Literal vs. figurative interpretation of scripture
The literal vs. figurative interpretation of the bible is a problem faced by all religious people whose doctrine in influenced by scripture, so, pretty much all of them. The problem comes from the fact that passages of scripture were written by their authors to be interpreted either literally or figuratively (e.g., allegorical, metaphorical, etc.), however, there is no way to be certain one way or the other. In most forms of writing, this is an inconvenience that gives work to commentators, but, for religions who build their doctrine from how they interpret their scripture, it's a serious problem. If they misinterpret the scripture, their doctrine may be invalid, and they may not be following their religion correctly.
Although many religions have adherents who claim to be literalists, this problem not only persists for them, but is often exacerbated by their strictness.
- 1 Argument
- 2 Objections
An informal way to describe the problem can be worded as:
- P1: The authors of scripture wrote some passages literally and others figuratively.
- P2: Many passages can be interpreted both literally or figuratively.
- P3: The authors are no longer alive to clarify how they meant their writings to be received.
- C1: Because of this, there is no way to know with certainty whether a passage should be interpreted as literal or figurative.
- P4: Scriptures often contains many passages that, if misinterpreted, may result in false doctrine.
- C2: With so many ways to result in false doctrine, nearly all possible doctrines must be false.
- C3: Which means that most adherents are probably using a false doctrine.
I explain each of the premises and conclusions in further detail below.
The authors of scripture wrote some passages literally and others figuratively.
In all the worlds major scripture-based religions, even the most strict literalist has to agree, some passages are literal and some are figurative. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells various parables which essentially every Christian accepts as being allegories (figurative), while the passages which describe Jesus and his apostles traveling from town to town are meant to be taken literally.
Many passages can be interpreted both literally or figuratively.
This is true for any writing, but especially true when the narrative includes gods or other entities that are not bound to the laws of physics. Young earth creationists interpret the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis as Yahweh creating the entire universe in six literal days, while old earth creationists interpret the same passage to be six figurative days. Since the narrative is based around a god that can do whatever it wants, both could be acceptable.
The authors are no longer alive to clarify how they meant their writings to be received.
The authors of the scripture used by any of the worlds major religions are long since dead, so they cannot be asked to clarify whether they intended a particular passage to be interpreted as literal or figurative. Also, the authors almost never explicitly wrote how a passage should be interpreted. To some extent, it wouldn't matter if they did, because a writer could write that they want their work to be interpreted literally, but intend for that sentence to be taken figuratively.
Because of this, there is no way to know with certainty whether a passage should be interpreted as literal or figurative.
This is true for all writing, but it really only matters to those people who base their world view on it.
Scriptures often contains many passages that, if misinterpreted, may result in false doctrine.
A majority of Christians base their claim that homosexuality is a sin which should be punished on passages from their bible which they believe are meant to be taken literally. However, a growing minority of Christians believe that these passages are meant to be received figuratively, and that homosexuals should not be punished. Whoever is wrong is not living the doctrine their god intended for them, but a false doctrine. There are many other topics that scripture addresses, and could be interpreted as literal or figurative including premarital sex, evolution, the existence of a heaven or hell, and so forth. Each of these can be interpreted by the reader as literal or figurative.
With so many ways to result in a false doctrine, nearly all possible doctrines must be false.
If we assume that a religion's scripture has only 10 passages that require a judgment call to be interpreted as literal or figurative, that would mean there are 1,023 possible false doctrines and only one true doctrine. Of course, that's an extremely conservative estimate. More realistically, a scripture with a length similar to a bible, Quran, or the Vedas would probably have thousands of passages requiring a judgment call, resulting in a truly astronomical number of false doctrines.
Which means that most adherents are probably using a false doctrine.
Since there are a near-uncountable possible number of interpretations of literal vs. figurative forms of scripture, and each may yield a false doctrine, the likelihood that an adherent has properly interpreted all of them correctly is extremely low. Because of this, it stands to reason that most religious adherents are following a false doctrine.
It's obvious to know when a passage should be taken literally or figuratively
If this were true, the vast majority of religious believers should be in agreement on the interpretation of scripture, but they are not. For every form of scripture, interpretations run the gamut from extreme literalism to extreme figurativism. Major schisms and entire religious sects result in the inability to discern the nature of passages.
My god will ensure I interpret scripture correctly
This has the same problem as the previous objection. The fact that t
The problem is solved by interpreting everything literally
Literalists think they have solved the problem by just interpreting everything literally. If the scripture includes a talking animal they treat the passage literally, instead of assuming it's figurative like in Aesop's Fables. But always using literal interpretations can cause problems. Consider this passage "[Yahweh] took [Abram] outside and said, 'Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.'" (Genesis 15:5, NIV). A literal interpretation means Yahweh was telling Abram that he would have as many offspring as stars the he could see in the night sky. In an area with little light pollution, the unaided eye can see around 2,000 stars. If we assume an average of five children per family, a person will have far more than 2,000 offspring in a mere five generations, which is not at all an impressive number. You could argue that Yahweh was referring to all stars in the universe (trillions and trillions), but that is not what is literally written, Yahweh tells Abram his offspring will be as the number of stars he can count when he looks at them.
If you want to argue that this passage is clearly meant to be figurative and not literal, then see the previous objection. Part of the problem with religions is that believers can never agree on which passages of scripture are meant to be interpreted as literal or figurative.
Literal or figurative, my god doesn't care
When religious people finally accept this problem, they often fall back onto the position that their god doesn't care whether you interpret the scripture correctly, but this comes with its own set of problems.
Consider the passage in the Book of Exodus which describes the process of selling your daughter into slavery (21:7-11). For a literalist, this raises some very difficult questions, while a figurativist can dismiss this passage with anyway number of figurative interpretations. However, if a person believes their god doesn't care how we interpret this passage, it means their god is not at all concerned with human trafficking!