How Genesis Is Not Only Literally False, But Metaphorically False

Mary Midgley argues that only the views of fundamentalist literalists are refuted by the fact of evolution:

Appeals to evolution are only damaging to biblical literalism. Certainly the events described inGenesis 1 are not literally compatible with what science (from long before Darwin’s day) tells us about the antiquity of the Earth. But this is not news. The early Christian fathers pointed out that the creation story must be interpreted symbolically, not literally. Its message centres not on the factual details but on gratitude for the intelligible unity of the creation. Later Christian tradition always understood this, even before the historical details began to be questioned.

This argument is so old that I feel justified in simply replying by reiterating the points I made in an old post.I

I made the central argument more clearly in the comments section, so I’ll start by reproducing most of that remark:

just because science-accepting Christians offer to read Genesis only metaphorically does not exempt them the metaphorical or mythical meanings from scrutiny. Just being a myth does not make the ideas contained within it automatically true.

If this was indeed a book described by God, why is it false both literally and metaphorically? Can’t God get his story right? If he was divinely writing books why not just be literally true and tell us about evolution in the Bible? Why not tell us we emerged through a long process and because we were naturally selected for different environments and ways of life than those in which we presently live, we must take care to correct for some of our ill-fit cognitive tendencies. In other words, if this were a divine book it would get these sorts of facts right. But it doesn’t. Because it wasn’t inspired by God it was dreamed up by ancient people doing the best they could to imagine and wonder what things were like.

There was nothing wrong with that at the time, but now we’ve moved past those primitive guesses and we should accept that authorities once taken to be true simply are not. That’s not “war” against Christianity and religion, it’s how reason works. We abandon ideas and authorities when they are proven false.

The problem with religion is that it wants to freeze us in the past. We must forever think of humanity as fallen, even when we realize we’re just descended from other animals and not from a pristine state of human perfection in a pristine garden. We must forever think that pain comes from a curse when in reality it’s just an adaptive trait that warns us of danger and it existed long before humans could have ever sinned. We must forever think of humans as inherently corrupted by some ancestor’s sins instead of fundamentally innocent beings who learned a set of social relationships of cooperation and hierarchy while still lower order primates and are still struggling to learn the best ways to take care of our own needs and flourishing while balancing the interests of our society.

Religion insists we must always freeze our knowledge, we must suspend our ability to say, “oh, the old religious myths turned out false—we’re not inherently evil, we’re not to blame for suffering in the world, we don’t have to mistrust our natural drives as corrupt—just instead see them as sometimes ill-fit for contemporary society since they evolved in another time for different needs.”

Religion tries to teach people to defer to ancient authorities who have no knowledge credentials and to override free, rigorous, and sincere reassessment of what is good and bad in our nature. Religion teaches you that bronze age people’s fantasies are somehow divine revelations when there is not a single good reason to think so. They have no special knowledge that only a God could give them. They didn’t give us the theory of quantum mechanics as a gift from the designer of quantum mechanics. They don’t seem to know any single fact about that alleged creator’s world that they couldn’t have made up themselves. So why think they got special knowledge from that creator?

It goes on and on and on, Lisa.  There is no good reason to believe. The Bible is false on every level. The legal code it gives is repulsive barbarism and the antithesis of the democracy I believe is just and enlightened. The genocides of the Old Testament are the height of immorality. They’re indistinguishable in their evil from the actions of Hitler. There are commands to slaughter men, women, infants, to rip open the wombs of pregnant women. It’s pure corruption and no sign of divine wisdom. It took a turn away from faith to Enlightenment to get the democratic institutions and scientific advancements that make possible an egalitarian society and technological power to extend lifespans into the 70s and to create powerful means of creating and communicating. Faith doesn’t do these things. It freezes knowledge in the past, it teaches us to hate our human nature as fallen, and it opposes the spirit of free, secular society. And in all these ways, it represents an obstacle to people’s free reason and rational decisions about ethics.


the non-literal reading of Genesis is just as false as the metaphorical one.  When religious people argue that the Garden of Eden story is unaffected by scientific knowledge they ignore the fact that the Eden myth asserts an initial state of perfection from which we have fallen because of a sin.  But that’s not “metaphorically” or “mythically” true.  Our ancestors were (1) not even better human beings than us, let alone “metaphorically perfect” humans, in fact they were “lesser” evolved than we are socially, culturally, morally, and physically—pretty much by every standard we have for judging human excellence, (2) they did not incur pain on the universe, either literally or metaphorically, since it already preexisted our arrival by millions of years, and (3) our tendencies towards ethical failings and our sufferings are not punishments for any sins (“original” ones or otherwise, either literally or metaphorically) but are in fact explicable in terms of both the precision and imprecision of complex sets of strategies for social and environmental success that proved most benefiical to our survival.  Similarly our intellectual shortcomings have everything to do with an evolutionary necessity for making judgments of a local kind coupled with an evolutionary indifference to judgments of highly precise theoretical kind.

In other words, an evolutionary understanding of primeval history exposes not only that the Genesis story is not literally true but that its mythically presented propositional claims that pain in the universe is connected to moral failing, that moral failing is a punishment for a sin, that the need to work and for women to suffer excruciatingly during child birth are both owed to matters that are our faults, and that humanity was initially better off than we are now are, are all flat out false.

And finally I want to repost two superb videos that add much, much more to those points I just made.  The first points out the falsehood, both literal and metaphorical, of Eden myths and the points out the harmful consequences of such thinking.

And start Christopher Hitchens’s brilliant speech below (maybe my favorite of his) and think about whether the scientific picture of reality he presents is one that we were made in the image of God by a benevolent personal God who selected the ancient Israelites to reveal himself to us and to provide us with our morality:

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.