Over at South Jerusalem Gershom Gorenberg has a fascinating article arising out of the controversial comments of John Hagee and Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook about a literalist tendency, seen in all religions, that attempts to map scripture onto the external world in the pursuit of meaning. As Gorenberg said these folks are showing that they don’t understand poetry or his view (and I agree) religion, and he concludes:
So once again we have a choice. We can misread verses as Hagee does, as Tzvi Yehudah Kook did, and sit back and believe that we understand what it all really means. Or we can read the verses as Heschel did, or as Martin Luther King did, and ask what we are supposed to do. This isn’t about faith versus secularism, or Christianity versus Judaism, or Islam versus Christianity. It’s about a division that cuts through religions, not between them.
This is a precise encapsulation for me of the difference between a mature and immature understanding of religion. The purpose of religion must ultimately be ethical, and the texts will naturally be stuffed with poetic and allegorical devices to convey its message. Prophetic strands will no doubt be present but the primary focus must be on ethics: how to make sense of the world and live a meaningful and just life. To see the entire text as a literal map of reality is going to lead to an awful lot of confusion.
The thing that struck me forcefully was that even non-religious people have a strand within them that is making the same mistake. The series of articles on atheism—Why I am not an Atheist (responding to an article by Peter Singer at Cif ), and Faith and Reason in the Dharma and Earthquake Follies responding to an article by Julain Baggini at Talking Philsophy on Sharon Stone’s earthquake-karma comments—is addressing just this problem, the insistence of a particular type of atheist to insist that religious ideas must be understood literally, objectively and reductively, rather than alegorically, subjectively and as integrated into a whole. Rather than as a challenge to the practitioner to question their own assumptions it is assumed that religions reinforce and encourage judgement of others. I have weighed in on the comment thread in the Baggini article and, despite making some quite detailed arguments about why they are misunderstanding the teachings I seem to be getting stock responses of the just the type you would expect from a religious fundamentalist: in trying to engage in a philosophical conversation I am being elitist apparently; that because there are flat and crude understandings of religion in the world, these are the ones the atheists should refute in order to demonstrate that all religion is bunk. In other words, for these people the only religion is the simplistic type and any talk otherwise is just intellectual elites trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Does this sound familiar? It is taking place on a serious philosophical blog.
i know the observation about the similarity between fundamentalists and hard-core atheists is hardly an original one, but I have never seen the connection so vividly before. And of course, many athesists atheists are not at all fundamentalist and eminently rational (my favourite being John Gray). As Gershom said, it is a division that cuts across all religions, including atheism.