Category Archives: Religion

The Islamic State, Christianity, and Holy Texts

What sense can you make of this dialog?

JOE: They say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

MARY: Why is the Aurora Borealis visible only in the far north?

JOE: I am convinced we will have a Republican president after the next election.

MARY: I should probably have a mammogram.

JOE: Oak trees are strong and brown. Birch trees are weaker, and have white bark.

MARY: Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

When I took an acting class in college, the professor gave us an exercise based on dialog much like the above. He paired us off and gave each pair a full page of non sequiturs. Each pair was supposed to take a week to figure out how to present the dialog in a way that made sense. We were allowed to repeat words, but not omit or reorder any. When the class met again, we were to act out our interpretations in a convincing way.

My partner was totally stumped, as were most people in the class. However, I took up the challenge and managed to cast the dialog as being about a visit to the dentist, even though dentists were nowhere in the original. (There was a sentence about a proctologist, though!)

I was able to give every syllable an interpretation that made perfect sense. Not only that, but I was sure that I had found the only solution to the puzzle. When other students assigned a different meaning, I had to give them credit for trying, but I thought they had not fit their interpretation to the text as well as I had.

In fact, had I not known that the dialog was designed as nonsense, I might have marveled at how cleverly its true meaning was woven into seemingly unrelated content.

That experience is what came to mind when I read the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. To hear American politicians talk, the Islamic State is not Islamic at all. They are just a “death cult.” The Atlantic‘s article argues very effectively for a more sobering view:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Yes, there are alternate interpretations of Islam. As Graeme Wood points out toward the end of the article,

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam.

[The are] committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

In practical terms, then, one fundamentalist group is attempting to take over the world, while the other peacefully devotes itself to a life of prayer and scholarship. Two groups have the same view of their holy text, but reach opposite conclusions about how to live.

It would be easy to laugh at the ridiculous Muslims, but we in the Christian West have not been without diversity of interpretation of our holy text, the Bible.

One thinks of Christian pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, while other Christians, equally devoted to the scriptures, decry that practice and focus instead on prayer, asking God to stop abortion by changing people’s hearts.

Or, on a less violent level, one is reminded of Bible-believing Christians who preach that God will heal all who ask in faith for a miracle, even as other Bible-believing Christians caution that such prayers are presumptuous.

How can people who agree on a simple, common-sense, literal method of interpreting a holy text reach opposite conclusions based on it?

Surely part of the answer is that all scriptures have some passages that point one way, while others tend toward the opposite.

However, the acting exercise also taught me that if even a nonsense dialog can be wrestled into meaning something consistent, surely a relatively coherent book like the Bible or the Koran can be made to say things that the original authors did not have in mind.

More than that, it taught me that when someone thinks he has found the only sensible interpretation that takes the entire text into account, it may be because of his cleverness rather than because the text actually speaks with a unified voice.

God Did Not Make Us Robots

You’ve probably heard this as often as I have:

God has not made us as robots, but has given us free will.

I happen to think that robots can have free will, but let’s set that aside for the moment. What does the believer in God mean when she says God has given us free will?

It is surprisingly difficult to define free will, but at a minimum it means the ability to make a choice free of coercion and threat.

When we see a prisoner of ISIS make an anti-Western speech just prior to being beheaded, we all realize that he did not make that speech of his own free will. He had undoubtedly been threatened with tortures worse than beheading if he did not do as he was told.

To the extent one is threatened, one does not have free will.

Supposedly God (I speak now of the God of the Bible because I live in Judeo-Christian America) is not like this. But how is he not like this? Does he make no threats?

On the contrary, consider this litany of threats from Deuteronomy 28, as one example among many. If the people do not obey God, it says, he will send all manner of curses. (Note that the text speaks of God sending curses in most cases; these are not just “natural consequences of bad behavior.”)

  • “The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, fever and inflammation, which will plague you until you perish” (verse 22)
  • “The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” (verse 24)
  • “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.” (verse 27)
  • “You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her.” (verse 30)
  • “Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation [as slaves], and you will wear our your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.” (verse 32)

Verses 47 and 48 conclude, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.”

Note again God’s active role in bringing this about: “the enemies the Lord sends…”, “He will put an iron yoke…”. These are not warnings of how things will work themselves out. They are threats.

The believer will respond that such chastisement is evidence of God’s love. He disciplines us because we are his children. We should worry if we were not to experience his discipline because that would mean we were not his children at all (Hebrews 12:4-11).

But when does discipline become child abuse? Would afflicting your child with sores and itches that cannot be cured be discipline or abuse? Would causing your child’s fiancee to be raped be discipline or abuse? (If the passage above doesn’t persuade you that the God of the Bible is capable of that, I dare you to follow this link to 2 Samuel 12:11 and see how God “disciplined” his child, King David. Note once more God’s active role.) Would sending people to enslave them be discipline or abuse?

“Ah, but that’s the Old Testament. Jesus gave us a new kind of relationship with God.”

Not really. Jesus only increased the stakes by introducing the doctrine of hell. As Christopher Hitchens said, “[In the Old Testament] once [God] is done with you, once the earth closed over you, that’s it. There’s no torture of the dead. Not until gentle Jesus, meek and mild, do you get that.”

Would a fiery hell, from which there’s no escape, be discipline or abuse? *

We haven’t even touched on the doctrine of predestination, which could not be taught more clearly and unambiguously than it was in Romans 9:15-21.

Let us now return to our friend the robot. Suppose he is equipped with sensors and software that enable him calculate the action that is most likely to lead to his continued well-being.

Who has free will: the person under threat of disease, rape and enslavement if he does not do what he is told; or the robot, who can take the action he deems optimal, unhindered?

—–

* – A growing minority of even conservative Christians believe that hell is only a place of final annihilation, not eternal, conscious torment. However, this is and always has been the minority view.

Do Animals Believe in God?

Whenever we humans have been wrong about animals, it has been because we have underestimated them. As a schoolboy, I was taught that animals could not reason, solve problems, or use tools. False, false, and false. Earlier than that, scientists believed animals even as advanced as other primates could not feel pain. Way false.

Any dog-owner knows that animals can anticipate and even manipulate the thoughts of members of other species (their human companions).

Animals adopt children, display altruistic behavior, and wage organized war. Elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees have all been observed to take special care of their dead. All of this was unthinkable a hundred years ago.

If you are a religious person, you have your own reasons for believing in God. But think for a moment about people in general, especially primitive people. Why do they pray for rain? Why do they sacrifice their daughters to volcano gods? Why do they believe every tree and rock has a spirit? Surely humans’ hyper-developed sense of agency has something to do with it. We believe there are personal forces behind events, even when there are not.

It’s easy to see why we have evolved to go overboard in this way. If one of your great-great-…-great grandparents had seen the grass rustling on the savanna and mistakenly thought a lion lurked there, he might waste a few calories running away from nothing, but otherwise no harm done. The opposite error, believing there was no lion when it was right there stalking its dinner, would have been fatal and you would not be here. In that environment, it would not take long to evolve a bias for seeing animate forces behind events.

That environment was also the one that shaped the forbears of our animal cousins. Why wouldn’t the more cognitively endowed among them evolve a belief in some sort of god exactly as we have?

Maybe animals are smarter than we are, in a way: they know when to stop. After all, they have never been observed sacrificing their daughters to volcano gods, or doing rain dances. But why wouldn’t animals have an animistic view of nature? And isn’t animism a form of polytheism? And mightn’t that polytheism have developed into a proto-theology in some of the more advanced animals? Maybe they can’t talk about it with each other (or maybe they can), but who knows what’s going on in their heads?

What do you think?

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

Countering Our Own Prejudice

One of my kids asked me today, “How can a person prevent herself from being prejudiced? I have a bad impression of the culture of [a certain country], and when I meet someone from there, it’s very hard not to assume he’s like that.”

One strategy that arose in our conversation was to remember what “bad” groups we are members of, and how we don’t conform to the stereotypes.

We’re American and I imagine the picture the rest of the world has of us. Compared to most developed countries, we have far more crime, yet we insist on having permissive gun-ownership laws; we have more people in prison than any country on Earth, yet we style ourselves as the moral beacon of the world; our government is incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to caring for the poor, but we always seem to have enough money to invade other countries; we want the world to trust our leadership, but we spy even on our friends; we like to tell other countries to respect their citizens’ rights and the rights of their neighbors, yet it was not all that long ago that we stole the bulk of our continent from Native Americans and Mexico; we are the only country ever to have have used a nuclear weapon in war, and we have done it twice; our academic scores are well behind many less-developed countries’ and we seem determined to remain ignorant, with large numbers of us denying climate change and evolution. I could go on and on.

Yet, if you meet an American on the street, chances are he’s a normal, nice person with a decent moral core.

Sometimes, our prejudice toward someone arises from assuming he will live up to the dangerous implications of his ideology. But most people don’t. Most people quietly ignore those parts of their belief system that are particularly bad.

They have learned to do so because they are carried along by a civilization that has moved on from the early days of their ideologies. You won’t find Jews today in favor of slavery or genocide even though God commanded both in the Hebrew Bible. Christians don’t torture people into professing orthodox faith anymore even though they once thought it a good idea since an eternity in heaven or hell was in the balance.

If we are open to the possibility that other people don’t conform to their stereotypes any more than we do to ours, I think most people will pleasantly surprise us.

Polite Abhorrence

This is what discrimination and hatred look like in polite society.

When considering the possibility of a ministry to these people [in same-sex unions], a distinction must be made between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others, and those whose behaviour promotes and actively – often aggressively – calls attention to it.

That was from paragraph 116 of the Instrumentum Laboris recently published by the Vatican. I read about it on CNN’s Belief Blog, where the headline was Vatican softens tone toward gays and lesbians. CNN says the Vatican was softening its tone. So why do I call this discrimination and hatred?

We are so acculturated to this sort of polite abhorrence that we don’t notice it. Allow me to recast the sleepy, pastoral language more plainly. The boldfaced words draw directly from the Vatican’s statement.

We prefer to minister to homosexuals who are ashamed of themselves — those whose choice has been painful. Ideally, they will stay discreetly in the closet. If they were to make their same-sex union known, we would be scandalized. It is important that they avoid causing us pain, but it is entirely good and appropriate if they feel pain. Our pain is bad; theirs is good.

In case there’s any doubt about the continuing second-class status of homosexuals in the Catholic church, we have this four paragraphs later:

Should a reasonable doubt exist in the capability of persons in a same sex union to instruct the child in the Christian faith, proper support is to be secured in the same manner as for any other couple seeking the baptism of their children. In this regard, other people in their family and social surroundings could also provide assistance. In these cases, the pastor is carefully to oversee the preparation for the possible baptism of the child, with particular attention given to the choice of the godfather and godmother.

Again, very polite and very condescending. There’s the tight-lipped, smiling nod in the direction of treating same-sex couples “in the same manner” as heterosexual ones. But does anyone think that a heterosexual couple would be scrutinized to the extent that baptism — the rite without which a soul is doomed (paragraph 1250 of the Catechism here) — would be called “the possible baptism of their child”? Or that there would be nervous fidgeting about other people providing assistance? Or that particular attention would be given to the choice of godparents?

The whole world loves the new pope and the changes he is bringing to the church. Even I love him. I hope that the current trend toward welcoming everyone continues and in 10 years homosexuals will be neither living scandals nor second-class parents.

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.