Saturday, June 27, 2015

Don't believe everything the sacred book says

Some people say that it is necessary to follow a sacred text so that one has a source of moral standards. A dialogue from Tom Perrotta's novel The Abstinence Teacher:

"Say what you want about the Bible, at least it takes a clear position on right and wrong."

"See, Ruth told him. "This is what bugs me. The way you people talk, it's like you're the only ones who know how to distinguish right from wrong. Just because my moral system's different from yours, that doesn't mean I don't have one. And by the way, just because something's written down in a book that's a couple of thousand years old, that doesn't necessarily mean it's right."

"It does if it's the Word of God."

"The last I heard, the Bible wasn't written by God. It was written by human beings. And you gotta admit, some of it's a little nutty."

* * *

"I'm no scholar," he admitted. "I just feel like, you know, with all the moral relativism in the world, it's good to have some absolute standards."

Whose standards – that ought to be the question. Even if we need a single book as the source of our standards, how would we know which book to pick? "It's time to stop caring what desert nomads were spooked by five thousand years ago," Toby Johnson wrote.

Maybe we could choose based on popularity. A billion people or so couldn't be wrong, could they? Well, sure they could. The world has got about 7 billion people, and Christianity and Islam each have about a billion adherents; their holy books cannot both simultaneously be literally true in their propositional truth claims about theology and morality. Besides, the popularity of these religions has changed over time and will continue to change.

Ibn Warraq wrote, "To assess the truth of a doctrine by the number of people who believe it is also totally ridiculous. The number of people who believe in Scientology is increasing yearly. Is its truth also growing year by year?

If one happens to identify a book that one likes, one could, of course, also identify what seems to be true and false within that book. Biblical literalists derisively call this "picking and choosing," but it is the same kind of discernment that we use in all other areas of life. We don't assume that people, institutions, and books are correct (or wrong) all the time. We are even capable of recognizing authorities and experts while remembering that they might sometimes be wrong. Frank Schaeffer wrote that

"They [holy books] are also, inevitably, full of mistakes. The question is what to follow and what to ignore, in the same way one ignores a village idiot but knows the value of the village where both the idiot and the rest of us all live.

Every religious and every scientific/secular tradition has a 'village idiot' or two lurking in its scriptures..."

Jennifer Wright Knust said:

"The only way that the Bible can be regarded as straightforward and simple is if no one bothers to read it. As I had already gathered as a child, the Bible is not only contradictory but complex. Biblical books take sides, they disagree with one another, they intentionally change earlier teachings, and they make irreconcilable claims about human life and the nature of God. In some cases, they promote points of view that, from a modern perspective anyway, are patently immoral."

And, when interviewed by the Boston University Alumni magazine, she gave this opinion:

[Bostonia:] Do you think people will ever stop using the Bible for their own arguments?

[Knust:] That's my dream, that people will get the idea that there's the notion of context.


Tom Perrotta. The Abstinence Teacher. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007. p. 288.

Toby Johnson, reviewing Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods by Ronald E. Long, White Crane Journal, Issue #64, Spring 2005, p 37.

Ibn Warraq. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995. p 22.

Frank Schaeffer. Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009. p. 215.

Jennifer Wright Knust. Unprotected Texts. Kindle edition. Location 216.

"Biblical Sexuality: Author Jennifer Knust on what the Bible says about Homosexuality." By Kimberly Cornuelle. Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University. Winter/Spring 2010. p. 19.

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