One of the major consequences of taking claims about God literally is that doing so exposes a number of contradictions about God: the contradiction between God’s goodness and the existence of evil (If God is good, why is there evil?); God’s personality and God’s infinity (How can God be infinite and transcendent and still be intimate and close?), and God’s unchangeableness and God’s activity (How can God be unchanging and still interact with the world?).1 These contradictions are not lost on two groups in particular: religious fundamentalists and militant atheists.

John Hagee a fundamentalist Christian preacher

Indeed, the two groups that spend the most time dealing with these tensions and contradictions are the fundamentalists—who have explanations, usually unconvincing ones, for why these are only apparent contradictions—and atheists, who point to these contradictions as evidence that God cannot exist. In this way, both fundamentalists and atheists share the assumption that claims about God are straightforward descriptive claims meant to be taken literally. Curiously, these two groups seen as polar opposites actually have the same understanding of religion. This was an observation not lost on Joseph Campbell, who noted:

As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

Campell and Kennedy, Thou art that, ch. 1

In neither case does anyone accept the metaphors as metaphors. To see how this works out, we’ll take some examples from social media and other sites.

The Fundamentalists

See note 2
  • One of the driest places on Earth [the Sahara] once ran with water.  Or Maybe it was due to a flood? #truth
  • From the Bible we can already know the big bang idea is wrong: the Word of God in Genesis 1 says the earth was created before the stars.(
  • Either you believe the earth is 6000 years old or you’re an atheist
  • Scientific Proof #God Did The #Miracle Of Parting The Red Sea (MUST SEE!) #ccot #Bible #Israel #truth #faith #belief

And now the atheists:

  • My step-mother insists I shld read the #Bible before I become an #atheist. I tried. 1st page said world made in 6 days. Why wld rest be tru?
  • Never seen evidence that any human can or ever did walk on water. #atheism
  • So remind me. Why did your omnipotent god need to impregnate that poor girl in order to walk the earth? Miracle she wasn’t stoned. #Atheism

The Shared Religious Worldview of Fundamentalists and Atheists

It’s clear that the fundamentalists/literalists in the first group are treating the Bible the same way that the atheists in the second group are. The Bible is a record of events, of factual assertions about the creation of the world or about particular events in history, including a world-spanning flood and the parting of a sea. One group accepts the claims, the other rejects them. But both groups find the text to be the same thing: a literal, not metaphorical, account.

Now, I understand that looking to the Internet for thoughtful reflection is not necessarily the best option. But even very educated, well-respected people who should know better make the same mistake, including a neurosurgeon:⁠3

It says in the beginning God created the heaven and Earth. It doesn’t say when he created them, except for in the beginning. So the Earth could have been here for a long time before he started creating things on it. But when he did start doing that, he made it very specifically clear to us the evening and the morning were the next day because he knew that people would come along and try to say that, “Oh, it was millions and millions of years.” And then what else did he say in the very first chapter? That each thing brought forth after its own kind. Because he knew that people would come along and say, you know, this changed into that and this changed into that and this changed into that. So at the very beginning of the Bible, he puts that to rest.

David Corn, “Ben Carson: The World Was Created in 6 Days. Literally.”

—and an evolutionary biologist:⁠4

• “Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether they are ‘valid,’ let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”

• “The book is true, and if evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out not the book.”

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

A Shared Presumption

These quotes—of both literalist and atheist alike—share the presumption that religion is in the business of making verifiable truth claims of the same kind that, say, science does. The “incompatibility” referred to in the second of these three quotes is the incompatibility of the details among religions, as if those details were the truth claims of the various religions. In the third quote—a description of the reaction of the fundamentalist who defends scripture at all costs—the same presumption is embedded: the scripture is making falsifiable truth claims of the kind that science can easily disprove. The folly of the fundamentalist, in this view, is in adhering to the falsified claims of the text in the face of contradictory external evidence. Both of these perspectives fail to appreciate what the biblical text, or even the enterprise of religion, is really about.

Christopher Hitchens, until his death one of the leading atheist critics of religion
Christopher Hitchens

A similar failing is found in this quote from late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who said, “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul.” Hitchens is able to employ soul as a metaphor, but does not seem to imagine that there might be other metaphors in religion. It’s not that Hitchens sees the poetry of religion as prose. It’s that he doesn’t even see it as any kind of literature. Perhaps he sees it as some kind of technical manual. He would not be the first, among believers and non-believers alike.

This post is an excerpt from The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue by Mark Schaefer

James Kellenberger. The Everlasting and the Eternal.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

2 This footnote is clearly referring to the fact that Pat Robertson has even come out and said that the earth is older than the Biblical account. It’s rare that Pat Robertson and I ever agree on anything, but, hey: credit where credit is due.