On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

I recently read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. It was an interesting, albeit uninformed, manifesto against religion, but one aspect of the author’s fundamental argument struck me as particularly poorly conceived and communicated: the notion of “scriptural literalism.” In an effort to marginalize and dismiss the experiences and perspectives of more liberal and progressive religionists, Harris must build a case for the purity of the lived religion of fundamentalists, as well as the centrality of “scriptural literalism.” That is, Harris insists that those who adhere to the “literal” meaning, or the “letter” of the scriptures, are more pious and genuine practitioners of their faith. Those who reject that “scriptural literalism” are feeding off of secular insights and so are not true practitioners of their religion. “The doors leading out of scriptural literalism,” he insists, “do not open from the inside” (18–19, emphasis in original). Liberal religion is just religion mixed with non-religion; it’s corrupt religion. This is a rhetorical attempt to invalidate the contributions made to this debate by moderates and liberal religionists. Harris need only concern himself with the fundies, which makes everything so much easier to criticize and condemn.

The problem is that there is no such thing as “scriptural literalism.” It simply does not exist. It’s a fundamentalist claim that has no basis in reality (more on why Harris is adopting fundamentalist ideologies later). Here’s why:

First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning. They carry symbols that signify broad ranges of semantic senses for groups who have loose agreements about those signifiers. When we read a text, we call up in our minds our understanding of that agreement and use a variety of methods to try to whittle the possible meanings down to the one we think was intended by the author. This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are even a variety of ways that an author can actually undermine the expected meaning, violating those semantic fields. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.

Next, in order to move from the letter to the meaning, we have to impose some lenses that help us focus on certain semantic fields over and against others in our attempt to whittle that potential meaning down. Our lenses come from our experiences with language and with literature and with culture and other things. This is why when an American reads the noun “boot,” depending on the region they live in, they will most likely impose lenses that whittle the potential semantic fields down to something like a cowboy boot. For someone living in Great Britain, though, the most likely whittled down meaning will be something like an army boot, if not the trunk of a car. Our experiences govern those lenses, and we best interpret texts from other times, languages, and cultures when we can approximate the lenses they would have been using. This is also a guessing game and thus makes it incredibly difficult—and sometimes impossible—to interpret ancient texts.

Conservative and “literalist” readers of the scriptures, whether of the Bible or the Quran, overwhelmingly tend to take one of two approaches to interpretation. One is to presuppose the ahistorical function of scripture and read them as if they were a contemporary composition directed specifically at them, in which case their lenses have them light years from the authors’ intended meanings. The other is to impose an historical set of lenses that serves the religious ideologies of the reader. In other words, they attempt to approximate the lenses used by the authors, but they do so in ways that attempt to protect (or legitimize) their presuppositions about the text’s meanings. For instance, conservative Christians often interpret the word elohim (god/s) in Psalm 82 and Exod 22:8 as references to human judges, and they claim that the word was honorifically bestowed in ancient Israel on judges and other special authorities. It wasn’t (see pp. 49–56 here). Elohim refers to gods, not to judges. There is no fundamentalist Christian anywhere that even approximates literalism when it comes to Psalm 82 (or the Song of Solomon, or 2 Kgs 3:27, or Matt 5:29, or Gen 6:2–4, or James 2:14–26, or dozens and dozens of other passages). To do so would be to contradict their reading of other portions of scripture that they believe deny the existence of other deities. This brings us to the next consideration: univocality.

Univocality means a single voice. It is the dogma that holds that the scriptures (Bible or Quran), as the inerrant and/or inspired word of God, represent God’s consistent and unified position and message. It does not contradict itself. This is a dogma. Both the Bible and the Quran, however, are thoroughly inconsistent. They are collections of texts composed by numerous different authors with numerous different viewpoints over long periods of time that have been edited and redacted by numerous others. They are empirically and objectively not univocal. In order to maintain the concept of univocality, however, “literalists” must massage their interpretation of certain texts to serve that concept and the overriding ideologies of their groups. If a seeming contradiction is identified, the passage that supports an existing ideology will be used as a lens through which to reinterpret the passage that conflict in a way that makes it agreeable. This absolutely precludes literalism, and it brings us to the final consideration:

Literalists are not literal about scripture, they’re literal about their ideology. Scripture is secondary. Religious groups don’t derive doctrine from the literal interpretation of scripture, they derive doctrine from negotiating between their group’s past, the needs of the present within a cultural context, and their interpretation of scripture. It’s very important to keep in mind that that last item serves the other two. Scripture is the authority to which religionists appeal for their beliefs. It is not the source of their beliefs. It is flexible and ambiguous and malleable enough to say what religious groups need it to say. There are ideological literalists, and scripture is their paint and palette. There are no scriptural literalists.

The irony of Harris’ claim is that he has to adopt a fundamentalist dogma in order to serve his own ideology (“Religion bad!”). This is a habit with a long and storied history in ideological bickering. It’s a lot easier to criticize religious traditions if you adopt the fragile and brittle worldviews of the most fundamentalist and uncritical groups within that tradition. Then the more reasonable and informed and complex perspectives can be dismissed before they complicate your arguments and make you think too hard. This is a tactic employed frequently by apologists of all kinds, including, evidently, the dogmatic and belligerent apologists from the New Atheist movement. Dogmas, whether religious or anti-religious, are a lot easier to proliferate when they’re black and white and reducible to small conceptual chunks that are easily digestible for young white males in trilbies who are infatuated with the transcendence of their own genius.

EDIT: Added some links and cleaned up some syntax.

31 responses to “On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism

  • john f.

    Important stuff — a solid reply to this aspect of Harris’ arguments!

  • Russ

    Your arguments are more like those of Biblical scholars, such as those at the Westar Institute. The problem is: the most vocal and obstinate self-described Christians are indeed literalists at one level or another. If nothing else they take the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed literally. Most of them would say you are not a Christian if you do not believe Jesus is God, no compromise possible. This leaves progressives as “post-Christians” or hybrids or something, claiming a label that most self-defined Christians would deny to them.

    You are correct, however, that the famous atheists are addressing, almost exclusively, the “Old Man in the Sky” level of theological thinking. If I’m not mistaken Dawkins said explicitly in either the Preface or Chapter 1 of The God Delusion that he is not directing his criticisms toward those who adopt a metaphorical or non-literal view of dogma. (And John Shelby Spong, who is a scholar but not a literalist, said he could find nothing in Dawkins to disagree with!)

    Note please that I am not criticizing your perspective, just saying that a majority of self-defined Christians (especially in Africa and places like that where the faith is growing) are committed to an acceptance of supernatural claims without question. Most also believe in a revelation based approach, which means the original truth was perfect and cannot change. You (and all cogntive scientists) would recognize that no comprehension occurs without interpretation, so there is no such thing as an original uninterpreted meaning to text. But that is way too sophisticated an argument and does not register. They would say something like, “So you mean anything goes?” or hint that you have been corrupted by secular culture.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments, Russ. I agree that fundamentalists can be very literal when it comes to certain dogmas, like the Nicene or Apostle’s creeds. That’s a very different species of literalism from what Harris describes in his book, though. He wants to paint religion as inherently and fundamentally violent and corrosive, and to do that he has to distinguish the violent fundamentalists from the rest as the most pious and genuine practitioners of their faiths. This is accomplished by insisting those that have killed in the name of their religion are just following literally the orders they find in their scriptures, but as I try to show in the post, his framework falls apart in the light of more informed and careful analysis of how scripture functions in religious communities.

      I would agree that many fundamentalists emphasize a revelation-based approach that insists their ideology is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but all belief systems evolve, even if very slowly and in ways that make adherents think they’re just clarifying or being more specific instead of actually changing.

      Thanks again for the comments!

      • Forbes Griffith

        At the link below is a much better and more concise analysis of what many nonreligious skeptics justifiably think vis-à-vis “liberal/progressive” theists versus conservative fundamentalists, in summary… Also, “New” atheists criticize the hypocrisy of fundamentalists’ inability to be truly “literalist” all the time (since that degree of literalism would be logically impossible, self-contradictory, and illegal in any civilized jurisdiction).

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        Thanks for providing the link, Forbes, but the article is using a rather sloppy rhetorical register to argue against a specific kind of progressive Christianity that really has little at all to do with me or my comments. It also naively refers to “a type of mind control,” which immediately betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the cognitive function and influence of religion.

        I know that plenty of critical thinkers acknowledge the hypocrisy of claims to scriptural literalism, but none of those of which I’m aware would identify as New Atheists. I’m addressing a specific concept promoted consistently by a specific group of New Atheists, namely the most prominent ones. I have yet to see a legitimate response to my concerns with their argument.

  • scottsama

    Isn’t it kind of a chicken/egg thing? If literalists are literal about ideology, where did that ideology come from? A reading of the scriptures, no?

    • Howard Pepper

      I think Daniel’s point is that the Bible CAN be used to “proof-text” a fundy (or any) kind of ideology. But the Bible does not, when read as a whole and not forcing uniformity among the distinct books and genres, actually present any particular set of dogmas held today or at any point within “orthodoxy”.

      At the same time, people raised within a “revelation/supernaturalist” kind of system, as are the bulk of American (and African, etc.) Christians, do tend to get programmed toward ideological “purity” VIA the Bible… as selectively read and subjectively interpreted by a given denomination, church, etc. The Bible is used as a tool to reinforce the tendency of many to create/adopt black-and-white absolutist systems (even tho they are actually impossible to consistently apply).

      • scottsama

        I would agree with your statement, but the blog post seems to attempt to disconnect ideology from scripture reading.

        “Literalists are not literal about scripture, they’re literal about their ideology.”

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        Yes, my blog post does do that. No one has ever read a scripture or formulated a doctrine in total isolation. All scripture reading occurs within ideological contexts that guide and govern the interpretations and the applications. The scriptures were composed in response to circumstances and with ideological and rhetorical goals in mind, and they have all been read with ideological and rhetorical goals in mind. In light of that, no dogma springs ex nihilo from the pages of scripture. They are all negotiations between communities, their needs, their past, and the texts. Those components, from least to most negotiable, are (1) the needs, (2) the past, and (3) the texts.

      • scottsama

        Certainly no one has ever read a scripture in isolation. That does not mean however, that their formulation of ideology is completely disconnected from a literal reading of the text. It can be a very integral part of forming that ideology.

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        Not completely disconnected, but the text is subservient to the needs of the community. Literalness is presupposed no matter how the community decides the text is to be interpreted. Even if it’s thoroughly metaphoric, the reading will be called literal, since that’s what God intended for them to understand. That understanding, however, can and will change to suit the exigencies of the religious community.

      • scottsama

        I can get on board with that.

  • Howard Pepper

    Reblogged this on Natural Spirituality – Loving Forum for Spiritual Harmony & Growth and commented:
    This article is important… very well put. Good clarification for people who are not themselves literalists (i.e., ideologically driven). True “literalists” (ideologues) will either not understand or not agree with the points… UNLESS they are on the way out themselves, as many are.

    And Harris (with some others), as bright as he is, indeed does commit the kind of analytical errors Daniel points out here. A much more helpful and accurate appraisal of the “varieties of religious experience” (ala William James) and religious culture can be found in Ken Wilber and Integral Theory.

  • Howard Pepper

    Great post, Daniel! I did a rare re-blog, with supportive intro comments. There I mentioned the much more accurate and beneficial analysis of Ken Wilber and others within “Integral Theory”. Are you familiar with his/their work? The book “Integral Christianity” is a fascinating (and I believe healthy and powerful) expression of it for people who want to retain, as I do, SOME kind of linkage to Jesus via the Gospels and to aspects of Paul, etc. (and call themselves “Christian”). I have an in-depth review of “Integral Christianity” on my blog.

    I guess it’s not surprising that Wilber’s work is not more widely known and read…. It’s TOO sensible and robust. Of course, it’s generally not “page turner” reading for most people, and does require thinking (and, for many of his works, some kind of pertinent education for it to “click” fairly easily). Another “flaw” in his larger body of work and certain of the foundational books is that it is so wonderfully comprehensive… dealing with more factors in an integrated way than any other system of interpreting reality and personal/cultural development I know of. (And I’m fairly informed on this kind of thing.) I think Wilber would be in full agreement with this article of yours.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks, Howard! I appreciate the reblog! I’ve heard of Integral Theory before, but I don’t know much about it. I’ll have to take a look at his stuff.

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  • churchistrue

    Great essay. I’m going to incorporate some of these points into my presentation at my site. It’s not finished, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I have up so far.

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  • Chris Falter

    Excellent post, Daniel. However, you seem to misunderstand the history of Islam. You (seem to) claim that the Quran is a “collection of texts composed by numerous different authors with numerous different viewpoints over long periods of time that have been edited and redacted by numerous others.” In fact, the Quran was composed by a single individual in one lifetime, and has experienced only minor editing/redaction since then. Like any literature it has sources, oral traditions that were composed over time by many individuals. But it is the product of one author, and encumbered with surprisingly few textual variants.

    I say this as a passionate Christian who has Muslim friends.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thank you, Chris! I would quibble with this characterization of the Qur’an a bit. There is very little in the way of textual criticism that has been conducted on the Qur’an. The tradition largely frowns on it, and the characterization of the textual integrity of the text that has circulation in most Muslim circles derives from that tradition, not the scholarship. There are only a couple scholarly treatments available on the topic, and they only focus on small portions of the text. Also, while there is general consistency in the manuscripts following Uthman’s standardization, there is quite a bit of time separating that standardization from Muhammad. It is well known that manuscripts were dismissed and even destroyed that weren’t reconcilable with the standardized text. There is a lot more research that remains to be done on the textual criticism of the Qur’an before we can say it was composed by a single individual in one lifetime.

  • Chris Falter

    I agree that Uthman’s destruction variants makes it impossible to know the state of the texts in 655 CE. Given that the prophet of Islam had passed away only 23 years earlier, and that there was a strong emphasis on exact memorization in the movement, I don’t think that there is much possibility of serious variation, though.

    My problem is with your statement that the Quran is a “collection of texts composed by numerous different authors with numerous different viewpoints over long periods of time.” It is quite reasonable to think that it was written over the course of (at most) a couple of decades and that it is the work of one author, the prophet of Islam. He did not actually put quill to scroll, but all the recorded words are thought to be his and were put in writing by his closest followers. It is quite unlike the Bible, which on its face is clearly the product of many authors over the course of a millenium.

    I am not arguing that the Quran is genuinely a revelation from God. I’m also not arguing that it has no bias regarding what was transcribed vs. what wasn’t, or that its historiography is 100% accurate. I’m just saying that we should characterize it as the product of one author and transcribed over the course of a few decades. I’m bringing up these points because I think it’s important to make our presentation to Muslims as accurate as possible.


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  • Jeff G

    The point I take from this is that literalist and figurativist readers whittle down their meanings to differing semantic fields…. I don’t see why this legitimizes either one over the other.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      It doesn’t. They’re different ends of a spectrum, and the texts fill the whole thing. The best we can do is try to reconstruct an approximation of the author’s intent, whichever side of the spectrum it was intended to occupy.

  • Jeff G

    Well, the post is certainly structured as if this were a major problem for one side, but not the other.

    Indeed, I think it projects a lot of beliefs onto fundamentalism that are not really native to their thinking. In particular, I don’t think they are at all committed to “univocality” in any deep sense. Rather, they are simply committed to the idea that God alone rather than natural science, historians, literary theory or even common sense can let us off the hook of a literal reading. I don’t think they really care about there really being one definite meaning rather than a semantic field with morally binding boundaries in any deep sense that an intellectual might care about. Indeed, I think their whole point is that they want intellectuals to stop trying to mediate their approach to the scriptures. If this is really what is at issue, then this entire post begs the question since it assumes that the teachings of literary theorists are relevant.

    I would also suggest that the mindset of the common audience of 2,000 years ago toward which the scriptures were originally addressed is no more foreign to our thinking than the Saussurean inspired post-structuralism. In both cases, the average reader is well removed from anything approaching the understanding that comes from face to face conversation. If we are forced to choose between pretending like we understand a prophet who has been dead for over 2 millennia and a literary theorist whose been dead for over 2 decades, I think the fundamentalist believer is right to choose the prophet.

    • comet

      Not sure how this addresses the post or even the subsequent thread.
      What’s with all the ax-grinding against phantom literary theorists in the post?

  • Matt

    Daniel. Interesting and well written. I enjoyed reading it. Was referred via a Twitter feed regarding this Paris mess. One comment, when referring to the author or argument you are countering, you’re undermining yourself when you lead with a dig like “laughably uninformed”. It instantly makes your readers, most at least, less interested in hearing YOUR well informed argument.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for your comment, Matt. I have considered revising it, as a few people found it didn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the post.

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