Here is an email I received in response to one of my essays.
I hope your health is improving.
I always enjoy visiting your site, it shows such a personal flair. I hope it is preserved in history as a prime example of individual expression in these early days of the web.
I usually read your site for the useful Java stuff and have even passed it along to my Java certification study group, but I just shake my head in wonder at your religious analysis. It is obvious that you are not of a religious bent (is that an understatement? :-)
I just thought I’d share some thoughts on some of what you are saying re: the bible.
Like many an atheist essay (apparently the Canadian Atheists follow the same pattern as the American Atheists), the essay by Ray Blessin, seems to mostly based on the attack of a simplistic fundamentalist (maybe that’s redundant) biblical view, i.e. Jerry Falwell-style religion.
[The fundamentalists are the most dangerous. They are the ones so sure they are right they persecute homosexuals or try to get their brand of religion forced on everyone else by rule of law, e.g. teaching creation science in school science classes rather than anthropology classes, Christian school prayer, Ten Commandments in public buildings, no marriage for gays and Sunday closings. Unfundamentalist Christians are relatively benign. It is imperative to crack the central authority of the fundamentalists — the inerrancy of the Bible.]
The creation account in the Bible is clearly not literally true.
Why then do you then go on to write paragraphs about it?
[Because I want to weaken the authority of the fundamentalists who are lobbying for denial of civil rights to gays. Many people hold the Bible in much higher regard than it deserves because they have only read the highlights. They don’t realize just how silly it is in the bulk. It is the accumulated wisdom of 1000 years. It blinking well should contain some profundity, even if the details are dated.]
It reminds me of JTK on the comp.lang.java.programmer. He loves to criticize, bordering on making fun of, something he doesn’t like. I think the Buddha had something to say about giving up our passions, but I’m not a Buddhist.
It might be interesting, if not useful, to know that there are 5th Century Christian authors who understood the stories in non-literal ways. St Augustine knew symbolic story telling when he saw it. Thomas Aquinus also understood the difference between literal history and symbolically structured storytelling.
[In his book on Canadian eccentrics, Bill Richardson describes a guy who cut off his hand. He had been reading the Bible about plucking out your eyes if they offend you. His hand offended him because he used it for masturbation.]
I recently spoke to man who is a self-described evangelical Christian and teaches at the local bible institute (something I usually run quickly from, I don’t know about you), who said the creation story followed a structural pattern meant to be symbolic. Need I even mention contempory Episcopalian trouble-makers like Bishop Sprong (best known for blessing gay unions, but who also likes to make fun of simplistic views of prayer, which I think you would agree with).
By the way, how can you claim to be a rationalists when you apparently haven’t bothered to read the flood story. At least your numerical analysis doesn’t show that. The story includes a most glaring inconsistency. It mentions 7 of each animal, but also 2 of each animal. It is some confusing bit about clean vs. unclean, but not consistently described. It seems to be a bad edit or something.
It is (often but not always religious) biblical scholars who suggest that the simplest explanation for this is that what we have is two versions of the same story woven together. Others have suggested other explanations, but this dual-telling analysis of the text has been the common view for the last century. But you seem to either not be aware that rational scholars actually have done literary, historical and linguist analysis of such old books or you choose to create a strawman by pretending that Jerry-Falwell-like views actually are the dominant analysis either in scholastic circles, the popular press of even from the pulpit or in the pews.
[the bible] claims the earth is square and flat
I don’t know this passage can you give me a reference?
[You are aware the holy fathers persecuted Galileo Galilei for his heresy, claiming the earth was spherical and ran round the sun. You can find many references to the four corners of the earth. We continue to use this inaccurate phrase to this day. Consider Ecclesiastes’1:5 view of solar astronomy: The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down and hasteth to his place where he arose.]
"Or did human Biblical authors, in their hubris, imagine their works were of divine origin."
Is this really the only alternate possibility?
[Heavens no. Here are two others:
A rationalist might include a historical analysis that would mention that a group of people thought the book important part of their history, eventually using such exalted terms as word of god to describe their important books.
Using phrases like authors… imagine their works were of divine origin. is to ignore the known path that these various tales took through history. Are you being a rationalist when you without basis suggest that the original author was the one with the high-minded claim? It may be mostly a modern day problem of terminology.
Do you really believe that Jewish folks who where collecting these books and repeating them through history had this Jerry-Falwell-ish orientation to what these books contained?
[One of the strangest things I have ever read is about how elevators work in Israel. You are not supposed to work on the Sabbath and this would include pressing elevator buttons. Elevators do work on the Sabbath, but not reliably. When you press the button, you don’t directly summon the elevator, just increase the probability of it coming. Through some strange logic the elevator sins by doing the work, not you. This gets you off the hook with God. The Jewish idea seems to be that you debate with God and try to outwit him through sophistry. Perhaps this acts as a counter to excessive fundamentalism.]
They have in the past and continue to describe this collection as a history of their people? I see very little evidence that when they used the term word of god they meant that either every person in it was a saint or that every statement was still valid and should be taken literally. If anything the history of Judism is one of scholarship and continuous questioning. A cursory reading of history of the rabbinic tradition and things like talmud scholarship might give you a new view of the bible and religion.
[One of the things that puzzles me is why Orthodox Jews don’t behave like fundamentalist Christians interfering in other people’s lives trying to make them as miserable as possible. Their scripture gives them even more excuse.]
Maybe history is not your thing, but history is important in understanding where we got these books and what various people in history meant by the word of god, or divine inspiration or other such terms without knowing what they mean before we can dismiss apparent simple stories and exaggerated tales of kingdoms, people, struggles, journeys, visions, soap-operas etc. out of hand.
[I have no complaint with people who treat the Bible that way. My complaint is with the fundamentalists. I have to crack their inerrancy foundation. Once that is done they can’t beat me over the head with some selected Bible verse claiming it is the inerrant word of God.
Analysis of folklore and an understanding of ancient literature also seems to me to be more important than running arithmetic and biological calculations on the size of an Ark.
"There is a tall tale in the Old Testament about Noah collecting two of every species,"
The word Myth with such modifiers as cultural myth might be a better term here, for then we might tend want to consider what the moral of the story or just the significance of the story was for the original tellers, or for those who repeated the tale, those who modifed parts of the tale while re-telling, those who simply kept it in their important literature and especially those who read the tale over the centuries. Jerry Falwell only comes in at this last stage.
Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. — Isaac Asimov (born:1920-01-02 died:1992-03-06 at age:72) Russian-born American scientist and prolific writer
|recommend book⇒Asimov’s Guide to the Bible|
|birth||1920-01-02 died:1992-03-06 at age:72|
|Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock. Try looking for it with a bookfinder.|
The irony of you quoting Asimov is that one of his books Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. does a very nice job explaining the man=tribe (or group) symbolism that runs through many parts of the O.T. Maybe you should read this rationalist summary of what scholarship has revealed about these fanciful sounding stories and a bit of what the original authors maybe have been trying to capture, before going off an arithmetical tangent.
To construct various strawman arguments which seems to assume that the only and dominant way which anyone every viewed these books was as literal history doesn’t qualify as a rationalist orientation to me.
[These are not strawman arguments. A strawman argument is when you create a phony argument in favour of your opponent then demolish it. The inerrantists claim the Bible is error free. I simply pointed out the some of the most obvious examples where Bible either contains an untruth, or a passage meant to be taken metaphorically. You are making a false assumption about why I am arguing and who I am arguing with.]
The bible contains many things from hero tales, to morality tales, to dietary rules, to legal statements, to poetry and vision experiences, occasionally even calenderics and other procedural texts. The problem is to attempt to separate out what is what and not to make simplistic assumptions about all of these various books written by various people, despite the I’ll admit mean, angry and down-right silly biblical literalists that seem to enjoy broadcasting on late-night television and radio.
Thanks for reading; Peace be with you and thanks for the readings, particularly the Java references.
I have read more of your pages and gotten a better understanding of distaste for biblical justification style Christianity and your understanding of what might be involved in spirituality or religiosity.
>These are not strawman arguments.
Okay, maybe not completely straw man, but certainly containing some phony parts. I see your assumption being that every inerrantists would read many if not all of your oopsies as not being inconsistent and needing explanation. But the truth is a lot more slippery, because someone at some point has had an effect on them or their school of thought, pointing out that some historical or cultural context makes the passage make more sense and is less inconsistent than it appears at first read.
So you have created a mythical inerrantists who would take every passage in as literal a manner as to be (1) as inconsistent as possible with other passages and (2) matches some literalist somewhere, but not necessarily the same literalist.
Since I would guess that your comparison and contrast will never match any one literalist, those that are using a particular passage, for example, to persecute homosexuals, will feel that they are more rational and scholarly when they find themselves not anywhere near as silly as you characterize them.
In their case it would be a case of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
So after all of that use of oopsies we are left with Are you as literal minded as this? and most, despite what you are I might think there answer would be, answer simply: no.
>One of the things that puzzles me is why Orthodox Jews don’t behave like fundamentalist Christians interfering in other people’s lives trying to make them as miserable as possible.
Actually in Israel they have exactly this problem, but it is most often Ultra-Orthodox Jew to Jew. Maybe the lesson of Christian on Jew in years past is just too obvious to ignore and prevents a certain type of cross-religious persecution.
I’m not sure what is meant by the following:
Their scripture gives them even more excuse.
since we are talking about the same beginning scriptures, so the same scriptural passages are there for the same abuse.
Christians have verses saying the New Testament supplants the old. The Jews do not. It is mainly in the old testament where God wants nearly everyone killed for minor offenses.
I think the answer of the difference lies in the facts of history where luckily there has been a more continuous debate within Judaism such that the progression of ideas is more obvious and that the history moving from mythical tales to heroic kings to ethical ideas, to ethical discussion to so much argument, debate and discussion that the idea of unerring and sacred becomes less important. The discussion often moves to a sometimes more fruitful area where the question is whether they can justify and integrate some new idea within the context of tradition and previous analysis.
Somehow the same debate which we can find plenty of examples of within Christian history is ignored by many and maybe just less well published and studied. It seemed like the Reformation was a Good Thing™ (less power-abusing central authority, everyone can study etc. ), but it also provides every inerrantists with an excuse to ignore any historical sequence of ideas that might help us to read these old books in a more sensible light.
So can we really run with the idea you mention of:
>You have to judge a religion not on its ideals, but how it affects most of its adherents.
If we were to do that you wouldn’t be motivated to argue with the dangerous and mis-guided ones, for most christians are just working folks, peasants and poor people in Africa and Central America plus a bunch in North America and a few hold outs in Europe. All in all, like most people, a pretty nice bunch of folks on the whole. Even most of the clergy are just building local communities and do little to interfere in others lives. Most of believers don’t spend enough time to get seriously good or bad with their religion. The religious zealots do need to be addressed, but not because they have a hold of most people or a few, but because they have the hearts and minds of too many.
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