Sunday, February 21, 2010

On the Intellectual Stance of Bible Literalists

It has been stated by several people (Coyne, Myers, Dawkins) that bible literalists are more intellectually honest than their liberal counterparts. But, is there any truth to this claim? On the opposite side of the spectrum others have fired back with the claim that “All Christian believers pick and choose”, which they claim negates the above statement that bible literalists are more intellectually honest than liberal theologians. So what do we make of this apparent contradiction? Well, it is obvious that what bible literalists believe is different than their modern liberal counterparts, but, do these beliefs make them more intellectually honest?

Intellectual honesty is defined as “consistency” in this instance. The broad definition of intellectual honesty is sometimes put forth as “The willingness to have our certainties about the world constrained by good evidence and good argument.” The broad definition is obviously not applicable to our purposes, considering that there is no good evidence or good arguments for believing in religious beliefs, so we will focus on consistency. Consistency could be looked at as a measure of degree, such as, the degree to which bible literalists believe the word of God to be true.

Considering that the bible is full of internal contradictions and inconsistencies it is unlikely that a true “bible literalist” could even exist, although it is possible for a person to hold two contradictory beliefs as true within their heads due to the complex nature of our CNS, so such a possibility is not truly out of the question. Let’s take an easy example: there are two creation stories within the book of Genesis, now then, which believer is more consistent than the other, a bible literalist who claims that God created the earth 6000 years ago according to either one of these creation stories or a moderate believer who sees both of these accounts as metaphor? What about a moderate believer that sees Christ’s virgin birth as a metaphor, and the literalist who sees it as a statement of fact? The point I am trying to get at is that a bible literalist obviously takes a much larger degree of the bible as fact, while the moderate believer is forced to concede their beliefs in a much more wishy-washy method.

But, what about certain laws in the bible that obviously most people who label themselves as bible literalists do not actively follow? Such as, “Luke 6:30: Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.”, or “Leviticus 20: 9 For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.” Guess what, a bible literalist does not need to follow these rules in order to still believe that they are true. Let’s look at it from another direction, a moderate believer will view the above as metaphor and thus not practice the above but see it as a moral guideline, while a bible literalist could view both passages as being literal truth but not put those verses into practice making them inconsistent in practice but maintaining consistency in literalistic belief.

So, by using the above definition of intellectual honesty a bible literalist does not need to take the entire bible as truth in order to be more intellectually honest than a moderate believer. He just needs to believe more of the bible as literal truth and not view it as metaphor in order to be considered intellectually honest. Although I must say that I do not think that the word intellectual honesty should be used to label bible literalists, we should just use the words consistency, degree of literal consistency or literalistic honesty when referring to the literalists.

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