April 18, 2006

Yet more religion blogging: Genocidal gods

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:19 PM

I don't mean to be obsessed with religion lately, but I keep seeing opportunities to blog about it. Blogger Mark Kleiman sometimes posts notes from his Tanakh study group; I usually skip these posts, but the latest was of interest. It discusses one of the most disturbing passages in the Bible, 1 Samuel 15. I'm particularly interested in this passage because it's the first place I go if I want to argue that the Bible should not be regarded as having any moral authority.

The Samuel of the book's title is a Hebrew prophet, and this chapter occurs during Saul's reign as king of Israel. Now, God is pissed off at another tribe, the Amalekites, for how they treated the Israelites during their escape from Egypt, which was hundreds of years prior at this point in the Bible. So he has Samuel instruct Saul to do the only thing consistent with a just, moral God: kill every man, woman, and child in the Amalekite tribe. Also, Saul is to kill all the livestock to show they mean business and aren't just after spoils. So, Saul takes the Israelite army and commits divinely mandated genocide, wiping out the tribe—except that they spare the Amalekite king and some of the livestock. Naturally God gets angry with Saul and strips him of his kingship, because his genocidal instructions were not followed to the letter. Samuel's so angry he personally grabs a sword and messily executes the Amalekite king.

So, you see the problem here. No god that orders such an atrocity is worthy of worship; in fact, basic morality requires that one actively oppose such a god, even if this results in being smited into ash. I was curious to see what Kleiman's notes would say in regards to this passage; he seems disturbed by it and looks for some justification in the text, but finds little:

We found nothing to say in defense either of the genocidal attack on the Amalekites (except that HaShem's actions are not taken as guides for human actions) or of Samuel's final bit of brutality (which lacks the excuse of a Divine commandment). We hoped that the text might mean that Agag was beheaded first and then the corpse chopped up — as disgusting as that would have been — but the text doesn't say so, and the more natural reading would seem to be Samuel sliced Agag limb from limb while he was still alive.

I don't buy this bit about "HaShem's actions are not taken as guides for human actions". For one thing, it's humans that are actually carrying out the genocide on God's orders. And furthermore, it's not clear why I should hold God to a lower moral standard than I hold mortals. Now, one approach is to say that God is the one who gets to define morality—after all, he's the one handing down the stone tablets—so by definition nothing God does can be immoral. If that's the case, then fuck morality; I am going to adhere to a different system of ethics, which I call "schmorality", that holds (among other things) that genocide is always wrong. Come on, this one doesn't pass the laugh test.

Another important point, and this is sort of a Humean argument, is that even if it's ok to commit genocide when God commands it, one should never obey apparent commands from God to commit genocide. After all, if I hear a voice claiming to be God and instructing me to murder a bunch of people, I am going to consider several possibilities. Maybe it's actually God, or maybe I've gone crazy and am hearing voices in my head, or maybe it's a malevolent being impersonating God. This goes double if it's not a voice in my head, but some dude named Samuel. Then I'll consider how probable it is that it's really God and not one of the other possibilities, and weigh this against the enormity of the crime I am going to commit. Probably it's not God, and even if it is, the worst that can happen from disobeying is that he smites me and tries to get someone else to do it. Whereas if I'm wrong about it being God, I've just killed a bunch of people for no reason. So basic morality demands that one disobey these sorts of commands.

A different defense one can take regarding 1 Samuel 15 is to say that it's not an accurate description of events, but is fiction. If one still wants to preserve the rest of the Bible as a moral authority, one then has to decide if it was rightfully included as a kind of metaphorical tale or parable meant to teach a lesson, or if it was mistakenly included and is merely Bronze Age tribal propaganda. If I were religious, I would reject the former possibility out of hand. It would seem to me the foulest of blasphemies to ascribe such behavior to God. Whatever lesson this is supposed to impart, it's the wrong one, since one should actually disobey these commands from God. On the other hand, if it was wrongfully included, the judgement of the mortal editors compiling the Old Testament or Tanakh is therefore suspect. Clearly these guys had no moral or spiritual authority themselves, or they would have recognized that this passage did not belong with the other books. And this in turn undermines the authority of the rest of the Bible: if you can't trust the inclusion of this book, why trust any of the others? And so I think this chapter is a huge problem for any religion that claims the Old Testament as a holy text.

April 9, 2006

The Gospel of Gazebo

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:42 PM

I had a bit of writer's block with regard to the blog the last few days, so it's been quiet. But when I need inspiration, I can always turn to Jesus—or rather, writing inflammatory posts about Jesus. Specifically: everyone seems to be talking about this Gospel of Judas that has been discovered, and is now being promoted by National Geographic. This is of course not something that has much relevance to me personally, but it's interesting to see some of the reactions.

Consider, for instance, this post by conservative blogger Stephen Bainbridge:

If you don't read the news accounts relating to the much ballyhooed Gospel of Judas carefully, you might come away with the impression that it is a legitimate alternative to orthodox Christian theology. Indeed, National Geographic is essentially billing it as such. In fact, however, what we know about the document suggests that it is yet another example of the Gnostic heresy.

The Gnostic heresy! Sounds pretty sinister. But if Bainbridge is worried about mainstream publications promoting heretical ideas, there is a much larger example of this that someone should bring to his attention. After all, Protestantism is chock-full of doctrine declared heretical by the Catholic church, and it gets a lot more media attention than Gnosticism.

But it's easy to see why Gnosticism is actually a more dangerous heresy than anything Martin Luther came up with. After all, Protestants may differ from Catholics on certain bureaucratic issues and arcana like transubstantiation, but they still use basically the same Bible and interpret it the same way. On the other hand, Gnosticism is a radically different interpretation of Christianity that actually makes a lot more sense. Well, that's not really true: there were lots of variants of Gnosticism in the ancient world and the various corresponding doctrines are mostly impenetrable. However, one of the general themes is that the world we live in is a flawed world created by an evil god, referred to as the demiurge. So already they've addressed the problem of evil. But in a stroke of brilliance, at least one Gnostic variant associates the demiurge with the god of the Old Testament, and has the god of the New Testament as a different god who will save humanity from the flawed world.

This neatly solves a big literary problem in the Bible where the god of the Old Testament has a vastly different character from the god of the New Testament (as well as changing his mind on a number of issues, which is an odd thing for an omniscient eternal being to do). Until Jesus comes along he's all about the smiting and the plagues and the wars, and afterwards he's suddenly a god of love and salvation and forgiveness. (Ok, and the lake of fire for nonbelievers, so some things haven't changed.) The Gnostic interpretation makes the New Testament god more plausible by disassociating him with the Old Testament, correctly judges the Old Testament god to be evil, allows one to throw out all the silly tribal laws associated with the evil god, and explains the problem of evil. If I were a Christian I'd convert to this instantly.

So one can understand why the church would worry about this. On the other hand, just because some interpretation of the Bible is more plausible doesn't mean it'll catch on. After all, my preferred interpretation is more plausible yet than the version above, but somehow the notion that it's all a bunch of made-up stories doesn't seem to be very popular in this country.

February 13, 2006

Awesome Bible fact of the day

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:04 PM

Via a comment at Crooked Timber, I learn that the Bible uses a unit of weight called the "homer", which, literally translated, means: "an ass-load". No, seriously:

The word homer comes from a Hebrew word which means 'ass-load'. It may have been the amount that donkey could carry. The quail which fell in the wilderness were measured using the homer. The Homer or Cor contained 10 ephahs. Ezekiel 45:11,14 That would make it equal to about 6 bushels.

So how many homers are there in a metric fuck-ton?

Permalink | Tags: Randomness, Science, The Bible

January 27, 2006

Mixed feelings on the Bible in schools

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:45 PM

I totally don't know how to react to this NYT article: Democrats in 2 Southern States Push Bills on Bible Study

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 — Democrats in Georgia and Alabama, borrowing an idea usually advanced by conservative Republicans, are promoting Bible classes in the public schools. Their Republican opponents are in turn denouncing them as "pharisees," a favorite term of liberals for politicians who exploit religion.

On the one hand, I don't have a problem with teaching the Bible from a secular standpoint in the context of its influence on Western literature, and if the article is accurate that's what these bills are proposing. I had a similar textbook my senior year at a public high school, although it wasn't the focus of the course, and it seemed like a worthwhile academic endeavour despite the fact that I had already developed my negative views of religion by that point. The fact is that a huge amount of literature contains Biblical references and it's important to understand them from a cultural literacy standpoint.

On the other hand, the Democrats pushing these bills are obviously pandering to theocratic Christians who want to see more state promotion of religion, and are just being clever by doing this in a constitutional way. Pandering to these sorts of people, or giving them any political influence at all, is bad on general principles. These bills themselves may be good policy, but if they're a big hit with the bible-thumpers I worry about what these legislators will do next.

On the third hand, Republican hypocrisy on this issue is completely hilarious:

"Their proposal makes them modern-day pharisees," State Senator Eric Johnson of Georgia, the Republican leader from Savannah, said in a statement. "This is election-year pandering using voters' deepest beliefs as a tool."

I know! Don't you hate it when politicians do that?
Saying he found "a little irony" in the fact that the Democratic sponsors had voted against a Republican proposal for a Bible course six years ago, Mr. Johnson added, "It should also be noted that the so-called Bible bill doesn't use the Bible as the textbook, and would allow teachers with no belief at all in the Bible to teach the course."

Johnson seems to believe that these are arguments against the bill, rather than reasons why it's within shouting distance of actually being constitutional.

Then it turns out that the origins of the textbook are slightly sketchy:

The textbook they endorse was the brainchild of Chuck Stetson, a New York investment manager and theologically conservative Episcopalian who says he was concerned about public ignorance of the Bible.

...

The textbook came to the attention of Democratic legislators in Alabama and Georgia through the advocacy of R. Randolph Brinson, a Republican and founder of the evangelical voter-registration group Redeem the Vote.

Mr. Brinson, who said he was working with legislators in other states as well, described his pitch to Democrats as, "Introducing this bill will show the evangelical world that they are not hostile to faith."

Some liberals are unhappy, however. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that "The Bible and Its Influence" was "problematic" because it omitted "the bad and the ugly uses of the Bible," like the invocation of Scripture to justify racial segregation.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.

Permalink | Tags: Democrats, Politics, The Bible

October 5, 2005

Cain and Abel seem to still be causing trouble

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:26 AM

I tend to have pretty harsh words for the Catholic Church, but this deserves applause: Bishops in Britain are actively trying to discourage literal readings of the Bible. Via Pharyngula:

Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible
THE hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true.

The Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect “total accuracy” from the Bible.

“We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture.


Excellent. Hey, can we get that printed as a warning label on Bibles, like the ones the creationists try to put on biology textbooks?

Permalink | Tags: Catholicism, Christianity, Religion, The Bible

August 11, 2005

Boring Movies for Jesus

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:23 PM

Oh, this is so lame. The producers of the Da Vinci Code movie don't want to upset anybody:

Studio officials have consulted with Catholic and other Christian specialists on how they might alter the plot of the novel to avoid offending the devout. In doing so, the studio has been asked to consider such measures as making the central premise - that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene - more ambiguous, and removing the name of Opus Dei.

"The question I was asked was, 'Can you give them some things they can do to change it, to make it not offensive to the Christian audience?' " said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, an organization that coaches Christians on making it in Hollywood. She said she was approached by Jonathan Bock, a marketing expert hired by Sony for his knowledge of Christian sensibilities, and included in the discussions Amy Welborn, who has published a refutation of "The Da Vinci Code" titled "De-Coding Da Vinci."

"We came up with three things," Nicolosi said: the more ambiguous approach to the central premise, the removal of Opus Dei and amending errors in the book's description of religious elements in art.


What, exactly, do the studio officials think is the source of the book's popularity? It certainly wasn't the writing; it was the controversy and the twist on church doctrine. The people who were going to be offended aren't going to see it anyway, and the people who might actually be interested will be turned off by the "ambiguous" version. And who are these Christians who are so sensitive as to get worked up over this? It's a bad sign if you think that the plausibility of your dogma can be undermined by a Tom Hanks film.

Fortunately, most the of the Christians I know personally are unperturbed by such things, but sadly there's a long tradition of this kind of overreaction in Christianity. This goes back through the church's list of banned books and persecution of heretics, all the way to the founder himself:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. (Mt. 12:31)

So Jesus is only encouraging this sort of thing. Why couldn't he instead have said "Lighten up, it's only a movie"?

Permalink | Tags: Books, Catholicism, Christianity, Movies, Religion, The Bible