“Put the kids in the basement Mother, there’s one of them scientist fellers at the door.”
Religion as Child Abuse
Short of saying, “The sun is shining today,” I’m not one to make scientific pronouncements. I’m too afraid that a physicist who happens to be passing by will say, “Actually, no. The sun may appear to be shining to you, but it does not shine. It gives off radiant energy in the form of heat and light. In fact using the formula (32 x 106) / (3.46 x 1016) = 9.25 x 10-10 where the area through which the sun’s radiation is pouring = 4 (pi) R2 = 3.46 x 1016 square miles only about -90.3 dB, or one billionth of the sun’s radiation reaches the earth. So ‘shining’ is not the word you want.”
Naturally you would not follow a correction like that with “Have a nice day,” let alone speculate about the chance of rain.
I was puzzling over assertions and pronouncements recently when I read that Richard Dawkins, a scientist who probably knows as much about radiation and energy as he does about biology and evolution, said that the teaching of religion amounts to child abuse.
Apparently he did not have in mind the coifed, grim-faced nuns who thwacked my hands with wooden rulers for getting math problems wrong (math being like catechism: there are only right answers and wrong answers). He was talking about religion in general and religious training of all flavors. Like other new atheists, but unlike scientists in their realm, Dawkins doesn’t think in terms of “species” of religious belief: there’s just one big cavernous genus into which everything can be piled. Religion. That makes analysis a lot easier to do, because general (from genus) statements are much easier to make than specific (from species) ones.
Dawkins can defend the use of generalization (categorization) by saying that while science needs to be specific because it deals with facts, theology (religion tarted up as an academic pursuit) is one big gasbag with no facts in it, so better to call it what it is.
I am not going to rehash the familiar cavil that Dawkins is not a theologian and thus has no right to say anything about theology.
That’s absurd. Most priests and ministers aren’t “theologians” either: they have been through three or so years of seminary and have not been fazed by serious theological study. Increasingly, they are linguistically inept, philosophically unformed and critically dumb. That doesn’t stop them from climbing into a pulpit every Sunday and sharing the air with thousands of bored listeners, eager to get their souls washed and on to a KFC extra crispy traditional special. I don’t think we should call Richard Dawkins any less of a theologian than they are. Plus, while a priest gets a paycheck for exhibiting his ignorance, Dawkins works as a theologian for free—sort of pro bono—for which he should be commended.
I also don’t buy the idea that science makes no claim on religion. Of course it does. If it didn’t we could still believe in a lot of stuff that the evolution of ideas—including scientific ideas—has proved wrong.
Religion: A Dead Horse that Won’t Lie Down?
Most religious people aren’t worried any more that Galileo was right and the Church was wrong, something it shamefacedly confessed in 1992 with a nice letter of apology from the late Pope. (Worry more about the masses of folk, religious and non-, who don’t know what the fuss was all about). My many smart, sort-of-religious friends find Darwin’s theories and modern cosmological theory completely sensible, if not compatible with Genesis. They manage to go to church (sometimes) and still use their library cards without fear of being exposed in the village square as double-dealers. They see the scientific view as the only rational explanation of how our world got here and how we got to be in it. To think this way, they have to think that much of what they read in the Bible and what they might have learned in Sunday school is mythology and legend, very little of it historical (in the modern sense of the word) and some of it, at a different level of discussion, morally reprehensible. This is not all they–or I –see: they also see poetry, tragedy, political intrigue, lessons for kings and servants, folk wisdom, flashes of brilliance, the darkness of hopeless wars and greed—and much more, some of it awful
I still need a brisk walk when I read the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 (he kills his daughter, on a promise to God) and the story of the Levite in Judges 19 (he carves his not-quite-dead girlfriend into twelve bits, after throwing her outside to be pack-raped by some love hungry teenagers, then sends a part of her to every tribe of Israel). You hardly find stuff like that anymore, even on Discovery Channel.
The freethought websites now offer handy links to these “toxic texts” so that the unaware can be made wary, the assumption (correctly) being that no one actually reads the Bible and barely knows what’s inside it. Leaving aside the fact that an unread book might not be psychologically traumatic to a non-reader, however, there’s also the fact that all ancient literature is violent. –Ever read the story of the slaying of Hector in Iliad 22? Of course you haven’t. That’s because it was probably required on your school syllabus. But unchanging human nature has always liked images of violence (including violent sex) and war, and its occurrence in religious texts from our distant past shouldn’t surprise us. That “occurrence” says very little that is shocking about religion, but it does say something about what we like. While the Greeks thought that the gods were prettier than us, both they and the Hebrews thought God was the sum total of our worst and best features, failings, and moral lapses. The idea of God’s mathematical perfection and philosophical consistency is a construction of the Middle Ages: it isn’t there in the text because if wasn’t there in life, and one thing the ancients weren’t shy about was the grittiness of human existence.
Except for some people named Ogletree down in Butte, Texas, who live in barricaded trailers and have twelve wives and eat dog because Leviticus permits it, there aren’t many people who become crazy because religion made them crazy or violent because religion made them violent. In fact, the most recent research, funded by the Lilly Foundation, shows the opposite: that religion performs a socializing function that is often missing in a purely secular or value-free environment. If the Ogletree family is crazy they were crazy already. Even their Methodist neighbors think so—not to mention the liberal Episcopalians in Houston who only read about such sideshows when they read the Ogletrees have accidentally blown themselves up while preparing a fireworks display to announce the coming of the apocalypse.
The vast majority of Christians—even “American” Christians, the ones Richard Dawkins touts as the epitome of stupid and damaged–are “message people.” They like their religion lite and attractively packaged. The most liberal of them won’t raise an eyebrow when you tell them the Bible is a collection of stories from the distant past and reflects the culture and values and wrong ideas we used to have—deficient moral ideas, bad ideas about fairness and justice and women (and men) and creation and nature. They might not blanch, either, when you say to them that God behaves like a scoundrel, a rough draft for all the petty despots (not to be confused with pretty depots) of the ancient Near East, that the Bible (and the Quran) justifies war and celebrates violence, that it reflects not the golden age of God’s people but a society we would find vomitously primitive if we had to live in it.
Most Christians either only “sort of” or do not believe that God labored for six days to make the world, that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that Jesus walked on water, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, or is coming back to earth before the warranty on the Ford pickup runs out. Oddly, many believe in God and might even believe that in some weird, undefined way (not that definitions are historically lacking) Jesus was his son or at least a player. The American polls—Pew, Gallup, Barna Group, etc.—show only that most religious people are religiously confused, not dangerous. It is why I have been arguing—for a long time—that what people need is more critical study about religion—not more physics and chemistry and exhortations about religion’s destructive potential. If the proper study of mankind is man as the poet once said, the proper study of religion is the study of religion, not biology.
Undiscovered Philosophy? Unknown Bible ‘Facts’?
But many religious folk I know are also people who wonder why, after accepting all that they accept, atheists need to evangelize on street corners or deface billboards and buses with signs that say, “Wake Up Fools: The Emperor is Stark Naked.” When I read The God Delusion I wondered (and I am not the only one) how much reading in the philosophy of religion Professor Dawkins actually did before he leapt into print with his attacks on arguments—like those of Thomas Aquinas—that philosophers have been talking about and dismantling for six hundred years. My answer to myself ranges from not very much to none at all.
The remarkable thing about The God Delusion was that it could ignore the entire history of philosophical critique and discussion, as though its author was the first to notice the weaknesses in medieval logic. The Renaissance? The Enlightenment? Pico? Bacon? Erasmus? Footnotes? Attacking 13th century thinking in the early 21st was little bit like pointing out that a windmill can’t turn without wind.
The book gained a following because many of the people who read it were as ignorant of the history of religion and theology (which is “about nothing at all”) as Dawkins himself: trained in that peculiar Oxbridge system where before he was seventeen he had to choose which subject to read at university, he is the epitome of the narrowly trained, humanities-deficient guy who thinks literature and music are just fine as long as you recognize they don’t actually teach you anything. Languages, history, philosophy, and assorted other subjects can ride in the back of the bus as long as science does the driving. Atheists had long been seeking an intellectual messiah and in Richard Dawkins they found their Jesus.
The basic fallacy of Dawkins and his cohort from the beginning was a stubborn commitment to anachronism, as though he and his atheist buddies were the first to recognize the literal contradictions, the bloody-mindedness, historical inaccuracies, textual problems, and scientific primitivism of the Bible. Dawkins’s fans (especially his ardent, religiously depressed American fans) considered him an “authority” –an innovator, even–for pointing, however vaguely and generally, to these things, and saying in exasperation (repeatedly)
“I ask you, how can any reasonably intelligent man or woman believe this shit?”
The obvious problem with that applause line, in addition to it being a false dilemma, is that reasonably intelligent men and women have been talking about that shit for centuries.
Dawkins creates his own delusion when he asks his audiences to think that a five hundred year history of historical scholarship and a two century -old history of textual scholarship—much of it done, by the way, in Oxford lecture rooms and cloisters—has never taken place, never been incorporated into the (non-existent) discipline of theology.
The questioning of biblical authority didn’t start with Dawkins, or with Darwin, or even with Galileo, and the latter two barely questioned it at all: it has its own chain of development that starts as far back as Augustine and the church fathers, and is never quiet after that.
Augustine wrote that if a Christian takes the Bible literally he should not be surprised if a non-Christian laughs. The philosopher Origen complains that the Greek anti-Christian writer Celsus had no appreciation of allegory and imagery, going as far as to say that the story of the temptation of Jesus by the devil is literally false and absurd because there is no point high enough on earth from which Jesus might have seen “all the kingdoms of the world” (Matthew 4.8)” The Christian thinkers are followed in this by Muslim writers like Averroes (ibn Rushd) who says that the ones who take the sacred text of the Quran in its literal sense should not be permitted to quote it. Last I looked, Augustine, Origen, and Averroes were still respected names in the history of theology, and Averroes also in the history of science—especially medicine, physics and astronomy, where his Arabic translations of Greek works preserved the scientific tradition for rediscovery in the west.
One of the reasons the sacred texts were locked up in inaccessible languages like Greek and Latin and classical Arabic for so long, Professor Dawkins might want to recall, is that the church and the mosque wanted to create a professional class of well-educated interpreters who would prevent the slide into emotionalism and fundamentalism that happened at the time of the Reformation, which in turn began as a movement against superstition and the supernaturalism of medieval Catholicism. Yet, writes Dawkins, “The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that theology is a subject at all?”
But they have done, and affected and meant immensely important things to the history of learning, because theology prior to the “partition” of knowledge in the post-Renaissance era encompassed almost every area of learning. Because its central questions were the big questions of God, man, and existence, there is scarcely an area where it did not affect the course of knowledge and discovery—not always for the good, but not always for the bad either. As it stands–as it looks–Dawkins’s statement goes beyond customary outrageousness to simple, self-satisfied, unexamined historical ignorance.
In fact, it is safer to say that the problem all along has not been the Bible and religion as some bugaboo or ticking bomb, but the use of the Bible as proof-text—for a favorite idea, doctrine, political theory, or social or moral position. That is occasionally still a problem—whether we’re talking about abortion or “just war” or gay marriage. But science has not solved these questions for us and the Bible did not create them: it reflects attitudes (sometimes—rarely–rules about them) that are culturally locked and loaded. Science did not destroy biblical authority: the cumulative weight of history, archaeology, linguistics, political theory, and ethical self-awareness did. Humanism (rightly defined) did.
In fact, “science” as the new atheists use the term, as an iconic form of truth, was late to the game: Wycliffe, Biddle, Miguel Servetus and Erasmus did more harm to the “claims” of Christianity before the dawn of the sixteenth century than Darwin did three hundred years later. Paine and Jefferson were harder on the idea of “revelation” than Darwin himself (and predate him). Newton never doubted “the booke,” though he didn’t derive his laws from it; and the poster boy of free-thought saints, Galileo, lay buried in the same tomb with his eldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, in Florence. The complexity of the relationship between religion (especially Christianity) and religion is not exactly infinite, but it is a lot more intricate than Professor Dawkins’s sloganeering makes it
If Dawkins wants to see religion cured, and the Ogletrees liberated from their trailer-park of superstition, he needs to get with the news that the critical and scientific study of religion is the “cure” he wants, not pep talks and rallies in which religion becomes simply the incarnation of human stupidity and religious people told to snap out of their intractable dullness .
The Bible Doesn’t Measure Up
The new atheists, to the extent that name still means anything six years on, like their religion simple and funny. The Bible preaches bad morals that come from the lying mouth of a God who, if he were one of us, would be locked away for child abuse and rape. After all, he defiles a virgin, gets another man to take the blame, arranges for his son to be killed, and threatens people with everlasting punishment if they disobey even the smallest of his rules. Remember Noah? Nice. Jesus, I was gratified to learn recently in an email from yet another atheist adept, was probably a pedophile himself. That is, if he existed. If he didn’t he was a mythical pedophile, which is even worse, because they are much harder to convict. If God is all-knowing, why did he put the prostate near the urethra? If God is all good, why can’t he give us the recipe to cure AIDS and cancer? Theologians call these little dilemmas “theodicy,” but in the hands of the new atheists they are simply idiocy, one-liners for the pep rallies and meet-ups that have become the mainstay of new atheist culture.
It’s hard to appeal for clear-headedness in this environment because the atheist faithful, like the religious faithful, have their own defenses and survival strategies. (I’ve discussed these, often and soberly, on this site: look around). They also have a messiah with a distinguished career in science, an Oxford doctorate, and a message they take as gospel.
But the problem is this: the Bible cant’ be evaluated on the basis of how it measures up to modern science, any more than the Iliad you never read, or the Mayan Calendar, or even Aristotle’s Treatise on Animal Bodies or Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius. If modern science is perpetually in a state of self-correction and development, ancient literature is not. The slack we cut it is the slack required by the distance between us and them. To an enormous extent, progress, even in the sciences, developed from the recognition that the ancient texts had it wrong—foremost the Bible. Its value to science has been “antithetical” and indirect but it has had its place. Of course we know more than the writers and tellers of biblical and Quranic stories knew; that is what makes us modern and them dead. And one of the things we know is that it is mainly myth. The question scholars ask about these texts is what do we learn about our past, early culture, the development of language, ideas, law, nature, ethics—and scientific thinking.
Not to respect antiquity is not smart; it is not bright; it is to be woefully indifferent as to how we became intelligent human beings—people like, if not quite as smart as, Richard Dawkins. The atheist error that originates in Dawkins’s anti-religion polemic is to treat the Bible as though it has intellectual standing in our own time, mistaking the fundamentalist yahoo’s limited understanding of the Bible as the totality of its relevance to human history.
The religion-fundamentalist error is that the Bible is true in our time and context. The Dawkins delusion is that the fundamentalist position can be answered as you would answer a set of propositions: P1: Jesus rose from the dead. P2 No he didn’t because people don’t rise from the dead, etc. If the conversation persists along those lines the Bible comes off as all wrong, all useless, and (because it encourages magical thinking and superstition) potentially harmful.
But the real answer—P3—will be lost in the shuffle: Jesus lived at a time when people were thought to rise from the dead. Or The story of the god of Genesis emerged at a time when the people of Mesopotamia worked in clay and fashioned figurines; that’s how Adam got his name. Serious historical investigation (which, I admit, is compromised by media sensationalism: just look at the average cable lineup) has a wonderful way of desuperstitionizing existence. Tell people the history of a thing and the miraculous and the incredible melt away: in fact, modern evolutionary studies and modern cosmologies are both histories. My original statement about the sun shining is an historical statement, because the photons that hit my eyes were created within the sun tens of thousands of years before they were emitted and (in about eight minutes) travelled to earth. People who are smart about those subjects will understand that the Bible deserves its history, and people need to learn it to learn about themselves.
And that brings me to my final point. Dawkins’s suggestion that religious “indoctrination” is abusive is another one of those sloppy, unsupported and naïve statements that is designed merely to be outrageous, so extreme that I wonder if he actually wants to be remembered for saying it. His protégé, the emotional and blusteringly self-promoting Lawrence Krauss wrote,
“If you’re introducing it (creationism or Intelligent Design) as reality, if you’re telling your kids the world is 6,000 years old, and they shouldn’t believe scientists because there is no way humans are related to other animals, and don’t believe any of that stuff you learned in school, or take you kids of out of school because they are learning something, then it is like the Taliban at some level, which is an extreme form of child abuse.”
The Taliban and creationism?—perfect fit. Of course, it doesn’t get “simpler” than this, or more wrong. Dawkins himself has been more careful, saying that religious indoctrination can be as “bad as child abuse” and that no child should be taught to accept the beliefs—Catholic, Muslim, Jewish—of his parents without being taught at the same time to question the claims made by religion.
And what claims are those? The Bible is not a collection of claims. It does not claim God made the world; it tells a creation story. It does not claim Jesus rose from the dead, it tells a few stories, none of them consistent, about a resurrection. Religion is not a collection of propositions. True, certain churches and sects systematize their teaching as dogma and doctrine, but a large number of the faithful have no idea what those doctrines are (ask a pious Christian to explain the trinity). I suspect most Roman Catholics believe that their Church’s teaching on abortion is an article of faith—maybe a core article: it isn’t; it’s merely social teaching based on a compendium of vague biblical references and ancient quotations. Sad to say, it’s the ones that almost no one believes any more that occupy the core; trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, Eucharist (the real presence), the Assumption of Mary (she went bodily upwards to heaven), original sin, sacraments, the plenary inspiration of scripture. But here too, indeed especially here, it is hard to say that the preaching of things no one quite understands or agrees with can be abusive. In most confessions, the door to the church swings both ways, although, alas, that’s not always true of the mosque.
However you frame it, religion did not develop as a set of logical conclusions. The sacred texts of the world evolved from human experience and imagination, and (as a little anthropology can show), practices whose origins are often difficult to pin down.
Now that the age of priestcraft has passed and people can read for themselves, we have to rely on the ability of a reader to judge what’s true and what’s not, what is revolting and what is beautiful—like a psalm or hymn. If Johnny can’t read and can’t think, religion isn’t the issue–and better science classes won’t help him. One of the greatest proponents of this ironically was Luther, the father of the protestant reformation, whose Treatise of the Freedom of a Christian is one of the most eloquent defenses of freedom of conscience ever written. It inspired the intellectualism and individualism of the seventeenth century and (though Luther would have regretted it) the conscientious objections to religion that characterized the age of reason.
To say the obvious, we live in a moment shaped by modernity and experience. The fundamental worldview of the modern period is scientific, even if people who live in the twenty first century are ignorant of their own basic presuppositions, even if they can’t explain relativity, or particle theory, and think Higgs Boson is a pub in Wantage. I would agree that any parent or teacher who kept Johnny from learning math and science, to the extent he can learn it, would be abusive. But the most we can do is teach him: after that he’s on his own. A great help in that process would be to teach him about religion as well as about math, science, geography and history. Why don’t the new atheists (and religious women and men) push for that—for insisting on a religious literacy that saves our children from the risk of thinking that myth and reality have the same epistemological standing.
What might help the most recalcitrantly stupid of religious people, of all sects, is not to be shouted down but to be persuaded that like everything else the existence of their faith and the sacred books they read have a history. And to teach them about that–fairly and knowledgably, not as a sequence of falsifiable “claims.” You won’t win the baptized over by calling them idiots, any more than the high school math teacher you despised got you to be a good student by telling you that you were destined to clean latrines.
Tell them God and his book have a history too. Make them learn it. It’s a process, not a war.