Religion and the Pretence of Modernity
I was watching an episode of the TV series JAG last night. I used to enjoy it, and still find some episodes that are warmly and engagingly human; but last night’s episode was one in which a General’s remarks about Islam attracted the attention of the media, and sent the General to a general court martial to answer charges of “religionism”. If racism is an attitude that adjudges the value or disvalue of people according to their race (whatever that is supposed to be), religionism may be considered judging religions by their supposed truth or falsity — when, of course, they are without exception, groundless, whether as ritual practice or as truth. Worshipping a god, after all, is pretending that there is one to worship; just as obeying a god is pretending that there are commands reliably attributed to a divine source.
Anyway, to get to the point: the JAG episode that I watched (entitled “Fighting Words”) included the whitewashing of the Islamic idea of “jihad” or “holy struggle” as a purely spiritual practice, which, whether there is a side to jihad which is indeed a purely spiritual practice or not, and whether or not, as the Colonel MacKenzie character alleges, it referred to killing unbelievers who were killing Muslims in Islam’s early years, has also been traditionally interpreted as warfare against infidels wherever they may be found. And the point is this. It is often remarked that religions have been playing catch-up with science. As science more and more brought religious beliefs into question, religions have sought areas of compatibility between science and religion, and have downplayed areas of conflict. In fact, some “historians”, like James Hannam, even go so far as to suggest that science itself is the product of Christianity. But this is not the only area in which the religious try to play catch-up. They regularly do it with regard to morality as well. As people have become more humane (a process chronicled in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature), so religion claims to find the source of this greater sensitivity in the pages of its holy books — at least insofar as they feel they can do such moral somersaults. Human rights, we will be told, are present in the words of Jesus, and in a more developed sense in medieval theology, just waiting for the opportunity to express themselves in the social revolutions of the last two or three hundred years, such as the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women (in places, at least), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other such moral advances.
However, as Hector Avalos shows in his book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, adapted extracts of which are published as an essay entitled “Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship: Reflections about Ethical Deflections.” Avalos begins, helpfully, with the point on which I have commented before, that Christians tend to find no moral flaws in Jesus, and yet, as he points out:
From a purely historical viewpoint, Jesus is a man and not a God. He should have flaws.
And of course he does. Anyone reading the gospels cannot miss them. They litter the pages of the New Testament, since the whole of it follows, somehow, from the example set by Jesus, or at least the example that his followers believed him to have set. Even Keith Ward, in a revealing claim to which I have elsewhere referred, recognises this. As he says in Ethics and Christianity:
If one grants the existence of God and the unique status of Jesus in relation to him, these characteristics of his reported life [e.g., arrogance and intolerance] become quite natural and appropriate; but to those who reject such suppositions and seek only an example of a perfectly moral but completely ordinary human being, Jesus would seem to be one of the last men on earth to qualify as an ideal. 
Whereas Avalos shows in some detail how biblical scholars pretend that Jesus never did anything wrong, Ward tries to justify what seems to be wrong by making the foundational assumption that Jesus had a unique status in relation to God. Of course, this is precisely the assumption that underlies the standard interpretation of the gospels, as Avalos shows in detail. As Avalos says, “[t]his uniformly benign picture of Jesus’ ethics is peculiar because when historians study [other historical figures like] Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, they note the good and the bad aspects of their actions.” Generally speaking, however, Jesus is pictured as perfectly good.
So the claim that Christianity as such, and the Bible in particular, played a central role in the abolition of slavery is simply false. Avalos argues that reliance on biblical ethics actually delayed the abolition of slavery, and further, that
Any credit to the Bible for ethical advances concerning freedom is usually the result of arbitrary exegesis of the Bible, reinterpretation, and the abandonment of biblical principles.
I won’t go into the details of Avalos’ argument here, but I think it is important to take note of what he says about the ethics of the practice of biblical scholarship:
… reintepretation [Avalos writes] is ultimately an unethical practice itself if one values any original authorial intent. Reinterpretation ultimately means disregarding any recoverable” original meaning. and so it is tantamount to rejection of the Bible itself.
In my own experience over the years not only did reinterpretation come to seem unethical — in part, of course, because substituting one’s own favoured understanding of morality (to go no further) in place of that of the original authors or redactors is in itself a questionable practice – but primarily because it leaves the texts to continue to distort people’s moral outlook. That is, it fails to address the real moral problems to which the texts give witness. It pretends that the texts really mean something that they do not mean. As chairperson for a time of a Human Sexuality Task Group in the Diocese of Nova Scotia, I frequently had the experience of arguing with conservatives about the meaning of texts; and whereas I wanted to read the texts as providing latitude for the recognition and acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians, my conservative opponents rightly pointed out that this is not what the texts meant. So there was a deadlock.
More serious than the deadlock was the refusal to address the texts’ obvious meaning, and reject it because the original meaning was morally unsound. A lot of religious believers accuse the new atheists of thinking of the fundamentalists as representing some sort of archetype of what religious belief looks like, when the truth is that there are religious believers who are quite prepared to read the foundational texts of their religion in a liberal fashion. People keep saying that there can be a liberal Islam. Yes, indeed there can be a liberal Islam, just as there is a liberal Christianity, but you can only come to these happy conclusions by reinterpreting and adjusting the meaning of foundational texts so that they are consistent with a more liberal view of the world and society. But this is done at the expense of the original meaning which is left in the texts to be used by the next lunatic fundamentalist who believes that these are the very words of God himself.
It is vitally important that religious belivers — especially religious believers who think of themselves as liberal and modern — recognise what they are doing. Reinterpretation leaves everything just as it was. It cannot change the plain meaning of the text, so someone is bound to come along and read it with this plain meaning, and if Christians or Muslims or Jews, etc., are bound to uphold the idea of the sacred text of the Bible, the Tanach or the Qu’ran, this plain meaning, even if the liberal does not accept the text in this sense, is till lurking in the text, and it will come to be applied in that fundamental sense by someone, with the disastrous consequences that such application has in so many parts of the world today.
Avalos quotes Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery to become a “great American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman,” as Wikipedia calls him. About the abolition of slavery, Douglass says this:
Now that slavery is no more, and the multitude are claiming the credit of its abolition, though but a score of years have passed since the same multitude were claiming an exactly opposite credit, it is difficult to realize that an abolitionist was ever an object of popular scorn and reproach in this country.
The problem should be of serious ethical concern. People read the Bible, they read about Jesus, and they imagine that they have before them a guide and an exemplar of a perfect morality — just as Muslims believe that the Qu’ran adumbrates a perfect society, though the Qu’ran is a book than which it would be hard to find one more violent — and so they can shift and change with the moral climate, and adjust the Bible’s morality to the most modern moral ideals. Yet the text itself remains untouched, and its values remain what they are, no matter how many hermeutic incarnations they have passed through, and so they remain for those who like their religion pure and unsullied, by the chopping and changing of time, to do whatever harm and atrocity lies within the uninterpreted texts to do. And those who hear in the text the moderate voice of contemporary liberalism must take moral responsibility for the horrors that lie in the texts themselves, because those horrors will be enacted somewhere and by someone, and the liberal exegete has not rejected them as morally horrible.
Religions are incredibly primitive ways of looking at the world. They are full of anthropomorphisms and the violence that was experienced by early human beings. They are full of revenge and murderous rage. They divide the world nicely into the chosen and the unchosen, the redeemed and the damned, the good (that’s us) and the bad (that’s them). And all these unreconstructed madnesses are lying there, with their latent power to separate and to destroy. If Christians and Muslims and Jews refuse to recognise this, it is essential for those, who can see these things more clearly than the religious do, to point it out to them, and to issue a warning. If you leave the texts as they are, and insist on their sanctity, you are responsible for the horrors that result from them, whether you share those fundamentalist beliefs or not, for you continue, yourselves, to preserve the holiness of these ancient texts in an age to which they do not belong, and to which they have nothing to say. Just as these texts are not textbooks of science; they ceased long ago to be a source of a reliably founded morality. It is high time to recognise that the refusal to treat these texts as stamped all over with signs of their all too human origins is a source, not only of social and global discord, but of horrors and inhumanities too many to quantify. Time to relegate the past to the past, and try to find, within the growing resources of our knowledge about human beings — their psychology, their sociality, their capacity of error, their deep and passionate desire to know and to understand, and so much else besides — a framework for a better world than religions ever knew.