There are precious few good things to say about being raised Catholic, but if nothing else I'm glad I was not raised in one of the religions that believe ancient religious texts to be literally true. To have to believe – and to be repeatedly taught by parents and authority figures – that the Bible is a true, historically accurate document would, I imagine, leave one with a skewed sense of the line separating fact and fiction. I distinctly recall being about four years old, hearing the story of Noah's Ark, and thinking, "No fuckin' way, man. How big was this boat? How'd they get every animal on the other continents? What did they eat?" And when a story has enough obvious holes in it that small children roll their eyes, its literal truth is going to be a tough sell.
The good thing is, when I pointed out that the story makes no sense my dad explained to me the concept of allegory. While the tale might not be exactly what happened, it captures the essence of some historical event and teaches us a lesson worth learning. Ah. OK. Then it made more sense. Had the conversation gone in another direction ("No, little Eddie, this IS exactly what happened, and you are not to question it") I'd be a very different person right now, I think.
In Catholic schools I always found the clergy to be refreshingly candid about key events in the Bible being historically dubious and essentially fables. Catholics won't budge an inch on dogma, but they won't try to tell you that, for example, the Biblical accounts of the nativity (Jesus's birth) stand up to scrutiny. At this time of year you're probably seeing numerous plastic, glowing depictions of little J-Money in a manger, being visited by wise men and whatnot. Have you ever really thought about how nonsensical that story is? Leave aside the virgin birth part, even, and the story is still holier than the boxer shorts I no longer have to throw out now that my wife left me.
1. Why would Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem for a census? What kind of census would make everyone in the Roman Empire pack up and go back to their place of birth, even though they no longer live there?
2. The Gospels offer two different but equally ridiculous explanations of how Jesus is a descendant of King David through his father, despite the fact that Jesus is not actually related to Joseph by blood.
3. How did the Magi/Kings/Wise Men/whatever show up at precisely the right moment on their journey of hundreds of miles "following a star"?
4. Why December 25? Our calendar didn't even exist yet.
The answers are quite simple. He was ham-handedly "related" to David and born in Bethlehem because – surprise, surprise – the prophecies stated that the Messiah would be related to David and born in Bethlehem. The Wise Men is just a narrative flourish, and December 25th was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice (Dec. 21/22, but Christmas day drifted over time due to changes in the Julian and Gregorian calendars).
This does not bother most Christians; they are comfortable admitting that the details of the story – the facts – are not relevant; the larger truth represented by the story is what counts. If telling this little Nativity fable is or was useful in convincing people of that truth (Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah), then so be it. The facts are subservient to the message.
This mindset is quite common and it's one of the major reasons that we talk over and past one another about so many topics these days, especially regarding politics. Half of us say, "Wait a minute, these numbers don't add up" and we can't wrap our mind around the fact that the other half of us don't care whether or not they do. Who cares if the numbers add up, the underlying belief is still valid. This struck me repeatedly throughout the campaign, especially with Romney. What the candidate says, and how frequently his statements contradict themselves and change, is not really important. What matters is the ideology he represents. Tell the proles whatever will satisfy them; it's OK to lie, exaggerate, or embellish to convince them of the greater ideological truth. If some funny math, half-true examples, and fabricated anecdotes help people believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy, then all the better. So what if the details don't add up as long as the message gets across.
This is just a theory on my part, but it goes a long way toward explaining why people are able to hold strong political beliefs and be unfazed when you point out that their facts are all wrong. Facts aren't important when you're in the business of converting the heathens to the word of the Lord.