Somebody offers you a fruit. It has a couple of small, rotten spots. You take out your penknife to cut out the bad areas. No, they say, if you are not prepared to eat the whole fruit, you’re not allowed to eat any of it.
Inevitably perhaps, I have been considering issues of theology and freedom of expression this week.
Anybody who does me the kindness of reading my blog will know that I call myself an athiest. But that’s not quite accurate. More exactly, I’m agnostic to the point of atheism. I’m agnostic only in the sense that it would be arrogant of me to claim with confidence that there is no god or gods: as arrogant, in fact, as it is for anyone to asseverate with certainty that he/she/they does exist. The truth is, we cannot know. My own best guess, based on my own observations and interpretation is that there is no god. But if your observations and interpretation lead you to a different conclusion, that’s your right and fine by me.
There has been a huge amount of debate over the last few days regarding the extent of responsibility that people of any particular sociological classification should hold for the actions of people who claim alliance with that same classification. This is self-evidently fallacial. How many left handed-people would feel the need to accept responsibility for a cack-handed massacre committed by one of our kind in the name of society’s ignorance of our disadvantage? (we die, on average, 1 ½ years earlier than our right-handed fellows, I read)
This is not to ignore the responsibility we all have to condemn injustices; and probably all the more, the closer they strike to home. As a (hopefully) decent man, I will condemn all injustices of which I become aware. As a left-handed one, I may be particularly inclined to condemn those injustices committed by fundamentalist left-handers that might bring down unfair opprobrium upon me and my sinistral kin. But that is act of clarification in my own interests, not an apology.
On this basis, no Muslim should feel the remotest need to apologise for the barbaric actions of a statistically tiny number of fascists who claim Islam as a justification for the commission of atrocities. On the same basis, nobody should condemn any Muslim who wanted to clarify the distance between the overwhelming majority of Muslims and the few evil bastards who falsely claim their faith as justification for the atrocities they commit.
But all of this is preamble. What I really want to write about is thornier stuff. I want to write about the word of god.
It strikes me that the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) have dug themselves into a hole by making it an article of faith that their books of belief are the immutable word of god.
They’re not. I have read the Bible (both old and new testaments) and the Koran from cover to cover. I bet not many can claim the same. They’ve both got good stuff in. They’ve both got achingly redundant stuff in, too, and stuff that’s simply morally wrong.
Why should we be surprised? These books were written, not by any god, but by men (and I’m being gender-specific here). They were written to serve ancient societies with inconceivably different moralities and they have been revised or reinterpreted according to various political agendas across the centuries.
And you know what? It’s all right to say that they’re out of date. No, it’s better than all right: it’s necessary. Both the Bible and the Koran demand that the faithful should put unbelievers to death. They do; unequivocally, in black and white.
Bible: If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant; 17:3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; 17:4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel; 17:5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
Koran: When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. – 9:5
The command of these religions to murder people whose catechism of belief (or unbelief) differs from their own is just one of a raft of grotesque anachronisms both contain. They stretch from the bizarre (the Biblical edict that it is OK for parents to sell their second daughter into slavery) to the wearily commonplace (homosexuals should be murdered).
And this is I where believe that some followers of the Abrahamic religions may have a modest measure of responsibility for the actions of those who commit abuses in the name of their theologies (and I’m thinking every bit as much about the institutional disenfranchisement of women and the oppression of LBGT communities by fundamentalists in the Christian churches as I am about the massacre of cartoonists). If theologians or believers claim that the barbaric edicts of redundant texts are the irrefutable word of god, then they are de facto exonerating the actions of people who take the redundant commands within those texts literally.
So here’s an idea. What about recognising at the highest theological level that that the ethics of past millennia do not necessarily apply to the present day? What about accepting that morality might have evolved and adapted – even become more godly – over time? What about editing out some of the stuff in the Bible and the Koran that no longer applies or was never right in the first place? It’s not without precedent; the Quakers have been practising the revision of their central texts from their inception.
There are evil people all over the world who claim a religious justification for the oppression of women, people of non-conformist sexuality, people of other faiths, no faith or even of their own faith, but different opinions. They are empowered by edicts in holy texts claimed by their religions to be the incontestable word of god: edicts that have no place in our world today. It’s up to the pillars of organised religion to state boldly that some parts of those texts are redundant or just plain wrong and need to be excised. Like bad bits in a generally good apple.