While the religious fuss and fulminate, and non-believers and humanists — including this one – continue their righteous assault on religious idiocy, in the end, of course, we all have a tendency to overlook or marginalise, more often than not, the problem at the very centre of the debate: the problem of revelation. For no reason at all, other than the fact that, at some point in the religious traditions in question – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, or what-not – someone or some group of people privileged a collection of texts by deeming them a revelation from a god or gods. Holding these texts sacred, people have believed that they stand under the protection of a superhuman or supernatural realm, and that they must, therefore, punctiliously carry out the will of the being or of the truths revealed in those texts.
What else is this nonsense about Adam and Eve and the serpent all about? Where else does the question arise whether young men should blow themselves to smithereens, and take a few of their fellow humans into that dark place where, before long, all of us will follow? Where else do protests against abortion find their immovable justification? Where else the condemnation of various sexual positions and practices? Where else can we find the provenance of the conviction that any who take their lives while of sound mind cannot be buried within “consecrated” ground? Where else did the illusion arise that mere bread and wine can be turned into a sacrificial meal, and that, placed in a monstrance, the bread itself, thus transmogrified, can be used to bless and consecrate those who are minutely faithful to that revealed word? Why else should the genitals of men or women be disfigured, and where else did the myth arise that women’s bodies must be thoroughly covered against the lustful stares of men who, without such concealment, are powerless against the sexual desire stirring in their loins? Why else should a distinguished scientist abase himself before a frozen three-fold waterfall? What other reason could a bishop give for cutting off from an eternal reward those who relieved a nine-year-old girl of the burden of carrying twins in her little body? What other ground could one give for the slaughter of thousands or millions who maintain loyalty to their sacred text in defiance of the sacred words of one’s own?
In a book on the relations between Jews and Christians in the shadow of the Holocaust, an Anglican bishop, widely thought to be a liberal, says:
I would argue that it is dangerous to talk of history being a continuing source of revelation, if new revelation is meant. However, there can be no objection to thinking of history as drawing out implications which lie latent in the New Testament. [Richard Harries, After the Evil, 100]
Not wrong, notice, but dangerous! Another writer says, with no acknowledgement of the problem that lies in these simple words:
Whatever its other responsibilities may be, Christian theology cannot evade the task of biblical interpretation. It is in the biblical texts that the irreplaceable primary testimony to the God acknowledged in Christian faith is to be found. According to Christian faith, this God cannot be directly deduced from general features of the world and our human experience of it, and the effect of this is to emphasise our dependence on a highly particular stream of religious and cultural tradition … [Francis Walton, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 65; my italics]
In other words, in order to discern the “word of God” we must first advert to these words of men written thousands of years ago. In these words and in their interpretation are to be found words of God directly addressed to us for our belief and submission. On the basis of these words our lives must be planned and lived in faithfulness as though in them we are addressed by a god whose word and will must not be thwarted.
Thus, when, in today’s Telegraph, the Duke of Kent’s son says that abortion is worse than Al Qaeda, and claims that “the world doesn’t have a right to abortion,” and claims that he says this, ”not because (as that brilliant writer Philip Pullman would put it) “the Vatican” told me to. But it became visceral for me once I started thinking hard about the subject.” So, it has nothing to do with the fact that Lord Nicholas converted to Roman Catholicism and is now the Chairman of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, whose declaration is made, in part, in these words:
A. whereas the true nature of Man is that he is not an animal, but a human being made in the image and likeness of God, his creator,
B. whereas it is precisely the imago Dei that Man acknowledges within himself with such profound awe and respect to call human life sacred; and to which the moral sense testifies certain properties as being inalienable; indelible in every single human life from conception until natural death,
C. whereas these properties have come to be known in the modern, secular state as ‘fundamental human rights’,
D. whereas the most complete expression of human dignity is therefore to be found only in recognising Man’s true anthropological and existential nature, and that this recognition lies at the foundation of all that the world calls civilisation,
E. whereas in recognising Man’s rights as intrinsic to his being, and not the product of legal charters is essential to sustaining liberty in a free society, work done to promote such a view of human dignity thereby promotes the foundation of all human rights.
It was just something visceral that happened when he “started thinking hard about the subject.” Nothing at all, then, to do with the sacred words, or deductions made from those words in the form of Christian doctrine as defined by the Roman Catholic Church? This level of open and shameless dishonesty needs to be noted, it being so characteristic of the religious. Of course, it may be, as Richard Harries (retired bishop of Oxford) says, in After the Evil, that all these consequences are merely drawing out the implications latent in the original text of the New Testament, but it is hard to think that Lord Nicholas’ visceral response was not urged by the beliefs of his chosen religion and its particular predilections and preoccupations, or that it was not influenced by the European Christian Political Movement, whose Universal Declaration of Human Dignity is the founding document of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute of which he is the Chairman.
The pretence that human rights have their source in the Christian doctrine that man is created in God’s image, and that no one seemed to have noticed this until the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, but thought it quite appropriate until then that punishments for the common people should be forms of the most heinous torture and mutilation — such as burning at the stake or drawing and quartering the body – until the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly in Paris on the 17th August 1789, puts the lie to any suggestion that belief in human rights has a Christian origin.* The Imago Dei had no influence over laws in Christian jurisdictions. It made those laws no less harsh or unfeeling, and did not stop Christians from murdering their Jewish neighbours until, at long last, Christian antisemitism, deeply rooted as it is in sacred Christian texts, played itself out finally in a paroxysm of violence undreamed of even by so violent and vicious a man as St. Ambrose. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor of Catholic theology, consigned, without compunction, heretics to be cut off from the world by death. And the same church, which recognises Aquinas as the acme of Catholic thought, similarly shows no compunction when it condemns innocent women to death because of pregnancy, if abortion is the only way to save their lives. Nor does it have any mercy or compassion for those who are dying in great misery. They must die just as their god dictates, even though it is acknowledged on all hands that it would be cruel to conduct surgery without the use of anaesthetics. All this pious idiocy is derived, in the end, from sacred texts, and belief that God has revealed himself most particularly to the Roman Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation.
Of course, Muslims and Jews and other Christians, as well as Sikhs, Parsees, Jains, and Buddhists, one and all, repose with confidence in words spoken to them long ago by gods or holy men, and are willing to kill or be killed to defend the claim that gods and holy men have spoken to them in precisely these words, with precisely the shades of meaning that they give to these words as they interpret them. Words do not speak without context, and words do not speak without intonation, emphasis, characteristic turns of phrase, peculiar inflections, idiosyncratic meaning: all against the background of memory, forgetfulness and confusion, limited understanding, misunderstanding, and error. Yet the religious claim that their texts, if not free from such idiosyncracies and singularities, can be interpreted in such a manner as to deliver truths otherwise inaccessible to us. And despite the fact that there are many religions and many texts, and in face of the clearest evidence that these texts are interpreted in a bewildering kaleidoscope of ways, none of the religions seem prepared to acknowledge that it is simply not in the nature of human texts to provide unique or uniquely compelling messages from a realm beyond the human. It is not obvious that it makes sense to claim that human texts could do this. And it is certainly not the case that anyone has ever demonstrated this ability. And even had this been demonstrated, no one has shown that any sacred text is such as to achieve this end. Not only can the religions provide not one single reason — not one — for supposing that their myriad texts and interpretations come from a god or gods, the sheer multiplicity of texts and the inherent ambiguity of those texts, especially when taken from their original context and separated from their original authors, makes every claim that they speak the words of a god simple nonsense. Why is this not obvious to us, and why do we continue to talk about these texts as if it makes sense to think these idiotic things in this pathological way?
*One of the unique features of the French revolutionaries is that they denominated one punishment for all citizens, whether aristocrats or commoners, a fundamental departure from Christian practice, and devised an instrument, the guillotine, which was fast and “humane” – which, compared to the Christian and other religious practice, it was.