Jerry Coyne vs. Ross Douthat: Why the Bible Persuades So Many (Even as Atheist Arguments Against It Don’t)

In thinking about the dust-up between Jerry Coyne and Ross Douthat over whether the miraculous stories in the Bible actually happened, and whether it matters (Coyne says yes, Douthat says no), it occurs to me that both of them are missing an important aspect of the question: why the Bible is a book of stories and not of argumentation in the first place.

The Bible is a book of stories and not of arguments because most people don’t arrive at their beliefs by formal logic and evidence, but by gestalt associations (social, metaphorical, imagistic).

The Bible is believed and popular with large masses of people for precisely its associative power: it binds people to itself by exploiting humans’ needs for sociality and holistic meaning. The medium is the message (to echo McLuhan). The Bible’s spell-casting power is in directing its messages to the intuitive, associative, synthetic, metaphorical, allegorical, and socially needy parts of the brain, and not to the independent, analytical, logical, and evidence-seeking parts of the brain.

The Bible is catching a certain kind of fish that happens to be attracted to a certain kind of bait. And that just happens to be a whole lot of us.

Whether that human “fish” is a literalist or an allegorist, once her heart and mind are caught she will rationalize in whatever direction necessary to keep hold of that (pleasing to herself) bait.

And I’ve just made a metaphor-based argument myself. If you’re taken in by it, it will be because it answers to a gestalt intuition in you; it will just make sense. And after it makes sense, it may be hard to shake. But I haven’t really offered any empirical evidence for my view.

It’s like the famous gestalt image of a Dalmatian in snow (see the YouTube below): once it’s shown to you, it’s hard to “unsee” it. Likewise, once you’re moved by the story of Jesus, you see crosses everywhere.

Gestalt seeing is believing.

This suggests that the way to “win” an argument is not just by analytically deconstructing the worldview of another, but by presenting a hopeful, emotionally compelling, synthetic, iconic, metaphorical, and holistic worldview that counters it.

But does atheism even have one?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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