I was raised to believe that everything the Bible says is literally true, and as a nonbeliever I still tend to interpret the Bible pretty literally. Here’s why:
Literalism is the natural form of religion that results from reading the scriptures. When people read the Bible with no preconceived ideas about what it should say, they will tend to assume it means exactly what it says. I wouldn’t expect it to even occur to anyone that the Bible might not simply mean what it says, unless someone else told them to think that. Or unless they were unable to accept what they were reading because they already had other, more strongly-held beliefs that were incompatible with the Bible.
Non-literalist religion is a self-deceptive phenomenon that results when people consider themselves religious, but also have beliefs and values that conflict with the scriptures. If they don’t want to outright reject the Bible or admit that their values don’t come from their religion, they have to make up metaphorical interpretations of the Bible that agree with what they already believe, and ignore what the Bible actually says.1
In a lot of cases, what the Bible says was meant completely literally, and was originally interpreted literally, and no one saw a problem with that. But as humanity’s knowledge of the world and standards of morality have improved over time, it has become increasingly clear to most people that what the Bible says literally is absurdly wrong. So those who can’t admit that the Bible is wrong have had to increasingly reinterpret it figuratively. Some take it so far that they’re basically atheists in denial.
Even literalists are now so used to thinking of certain concepts and expressions used in the Bible as figurative that it might not even occur to them that those things might have once been meant literally. But compared to what the writers intended, literalists aren’t literal enough! Like most people in ancient times, the writers of the Bible actually believed that people literally thought with their hearts. And their kidneys.2Continue reading To interpret literally or liberally?