Some kind of world record

I’m currently reading No God But God by Reza Aslan. I think I have found some competition for the BHA pollsters in the contest to find the world’s sloppiest thinkers.

Here’s the offending section from the book’s Prologue:

It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is “What do these stories mean”?

[…] After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others.

Okay, so let’s be charitable here. I think what he’s trying to argue is that myths express truths about the human condition, which sounds plausible, but actually is pretty vacuous. But look at what he actually claims:

1. Myths are always true – Right. No they are not. Myths have propositional content. It is this content that makes them false. Also, if Aslan is correct, it seems that one is forced to conclude that stories of the supernatural are always true. Which is daft. (Presumably he must think that there is more to the definition of the word myth than it signifies a story of the supernatural. Otherwise, we can all invent myths which must be true.)

2. Whatever truths they convey – Ah, nice slide away from the original assertion here. Myths now convey truths, which of course is entirely different to the claim that they are true.

3. To ask whether Moses, etcis to ask totally irrelevant questions – Sorry, but that’s ridiculous. These are entirely relevant questions to ask given that millions of people believe those propositions to be literally true. And, in any case, there’s a hint of self-contradiction here. The only way to determine whether or not the propositional content of myth is relevant is to ask whether it is true. Because if it were true, then clearly it would be relevant. Actually, there might be something interesting here. If Aslan thinks that the propositional content of myth might be factually true, then presumably he has to conclude that it is relevant to ask whether it is true. So, for example, if God did indeed pour through the lips of Muhammad then the question of whether this is true is vital. It makes all the difference. He presumably then must have concluded that the propositional content of religious myth is false? If so, he has asked himself questions which by his own terms are irrelevant…

4. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is “What do these stories mean”? – That’s so clearly rubbish that I can’t be bothered to argue against it. (I seem to be losing patience here.)

5. After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid – No, no, no. You can’t mean that. Religion might involve interpretation, be built on top of interpretation, but it can’t be interpretation. There is something rhetorically interesting going on here, though. If Aslan had written: All religions make use of interpretation, and all interpretation is valid, then it would have left open the possibility that religion is invalid – whatever this means – because there would be more to religion than interpretation. But by equating religion to interpretation he closes this gap. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help since religion clearly isn’t interpretation by definition, and the claim that all interpretations are valid is empty.

6. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others – Beautifully done. So we have unreasonable, but valid interpretations; and reasonable, valid interpretations. Excellent.

Okay, that’s enough of this.

The question I’m always left with after reading this kind of stuff is why it isn’t picked up at the proof reading, or editing, stage?

I’m not wrong about this, am I? It is woeful, isn’t it?

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