I have been away on vacation for the last two weeks, which I hope explains my silence. While I was gone, I wrote the following. Steve
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Every religion with some sort of written record claims that their written records, or at least some of them, are divinely inspired. In many cases those words were claimed to have been delivered by revelation and others dictated by angels (Joseph Smith, Mohammad, etc.) so, are these actually divinely inspired? I will make some old and new arguments that they are not.
The simple and obvious reason that these texts cannot be divinely inspired comes from the fact that there is not any universal understanding of these texts. I would expect words chosen by a god to be perfectly clear and, even if translated into other languages, would remain perfectly clear. I would also expect a being who had the power to create a universe or world to be concise as to how he/she wanted his creations to behave. Instead, we are treated to irrelevant stories lacking moral messages we expect from even the simplest children’s stories. For example, in the Old Testament at one point King David gets on Yahweh’s bad side and to punish him Yahweh creates a plague that kills tens of thousands of David’s subjects. And the moral of the story is … what? Apparently Yahweh may kill your ass because he is pissed off with one of your associates. Many of the stories in the Jewish and Christian Bibles seem designed to convince the reader of the authenticity of the texts being read or to convince the reader to follow the precepts provided therein. A god’s words would carry that weight by themselves, no?
And all of the scriptures in the Abrahamic religions are rife with contradictions, obvious bad edits, etc. In the case of Islam as well as the others, the original transcriptions of the original texts have been lost. A god’s words couldn’t be obfuscated or lost or changed in any way if that god had any real power over his/her message. No?
And what are these messages? If they are a code of conduct, I would expect something closer to Hammurabi’s code, a set of laws and punishments for violating them. The “laws” that are to be found in Christian Bibles seem to be ignored by most Christians, converting those laws into recommendations or suggestions rather than requirements. Got an unruly teenager who gives you lip, stone him to death. The scripture couldn’t be more clear. Yet, teenagers getting stoned has an entirely different meaning today. If scriptures are not sets of instructions about how to behave toward one another, what are they for?
My second argument is based upon a fabulous book I am reading (The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch, a physicist). In this book the author argues for Karl Popper’s viewpoint that the only way new knowledge can be created is through “conjecture and criticism.” This is basically the scientific method (the actual one, not the bullshit one proffered in school science textbooks). A conjecture is an attempt at an explanation for why something is the way it is, in science we call this an hypothesis. Then such conjectures are exposed to criticisms, in science this is by word and experiment (If this were true, then if I do this, the response would be….). In reality all experiments are suggested by such conjectures. When such “tests” are “passed” repeatedly, scientists stop testing those hypotheses and they become settled science (settled, not “proven”).
Dr. Deutsch’s point (one of many) is that if you withhold criticism, you cannot generate new knowledge and without new knowledge you cannot solve new or even old problems. In most religions one is not allowed to criticize scripture. Scripture is defined as being correct and inviolable. If you do not understand something, then you are wrong, not the scripture.
A consequence of forbidding criticism is there will be no new knowledge. This is 2016. If we go back one hundred years to 1916 and count all of the advances made by science, a human endeavor that requires open communication and open criticism, with religion we find that science has provided: broadcast radio, broadcast TV, antibiotics, the Green Revolution, space travel, communications satellites, synthetic drugs, synthetic fabrics, robotic surgeries, medical imaging, amazing new construction materials (carbon fiber, etc.), and on and on. And religion? Nothing. No real, new, or helpful knowledge has been created and it seems much of the material has become dated, seeming to no longer apply (don’t eat shellfish or pork or meat on Fridays, for example).
Not all of the products of science over the least 100 years have been good: nuclear and chemical weapons, electronic spying, chemical waste products, air and water pollution, and climate change aren’t exactly benefits. But Dr. Deutsch’s position is that problems are inevitable and solutions to those problems generally come from new knowledge, and new knowledge cannot be predicted it can only be pursued and discovered. Imagine what would have happened if the Bubonic Plague hadn’t happened until after antibiotics were invented. Problems will always be with us and the only way through them is “conjecture and criticism” on a large scale. So, Republican politicians denial of climate change or any other scientific reality, for example, is just another form of shutting down discussion/criticism and is self-defeating. Certainly the widespread conservative opposition to the Enlightenment, which has given the world its first large dose of the ability to criticize, is at best anti-progress and worst suicidal.
Scripture is supposed to be above criticism, but is it? All of the evidence says it is not. There are theological seminaries devoted to figuring out what it means (shouldn’t it be obvious?). Christianity alone has tens of thousands of sects, each existing because of a perceived difference it has with all of the others (based upon what?). The others have similar segments. New “churches” such as prosperity churches are popping up all over the place making new arguments based upon old scripture. If this is not discussion/criticism producing “new knowledge” then what is it?
Basically this fact alone tells us that it is not divinely inspired. Scriptures are subject to interpretation by scholars and Imams and whoever wants to spin those words in a new direction. In other words, scripture is not above criticism, and new knowledge is being created (“God wants you to be prosperous!”), so “god’s words” are apparently insufficient, which makes them not a god’s words.
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Yes, this is a blog focused on class warfare (and, boy, are we losing) but I also write on religion as it is a tool used in the war against the betterment of all human beings.