Today, Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish quotes Rabbi Rami Shapiro on the American Atheists billboard near the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City. (The billboard reads, “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!”) In part,
The characters found in myths represent aspects of our own psyches. The Virgin Birth is neither a miracle nor a biological act of parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). It is a story about how something new and potentially redemptive comes into the world. As a myth Christmas speaks to all humans. As science and history it makes no sense at all.
Sullivan, a Roman Catholic, seems to agree.
The Christmas stories in the Bible – and they are multiple and contradictory – are obviously myths. They are obviously not to be taken literally.
I wish he realized that this was hardly obvious to millions of Christians in the US and around the world. I agree that these stories are obviously myths, but I’m pretty sure most Christian leaders teach that the Christmas story (maybe not in every intricate detail, but in the major points) is literal truth. Still, Sullivan seems to miss the point of his own observation, when he continues:
They are meant as signs to the deeper, profounder truth that Christians hold to: that the force behind all that exists actually intervened in the consciousness of humankind in the form of a man so saturated in godliness that merely being near him healed people of the weight of the world’s sins. This is so enormous and radical an idea that it is not suprising that early Christian writers told stories to bring it more firmly to life. But they were stories, telling of a deeper more ineffable truth. If only contemporary Christians could let go of the literalism in pursuit of the far more extraordinary fact of the Incarnation.
So… the Incarnation is an “extraordinary fact.” But the Christmas story, about the birth of Jesus, is “obviously a myth.” Aren’t those two things … related? Moreover, I don’t see how three entities existing as one being, part of which fathered another part and then caused it to die in order to atone for the sins of completely separate entities according to rules made up by that first part, makes any more sense than the Christmas story.
When you realize that part of your holy book, the basis for your religion, contains obviously made-up stories that were fabricated by the original writers in order to make a more compelling narrative, that should seriously call into question the rest of the book. Even the parts that, for whatever reason, do seem true to you. After all, you know that those original writers weren’t above stretching the truth just to win some converts. Is it really impossible for you to have been duped?
This paragraph from Shapiro’s post makes me gag a little every time I read it:
I am, of course, speaking as a nonChristian, but I say the same about the myths of every religion including my own. If I insist the Exodus is history I have to deal with a murderous God and a host of extraneous, harmful, and self-serving miracles. But if I accept it as myth I am dealing with the liberation of self from enslavement to power; the suffering is mine, the deaths are mine, and the liberation is mind (sic). Myth is meant to lived rather than believed in; it is about the inner life not the political one.
If the stories in Exodus can’t possibly be true, why be Jewish? If the Gospels can’t possibly be true, why be Christian? What is the basis for having the religious beliefs that you do have? Does it just make you feel good to believe that way?
We’ve covered this idea before, that religion is valuable even if it’s based on fiction. I still don’t buy it. I fully acknowledge that you can learn from literature — it can express, and prompt reflection on, the nature of the human condition — but I’ve never heard a good argument as to why I should start a church based around Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. There’s a difference between religious belief and the enjoyment of a well-written book.
Atheists are claiming that the supernatural beliefs of religion have no basis in fact. If you’re arguing that religious texts have some literary value but are not actually true, you’re on the atheist side, not the religious one. And if you’re going to claim that some pieces of your religious text are true and others are not, you have to give some method by which you are able to distinguish.