Answers in Genesis teaches how not to read a story

In Nature, Andrew Curry offers a fascinating overview of the recent developments in the study of when humans first came to live in the Americas. The article is titled, “Ancient migration: Coming to America“:

For most of the past 50 years, archaeologists thought they knew how humans arrived in the New World. The story starts around the end of the last ice age, when sea levels were lower and big-game hunters living in eastern Siberia followed their prey across the Bering land bridge and into Alaska. As the ice caps in Canada receded and opened up a path southward, the colonists swept across the vast unpopulated continent. Archaeologists called these presumed pioneers the Clovis culture, after distinctive stone tools that were found at sites near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1920s and 1930s.

… But findings over the past few years … have shown conclusively that humans reached the Americas well before the Clovis people. That has sparked a surge of interest in the field, and opened it up to fresh ideas and approaches. Geneticists and archaeologists are collaborating to piece together who came first, when they arrived, whether they travelled by boat or by foot and how they fanned out across the New World.

The beginnings of the Clovis culture date back to around 13,500 years ago. The newer findings suggest people had arrived in North America even earlier — as early as 14,300 years ago.

Allow me to translate those figures for my young-earth creationist, illiteralist fundamentalist friends. The godless scientists used to believe that the first humans arrived in North America 7,484 years before you think the Bible says the universe was created, but now the godless scientists have found evidence that humans were here at least 8,284 years before the creation of the universe.

I know, I know, picking on the young-earth creationists is too easy. Fish in a barrel and all that.

But they invite it. They’re not just wrong, but audaciously wrong. The weirdness of their conclusions becomes all the more horrifying when you try to trace the arcane routes they traveled to arrive at them.

Take for example the illiteralist fundies who sat down and calculated the hourly rainfall in the story of Noah’s flood.

This is how these folks approach this story. This is how they hear a story and how they read a story. They don’t seem to notice that the story has a narrative, themes, characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. Or if they do notice those things, they don’t care about them, because that’s not what they see as important in a story.

What they see as important are measurements, logistics and the calculating of numbers that do not actually appear in the story itself. They contemplate the buoyancy of gopher wood. They calculate the cubic cubitage of Noah’s ark, the rate of rainfall and the capacity of the firmament canopy (don’t ask).

This is a dim, illiterate and aggressively obtuse response to a story. This is ridiculousness that demands to be ridiculed.

Seriously, people, it’s a story. If you don’t know how to read stories, then you don’t know how to read.

If you don’t know how to read stories, then you become the literacy equivalent of that person who never lets you finish a joke because they’re always interrupting with irrelevant questions and thinking they’re particularly clever for pointing out that a bar stool probably couldn’t support the weight of a gorilla.

But here’s the kicker: This rate-of-rainfall foolishness didn’t come from the illiterate fundamentalists of Answers in Genesis. It came from the Freethought Alliance Conference at UC Irvine.


I’m trying to follow the logic there. “Hey, those Answers in Genesis people are completely incompetent and ignorant when it comes to biology, geology and cosmology — so let’s assume they’re competent, knowledgeable and authoritative experts at biblical exegesis!”

Um, no. Their biblical interpretation is no better than their paleontology. Why would anyone imagine it could be?

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Update: Here’s what the billboard says, “Noah’s flood / 8712 inches per hour = nonsense / what other biblical nonsense is there?”

That’s not mockery of fundamentalist literalism — it’s an uncritical validation of that literalism. It embraces that absurdist literalism and then criticizes the text for being absurdly literal. It’s a variation on Bill Maher’s “book with the talking snake” dismissal.

Try this version: “Rainbow crow / 2,583,333 miles per hour = nonsense / what other Lenape nonsense is there?”

Or this one: “Four Yorkshiremen / 29 hours in a day = nonsense / what other Python nonsense is there?”

That bit about “29 hours a day” is right there in the text of that Monty Python tragedy. Such obvious errors make it very hard to take the play seriously.

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  • NS

    Surely the point is to highlight the impossibilities resulting from their interpretation as a means of highlighting the implausibility of said interpretation?

    Or to put it another way: “You say it should be treated literally? Fine, we’ll treat it literally. That gives us this ridiculous hourly rainfall. Still saying it should be treated literally? Fine, we’ll laugh at you.”

  • nirrti

     Yep, I agree. The Free Thought people were just calling the YEC’s bluff. They hanged them with their own rope, so to speak.

  • Tonio

    That’s how I interpreted the billboard. Fred’s post is confusing, as if he assumes the Freethought folks are using the improbability of the Flood to dismiss the entire religion.

    And with due respect to Fred, when the majority culture insists until it’s blue in the face that the Bible is authoritative, that can very easily interfere with the ability to process the stories as stories. That doesn’t mean that it automatically leads to a literal or pseudo-literal reading instead. But it can lead to worry over interpreting it “correctly,” or to reading it specifically for the message instead of appreciating the storytelling.

  • P J Evans

    Maybe they insist the Bible is authoritative because they have trouble reading stories as stories.

  • Keulan

    That’s how I saw it as well. They’re ridiculing the idea that the entire planet could have been covered in water in such a short period of time.

  • Wing

    There’s a difference between a fictional story and a fictional story that people are insisting is true.  Once they start trumpeting it as historical record then I think it’s fair game to start poking holes in it.

    Though really, given what you do with the Left Behind series, I’m not sure you’re one to complain about people trying to bring logic, measurements, and calculations to a story…

  • congyoglas

    Fred, maybe if you made a list of what parts of the Bible are just a story, and should be treated as such, and which we as readers should believe happened? 

  • John Small Berries

    I’ll add my voice of agreement to the other commenters.

    When someone is adamant that the tales in the Bible are inerrant, literal truth, it’s a perfectly valid response to point out what that truth would actually entail.

  • I think the point of the billboard is to try and confront people with the absurdity of assuming the Bible is an authoritative guide to history or science.

    So when someone claims to believe that the events described in the Great Flood actually happened,  that has to include believing that 8000+ inches of rainfall blasted down out of the clouds per hour when nobody has ever seen torrential rainstorms that bad, ever, in recorded history.

    To assume it is true is to assume, well, a hell of a lot that physics would find untestable.

  • Tonio

    No, Fred’s critiques of LB are about the horrid value system of the characters and authors as well as the awful storytelling. Not so much finding logic holes in the plot as seeing how plot and characterization are subordinated to a theological agenda.

  • Addendum:

    8000 inches per hour is 200 meters or 600 feet per hour.

    Six. Hundred. Feet.

    That’s how freakin’ tall the Gateway Arch is!!!!!

  • Leum

    I’m going to agree with the other commenters. The point of the billboard was to show the logical consequences of taking the flood story literally.

  • mud man

    Apparently they calculated based on 40 hours rather than 40 days. They also didn’t figure in “the fountains of the deep”. Besides not doing literary criticism, apparently they can’t even read for information. But then, many Evangelicals don’t actually read the Bible either.

  • Hypocee

    Nice false witness today, Fred.

  • Hypocee

    …Plus, of course, sigh: Courtier’s Reply.

  • Tom S

    Given that the other billboard being rolled out is a Hitchens quote, it doesn’t seem all that farfetched to assume the rainfall thing is based on a smug, kneejerk interpretation of other people’s belief systems

  • Wygrif

    Fred, I’m usually with you, but that billboard looks like a fair reductio ad absurdum to me.  

  • AnonymousSam

    They calculate the cubic cubitage of Noah’s ark, the rate of rainfall and the capacity of the firmament canopy (don’t ask).

    *Sighs* Unfortunately, I read the Left Behind series and learned of the concept from there: A blanket of water covering the Earth, shielding humanity from solar radiation (but not light, apparently), which is what was supposedly responsible for humans living several centuries in the Bible. Let’s try not to picture what a thick layer of water in the atmosphere would do to the climate.

    You know what bugs me the most about the “scientific” attempts to prove Young Earth Creationalism? Most (if not all) of them boil down to repeated attempts to discredit accepted science and nothing more, proving a negative by ad hominem. They don’t care that the points they make aren’t proving that the Earth is really 6000 years old as long as the points seem to prove that scientists are wrong in some other way — even if it means proving that the Earth is actually millions of years old and not billions as they say.

  • congyoglas

    I mean, as an atheist reader, I obviously expect that on this Christian blog, Fred will endorse and defend Christianity. (He generally does so from a perspective on human beings that I wish more atheists had!) 

    But ignoring the huge, huge problems caused by attempts to perpetrate “biblical literalism” and criticizing the sort of reasoned attempts to show the problems with that approach, the sort that have actually lifted a lot of people out of blinkered fundamentalism, is just not cool. 

  • Morilore

    That’s not mockery of fundamentalist literalism — it’s an uncritical
    validation of that literalism. It embraces that absurdist literalism and
    then criticizes the text for being absurdly literal. It’s a variation
    on Bill Maher’s “book with the talking snake” dismissal.

    “Book with the talking snake” dismissals kind of resonate with me as a way of asserting the atheist’s prerogative to separate herself from the whole argument about what’s the right Biblical exegesis, which is not something an atheist should be asked to participate in.  When fundamentalists promote stupid or evil ideas citing the Bible as their inspiration, broadly speaking the two common responses are 1) the Bible doesn’t actually support that, and 2) fuck your Bible.  The first time a former Christian realizes she doesn’t have to go with 1), that she doesn’t have to discuss things within parameters set by Christians – for me, it was a liberating feeling.

    That banner itself is not supposed to be a reasonable commentary on religion.  It’s supposed to be a signal to people who feel no affection for Christianity that this “Freethought Alliance Conference” is a space where people like them are going to gather.

  • Rafar

    When there is a serious and occasionally successful political campaign to teach the Four Yorkshiremen Economic Model in schools, then you will have a meaningful analogy.

  • Matri

    They don’t care that the points they make aren’t proving that the Earth
    is really 6000 years old as long as the points seem to prove that
    scientists are wrong in some other way

    This! This so very, very hard. It’s not just me who noticed that the creationists’ entire “research strategy” is summed up in the following quote:

    By default! My favorite way to win!

  • I dunno. I saw Bill Maher arguing with a liberal christian a week or so ago, and it was very clear what his deal was: he agreed with the fundamentalist notion that if every word of the bible is not literal truth,m the bible is worthless, and then showed how there was at least one thing that could not be literally true, then smugly insisted that he had disproved ALL OF RELIGION EVERYWHERE. ANd he got smarmy and demeaning when the guest suggested otherwise, essentially saying “Well you’re just making shit up. At least the fundamentalists understand that you can’t pick and choose. you just randomly decide which parts of the bible to follow,” as if to suggest that all liberal christians were inherently dishonest because (actual quote) “All religion is inherently anti-intellectual.” (He went on to do the classic “And russian communism is really a religion, just a secular religion” thing)
    There *are* a lot of devoted anti-theists who *agree* with the fundamentalist conceit that the ONLY VALID wayto read the bible is as a textbook, and then go “Ha ha! Gotcha!” as they point to details inconsistent with such a reading. 

    And when you start throwing around things like “Ha! Your bible is full of nonsense!” I am disinclined to suppose that their position is so nuanced as to be “Youtr interpretation of the bible is invalid and this is why,” and not “You are correctly interpreting the bible, but the bible is nonsense!”

  • Matri

    *points to every single thing the Republicans have said and done for the past decade & a half*

    Can ya blame him  for coming to that conclusion? If you’ve never had the benefit of contact with the minority of actual Christians like Fred, and instead have only had contact with the pseudo-christians like.. well, the GOP, then your impression of Christianity would be exactly like what Maher says.

  • You can’t say “The Bible is full of stories that aren’t meant to be taken literally” to most people, because they freak out and stop listening. Somehow, people have the idea that if something didn’t happen exactly as written, that invalidates any truth that the book might contain.  

    So you get people–quite a lot of people, sadly–insisting that YES , EVERY WORD OF THE BIBLE ACTUALLY HAPPENED AS WRITTEN. And you can’t argue against them by saying, “No, everything isn’t literal” because then, Fred, you get angry fundies saying, “ARE YOU CALLING GOD A LIAR?” And that isn’t the objective at all, but you can’t get them to pay attention to what you ARE saying.

    The only way that has any hope of showing them that everything isn’t meant to be taken literally–or that some of the stories feature a view of reality very different from our own own–is the reductio ad absurdum argument. Like Joshua stopping the sun during the battle of Jericho. That implies that in those days, the sun orbited the earth rather than the earth orbiting the sun. Which makes more sense–that the ancient Hebrews believed that they lived in a heliocentric universe or that one day, for no reason, the sun stopped orbiting and became the orbit-ee?

    Of course, even the reductio ad absurdum argument has problems, because you run into people who will say, “If God WANTS that impossible thing to happen, then it will happen, and you just lack faith!” And then they smile and look smug, despite the fact that they haven’t proven anything. They’ve just hypothesized the existence of a condition that may or may not exist.  Nor do they try to explain why God does not seem to want things that violate the laws of physics or mathematics to happen nowadays. They don’t even see this as something that has to be explained.

    I don’t know how this can satisfy them–or why they’re so happy to not think about the world. It’s all incredibly, infuriatingly frustrating.

  • Turcano

    It’s kind of weird seeing the Solutrean Hypothesis getting national attention again.  Last time I checked, corroborating evidence for it was sketchy at best.

  • There are a lot of people in the US who would not self-identify as evangelicals, fundamentalists, or as Young-Earth Creationists (indeed; if you said “YEC” to them, they would have no idea what you mean).  They don’t even consider themselves to be especially religious, though they do, vaguely, think of themselves as Christians.

    They uncritically accept anything that anyone they perceive as being more well-versed in the Bible than they are has to say about the contents therein.  If you say to them, “It’s in the Bible” with enough confidence, they will nod and create some vague false memory of someone saying something about that sometime back when they were kids in Sunday school.

    If you used words like “theodicy,” or “eschatology,” or “exegesis,” you
    would receive a confused – and suspicious (“Must be some kind of
    egghead!”) – look in response.

    They don’t necessarily believe that the Genesis story is 100% accurate, or that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, but they don’t fully accept what those egghead scientists say either (“What do they know?  They change their stories all the time.  And my grandfather wasn’t a monkey!”).  They think that the world is probably as much as a million years old (but no more than that), and they kinda-sorta believe that there had been a Garden of Eden and an Adam and Eve from whom we’re all descended, and that there really was a global flood.

    In short, they haven’t put a lot of thought into the stories they’ve been told, accepting them largely at face-value as being literally true, if perhaps just a bit off, and the idea that the “literal” view is anything but has never occurred to them.  Like Grandpa Simpson and his understanding of American history, they’ve mostly pieced together their understanding of Christianity and its relationship to the natural world  from the backs of sugar packets.

    So I don’t see the billboard as representing a belief that all Christians have a less-than nuanced view of the contents of the Bible, or even as accepting that the “illiteral” view is the correct understanding of Christian faith, but rather as an attempt at getting that segment of the population to critically examine their beliefs, which are beliefs that they hold simply because they’ve never really thought about it.

  • I mean– I don’t want to get cut-throat here, but– if the “talking snake” dismissal is silly, & it is because you can read Genesis as a moral lesson & not a literal account– it begs a more serious question.  Namely, “zombie Jesus” & “invisible old dude.”  

    Because…I mean, “Christ is risen” is a pretty serious part of the notion of being a Christian, right?  But a guy literally coming back from the dead?  A little hard to swallow.  & the idea that a God exists is pretty central to Christianity, right?  But an invisible unprovable omnipotent deity is also sort of…questionable.  

    I’m not trying to be argumentative here, but rather pointing out that approaches to the Bible that don’t end with “& so Jesus is my favorite ethical philosopher” are going to end up with pieces of…I dunno, supernatural intervention that smug atheists might take issue with?

  • Dave Lartigue

    It is interesting to me that nerds, who often rage against organized religion in general and Christianity specifically often react the exact same way to their own stories. Which is why you get people “explaining” the “Kessel Run in 12 parsecs” line or stopping to “correct” you if you make a joke involving Daleks and stairs (never mind that someone telling a joke about Daleks is probably more than aware that they have been shown to navigate stairs, the nerd still needs to go, “Um, actually…” and point out that the joke is “factually” incorrect.)  

    Most people don’t see the “flaw” of the “Kessel Run” line because they don’t care. It’s not an important part of the story. The idea that Han Solo is boastful and that his spaceship is fast is established and we move on. But for the True Believers, it’s a problem and it needs to be fixed, and it’s important that the fix be confirmed and validated and you end up with ridiculousness like this. For the believers this solves the problem of someone not taking the story “seriously” but they don’t realize (since nerds, like Fundamentalists, are incapable of getting out of their own heads) that this just looks MORE goofy to non-believers. 

  • congyoglas

    Russian Communism is proof that being an atheist has nothing to do with being a secular rationalist. You can be secular and still believe in a lot of crazy, destructive woo. Just like Bill Maher, aka the Bill Donahue of atheism. 

    (i.e., I have difficulty with the assertion that this: is the product of a rationalist society) 

  • congyoglas

    And the Bible _is_ full of nonsense. Horrible, hateful, bigoted nonsense. Some folks use that as an excuse to act out their hatreds Some folks are able to say “OK, let’s look past that and look at the good stuff” Some people don’t want to play that game at all. Pointing out the irrationality at the core of things does help. 

    To use an example: There are comic book fans who take the genre’s pretty serious problems with objectification of women and white-washing as reinforcement of their own fanboy misogyny and racism. There are comic book fans who can look past that to see strong narratives about powerful women and minority characters, and see the positive moral messages contained in the better stories. And then there are people who don’t like comic books. No, they don’t really care about how Superman defeated the dragonfly invasion of Metropolis in Superman #275 and what it has to tell us about how we should act towards one another (they can be good people without reading Superman); and they sure as hell don’t want their kids being forced to pray to Rao in public schools. Biblical exegesis, from the outside, is two guys arguing in a comic book shop. It’s _nice_ that the one guy takes socially liberal positions based on the source material, but my only interest in the argument is that the _other_ guy has locked the door and is demanding I worship Rao before I can leave. Sometimes pointing out “You know people can’t fly, right?” does help make a point. 

  • GDwarf

    They seem to be using what is possibly my favourite debate tactic: Assume that all of your opponent’s premises are correct, does this lead to any ridiculous answers? If so, you’ve shown that at least one premise is almost certainly wrong (if you can get outright contradictions from those premises then you’ve proven that at least one is definitely wrong).

    It’s probably the best way I’ve found to convince people who believe things like Biblical literalism because you don’t start off saying “your ideas are nonsense”, you treat them with at least some respect and then show that, inevitably, this will lead to something impossible. Ergo their ideas can’t be right.

    Of course, it doesn’t always work (sometimes you can’t get to a ridiculous conclusion from the premises; sometimes even pointing out that premise A directly contradicts B won’t get them to change their mind, either) but when it does it works very well.

  • Tonio

     I suspect that anti-theists like Maher are a vocal minority among atheists, just as fundamentalists who claim to read the Bible literally are a vocal minority among Christians. The latter are the same people who claim that Genesis 3:15 foreshadows Jesus, and that would fit any reasonable definition of a metaphorical reading. A few times I’ve encountered the argument that (paraphrase) “the Bible won’t make any sense to you unless you read it with faith.”

    I’m curious to know if anti-theists who insist on a literal reading tend to come from the same religious upbringings as fundamentalists, or if they had very little exposure to theology in childhood and are drawing conclusions based partly on the larger culture treating the book as authoritative. Perhaps the way that anyone reads the book is colored by the preconceptions that they pick up before opening it.

    Again, authoritative is not the same as literal. An authoritative non-literal reading of the Flood account would be the god being justified in wiping out almost the entire human race because of its wickedness, whether or not it actually happened. The meaning being “Everything God does is good, and if you’re wicked you deserve to die.” (And as a child, I was confused when the post-flood Noah got plastered and he didn’t get punished for no longer being virtuous.) I’m suggesting that reading these first and foremost as stories may only be possible if one presumes that the god is simply a powerful being with no particular moral authority, like in some of the polytheistic religions.

  • Tonio

    The fundamentalists who claim that 20th-century totalitarianism “proves” the evil of atheism and the anti-theists who claim that it “proves” the evil of religion are both wrong. Those murderous ideologies resemble the fundamentalist versions of religions because both are authoritarian first and theological or ideological second. They’re simply different flavors of authoritarianism.

  • Soviet and Chinese Communism did take on quasi-religious characteristics, as discussed in a book I used to have that was from the 1970s.

  • I agree with a lot of previous commenters that this is an example of using one’s opponent’s techniques to defeat one’s opponent’s positions.

    I disagree with the implicit endorsement of that strategy in this context.

    If Sam uses an invalid technique to support a false claim, and Pat responds by using the same technique to support an absurd claim, maybe Sam will be made to reject the technique and maybe they won’t. If they don’t, maybe they will be so shamed by believing patently absurd things they eventually drop the entire enterprise, and maybe they won’t.

    I agree that, for some Sams, Pats, claims and techniques, the odds are pretty good that Sam ends up less attached to the false claim than they started.

    And for some Sams, Pats, claims and techniques, the odds are pretty good that Sam ends up more attached.

    So using this strategy in a one-on-one conversation with a Sam I think is vulnerable to it might well lower the amount of false-claim-believing in the world.

    But using it in public? Where I can’t predict the Sams who are exposed to it?

    That strikes me as self-defeating.

  • Answers in Genesis is still getting millions in tax breaks from the state of Kentucky for its Ark Theme Park despite deep cuts to other programs in the state:

    So even though the billboard is in California and not Kentucky, I think Fred has singled out the wrong people for not knowing how to read a story.

  • rrhersh

    Count me against the consensus of the commentariat.  I have had experience with many fundamentalist atheists.  That is, atheists who insist that the Bible must be read literally.  Many seem surprised to find a self-identified Christian reading the Bible any other way, and interpret this as ex post facto back peddling. 

    Discussions of the history of Biblical exegesis make little impression on this crowd, as is to be expected when dealing with any sort of fundamentalist.  My current approach is to try to demonstrate that even the fundamentalist doesn’t really read all of the Bible literally. 

    My standard example is the familiar opening to Psalm 23:  “The Lord is my shepherd…”  We all understand that this is a poetic metaphor, in which God takes the role of a shepherd and the psalmist that of a sheep.  But if we are insisting on reading this literally, then this reading is impossible since the psalmist is not a literal sheep.  God must be literally herding some literal sheep somewhere.  Furthermore, since the psalmist describes God as “my” shepherd, this implies that God is in the psalmist’s employ.  The rest of the Psalm of course becomes a complete non sequitur. 

    The idea is to lead to a rational discussion of genre, and how this ought to inform our interpretation of the various texts collected as the Bible.  This happens occasionally, but the frequent response is slack-jawed incomprehension, both from self-identified Christians and atheists.

    So bringing this around to the billboard in question, I absolutely do not assume that it is intended as a critique of one particular school of Biblical exegesis.  I think it far more likely that the people putting it up are unaware of any other possibility, or if they are aware of this reject it out of hand.

  • congyoglas

    “We don’t REALLY believe that Superman is the Last Son of Krypton, and of course we reject those stupid fundamentalists who think we should all have to wear Kryptonian undergarments, we just believe that we should live our lives according to the principles laid out in Superman #347 where he-” 


    “You just don’t understand the principles of Action Comics exegesis. =(” 

  • congyoglas

    That’s an argument against all advertising, Dave. 

  • Tonio

    I think you missed two critical points.

    One is that the history of Biblical exegesis is not well known outside of the religion, and I suspect that even many regular churchgoers aren’t familiar with the history. Obviously that doesn’t excuse the anti-theists who assume that all Christians read the book literally. Still, it’s unrealistic to treat the exegesis as though it’s general knowledge.

    The other is that the Psalms are poetry, and the use of metaphor in that format is very well known. Any casual reader who would read the Psalms literally would probably be unfamiliar with poetry in any form.

  • I’m trying to follow the logic there. “Hey, those Answers in Genesis
    people are completely incompetent and ignorant when it comes to biology,
    geology and cosmology — so let’s assume they’re competent,
    knowledgeable and authoritative experts at biblical exegesis!”

    I’m gonna go right ahead and add my disagreement to this assessment to the people who have already commented on it.  Ironically enough, I’m going to do it with a story.  An IRONIC story.

    My high school youth pastor once did a thing where he read a little thing that was going around about the impossibility of Santa.  I don’t remember the details, but it basically came out to, “There are so damn many houses in the world and so much ground to cover that the reindeer would have to fly at Mach 9 with their hair on fire and even then Santa would only have 0.000034 seconds at each house.”  He then said that it’s absurd to believe in Santa because the facts don’t line up.

    And that turned into a, “But believe in Jesus, because the facts do line up,” sermon.  Looking back on that now it’s pretty damn absurd, since he was a pretty dead-on, run of the mill Biblical inerrantist, but of the sort who kind of handwaved the first couple chapters of Genesis away.  Still, I’m pretty sure he honestly believed the Noah story.

    As such, I see the billboard referenced above as an attempt to fight Biblical inerrant thinking on its own turf.  It might be a bad idea to do that, but I don’t see that it’s giving YECs any sort of cover.  It’s saying, “Hey, look at these guys and the implications of their insane belief.  You might as well believe in SANTA as Noah’s Flood…”

    As a history major I do similar things.  I can poke holes in the Bible’s timelines all day long (and I often have).  My personal favorite is the various OT interpretations of Persian succession, which are all wrong and internally inconsistent.  They also invent at least one Persian emperor whole-cloth for the book of Esther.

    For someone who likes history but has never really looked at the Bible as a historical document, that sort of thing is a useful conversation point.  I can point to texts.  I could take the person to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and say, “Hey, look, here are some artifacts that contradict the Bible.  In taking the claims seriously, then, I point out the absurdity underlying any belief that the Bible is anything other than a fallible historical document written by humans and limited to human understanding.

  • Tonio


    And that turned into a, “But believe in Jesus, because the facts do line up,” sermon.

    That type of inconsistency is why I find the metaphorical approach confusing. Obviously it makes sense to read the stories in Genesis that way. I would think this would apply equally to the Resurrection or even to the existence of the Christian god.

  • I agree with Fred on this one.

    Arguing with someone on their own terms makes a lot of sense, putting up a billboard that indicates that those terms are the only ones one can argue on just reinforces their position.

    Anyone reading that is being told that there’s only one way to read the bible.  It’s going to be much easier for a pastor to convince people that the literal way is the only way if they can honestly point out that even atheists are claiming that’s the right way.  It doesn’t actually logically follow, but “Both sides agree on this,” can be used as a strong argument in favor of, “This is true.”

    More than that, for anyone who knows that that isn’t the only way to read the bible, it’s going to be clearly identifiable bullshit and bring up the question of why one can’t make their argument without being misleading.  While it’s true that being disingenuous doesn’t mean the overall point is untrue, I instinctively have serious doubts about the veracity of any claim I see supported by obviously misleading arguments.

    It would be like if someone, I’m going to say a fictional reader called Erich von Lahaye, interpreted this blog to be saying that aliens were coming to stop Jesus (an argument could be made by taking things out of context and interpreting story as fact.)  And then someone else made a post which, by uncritically interpreting Erich von Lahaye’s interpretation as the correct interpretation, argued that Fred Clark’s writings were absurd.

    A nonsense interpretation doesn’t mean that the thing being interpreted is nonsense (doesn’t mean that it’s not either) but by pointing the thing at the “biblical” rather than the “literalist” it’s made that claim.

    The Freethought Alliance Conference is addressing the religious on the literalists terms.  Consider the reverse (which already happens often enough.)  That’s the literalist addressing the nonreligious on the FAC’s terms.  The FAC has come out saying that if you can find any interpretation of something that is nonsense, then the entire thing is suspect.  So, by the standards of the Freethought Alliance Conference, all we need to do to demonstrate that archaeology shouldn’t be trusted is to point to the ancient aliens people.

    That’s not the kind of ground I particularly want to be on.  I know that often enough we’re already there, but I don’t think we ought to be encouraging it.

  • That’s an argument against all advertising, Dave.

    If so, I don’t follow how.

    I mean, sure, if it turns out that all advertising techniques have unpredictable and potentially counterproductive results when applied to a general population, then I agree… and in that case, I would stand by the argument against all advertising techniques.

    But I find it unlikely that that’s the case in the real world.

    Can you expand on your reasoning here?

  •  That type of inconsistency is why I find the metaphorical approach
    confusing. Obviously it makes sense to read the stories in Genesis that
    way. I would think this would apply equally to the Resurrection or even
    to the existence of the Christian god.

    Which is another one of those places where taking a look at the Bible as a serious historical document becomes tricky for the believer.  Two of the Gospels have mutually-exclusive time periods for Jesus’ birth that are separated by approximately 10 years.  So if we’ve accepted that Genesis is scientifically impossible and the OT is historically impossible, then we get to Jesus and realize that story, too, has massive problems.

    At that point if you’re intellectually honest you have to reject Biblical inerrancy.  The only options, then, are to go with a pick-and-choose metaphorical thing or to reject the entire idea.  I went with the latter.

    Of course, as has been noted many times right on this blog, the inerrantists pick and choose, too.  How else do you get a Jesus who was all about hatin’ gays and saying, “Screw the poor?”

  • Morilore

    The Freethought Alliance Conference is addressing the religious on the literalists terms.  Consider the reverse (which already happens often enough.)  That’s the literalist addressing the nonreligious on the FAC’s terms. 

    The Freethought Alliance Conference isn’t addressing the religious. It’s deliberately repelling Christians.  The banner isn’t an argument, it’s a signpost.

  • Morilore

    I agree with you that the kind of conduct your first paragraph is discussing is deplorable and that Bill Maher is a jackass.  Atheists lecturing religious people about their own religion are always foolish and awful.  However, by the same token…

    And when you start throwing around things like “Ha! Your bible is full of nonsense!” I am disinclined to suppose that their position is so nuanced as to be “Youtr interpretation of the bible is invalid and this is why,” and not “You are correctly interpreting the bible, but the bible is nonsense!”

    Why should an atheist be asked to have a nuanced position on the valid interpretation of the Bible?  

  • I am going to side with Fred on this one. “What other Biblical nonsense is there?” reads to me pretty clearly as critiquing the Bible from a “literalist” standpoint, not critiquing “literalism” as a method of interpreting the Bible.

    And I agree with Morilore that the banner is not an argument, it’s a signpost.

    I have often wondered why some atheists hold to the same “either all of it is literally true, or none of it has any value” attitude towards the Bible that fundamentalist “literalists” hold.

    I am tempted to suspect that it is primarily a result of people being raised with that “literalist” belief system, and when they finally can’t deny the absurdity of a “literalist” reading any more they retain the underlying “all or nothing” belief.

    I have encountered more than a few atheists who regard all Christianity, or even all religion, as exactly like whatever they were raised with, period. These are usually the loudmouth jerks who dictate to other people what they really believe, because all X believe Y.

    But I don’t know what the actual numbers are, because in any group the loudmouth jerks like Bill Maher or Christopher Hitchens get the most attention. And most of the atheists that I have met are people who simply seem to lack any religious impulse, for whom religion is just something other people do.

    Is it just an underlying mindset like authoritarianism? Is it people locked into the pattern of thinking they were raised with, unable to reject the premise even if they reject the conclusion? I don’t know.

  • The_L1985

    I grew up being told that Answers in Genesis was right. By my teachers (private school), whom I should have been able to trust. My parents did not know this until after the fact.

    I know more than I want to about vapor canopies, instant apple-based mutations, and accelerated continental drift in the days of Peleg.