Of Anachronism

Some atheists have proposed that it is possible to be good without God. They’ve plastered the slogan on buses, developed websites, and sold t-shirts to press the point home.  In a minor spin of the same message, other atheists are saying that despite what “religious people” (or often simply “religion”) says, you don’t need God to lead a good and meaningful life.  If the meaning of these slogans is that millions of people find moral value and meaning outside the constraints of religious faith, I agree–wholeheartedly–and I think I am one of them.  I challenge anyone to a duel if they say my love of art, music and literature is deficient; and I will shoot first.

At first flush, these seem like eminently reasonable propositions–as unarguable as Dr Seuss’s assertion in Horton Hears a Who that “a person’s a person no matter how small.” It’s the language of the culture of self-esteem.  And it tells us that, despite anything Dostoevsky might have said a hundred (plus) years ago, it’s the absence of God that makes us all equally worthy; the moral universe does not collapse with his non-existence.

On the contrary, the presence of God, or at least a law-giving god like the biblical god,  creates a value system and a moral hierarchy that modern women and men find unbearable.  There is no universal human equivalence in this God’s world, only saints and sinners, law and law-breaking.  I reject that system as vigorously as do my atheist friends. There can be nothing like a human moral system–a system good for humans–apart from humanity.  Many atheists believe this– and many religious people, even if they don’t, will eventually have to face up to it.

Unfortunately, atheists at this point often try to press their case by cherrypicking the most obscene passages of the Old Testament and raising questions about the mental capacity of people who (they seem to allege) believe the verses still apply. Should parentsLapidation: fun for the whole family be permitted to kill disobedient sons after a cursory inquiry at “the city gates”?  Should fathers be able to sell daughters in slavery?  Is a woman unclean (untouchable) for sixty-six days after the birth of a female child?  Does the definition of rape depend on whether it happens near a city or in the country? Is God so petulant that he needs to destroy a world he could have made better, thus causing his non-omniscient self, not to mention his creatures,  endless trouble?

The relative ease with which these questions can be tossed aside in disdain should clue the reader to the fact that he is not reading an engineering textbook, that he is trodding on unfamiliar, primitive soil.

If you can read this, do what it says...

The script for these objections changes slightly, but the underlying assumption of an unbelief-ful realist doesn’t: The common notion is that if you point out tirelessly what a silly book the bible is people will eventually begin to read it, see the absurdity, and say “Eureka: what an idiot I’ve been.”

I think these Aha! moments actually happen in certain cases, but the great majority of believers really don’t care about the absurdities, and the more “faithful” they are to the traditions of their church, the more they will know that the tribal contexts of Old Testament justice (exception being made for the recent use of lex talionis on bin Laden) don’t form part of the living voice of religious tradition in the twenty first century–just as they haven’t for almost a millennium.

Maybe, as an axiom, unbelievers should flirt with the idea that things that are regarded as anachronistic or irrelevant by the vast majority of religious people are not the best evidence against theism.  That is why, for example, most philosophy of religion anthologies that include a chapter on “Descriptions and Attributes of God” deal with properties and not irrelevances skimmed from the pages of the Bible.

Anachronism is a putative pitfall in constructing any historical argument.  To see how, don’t think Biblical law and custom–Think Hamlet. I remember thinking, the first time I read the play, that all the violence could have been avoided if the young prince had just called the police.  (Never-mind that if that had been an option Shakespeare would not have had a tragedy)  After all, the evidence was all on Hamlet’s side.  Polonius might have testfied. Even Gertrude might have broken down and ratted on Claudius, and Claudius himself was not exactly a bastion of resolve.  Instead, it all ends badly with everyone dead, including Hamlet.  Fortunately I did not offer this solution on my final exam.  It would have been my Paris Hilton moment.

But, no doubt, you’re way ahead of me. Hamlet doesn’t call the police because there weren’t any. Armies, sure, but armies weren’t usually called in to settle domestic spats, not even ones involving murder. Shakespeare wrote the play based (perhaps) on a thirteenth century work by Saxo Grammaticus–when justice was even more primeval and unavailable than in his own day, and where honor, shame and vengeance were largely governed by family honor and local magistrates (judges)–closer therefore to the Bible than to modern practice.  Ultimately, the stories about heirs, usurpers and murder can be traced all the way back to David and Saul, or to Isaac, Esau and Jacob.

When did “crime” become a police (literally, a city) matter and not something to be dealt with in feudal or family fashion? 1822, when Robert Peel founded the London constabulary–a move opposed by many people in London (and it was, at first, just in London) because the city folk didn’t want a government agency getting between them and justice. Objections persevered north of the border in Scotland and in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee in the tradition of clan violence. The first “bobbies” were drawn from the lower ranks of society; many were drunks and bullies–uniformed thugs who meted out justice in strange ways.  When in 1833 Constable Robert Culley was stabbed to death while breaking up an unlawful meeting, a jury acquitted the murderers and a newspaper awarded medals to the jurors. Let’s not even talk about Boston and Chicago in the nineteenth century.

Our sense of justice and the control of crime is a peculiarly modern invention. Yet we’re perfectly willing to accept (without knowing much about its evolution) that things were different–once. We don’t give a second thought to the fact that the meaning of justice has developed along with ways of enforcing and distributing it.  And without getting into the politics of a recent international event, we (many, anyway) don’t really interrogate the sentence “Justice was done” when clearly what is meant is “Vengeance was exacted.”  The recrudescence of biblical justice in exceptional cases, like poverty, is something we have to expect.

Scales--yes--but the sword is bigger

So I am curious about why the most universally abhorrent and rejected verses in the Bible should become symbolic of the entirety of the biblical world view. Why do we accept gratefully the social evolution of secular justice but deny religion the right to its own conceptual evolution by insisting it must be held accountable for things it produced in the Bronze Age? If evolution is the key to understanding how the world has come to be the way it looks to us, what’s the point in insisting that the religious landscape is unchanging?  I frankly cannot imagine a more tendentious assessment of history than that one.

The fact is, whatever he may or may not have said, you will not find Jesus of Nazareth enjoining the poor to sell their children into slavery to raise some quick cash.  But Hebrew settlers a thousand years before him probably did just that.  You will find him exhorting a rich young man to sell what he has, and give it to the poor, in order to be a worthy disciple. A thousand years before, to the extent that this history is known to us, such advice would have been feckless, almost incomprehensible.  It is similar to my wondering why Hamlet didn’t call the cops on Claudius.

Even the Hebrew Bible shows the slow and deliberate growth of a moral conscience over its millennium-long development: Like any idea that lasts longer than a day, God evolves:

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22.3)

And let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos, 5.24)

You’ve heard it said, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth [Exodus 21.24]. But I say to you not to succumb to evil: but if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him also the other.” (Matthew 5.39f.)

None of these comments constitutes a moral system; I may not accept or believe them (especially my “obligation” to an enemy) and the Church itself has fallen shamelessly down if  the advice of Matthew 5.39 is taken at face value as a standard for all Christians.

But simple historical honesty requires us to notice the change, and along with that (note well,  my friends who tout the iron law of evolution in all things progressive) that the advantageous ethic, the one that looks for compassion and generosity rather than vengeance and payback, is the one that survives the predations of history.  Not perfectly, but more adequately.

Frankly, atheists will get nowhere with the message of “good without God” and its accompanying parody of religious ethics and its drone about the pure awfulness of the Bible. They might succeed in persuading themselves of the rectitude of disbelief by creating a litany of biblical absurdities.  But then the core principle of development, which is really at the heart of the atheist worldview, is laid aside in favor of a partial and static view of history that careful investigation won’t support.

The moral is, you can’t call the police when there aren’t any. And you can’t blame the Bible for being a “moral archive” of how human beings have changed their minds over the course of 2500 years.

27 thoughts on “Of Anachronism

  1. Maybe the unbelievers are just trying to channel Volarire: “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.”

  2. I suppose that in your view Mr. Hoffman there is nothing we atheists are permitted to say about religion without provoking your criticism. I guess we should all just shut up and not challenge religion or its adherents at all. The message campaigns you address in this post are peaceful. They are not intended to provoke nor criticize religion. Still you find even these rather tame statements too much to bear. Why the hell don’t you just become a Christian apologist. At least then we could understand your preaching. We wouldn’t like it any more. But at least it would be intellectualy honest and consistent.

    • Oh, Randy: You are the reason I write. Such absolute boneheaded reflexiveness. ” If the meaning of these slogans is that millions of people find moral value and meaning outside the constraints of religious faith, I agree–wholeheartedly–and I think I am one of them. I challenge anyone to a duel if they say my love of art, music and literature is deficient; and I will shoot first.”

  3. I don’t think the atheists have much affect on most religious believers. Despite the fact they claim they are “triumphant” and have advanced with “great strides forward”, I don’t think they’ve yet caught up with the evolution of religious belief. And I’m not sure what they’re supposed to have achieved in their “great strides forward”. If they’ve caused a few to reject fundamentalist beliefs, congratulations, but I wonder if the now ex religious fundamentalists are much wiser. Far better to encourage enquiry and doubt through education, in the history of religions. But most religious people do question and doubt (and read histories). Many ‘god ideas’ are quite profound, and changing, although I’ve even seen that suggestion dismissed as ‘waffle’ and worse, by internet atheists.

    It’s encouraging to know though, that not everyone on this planet is as dogmatic as fundamentalists or the more vocal (internet) atheists. And most religious people (not in America) believe in evolution, including the evolution of religious beliefs. May the gods (not really) endow the atheists with the spirit (not really) of lateral thinking.

  4. Nice article – thanks
    My concern is how to develop this ‘rule of law’ when the dundies, sorry I meant fundies, of all stripes want to establish the doing of the ancient law (pick from the following list – sorry again, the dropdown is not available in a comment) whatever they think they mean by this.

    Jesus did something different – and so did the psalmist – and so did the writer of Jonah and Ruth not to mention Job and the writer’s criticism of a trivial reading of Deuteronomy. These teachers did not follow the law – they followed and storied a law of mercy and the presence of compassion. The fundies who do read the Bible need indeed to be changed by it. But they have to learn to read – and the way social structures teach fear and conformity will not result in such learning. The way religious institutions of all sorts work the formation of their flocks by coercive misinformation is a problem when there are so many of us – whatever our religion might be.

    • Thanks Sam. I don’t own a bandanna or feel comfortable singing Yipee tie-yi-yay, but it shows how far America has come in accepting the cowboy minority. And I now know what the “saddle” is.

  5. I included the video for Steph, who, for generational reasons, probably
    has never heard the song before nor has seen cowboy movies in which the good guys wear white hats and without any visible means of support, ride the range righting wrongs and saving ladies in distress.

  6. Thank you for the culture shock Sam. Chubby son of a preacher, singing cowboy from Texas, looks a little ungainly – no wonder his horse threw him off! I grew up down under with no telly at all – and still don’t have one. I do know that ditty though. I’m not sure how. Maybe it became famous for being so bad. But they all still wear white cowboy hats in Texas – are they pretending to be good? I don’t trust men in white hats, or white trousers or white frocks. And Gregory Peck who was very VERY good, if he wore a hat, he always wore black! In distress I’d rather be saved by Gregory than Gene. 🙂

  7. Well, let’s throw in the reverse side of the coin as it sometimes helps to illuminate things. I’ve spent 27 years reflecting on evil. And still one of the chief questions constantly posed is: can you have a non-religious definition of evil? And if, as I agree with Joe, “people find moral value and meaning outside the constraints of religious faith”, then just what is it people, the tabloids, the lawyers are talking about when they use this language? What applies to one side of the coin in terms of an appreciation of art, music and literature, must also apply to the other side of the coin and an appreciation of violence, destruction and human wickedness.

  8. Joseph, you write:

    Why do we accept gratefully the social evolution of secular justice but deny religion the right to its own conceptual evolution by insisting it must be held accountable for things it produced in the Bronze Age?

    All atheist arguments that miss this point invite only contempt from millions of non-fundamentalist and non-Catholic believers like myself (and by ‘contempt’ I mean no active hatred but only utter disregard).

    I’m sure I would hear cries of ‘foul’ if I were to bring up some oddity from Livy or Galen and use it to make fun of the living science or medicine of the day. And such cries would be justified.

    The fact that such arguments are so prevalent might only mean that the majority of atheists are in fact ex-fundamentalists or ex-Catholic, and so are merely projecting the demons of their own narrow childhoods.

  9. Steph:

    That song was voted 98 on a list of great songs from the 20th century:

    Gregory Peck is in another category of actor than Gene Autry. For example, To Kill a Mocking Bird.

    My son is 32 and he also grew up with television, although he watches it a lot now. His pop cultural knowledge goes back to, say, Woodstock. He’s a musician and music teacher, so he’s listened to Elvis, but I doubt that he understands the Zeitgeist that made Elvis a star.

    It’s great that you never watch TV. That must be one factor which contributes to the clear thinking which characterizes your posts.

    • Ok you two: I’ve let it slide, but I do not remember posting anything on Gene Autry or Elvis. 10 point deduction and fair warning.

  10. Interesting points Joseph-

    I’ve recently been thinking about similar issues (though perhaps from a more confrontational perspective than yours); I do feel there is considerable value to critiquing christian morality, but you’re absolutely right that picking anachronistic old testament atrocities does little more than show that the foundation of christian moral thinking is suspect.

    Far more important is to confront christian morality at its strongest; so I spent some time rereading the sermon on the mount, and what I was struck by was how many aspects of the morality there are explicitly justified in terms of “do such and such, not because it will be good for anyone on earth, but because you will be rewarded in heavan”. I feel that it is this disregard for this world that is the real moral failing of traditional christian morals, and that it is much more interesting than rot from the old testament.

    But then again, I havent counted myself as christian in almost a decade, so maybe there are some apologists who have found a dodge for even this critique.

    • You’re right about the style–but the style, given the era, was all about exhortation. I agree, that there is no formal reasoning process behind it, and the reward system is nothing we can embrace (“the kingdom of heaven” has no appeal for me). But what i do suggest is that we notice the development of the sorts of behavior that are endorsed, even though an atheist living in the modern world, where we need to think about why we do things, is bound to find the grounds for such conduct wanting. -Completely agree with the thrust of you comment, however and the need for critique.

    • Check that. The idea that Jesus used the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ to refer to the afterlife is a minority view – held by the kinds of people who think the world’s ending on Saturday.

      If you look at the rest of the material about ‘the kingdom’ (i.e. the parables about the kingdom at Mt. 13:33-34 or 44-45) it’s plain that it represents something near at hand, something possible in a here-and-now kind of world – you can call it ‘utopian’ if you like, but it’s not transcendental pie in the sky in the original.

      The ‘Father in Heaven,’ too, is supposed to represent a present reality. So you can’t simply assume that statements about the kingdom and the Father refer to the incentive of postponed and other-worldly rewards – unless the phrase is unequivocal.

      I see an unequivocal statement about afterlife rewards only at 5:11 – but here the ‘doing’ is not social morality or philanthropy but simply patience in persecution (with implications of life-endangerment).

      The only other place in the sermon is 6:19 – which is mostly about the vanity of temporal earthly treasures. Easy to see the rust and lurking thieves there, so what atheist would argue for the security of material possessions over intangibles like friendship? Most decent moralities (theist and atheist) are based on higher ‘intangibles’ than material reward.

      • Thanks for the learned response John, I remember Nietzsche saying something similar, but I wasn’t sure how consensus it was… I’ll have to think about it, but I don’t know if the distinction between otherworldly and here and now rewards is important for this kind of critique.

        Two reasons: One, isn’t it more appropriate to ask what interpretation has been influential in christian thinking and moral development than to ask what Jesus, to the extent that he *is* historical, intended? Wouldn’t it be better to ask how those central teachings functioned after it became clear that the kingdom of heaven wasn’t actually coming any time soon, and *had* to be reinterpreted metaphorically? (actually asking here- I dont know)

        Two, to step back a bit, it still seems that this morality is still fundamentally entangled with the idea of a created order (worldy or otherwise) that has been designed such that even “bad” things like poverty or being oppressed will be compensated for, and not in a consequentialist way, but because god wills it. Compare that to a modern atheist/humanist morality that sees this world as all there is, that humanity has no special place, but has tremendous power, and that we should strive to use that power to create the best world we possibly can. The two systems are not *necessarily* incompatible, but empirically they seem to be so. This, I think, is the sense in which one meaningfully be “good without god” and not “good with god”.

      • elguiney, it was you who brought up the sermon on the mount.

        I don’t agree that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ failed to come in the manner laid out in the parable-teachings (that is, in the manner of a seed capable of development). It only failed to materialize in the manner laid out in the Jewish ‘new age’ writers (the late apocalyptic or revelation-school, c.200BC-100AD). Since I judge that the real deal did materialize and only false hopes were duly falsified, I don’t think a re-interpretation as metaphor is warranted.

        You write of a morality which “sees this world as all there is, that humanity has no special place, but has tremendous power, and that we should strive to use that power to create the best world we possibly can.”

        The world needs all the help it can get, and so I’m fine with this attempt to create the best possible world by humans who claim their only exceptional quality is tremendous power. I only wonder that it hasn’t yet (especially after WWII) been treated with scorn in the pages of a post-modernist Candide Your thoughts?

        But let’s use Kant if we’re going to try to bridge with each other on ethics.

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