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.