Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Saint Augustine of Hippo - what did he know?

It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali - to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions - lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd...

John Gray, reviewing Alain de Botton's book, Religion for Atheists, for the New Statesman

Secularists stand accused of "religious illiteracy". A bit of background here. For me, there are two separate, but linked, reasons for being irreligious.

1. Not believing that the revealed truths set out in sacred texts are, literally, true. Take the creation story in Genesis - it contradicts so much compelling and coherent evidence from the fields of cosmology, planetary science, geology, archaeology, paleontology and ancient history, that it's safe to conclude that it's not a true account of anything that ever happened in the real world. Or take the first miracle that Christ supposedly  wrought, in Cana of Galilee. According to John's Gospel, Jesus turned water into wine. This is one, rather implausible, anecdote in an ancient text. There's not enough evidence to either back up or disprove the assertion, so it seems sensible to apply the sort of rule-of-thumb test we'd apply to the sort of claims people might make today. If somebody's trying to sell you something, and you've not got much information to go on, you might apply the rough and ready rule that 'if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is'. In the absence of any compelling evidence, I'd rate the water-into-wine story as 'too good to be true'. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

2. Disquiet over the role of religion in public life. Secularists might find certain religious practises harmful or questionable, or reject religious authority as a legitimate basis for decision-making, or disagree with the divisive effects of teaching children in "faith" schools, or oppose discrimination on the grounds of religion, or disagree with those who say that the views, or interests of religious people or institutions should be privileged above the views or interests of any other members of society. 

There's a strong link between 1. and 2. The authority and privileges enjoyed by religion are based on its claim to access to a set of unique truths and divine authority. Call the truth of scriptures into question and there's no reason to accord the views of a religious leader or committed believer any more - or any less - weight than those of any other citizen. So, I'd have thought it matters rather a lot whether what's written in holy books is, so far as anyone can tell, accurate or otherwise.

This is where the "religious illiteracy" charge comes in. The argument goes thusly:

Unbeliever: I've looked at your scriptures. A lot of the stuff that can be compared with the best available independent evidence seems to be factually wrong, and the supernatural anecdotes aren't credible. Get rid of the stuff that's unreliable and you're left with a bunch of rules and some bits of moral philosophy which we can debate on their own merits, but which are no more sacred or authoritative than anything else written about ethics, by anybody from Socrates to Jacques Derrida.

In other words, if I ask myself whether any of the stuff written down in a holy book actually happened, I'm asking the wrong question. It's meant to be understood on a more complex, metaphorical level and it always was. People in the past understood this, but our rationalist, literalist, reductionist modern brains just aren't highly trained enough to get it.

If I was in a cynical mood, I'd immediately dismiss this as a rhetorical trick that conveniently makes every sacred text immune from rational analysis, or sceptical questioning, but there is an interesting assertion that I'd like to follow up. Have some people always believed that certain parts of sacred texts (in this case the Bible) weren't supposed to be taken literally? Not just the parts clearly flagged up as parables or proverbs, which we can all agree were never intended to be taken literally. I'd always thought that the further back you went, and the fewer convincing, alternative sources of knowledge people had, the more likely they were to believe in the literal truth of, say, the creation story in Genesis.

It's not possible for anybody today, except a few wilfully ignorant creationists, to take Genesis literally, but how about people many centuries ago? I don't believe that people back then were all gullible or stupid, but without the benefit of modern knowledge about such things as the cosmological and geological timescale, the heliocentric solar system, evolution and so on, wouldn't this story have been as just as plausible as any other story about how the world came into being? My guess was that quite a few of them did believe Genesis to be literally true.

But, as believers keep on telling us, there is written evidence to the contrary. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD), for example, had a more subtle, nuanced view. Wikipedia's on hand for a quick citation:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

De Genesi ad literam

On first reading, it looks as if Augustine didn't believe in the historicity of the Genesis creation story and was worried that literal-minded Christians who did would expose the Church to the mockery of intelligent, educated pagans. Augustine, who didn't benefit from standing on the shoulders of Darwin, Galileo, Hubble, or the rest of The Usual Suspects, had clearly decided that the Genesis account of creation wasn't credible, but, presumably, thought that other parts of scripture were. Quite interesting? Certainly. Score one for the believers? Well let's unpick this one a little bit.

The first thing that strikes me is Augustine's acknowledgement that many things 'may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience' (and, by implication, without reference to scriptural authority). We're used to thinking about observation scientific method and reasoning as something uniquely modern. But the ancient Greeks, among others, spent some time observing and thinking about 'the earth, the sky, about other elements of this world, the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about eclipses of the sun and moon, the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things'. Some of this classical learning may have been superseded by more precise observations and better theories, but educated people in Augustine;s time already knew more than enough to make the Genesis story look crude and unconvincing.

For example, according to Genesis, on day one of Creation God creates light and darkness, day and night. It's not until day four that He gets round to creating the sun and moon. The idea of day and night without any sun must have sounded pretty unlikely to people sophisticated enough to have predicted eclipses and worked out what was causing them. And as if the scientific implausibility wasn't bad enough, textual inconsistencies are already creeping in by Chapter Two. In Chapter One, God creates the fowl of the air on day five of creation, then land animals and humans on day six. In Chapter Two, God forms Adam from the dust, then decides that 'It is not good that the man should be alone', so subsequently makes all the land animals and every fowl of the air specifically to keep him company. Only when it becomes clear that birds and beasts aren't enough to satisfy Adam's desire for companionship does God finally get down to whipping out a spare rib and creating Eve.

No wonder Augustine was worried that non-Christians might laugh. Putting this context round Augustine's interpretation of Genesis as metaphor makes me wonder whether this was really an example of the ancient mind being wiser, more subtle and less literal-minded than we are, or whether his position was just an early example of a tactical retreat from an indefensible position.

As Catholic Answers* helpfully points out, Genesis posed problems for other early writers. Saint Cyprian, writing in the third Century AD, seems to have found it implausible that God created the whole world in the sort of timescale it might take a gang of slaves to put in a new hypocaust, so decided that  'The first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years'. This class of explanation comes from what you might call the Humpty Dumpty school of biblical exegesis ('When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less').

Again what springs to mind here isn't ancient subtlety and wisdom, but a politician or bureaucrat using an idiosyncratic definition of words, in order to maintain some wiggle room and defend an exposed position (see 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky', 'The work experience programme is voluntary', et al.). Augustine himself could give a masterclass in not providing hostages to fortune:

Seven days by our reckoning, after the model of the days of creation, make up a week. By the passage of such weeks time rolls on, and in these weeks one day is constituted by the course of the sun from its rising to its setting; but we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them.

 De Genesi ad literam

I think 'we must bear in mind that these days indeed recall the days of creation, but without in any way being really similar to them' is one of the most brilliantly obscure and un-disprovable statements you're ever likely to come across. You'd have to get up very early in the morning to pin down a man who could come out with something like that. 

And, talking of obscurity, does recasting the Genesis creation story as an extended metaphor make us any wiser? Take the specific example of Cyprian's theory that the first week of creation in Genesis was a metaphor for what was really a more reasonable-sounding creation period of seven thousand years. This doesn't actually make sense on either a metaphorical or literal level:

  1. If you think that the whole story is just a metaphor for some profound truth, why change the meaning of the words to make the story more historically plausible? It sounds to me as if Cyprian wasn't claiming that the whole story was just a metaphor for something deeper and more subtle, but rather that he thought that the events related in Genesis actually happened, just over a much longer timescale.
  2. Changing the timescale from a week to seven thousand years might have made the story sound a lot more plausible to Cyprian's contemporaries, who had no way of knowing about deep time and the true age of the earth and universe, but his reinterpretation hasn't stood the test of time. We could always revise his estimates upward and assume that when Genesis talks about a week, that really means 4.6 billion or 14 billion years, but once you've stretched the meaning of language that far, you might as well be re-interpreting absolutely any statement to mean literally anything that takes your fancy (see 'the Humpty Dumpty school of biblical exegesis' above).

Once you lose any sense of clarity over what's a metaphor and what's not, you can make your holy text mean whatever you want it to mean. Take this famous passage from the New Testament:

And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

Creative Bible commentators have tweaked the meaning of this passage, claiming that The Eye of the Needle was a gate leading into Jerusalem which was notorious for being almost impossible to get a camel through. Therefore, Jesus wasn't saying it was impossible for a rich man to get into heaven, just a bit tricky. Lucky old you, creaming off the rents from your hotel on Mayfair and picking a Get Out of Jail Free Card out of the Community Chest, too! Here's The Straight Dope's Cecil to unpick this one:

Next, the history and archaeology. The notion your Baptist friend has picked up apparently comes from a single ninth-century commentary asserting that in first-century Jerusalem there was a gate called the Needle's Eye which a camel could only get through on its knees. (Sort of like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: "only the penitent man will pass …") A cute allegory, but there's no archaeological or historical evidence for the existence of such a gate.

There's a good brief discussion in the article on "kamelos" in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, pp. 592-594 (one of the standard works on New Testament language). TDNT, and other commentators with an interest in history, point out several parallels in later rabbinic language about the impossibility of getting an elephant through the eye of a needle: it's a way of describing something so difficult it's grotesque.

So the "Gate of the Needle's Eye" notion has no firm historical basis. It looks like a way of getting around the plain (but inconvenient) meaning of the text.

Another less-than-glorious example of subtlety and metaphor not actually being any deeper or more profound than the "shallow literalism" of the "religiously illiterate". For people who routinely accuse secular sceptics of being tricky smart alecks who like to think they're being clever, some of these religious thinkers sure like to complicate things. Mind you, it is complication with a purpose. There's a lovely quote from one Dr Kevin Lewis on on "The Heresy of Literalism":

And God forbid that the faith leaders should ever be asked to prove, verify or justify their core beliefs, just like any other public figure. Dangerous heresy, indeed.

*  I love Catholic Answers' authoritative quality standard certification. 'I have concluded that the materials presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors. Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004', sounds so much more impressive than 'certified gluten-free' or 'Complies with BS5852 requirements and regulations. Not suitable for children under 3 years old'.