Literalism, skepticism, and tolerance

No, theism isn’t the same as belief in the Tooth Fairy.

My call for the blue team to cut the red team some slack over opposition to the teaching of evolution in the schools has drawn a storm of denunciation. Much of it is silly village-atheist stuff from people who seem to regard their contempt for theists as among their most precious possessions and who resent any attempt to suggest that the vast majority of humankind, present and past — including, for example, Socrates and Lincoln — aren’t and weren’t believers in obvious nonsense.

Such criticism isn’t worth responding to in detail. If P.Z. Meyers gets as much enjoyment from his belief that all relgious belief is simply congealed ignorance as Jerry Falwell does from his belief that all non-theists are damned, why should I play the spoilsport?

But Lindsay Beyerstein, whom I deeply respect, also files a strong disssent, and she deserves a serious answer.

It seems to me that her analysis reflects the great weakness of the analytic tradition in philosophy, going all the way back to Hobbes: a belief that mathematical argument, with its precisely-defined terms, is the ideal to which all forms of discourse sbould aspire, and a correspondingly deep distrust of metaphor. This leads to a certain tone-deafness in the interprestion of non-analytic texts.

Let the following points substitute for a detailed response:

1. “God created Man in his own image” isn’t a proposition like “The Earth goes around the Sun,” with a clear truth-value to be determined by factual investigation. Like “Life is short” or “Honesty is the best policy,” it expresses a complicated set of ideas not intended to be reducible to protocol-sentences. Showing that the Biblical metaphor doesn’t hold up very well under scientific/analytic scrutiny is mostly beside the point.

2. Not everyone who objects to teaching schooldchildren the Darwinian account of human origins as the Truth is a Biblical literalist. True literalism is a marginal phenomenon, even within fundamentalism. (When Deuteronomy refers to God’s “sword,” few if any Christians imagine that there is a divine weapon with a point, an edge, and a hilt.) Assuming that most believers in the Abrahamic faiths are literalists is both a mistake and an insult.

3. All knowledge starts from a basis of tradition. Some traditions, including some religious traditions, are more receptive than others to critical discussion of important points. (This is one of Karl Popper’s themes, especially in “Toward a Rational Theory of Tradition.”) The simple identification of “religion” with the subjection of the intellect to external dictates, and of “science” or “philosophy” with independent thought, is much too simple to capture the complex reality.

4. Most traditions of thought, religious and non-religious, have within them resources for the promotion of good behavior, including respectful tolerance of other viewpoints, and also strains that promote bigotry and other forms of bad behavior. Encouraging the cultivation of the helpful resources within all the traditions, and not just one’s own, is a good way to promote understanding across cultural lines. Identifying an entire belief structure, whether “Christianity,” “Islam,” or “Darwinism,” with its most foolish and intolerant strains encourages those strains to become dominant, which in general is a bad outcome.

For example, one of the accounts in Genesis (the “Y” version in Chapter 2) says that Eve was made from Adam’s rib. But the other — the “E” version in Chapter 1, the one that includes the phrase “in His own image” — says simply “Male and female created He them.” Which of the two would you like to see as the dominant interpretation among those who accept the Bible as Holy Writ?

Similarly, the idea that torture is inconsistent with Biblical Christianity is one that opponents of torture, Christian and non-Christian alike, should be eager to promote. The idea that Torquemada was a typical or authentic Christian, no matter how good it makes some atheists feel, is no more helpful than it is true.

5. Pissing on other people’s holy books, whether literally or metaphorically, is bad manners and bad politics.

Footnote Just in case I haven’t made it clear: I’m not a worshipper of the God of Abraham, so the plea above is for a tolerant approach to the beliefs of others, not the howl of someone whose own idols have been smashed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: