The "Higher Criticism" Revisited

Review of Charles Pellegrino: Return to Sodom & Gomorrah,

(NY: Avon Books, 1994), 359 pp. + bibliography & index

[In March 1998 our science book club read and discussed this book. Three people thought it was excellent, while three others of us were much less enthusiastic. One point of disagreement was about whether the book undercuts religion or supports it. Several people thought that by giving plausible scientific explanations for what religious people take to be miracles (such as Moses "parting the seas"), Pellegrino was undercutting religion. But I argued that the actual reactionary thrust of his book is an attempt to show that science and religion really "agree with each other". This essay elaborates on that theme, and it really is more of an essay inspired by the book than it is a book review.]

Once I was a utopian and lived in a utopian commune. Then I became a Marxist and left "utopia". At least, that is the brief story. Actually, it took a long time, and I had to go through a number of stages before I was able to fully change from a utopian outlook to a Marxist outlook. One intermediate stage, for example, was to imagine that although the world could not be changed by building utopian communes but only through proletarian revolution, at least communes could play a "supportive role" (printing revolutionary materials, or holding conferences perhaps). Even after I finally realized the folly of that idea and left the commune, I still believed for a while that communes could at least explore some of the many possibilities for how to reorganize society "after the revolution". But then I watched my old commune from afar as it abandoned its few interesting experiments in communal childcare, and the like. Still, for a while I thought that at least communes could help generate more revolutionaries, as I supposed my commune had helped create me. But then I watched horrified as a series of commune members joined up with Lyndon LaRouche's fascist group, thinking it was "revolutionary". And at that point my utopianism was truly dead. I thoroughly understood that no petty bourgeois utopian experiment is going to be able to advance the interests of the people one iota. It can only hold back the revolutionary struggle of the masses in various ways.

Another autobiographical story: Once I was a devout Christian, and then I became an atheist. However, again, that is the brief story. The reality was far more complex, once again involving stages. The first major stage, around 8th grade, was just serious doubt. It occurred to me one day that if I had been born into a Catholic family I would have become a Catholic rather than a Protestant. And if I had been born into a Jewish, or Moslem, or Hindu family, I would have grown up believing in one of those religions. How startling to realize that your beliefs are not rational, but merely accidental! On that day I ceased to be a Christian, and what a relief that was! (I found out later that this same line of thinking has occurred to many others, including Mark Twain.) But simple doubt only gets you so far. Bertrand Russell's books, and my enthusiasm for science, led me to my next major stage by temporarily consolidating that initial doubt and skepticism in the form of what he claimed was the "scientific" perspective, agnosticism, that nobody "can know for sure" whether or not God exists.

A couple years later, however, I came across another comment of Russell's that it seems he himself never took to heart. He pointed out that no sensible person these days is really an agnostic when it comes to the Greek gods or the Norse gods; we quite properly regard them as just the myths of primitive peoples. Why then do we call ourselves agnostic in relation to the God we ourselves grew up believing in? Russell, for all his emphasis on formal logic, could not bring himself to be consistent here. But clearly the different attitude is essentially due to an irrational cultural bias. The day I saw Russell's comment about the Greek gods was the day I jumped from being an agnostic to being an atheist. What a liberating day that was!

But that still did not complete the evolution of my thinking away from religion. (Yes, even atheists can sometimes still hold on to a residue of religious notions!) It was only much later that I began to truly understand the role of religion in society—how it props up the ruling class by getting people to accept their exploited "lot" on this earth in return for the phony promise of "eternal bliss" in heaven after they die. And how it acts as a deadening drug ("the opium of the masses") to still their anger, and keep them from fighting back against their oppression. Later still, and only after acquiring a materialist understanding of the nature of mind and matter, I finally understood why the whole notion of god or gods is totally unscientific. (Think about what God is supposed to be: an immaterial being. But from a scientific point of view that is incoherent. Mind (or "spirit") is a characteristic of certain complex organizations of matter (e.g., brains). Even a "god" must have a physical existence, which means he/she is not really a god, but only—at most—some powerful alien of some kind. And no such thing as a god who could create the universe, or as an all-powerful, or as an all-knowing, or as an immortal being makes any scientific sense whatsoever. All physical reality has its limits.)

One interesting thing in all this is that my development was initially helped along by a view (agnosticism) that was better than my original view, but still quite incorrect. This is almost always the way we develop our thinking—through intermediate stages which are still not fully correct, but which are moving in a (hopefully) correct direction.

The other thing to notice here is that if I should now abandon atheism and become an agnostic again, that would be a step back toward religion. For me now, agnosticism would no longer be a progressive step, but instead a reactionary step.

*    *    *

Now the same kind of processes of intellectual development that individuals go through also occurs for society as a whole. Understanding develops by stages. Humanity develops its worldview step by step, and each intermediate step is only an advance relatively speaking, and only as long as things are headed in a correct direction. Moreover, there are always individuals who try to move the general understanding back a notch or two, just as there are those in the forefront, trying to pull the collective consciousness and understanding ahead.

Humanity was at first not able to even vaguely understand why the world works as it does. To try to make sense out of thunder and lightning, people guessed that maybe there was a human or human-like thing up in the sky throwing thunderbolts. Perhaps not such a stupid hypothesis to begin with. And how to explain their own existence? Where did people themselves come from? For a long time there were no rational answers to questions like this. Which is to say there could only be wild guesses or irrational answers (myth and religion). In time whole elaborate bodies of myths and religion grew up, and humanity became trapped in its own fantasies. These elaborate myths served to obstruct more rational ideas, as they still do to this very day.

Later on, as scientific conceptions and explanations were developed to explain the origin of the earth, of animals and human beings, and so forth, these elaborate religious myths were not at first just thrown out, as they someday will be. Instead there have been constant and continuing attempts by people, both religious authorities and many scientists themselves (who were mostly raised with religious ideas), to somehow combine the two viewpoints. The goal is always to fit new ideas into the old; to interpret the new in terms of the old, and to a lesser degree, reluctantly, and only when there is no alternative, to reinterpret the old in terms of the new.

So during the 19th century, as science showed that the Bible could no longer be rationally supposed to be literally true, there arose various schools of "higher criticism" which attempted to reinterpret the Bible figuratively. (Actually the term "higher criticism" usually refers more to attempts to determine the real history of the texts making up the Bible, who wrote them, dates and places of origin, why they were written, and so forth. My use of the term here focuses only on the aspect of trying to rationalize the Bible's unscientific content.) Thus we are supposed to understand that when the Bible says it took God six days to create the universe, that actually each of those "days" may have been eons long. When the Bible says that God created Adam from the dust, we are now supposed to understand that it might be ok to admit that he did this via the intermediate 4-billion-year-long process of evolution. Any reinterpretations we are forced to make are acceptable, as long as we can still pretend the original makes sense.

If science itself operated this way, we would still be trying to reinterpret the caloric theory of heat so that it makes sense in terms of modern thermodynamics—instead of simply throwing out the old theory. (I'm not saying we don't try to patch up theories before we throw them out; of course we do. But science is also not afraid to totally discard theories and ideas that have been shown to be false.)

There are of course many religious people who reject this whole "higher criticism" approach. Fundamentalists, whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu or otherwise, will have little or nothing to do with such attempts to rationalize their religious myths. No matter how untenable scientifically or rationally, they insist that their sacred myths and texts be accepted as literally true. Not only is that their view; they insist that it be your view too. This is why they lean towards various types of fascism or authoritarianism; they want to force their views down your throat. These people are generally so ill-educated (i.e., irrational and unscientific) that they seldom have any problem rejecting any particular scientific finding, or even whole sciences, let alone the general scientific approach to things. It is most often impossible to have any sort of rational discussion with these people—because they reject rationality itself. You cannot adduce scientific facts to support your arguments with them—because if those facts count in any way against their beliefs, they refuse to accept them as facts. They are very close to brain dead. Probably the only thing that can wake many of them up is a massive change in the overall social situation, a social upheaval, a revolution.

But many of the biggest, and long-established religions have been forced, after centuries of the most bitter resistance, to accept many scientific findings. (I am speaking of the official doctrines; of course many adherents to these religions have far more primitive and unscientific views which the church officials do very little to disabuse.) Thus the Catholic Church has in recent years finally admitted that it may have been somewhat wrong about Galileo, and even that Darwin's theory of evolution must today be accepted as scientific fact. This is somewhat startling! Imagine that, the official doctrine of the Catholic Church is more sophisticated than that of the average American high school graduate!

Still, this in no way means that the Pope or any other religious authority has called a truce in the war of religion against science. It only means that they have adopted the "higher criticism" approach, of attempting to incorporate those parts of science which they find tolerable into their doctrine, reinterpreting both the scientific findings and (when absolutely necessary) some of their older religious doctrines in order to make things fit. It is an uneasy situation for them, even so, and something which they agree to do only on their own terms.

A great many individuals these days have developed their religious thinking well beyond fundamentalist literalism, into various forms of "higher criticism", and even in some cases to the stage of agnosticism. And we Marxists and a few others have abandoned religion altogether and have gone all the way to atheism. (But even many atheists don't really understand all the unscientific aspects of religion; many do not have a firm scientific materialist viewpoint, for example.) However, society as a whole is stuck way back somewhere between fundamentalism and "higher criticism". The ignorant take the former view; the "educated" take the later. We still live in primitive times.

A progressive book on science and/or religion is one that can help the average reader along in his or her scientific understanding and help wean him or her from superstition, myth and religion. In the world of today that means it must at least firmly reject fundamentalist literalism and the religious excuse-making of the "higher criticism". It would be nice if it were also frankly atheistic; but there are very few such books being published. That means that we get stuck with the most progressive science books available today being those from an agnostic point of view. (Carl Sagan's work, for instance.) In Charles Pellegrino's case, we have an example of a writer who has only one foot in the agnostic camp, while the other is still back entangled in "higher criticism". This means that his book might be helpful and progressive for readers who have not yet begun to think at all (fundamentalist literalists), and possibly to some degree for those who are just a bit further on in their development. But on the whole the outlook of the book is just a tad in advance of the average outlook in society, and might even serve to pull some people's thinking back a notch.

*    *    *

Charles Pellegrino is one of those religious scientist types, who claims to be oh-so-scientific and not religious. He calls himself an agnostic. But as I suggested above, to be an agnostic is in fact to still have one foot in the camp of religion. He even makes the idiotic claim that "no good scientist can be an atheist, for in science we must question everything, even our own questions" (p. 6). First, there have been and are many good scientists who are atheists. Second, the fact that someone has a questioning mind in no way requires that they have no firm beliefs. Third, ... Oh hell, what's the use! If the reader can't see the absurdity of his comment by now, there is no point going on about it.

Pellegrino's real attitude towards religion is given in one of the frontis quotations where he quotes his (and Ed Bishop's) "First Law", which is supposed to be cute I guess, but which is more telling than cute:

All philosophy ultimately dovetails with religion—which is ultimately reducible to history. All history is ultimately reducible to biology. Biology is ultimately reducible to chemistry. Chemistry is ultimately reducible to physics. Physics is ultimately reducible to mathematics. And mathematics is ultimately reducible to philosophy.

This illustrates very well that the reductionist outlook is itself ultimately reducible to absurdity. But the more immediate point is his conception of religion, and its relationship to philosophy; essentially he is saying that they are part and parcel of the same thing. Compare this to the Marxist view that philosophy, properly so-called, is just the most abstract scientific truths, truths which have been abstracted from all the specific sciences. (That is, most fundamentally, materialism and dialectics.)

For Pellegrino, religion dovetails with science, and science with religion. His whole book seems designed to show this. And there are no intelligible motives for even wanting to do this, other than religious motives. So for him to say he is not religious is downright disingenuous and either deceptive or self-deceptive. He is deeply religious in the sorts of ways that prevent him from being sensible on a great many questions, from basic outlook right on down to a desire to believe that there must be some scientific explanation for nearly every story in the Bible including the "parting of the seas". (The real scientific explanation in many cases is just that the described "events" simply did not happen.)

Religion, if it is to be at all intellectually respectable in this day and age (and many don't care whether or not it is), needs to be scientifically respectable. Religion needs science; but science does not need religion. (Current science does not even need discarded science. The history of science is interesting, and useful, and perhaps even necessary from a pedagogical standpoint; but discarded science has still been discarded, usually with very good reason.) Humanity no longer needs religion—if it ever did. Religion can only play a reactionary, anti-scientific role. The entire history of the "scientific era", with its centuries-long ferocious struggle between science and religion, proves this beyond any question.

Thus to put it succinctly, any attempts to show the impossible—that religion can be made scientifically respectable—are themselves thoroughly anti-scientific and reactionary.

*    *    *

What is the modus operandi of the book? To look for those events mentioned in the Bible for which possible (even if unlikely) scientific explanations can be cooked up, and to ignore all other events. And to compare Biblical explanations of events with scientific explanations, but primarily where those explanations seem to be similar in some respect or other. Other dissimilar aspects of the two explanations are usually ignored. Of course this frequently means that either the Biblical explanations, or the scientific explanations (or both!) have to be twisted and tortured more than just somewhat. But if you follow this plan, voilà!, science and the Bible magically seem to be mutually supporting, almost the same account even!

Are rocks the same as furniture? They are if you follow this program: First, consider only rocks that are like furniture in some respect. And second, consider only the respects in which they are similar. Thus you will consider rocks that look vaguely like chairs or beds, but not other rocks. And you will consider only their aspects that are similar to chairs and beds—that they have the same rough shape for example—but ignore their different aspects (such as that beds are soft and rocks are hard). And thus, rocks and furniture are "more or less" the same thing! It's a wonderfully efficient way of arguing. In fact you can use it to prove any two things are the same, no matter how dissimilar they may seem to be!

I should also mention here that great "scientist" Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky, far more so than Pellegrino, was a great believer in the literal truth of ancient myths. In case you have somehow missed out on the wonderful scientific revelations of Velikovsky, I will quote Martin Gardner's summary of one of his books, Worlds in Collision (1950):

The book throws together a jumbled mass of data to support the preposterous theory that a giant comet once erupted from the planet Jupiter, passed close to the earth on two occasions, then settled down as Venus. The first visit to the earth of this erratic comet was precisely at the time Moses stretched out his hand and caused the Red Sea to divide. The manna which fell from the skies shortly thereafter was a precipitate, fortunately edible, of suspended elements in the celestial visitor's tail. Later the comet's return coincided with Joshua's successful attempt to make the sun and moon stand still. The miracles of both Moses and Joshua were the result, Velikovsky informs us, of a temporary cessation of the earth's spin. [1]

Well, ok, I don't want to say Pellegrino is anywhere near as bad as Velikovsky! But his approach is sometimes reminiscent, even if his scientific explanations are not nearly as far out. They both assume that ancient myths must be essentially true, and that all we need to do is look around until we come up with some explanation for them in terms of modern science. And when we do, that proves that science and religion dovetail and "support" each other.

*    *    *

Is there in fact any truth in ancient myths? Is there any truth in the Bible, in particular? Well of course there is. Many myths are based on real events. No doubt the story of the flood in the Bible is based on a big flood that actually happened (or possibly, as Pellegrino suggests, a merging of many memories of many big floods). No doubt many of the people mentioned in the Bible actually existed (or are composites of people who actually existed). No doubt there is some truth to the Bible insofar as it is the mythologized history of various groups of people. And no doubt there are even times when old texts like the Bible can provide clues and hints for modern scientific researchers in archaeology, etc.

I have no quarrel with any of that, and even agree that reinterpreting the Bible (and other myths) from a scientific perspective is one of the things that can be used to help wean people away from religion and superstition in general. But a lot depends on the writer's perspective and the use to which he/she puts those scientific reinterpretations.

If the purpose and use and actual result of the work is just to support religion and superstition "with scientific evidence", then this is a perversion of science and the work is reactionary. Only if the purpose and use, and most of all the actual result of the work, is to help undermine religion and superstition, is the work truly progressive, truly a good thing.

Consider the following case. Back in the 20's and 30's some anthropologists, including Americans, jumped on the German bandwagon of attempting to locate and investigate scientifically the ancient homeland of the "Aryans". It could have been argued that although there were indeed unscientific aspects to the theory, that nevertheless there was some underlying truth to the myth, that indeed there was once a homeland, an area of origin, of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European whose descendents speak most of the modern European languages. And indeed, today, those investigations are going on and have produced some good science. But back in the 30's these investigations were a very bad thing, and would have still been a very bad thing even if (what didn't happen) they had actually adduced some valid scientific evidence for the homeland of the "Aryans" (who are better called the "Proto-Indo-Europeans" today, for obvious reasons). For the same reason that working on the atom bomb for the Nazis was a very wrong thing to do, doing any kind of work which could be used to support their racist Aryan theory was also a very wrong thing to do.

So there are two questions here. First, are Pellegrino's modern reinterpretations of Biblical events scientifically correct? And second, whether or not that is true, what will be the actual effect of Pellegrino's book?

I think that some of Pelligrino's actual reinterpretations are fairly plausible and some are pretty implausible (his "parting of the seas" theory for example). I would like to see a lot more evidence for his interpretations, read the views of those who disagree (for scientific reasons!), and so forth. But none of this is my main concern.

My main concern is that the book can be, and probably will be, used—at least by some—to support religion, to try to show that "religion and science dovetail", and to argue that modern science "proves the Bible is true after all". I briefly described some of the theories in the book to a devoutly religious Christian friend of mine, and that is exactly the conclusion he jumped to, even with me there trying to block that jump in every way I could!

In our science book club discussion several people (especially Kirby and John) were amazed that I did not agree with their interpretation of the author's motives and outlook. How can different people read that book and not see that he is underminding religion by showing that God was not involved in these Biblical events, that miracles were not involved, that there are in fact plausible scientific explanations for what happened? So Kirby and John seemed to be saying. But let me ask them this: How do you suppose the Rev. John MacQuitty, Pellegrino's Jesuit buddy, interprets the book? I'll bet it isn't your way!

The book can be interpreted in various ways, and can be used in various ways—either to oppose religion, or to support it. My guess is that it will in fact be used more to support religion, than to oppose it. And that is my biggest beef with it. Instead of promoting science against religion and superstition, it is all too easily employed to argue, in the manner of the "higher criticism", that science supports religion "properly interpreted".

—Scott H.
   3/22/98 (with a bit of editing on 2/27/99)


[1] Martin Gardner, Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989 (1981)), p. 4.

— End —

Philosophy Home Page on MASSLINE.ORG
Scott H.'s Home Page on MASSLINE.ORG