On Literal Interpretation

On Literal Interpretation August 19, 2007

“I’ve written before about one variety of mirror-opposites of these illiteralist believers… those who I call ‘sectarian atheists.’ These are usually folks who start out like Marshall Hall, fully indoctrinated in the all-or-nothing illiteralism of American fundamentalism. They start out believing, like Hall, that the Earth must be fixed or else the Bible is false and there is no God and life is meaningless despair. And then they catch a glimpse of the moons of Jupiter or of an eclipse or of a middle-school science textbook and they realize that the Earth moves. At this point they declare themselves ‘atheists,’ yet for all their supposed rejection of their previous beliefs, they continue to share Hall’s way of looking at the world. Theirs is an extremely sectarian, parochial atheism — the God in which they no longer believe is a very particular kind of God.”


The influence still wielded in our society by religious fundamentalists is undeniable. From science to reproductive rights to freedom of speech, there is scarcely an area in which their presence is not felt. And yet, when we atheists train our fire on them, we are often accused of being too parochial in our outlook, too literal in our interpretation. There are far subtler and more sophisticated interpretations of scripture, we are told, which are not vulnerable to the criticisms that unseat the clumsy literalism of the fundamentalists. These beliefs, we are further told, are the ones we must engage with if we ever want to have a truly justified atheism, and that to do anything else is to flail at strawmen.

The theologians who hold this view usually claim that large parts of the Bible, or whatever other text, should not be read literally and were never meant to be read literally. Instead, they should be interpreted as allegory meant to convey a spiritual message. The argument usually asserts that after everything else – the six-day creation, the global flood, the exodus from Egypt, the united monarchy, Heaven and Hell, sometimes even the miracles of Jesus – is recognized as the metaphor and symbolism it was meant to be, there remains an irreducible core of verses that should be interpreted literally. Usually, these verses are the ones that convey the message of God’s existence, his providence, and his love for all of humanity.

Certainly, these theologians are on the right track. The miracle stories in the Bible lack credibility: they are contradicted by evidence, and completely fail to cohere with the lawful, rational view of the world we have spent the last several centuries painstakingly developing. No intelligent person should believe that these fantastical fairy tales took place exactly as written. Literal belief in these stories has been and continues to be a tremendous impediment to human progress, and regarding them as mere metaphor is a large step forward. In this respect, I fully agree with the believers who say that these stories should be treated as myths.

However, though the theologians are pointed in the right direction, I think they have not gone far enough. Their progressive mythologization of the Bible is a good idea, but it stops at an arbitrary point for no good reason. Why don’t they go further and admit that the concept of “God” is itself just a metaphor for the way ancient cultures viewed the world? If they were to do this, they’d finally have a theology that is rational and in accord with the evidence, and one with which an atheist could agree without qualm.

We atheists are not, as the above quote implies, wedded to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nor is that the only religious view we oppose. I freely admit, we do spend most of our time attacking that literal view and demonstrating its fallacy, because that is the kind of view that poses the greatest threat to moral and intellectual progress. But we disbelieve equally in all religious views, regardless of their degree of literalism, as I wrote last year in “Setting the Record Straight“. Our response to liberal believers, who want us to take a certain set of scriptural verses literally, is the same as our response to fundamentalists, who want us to take a somewhat larger set of verses literally. If you want to go there and no further, what is your evidence? What are the facts that give us reason to believe that what you say is true?

"Or they say 'he technically wasn't an atheist, so therefore he might as well have ..."

2000 Years of Disbelief: Albert Einstein
"Oh, yes. And there's also this: https://rationalwiki.org/wi..."

2000 Years of Disbelief: Albert Einstein
"And Jesoids quote Einstein as a theist."

2000 Years of Disbelief: Albert Einstein
"But there will be other cooperative democratic societies, capable of defending themselves, too."

Downward, Christian Soldiers

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!