I think this is a perfectly valid question. I can’t really think of a good reason why I should take it literally, and I haven’t been presented with a good reason by anyone else. But more importantly, plenty of other religious people haven’t and don’t. So what gives? What changed? I think looking back at history can shed some light on this phenomenon.
We can take this all the way back to the 4th century. St. Augustine of Hippo (Yes, that’s right, a freaking saint), wrote extensively about how Genesis should be considered allegorical, and that the timeline presented in the text is not a literal one, but rather a logical framework. According to Augustine, when Genesis says it took the lord six days to create the earth and the heavens, it isn’t talking about human days. It’s talking about what a day to God, an eternal being, would be. Which, according to him and many other biblical scholars, should probably be considered a reeeeeally long time (like maybe 14 billion years?).
Moreover, Augustine was pretty progressive for his day. He believed that our interpretation of the bible should change based on available knowledge. On this subject, he wrote, in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision … we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture. Wow. Mind you, Augustine died in 430 AD. But he goes on:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
And this was about a thousand years before the development of modern science! These quotes, by the way, are taken from Augustine’s work, “On the Literal Meaning of Genesis.” In case anyone is interested in exploring this more. But it’s pretty clear that Augustine believed that the bible was more of an allegorical guide to God–not a literal historical, scientific document. It also seems pretty clear that he believed such a belief was damaging to the faith in general. And that prediction seems to be true. As Christians increasingly reject science and fact, they alienate people. That’s probably why atheism and agnosticism are on the rise.
And it’s hard to make the argument that Augustine was a quack, considering his works were used at the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople. Clearly, the religious who’s who of the day believed Augustine was a very learned and wise man, and his views profoundly influenced the church. And that attitude continued well into the 20th century. Take a gander at what Pope Pius XII had to say about evolution back in 1950:
The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.
Here’s a wonderful scene from the film “Religulous” where Bill Maher interviews a Vatican astronomer. This scene is interspersed with a second interview with our old favorite here on this blog, Ken Ham. The comparison between Ham and a Vatican scientist is quite nice. Here’s another speech given by the same priest about the age of the universe. The views of modern science are not incompatible with the beliefs of Christians. Unless of course you take everything in the bible to be literal. The problem with that viewpoint, though, is that there literally is no reason to do so. I think Father Coyne and St. Augustine and the freakin’ Pope make that pretty clear. Hell, the Vatican employs astronomers! Let that sink it.
So where did the fundamentalist, literal movement we see today come from? Why do people see the bible as a scientific document? Well, young earth creationists are the main proponents of this way of viewing the bible. This movement can be traced back to the work of George McCready Price. Price was not a scientist and was not an accredited geologist. Yet he felt compelled to write science-like papers about the subject in relation to genesis and evolution. It’s very crucial to note here that absolutely no science whatsoever took place here. Price did ZERO FIELD RESEARCH, no experimentation, or anything else that could remotely be considered scientific. He simply critiqued work which was already published and established that he personally did not like.
I feel this bears repeating. In no way did Price scientifically discredit any modern science. Zero. None. Zilch. What he DID do was start with biblical suppositions and then if he encountered evidence to the contrary, simply refused to believe it. That is not science. There is nothing scientific about the way young earth creationism was born, and there’s nothing scientific about the way it exists now. Presenting it as “creation science” is completely and utterly disingenuous.
I think there’s pretty strong evidence that the bible should NOT be taken literally. That seems to the standpoint of the majority of biblical scholars, religious historical figures, and a fair amount of the faithful every man today in the 21st century. Hell, even people in 430 AD who had no concept of the scientific process knew better than to take the bible as a literal scientific document. I’m particularly fond of this quote:
You don’t need to take the bible literally to follow the teachings in it. Even young earth creationists don’t take everything in the bible literally. If they did, I would assume people would get stoned to death for working on Sunday and that they’d be arguing that the bible justifies us bringing back slavery. But they don’t. I hope that’s because they know those two things are wrong, and not just because it isn’t looked upon favorably in our society anymore.
Regardless, the bible does contain great teachings. Loving thy neighbor, treating others how you want to be treated, turning the other cheek, the parable of the good Samaritan. All of these things, they’re all things that I, as an atheist, can get behind 100% from a philosophical sense. There are a lot of good things in the bible that shouldn’t be ignored and that everyone, regardless of faith, should probably try to incorporate into their lives. But please, stop taking the bible literally. It makes no sense. Besides, what impact could that possibly have on one’s faith? Why can’t you embrace Jesus as your lord and savior–which is the crux of the religion–and believe that God created a universe that is 14 billion years old?
Do young earth creationists and other fundamentalists really, truly believe that if they don’t believe that the earth is 6,000 years old that God will hold it against them? Do they really, truly think that if they spend their lives having accepted Christ as their savior and lord and living according to the teachings of Jesus, that when they finally die and get to the pearly gates that St. Peter is going to say, “Ooh, sorry. If only you’d believed that man coexisted with dinosaurs. That was the most important part of the test!” and pull the lever and send them to hell?
Come on, get real.