May 2, 2007

Christian Bible is Poor Basis of Morality, Part II

In a recent post in which I pointed out that the Christian bible is a poor basis of morality, many interesting comments emerged through the sea of argument between a handful of Christian trolls and regular readers. I realized that my initial post did not do justice to the points I was trying to make. This is an elaboration on that post.

In my previous post, I offered the example of Exodus 34: 13-17 to suggest that the Christian bible cannot seriously be viewed as any sort of guide to moral behavior. I noted that the Christian has a few options for dealing with passages such as this one, one of which is to interpret them away through the standard claim that context is lacking and that additional study is needed to arrive at the "right" interpretation. My previous post criticized this viewpoint as being arrogant (which it is), but that does not do justice to the far more important problem with such claims.

This is how Richard Dawkins expresses the more important problem to which I refer in The God Delusion:
Once again, modern theologians will protest that the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac should not be taken as literal fact. and once again, the appropriate response is twofold. First, many many people, even to this day, do take the whole of their scripture to be literal fact, and they have a great deal of political power over the rest of us, especially in the United States and in the Islamic world. Second, if not as literal fact, how should we take the story? As an allegory? Then an allegory for what? Surely nothing praiseworthy. As a moral lesson? But what kind of morals could one derive from this appalling story?
I understand this excellent point to apply to any biblical passage selected by a critic of Christianity to illustrate problems with the Christian bible. An atheist might select any passage from here and present it to a Christian as an example of how the Christian bible fails to provide a consistent and worthwhile moral message. The Christian will dismiss the criticism, usually by explaining it away as I previously noted. As Dawkins suggests, the Christian who does this must be reminded of two crucial points.

First, many Christians are not only biblical literalists themselves, but many readily question whether those who are not are "real Christians." Christian fundamentalism is not a myth. Its followers helped President Bush to office, and they haven't gone anywhere. Any time a Christian wants to say, "Yes, but we don't take that literally," they must be reminded of the many Christians who do. To this, I would add that they should be asked about their grounds for deciding that this particular passage should not be taken literally. How did they arrive at that decision, and what does it mean to them that many other Christians take it literally?

Second, if we agree not to take it literally, how do we take it? The Christian bible is filled with both admirable (if often grossly unrealistic) tales and cruelty. When we examine the passages highlighting intolerance, hatred, and cruelty, what symbolic interpretation do we conjure? What suitable interpretation can we invent? And to this, I would again add the question of how we know that our chosen way of interpreting (whatever that might be) is correct. How do we judge the merits of one interpretation against another?

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