Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Dan Barker: Hermeneutic pretzel logic

Vol. 38 No. 02 March 2021
Dan Barker                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker appeared on Seth Andrews’ “Thinking Atheist” podcast in January. The following is a transcript of a portion of his discussion.

By Dan Barker

I have done 137 formal public debates, and by now I have heard all the arguments many times over. But the most slippery disputes deal with how to understand the bible. When I quote a passage that makes believers uncomfortable, they often say I am not interpreting it properly.

For example, when I quote Psalm 137:9, which says, “Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little children against the stones” as an example of biblical barbarity, some apologists will yell “context” or “metaphor.” But some will say that those are not actually God’s words.

The psalmist is really saying that “Here is what a human might say in the heat of the moment when confronted with the brutality of the Babylonians, that IF someone were to dash THEIR babies against the stones, THEY would be happy.” God is not telling Christians to kill babies.

Well, OK. Then that means that verse is not part of God’s word. It’s just a human hyperbole. But if that is true, why is it in the bible?

And how are we to know where to draw the line? Using that logic, shouldn’t we dismiss the entire bible? The Old and New Testaments were written, after all — by humans. When Moses told the Israelites that “God gave me these Ten Commandments,” wasn’t that just Moses speaking — perhaps metaphorically? Hyperbolically? Maybe Yahweh himself is just one huge figure of speech.

It’s interesting that believers only invoke their interpretive defenses when confronted with passages they don’t like. I could play the same game.

When John wrote that “God is love,” couldn’t I say that that is a metaphor? If you take that verse in the entire context of God’s atrocious actions and cruel commands, it can’t possibly mean that God is really love, as we modern people understand the word. That is just John speaking, after all, and should not be considered the word of God.

Well, I do understand. If you are committed, a priori, to the requirement — to the dogma — that God is perfect and good, then you will never see a contradiction or inconsistency, even if it is right there before your eyes.

You have no choice but to twist yourself into a hermeneutic pretzel to keep that baby alive.

Dan Barker is co-president of the FFRF and author of the books Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists and GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction.