Yesterday I was reading a small book on marital fulfillment by a Christian friend. He’d donated it to my wife and me, understandably proud of its having been published. I don’t normally read “how to” books based on religious scripture, but was curious to find out what my respected friend had written.
Actually, if I overlooked its superstitious parts, I found the book quite good. Frankly, he’d done a skillful job of building a marriage manual on selected teachings of the Bible. Reading it led me to reflect on what I’d written in a post last month (“Respecting Religion,” Sept. 21) about the disquieting mixture of good and bad that religious belief causes in the world. It is not that religion has no upsides, but that its downsides outweigh them, and even mask the more egregious religious effects. That is, religion causes in believers a blindness to its ill effects.
In a curious twist, one of the seldom discussed types of blindness concerns the helpful parts of the Bible’s mishmash of messages. There are quite a few wisely instructive exhortations and helpful suggestions even for a secular life in the Bible. They are numerous enough to enable my author friend to frame his counsel for maintaining a loving, stable marriage. Similarly, there are other biblical entreaties that offer useful advice about friendship, business, and even citizenship. I was not surprised that his book was able to make a lot of sense, tying each part to some biblical point of view.
Except for the specifically religious references, however, there was nothing in the book that cannot be found in scores of other books, ones that have no need to claim supernatural origin.
Yet I’ve noticed that Christians are quick to praise the Bible’s reasonable parts as if the Bible originated whatever wise counsel can be found there. It reminds me of Muslims whose reading has consisted exclusively of the Koran and Hadith, thinking everything those sources present, they invented. Ignorant Christians who say the Bible is the only book anyone needs fall into a trap like that. I am also reminded of Christians who think Jesus’s miracles were something special even though those days were replete with stories of virgin births and healings. Much of the symbolism (e.g., the importance of the number 12) and specific miracles (e.g., walking on water) attributed to Jesus had been associated earlier with other ostensibly holy men.
Many religious people have a need to credit all good things to their religion, as if it is the unique and inspired source. They can then double back and use that assumed provenance to show how special the Bible is. The extent to which this deception goes can get bizarre. A present example is the risible notion that the U. S. Constitution is built on the Bible or that the Ten Commandments are the source (or even a source) of American law. Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even Roger Williams would be alternately offended and amused!
My point is that religious people tend to ascribe to their holy books wisdoms that are just as present—and often earlier—in other traditions. In the Bible story of Noah (I’ll skip right past the fact that the Bible apparently appropriated its flood myth from earlier civilizations.), God’s reason for killing almost everyone was that “the earth is filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). Elsewhere (Psalms 11:5) God is said to hate violence. My friend quoted these references as part of his well-reasoned caution about allowing violence to become even a small part of marriage. (I’ve no quarrel with his doing so, since eliminating domestic violence is important enough to warrant whatever arguments will convince people to stop hitting each other.) But my immediate reaction was to reflect on all the other biblical passages that repeatedly demonstrate the Hebrew God to be massively violent, even instructing his chosen people to be violent. (If you think that “Thou shalt not kill” really means what it says, you’ve been quite selective in your reading.)
So the Bible does offer some good advice, but interspersed with an abundance of cruelty, vast gaps in ethics, and direct contradictions. It is a mixture of occasional good thinking and an extensive pattern of primitive, inhumane, violent silliness. If mined for just the right things to say and if the seamier sides are overlooked, it can support ethical and humane conduct. That is to say, with many mental twists and turns its meaning can be distorted enough to be as caring, gentle, and fair-minded as secular humanism.
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