Sunday, October 15, 2006

Richard Dawkins on literalism

Richard Dawkins has an interview in Salon promoting his new anti-religious book. He makes a number of claims against religion (in all its forms). None of them is particularly good, and I've got something to say about them all. But I'll start with a relatively easy one:
Dawkins: [Some people who were raised religious] remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue.
So, the first claim I'd like to address:

Believers who don't interpret their religious texts literally don't really believe in those texts.

Regarding the possibility of different ways of really believing in scripture, I'll just repeat this bit from this Real Live Preacher post:
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.

He knows something that you do not know.
So, yes, you can interpret scripture non-literally, and yet truly believe in it.

But there's a deeper problem with Dawkins' claim. Far from believing that only a literalist can really believe in a religious text, I'm actually inclined towards aliteralistism: the belief that literalists don't exist. At least, I believe that this is the case in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

My reasoning here is that there are verses in the Old Testament which cannot be interpreted literally. And by "cannot" I mean it's impossible--not wrong or awkward or silly, but impossible. Consider, for example, Song of Solomon 4:12 (I've chosen the King James translation, which is of course the most literalisty of all translations):
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Interpreted literally, this verse means that there exists a garden, which is also a spring and a fountain, and that this garden/spring/fountain is the author's sister and his wife. It's not just false or silly or awkward, but (literally) impossible to suppose that the author of the verse is saying any such thing. (Just to be perfectly clear, I'll point out the problems here. For one thing, while springs and fountains are kinda similar, gardens aren't much like either of them--although a garden might contain a spring, a garden cannot be identical to a spring. For another thing, neither a garden nor a spring nor a fountain is a person; hence such an entity cannot be a member of a human family as a sister, and cannot enter the bonds of holy matrimony as a spouse. As for the claim that the author of the verse is married to his sister, that's a little weird, but there might be some precedent for that sort of thing in the Old Testament.)

So I can only conclude that, when it is claimed that someone is a literalist, that claim is necessarily false, and also crazy.

Either that, or the term "literalist" isn't meant to be interpreted literally, which would be cute.

(Via Jesus Politics.)


MisterEff said...

Running low on time, but I think it's fair to say that your example is a little unfair to Dawkins. I think it's a bit of a tretch to suggest that because there are instances of metaphors in the bible that people can't be biblical literalists. Sure they can't be pure literalists, but that really is getting nit-picky. There does seem to be a set of people for whom the description literalists seems apt. But I'm of to get a free DVD player now, and might expound on this later.

Anonymous said...

You miss the point. The literalist interpretation of Song of Solomon is that there was a chap called Solomon and he, himself and no other wrote the song. It's poetry, it's supposed to be metaphorical. You are being a tad disingenuous.

That said - I'd love to see a debate between Dawkins and the RL Preacher. Good call on him as example of religious good.

Toby said...


My rejection of literalism isn't an attack on Dawkins in particular, but on the very idea of literalism. To say that this is nitpicky and unfair it so say that it's nitpicky and unfair to expect a self-described literalist to use the word "literal" literally, and I don't think that's an overly high standard at all.

Now, Dawkins isn't responsible for the existence of the notion of literalism, which is (when literally interpreted) incoherent. He is, however, responsible for his use of the notion in service of his anti-religious polemic (self-described literalists are a relatively easy target for him; people who don't fit in that category aren't such an easy target, so he just postulates that they aren't true believers).


I suppose the Song of Solomon might be a weak example, but it was the first example that occurred to me of obviously metaphorical language in the OT. There are plenty of other examples in the bible. What, for example, is the literalist interpretation of the armour of God?

Anyway, it's true that if you allow that the literalist interpretation of the bible isn't literally literal, then my criticism of literalism falls flat. But, then, see my response to Eff.

Anonymous said...

How hard is this to understand?

A literalist is someone who believes today's Australian kangaroos are descended from the ones in Noah's Ark, Jesus' Y chromosome, if he had one, did not come from Joseph, snakes lost their limbs fairly recently ..... you get the idea.