Sunday, August 7, 2011

Jerry Coyne Is Thinking Again

And is making me look bad in the process, since I've been playing snark for the last month.  I was going to respond in the comment section, but I didn't want to be falsely accused of a DDOS attack (not by Jerry or anyone affiliated with his site I hasten to note) on his site by writing an overlong comment.

Jerry writes a nice piece ending with a question:
Why is the truth reserved for Jesus’s story alone, while everything else is up for grabs?
This is the coda to the entreating of some sophisticated, modern world, new-age Christian, Lose, with token references to Aquinas and Augustine, and a few others thrown in for good measure.  I have to say that while I enjoy reading such well-written pieces, I must also say that I think it's giving a bad idea way too much attention. I'm not nearly as sophisticated in my rejection of unicorns, fairies, or any other claims of magical agency; it's an idea for which not a single credible reason exists to think it is anything but a complete nonsense.  So, in that regard, I'm fairly reductionist in shooing away the "good story".

Since Jerry does ask a question, if only rhetorically--it's not rhetorical necessarily on his end, but it will be taken as such by the run of the mill believer / god botherer--here is what I was going to leave at his place as a response.

This question, and its analogues, always strikes me in the same way as two people discussing an ugly-in-my-estimation painting strikes me.  To my ears, they seem to spend a great deal of effort trying to convince one another and themselves why they, at the very least, don't dislike it. Or listening to well meaning self-styled oenologists wax pretentious on the traits and hue of an unknown-to-them wine. Perhaps my palette is just untrained, and I simply "don't get it", but I watch the occasional show on the television on these things. I've yet to see one wherein the sommelier is able to consistently differentiate a wine of supposed low pedigree from one of higher breeding and stock.  I could well be wrong on these matters; for, it is entirely possible that I have curious timing and only run into the really bad examples of the pretentious:  those who have all of the will, and none of the skill.  (token nod to Tom Lehrer)

But this is an analogy, and it needn't be perfect to adduce to my point; viz., it might be entirely possible there is an actual proper reading of the Bible.  I merely happen to be inconveniently saddled with always running into those who are merely wrong.  If there is a proper "way" to understand and read the Bible, it would be greatly helpful for the one who has that particular riddled solved to come forward. The problem, of course, is that every church claims to have that person; this leaves me in the awkward position, therefore, of evaluating supposed claims about having the one true understanding in the light of what is demonstrably true. After all, a good shuck and jive may well be entertaining, but by no means should underwrite one's confidence in a claim, let alone serve as guarantee of truth.

Moving on from the aesthetic issues which put me off, I have concerns about the known irrationality of humans. We are fairly simple creatures, capable of being led astray when we're being told something that's a good story and seems to work towards our provincial interests.  We have industries devoted to figuring out how best to sell to people products for which there is no use other than to provide space between a fool and her money. It's something we routinely educate children out of as a byproduct of forcing them to mature and take on ever more sophisticated analytic skills.  A little imagination is a good thing - it's an excellent driver of innovation, so long as it's rooted in and bounded by something closely mapping reality.

In children, we're oftentimes bemused of their capacity to so freely invent entire universes for themselves, and their own special friends. We also admire this in adults, but not at the level of a child's imagination. For an adult's other-worldly bemusement to garner attention, it is normally required to be fairly complex, intricate, tailored, progressive, well-written, and pointed to a particular oddity of the human condition.  Not a lot of people are great at combining all of that and making a good story; I am certainly not.  I have the tools to be a technician, but I'll never be the artisan. My agency lies elsewhere, and so does most everyone else's.

Another distinguishing feature between the adult and the child is that the adults, presumably anyway, know the difference between a good story and reality.  At least in most cases (one hopes). So, when a child ignores reality to go off exploring their imagination with reckless abandon to how sensible it is, we often think it's cute, and fun. And it is in its own way.  There's a long process from child to adult, and this is one of the phases we can look at and harken to our own path with the comfortable nostalgia that time has a way of creating.  But when adults fail to see the difference and operate at the same careless level of a child? Let's just say I'm not impressed. And neither are you. Almost no one is.

And that, Jerry, is why, in my mind, Jesus is the one thing from the Bible that must be true. For, if it were otherwise, you'd have a group of middle-aged people looking back at the last however many years admitting to themselves what an utter waste of time it was believing a nonsense. People seem none too comfortable having their ethereal ox gored by the matador of reality.

Indeed, the atheist movement--such as it is a movement at any rate--is full of people who are quite happy to tell the tale of their struggle to deal with the brutality of reason, and we congratulate them for finally growing up, albeit on the shallow side of the power curve.

I realize my art and viticulture references are aesthetic choices, and might not seem directly at issue.  I think otherwise; the Bible is nothing more than a tale, and a poorly told one at that.  To give it credence as anything more than the hankering for imagination that it is is to be too generous with those who wish to long-prattle of the "good news" or "good story".

This isn't a sophisticated argument, or analysis, I fully concede. For me to write one of those the topic would need to be restricted to something that's simultaneously real, important and nuanced. The claims of religion are neither real, nor nuanced. Sadly, they are important only to the extent that there are people milling around today who would be happy to murder me (and you) for not taking Humpty Dumpty as seriously as they do. It's really a medley of "because my feelings on this are so important and profound, so too is the truth of my imagination."

Edit for the lulz:


Anonymous said...

"the atheist movement .. is full of people who are quite happy to tell the tale of their struggle to deal with the brutality of reason, and we congratulate them for finally growing up"

Potty training. Always good.
You're a lot nicer than me.
I tend to retort "Whaddaya want? A biscuit?"

Anonymous said...

.. and Scottish wine-buffs of my acquaintance gave me this handy tip as to their secret methods. All that business with candles and spitting is hooey.

There's a little 2-digit number in a circle somewhere, like the corner of the label.
The greater that number, the better the wine.

Copyleft said...

The Bible is an excellent example of folklore. That's why I keep mine on the same shelf as other world mythologies, just above Alice in Wonderland.