Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.
Interpretations of the Bible vary substantially depending on the cultural climate and the psychological condition of the reader. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Bible was used to justify holy wars against Islamic countries. In modern day Africa, it is used to justify the burning of witches.
How people interpret scripture determines how they understand God’s supposed will. Any uncertainty regarding this instruction can lead to atrocity. Indeed, there may be no greater weapon than the belief that one's actions are divinely endorsed. The following five problems describe the real and potential costs of interpreting scripture in the wrong way.
1. Psychology Influences Scriptural Interpretations of the Bible
One problem with Bible interpretation is the manner in which it is shaped, not by truth, but by human psychology and the cultural setting. In general, there are four psychological and cultural criteria that determine the depth and direction of scriptural interpretation.
- Plausibility limits the depth of interpretation. If something sounds too ridiculous to be true, it won't be believed. Conversely, if something directly contradicts a religious text, it won't be deemed plausible either.
- Cultural Pressures determine the direction of interpretation. If there is a Muslim invasion of a Christian country (e.g., the Ottoman Conquests into Europe), Christians will be motivated to form an interpretation that derogates Muslims. If Western culture pressures the Church to see women as equal, interpretations will arise that allow for female preachers.
- Personal Motivations will alter the direction of interpretation in similar ways to cultural pressures. If a person feels that they have been wronged, they may look for a reason to justify vengeful behavior, such as by (re)interpreting parts of the Old Testament.
- Method of Transmission will affect the depth and direction of interpretation. For example, Churchgoers receive a preacher’s interpretation of the Bible to the extent that the preacher is seen as prestigious and authoritative (i.e., through "cultural transmission"). However, when alone with scripture, they may produce a unique interpretation that is shaped by their own personal motivations, plausibility (or credulity), and cultural pressures.
In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, "whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth". The changing interpretation of scripture epitomizes this unfortunate abandonment of truth.
2. Immutable or Literal Interpretations of the Bible
Despite the detrimental effect of psychologically-biased Bible interpretations, the formation of new, unbiased interpretations is necessary for the survival of the faith.
To demonstrate this point, think about how humans have dominated the other species on this planet. The Earth is a frenzied cauldron of life with various species bubbling into prominence before descending back under the cosh of their competitors. Humans have ascended above all other species; an ascent that may see a reversal or continue unabated. Our journey to the pinnacle of terrestrial existence would have been impossible without a curiosity for the natural world and an ability to invent new ways of ensuring our survival within. Should a pandemic or an asteroid descend on mankind, our extinction could only be averted by the produce of human curiosity (e.g., vaccine development).
Thus, natural selection demands that we adapt or die, change or stagnate, such that the generation of new ideas is a gateway to survival and supremacy. For example, when Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity explained the laws of motion in a way that superseded Isaac Newton’s renowned 17th century model, it epitomized the ascendancy of progress and learning over faith in a flawed interpretation of the world.
Bible interpretation must follow this model. Failure to do so renders it irrelevant at best; pernicious at worst. An unchanging holy book makes this difficult to achieve; as do the attitudes of traditionalists and those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Many believers might, for example, contend that if a scientific theory is only a hundred years old, it is far less deserving of our faith than one that has remained unchanged for a millennium (e.g., Copernicus challenging geocentrism with heliocentrism).
Traditionalism threatens the survival of any theory, faith, or species by hindering its ability to adapt. Indeed, European civilization endured the Dark Ages under the political and cultural authority of the Catholic Church. For over a millennium, assumptions based on immutable or literal Bible interpretation produced a level of intellectual stagnation that is unparalleled in the history of our species.
3. The Cultural Pressures Shaping Bible Interpretation
A major problem with Bible interpretation is that different cultures and eras have interpreted scripture in predictable ways. In the Middle Ages, an interpretation of the Bible allowed for the extermination of Muslims during the Crusades. This changed once the threat of Muslim incursions into Europe was over. Thus, the personal whims of the people determined God's supposed word. Clearly, this must be avoided.
Changing cultural pressures have created a plethora of contradictory interpretations. For example, even though today’s Christians might declare the Crusaders ungodly, these same Christians would have been executed as heretics a millennium ago. Did the Crusaders get to heaven because they believed they were doing God’s will, or did their good intentions pave the way to hell?
Whether we examine the Crusades, Inquisition, witch hunts, persecution of homosexuals, or the murder of abortion doctors, each new criminal proclaims their predecessors ungodly because their current interpretation of the Bible allows them to do so. Will future Christians look upon their present brethren as vile beings that were never infused with God’s love?
It is fairly clear that scriptural interpretation depends on the cultural climate. For example, although early Christianity was an exclusively masculine institution, its epicene evolution has followed the rising status of women in society. Nunneries first appeared in medieval times and, recently, female ministers have emerged in some Christian sects.
Other cultural pressures include attitudes to homosexuality and contraception. A century from now, God’s word could be interpreted as embracing homosexuals, and Sodom and Gomorrah will define a new group of infidels more deserving of our hatred in the latest age of human conflict.
It is a rather sad state of affairs that the only thing unchanging about God’s word is the belief that the current interpretation is the truth. Whether to justify hostile acts or social equality, interpretation reigns supreme. What makes our generation so enlightened when previous generations possessed the same arrogant belief in their righteousness?
4. Fundamentalist Interpretations of the Bible
The greatest problem with Bible interpretation is the way it can be used to justify cruelty. Indeed, if a person is able to transfer culpability for their actions to an omnibenevolent being, then their conscience is not only clear, it is reinforced!
Religion, unlike political or secular ideologies, deals substantially with moral absolutes. If God is thought to desire the death of a person or group of people, then there is no reason to feel compassion, doubt, or remorse. A fundamentalist can use their interpretation of God's will to enact their own will for destruction with a smile on their face and divine rewards in mind.
A fundamentalist's capacity for religious barbarism is as infinite as God’s righteousness because, although any political or secular ideology can be used to justify violence, only religion can offer divine permission and reward from a morally pure being.
A man's will is as strong as his greatest ally, and as fickle as the unchained caprice of his heart.
Such violence usually isn't attributed to "true" Christians or Muslims, and other believers are likely to condemn their behavior. Nevertheless, violent individuals use religion because it promises validation by a pure moral being. Without religion, fundamentalist interpretations of holy texts simply wouldn't be accessible.
The problem of fundamentalism requires that Bible interpretation be undertaken with great care and consensus, which may be difficult when cultural pressures promote the opposite.
5. Difficulty Finding a Modern Interpretation of the Bible
Two thousands years ago, we hated other cultures, hated homosexuality, enjoyed slavery, saw women as property, and thought the sun revolved around a flat Earth. It was therefore natural for those ideas to make their way into a book from that era. Two millennia later, the cultural climate is vastly different and, in order to survive, religions must learn to interpret scripture relevantly and responsibly.
Indeed, Western society appears to have passed a tipping point beyond which there is little chance of a return to literal or dogmatic interpretations of the Bible. This tipping point occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries when the Enlightenment allowed humanity to drift far enough from religion to experience what could be achieved in its absence. Christianity was left behind and, despite recent attempts to reinterpret religious scripture, the passage of time can only further our incredulity for its original claims.
However, if this sounds like a positive development, be warned. People are predisposed to religious belief, and dead or dying religions are often replaced by new faiths that are more receptive to personal and cultural needs. While Christianity has little relevance today, a new religion could form tomorrow with just as long a shelf life. Indeed, Christianity supplanted the older pagan religions in precisely this way (i.e., by appealing to the oppressed masses).
You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.
— Carl Jung
Although each religion differs in its cultural relevance, most survive because they fulfill our naturally evolved desires for such things as an afterlife, a caring deity, an existential purpose, a human ideal to imitate, a feeling of moral righteousness, and a sense of superiority over nonbelievers. This formula for a successful religion is as enduring as the architecture of the human mind. A new religion or Christian sect could conceivably fulfill these motivations while only interpreting the Bible in a limited, culturally relevant capacity.
Despite this potential scenario, the association of these particular motivations with a dying faith could lead to a long gap between the death of one religion and the birth of the next. If a new religion formed tomorrow promising immortality, perfection, and paradise, we would associate it with what we have come to reject. Perhaps only time can heal the wounds of one religion sufficient to endure the injury of the next.
Thus, religion is inevitable unless we can dissect its influence on our psychology. Only then may we understand the appeal of biased religious reasoning, and free ourselves permanently from its grip on our minds.
© 2013 Thomas Swan