The Wisdom of Doubt: The Series

As mentioned in the Friday morning “Faith or No” panel at Yearly Kos, here are the links to the entire Wisdom of Doubt series, so far.

Part I: The religious need more than faith. They also need doubt.

Part II: Why “moral clarity” is about bullshitting yourself.

Part III: Why moral absolutists aren’t moral.

Part IV: Christopher Hitchens is a true believer.

Part V: The late Susan Sontag said religion American style was more the idea of religion than religion itself. So true.

Part VI: Authoritarian religion plus government equals big trouble.

Part VII: The “God Gap” is a myth.

Part VIII: The origins of fundamentalism.

Part IX: Fundamentalism before and after Scopes. What were they afraid of?

Part X: The Fundies strike back.

Part XI: Scripture doesn’t have to be literal to be true. . In fact, literal interpretation of scripture wrings the truth out of it.

Part XII: How to tell the difference between religious faith and fanaticism.

Other recent religion posts:

Taking Faith on Faith

The Last Magician

What Jesus Said



Discover Jesus

Also — moonbat’s “Escape from Fundamentalism

I have a couple of book recommendations. Dangerous Words: Talking about God in an Age of Fundamentalism by Gary Eberle (Shambhala, 2007) is the sort of deep analysis of our current state of religion that I just love. It’s also very readable. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, edited by Eugene Kennedy (New World Library, 2001) , is a short collection of essays and lectures by the late Joseph Campbell that sparked many thoughts that ended up in the Wisdom of Doubt series.

27 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt: The Series

  1. I would also suggest almost anything by Karen Armstrong. “The Battle for God” is an explanation of modern fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is more historical but extremely insightful.

  2. Thanks for the compilation. If I might make a suggestion, it would be very useful if in the future you took any series like this and stuck a link to them on one of the side bars so they are easily accessible.

  3. Somewhat tangential to the main themes, I recommend When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome by Richard Rubenstein. Description on Amazon:

    “The Gospel stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are familiar tales in Western literature. Yet, the Gospel narratives do not themselves pose or answer the theological question of Jesus’ divinity. None of the disciples become engaged in disputations about whether Jesus is fully God or fully human. It took almost 300 years for these questions to be raised in such a serious way that Christianity was changed forever.

    “Rubenstein, a Jew who proclaimed in a now famous book (After Auschwitz, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) that God died “after Auschwitz,” examines the details of the fractious period in early Christian history when Christianity was defining itself against other religious sects through a number of councils and creeds. Although he focuses on several of the controversies surrounding the divinity of Jesus, Rubenstein zeroes in on the fiery battle between Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, and Athanasius, who was Bishop of Alexandria. Arius contended that Christ did not share God’s nature but was simply the first creature created by God the Father. Athanasius, on the other hand, argued that Christ was fully God, asserting that the incarnation of God in Jesus restored the image of God to fallen humanity. With a storyteller’s verve, Rubenstein brings to life the times and deeds of these two leaders as well as the way that the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 established the Christian orthodoxy that was later used to judge and exile Arius as a heretic. As a result of Nicea, the author says, “To Christians God became a Trinity. Heresy became a crime. Judaism became a form of infidelity.”

    “Rubenstein’s lively historical drama offers a panoramic view of early Christianity as it developed against the backdrop of the Roman Empire of the fourth century.”

  4. The ‘literal’ thing continues to mystify me in that I don’t know what it means. Foreinstance, if my daughter comes home from school with a “I don’t feel good” do I take that to mean literally that she doesn’t “feel good”? Or, do I withold a diagnosis until later when I have more information. It may turn out that her best friend dissed her at school which is her “I don’t feel good.”

    Seems to me the ‘literal’ translation of her not feeling good must include a helluva lot more than her being possibly physically sick. Which brings me to the Bible. What is the ‘literal’ translation of the Bible?

  5. Very informative series,Maha. Good job in helping sort out the confusion.

    ” the church is a skeleton at the banquet of life” – Col.R.G.Ingersoll

  6. felicity (#5), a literal reading (a reading, not a translation) of the bible, would mean that the world was created in six days, according to Genesis. Elsewhere, Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale.

    Literalness means putting away metaphor and allegory, and taking the bible at face value, as if it were factually reporting what actually happened, like newspaper reporting. In every single instance.

    In my mind the bible is a mix of literal, semi-factual reporting, and a lot of allegory and metaphor. Unlike many, I have no problem believing in miracles or in other extraordinary occurrences. And so it can be difficult to sort it out, of what is to be taken literally versus not-literally. In my opinion, it took a lot longer than six literal days to create the earth, with all its lifeforms, as we know it.

  7. You see, it is ‘literally’ impossible to not include the reader, observer, in reading, or observing anything. Sounds ridiculous but it seems to me the only way to ‘literally’ read the Bible – or anything else for that matter – would be to tear out the bloody page and eat it.

    Isn’t it true that to read something is to interpret it? I read no newspaper report of anything without taking into consideration that it has been interpreted by its writer. It’s impossible to separate the observer from what he observed.

    Your explanation is the standard one but I must continue to ask the self-identified individual who steadfastly sticks to his ‘literal’ interpretation (?) of the Bible, “How did it taste?”

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  9. To me it tasted contradictory and it left the lingering after taste of a hoax.

    As I’ve said before.. one can get build a better storehouse for the fiber of their morality by reading Aesop’s Fables, or the brothers Grimm. Get away from the’s venomous in its lies!

    An interesting little tidbit that Thomas Paine pointed out inThe age of Reason. The biblical account of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt after 300 years in captivity, and yet there are no words of commonality in their languages. It just seems strange, no?

  10. felicity — I’m a bit confused by your interpretation of “literally.” The word means “to the letter.” In context it means that what is written must be understood exactly as written, and not understood as allegory or metaphor. So, if I were to say “John is a swine,” to interpret that literally would mean that John is of the species scrofa domestica. Or, I could interpret “John is a swine” figuratively and understand that John is a human with messy or other unpleasant characteristics.

    To interpret the Bible literally means you can’t understand it as allegory or myth. You must believe there really was a first man named Adam who lived five thousand years ago, or whenever it was. To interpret Genesis figuratively, or as myth or allegory, means that you understand Adam to be an archetype, and that the Garden of Eden story is fiction, but the story has an important moral or lesson.

    If something is “literally” factual, that means the factuality of it is external to oneself. In other words, the factuality of it can be objectively measured and observed by anyone. Writing literally, if a bottle holds 12 ounces of liquid, that bottle holds 12 ounces of liquid no matter who is looking at it. An allegorical reading is one that is subject to many interpretations depending on who is doing the reading. Writing figuratively, the word “bottle” may represent something other than a bottle.

  11. Swami — you’re being closed. Myths understood as myths cannot be lies. They are what they are. Whatever truth they represent is what you find in them.

  12. Yeah, but when a myth is presented as truth it becomes a lie. I know it’s wierd..there is a lot of truth and wisdom in the bible, but its sum total composes a lie. One element of faith that wasn’t elaborated on was the claim that through faith it’s possible to transcend the physical realm and overcome the laws of nature…that the big lie… you can’t part the seas, you can’t turn one chemical substance into another and you can’t exert power over nature…that’s the base lie of the bible.

  13. Swami — It’s not the Bible’s fault if people misread a book written in ancient times as if it were an encyclopedia. Ancient literature didn’t divide itself into fiction and nonfiction. People didn’t think that way. Being mad at the Bible for being myth is a bit like being mad at Homer’s Odyssey or Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

    One element of faith that wasn’t elaborated on was the claim that through faith it’s possible to transcend the physical realm and overcome the laws of nature

    That’s all I’ve been writing about for the whole series. The essential misunderstanding that the fundies have foisted on us is that they misread metaphor for literal fact.

  14. You’re right Maha. I guess it is misguided to target my frustrations against a book that has no power other than what people give it. Sort of like the argument against people who crusade for the banning of all firearms..guns don’t kill people, people do.

    I was shooting from the hip when I commented about transcending the physical realm..I’ve read the entire series and I don’t think I missed an overall point. What I was thinking is that there is a range where the power of faith operates from the mild to the extreme, and that the extremes weren’t accentuated in the series by example to the degree that would show how bold and outrageous they are.

    Moving mountains is a metaphor..Lazarus come forth is not.

  15. Maha, the way it was explained to me was to interpret something literally was to include who wrote the words, where, when, why… they were written. So back to my ‘sick’ daughter, is she actually physically sick or is there more to it. To literally interpret her ‘I’m sick’ statement, I must consider who is saying it etc.

    It may be a simple matter of the ‘figurative’ being included in the literal because without it the literal cannot accurately inform me.

    Sounds like semantic mish-mash, but the point being made by the person I heard this interpretation of literal from was that no words spoken or written have meaning apart from the who, when…The danger in believing they do is that we believe they have meaning apart from their context and they don’t. By the way, all this was from a Jesuit friend of mine who also told me that there was a ‘hell’ but there wasn’t anybody there. I’m very fond of the fellow.l

  16. Maha, the way it was explained to me was to interpret something literally was to include who wrote the words, where, when, why… they were written.

    You were explained wrong. You’re talking about something else entirely.

    Sounds like semantic mish-mash, but the point being made by the person I heard this interpretation of literal from was that no words spoken or written have meaning apart from the who, when…when…The danger in believing they do is that we believe they have meaning apart from their context and they don’t.

    I understand what the guy is saying, but this isn’t the same thing as “literal.” Words have no intrinsic meaning or value except what we choose to give them, but people who read things “literally” don’t think that way. They read the words as if they do have intrinsic meaning and value that cannot be interpreted any other way, context or no context. That’s the problem.

    If you are including the context of the reader, and how a reader might interpret the words based on his own experience, then you’ve left “literal” far, far behind.

  17. “If you’re including the context…” of course has nothing to do with literal.

    Your definition doesn’t cut it with me. I certainly agree that most people believe that words have intrinsic meanings – certainly not by themselves but as parts of a sentence, I hope – and that is the problem that my friend hoped to correct by defining ‘literal’ in a different way.

    Eons ago I taught English and it was about that time that ‘new’ math and ‘new’ English were introduced into the curriculum. Nouns became class I words, verbs class II and so on. A word had no classification apart from the sentence it was in. So the word ‘run’ was neither a verb nor a noun nor…Used in a sentence he could be classified.

    In the same way that it is ridiculous to quibble about the fact that there is no mention of a ‘right to privacy’ in the Constitution and therefore we don’t have one – there is no mention because in 1787 ‘privacy’ pertained to toilet functions and we hardly need guaranteed a right to go to the toilet – to hold that a sentence all by inself has an intrinsic meaning is ridiculous.

  18. Your definition doesn’t cut it with me.

    It’s not “my” definition. It’s the standard one. What you are describing is more often called “critical” reading. I think you — or your friend — got them confused. In any event, you seem to be missing the point by several thousand miles. Would you like to stop arguing about what “literal” means and consider the actual point?

  19. I assumed your definition was the standard one – didn’t think I had to mention it.

    I believe that a literal reading of something, according to the standard definition, is not reading. Rather like my reading something written in a language I don’t know. What is referred to as critical reading by most is how I would define reading, period.

    The point – it’s not really several thousand miles away – is maybe I’m on some sort of crusade to rid the world of the belief that its ‘literal’ reading of something is not, in fact, conducive to understanding what it may actually mean. It seems like the best thing to do is to redefine ‘literal.’

  20. No, we don’t need to redefine “literal.” We need to be clear what it is and then persuade people not to read scripture (or most other things, except perhaps legal documents) that way.

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