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Arguing about religion is difficult.

Stupidly, I got myself involved in a Guardian Comment is Free thread, on an article about how the existence of beetles should give creationists pause for thought. Articles like this bring about in me a very mixed reaction. On the one hand, the author is quite right: the evolution of the beetle should give creationists pause for thought.

On the other hand though, whether it should or not is immaterial, given that it almost certainly won’t do so.

My other issue with articles like this is that they add to the idea that religion as a whole is purely about a literal interpretation of a holy book, and as such religion is automatically wrong. This almost entirely ignores the fact that (fundamentalism aside) religion is more about the shared experience of people and communities as human beings, and the interpretation of religious texts in, say, a sermon or address should sit firmly within the context that that shared experience brings about. I tried to explain this but found it increasingly difficult, annoying and time-consuming trying to patiently address the many (in my view fallacious) comments that were made.

The argument soon derailed into a whole stream of disparate sub-arguments. Trying to address them all was nigh-on impossible. Truth be told, this was probably because several people all had something to say at once, so even though an individual only had a few points to make, the whole thing ended up as a giant collective Gish Gallop.

What was also galling was that (as the article referred to the story of Noah) I couldn’t seem to move the argument beyond what other people perceived the literal interpretation of that story to be. When I suggested that the point of the story was as background to the “covenant” between God and Noah, that God would never again attempt to destroy sin by destroying humanity, this was simply thrown back. No, this story is clearly about God being a mass murderer, and arbitrarily saving one family whilst slaughtering the rest. No other interpretation was valid. Obviously.

The irony of this is that this is exactly the sort of rhetorical device a fundamentalist would use, only in attempted support of the exact opposite argument. Take the story, out of context, don’t read it in relation to contemporary human experience, insist that your interpretation is the right one because it is written so in the Bible. Conclusion: if you do/don’t (delete according to which side you adopt) follow [insert religion here, or even religion as a whole], you are a terrible person!

I don’t think this sort of argument helps anyone, really. A more useful debate that arises from this story could be a discussion about what such a covenant would imply: does it suggest that getting rid of sin completely is impossible and has undesirable consequences? What does that mean for our daily lives? Or something else? Let’s talk about it!

Another commenter raised the point about finding beauty and comfort in science, hence not needing religion. My opinion is that I see beauty and comfort in both. And not only beauty and comfort: challenge, discomfort, grief, angst, joy, frustration, excitement and many other things. Viewing religion purely as a “comfort” strikes me as somewhat patronising.

I hope to address some of the other points that were raised at a later date. I haven’t blogged too much about religion yet, certainly not as much as I’d like. Religion is something that I think receives a lot of criticism which is fair for a particularly heinous subset of it, but not the whole of it. My overall impression is that when it comes to taking a dim view of the societal impacts of religion, people’s (often excellent) standards of evidence slip drastically.

That the factual accuracy of events reported in the Bible doesn’t stand up to scientific evidence is not in question here. But does it then follow that religion is an entirely evidence-free discipline that merits the beating up it gets? That is more open to debate.

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1 comment to Arguing about religion is difficult.

  • “But does it then follow that religion is an entirely evidence-free discipline that merits the beating up it gets?”

    I know I’m going to regret asking this. I haven’t wrapped up any Christmas presents yet, the mother-in-law will be here on Christmas Eve and I need to clean the house, and I still don’t have a bird to put in the oven for Christmas Day. So I really, really, shouldn’t be starting this now.

    What sort of evidence did you have an mind, and for what religion?

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