Monday, August 01, 2016

Zombie caterpillars controlled by voodoo wasps

Recently I thumbed through two books. One was The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns. A few things struck me about his treatment:

i) There's the patronizing tone. He's constantly talking down to reader. Maybe he views himself as the wizened master in Kung Fu films who imparts mumbo jumbo to his young apprentice. 

ii) But another reason it reads at such a childish level is because Enns has nothing insightful or original to say. He communicates at that level because he really is that trite and banal. 

You wonder why he even bothers to churn out these potboilers. He doesn't say anything that hasn't been said before, by people more intelligent or eloquent than he. 

iii) For all his intellectual condescension, what stands out is the flaccid quality of his reasoning. It's a completely one-sided presentation that labors to poison the well for conservative scholarship. He always takes the easy way out. Takes intellectual shortcuts. You only have to compare it to scholars like Kenneth Kitchen, Alan Millard, and Richard Bauckham (to name a few) who painstakingly sift evidence and question conventional wisdom.  

Ironically, the book by Enns pans right into the other book I was thumbing through: Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013), coauthored by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola. This is about theological liberals and "fundamentalists", pastors and seminary professors, who lost whatever faith they had. In the case of the liberals, they never had much to lose in the first place. Many statements skewer the fence-straddling position that people like Enns take. For instance:

Liberal Christians have no difficulty saying what they don't (any longer) believe, but they find it hard to express a positive version of their message... 
My colleagues and clergy friends would ridicule fundamentalists, but at some point I came to realize they are preaching and teaching what they believe. If you read the Bible, they are actually being consistent in what they’re teaching or they’re believing. We’re the ones who are sugarcoating it and trying to contextualize it and put it in other language, and we don’t really mean what we say. And at some point, that just felt kind of mentally weak. 
Many commentators have noted a telling symmetry. Fundamentalists and other defenders of the literal truth of the Bible agree with the New Atheists on one thing: Truth claims need to be taken seriously—which means they must be evaluated as true or false, not merely interpreted as metaphors and symbols. Liberal clergy, as noted, are squeezed between these two opposing adherents of the “put up or shut up” school of interpretation. The liberals think both extremes are simplistic; it’s complicated, they say. The New Atheists have shrugged off this charge, accusing the liberal apologists of creating a pseudointellectual smokescreen to cover their retreat, and here the symmetry is extended, since that is also the opinion of many fundamentalists and other conservatives. 
I have a priest friend who says, "There's living in the myth, and there's living outside the myth". For me, when I'm in the myth, I totally believe the themes of the Resurrection and Ascension, and those mean a lot to me. And outside the myth, I don't think they're literally true. It's just not possible, based on what I know about science…And the point of this life–well, there is no point to this life, but you have to find some meaning, because we're meaning-making creatures. So we do a lot of things to make this a meaningful existence. Hopefully, that existence lasts beyond us to some degree, but probably not. That's what I really believe. And at the same time, the Christian mythology speaks to me at a cultural level–more [on that level] now than at a real belief kind of level. 

That's an apt description of Enns. In addition, although Dennett notes a telling symmetry between atheists and fundamentalists, there's a telling symmetry between atheists and theological liberals. Like theological liberals, secular humanists live inside their own myth. Within the myth of secular humanism, people are important. My life is significant. What we do matters. How we treat others is important. 

But outside the myth, we're just temporary collections of particles. Individuals are expendable and replaceable. Natural selection has brainwashed us into loving kith and kin, like "zombie caterpillars controlled by voodoo wasps". Secular humanism only works when you forget what the real work is like, according to secular humanism. 

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