Response to Thomas McDonald.

Thomas McDonald has a post up in praise of St. Augustine (that randy fellow who reasoned that erections were sinful, that women were inferior to men, and who, in his book City of God, reasoned that heretics should be tortured).  McDonald uses the opportunity to take some quite a few shots at atheists.  He opens with…

It’s fun to read or listen to super-duper-smart professional atheists (well, they think they’re smart) banging on about the book of Genesis.

Just wait until we get into defenses of Genesis and Augustine that McDonald does consider to be super smart.

It’s a useful issue for them, because the primeval history in scripture is mysterious, complex, and rich in symbolism.  So, naturally, Reason Warriors approach it with the childish literalism of a young-earth creationist. Perhaps this works for them because fundamentalism is ill-equipped to properly understand Genesis, which is why friends don’t let friends be fundamentalists.

It’s ironic how the bible, throughout the ages, becomes more “symbolic” as humanity learns more.  Consider for a moment that the reason there are four gospels is because there were four corners of the earth (Ezekiel 7:2, Isaiah 11:12, Job 37:3).  Taken literally by the Catholic church, they murdered heretic astronomers for speculating to the contrary.  It cannot be argued that the early Catholic and church leaders did not take those scriptures literally.  Of course, as human reason, not divine revelation, has exposed those scriptures as false, Catholics like McDonald have taken the intellectually dishonest route of saying they are still true (only symbolically so), rather than wrong.

Or consider how these “symbolic” scriptures treated Galileo. Though a tribunal of high-ranking Catholic arbiters found him guilty of heresy, stating in their unanimous report that heliocentrism was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith,” Galileo got out easy because he was friends with Pope Paul V.  By agreeing to abandon the issue thereafter, he would get away with house arrest for the rest of his life.

Of course, as we have learned through science and human reason, the scriptures that lead to these beliefs (like 1 Chronicles 16:30) were wrong.  Only once they are exposed to the wisdom of mortals did they become “symbolic,” and only then when death and censorship could no longer carry the day.

And what’s more, why is scripture mysterious?  I mean, McDonald says that like it’s a good thing.  If you really want to communicate with someone in a way that doesn’t create confusion, mysterious is the last thing you want to be.  Who says of science textbooks that they’re good because they’re mysterious?  Nobody, because those books are intended to convey ideas as plainly as possible.  Being mysterious would mean their authors failed, and any fair-minded reader must hold the bible to the same standard.

The crime of both atheists and fundamentalists in this case is the same crime of the faithful throughout the ages: of taking god at his word.  If you ever have to explain the difference between what god said and what god meant, in that moment you have claimed to be a superior communicator to god.

One of their techniques is to throw out an endless litany of questions about the creation of the world and then demand instant answers, usually from some poor sap unequipped to respond knowledgeably. “Oh yeah, so God made light before he made the sun? He made plants before he made the sun needed for them to grow? Why are there two creation stories? Huh? HUH?!” And then they stand back in triumph, fold their arms across their chest, marvel at their own genius, and wait for the poor sap to fumble his way through a few pathetic replies.

In his post, does McDonald go on to explain how it makes the slightest amount of sense to say that light came before the sun?  Does he defend the existence of two conflicting creation stories?   No, he doesn’t.  Neither does he explain how the earth and the heavens could have been created together when the earth came several billions of years after the Big Bang or how birds and whales coming before reptiles and insects makes any sense even symbolically.

But he’ll sure make fun of the people who raise an eyebrow at those things.

This kind of low-hanging fruit is the bread-and-butter of the atheist combox troll and meme-maker, but the really hilarious thing is that their questions are all so pathetic. Because atheists believe they have the corner on reason and logic, they develop an inflated sense of their own intelligence. They gather for “Reason Rallies” as though reason was a wholly owned subsidiary of Atheism Inc., rather than something inherited from the centrality of Aristotelianism to Catholic theology, and thus to Western civilization.

We owe reason to the people saying it can support the idea of someone rising from the dead?  Riiiiiiight.  On the question of people rising from the dead and walking on water, there are correct answers that require only the most minimal application of reason.  On those questions, atheists do undoubtedly have the monopoly on reason.

[Atheists'] questions barely even skim the surface of the incredibly deep, profound, vexing, and glorious texts of Genesis 1 & 2.

If you want deep and glorious, read a science book.  If you want the inane ramblings of people completely ignorant of all mankind has learned in the last several thousand years, read the bible.

Genesis is not deep.  There is not a single sentence in it that could not have been written by a very ordinary person from millennia ago.  There is no concept in Genesis that contributes to our knowledge in the present and plenty, like those cited above, that stand in opposition to it.

Neither is the book of Genesis vexing.  The question of why there are two conflicting creation stories is not some mystery as to what god was trying to convey while seeming to be contradictory.  The answer is that they were made up by two different people.  Genesis talks of giants (Genesis 6:4).  The question of how giants could exist when there is no evidence for them is not vexing, the answer is that just like global floods, witches, and more, giants never existed and the bible is, again, wrong.  If the Christian believes giants didn’t exist, but that god was trying to convey something else by saying giants did exist, I must wonder how these people get about their daily lives.  When their spouse says “I want a divorce” do these people think they mean “do you want your eggs scrambled?”

To excuse the lunacy of the bible by re-branding it symbolism, you are indicting god for having communication skills that fail to rival humanity’s most inept writers.  Look at all the confusion about what god wants!  Did god not foresee this?  If you, Thomas McDonald, are capable of putting it in a way that others can understand, why didn’t god use your fucking words?

And, for the record, the rest of the bible is neither profound or glorious either.  The idea that people should have ever been killed for working on Saturday (Exodus 35:2) cannot possibly be interpreted figuratively, and it is among the more morally repugnant ideas every conceived.  There was never a time when that amounted to anything close to moral wisdom, and certainly it was never “glorious.”  The idea that you can be punished eternally for your honest opinion is also idiotic and unjust.  The very notion that god would make a world where believing absurd things results in suffering, but make entrance into heaven based not on generosity, but rather on our ability to believe someone rose from the dead, is about as far from glorious as it gets.

There is no more important theologian in the history of Christianity than Augustine.

Beware wayward erections.

Augustine recognized two levels of scripture in most of his exegesis: literal and figurative. The figurative meaning was a kind of typology, in which each event in the Bible stands for something else, usually a prefiguration of Christ.

How easy would it have been for god, who would’ve seen all the confusion coming, to dictate which parts were figurative and which weren’t?  This would’ve kept Catholics for thousands of years (including Augustine) from looking like absolute dunces by the light of modernity (he could’ve even included a passage just for Augustine saying “Oh, by the way, don’t torture nonbelievers.  Ever.  That’s a shitty idea.”).

What’s more, is there any profession so idiotic that it cannot be excused by calling it symbolism?  World has four corners?  That’s just a symbolic way of saying “round!”  There were giants?  That’s just a symbolic way of saying there were no giants!  At what point do you stop excusing every offense to science or morality as symbolism and just admit that the authors of the book lived in a time where that knowledge was not yet available; that they were humans who were just fucking wrong?

In his literal interpretation, however, he’s trying to understand what Genesis really says. He’s not searching for either an analogy (the figurative meaning) or a purely literal meaning (what we now would call literalism or fundamentalism), but is instead querying the text about what it means.

Good communicators say what they mean.  Clearly, god is not a good communicator.

[Augustine] repeatedly warns against interpretations that defy the clear evidence of the sciences.

Like Genesis 1?

He was extremely concerned that foolish Christians reading scripture too literally would bring discredit on the entire faith.

I don’t see how they could be more foolish than the god who wrote “mysteriously” as you put it, Thomas.  If writing mysteriously is good, how can you jump on them for not getting it right?  What’s more, how can you jump on them for doing what Catholics for most of history did (re: Galileo’s tribunal above); taking god at his word?

Augustine rejected interpretations which defied the science of his day.

But he accepted interpretations (geocentricity) that defied the science of our day.  That’s the point.  In terms of wisdom, the bible has nothing on modern humans.  Nothing wiser than us could have written it.

If something in scripture contradicts a settled fact, then the job of the exegete is to arrive an reasonable interpretation of the passage. There can be no contradiction between two certainties. Where one is certain, the other must yield, whether that yielding takes place in the realm of science or scriptural interpretation. In the following centuries, both St. Thomas Aquinas and Galileo would cite the arguments developed by Augustine in these pages.

McDonald is so close to being sensible here.  Where one is certain, the other must yield.  Only in McDonald’s universe “to yield” means to start redefining words.  For every sensible person yielding, in a case like this, means to reject.  If you know that human limbs don’t regenerate, and someone tells you that their amputated hand grew back, it’s obvious which of those claims must yield.  It’s also obvious that yielding does not mean saying that we must interpret “grew back” as “scarred over.”

Then McDonald goes into full-on apologetic nonsense mode.

This is what atheists always fail to understand, and they will never understand it as long as they remain mired in a materialistic mindset: in matters of faith, the questions are the point.

Don’t you see?  The bible can’t be wrong because only answers can be wrong, and Catholicism is concerned with questions!

If the question is “How can such an inane thing be contorted so that it means something that could be true?” then it’s a lousy question.

Questions are important, but so are answers.  It was never moral to kill somebody based on what day they worked.  That is an answer that is as close to absolute moral truth as we can get.  If you say otherwise, you will be a walking testament to religion’s ability to mangle someone’s compassion.  The bible gets that question wrong, as it does for so many others.

And a materialistic mindset is the right mindset to have!  It wasn’t prayer that cured disease, provided plentiful food, predicted the paths of hurricanes, purified water, and in all other ways transformed this planet into a paradise instead of a land of threats, it was people using the materialist mindset of science.  Even if god exists, the instincts he gave for us to navigate the world (a world populated with stronger, faster animals who want to eat us) are all tuned into things in a purely materialistic way: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.  These are what we have used to figure out the way the universe works.  It’s how we have acquired the information that has allowed us to conquer every challenge that we have.  This comprises a huge collection of evidence in favor of a materialist universe, with absolutely no sensible evidence to the contrary.

There are questions that can have no answer, but we benefit from asking them anyway, or at least from considering them. “Why do you love me?” is something every lover wonders at some point. There’s no decent answer to that question, because often love lies beyond the realm of reason. It’s the one thing the atheists and materialists will never be able to probe and understand, and their deterministic, biochemical solutions are laughable in the face of the sheer power and mystery of love.

Not-so-amazingly, atheists get the importance of asking questions.  We also get that there are questions that can have answers, and that answers and evidence are also important (this is what the theist doesn’t seem to get).  Here’s one such question:

Which is more likely: that god was trying to convey a deep meaning with the message that whales came before insects; or that people from an age ignorant of virtually the sum of human knowledge made shit up?

Here’s another one:

Which is more likely: that a Canaanite Jew rose from the dead; or that people can make up stories like they have in every other religion?

The answer to both is obvious, and every single Catholic, including Thomas McDonald, gets them embarrassingly wrong.

And how on earth can you say that love lies beyond reason?  Michaelyn asked me just the other night why I loved her and I didn’t just stare at her like a deer in head lights before finally saying “I just have faith” or “there are some questions that cannot have answers.”  I said she was kind to those who cannot benefit her, that she had more empathy than most other human beings, that she teaches me things every day, that she’s honest, that she isn’t jealous or possessive, etc. (I went on quite a list that would undoubtedly bore people to tears if I kept going).

It’s like Tim Minchin says, love without evidence is stalking.

And how can you say that we’ll never understand the machinations in the brain that produce love?  We’ve already begun to understand them!

Besides, if you’re counting on us never being able to figure something out in an analogy to your faith, then your faith is based on ignorance.  That’s a shitty way to go about forming beliefs when “I don’t know” is available as an alternative.  It’s the more humble and honest option.

And that’s why we’ll never have a concrete answer to the mystery of creation as expressed in Genesis: it was a pure act of unselfish love.

Really?  Because it looks like the cosmological pontifications of a tribe that scarcely knew enough to not eat with the same hand they used to wipe their ass.

It’s the puzzle at the heart of existence, and we do well to question it, to ask what it means, to try to make sense of it all.

Which we do through a host of disciplines including the various sciences, none of which will ever say that the earth came before the stars.  That idea is not beautiful, it’s not wise.  It is only fiction at best, and transparently wrong at worst.

You see, creation itself is a giant, complex, ever-renewing answer the most important question of all. It’s a question so profound and so basic to our existence that the answer has to be written across eternity. The question is “How do I express love?”

Answer: not by killing your only son when you didn’t have to.  Not by genocide.  Not by turning someone’s wife into a pillar of salt.  And not with a muddled collection of contradictions and falsehoods that will be indefensible in the 21st century.

And how does God answer that question?

All the ways you’re not supposed to.  See above.

The answer is all around us. We’re looking at it, walking on it, breathing it. Creation. Life. The Universe. Time. Space. Matter. God’s answer to that question was simple and profound: Let there be light. And that light was the life of the world.

By that logic, we’re also feeling god’s love when cancer whittles us away to nothing.  We’re feeling god’s love whenever our wisdom teeth get impacted.  By McDonald’s logic, our use of penicillin is a rejection of god’s love, since he conceived of the infections that made it necessary.

That excerpt from McDonald is an inane piece of evidence-empty word salad.  How on earth does the existence of stuff prove god’s love?  Quite literally everything we have ever explained has been found to be the direct result of mindless forces acting upon inanimate objects.  Pointing to the universe only confirms the existence of a universe, it has no bearing on weather a god exists or loves us.

And then his last bit of bare ugliness.

Atheists have nothing to say about religion and creation that is of the tiniest possible interest to me. Been there, done it, growed up and put on my big boy pants. Denial of God is about intellectually credible as denial of the holocaust. Since it makes my fingers ache to constantly delete your comments, I’m just shutting them down. I’ve got work to do. Go play somewhere else.

I hope Thomas McDonald doesn’t also think Catholicism is a path to humility.

So denial of god is as credible as denial of the Holocaust?  Do we have pictures of god?  Can everybody who believes they’ve experienced god give corroborating accounts in the same way that those who survived the concentration camps can?  What a positively idiotic thing for McDonald to say.

And McDonald, your post was a sneering, arrogant screed that derided atheists directly and also derided theism through your terrible arguments.  I hope you realize the irony of boasting about how you “growed up” after a whole post of insults at atheists that should’ve been written in crayon, and after you put your fingers squarely into your ears and said you were uninterested in listening to the opposing side.  It seems you’re all growed up in the same way the Catholic church don’t protect child rapists.

(Hint: that’s not symbolic.  You’re not and they do.)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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