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?

The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
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.

  • James Gray

    The environmentalist agenda is not as black and white as it is presented by FFreeThinker (in the first youtube video). First, few want to get rid of technology and so on. Second, we know human beings were at one time not very destructive to the environment and now they are very destructive to the environment.

    If you want to say that things were “better” in the past it is quite possible to interpret things that way. You might just need different ethical principals. Death and disease are not necessarily “evils” for example. It is necessary that people die sometimes so that we don’t consume all the resources of the Earth. I think having lots of people around is a good thing, but we don’t want to over do it.

  • kellin

    That free thinker video made me laugh out loud. Not only by the way he talked but by what he was actually saying too. The garden of eden story is the most important story ever told in the history of man. I agree that to think that man “fell” and is “dirty” is not the right state of mind, obviously it is that state of mind that led to the dark ages. A table cloth had to cover the leg of a chair, so women (eden) would not get any nasty ideas.

    However, it is an important story because once man knew the difference between good and evil, he “covered up in shame.” If man did not know what evil was, then he would not produce evil acts. Imagine, if the entire world decided that the world was perfect, the world would become perfect in instantly. Evil is not a separate polarity to good, but just a lack of good. When Adam was in the garden, he lived in paradise because he did not know that an opposite was possible, until he got curious. But i’m sure this sounds silly to you.

  • kellin

    And bliss IS the default state. Google the word “meditation.”

    • silverbuttons

      If it is the default state, then you shouldn’t have to meditate to achieve it.

  • Daniel Fincke

    If you are interested, kellin, you will see my fuller explication of Adam and Eve’s possible meanings, including most of what you allude to above in this post

    While I agree that evil is, on one important meaning, a lack of good, this does not square the problems for an allegedly good God, as I explain here

  • George W.

    I actually might argue that the Eden story is among the worst and most harmful stories ever told in the history of man. It is the basis for some peoples belief that the Earth and all its wares exist for the sole purpose of pleasing man. It glorifies credulity, naivety, subjugation, resigning reason, mental slavery, and insists that we would be better off if we were decidedly un-human. Adam and Eve must have had no free will, in the glorified Christian sense.
    They traded “paradise” for humanity, I should forever be in their debt. My existence, if this story were true, is a direct result of Eve listening to the devil.

    There was no paradise. Man has forever been a parasite on his environment. The neolithic revolution was spurred by mans perfection of hunting around the middle paleolithic that killed virtually all the large game on our planet. Progress has allowed us to transcend the toil of day to day existence at the expense of our dependence on more progress. It is a trap, but a trap that we must all be thankful for. Progress is Eden and the Fall all rolled into a neat little package.

    I also find it ironic that kellin chooses to summon the dark ages in this argument. The dark ages were at least partially the result of an authority (the Church) withholding valuable information (they held all the classical literature available in Europe at the time) ostensibly to protect it’s children from the evils of knowledge. The Renaissance was spurred by the discovery of many of these classical texts.
    Given the uncomfortable parallels, you might think Christians would choose to see the dark ages as a second paradise that was taken away from them.
    Just like in the apocryphal story…It is food for thought.

    • Mary Young

      The dark ages were the result of barbarian (at the time non-Christian times) descending upon the Western Roman Empire and raiding places of learning like Churches, monasteries, and libraries. They also made the trade routes that would normally bringing learning and contact from the East impassable and dangerous which prevented the exchange of culture that used to exist. In fact, much of our understanding of the “Dark Ages” survives from documents preserved in Irish monasteries because the tribes which invaded all of the monasteries in Gaul and Britain didn’t go that far up. Since cities and provinces that used to be cosmopolitan and connected to the outside world were ravaged and turned inward, learning was lost.

      In the early Middle Ages Churches did hold alot of the Classical literature in Western Europe in the Dark Ages and their reason for not disseminating it wasn’t because they wanted to hold people back, but because the class of people who were educated enough to read it had grown ever smaller. Although the Carolingian kings also had fairly substantial libraries. If you were to read early medieval texts and especially something from the high middle ages it would be quite clear that the people writing had a broad classical education – but they were among the educated few who happened to be clerics. There was no conspiracy on the part of the Church to keep learning away from people only that the culture that existed had been destroyed by invasions.

      And since, by the 12th century, there was a well-established university system in Britain, France, and Italy I wouldn’t say the Church was attempting to withhold information from an otherwise intellectually thirsty people.

      The Italian Renaissance didn’t happen because someone in Florence decided that he wanted to free himself from mental slavery but because the people who 500 years ago had been “Barbarians” were now intermixed ethnically and were part of the standard ruling class. That reopened the traditional routes of travel and allowed people to participate in cultural exchange with Byzantium and the Near East which allowed them access to the Classical texts which Greek and Arab commentators had.

  • Mary Young

    I guess where my issue lies is that Christians don’t believe that God wrote the Bible. It isn’t like the Islamic understanding that Mohammed literally wrote everything down EXACTLY as it was given to him. Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God THROUGH human mediation. If you were to transcribe all of the morality given to you by your mother, for example, I’m sure something would get lost in translation particularly if you weren’t able to speak directly with her. I’m not attempting to get you to believe that the Bible was divinely revealed, but rather to see why accepting the story on a mythological level and AS a myth perhaps isn’t the worst thing in the world. Since it is a book written by humans, wondering why God didn’t tell Bronze Age people about evolution is a null question – Bronze Age people didn’t know about evolution. And what would evolution really be if the body of all knowledge existed before we had adapted the survival techniques necessary to give us sufficient leisure to explore human origins? And if you believe that God endowed people with the ability to use reason, discover, and invent it would’ve been really boring if we had read that in a book written 4,000 years ago.

    And the metaphors about life told in Genesis are one kind of sexist and two not scientifically accurate – but that’s what a mythological story is. I once read an American Indian creation narrative in high school which involved a turtle in the sky dropping his seed in the ocean which created life. Obviously there is nothing factually true about that story (except for the fact that life on earth really started in the oceans) but I personally thought that it was kind of beautiful because it shows the way people relate to their surroundings and how they understand themselves in the circle of life. It is clear that the man who wrote Genesis understood himself (and other humans) as having dominion over the earth (which is partially true, actually. Humans have incredible power to manipulate and, unfortunately, destroy the world around them) but who was also at the mercy of his own ignorance and the forces around him. It is also the story of someone who needs to toil endlessly to survive and he imagines the world of his God as one where things grow without reaping and people are free to be their naked selves without being shunned by a shame culture. To say that it’s not scientifically true even on the metaphorical level is 1) not to understand creation the purpose of metaphors from any culture, and 2) not to really understand the purpose of metaphor which is to tell us about how the people writing think and perceive themselves and not to cleverly show scientific truths.

    I also don’t understand how reading the text keeps people trapped in a dark world of lack of understanding. Asking why we feel pain and answering “because it’s an adaptive trait which alerts us to danger” doesn’t get at the same sort of pain which people really care about. I don’t care why when I hold my hand up to fire it hurts because that’s obvious. I do care why I can’t eat for days and plunge into depression for months after terrible break-ups. When someone’s 7-year-old dies of cancer, the pain that person feels is not a nerve-based response to an outside threat. It doesn’t alert them to danger. It alerts them to life-altering, profound, physical loss that will haunt them forever. Considering how unproductive people can be in the sight of severe emotional pain (even committing suicide sometimes) I would hardly say it’s an adaptive trait and even if it is – it sucks. I think we need to avoid a triumphalist view of evolution that everything that has come out of evolution is representative of humanity at its most pristine form. For example some of the severe pain and danger associated with child birth in humans is because the human pelvis did not change size at the same evolutionary rate as the size of the human head. This is something that may evolve over time – or it could be something that ultimately wipes humans off the face of the earth. Simply because something survives through evolution doesn’t mean that it is a good or even useful trait. (Another example might be an appendix – totally useless. Often kills people.)

    If you wanted to attack the myth of Genesis for being sexist or for not respecting man’s true place in the environment etc., I think I could understand your point. Or even for perpetuating a patriarchal culture. But to attack its factual value is not to read it for what it actually is – a myth.

    • silverbuttons

      “I do care why I can’t eat for days and plunge into depression for months after terrible break-ups. When someone’s 7-year-old dies of cancer, the pain that person feels is not a nerve-based response to an outside threat. It doesn’t alert them to danger. It alerts them to life-altering, profound, physical loss that will haunt them forever.”

      That’s true, but I fail to see how a 5000-year-old myth is going to help you, or them, in any way at all. I cannot see how anyone can derive comfort from a story alleging that the reason people hurt is because a talking snake tricked some chick into disobeying a god.

      Besides, the myth doesn’t say anything about the sort of misery that you are describing. It is a just-so tale that explains why men are supposed to rule over women, why women have pain in childbirth, why men have to work hard for a living, and why snakes don’t have legs.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Not to shortchange all the thought provoking ideas in your comment here, Mary, but let me quickly just point out that many Christians do think that the Bible is as infallible or inerrant as if God had written it directly (even if they attribute the actual agency to men) and more of my explanation of why I think Adam and Eve is a bad myth is in the post,

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on that. I have no problem saying that people made up a story to express their frustration at having to toil, having to die, having to suffer, having to screw up all the time, having to feel alienated, and having to be ashamed all the time.

    Those are indeed profound issues for humanity that I do not want to trivialize by saying “we can understand pain as adaptive”. What I am saying is that the myth offered in the Garden of Eden says specific things about the mechanisms which are just false, literally as well as mythologically and do not offer any light on the details of how or why we are screwed in the ways mentioned above. In fact, the myth only reinforces our shame.

    When a good many Christians turn to the Garden of Eden, they look for more than just a story with pathos that expresses their existential torments, they look for an explanation of them. Maybe we can identify with all the consequences of the story but the mechanisms posited are false, insulting, and actually serve to reinforce the causes of a lot of misery.

  • Stacy

    What strikes me as most insidious in the most common explication of the Garden story is the notion that obedience is of primary importance. The humans are punished because they disobeyed Yahweh. That’s it. That’s the big sin.

    This is authoritarian morality.

    The story actually has a little more nuance. Eve ate of the tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil) and that freaked Yahweh out because
    the human beings have become like one of us, knowing good and evil. They must not be allowed to reach out their hands and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. (Gen. 3:22)

    This one’s a little more interesting: God doesn’t want humans to become like the other gods (you can tell this is an old story, you can see vestiges of of the older version where Yahweh was still just one in a pantheon). IIRC that concern comes up again in the Tower of Babel story. The ultimate moral is still authoritarian and fearful, though: don’t learn too much; don’t get too big for your britches, puny mortals: it pisses god off.

  • Linda Kloss

    I got two trippy things while rereading Genesis again: One, Ishmael – grand dad of Arabs got blessed and so did his mom Hagar when the well appeared before her with Zam Zam water (strangely the bible teachers I had as kid left out Ishmael altogether and two, that these tall either Angel like or Jinn like beings came down and mated with Earth women,who then dominoed “Children of Men.” That is how I read it. Pretty trippy, I thought but I could be wrong cuz I was left to my own interpretation. Peace, fellow heathens and pagans.

  • R.C.

    I think a lot of people fail to notice all the Hebrew parallelism and poetical structure in the creation story bit of Genesis (which, text note, probably originated in a different source and was is tacked on to the family origin series which follows it). The whole thing is stylistically much closer to a word-painting than to a nature documentary.

    The import of this is that one can’t read those chapters the way fundamentalists/literalists do and even get what the original author intended, let alone timeless truth.

    Just imagine if someone tried to mis-read the lyrics to a 70′s-era Yes song in this fashion. You’d have Yes Fundamentalists reading “Roundabout” and insisting that Jon Anderson and company were coming home from tour one day, driving ’round a traffic circle, when, suddenly, mountains fell out of the sky (asteroids?) and landed near (and some of them inside) an inland body of water, where they stood undamaged without crumbling into dust or creating a crater (unexpected elastic properties? space aliens messing with gravity?). Oh, and one of the mountains narrowly missed crushing an eagle as it descended.

    It’s sad, really. We have here a pretty well preserved bit of ancient artistry, and the people who claim to care most about it are reading it like it was a list of ingredients from a breakfast cereal box.

  • whitedingo

    video links do not work … can you fix please!