Types of Biblical Literalism

One of the most interesting aspects of my own religion, for me at least, is the way different sub-groups address biblical and moral interpretation. I don’t simply mean the interpretations themselves, but the way different methods complicate cultural dialogues. As I mentioned in my introductory post, most non-theologians who adhere to Christianity often use phrases like: “I believe the Bible is true”, or “The Bible is the word of God.” But what is actually meant by this assertion varies widely. This leads to the spread of both Pluralistic Ignorance and False Consensus. These two psychological phenomena deserve a series of their own, but right now I’m concerned with the harm they cause.

I’ve often seen my fellow Christians hold back on voicing their actual beliefs when they believe they are in a minority. I’ve also seen them not bother to explain themselves when they assume everyone knows what they mean. As a result, many promising Transfaith dialogues can easily break down in early stages. I realize that a discussion of biblical interpretation can be uncomfortable for people like myself, who are aware of their own lack of expertise. It can also trigger a host of defense-mechanisms, especially for someone new to Transfaith dialogue. But as uncomfortable and difficult as the process may be, open discussions are crucial for building a more equal society; they are also crucial for personal growth. In an attempt to foster both, I’ve made a very brief list of degrees of Biblical Literalism below. The terms I’m using are my own, and the descriptions are based on how I perceive them to work on a cultural level, not as a theological treatise. My hope isn’t to persuade anyone of their respective validity, but to encourage more accurate and useful conversations for people engaged in these discussions.


Hardline Literalism: Everything described in the bible is not only completely factual, but a portrayal of the only proper social order. It is given directly from god, and has an objective meaning. Individual interpretation is merely a result of human fallibility, and is an obstacle to be overcome.


Historical Literalism: The bible is an inerrant historical account, dictated by god for the purpose of moral instruction. It also contains direct commands and revealed truth from god with an objective meaning. However, the words and actions of other biblical figures are open to criticism/interpretation.


Informed Literalism: The bible contains excellent historical insights about ancient culture. Some details may have degraded through time and linguistic interpretation, but the situations and people described were real. Individual interpretation is encouraged when based on careful study, but the words of god, especially those of Christ, must be treated with utmost respect.


Mythical Literalism: The actual events described in the bible may or may not have happened, but they portray real moral dilemmas, as well as intricacies of the human psyche; much like Greek mythology. Studying the bible aids self-knowledge and moral reasoning, but any claim to an objective meaning, or perfect understanding, is arrogant at best. Educated interpretation is the best anyone can do, but the life and words of Christ act the lens through which most of the interpretation happens.


Non-Literalism: This is sort of a free-for-all. Adherents may or may not accept the divinity of Christ, but generally use his life and words as the gold-standard for morality. The words attributed to God are usually seen as reflections of the age’s moral reasoning, rather than divine commands. The Biblical stories are interpreted more like literature than theology. This category encourages individual interpretation, and allows the most dissenting opinions on morality.


The above list is incomplete at best, and it’s not always possible to separate the examples I’ve given. Some denominations or other church communities have a preferred approach to interpretation, and others allow room for multiple methods. Some even employ different methods for different parts of scripture. This is part of the reason assertions of faith in the bible can be stumbling blocks in conversations. Since so much of this problem rests in perception, I don’t think a perfect solution exists, other than patience and hard work; but I would advise my fellow Christians not to take it for granted that other people understand all their terms. I’d also like to promote awareness in the secular community that uniform statements don’t always express uniform beliefs. Hopefully, this can lead to more productive conversations. To that end, here is this segment’s question, directed at my non-religious colleagues and commentors:


Given the problem with “The Bible is true”, do you see an equivalent problem with common expressions in the secular community? If so, what advice do you have for overcoming it?



New Series: Cherry-Picking, Projection, and Biblical Literalism*


Trans-faith dialogue is important, even imperative, to the progression of social equality. Open forums allow ideas to be discussed critically, and by their very existence strengthen attitudes of respect for individual rights. But creating and maintaining open dialogue isn’t easy; The cost of leaving your own ideas open for criticism is that you are always leaving yourself open too. Personal beliefs often have deep emotional resonance, and even the most level-headed of us can become defensive and anxious when confronted with our own knowledge gaps or imperfect reasoning. Another problem, is that clarity isn’t easy either. Most of the people most passionately engaged in cultural dialogues about belief are not formal theologians or philosophers, and while this isn’t a negative situation, it can create problems. Perceived community in particular, is a problem that I often run into myself. In terms of my own experience, I’ve frequently heard fellow Christians use identical phrases to express widely different beliefs; specifically, phrases like: “I believe the bible is true”. On the surface, this appears to have a very narrow meaning, but in reality it doesn’t. Phrases like this create a lot of confusion because of the perception of common meaning, both on behalf of the speaker and the audience.


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be addressing common stumbling-blocks such as the above example, from my own perspective as a religious individual. I’ll also conclude each section with asking my Skeptic colleagues and commentors if they believe there is a counterpart in non-theism, and their advice for that situation.

*My Thanks to Dan Linford for sparking this topic.



Christianity & Skepticism: Pardon Me While I Preach to the Choir

Being a religious individual, I know I don’t qualify as a Skeptic with a capitol “S”. While I fervently support skeptical inquiry, and work towards many of the same goals as the skeptic community, it would be misleading to call myself a Skeptic. However, I also feel that I am also misleading by describing myself as definitively not one.

Here’s an analogy to explain what I mean: I do not describe myself as a Feminist. I much prefer the term Egalitarian. My reason in abstaining from the Feminist label is not rooted in any objection to their goals, but because of the specific focus they have. Egalitarianism has a different, less specific focus, and while it overlaps with Feminism in significant ways, has its own approach to social ills.


I am not a Skeptic in the same way that I am not a Feminist. While I have the highest respect for both groups, it is still somewhat inaccurate to count myself as one of them. The reason for this ramble, is that just as Egalitarianism overlaps Feminism, I think there is an overlap between Christianity and Skepticism; at least, I think there should be. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard in my life as a christian individual is that religion is inherently irrational and hostile towards open inquiry. It’s always difficult to hear this without becoming defensive; mostly because while I don’t think this in inherently true of religion, the reality of it often is.


Religion is not science. It deals specifically with subjective questions that do not have an objective solution. There are plenty of people who would disagree with this, but that’s a different topic altogether. The questions of whether or not God exists, or if people have a soul, are in my opinion fair game for logical examination, but beyond human ability to answer with finality. However, the implications of these questions usually land much closer to the realm of quantifiable properties. When life begins may be a controversial question, but the progression of life is observable. The psychological ramifications of prayer, and whether or not it effects reality, is also testable under the right circumstances.


Because of this, Skepticism is not only beneficial, but an invaluable tool for the religious; for exactly the same reason it’s invaluable for anyone. The fact that Christianity has inherently subjective questions at its core does not absolve us of the responsibilities of intellectual integrity or rational cohesion. If anything, it should give us a greater sense of responsibility to subject our ideas to logical examination. History is full of examples of what happens when we don’t. That’s not a history I want to repeat.


To that end, here are today’s questions:


In your opinion, what would a more skeptical approach to Christianity look like from within Christianity?


How does someone wanting to be a better Skeptic get started?


How do different ideological groups establish a truly open and equal discourse?



Coming in March: Christianity & Skepticism

I couldn’t be happier with the lively discussion occurring in my most recent posts.  There’s a lot beings discussed there that I could write several more installments on, however, I’m forced to set it aside due to travel plans.  I’ll be absent for the next week and a half, then continue with the next part of this series in early March; hopefully, no later than than the 7th. I’ll be discussing points of intersection and conflict between Christianity and Skepticism, and whether or not they pose any benefit to each other.


The Non-Existent Spectrum Follow Up: Complicity and Moral Responsibility

I received a comment in response to my previous post by mechtheist. The comment raised multiple points, but the most important one is this:

“For me, any catholic, no matter how ‘moderate their beliefs and actions, by donating to the church puts them in the toxic category, they are complicit in the worst of the Pope’s barbaric efforts.”

No disrespect to mechtheist, to whom I’m grateful for responding to my post, but this is precisely the mode of thinking about ideological groups I’m arguing against. I could explain the problem of equating a leader to their followers (politicians, voters, and the use of tax money, for example), but that’s secondary. Do people have an ethical obligation to criticize people or elements in their social groups that are morally unsound? Yes. Do they have an obligation to fight the abuse of power, or the abuse of others by those in power? Yes. I’d argue, more so than those outside the given group, since they are to a certain extent, complicit in the actions the group as a whole takes. But this complicity is partial, not complete, since individual actions are undertaken by individual people. It’s the person who acts who has the primary moral responsibility. Not speaking out against them may be equally heinous, but it is a separate moral failing.

Furthermore, there are other ways of showing dissent than leaving. Some would argue that they have a moral responsibility to stay in a problematic group, since they are partially complicit in the group’s actions, and thus have a responsibility to change the group itself. This is a course of action wide open to criticism, but it can come from a sense of moral obligation just as much as dissociating from the group in question. The point being, that spectrums and categories don’t work for evaluating people. Criticize their ideas if you find them unsound, hold them accountable for their actions, fight them with everything you’ve got if they try to harm others; But make sure its their actions and ideas you’re addressing. Don’t assume that the most important thing about them is one (vaguely) descriptive term.

It’s necessary to address environmental factors leading to social problems, just as it’s necessary to address bad ideas and moral failings within groups. However, simplifying a person’s moral failings as merely indicative of their group absolves them of their individual responsibilities to themselves and others. Claiming that simply belonging to a group is indicative of a moral failing ignores the individual circumstances of the person in question, as well as their potential to effect change.

I’m interested in the opinion of anyone reading this, so here’s an extra question for you, which I’ll work into my next post.


If a group to which you belong behaves in a morally objectionable way, is it ethically preferable to leave the group, or attempt to change it? Does your answer change if the misbehavior occurs strictly in leadership, or strictly in the majority of the group’s members?


The Non-Existent Spectrum

Religion, and specifically Christianity, has been at the heart of numerous struggles over human rights in our history. In the present, it seems it’s almost impossible to discuss any social justice issue without some religious group taking an impassioned oppositional or supportive attitude towards it. It’s a situation that has made the fragmented nature of the Christian Church in this country painfully obvious. Additionally, it has contributed to a very destructive way of thinking about the Church, both from within and without. I’m speaking of the widespread tendency to look at Christianity as something that exists on a spectrum; The extremists on one end, and the liberal Christians on the other. There are several reasons this is an inaccurate assumption, but I’ve restricted the following discussion to the most important:

 1: The sheer number of Sub-groups

“Christian” is a term with an interesting phenomenon attached to it. Almost everyone believes they know what it means when they hear it, but very few agree on this meaning. The sheer number of denominations, sects, and other sub-groups of Christianity is overwhelming, and that doesn’t even address the discrepancies you can find in an individual church over even the most basic definition of what Christianity is. This is a problem C. S. Lewis addressed in his book “Mere Christianity”. To paraphrase, he encouraged his readers not to think less of their fellow Christians who belonged to other sub-groups than their own. This shows that the debate, or to be less polite, in-fighting among Christians is nothing new, and shows little sign of ceasing.

 2: The Ongoing Social & Theological Debates In All Groups

Going off the problem above, lets continue to use Lewis as an example. Many Christians see him as an excellent speaker for their beliefs; he’s considered essential reading by many theological communities, and definitely one of the better representatives* for what is now called conservative Christianity. However, Lewis was not the only theologian of his generation, and there were significant disparities even among Christian peers at Oxford. Compare his statement below to that of his colleague Dorothy L. Sayers.

 Lewis: “I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, …patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government.”(The Weight of Glory)

 Sayers: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man…who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female.”(Are Women Human?)

It would be easy to look at these statements and label Lewis as a “conservative” Christian, and Sayers as a “liberal” one. This would be a glaring mistake, revealing an ignorance of both author’s body of work, and the way Christianity works in society. Lewis and Sayers, like all human beings, do not fit easily into categories. There were subjects both took conservative and liberal views on (by modern definitions), and many points on which they disagreed strongly. The reason they could disagree wasn’t that one was a “severe” christian and the other “mild”, but that they pursued differing philosophical traditions within the church. Far from existing on a spectrum, these two theologians illustrate the complexity and diversity of even relatively close theological traditions.

 3: The Nature of Extremism

The most important reason that the “spectrum” definition doesn’t work, is the nature of extremism itself. Christian extremists don’t all belong to some secret club, they exist mostly in small, isolated, and exclusive social groups. Many of these small groups hold the rest of the entire world, including any other Christian group, as thoroughly evil. The fact that many of them profess similar beliefs, or least significant overlap, is partially responsible for people erroneously lumping them all into one category. These groups don’t exist on the end of a spectrum, they each are an example of what any group can become when they outlaw dissent; and while it is a problem commonly found in Christianity, it isn’t specific to it. Extremism is its own unique problem, and needs to be addressed as such, not solely as a product of the Christian Church**

 Why it Happens:

I do believe that Christians themselves often contribute to “spectrum” thinking. We do this because humans have a tendency to use Heuristics, or short-cuts for complex problems. Often, this strategy is criticized for the way in which it can lead someone to form or justify erroneous definitions of other groups. But it’s not always examined how we can use Heuristics on ourselves and our own social groups. It’s just as easy to oversimplify the goals and intentions of your own group, thus avoiding exhaustive research on your own history or knowledge gaps.

Once again, we can use Sayers and Lewis as examples of this. Many different Christian groups, with wildly opposing beliefs, claim either as their champion. You can see this especially with Lewis, since he’s more well-known. Simply try a Google search and you’ll see how different groups simplify his life and work and pair it with their own goals. This gets further complicated by Evangelicalism. Since Evangelicals see it as their responsibility to persuade others of their point of view, many different sub-groups employ similar arguments and tactics. This creates a false sense, both for Evangelicals and their conversational partners, that they are all essentially the same, when in fact wide disparities exist that can’t be explained simply in terms of severity.

This is precisely why free-thought and open forums are necessary for social progress. Open discussion prevents not only those of a specific group from simplifying outsiders, it prevents them from simplifying themselves. Engaging people with different backgrounds or experiences, whether it’s through debates, discussion, or purely social interactions, heightens awareness of our own self-definition. It makes us aware of the things we take for granted; specifically,what it is that we think sets us apart from others, and what we believe connects us to them. It’s hardly ever what we think it is, but we can’t find that out by cloistering ourselves.

To the purpose of self-examination and critical inquiry, the question I’d like to leave you with is this:

What is the difference between using skepticism/skeptical inquiry, and being a Skeptic?


* In terms of how often he is used, not his actual beliefs.

** Although the Christian Church often contributes to this, and is often ineffectual in it’s response.


New Series: Christianity, Skepticism, and the Non-Existent Spectrum

Beginning on the 16th, I’ll be starting a new series on a very common misconception about Christianity. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve proselytization. What I’ll be looking at is the tendency, both in and outside of the Church, to assume Christianity exists on a spectrum of mild to severe, and the problems caused as a result. I’ll also be exploring points of compatibility and conflict between Christianity and Skepticism. The reason I’m making this announcement, instead of just writing the first installment, is that I plan to incorporate as much reader participation as possible. With each installment, I’ll end with a question, and use the responses as a spring-board for the next segment. Here is the initial question, which I’ll address on the 16th:

In terms of the Christian Church, what is the essential difference between an extremist and a non-extremist, if any?

How to Not Discuss Mental Illness: part III

#3: “You could kick it if you’d just realize it’s all in your head.”

This is one of the most common responses people with little understanding of mental illness utter, and one of the most destructive.  There is a widespread misconception that mental illnesses are ‘abstract’ issues.  That they are nebulous, poorly defined, unobservable things that people invent for themselves.  Often, people with psychological disorders are blamed for being sick and dismissed as stupid or weak.  This is a leading cause of people who need treatment deciding not to seek it out.  The fact is that mental illnesses are not abstract.  People who struggle with them are in real pain, and in need of real help.

I do believe that a contributing factor to this problem is a lack of understanding of medicine in general.  A background assumption by people without medical knowledge is that a physical illness means something foreign invading the body, or a part of the body being visibly damaged.  It isn’t commonly understood that thoughts and emotions do have observable causes.  A deficiency or excess in a specific neurotransmitter can occur just as easily as an allergy. Only instead of hives, neurotransmitter imbalances can cause mood shifts and obsessive thoughts. There are people who fight this concept, since they misconstrue it as an attack on their freedom of choice. Even people who accept this often have difficulty realizing how specific and predictable the results can be.

I am guilty of this mistake myself.  As a teenager, I believed that a depressive episode was always caused by something I did.  I had begun to understand something wasn’t right, but I saw it as a failure on my part, instead of something that operated according to its own rules.  It took me a long time to get the difference between a cause and an aggravation of a current condition.

As destructive as the above attitude is, it’s one of the easiest to understand.  It comes from a confusion regarding the relationship between thought, emotion, and behavior; a confusion that usually takes diligent study to straighten out.  So, similar to last week, the advice I would give healthy people is this:  If you have doubts about the validity of someone’s condition, hold off on voicing them until you’ve researched the issue yourself, from reputable sources.  Ask a medical professional for advice if you’re having trouble understanding. In the meantime, listen.  Do what you can to help someone who’s reached out to you; let them know they aren’t alone.  Also, it’s okay to admit you don’t have answers.  A statement like: “I don’t understand this situation, but I love you and want to help.”  Is a much better way of dealing with an uncomfortable topic than insisting it doesn’t exist.

How to Not Discuss Mental Illness: part II

As part of my series about mental illness, here is conversation-stopper # two:


2: But, you seem so normal!

Never, I repeat, never, say this to someone who has told you they have a mental disorder. Apart from being a terrible way of responding to just about anything, it’s offensive and harmful on several levels.

First: There are plenty of “normal” people who struggle with mental illness. This statement makes about as much sense as classifying someone with pneumonia as not normal. Furthermore, it tells the person you’re speaking to that you now see them as “other” because they have health problems; problems they never asked for in the first place. It’s isolating enough dealing with psychological disorders without being stigmatized for it, so don’t make it worse.

Second: It ignores the principal issue. If someone has revealed to you that they have a mental health problem, it’s very likely that they’re looking for help, or at least social support; especially if no one else knows about it. It can be very difficult to make that step, and it’s crucial that anyone struggling to deal with their psychological disorder gets treatment. Reacting this way can undermine the work they’ve done to come to terms with their issues, and prevent them from seeking needed treatment for fear of being viewed as a freak.

Third: The above sentence shows a complete lack of understanding about what mental illness actually is. It suggests that the speaker assumes it consists of erratic, irrational behavior; that you can look at someone and “just know”. Are their psychological conditions that cause (or contribute to) negative behaviors? Yes. Are their healthy people who behave erratically? Of course. There is a very wide range of mental illnesses, and each illness has its own spectrum of type and severity. There are many cases where symptoms are not obvious.

I can use myself as an example here. I have Major Depressive Disorder. However, unless I’m in an especially bad episode, you probably couldn’t tell unless you either lived with me or I told you. Often, my classmates, co-workers, and acquaintances describe me as “quiet” or “reserved”. It isn’t obvious to a casual observer that I have this internal battle with myself. There are plenty of others who face similar issues, and all to often, they face them alone because of the stigma about mental illness.

Not everyone can be an expert in psychology. Which means that most of us have erroneous ideas about general or specific mental illness, and what it looks like. So if someone confides in you about their struggles, and it takes you off-guard, here is a better way of expressing it than the above statement: “I had no idea you were dealing with that. I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?” I don’t recommend that you try to be someone’s therapist but at least listen. If this person is a family member, or other permanent feature in your life, then take the time to learn what you can about their disorder; not for the purpose of diagnosing them, but to prepare yourself for helping when it’s needed. It’s amazing what a little bit of knowledge and sympathy can do, but they aren’t always useful without each other.

How to Not Discuss Mental Illness

With the current discussion about gun control laws, the subject of mental illness is also gaining a lot of attention. This is a good thing, on the whole. Mental illness is a subject that makes many people uncomfortable, and as a consequence, we tend to shy away from talking about it. This often leads to widespread misinformation about the mentally ill, and negative stereotypes about them. For those who don’t believe that this is an issue, I’d ask two questions: How many movie villains can you name who have a stated or implied mental disorder? How many heroes?

In both cases, it’s rare to see an accurate portrayal of mental illness*, but many people walk away from fictional portrayals believing they know something about abnormal psychology, which in turn leads to people living with disorders being discriminated against and stigmatized. It is necessary to combat this with better dissemination of information about mental illness, and more open societal conversation. However, it’s important to bear in mind that a good conversation actually goes somewhere. It consists of people listening as well as talking, and not simply re-stating their own views over and over again. To that end, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a series of conversation-stoppers everyone should avoid, especially when talking one-on-one with someone struggling with a psychological disorder. Here is today’s:


1: You’re not really sick; you’re just unique and society doesn’t understand you.

This is insidious, mostly because the speaker believes that they’re being tolerant. Instead, what this tells someone with a mental illness is that their conversational partner dismisses their suffering. It also says that the speaker is defining them in terms of their pathology. I myself have been on the receiving end of this. I’ve struggled with depression from an unusually young age, and often encountered people who believed that my symptoms were merely personality quirks. In one particular conversation, after admitting some of my struggles to a classmate, they responded: “But who’s to say that means there’s something wrong with you? It’s okay if that’s who you are. I don’t think there’s such a thing as mental illness.” I never spoke to this classmate again, and it was years before I confided in anyone else. It strengthened the fear that my problems were the result of personal weakness, and that they were inseparable from my personality. It also made me feel that I needed permission to be sick.

Often, people need to discuss their problems in order to increase their own understanding of them, and they’re putting themselves in a vulnerable place to do so. If someone confides in you that they are mentally ill, you should take it as a sign of great trust. If they tell you about their struggles with their disorder, listen. Also, never argue with someone about whether or not they’re sick. Even if you believe they aren’t, get them to a doctor immediately, and let a professional make that assessment.

Mental Illness will exist whether we believe it’s there or not; it will affect people whether we give them permission to be sick or not. We as a society have the means of diminishing the problem, or exacerbating the suffering of millions. That makes it just as much an ethical issue as a medical and cultural one; it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, because it certainly isn’t going anywhere.


* the book “Movies and Mental Illness” is an excellent resource for this issue.