The Rules of Atheist Hermeneutics

Hi Ashwin,

It’s possible to reject Biblical claims without making either of those mistakes. And there’s a related mistake that Christians often make, which is to assume that if a particular interpretation of scripture clashes with well-established modern science, then the problem can only be with the interpretation, and not with the intended meaning of the author. But of course that’s silly; it ignores the obvious possibility that the author got it wrong due to limited scientific understanding, and that the interpretation correctly reflects what the author was trying to say.

@keiths you have to get into specific examples in claims like that, and you are clearly not playing by the same hermeneutical rules as us. It seems like you are looking to find errors, rather than understand what Scripture says. If this is the case you want to make, I encourage you to actually learn the doctrine of Inerrancy (see the Chicago Statements), and the hermeneutical rules we use.

There is no reason we should trust the interpretation of an atheist choosing his hermeneutics for the purpose of finding errors. Don’t attack a straw man. If you want some help, we can point you to resources to learn how thoughtful Christians interpret Scripture. If you don’t play by our rules, your interpretation counts for squat.


If your “hermeneutic rules” prohibit you from examining a text for errors, then you need a new set of hermeneutic rules.

Suppose you are looking into the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, whom Scientologists refer to as “Source” and whose words they do not question. You examine the texts, judging what they get right and what they get wrong; what’s accurate, and what’s inaccurate. A Scientologist scolds you, saying “You’re not using the same hermeneutical rules as we are. You’re just looking for errors.” Do you apologize and start looking at the texts the way a Scientologist does, or do you stick to your guns and evaluate them rationally?

It makes no difference whether the texts in question are the words of L. Ron Hubbard or the Christian scriptures. They need to be examined rationally and critically, and that includes an examination of what they get wrong.

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@keiths you can believe what ever you want. We love having you here too.

This forum works best when we start with understanding. I want to understand you and know your story. That is what this entire thread is about. If you want to understand me, or any of the rest of us too, it will take some effort. We don’t have the same values in everything or even the same language.

We do, however, have a lot of common ground. We also have common values. I want to build enough understanding that we can work together on more important and larger things, even if we end up still disagreeing on this or that. Still, this is a chance to engage with kind and thoughtful Christians. You you do not understand us. You are right. Maybe start there. Maybe there is some legitimacy to our stories too.

I always understood that the Bible I could read was an interpretation of a translation. Taking it literally under those conditions is difficult enough. The people whose language is close to the original are still debating what it actually says.

Ask the atheists how they explain our existence and you will son find their position requires more faith than any organized religion- unless of course they are honest enough to say “I don’t know”

Of course, and so can you. That’s never been at issue.

What I’m disputing is your attitude regarding the use of “hermeneutic rules”, and that we must adopt the rules of the believer even when they forbid or discourage us from looking for errors. That’s silly, and I’ve shown that if you actually honored your own principle here, you’d end up uncritically accepting the writings of L. Ron Hubbard!

When you find that a principle of yours leads to an absurdity (sorry, Scientologists, but L. Ron Hubbard’s stuff really is absurd), then your principle needs to be fixed or replaced.


Regarding Consciousness, Daniel Dennett’s “From Bacteria to Bach and Back - The Evolution of Minds” discusses the latest science of consciousness.

When the brain dies, all memories, feelings, emotions, thoughts are gone forever.

Your right, I shouldn’t expect anything of the world nor do I. In my view the universe doesn’t care about me. Quoting Richard Dawkins, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t live with both purpose and meaning to my life. I can chose to be happy or sad about every moment in my life. I can relive the past with anger or forget the past and live today appreciating being “healthy, wealthy, and wise”.

Thank you for your reply. Have you considered the consequences?
All of our individual understanding of the world is based on our individual consciousness. Our knowing things matter because of a sense of “I”.Its consciousness that gives meaning to facts. Now if that itself is an illusion. Then nothing means anything. Neither you, nor your family, or the world.
Because there is no true point of reference.

I think this is a false way to look at the world.

What consequences? I accept full responsibility for my actions.

I think looking at the world realistically as it really is right now in 2018 is the truest way of looking at the world.

Fair enough in that it isn’t reasonable to assume someone else will adopt “our” rules. However, nowhere was the “rule set” one that “forbid or discouraged looking for errors.” In fact, @JoeG the Chicago Statement makes room for possible problems between the original manuscripts and what many of us have sitting on our shelves.

@CPArand correct me if I’m wrong, but Lutherans (at least LCMS) even hold to an open canon! Which means that discoveries in biblical archeology or some such scientific field could, in principle, alter the books of the bible and their interpretation we currently enjoy. Something tells me that little fact wasn’t part of your LCMS youth however – I know it was not part of mine…

The biblical contradiction trope is often brought forward uncritically against Christians, neglecting the fact that a lot of scholarly work (not only popular apologetic work) has been done on contradictions within the bible. Thus, @swamidass originally asked you for specific examples.

Can you provide for me a principle, hermeneutic or othewise, that does not lead to or commit one to absurdity? Contradiction only proves the contrary in formal systems. When dealing with understanding an empirical world or system, a la hermenuetics and the bible, absurdity/contradiction may not be the silver bullet it is often made out to be in the same way that it isn’t in physical systems such as interpretations of quantum mechanics. The data trumps whatever contradictions the data causes in our thought…



@Ashwin_s has a point. Science really has no idea on this question.

I’m not saying that your particular rules forbid it, nor the rules employed by apologists generally. Most apologists recognize the legitimacy of testing the scriptures for errors. That’s an important part of the search for truth.

Joshua isn’t having it, however. He thinks we shouldn’t be testing the scriptures for errors, and that we should instead adopt the believers’ hermeneutic rules even when they forbid or discourage such testing.

That’s obviously a mistake, and as a scientist, Joshua should realize that. Science is all about testing theories for errors – trying to falsify them, in other words. Can you imagine a scientist arguing “Well, we really shouldn’t be looking for errors in this new theory. Let’s just accept it.”? It’s ludicrous, isn’t it?

Scientists care about the truth, and so they test theories, both their own and others’. Stringent testing is central to science’s success. Why should it be any different with religious claims regarding (or contained in) the scriptures?

I agree that science hasn’t (yet) explained consciousness, but neither has religion, including Christianity.

@keiths back off for a bit?

I told you I’ll engage on this later when I have a moment. Produce a few examples and we will work through them. You haven’t even looked at the “rules” i’m talking about. There are good rules and bad rules. You also blew by the reason I trust the Bible, which has nothing to do with inerrancy.

Regardless, I’m still curious what you think of: A Science Fiction Riddle

Sure. Here’s a hermeneutic principle:

When comparing two interpretations of a text, prefer the one that best fits the evidence.

How does that “lead to or commit one to absurdity”?

Relax, Joshua. There’s no reason that Philosurfer and I – or anyone else – can’t continue to discuss this in your absence.

Feel free to rejoin the conversation when you’re able.

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How can you look if there is no real “I”…
If we follow your viewpoint consistently, the I that is looking at the world is an illusion.
And there is no “real”.
The athiest/materialist view on truth reduces to - There is no Truth.
Meaning is an illusion/construct of the brain.
This is in stark contrast to human experience… What kind of evidence convinced you of this position?
Surely it cannot be a default position.

Problem – what does it mean to best fit the evidence?

2 Cor. 5:19 – “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

You invite a Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic (only because I know they will accept the invitation) to the bar and discuss this verse and you will get three (if not more) understandings that best fit the scriptural evidence. They all can’t be correct as that is absurd/contradictory.

I’ll admit that they all could be wrong. The Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic could be dead wrong about the verse, but that doesn’t mean the best evidence supports agnosticism or atheism toward the verse. We are all still stuck here with contradictory views on the verse assuming it best fits the evidence.

I’m with you that something like inference to the best explanation or abduction, or “smoking gun” historical explanations (varieties of best evidence interpretations?) are great rules of thumb (perhaps methodological rules to inquiries) that actually provide great confidence in certain explanations, but they do not suppose to get rid of contradictions and thus absurdities. In fact, the absurdities within an explanation best fitting the evidence are necessary to push science/knowledge forward…

People can disagree on the meaning of “best fit”, of course, but that doesn’t constitute an absurdity.

Remember, you asked me for “a principle, hermeneutic or othewise, that does not lead to or commit one to absurdity”. I gave you one.

ETA: To elaborate: Nothing about my proffered hermeneutic principle requires that everyone agree on the meaning of “best fit”.

Ashwin, to Patrick:

How can you look if there is no real “I”… If we follow your viewpoint consistently, the I that is looking at the world is an illusion.

I’m not sure where you got that idea. Most physicalists don’t deny the existence of an “I”. They just deny that there’s anything non-physical about it.