The Secular Bible

Let me recommend Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously to readers of the Secular Outpost. It’s a damn good book, and raises questions that nonbelievers and secularists will want to wrestle with.

My primary interest lies in the science and religion area — which, in practice, usually becomes natural science and religion. But among nonbelievers, questions regarding scriptures and interpretation probably attract more attention, even if it’s at the level of naive Bible-bashing and lists of contradictions. So it’s particularly relevant to have Berlinerblau address Biblical interpretation. He charges nonbelievers with falling down on the job, with misunderstanding or being ill-informed about religion while defining themselves against the very thing they know so little about. His focus is naturally on the academy; he observes that religious studies as a discipline is the territory of committed religious people, even though they take non-fundamentalist approaches to the texts they study. Indeed, he argues that the secular intellectual tradition concerning religion is experiencing a crisis. The crisis involves a lack of interest, lack of fresh ideas, and even abandoning the serious study of religion to the religious.

Having thus set the stage, Berlinerblau goes on to describe his explicitly secular approach to reading the Bible. His explanation of how the Bible generates multiple meanings and impossibilities of meaning due to its process of composition will particularly interest secularists, and indeed anyone frustrated with the ability of religious figures to find practically anything they want in the texts they interpret. He brings up a very good question: why is the Bible so opaque, and why have its readers historically been compelled to spend so much effort trying to interpet it anyway? His answers are invariably thought-provoking. I can’t say I was swept away (I can always find nits to pick, and I have to say that I found the chapter on the Quran vaguely unsatisfactory), but I was impressed, and continually found myself engaged in arguing with and sometimes against Berlinerblau. You can’t ask for more from a good book.

That being said, I have to wonder if Berlinerblau’s portrayal of secular thinking about religion as being in a state of crisis is entirely accurate. He may be correct to say that the field of religious studies is dominated by liberal-minded believers — it certainly fits my experience. But I am not sure that religious studies is the only, or even the best, perspective to bring to studying religion, particularly for nonbelievers. My impression of religious studies is that it suffers from an ideology of intellectual isolationism — its practitioners take it for granted that religion is sui generis, that it can only be understood from the inside, that their job is to uncover meaning rather than explanations. These are attitudes that can be found throughout the humanities, where an anti-scientific, “anti-reductionist” flag is often raised. But they seem especially intense in religious studies, serving to insulate their beliefs in transcendent realities from any external criticism.

If that impression I have is roughly accurate, then I also have to ask if especially science-minded nonbelievers have good reason for not being deeply interested in Biblical interpretation and so forth. That various scriptures are easily understood as human products rather than supernatural inspirations is old hat, after all. There does not seem to be too many prospects of significantly new knowledge coming from investigating that question. If we add that secularists don’t see various scriptures as relevant to their lives anyway, a lack of interest is understandable, at least. Even more so if getting seriously involved means having to deal with the irritating intellectual isolationism of religious studies departments.

Now, some of us still remain deeply interested in religion as a human phenomenon. But even in that case, I suggest that the more interesting ideas are not to be found in Biblical interpretation, but in areas Berlinerblau does not mention. For example, these are very exciting times if you are curious about the psychology of religion. There is a lot of good, new work going on now that brings together cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary theory to try and understand universal human beliefs in socially relevant supernatural agents. Such work takes an implicitly secular perspective, and is perhaps more likely to attract the attention of science-minded nonbelievers today.

So I’m not sure about secular thinking about religion being in a state of crisis. I don’t want to deny that Berlinerblau has a valid point, and that it would be good if there was more explicitly secular reading of the Bible going on. This would have immense practical value, and it might even help break the isolationism within religious studies. Nevertheless, there’s a lot more secular thinking about religion going on that Berlinerblau does not recognize. And in this wider context, I suspect that a certain lack of interest in the Bible is more understandable.