Thursday, April 12, 2007

Talking to Christians and Literary Analysis as the Foundation of Belief

In the discussion of this post by Beep! Beep! It's Me!, things are getting into the endurance flames part of the discussion with a couple of Christians who post there. Eventually, it seems to me, virtually all discussions with Christians of conscience about their co-religionists that are fundie nutjobs boil down to a variant of the No True Scotsman fallacy. In this context, it's an interminable discussion about what constitutes a “true Christian”. This then goes around and around and around, with the non-Christians saying that all Christians think they're the true Christians and using the No True Scotsman fallacy on all other Christians, and the Christians asserting that through some interpretation of the Bible that you can deduce a true from a non-true Christian, and then the non-Christians saying that's what all Christians say . . . so forth, and so on.

I'm not going to focus on the No True Scotsman fallacy, but how Christians use literary interpretation as their epistemological foundation. Because, to me, that seems the bigger issue.

So, when a person asserts something that a Christian (or other religious person, it's just that in America a body almost always has this discussion with Christians) objects to, the fundamental authority that must be appeals to is the Bible, or, more precisely, that Christian's interpretation of the Bible.

So what happens is every discussion about a matter of weight with a Christian is transformed into a discussion about the true meaning of the Bible. Discussing the age of the earth? Go to the Bible. Discussing politics? Go to the Bible. Discussing feminism? Go to the Bible.

This is a form of conversation stopper, then. When a Christian brings up a Bible, what they're saying is they're appealing to an unimpeachable authority. And what I think is important, here, is the authority isn't the Bible. The Bible is a vast, sprawling work that is complex, and often contradictory. The Bible says a lot of things in a lot of language, and is literal in places, metaphorical in others, with no clear distinction between the two. The authority is the person's interpretation of the Bible.

Most people, of course, have not comprehensively detailed their interpretation of the Bible. To do so looks to me like a very daunting task. Indeed, most Christians don't know the Bible well enough to speak passingly about it, much less comprehensively about it. But even if the Christian in question does have a comprehensive, internally consistent interpretation of the Bible, it's almost always largely hidden in the mind of the Christian.

But, that's not how Christians present the argument, by and large. In my experience, they don't go, “In my personal interpretation of the Bible, which is a vast and confusing book with many seeming contradictions, I feel Jesus clearly says that fags should be butchered.” They go, “The Bible SAYS that fags should be butchered” when, in truth, what the Bible says is difficult to parse even for a lifelong dedicated student of the Bible.

So, when discussing the Bible with virtually all Christians, you're actually discussing a very particular, and usually hidden, interpretation of the Bible that has been elevated to absolute, unimpeachable truth in the mind of the Christian. And, with almost every issue of importance, a Christian will use their divinely revealed interpretation as an unimpeachable authority.

Unsurprisingly, this is a conversation stopper. When that happens, when a Christian pulls out their (hidden, undiscussed interpretation) of the Bible as the last authority, the other person has to either agree or the discussion ends. It ends particularly hard for non-Christians – almost no Christian is going to admit that a non-Christian's interpretation of the Bible is valid. So even when a non-Christian confronts a Christian with Biblical material, it simply doesn't matter because non-Christian interpretations of the Bible are automatically meaningless in discussions of the Bible. Christians largely believe that non-Christians have no right to interpret the Bible.

(Which is not true in other forms of literary criticism, I should note. In literary criticism outside of religion, different styles of interpretation co-exist. So, when discussing, say, Freud, a Marxist critique of Freud is not automatically dismissed by a post-modernist; the post-modernist might disagree with the Marxist, but they don't reject the legitimacy of the Marxist's right to interpret. Indeed, in literary criticism, a person might accept both interpretations! And, always, they are aware that it is an interpretation made by a human for human purposes, without divine inspiration or guidance.)

Thus, it seems to me that most religion is an epistemological system based off of chance prejudices that are sanctified by appeal to sacred literature, and this appeal to sacred literature is, itself, merely a biased interpretation of the religion's works. It creates an internally isolated epistemological world based on holy feelings, and any deviation from that world is regarded not merely as error but sin. Unsurprisingly, this makes it pretty hard to talk to religious people.

Which, again, puts me off the very idea of religion, at least how most Christians and Muslims practice it, at any rate. Because, even if a Christian believes something that is true, the reason isn't that they've reasoned it out, but that they have decided their belief coincides with the Bible, and then they elevate their belief to the status of divine inspiration against which nothing at all is allowed to intrude. They are right not because they have used reason, but merely because they have decided, and appealed to an ultimate authority. Religion seems to have nothing good about it, really.

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L>T said...

You say it so well. I have nothing to add, but:

The B.I.B.L.E. yes that's the book for me
I stand alone on the word of God
The B.I.B.L.E.

April 12, 2007 4:47 PM  
divabeq said...

Thanks to L>T, I've just flashed back to my Baptist upbringing. Ouch.

April 12, 2007 5:38 PM  
L>T said...

ha ha!. I know all those songs.

I was baptized when I was 6 in the Baptist denomination.(My mothers idea) Again at 10 in the Assembilys(?) of God denomination.(some idealistic 10 year old fantasy) & then (on my own volition), with my husband after we became born again. That's gotta be some kind of record. :)

April 12, 2007 8:08 PM  
beepbeepitsme said...

Thyanks for commenting on this. It seems that every christian knows who is a true christian and who is not. Just ask them.

Of course you will rarely get the same answer twice.

April 12, 2007 10:17 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


You made me cringe with the whole song thing, hehe. I was blessed to be born Catholic, where at least we have good music. ;)

April 12, 2007 10:53 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


Demmit, don't I know it. Them and their church is a "real Christian" but the rest of them ain't. *shakes head* Like I said in your blog, it's the second oldest story in Christianity, after the Passion, itself -- Christians accusing each other of not being sufficiently Christian. I mean, it starts in ACTS, fer cryin' out loud!

April 12, 2007 10:54 PM  
Mystery of Iniquity said...

EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT points. I have an M.A. in English and we studied the bible as another of many mythological texts in the tradition of Hesiod's Theogony and Ovid's Metamorphoses. I also used to be a fundamentalist christian. You are spot on with your analysis of HOW ordinary untrained, christians attempt to read the bible and how they argue for it as authoritative. Recognizing the fallacy of their position is far more important to the debate than what the bible actually says. Thanks for a thoughtful, analysis of this phenomenon!

April 13, 2007 4:52 AM  
L>T said...

I was blessed to be born Catholic, where at least we have good music. ;)

I spent a little time in a Catholic reform school.(it was an old Convent named "Villa Saint Rose") I liked mass, all those bleeding sad eyed saints lining the walls, & listening to priests drone in Latin. All that gothic imagery. It was so...religious, but not in that crazy bright spiritual pentocostal way that I had grown up with.
If I ever wanted to go "religious" I'd go Catholic.

April 13, 2007 6:00 AM  
The Alpha said...

I'm taking an interesting class right now regarding the law and religion. A question came up regarding why so many segregationists called themselves Christians. Undoubtedly, most Christians went on and on about how they weren't Christians. My reply was somehting like this.

For a book like the Bible, that relies heavily on parables, metaphors, and various other vehicles of imagery it's difficult to say that someone's interpretation of the Bible is incorrect. While you may disagree with their interpretation that doesn't make it incorrect. While you would like to distance yourselves from them, you are going to have to do more than simply say that's not what the Bible says.

April 13, 2007 8:21 AM  
Chris Bradley said...


Thanks! In the past few years, the way that political and religious conservatives have been nihilistically deconstructionist has fascinated me. ;)

April 13, 2007 1:16 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


It's pretty obviously I agree with your sentiment, yeah. It is my experience that conservatives, more than anyone right now, use the flexibility of language in a dishonest way to suppress other people's arguments and advance their own.

Another obvious example of this is the word "theory". In almost all creationism and ID debates, theory is promoted by the religious side as meaning "an untested guess". However, in science, theory means an idea that unifies a great number of scientific laws. So, classical theory in physics covers Newtonian mechanics -- all those laws of motion and gravitation. So, in science, a theory is more powerful than a scientific law. Yet, there they go, time and again, saying that a scientific theory is a guess -- even though anyone with even a touch of real knowledge of the subject knows otherwise.

Stuff like that, I think, demonstrates the unfair way that conservatives manipulate language to advance intellectually indefensible positions. And they certainly do it with the Bible.

April 13, 2007 1:20 PM  
Krystalline Apostate said...

It's all about allegory.
I think allegory's something that has shifted from (via evolution) seeking hidden signs for survival to hidden meanings in communication.

April 13, 2007 5:15 PM  
Homo Escapeons said...

This is exactly why using the exact same logic and the following phrase is absolutely essential in dealing with Saturday morning proselytizers at your doorstep..

"I know you are,
but what am I..

April 16, 2007 9:54 AM  

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