Social Question

mattbrowne's avatar

Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?

Asked by mattbrowne (31588points) January 29th, 2010

What if we could know, scientifically, that one side has the edge in brainpower? Should that change how we think about political issues?

Who are smarter, liberals or conservatives? This is the kind of question that could spark fierce and endless debates between political opponents, but what if we could know, scientifically, that one side has the edge in brainpower? Should that change how we think about political issues?

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166 Answers

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cookieman's avatar

Well I think it’s a silly question on it’s face but

Here’s a conversation I had with my (very conservative republican) boss last week:
Boss: You liberals don’t like dumb people. You think everyone should be educated like you.
Me: It’s not that I “don’t like” dumb people, but yeah…I think everyone has a right to an education.
Boss: See, folks like me…we want people to stay dumb. This way, folks like me have a better chance of staying in power and, ultimately, having more money than everyone else.

Randy's avatar

Why does one side have to have an edge? Political party association is a choice. There are extremely intelligent people that agree with both sides. There are people that flip-flop from one party to the other. Saying that a group of people is smarter than another group when both groups are open to ANYONE to join is like saying The U.S. is am english speaking country. Sure… for the most part it is, but there are plenty of exceptions.

dpworkin's avatar

I would take decent over smart any day of the week.

Trillian's avatar

”...too many elites see this correlation between smartness and liberalism as somehow a validation of their political views. They seem unaware that the wider world features plenty of intelligent people who are not professors or movie critics or government bureaucrats. Even among the nation’s smartest people, liberal elites could easily be in the minority politically, but different social circles keep them insulated from finding that out. The result is a convenient but damaging political meme that circulates among some people on the Left—the belief that their opponents simply can’t understand what makes for good policy.”

Tsk tsk.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

The Conservative syndrome describes a person who attaches particular importance to the respect of tradition, humility, devoutness and moderation; as well as to obedience, self-discipline and politeness, social order, family, and national security; and has a sense of belonging to and a pride in a group with which he or she identifies. A Conservative person also subscribes to conventional religious beliefs and accepts the mystical, including paranormal, experiences.

This is an excellent description.

@dpworkin, but decent is as subjective as smart. What if “decent” applied only to like-minded individuals and did not extend to people who were not like-minded?

From the article, I have to wonder if the difference is less about “smart” than it is about ideation. Liberals see potential and possibilities, and are strategists, and conservatives are more of an actionable mindset. I tend to see liberals as inclusive, and conservatives as exclusive.

philosopher's avatar

I think that opened mined people who make decisions based on facts, common sense and real life situations are the most intelligent.
Partisan Politicians make me ill. I usually disagree with both Political parties.
I believe there are three sides to every issue yours, mine and the impartial truth.

Blackberry's avatar

Usually…Yes. And I’m totally serious. Just like secular-minded people are usually smarter than religious people.

ubersiren's avatar

It shouldn’t change anything. In our country (the US) all men are supposed to be treated equal, regardless of intelligence or belief. Laws, rights, government service, votes and taxes shouldn’t be given according to intelligence. If this is proven, the two-party system would probably dissolve. However, the “dumber” of the two groups should still be given an equal input on policy.

For the record, I think conservatives and liberals (whatever those terms mean, anyway) are equally stupid.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Conservativism and liberalism are not just about politics, but extend into personal lives. There are people who are personally liberal, and politically conservative, and vice versa.

aprilsimnel's avatar

I think there are very smart people on all political sides. And I think everyone leans to the side that they feel best exemplifies their deepest personal values.

mattbrowne's avatar

The article I linked to contains the following section:

“More recently, Sarah Palin was routinely attacked for her alleged cognitive limitations. A false rumor even floated around the liberal blogosphere that she scored an absurdly low 841 on the SAT. So are these attacks unfair? Yes, if they are leveled at top politicians. It is nearly impossible to rise to the top of the American political scene without some real smarts. Party leaders are rarely geniuses, but it is almost inconceivable that they could have below average IQs.”

It makes sense to me, but I’m puzzled about Sarah Palin.

Trillian's avatar

@mattbrowne, what puzzles you about SP? I need to think about something else and pull myself up, so let’s hear it? Understand that I have no leanings either way. I’m mostly just curious about this.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@mattbrowne , that’s a very interesting article. It supports the assertion that mainstream Republicans are more than happy to have the support of people whose affectations of conservatism are more rooted in fear and confusion than in any kind of rational self-interest. They probably wouldn’t be able to hold on to power, even regionally, without it.

If anything, the people at the top are smarter, I would argue, or at least they’re more pragmatic. Nixon gave us the Southern Strategy. Reagan courted the religious right. Bush II and Gingrich appealed to angry, little, white men. Now it’s the teabaggers. They use all of these people without really having any of their interests at heart. But they’re dumb enough to keep falling for it.

Blackberry's avatar

@cprevite Lol…..Liberals – 1, Conservatives – 0

cookieman's avatar

@Blackberry: Yes, unless you’re keeping score with money. :^(

CyanoticWasp's avatar

What if libertarians left both “sides” in the dust?

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@CyanoticWasp , the Libertarians haven’t picked up more that 0.5% of the popular vote in a presidential election since the 1980s. If they’re smart, they’re not very effective.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Trillian – Her supposed above average IQ, according to the article. Everything I know about her does contradict this.

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – Talking about top Republicans. I think Colin Powell is extremely smart.

aprilsimnel's avatar

@cprevite – This is similar to what my (admittedly young) roommate said to me when I asked him what he thought was so great about George Bush. It wasn’t George Bush he liked, because he totally agreed with me that he was a puppet for the New American Century types, but he said, “Shit, I want to be on the side of the winners, OK? Those people with the most money ain’t Democrats!”

Supacase's avatar

I think any groups (or more specifically, members of groups) obsessed with proving they are better than other groups are insecure and childish. If you have a platform, stand on it. Stop putting your time and energy into sawing the legs off of the person’s next to you.

Sometimes different is just different. Not better, worse, smarter, dumber, prettier, uglier, kinder, meaner or anything else. Just different. Why are people who are so fundamentally determined to prove that everyone is equal so concerned about belittling another group of people? Doesn’t that immediately revoke any credibility they may have had?

Grown men and women taking pot shots at one another; the political bickering might as well be taking place in a school yard. I swear to the universe, it makes everyone look stupid and it is embarrassing to be associated with it at all.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@mattbrowne , Powell was smart enough to back the right horse in 2008. He’s more old guard, like they were in Eisenhower’s day. The modern Republican party was crafted by Reagan strategists, really beginning in the 1970s. Even Nixon was downright liberal by their standards. I’ve heard it said that Reagan himself is liberal by current party standards, although they’ll never say it.

Trillian's avatar

@Supacase; “Why are people who are so fundamentally determined to prove that everyone is equal so concerned about belittling another group of people? Doesn’t that immediately revoke any credibility they may have had?”

Judi's avatar

I think moderates, who can see truth regardless of ideology are the smartest.

mowens's avatar

I’ve met insanely stupid liberals.

I have also met insanely stupid conservatives.

There is nothing you can do. :)

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@Judi , moderates are always frustrated by the choices they’re given. It’s a hard thing to be as a voter, and even harder to be one as a politician. You might have the right ideas, and there might be people who want to elect you, but you can’t get any backing from either party.

lonelydragon's avatar

@mattbrowne People can be intelligent in different ways. SP appeared to be lacking in traditional book smarts, but socially, she’s very savvy. She carefully cultivated her folksy (yet still fashionable) soccer mom persona to appeal to her intended voting population, and she won their hearts. While I am no fan of SP’s politics, I had to give her props for her ability to charm. She knew what her public wanted, and she gave it to them.

Judi's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex ; It makes you wonder if our republic can survive doesn’t it? sigh….......

mattbrowne's avatar

@lonelydragon – Social smarts. Good point. But people who are bashing fruit fly research are extremely ignorant and essentially declaring war on science.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@Judi , it frightens me, yes. I threw in with the Democrats a long time ago, but I often regret how the party always wants to do everything in a big, dramatic way. Small steps accomplish more in the long run. My parents were Republicans, but that was back in Eisenhower’s day. I still admire Ike for his cool head and sensible outlook. Where have such people gone?

Trillian's avatar

@mattbrowne I found a link. I had heard before that there were 7 or 8 different types of IQ. They are:
1. Linguistic and verbal intelligence: good with words
2. Logical intelligence: good with math and logic
3. Spatial intelligence: good with pictures
4. Body/movement intelligence: good with activities
5. Musical intelligence: good with rhythm
6. Interpersonal intelligence: good with communication
7. Intrapersonal intelligence: good with analyzing
8. Naturalist intelligence: good with understanding
natural world

This may explain the doctors with whom I’ve worked who were brilliant physicians but complete social morons and could not be trusted to find their butts with both hands and a flashlight.

stump's avatar

I am the smartest person in the world, and I am a liberal. So if you count me, yes, liberals are smarter than conservatives. If you don’t count me, it’s pretty even.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

@mattbrowne, the film Drop Dead Gorgeous has a lot of correlations with Sarah Palin.

Drive and ambition can trump intellect at every turn.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

This just in:

Follow down the page to the graphs. Most noteworthy is the substantial uptick in his support among postgraduate-educated Americans in the last weeks, even though his overall support is relatively dismal.

Zuma's avatar

We used to have very intelligent conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley and Kevin Phillips, even Milton Friedman and Robert Bork, but now “conservative” has come to mean something altogether different than it used to. It has become a shibboleth for anxious and beleaguered white folks who see their status as the dominant majority declining. Conservatism has become suffused with faith and holy purpose; it has become an apocalyptic movement, as witness to Sara Palin taking SNL’s Sarapocalypse parody as a compliment. It’s gone so far that they no longer recognize compassion as a Christian virtue, but as a Liberal code word for placing people ahead of profits and principle.

I don’t think IQ has much to do with it. Intelligent people are more, not less, prone to self-deception. But, then again, you have to wonder about tens of millions of people—largely concentrated in the South, who get most of their news from Fox News—being willing to vote for McCain as he promised to essentially “double down” on the very same economic policies that were then bringing the world economy to the brink of collapse while everyone watched in astonished horror.

There seems to be a peculiar kind of data blindness and analysis paralysis that seems to afflict fundamentalists, and others of uncompromising faith.

Qingu's avatar

Intelligence is hard to quantify.

I prefer to talk about intellectual honesty. I think liberals are manifestly more honest than conservatives, both in their engagement with the real world and its evidence and in their engagement with their own rhetoric and claims.

I suppose the fundamental reason for this is that human beings are constantly learning new things about the world and about ourselves, and many of the things we learn disprove things we have previously thought. Conservatism, fundamentally, is an ideology about holding onto the past—and when new evidence demands we change our old views and ways, conservatives have no recourse other than abandon their ideology or engage in intellectual dishonesty.

@Zuma, William F. Buckley was a racist and a dipshit. I wouldn’t call him “intelligent,” he just put on the airs of intelligence, like how creationists dress up their arguments in scientific-sounding rhetoric.

davidk's avatar

Everyone thinks that those who think like they do are “smarter” than those whose opinions differ are not as intelligent. However, opinions of any sort—let alone political opinions—are not a measure of intelligence.

Qingu's avatar

@davidk, opinions can be a measure of intellectual honesty and one’s engagement with reality.

If I held the opinion that, for example, the sun revolves around the earth—perhaps that wouldn’t necessarily indicate that I was “stupid,” but it would say something about the way I intellectually interact with the world.

andrew's avatar

Having grown up in very conservative, rural, wealthy Illinois and having been educated in one of the most elite, liberal universities, I think the real difficulty Liberals contend with is smugness, as @Trillian pointed out so well from the article.

While it’s a popular meme that Conservatives are more willing to follow authority, I think there’s a persuasive argument that Liberals will blindly follow anyone with cache—the reviewer, the Ivy League-educated, etc.

I think there’s great room for honest debate between Conservatives and Liberals, and ultimately that tension makes for better policy, but in the Post-Gingrich partisan political climate, we’ve gone way, way, way beyond having any type of real discourse or argument in the country.

Instead, the ‘Conservative’ movement has now become synonymous with fear-based truth-stretching (to be kind) that lacks any sort of honest debate—like how I lost all respect for John McCain when he decided to started to incorporate blatant lies in his campaign. It’s even beyond what I’d consider a necessary amount of ‘spin’ (it’s unreasonable to expect the electorate to be wonks and follow/understand every policy).

It’s unfortunate that we’ve abandoned real debate, unfortunate that the Liberal/Progessive movement hasn’t been able to refute the fear-based messaging of the Neo-Conservatives, and unfortunate that our democracy is in such a sorry, sorry state.

AstroChuck's avatar

As a liberal I’m much too smart to answer a question such as this.

davidk's avatar

I gave you a great answer for that one. As a socialist, I must concur with your take on what you have called “one’s engagement with reality.” On the other hand, the term “intellectual honesty” is suspect. After all, look at the equivocal and slippery nature of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.”

Judi's avatar

@Zuma; I want to quote you for my facebook status, but I would probably be lynched by my conservative friends

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Judi you should – you shouldn’t fear conservatives or liberals – it’s your FB
the two terms have ever changing meanings – people who’d have been conservatives 20 years ago are no longer, by definition, part of that camp. the two party system is outdated and ineffective not just politically but socially as well. dumd is dumb anywhere if they can’t back up their opinions with logic. I consider myself a complete liberal given whatever definition yet when I think of conservatives the only thing that comes to mind has to do with religion and not with intelligence…

philosopher's avatar

I am no liberal but I agree. I am an Independent I have little us for either party. They do not represent Middle Class working people.

Nullo's avatar

The sentiment that I’ve picked up is that liberals seem to be more inclined to think themselves more intelligent than conservatives (or perhaps that conservatives are less intelligent), and that because they keep telling themselves as much, and they have a greater presence among university faculty. It seems more likely that both sides are equally intelligent.

I think that Western culture (and maybe Eastern, too) has done itself a disservice by convincing itself that those of relatively lesser intellect are somehow less valuable as people and opinion-generators.

lonelydragon's avatar

@Zuma “Intelligent people are more, not less, prone to self-deception.” How so?

Nullo's avatar

Not Zuma, but I think that he (she?) may have been aiming along the lines of “Pride goes before a fall.”

Zuma's avatar

@lonelydragon Intelligent people are more, not less, prone to self-deception because they tend to have ideas about how things ought to be. Their philosophies, coupled with their capacities for rationalization tend to lead them to see “both sides of an issue” and to impute reasonable and principled motives to people who are simply acting out of brazen self-interest. They are also more apt to find reasons why something can’t be done. And, they are uniquely susceptible to flattery when appealing to their intellect. “Beware intelligent men,” Alexander’s mother, writes to her great son, (in the hope of manipulating him to send for her to become his trusted confidant).

filmfann's avatar

A friend of mine used to say Conservatives under 30 have no heart, and Liberals over 30 have no brains.
I prefer Moderates. Don’t accept anything either says as what is right.

Zuma's avatar

@filmfann By Moderates, I assume you mean “has neither.”

filmfann's avatar

@Zuma I have decided to answer your question using interpretive dance.

philosopher's avatar

Who sound like me. I am an Independent moderate.

Qingu's avatar

@filmfann, taking the middle position of two inconsistent positions is not intelligent.

“This man says diseases are caused by germs, this man says diseases are caused my demons. As a moderate, the truth must be somewhere in between, so I believe diseases are caused by microscopic demons.”

CyanoticWasp's avatar

@Qingu, actually, the middle ground between “germs” and “demons” would be “germons”, wouldn’t it?

I’m just sayin’ ...

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Qingu I agree with you. Moderate doesn’t at all mean best.

YARNLADY's avatar

This is a very interesting discussion, with good points on both sides. My personal view is that it’s not very smart to put all your eggs in one basket. Anyone who falls too deep into either position puts his intelligence at risk.

Nullo's avatar

Aw, you’re just not giving demons a fair shake :P. Humans are excellent vectors for disease; why not something even more foul than a human?

Dr_Dredd's avatar

@Qingu I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with someone viewing a virus as a microscopic demon, as long as I could convince them that the proper exorcism was an antiviral drug. :-)

mammal's avatar

both are good at self preservation and self advancement, both are full of shit in my experience.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Trillian – Thanks for the great link. I would actually extend the list like following

1. Linguistic and verbal intelligence: good with words
2. Logical intelligence: good with math and logic
3. Spatial intelligence: good with pictures
4. Body/movement intelligence: good with activities
5. Musical intelligence: good with rhythm
6. Interpersonal intelligence: good with communication
7. Intrapersonal intelligence: good with analyzing things
8. Naturalist intelligence: good with understanding natural world
9. Basic emotional intelligence: good with observing and influencing one’s own emotions
10. Empathic accuracy: good at reading and understanding emotions of others
11. Social cognition: team player with good facilitation of team development
12. General social facility: good with synchrony, self-presentation, influence, and concern

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – Interesting poll, thanks! I think Obama is especially smart when it comes to (see above):

Basic emotional intelligence: good with observing and influencing one’s own emotions
Empathic accuracy: good at reading and understanding emotions of others
Social cognition: team player with good facilitation of team development
General social facility: good with synchrony, self-presentation, influence, and concern

mattbrowne's avatar

@Zuma – I agree with most of your views especially when it comes to the religious right and biblical literalism. The reasoning does become fallacious and the real cause is as you said an actual impairment in the ability to think.

However not all right-wing Republicans belong to the religious right, let alone all conservatives. Many liberals are actually quite conservative as well, above all when it comes to the conservation of the ecosystems on our planet.

mattbrowne's avatar

@andrew – In addition to (some) liberals blindly following academic stars, the second mistake is ignoring the spiritual hunger in our developed world. The search for meaning in a despiritualized world is leading many people to right-wing religious communities.

andrew's avatar

@mattbrowne Completely agree.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@mattbrowne I agree with you and it saddens me – there is hunger out there to make connections with people in this manner but nothing outside of religion that provides it – that’s too bad.

Trillian's avatar

@mattbrowne I especially like what you said to @andrew. I think there is a big spiritual hunger in our society that is going largely unrecognized, not to mention unmet. We are so concerned with rationality that we discount our irrational need to believe in something other than ourselves, though I believe we’ve proven ourselves to be hardwired this way. Maybe the knowledge that it is part of our hardwiring is the problem, and we think that we should consequently ignore it. That may be a mistake. Maybe the hardwiring was put there for a specific reason….
You rock!

Qingu's avatar

Religion doesn’t provide anything that isn’t provided by secular alternatives.

It’s just better at marketing to poor, uneducated people and it’s better at enforcement through authority cults.

I think the word “spiritual” has no actual meaning. It’s such a fuzzy word and it’s typically wielded tautologically as a synonym for “religious.”

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu “I think the word “spiritual” has no actual meaning. It’s such a fuzzy word and it’s typically wielded tautologically as a synonym for “religious.””

Perhaps, then, “Humanity” has no meaning either. It’s just a fuzzy tautological synonym for “spiritual.” We are not defining a ball bearing here, the word “spiritual” like the word “Humanity” points to the very essence of what it means to be a moral being in the human context. An “essence,” in this respect, is an emergent and evolving phenomenon; it does not have a list of strict denotative criteria that define it completely, but that does not mean that it is without meaning. Terms like “human dignity” or “civilized,” or “cruel and unusual” are similarly open-ended so that their meaning can evolve to fit the cultural circumstances.

They are part of a moral discourse, and as such, they derive their meaning from that discourse. Indeed, @Trillian is correct, there is a spiritual hunger in our society—there is a deep longing to belong to something greater than oneself, whether it is a social movement, or something more philosophically abstract.

If you don’t want to be part of that discourse because you have painted yourself into an intellectual corner, or because you find such things cheap and cultish, then fine. But don’t go to the ridiculous length of denying the very existence of other people’s spirituality. It smacks of bad faith, because it refuses to acknowledge other people’s sense of humanity, and how they use religion (or whatever) to connect with it. In a sense it denies people’s humanity by attacking the way they go about connecting with it.

Sure, that method is fallible and people sometimes come to a distorted sense of what is required of them as human beings, but that is something one addresses within the dialogue, not by denouncing the whole discourse.

Nullo's avatar

Society can’t provide you with a loving God, or salvation from eternal damnation, can it? Best you can manage is a cold, distant uber-government that’ll do a crappy job at funding your healthcare.
And I disagree with your “poor, uneducated” assessment; I go to a church that sits firmly in the middle class, has a number of software engineers and IT guys, a mining engineer, a psychologist, a retired journalist, three doctors, a medical researcher, and a bunch of degree-holding cube-fillers.

“Spiritual” has different meanings in different contexts. Dictionary-wise, it means “of or pertaining to spirits.” I got the impression that @Trillian was using “spiritual” as a way to reference things immaterial.

Judi's avatar

@mattbrowne; it makes me sad that I can’t seem to fond a Christian community that does not view me as some sort of outsider because of my liberal political views or that is so liberal that it barely resembles Christianity.
Where is common sense?

Zuma's avatar

@Judi Try the Quakers, or the Maryknolls, or the Unitarians, or any of the mainstream Protestant denominations. There are even some evangelical churches that are in it only for the love and not the politics.

Nullo's avatar

Tell me what you believe, or at least what you think a church ought to be like. Then perhaps we can place you better.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Nullo do you charge for this service, lol?

Nullo's avatar

No, but tips are always welcome :P

mattbrowne's avatar

While it certainly isn’t a set of logical axioms for Boolean algebra, I don’t think spirituality has a fuzzy meaning. To me it’s a universal human quest for a meaningful life and a positive sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose of people from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves. The belief in a deity is optional, which means there are atheists who do consider themselves spiritual but not religious.

I agree with @Trillian. In most western societies there is indeed a big spiritual hunger that is going largely unrecognized. @Simone_De_Beauvoir said that there is nothing outside of religion that provides it. Well, maybe we’ve got to look a bit harder. And we need to overcome the conventional, black and white thinking of mutual exclusivity.

There are believers who are also skeptics and share many of the values of organizations like dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking.

On the other hand there are also nonbelievers who are spiritually inclined and share many of the values of organizations like dedicated to promoting forces of healing, transformation, love and generosity.

The Network of Spiritual Progressives views itself as a vehicle across faith communities, religions, denominations, and spiritual movements (which includes atheism). It was founded based on three basic tenets:
– changing the bottom line in America
– challenging the misuse of religion, God and spirit by the Religious Right
– challenging the many anti-religious and anti-spiritual assumptions and behaviors that have increasingly become part of the liberal culture

It has become an international organization. @Zuma and I had a very fruitful discussion about it a while ago. The Network of Spiritual Progressives is not a unitarian approach. Maybe it’s what @Judi is looking for. I think there are other networks out there and it’s my opinion that liberal believers and nonbelievers should join forces trying to find new answers and trying to offer new communities which embrace humanism and science as well as meaning and purpose. Telling evolution deniers how stupid they are won’t do the job. Telling our kids that our universe has no purpose, no meaning, no evil and no good, and that the way it works is nothing but blind, pitiless indifference, won’t do the job either.

There’s one page I would really to recommend called “A Spiritual Covenant with America”

It’s really worth reading.

Judi's avatar

I am Lutheran (LCMS) and have no problem with the doctrine. I am personally very conservative but I don’t think it is the Chirches place to try to dictate the behavior of the world outside the church.
My church friends seem to have gone over the deep end politically and I feel very out of place.
I have been considering looking into the Orthodox church. (I love the Litergy)

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, churches shouldn’t do that. They can have an opinion about politics. But the decisions are being made by elected representatives.

philosopher's avatar

I think Independents are the smartest people. They see things objectively. They want moderation. They want to compromise and usually see the good points from the R and L. They dislike all the partisan BS. They look for documentation and decide things based on documentation and common sense.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@mattbrowne I want to clarify that there could be something outside of a religion that provides it but there’s no concerted effort to have it.

Trillian's avatar

@Judi, I agree with you that it is not the church’s place, nor the people who attend said churches. “Christians” who persist in judgmental behaviour about about various issues are not only missing the point of Christianity, but giving it bad press at the same time. I pointed this out to one of the older men in my church a couple years ago when he was complaining about something that he had seen someone doing. I said that the instructions laid out in the New Testament were for the people of the church to follow, not the “sinners”. How can you expect godly behaviour from a non godly person?
I could see that he took some time digesting this concept. I don’t know how well it took.
Ahhhh, this is way off topic. Sorry. Just, please don’t judge Christianity badly because of Christians who misunderstand what they’re supposed to be doing. There has been precious little guidance for Christians for a very long time.
@mattbrowne yes, good addition to the list. I think that there should be another about machines. I know someone who is a mechanical and wiring genius. I’ve seen him take an entire car wiring “thingy”, whatever the heck it is, with several hundred wires all over the place. I had to leave; just looking at it gave me a headache. He had the wires grouped, taped and labeled when I came back, and this is just one thing he can do. The list is long and impressive. This should count as some type of IQ, I’m sure.

Judi's avatar

@Trillian ; I am always sad when people judge Christ by the people who claim to follow him. We’re on the same page.
I also need to say that all my spelling errors above are my iPhone and my fat fingers fault. sorry.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

@mattbrowne , Re, Did you catch Obama’s Q&A with the House Republican caucus the other day? I just watched all 67 minutes of it. In the lion’s den, no teleprompter, and I thought he pricked every balloon they floated to him. It left me no doubt that he’s the right guy for the job.

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – Yes, Obama doesn’t need teleprompters. Maybe he’s so smart because he’s a moderately conservative liberal. @philosopher – He’s probably the most bipartisan American President in a long time.

Qingu's avatar

@Zuma, you brought up some other “fuzzy” words like humanity, dignity, etc. In my experience talking to people, these words are significantly less fuzzy than “spiritual.”

When you say “humanity” or “dignity,” everyone knows what you’re talking about. It’s fuzzy, but there is a more or less consensus view what is included in these definitions.

Spiritual? Not so much. A sunset is “spiritual” for some people. For others it’s a relationship with a fictional character from an ancient religious text. My problem with the word is that too often, people tautologically define “spiritual” to mean “religious.”

For example, I’ve heard the argument “atheists are bad/mean/whatever because they don’t respect people’s spiritualism.” Okay… what does that word mean? I respect beauty, thinking that sunsets are beautiful; I respect love and human connection. What I don’t respect is the content of religious scriptures and traditions and too often the person making this argument is using “spiritual” as a synonym for the very thing I’m criticizing to begin with, in order to shut down discussion and criticism. It’s annoying.

mattbrowne's avatar

Maybe this concept will help: Secular spirituality as a cultural phenomenon refers to the adherence to a spiritual ideology without the advocation of a religious framework. Secular spirituality in principle might embrace many of the same types of practices as religious spirituality, but the motivation is different. Clearly, since beliefs are radically different from those found in most religious spiritual traditions, the emphasis is likely to be on practice rather than belief and on the inner peace of the individual rather than on a relationship with the divine. Proponents make a case for a form of secular spirituality in which the motivation is simply to live happily and/or to help others, which demonstrates how such a motivation can lead to a spiritual life based on the development of qualities very like those prized by many religions.

LostInParadise's avatar

To put in my two cents worth, I see secular spirituality as an awareness of being part of something larger. The something larger can be humanity or the natural world. It also involves a sense of how the various components of the whole interact in a myriad of ways to reinforce one another. What is required is not a leap in faith, as with religious belief, but a change in perspective.

Qingu's avatar

Why not just call it “altruism” or “being part of something greater than yourself”?

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu Because “altruism” is to mono-dimensional and pale a concept for what people are experiencing.

I don’t think that spirituality is all that difficult to understand. I agree with @LostInParadise here, and I would add that in addition to seeing oneself as part of a whole, there is an attentiveness to the moral claims of one’s fellow man that leads one into commitment to preserving the social whole.

If you listen to intelligent theists, the bottom line is that when they pray, or commune, or “talk” to God, there is a felt sense that there is someone there on the other end of the line. And, in a sense there is. It may not be what they think it is, but there is something there.

Ultimately, it does not matter whether it is “really” a supernatural being, or something more prosaic, such as our mirror neurons constructing a “generalized other” (a la Michele Foucault) we imbue a personality exemplifying certain moral values abstracted from our social experience, and given a “high quiet voice” in one’s mind. It may not be an all-powerful supernatural being in the sense we normally contemplate God, nonetheless, it is an immaterial, transcendent personality that stands over and above the individual, insofar as it is a reification of the moral life of the collectivity. Some people may experience this as a “conscience,” others as the voice of an “other,” speaking to them through their minds. But, however one constructs it, it gives voice to the moral claims of one’s fellow man, it eases the feeling that you are morally alone in the world, and it helps you navigate the moral dilemmas of your world.

If you listen carefully to people when they speak of their spirituality, it is clear that they have a definite “something” in mind, and that something defines their humanity. Some become most acutely aware of this “spirit-self” while watching a sunset or other thing of beauty; for others it is a beautiful feeling of ego-abandonment they get when they meditate, or take certain drugs, or lose themselves in a religious ritual or hymn. For others, it is a beautiful mathematical or scientific insight. Beauty evokes spirituality because it awakens a shared aesthetic, rooted in deep shared values.

If the person’s only experience with spirituality is in a religious context, then for them the two ideas are going to be irrevocably linked. That does not mean that the two concepts are irrevocably welded together everywhere and for all time. As I hope I have pointed out, while people experience their spirituality framed in ways that seem to defy crisp definition, there are important commonalities insofar as “spirituality” is a way of placing oneself in a moral universe (made up of the moral claims of one’s fellow man, which may or may not be projected onto mythological constructs).

I agree with you that some religions are destructive and pernicious, but that should not poison the whole idea of spirituality. It is possible to define one’s humanity—one’s spirituality—in more self-actualizing terms, emphasizing things like reason, free choice, respect for others, dignity and acting in good faith, using a liberally interpreted religious template as a touchstone for collective deliberation. I personally define spirituality in terms of being committed to healing the world. (Please read the links to get a sampling of what people mean by “spirituality.”)

Qingu's avatar

I don’t have any problems with spirituality in the various ways you’ve defined it. I just don’t like words that tend to come with imprecise semantics.

Another example being “God,” which can mean anything from a particular character like Dionysus to the Force from Star Wars to an entirely atheistic universe.

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu I share your quest for semantic precision and certitude, but I think it will come some day, when people move beyond their polarizing rhetoric and come to a consensus about these matters. The advantage of using the language of “spirituality” is that it allows you to enter into respectful dialogue in which it is possible to find common ground with people who would otherwise regard you as their enemy. Meeting people on their terms is not only a vital gesture of good faith, it allows you to stake out a position they can relate to and respect without losing sight of what is really important.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if the voice in your head that speaks to you of morality is “really” a god, or a social-psychological construct that personifies the core values of your group. What matters is whether you will help a stranger in need; whether you treat others with the same charity, dignity, and respect that you would wish to be treated; whether you will act in good faith to promote human solidarity by including everyone in your moral universe; and whether you will enlist others in repairing the human legacy of cruelty, exclusion and bad faith. What matters more than doctrine and creed (and even semantic clarity) is whether you can bridge the gap between your individual values and your group’s values, and your group’s values and the values necessary for humanity’s survival.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I view humanity as being in a race against time. As technologies become more powerful and interdependent, it takes fewer and fewer misguided people to precipitate an apocalypse. So, pulling together to repair humanity’s legacies of exclusion and bad faith are absolutely vital to our survival as a species.

I understand your frustration with the concept of “God.” One way to look at it that might make it more palatable is that even though “god” can mean anything from Dionysus, to the Force from Star Wars, to a vague “something” or a self-organizing intelligent Cosmos, the details of these constructs are always going to be different from person to person. But this god, however conceived, is a vital anchor point which the individual uses to place himself in a moral universe. When you disrespect that construct, you are, in a very real sense, shaking that person’s moral world. What is important is not so much how “god” is constructed but what the person feels obligated to do. And that is always open for discussion while the person’s conception of god is often not.

Qingu's avatar

I’m pretty sure we’ve had a very similar discussion before, @Zuma.

My problem with your approach is that it feels somehow manipulative. You’re clothing your essentially atheistic belief in the language of “spirituality” so you can better infiltrate these people’s worldviews to change your mind. I don’t mean to characterize you as pernicious—in fact, I think that’s an admirable way about going about these kind of discussions and I’m glad there are “respectul” secularites like you who want to bridge the gap. My point is that, rather, certain religious people may interpret what you are doing as pernicious, based on my above characterization. Whereas while I’m fairly antagonistic towards religious folks, at least they know what they’re getting when they engage with me.

Really, I feel like there’s room for both approaches.

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu No, I assure you, my spirituality is quite genuine. (See my comments the “healing the world” link above.) Now, while it is true I am not a theist (I am, in fact, morally opposed to all things supernatural), I do have a (naturalistic, deistic, scientifically informed) conception of God that allows me to relate to religious people on their own terms.

This is not a subterfuge because I really don’t care whether the other person is a theist or an atheist. I only care if they are interested in healing humanity’s legacy of exclusion, cruelty, and bad faith. As I keep saying, it matters not one whit to me how the person constructs his god, or if he even has a god construct per se; what matters to me is whether the person is going to help a stranger in need, whether he is going to act in good faith in his dealings, and whether he is going make peace or war. If the person thinks that his God requires him to dehumanize and scapegoat others, I am not going to tell him that it is wrong for him to believe in God. His belief in God is not the problem. The problem is that his belief in God has been perverted to justify a pernicious morality.

Yes, we’ve approached this subject before, but I think we are just now getting somewhere. You are concerned with what people believe, and whether it is intellectually consistent with the formal tenets of their religion. I am not at all concerned with these “mere rationalizations.” I am concerned with what is in people’s hearts, and whether they are loving, moral and constructive.

philosopher's avatar

I agree with many of your views.
It sickens me how any Human could claim they kill in the name of the Lord.
I can not comprehend how any civilized Human would not want to help other Human beings.

Qingu's avatar

@Zuma, I would dispute that your God is on the “same terms” as the various Gods of actually religious people. Certainly many religious people would dispute this (which is why I do—relatability needs to go both ways).

I also think you underestimate how important it is to many religious people that their specific god is the one true God. I mean, obviously there are exceptions. Lots of exceptions on Fluther. And in Europe. In America and in the Muslim world, though, religious people don’t really go in for that unitarian “they’re all shades of the same truth” stuff. If you tell an average Muslim that Allah is the same as the Buddha or the dude who knocked up Mary and had a kid, they are going to think you’re full of shit.

Likewise for telling American Christians. Christ’s death, Godhood, and salvation is super-important to most of them, and if you say “no it’s not because your God is the same as a God who doesn’t have a son and you don’t need salvation from,” they’re going to say that you’re wrong.

Qingu's avatar

Also, as for “what’s in their hearts”...

I’ve talked to a number of Christians, some on Fluther, who I’m assuming are basically good, decent people. And when I show them the verses in their scripture where God orders you to commit genocide, they’re like “well… obviously those people deserved to be mass-murdered.”

Another person I talked to, a Baha’i—probably the most “progressive” religion—was incapable of disagreeing with a writing by his religion’s prophet decrying homosexuality as unnatural. Because obviously Baha’lluah had his reasons for writing that and who is he to say his prophet is wrong?

The content of religious ideology is not entirely separate from what is in religious people’s hearts. It is an authority structure, functions as the supposed bedrock of their faith, and it informs who they are and how they form moral beliefs. They are not “the same” as secular atheists—just as conservatives are not the same as liberals. To deny that, I think, is to deny the importance of their religion in their own lives.

mattbrowne's avatar

Evolving religions are always a reflection of the zeitgeist and spirit of their age. Think of it as an evolution of memeplexes and memes. The selfish memes of genocide, slavery and homophobia are still around today trying to spread from host to host, but they are competing with other very powerful selfish memes such as love of your enemy, freedom of all people and appreciation of both hetero- and homosexuality. The Bahai prophet is facing strong opposition here.

There’s also the meme of narrow-mindedness which seems to befall both stubborn strong atheists and dogmatic believers. They share a common perception: religious memeplexes were frozen at the time of the writing of holy texts and the foundation of religions. They see no place for an evolution of memes. Time stands still. The memeplexes remain unchanged. Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer never existed. Enlightenment never had any influence.

I wonder about new memes capable of changing atheist thinking and their view of religions of the year 2010.

I also wonder how long the ‘quoting genocide scripture meme’ will last always eager to depict religions in the worst possible way. Stubborn little bugger to be sure. Will gene therapy—I mean, meme therapy offer solutions?

Qingu's avatar

Hey, I think that meme is useful!

Religions obviously evolve. But my problem with your perspective, @mattbrowne, is that you don’t seem to acknowledge the huge number of religious people who would vociferously object to the idea that revelation evolves. You’re a unitarian universalist Germany; there is very little daylight between your worldview and mine.

But many American Christians and Muslims throughout the world really do believe that the core essence of their religion has remained unchanged since the time of their prophets—and they like it this way. Like I said to @Zuma, they would dispute your characterization of their beliefs just as much as my characterization of their beliefs as outright bullshit.

mattbrowne's avatar

I do acknowledge that their is a huge number of religious people who would vociferously object to the idea that revelation evolves. It’s millions in the US. But the total number of Christians worldwide is more than 2 billion.

Above I also said that there’s the meme of narrow-mindedness which seems to befall dogmatic believers with religious memeplexes were frozen at the time of the writing of holy texts and the foundation of religions. The vocal religious fanatics in the US fall into this category as well as the religious fanatics in the Muslim world.

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu As for my deistic conception of God being “on the same terms” with theistic conceptions of God, I think you need to get caught up on the dialogue that is actually going on between theologians and scientists. In that regard, I would refer you to the Closer to Truth website where you will find hundreds of interviews with leading scientists and theologians and a very respectful and constructive dialogue between the two.

I am sure there are “huge numbers” of people who think their beliefs are the unchanging bedrock truth revealed in antiquity and handed down unchanged. But, I submit, there are even larger numbers—in fact the vast majority—who aren’t so sure. In fact, I would venture to say that the vast bulk of humanity, religious and non-religious alike, despite professing a faith, aren’t really all that involved in it. Rather, they are mostly ordinary Joes just trying to muddle through life and be a “good person” as best they can.

And then here you come along telling them that it’s all rubbish and rot, because on p.203 is says that “thou shalt poke thy neighbor with a red hot poker (or some such nonsense that hasn’t been observed for centuries and isn’t applicable in the modern world) and you present this as something they must believe, since their scripture says so, or they are a intellectually dishonest, hypocrites, or worse. The only choice you leave them is to abandon their religion cold turkey, or brazen it out by defending it. And you are shocked, just shocked, that they choose to defend the “indefensible.”

Yes, it is true, that most of the world’s religions contain the baggage of a coercive, violent past. But it is also true that religions evolve, and they are struggling mightily to put all this behind them. Look at at anything by Karen Armstrong. Rabbi Michael Lerner makes a distinction between what he calls “The Right Hand of God,” which is all the coercive, militant-fascistic, fundamentalist nonsense you disapprove of and The Left Hand of God, which is an attempt to leave all that behind.

Telling people that they must embrace every retrograde aspect that their religion has accumulated over the centuries isn’t intellectual honesty, it’s intellectual bullying, and it is vicious.

In this respect, you are the kind of atheist that religious people hate, and rightly so—not because you are just “denying God,” but because you scoff at the very idea of spirituality. If my discussion of that above has any weight (and it was looking like I was making some headway), you should be able to see that when you insult people’s spirituality, you insult their very humanity. And when you attack their religion, you are undermining their sense of human solidarity.

Instead of addressing people’s spirituality—their generosity of spirit, their commitment to the greater good, their solidarity with the human race—you bring up divisive points of doctrine and scripture as if these things are really important. Rather than let these things go, you inflame the very fanaticism you deplore, and then you deplore it. It is cynical and vicious game.

Qingu's avatar

I don’t think there’s anything “vicious” about asking people to examine the content of the religion they claim to profess faith in.

Your argument can be turned on its head by saying that such people’s “goodness” and “spirituality” are actually divorced from the content of their religious scriptures and traditions. Which I’d agree with. But if that’s the case then why on earth do they need those things?

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu It is the way you do it.

The reason people need religion is because that is the language and framework through which they understand their humanity. Perhaps in time people can evolve institutions that promote human solidarity in the way that religions do now, but until that time, an attack on religion is pretty much an attack on human solidarity.

Qingu's avatar

To a lesser extent, political ideologies function as a “language and framework” through which people understand their humanity, certainly their social roles.

Would you say that attacking political ideologies is an “attack on human solidarity”?

I have a big problem with the idea that certain ideologies are “off-limits” to criticism. That’s the beginning of censorship. It’s also patronizing to the ideologies in question.

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu Certainly political ideology and spirituality both provide a vocabulary and a conceptual framework, but there is an important difference: Spirituality is about the values which inform the person’s humanity, particularly insofar as the exhort the individual to place the greater good ahead of his own, and to adopt personal values like generosity, kindness, and forgiveness in order to lay the foundations of cooperative relations with others. Spirituality places the individual in a moral universe in which such things as compassion, good faith, and the golden rule invite him to empathize with his fellow man. It is, in this respect, inclusive, cooperative, meliorist and constructive.

Political ideology, on the other hand, places the individual in a competitive arena where he is encouraged to engage in zero-sum thinking. Political ideology provides the rationalizations necessary to support banding together to pursue the narrow, selfish interests of one’s class or party, generally to the detriment of others.

I agree with you that no ideology should be “off-limits” to criticism—and, indeed, I would wholeheartedly join with you in criticizing instances where spirituality has been replaced by political ideology, such as we find in the theocratic machinations of groups like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, or Al Qaeda’s jihadists. In these instances, the solidarity of the group is geared toward denying the humanity of others and destroying their solidarity.

Where I think we part company is that I do not see religion as all about control. Some of it is, of course, but much of it is liberating. People who experience awe in a sunset, or who feel a kind of “force” that suffuses all of life, or who feel “spiritual but not religious” have all managed to shed the authoritarian trappings of religion and have developed a truly constructive outlook on the world, even if they still cling to their old church. It seems almost churlish to deny it.

Why is it important for people to examine the content of their religious scriptures and traditions? Do people actually draw their spirituality from these doctrinal anachronisms? No. So, what is constructive about bringing them up and telling people that in order to be consistent they “can’t pick and choose” and that if they are to be intellectually honest, that they must swallow stuff that they find morally repugnant? (Which is utter nonsense, since you not only can pick and choose, you have to pick and choose, since there are so many inconsistencies and contradictions in these works.)

Now there are some religious doctrines that I do criticize when I get a chance, such as the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. But I do so on the grounds that it promotes an unhealthy spirituality; i.e., it distorts your perception of you fellow man that is unjust. This doctrine has motivated untold child abuse, and all its crippling sequelae. Instead of telling people they have to believe this or they have to reject everything they believe in is not only untrue, it is unfair, and very possibly an act of bad faith.

People always come before principle.

LostInParadise's avatar

This has been a good discussion on both sides. I commend all for both the civility and the intelligence of the comments.

One thing that distinguishes religion from both politics and secular spirituality is the unwavering nature of religious fanatics, convinced that their particular interpetation of some holy book is the only permissible doctrine.

This is unfortunate, because there are some important issues that need to be discussed and that do not have such clear answers.

Consider the issue of gay marriage. There is an important philosophical argument here that does not get aired. How should we define marriage? What is its purpose? Are we to allow anyone to marry anyone else or are there reasonable restrictions?

Alternatively, consider abortion. There are important issues here as well. If we abandon the notion that a soul is grafted onto a newly fertilized egg, then at what point does an embryo become human? What are the defining characteristics of being human?

It would be nice if we could get away from religious and anti-religious dogmatism and openly discuss such issues so that we might reach some sort of consensus.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Zuma – I’m thoroughly impressed by your detailed insightful analysis of the ‘evolving religions concept’ above. I mean it! Bridging the atheist/believer divide is exactly what we need.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – We all are against the idea that certain ideologies are “off-limits” to criticism. Religious fundamentalism needs to be criticized. Political fundamentalism is an ideology that like its religious counterpart thrives on simplifications. The most perverse ideology ever invented is Nazism and it “thrived” on memes like slavery and genocide.

But you seem to be against the concept of evolving religions as well. I am not.

mattbrowne's avatar

@LostInParadise – You said one thing that distinguishes religion from politics is the unwavering nature of religious fanatics. Not necessarily. There is evil politics as well. History is full of political fanatics. Just take the Nazis as an example. Or the Stalinists. Or look at the more recent Rwanda genocide and the Hutu Power ideology.

Zuma's avatar

@mattbrowne (Thank you, your lurve is gratefully accepted)

@LostInParadise I would really like to recommend an excellent book @mattbrowne recommended to me The Left Hand of God by Michael Lerner, and another one I found on my own called Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal. Blumenthal sets the stage for describing a politics of personal crisis in which people with deep personal conflicts “self-medicating” themselves with religious conversion, wherein by turning themselves over to God in a born-again experience, they trade all their little problems for one big one—i.e., believing what they are told in order to be “saved.”

Blumenthal picks up a theme in Philip Greven’s Spare the Child which describes the prevalence of child abuse in Protestant denominations, particularly in the aggressive bullying politics of James Dobson and his Focus on the Family. In particular, he discusses the psychological fallout as abuse tends to create a kind of sado-masochistic undertow in which true believers alternately become aggressive bullies, or ineffectual, impotent, martyred masochists, who seem to become uniquely susceptible to being dominated and controlled and given both to violent fantasies and paranoid delusions. So, a good part of the personal crisis that drives these folks toward born-again conversions is a product of having their wills broken while they were helpless children.

Lerner describes how this translates into abortion politics (and anti-gay politics as well):

”...people’s longing for mutual recognition and connection to each other is frequently coupled with melancholy resignation to the idea that such longing is utopian and cannot be fulfilled in this world. Yet the desire for this connection remains a driving force in the unconscious lives of most Americans.”

“Part of the energy of the antiabortion movement… comes from its ability to symbolically address this desire. The fetus is a symbol of an idealized, innocent being, actually the little child within us, who is not being adequately loved and accepted in our daily experience. The desire to be loved and accepted as human beings—a completely rational desire—is split off by these antiabortionists, in part because they themselves (like so many of the rest of us in this society) have been taught to view that part of themselves as scary, unobtainable, and narcissistic. Acknowledging it would require getting in touch with our anger at all the things that prevent us and have always prevented us from getting that love and recognition. So instead we project this desire onto the fetus, which is then conceptualized as the idealized and pure version of ourselves—an innocent and perfect unborn creature, and, because, unborn, not yet sullied by the world. Those who felt conflicted about standing up for themselves when, as children, they did not receive the love and recognition they badly needed, and deeply wounded because no one stood up for them when they were vulnerable as children, can now symbolically stand up for the beautiful part of themselves, which was underappreciated, by standing up for this fetus.”

And here we get to how this spills over onto gays and others:

“But because this projection and process of idealization involves an evasion and denial of the actual pain in our lives, it is accompanied by another split from consciousness—a denial of the rage and hatred that people carry within themselves all their lives to the extent that they live lives in which their fundamental humanity is not fully confirmed or was not adequately confirmed when they were children. So what do they do with their rage? In the case of some right-wing antiabortion activists… tat rage is directed against a demonized Other whose humanity is ignored or denied, transformed by imagination into the “murderers” killing little babies—or, in other instances, against the evil criminals who must be executed, the drug addicts upon whom we must wage war, the Muslims or terrorists who are imagined to be posed to take over the world unless we forcibly stop them, the liberal judges who are willing to allow Schiavo to die, or whoever else pops up as a possible target for their anger and who appears in their minds as the slaughterers of the innocent.”

“Both the unborn fetus and the evil ‘other’ are imaginary constructs that carry an unconscious meaning, reflecting repression of people’s most fundamental social need.”

These, of course, are not the only reasons for opposing abortion, but when abortion politics, and conservative politics generally, are viewed in light of this sullied innocence and the resulting free-floating rage harnessed in defense of the fetus, one gets a sense of what is behind the vehemence and violence emanating from the Christian Right. It also puts into perspective the complete lack of interest in promoting the policies that could be called pro-life when it comes to militarism, the death penalty, or adequate support for children once born. In short, it gives us an insight into the origins of the personal pain that hold this culture of personal crisis together.

philosopher's avatar

No religion has the right to tell a whole society what is right or wrong. No Human has the right to speak for G-d. That to me is fascism.
Those who would let Human beings suffer are immoral. Attempting to stop research that offers great potential to cure suffering Humans is immoral.
I will always remind these cruel fascist of how Nancy Regan changed her mind; when lack of a cure affected her Husband.
Science backs up my belief.

Qingu's avatar

@Zuma, I agree with a lot of what you say, and with @mattbrowne, I think we are all 99% on the same page.

I think a lot of our disagreements have to do with our differing definitions of what “religion” is. I prefer to understand religion as an ideology that is rooted in some specific scripture or tradition. Otherwise, it’s just too nebulous a concept to meaningfully interact with (my atheism could count as a “religion” in your view since I am “spiritual” in the way you use the word).

I also don’t really buy the bright-line distinction between religion and politics. This gets lost on a lot of secularites, but both the Bible and the Quran are fundamentally political documents. Muslims, especially, do not distinguish between their religion’s “spiritual” content and its “political” content. The Quran is the constitution of Saudi Arabia and most Muslims consider it a guidebook for how to live their lives and construct an ideal society. Christians, since the enlightenment, have moved away from this conception of the Bible… but for most of the Middle Ages, the Bible was considered the framework for constructing society. And “fundamentalist” Christians who continue to think this way aren’t an aberration. They are, historically speaking, the norm.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – Rooted, yes. Put into a stasis chamber, no. When humans use natural language there’s always the question of interpretation. Even today. There’s context. There are plenty of ambiguities on the semantic level. Sometimes even on the syntactic level. The man saw the woman in the park with a telescope. What does this sentence mean to you?

Let’s take a real example from the Bible:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its flavor be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

What does it mean? Is there a clear 1:1 relation between this sequence of characters and words and its semantics? Unlikely. How do we transform this complex sequence of morphemes? We are not talking about a tree here (even then it’s still somewhat difficult).

Hundreds people keep thinking about this and then they come up with or something else.

What did the salt mean around 25 AD? Or 1200 AD? What does it mean 2010 AD? We can’t freeze meanings. We too are a reflection of the zeitgeist and spirit of our age.

How can we explain the misconception that God would endorse genocide? Why did this end up in holy texts? Well, wars have the potential to turn normal people into beasts and this applies to all wars. Violence begets violence which begets more violence. The time around 1000 BC was brutal. Like World War II without the tanks, bombs, machine guns and gas chambers. But the same homo sapiens subscribing to vicious memeplexes.

But there are alternatives. We should devote our energy to spreading alternative memeplexes. And we can do this. Offer kindness and meaning and purpose to people without having them join the Westboro Baptist Church or some other hate group.

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, all texts are open to interpretation.

This does not mean that all interpretations are equal, or that some interpretations are not intellectually dishonest. I could interpret, for example, the Iliad as a ringing endorsement of 1960’s era feminism, and you would rightly say this interpretation is nonsense and has nothing to do with the text. Likewise, many “liberal” interpretations of Bible verses.

And some Bible verses are less open to interpretation than others, based on what we now know about ancient Hebrew, Babylonian, and late-antique Judean cultures.

I’ll also note that regarding the verses on genocide, you aren’t interpreting them at all. Instead you’ve characterized them as “misconceptions”—or to put it less charitably, bullshit—that somehow got “included” in the Bible by mistake. I hope you understand that these verses are not scattered rarities. The entire book of Joshua deals with—and celebrates—God-ordered genocide. So do much of Judges, Kings, and Samuel. That’s an enormous swath of the Bible’s content. Are you saying you believe all of that got in there “by mistake”? And should be torn out? Or what?

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu “I prefer to understand religion as an ideology that is rooted in some specific scripture or tradition. Otherwise, it’s just too nebulous a concept to meaningfully interact with…”

When I look at religion I don’t see it as rooted in scripture, so much as a received worldview that is rooted in custom, habit, norms and, mores. As such, I see it as much more organic, fluid, and context-dependent than you do. When you look at the broad sweep of human history, you don’t find any doctrine or creed in animism and paganism. In animism, you have a worldview in which nomadic peoples attempting to propitiate spirits which animate nature, its game and its bounty; you also have periodic totemic rituals to blow off sexual energy and allow the individual whose secret transgressions of some taboo set them at odds with the group to psychologically re-immerse himself in the spiritual life of the clan.

In Ur-paganism, you have agricultural people living in a relatively unchanging world, save for the cyclical rhythms of planting and harvesting. The day-to-day religious life of the people is absorbed in rituals and festivals, and the telling of stories—which, being mythical, were by no means consistent or “factual” in a modern sense. And, being an oral tradition, they borrowed and incorporated elements of stories of neighboring peoples that were constantly being embellished and reinterpreted for each new generation. Pagan religious life was not concerned with doctrine or creed but with auguries, divinations, purifications, temple prostitution, and bargaining with the gods through ritual and sacrifice under the auspices of a (mostly hereditary) priestly cult. Quite often these inherited rituals degenerated into priests reciting meaningless strings of nonsense syllables learned by rote, long past the point where their original meanings had been forgotten.

Even though you have writings like Hesiod’s Theogony or the Epic of Gilgamesh, these are not doctrinal or particularly ideological writings. While the works contain a definite worldview they do not contain any particular political ideology per se. Even where you have the founding Gods in Greek and Roman city states (e.g., Athena in Athens, Venus and Jupiter in Rome) these were compulsory civil observances having very little in the way of doctrine and even less in terms of subjective spiritual religiosity that we associate with modern religion. Private religiosity was confined to the worship of one’s ancestral household gods, and was more a matter of filial piety and an affirmation of the authority of the family patriarch than anything involving faith or belief or doctrine.

Between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, you have the emergence of the Axial religions which swept like through the pagan world like a prairie fire. Here you have the appearance of Confucianism, which was a self-conscious attempt at a doctrinal political ideology, and right beside it you have Taoism, which was its spiritual repudiation. You have Jainism and Buddhism, which were acetic and otherworldly, and you have Zoroastrianism, which became the unifying religion of Persia. You have Socrates, whose worldview was practically subversive to the established polytheism, and Platonism which influenced Christianity and continues to influence modern scientific deism, but is neither sacred nor doctrinal. You have rabbinical Judaism and Christianity arising in this period as well.

I have another writing that is too long to put here, but which I hope you will read, that describes, in broad brush terms, at least seven distinct stages of Christianity: The Jesus Movement, Communal Egalitarian Christianity, Hierarchical Christianity, Millenarian Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Modern Christianity, Postmodern Christianity, Fundamentalist Christianity, and what I call the Humanist Response.

Take Millenarian Christianity, for example, the period between the Fall of Rome and the invention of movable type and centering roughly on the year 1,000. This was period was a seething cauldron of end-of-the-world anxieties, superstition, panics, pogroms, pilgrimages, plagues, crusades, witchhunts, indulgences, mystic saints, relics, self-flagellating saints, processions, monastic orders, soldier priests, persecutions, inquisitions, troubadours, and heresies that were not only tolerated but actually encouraged by the Church (right up to the point that the heretics believed that they were more holy and therefore more deserving of Church property than the Church). Here you had the Cathars, the Waldensians, the Albigensians, the Lollards, the Templars, the Hussites—enough to fill a whole Umberto Eco novel.

Most of these folks were illiterate and didn’t have anything like a specific scriptural writing, or a coherent ideology, political or otherwise. For the most part, these were people in the grip of a movement, a panic, or an idea—ideas that were often rapidly changing, syncretic, sometimes frankly pagan, and hardly ever completely thought through. A group of nobles would often simply assume that just because they were Christian, their enterprise was blessed by God and could not fail. So they would pick up and go without even the rudiments of a plan. And then, when reduced to starvation and banditry, if they happened on a flock of sheep or some traveling Jews, they would take it as a sign from God that this had been provided for them.

Now, when you look at religion in broad historical and anthropological terms, the idea that you can boil it down to some specific content flowing from a particular scripture or tradition strikes me as a rather narrow conception of religion. And I think people would be right to resist being told that their religion is “thus and so” when their tradition does not place much stock in scripture, if it even has one.

And besides, a Reform Jew and an Orthodox Jew both share the same body of scripture, yet they differ in what they pay attention to and what they ignore. The idea that you can hold them to any particular content is to ignore what makes them different. And the idea that you tell what’s in people’s hearts by what scripture they nominally subscribe to is another tenuous assumption. In my experience, its what is in people’s hearts that informs what doctrine they subscribe to, and not visa versa. After all, look at us.

LostInParadise's avatar

@mattbrowne , I am not sure how to categorize ethnic hatred. It certainly has political effects, but then so does religious bigotry.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

We’re pretty off topic now.

mattbrowne's avatar

@IchtheosaurusRex – Originally I had politics in mind, but the question as such could be interpreted in a broader sense. There are more liberal or more conservative forms of religions as well.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – The “misconceptions” did not get included in the Bible by mistake. They ended up in there on purpose. This doesn’t mean we should follow everything.

The philosopher George Santayana once said: “The Bible is literature, not dogma.” Now this still means there’s good stuff in literature too. But we should not switch off our minds. Critical thinking is key. We should challenge everything. We should question everything. We should scrutinize everything. As you said earlier, we need to use our academic lens, but also our common sense. I really like to look through @Zuma‘s lens as presented above. And the more lenses the better. Your lens is important too.

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, when you say the verses in question ended up in the Bible “on purpose,” what exactly do you mean?

For example, I think much of the tenets of Scientology are there “on purpose” because L. Ron Hubbard made them up with the purpose of starting a cult and gain power and fortune. I imagine ancient Hebrew priests who wrote the Deuteronomistic texts had a similar purpose in mind. Is that what you meant?

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu You haven’t responded to my argument that religions are so much more than matters of tradition rooted in doctrine and scripture. It seems to me that this is key to our conversation.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I was in Scientology in the 1970s, and I knew Hubbard. You are correct, that he was a psychopath of the first order and his religion was formed in his image and likeness. He was the epitome of bad faith but in this regard, I suspect, he was very much unlike the authors of the Pentateuch, who were writing in accordance to the patriarchal norms of their time. I also met the leaders of several other religions and cults during my sojourn in the Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s. (For what it’s worth.)

mattbrowne's avatar

Some research indicates that about 1 in 100 people meet the criteria for being a psychopath. Brain scans from prison inmates seem to confirm this. Above all, there’s the lack of fear of remorse and the amygdala remains silent when it lights up in all of the other 99 people.

Some people labeled psychopaths are rather narcissists (wanting to be admired) or Machiavellians (using cunning to gain power). I’m not sure about Hubbard.

@Qingu – How did the genocide endorsements end up in the five books of Moses and what do I mean by on purpose? Like @Zuma I don’t think it was the result of psychopathic, narcissistic or Machiavellian motivations with the goal of creating a dangerous cult. I could actually imagine it was the exact opposite. I did a little research on Karen Armstrong, an author suggested by @Zuma earlier. She seems to be a very remarkable woman. One of her fields of expertise is the birth of religion and spirituality going all the way back to pre-agricultural societies and cave paintings.

Because almost all human beings are capable of experiencing fear and remorse and empathy the hunting of animals created a dilemma. Is it right or wrong to kill an animal for food? Both humans and animals are part of the same nature. The cave paintings seem to give us very interesting clues.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that the violent time of the Pentateuch also created dilemmas. Killing people creates even more remorse than killing animals. When is it justified? The Pentateuch contains both genocide endorsements and the ‘you shall not murder’ commandment. I think the warriors felt terrible after committing genocide, raping and killing men, women and children. So like the cave paintings the ancient texts might be a reflection of the human condition. Karen Armstrong also claims that biblical literalism is a relatively recent phenomenon which didn’t exist before the 19th century. She’s also an experts in mythology. And since you are as well, @Qingu, you might enjoy some of her writings.

Qingu's avatar

@Zuma, I think you can define religion broadly, as you have. But when I talk about religion, I prefer to talk about aspects of it that I can pin down.

Ultimately, how we choose to define religion is a matter of semantics. When I criticize “religion,” I am generally criticizing the content of religious scriptures and traditions. The extent to which those criticisms apply to a given person depends on the extent to which those scriptures and traditions inform this person’s worldview. And this does certainly vary amongst “religious” people.

@mattbrowne, have you read the verses and books in question? If you haven’t, I strongly suggest you sit down and read the book of Joshua. Your explanation (rationalizing their remorse) doesn’t seem to make sense in light of the actual content of that book.

I wouldn’t call myself an “expert” on mythology… I just studied this stuff as an undergrad. As for Armstrong’s thesis, that fundamentalism is a modern invention, I think this is plainly contradicted by reactions to heliocentric thought in late-middle ages Europe. Jewish fundamentalists in late-antique Rome are another good counterexample. I could truck with the idea that as outside forces threaten to change the way religions have traditionally been interpreted, people within those traditions often “hunker down,” as did the Jewish zealots/Catholic geocentrists/modern-day creationists—so I would agree that it tends to be reactionary as she says, but I think it’s obvious it’s not just a modern-day phenomenon. Not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading her, though; I prefer to read primary sources. :)

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu “when I talk about religion, I prefer to talk about aspects of it that I can pin down.”

Yes, but I think you often mistake the part of religion which you can pin down for the whole religion, or the aspect of a religion that the people actually experience, and when people refuse to fit into the box you put them in, you accuse them of being intellectually dishonest. For example, to what extent do the verses of Joshua inform the spirituality of the folks at Tikkun Daily? Rabbi Lerner is quite explicit that he and his followers in the Reform Judaism movement reject this vengeful violent God tradition.

You are correct that fundamentalism, in its generic sense, is essentially a “back to basics” movement, where the followers of a religion strip it down to its essentials in order to get back to a mythical golden age of faith when the religion was simpler and presumably conflict free. Certainly there were such movements within Catholicism; e.g., the counter-Reformation, and the Jewish zealots of Rome, etc. but Armstrong is not talking about fundamentalism in a generic sense.

She is talking about what people who currently call themselves “Christian fundamentalists” profess to believe—i.e., a rather radical theology characterized by a personal relationship with God gained through a Born-Again conversion experience (in which one surrenders one’s will to Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior); a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible (which effectively replaces one’s conscience with rules based on “God’s laws” as interpreted in “scripture”); and a belief in the inherent depravity of man (which requires an authoritarian religion enforced by authoritarian parents and an authoritarian state). And that is a modern invention.

The idea that Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s foremost scholars of religion, would be so stupid as as to confuse the two kinds of fundamentalism, suggests another difficulty in the religious views you “pin down” and attribute to others; namely, you tend to be rather uncharitable in your reading of people and their positions (present company excluded).

Qingu's avatar

I mean… I don’t know how to make my position any clearer. I understand that people who reject almost all of the Bible and almost all characteristics of the Biblical God, but for some reason call themselves “Jews” or “Christians,” are generally a-okay.

I think the danger with your rhetoric, and the rhetoric of many liberals, is simply that you give short shrift to what you call “fundamentalism.” It’s a feature of religion, not a bug. And perhaps I am being uncharitable to Armstrong but from what I read on her Wiki page she seems to tread into this style. If she’s arguing that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon by defining “fundamentalism” narrowly as modern fundamentalism, that’s a tautology. Religion has always been fundamentalist and fundamentalism in the broad sense has historically dominated religious thought and practice. For example, every trait you list for “Christian fundamentalists,” which you characterize as “radical theology,” was mainstream for most of early Christian history and throughout the middle ages. It only seems “radical” now because many Christians have become very secular. Which is fine, I’m glad they’re secular—just don’t pretend that that’s the norm for the religion, or for religion in general. It’s no accident that many of those secularized Christians turn full-out “atheist/agnostic,” especially in Europe.

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu “people who reject almost all of the Bible and almost all characteristics of the Biblical God, but for some reason call themselves ‘Jews’ or ‘Christians,’ are generally a-okay.”

No, I’ve seen you accost such people and tell them that they are not “really” Christians because they don’t embrace the violent, petty, vengeful “Biblical” God, you seem to regard as the “real” God of Scripture. You attempt to shame them for “cherry picking” scripture, in order to arrive at a more benign, compassionate reading of Christianity. I’ve seen you call such people “intellectually dishonest” and “hypocritical” because they choose to believe in a loving compassionate God instead of a violent and vengeful “Biblical” God.

Now, I agree with you that scripture often portrays God as a wrathful, violent, petty, vengeful and arbitrary. But, I think one can often find, side by side all this violence another voice that speaks of peace, compassion and social justice. Unless you hold that scripture is inerrant and therefore must be swallowed whole, then you absolutely must read scripture selectively in order to separate the spiritual wheat from the proverbial chaff.

This is why Thomas Cahill speaks of the “Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” Michael Lerner speaks of the “Left Hand of God,” and Karen Armstrong entreats members of all religions to reject the violent God traditions that arise from a literal and uncritical reading of scripture to join her in the Charter for Compassion. Is one being intellectually dishonest when one dismisses violent threats attributed to God as a distortion introduced into scripture by self-serving manipulative priests? Or, as errors introduced into scripture by petty, violent, vengeful men, living in petty, violent, vengeful times? I think not.

I don’t know how many times I have referred you to Thomas Cahill’s “The Desire of the Everlasting Hills”) but this “Biblical” God was not a feature of early Christianity. See also here, the Bible wasn’t even codified until the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and it wasn’t widely available as the bedrock of faith for at least a thousand years later.

The idea that Christian fundamentalism, with its literal Biblical inerrancy, its Ultimate Fighting Jesus, its “prayer warriors” and their imprecatory prayer offensives, its speaking in tongues, its wholesale rejection of reason and compassion is somehow the “real,” actual, mainstream of Christianity while the Christianity of a Loving Compassionate Christ is some sort of historical fluke, is just flat out wrong.

The idea that one must undergo a radical Born-Again conversion as a condition of salvation did not become widespread use until the 1960s (see * below); and the doctrine of the total depravity of man does not appear until Calvin c. 1545. You may be correct, about authoritarianism being a feature of Christianity up until modern times. But we are now live in post-modern times where every form authority is open to question. To assert that present day fundamentalism is anything but a rejection of modernity and postmodernity is to profoundly misunderstand the world we live in. Scripture is not the final arbiter of any given religion’s content; it is the interpretation of that scripture, however selective that may be. But, more than that, it is one’s spirituality—the values that inform how one lives in regard the moral claims of one’s fellow man—that is the true content of any religion. Scripture is just a gloss.

Thus, to dismiss the ecumenism and pluralism of postmodern Christianity because it is not “Biblical,” and to locate Born-Again evangelical Christianity in the mainstream is to be profoundly out of touch with post-Enlightenment Christianity and its spirituality. Consequently, when you disparage people you regard as “secular” Christians, you break faith with and undermine the very people who would protect you, my dear atheist, from a turn at the stake.

* <— needs last peren to come up correctly.

Qingu's avatar

I stand by my statements that reading the barbaric or inaccurate parts of the Bible as “metaphors” is intellectually dishonest. The text says what it says. I believe I compared it to reading Aristotle—who was simply incorrect about his views of the four elements—as a “metaphor” for some truth today. It’s not. Neither is the Bible.

If liberal Christians want to say “Okay, most of the Bible is bullshit,” that’s fine with me. It’s clearly what they believe, and it’s not intellectually dishonest. But if they want to say it’s all true in some metaphorical way, or whatever nonsense you’re defending—it’s just nonsense, and I’m not going to say it’s not just because such people happen to be liberals like me.

The Biblical God you speak of was clearly a feature of early Christianity. You are correct, the “Bible” as we know it wasn’t codified until the 4th century—but the angry vengeful Biblical God features in all four gospels, in Paul’s theology, and especially in the book of Revelation. Medieval monks based their theology around a God very similar to the one worshipped by modern-day fundamentalists; the rules of one sect claim that the basis of faith is “fear of God.” Medieval popes justified the crusades by appealing to such a God. Perhaps “total depravity” of man was not formulated as such until Calvin, but it is readily apparent in Paul’s theology. It is simply incorrect to state that the modern, secular liberal hippie Jesus ideal of Christianity is historically mainstream. It is not only a-Biblical, it is a-historical.

And I am not “dismissing” ecumenism; early Christianity was just as sectarian and fractured as modern Christianity. And as an atheist, I don’t give a shit who is a “true” Christian, nor am I interested in attacking liberal Christians for being Christians in “name only” or whatever. My interest in the word is purely semantics.

LostInParadise's avatar

I think I have to go along with @Qingu regarding the history of fundamentalist beliefs. The fear of the wrath of God made it possible for the church to increase its coffers by selling indulgences.

Among early Jews, working on the Sabbath was a grave offense and they carried copies of the Talmud as a guide for conducting their lives.

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu “The text says what it says.”

Oh, for Christ’s sake! You sound like a fundamentalist scriptural literalist, which is absolutely a modern take on things (see below). No wonder you see “fundamentalism” as constituting the mainstream of historical Christianity.

“It is simply incorrect to state that the modern, secular liberal hippie Jesus ideal of Christianity is historically mainstream. It is not only a-Biblical, it is a-historical.”

No, that may be what they teach in Baptist bible colleges, but that does not conform to any history of religion that you might find in a mainstream university. I have repeatedly cited my historical sources above, but you seem to either ignore or simply dismiss them out of hand. At the risk of repeating myself, I have been arguing above that the vast bulk of historical Christianity—i.e., Catholicism—was “a-Biblical,” as you put it. After all, that kind of what the Protestants were protesting about. However, this idea that Christianity should be “biblical” (or that religions are defined by their “scripture”) is a 19th and 20th Century idea, and a specifically Protestant one at that.

For someone who is so concerned for “pinning down” the meaning of words, you can be awfully casual and overly broad when it suits you. Insisting, as you do, on a generic meaning of “fundamentalism,” a meaning that is so broad that it covers virtually all of Christendom, makes it almost impossible to discuss modern fundamentalists with any specificity. Lumping them into the mainstream ignores both the distinctions that they make between themselves and other Christians, as well as the distinctions that their mainstream critics make to distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists.

Now, as it so happens, Karen Armstrong is a religious historian, and she has written one of the definitive histories of modern fundamentalist movements, her critically acclaimed best seller, The Battle For God.

Here is how she frames the issue:

“One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as “fundamentalism.” Its manifestations are sometimes shocking. Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even toppled a powerful government. It is only a small minority of fundamentalists who commit such acts of terror, but even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state. Christian fundamentalists reject the discoveries of biology and physics about the origins of life and insist that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound in every detail.”

“At a time when many are throwing off the shackles of the past, Jewish fundamentalists observe their revealed Law more stringently than ever before, and Muslim women, repudiating the freedoms of Western women, shroud themselves in veils and chadors. Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists both interpret the Arab-Israeli conflict, which began as defiantly secularist, in an exclusively religious way. Fundamentalism, moreover, is not confined to the great monotheisms. There are Buddhist, Hindu, and even Confucian fundamentalisms, which also cast aside many of the painfully acquired insights of liberal culture, which fight and kill in the name of religion and strive to bring the sacred into the realm of politics and national struggle.”

“This religious resurgence has taken many observers by surprise. In the middle years of the twentieth century, it was generally taken for granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would never again play a major part in world events. It was assumed that as human beings became more rational, they either would have no further need for religion or would be content to confine it to the immediately personal and private areas of their lives. But in the late 1970s, fundamentalists began to rebel against this secularist hegemony and started to wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to center stage. In this, at least, they have enjoyed remarkable success. Religion has once again become a force that no government can safely ignore. Fundamentalism has suffered defeats, but it is by no means quiescent. It is now an essential part of the modern scene and will certainly play an important role in the domestic and international affairs of the future. It is crucial, therefore, that we try to understand what this type of religiosity means, how and for what reasons it has developed, what it can tell us about our culture, and how best we should deal with it.”

“But before we proceed, we must look briefly at the term “fundamentalism” itself, which has been much criticized. American Protestants were the first to use it. In the early decades of the twentieth century, some of them started to call themselves “fundamentalists” to distinguish themselves from the more “liberal” Protestants, who were, in their opinion, entirely distorting the Christian faith. The fundamentalists wanted to go back to basics and reemphasize the “fundamentals” of the Christian tradition, which they identified with a literal interpretation of Scripture and the acceptance of certain core doctrines. The term “fundamentalism” has since been applied to reforming movements in other world faiths in a way that is far from satisfactory. It seems to suggest that fundamentalism is monolithic in all its manifestations. This is not the case. Each “fundamentalism” is a law unto itself and has its own dynamic. The term also gives the impression that fundamentalists are inherently conservative and wedded to the past, whereas their ideas are essentially modern and highly innovative. The American Protestants may have intended to go back to the “fundamentals,” but they did so in a peculiarly modern way. It has also been argued that this Christian term cannot be accurately applied to movements that have entirely different priorities. Muslim and Jewish fundamentalisms, for example, are not much concerned with doctrine, which is an essentially Christian preoccupation. A literal translation of “fundamentalism” into Arabic gives us usuliyyah, a word that refers to the study of the sources of the various rules and principles of Islamic law. Most of the activists who are dubbed “fundamentalists” in the West are not engaged in this Islamic science, but have quite different concerns. The use of the term “fundamentalism” is, therefore, misleading.”

“Others, however, argue simply that, like it or not, the word “fundamentalism” is here to stay. And I have come to agree: the term is not perfect, but it is a useful label for movements that, despite their differences, bear a strong family resemblance. At the outset of their monumental six-volume Fundamentalist Project, Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby argue that the “fundamentalisms” all follow a certain pattern. They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers. They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under the guidance of their charismatic leaders, they refine these “fundamentals” so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world.”

“To explore the implications of this global response to modern culture, I want to concentrate on just a few of the fundamentalist movements that have surfaced in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three monotheistic faiths. Instead of studying them in isolation from one another, I intend to trace their development chronologically, side by side, so that we can see how deeply similar they are. By looking at selected fundamentalisms, I hope to examine the phenomenon in greater depth than would be possible in a more general, comprehensive survey. The movements I have chosen are American Protestant fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt, which is a Sunni country, and Iran, which is Shii. I do not claim that my discoveries necessarily apply to other forms of fundamentalism, but hope to show how these particular movements, which have been among the most prominent and influential, have all been motivated by common fears, anxieties, and desires that seem to be a not unusual response to some of the peculiar difficulties of life in the modern secular world.”

“There have always been people, in every age and in each tradition, who have fought the modernity of their day. But the fundamentalism that we shall be considering is an essentially twentieth-century movement. It is a reaction against the scientific and secular culture that first appeared in the West, but which has since taken root in other parts of the world. The West has developed an entirely unprecedented and wholly different type of civilization, so the religious response to it has been unique. The fundamentalist movements that have evolved in our own day have a symbiotic relationship with modernity. They may reject the scientific rationalism of the West, but they cannot escape it. Western civilization has changed the world. Nothing — including religion — can ever be the same again. All over the globe, people have been struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for an entirely different type of society.”

“There was a similar transitional period in the ancient world, lasting roughly from 700 to 200 BCE, which historians have called the Axial Age because it was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. This age was itself the product and fruition of thousands of years of economic, and therefore social and cultural, evolution, beginning in Sumer in what is now Iraq, and in ancient Egypt. People in the fourth and third millennia BCE, instead of simply growing enough crops to satisfy their immediate needs, became capable of producing an agricultural surplus with which they could trade and thereby acquire additional income. This enabled them to build the first civilizations, develop the arts, and create increasingly powerful polities: cities, city-states, and, eventually, empires. In agrarian society, power no longer lay exclusively with the local king or priest; its locus shifted at least partly to the marketplace, the source of each culture’s wealth. In these altered circumstances, people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

“In the cities and empires of the Axial Age, citizens were acquiring a wider perspective and broader horizons, which made the old local cults seem limited and parochial. Instead of seeing the divine as embodied in a number of different deities, people increasingly began to worship a single, universal transcendence and source of sacredness. They had more leisure and were thus able to develop a richer interior life; accordingly, they came to desire a spirituality which did not depend entirely upon external forms. The most sensitive were troubled by the social injustice that seemed built into this agrarian society, depending as it did on the labor of peasants who never had the chance to benefit from the high culture. Consequently, prophets and reformers arose who insisted that the virtue of compassion was crucial to the spiritual life: an ability to see sacredness in every single human being, and a willingness to take practical care of the more vulnerable members of society, became the test of authentic piety. In this way, during the Axial Age, the great confessional faiths that have continued to guide human beings sprang up in the civilized world: Buddhism and Hinduism in India, Confucianism and Taoism in the Far East; monotheism in the Middle East; and rationalism in Europe. Despite their major differences, these Axial Age religions had much in common: they all built on the old traditions to evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they cultivated an internalized spirituality, and stressed the importance of practical compassion.”

“Today, as noted, we are undergoing a similar period of transition. Its roots lie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the modern era, when the people of Western Europe began to evolve a different type of society, one based not on an agricultural surplus but on a technology that enabled them to reproduce their resources indefinitely. The economic changes over the last four hundred years have been accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different, scientific and rational, concept of the nature of truth; and, once again, a radical religious change has become necessary. All over the world, people are finding that in their dramatically transformed circumstances, the old forms of faith no longer work for them: they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious; like the reformers and prophets of the Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves. One of these modern experiments — however paradoxical it may superficially seem to say so — is fundamentalism.”

“We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories, which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology. When people told stories about heroes who descended into the underworld, struggled through labyrinths, or fought with monsters, they were bringing to light the obscure regions of the subconscious realm, which is not accessible to purely rational investigation, but which has a profound effect upon our experience and behavior. Because of the dearth of myth in our modern society, we have had to evolve the science of psychoanalysis to help us to deal with our inner world.”

“Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry, or sculpture. Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshippers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence. Myth and cult were so inseparable that it is a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical narrative or the rituals attached to it. Myth was also associated with mysticism, the descent into the psyche by means of structured disciplines of focus and concentration which have been evolved in all cultures as a means of acquiring intuitive insight. Without a cult or mystical practice, the myths of religion would make no sense. They would remain abstract and seem incredible, in rather the same way as a musical score remains opaque to most of us and needs to be interpreted instrumentally before we can appreciate its beauty.”

“In the premodern world, people had a different view of history. They were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not seen as unique occurrences, set in a far-off time, but were thought to be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under the sun. Historical narratives tried to bring out this eternal dimension. Thus, we do not know what really occurred when the ancient Israelites escaped from Egypt and passed through the Sea of Reeds. The story has been deliberately written as a myth, and linked with other stories about rites of passage, immersion in the deep, and gods splitting a sea in two to create a new reality. Jews experience this myth every year in the rituals of the Passover Seder, which brings this strange story into their own lives and helps them to make it their own. One could say that unless an historical event is mythologized in this way, and liberated from the past in an inspiring cult, it cannot be religious. To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.”

“Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action. Logos is practical. Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights, achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something fresh, and invent something novel.”

“In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical activities worthwhile. You were not supposed to make mythos the basis of a pragmatic policy. If you did so, the results could be disastrous, because what worked well in the inner world of the psyche was not readily applicable to the affairs of the external world. When, for example, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade in 1095, his plan belonged to the realm of logos. He wanted the knights of Europe to stop fighting one another and tearing the fabric of Western Christendom apart, and to expend their energies instead in a war in the Middle East and so extend the power of his church. But when this military expedition became entangled with folk mythology, biblical lore, and apocalyptic fantasies, the result was catastrophic, practically, militarily, and morally. Throughout the long crusading project, it remained true that whenever logos was ascendant, the Crusaders prospered. They performed well on the battlefield, created viable colonies in the Middle East, and learned to relate more positively with the local population. When, however, Crusaders started making a mythical or mystical vision the basis of their policies, they were usually defeated and committed terrible atrocities.”

“Logos had its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. A scientist could make things work more efficiently and discover wonderful new facts about the physical universe, but he could not explain the meaning of life.9 That was the preserve of myth and cult.”

“By the eighteenth century, however, the people of Europe and America had achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they began to think that logos was the only means to truth and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious. It is also true that the new world they were creating contradicted the dynamic of the old mythical spirituality. Our religious experience in the modern world has changed, and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism alone as true, they have often tried to turn the mythos of their faith into logos. Fundamentalists have also made this attempt. This confusion has led to more problems.”

“We need to understand how our world has changed. The first part of this book will, therefore, go back to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when the people of Western Europe had begun to develop their new science. We will also examine the mythical piety of the premodern agrarian civilization, so that we can see how the old forms of faith worked. It is becoming very difficult to be conventionally religious in the brave new world. Modernization has always been a painful process. People feel alienated and lost when fundamental changes in their society make the world strange and unrecognizable. We will trace the impact of modernity upon the Christians of Europe and America, upon the Jewish people, and upon the Muslims of Egypt and Iran. We shall then be in a position to see what the fundamentalists were trying to do when they started to create this new form of faith toward the end of the nineteenth century.”

“Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. During a war it is very difficult for combatants to appreciate one another’s position. We shall find that modernization has led to a polarization of society, but sometimes, to prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try to understand the pain and perceptions of the other side. Those of us — myself included — who relish the freedoms and achievements of modernity find it hard to comprehend the distress these cause religious fundamentalists. Yet modernization is often experienced not as a liberation but as an aggressive assault. Few have suffered more in the modern world than the Jewish people, so it is fitting to begin with their bruising encounter with the modernizing society of Western Christendom in the late fifteenth century, which led some Jews to anticipate many of the stratagems, postures, and principles that would later become common in the new world.”

Now when you get out of this fundamentalitst mindset—when you begin dealing with people who are comfortable with modernity—you get into a spirituality that is based on the Compassionate Christ. And that is very much in the mainstream of Christianity, while fundamentalism is a countercultural movement, with its culture of personal crisis and its politics of paranoia, resentment and rage.

Qingu's avatar

@Zuma, no, reading Scripture in a matter-of-fact and honest way is not “modern.” Your stance towards the text, however, is particularly post modern.

I approach the Bible the exact same way that I approach any other ancient text or religious document I read. When, for example, Aristotle writes about how everything is made out of four elements + the Aether, I don’t think he is using “aether” as a metaphor for outer space. I don’t try to excuse what he was writing as “written for the audience he was speaking to.” Aristotle, while wrong about what he wrote, clearly meant five elements.

The fact that what he writes is clearly wrong by scientific standards does not mean you can just say “I interpret it to be a metaphor. That’s simply not an intellectually honest engagement with the text.

Similarly, when the Code of Hammurabi says that it is inspired by the Sun God Shamash and handed down directly to King Hamurabi by Ea, Lord of the Anunaki, that’s not a metaphor. The text is saying that King Hamurabi is a prophet of the High Gods. You may think the text is wrong — I certainly do — but that’s what it says. Similarly, when it says that the guilt of a woman accused of adultery can be found by tossing her in the river and seeing if she drowns, it’s not a metaphor. People actually believed that shit back in the day—it means what it says. When the Code says that if you build a house that collapses and kills another man’s daughter, your daughter must die—it means that. It’s not a “metaphor.”

I get very pissy about this subject because I actually like the Bible as an example of ancient Mesopotamian literature. I think it is best appreciated, as literature, as a part of human history, by taking what it says seriously. You’re basically saying that ANY reading that treats the text seriously, that takes what it says seriously, is equivalent to “fundamentalism” and is therefore idiotic.

This is completely unfair and un-nuanced. First of all because even your “fundamentalists”—with a few exceptions—don’t fully engage with the Bible’s text in an honest way. Most creationists I’ve talked to will say “Oh but the part in Genesis 1 right after the part I take literally, where it says the sky is a solid dome, THAT’s a metaphor for no reason.” Most anti-gay-rights fundamentalists I talk to will say, “Oh, but the part 7 chapters after the part of Leviticus that I cite against gay marriage, where it explicitly allows slavery, is just for the ancient times” And secondly because the really idiotic part of fundamentalism isn’t how they interpret what the text says , it’s that they believe the text is divinely inspired. A fundamentalist isn’t wrong because he reads Leviticus 18 to actually say “homosexuals must be killed”—because that’s exactly what it says. He’s wrong because he believes this law has any moral relevance to today’s world whatsoever, or that it somehow comes from God.

And, while I appreciate that you recommend Karen Armstrong, she is not talking to me on Fluther—you are. If she was here, she is more than welcome to have a conversation with me about her views on the nature of fundamentalism. That said, I’m not really interested in reading someone else’s views in a wall-of-text; I’m more interested in having a conversation. If you think her views are particularly germane to the conversation, I’d appreciate it if you could summarize them—in your own words.

Qingu's avatar

And to respond to your assertion that because most of history was Catholic, it was a-Biblical—that is a vast oversimplification of Catholicism.

First, Catholics’ views on the “final say” of Scripture are distinct from their views on how Scripture should be interpreted. They have historically seen the Bible as one source of many for figuring out the will of God—this doesn’t mean that they don’t take parts of it literally.

Second, the idea that Protestants were “sola scriptura” vs. the Catholics “the Bible doesn’t matter” is itself an oversimplication as Catholic views on the Bible have varied considerably over history, differing from era to era and from individual to individual within the same era and same parts of the Church’s heirarchy. As you’re fond of saying, Catholicism, like any other religion, “evolves.” The early Christians thoughts are in the Bible—specifically, Paul’s arguments and well-developed theology. We also have records of 2nd and 3rd century Christian theology. They all took most of the Old Testament quite seriously, and literally. For centuries Catholics—for however else they ignored or cherry-picked the Bible—unanimously thought that Genesis 1 described creation as it happened (with the exception of the overall shape of the earth—by then they’d moved on to the Greek sphere instead of Genesis’ flat shape)—but with the sun revolving around the earth, with the flood reshaping everything, etc. This stuff was never interpreted the way modern Christians interpret it. the only reason they DO interpret it that way is because modern science has outright disproven the Bible. And tha’ts not an honest reason to believe the text says something other than what it says.

mattbrowne's avatar

I need a lot more time to comment on all the recent arguments in detail. I managed to get a copy of Karen Armstrong’s most recent book “The Case for God” but haven’t gotten very far yet. I’m trying to focus on the cave paintings, shamanism, animal spirit part first because according to my web research, she offers convincing arguments how the killings of animals was attempted to be justified. Before she gets to Judaism she also touches all of the ancient Asian religions and how the migrations into India and the Middle East influenced the people in Mesopotamia and neighboring regions as well. @Zuma posted some excerpts of the other book above. I’ll get back to you once I’ve read more.

@Qingu – You have not offered a reasonable explanation how the genocide endorsements ended up in the Old Testament and how this fits together with the ‘thou shall not murder’ commandment. Dogmatic priests planning to create a dangerous cult engaging in genocide is not a likely explanation. When Adolf Hitler wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ he had a perverse ideology in mind. Historians can prove this.

Reducing religion today as well as religion in history to a ‘wrath of God philosophy’ is cheap polemics popular in the (non academic) anti-religion movement. Once we start looking at religion and the history of religion through an academic lens, a far more complex picture gets revealed. I wish all well educated atheists were able to challenge (some of) their assumptions instead of repeating them over and over.

We should always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas. We should actively seek out information that contradicts our worldview. @Zuma has provided so many references and I wonder @Qingu, have you looked at any of them?

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu “I approach the Bible the exact same way that I approach any other ancient text or religious document I read. When, for example, Aristotle writes about how everything is made out of four elements + the Aether, I don’t think he is using “aether” as a metaphor for outer space….”

You didn’t read my long post above, did you? Had you done so, you would have found that Karen Armstrong draws a distinction between mythos and logos, a distinction which goes to directly to the heart of this discussion. If you are reading the Bible (which is mythos) the same way you read Aristotle (which is logos) you are not reading the text in a “serious, matter-of-fact, honest way,” you are seriously misinterpreting it, and committing the fallacy of presentism in the process.

Reading the Bible as mythos does not mean that it is “all metaphor. Rather, it means that its truths are not factual propositions, but “resonant” psychological truths, in the sense that a poem or a work of fiction “rings true.” Mythos is about accessing the inner recesses of one’s psyche, such as the natural feeling of sympathy and compassion one feels toward someone who has fallen into a ditch. It is not about dogma or factual correctness, it is about symbolism and meaning and drawing intuitive insights and connections between things.

I plan to do some more reading, and then I will I will reply to you more fully. Hopefully, by then, you have absorbed and responded to the argument I actually made above.

LostInParadise's avatar

@zuma, With all due respect, I think you are the one guilty of presentism. This idea of looking at religious documents as instructive fairy tales is definitely a modern idea and is not the interpretation of true believers past or present. The orthodox and fundamentalists see figures like Abraham and Moses as actual people. They accept the statement that the Earth is some five thousand years old as fact. Karen Armstrong is a good example of Mark Twain’s definition of religion as ” Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

LostInParadise's avatar

A review of Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God.

Qingu's avatar

Mythos/logos is a fairly modern (and very secular) construction, @Zuma. It’s certainly not unanimously accepted as a proper “lens” to interpret ancient texts in academic circles.

Also, not all parts of the Bible even remotely qualify as mythos. The legal parts surely are not. The historical parts post-Deuteronomy, the ones that triumphantly detail genocide, are not.

You could argue that, for example, the poetry of Genesis 1 is “psychologically resonant” in that mythos-like way, and not a statement of physical fact. But then people in ancient Mesopotamian really did believe the sun revolved around the earth and that the sky was a solid dome. In the Bible, the earth is portrayed as flat, the sky as a solid dome, and the stars and sun as points of light set into the dome of the sky. These aren’t merely “psychological truths,” they aren’t merely “symbolic,” they are clear, physical statements that describe the world as it was almost everywhere understood at the time. As I’ve argued numerous times here on Fluther, this worldview actually makes a great deal of sense, even “scientific” sense, if you are a bronze-age nomad. It was surely “logos” to them. You’re only claiming it’s “mythos” because our logos has disproven the Bible’s logos, and that is simply not an intellectually honest framework for engaging literature.

Qingu's avatar

As for the mythos/logos dichotomy, it’s been a while since I’ve engaged it, but my view is that it is so overly simplistic that it fails to be remotely useful. There are mythic structures—Hindu mythology, in particular—that obey rigorous, logical rules internal to the myth itself. There is also a mythic structure that overlaps what is called the logos. I mean, look at their interaction in golden age Greece, the supposed source of the terms. Look at how Plato interacts with Homer’s mythology, or how the concept of the “high gods” shorn of vulgar personality traits arose from clean philosophical logic.

Religion, and history, are simply more complicated than that.

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, you said,

“You have not offered a reasonable explanation how the genocide endorsements ended up in the Old Testament and how this fits together with the ‘thou shall not murder’ commandment.”
—This is simple. “Do not murder” is not equivalent to “do not kill.” The word murder doesn’t mean “kill,” it specifically means unlawful killing. Obviously the Bible is perfectly fine with, and mandates all sorts of killing. Guess what the penalty for breaking any of the Ten Commandments was? (You are killed.)

Dogmatic priests planning to create a dangerous cult engaging in genocide is not a likely explanation.
—Of course not. The cult was already well-developed by the time the Deuteronomistic texts were written.

Some background: I generally buy into the documentary hypothesis which basically says that the Bible (and specifically here, the OT) was strung together and “redacted” by a number of different “editors” or “sources” throughout the first millenium B.C. Most of Deuteronomy, along with the history books immediately following it (Joshua, Judges, Kings and Samuel) are generally considered the work of a (relatively late) “Deuteronomist source,” I believe during the reign of a southern Jewish kingdom.

So why did the Deuteronomist source include this horrible stuff? First of all, assuming the documentary hypothesis is accurate, this material wasn’t included into “scripture” until hundreds of years after the events it “describes” reportedly happen. Most archaeologists believe there is little or no evidence of any Hebrew “conquest” to begin with. So it’s not a prior justification for a future event, it’s a post-facto explanation for legends about this cult’s ancestors.

Secondly, I think the belligerent, unempathetic morality makes sense in the context of a kingdom trying to reform and cement its power in a hostile land. Around the 600’s B.C. was in between the Jews getting conquered by the Assyrians and, later, by the Babylonians. The interpretation of their land as inhabited by evil, polluting cultural forces would have “made sense,” just as Muslims in Palestine today have pretty hard feelings for Israel and America and think we’re the “great Satan.” Texts describing and exhorting genocide were also a way to (perversely) showcase the power of one’s ancestors and cultural heritage. If Joshua wiped out all the Canaanites, surely the Southern Kingdom could take on the Assyrians and/or the Babylonians. While the Bible is the only religious text I know of to command genocide, there are other examples in history of genocides occuring or being recorded, in particular the Egyptian Menerptah stele that brags about how the Egyptians wiped out a bunch of tribes (including the Israelites—ironically, this is the first mention of the Israelites in the historical record, and it’s bragging about committing genocide against them…) So perhaps it can also be explained as the “bravado” of a kingdom culture under siege bragging about the (exaggerated) warfare accomplishments of its ancestors, in a way that seems particularly barbaric to us today.

Whatever the case, the question of “how it got in there” is different from “what does the text say.”

Reducing religion today as well as religion in history to a ‘wrath of God philosophy’ is cheap polemics popular in the (non academic) anti-religion movement. Once we start looking at religion and the history of religion through an academic lens, a far more complex picture gets revealed. I wish all well educated atheists were able to challenge (some of) their assumptions instead of repeating them over and over.
You do realize I’ve studied the Bible academically, right?

And if you think my analysis is unacademic or simplistic, feel free to offer an alternate one. I’ll note you haven’t said how you think those passages “got into” the Bible, or offered any interpretation of them that mitigates their face-value meaning.

And I generally make a point not to look at “references” that are offered in the place of a well-supported argument. This is sort of an internet policy of mine from talking to creationists who, when pressed to defend their views, typically resort to linking me to a website, or a youtube video, or just copying and pasting a wall-o-text that allegedly “explains it all.” Obviously I’m more sympathetic to Zuma, but I don’t like the implications of demanding that one’s interlocutor read a super-long source excerpt before preceding in a back-and-forth debate.

Zuma's avatar

@LostInParadise “This idea of looking at religious documents as instructive fairy tales is definitely a modern idea and is not the interpretation of true believers past or present.”

I disagree. People did not view their sacred stories as “fairy tales.” They regarded them as statements of timeless truth; and, in this sense, they viewed them as instructive. For example, when Jesus recounts the story of helping man whose ox cart had fallen into a ditch on the Sabbath, what is important in this story is not whether it “really” happened, but the psychologically resonant truth that it conveys; namely, that compassion and helping people in need takes precedence over keeping the Sabbath. When the Pharisees rush up to reproach Jesus, and Jesus explains that the Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath, Jesus is not asserting some tenet of dogma, he is asserting a timeless moral truth: i.e., people come before “principle.”

I also agree with you can characterize all believers in the past as “true believers. The idea of a true believer is a very recent (c. 1951) idea. Certainly, the Pharisees, were close to being true believers, in the sense that their religiosity consisted almost entirely of a kind of legalistic observance of scripture-based law, making their approach to religion almost entirely a matter of doctrine and dogma. But, this is exactly the sort of “empty husk” of religion that Jesus rejects when he calls the Pharisees “whited sepulchers.” Indeed, it was exactly this kind of scripture-bound religion that the early Christians were rejecting when they abandoned circumcision and the 613 kosher laws.

It is exactly this “people first” ethos that motivates compassionate Christianity. To assert that religion is—and has always been—about God’s violence and vengeance, is not only wrong, it denies the tradition of compassion and social justice arising out of the confessional religions of the Axial age. If all religion is a matter of true believers dogmatically believing their beliefs; if all religion is a matter of fundamentalism and orthodoxy; and if dogma is the only legitimate expression of faith, there can be nothing morally improving about religion because religion is all about subjugating the individual and enslaving his reason and conscience to serve some inhuman ideology.

If all believers are true believers, then all faith is bad faith.

@Qingu “As for the mythos/logos dichotomy, it’s been a while since I’ve engaged it, but my view is that it is so overly simplistic that it fails to be remotely useful.”

First of all, the distinction between mythos and logos is not a dichotomy. They are different but not mutually exclusive modes of knowing, roughly akin to the distinction between literary truths and factual truths. So, dismissing the idea of mythos/logos distinction as “overly simplistic” (and interpreting everything from an exclusively logos point of view) is an unsupported opinion offered in place of an argument.

Likewise, your statement that mythos and logos are modern “secular” constructs is a bit of a non-sequitur. After all, literary criticism and modern textual analysis are also modern and “secular” intellectual developments. That does not mean that they are inapplicable or invalid. In essence, you have chosen to ignore the argument.

As for your assertion that Genesis is not mythos but is, instead, a kind of Iron Age attempt at cosmology in the modern scientific sense is presentism in the extreme. The purpose of Genesis, is not to provide a factual account of the origin the universe, it is to define the relationship between Man and God. Most gods up until that point were gods of the tribe or polis, or gods of some force of nature. By placing their sky-god Yahweh at the dawn of creation, they were implicitly asserting the superiority of Yahweh over all others—in effect, claiming the right to subordinate and subjugate their neighbors. That is mythos. Sure, it may have also been logos to the extent that Iron Age Jews lacked anything better as an explanation for the universe—but they weren’t trying to explain the universe in a scientific sense; they were trying to define their God as immensely powerful.

Likewise, Leviticus laid down a codified law and, in that sense, was logos. But, in a larger sense, it was also mythos, insofar as the 613 prescriptions and proscriptions of what was ritually unclean were not about what was intrinsically harmful in the sense of mallum in se (wrong in themselves) laws. Rather the laws drew distinctions that set the Jewish people apart from their neighbors. There was nothing inherently harmful about eating shellfish or pork; these practices were all about keeping faith with Yahweh (the timeless, psychologically resonant truth).

The idea that an Iron Age nomad was concerned with “facts” about the origins of the universe is to attribute a modern day scientific sensibility that simply didn’t exist in that time. But, once again, there is no dichotomy between mythos and logos. That is entirely your own invention.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Zuma , The assumption is that , unless otherwise indicated, when someone says or writes something, that they believe what they are saying or writing is factually true. There is no reason to believe that the framers of the OT did not literally believe in their story of creation, nor that early Christians did not accept as fact Jesus’s resurrection. We have a need for explanations and since scientific methods were not available, people were satisfied in believing the stories they made up. The burden of proof is on you to show otherwise.

The parables of Jesus are of a different nature. Their instructional nature is paramount and it is not required for them to be factually accurate.

The purpose of the Pentateuch is twofold. Firstly it sets out to create an origin story of the Jewish people and secondly it lays out laws that tell people how to conduct their lives.

Jewish dietary laws did in fact have a practical purpose. Pork and shellfish, if not properly treated, can cause disease. The Jews conflated the ideas of physical and spiritual cleanliness, which is not surprising since they did not have a scientific understanding of disease.

Qingu's avatar


So, dismissing the idea of mythos/logos distinction as “overly simplistic” (and interpreting everything from an exclusively logos point of view) is an unsupported opinion offered in place of an argument.
—I believe I did support my argument. I gave examples of how they overlap. But if you want to define the mythos/logos distinction as, well, not a distinction, then whatever—semantics.

Likewise, your statement that mythos and logos are modern “secular” constructs is a bit of a non-sequitur.
—What? I was under the impression that you are arguing that religious people throughout history have interpreted their holy books through the mythos/logos lens. But this can’t be the case if the mythos/logos lens is a modern, secular construction.

As for your assertion that Genesis is not mythos but is, instead, a kind of Iron Age attempt at cosmology in the modern scientific sense is presentism in the extreme. The purpose of Genesis, is not to provide a factual account of the origin the universe, it is to define the relationship between Man and God.
—Give me a break! Every single Mesopotamian myth provides the same cosmology! Are you seriously arguing the ancient hebrews, and Babylonians, and Egyptians, and pre-philosophy Greeks, and Hindus—all of whom wrote myths involving a flat geocentric earth with a solid sky holding up an ocean—did not literally believe the world was shaped this way?

That said, I agree with you about the theological purpose of the Genesis story (it’s actually more complicated—many scholars see Genesis as a sort of “theological response” to the earlier Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish.). However, this is why I don’t like the mythos/logos distinction. You don’t need the word “mythos” here when what you mean is “theology.” And you can wrap theology around a story that one believes is factually true. You even admit as much in your post:

That is mythos. Sure, it may have also been logos to the extent that Iron Age Jews lacked anything better as an explanation for the universe—but they weren’t trying to explain the universe in a scientific sense; they were trying to define their God as immensely powerful.
—No, they really were trying to explain the universe. Again: imagine you are a bronze-age nomad. You look at the world around you. It looks flat. You look at the sky and notice that rain falls from it. And it’s blue, like large bodies of water. Therefore, there must be an ocean up there. And obviously, you know that water doesn’t just float, so the sky must be some sort of solid structure that holds up the ocean, perhaps made out of glass or metal (the Hebrew word for the structure, “raqia,” means “that which is hammered out.” You also know that if you dig down far enough, you’ll find water. So you conclude, reasonably, that the earth is like this flat plate with a dome sky sandwiched between an above-sky ocean and an underworld ocean.

Let’s take another example: the Bible’s flood myth. Most of the details of the Bible’s flood myth are identical to an earlier Akkadian myth, the Epic of Atrahasis. Both myths portray the world in the shape I described above. Both myths have a hero load up a submarnine-like ark with animals that he later sacrifices to the God(s). Even the details involving a bird flying from the ark’s window are the same. However, the theology is different. In Atrahasis, the problem that causes the Gods to flood the earth is overpopulation. In the Bible, the problem is murder and bloodletting. In Atrahasis, the Gods’ solution to the problem, post-flood, is to limit humankind’s lifespan. In the Bible, God’s solution is to give humankind laws that limit bloodshed.

But look at how the theology, or the “mythos,” interacts with the reality presented in the story. Does the fact that there is a strong theological undercurrent to both stories mean that the physical reality described by the stories is unimportant? No! The Bible takes an established “flood story” template and wraps its own theology around them. But it does not change the underlying, physical premises of the story—because everyone at the time really believed in that underlying physical premise. It really was accepted as “fact” that there was a giant flood that collapsed the above-sky ocean and the underworld ocean, because that was how they believed the world was shaped.

Whether or not this counts as “scientific” depends on how you define the word science. What is certainly true is that it was a reasonable, earnest, even evidence-based attempt by ancient people to explain the shape of the world around them. Like I said, it wasn’t just the Hebrews who believed this—every culture in the area at the time have similar stories about the shape of the world. Interpreting such stories as merely “psychological truths,” as if their authors and audiences didn’t give a shit about the detailed physical descriptions in the stories, strikes me as a slap in the face of sorts. It’s disrespectful to the text.

And it seems like you are on the cusp of agreeing with me here. You seemed to say that Genesis really was logos for the ancient Hebrews. What I want you to ask yourself is: what changed? How can a story that was written as “logos,” interpreted originally as “logos,” and clearly thinks of itself as “logos,” as an earnest, physical description of reality—how does such a story suddenly become only “mythos”? If your only standard is “because the logos presented by the story is now disproven by science,” that is simply not an honest standard for engaging with a text.

Likewise, Leviticus laid down a codified law and, in that sense, was logos. But, in a larger sense, it was also mythos, insofar as the 613 prescriptions and proscriptions of what was ritually unclean were not about what was intrinsically harmful in the sense of mallum in se (wrong in themselves) laws. Rather the laws drew distinctions that set the Jewish people apart from their neighbors.
—This is an incredibly selective reading of Leviticus.

First of all, Leviticus doesn’t just contain so-called “ritual” laws. It also has those wonderful laws commanding you to kill adulterers and homosexuals. The laws against adultery were not about distinguishing the Hebrews from their neighbors since the Code of Hamurabi also calls for executing adulterers (though, unlike the Bible, the Code contains no laws against homosexuality).

Secondly, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the Hebrews believed their “ritual” laws were about setting themselves apart from their neighbors. For example, take the laws involving menstruation. If a woman is menstruating, she is considered unclean, according to Leviticus. She has to go outside the camp. And if you touch anything she touched, you have to purify yourself. Now, why in the world would you conclude that this law is about “setting the Hebrews apart from their neighbors”? It has nothing to do with their neighboring cultures. Likewise for the many laws in Leviticus ordering you to sacrifice food to Yahweh for unintentional sins—laws which, hilariously, specify that Yahweh likes his sacrifices seasoned with salt and herbs (which, coincidentally, the priests got a cut of…)

Your interpretation of Leviticus is not an engagement with the text. It’s not based on anything in the text, or in the cultural context of the ancient Hebrews who wrote it. It’s simply an attempt at a panacaea, at mitigating the now-obvious stupidity of the laws of the book.

Again: I ask you what your criteria is for interpreting Leviticus this way. Because I suspect it’s the same criteria you use to interpret Genesis: because the book no longer makes sense, its purpose must be mythos.

The idea that an Iron Age nomad was concerned with “facts” about the origins of the universe is to attribute a modern day scientific sensibility that simply didn’t exist in that time.
—Iron (and bronze) age nomads were very concerned about the facts of the world they lived in. To say they weren’t is simply incorrect. Their survival depended on their ability to understand and predict the world around them.

In fact, one of the reasons I dislike this mythos/logos business is that many myths really are earnest attempts by (prescientific) people to physically explain the world around them.

mattbrowne's avatar

@LostInParadise – For a book like this there’s always a great variety of reviews. Another example would be

Here are a few interesting snippets:

The time (...) is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”

The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook. To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.” Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”

This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties. But it deserves to be heavily qualified. Armstrong concedes that the religious story she’s telling highlights only a particular trend within monotheistic faith.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – Genocide endorsements equal murder and clearly not killings in general. If you kill in self defense for example this is not murder. It wasn’t 3000 years ago and it isn’t today.

A well-developed dangerous cult implies that it was created earlier with evil intent. I do not see historic evidence for this. My explanation is that wars are capable of transforming people into beasts. Maybe it’s an epigenetic phenomenon. Homo sapiens possesses genes for altruism (“left hand”) and cruelty (“right hand”) and they can be switched on or off. Scientists have just begun decoding the human epigenome.

Qingu's avatar


Genocide endorsements equal murder and clearly not killings in general. If you kill in self defense for example this is not murder.
— This is a tautology. And nowhere does the Bible define “murder” as “any killing not done in self-defense.” This is nonsensical on the face of it; the Bible mandates capital punishment for all sorts of crimes. The Bible also mandates, in regular warfare, the killing of all males of cities who do not immediately surrender (you got to keep the ladies and children as slaves).

Basically, the reason you’re saying the Bible contradicts itself here is because you personally believe, based on your modern, post-Enlightenment, human rights-based morality, that genocide = murder. That is simply not an argument that the text of the Bible itself understands genocide as unlawful killing. It’s just a statement of your belief (one that I of course happen to agree with) but it says nothing about the text itself.

A well-developed dangerous cult implies that it was created earlier with evil intent.
That’s simplistic. Even with strong central leaders cults rarely emerge in a purely top-down conspiratorial style—look at how scientology has taken a life of its own apart from L. Ron Hubbard.

Nobody knows who developed the original Hebrew cult, if there even was a single cult. I’m sympathetic to the idea that the cult was syncretistic and formed from refugees (possibly a real, historical “Moses”) from the Egyptian Amarna cult that found their way to Mesopotamia and incorporated the local traditions there. Or it could have been a local amalgamation, like how Muhammad combined Jewish and Arabian religious traditions into a powerful new cult.

My explanation is that wars are capable of transforming people into beasts.
— I’m not sure what this is meant to explain?

Are you saying that the warfare described in the Bible transformed the Hebrews into beasts, who then wrote down their beastly beliefs about genocide, deceitfully attributing them to God and Moses?

But that doesn’t make sense, because Deuteronomy was written long after the events it describes. And those events appear to be largely legendary/fictional anyway.

LostInParadise's avatar

@mattbrowne With regard to Karen Armstrong, when you talk about unknowable deities, I would invoke Wittgenstein: “Whereof we can not speak thereof we must remain silent.”

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu, @LostInParadise, @mattbrowne

Let’s focus on one thing at a time. This whole conversation (actually both of them) turns on whether there is such a thing as mythos, and whether the sacred texts of the past were constructed with mythos in mind. If there is no such thing as mythos then we have to view the writers of sacred texts as primitive scientists who were attempting to be factually correct in all matters, and failed miserably. If there is no such thing as mythos, then religion is nothing more than failed science. It is contemptible rubbish, shot through with error, and utterly unworthy of belief.

And, of course, anyone who still believes in religion—anyone having supped at the banquet of our materialist science and who comes away feeling spiritually empty—can only be regarded as obstinate, self-deceiving, weak-minded dupes, whose attempts to salvage some scrap of insight or wisdom from this trash-heap of human error, can only be regarded as deluded and intellectually dishonest.

On the other hand, if there is such a thing as mythos, then perhaps religion isn’t total rubbish, and then, perhaps, the people who find solace in it aren’t quite the rubes and dupes they are made out to be. If the goals of sacred texts are not those of science but those of literature, then maybe there is an opening for mutual understanding and reconciliation, instead of mutual rejection and interminable cultural war.

First, let’s clear up one thing: the mythos/logos distinction is a modern tool of literary criticism and textual analysis, and as such, it is not a distinction that peoples of old used to make sense of their experience. Ancient peoples did not have modern vocabularies, but that does not mean that they didn’t have sociological and psychological insights. They did. And it is these that create the enduring appeal of myth. The fact that ancient peoples did not make a conscious distinction between mythos and logos does not mean that they approached things exclusively from one modality or the other. And it certainly does not mean that they approached things exclusively from a rational, practical, factual logos point of view.

Second, let’s clear up another thing: mythos and logos are not mutually exclusive. Both were regarded as essential and as complimentary ways of arriving at truth. Myth, however, was regarded as primary. It was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in a world where there was “nothing new under the sun.” It looked back to the origins of life, the foundations of culture, and the the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with so much with practical matters, as with meaning. When heroes descended into the underworld to navigate labyrinths in order to slay the beast within, they weren’t talking about an actual hero, or an actual labyrinth, or an actual beast; these were symbolic events speaking to timeless psychological truths in a language that predates modern psychology.

If people took the details of their creation myths to be fact, that does not mean that the whole purpose of the story was to provide a factual account of the origins of the universe. Sure, ancient peoples were rational, pragmatic and concerned with facts, but they were much more concerned with what these facts meant for them. They lived in a premodern world where historical events were not seen as unique occurrences set in a far off time, but were thought to be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities.

They weren’t concerned so much with what happened, but what it meant for them—which, in the case of Genesis, was that they were to regard Yahweh as their creator and not merely as their patron. Likewise, in Exodus, when the Jews escaped from Egypt, the story is deliberately written as myth, because what is important is not the details of how they escaped, but how God splitting the Red Sea created a new reality for them by opening the way to a new spiritual world, which the Jews continue to commemorate and make new in the rituals of the Passover Seder.

So, is logos the only interpretive frame, the only mode of thinking? Well, that is what the fundamentalists think when they mistake mythos for logos and proclaim that the bible is to be taken literally as the inerrant Word of God—and that appears to be what certain spirituality-denying atheists think when they that all religion is essentially fundamentalist. But if logos were really the normal, natural and prevalent mode of human thinking, why is it that rationality doesn’t really come into its own until the 18th Century? Why is it that antiquity is steeped in a mythological worldview and not rationalist from the get-go? Why is it, in our presumably rational age, that mysticism still has any appeal whatsoever?

In looking at the two creation myths that you compare, you note that the “facts” of the matter are an agreed upon template of how things are, and there are two different theologies overlaying these facts. Sure, the “template facts” as you describe them have to be plausible according to the standards of the time, but that doesn’t mean that the primary import of these was to explain “how things are” in a scientific sense. So, just because these stories make a nod to logos does not mean that they were all about a physical explanation for things. You don’t need to include the harrowing bit about humanity being destroyed unless you are setting down a new mythos, that is, a new social and psychological order. As you note, these physical facts are just a template for a new theology, which conveys a moral message to one group (don’t overpopulate) and another message to another group (live righteously and don’t be so warlike). It is these latter messages—not the physics—that is the “moral” of the story. Once again, mythos and logos are not dichotomous, but complimentary.

In re Leviticus: It would be a pretty crappy set of laws that were completely arbitrary and without practical benefits; but, on the other hand, it is an ineluctable axiom of religion that you can’t have a totem without taboos (cf. Durkheim). So, naturally, if you are going write down 613 laws in an attempt to cover every contingency, you are going to come up with a mixed bag of practical measures, ritual prescriptions, and things that strike us as absolute nonsense. But, while you may quibble over what people may or may not have thought as they followed each law, there is no question that this Mosaic Law as a whole defined the Israelites, and distinguished the Chosen People from their neighbors, and served as a constant reminder of their differences.

The purpose of this law was not simply to define things that are bad in and of themselves (i.e., one of the purposes of any system of codified law); it was to create a sense of social solidarity—a fabric of daily ritual and custom through which the Jews reaffirmed their worthiness of being the Chosen People. It was through these observances that the Jews could come to see themselves as morally superior to their neighbors, and being more holy, also being more deserving of their neighbor’s land.

The prohibition against pork had a certain practicality to it, since pigs simply can’t keep up with a nomadic people; when the Jews finally settled down, this law simply became a way of creating a kind of taboo against assimilation. Likewise, the prohibition against eating meat and cheese in the same meal (which was a favorite post sacrificial repast amongst their neighbors). If the Jewish people were naturally averse to assimilation, they wouldn’t need a taboo to frighten them away. So, of course, people were not consciously saying to themselves “this law is what sets me apart from the Moabites (or whomever)”; this was something set up by priests so that the people internalized the taboo and feel physically revolted at the idea of these practices, so that you don’t have to reason with each and every one of them when the situation comes up. And it would be foolish to spell out this bit of priest-craft in the text, because it is supposed to work on an unconscious, not a conscious, level.

As for homosexuality being “an abomination,” an abomination, as you probably know, is an impediment to sacrifice. When the Romans desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, they placed stones of abomination on the temple’s altars so that no sacrifices could be made. Ritual and sacrifice was how the Jews kept faith with their God, and it was this solidarity that was the true source of their power. By desecrating the temple, the Romans sought to break the connection between the Jewish people and their war God Yahweh. Without sacrifices to honor Him, Yahweh would withdraw His protection of His Chosen people, it was reasoned, thereby depriving the Israelites of Yahweh’s power rendering them politically impotent and militarily defenseless as a people. It certainly did demoralize them, and in that sense it “worked.” Notice that, here again, mythos and logos work hand-in-glove, and are not mutually exclusive.

One may quibble over what practical the sequestration of menstruating women, but anyone who has lived in a one room apartment with a woman for any length of time can appreciate the wisdom of banishing menstruating women to the banja hut. Likewise, washing up after you ejaculate, is a good way to get some of the people to bathe some of the time. The point of making it a holy law is to obviate the necessity of having to explain why to people who are not able to figure this stuff out for themselves.

“one of the reasons I dislike this mythos/logos business is that many myths really are earnest attempts by (prescientific) people to physically explain the world around them.”

When you look at mythos as primitive sociology and primitive psychology, it makes perfect sense. Not so much as primitive physics or cosmology. If explaining the physical world were really the primary goal, why is it that people accepted such wholly inadequate explanations until relatively recently? Why is it that these ideas have such political significance?

Why, for example, was the Church so upset with Galileo? Did the Church (or the world) actually depend on whether people believed that the Earth “really” revolved around the Sun? No, as we have seen, these physical facts don’t matter one whit, unless you are a modern scientist. The Church has survived just fine after conceding these facts. It was the social and psychological import of Galileo’s observations that made them seem so upsetting. They displaced a mythos which held that Man was the center of all Creation, thereby calling into question eternal relationship between God and Man, Heaven and Earth. The Church has survived because it has ceded logos to science, rather than attempting to claim it for itself.

The Fundamentalists have made no such concession, and so they are perpetually drawn into conflict with the modern world. As a consequence they feel spiritually embattled; and their militant forays into politics are marching the society steadily toward fascism. And you are leaving them no way out—no way to win, and no way to honorably surrender without abject humiliation.

Finally, saying something is mythos is not to say that it doesn’t make sense, but rather that it makes a particular kind of “universal” social or psychological sense, however you state it. Simply because myths have structure or have been arrived at through some (mystical) method, or contain elements of logos does not mean that they are entirely logos. The purpose of theology is to define the moral universe we live in, not the physical universe, which is mostly mute about matters of purpose and meaning. (Here, it actually helps to read Armstrong, which is what I am going to do right now, since I have gone on long enough.)

Qingu's avatar

@Zuma, I don’t disagree with most of what you say.

I will grudgingly use your mythos/logos terminology in my response, even though I still hate it.

There are two general problems I have with your argument.

1. You acknowledged that Galileo’s challenge to the Bible’s “logos” of cosmology displaced the “mythos” surrounding that cosmology—that Man is the center of creation. But this seems to contradict the rest of your argument. While you acknowledge that mythos and logos can be tied together, you don’t generally seem to appreciate the extent to which they are mutually dependent. Heliocentrism is a good example of science displacing the mythos via contradicting the logos. The exact same thing is happening with evolution today—the reason fundamentalists feel threatened by evolution isn’t because they’re clinging to the “logos,” it’s because their “mythos” of original sin, of special creation—all the theological and moral concepts that underpin the necessity of Jesus’ salvation, the cornerstone of their religion—become “displaced” if we are just primates.

And they should be afraid because, I would argue, it’s not a coincidence that the emergence of heliocentrism correlates with the emergence of secular moral systems like Enlightenment philosophy. Heliocentrism, by challenging the logos of the creation story, also tore away at some of the mythos associated with that creation story. You can’t simply “cede” the logos and retain all of the mythos; they are in many cases intertwined.

2. Nowhere did you acknowledge that the “mythos” of a text can also be wrong.

Let’s look at the flood myth. I think you agree with my conception of it. The flood myth is written with the standard Mesopotamian logos of cosmology. Layered onto this is a “mythos”—the moral point of the story.

But compare the mythos of the Epic of Atrahasis (the earlier flood story) with the Bible’s. In Atrahasis, the problem the flood solves is overpopulation—and the “moral” of the story is that the divine powers want humans to control our population so we don’t impinge on them. The Bible does a full reversal in its version—at the end of the story Yahweh commands us to “go forth and multiply.” We’re supposed to spread out and have dominion over the earth.

I think it’s fairly obvious, in our overpopulated, mostly polluted and industrialized world, that the Bible’s “mythos” here is flawed. It might have worked for nomads. But the citydwelling Akkadians had a better mythos in their story—at least one more applicable to today’s world.

Another problem I have is how you interpret the “mythos” of legal texts. If I understand you—and I might not—you are saying that the mythos of Leviticus is something quite separate from the actual content of its laws, that the moral point is not spelled out in the moral behavior the laws proscribe but rather in some sociological sense of cultural identity. I really just think this is nonsense. Let’s move from the silly Leviticus cleanliness laws to something like Deuteronomy 22:28:

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.

This law says that a rape victim must marry her rapist. It is obviously barbaric—but what is, according to you, the underlying “mythos” or “universal/psychological truth” it is trying to convey? I don’t think there’s anything deeper than the face-value content of the law.

Now, I do think that we can examine this law in its cultural context. In ancient Israel, women were considered the property of men. First, a woman belonged to her father, until she got married. Then she belongs to her husband. (The 10th commandment makes this explicit: do not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slave, or other property). Husbands essentially buy wives by paying their father a brideprice, usuually a little more than the cost of a slave. Thus, adultery is perhaps best understood as a property crime.

Rape is punished nowhere in the Bible. It is a concept that did not exist in ancient Mesopotamia except to determine whether or not a woman is party to her own adultery if she has sex with another man other than her husband (and thus deserving death along with him).

The “moral point” of this law, then, is basically “you break it, you buy it.” If you agree that this is the “mythos” of this law, then I hope you will also agree with me that this mythos—like much of the mythos of the Bible—is wrong.

When people ask me why I don’t believe in the Bible, I usually respond with something like “Mostly because it’s not true, but also because it’s pretty damn immoral.” As you’ve defined them, both the logos and the mythos of the Bible deserve plenty of criticism.

Zuma's avatar

@Qingu I think we are very close to a deal here. Up until now, I wasn’t sure that you accepted that there was any such thing as mythos. Or if there was, it was a kind of special pleading to get out of sticky contradictions in a logos reading of scripture.

If we can agree that there is a mode of thinking and knowing known as mythos and that this is the foundation of religious cult and ritual, then I do agree that mythos can be wrong—not always wrong, but that there are some insights that are no longer in keeping with the world we live in. Such as, the view of women as property and the “you break it, you bought it” ethos that applies to property.

I agree with you that parts of the Bible are not to believed—not because they aren’t true, or that you have to take all of it or none of it—but because parts of it strike me as immoral and out of keeping with the modern world. Indeed, I find the whole idea of the supernatural offensive, not because it is factually “untrue” (who knows what the true facts are), but because the whole point of the supernatural is to privilege one group of human beings over another—it offends my moral sensibility.

Yes, I agree that both logos and mythos deserve plenty of criticism, and not just in the Bible—in contemporary life as well. I think we secular rationalists suffer from not having a living mythos to go with our liberal sensibility.

I want to think a bit more about your remarks under 1. above. “Displaced” is probably the wrong word (maybe “threatened”?). Also, it think that fundamentalits may have two problems; i.e, mistaking logos for mythos and having a mistaken mythos about original sin, which they have amplified to a doctrine of “total depravity.” But I want to read a bit more and sleep on it before I comment.

LostInParadise's avatar

I don’t think we are that far apart. What is most important to realize is that for ancient peoples there was no split between what you are calling mythos and logos. It was all one thing. There would be no talk among Jews trying to separate spiritual and physical cleanliness. It was all tied together. Science was an expression of the will of God, and God was a perceived as a regular presence in their lives. Each tribe had its personal gods, which the people believed would assure their superiority. When they were conquered, they concluded that their gods were inferior, so they adopted the gods of their conquerors. Judaism owes its longevity in part to the refusal of Jews to give up on their God even after the many times they were conquered.

Modern fundamentalists are attempting to do the same thing, but they are at a disadvantage. We know too much. Scientific method has proven its effectiveness many times over. To maintain the same point of view, centered in a God dedicated to man, one has to stick one’s head in the ground. This is the only thing that separates modern and ancient true believers.

There is still room for spirituality, but its expression must be knowingly based on personal choice rather than as being seen as imposed from the outside. It must be based not on a Universe created for our personal use based on a God in whose image we were created, but on an attempt to create something meaningful in an otherwise cold and indifferent Universe.

LostInParadise's avatar

Let me expand on that notion of spirituality, which on rereading comes across as a bit harsh. The meaning in life as I see it comes from our acceptance of ourselves as parts of larger entities, not as a master or servant but as a mutual agent.

Qingu's avatar

@LostInParadise, I think it might be more accurate to say that what Zuma calls “logos” functioned as a sort of structural support for the moral theology (mythos) of the religion. Or, to put it another way, it functioned as “evidence.”

You see this a lot in the Bible, where the various, allegedly factual historical events that terrorize the Jews are seen as divine punishment for moral lapses—as evidence that God is angry with them and wants them to behave better.

Zuma's avatar

I agree with @LostInParadise that there was no perceived split between mythos and logos, but I also that each provided a kind of support for the other. Mythos gives meaning and context to the facts that are produced by logos.

The problem today is that the mythos is often backward looking, attempting to go back to the sacred beginnings, the primordial event, or the foundations of human life and recreate this Golden Age, where people lived in harmony because they had the right beliefs and all believed the same thing.

According to Armstrong, mythos often embraced what she calls the “conservative spirit” which was to foster acceptance of the inherent limitations of an agrarian culture. For example, education in traditional societies would tend to consist of rote learning in order to discourage originality, not because people are intellectually timid, but because an agrarian society could not accommodate constant innovation or radically new ideas. Too much innovation could be socially disruptive and could endanger the community; so social stability and order were considered more important than freedom of expression.

Also, if societies were believed to have declined from a primordial perfection, civilization tended to be seen as inherently precarious and fragile, ready to collapse or lapse into barbarism, as Western Europe did after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

With the advent of capitalism and continually reinvestment in human and physical capital, the resource base of modern societies is constantly expanding. So, now the task of mythos is to support people and give them courage to face an uncertain future in a sustained way, without awakening eschatological anxieties that lead to an apocalyptic cosmic war of “good” against “evil.”

I sincerely hope we “know too much” to go backward, but I don’t think reason (logos) is quite enough to inoculate us against the dangers of the future—like the potential of science being turned against us in the service of our exploitation. I think we need some sort of transcendent vision that affirms that Humanity is a moral community to which everyone belongs, and that this membership confers the right to dignity and respect, and both the right to be supported and the duty to support one’s fellow man, and which places morality in the context of human evolution where the cumulative effect of our individual moral choices matter, etc.

Qingu's avatar

I agree that the “backwards-looking” mythos is both pervasive in religion and perverse for modern day society. The idea that we are a “fallen world,” yearning for a time in the past when we were perfect obedient child-slaves in a garden (mythical or otherwise) forms one of the fundamental tenets of all three monotheistic faiths and, I think, is a dangerous sentiment.

Secular society has done a 180 on this, from “progressive” liberals who think the future will be better than the past, to transhumanists who actually think the future is going to be a magical place.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Zuma,I am very much in agreement with what you are saying. The mythos of the ancients was all bundled together: religion, politics and science were pretty much united in one package. We still have mythos, but it is not so easily tied together. Religion, politics, science and economics all have their own mythos, sometimes coming together and sometimes not. Part of this modern mythos is the belief in science and engineering as means for solving all our problems. This, as you point out, can have dangerous consequences. There is, as many people are sensing, a need for something new. So far, modern attempts to replace the old time religions have not been very fruitful. Scientology and New Age beliefs don’t cut it. Let’s hope that it is possible to form a new spirituality in which we take direct responsibility for our collective actions.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Qingu – My explanation is that wars are capable of transforming people into beasts. What I mean by this is the vicious circle of violence. A kind altruistic human being ultimately transformed into a killing machine.

mattbrowne's avatar

@LostInParadise – Does this apply to Ray Kurzweil as well when he talks about the technological singularity? Asking deeper questions is human. Contemplating speculative answers as well.

mattbrowne's avatar

I got to print some of the longer comments and get back to you. I wonder when I get used to reading multi-page articles from a screen. At some point my eyes begin to hurt. iPad?

Qingu's avatar

@mattbrowne, what is your explanation for how those pro-genocide passages (and entire books) got into the Bible?

Zuma's avatar

Is there some reason you guys are being so stingy with your lurve? Everyone is putting a lot of thought and effort into these answers, even if you don’t agree with them.

Qingu's avatar

Oh, I wouldn’t call it “stinginess” in my case. More like “laziness.” You should see my 238+ items on my activity section.

liminal's avatar

@andrew, @Simone_De_Beauvoir, and @mattbrowne While it is rare, there are organizations outside of religions providing such things. Umbrella organizations like International Humanist and Ethical Union and The American Ethical Union (Their slogan “deed before creed”) connect brick and mortar community groups, like this one in Illinois, Ethical Humanist Society. I like how they describe themselves: “The Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago is a democratic fellowship and spiritual home for those who seek a rational, compassionate philosophy of life without regard to belief or nonbelief in a supreme being.” I have participated in some of their happenings. They are committed to providing a community “alternative” to religiosity.

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, everyone is putting a lot of thought and effort into these answers. I clicked on all the lurve hyperlinks available. Sometimes it’s easier for me to contemplate the content of a book or a printout which I did this afternoon. I think this is one of the best debates I’ve seen on Fluther. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and intellectual depth and breath and it makes me wonder why I’ve chosen to become a computer scientist (full of logos) in my late teens. Maybe I had to get knee-deep into logos to realize how important a transcendent vision of a moral community, as @Zuma put it, really is. And that we need the hope of forming a new spirituality, as @Qingu put it, in which we take direct responsibility for our collective actions. Whether it’s something like Lerner’s network of spiritual progressives or something else of equal value doesn’t matter. What matters is purpose and meaning and context in addition to logos. Spiritual voids will make people feel empty and depressed and many turn to horoscopes or other new age nonlogos rubbish. Some get abducted by aliens, others embrace the ideologies of the religious right to become willing promoters and executors of hidden political agendas marching toward fascism.

This is why mythos matters. It’s part of our humanity. As pointed out by you it does not only matter to understand what happened, but also trying to understand what it means. Logos alone cannot answer all of the deep questions. Both the definition of the moral universe and the understanding of physical universe should concern us.

I like @Zuma‘s remark about finding ways for (fence-sitting) fundamentalists to honorable surrender without abject humiliation. Two or three weeks ago an Australian creationist left Fluther because he realized he cannot win any scientific argument and there was a great deal of humiliation involved. What could be a good way out? Perhaps appreciating the positive aspects of deeply religious people. A good example are the Amish. Extremely low depression and suicide rates. No homelessness. Human solidarity. No greed. Healthy intergenerational relationships. And so forth. Yes, @LostInParadise, we secular rationalists suffer from not having a living mythos to go with our liberal sensibility.

Most important are the undecided teenagers. If it’s either spirituality-denying atheism or religious fundamentalism we lose. Too many will eventually turn into homophobic right-wing voters and brainwashed evolution deniers. Why is this happening in Europe only on a very small scale? Because there are modern spiritual alternatives.

I’d like to conclude with an interpretation of the Adam and Eve myth. It’s true that some of mythos is flawed too, but I think that’s not the majority if we acknowledge that logos and mythos are complementary with some overlap i.e. not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the term knowledge (or even wisdom?) describes best what happens if logos and mythos are combined.

Curiosity is one of the most essential human traits and it’s the basis for our pursuit of knowledge. But Adam and Eve (symbolizing the beginning of humanity) and all the rest of us have to leave the paradise. When we seek knowledge, we will also discover the ugly parts.

A modern variation of this mythos is part of ‘The Time Machine’ by H.G. Wells. The Eloi live in a (temporary) kind of paradise. To remain in this paradise they show no interest in knowledge at all. The time traveler discovers that none of the books in the old library has ever been opened. He wants them to pursue knowledge, but this means they will have to leave the paradise. And they will find ugliness. Called Morlocks.

mattbrowne's avatar

@liminal – Actually, I’m looking for organizations that include both spiritually-inclined atheists and ethical logos-embracing believers.

liminal's avatar

@mattbrowne I too agree that this has been the best fluther discussion I’ve seen so far. It is the one I have been waiting for in many ways. I am only sad that I came so late to the party. (I almost didn’t check out this question, I am glad I did!) I ponder jumping into the discussion involving you, Zuma, Lost In Paradise, and Qingu but realize the ship has probably already sailed. :)

Personally, I was responding to the earlier parts of the discussion. I was hearing an acknowledgment of a hunger in people for spirituality and community and it was introduced by @Simone_De_Beauvoir, that outside religion, such partnerships do not exist.

While the umbrella organizations I mentioned may not directly support what you are looking for some of the lived communities surely do. For example, the Chicago Ethical Humanist Society is composed of Jewish, Protestant, Buddhist, Catholic, and Atheist backgrounds (and practitioners). While they use the word “ethical” as their adjective of choice I think one would be hard pressed not to see a group that offers regular gatherings, meaningful ceremonies, and who describe themselves thusly: “We value the importance of living an ethical, responsible, and joyful life. We promote intellectual, philosophical, and artistic freedom, avoiding dogma and rigid creed. We nurture a sense of wonder about life, nature, and the universe, and are inspired by positive models of human achievement. Shaped by the forces of humanism, democracy, science, and religious reform, we cherish human diversity and focus on what we have in common, not on what keeps us apart.” as not involved in a practical spirituality where “spiritually-inclined atheists and ethical logos-embracing believers” can meet.

What I like about such a group is that the spiritually-inclined atheists and ethical logos-embracing believers find themselves amidst a continuum of people not some binary where one entity defines itself against the other (I want to be clear that I do not think you have suggested such a thing). I find it refreshing when spiritually minded people regardless of their approach or non-approach to Divinity can find a place of commonality and, ultimately, community.

mattbrowne's avatar

@liminal – Thanks for your comment! I took a brief look at the Chicago Ethical Humanist Society and it seems like a very good approach. I will take a deeper look this weekend. Have you heard about the organization? I think it’s a similar approach and I know that many spiritually-inclined atheists have joined as well. The religious right movement needs a strong alternative, otherwise this problem won’t go away.

Yes, I agree with your sentiment that it’s refreshing when spiritually minded people regardless of their approach or non-approach to Divinity can find a place of commonality and, ultimately, community.

Here’s an approach that got started in Europe by Hans Kueng. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@mattbrowne I call ‘secular spirituality’ living ethically because the label including spirituality bothers me.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir – I’m aware that some people don’t like the term spiritual or spirituality. Living ethically is certainly a very important part, but to me there are other parts as well.

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