you need the fantastic fiction of naked human flight in order to truly live.

      Or, you could just go to the local used car dealer and see if your faith in faith is sufficient to let those scam artists take you for the same ride your priests have, or if maybe you’re something of an evidentiary rationalist after all and you have your own mechanic help you check the transmission for sawdust.



Leave a Reply