Mark Shea thinks atheists who critique the Bible on literal grounds are missing the point:

It uses figurative language to describe a real event which took place here in the real 92105811_5b73c6d177 world, not in cloud cuckoo land: Our First Parents abused their free will, sinned against God and fell. The mythic language is truer language than newspaper language, because it brings us to the heart of what happened, which is far more important than a photographic record of what happened.

A video of the first man committing the first sin would show us nothing, for the same reason that video of, say, a young Adolf Hitler sitting in a Vienna cafe and looking at an old Jew sipping his coffee would not reveal the momentous moment he turned from thinking, “Is this a Jew?” to thinking “Is this a German?” Traces of when sin, hate and evil are conceived in the heart cannot be detected in fossilized skulls. In the same way, even our outward actions don’t often tell much to those outside the heart.

Jerry Coyne counters:

Note carefully what Shea is claiming here: that an idle thought by one man (who, unlike Hitler, didn’t do anything!) doomed all humanity to a condition of sinfulness, only to be redeemed by the bloody death of an apocalyptic preacher. How can any rational person buy a story like that? And if the language is figurative (and there’s no indication that it is: Shea simply realizes that the story is wrong in light of modern science), how does he know the event is real?  Making miracles not only one-offs, but one-offs that can’t even be seen when they happen, puts the whole theological enterprise beyond the pale.  That means that there’s no way of knowing that miracles happened even if you were there. This insulates all miracles from empirical demonstration, which of course means that we can no longer make people saints, and endeavor that depends on two verified miracles. 

There's no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn;t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it's meant literally. It's obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable. Ross sees the exchange as saying something significant about the atheist mindset – and I largely agree with everything he says, except his definition of "fundamentalist" doesn't seem to extend much past Pat Robertson. It certainly makes me want to take Jerry Coyne's arguments less seriously. Someone this opposed to religion ought to have a modicum of education about it. The Dish, if you recall, had a long thread on this subject in August. No one was as dumb as Coyne.

(Photo: A Hieronymous Bosch painting of Adam and Eve by Flickr user Ian Burt.)