The Bible is an old book, or collection of books. The writings come from thousands of years ago. Like the Qu’ran, or any number of so-called sacred texts, the words were all written by men (though Harold Bloom suggests, in his The Book of J, that the J narrative, the one written by someone who calls God ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’ shows evidence of having been written by a woman), and they wrote (as we all do, and must do) from their limited point of view. First, everything they wrote came from the single perspective of single mind — or, of course, in the case of complexes of different writings – the perspective of a number of minds, each one of which had only one perspective on the world, looked at through two eyes, walked with two legs on two feet, handled things with two hands, and so on. It’s surprising how limited the perspective of one person really is, and how given to self-deception, pride, animosity and, even within that one perspective, self-selection from amongst a number of different things that he (or she) might have seen and partly understood.
I say the Bible, whether the Jewish or Christian Bible (which are, in themselves, very different collections of writings), but the same thing applies to any number of other so-called sacred texts, like the Granth Sahib of the Sikhs, the Qu’ran of the Muslims, the Jaina Sutras of the Jains, the Zend Avesta of the Parsis (or Zoroastrians), or the Suttas or the Sutras of the Buddhists. These are human works, every single one of them, and, as Hitchens would say, it shows.
The problem is, once you have set aside a set of writings, however primitive or questionable they might be — it is said that the Qu’ran comprises a number of writings of Mohammed written down on potsherds, scraps of paper, and other bits and pieces of text, all diligently preserved, we are to understand, by the first followers of the prophet, but which were no doubt often written by others, and attributed to Mohammed, and then were no doubt highly redacted to take the form the Qu’ran has now – once you have set them apart as particularly sacred, and as themselves, as human artifacts, worthy of particular devotion and adoration, something must be done to preserve their relevance, no matter how the texts themselves have to be deformed in interpretation in order to make sense to people today, and to reflect contemporary tastes and mores. Never mind that in interpreting and reinterpreting the texts, the texts themselves fall out as not particularly important after all — like cancelling through in an equation, they simply disappear — they continue to be treated with exaggerated respect and even adoration: carried in procession, placed in tabernacles or in places of prominence, read regularly during religious liturgies, studied diligently by believers, interpreted with minute care, so that each word comes to have special significance, and its sacred meaning unfolded in weighty tomes so that we might know what God or Allah or Ahura Mazda or Mahavira really meant when the words were written down.
And then, of course, in the tradition of transmission, which at first had to be done by scribes, laboriously copying the texts so that they might be preserved for the next generation, the texts come to be marred by mistakes, additions, elisions, and other deformations due to the peculiarities of the discipline of copying texts. The scribe’s eye might pass from one line to the next but one, and continue from there, leaving a text that is, in itself, unintelligible. Or the scribe might correct what, to him, look like mistakes, and write the text that he thinks should have been there, instead of the text before him. Or he might add to the text things that, he might think, the original author simply must have known, a deficiency easily made up by adding from his own store of “memory”, which may be no more than later interpretation. Of course, I do not speak of textual criticism from deep personal knowledge and experience. I am not a textual scholar. For that one must go to people like Bart Ehrman who, because of the sanctity of certain texts, has devoted much time to pointing out how texts come to be corrupted by chance or by deliberation to produce the often mangled texts that have come down to us, full of a significance and even words that may not even have occurred to their original authors, whoever they were, and whatever authority they were thought to have by their contemporaries.
But then we come to the problem of the text for today. Fundamentalists, of course, claim to take the text as written, and to believe, accordingly, only what the Bible or the Qu’ran or some other sacred text actually says in plain words. But even that takes an effort at selection, and prescriptive ways of reading the text. So, fundamentalist Christians look at the text through New Testament eyes, which themselves depend on what the early church “fathers” (as they are called) saw, and so they can “see” in the Old Testament — which, however, old, is not an old testament to the Jews, but the complete revelation of God which needs no addition, though it may be interpreted and its meaning unfolded in writings many times as long as the original texts, in the Mishna and the Talmud, the writings of Rambam (Maimonides) and other authorities – a preparation by God for what would be revealed in the new testament, the new covenant between God and man made in Jesus of Nazareth, who is the fulfilment of that prophecy and that preparation limned in the Old Testament for all to see, when their eyes have been opened to see it by the new revelation that comes to us in Jesus, recognised now as the Christ, the Anointed One, or Messiah, of which the Old Testament is the earnest and hope.
And so we have the spectacle of many different groups, some of them sworn enemies of each other, each of them claiming to find, in the holy texts, the particular messages which they take as holy from the same texts which provide the basis for the very different messages that others receive as holy. And then some people say, with wide-eyed innocence, and an unruffled confidence, that only such-and-such groups can find in the holy texts the meanings that fundamentalists find there, and criticise non-believers for taking such groups as definitive for the religion. Biblical scholars, who spend a lifetime with the sacred texts, poring over the texts word for word, know better than fundamentalists what the texts “really” mean. The new atheists have been the targets of not a few criticisms of this sort. Sophisticated theologians, we will be told, know better, and criticising fundamentalists is like shooting fish in a barrel. Faced with the sophistications of contemporary biblical scholarship, the new atheists would have to tell another story, one that they are loath to tell because it would immediately show up their arguments as ignorant and careless.
But what would modern biblical scholarship tell us? The first thing it would tell us is that every religious denomination, whether of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or what have you, is based upon prescriptive interpretations of sacred writings. The Christian story of redemption, for instance, as recently as this year, was thrown into some doubt because of the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens, which can be shown definitively not to have descended from a single couple, the Adam and Eve of the biblical story, but most have descended from a much larger population. This being, according to some Christians, though not to others, central to the whole drama of redemption that is played out in the life, death and (supposed) resurrection of Jesus (who is called a second Adam), some interpretation of the original biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man must be provided to paper over this unseemly crack in the biblical fabric.
But this is all, it must be said with some firmness, a waste of time. Interpreting the story of Adam and Eve at the very start of the formation of the Christian myth as in some sense of fundamental importance for the very being of humanity was the mistake. Texts simply cannot bear this interpretive load. Jason Rosenhouse, over at EvolutionBlog, has a long and detailed critique of the attempt, by biblical scholars and other believers to interpret the texts regarding homosexuality in an anodyne way. It reminds me of my own attempt, many years ago, to try to show that the Bible did not condemn homosexuality, when of course it does. As the head of the Human Sexuality Task Group in the Diocese of Nova Scotia for some years I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to show – as the church’s consultant on liturgy (Paul Gibson) professes to show in his book Discerning the Word: The Bible and Homosexuality in Anglican Debate, in which he concludes that the Bible cannot be considered an absolute — that the biblical texts must be read in new cultural contexts, and that to read them as having, in their very words, an absolute authority, is to reduce Christian belief to superstition and idolatry. The only absolute is God, and nothing can be permitted to derogate from that superordinate unity of mind and purpose. This relativises everything else, so that sacred texts are, in fact, only sacred in parts, a bit like the curate’s egg. But which parts will be chosen, and how they will be chosen, is the key to what they mean, and that is provided from outside, and is then imposed on the text. But the whole complex of text plus interpretive overlay is about as transparent as mud.
However, this, as I was coming swiftly to realise — much too late in life, of course – was something that I should have seen from the start: that you simply cannot set certain texts aside and give them the kind of authority that only gods could have — if they existed, that is. But gods cannot exist for the simple reason that it would give some people a kind of authority over other people that no person should be permitted to have over another. This is what is too often missed when we talk about the interpretation of scriptures. Each interpretation pretends to have an authority that no man or woman must be given or make a claim to. That is what is so dangerous about religious political parties. Egypt went through a revolution this year, and what seems to be coming out of it is the granting of this kind of authority to a few to dictate to the many what their lives must be like. The pope arrogates to himself the same kind of authority to speak with unquestioned predominance on questions and issues that lie at the very heart of how we ought to live our lives and establish our relationships. The Roman Catholic Church calls it the magisterium, but it is all made up by human beings and their decisions to understand certain words, certain stories, certain doctrines in a particular way. And even those who claim that if we would only attend to how sophisticated readers of the Bible understand the text — a way that is so different from the much and justly ridiculed fundamentalists — we would see that all our criticisms of religion go astray, because they do not pick the strongest case to defeat, but the weakest one.
But why should we take one plausible interpretation of the Bible over another one? There are thousands of plausible interpretations. In this respect Derrida had it right, even though the deconstructionism that bore his name and carried out his programme to such great lengths as to end up — as Derrida himself often ended up — in unintelligibility. Texts are interpretable. They are patient to different readings; indeed, they insist upon it. If they weren’t, theologians would be out of a job, since their job, once done, would be done forever. Of course, in one sense, we should prefer the liberal interpretation to the fundamentalist one, since it is not so dependent on the text itself, and permits the introduction of other considerations that need to be taken seriously. But the justification for introducing these extraneous considerations does not lie in the texts they pretend to elucidate, but in our own preferences and predilections, concerns that are raised by how life is to be lived now, and cannot be dependent upon the way of life of ancient peoples.
So, for example, when we hear, as we are told today in British newspapers, that honour killings in Britain have experienced a dramatic increase, up to 47%, according to the Guardian, we recognise at once that this is a religious phenomenon:
The number of women and girls in the UK suffering violence and intimidation at the hands of their families or communities is increasing rapidly, according to figures revealing the nationwide scale of “honour” abuse for the first time.
Statistics obtained under the Freedom of Information Act about such violence – which can include threats, abduction, acid attacks, beatings, forced marriage, mutilation and murder – show that in the 12 police force areas for which comparable data was available, reports went up by 47% in just a year.
The figures, shared with the Guardian by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (Ikwro), also reveal that a small number of forces – including four in Scotland – are still not collecting data on how often such violence occurs.
The 39 police forces that gave Ikwro figures recorded 2,823 incidents in 2010. Ikwro estimates that another 500 crimes in which police were involved were committed in the 13 force areas that did not provide data.
And, lest it be said that honour killings are not a part of the Qu’ranic revelation, we should remember that honour killings and other acts of violence based upon conceptions of honour, are a product of the subordination of women in Islam to chattel status, spelled out in the Qu’ran and Sharia, and reinforced recently by the fatwa, highlighted by Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels, that gives men the right to kidnap and rape infidel women, since, once kidnapped, they no longer “belong” – ceiling cat help us! – to the infidels.
Nor should we look with unconcern at the fact that, in Britain, Muslim medical students refuse to attend lectures on evolution, because the theory of evolution contradicts the Qu’ran. They should be summarily dismissed. It is absurd that religious texts should be permitted to govern what medical students are required to learn, and shows just how dangerous it is to permit religions to be more than private idiosyncracies of some members of the population of a society. There being no basis for the truth of the Qu’ran, any more than of the Bible, should be enough to maginalise those who continue to believe that they convey truth, or provide the basis for knowledge.
Let’s not pretend. Bibles and Qu’rans and other supposedly sacred texts are products of more primitive times, and license and enable people to act in inhuman and degrading ways towards fellow human beings, as well as to flaunt their ignorance in the name of their religious beliefs, which in itself is degrading, even as they pretend to demonstrate their superiority. Nor is there any basis for preferring the love commandment to other commandments still enforced with such rigour by many Christians, commandments which make the lives of Christians and those who happen to live amongst them more miserable than they need be, for they end up being restricted by laws and customs based on Christian prejudices which no rational person would choose, if choice were given. Referring to the gentler aspects of a religion as somehow summing up the very essence of the religion itself is seriously and deliberaly (as I think) misleading — as when Islam is called a religion of peace, when Muslims are demonstrating to the world just how violent and inhuman their religion can be, because the texts used by Islam, just as the texts used by Christianity, do not only talk of peace, but of so many other things that determine how Christians or Muslims, when push comes to shove, will act. So, let’s not pretend, as so many atheist defenders of the religions do, that religion makes a positive contribution to culture — any culture. It doesn’t. Religion, as Hitchens so trenchantly showed, poisons everything. It even poisons the peace and love that it often claims to bring. And it does so, because the sacred texts to which religions are beholden for their insight into the human condition, are simply steeped in violence. Religions are born in violence and separation, and they are preserved in the same way. It is foolish to suggest that Roman Catholicism, for instance, or Sunni Islam, can provide blueprints for peaceful societies, because they are based on the presumption that they alone, amongst all the religions that populate the globe, have received a decisive and therefore absolute word from the gods they believe in, and, for that reason, simply pullulate with inescapable violence and negation.