The reason for the recent blog drought, I am happy to report, is that the book writing has been going well lately. I shot past the 80,000 word mark the other day, which leaves just 20,000 to go. Alas, it is now clear that the first draft will be somewhat overlength, so I am not quite as close to finishing the draft as it might seem. Still, I managed to polish off a few chapters that had been giving me a hard time. There will probably be substantial rewriting, of course, but revising is always easier than creating. At any rate, I have been hammering the book so hard lately that other forms of writing have had to take a back seat.
Anyway, I did want to poke my head up briefly to call attention to this fine op-ed from Daniel Dennett, in the New York Daily News. His subject is the recent Pew Study about religious literacy in this country. You know, the one that shows that atheists, agnostics and Jews are the most religiously literate.
The age of the Earth, the existence of billions of galaxies, the detailed confirmation of evolutionary biology, including our demonstrated close kinship to chimpanzees and indeed all other mammals – all these discoveries and many more have taken their toll on any literal understanding of the holy texts. Scholarship about the history of those texts has also made it more and more obvious that they are imperfect human artifacts with a long history of revision and adjustment, not eternal and unchanging gifts from God.
So what’s a religion to do? There are two main tactics.
Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.
Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone’s creed – not even your own.
As part of the research for the book I have spent the last year reading rather a lot of high-brow theology. Dennett’s Plan A so perfectly captures my main reaction that I am so glad to hear someone else say it.
A good example is the large literature reconceptualizing original sin in the light of evolution. The classical version is based on a literal understanding of the story of Adam and Eve. Obviously, though, no such interpretation is possible in the light of modern science. One approach to salvaging the notion is to reinterpret original sin as the general state of selfishness we inherit from the evolutionary process. Is not sin ultimately about selfishness, after all? Does not even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins talk about selfish genes?
I suppose people can redefine words however they like, but there is something insidious about this. The interesting part of original sin was its connection to a specific event in human history. Original sin was just the name that was attached to the general state of sinfulness we inherit as the result of Adam’s transgression. What existence does it have apart from that story? In the reinterpretation it is science that is doing all the work of explaining human nature, with theology just coming along for the ride. For theologians to paste the label, “original sin” onto what science is telling us is tantamount to taking credit for the ideas of others. It allows theologians to pretend that science and religion are converging on the same truth, when the reality is that people applying religious “ways of knowing” have routinely been led astray, while science has had to come in later to clean up the mess.
It is like arguing that, while it was surely naive to think of phlogiston as a literal substance that actually existed within combustible substances, we can be grateful to modern theories for leading us to a superior understanding of the phlogiston concept. You see, today we realize that phlogiston actually refers to the exquisite dance between oxygen and fuel in the process of combustion. In this way ancient wisdom and modern knowledge are brought into harmony.
Anyway, Dennett has many other quotable nuggets, so go read the whole thing!