Some of my friends have been surprised to find out that I’m still reading the Bible. They thought I would be totally done with it after I left religion behind. Actually, I now enjoy reading the Bible more than I ever did as a Christian since I no longer have to defend it. Without the baggage of faith, it’s possible to appreciate the book with a little more objectivity.
Yes, I realize a lot of freethinkers are really put-off by anything having to do with the Bible, and I completely understand that. The book has been a source of much human suffering, and it has often served as a brake on the social evolution of our species. But just because we may reject the metaphysical and magical claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t worth reading. Here are a few reasons to pick it up.
- Knowing some basics about the Bible will make your critique of religion more credible and might enable you to better engage theists in conversation about what they believe and why they believe it. Heck, you’ll probably be able to point out a few things they didn’t know.
- Whether we like it or not, the reality is that biblical allusions and imagery pervade the music, art, and literature of Western civilization. If you don’t know the Bible, you’ll miss a lot.
- The Bible contains a lot of good literature. The cycle of stories in the David narrative are gripping portrayals of the complexities of human nature. I’d be willing to bet they provided at least some inspiration for “The Godfather.” Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is sublime and is also, ironically, entirely non-theistic. (Literary critic and non-theist Harold Bloom counts Paul as one of the one hundred “exemplary creative” literary geniuses of the Western world. Yeah, I know Paul often sounds like a jerk, but it is possible to be a jerk and a genius at the same time. )
- Knowing something about the Bible is often helpful when trying to complete The New York Times crossword puzzle.
Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way suggesting that the Bible has any special authority or any wisdom about life that can’t be found elsewhere. In fact I am totally confused by theists who claim to find some coherent set of “biblical values.” I spent twenty years trying to find coherence in the book. None exists.
But sometimes it’s a heck of a good read. And the portions of the Bible that actually are good literature present us with compelling and nuanced descriptions of human condition. And so I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the Bible any more than I’d want to live in a world without The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost.
A few months ago when I had the chance to appear on MSNBC’s “Up W/ Chris Hayes” author Robert Wright asked me if I felt a sense of urgency about recruiting others to the free-thought position. Or is it enough be satisfied with one’s own skepticism and adopt a “live and let live” attitude toward belief? Is it rude and intolerant to challenge the beliefs of others? I didn’t have a great answer at the time he posed the question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since.
From time to time I’ve heard this position expressed: “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you don’t impose your religion on me.” Personally I sometimes resonate with that attitude. Tolerance is often in short supply in our world. It sounds nice to say that belief is purely a private matter, but I’m not sure that is even true. Every single day the news brings us examples of how belief negatively impacts our world. Here are just a few examples:
- Surveys consistently show that people of faith are far more likely to deny the reality of global warming and its anthropogenesis. There is often a connection between religiosity and a hostility to science.
- In my home state of Texas, the religious views of the state Board of Education force publishers to alter the content of textbooks, which are then sold throughout the rest of the country.
- A few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention vigorously reconfirmed their position that gay rights are not civil rights. On so many issues of social justice theology has acted as a brake on progress.
- Still every day around the the world people kill other people over theologies, beliefs, myths and other unprovable ideas. A super-intelligent alien race studying humanity would surely conclude that we are an insane species.
And of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. I often wonder if belief impacts just about everything in our society. For instance, does belief in a punishing God contribute to a generally pervasive punitive approach to life, as exemplified in our draconian “war on drugs?”
So, I guess I’m leaning toward the position that there is no such thing as benign belief. It ultimately disables critical reasoning.
On the other hand, I also think that skeptics and freethinkers can at times shut down conversation as well. The best way forward would be through conversation not confrontation, to be challenging but also charitable.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
My latest TV addiction is The Borgias on Showtime, an historical drama portraying the exploits of the infamous family of Pope Alexander VI in the late 15th Century. Great writing, great acting, great production values. It’s just fun to watch. With all the church-sponsored wars, torture, heretic-burning, and papal children, this mini-series just might do more to discredit organized religion than the writings of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens) Sure it’s historical fiction, but I don’t think they have really had to embellish the dark side of Christian history all that much. The show should help dispel the myth that the Church has been mystically guided and protected by the Holy Spirit through the centuries.
But while I was watching the show this question came to mind: Is religion the problem or the symptom? What I mean is– would all the crusades, inquisitions, and witch-hunts of history have happened anyway, regardless of what religion was in power? Let’s say Christianity did not become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, but Mithraism or the cult of Osiris instead. Would Galileo still have been declared dangerous for putting forth a view of the cosmos that conflicted with the conventional wisdom?
Homo Sapiens is an intensely and incorrigibly tribal species. We naturally look for ways to define “the other.” And religion has been one of the most potent expressions of our tribal tendencies. I’d be willing to bet that for most believers today, the tribal identity of their religion matters far more than the metaphysical claims. And that, of course, is one reason atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers are so often perceived to be such a threat. Our ancestral past has generally conditioned most people to viscerally condemn and ostracize those who threaten the tribe. Most people don’t want to be sitting in the home team bleachers wearing the colors of the visiting team.
Well, the days of the Borgias are clearly not entirely behind us. There are still plenty of religious folk who would like to impose their ways on others. Last week I read in The Times that Buddhists and Muslims are now fighting in Myanmar. Buddhists?! I thought they were supposed to be peaceful. Go figure.
But the quickly increasing numbers of skeptics and doubters gives me hope. Maybe we as a species are slowly and painfully maturing. Maybe we are gradually shedding the parochial tribalism of the past as we come to understand that the only hope for the future of our fragile planet is to recognize all humans as members of the same tribe.
Once upon a time in another life I was fascinated by theology. I devoured the writings of the great theologians of the 20th century: Tillich, Barth, Rahner, and others. This was some deep reading, so when I encountered passages I didn’t comprehend, I always assumed the problem was me. The theologians were surely expressing profound insights about existence that were far beyond my ability to comprehend. But, if I stuck with it long enough, I was sure that I too would eventually understand the mysteries of the universe as they did. When I was an undergraduate at Michigan, I was admitted into a graduate seminar with the famous Catholic theologian Hans Kung. For our final papers we were all assigned topics to address. Mine was “The Shift From Hermeneutics to Praxis as Foundational for Political and Liberation Theologies.” I didn’t understand at all what that was supposed to be about. And many years later I still don’t.
That’s part of the schtick that lends theology the pretense of intellectual credibility. Use intentionally obfuscating language that sounds like insider technical jargon. Throw in a sprinkling of Greek, Latin, and German words.
Here’s a random sample from a standard modern classic by Walter Kasper, who is now a Catholic cardinal, I believe:
“I have found a systematic conception of the doctrine of the Trinity can be aufgehoben (set aside, preserved, and elevated to a higher level) in a higher unity. In principle, this view of the Trinity begins, as does the Greek, with the Father, the unoriginated origin; but insofar as it conceives the Father as pure love, as pure self-giving, it is able to understand the processions of the Son and of the Spirit according to their inner logic, after the manner of Latin theology, and to conceive these processions, in faith, as forms of the one impenetrable and incomprehensible love of God and as expressions of the one mystery of salvation.” (Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ,” p. 309)
Didn’t get it? Don’t worry. There ain’t nothing there to get! The lack of lucidness is intentional. Theology is ultimately all speculation, all assumption. The emperor has no clothes. It’s time to call the question.
More to follow…
My current reading list includes “No Man Knows My History–the Life of Joseph Smith” by Fawn Brodie. If you enjoy reading a good biography I highly recommend this one to you. First published in 1945 and revised in 1971, the book is considered a modern classic of the biographer’s art. The story of how Smith convinced so many people that he had received another “testament” engraved on golden plates is absolutely fascinating. Whatever else you might say about Smith, the guy definitely had charisma.
Reading the story of early Mormonism, one quickly sees parallels to the beginnings of Christianity (and probably any other religion for that matter.) Like Joseph Smith, the apostle Paul’s ultimate claim to authority came from revelation–“because God told me so!” Throughout his epistles Paul reminds his readers that he has some kind of special conduit to divine wisdom and that he speaks for God. These passages are numerous, but one example should suffice to make the point: “…what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 14: 37-38) Sounds just like something any cult leader might say to intimidate the flock.
And that is religion in a nutshell. Anybody who can convince enough people that he/she converses with undetectable beings can start one. The metaphysical claims of Mormonism are no crazier than the metaphysical claims of Christianity. They just might seem a little crazier because we’re not as familiar with them as the world-view of orthodox Christianity which permeates our culture.
For atheists, agnostics, and other skeptics who might be reading this, I’m sure this comes as no “revelation” to you. I just wonder why it took me so long to see it, and being able to write about it is therapeutic for me. Thanks in advance for being patient with a slow learner!
The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently reviewed the latest book from Alan de Botton, Religion for Atheists, which is an exploration of the religious practices that de Botton believes non-theists could adopt to make their lives “richer.” Brooks concludes his review with this statement: “Many of us would rather live frustrated in the company of the believers than fulfilled in this flatland of the atheists.” (New York Times Book Review, March 18, 2012, p.30.)
Well, that’s an incongruous sentence if I’ve ever heard one. Life is more “fulfilling” with the atheists, but Brooks would prefer hanging out with people who believe in fairy tales because that is somehow more interesting than the “flatland of the atheists?” I don’t get it. If you understand this, please enlighten me by sending in a comment.
In his review Brooks seems to suggest that by jettisoning religion we lose some dimension of joy or transcendence or whatever it is we could keep on having if we continued to believe the crazy metaphysical claims of religion. Brooks is dragging out the old canard that if you get rid of God, you are deprived of some sense of joy or transcendence that only religion can offer.
I beg to differ. Speaking strictly from personal experience of course, I have tried both paths. I have been both very religious and, now, very non-religious. And I can tell you I have consistently experienced more wonder and joy about life as a non-theist than I ever did as a theist. Just last night I had the pleasure of attending an amazing lecture by the biologist, E.O. Wilson. In the course of the evening Professor Wilson led the audience on an amazing survey of the history of life on this planet, the emergence of eusocial species, the evolution of the hominid species and how all this impacts who we are today. His ability to synthesize diverse areas of study was simply jaw-dropping. Here’s one gem from Wilson’s lecture last night: “History makes no sense without prehistory. And prehistory makes no sense without biology.” That one sentence contains more wisdom than anything I have ever read in the Bible.
So if that’s the “flatland of atheism,” I’ll take it any day over Brooks’ preference to dwell in the land of make-believe.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendents I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21)
These words have probably caused more problems for the course of human history than any other single Bible passage. It’s a prime example of how the Bible continues to poison our national discourse and adversely impact the lives of millions. Because of this passage…
–The Unites States spends more money on military aid to Israel than any other nation. Your tax dollars at work!
–American politicians–including many running for president right now–feel compelled to out-do each other in their vociferous support for Israel, no matter what, no matter the cost, no matter the consequences.
–Humans continue to be slaughtered because of differing interpretations of this passage. A case in point would be the outbreak of hostilities along the Gaza border in the past couple days.
Of course for American evangelicals the significance of Genesis 15 goes beyond the Jews’ ancient claim on the land. Many Christians see the establishment of modern Israel–along with Jewish control of Jerusalem–as a necessary precursor to the second coming of Jesus.
And why does a tiny nation of some 7 million people have such disproportionate influence on American foreign policy, domestic politics, and budget priorities? All because an ancient, mythical nomad once heard the voice of a deity give the land to Abraham’s descendents in perpetuity. Does this make any sense at all?
Certainly one could make rational arguments for supporting Israel without saying, “for the Bible tells me so.” Israel is, after all, a rare democracy in a part of the world dominated by authoritarian governments. But for god’s sake, leave god out of it. Religion should have no influence whatsoever on how our government responds to geopolitical realities.