Holy books can be interpreted in any way you choose to believe

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Skeptics sometimes point out that holy books can be vague and any text must be interpreted by the reader, which inevitably leads to different interpretations. Since people usually have pre-existing views, confirmation bias makes readers cherry pick the sections of the Bible that agree with their positions. Based on this, holy books can be interpreted in any way the reader desires. A related claim is that interpretation of scriptures is subjective and admits of many interpretations.

"[I wondered], for the umpteenth time, whether there is substance at all to theology, or why it is that highly intelligent and well-educated people of unquestioned benevolence talk as if there is. [...] It turns out that the disconnection of theology from the real world is not a bug, but the feature from which it derives all its power to change the world around us. [1]"

"People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations."

— Reza Aslan[2]

Many theists acknowledge that interpretation is necessary.

"All Christians pick and choose which portions of the they interpret Bible literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern. [3]"

Contents

Arguments

Believers have a wide diversity of interpretations

The best way to see there are many ways to interpret a holy text is to look at the different denominations and their different practices within a religion. Each claim their view is supposed by scripture. Arguably there is not single point of dogma that has not been disputed. Being a widely practiced religion, Christians are particularly noted for their wide diversity of denominations and interpretations.

Subjective interpretation is required to read any text

Subjective interpretation is required to read any text. To claim the Bible is an exception without providing a justification is special pleading.

"there is no reading of any text – including the Bible – that doesn’t involve interpretation [3]"

Theology and interpretation have changed over time

The interpretation of the Bible varies depending on the cultural context of the reader and their social norms. For instance, the Bible has been reinterpreted to support many different views on sexuality and slavery.

Counter arguments

God would not contradict himself

God is supposedly the ultimate author or inspirer of the Bible. God would not contradict himself. Therefore the Bible does not contradict itself. Therefore there is one true interpretation.

"Since God wrote the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16,17 Bible-icon.png; 2 Peter 1:20,21 Bible-icon.png; 1 Corinthians 14:37 Bible-icon.png, etc.), this would mean that God contradicts Himself. [4]"

Unfortunately, this confuses separate issues. Are there any contradictions in the Bible is a separate matter to whether the Bible may be interpreted in different ways.

The assumption that God does not contradict himself lays at the heart of many approaches to interpretation but this cannot be independently tested. Adopting non-contradiction distorts much of the text from the "plain reading", which would otherwise indicate that God does contradict himself and change his mind [5]. This is an example of Christian readers imposing their beliefs on the text.

"We must keep in mind that the interpretation of a specific passage must not contradict the total teaching of Scripture on a point. Individual verses do not exist as isolated fragments, but as parts of a whole. [6]"

"One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible [Old Testament] is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category 'God.'"

— Christine Hayes [9]

From the Bible

Arguing from the Bible that there is one interpretation of the Bible is a circular argument. It relies on the verse in the Bible having the meaning the apologist claims.

"Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation."

2 Peter 1:20 Bible-icon.png
"[Based on 1 Corinthians 14:33 Bible-icon.png] Is the existence of many conflicting doctrines a source of confusion? Of course. Yet if proper Bible interpretation leads to all these contradictions, then who would be to blame for the confusion? God would! [4]"

Use of correct methodology

Apologists argue that with the correct methodology, the true meaning of holy books can be discovered. However, their methodology itself needs to be justified, otherwise it is just another subjective basis for interpretation.

"Instead of superimposing a meaning on the biblical text, the objective interpreter seeks to discover the author's intended meaning (the only true meaning). One must recognize that what a passage means is fixed by the author and is not subject to alteration by readers. "Meaning" is determined by the author; it is discovered by readers. [6]"

This assumes we should treat the author's view as the true meaning. It also assumes that the author only had a single meaning when writing the text! Neither assumption has been objectively justified.

Ad hominem

"When skeptics and unbelievers read the world of God, their motives are not honorable. Their intentions are not in order. [7]"

The attitudes of skeptics are irrelevant to the subject under examination. This argument is therefore an ad hominem.

You must already believe

"Before you can understand the word of God, you must believe in God and have faith that his word is true. [7]"

This does not explain the disagreements between different denominations who all profess to believe in God.

Postmodern nonsense

Some commentators, particularly in the new atheism movement, reject this argument saying it is postmodern nonsense. They point out that a literal interpretation of holy texts might have at least some influence on a person's behavior:

"This might pass muster in the college classroom these days, but what of all those ISIS warriors unschooled in French semiotic analysis who take their holy book’s admonition to do violence literally? As they rampage and behead their way through Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters know they have the Koran on their side – a book they believe to be inerrant and immutable, the final Word of God, and not at all “malleable.”[8]"
"So every time a jihadist yells “Allahu Akbar” and severs the head of a non-Muslim from his body with a knife, citing verses like 47:4 and 8:12-13 from the Quran, you can blame every possible factor for his actions except the one source that literally contains the words, “Smite the disbelievers upon their necks”? And these words have nothing to do with an action that is completely consistent with them?[9]"
"The line Aslan is selling us — that Islam consists not of propositions (conveyed through the Quran) regarding the origins and future of the universe and our species, accompanied by instructions to all of us about how to behave, but of ethereal, infinitely malleable abstractions — “symbols” and “metaphors” and such — may pass as credible on a talk show.[10]"

There is no one interpretation of a holy book. While some Muslims have this literal interpretation, most Muslims rely on one of the traditional scholarly interpretation of the text. This also seems like an argument from emotion and it is obvious that most Muslims are non-violent. It is a hasty generalization to say all Muslims have the same view as ISIS. Arguably, the problem is with literalism and the means used to indoctrinate people to such a view.

References

  1. Andrew Brown, Does the Bible really say that global warming will make the Earth ‘vomit us out’?, The Guardian, 17 July 2015.
  2. [1]
  3. 3.0 3.1 [2]
  4. 4.0 4.1 [3]
  5. [4]
  6. 6.0 6.1 [5]
  7. 7.0 7.1 Carl Brice, The Lamb's Book of Life, AuthorHouse, 1 Sep 2008
  8. [6]
  9. [7]
  10. [8]

External links

See also

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