04 August 2010

Non-literal interpretation

Several years ago at work I was talking with my boss about certain policy-enforcement problems the company was having, and I jokingly suggested that we might resort to having the trouble- makers flogged. She laughed and replied: "I can see I need to make you read the company Code of Conduct again." I said, "Oh, I've read it -- it's just that I have a non-literal interpretation."

She thought it was funny, because the very concept of a non-literal interpretation in such a context is clearly absurd. A document like a company policy just means what it means. So why do we let religionists get away with using the same dodge to escape the implications of the insanities that fill their holy books?

Genesis contains a creation myth which, like every other creation myth found in every other religion, bears no resemblance to what we now know about the actual origins and development of the universe and of life on this planet. Some religionists evade this problem by claiming that Genesis should be taken non-literally, as an allegory of the truth. This doesn't work, for two reasons.

First, the story in Genesis is so far removed from what actually happened that taking it as an allegory strains interpretation to the breaking point and far beyond. The physical scale is wrong, the time-frame is wrong, the order in which different kinds of life and different parts of the universe appear is wrong, the mechanisms by which everything happens are wrong. It gets nothing right at all -- nothing. It doesn't offer any similarities or parallels to the true origins of life and the universe, as an allegory must do to some extent, to work as an allegory. It's just like all the other creation myths. For example, Shinto mythology records in part that the primordial goddess Izanami gave birth to the Japanese islands after mating with her brother. You could, I suppose, take this as an allegory for something about real geology, if you were willing to impose a "non-literal interpretation" on the legend which ignored its plain meaning entirely, but why bother?

Second, Genesis could not have been meant as an allegory because it was written by people who could not possibly have known anything about the Big Bang or evolution. Allegories are common in literature, but they refer to things the authors knew about. HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, for example, was written partly as an allegory of the devastation wrought on places like Tasmania by technologically-superior Western imperialists -- showing his own people how it would feel to be on the receiving end of such destruction. But HG Wells knew about what had happened in Tasmania. To interpret a novel as an allegory of something its author could not possibly have known about would be nonsense.

If you were willing to push non-literal interpretation to the same kind of extreme, you could probably "interpret" the works of Jane Austen as an allegorical description of quantum mechanics -- but the fact remains that the said novels cannot independently tell you anything about quantum mechanics, and were not meant to.

In any case, the most offensive and dangerous part of religion is not its creation mythology but its moral and legal codes. In that realm, "interpretation" which ignores straightforward meaning is inadmissible (next time a cop stops you for speeding, try telling him that you saw the "Speed Limit 40" sign but you interpreted it non-literally as meaning that you can actually drive at 60 miles per hour). The laws of the Bible are as plain and dry and clear as any modern statute law. To claim that they mean something other than what their blunt wording says they mean is simply dishonest, just as it would be with the speed-limit sign.

Finally, the whole effort to reconcile ancient religion with modern science and morality seems pointless even if it could succeed. Even if you could twist and contort Christianity (or Hinduism or Islam or Aztec religion or whatever) until it more or less agreed with modern science and morality, why bother? You might as well just go with modern science and morality, since those are the standards you're really using anyway, and forget the myths and taboos lingering from the ignorant and savage past.


Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Interesting analysis here Mr.Infidel .... I have of course read in detail the "Book of Genesis" ... and frankly just figured that it was so easy to blindly believe in it for centuries because folk's didnt know any different, and it was just a wild haired theory that popped up to try to explain life. I sure as Hell never thought that any of the Bible was wrote or even inspired by some external deity. Also when I read part's of the bible, I have good reason to believe that many part's were wrote under the influence of drug's ... what alot of people dont realize is how sacred drug's and ritual/ meditaion was back in those time's ... mind altering drug's didnt become a "negative thing" until these modern time's when they started being used for recreational reason's instead ... in those time's it was such a common religious/ spiritually considered practice, to help you enter the spiritual psyche. What is so shocking to me, is that so many in today's time would actually still believe that these thing's are reality. I actually met a minister who sounded so straight and level headed, he seemed really sharp on various subject's like politic's, war, society, etc ... but I told him about some folk's believing nonsense like the earth being only 6000 year's old ... is when he shocked me .... and said ..."I agree that's not accurate at all ... it's closer to 7000 year's old".

I am very familiar with mind altering drug use in ritual as well, and have participated in it quite a bit at a time. So I know exactly first hand what it can create in the mind ... and it can be exactly like many biblical stories or other form's of occultic belief's and practice's. The Holy Bible after all is simply in my opinion a family tree book, combined with an occultic type sci- fi horror novel all in one ... it is clearly occultic. A great piece of work indeed, but not something to should be taken as seriously as folk's do.

Later Guy ....

04 August, 2010 08:33  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

What makes this all the more frustrating is that these same people often take carefully selected small excerpts from the Bible, and insist that these (for example the thing in Leviticus about men laying with men) must be taken absolutely literally...while giving themselves the freedom to ignore virtually everything that Jesus really said.

There is no rational argument with these people- they claim to believe whatever suits their interests at the moment, and will abandon it in a second if it doesn't work for them at some later time.

04 August, 2010 12:03  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: I have good reason to believe that many part's were wrote under the influence of drug's

Either that or severe (by our standards) mental retardation due to poor nutrition.

..."I agree that's not accurate at all ... it's closer to 7000 year's old".

As for the people who flat-out ignore science and claim the Bible is literally true, they're more honest than the ones who twist it around and claim it's compatible with science, but they're even more dangerously out of touch with reality.

GE: Selective belief is certainly a problem with fundamentalists. Few of them would favor the death penalty for working on a Sunday, even though it's in there just as clearly as the homosexuality prohibition.

04 August, 2010 12:29  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I love that one about the death penalty for working on sunday, and there are many more too! That was a great one, really gave me a good laugh! :)

04 August, 2010 15:13  
Anonymous Blurber said...

You point out that "The laws of the Bible are as plain and dry and clear as any modern statute law. To claim that they mean something other than what their blunt wording says they mean is simply dishonest . . . "

This is certainly true. One weird thing is that you have to say which Bible you're talking about because there are so many different translations and the various sects, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on argue about which one is correct. Strange for an infallibly true source of morality! In the case of the King James Version one especially clear passage which it's hard to believe any sect would support is the famous one about being stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

Numbers 15 (KJV)

15:33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

15:34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.

15:35 And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

15:36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses.

05 August, 2010 16:33  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Gathering sticks on a Sunday = death penalty (by barbarous means).

Offering your daughters to a mob of rapists (Lot in Sodom) = praiseworthy behavior.

Yep, an infallible source of higher morality, all right.

05 August, 2010 17:44  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Some of this shit make's me wonder ... what ever inspired me to support the dealth penalty? ... cause I certainly didnt get it from going to church ... yet ... looking at history, I feel much of it was inspired by religion.

06 August, 2010 05:20  

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