In A History of God, Karen Armstrong does a great job of narrating pivotal shifts in theologies. She doesn’t do quite as good a job at describing the gradual shifts that naturally occur over long periods of time (somewhat analogous in ecology to genetic drift in isolated populations), but that’s understandable as the eras of big change tend to have the famous characters and striking moments that dominate the study of history. That said, some of Armstrong’s finer moments come while describing how Isaac Newton’s science and theology led to the preeminence of creation in Western theology.
Here’s a (relatively) little known historical episode, as related by Karen Armstrong in A History of God. In the 17th century a Jew named Sabbetai Zevi proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. Sabbetai (one of many spellings) was embraced by both rabbis and common Jews, throughout Europe and elsewhere.
Sabbetai Zevi grew up in the Jewish community in Smyrna, in what is today Turkey. Today he would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive, as he had “periods of deep despair, when he used to withdraw from his family and live in seclusion” which were followed by “an elation that bordered on ecstasy.” During his manic days Sabbetai would “deliberately and spectacularly break the Law of Moses: he would publicly eat forbidden foods, utter the sacred Name of God and claim that he had been inspired to do so by a special revelation.”
More interesting thoughts from Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. In discussing the origins of monotheism, she presents a more nuanced view than what I learned growing up. I always assumed that while a lot of the early figures in Genesis (like Adam and Noah) knew God, by the time of Abraham most people were polytheists, and Abraham correctly recognized that there was only one God. (All of this assumes that these figures were actual people and not legends. Adam and Noah are certainly legendary, since there was no first man, and no Flood, while Abraham’s historicity is disputable, though somewhat irrelevant.)
While I’ve already started two or three other books simultaneously (I’ve really got to quit that), Karen Armstrong’s A History of God is the first to really catch my attention this holiday break. Armstrong is a journalist and former Catholic nun. The latter didn’t work out too well for her. Lately she’s been writing numerous books on world religions, and A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a New York Times bestseller. I decided it was worth buying when I read an admiringly introduced quote of hers in both a book by Sam Harris and by a Christian (although I don’t recall what book or blog that was in now). Also, I just read a nice piece over at Ethical Spectacle, with an interesting Personal History of God.
So how does Armstrong introduce her grand, far-reaching survey of religious history?
This book will not be a history of ineffable reality of God itself, which is beyond time and change, but a history of the way men and women have perceived him from Abraham to the present day. The human idea of God has a history, since it has always mean something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God”; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas.
I find most group blogs to be mere curiosities; a few friends blogging about generally unrelated matters with few common threads to hold it together. But while reading a discussion on preterism as an indication of the reshaping of early Christians’ view of Jesus in light of his failure to return (which is related to the idea of Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet) I came across an interesting blog called Philaletheia, “love of truth.”
Philaletheia is a blog with two authors. One is a devout Christian while the other is an avowed atheist. They blog together to promote dialogue between atheists and Christians. From their about section:
“Both are passionate about seeking truth in their own fashion. Both thought other truth-seekers might benefit from an open dialogue concerning truth-claims, how we know anything, and the nature of everything… One objective of this blog is to listen deeply and learn to talk to one another. Both authors will be contributing thoughts on certain topics, that the other author will be able to respond in the comments along with all other readers.”
An interesting concept, but does it work? Well, from what I’ve read so far the discussion is much more balanced (and intelligent) than many other websites. Typically you’ll find that blogs advocating one point of view will attract vehement critics from another worldview (I have had my share of these here, as well as being guilty myself), which while being entertaining and occasionally productive, often leaves much to be desired. Philaletheia seems to have something good going.
Case in point: A post titled Can Atheists Be Good? Especially note the 60+ comments following. Of course, that assertion (that without the Judeo-Christian God there ultimately is no morality, no reason to refrain from raping or pillaging or whatnot, no motive to ‘do good’ has been made to me by many, including family).
It seems there are most agnostics/atheists than theists posting, but that is probably consistent with the blog’s readership in general, as liberal theists (such as the Christian author there) in some ways have more in common with agnostics. Nevertheless, here are some interesting comments (with no particular point other than stimulating thought):
“Neither god belief nor the lack of it, guarantees moral or ethical human behavior. People cooperate because it is mutually advantageous. We are also capable of natural feelings such as empathy, sympathy, remorse etc. Our natural abilities to empathize with other humans also form the basis of what we consider to be moral or ethical. There are rare people who are termed sociopathic, who apparently are incapable of these emotions, but for the vast majority of us these human emotions allow us, by understanding our own needs, to understand the needs of others.
“So, I think that morality has as much to do with our genetic origins than it has with any hierarchial supernatural construct that we have devised in an attempt to keep people in line. Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys.”
A theist and a non-theist often arrive at the same conclusions reasoning from a different basis (biology and reason vs. authority and reason, etc.):
“Second, and interestingly, I don’t think that the use of reason or the motive of enlightened self-interest leads us all to the same place regarding what we might consider ethical. (You might make a parallel argument for Christianity.) So, for example, an atheist might reach many of the same ethical conclusions as his or her Christian counterparts–except that in the atheist’s case such conclusions might be reached as the outcome of reasoning, rather than out of deference to the prescriptions of a holy book.”
“And, again, you’re right that Christians use both reason and blind quoting of the literal text. Reasoning is often part of the arguement of the text itself. Often, biblical ethical arguments are intensely logical.”
An argument for group morality based on self-ownership:
“I own me, not you. You own you, not me. Therefore, morality is based on one fulfilling his own values. So basically anything is moral as long as it conforms to the self-ownership principle. But how does this allow me to identify immoral acts? Easy! Through the violation of the self-ownership principle: coercion. “If you try to force me to fulfill YOUR values, then you are being immoral. Theft, lies and violence are all attempts to force another to fulfill ones values. Consent = moral (because it conforms to self-ownership) and coercion = immoral (because it violates self-ownership).
Is this all relative? Nope. Why? Because no matter what you do, self-ownership is a truth that will reveal itself time and again when prodded.”
And by the same author:
“There are only two ways for two self-owning agents to interact: through consent, or through force. Consent is moral, force is immoral. Consent recognizes the sovereignty of the individual, coercion attempts to violate it.”
“With your argument for self-autonomy is an excellent one, I’d like to see it used more often in conjunction with an argument for preventing pain and suffering or an argument for an evolved moral code. While moral codes are fine and all, what I care about is that if you’re at the end of a football field, and a dog on the opposite end of the field is on fire, you’re running as fast as you can to save the dog. Under your argument, the dog can just burn. If we recognize that altruism and cooperation are beneficial for the individual, and not just the group, and may be an evolved mechanism, than saving the dog is the natural thing to do.”
And later on in the discussion, on the need for the creation of general codes of conducts because of a recognition of a biological tendencies to violate the rule of self-ownership in others:
“As, human beings, we are conscious of our propensities, so we create codes of conduct. These codes of conduct do not deny the existence of these propensities, (which we may find immoral or unfavorable) but these codes seek to formulate situations and circumstances when such behaviors are considered favorable.
“It is through the creation of these codes of conduct that we seek to place these proclivities within a human societal construct which will ‘benefit the hive’ or ‘benefit the group.’”
On the inherent bias of the question, Can Atheists Be Good?:
“If I framed the question as “Can theists be good?” The question would also have an inbuilt bias.”
On the benefit of preserving (or by extension, improving) another’s life:
“It is mutually beneficial for me to value the existence of others in the same way that I value my own existence, as I can increase my own chances of survival by being cognizant of the value that other people also attach to their lives.”
Hmm, that could be the title of a great, fascinating series of posts. Or not..
I saw a sign the other day that says “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” At first glance, it’s cute. At second thought, it’s interesting from an anthropological perspective. I believe a good word for this is syncretism- an incorporation of beliefs or systems of thought from various sources, often without acknowledgement of an apparent inconsistency (because in the eyes of those who subscribe to the syncretistic beliefs, there is no contradiction). The statement can be looked at from two perspectives:
First, we (speaking of relatively modern American Christians, who accept that science is a valid way to explore the physical world) have incorporated a scientific epistemology pretty thoroughly into our worldview. In a truly biblical world view a flood covered the entire earth, the earth ain’t billions of years old, humanity originated in a Mesopotamian Eden, the sky is a vault over the flat earth (where the sun can simply be stopped in its path), the number pi is exactly 3 (I Kings 7:23ff), and disease is caused by demonic possession. Over time we’ve discovered through science that there was no world-wide flood, the earth is billions of years old, humanity descended from primate ancestors in Africa, the earth orbits the sun, pi is 3.14 (etc., ad nauseam), and disease (both physical and mental) is caused by genetics, bacteria, and viruses.
Fortunately, at least for those who want to maintain Christian belief at any cost, the Bible is sufficiently vague on many points, and has such a large volume of statements that can be applied to any given subject, that as scientific knowledge changes, believers rejoice that they have finally gotten it right each time something that was previously “misunderstood” (because of an obvious meaning) is replaced by a less literalistic view. Some writers- Sam Harris is a good example- think that religious belief will simply vanish as people become more educated. While being highly educated in the U.S. is correlated with not holding fundamentalist belief, Harris underestimates the ability of faith systems- even those entirely reliant on ancient texts- to evolve in unexpected ways to survive faith crises.
Alternately, it’s impressive that individuals (and I’m assuming whoever posted this sign has a Ph.D. in science) can hold separate epistemological standards for separate realms of knowledge. If you’re really going to take the position that anyone who wants to convince you of something needs to bring data, why is God exempt? Are you afraid He (or she) wouldn’t live up to the same standards? Is it a respect thing? Or is it a tacit acknowledgement that God is ultimately unknowable by scientific means because He’s completely metaphysical and therefore outside the realm of data? Of course, if that’s case, He’s not really the God the Bible says he is in the first place.
Enough for random epistemological musings, I’m off to something more concrete- physics.