Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Broken Compass, Part I

Someone questioned my husband yesterday about his religious beliefs. Then they questioned him about mine.

Eric identifies himself as Agnostic and seems to have no real clear-cut reasons or rationale for his choice not to attach himself to a religious sect. From what I gather from our conversations, his main reason for declaring himself Agnostic is that he just cannot accept that any one religious sect can be “right”. It’s far too exclusionary for him. He continues to abide by the “live and let live” policy when dealing with religion.

When Eric related to me what he told the person who inquired as to my religious beliefs, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t there to answer for myself. I identify myself as an Atheist. I, however, have very clear-cut and specific reasons why I identify myself as such. I’m not concerned in the least that religion is exclusionary. My problem with it is that it is dangerous and that the more people who willingly and unquestionably follow prophets, popes, evangelists, etc. the greater the danger our world faces.

The person who questioned Eric asked him something that I’ve been asked before and it makes me laugh each time the question is posed: “If you don’t go to church or subscribe to any faith, what moral guide do you have by which to teach your children?”

Many people, especially “Christians”, believe they somehow have the corner market on morality or “values” because of their religious beliefs. I say with no reservation whatsoever that those people are full of shit.

Quite the opposite is true. I have read the Bible…Old & New Testament. They are in no way compasses for behavior that we today would consider “moral”. Sure, in the New Testament, Jesus attempts to throw out his father’s wrath & vengeance laced exhortations by teaching a doctrine of love and tolerance. But, take a closer look.

At several points in the New Testament, Jesus endorses the law of the Old Testament in its entirety: “For truly, I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:18-20

The apostles go right along with this sentiment. (For one example, Timothy 3:16-17) Sure, the “Golden Rule” is a lovely moral precept, but incredibly unoriginal. Long before the supposed time of Jesus, texts related almost identical teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Epictetus, Zoroaster, etc. (Many of them much more eloquent in espousing the importance of unconditional and self-transcending love…and without all of obscene violence found throughout the Bible.)

So, we’ve lightly touched upon the fact that God and Jesus are in agreement…Jesus just had a bit more of a tender touch. Now…about using their words as a guide for “values” and “morality”…

I have had Christians tell me that the Inquisition was a perversion of the “true” spirit of Christianity. Hmmm. Really? Maybe those people who joyously burned heretics alive for five centuries just couldn’t muddle through and get a clear reading of the self-contradictory teachings of the Bible. (One might rationally think that the one and only word of God would be clear enough to leave little room for interpretation. After all, one’s fate in the hereafter depends upon one’s obedience to its doctrine, no?)

I, like many people, have at least a certain amount of respect and admiration for the words and teachings of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. (A Christian) Many Christians hold him up as an example of the “goodness” their religion inspires. Interestingly, Martin Luther King, Jr. acquired his passion for non-violent protest from reading the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi. (A Hindu) He even traveled to India in the 1950’s to learn the principles of non-violent protest from the disciples of Gandhi. So Hinduism (some would even, probably rightly, credit Jainism) was the “moral” compass by which the great Christian MLKJ led his followers. Had he used the Bible as his guideline for loving his neighbor, things might have been different: “God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…” – 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9

Whoa. Repaying “with affliction those who afflict you” is not the moral code by which I teach MY children.

I’m currently reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln. As I mentioned previously in one of my blogs, I find it so interesting that the people of that time were very much the same as the people today. The issues are different now, but people’s beliefs and responses remain the same.
In the mid to late 1800’s, an internal war within the United States raged over the issue of slavery. Many Northern states either wanted to abolish it completely or at minimum, pass laws to keep it from ever moving beyond the Southern states, hoping that it would naturally come to an end on its own at some point. The Southerners who had kept slaves for years, believed it was not only Constitutional (even though the Constitution never directly addressed slavery) to own slaves, but that it was their God given right to own them. They used the Bible to support their beliefs. “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have; you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and your families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.” – Leviticus 25:44-46

Quite clearly, the Almighty Creator of the Universe expects us to keep slaves, right? In Exodus, he does clarify that we are not to beat our slaves so severely that we injure their teeth or eyes. (Exodus 21)

Had Abraham Lincoln used the Bible as his moral compass in forming social policy, who knows how long slavery would have continued? As it was, the evil that was slavery had to be killed with the point of a bayonet right alongside many a “good” Christian.

Lincoln recognized the fact that slaves were human beings like himself and that they were entitled to the Constitutional rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He understood that it was morally wrong, evil in fact, to buy and sell human beings as property, and he did not need the Bible to know it was so.

Had the Bible been the only guide used in answering that question, slavery would still exist today. “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ…” – Ephesians 6:5

And just to clarify, there is no place in the New Testament where Jesus refutes the practice of slavery.

Even many Christians who don’t agree that the Bible is to be translated literally and who believe that the stories contained within its covers should be viewed as examples or parables or whatever, typically abide by the belief that the Ten Commandments alone establish a sound moral code.

Okie dokie. Let’s look at that.

The first four commandments have nothing at all to do with providing a moral code of any sort. They merely forbid any practice of non-Judeo-Christian faith, most religious art, the uttering of phrases like, “goddammit”, and all work done on Sunday. All of these are forbidden and the penalty for doing them is death. (By the way, the Bible appears not to offer any flexibility on the obedience to the Commandments, nor the penalties for disobedience.)

Five through nine do address morality, but all of these, honoring your parents, murder, adultery, theft, lying…are found in almost every culture, religion and religious text since the beginning of recorded history. The Bible certainly didn’t offer up anything new with these concepts. Scientists have proven that “moral” emotions like repulsion to murder or cruelty precede any exposure to religious texts. Our ape cousins are more attached to their own family members and tend to be intolerant of murder and thievery. Chimpanzees demonstrate the disdain for deception and sexual betrayal. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have read the Bible.

Then there is commandment ten. The coveting of a man’s servants and livestock, etc. This is really important to chisel into stone?

To credit the Jains once again, they summed up morality and far outdid the Bible’s Ten Commandments in one sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being.” Can you imagine what our world would be like today if this were the main concept by which the masses of Christians lived their lives?! Christians around the world and throughout history have been abusing, enslaving, tormenting, oppressing, torturing and killing in the name of God. All of those acts are prohibited by the principles of Jainism. How then could you make a claim that the Bible offers the clearest moral guideline known to the world? (As if the acts of violence condoned in the Bible don’t spell that out enough for you.)

I know that you Christians have quick and ready answers and bookmarked pages in your Bibles that will directly contradict what I am saying. In doing so, you help prove my point. If two or ten or twenty or two hundred people can pick up the same book and find scriptures to support their side of a cause, then what kind of moral compass is the Bible? The same Bible that preaches loving thy neighbor also talks about an eye for an eye. The same Bible that condemns lying with another man condones selling one’s daughter into sexual slavery. I can go on and on, ad nauseam, quoting scriptures that directly contradict each other. Then of course, there are the hundreds of scriptures that condone animal sacrifice, murder, and so on.

If you believe the Bible, so be it. If you believe that your translation is the only correct one, you’re an egomaniac with a God complex. If you believe the Bible is to be taken literally, you’re a danger to yourself and others. If you believe that you can cherry pick which scriptures apply to you and which ones don’t, you’re delusional.

Please refrain from questioning me as to how I can possibly raise my children without a “moral” guide such as religion. Religion as a “moral” compass is complete rubbish. So many people who have met my children tell me how well behaved, kind and helpful they are. Strangers in restaurants have stopped me to tell me how polite and well mannered they are. Wow. Children who have been raised without the “benefit” of a “moral” compass, the children of a confirmed Atheist.
A compass with no true North, is no compass at all.


Bob said...

Good points, sweet niece. Niece? How about nephew's wife? Whatever relationship you are to me, it's one I value greatly.

You know we disagree on religion, but I hope we agree on family love.

Jain Chronicler said...

Very Interesting insight. I am a Jain and hence I believe that it is possible to be spiritual and moral as the same time be an atheist. Jainism is probably the only religion in world that does not link good behaviour with belief or fear of God. You may be interested to read these articles:

Mark said...

I love your blog Amy. I agree 100% about the 10 commandments. It is rubbish. I personally prefer the 9 satanic sins that Anton LaVey outlined:

Stupidity, Pretentiousness, Solipsism, Self-Deceit, Herd Conformity, Lack of Perspective, Forgetfulness of Past Orthodoxies, Counterproductive Pride, Lack of Aesthetics.

So the antichrist religion teaches that intelligence, honesty, humility, and beauty are the things to live for.