Quote of the day: Walter Kaufmann on the gerrymandering of theologians

January 17, 2013 • 1:23 pm

I am repeatedly told—as have all of us sympathetic to New Atheism—that we are not engaging with the “very best” of theological thought, the so-called “Sophisticated Theology™” (I notice that the term now has a nice RationalWiki entry, and I will greedily claim credit for the trademarked phrase).  Instead of dealing with Kierkegaard, Tillich, or (God forbid) Plantinga and Aquinas, we are said to caricature religion, taking it to be the faith of fundamentalist yahoos or extremist Muslims. Modern religion, we’re told, is not closely tied to any form of literalism. In fact, just today I was accused by a colleague of making that mistake. I gladly accept the charge, since most believers are theists and therefore, at least to some extent, literalists.

As Sophisticated Theologian™ John Polkinghorne said, “I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection of stories which motive an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorange in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.” This is merely a modern restatement of Paul (1 Corinthians 15:13-14): “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

Such criticisms of New Atheists also neglect the fact that, at least in America, the vast majority of Christians continue to embrace a faith that rests solidly on belief in Satan, Heaven, Hell, the divinity of Jesus, and the Resurrection.  Islam has its own faith claims, and I doubt that many Muslims see Allah as an ineffable Ground of Being. And, of course, even Sophisticated Theologians™ like Plantinga believe in the Resurrection and the notion that Jesus was the son of God.

The argument that “sophisticated” religion is that brand of religion free of epistemic claims fails to acknowledge that no brand of religion knows more about God than any other; ergo “sophistication” rests not on more advanced knowledge, but on the ability to use fancier words or gain affiliation with a university.  In what sense is Tillich more “sophisticated” than William Lane Craig? Does Tillich know more about God than does Craig? I don’t think so.

But I fulminate—as I’m wont to do with faced with accommodationists or apologists who accuse us of ignoring Sophisticated Theology™, as if that represents mainstream religion.  If you read Sophisticated Theology™ as Walter Kaufmann did, you’ll see that it is a pile of garbage, steaming away in a dump of intellectual dishonesty. Its advocates make things up exactly like Less Sophisticated Theologians, but, as Kaufmann notes, they try to have their cake and eat it too, striving to simultaneously satisfy both semi-literalists and more sophisticated believers. Kaufmann has no love for people like Kierkegaard.

I’ve just finished Kaufmann’s great book Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Here’s his take on the cherry-picking that characterizes modern theology (p. 157).

56. Gerrymandering.  This is a political term, but unfortunately, politicians have no monopoly on dividing districts in an unnatural and unfair way to give one party an advantage over its opponent. Many theologians are masters of this art. Out of the New Testament they pick appropriate verses and connect them to fashion an intellectual and moral self-portrait which they solemnly call “the message of the New Testament” or “the Christian view”; and out of other Scriptures they care all kinds of inferior straw men.

Theologians do not just do this incidentally: this is theology. Doing theology is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in which the verses of Scripture are the pieces: the finished picture is prescribed by a denomination, with a certain latitude allowed. What makes the game so pointless is that you do not have to use all the pieces, and that the pieces that do not fit may be reshaped after pronouncing the words “this means.” This is called exegesis.

I love Kaufmann’s concision and dry wit.

Atheist cartoon

98 thoughts on “Quote of the day: Walter Kaufmann on the gerrymandering of theologians

  1. lol. I wonder which of these sophisticated theologians take gravity as a methaphor.

    In their methods of analyses, would gravity then be the process by which Mother Earth is continually trying to be close to us, her inhabitants? Would that be the metaphorical version of gravity lolz.

    1. You don’t hear about any sophisticated theologians stepping out of a window on the 10th floor of a building.

      I guess they just lack the courage of their convictions.

        1. Except that until the moment they died, they thought they wouldn’t, so they never found out.

          (Unless they decided they were dying because they’d lacked sufficient faith – in which case they’d become even more devout until they died.)

  2. What makes the game so pointless is that you do not have to use all the pieces, and that the pieces that do not fit may be reshaped after pronouncing the words “this means.

    When theists are told this, they accuse atheists of cherry picking while this is what they have done. They say the OT is superceded by the NT but the two still appear in the same book

      1. I enjoy when I am told “but that was the old testament” because then their deity can be shown to be uttering moral imperatives that are merely relative to the time. They do hate being told that truth is really only relative. So much for an unchanging god whose truths are “eternal”, until further notice.

        1. Hebrews 13:8 — Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.

          Malachi 3:6 — For I am the Lord, I change not.”

          James 1:17 — Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

          They hate when you can quote scripture at them to prove them wrong.

  3. The only thing that makes an ineffable “ground of being” less ridiculous than an anthropomorphic, interventionist god is that it is more vaguely defined.

  4. “The truth is that male religious leaders have had an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.” – Jimmy Carter See: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/losing-my-religion-for-equality-20090714-dk0v.html

    1. And your point is? Are you endorsing Carter’s claim that you quote here? I think it’s nonsense. The Bible is profoundly sexist. It most definitely subjugates women. This isn’t terribly surprising, since it’s the product of a profoundly sexist 2,000-year-old culture. I’m pretty sure the same goes for the Koran, although I’m not as familiar with that book.

      1. Carter’s point is that you can spin the Bible’s treatment of women both ways (you may not agree – that’s fine but beside the point), and historically the churchMEN have spun it to disadvantage women. It’s rare to see this kind of criticism of religion by a public figure. We need more of it.

        1. You can “spin” anything to mean anything if you try hard enough. But the idea that the Bible’s treatment of women is somehow neutral and it’s just a matter of what “spin” you put on it is ridiculous, in my view. Women are portrayed as subordinate to men right from the beginning, in the Genesis creation story, and it goes downhill from there.

              1. I’m an atheist, but I’d just like to point out another indication that it;s all in the exegesis.

                Although Judaism uses the same, or almost the same book as the Old Testament of the Christians, it is interesting to note that the idea of original sin is really a Christian one.

                Despite using the same (or very similar) texts, in Judaism the standard interpretation of the Fall of Man is not that is was Woman’s fault.

              2. @ Charlie Marlie:

                So what was it, then? Just disobedience on the part of both A & E? And how is Fall of Man described?

  5. Yeah, I wonder if Theology is compatible with religion. Maybe some sociologist should interview theologists and see if their views can be harmonized with religion (i.e., “religion” as it is actually practiced in the US). Think the Templeton foundation would fund that study?

  6. I like this quote by Jean Meslier, a french priest that lived in the 17th and early 18th centuries: “[theology is]but ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system.”

  7. When someone applying ‘sophisticated theology’ can demonstrate either how they know their interpretation is correct – or, conversely, admit how they’d know if they were wrong – then I might take the endeavour seriously.

    I’ve seen a few interesting handwaves over the years; a guy named heddle always used to talk about the bible having been written with an ‘intelligent reading’ in mind, yet he was never able to demonstrate what defined ‘intelligent’ in this instance – well, other than ‘comes to the same conlcusions as I do’.

    What I started calling the ‘genre defence’ is another good one – you can cherry pick your desired meaning from the text and defend it by saying it was written in a genre that explained that interpretation – i.e. anything that hasn’t so far been debunked by science is written in a genre that’s meant to be taken literally , while anything they want to distance themselves from is written in a genre that’s meant to be taken metaphorically as one sees fit.

    What I found fascinating is how often these genre shifts seem to occur mid-sentence…

    1. I actually have an idea of how to measure how good or bad an interpretation is — basically, do what you’d do if you were interpreting Kant or Seneca — but going into the details on that might be a bit long. Fortunately, talking about determining metaphors should be a bit shorter, and it’s basically this:

      1) Would the section fulfill its role in the work if it was a metaphor?
      2) Could it be taken literally?

      Obviously, if a section could be literally true but would work even if it wasn’t, we don’t really need to worry about whether it is literal or not, so that’s where 2 comes in; we worry about it when we do start to think that it couldn’t have happened literally.

      Now, 1 implies that there are some things in the Bible that have to be taken literally, but that some of them don’t. As an example, I take the creation story as a metaphor because a) in context, it is highly unlikely that what we are supposed to come away with from that story is the literal creation of the universe, but more notions that God is the creator and the moral issues around the Fall and b) it seems that it can’t be taken literally and remain true.

      Note, BTW, that 2 does NOT imply that if you haven’t proven it false it is meant to be taken literally, as for example the parables are clearly not meant to be taken literally. For more borderline cases, much more thought and research is required.

  8. A great book it may be but in my university at least it seems unread and has been moved to “Offsite storage”. I will try and correct that by requesting it and expressing my surprise to the only semi-athiest in the religious studies programme.

  9. Not to mention a minute after giving atheists such sophisticated, abstract views, they merrily turn to their more lowbrow fellow christians and join them in their hymns and litanies and rosaries for Jesus the Lord.

    I prefer the guy from the other story who interviewed Dawkins. He told Dawkins he believes Muhammad flew away in a horse with wings. Honesty. Plain candidness.

    1. Not to mention a minute after giving atheists such sophisticated, abstract views, they merrily turn to their more lowbrow fellow christians and join them in their hymns and litanies and rosaries for Jesus the Lord.

      Sean Carroll already noticed that sophisticated theologians and believers usually talk out of both sides of their mouths. Here’s an excerpt from his blog post “The God Conundrum” which he posted more than six years ago:

      The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like “Does `the condition of possibility’ exist?” would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere. If that were really what people meant by “God,” nobody would much care. It doesn’t really mean anything — like Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it’s just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling. As a pragmatist, I might quibble that such a formulation has no operational consequences, as it doesn’t affect anything relevant about how we think about the world or act within it; but if you would like to posit the existence of a category called “the condition of possibility,” knock yourself out.

      But — inevitably — Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all. Certainly not anything better-defined than “My envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.” And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

      The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism.

  10. Oh I really think some atheists need to go back to Sunday School and learn a bit more about the religion they are so fiercely opposing. Even Richard Dawkins has used Bible stories wildly out of context, manipulating them to suit his own purposes. All atheists need to read more Christian apologetics – some of them have some very reasonable answers such as Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster.” Christians are reading these books and they feel as though their faith is confirmed and often we can’t argue back because we haven’t bothered to read the books of the opposing view. I really believe that for the sake of objectivity, we need to examine every aspect of the Christian argument.

    1. Do you feel the same way about Islam, the Greek or Norse gods or the little people ?

      Is it necessary to become completely conversant in Greek mythology to not believe in dryads or Celtic mythology not to believe in The Dagda ?

      1. No, but I don’t talk to or debate with people who believe those things. I’m not trying to justify my nonbelief to believers of Greek/Norse mythology. Christianity is important to me because of the role it plays in my community, family and country. It is culturally relevant and it is therefore more important for me to be standing against Christianity than other religions. I therefore feel like my time is best spent improving my arguments against Christianity, and theological study is an important component of this. I don’t feel threatened by believers of Norse or Greek God’s influencing the laws of my country or telling me I’m going to be tortured for eternity. The Christian/Atheist argument is much more urgent and relevant in my life so that’s where I focus my efforts.

        1. Are you claiming that Islam is not “culturally relevant” to you and plays no role in your “community, family and country” ?

          Are you familiar with everything that every Muslim scholar has said about Islam ?

          Do you spend any time improving your arguments against Islam ?

          There is really only one argument you need for any religious claim that intrudes into secular space and that is show me the evidence for you invisible friend.

          1. Islam is not as culturally relevant to me as Christianity. Most Australians are completely racist against them (which is awful, I know) so I don’t think there’s any way they could be as influential as groups like the Australian Christian Lobby.

            Whereas with Christianity I go to church every week. I have sat there while they all sign petitions against Gay Marriage. I have seen my friends go through the shame and guilt preachers use against them. I have gone to a Christian school the last 6 years and Christianity is a terrible barrier between my family and I. I have seen and experienced it’s positives and negatives.

            I do have a few Muslim friends that live overseas, I talk to them maybe once a year. I don’t know heaps about the religion and it isn’t that important in my own life, I’ll leave it to those more educated in Islam to argue against it, maybe one day I will be educated enough to do so. I would certainly like to be.

            For me, the argument is much more complicated than the evidence issue. My problem with Christianity is that God is immoral. The death penalties and slaughters commanded by God in the Old Testament, the whole notion of Hell, the idea that someone’s sins can be forgiven through the blood of an innocent. I guess my arguments against Christianity are mainly theological. Hitchens and Dawkins both address these topics and I think they are very important. It’s impossible to prove whether God does/doesn’t exist but I think it’s pretty obvious that he is not worthy of anyone’s worship or love. There are theological rebuttals to my objections and I think it’s important for me, and other atheists to understand these, that’s all I’m saying.

            But I guess if your argument against Christianity has no theological objections then it doesn’t really matter. I have just heard many atheists use such arguments without understanding the other side. Sorry this reply has gotten so long.

            1. I can see that you are in a similar situation to one that I was in a very long time ago.

              I can only tell you about what worked for me, but obviously you have to work this out for yourself.

              I wish you the best of luck, from personal experience I have some idea of what you are going through and I commend you for being able to to resist the indoctrination and dogma and come to your own conclusions using rational thought and evidence as your guide.

              I and many other posters on this (and other atheist sites) actually have a very great understanding of the tenents of xtianity in all it multitudinous forms, some of use choose not to engage with it at this level as we consider it to be rigged game.

              However I think you should engage xtianity as you deem best, there are many ways to engage it, and no one way is inherently better than another (despite my assertions in a previous post).

      1. Yeah I’m new. Why do I need to look in the archives? I’m just saying that we shouldn’t ignore theology. Theology is important if we want to talk to Christians about their beliefs.

        1. You might look in the archive because your question may have already been answered, it would not waste time and it would be the polite thing to do.

          We do not need to “talk to Christians about their beliefs”. That is about the last thing we want to do. If you want to hear about xtian beliefs just turn on your TV or radio, read a newspaper or magazine, answer your phone or the knock at your front door and there will be xtians crawling all over you insisting on injecting their beliefs into every possible occasion.

          Personally I would quite happy if they kept their internal monologues with their invisible friend completely private.

          As far as I’m concerned, theology is wanking, and far be it from me to deny anyone else their little pleasures in life, but to do it in public is just bad manners and in poor taste.

          1. I just like joining in the conversation. I’m not saying the post is wrong, I’m just offering another perspective.

            Do you always go through all of the archives of every blog you comment on to see if there’s an answer somewhere else? I didn’t know I was supposed to do that. Have you read my blog to see if I’ve already answered the questions you’re asking me right now? But okay, thank you. I will try and do that more in the future.

            You might not need to talk to Christians about their beliefs, but I can’t really escape it. When I became an atheist, they all assumed it was because I wanted to live a selfish, sinful life. They said I was becoming a bad person. Most of the people I know are Christians and I wanted them to understand that I had honest objections to their faith. So I talked to them about it and now we all get along reasonably well. But I want to keep talking, I want them to understand me better ad I want to understand them better. I want to have meaningful conversations about these beliefs, and the better I understand their beliefs the better my contributions to the conversation will be.

            Obviously, not every atheist is in my situation, so not all will have to deal with Christians the same way I do. Then they wouldn’t need to know a whole lot about apologetics. I’m just saying not to completely write off theology. It makes some valid points and attempts to answer some of my questions, so I will listen and so should anyone else who asks similar questions to me.

        2. “Yeah I’m new. Why do I need to look in the archives?”

          Because you’re new here, and making it obvious.

            1. I didn’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t comment because you’re new. Go ahead. Nothing wrong with being new. So far as I’m concerned, no need to be careful about commenting either.

              No, I just found your point pretty comic given that, oh, maybe 1/4 of Jerry’s many posts are explicitly about theology. He reads a LOT of theology. A LOT. We keep telling him he should stop before his brain starts to hemorrhage, but he has some principled thing about knowing what other people are claiming or something. Your comment was even more funny to me since not a week or so ago Jerry just finished reading the entire Bible, front to back. Every word. I went to Sunday School in a very Bible serious church for 26 years, and from my first hand experience I have seen very few Christians actually manage to read every word. But Jerry did, just recently. So your comment just stood out as someone who is either new or REALLY not paying attention.

              But welcome! We’re nice, even if we’re hard on religion.

              1. Haha I like people hard on religion!! Okay fair enough! Wow! Every word!!! That is impressive. I have just been extremely frustrated lately with atheists that expect Christians to listen to them and read their books but will never go near any apologetics or theology. And when I noticed a post that wasn’t keen on theology I got a bit overexcited with jumping in and commenting. Thank you for helping me out and informing me!

        3. A reasonable alternative to not looking in the archives would be to follow the posts on Jerry Coyne’s website for a while to get a feeling for it before posting on your own.

          It’s a rule that I try to follow and it helps to avoid some of the more common posting issues such as rehashing topics that have already been quite thoroughly beaten to death.

    2. Fair enough, but I hope you realize that the point of many of Dr. Coyne’s posts on theology, and specifically this post with Kaufman’s quote is to point out that theology is not an exercise in argument in good faith, but a different game entirely. A game in which the theologian can change the pieces as they wish to conveniently fit whatever wherever they want.

      Though unfortunately the fact that you criticize Dr. Dawkins as taking Bible stories “out of context” makes me think you don’t understand that, nor understand the supplied quote from Kaufman. I’d sincerely suggest reading it again.

      In this context asking people to engage with Christians by arguing apologetics is like asking someone to engage with a three card monte dealer by playing a few hands with him, rather than by stepping back and calling out the scam.

      1. I guess I got a bit off topic talking about Dawkins. I just mean to say that atheists also take bits of the Bible and manipulate it to mean something other than what the original writer intended. Just as some theologians do. But sometimes the theologians have a more historically valid interpretation than atheists, but it seems to me that most atheists ignore this. If we’re going to call out the scam on the Christians picking and choosing and dishonestly interpreting the jigsaw puzzle pieces, shouldn’t we do the same thing when atheists do it?

        As I am still very involved with Christians, I can’t step back. I can’t openly call it a scam. I have to have a damn good reason for being an atheist, or else I will be disowned by my parents. I have to do my research and show them why I think they (and their apologists, and their theologians) are wrong so that they will at least understand where I am coming from. Engaging with them is the only way for me to be considered a valid human being here. I shouldn’t have said that all atheists should be reading apologetics, it is only relevant to the atheists asking theological questions and raising theological objections, as many do.

        I am new here, as some people have already pointed out. But I’m learning. I’ll be more careful and put more thought into future comments.

        1. Ultimately I don’t think there is much disagreement here, I certainly think there is value in having some familiarity with Christian scripture, not least of which is to help understand Western history/culture/literature.

          I just think arguing over interpretations and meanings of the bible is a mugs game. Though I am sorry to hear about your situation relative to you parents, that sounds like it’s difficult.

    3. Just about every sentence you wrote is false.

      Even Richard Dawkins has used Bible stories wildly out of context, manipulating them to suit his own purposes.

      This is just an assertion without proof. Why don’t you provide some examples of Dawkins alleged quote mining. If you can.

      BTW, most of us are ex-xians. We know.

      All atheists need to read more Christian apologetics – some of them have some very reasonable answers…

      I’ve read Strobel, McDowell, WL Craig and a few others. Every page is lies and logical fallacies. It’s utter trash and a huge waste of one’s lifespan.

      1. In the God Delusion, Dawkins uses the stories of Lot and his Daughters and the Levite’s Concubine to illustrate the evil of the Old Testament. The Bible was never intended to be simply book that only tells us how to live. Stories like these are written as history, God doesn’t condone them. If anything they are examples of sinful behaviour and human falleness. Dawkins doesn’t even talk about what the historical context of the stories or address the Christian perspective of them. He just uses it to make the point that we don’t get our morals from the Old Testament. The stories weren’t written to be moral guidance, and Dawkins implies that they were. The reader is meant to be disgusted by the stories of course, and this emotional reaction coupled with Dawkins’ false conclusion that following scripture involves following the Mosaic Law is very misleading.

        Good! You have read the books, now when your Christian friend says: “Hey look what Strobel says! You, Mr/Mrs/Miss Atheist, must be wrong.” You can say: “No, I’ve read and thought about that. Strobel is wrong because…..” and you can have a good debate and it will be beneficial for both of you. Hoorah.

        1. I just reread the section of The God Delusion where Dawkins discusses the story of Lot and his family. Dawkins does not offer a single definitive interpretation of the story. He uses it primarily to illustrate the low status of women in ancient middle-eastern society:

          Whatever else this strange story might mean, it surely tells us something about the respect accorded to women in this intensely religious culture

          On your broader point, we’ve all heard this complaint about “taking things out of context” and “misinterpreting” the Old Testament a thousand times before. The complaint has no merit. As Dawkins points out, and illustrates with many examples, the God of the Old Testament is a cruel tyrant. In chapter after chapter, verse after verse, God is described as ordering, perpetrating or condoning acts of great cruelty and violence. No “context” or remotely plausible “interpretation” of the text can absolve God from this charge.

          1. Yes, but that disrespect for women isn’t necessarily condoned by God in this section of the Bible, and Dawkins I don’t understand why Dawkins’ would not acknowledge this. It just seems quite misleading to me.

            I would have said the exact same about the Old Testament thing a month ago. In fact, I wrote a post about it. But I’ve been reading a bit about the war literature of the Ancient Near East and it’s extensive use of hyperbole. So the slaughters committed in the Old Testament might not always be as bad as it initially appears. Apparently places like Jericho and Ai were sort of like military bases, and didn’t have many (if any) women or children present. Joshua apparently exaggerated cause it sounded impressive. In places, the Bible says that the Hebrews killed everybody of said tribal group and then a couple of chapters later they are back again, so they couldn’t have been completely destroyed in the first place. I agree that if God truly commanded the slaughters of “every man, woman and child” as the Bible tells us, then yes, he is a sick, cruel, heartless dictator. But in the context of literature at the time, that might not have been what happened.

            But then again, all of this is coming from a Christian apologetics book,- the one I mentioned in my comment. So it might well be bullshit. After I finish the book I will be checking to see if it lines up with secular sources.

            And even if God didn’t slaughter so many people this still doesn’t solve the problem of the tyrannical and oppressive Mosaic Law.

            1. Yes, but that disrespect for women isn’t necessarily condoned by God in this section of the Bible, and Dawkins I don’t understand why Dawkins’ would not acknowledge this.

              He doesn’t say that God necessarily condones it (there are plenty of other stories in which God clearly *does* condone terrible acts), and I don’t know why you would expect Dawkins to explicitly say that since it has nothing to do with the point he’s making there.

              So the slaughters committed in the Old Testament might not always be as bad as it initially appears.

              Huh? To cite the most infamous example, in the Genesis Flood story God kills every living thing on the earth (or, at least, every living thing on the land) except Noah and his hand-picked band of survivors. I have no idea how you think this story can possibly be “interpreted” to reflect well on God. It doesn’t matter if the story is held to be literally true or not. A metaphorical act of genocide isn’t consistent with a God of love and mercy any more than a literal one is. And of course there are countless additional stories in which God is clearly described as behaving as a cruel, vindictive monster. And not just in big, mass-murdering ways, but in really petty ways too. For example, in Leviticus God kills Moses’ nephews Nadab and Abihu simply because they failed to mix the incense properly for an offering.

              1. In the chapter we are talking about, Dawkins point is to show that we don’t get our morals from the Bible, as he states in the conclusion of the chapter. It is a very true point to make and there are many examples in the Bible that he could use. So why he talks about a story in that has nothing to do with Old Testament morality (as commanded by God). After discussing these stories, he talks about some of the battles, which, as I explained, aren’t necessarily quite as bad as they may seem when viewed in the literary context of the time (which I don’t believe Dawkins mentions). He then talks about the law, which is meant to be moral guidelines for Israel at that time and it is pretty horrible in places and works well in Dawkins’ argument.

                Sure, the flood was bad, I’m not arguing with you there. I have written a post on that too. Yes, there are many examples of stupid shit God killed people for, like Lot’s wife. I said “MIGHT NOT always be as bad as it initially appears” and then mentioned some examples that I think a really interesting. I am not trying to defend God’s character, that is impossible.

              2. critic,

                I just don’t see the point of all your handwringing. If you agree with Dawkins that the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster (because of the Flood, and so on), I don’t know why you’re quibbling over the details of some of his lesser crimes, as if that’s somehow important.

        2. The Bible was never intended to be simply book that only tells us how to live. Stories like these are written as history, God doesn’t condone them.

          About what I expected. You are just making stuff up. Just like the xians.

          1. Lot is held out to be an example of a righteous man who was spared when the cities were destroyed. One of god’s good guys.

          Lot subsequently got drunk twice and had sex with his daughters. Their children founded the Moabites and Ammonites.

          2. History? Really? You think the earth is 6,000 years old. That Lot even existed? That Sodom and Gomorrah even existed. It’s not history, it’s mythology, and was intended as such in the beginning.

          3. BTW, the bible was and is taken as its primary function to tell us how to live. It is a holy book, scripture, word of god.

          According to the fundies who are the dominant xian sect in the USA, it is an inerrant book written by god.

          It’s got the Ten Commandments. It also has a few dozen death penalty offenses for such crimes as adultry, disobedient children, nonvirgin brides, working on the sabbath, and being a heretic or apostate.

        3. Dawkins doesn’t even talk about what the historical context of the stories or address the Christian perspective of them. He just uses it to make the point that we don’t get our morals from the Old Testament. The stories weren’t written to be moral guidance, and Dawkins implies that they were. The reader is meant to be disgusted by the stories of course, and this emotional reaction coupled with Dawkins’ false conclusion that following scripture involves following the

          Got every sentence wrong again. At least you are consistent.

          The fundie xians don’t look at the historical context. It is the literal and inerrant word of god, why should they.

          The stories weren’t written to be moral guidance, and Dawkins implies that they were.

          You don’t know that. Making more stuff up. the fact is, the bible is a horrible, kludgy book of obsolete morality. Anyone following an OT lifestyle would be doing multiple life stentences in prison. Warren Jeffs of the FLDS tried it and got life + 20 years.

          What you probably don’t realize is the version of xianity you are looking at isn’t the dominant version in the USA. It seems to be some sort of modern, moderate xianity that has faded here.

          Since their magic book is so horrible, moderate xians have come up with all sorts of lies and excuses for their magic book. You are just repeating them.

          To cite on example, in the NT jesus recommends that men cut off their testicles. Moderate xians claim this means, jesus really meant you should check your engine oil every month and change it every 3,000 miles.

          Biblical exegensis is just another name for lies and excuses to hide the fact that the magic book isn’t so great. It’s made the bible into one giant Rorschach inkblot and anyone can use to prove anything.

          1. Yes, I think we are talking about completely different versions of Christianity. The Christians I know think the historical context is very important. I don’t actually mean that it is history, it was what the Jews believed to be its history, and so they wrote it in a historical style. Again, look at the context. The Christians I know believe that books like Proverbs and the Gospels are meant to be about moral guidance and other books are history or poetry or prophecy, etc. It is all inspired by God, but it was limited by the culture and people of the time. Anyway, I think we have very different understandings of Christianity cause we have obviously experienced totally different types of it. So there probably isn’t much point continuing this conversation. You think I’m totally wrong (and I probably am in light of your version of Christianity) and I think you’re wrong (in light of mine).

            1. So there probably isn’t much point continuing this conversation. You think I’m totally wrong (and I probably am in light of your version of Christianity) and I think you’re wrong (in light of mine).

              I think you are totally confused and know 1/100 of what you think you do.

              The moderate version of xianity is what I was for 40 years. It isn’t our problem.

              The fundies are the dominant version in the USA and very different. They are a problem and what drove me out of xianity. I’ve been getting death threats from them for over a decade. Some of my colleagues have been assassinated by xian terrorists. Thanks to our fundie former president, two of my friends are dead in Iraq. The fundies will either destroy the USA or destroy xianity. This isn’t a game for us.

              Yeah, there isn’t much point to this conversation. If you keep your eyes open, you will figure out why.

              1. We don’t have fundamentalists like that in Australia, (that I know of). I always thought those crazy people in America were a small minority that didn’t know how to interpret the Bible.

                Look, I’m not claiming to know everything. I’m only 18 and it sounds like you’ve been around a bit longer and seen a lot more things than I have. Does a teenager exist that knows more that 1/100 of what he/she thinks he does? But I’m doing my best to learn.

                I’ve only been an atheist for 2 years and I’m still asking questions and trying to figure things out. Talking to people helps me to work it through so that’s why I commented. Maybe a lot of the stuff I have read or been taught is wrong. You obviously disagree with it. I’m trying to work it out though. No need to make me feel like an idiot. I’m doing my best here. Some of your comments have been helpful to me. Thank you for that.

              2. @critic

                I can see you’re taking this seriously – maybe too seriously, I don’t know. If you come up with a cast-iron theological argument for being an atheist, do you think your family will accept it? Possibly you just need to demonstrate to them that you have thought about it, and avoid making it a big issue – if that’s possible. But I don’t know your family. (When I decided – no, realised – at about 12, that I didn’t believe in God or [much of] the Bible, it was with a sense of great relief because, if it wasn’t all true, it didn’t MATTER whether I believed in it or not. But my parents weren’t very religious, so it didn’t cause a big stir. My wife is, we get on fine by just ignoring the issue completely 🙂 )

                Anyway, back to this site – opposite to what several people have told you, I don’t think you need to read all the back issues before commenting. Comment away, and if your comment was off target (in the context of this site’s history) then people will tell you – as they have just done. Either nicely, in which case all’s well, or not, in which case just ignore their unnecessary rudeness. This is a fairly civilised place.

                That said, you’re definitely coming from a different place from where most people on this site are right now, I think for most of us the status of various parts of the Old Testament (historical, legendary, exaggerated or not) is just not significant. I for one am certainly not going back to Sunday School as per your original crack (it was Sunday School that made me an atheist, I don’t need any more of it 🙂 Unlike Jerry and his just-completed Herculean task, I don’t think I need to read the whole thing in order to not believe in it.

                But good luck.

              3. Critic:

                The OT was not taught as metaphor when I was a child in the Catholic Church, some 30 odd years ago. Sure, evolution occurred (somehow consistent with Genesis) and science was okay (more handwaving) but the disrespect for women was clear. It was both implicit (why can’t they be priests?) and explicit (original sin). It’s a lot easier to leave when it makes no sense.

                I grew up in an areas that would be considered liberal (and I attended multiple churches). The Catholicism is one of the largest Christian denominations in the US. If they are fundamentalist, then most Christians are.

            2. It is all inspired by God, but it was limited by the culture and people of the time.

              This is a modern invention.

              There is no way for xians to tell what is metaphor, allegory, history, mythology, or truth. Except to fight wars which have killed tens of millions of people.

              Biblical exegenesis is just a con. It’s all opinion, rationalization, lies, and hand waving. It turns the bible into a giant Rorschach inkblot that means whatever you want it to mean. It’s dishonest. At least the fundies don’t bother. They simply claim it is all literally true, inerrant, and the word of god.

              Of course they are completely wrong. It’s just a kludgy old book of mostly fiction that has little to say to modern people. You would get better morality out of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings.

              1. Could you kindly define exegenesis for me, or is it a typo? Googling it leads me to a young earth site which seems to analyse Ussher’s calculations of the age of the earth. Perhaps you mean “exegesis”.

                Critic – don’t be put off by some of these comments. Stick around, watch and learn, and chuck in your own thoughts. You may get mauled from time to time, but you’ll learn a lot :-).

    4. Critic, I think I get where you’re coming from. Growing up, when the adults in my life said “This passage of the Bible is a metaphor!” I smiled and repeated “This passage is a metaphor!” When they said “This part about Jesus literally resurrecting is literal” I smiled and responded “Yes, literal!”; and when they said this part is meant to be interpreted in this way I agreed; and this part in this way, and… Just about every story gets its own spin, doesn’t it?

      So yes, this does create a situation where, at first, atheist arguments simply bounced off. “Ha!” I’d think “What silly people! Why, don’t they know that this part of the Bible was a metaphor? And here they are taking it literally! And don’t they know that this part wasn’t? And this part was symbolic to mean…” I still come across moments of disconnect, as when Jerry read the New Testament. I like to think I’m relatively good at perspective-taking, but sometimes Christianity viewed through a genuinely fresh pair of eyes really surprises me. There are ways of looking at things that just never occur to you if you haven’t been there.

      From a practical point of view – yes, I see what you’re talking about, because I experienced it myself. I think maybe what you’re looking for is a sort of meta-awareness argument. Helping your parents to stand back and think about how strange and convenient it is that the Bible is divided into parts that are symbolic / poetic / literal / etc. that conveniently line up entirely with our 2013 notions of morality. There isn’t, after all, a User Manual in the Bible that says “Hey, this story is simply a metaphor, and this one was put in there to inspire this emotion, and this one was…” That’s just how people choose to interpret those stories – and when that presentation is handed to you as “Standard Truth”, it can seem puzzling when others don’t see it. Again, when you really stand back and think about the convenience of it all, though, it starts to change the way you look at things.

      You seem like a sweetheart – best of luck to you with the fam!

      1. Thank you so much!

        Yeah it’s crazy when you’ve been taught to think a certain way since the cradle and then you realise it’s nonsense. Yeah, the debate about what is literal and what is metaphorical is so big and complicated and historical and ridiculous. It should be the historians and scholars figuring our which bits are intended to be literal and which were metaphorical, not your average preacher man,(or your average atheist) as seems to be the case in my church.

        It’s heartbreaking to see my family and friends still swallowing it. That’s why I’m trying to improve my knowledge of the Bible and relevant arguments, I so badly want them to understand. They’ll never change their beliefs, but if they see what I am saying, just a little bit, maybe they will accept me a bit more. I know that sounds a bit sentimental and needy, but they are my family, and I don’t want my atheism to ruin our relationship.

        1. I think I can agree with the sentiment that looking at things from a Christian theological perspective can sometimes assist in fully understanding the non-Christian perspective.

          As someone who has been in a similar familial and societal situation, I understand your distress. Good luck.


    5. One final note before I shut up, when I read your initial post combined with your profile name I made the immediate and perhaps unwarranted assumption that you were either a fundamentalist christian troll or an atheist of the accommodationist stripe.

      Once I understood your situation as detailed in your later posts I came to a better understanding of your viewpoint and I had a context in which to place your comments.

      I think if you had established this earlier (i.e. in your initial post) you might have meet with a more cordial reception.

      Anyway, I for one appreciate your comments on how an atheist trying to come to terms with a fundamentalist upbringing views the ongoing atheist/religious conflict and I hope that my initial brusque comments do not turn you off of this sort of valuable resource for people in your situation.

      Once again, best of luck in your journey, it appears to me that you have the intellectual tool set needed to come to your own conclusions.

        1. And of course if I had bothered to look at your gravatar profile I would have immediately realized where you are coming from.

          “Fuck God and believe in yourself”

          is as about as succinct a summation of an atheist world view as I have ever seen.

          Way to go !

          You certainly don’t need my help or approval, I think you’ve figured it out pretty well all by yourself.

  11. I always thought the Sophisticated TheologyTM was the “one true Scotsman” argument of theology. That elusive argument that would answer all objections and tie up all the loose ends and contradictions, if only those silly atheists would go to the effort of finding and understanding it. Once we actually go to the trouble and attempt to read theology, however, the well is poisoned and we are not smart enough to understand, or the goal post has moved and that particular argument was not the one true Scotsman after all. Never mind that a specific argument is never put forward, keep searching. The answer that convinces you is the right one, just keep looking until you are convinced or find the exercise too tedious and will simply trust on faith that the perfect refutation actually exists.

    Without the fancy language, the whole thing is little more than a childish exercise in an argument from authority.

    1. Islam has the best version of this. What? You didn’t read it in Arabic? Come back when you’ve read it in Arabic.

      1. Or read Eric MacDonald’s (Choice in Dying) post – critical of “apophatic” theology where the LACK of evidence for god is evidence for god. Can’t get much better than that.

    2. Look up PZ Myers’ essay ‘The Courtier’s Reply’, it explains the role of Sophisticated Theology® very well.

  12. I largely agree with what Jerry Coyne but for the third time in a month am a bit taken aback by the example of Kierkegaard whom Walter Kaufmann grudgingly admired(!!!) and is as much of a social critic and psychologist as a theologian, and certainly isn’t a God=Ground of Being sort of guy (though those Ground of Being sorts like to quote him and Kierkegaard is really horrendously difficult to read.) (I remain however not at all a huge fan of Kierkegaard for reasons I will mention at the end of this post.)

    Grudging admirers of SK like Walter Kaufmann and Jean-Paul Sartre often feel he raised questions about the meaning of life in an interesting way but had cop-out answers while still having a lot of interesting things to say. A whole section on Walter Kaufmann’s admire-reject relationship with Kierkegaard appears in the book “Kierkegaard’s Influence on Philosophy: Anglophone Philosophy” by Jon Stewart (presumably not the Daily Show host). To quote Stewart, “Kaufmann’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is a highly critical one, though one that exhibits a marked sympathy for Kierkegaard’s approach, giving Kierkegaard singular credit for his singular individualism and, to a lesser extent, for the insights he provided on …freedom, choice, and self-deception.” (p. 105) Naturally, Kaufmann vigorously rejects many of Kierkegaard’s conclusions, but he is at times much harsher towards other Christian Kierkegaard scholars than he is to SK himself!!!

    Kierkegaard ended up having a lot of influence on secular psychoanalysis (notably Ernest Becker), and non-Christian philosophy (Sartre again), and even entirely secular novelists like JD Salinger (as well as many religious ones). Kierkegaard’s vicious attack on the official church of his day has garnered the admiration of secular thinkers like Karl Popper.

    Having gone through an entire one-semester course on Kierkegaard I personally must say that while he writes eloquently on anxiety, dread, and despair, his writings get increasingly Byzantine and convoluted as time goes on, his earliest stuff being by far and away the most readable. I was happy to discover the same impression was shared by philosophy professor Josiah Thompson in his book on Kierkegaard “The Lonely Labyrinth” who saw SK as getting progressively more neurotic and self-destructive as time went on. I’m not a huge fan.

    So while I agree that theology involves manipulating arbitrary assumptions to make them fit into preconceptions, I don’t really see Kierkegaard as much of a theologian at all, more of a very troubled religious neurotic who had a lot of insight into his neuroses which occasionally later and wiser writers have been able to appropriate for their own purposes.

    I think Jerry Coyne is confusing Kierkegaard with the theologians who like to quote him in support of their positions.

    1. I think you need to read the bit where Jerry actually mentioned Kierkegaard, entirely within a sentence representing what, in the minds of theologians, critics of religion should be dealing with instead of the scriptures and creeds of ordinary believers. Now, where’s the confusion?

    1. I think they are larval atheists unable to emerge from their chrysalis. They are people who made part of the journey towards rejecting their childhood faith, whatever that was, but got spooked along the way and, unable to complete the journey, turn their intelligence into weaving a soft bed of mental fluff in which to hide. I don’t mean this as an insult, but a serious observation. I think many smart people who lose their faith go through a Sophisticated Theology phase… yeah Leap of Faith, that’s it!… before finally acknowledging that there is no refuge there either. The ones who get stuck in that phase are just Theologians, either amateur or professional. They are unfortunate souls, brave enough to make the first scary part of the journey, but not quite brave enough to complete it.

      1. Well said.

        “The ones who get stuck in that phase are just Theologians, either amateur or professional”

        Other than the fact that one gets paid and the other doesn’t, what’s the difference b/t an amateur or professional theologian?

        1. I don’t know. I just threw in the amateur part because, obviously, there aren’t many paying theologian positions in the world.

  13. In a debate with a religious friend about his selective use of the material in the Bible, I once employed both the term gerrymandering and the used it in a very similar way as Kaufmann did here, even using the analogy of a puzzle. My interlocuter said that they had never heard the word used in this context before and asked if this was an original thought of mine. I replied that although I had never heard anyone else use it like this, I was sure that someone else had used it before me. Why? Because it was at least a half-decent idea, so according to Blitz’s axiom:

    “Since many people far smarter than Blitz442 have thought deeply and skeptically about religion, any good antitheistic argument that occurs to Blitz442 has already been thought of.”

    Kaufmann’s piece also proves the corrollary – that said argument will not only have already been made, but will have been made far more eloquently.

    1. No, no, that’s Diane G.’s axiom! 😀

      Actually, mine applies to all thought, not just religious. And is proven over and over again. I think I need to hang out on dumber forums.

  14. criticofchristianity, but those stories never happened! And those writers did say that Yahweh approve those genocides, even if exaggerated.
    Paul Copan is a comic writer as his rationalizations are just that!

    http:// fraudsway.wordpress.com
    http:// morwalt. wordpress.com

    1. http://biblemyths. wordpress.com
      Sorry, WEIT, but finally, all those buy-bull blogs are listed!
      Be glad that you don’t have neurological defects!
      I hope that someone will expose Copan’s rationalizations!
      Folks, when discussing verses from the Tanakh and The Testament, apologists rationalize them, so to do a better job, one has to overcome those rationalizations! And remember, put them in context! In context, they keel haul themselves!
      And again, thanks for the tribute to the magnifiecent atheologian [ He uses that term.] Kaufmann.

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