Saturday, August 04, 2007

The outsider test to the rescue, again

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers)

illiadLongtime readers of The Uncredible Hallq will know about the outsider test, a phrase coined by John Loftus for the idea that religious believers ought to be willing to examine their beliefs from the point of view of an outsider. Recently, I was taking a look at the recent Biblical studies carnival and found an excellent target for it. The host of the carnival, Claude Mariottini, had claimed in an interview that "Atheists cannot be good interpreters of the Bible." He then tried to defend himself.

Let's see if I can start with the most charitable statement of his position: atheists will misinterpret the Bible because they begin with false assumptions. I think he says a lot more than that, and the other stuff is far harder to defend, but let's start there. It has to be admitted that false assumptions are bad, and then, it would seem, we're just back to a debate about what view of the Bible is correct. Still, there's a wrinkle here: letting broad theories guide interpretations of specific data, rather than the other way around, can give awful results when taken too far. Witness the case of Biblical inerrantists who are forced to make up silly rules to guarantee nothing can ever count as an error in the Bible.

Even this position doesn't do all that well against the outsider test. Here, the outsider test would suggest that when we first look at an ancient text, we should treat like any other ancient text until we find real evidence that it really is the sort of super-special text which believers claim to have. Faith, or religious experiences no more impressive than those claimed by adherents of other religions, doesn't cut it here. It seems Mariottini is falling into this trap here, given that he never claims evidence for the Bible's special status, he just claims some mysterious edge in interpretation because he is a believer.

That was the best I could make out of his position. From here, it's all downhill for him.

First example: in his original interview, Mariottini justified his claim on the grounds that atheists "they already begin with the assumption that the Bible is a bunch of nothing." Roll that one around in your mind. Will classical scholars have difficulty understanding the Illiad because "they already begin with the assumption that the Illiad is a bunch of nothing"? No. Not believing the myths is different than believing they are "nothing." In a literal sense, myths are "something," therefore not nothing. More significantly, one can think an ancient text is fascinating, worth of serious study, without believing everything it says.

Moving on to the longer defense of the initial short comment, the first thing to notice is that he admits what he said wasn't exactly true:
It is possible that I made a mistake by putting all atheists in one group. Duane classifies himself “as a secular student with an interest in the Hebrew Bible.” Thus, his position on the Bible makes him different from the strident atheist whose sole aim is to ridicule the Bible.
Ooops, but what about these other atheists?:
Duane is a secular person who believes “that the Bible has had a tremendous influence on Western civilization.” His view is completely different from Bertrand Russell who believed that every bit of human progress in law, morality, and science has been opposed because of the teaching of the Bible. In his lecture “Why I Am Not A Christian,” Russell wrote: “A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”
Uh, sounds like Russell thought the Bible had a big influence on Western civilization too. More to the point, would Mariottini draw the same conclusions had Russell's remark been about some other mythological text? Of course one can think that we shouldn't be slaves to ancient mythology and still study it seriously. Russell's remark could even be defensibly applied to some ancient philosophers; the ancients often did say foolish things and Russell does occasionally point them out in his writings. Does that disqualify him from doing good writing about the history of philosophy? Of course not.

Or, consider this argument:
Atheists like Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens approach the Bible with such a negative view that for them, the Bible is a book of lies and contradictions and the work of a demon.
Obviously, none of these guys think that the Bible is literally the work of a demon. I can't say for sure that any of them have actually said anything to suggest that position; the quote Mariottini has in mind is from Thomas Paine (a deist, by the way). The demon comment is rather obviously true if it means that the Bible presents hideously amoral actions in a glowing light, though that standard would classify an awful lot of human production as demonaic. I've previously written about how Biblical attrocities were par for the course in the ancient world. Or, look at the Illiad again: the plot of the book revolves around the question of which military commander gets to have a particular woman as a sex slave. The part about lies and contradictions is similarly off-the-wall: of course ancient writers sometimes lied, of course a diverse collection of texts written over several centuries will not be totally harmonious with itself. In the case of contradictions, the only reason anybody cares about most of the Biblical contradictions that get talked about is because so many people are convinced that the Bible is 100% error free.

Bottom line: there's nothing wrong with scholars recognizing attrocities, contradictions, and deceit in the text they study. Beyond that, anybody who find such things inconceivable really shouldn't be teaching college studets how to do scholarship and shouldn't be claiming to have produced serious scholarly work.

Finally, check this one out:
So, how can strident atheists interpret the Bible when they do not believe in God, deny the possibility of revelation, reject the concept of inspiration, do not believe in divine intervention, faith, prayer, the possibility of miracles, or the concept of divine justice?
This is the sort of rhetorical question that's annoying because it's meant to look like an argument, but contains no logical content. Fans of this approach like it because their opponents have difficulty answering the question, but the difficulty comes from the total lack of substance in it. How can strident a-Olympians interpret the Illiad when they do not believe in the Olympians, deny the possibility of Oracles, reject the concept of inspiration by Muses... these are questions for where I'm not holding my breath for an answer.

Recently, I took the position that Hector Avalos' "End of Biblical Studies" thesis is overblown. People like Mariottini make me wonder if maybe Avalos is right, though.

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