August 25, 2007

Religious Texts as Myth

In his column in the religion section of the Decatur Daily, columnist Jamie Wilson puts forth the following proposition:

...when a rational interpretation of evidence from the natural world as to how life developed seems to contradict a literal reading of Genesis, there is no reason to reject the interpretation out of hand. Nor is there any reason to torturously interpret evidence so that it will conform to a literal reading of the Bible’s account of creation. What the evidence most strongly implies can be accepted as it is.

But that still leaves the problem of reconciling biblical revelation and the evidence from the natural world when the two seem to contradict each other. One way to do so is to read the Bible’s account of creation as myth. Myth seeks to explain why things are the way they are through story; exact details are often not as important if they do not contribute to the main point the myth is trying to make. Reading the early chapters of Genesis as myth would allow one to retain all the benefits of a literal reading without having to discount or distort what can be learned about the natural world through scientific inquiry...
That's a fair start, but I don't see the problem that Wilson sees with "reconciling biblical revelation and the evidence." The solution is rather simple, I think.

The whole of the bible is myth, not just Genesis. That doesn't mean that it can't include historical elements that do correspond to real events and people, nor does it mean that any particular assertion it makes is correct. Many (though certainly not all) myths from any given culture do contain some factual, historic elements. When something set forth in the bible really does match the empirical evidence, then fine, that's a fact that checks out. When the empirical data doesn't match the bible, then the biblical assertion is incorrect.

I'm not sure why this should pose a problem in Wilson's mind. There are a lot of things in the bible, not just the creation story, that don't match what we know about the world in the modern era thanks to better, more detailed observation. There's no good reason that one should apply the approach suggested by Wilson to only one particular book of the Old Testament. In fact, there's no particular reason to limit application to only a single ancient religious text. They should all be looked at foremost as myths. If one is so inclined to then start checking specifics, have at it. Assuming that any such text is literal and inerrant is where all the trouble begins.

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