Good without God? Not the Problem

Reprinted from Spinoza’s Lens (2007/8) http://www.clipclip.org/clips/detail/159809/spinozas-lens-good-without-god-r-joseph-hoffmann

Being good is not the same as being ethical ,or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life.

Be a good boy, Beaver

Let me begin with two stories. The first comes from Voltaire, who is reported to have said to his mistress, Marguerite, “Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.”

Another, told by the writer Diderot in the 18th century, is about the journey of Catholic missionaries to Tahiti–a dialogue between a chief named Orou and a priest, who tries to explain the concept of sin.

Orou says that many of the things Europeans find sinful are sources of pride in his island.

He doesn’t understand the idea of adultery, since in his culture generosity and sharing are virtues. Marriage to a single man or woman is unnatural and selfish. And surely there can be nothing wrong with being naked and enjoying sexual pleasure for its own sake—otherwise, why do our bodies exist. The horrified priest delivers a long sermon on Christian beliefs, and ends by saying,

“And now that I have explained the laws of our religion, you must do everything to please God and to avoid the pains of hell.”

Orou says, “You mean, when I was ignorant of these commandments, I was innocent, but now that I know them, I am a guilty sinner who might go to hell.”

“Exactly,” the priest says.

“Then why did you tell me?” says Orou.

These stories indicate a couple of things about the relationship between religion and morality—or more precisely, the belief that God is the source of morality. The first story suggests that belief in God is “dissuasive.” By that I mean, religion is seen as a way of preventing certain kinds of actions that we would do if we believed there was no God. The kind of God religious people normally think of in this case is the Old Testament God, or the God who gives rules and expects them to be obeyed.

Not all religious people believe these rules were given by God to Moses or Muhammad directly, but most would agree that it’s a good idea, in general, not to steal, commit adultery, hate your neighbor (or envy his possessions obsessively), or kill other people.

For at least a thousand years busy theologians have tried to put these essentially negative rules into more positive form: for example, by saying that people should act out of love for each other, or love of God, and not out of fear. Most Christians would say this is the essential difference between the laws of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the New. But they are only partly right. Both books of the Bible and all of the Qur’an emphasize fear of God, judgment, and the rewards and punishments of the hereafter as goads to repentance, leading a better life, giving up your rotten ways. Even the books of the Bible that are tainted with Greek thought—like the Book of Proverbs–emphasize that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So it’s mischievous to say that fear and trembling aren’t used for moral leverage throughout the Bible.

The God of the book religions, regardless of theological attempts to transform him into a God who loves the social agendas of the twenty-first century, is not a god who would understand the phrase “unconditional love.”

Modern Christians, Jews, and the Muslims who focus on God’s compassion and mercy, are required to ignore a whole cartload of passages where God reminds people, like any ancient father (and not a few modern mothers), that his patience is wearing thin. Jeremiah 5:22 (NIV) “’Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?’” The answer is a deafening: “Yes.” Remember the flood? Remember the first born sons of the Egyptians? Remember the plagues and famines? Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? You love this God because you ignore his commandments at your peril. He has chosen you; you have not chosen him, and he can withdraw his favor whenever he wants. (As Jackie Mason used to say, “You look at Israel and you have to wonder if maybe the Samoans aren’t the chosen people”).

The theme of the oldest books of the Bible is very plain: God “loves” (more precisely, he watches out for) the ones who keep his commandments and punishes those who don’t. –A simple message that theology has had two thousand years to massage. In fact, the New Testament belongs to the history of that massaging process. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first spin doctors–re-writing the script, transforming Yahweh into a compassionate conservative.

But let’s be clear that the hero of the story is a typical Near Eastern tyrant: powerful, vengeful, jealous by his own admission, proprietary (“His is the world and all that dwells within”), and though slow to anger, fearsome when his wrath is provoked, watchful to point of being sleep-deprived (Ps 121.4). This God is not a model for progressive parenting; he’s not interested in the self-esteem of his people, has not read Dr Wayne Dyer, and will not break down weeping on Oprah! for being compulsive. The message of God the Father is, “Do this or else.”

A larger question posed by Voltaire’s little story is whether the motivation of fear is ever ethical. If you do something because there is a threat of pain and suffering if you don’t, or if you hold off doing something you would really like to do—for the same reason—are you being moral?

What Voltaire is really saying—as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud would later say—is that religion is useful for keeping certain kinds of people in line. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- century European society could be neatly divided into those who knew better and those who served the ones who did. Marx went so far as to suggest that the social deference the moneyed classes paid to religion was simply intended to convince the lower classes that religion is true—in fact, that’s exactly what Voltaire is saying: Religion is a mechanism used by the knowledgeable to keep the unknowledgeable in their place. It has social advantages—Marx’s Jewish father conveniently “converted” from Judaism to the Prussian State Church in order to go on working as a lawyer. And we all know the younger Marx’s most famous verdict on the topic: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

The young Marx

Religion functions through its dominant image of God and his punishments to make people “good” in the same sense servants, dogs and disobedient wives were made to be good in the ancient world. A later era would use the word control mechanism to describe this kind of incentive.

What’s missing from this critique, of course, is the question of whether a “religious act” can ever be a “moral act.” Clearly, belief in God (or a specific kind of God) provides behavioral incentives. As a system of control based on fear, religion keeps people from “being bad,” or at least doing things considered bad by the controller. But it does this inefficiently. Clearly it offers people an explanation for why they behave in certain ways, ranging from the “Bible tells me so” to “Papa dixit”—the pope says so. As a means of consolation, it teaches people to deal with the fear and insecurity created by oppression. But it does this at the expense of self-fulfillment, wholeness. It is the security of an abusive relationship, where comfort consists in being able to predict and manipulate eruptions of violence. In fact, to look back to the sacrificial origins of religion, this was precisely its social role. Even the story of the crucifixion, which many people believe is all about love and forgiveness, is the story of a God so angry at the sinful imperfections of humanity that he transfers his violence to his only son, who becomes the redemptive victim—the buy-back price—for sins he didn’t commit.

crucifixion

Let’s call this religious approach to behavior “Being Good.” Being good is not the same as being ethical or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life. It’s a mother wagging an imperative finger at a three year old and saying “You’d better be good.” It always involves threat and reward. Two generations ago, the image would have included threats of belts or woodsheds spankings, going to bed without dinner. I guess, unfortunately, in some places it still does. But you don’t get ethics out of this. You get obedience and submission.

What about Diderot’s story, the one about the missionary and the tribal chief? If the story from Voltaire suggests that religion is dissuasive and coercive, Diderot’s suggests another reason why religion doesn’t sit well with ethics: Religion is prescriptive, and like politics, it’s local. In 2000 years of massaging the message, it has changed because human beings, the true makers of religion, have changed their minds. Most of the biblical rules about property, goods and chattels, adultery and incest were typical throughout the Middle East; in fact, as Freud recognized, the taboos against murder and incest are the earliest form of laws in some tribal societies. But the books we call the basis of the “Judaeo-Christian-ethic” weren’t written by tribes—tribes don’t write. And the body of laws we call the Ten Commandments contain lots of rules that have been quietly put in trunks and sent to the attic.

For example, we all applaud the wisdom of the commandment that says, “Honor your father and your mother.” It has a nice ring, especially during school vacations. But Deuteronomy 21.20 says that disobedient sons should be stoned in front of the elders at the gates of the city. And Exodus 21.17 says that anyone who insults his mother and father shall be put to death.

As for adultery, which belongs to ancient property law in the Jewish system, the punishment is stoning—normally only for the woman (Deut. 22.21). In Deut. 22.28, the penalty for raping an unbetrothed virgin is a fine of 50 shekels–plus taking her on as a wife. There are laws protecting the rights of the firstborn sons of unloved wives when a man has several wives (Deut. 21.15) and even laws about how long a Jewish warrior must wait (one month) before he can have intercourse with a woman he has captured in battle (21.10). According to Leviticus 19.23, raping another man’s female slave is punishable by making an offering to the priest, who is required to forgive him. There are laws covering how long you can keep a Hebrew male–slave—6 years—but if you sell your daughter as a slave to another man she cannot be freed, unless, after the master has had sex with her, he finds her “unpleasing”—in which case she can be put up for sale (ransom) (Exodus 21. 7ff.). On it goes—throughout the books of the Torah—the Law.

Sarah, Abraham, and his concubine Hagar

The sheer ferocity of the God who gives, or rather shouts these commandments to his chosen people is distant from our time. The voice is unfamiliar: Failure to do what he says results in terror: In fact, that’s the very word he uses: “I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease, recurring fever, plagues that will blind you….those that hate you will hound you until there is no place to run; I will multiply your calamities seven times more than your sins deserve. … I will send wild beasts among you and they will tear your children from you. … If you defy me , I will scourge you seven times over. …I will send pestilence …cut short your daily bread, until ten women can bake your bread in a single oven. … I will punish you seven times over. … Instead of meat, you shall eat your sons and your daughters.” Don’t take my word for it: read Leviticus 26. It has literary flair.

Cronus Devouring His Children (Goya)

The God of the Old Testament is a three dimensional figure—far bigger than Zeus and twice as officious. (Perhaps Zeus was able to give freer rein to his sexual appetites, whereas Yahweh limits himself to one Galilean virgin?) And look though you may, you will not find these laws “repealed” in later books, at least not in the way modern laws can be amended and repealed. But it’s absolutely certain that anyone who tried to obey these laws in twentieth century Europe or America would be slapped into jail, and the defense “The Bible told me so” would not be an adequate explanation for what we routinely call “inhumane acts.” –Try posting these commandments above the blackboard in your neighborhood school or the court house wall above the judge’s bench.

One way of charting the so-called progress of western civilization is to trace how human values eventually triumph over the ferocity of religious law. The kind of morality that Diderot’s priest represents, like the morality of the Bible, and even the reductionist versions of biblical and Quranic teaching that modern religious denominations espouse, is not ethics. It is not ethics because ethics can’t be grounded in what I’m going to call “prescriptive dissuasion.

If you say to me, “Well: no one believes these things any more,” then I say “Good for us for not believing. Then time to stop letting the Bible be the source of moral authority when the conduct of its hero is not up to our standards of civil behavior.”

If you say, “There is great wisdom and poetry in scripture,” then I say “Please then, let’s treat it like other great books that express ideas, customs, and values that have no authority over how we lead our lives.” I have no quarrel with those who want to appreciate the Bible as a product of its own time and culture—with all the conditions that attach to appreciation of that kind. My quarrel is with people who want to make it a document for our time and culture.

And I suppose my quarrel extends to people who consider themselves experts, when what they are really expert in is reading around, into, or past the text. Liberal theologians are immensely gifted at reinventing the God of the Bible in the light of modern social concerns. But the project is a literary–not an ethical one. At another extreme, which is really a false opposite, are the fundamentalists who claim to defend the literal truth of the Bible while ignoring two-thirds of the text and focusing on the convenient “literal” truth of bits and pieces.

Can the Bible make you good? If you accept the framework, beginning with Adam and Eve, and the creation of a race doomed to be perpetually three years-old and scolded into obedience, I suppose it can. Would you want to be good without the Bible: No, because even without the dominance of a sacred text, “goodness” stems from authority rather than conscience and reflection: good dog, good wife, good Nazi, good Jew.

Reduced to basic form, the temptation in the Garden of Eden is a story about a cookie jar and a sly, accusing mother. But it takes more than avoiding mousetraps for a choice to be moral or an action to be ethical. A moral act is one in which you can entertain doubt freely, where a person confronts human choices and human consequences, personal and social.

To be fair: the Bible and its cousins are important records of those human choices and their social consequences, coming from an age which is no longer relevant to us. To make it a book for our time is an abuse of the book and a misunderstanding of its importance. More depressingly for some, perhaps, there will probably be no book to replace it. Not even one by a secular humanist. But there will be wisdom, and reason and choice-making, and that will make us humanly better, perhaps even virtuous. Pray that nothing–no power or text on heaven or earth–will arise to make us “good.”

Of Pharisaic Humanism

caiphasI’d like to coin a phrase: Pharisaic Humanism. The phrase describes what I think is the tragic flaw of so-called “secular humanism.”

Humanism has never been one thing. Renaissance humanism was a bundle of things, unified mainly by a principle we all learned (or were supposed to) for that literature exam back in college: it shifted the focus from giving God the glory to giving man his due–an adequate summary of what the never-much-read essay by Pico della Mirandola was doing in the first humanist manifesto, his Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Mind you, Renaissance humanism was not about subtracting from God’s glory. It simply saw humanity as his crowning achievement, endowed with beauty, intelligence, creative power and free will rather than some pitiful mob of sinners begging for mercy and salvation.

But it’s a short step from that to Newtonian Physics and Hume’s philosophy and a sequence of movements that put God and religion on the defensive, as if the creature had at last learned to stand on his own two feet, think for himself, and was ready to make his own way in the world without papa’s rules.

In the Enlightenment, without much flourish, it was permissible for God to die. Maybe that’s why the era produced the most poignant Requiem Mass ever written–Mozart’s–because its real sadness springs from the loss of the hero of western religion. If you have never wept at its Dies Irae, you have never wept for the right thing.

Arising out of this new self-confidence were new theories of government and social order, including America’s secular democracy. Kings were uncrowned. Revolutions were fought. Money under new theories of wealth became popular: greed was transformed into investment and venture, and the virtue of poverty was laid aside as a lingering superstition of the Middle Ages, like the Eucharist and biblical miracles.

These secular and rationalist movements were not the essence of humanist thinking—and the term was, as far as I can tell, almost never used to describe them. But without a doubt they were consequences of what had taken shape in the sixteenth century, across Europe. The eighteenth century, which both Kant and Diderot called “enlightenment,” was to ideas what the previous centuries had been to art, music and literature.

They were also self-satisfied, arrivistic, a bit too spiteful. Of course, we all applaud Hume, puzzle with Kant, laugh with Voltaire, and nod in agreement with Hegel. If God was spared the executioner’s blade, as Charles I and Louis XVI were not, he was at least put on notice and a renewable contract without tenure.

His good behaviour was demanded by a world that in its European format anyway increasingly found his word and commandments onerous rather than sources for progress and material good. His limitations were surprisingly similar to those imposed on the surviving monarchs under evolving ideas of constitutionalism: he had the right to warn and to be advised. In America he had the additional privilege of being the source of certain “rights” that people possessed apart from those defined by usurious kings.

But let me just linger over the word “self-satisfied.”

Early humanism was all about the power of the human imagination—not just as it gets expressed in Shakespeare’s plays or the Sistine chapel ceiling (although those are worthy coordinates), but also in the cartoons of Da Vinci and the scientific spirit of Francis Bacon. In the theological era, before the eighteenth century, self-satisfaction was another word for pride, and considered the greatest of sins, that “by which Satan fell.”

Making yourself like God, however, was not an especially Christian idea. It keeps Gilgamesh from his prize, gets both Achilles and Agamemnon killed, Prometheus shackled, Job broken and doomed to listen to the rants of gossips–the worst of all puinishments.

Part of the irony and beauty of the death of Jesus and the death of Socrates is that they die “in the right,” but not because they are trying to be godlike. They are innocent of vanity (Socrates a little less than Jesus perhaps), or to use the biblical trope, they humble themselves to be exalted. The sophists and aereopagites of Greece were to that process what the priests and pharisees were to Jesus.

In Dante’s Hell the proud are regarded as defective in love and generosity. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, pride is the idolatry of believing in an imperial Church or in the Stuart monarchs’ claim to divine kingship. The point is not that a succession of thinkers was correct in their condemnation of vanity, idolatry and self-satisfaction, but that with loss of a theological ideology to keep things under control—the idea that pride is a dangerous course of action, the idea that an unrelenting fate or a supreme God punishes pride—the stage was set for a new kind of idolatry.

I speak of scientism, secularism, the conviction that the idols of the tribe are superior to the God of human history. Pico’s claim was fairly modest in the fifteenth century: God must be pretty remarkable because man is truly remarkable. In the sixteenth, Shakespeare makes Hamlet exclaim, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”

The verse is often quoted out of context, minus Hamlet’s conclusion–the bit that keeps it from being an instance of self-worship: “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not.” What we miss—or rather, what we don’t really have—in a world in which human intelligence, the natural order, and material progress are the measures of all things, is distance.

What we get in exchange for the idea of Adam and his heavenly maker is the idea of a being infinitely small but elementally the same as the boundless cosmos. We are what we see. Carl Sagan’s insipid chorus that “We are star stuff” makes perfect sense if you honestly believe that it is the universe defined by physics that evokes what Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. But I personally doubt many people have their peak experiences in meditating on the analogy between themselves and the dust on Mars. It is simply an attempt to endow science with the awe, mystery and wonder that people possessed when awe, mystery and wonder were religious, the sort of wonder Donne examines in “I am a little world made cunningly.”

What we get in exchange for the idea of having infinite worth derived from an infinite being who raises that smallness to dignity is the idea that we have more in common with what we eat than what we pray to—much more, since what we pray to doesn’t exist at all.
Away with the idea that we are made for higher things. In with the idea that we are about as “high” as it gets, and that what we feel and know are adequate instruments (or at least the only instruments available) for leading fully human lives.

The distance between the aspirations of man, as Aristotle realized, and the physical realities of our existence are the stuff of comedy. We have always wanted immortality and ended up dead. We have always wanted complete knowledge and ended up settling for glimpses of the truth. Science is one of those glimpses, not the True Gnosis of the Elect.

Spun differently, this distance can be the source of tragedy, compassion, challenge, heroism, and creativity. But our lives without distance, without a sense of proportion and humility, are merely farcical. The darker legacy of the Enlightenment in the form of the cult of science and the religion of naturalism gave us farce and deprived us of the tragic and the comic. There was no humanism in that, just self-glorification. Only pride.

I reject the idols of self-esteem, the whole philosophy called “secular humanism” as an oxymoron, in the same way Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ claims to piety and righteousness.

First, because there is no true humanism that is not based on a profound sense of humility. A parochial form of atheism may divide the world into Brights and Dims with the same glee the church fathers once divided the world between orthodoxy and heresy, but only the humanism of the Pharisees would be content with such a self-satisfied and facile division of the world.

“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘My God, I thank You that I am not like these sinners’.”

Humanists cannot side with the uncompassionate because any humanism worth its salt will, secondly, begin with reverence for human life and a sense of gratitude that among all the creatures of the earth we are endowed with knowledge and understanding. When Job challenges the theology of the backbiters, those are the grounds he uses in his own defense: “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you in any way.” We do not need to deny God’s existence, or for that matter have any position on it, in order to give man the credit for the accomplishments of human civilization.

Real humanists have to believe in a common humanity based on intelligence, not on some falsely deduced “global community” held together by a tissue of inconsistent ethical norms carved out in blissful ignorance of the religious values it despises.

Finally, I charge secular humanists with hypocrisy and a failure of philanthropy. The most maligned and self indulgent religions can exhibit charity, bury their dead, visit the sick, fund hospitals and medical research, feed the hungry, create orphanages, give to the poor. Say what you will about Christianity, it is a matter of record that the church virtually invented charity—so much so that the emperor Julian scolds his pagan priests for not doing enough for the poor of the Empire.

The Pharisees were notorious for piling on empty phrases, full of critique and challenges and legal posturing, proud of their tithing, careful to do just enough. Secular humanism has never built a hospital, never paid a teacher’s salary, never endowed a college, never funded medical research, never founded a hospice, never sent workers to deal with a health crisis in Malawi or plant trees in Zambia and never dried a grieving eye. It has never expressed the humanist virtue of compassion in a material way.

If many secular humanists are wealthy, it has to be because they find the tradition of Christian charity more objectionable than the virgin birth. Intellectual critique is easy and cheap; competing with the charitable impulses of religion is expensive. If the answer is that religion can afford to do these things because the church is rich, I say Christians developed these habits when they were poor and in part because they were poor.

Does the secular humanist aversion towards charity arise out of the Pharisaic sense of knowing better and therefore “being” better? Is it because too many of the poorest and most vulnerable are also Dim, or at least religious? Or is it because the word “humanism” has been so thoroughly divorced from its cognate “humanitarianism” that the words have become antonyms. Is secular humanism merely a sense of confederation among those who think they know there is no God, without practical application, without a sense of responsibility for the human consequences of such a position?

What is humanistic about an elitist philosophy of life that has no room for the application of virtue and whose identity seems simplistically derived from its mere opposition to the philosophies and feelings it considers inauthentic or unreasonable? Secular humanism is that kind of humanism and therefore no humanism at all. It has pilfered a term it cannot define and has never actualized in good deeds.

Pharisaism was not the whole of Judaism but an ideology, a sect. The slant we get on it in the New Testament is the slant of a new “faith”—one also rooted in Jewish ideas—that saw the Pharisees as hypocrites, lawyers, and loudmouths—all words and no action, all talk and no walk. Secular humanism as an ideology has become an ossified form of atheism rooted in a blunt rejection not only of religious ethics and ideas but of other forms of humanism as well.

The Pharisees disappeared from the scene before the end of the first century, probably still praying loudly and secure in their righteousness as the tides of history swept them away.

Quodlibet: Good without God?

adam1

Being good is not the same as being ethical, or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life.

Let me begin with two stories. The first comes from Voltaire, who is reported to have said to his mistress, Marguerite, “Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.”

Another, told by the writer Diderot in the 18th century, is about the journey of Catholic missionaries to Tahiti–a dialogue between a chief named Orou and a priest, who tries to explain the concept of sin.

Orou says that many of the things Europeans find sinful are sources of pride in his island.

He doesn’t understand the idea of adultery, since in his culture generosity and sharing are virtues. Marriage to a single man or woman is unnatural and selfish. And surely there can be nothing wrong with being naked and enjoying sexual pleasure for its own sake—otherwise, why do our bodies exist. The horrified priest delivers a long sermon on Christian beliefs, and ends by saying,

“And now that I have explained the laws of our religion, you must do everything to please God and to avoid the pains of hell.”

Orou says, “You mean, when I was ignorant of these commandments, I was innocent, but now that I know them, I am a guilty sinner who might go to hell.”

“Exactly,” the priest says.

“Then why did you tell me?” says Orou.

***

These stories indicate a couple of things about the relationship between religion and morality—or more precisely, the belief that God is the source of morality. The first story suggests that belief in God is “dissuasive.” By that I mean, religion is seen as a way of preventing certain kinds of actions that we would do if we believed there was no God. The kind of God religious people normally think of in this case is the Old Testament God, or the God who gives rules and expects them to be obeyed.

Not all religious people believe these rules were given by God to Moses or Muhammad directly, but most would agree that it’s a good idea, in general, not to steal, commit adultery, hate your neighbor (or envy his possessions obsessively), or kill other people. For at least a thousand years busy theologians have tried to put these essentially negative rules into more positive form: for example, by saying that people should act out of love for each other, or love of God, and not out of fear. Most Christians would say this is the essential difference between the laws of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the New. But they are only partly right. Both books of the Bible and all of the Qur’an emphasize fear of God, judgment, and the rewards and punishments of the hereafter as goads to repentance, leading a better life, giving up your rotten ways. Even the books of the Bible that are tainted with Greek thought—like the Book of Proverbs–emphasize that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So it’s mischievous to say that fear and trembling aren’t used for moral leverage throughout the Bible.

Modern Christians, Jews, and the Muslims who focus on God’s compassion and mercy, are required to ignore a whole cartload of passages where God reminds people, like any ancient father (and not a few modern mothers), that his patience is wearing thin. Jeremiah 5:22 (NIV) “’Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?’” The answer is a deafening: “Yes.” Remember the flood? Remember the first born sons of the Egyptians? Remember the plagues and famines? Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? You love this God because you ignore his commandments at your peril. He has chosen you; you have not chosen him, and he can withdraw his favor whenever he wants. (As Jackie Mason used to say, you look at Israel and you have to wonder if “maybe the Samoans aren’t the chosen people”).

The theme of the oldest books of the Bible is very plain: God “loves” (more precisely, he watches out for) the ones who keep his commandments and punishes those who don’t. — A simple message that theology has had two thousand years to massage. In fact, the New Testament belongs to the history of that massaging process. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first spin doctors–re-writing the script, transforming Yahweh into a compassionate conservative. But let’s be clear that the hero of the story is a typical Near Eastern tyrant: powerful, vengeful, jealous by his own admission, proprietary (“His is the world and all that dwells within”), and though slow to anger, fearsome when his wrath is provoked, watchful to point of being sleep- deprived (Ps 121.4). There is no unconditional love here. God is not a model for progressive parenting; he’s not interested in the self-esteem of his people, has not read Dr Wayne Dyer, and will not break down weeping on Oprah! for being compulsive. The message of God the Father is, “Do this or else.”

A larger question posed by Voltaire’s little story is whether the motivation of fear is ever ethical. If you do something because there is a threat of pain and suffering if you don’t, or if you hold off doing something you would really like to do—for the same reason—are you being moral?

What Voltaire is really saying—as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud would later say—is that religion is useful for keeping certain kinds of people in line. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- century European society could be neatly divided into those who knew better and those who served the ones who did. Marx went so far as to suggest that the social deference the moneyed classes paid to religion was simply intended to convince the lower classes that religion is true—in fact, that’s exactly what Voltaire is saying: Religion is a mechanism used by the knowledgeable to keep the unknowledgeable in their place. It has social advantages—Marx’s Jewish father conveniently “converted” from Judaism to the Prussian State Church in order to go on working as a lawyer. And we all know the younger Marx’s most famous verdict on the topic: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

What’s missing from this critique, of course, is the question of whether a “religious act” can ever be a “moral act.” Clearly, belief in God (or a specific kind of God) provides behavioral incentives. As a system of control based on fear, religion keeps people from “being bad,” or at least doing things considered bad by the controller. But it does this inefficiently. Clearly it offers people an explanation for why they behave in certain ways, ranging from the “Bible tells me so” to “Papa dixit”—the pope says so. As a means of consolation, it teaches people to deal with the fear and insecurity created by oppression. But it does this at the expense of self-fulfillment, wholeness. It is the security of an abusive relationship, where comfort consists in being able to predict and manipulate eruptions of violence. In fact, to look back to the sacrificial origins of religion, this was precisely its social role. Even the story of the crucifixion, which many people believe is all about love and forgiveness, is the story of a God so angry at the sinful imperfections of humanity that he transfers his violence to his only son, who becomes the redemptive victim—the buy-back price—for sins he didn’t commit.

Let’s call this religious approach to behavior “Being Good.” Being good is not the same as being ethical or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life. It’s a mother wagging an imperative finger at a three year old and saying “You’d better be good.” It always involves threat and reward. Two generations ago, the image would have included threats of belts or woodsheds spankings, going to bed without dinner. I guess, unfortunately, in some places it still does. But you don’t get ethics out of this. You get obedience and submission.

***

What about Diderot’s story about the missionary and the tribal chief? If the story about Voltaire suggests that religion is dissuasive and coercive, Diderot’s suggests another reason why religion doesn’t sit well with ethics: Religion is prescriptive, and like politics, it’s local. In 2000 years of massaging the message, it has changed because we have changed our minds. Most of the biblical rules about property, goods and chattels, adultery and incest were typical throughout the Middle East; in fact, as Freud recognized, the taboos against murder and incest are the earliest form of laws in some tribal societies. But the books we call the basis of the “Judaeo-Christian -ethic” weren’t written by tribes—tribes don’t write. And the body of laws we call the Ten Commandments contain lots of rules that have been quietly put in trunks and sent to the attic.

For example, we all applaud the wisdom of the commandment that says, “Honor your father and your mother.” It has a nice ring, especially during school vacations. But Deuteronomy 21.20 says that disobedient sons should be stoned in front of the elders at the gates of the city. And Exodus 21.17 says that anyone who insults his mother and father shall be put to death. As for adultery, which belongs to ancient property law in the Jewish system, the punishment is stoning—normally only for the woman (Deut. 22.21). In Deut. 22.28, the penalty for raping an unbetrothed virgin is a fine of 50 shekels–plus taking her on as a wife. There are laws protecting the rights of the firstborn sons of unloved wives when a man has several wives (Deut. 21.15) and even laws about how long a Jewish warrior must wait (one month) before he can have intercourse with a woman he has captured in battle (21.10). According to Leviticus 19.23, raping another man’s female slave is punishable by making an offering to the priest, who is required to forgive him. There are laws covering how long you can keep a Hebrew male-slave—6 years—but if you sell your daughter as a slave to another man she cannot be freed, unless after the master has had sex with her he finds her “unpleasing”—in which case she can be put up for sale (ransom) (Exodus 21. 7ff.). On it goes—throughout the books of the Torah—the Law.

The sheer ferocity of the God who gives, or rather shouts these commandments to his chosen people is distant from our time. The voice is unfamiliar: Failure to do what he says results in terror: In fact, that’s the very word he uses: “I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease, recurring fever, plagues that will blind you….those that hate you will hound you until there is no place to run; I will multiply your calamities seven times more than your sins deserve. … I will send wild beasts among you and they will tear your children from you. … If you defy me , I will scourge you seven times over. …I will send pestilence …cut short your daily bread, until ten women can bake your bread in a single oven. … I will punish you seven times over. … Instead of meat, you shall eat your sons and your daughters.” Don’t take my word for it: read Leviticus 26. It has literary flair. The God of the Old Testament is a three dimensional figure—far bigger than Zeus and twice as malignant. (Perhaps Zeus was able to give freer rein to his sexual appetites, whereas Yahweh limits himself to one Galilean virgin?) And look though you may, you will not find these laws “repealed” in later books, at least not in the way modern laws can be amended and repealed. But it’s absolutely certain that anyone who tried to obey these laws in twentieth century Europe or America would be slapped into jail, and the defense “The Bible told me so” would not be an adequate defense. –Try posting these commandments above the blackboard in your neighborhood school.

One way of charting the so-called progress of western civilization is to trace how human values eventually triumph over the ferocity of religious law. The kind of morality that Diderot’s priest represents, like the morality of the Bible, and even the reductionist versions of biblical and Quranic teaching that modern religious denominations espouse, is not ethics. It is not ethics because ethics can’t be grounded in what I’m going to call “irrelative prescriptive dissuasion.” If you say to me, “Well: no one believes these things any more,” then I say “Good for us for not believing. Then time to stop letting the Bible be the source of moral authority when the conduct of its hero is not up to our standards of civil behavior.” If you say, “There is great wisdom and poetry in scripture,” then I say “Please then, let’s treat it like other great books that express ideas, customs, and values that have no authority over how we lead our lives.” I have no quarrel with those who want to appreciate the Bible as a product of its own time and culture—with all the conditions that attach to appreciation of that kind. My quarrel is with people who want to make it a document for our time and culture.

And I suppose my quarrel extends to people who consider themselves experts, when what they are expert in is reading around, into, or past the text. Liberal theologians are immensely gifted at reinventing the God of the Bible in the light of modern social concerns. But the project is a literary–not an ethical one. At another extreme, which is really a false opposite, are the fundamentalists who claim to defend the literal truth of the Bible while ignoring two-thirds of the text and focusing on the “literal” truth of bits and pieces.

Can the Bible make you good? If you accept the framework, beginning with Adam and Eve, and the creation of a race doomed to be perpetually three years-old and scolded into obedience, I suppose it can.

Reduced to basic form, the temptation in the Garden of Eden is a story about a cookie jar and a sly, accusing mother. But it takes more than avoiding mousetraps for a choice to be moral or an action to be ethical. A moral act is one in which you can entertain doubt freely, where a person confronts human choices and human consequences, personal and social.

To be fair: the Bible and its cousins are important records of those human choices and their social consequences, coming from an age which is no longer relevant to us. To make it a book for our time is an abuse of the book and a misunderstanding of its importance. More depressingly for some, perhaps, there will probably be no book to replace it. Not even one by a secular humanist. But there will be wisdom, and reason and choice-making, and that will make us humanly better, if not exactly good.

Quodlibet: Atheist Attitude

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

I’ve written on this theme before, but thought I’d wait until the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism rode by to snipe at them from behind.  Who, after all, wants to be in the sights of the formidable Professor Dawkins or the acid Mr Hitchens?  Not me.

In their heyday, the Horsemen’s books were sitting on the coffee tables of every secular/humanist/atheist household I visited, and I visited a few.  In one case last year in Los Angeles, a proud browser had Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens on view on side tables, but confessed he “hadn’t read them all the way through.”  That’s no crime, I said happily.  “They’re really not very good.”  How could I say that, he asked, somewhat confused: “Aren’t you the head of some humanist outfit?”  Atheists are mostly pretty old and they use “outfit” thinking back to their service days.  I assured him (a) I was not the head of anything and (b) I did not check my critical reading skills at the door when I joined the humanist outfit.

When I wrote on this topic before (“Of Brights and Dims: Why Hard Science won’t Cure Easy Religion,” Free Inquiry, 2006) I mainly had Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion in view.  I still do.  Without oversimplifying an already simple thesis, Dawkins feels that religion is essentially for stupid people–people who don’t like or understand science and who think big bangs come from Pa’s shotgun.  They like their religion literal, illogical, and their savior handy in case of distress.  Think of the Palin clan, back in Wasilla.  Nevermind that it gets them into all kinds of messes, like smiling in the face of the proven insufficiency of abstinence-only birth control:  it’s easy to understand and you don’t have to wait in line.  God cleans up the messes we make because he’s in the business of wanting personal relationships with people (he’s in the forgiveness business), and as a bonus he created the big mess we call the world in the first place.  Religion is for Dims.  Science is for Brights.  Religion (saith RD) is the default position for the scientifically challenged of the world.

Now AAFCPS, this is not an argument against religion.  It’s proof of stupid people.  I meet such people every day. They doze through my classes, can’t make change, even with talking cash registers, burn out their credit by the age of 24 and think their preacher is the smartest man in town–after Rush Limbaugh.  Dawkins, it will come as no surprise, comes from the faraway land called England, but his model of a Dim is almost exclusively American.  This is where dim dives to new wattages.  This is where dim is dimmest.

Richard Dawkins wants these people to know they are deluded.  To help them out, he reminds them of their Thomas Aquinas and Anselm’s famous ontological argument.  Nevermind that even the intellectually radiant Pastor Bob has never read these thinkers either.  It is important that their dimness include ignorance of the Middle Ages, which it almost certainly does.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an argument against religion either: it’s blaming medieval scholastics for living in the Dark Ages.  Everything was pretty dim.   But what reason do we have to suppose that Aquinas would not have accepted the idea of a primordial implosion as a worthy substitute for “In the beginning God,” if he’d lived next door to Dawkins in twentieth century Oxford.  (And as it happens, Anselm lived just down the way, in Canterbury, but alas, in the 10th century, and too dim to make the journey to the twenty first).  The lesson seems to be however, that before dims can achieve a higher luminosity they must first foreswear the arguments for God’s existence that they have never heard of.

Next, they must confess, as an act of faith, that the science they were too dumb to learn proves them dim.  Most of the scientists I call friends have never read the Origin of Species, but they are permitted this omission because they take evolution as scientific theory, meaning subject to falsification, meaning that if Pastor Bob can produce photographic evidence of Genesis 1-3 Darwin can suck eggs.  But until he does, Darwin is right, and Pastor Bob and all his Darwin-dissing ID by-any-other-name friends are a threat to society.  Moreover, creationism cannot be scientific because creation clearly exists and is thus not falsifiable and with it goes the need for a creator.  Whoops, category error.  Who spotted it?

Once there was a fifth horseman, a physicist by trade, a nice but plodding prose style, the author of seven books or one book in seven versions, the latest being God, the Failed Hypothesis.  At a 2007 lecture anticipating his book Why is There Something rather than Nothing? Victor Stenger said, “Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence.  The laws of physics are shown to correspond to what one would expect if the universe appeared from nothing.  There is something rather than nothing because something is more stable.”  And all the congregation, bedazzled with an hour’s worth of sparkling equations and no toilet break, said Amen.

I felt my light flickering: was I dimming out?  Surely, I thought quietly, not wishing to be outed, we can only say something is more stable than nothing because we live in something-land.  (To say Nothing does not exist is a tautological giggle).  And what strange quantum hubris entitles us to say in the passive voice, “No laws of physics were violated in bringing the world into existence”–because the cosmos we see is the one we would expect to get from nothing.  I said nothing of course. (Perhaps the something I might have said would have been the sort of thing one would expect). The audience were in full and energetic agreement.  A few were even trading equations on business cards.  For my part, I resolved to enroll in a low-numbered physics course at a local community college.

What physics has shown is that a table is in full conformity with a square-topped four-legged entity used for eating, writing or similar function.  Just as we expected before we made it.  From wood.

I have missed so much.