Saturday, April 28, 2007

Textual Exegesis Will Not Solve Religious Problems

Frequently in history, religious people have committed great crimes against humanity. And they have done it for explicitly religious reasons with religious motivations. They kill, maim, commit mass murder, fly planes into buildings, beat women for having more than their hands and eyes exposed, deprive women and girls of their basic human rights to education and political representation, behead blasphemers and heretic, burn sinners at the stake, imprison and torture those who misstep in the faith, and on and on. The examples are too numerous to mention.

And there is also frequently a gross failure on the part of the religious to take responsibility for the acts committed by their social and historical movement. Too often, when they are confronted with the atrocities committed by religious zealots, they explain away or dismiss the acts by asserting that “well, those weren’t real Christians,” or “that’s not what a true Muslim would do,” or “they are misunderstanding the Bible,” or “they are misinterpreting those passages of the Koran.” And many other religious moderates nod their heads, confident that no one who is “truly” religious, or who understands religion as they should would ever do something so horrible. Antony Flew coined the “No True Scotsman” fallacy to describe this mistake.

The religious moderates may be confident that “really” religious people would never do such awful things, but from the outside, it is much less clear to us that such a claim is true. Religion is as religious people do. Is it just an a priori truth that if someone is really religious they won’t commit horrible, intolerant acts against others? That’s not the way they see it. As they see it, the only way to be truly religious is to fly the plane into a building, maim or kill anyone who violates the holy law, or to destroy all of those who lack the proper faith. So from the outside, how are we to determine who really represents religion? They all insist that their way is the right way—and as we see it, it’s all spooky, superstitious make-believe. From the outside, they all look dangerous or potentially dangerous to us, especially since the drive towards fundamentalism, intolerance, and theocracy always seems to be present. None of the religious traditions are free from their bad seeds, and even what appear to be progressive and moderate sects have produced their nutcases.

So the non-religious are non-plussed by the “Well, they don’t represent true Christianity” response. Religious people keep saying that, but it doesn’t really jive with the facts. Christianity and Islam keep producing people who are violent, intolerant, and oppressive. That really does seem like it is a part of true Christianity, whatever that is.

We are also unimpressed by the feeble attempts to dismiss the horrible acts of the faithful by appeal to textual exegesis. Far too often we have heard that if a passage is understood in its “proper” context and in the “right” way, then that extreme belief, or act is clearly not what God intended. Even George Bush was quick to point out in many public forums that those Muslims who committed 9-11 and other terrorist acts do not represent true Islam. (Somehow I doubt that Bush knows much about Islamic doctrine.)

I’m not a relativist in general. I do not think that the truth is just what some individual, or some group, or whole culture thinks it is. I don’t believe that there are no objective universal moral principles. But I am at a complete loss when I am trying to understand someone’s claim that a passage in the Bible or The Koran has a ”correct” or “true” interpretation. What I have seen over the years is thousands of people conveniently invoking that endorsement for the reading that they are giving to that passage. It would appear that if we are to take their word for it, then there are as many “true” or “correct” interpretations of a passage as there are people reading it. Everyone seems to have a great deal of confidence that the way they are understanding it is the way to see it and all the others are wrong. From the outside, I just see a lot of people frittering away vast amounts of time and energy doing textual exegesis on a document that is a complete train wreck of ambiguities, contradictions, stylistic conflicts, omissions, extraneous details, competing themes, and vagaries. It doesn’t even make sense to me to talk about one single true or correct interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and that’s a very carefully written, cohesive, and remarkable work of art written by one person (a genius) in a relatively short period of time. Anyone who thinks that the Bible or the Koran are internally consistent, cohesive, sensible works full of sound advice about morality, society, and our personal lives probably hasn’t read them. And they can’t seriously expect those of us who are not religious to view their over confident textual exegesis project with much understanding or sympathy.

“Oh, ok, now I see. You’ve made it clear to me that your fundamentalist movement is the first one to get it right and all these Catholics, and Lutherans, and Anglicans have all been getting it completely wrong for all these centuries. It’s so obvious now that you say it, I don’t see why all of them can’t see it too. They must all be stupid and sinful—all 800 million of them.”

In a debate I pointed out recently that 55% of Americans believe that the faithful will be saved by the Rapture before the end of the world, and more than 36% of Americans say that the Bible’s book of Revelations is full of true prophesies. My responder argued that the “correct” interpretation of some passage or other did not suggest anything about an afterlife. So that would mean that at least 165 million Americans, all of whom have complete confidence that they have gotten the Rapture business right, are all wrong about the text, but my responder had it right. And he seemed to be suggesting, with a straight face, that “true” Christianity doesn’t actually include a rapture or an afterlife. There’s not much that binds all the varieties of Christians together under the label, but what has been an essential part of the institution for its entire history is that they think that Jesus is the son of God, and that believers are going to heaven in the afterlife.

The textual exegesis response to religious crimes against humanity is a frustratingly evasive answer to a real problem that the rest of us are desperately concerned about. Religious people have the capacity to commit staggering harm to the rest of us. And they are frequently intolerant of disbelief and disregard of their religious agendas. But when we raise those concerns and we justify our suspicion of religion, their misdeeds are almost always dismissed and explained away by some cryptic appeal to an ancient text that has been “misunderstood.” What the text says really has nothing to do with the real problem we are facing. Religious ideas have enormous appeal, and religious movements spawn murderous zealots, sociopaths, and theocrats. So religious institutions and the people within them need to take responsibility for those disasters. With 165 million Americans thinking that the Rapture is coming any day, it would seem that we have already crossed over the line where the so-called extreme fringe of the movement has become mainstream. The non religious are worried because they are the people that the “true” believers will come after first. But when they are done with us, they are going to come after the religious moderates whose faith isn’t profound enough and whose zeal is lacking commitment.


Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Very true. I have heard many people in person tell me the "their not true/real muslums or christians" argument. Religious institutions hold a lot of money and power, they will go at lengths to gain power or maintain the status quo, via liberal or extreme ideologues and measures. I see similiar trends in partisan politics and political ideologies. For example, even though communism was a failure in economic efficiency, incentive, and productivity, people still say "that is because Marxism was not implemented properly" or "well capitalism can become so dynamic as to melt down". That to me does not defend the system of communism very well.

Howaminotmyself? said...

What commonly goes unnoticed by Theists of all sorts who deny past misdeeds as being correctly justified on the relevant religious text, is that they commonly lack any understanding or justification of the truth conditions of such a claim.

Often when confronted with some past injustice or immoral act seemingly justified by religious text, a theist will argue that that particular interpretation is wrong (and furthermore often have their own interpretation which luckily is the correct one) and therefore absolves their religion from the guilt of that act. Rarely ever will you find the theist that can not only tell you that that interpretation is wrong but tell you Why that is the case. This is not to say that explanations for their interpretations are not forthcoming. "That is how I have learned it" or "That is not how the text is viewed today" or "That is not a moral act, and my deity would never command a non moral act, ergo it must have been the wrong interpretation". (interestingly ignorant of that fact that that puts the cart before the horse!)Explanations such as these (perhaps minus the third)wont do because not only are they available to be used just as effectively by others voicing different interpretations, but they don't appear to be the sorts of explanations that allow us to verify the truth of the interpretive claim. What would be nice would be an explanation along the lines of "People in that time were ignorant of the relevant religious facts X, Y, Z" or "The copy of the religious text being used at that time was poorly translated and therefore prone to error". explanations such as these are the sorts of explanations that allow us to see what is involved in the truth of their claim, and why it is the case that their interpretation is the correct one.

Next time you are faced with an explanation which purports to privy one interpretation over another, ask yourself: "Is the explanation given the sort of explanation which allows access, or a method of getting at the truth involved in the claim?"

Anonymous said...

On a sidenote, I am quite surprised, given your sharp critiques of many theistic claims, that you buy into the existence of objective moral values. There seems to be almost less reason to believe in an objective morality than in the existence of God, and many of the same types of objections and arguments that are raised against God can be raised against objective values. (And, it is interesting to note, given the nonexistence of objective moral values, it follows that God as typically understood cannot exist, unless our notion of benevolence is radically revised. A two-for-one deal I suppose...)

In all seriousness though, I think this is actually a very important issue for atheists to deal with, once they realize that without God there really is no plausible candidate for an objective moral framework left over. This is not to say that it is impossible for there to be an objective moral order without God--in fact, it is the other way around, as noted above. But it is to say that broadminded atheists need to get serious about the other fairy tales we tell ourselves about what is objectively "Right", "Wrong", "Good", "Bad", and so on. It is complete lunacy, right on par with belief in God.

Howaminotmyself? said...

(Just to let it be known, my views and opinions are my own, and not necessarily that of the Blog's Author)

In reply to the Anonymous poster:

1)I am quite surprised, given your sharp critiques of the existence of objective moral values and atheists that hold them, that your post is all assertion and no argument.

2) Your post seems to be confusing 2 separate, albeit related, issues. At times you seem to be asserting that without god we will have no "framework" within which to generate moral claims of such a nature to apply in all cases (an objective moral claim). This is a question about Normative Ethics, and is just simply false. There are at least 3 well established systems or "frameworks": Virtue ethics, Utilitarianism, and Deontological ethics, all of which are capable of generating moral claims on the normative level which apply objectively. Should you have objections to any one or all of those theories, fair enough, but you would have a lot of work to do in disproving them all, and you hardly addressed them in your post.

In other moods you appear to be rejecting objective moral ontology.

" There seems to be almost less reason to believe in an objective morality than in the existence of God, and many of the same types of objections and arguments that are raised against God can be raised against objective values."

Objective moral ontology is an issue that falls in the domain of Meta-Ethics. You seem to want to draw an analogy between the metaphysical / Ontological status of God, and the MetaPhys / Ontolog status of Objective Moral truths. I will freely grant you that perhaps there are some analogous issues here, and that Objective Moral truths, or Moral truths in general are metaphysically queer or exceedingly difficult to pin down. Your analogy with God indicates that perhaps you are really against Moral Realism as a meta-ethical position. You appear to think that embracing a Realist position about Moral truths (at least as far as their ontological status is concerned) is some sort of whimsical "Fairy tale" and thus similar to the belief in God. My intuitions are with you on this, and perhaps there is an argument there.

However there are plenty of Meta-Ethical positions which would allow us to hold on to objective moral claims at the Normative level without forcing us to engage with the Strong Moral ontology of the realist position which you reject. Quasi-Realism, Expressivism, Reductionism, and Error-theory are all theories which meet such a demand.

In conclusion it would appear that your post can be summed up by saying:

"If one rejects the Metaphysical and Ontological status of God, one should also take a hard and long look at the Metaphysical and Ontological status of their Realist Meta-Ethic."

Anonymous said...

"I am quite surprised, given your sharp critiques of the existence of objective moral values and atheists that hold them, that your post is all assertion and no argument."

Yes, it was a comment on a blog, introduced as a "sidenote", not something I was planning to submit to a peer reviewed journal. I did not intend to (nor was I required to) present an elaborate rejection of all possible meta-ethical positions that have some claim to objectivity. (I would also add that my level of rigor was not ridiculously far from that found in some of the professor's own commentary, or the other comments on this blog.)

And yes, you are correct, I was targeting a specific flavor of moral realism. Perhaps some of the others you mentioned would also qualify under some notion of "objectivity", though I was using the term in a more casual sense--a sense under which I think most people would reject most error theories, for example, as being objective moral theories (despite their describing an objective reality).

I just want to reiterate that my claim was not: without God, there cannot exist an objective (realist) moral framework. I think the final summary you gave at the very end is a charitable summary.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Matt.

Unfortunately, the problem we're dealing with is that people have been taught to excuse or ignore religious crimes.

Our culture needs to change, and the only way that's going to happen is if atheists start speaking up more.

Atheists need to start with the problem head on: we need to start exposing religious texts for the immoral documents they are.

We need to document how the immorality espoused by monotheistic religions warps children with fear and violence.

If this country had a real media, this would be the case to take on.

As for the side-debate regarding objective truth and morality, Atheists should beware of going the relativist or anti-realist route.

How can a relativist of any stripe really say that anything about religion is wrong?

The theist can always say "This is my culture," or "This is my individual choice," etc.

The truth is there is an objective world out there and it has human beings in it -- all an ontological facts.

More facts: human beings feel pain and hate being tortured and killed -- objective truths.

The relativist position would have us believe that people are so different from on another that there is nothing it is like to be human.

But we don't really buy that, do we?

We believe in universal human rights because we recognize something essentially the same in all human beings.

Cultures and practices may differ, but the structure of human existence is objective: we all shit, fuck, feel pain, pleasure, and die.

Whats relative about that?