Why Would I Not Want To Believe?

A discussion I had on twitter the other day went along the lines of me taking my usual stance, that I am unable rather than unwilling to believe in god while my opposer was adamant that I had actively chosen to reject god out of some sort of spite or bitterness based on my previous experiences. It can be difficult to argue against someone who supposes they know what you think and why, not only because their opinions of how you formed your views have already been decided but also because they almost always seem to patronisingly put your views down to negligence during your upbringing or teenage rebellion that you never grew out of. Without knowing someone personally, one cannot truly know anything about someone and it is very difficult to see another’s position without using the murky glasses that cloud one’s own judgement.

The debate continued and he again accused me of knowing the truth of god deep down but asserted that I was choosing to suppress my inner beliefs, again some sort of extended teenage rebellion, to which I responded that I could not think a single valid motive for suppressing that belief. Why would anyone make a conscious decision to not believe? I can’t think of one. Some of you may be reading this and thinking ‘I chose to be an atheist/believer on ….’ and to that I would respond by telling you that may be the day you realised your feelings but it was no more a choice than it is was for you to choose that stealing is wrong. One can certainly make a choice (I don’t believe in free-will either but that’s an entirely different argument) to learn more about a religion, one can choose to act in a pious manner and one can choose to profess a belief in any divinity (or political point of view) but actually believing what you say you do is not purely a matter of choice. Think about it, when did any of you choose to reject Vishnu? You’ve probably never been a Hindu because you know very little about Hinduism but even if you do, it’s never been presented to you in a way that is eminently believable to the point of relegating all other belief systems to the incredible (sorry to any of you who are Hindu but I could substitute any other god/religion in its place and the argument still stands).

“What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite” – Bertrand Russell

The point remains as to why anyone would choose to reject a religion they actually believe in. I can understand why a person would decide that the way their church or congregation was practising was wrong or incorrect and would change denominations as a result but this is a different point. To reject the entire notion of a god you actually believe in while in full knowledge of the consequences would seem to be a quite ridiculous position to take, surely only a sufferer of mental illness would condemn themselves to eternal damnation willingly? Of course many believers will insist that this is exactly what I and others like me are doing by refusing to acknowledge the divine inspiration contained within their holy texts but this is clearly not the case. Nobody who believes to the point of ‘knowing’ rejects god.

This goes back to my point in the first paragraph, the believer can only see my point of view through their own eyes. In order for them to openly reject the notion of god, they would have to be acting in rebellion, whatever they may say or do they would never actually stop believing, that would be unthinkable. Any worldview that doesn’t include an inbuilt presumption of god’s existence is incomprehensible to anyone with a strong, unwavering faith in god. They may be able to understand the frustrations felt by oppressed minorities around the world and the violence this can generate, they may be able to appreciate the ‘good intentions’ of people who worship in a way they find idolatrous but they cannot understand how anyone can live their life without any input and guidance from god or gods messengers. Of course this is not true for all religious believers but I have had contact with many who do fall into this description, unable to fathom why I express the opinions I do about their beloved god. ‘Why don’t you just go around killing people then, if you don’t believe in god?’ Is one that I’ve heard several times, I’m not going to justify it with an in-depth answer here but I think we all know that dietary and other ritualistic laws aside, morality is not god-given.

Does any of this mean that I am sitting here in mental agony, yearning for my teenage faith in god to return so I can continue on my path to heaven? No, anyone who wanted to believe but was unable would have to consider why it was what they wanted. Why would one want to believe something that was by definition unbelievable (to them)? Is it a fear of death or Hell that causes a desire for faith? If a person truly fears what will happen to them when they die, they have not lost faith in god per se but are just worried that they may be worshipping the wrong one. This fear is wholly understandable when considered through the mindset outlined in the last paragraph but is not compatible with actual atheism. Any of the reasons that are sometimes given to explain the consoling and comforting nature of religious belief in times of mental hardship can work equally well with any delusional mindset, there’s no reason to choose a religion for mental support. I have found that it is learning about religions and their history rather than any specific atheistic texts that have brought me to and reinforced my current belief system. The more one learns of the facts, the closer one gets to the truth, at last that’s how it’s supposed to work.

I always say I’m not unwilling to believe in god but am unable. I also think that both god’s existence and also our belief in him are unnecessary now that as a society we have matured enough to be able to take the first tentative steps on our own without the reassurance of our imaginary parent’s hand to guide us.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Why An Atheist Speaks About Religion Every Day

In my personal experience, when questioned about their religious beliefs, most people seem to find it difficult to reconcile their underlying mistrust of global religious institutions with an inability to wholly reject the notion of an omnipotent god (clearly this is only people I converse with in ‘the real world’, most people I only know through their online personas have much more polarised opinions on the matter). This is not normally a result of independent inquiry, concluding with a summation of available evidence but a relic from the mild Christian schooling most of us were subject to through our childhood (or not so mild in some cases).

I personally went to Church of England schools and although I was taught the literal truth of many bible stories, I’m not sure if any of my classmates every went on to believe those literal truths into adulthood. Certainly many of us realised the hypocrisy of religious classes teaching us the insignificance of material wealth while all other teachers pushed us to succeed in their subjects to facilitate the accumulation of that wealth. This left very few in the school who could be classed as truly ‘devout’, of which I was one (however surprising you may find that). However, when my religiosity in my teenage years led me to read the bible along with much of the apocrypha, I was interested to find out why the apocrypha had been proscribed and how many of the beliefs of the modern Christian churches have been established from the diverse and often heretical beliefs and practises of early Christians. I felt it my duty as a Christian to attempt to discover as much as I could about the original meaning behind the scriptures and decided to read as much as I could about all ancient and classical near-eastern belief systems. Nobody with a logical or scientific way of thinking like me could do this without losing all belief in the literal validity and veracity of any and all religious books.

Most people seem to have been whitewashed with a kind of ‘soft’ Christianity, which leaves the way open for tolerance of others’ sin, providing those are only the personal sins that do not directly interfere with the lives of others. I use the words ‘soft’ and ‘pious’ in this context so as not to be confused with moderate or fanatical, a person can be moderate and pious or pious and fanatical but not moderate and fanatical. It is really to describe the depth of the subjects religious belief rather than the strength of their opposition to those who have differing beliefs to their own. Despite the underlying racial or sexuality based bigotry inherent in almost all cultures and the subsequent loose definitions of ‘good’ or ‘just’, most people try to adhere to the pre-Christian teachings from the philosophers of the classical world:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” – Marcus Aurelius

While there is nothing wrong at all with the views expressed in the quote, indeed I believe the world would be a much better place for all of us if a lot more people thought along those lines than the ones they do, this is not a Christian worldview. The idea that one should live what the Stoics (and Aristotle before them) referred to as ‘the good life’ has been around long before it was ever written down, living in a way that benefits those you live with and around and deriving pleasure from this existence without the necessity of any higher power or authority to dictate the minutiae of everyday lives is the philosophy of the first humans to live in groups larger than immediate families. It is not compatible with any of the 3 major monotheistic/Abrahamic religions that dominate the vast majority of the world’s landmass. Understanding the truth of the quote yet referring to yourself as a Christian, Muslim or Jew is the sort of religious belief born of ignorance and apathy, a way of thinking cobbled together piecemeal over a person’s lifetime without recourse to logical analysis or critical thought.

What is not always apparent however, is the far darker side to this form of religiosity, while the individual believer may have ‘soft’ beliefs, those that harbour much stronger feelings toward their religious doctrine are to be praised for their piety. It allows for a reverence towards religious buildings, leaders and institutions far beyond that of anything secular. It allows for special status and exemptions, breeds a culture of divergence and holds up the pious and devout as examples, role models for children or paradigms of virtue to be imitated by the masses. Those holding ‘soft’ religious views think they know what is taught in the books they have little knowledge of, do not feel strong enough to follow those teachings to the letter, yet they feel an admiration for the celibate priest or the veiled woman who claims to be following the right path. It is the ignorance of so many ‘soft’ believers that offers protection to all religions, the belief that religious faith and piety is somehow special among human character traits and cannot be criticised, even when it interferes with other social norms we have established. Genital mutilation of children and the inhumane and painful killing of conscious animals is not only condoned but also a necessary part of being a member, domestic abuse and rape are routinely unreported or blamed on the victims and the image of the institution is far more important than the risk posed by known sexual predators to vulnerable children.

It is not just the perpetrators of these actions who are to blame for their continuance, it is the willful religious ignorance of the vast majority of citizens throughout the Western world that allows these despicable practises to go unchecked. This is why I believe that religious education is very important and should be taught in all schools, not just the bits that help indoctrinate children into a particular religion but all the nasty and disgusting bits of all religions. More importantly still is the context of those who originally wrote the texts and the content of the texts that didn’t make it to the final draft. Only by undermining the ‘god-given’ authority of a religious text can its content and meanings ever be tested in a productive way.

This is not about race, culture or ethnicity, all the far-right parties in Europe profess a strong Christian belief. I couldn’t care less about your genetics or if you prefer to eat with sticks rather than cutlery. Believing that your god gives you the right to commit acts of cruelty counts for nothing with me, cruelty is cruelty no matter who commits it or by what orders. ‘Just following orders’ was not a valid defence when used by Nazi concentration camp guards and whether your commanding officer is yahweh, allah, god, Hitler or Stalin means no difference to me. Allowing people who profess to be good to act in evil ways is no better than collusion.

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” – Voltaire

These are the reasons that I, as an atheist bang on about religion every day even to people who don’t want to hear it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Big Gay Bus? Or Ex-Big Gay Bus?

I woke up the radio news this morning to learn of a London bus advert that has been banned by TFL (Transport for London). If you’re in Britain you may already know about it but if you haven’t yet heard you can read the story from the bbc here. In summary, an advert from an organisation claiming to be able to ‘cure gayness’ has been banned for being offensive. This is the text (capitals intended as on the advert) that was to be printed down the side of the buses:

“NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT.”

It was meant as a response to (and copied the style of) the advert by Stonewall, the LGBT charity which, since 1st April has 1000 buses with this on the side:

“SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT.”

My initial reaction to the story was, ‘good, I can’t believe they thought it was ok to say stuff like that in public’ and I still feel like that. The sentiments behind the ad, although not explicitly printed on it, are that homosexuality is some sort of mental illness or disease that can be cured through therapy. That is what the group who put the advert forward, Core Issues Trust, promote:

“CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”

Clearly with a mission statement like that, I think we should be wary about promoting their adverts. However, there is a part of me that is uneasy with the banning of any advert merely on the basis of it being offensive to some people. It is, after all, not obscene, crude or crass. This is a topic over which two of my most strongly held beliefs, freedom of speech and freedom from prejudice, are in direct opposition with each other. That the advert is offensive and designed to be so is not in question, that it is designed to cause controversy and promote discussion is also clear. The same could also be said of the humanist ‘there probably is no god…’ bus advert from a few years ago, yet that was not banned. Should these groups be free to express their views in public forums? My ‘freedom of speech’ head tells me yes, one cannot claim to live in a free society without having to listen to opinions one thoroughly disagrees with, just as those who disagree with me should not be able to silence me for the same reasons. My ‘freedom from prejudice’ head tells me no, you cannot allow those among us who have such horrendously outdated, divisive and bigoted views to promote the concept of homosexuality as something that is to be cured, akin to drug addiction or gambling.

Is it the subject matter that’s the difference between this and the humanist advert? What if the British National Party wanted to run an ad campaign based on race? ‘Stop being so Black’ or ‘Asians should be in Asia’ ? This, I think, would attract nearly unanimous negative attention and would certainly be banned, rightly. There are fundamental differences between ethnicity, sexuality and religion. While I don’t personally believe that religion is a true ‘choice’ in the same way as a political vote, it is certainly a lot closer to choice than ethnicity, over which one has not control whatever or sexuality, where the only choice is whether or not to practise. A person can choose to learn about different religions and beliefs and may well change their views with age. Openly projected sexuality may change with age but it is normally a ‘coming out’ experience from a repressed position rather than some sort of ‘switch’. Prejudices on any grounds have no place in the public sphere but debates over the subjects of the prejudices can be welcome. It is when the subject is a matter over which one has no control, that the debates become unwanted, unwarranted and often truly offensive, this is where the metaphorical ‘line in the sand’ is drawn in many people’s minds.

I think the difference between the adverts in the news today and the humanist campaign from a few years ago is the sentiments behind them. The humanists did not openly criticise anyone in society who believed in god or attended any religious congregation, they merely pointed out their own beliefs. They did not attempt to lure people into an atheistic ‘conversion’ or even assert that one belief system was better than the other, only that you shouldn’t worry if yours doesn’t quite match up to what people expect of you. The advert by CORE, on the other hand, is directly aimed an already victimized section of society. A minority who, despite recent advances, still face prejudice and persecution from many vocal and sometimes violent members of our society.

Do I believe in free speech? Yes, of course. Do I believe in untrammelled freedom of speech? Yes, but not on the side of a public bus. I believe that I (or anyone else) should be free to say whatever I think using certain mediums, public buses are not one of them. In short, the demography of the readership and their sensibilities do need to be taken into account. Thats not to say that all public adverts and promotions should be mundane or banal but there is a balance to be found and I believe Boris has found it on this topic.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

I’d love to hear some of your comments and opinions on this as I’m not fully committed either way.

Why You Can’t Argue With God

Over the past week or so, I have taken the (not recommended) path of commenting on other people’s blogs rather than posting my own. Partly because I didn’t really have time and partly because I couldn’t think of a juicy topic to get my teeth into. This was probably a bad idea but I did learn some of the strange ideas that people who post under the ‘atheism’ tag have. I say not recommended because it can be incredibly frustrating dealing with people who have already made up their mind about your opinions without even knowing what they are. It is not so much the lack of understanding of the arguments and evidence but the refusal to accept that opinions other than their own are valid which I find so difficult. However, I was given the fuel for this post so I thought I’d share some of it with you.

The first and possibly most bizarre reaction I got was that if I, or anyone else for that matter, cared enough to comment on a post criticising it, I must think it to be correct and it was my sense of guilt from my sins that were causing me to disagree with Christian teaching rather than any actual lack of belief on my part. I wasn’t really sure how to answer this because really if you start off with that you can’t really go anywhere, anything can just be batted away with the same response. Of course it doesn’t really stand up to any logical argument, one can accuse anyone of secretly agreeing with oneself if one wants but that will never make it true, when I asked why she had posted under the ‘atheism’ tag she (unsurprisingly) didn’t answer. This kind of thinking may work for people who post on conspiracy theories about the moon landings but their suppositions are not taken seriously by anyone who has the power to implement public policy. In short, I don’t comment on conspiracy theorists pages because I don’t care whether they think that or not and their thoughts will not affect me, if one of them got elected to a position of power my view would almost certainly change. Anyway, this doesn’t alter the fact that having a strongly held opinion on a point of view is not equivalent to agreeing with it, although this may be true of some homophobes it is a bit like saying that everyone who campaigns for lower taxes secretly wants to pay more, it really doesn’t hold any water (holy or otherwise).

The next reaction I came up against was an invitation to disprove the existence of god. If you’re reading this (and of course you are), you may have read my previous post ‘There Is No Onus Of Disproof’, where I asserted what is in the title of the piece but there is more to it than that. The burden of proof is put on the believer, not for some arbitrary or ‘standard practise’ reason. That burden has to be put on the believer because it is impossible to prove the non-existence of anything, especially when the believer has chosen to describe the object of his or her belief as being in some way ‘above’ the physical world and therefore impossible to detect using not only current scientific methods but also any possible conceivable or even inconceivable scientific apparatus. We’ve come a long way since the renaissance when we realised that facts about the world needed to be found by real-world experiments and could not be deduced from purely Greek philosopher style rational reasoning, let’s not go back eh?

Now on to one of the ones I love. ‘You must believe in god and his teachings because you’re not in prison for crimes against humanity’. I love it because its one of the oldest ones in the book and is quite easy to counter. That assertion can only work if one of 2 premises is true :

  • Every person who lived before the complete version of the bible was available to them (or was never taught it in their lifetime) had no morality and consequentially they were all serial-killing maniacs or:
  • Morality was injected into the human psyche at the time of creation and has been inherent ever since despite only being written down piecemeal over a couple of thousand years.

The first point is clearly wrong because we wouldn’t have survived as a species if it had been the case, while there have clearly been many examples of them throughout history, serial killing maniacs have to be a small minority or they would be having to kill each other before long and I wouldn’t have thought they’d be too great at procreation, farming or city building. The second point is one that many evolution deniers believe to be factual, yet if it were true, the question wouldn’t need answering. If you believe that god gives you your morality and it is not learnt, how can you question why I have morals? If you believe that it is the belief in god that gives you your morality, we go back to the first point. More on this in ‘The True Origins Of Morality’ and ‘All Morality Is Relative’.

Another argument doing the rounds, although only by the more moderate sections of the believing community (I know that it’s not really a community but the word helps with the description) is the whole ex nihilo thing, that nothing comes from nothing. This could be a topic I write a separate post on later but I think I need to touch on it here. The theory goes that if the universe was created in the ‘Big Bang’, there had to have been a cause, this ’cause’ is god, a bit like Aristotle’s unmoved mover (actually a lot like, it’s a total rip-off). This makes assumptions which are not known to be true. Firstly that there was a ‘before’, time itself was created at the Big Bang so I’m not sure it makes any sense to speak of ‘before’. Secondly that all things have a cause, quantum fluctuations do not, it seems sensible to suspend judgement when we cannot know if all things must have a cause. Thirdly and I believe most importantly, why would any cause have to be conscious? The supernovae whose debris we are made of were not conscious and neither is any other creative or destructive force in the universe that we know of (other than our own), it is not a logical conclusion that any ‘first cause’ would be conscious, aware, omnipotent, just or any of the attributes humans so often attribute to god.

When all else fails, I’m usually told that I’ll find out I was wrong when I spend eternity in hell. Aside from the fact that eternity in hell would be no different from eternity in heaven ( I may explain that later), what those who say that don’t realise is that they have just stated knowledge of god’s intentions for me, showing their vanity while using his name. That’s real blasphemy.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 3

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y and part 2 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-6b

Conclusion

Despite writing mostly about the first two books of the OT in my last post, I believe that although those two have a much more mythic feel to them, the ways of reading explained previously can be use throughout the stories in the Books of the Prophets. The general ideas are that god is a real badass, you should listen to him and his messengers or there’ll be trouble such as invasion/exile/destruction. It is also made clear in earlier books that as long as you keep god onside you can pretty much do as you please with the people around you, such as genocide or other various war-crimes. Not to forget the Job story when god (omnipotent?) appears to be gambling with a divine adversary over the will-power of one of his favourites. Essentially do as god tells you without question and the rest is up to you. If one looks at the results, one tends to see that if you believe and obey, you’ll be left alone, if you believe and disobey you’ll be punished but if you don’t believe, you’ll also be left alone by god. As he is meant to be the ‘god of the Israelites’, he doesn’t care if Assyrians of Babylonians believe in him and they seem to do quite well from the worship of idols.

This changes in the NT from religion being about openly obeying laws practises and rituals to being a much more personal and interpersonal religion, how you behave in your daily life toward other people and how you feel becomes much more important than whether you eat the wrong food or work on the wrong day. It is not the word but the spirit of the law that is fundamental to religious life. This is an expected progression from a state of affairs where so many civic and religious officials were corrupt and so many people lived in grinding poverty. Making poverty and asceticism virtues in a world where the vast majority of the population had no other choice but to live in that way would always have been popular but in a world where wealth was beginning to be created by a middle class of merchants and traders unconnected to aristocracy and priesthood, this would become ever more important in maintaining social order.

Finally the points boil down to the stories in the bible being not ‘real’ in the sense of actually happening but being constructs of the scribes writing them. The moral compass given to us in those books was relevant to the time it was written and while many of the guidelines for behaviour are still applicable today, those writers could never have imagine the advances in technology and the immense changes societies around the world have undergone in the years since. Once a person accepts that the rules governing the conduct of semi-nomadic, bronze-age goat-herds have different demands from those of a settled, modern, technologically advanced, global world, one can see not so much that the ways of life described in the bible are necessarily ‘wrong’ but are incomplete due to ignorance.

The writers of those books built stories in order to explain to the masses why they should behave in certain ways rather than others. While Aesop’s Fables, the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the Bible all have clear moral messages in them, none are definitively modern and the methods used to educate children in the ways of the world are now much more complex. Merely giving examples from stories is no longer enough for the modern citizen, people now need explanations and reasons. This is where some of the messages have been lost, why most people no longer believe homophobia, racism or punishments by execution and mutilation to be positive to society. It becomes difficult to give reasons for bigotry when evidence of its necessity is requested. While I do not think that any reasonable person would sincerely advocate discarding all the messages from the bible, I also think that any sane person must allow the laws of the time to evolve with the society to which they apply.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Biblical Myths, Metaphors and Fairy Stories – Part 2

Since I became old enough to understand the differences, I have observed several distinct ways of reading the bible and interpreting the stories contained within it. This is the follow-up to part 1 : http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-5Y

I’m going to skip the rest of the Old Testament (OT) and go straight to the New Testament (NT) for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I have much more personal knowledge of it than the later books of the OT, I also think I have more relevant points to make.

New Testament 

Given that both of these posts have been about the stories in the bible rather than the laws, I will concern this post with only the first 5 books, the 4 Gospels and Acts.

Just as with the OT, there are differing ways of reading the NT.

The near universal interpretation of these books among Christians of all denominations is that not only was the biblical Jesus a historical figure but that all the miraculous stories surrounding his birth, life & death are also historical facts. Some may dispute the accuracy of the calendar (no census in the life of Herod) or the meaning or interpretation of some teachings but to call oneself a Christian means accepting as true certain aspects about Jesus’ divinity. There are minor disputes over the resurrection, (was it spiritual of physical? Was it the actual body of Jesus or just his spirit?) but if you truly believe that the Jesus represented in the early books of the NT was truly divine, all the stories attributed to him become easily believable. Despite these differences, neither fundamentalist or moderate Christians repudiate the historical authenticity of the Jesus story.

There is a modern school of thought (with which I have flirted) that disputes the existence of the historical Jesus, citing the lack of contemporary evidence available. Certainly there is little written of Jesus’ life while he was still living but this is also true of many people of the day. Few citizens had anything at all written about them, it was only wealthy patrons and military or civic leaders who had people writing about them. Poets, teachers and philosophers wrote about themselves but the lives of the vast majority of people are forever lost to history. Literacy within the Roman Empire, despite being very low by modern standards, was much higher than in later times. It would not have been hard to write important records down but given the expense of paper-like materials, the probability of those materials deteriorating without proper care and the fear of persecution for religious authorities, it is not surprising that a small religious sect would have no written records at its outset.

The length of time between the events and their recording, despite being so much less than those in the OT, was still sufficient for the writers to embellish (if they so wished) the life of Jesus to not only fit some of the early prophecies but also appear truly divine to the growing number of gentiles who were beginning to join the early Christian movement while it was still only a sect of Judaism. The factual accuracy of his birth, miracles and death should not affect the validity of his teachings but if a person is seen as an earthly incarnation of god, people are much more likely to  listen to what he has to say.

Given the importance placed in ritual cleansing running throughout Jewish laws, the idea that an earthly divinity would be saved from the physical impurity of conception by coitus is not really surprising. That he should be a child prodigy, learned before his years in the laws of his people is to be expected. As for miracles such as turning water into wine, this can easily be seen as a metaphor for his turning the inner life of a person from mundane to celebratory. Feeding the five thousand is a way of showing his ability to nourish so many people spiritually despite his humble origins. When we come to the resurrection, I believe the reason so many disciples at first despaired, doubted or didn’t even recognise before believing is because there was not true resurrection in the sense of a dead body getting up and walking around. The apostles discovered that even after the death of their teacher, his words and teachings were with them still. In this way he was made ‘immortal’ and it became their purpose to ‘spread the word’. To me, the historical Jesus was man, a teacher who had a lot to say about how people should live in relation to other people rather tha in relationship to worshipping god as had been the case with previous prophets. While these theories may seem blasphemous to many modern Christians, I see them as an inevitable consequence of reverence and a desire to spread the teachings he espoused.

Part 3  to follow soon.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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