Rosenau says that if religious scripture doesn't deliver scientific knowledge, like a physics textbook, it can still deliver some kind of knowledge. It can deliver knowledge like novels do. Quoting another blogger, he writes:
Vampire stories tell us, for example, than any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others. Feed off the blood of others and great power will be yours. This is demonstrably true. It's how the pyramids were built. And Standard Oil.We could get very confused here if we didn't make a distinction. When you understand fiction as fiction, you understand that it's true in vampire stories that there are vampires. What's true out there is only that power can come from preying on others. If you don't separate truth-in-fiction from truth-out-there, you're liable to make mistakes. Maybe you'll go around looking for vampires to hang out with, in the hopes of getting bitten by one and living forever.
So what's Rosenau saying? Maybe he's saying that there's an element of actual religion that's salvageable, even if the claims about miracles and the supernatural are false. If everyone would just recognize scripture as fiction, religion would be a good thing--at least the religions that involve good, edifying fictions. The truths in these fictions would stay safely in the fictions, and the edifying lessons would be learned. These are lessons about human psychology, morality, happiness, and much else. I agree with him that fiction makes us smarter and wiser, and that scripture-as-fiction sometimes has something to teach. (And I think some of his critics -- here and here -- are just missing the point.)
But he seems to be saying more. He argues that Jews have been understanding the bible non-literally for thousands of years, quoting Maimonides. He points out that Augustine also defends biblical non-literalism. He at least very nearly seems to say that religious folk already do recognize scripture as fiction, making the necessary distinctions between truth-in- fiction and truth-out-there, and placing the right things in each category.
But Jews and Christians, even of the most liberal sort, don't think of scripture simply as fiction. They certainly don't think of God as a fictional entity, like a vampire. If they read it as fiction at all, Jews read the bible as a sort of historical fiction. In that genre, the goal is to represent real things and happenings, but there is also fabrication and embellishment. Liberal Christians could take the same view of the New Testament. The most liberal take the realities represented in a very abstract way. A liberal Christian friend of mine once told me her faith did not depend on there being an actual, historical crucifixion and resurrection. Christ really did die for our sins, and we really are saved, but in some less that solid "bricks and mortar" sense. (Frankly, I didn't understand what she meant.) Liberal Jews don't think Moses met God on a mountain top, but still think there really is a covenant between God and the Jewish people, and that God wants certain things from us.
Rosenau's real interest is in arguing that religious people ought to be brought to science without being made to feel that their religion has to be left at the door. If religion delivers truths to us in the way that fiction does, it would be a bad idea to leave it at the door. That's his basic idea, I think. But he's simplified reality to make his argument more compelling. Religion delivers truths (like fiction does), but also falsehoods. Some of the falsehoods are inimical to science. You really do have to leave religious fundamentalism at the door, if you want to enter into the temple of science. But what about the very basic tenets of liberal religion? If you want to learn, teach, or do science, do you really have to leave the idea of the covenant or the saving power of the crucifixion, at the door?
Why should you? Nobody has shown that people with these fundamental beliefs make worse scientists or worse advocates for science. They don't, because these beliefs have little power to disrupt rational and scientific thought. The beliefs do concern events in the natural world, but they are long ago, isolated, non-recurring events. In a liberal Jewish setting, there is not constant talk of miracles, intercessory prayer, the afterlife to come. The God of liberal Judaism is not constantly poking his fingers through the clouds. So for all intents and purposes, believers are free to understand the world in an entirely secular, rational way.
I know less about liberal Christianity, but I suspect it is somewhat the same way. Though the Christian God is poking his fingers through the clouds a lot more often, there's something isolated and remote about the miracles. A liberal Christian scientist doesn't ever suppose that we should let God be the explanation for what happened, and not look at the physical facts.
I don't think a solid reason why religion has to be abandoned by the science-friendly is in the offing. Surely it would be unattractively paternalistic for atheists to want liberal religion to be abandoned just for the good of the benighted. There's the oft-heard argument that liberal religion gives cover to the worst kinds of religion, but even if that were so, you'd have to bring in a good accountant to draw any conclusions. Even if the good enables the bad, the good may still be the greater quantity. Besides, there's a more fair way to stop the bad: by going after it directly. It's not fair to expect good novelists to give up their craft, because they give luster to writing generally, thereby dignifying bad novels. Creators of wonderful technology like my ipod shouldn't feel guilty for dignifying the creation of bad technology, like guns.
So--I'm on the same team as Josh Rosenau. I don't think it's either true or helpful to say that a choice must be made between science and religion. But we can make that argument without decimating religion--making it out to be just a tiny, innocuous fraction of what it really is.
Updated 9/16 2 pm