Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's Literally Turtles All The Way Down

(Cartoon from Baldo, via Literally, A Web Log)

But back to literalism. I’ve finished reading Philip Kitcher’s little book Living with Darwin, and he has it all wrong. The Book of Genesis has him in a tizzy, but fundamentalists and creationists don’t even take Genesis literally.

I mentioned before that there are two different creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. In chapter one, the sequence of creation goes roughly like this: on the first day God creates light and darkness; on the second day, he creates a dome called the sky; on the third day he creates the dry land by separating the waters into the sea, then creates vegetation; on the fourth day, he creates lights in the sky, the sun and the moon. (How did he create light and day without the sun, I hear you ask? Don’t ask.*) On the fifth day he creates the animal kingdom: birds, fishes, and sea monsters; on the sixth day, he creates land animals, and finally human beings, both male and female, in his own image, and gives them dominion over all other living things. On the seventh day, famously, he rested.

Chapter two recounts that in the day when Yahweh created the heavens and the earth, before he created the plants, he formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed life into his nostrils. Then Yahweh created a garden in Eden, with the trees of Life and of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in it and a river flowing out of it. Then Yahweh, deciding that Adam should not be alone, decided to create the animals, and brought them to Adam to see if any was a suitable companion for him. None was, so he put Adam to sleep and, famously, created Eve from his rib. They were both naked, and were not ashamed. No passage of time is specified here, and since it’s clearly a fable (notice the allegorical Trees), it’s possible that the writer supposed that everything here happened in one day.

Now, these two stories are completely different in sequence. Serious fundamentalists know full well that a literal reading won’t work, so they have to work pretty hard to harmonize them. Non-fundamentalist scholars have concluded, on the basis of this and other evidence in the Biblical text, that Genesis is actually the product of pasting together different source materials into a literary patchwork. (Richard E. Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? is a good introduction to this approach.) Kitcher never addresses this matter; perhaps he doesn’t consider it important, though I think that if you want to address fundamentalist positions, it’s more relevant than throwing Darwin at them. At one point Kitcher complains that the creationist and Intelligent Design positions consist more of trying to find flaws in evolutionary theory than in presenting an alternative; so why not play their own game, and show the problems in their own reading of the Bible? But that would be, like, hard. In any case, this example alone is evidence that “literalism” is not really the issue.

But wait -- there’s more in Genesis 3. The usual Christian interpretation, common to fundamentalists and less conservative Christians, of the events leading up to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden is that Satan, in the form of a serpent, teased Adam and Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yahweh had warned them that if they did so, they would die. Satan told Adam and Eve that they would not die but become as gods, knowing good and evil – absurd, of course: how could mere humans become like God? But they ate the fruit, and immediately felt the shame of their nakedness. For their disobedience, Yahweh threw them out of Eden and cursed them to labor and suffering, and sentenced Satan the serpent to crawl on his belly forever.

This is not what Genesis 3 actually says, however. A literal reading is instructive. There’s no hint that the crafty serpent is Satan, a figure who doesn’t show up until much later in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, as Christians call it); it takes a nonliteral reading to find Satan here. Then, when Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and are cowering in shame, and after Yahweh has cursed them to dirt and suffering and enmity with the serpent’s tribe, Yahweh reflects: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and live forever” – and only then does he drive Adam and Eve from Eden. The text is clear that Yahweh had lied, for they didn’t die when they ate from the forbidden tree; and it is explicit that by doing so, they had become as gods. For some reason Yahweh feared this, so he cut them off from the tree of life. This is more like, say, Greek mythology, where the gods try to keep knowledge from human beings; Yahweh is not a moral figure in this tale. Again, non-fundamentalist biblical scholars generally recognize this, but anyone reading the text can see it. A literal reading produces unacceptable results, so most Christians (apart from scholars) ignore the literal meaning of the story and understand it differently. Conservative Christians seem not to have minded, or even noticed, the departures from Scripture of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ; the letter of the text is not all that important to them, except when it becomes an excuse to draw a line in the sand over some other issue.

The model of the universe in the Hebrew Bible, with its domed sky hung with lights, is, from what I’ve read, not “supernatural” at all but based on ancient, mostly Babylonian, astronomy. The New Testament borrows from the astronomy of its own time, with the planets moving in concentric spheres or heavens. (“Seventh” heaven is the highest of these.) To insist on thinking of the universe in this way is not so much believing in the supernatural as in outdated science, like believing in humors or phlogiston. But then, popular astronomy books today contain pictures of the planets strung like beads on circular lines around the sun, called “orbits.”

Notice that the importance of a literal reading of Genesis 1-3 has nothing to do with the “supernatural” (another of Kitcher’s buzzwords, along with “spiritual religion” and “the enlightenment case”), though there are supernatural elements here and elsewhere in the Bible. The inconsistency of Genesis 1 and 2, or of the different accounts of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (which Kitcher does discuss), is not due to the supernatural; it’s due to different, irreconcilable story lines.

Even when ordinary believers believe in the supernatural, it doesn’t mean they don’t also believe in an everyday material world where the supernatural doesn’t usually intrude. They know that if you jump off a tall building you’ll probably die. They know that virgins do not usually become pregnant, and if one of their single daughters were to try to claim the Holy Spirit as the father of her unborn child, they would become extremely hard-headed skeptics. Stanley Tambiah says that the anthropologist Meyer Fortes “once invited a rainmaker to perform the ceremony for him for an attractive fee, and the officiant in question replied ‘Don't be a fool, whoever makes a rain-making ceremony in the dry season?’” (Magic, science, religion, and the scope of rationality, Cambridge 1990, p 54). It seems that often it’s the modern, scientific rationalist who takes such things literally, while the believers think about them differently. The actual function of the supernatural in human belief is still being studied, and while it may be comforting to dismiss the “superstitions” of those who believe in different foolish things than we do, it’s not a sign of wisdom.

Things are not so different in the present-day secular world. For example, a lot of American women believe in the existence of “snuff films,” in which a woman is actually killed on camera during or after performing sexual acts, and that such films are available under the counter at adult video stores everywhere. There is no evidence that such films have ever existed, but the arguments to show that they do exist (as well as the vehemence with which the arguments are made) are reminiscent of arguments made by fundamentalists to preserve the inerrancy of the Bible.

What I find chilling is that the people who make this case would rather believe that thousands of women are being killed every year to make snuff porn, than that they aren’t. I’d say the same about other people who want to believe that thousands of children are kidnapped each year in shopping malls and sold into sex slavery. There are many other similar legends / fantasies in circulation today, from the "Paul Is Dead" scare to the claims that the Bush administration executed the 9/11 attacks, to the belief that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, to “blood libel” legends which accuse Jews of sacrificing Gentile children and using their blood to make Passover matzos. These have nothing to do with the supernatural, nor with literalism. As with magical rituals, it’s interesting to speculate about the personal and social functions of such beliefs, but they shouldn’t be taken literally. (There’s an interesting discussion of this issue in Pamela Donovan, No way of knowing: crime, urban legends, and the Internet, Routledge, 2004). I suspect that the “supernatural” is a secondary issue here, not the real crux of the problem.

All of this swoops under Kitcher’s radar. I think that if we secularists don’t stop imposing our own misunderstandings on the religious and if we believe that by rejecting religion we are somehow immune to the lure of the legendary, we’re going to get nowhere in a hurry.

More later on Kitcher’s notion of “spiritual” religion as a superior alternative to “supernatural” religion.

*There's an old joke about the seeker who asks someone (St. Augustine, maybe?) what God did in the eons before he created the heavens and the earth. The old teacher snaps: He made Hell for people who ask questions like that!