Is there such a thing as “Biblical” marriage?

Rachel Ford recently published an article on the website of the “Friendly” Atheist arguing that the Bible is a morally consistent evil book presenting marriage coherently as a man possessing several wifes as objects to be used and maltreated.

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Biblical Marriage Isn’t About One Man and One Woman

Don’t fall out of your seat, but in an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson (below) had even more to say about homosexuality, premarital sex, and the Bible.

Most of it is his usual schtick of sex gives you cooties unless you’re married (presumably to a 15- or 16-year old?) and I won’t bore you with the details. What I do want to draw your attention to, however, is the blatantly false assertion he makes about what “God says” about marriage:

God says, ‘One woman, one man,’ and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s old hat, that’s that old Bible stuff,’” he said.

Robertson was kind enough to erase any doubt as to which “God” he might be referring to: naturally, the God of the Bible. And since that God doesn’t grant interviews, the Bible is our only source for what God (allegedly) said.

The problem is that the Bible never claims that God said marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

Christians often turn to the New Testament to justify that claim. Paul writes about marriage in a seemingly singular (and often decidedly disdainful) fashion, such as in 1 Corinthians 7, and Jesus refers to two people when discussing divorce in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 (which is to be expected, presuming a husband doesn’t divorce more than one wife at a time). Despite that, it’s worth noting that nowhere is a clear proscription against polygamy given — Jesus referred to — but did not “correct” — first covenant law, which clearly allowed polygamy. Corinthians — written in a time when Pagan culture had already introduced the concept of monogamy — might use singular language to describe spouses, but it doesn’t actually define marriage as being between one man and one woman. In fact, nowhere does the Bible declare, on behalf of God or anyone else, does it use that precise definition.

So Robertson gets his Bible wrong when he claims to know what “God says.” Even if he had meant to say “the Bible says” one man and one woman, he would have still been wrong.

But “wrong” is too generous. He, in fact, settles on the opposite of what the Bible tells us about marriage. The Bible is full of specific examples of marriage — some of them allegedly directly sanctioned by God — that contradict the fairytale version of marriage that Christians claim as “Biblical” nowadays.

What follows is a list of types of marriage defined in the Bible, often by God. I have purposely avoided examples or marriage in the Bible that were supposed to have ticked God off, so as not to misrepresent the joy that was true Biblical marriage:

  • Biblical marriage is a man arranging to buy a girl from her father for an agreed upon purchase price (Genesis 29:18)
  • Biblical marriage is a wife “giving” her servant to her husband as a “wife” for sex and procreation, regardless of her maid servant’s wishes (Genesis 16:2-3, Genesis 30:3, Genesis 30:9, etc.)
  • Biblical marriage is a raiding party murdering the fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters of a people but saving the young virgins because they want “wives” (i.e. women to capture and legally rape) (Judges 21:10-14)
  • Biblical marriage is a raiding party lying in wait to capture more women as “wives” (Judges 21:20-24)
  • Biblical marriage is God commanding the massacre of every male and non-virgin, and handing over the virgin women to his followers. Like the 32,000 women counted among the “spoils” in Numbers 31
  • Biblical marriage is a victim being forced to marry her rapist with no hope of divorce (but don’t worry — her father is suitably compensated in cash for the trouble, and this is only valid if the woman is not already another man’s property… so relax! No property rights are violated by this arrangement) (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
  • Biblical marriage is selling your daughter as a slave to be given to her owner or owner’s son for sexual exploitation as a “wife” (though denied even minimal protections) (Exodus 21:7-11)
  • Biblical marriage is one man taking multiple, even hundreds, of wives and concubines (see: David, Solomon, Jacob, Abraham, etc)
  • Biblical marriage is a woman as property whose own happiness is inconsequential, but whose property status is absolute (see: David and Michal)
  • Biblical marriage is for those who “cannot control themselves” and so must opt away from what is “good for them”: unmarried celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:1-9)
  • Biblical marriage is a woman marrying her dead husband’s brother (whether either party wishes it or not) so that she can have a kid in the dead husband’s name (Deuteronomy 25:5). Sometimes, it manifests as a woman seducing her former father-in-law in the guise of a prostitute in order to fulfill her God-ordained obligation (Genesis 38, Judah and Tamar). Sometimes, it manifests as a husband getting struck down by God, for refusing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38, Onan and Tamar). Even according to the Bible, it doesn’t seem to have been a very happy implementation of the institution
  • Biblical marriage is neither partner being able to refrain from sex without the consent of the other (1 Corinthians 7:4-5)

That’s what the Bible actually says about marriage. In fact, when it comes right down to it, Biblical marriage is almost always two or more men deciding between themselves what woman an individual will take as a wife — be it a father selling his daughter into sexual slavery, a husband-to-be arranging with a father an agreement suitable to both parties (irrespective of the wife-to-be’s wishes) on how to dispose of/acquire the female in question, a party of soldiers or raiders murdering a woman’s entire family in order to claim her (sometimes supposedly at the direct command of God), a rapist grabbing an unattached female and at the same time getting himself a new wife, etc.

Marriage according to the Bible isn’t love and romance and butterflies in the pit of your stomach. It’s very, very far from it. You have to wonder whether Robertson ever reads the book he holds in such high esteem.

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Fundamentalist assumptions

My answer follows.

http://theantitheistdotcom1.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/the_holy_bible1.jpg
How about this: the Bible does NOT speak with one voice but many conflicting ones?
Apparently anti-theists are utterly unable to grasp this basic result of historical critical scholarship as soon as ethical problems are addressed.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies, one of the psalmists taught us we should pray for the violent and atrocious death of their children .
No rational person can agree that both statements are consistent with each other.

The only ones who do this are Christian fundamentalists and English-speaking anti-theists, who interestingly enough most often turn out to be former fundies.

You’re light years away from a scientific study of religionS (which form an extraordinarily DIVERSE phenomenon).

What’s more I also strongly doubt it is meaningful to judge ancient texts according to our modern enlightened standards. After all, the fact that most writings of ancient Greek philosophers are full of scientific mistakes isn’t a reason to mock them, is it? So why should it be any different when morality is concerned?

Fortunately, the responses weren’t aggressive at all.

Someone retorted:

Two things. I think the anti-theists (as you call them) know that the Bible comes from many sources, but they argue as if it is one voice because Christian fundamentalists insist that the Bible is of one voice.
Second, it is Christian fundamentalists that insist that the Bible conveys immutable timeless moral laws. (I presume that some Muslims do the same with the Koran). So to pluck a Biblical moral lesson and to ask if it is still true, is to challenge the idea that the Bible provides these timeless immutable moral lessons.

To which I replied:

Thanks for your thoughtful answer, Rob.

As a progressive Christian, I also use this kind of arguments against fundies or generally Conservative Evangelicals. I certainly don’t believe that everything found in the Bible is “timeless and immutable”, although one can find such truths within its pages (like in other Wisdom Traditions).

But I find that most anti-theists present things as if showing that one book in the Bible contains wicked stuff attributed to God is sufficient for concluding that the entire Bible is hopelessly evil.
Worryingly enough, Nazi historians and scholars during the Third Reich used precisely the same tactic for showing that Judaism is irremediably wicked and egregious. They picked and chose the very worst passages in Jewish writings and interpreted them in the worst possible light.

For Reason’s sake , one has to be very careful. Going about this scientifically requires making a distinction between the incredibly diverse religious sects, movements and ideas out there and steering clear from overgeneralizations, binary thinking and prejudices.

I’d be delighted if anti-theists were to begin to act like that but they’d probably choose a new name pretty soon then 🙂

In hindsight I realize I should have directly emphasized that the authors of the old Testament itself don’t agree with each others about women and love.

I consider it extremely hard (if not impossible) to seriously argue that the author of the erotic and romantic “Song of Songs” just saw women as camels to be exploited.

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine.” Song of Songs 1:2

“Take me away with you. Let us hurry. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will be glad and rejoice in you. We will praise your love more than wine! They are right to love you.” Song of Songs 1:4“Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you graze your flock, where you rest them at noon; For why should I be as one who is veiled beside the flocks of your companions?” Song of Songs 1:7“Behold, you are beautiful, my love. Behold, you are beautiful. Your eyes are doves.” Song of Songs 1:15“Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, yes, pleasant; and our couch is verdant. “Song of Songs 1:16

“As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” Song of Songs 2:2

“He brought me to the banquet hall. His banner over me is love.” Song of Songs 2:4

“Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples; For I am faint with love. “Song of Songs 2:5

“My beloved spoke, and said to me, “Rise up, my love, my beautiful one, and come away. “Song of Songs 2:10

“The fig tree ripens her green figs. The vines are in blossom. They give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.” Song of Songs 2:13

“Behold, you are beautiful, my love. Behold, you are beautiful. Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is as a flock of goats, that descend from Mount Gilead. “Song of Songs 4:1

“You are all beautiful, my love. There is no spot in you. “Song of Songs 4:7

“How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine! The fragrance of your perfumes than all manner of spices!” Song of Songs 4:10

“I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride. I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, friends! Drink, yes, drink abundantly, beloved.” Song of Songs 5:1

“I was asleep, but my heart was awake. It is the voice of my beloved who knocks: “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, and my hair with the dampness of the night.” Song of Songs 5:2

“Let’s go early up to the vineyards. Let’s see whether the vine has budded, its blossom is open, and the pomegranates are in flower. There I will give you my love. “Song of Songs 7:12

“Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for love is strong as death. Jealousy is as cruel as Sheol. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a very flame of Yahweh. Many waters can’t quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly scorned.” Song of Songs 8:6,7

The Song of Songs: A Photographer

On studying Religion without binary thinking and overgeneralization

I was extremely frustrated as I read a report about a so-called scientific study indicating that an entity called “Religion” is allegedly incompatible with Science.

Science and religion just don’t co-exist, according to a recent study by economists at Princeton University.

“Places with higher levels of religiosity have lower rates of scientific and technical innovation, as measured by patents per capita,” said Roland Bénabou, the study’s lead author, told Mother Jones.

The researchers used an economic model to explore the relationship between scientific innovation, religious faith, and government power as they formed different “regimes.”

 

They identified a secular, European-style regime where religion had very little policy influence and science enjoyed great support; a repressive, theocratic regime where the state and religion suppress science; and an American-style regime where religion and science generally thrived.

They study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, found a strong negative relationship when they analyzed data on patents per capita and religiosity, using data from the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Values Survey, showing that more religious countries had fewer patents.

Other factors – such as wealth and education – can influence the number of patents per capita, but the researchers found the same results even after they controlled for a number of variable, such as population, foreign investment, and intellectual property protections.

Japan and China stood out as highly secular, highly innovative countries, while Portugal, Morocco, and Iran were found at the other extreme.

The authors applied a similar analysis to the 50 United States, using data from the US Patent and Trademark Office and religion questions from a 2008 Pew Survey.

Vermont and Oregon were found to be highly innovative and not very religious, while innovation lags in highly religious states such as Arkansas and Mississippi.

The authors said their findings were the same in religious states outside the Bible Belt.

The researchers said the findings were correlational, and their study didn’t allow for definite causal relationships to be drawn.

They said the causation likely went “both ways” – meaning, religion probably snuffs out innovation as science weakens religion.

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Here is my answer.

My problem with this study is that Religion (with a capital R) is an extraordinarily DIVERSE phenomenon so that such general statements about “religious” and “non-religious” lands are of really poor scientific value .

Let us consider the following worldview groups:

1) hardcore materialism
2) non-materialist atheism
3) deism
4) complete agnosticism
5) fundamentalist Christianity
6) Progressive Christianity
7) Salafism
8) liberal Islam

and so on and so forth.

What if we have the following finding: on AVERAGE religious people perform much more poorly that non-religious ones, BUT 6) and 8) perform as well as secular folks.

Now how would it sound to go to a progressive Muslim or Christian and tell him or her:

“Your worldview is an impediment to Progress!”
He answered:
“Wait, we score as well as non-religious people.”
“That does NOT count! You’re Religious and Religious people are a danger for Science!”

would that not be incredibly fallacious?

So I truly think that studies grounded on this ridiculous binary way of thinking should be taken with much more than a grain of salt.

I really call for a serious research endeavor based on a sincere willingness to comprehend our multi-faceted and extremely complex world rather than making political and ideological points.

https://i0.wp.com/therevealer.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/science-vs-religion.jpeg

(And I should add that decoupling cultural, historically contingent and purely religious factors might be much harder than the way it was presented here).

 

 

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Bullying in the name of Reason and Science

I just stumbled across a blog post from anti-theist Jerry Coyne where he took to task Lawrence Krauss for being too “moderate” (according to Coyne’s own enlightened standards).

I really think it’s a masterpiece in its own rights.

 

“Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing, is supposed to be very good; one of its points, I think, is to show that science disproves the cosmological argument for God.  In today’s Notes & Theories from the Guardian‘s science desk, Krauss has an essay called, “The faithful must learn to respect those who question their beliefs.” I suppose this stuff needed to be said, but if Krauss is calling for accommodationism, as he seems to be doing, his argument is naive.  Saying that the faithful must learn to respect those who question their beliefs is like saying, “tigers must learn to be vegetarians.”

I was a bit peeved from the opening paragraph:

Issues of personal faith can be a source of respectful debate and discussion. Since faith is often not based on evidence, however, it is hard to imagine how various deep philosophical or religious disagreements can be objectively laid to rest. As a result, skeptics like myself struggle to understand or anticipate the vehement anger that can be generated by the mere suggestion that perhaps there may be no God, or even that such a suggestion is not meant to offend.

Really? Is it really such a struggle for Krauss to anticipate and understand the anger of THE (my emphasis) faithful? I think not. And yes, some of the strategy is to offend, directly or indirectly, because one of the best ways to reveal the emptiness of faith is to mock it, and mock it hard in front of the uncommitted. That’s what P. Z. was doing when he nailed that cracker, and what I was doing when I drew a picture of Mohamed.

After citing several familiar examples of how reviled atheists are in America, Krauss concludes:

It is fascinating that lack of belief, or even mere skepticism, is met among the faithful with less respect and more distrust even than a fervent belief in a rival God. This, more than anything, leads to an inevitable and deep tension between science and religion. When such distrust enters the realm of public policy, everyone suffers.

It is fascinating, but understandable.  If someone believes in a rival God, they’re at least confessing belief in a sky-fairy—something transcendent. I can easily see why that’s far less threatening than suggesting that one’s belief in sky-fairies is unjustified and ludicrous.  For deep down, many religious people are deeply worried that they may be wrong.  If you put the basic beliefs of Catholicism in simple language, for example, as I think P. Z. Myers has (and Ben Goren on this site), they sound absolutely ridiculous. No wonder religious folks get all huffy if you suggest that they’re wrong or deluded, and why, in the end, they resort to asserting that evidence isn’t relevant at all: what’s relevant is revelation and what feels good to believe.

Krauss continues:

As a scientist, one is trained to be skeptical, which is perhaps why many scientists find it difficult to accept blindly the existence of a deity. What is unfortunate is that this skepticism is taken by many among the faithful to be an attack not only on their beliefs, but also on their values, and therefore leads to the conclusion that science itself is suspect.

The first sentence is bloody obvious.  And yes, it’s unfortunate that this situation exists, but it’s also inevitable—for religious values stem from religious beliefs. Where else would you get the idea that aborting an early-stage zygote is the same as human murder, or that it’s a sin for a man to lie with another man?

Krauss, who appears to have done a good job showing that the Universe could have arisen ex nihilo, then turns accommodationist, saying that new scientific knowledge need not drive a wedge between science and society.

As a result, the longstanding theological and philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, like many earlier such questions, is increasingly becoming a scientific question, because our notions of “something” and “nothing” have completely changed as a result of our new knowledge.

As science continues to encroach on this issue of profound human interest, it would be most unfortunate if the inherent skepticism associated with scientific progress were to drive a further wedge between science and society.

As a cosmologist, I am keenly aware of the limitations inherent in our study of the universe and its origins – limitations arising from the accidents of our birth and location in a universe whose limits may forever be beyond the reach of our experiments.

As a result, science need not be the direct enemy of faith. However, a deep tension will persist until the faithful recognise that a willingness to question even one’s most fervently held beliefs – the hallmark of science – is a trait that should be respected, not reviled.

The last paragraph seems rather naive. Unless there are mercenary considerations at issue, I’m baffled why he thinks science need not be a direct enemy of faith.  It need not be a direct enemy of only one kind of faith: deism.  As for the remaining thousands of faiths that see God as interceding in the world, yes, science must be their enemy. For religion—especially theistic religion—is based on revelation, dogma, and indoctrination, while science is based on reason, doubt, and evidence. No rapprochement is possible.

Getting the faithful to show respect for the way science works will not bring about a truce between science and religion, for lots of religious people already have that respect for science. They just don’t apply it to their own beliefs. That “deep tension” will persist not until religion respects science, but until the hokum that is religion goes away forever. (And if you think that’s not possible, look what’s happened in Europe over the last 200 years.) I wish Krauss had had the guts to say that in his essay.  But then he wouldn’t sell so many books.”

 

The hate of the New Atheists

 

I am thankful to Coyne that he showed us the true face of anti-theism. It is certainly not just about “ending religious  privilege” or “relegating religion to the private sphere”.

No, it is about WIPING OUT all religions by using vile emotional bullying and all sorts of vicious propaganda.

There was a time where I tried to patiently dialog with anti-theists and wanted to understand their stories. All I got in return were the most intolerable insults you can think of and the conclusion that I must either be a lunatic, a hopeless idiot or a liar.

 

As the Great Richard Dawkins put it:

““Mock them, ridicule them in public, don’t fall for the convention that we’re far too polite to talk about religion…Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe, which need to be substantiated.  They should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.

“I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt … I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.”

https://i0.wp.com/www.machosofty.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/130304RD-religion-shirt-_G0G5019final4.jpg

Militant atheist Richard Carrier added:

“By and large the minds of the ridiculous can’t be changed. It’s their flock we’re talking to. But even the ridiculous change under ridicule some respond by getting more ridiculous (and those are the ones who could never be swayed even by the politest methods), but others accumulate shame until they see the error of their ways (I’ve met many ex-evangelicals who have told me exactly that). Thus, ridicule converts the convertible and marginalizes the untouchable. There is no more effective strategy in a culture war.”

 

I constantly speak out for the need for a reasonable and polite dialog between moderate atheists and religious believers and am certainly willing to read challenges against theism from respectful atheistic authors.

Yet I hate being mocked and ridiculed by people towards whom I have only been friendly. This makes me angry and causes me to boycott all kinds of writings resorting to a similar strategy.

According to Carrier, the fact I did not react to emotional bullying by becoming an atheist means that I am a ridiculous and incorrigible “untouchable”.

 

I cannot help but consider Coyne, Dawkins and Carrier as anti-theistic prophets calling their followers to a holy war for getting the world rid of religious darkness once and for all.

 

The last lines of Coyne were particularly troubling. Basically his (implicit) reasoning was as follows:

1) It would be good to live in a world where creationism (and other anti-scientific beliefs) have wholly disappeared.

2) If ALL religions were to fade away, creationism would be no more.

3) Hence it is morally good to use our best types of psychological warfare to utterly destroy ALL religions.

 

Interestingly enough, French racists use exactly the same kind of reasoning:

1′) It would be good to live in a France where anti-white racism no longer exists.

2′) If ALL blacks and Arabs were driven out of the land, anti-white racism would be no more.

3′) Hence it is morally good to expel ALL blacks and Arabs from France.

 

Let us grant that both 1) and 1′) are true.

2) and 2′) are certainly technically true in both cases.

If ALL religions were to go away, there would be no longer any form of creationism, and if ALL blacks and Arabs no longer lived in France, anti-white racism would be no more.

But it should be clear that a vital fact has been entirely left out of the picture in the second racist reasoning. There are countless blacks and Arabs who are not racist against white folks and are completely respectful of French laws and customs.

It would be egregiously wrong to expel them as well for this would be a gruesome form of collective punishment.

 

Exactly the same thing can be said about Coyne’s reasoning.

There are countless moderate, progressive and even conservative religious believers who are not opposed to science and reason and who do not cause any harm to the society in which they live.

Advocating to systematically bully them out of their faith is equally egregious.

The fundamentalist mindset of the New Atheists is crystal-clear when you consider the number of times they fall prey to the cognitive distortions “binary thinking”, “overgeneralization” and “focusing on the negative”.

They all too often seem utterly unable to realize and recognize that like everything in our universe, the religious landscape of planet Earth is extremely complex and multifaceted. There is not one Islam and one Christianity but many forms of them, some of them promoting peace and tolerance, some of them fostering hatred, superstitions and (verbal or physical) violence.

 

Likewise, there are numerous kinds of atheists out there, many of them being nice and respectful people and some of them being hateful self-righteous bigots like the individuals I’ve dealt with in this post. And there are clearly forms of anti-theism preaching the use of physical violence for reaching their noble goal of annihilating all religions. This is all too obvious when one considers the persecutions of religious people by the hand of Chinese and the former Russian anti-theists in the name of making their respective countries free of religion.

 

I really think that anti-theism is a loathsome hate-group which should not be tolerated in an open society but harshly combated like all other extremisms.

In the same way hateful Christian fundamentalists are an utter embarrassment for the Master they pretend to follow, militant atheists are a shame for the very Reason and Science they profess to cherish.

 

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My criticism of militant atheism

On this page, I want to gather all materials I’ve published on anti-theism

This is meant as an index of contents and is not the appropriate place for posting any kind of comments.

In “On the difference between atheists, antitheists, Evangelicals and fundamentalists” I define what I mean by a militant atheist (or “New Atheist” or Antitheist) and think this fits rather well the way most New Atheists view themselves and are perceived by outsiders.

It is important to note that if you don’t fulfill my definition, many of my coming criticism won’t necessarily concern you.

In “The New Atheism as a hate group” I argue that the New Atheists are driven by the very same hatred which dominates the mind of political extremists.

In a more speculative post entitled “The link between religious fundamentalism and militant atheism” I argue that militant atheism is most often the legitimate child of religious fundamentalism and that many anti-theists have had terrible experiences with conservative religions in the past.

I think it is the case because (mostly American) anti-theists have kept a fundamentalistic mindset while evaluating the morality of Biblical books.

They ignore most of the time results from historical-critical scholarship and implicitly assert that if one finds atrocities at ONE page of the Bible, then the whole Bible is an evil book comparable to Mein Kampf.

Examples of this utterly irrational way of thinking can be found here:
A perfect example of ANTI-theistic irrationality
Tribalism, love and God’s shameless ploy: a response to Cyngus and Valdobiade
How to rationally criticize a religion: the origin of misogyny

In “New Atheism, Child Abuse and Deception: a Response to Tildeb”,  I responded to the claim that ALL forms of religious education are abusive for children.

“On the delusion of Crude and Lotharson: a response to Tildeb” is a further refutation of the same person.

The New Atheists constantly pick and choose their weakest adversaries and deceitfully assert that religious faith (in general) means pretending to know things you don’t know.

In “Faith, Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian“, I debunk this claim and point out that only a minority of believers hold fast to that notion.

I interviewed sociologist David Marshall on this and other false claims of militant atheists:

The truth about the New Atheism: an interview with David Marshall
I also analyzed several anti-theistic pamphlets where some of the leaders call their followers to use emotional bullying and verbal violence against ALL religious believers.

Bullying in the name of Reason and Science
Selling one’s soul to the cult of Dawkins

Finally, I want to point out there are MANY tolerant atheists out there who don’t bully all religious believers, such as the Irish Atheist: “Tolerant progressive atheists.

This list will be progressively updated as new posts come in.

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How fundamentalism hinders creativity from unfolding

fundamentalist-Bible-david-hayward

Leading progressive Evangelical theologian Peter Enns wrote an excellent post on this very topic.

 

I’m now reading for the second time in 4 months an amazing book by Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Pressfield is probably best known for being the author of  The Legend of Bagger Vance.

I’m reading the book–again–because I am having trouble breaking through the blocks to win my inner creative battle.

For me that creative battle is sitting down to write. For others it is painting, dieting, exercise, education, entrepreneurial ventures–pretty much anything you deep down want to do but, for some reason, feel blocked from doing.

Pressfield names this block, this destructive force, “Resistance,” and his explanation for what Resistance is, why we all have it, and what can be done about it is brilliantly insightful and at times snortingly HIGH-larious. The dude is funny.

For me at least, virtually every page has a quotable sentence or paragraph–beginning already in the preface written by Robert McKee, who describes his own creative paralysis: “Some years ago I was as blocked as a Calcutta sewer…” (p. ii).

I want to share with you a quote from one portion of the book that struck me in particular: “Resistance and Fundamentalism” (pp. 33-37). You have to read the whole book up to this point to catch the full impact, but even on its own, you might find this very insightful.

Pressfield, by the way, does not have Christian fundamentalism specifically in his sights (though one can hardly be blamed for making that connection). Pressfield is addressing any sort fundamentlist outlook on life, i.e., that which is hostile to the life of art/creativity.

This quote is from pp. 34-36 and I have maintained Pressfield’s paragraph divisions.

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride. Islamic fundamentalism ascends from the same landscape of despair and possesses the same tremendous and potent appeal.

What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.

It is the state of modern life.

The fundamentalists (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both of them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted.  He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil one, seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death. Is it coincidence that the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, or that they conceived of their reward as a squadron of virgin brides and the license to ravish them in the fleshpots of heaven?….

To combat the call of sin, i.e., Resistance, plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts. He loses himself in these, much as the artist does in the process of creation. The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.

 

My response follows.
Thanks Peter for having shared this wonderful quote!

Being myself a (struggling) writer, it touches me in many ways.

You’re entirely right that fundamentalism is characterized by a willingness to DESTROY one’s foe rather than trying to construct anything, it is always directed towards villains who ought to be unconditionally despised and often even hated.

It is completely true that it hinders creativity from springing up, as the infamous “Left Behind” novels illustrate all too readily.

But given the cognitive dissonance and emotional ordeal faced by Christian fundamentalists, it isn’t astounding at all they cannot genuinely create anything.

If you believe that God is going to eternally torture the large majority of human beings owing to a sinful nature they’ve never asked for, it is obvious that expressing your (God-given) creativity will occupy a pretty low position in your list of priorities.

As I once spoke with a Conservative Evangelical pastor about starting cultural activities for promoting the regional language of my homeland (Lorraine Franconian, a German dialect) he answered me at once:
“The time God granted us is limited and this isn’t going to save any additional soul!”

It cannot be denied that mainstream Conservative Evangelical beliefs have a profoundly harmful effect on our very humanity, transforming us into instrumental salvation machines .

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Now, I want to go into another type of fundamentalists, namely militant atheism who interestingly enough turns out to be mostly populated by former religious fundies.

They also divide reality into two camps (religious and non-religious) and are convinced that the most urgent priority of mankind should be to utterly wipe out religion from the face of the earth.
If you spend time looking at their websites and blogs, you’ll see striking parallels between their sub-culture and fundamentalism as described by Pressfield, i.e. the same kind of narrow-mindedness and instrumentalism.

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Jesus and political involvement

Deutsche Version: Jesus und das politische Engagement

 

Yesterday evening, I participated in an interesting inter-religious dialog about how one’s faith shapes one’s political views.

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In America, the Religious Right (mainly constituted of Conservative Evangelicals) considers that the Good is defined by an inerrant Bible they venerate (and sometimes almost worship), regardless of all empirical evidence.

I consider such an approach extremely misguided. The Bible speaks with conflicting voices on many topics, and Conservative Evangelicals have always to pick and choose which verses to take at face value, which in turns determines the set of contradictory verses whose meaning has to be distorted.

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My regular readers know that I very often criticize the New Atheists and their claim that Religion is the worst poison of the world which ought to be wholly blotted out.

I think that they too are utterly misguided and fail to recognize that the main cause of religious atrocities and evil is not a supernatural belief in and of itself BUT the concept that whatever God (or the gods) allegedly decrees is good and ought to be meticulously applied, regardless of the horrors it might involve, a point stressed by no one less the last Pope Benedict.

 

To my mind, religious atrocities would rapidly cease if all believers seriously took the thought that God is morally perfect, that is far more loving and just than the best human being who has ever lived.

 

During His earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear that all laws exist for the well-being of mankind and are not arbitrary in any way.

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“And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Mark 2:27 

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

 

This is why a Conservative Christian opposing homosexuality is not being faithful to Jesus if he just states “Homosexuality is wrong because God decided so according to His good pleasure.”

No, IF homosexuality is wrong, then it is wrong because it is harmful for the individual and society and get in the way of becoming a loving and caring person. They should provide us with empirical evidence backing this up.

 

All political decisions from a Christian standpoint should aim at promoting the well being of one’s neighbors (that is the whole mankind), alleviating their suffering and encouraging them to become loving people.

But we live in an extremely complex world and it is often pretty hard to figure out which sets of laws would really be useful and which should be avoided. People starting with different presuppositions will reach in good conscience conflicting convictions, and we should all withstand the self-righteous temptation to view them as either dumb, ill-informed, irrational or wicked, a point well developed by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser in his book “You’re Not As Crazy As I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions”.

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Becoming a new Atheist?

Jonny Scaramanga (whom I once interviewed) is a former Christian fundamentalist who left behind his faith after having realized that the “education” he had received was nothing more than a brain washing.

First of all, I want to say I really like him and his generally respectful attitude towards people not sharing his current worldview.

So I was somewhat troubled after having read his last blog post.

Some of my Christian readers like me because, they say, I am an atheist but not a New Atheist. I appreciate their support, but I think I might actually be one of those nasty Gnu Atheists. I think I should clarify my position.

I’m thinking about all this because I’ve been asked to review a book called Godbuster: Banishes all known gods. I haven’t read it yet, and I’ll reserve judgement until I have, but at first glance, I’m not sure how a book like this is going to be useful.

When I stopped being a Christian, I was not happy about it. There are a great many Christian tropes about atheists: they’re just too proud to submit to God; they’re just angry at God; they’re just too selfish to stop sinning; they hate God. None of those were true of me at the time. My heart was not “hardened against God”. I really wanted to believe. I just couldn’t.

Photo by David Shankbone. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s not the case anymore. I like the universe without God in it a lot more than I liked it when I thought there was an Almighty watching over it. I don’t think there is a God (or gods, or godesses), and I’m glad about that. The idea of worship now seems servile and unpleasant to me. But I’m happy for those who want to engage in it to do so.

 

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

I freely concede, however, that for many individual adherents faith is a net positive. Here I disagree with those atheists who think that religion is bad for everybody, and those who consider their private faith a positive thing are simply delusional. I think there are many people of faith who gain a great deal from their religion without it doing them or those around them much harm. The atheist counter-argument is that belief in God is necessarily irrational, and behaving irrationally is always harmful. I’m not so sure about this.  One of the lessons of psychology is that we pretty much all hold some irrational beliefs, and some of them do us some good. For another, I’m not sure all religious belief is irrational. The kind of religion criticised on this blog is irrational, and to the extent that religion is irrational, it must be opposed. But there are religious believers who accept the findings of science, who behave logically and rationally, and who simply think that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. I don’t accept their arguments, but that’s fine. They’re not forcing me to share their faith. Fundamentalism, of course, makes empirical, scientifically testable truth claims all the time: miracles happen; prayers are answered; the universe is <10,000 years old; a catastrophic flood ca. 4,000 years ago destroyed almost all life. These empirical falsehoods are used to bolster a belief system which does harm to its adherents and those around them. But that’s not true of all Christianity, much less all religion.

Indeed, Dawkins and Sam Harris, et al, don’t really take on these more intellectually defensible forms of Christianity in their books, partly because their arguments are much less easy to dismiss than the ludicrous claims of fundamentalists. Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

As for the latter part of the argument (that liberal religion shares beliefs with fundamentalism), well, I too share many beliefs with fundamentalists. I think that the world is round, that drinking water is a good idea, that North America is a continent, and that murder is bad. Sure, these aren’t religious beliefs, but I have significant overlap with the crazies on matters of reality, of philosophy, and even morality, and this does not make it difficult for me to part ways with them where they head off into the land of the unbelievable. The fact that the mainstream believers share some beliefs with the dangerous ones is not necessarily a problem.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists. I also think this is much more likely to succeed (especially in the short term) than getting rid of religion altogether. Asking people to reject religion wholesale is asking them to make a radical transformation in their worldview and identity. Not many people are willing to do this. On the other hand, convincing them that it’s perfectly possible to be a believer who accepts science, embraces LGBT people, and actively pursues social justice is comparatively realistic (lots of people already do it).

So why Godbuster? I suspect I’ll agree with it, because I don’t find the gods of any religion plausible. But so what? I don’t care what people think about Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or any other deity. I care that all humans have equal rights, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or geographical location. I care that we pursue policies that reduce social inequality. I care that we do everything we can to halt climate change. I care that children have the access to education that will empower them to make good, informed choices about how to live their lives. If people feel inspired to pursue these things because of their faith, that’s fine by me.

Do you disagree with this post? Good, I’m still working out my thoughts on this subject. I composed it last week, and re-reading it before posting, I find that I’m already mentally writing a counter-argument. I think I’ll add to these thoughts next time.

 

The horrors of a fundamentalist universe

 

To begin my response by something positive, I must say I admire Jonny’s humility and his acceptance of being possibly wrong.

I completely share Jonny’s indignation against Christians despising atheists and homosexuals, and this is what pushed me to write the parable of the “Good Godless Gay” where I used pretty much the same picture he showed towards the top of his post.

I agree that there are many atheists who leave Conservative Evangelical Christianity because they are basically good person and can no longer worship a being who will eternally torture billions of his creatures, for sins he himself bounded to commit, having cursed them with a sinful nature.

So I am sure that a nice and respectful atheist honorably defending his or her intellectual views is far closer to Christ than a nasty fundamentalist defending his “truth” in a heinous way.

 

Likewise, I entirely sympathize with Jonny viewing a godless universe far more optimistic and joyful than a fundamentalist universe where most humans will be eternally tortured for sins the Almighty Himself doomed them to commit.

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In another post, I explained why the cognitive dissonance faced by Conservative Evangelicals is far greater than that hardcore materialists are facing.

 

What is the “harmfulness” of religion?

 

Jonny further wrote:

Overall, I think religion is a net source of harm in the world. If religion were wiped from the planet, it would be no loss. If there are good reasons to be moral (and I think there are) then we don’t need religion to tell us what to do. There are thousands of people who find meaning in life without religion, and I do not think that’s because we are better or more intelligent than religious people. I’m confident anyone can find meaning without religion. I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

 

But what is this sentence supposed to mean? That 100% of all religions are harmful and ought to disappear? I’m sure this is certainly not what Jonny thinks about that matter. What he probably means is that the majority (perhaps more than 80%) of religious movements have (by and large) a harmful influence of society and if ALL religious were to be blotted out, the world would be a better place.

But if it WERE true, and social engineering were morally permissible, why should we not just combat the 80% harmful religions and leave the remaining 20% alone?

 

The only argument of the New Atheists is that tolerating them would inevitably lead to condone heinous fundamentalism. But Jonny himself doesn’t buy this argument:

Sam Harris comes closest, by arguing that liberal Christians don’t do enough to oppose fundamentalists, and that by sharing some beliefs with the fundamentalists, they lend some legitimacy to the harmful beliefs of the extremists. This is a pretty lousy argument. It’s true that far too many Christians and Muslims are too quiet about the extremists in their midst, but it’s not true of all of them. In an epic post called “Why young-Earth creationism needs to be killed with fire“, the Christian Fred Clark absolutely storms into the problems of fundamentalism. The best feminist blogs I read are written by Christians too.

So it would be great if Jonny and his fellow secularists (I am not employing this word in a negative sense) began to distinguish between the diverse religious movements with respect to their harm and benefits.

Perhaps the world would be better off with NO religion at all, but it would be EVEN better off with only tolerant and progressive religions preaching a compassion grounded in transcendence.

 

The grounding of morality in a purely material cosmos

 

The following sentence is particularly interesting.

I think the truth claims of religion are false, and that the benefits of religion can also be achieved without a religious framework. Religion is unnecessary.

IF we already know that there are basic moral values such as “maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain of the greatest number”, I agree we don’t necessarily need religion for achieving this, even though I believe that humanist and humanitarian religions (yes, this is not an oxymoron 🙂 ) can achieve an enormous contribution to this goal.

But why should we believe in the existence of objective moral facts identical to increasing happiness and diminishing suffering?
To paraphrase the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume, how can we derive the moral “ought” from the factual “is” without begging the question?
Of course, theism has also problems regarding the foundation of morality, such as the famous Euthyphron-Dilemma: “is rape bad because the gods disapprove of it, or do they disapprove of it because it is wrong?”.

While it would be foolish for me to try to answer this age-old problem in some sentences, I think that Reductive Materialism (RM) faces an even more formidable challenge. According to RM, everything which exists is identical to a bunch of energetic particles in interaction. But to what clusters of atoms or molecules with a precise location in space and time the moral value “It is always wrong to rape a woman.” can be identified to?

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I don’t see how you can do that without completely distorting the meaning of the moral sentence. Thus yes, you don’t need to be a theist to be a good person striving for the Good. But you can run into serious problems if you try to justify this moral goodness in an objectively mindless universe.

Even if they have their own sets of problems, worldviews such as Theism and Platonism provide us with a world where objective morality (moral laws not followed by “if…”) are much more at home than in a thoughtless clump of stuff.

 

None of my arguments are uncontroversial, of course, but they should lead the New Atheists to a much deeper intellectual humility while criticizing the opinions of their opponents.

 

Progressing religion

Finally, Jonny wrote a fantastic sentence I want to emphasize.

So while at the moment I think religion does more harm than good, I don’t think that’s a necessary truth. And, obviously, a world with no religion in it could easily be a terrible place. I think religion can be reformed so the harmful parts are removed. This is where I part ways with many New Atheists.

 

Actually, progressive Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote something very similar several years ago: religion can cause violence, injustice and oppression but it DOES not have to.

As a Christian, I certainly believe that a religion grounded on the message of Jesus can only have positive repercussions on society, if you seriously take the thought that every human being is unconditionally loved by a Heavenly Father.

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While the Religious Right is utterly obsessed by homosexuality, they completely lose of sight that it was only condemned by very few verses in the Bible, so even by presupposing Biblical inerrancy, their priorities are inexcusable.

 

Conclusion: upholding a tolerant and open society.

 

I am well aware that by having written what I did, I am going to infuriate quite a few Conservatives and liberals alike.

Yet my intention is not to provoke a heroic battle of epic proportions, but to push people in both camps to reflect more profoundly about their own assumptions and start realizing that the others are not as crazy as they thought, to paraphrase the title of a great book of progressive Evagelical theologian Randal Rauser.

Evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave us also important insights into why and how the culture war is maintained, along with its lovelessness.

It is my true hope we could all (a bit) contribute to build up a society where one’s political opponents are no longer view as loathsome foes but as people we happen to disagree with on various grounds.

I’m infinitely far from being inerrant and know all too well that many of my ideas are worthy of being criticized. But if I can only positively inspire four persons reading that, I would have achieved my goal.