Our ancestors must have been amazed that they could actually write things down, and that their thoughts could be preserved in stone, on clay tablets, on sheets or scrolls of papyrus or parchment. Just think of how astonishing this must have been to the first humans who first realised that their words could live, in a sense, forever. Of course, their actual preservation would often depend on the vagaries of history, and it must soon have occurred to those first writers that they could also make sure that the words of their competitors would not live on, simply by destroying whatever they were written on. At first, though, the wonder of being able to preserve words which, until that time, could only be spoken, and were as ephemeral as the sounds which carried them, depending for their preservation on their own and others’ memories, must have been overwhelming.
No doubt, by that time, phrases and common expressions, and even stories and tales of heroism, would have come to be remembered and repeated. Perhaps the wonder of language itself led to the incantatory repetition of certain words and phrases, and language may have developed pari passu with deeper resonances of originally undifferentiated experience, where dream and reality, trance and chemically induced transformations of consciousness bled into each other in ways that improved people’s ability to cope with a new-minted world full of dangers and opportunities. When and how modern Homo sapiens became consciously language-using animals is probably hidden in the past and unrecoverable; but most of us, who have very little idea of how many of the things in daily use actually work, and why they work — think of things like computers and aircraft, skyscrapers and spacecraft, computer tomography and magnetic resonance imaging – live perpetually in a region of perplexity and wonder, may have at least some idea of how language must have appeared to our earliest language-using ancestors, and how, around ancient campfires, the mystery of living between dreamland, and altered states of consciousness, and waking, was lived out.
Think of Augustine, who was perhaps the first to realise with some amazement that one could read silently, and that sounding out the words was not something necessary to comprehension. He was amazed, as Alberto Manguel says, when he first met Ambrose of Milan, that
his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.
Apparently, until then, people read aloud. Written language was frozen speech, and frozen speech, in the absence of a speaker, seemed magical and uncanny. It is hard to think ourselves back into such a world, since ours is so replete with texts and imagery, though I think the experience of reading digital text may help us to recreate an experience similar to that of the first readers, who felt they needed to sound out the words in order to understand.
Let me try to explain. Last year, a Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel issued its report on end-of-life decision making. What I have been doing for some time now, when I download a pdf text from the web, is to transform it into Kindle or Sony Reader readable text. It’s saves on toner bills. I read the report when it first came out, and retained practically none of it. I had the same experience some time ago when I read Thomas Dixon’s Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction. Though I did a review of the book which Ophelia was kind enough to put up on Butterflies and Wheels, I said then that I had difficulty keeping the structure of the argument in mind. A few days ago, since finding the report of the Quebec National Assembly Commission on Dying with Dignity, which I printed, I printed the Royal Society Report at the same time. I was astonished to find so much that I had simply missed while reading it in an e-book format. The structure, the directionality of the argument, indeed the very logical structure of the argument of the report, came to me as something entirely new, as though I had not read it before. Digital text seems almost as ephemeral as spoken language. Which reminds me that when computers first came into common use it used to be said that we would now save on paper — an old technology! — and yet, in my experience at least, paper multiplied, because the task of writing had become so easy. In the church, at least, reports, essays, discussion documents, course materials, newsletters — all this multiplied exponentially.
Another thing happened as well, and this will bring me back to the original purpose of this post. With the digital multiplication of documents, party divisions multiplied and also solidified. In the church, every possible theological position came to extensive expression, was distributed amongst like-minded groups of people, so that there was no longer a broad central consensus, but an entire spectrum of views, each representing a point in the evolution of Christian belief, all existing now side-by-side in contemporary groups which hold their own understanding to be somehow the expression of a true or genuine Christianity, whilst all the rest are in (various degrees of) error. The very existence and accessibility of divergent texts supporting one’s own view tends to validate and confirm one’s own beliefs — or to form them as it associates those beliefs with a distinct party or subgroup. This is quite evident in online communities too, where people gravitate towards sites which reinforce their own thinking and the thinking of others who frequent the same sites, so that fairly narrow distinctions are capable of creating near orthodoxies which oppose each other in virtual space — so that, to take a simple example, when I disagree with something that Jerry Coyne says, people ask whether we have had a falling out.
And this brings me back to the idea of sacred texts. Early texts, or texts which originated in particular contexts and were reinforced by specific events of formation and transmission which gave them special salience for particular ethnic, national or racial groups, functioned like catalysts around which orthodoxies crystallised, and it is easy to see how, when writing was first discovered, something like awe must have attended the frozen speech captured within texts and those capable of interpreting them, that is, of rendering them back as spoken language. The discovery of the Book of the Law by Hilkiah during the reign of Josiah (2 Chronicles 34.14) exemplifies this sense of the awesomeness and communal power of texts. The same kind of thing is in evidence in the ”speaking in tongues” of which Paul speaks in the famous 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, where the importance of interpretation (of rendering tongues into intelligible speech), so that the church may be edified (1 Corinthians 14.5) is stressed. It is not surprising, in the light of this, that in Genesis 1 God’s creative power should be expressed in terms of the power of speech: “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light!” (1.3) Speech, and written text (speech itself captured in symbols), was awesome, powerful, creative, so early writings took on the aura of the sacred at a time when what we now call religious experience and other altered states of consciousness was not clearly distinguishable from quotidian reality.
At the time when Christianity came to birth the process of sorting experiences into veridical and imaginary or delusional was already well underway. Early Greek philosophy, while still deeply influenced by religious thought, had begun the process, and this had been further developed by Hellenistic philosophy and its offshoots in Rome. Cicero and Seneca, for instance, both of whom thought deeply on questions about the gods, and expressed a restrained scepticism regarding them, flourished shortly before Christianity began to make an impact on the thinking of the empire, an impact which, as Charles Freeman has shown, was to close the Western mind for more than a millennium. As David Lewis-Williams suggests in his book Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion:
[i]t could be argued that the foundation of Paul’s difference of opinion with the Athenian philosophers was founded on different ways of interpreting the spectrum of human consciousness: he believed that visions and dreams imparted truth and he had experienced this on the road to Damascus; the philosophers, by and large, believed that truth could be achieved only by rational thought. 
Unfortunately for human thought, Christianity won out over Greek rationalism, and the idea of the sacredness of certain forms of speech and certain written texts, which dare not be questioned, survived to infect the world today. Imagine what would have happened had Greek epistemology and scepticism been given the upper hand over the desert superstitions of Christianity and (later) Islam.
This brings me back to my title: “The Absurdity of Sacred Texts.” A few days ago I jumped on the Bible bandwagon of Why Evolution is True, and, as it chances, of Jason Rosenhouse’s Evolution Blog. In a long series of lengthy comments someone from Australia, who at first called himself “Saviourbreath” (‘Save your breath’ — get it?!), and now “Antonio” (though his real name is Anthony), has explained in sometimes tedious detail that he believes the Bible reveals God’s plan and purpose for the world. But he also believes – according
to one of his comments to Mike — rather surprisingly, that
[r]eading the Bible “through the eyes of faith” is to read it just subjectively, while holding your critical faculties at bay.
[This is actually not a quotation from "Antonio," but a criticism levelled at him by Mike (which "Antonio" then quotes). The accuracy of the criticism is not, however, in my opinion, in any doubt. I do think "Antonoio" sets reason and often the plain meaning of the text aside, yet considers his own reading to be true to the text, despite textual evidence. I do think he is confused -- something which, given his long religious quest, is not surprising -- and interprets the Bible idiosyncratically. Biblical scholarship is very complex, has not arrived at stable conclusions, and, except for some biblical scholars -- such as Gerd Ludemann, Hector Avalos, and a few others whose conclusions do not rest on faith assumptions -- is largely tied to doctrinal conclusions which are brought to the text, and are not the result of critical study.] How you can hold your critical faculties at bay and also “know” that the Bible reveals God’s plan, that is, something that, if it exists at all, must be something that can be determined in some objective sense, and therefore cannot be purely subjective, is simply beyond me! But the ways of faith have little to do with reason. Of course, I believe that “Antonio” is completely confused, and has not for a moment stopped to think what kinds of problems his holding the Bible to be sacred, and yet at the same time accessible only subjectively, has in store for him. Indeed, these problems simply multiply ad libitum as soon as you suggest that there is something sacred or holy about any particular text, for texts are, as postmodernism made painfully clear, always hermeneutically unstable, especially, as seems to be the case, when you want to base your own (subjective) understanding of the meaning and purpose of life upon them.
That’s one reason why the church tried to insulate the Bible from the possibility of lay interpretation, and why people were killed for translating the Bible from Latin, or Greek and Hebrew, as the case may be, into a language (or tongue) ”understanded of the people,” as Article 24 of the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion said of the English liturgy. After he was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Constance (1415), the bones of John Wycliffe (1320-1384), who was responsible for an early translation of the Bible into English, were exhumed and burned. While not absolutely forbidden, because of the danger of (supposedly) false interpretations due to the accessibility of the Bible to untrained lay persons, the translation of the Bible was strongly discouraged and often persecuted. While that particular horse has already left the barn, the church — a singular noun almost always used for a plural reality that – still tries its best to keep people in the corral, trying to stop them from wandering too far away from standard interpretations; but this, of course, only encourages the creation of communities of interpretation (denominations or churches), where these divergent interpretations are accepted and institutionalised. And this should long ago have ended the absurd practice of treating particular texts as vehicles of the word of God, and therefore as appropriately or even intelligibly set apart to be considered as sacred or holy. The absurdity of this arbitrary process — and, as “Antonio’s” idea that reading the Bible must be done “subjectively, while holding your critical faculties at bay” shows us, it is perfectly arbitrary — is made clear in Jerry Coyne’s latest post on the Bible, where he quotes in detail from the Jewish Times the account of the development by a group calling itself “Kosher Innovations” of Kosher bathroom tissue, which avoids the problem of working on the Sabbath involved in tearing off sheets of toilet paper. (Kosher bathroom tissue, as I recall, used to be available in Britain long ago: single sheets of wax paper textured “tissue” folded pop-up style like Kleenex.) As Jerry says, just in case the whole thing should be thought too silly to be believed: “I am not making this up.” Absurdities like this abound wherever supposedly holy texts are involved.
Should it really need to be said? There is simply no way of establishing the oft-repeated claim that a text is holy, that it contains the words or expresses the purposes or will of a god. The claim is absurd. Language, which may have struck its first users with awe, and written text, which seemed to come from and exemplify mysterious power, is simply one more product of the evolutionary process. Of course, as Dawkins has pointed out, cultural units or “memes” (as he called them — see The Selfish Gene, and also Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine), constitute a second replicator, and initiated a new evolutionary process not dependent on genetic mutation and replication. The very fact of the mutation and replication of new meanings and new configurations of meaning — “memeplexes” as Blackmore calls them — makes fixity of meaning impossible to achieve, just as there is no general fixity of species. Individuals like “Antonio” will continue the process of hermeneutic manipulation of meaning so that standard interpretations will simply wriggle off the pin and fly away. This fact makes “Antonio’s” claims for the reveletory significance of the Bible both quixotic and absurd — though no more than the Pope’s or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, no matter how sophisticatedly expressed.
There is no real Christianity or Islam or Judaism for the simple reason that cultural meaning is not fixed, cannot be fixed, and is constantly evolving. Arguably, in this process of cultural evolution, as Singer pointed out in his classic text, The Expanding Circle, as Philip Kitcher argues in his latest book, The Ethical Project, or as Steven Pinker claims in his controversial The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is a genuine history of progress and improvement that makes the morality expressed in sacred texts seem not only primitive and foreign but positively repugnant. This progress is evident, as many commentators on the Bible have pointed out (see, for example, C.H. Dodd’s The Authority of the Bible), within the supposedly sacred text itself, but this can only be evident if the text itself is not regarded as uniformly sacred, and we can only do that, as Plato showed in his Euthyphro, if we bring (external) values to the text which stand in opposition to and judgement on the text.* In other words, the text itself cannot be sacred or determinative, no matter how hard the attempt is made to keep it outside the ongoing human conversation, because, as soon as we address ourselves to it, it becomes part of that conversation, and often, as both Coyne and Rosenhouse so clearly show, part of the conversation that has long ago been superceded. The continued attempt to impose sacred texts on the contemporary conversation almost always tends to deform and destabilise the processes of rational thought by introducing claims that have no obvious contemporary relevance based on processes of thought without epistemic warrant.
*I do not want to claim that the idea of progress in morality is unproblematic. As an example of the type of problem involved we may take C.H. Dodd’s The Authority of the Bible, for he sees religion as progressive in this way, leading ultimately to Christianity, “which for the first time exhibits a religious life and religious institutions inherently universal in their scope.” (268 in the first edition, London: Nisbet & Co., 1928) How to identify progress, without importing our own local values in the attempt to identify it, is indeed, a problem not easily overcome.