The Bible — it's all in how you read it, theological scholars Bart Ehrman and John Haught say.
Both will be in Lexington later this month to speak at the University of Kentucky Gaines Center for the Humanities' forum "On Religion in the 21st Century." Their talks will be part of the center's annual Bale Boone Symposium in the Humanities, which in the past has focused on topics such as art and cultural property, and Charles Darwin. The symposium's function is community outreach, which center director Robert Rabel says was important to John Gaines, whose donation to UK launched the center.
This year's discussions will present different views on religion in association with politics, history and science.
Ehrman and Haught acknowledge that religion is a huge topic in contemporary culture, though it is not a terribly edifying conversation, particularly when it comes to history or religion.
"It's a mixture of poor science education and poor religious education," says Haught, a senior fellow in science and religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
Ehrman observes, "There are real culture wars going on in America. You have the conservative movement and the emergence of a new atheism and humanism."
A lot of that, both argue, goes back to a misuse of the Bible as an authoritative text on history and science.
"The point of Scripture is transformation to an authentic existence," says Haught, an author of several books including last year's Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (Westminster John Knox Press, $20). "But there is this assumption that sacred texts inspired allegedly by God should give you reliable scientific information."
That, he said, is not the Bible's purpose. But that assumption leads to heated conflicts and ultimately distrust between the scientific and religious communities. The results can be seen in things like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, which Haught has visited and says gives the biblical Creation story "a degree of scientific reliability."
Haught says scientists have also misused the Bible, saying that "because it doesn't deliver scientific information, they reject it all."
He says that understanding that science is science and that the Bible is a religious text has been essential to his own faith journey.
"Truth cannot contradict truth," he says. "Science and faith respond to different questions."
For Ehrman, a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, faith did not endure close scrutiny of Scriptures so well.
"When I was a fundamentalist, I could reconcile anything," says Ehrman, author of several books including last year's Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) (HarperOne, $15.99). "One of my major breakthroughs is when I realized I had to do a lot of fancy footwork to deal with the contradictions in the Bible."
Ehrman says he became an agnostic when studying the question of how God could allow evil in the world.
At the Bale Boone Symposium, both scholars will be paired with other authorities offering differing viewpoints, demonstrating a variety of ways to look at the issues as opposed to any final answer.