Sam Harris on Pete Stark

Sam Harris writes:

… [Congressman Pete] Stark is the first of our leaders to display a level of intellectual honesty befitting a consul of ancient Rome. Bravo.

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things.

He always finds a way to bring the topic back to the delusion of the religious, doesn’t he…

Later, he says:

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists — men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin’s Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals — who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally — deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

I’m sure there are Christians here that would like to respond to that.

Incidentally, this piece appeared in the LA Times, which also wrote an editorial on Pete Stark today.

The editorial stated that “…it is statistically unlikely that Stark is the only nontheist among the 535 members of Congress. But he may be the most honest.”


[tags]atheist, atheism, Sam Harris, Pete Stark, Jesus, Muhammad, Gabriel, Christian, Bible, God, Dominionist, theocracy, John Calvin, Geneva, fundamentalist, LA Times[/tags]

  • Laura M.

    I wrote an email to Congressman Starks thanking him for answering the survey honestly, and to the SCA for running the contest.

    BTW, I don’t care for the way this editorial defined atheism and agnosticism.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Interesting… Harris seems to be positing a theory of Christian buffer zones, or “shock absorbers” with each successive layer insulating the one below it from his version of “reality”.

    My question is where does he actually see that happening in reality? What’s the mechanism? In what way are fundamentalists actually protected by the moderates? Or the moderates protected by the liberals? A lot of these groups don’t even get along. We’re too busy fighting each other to protect each other.

    As an outsider to the Christian world, maybe to Harris it looks like we’re all just helping each other out, but as an insider I can tell you that the last thing a liberal Christian wants to do is protect the faith of a fundamentalist or vice versa. To my ears that just comes across sounding ridiculous.

  • http://blog.chrisbradleywriter.com Christopher Bradley

    I’ve been saying similar things about liberal Christians as Harris for years, myself. It has always seemed to me that liberal Christians bolster the fundamentalists. It is trivially easy to find pro-fundie Christian . . . well, everything. They have huge groups like Focus on the Family and they have their own TV network, fer cryin’ out loud! Where is the liberal Christian response to this deluge of fundamentalism? The liberal Christians are sitting in the same pews as the fundies and are giving them free reign — to the extent that the face of American Christianity is fundamentalism.

    This smacks of cowardice to me. Rather than do ideological battle with fundamentalists, they find it easier to do things like come to blogs like this and poo-poo us atheists — rather than defend their supposedly all-important religion against the forces of corruption that literally share their churches in most cases.

  • http://blog.chrisbradleywriter.com Christopher Bradley

    Mike C,

    Fundamentalist Christians have this massive support network to get their ideas out there that liberal Christians seem to be unable to duplicate — despite them, if you believe them, saying that they outnumber the fundies. By insufficiently combating the corruption in your own churches and church associations, Christians allow the fundies to run roughshod over . . . a lot of things, a lot of people. Your relative silence is implicit consent. (This is normal moral reasoning, I should add. If I let my wife abuse our child and said nothing, I’d share in the guilt of the abuse, f’rex.)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Where is the liberal Christian response to this deluge of fundamentalism? The liberal Christians are sitting in the same pews as the fundies and are giving them free reign — to the extent that the face of American Christianity is fundamentalism.

    Are you kidding me?

    1) If you haven’t heard the liberal Christian response to fundamentalism you haven’t been paying attention. Those two camps have been at war for the past 100 years or so. I could point you to dozens of books and dozens of articles from the Christian left critiquing and attacking the Christian right (and vice versa).

    2) They are not sitting in the same pews and don’t really have any control anymore over what the fundies say or do. Most of the fundamentalists split from their more liberal mainline denominations decades ago and have long had their own exclusive pews, reserved only for those who believe, vote and act just like them. When the liberals do try to rein in the fundies, they just leave.

    3) You need to get out there on the web a little more if you think there aren’t any blogs where liberal Christians “do ideological battle” with fundamentalists. Try starting with the God’s Politics blog and Jim Wallis’ most recent challenge to James Dobson for an open debate.

  • Darryl

    Mike C,

    The point I think you’re missing is that liberal christians and moderate christians like Jimmy Carter–folks who believe in miracles and evolution–cannot blast fundamentalists without confronting their own beliefs. What is at issue is not comparisons of theology, but the stupidity of a theology at all. As an atheist I, like Harris, can challenge anyone who believes in fantastic notions without any reason for doing so. Non-fundamentalist christians (or jews, or muslims, etc.) cannot. I can extend Harris’s idea and say that it will be difficult for us to fight Muslim extremism in the world when we are such a religious nation, and when we are so distrustful of rationalists like Harris. With one hand behind our back the best we can say is “well, we respect your religion, but it’s breeding killers.” We must be as honest as Harris–an attack upon one religion (fundamentalism) is an attack upon all. This is why non-fundies have to moderate their criticisms of fundies.

  • MTran

    Mike C.,

    A poster at eBay Atheist once told me about the inability of moderate and liberal denominations to have their voices heard by the media after I made complaints similar to Harris’s. I happen to have enough experience with journalists to expect that this complaint is very likely true. But I have no good ideas for countering it.

    On the other hand, I have have encountered many individual believers in real life who shrug off extreme, even violent, behavior by the literalist fundamentalists. This unwillingness to publicly challenge dangerous extremists bothers me a great deal. But thon again, if the challenges that are made never make it into the news, those with extremist views are encouraged.

    Any ideas about how chronic non-coverage by the media might be handled? Because no matter how many books and scholarly articles are written about doctrinal disputes, the flashy media attention is what people will more likely hear about and remember.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Sam Harris’s point seems to be that moderate believers protect extremists from what he would call properly scornful reactions. If Harris believes that religion is wacky, he’s got a mighty cudgel to wack the creationists, the dominionists and the jihadists with.

    That cudgel is blunted when someone’s darling Aunt Millie also believes in the Virgin Birth.

    Now, I think I understand Harris’ argument in this matter. However he doesn’t persuade me that it is a proper argument.

    First off, I have a negative reaction to “slippery slope” arguments or “camel’s nose under the tent” arguments. Anyone who tells me “You can’t ban spitting on the sidewalk because eventually that will lead to martial law” is likely to get a raised eyebrow. I’m much more easily persuaded if one thing DOES lead to the next thing, and you can’t stop the next thing. If there are opportunities to stop the next thing, then stop the actual bad thing, not the innocent bystander.

    In other words, I’m not the kind of person who believes an inch is as good as a mile. I didn’t have a fear that once I drank my first beer, that lead inexorably toward alcoholism, even though every alcoholic had to start with a beer at some point. I recognize that having one beer at dinner is ABSOLUTELY nothing like being an alcoholic. It’s actually a completely different behavior.

    So anyway, back to Harris. My impression is that his objection to moderate believers is based on him wanting a good strong wacking cudgel to hit the looneys with, and the moderates deny him that.

    To which my response is, If he were a better writer and a more skillful thinker and persuasive speaker, he wouldn’t need a cudgel, he’d have a laser.

  • http://blog.chrisbradleywriter.com Christopher Bradley

    Mike C,

    I’d respond to your points but, uh, other people already have.

    The only thing I have to offer is that was clearly speaking in relative terms. Sure, there are a bunch of books I can think of where liberal and moderate Christians attack fundamentalism, but you do have to look. Whereas fundamentalism is everywhere. You don’t have to look for fundamentalist attacks on . . . anything at all. Every day — and this is in the straight news — brings another Ann Coulter calling someone “gay” as an insult, or some Army general saying homosexuality is morally wrong, whatever. Where is the liberal Christian Ann Coulter? I think it would be VERY easy for a liberal Christian to get as much press as Ann Coulter by challenging, well, Ann Coulter and the Republican fundamentalist establishment.

    I am also educated enough to remember what a vocal liberal Christian really sounds like. But it is true that the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., have passed from this world. However, I know what a liberal Christian that is willing to stand up to the establishment sounds like, and how people react. There is no such voice amongst liberal Christians. Fundies have a dozen of them.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com Mike C

    Hey guys, thanks for the good responses. Unfortunately I have to go hang out with about 40 women tonight and won’t be back until tomorrow evening (my wife is putting on a women’s leadership conference and I’m doing a seminar :) I do have a few things I want to say, but it’ll have to wait until at least tomorrow. Sorry.

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org/ Pedro Timóteo

    As Darryl, I believe, implied, the problem is that moderates can’t really criticize the fundamentalists without being confronted with the fact that they are moderates BECAUSE they ignore a lot of their holy books, while the fundies don’t.

    A moderate is someone who says “OK, I believe there is a God who wants us all to be nice to each other, but I don’t believe in these parts of the Bible (mostly, the ones that tell you NOT to be nice to each other, and to kill these, these and these people).

    A fundamentalist, on the other hand, makes no such distinction. To him, all of the Bible is the literal word of God, and, according to it, He really wants homosexuals (and shellfish eaters) put to death…

    The result of the above is that many moderates are “embarrassed”, because they don’t take their religion seriously, and they feel that they should. How can they condemn the fundies, when in fact they wish they were more like them?

  • stogoe

    Siamang,

    No, the problem is that a cudgel is the exact right tool for us to use on the fanatical stupid-virus that is superstition and religion. Liberal christians provide cover for the fundamentalists precisely because they make people afraid to use the cudgel on religion. ‘Since these liberals happen to be christian as well, we should let christianity off the hook,’ you and others seem to be saying.

    I, too, sometimes feel bad about using the cudgel to smash religion. Our liberal christian allies don’t deserve it. But their religion does. That conflict is the cover they provide.

  • Rob

    Anyone up for a thought experiment?

    Atheists win the debate. The House and Senate are filled with scientists and rationalists, etc. Now, what are you going to do with the remaining people who are believers. Note I said “believers,” meaning people of ANY faith.

    Will you take Dawkins’ idea of memes and carry it to the point of treating belief as a disease? Will there be re-education camps? Will you limit people of belief from holding certain positions in society? Is it OK to use eugenics to gradually eliminate believers?

    Just what will you do? How far are you willing to go?

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Sadly I think an atheist majority would go just as far as the religionist majority does now.

    I have hope that if the shoe was on the other foot, we’d behave better. But as a realist I fear we’re no better behaved than the religionists.

    I do not think we’d behave worse. There’s no evidence that we’d behave worse.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Pedro said:

    The result of the above is that many moderates are “embarrassed”, because they don’t take their religion seriously, and they feel that they should. How can they condemn the fundies, when in fact they wish they were more like them?

    I don’t think this is an accurate characterization of how moderate believers actually feel. Can you give me an example of a religious moderate who says he wishes he was more like a fundamentalist?

  • http://blog.chrisbradleywriter.com Christopher Bradley

    Ooooh. Look, the Christians are now wondering if we’re gonna round people up and put ‘em in camps.

    No, actually, we won’t. I don’t know a single atheist who wants to recreate the social pathology of religion in that way by murdering people who disagree with them, or forced conversions or whatever. That’s religion’s gig.

  • Susan

    The thing is, I can easily envision a world sometime in the future in which the fundamentalists have finally been defeated, in which moderate Christians (and other religions) can coexist peacefully with the nonreligious, with neither one attacking anyone else’s beliefs. I can see this society thriving because no one is doing harm to the other. Most people here seem to agree that the ONLY outward harm done by moderate Christians is not fighting the fundamentalists. So in this hypothetical world of the future, when there are no more fundamentalists, neither the atheists nor the religious will be doing harm to each other. Given that, there would be no justification to stop the religious people from believing in their “delusions”.

    In other words, I feel it’s possible to separate out the parts of religion that are harmful to the rest of society from the parts that are not (you can argue that because they are a “delusion” even these parts do harm to those that believe them, but that’s not the same as doing outward harm). Case in point, the many Christians I know, the people Hemant knows, most of the religious people on this blog, who are distinctly NOT fundamentalists and have never attacked anybody for not being religious. Those people have just as much right to continue believing in their religion as we do to disbelieve, because they are not doing any harm. (If you feel that their inaction against fundamentalists IS harmful, then it’s still harm they wouldn’t be doing if there were no fundamentalists.)

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that these nice religious people have a place in this hypothetical future society that is free of fundamentalism, and so we shouldn’t be attacking them along with the fundamentalists. Yes, they have the ability and therefore the responsibility to fight against fundamentalism, but even if they aren’t doing that it doesn’t mean they ARE the fundamentalists. This is not a case of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    YAY, Susan!

  • Rob

    Christopher, I’m not particularly worried about being rounded up into camps at all. My intent was to engender some thinking, that’s all. The problem with any group becomes the urge to power and, when they get it, what they do with it. I’ll be the first to admit that many religious groups have horribly misused power. But so have many secular groups.

    There are many thoughtful people here and I’m interested in what they have to say.

  • Steelman

    Susan said: Yes, they have the ability and therefore the responsibility to fight against fundamentalism, but even if they aren’t doing that it doesn’t mean they ARE the fundamentalists.

    The main difference I see between moderate/liberal and fundamentalist believers, is similar to the one between those people with more socialistic political leanings and revolutionary Marxists. One group is willing to dialog for the purposes of compromise, and therefore pluralism, but the other is on a mission, so no dialog is possible. Its the difference between a more liberal approach to life and absolute authoritarianism.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    The good thing is that getting atheists to agree on anything is like herding cats. So I don’t suppose we’re likely to elect an atheist Pope authorizing inquisitions or holy wars.

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org/ Pedro Timóteo

    Siamang: nobody says “I wish I was more like a fundamentalist”. But they say “I wish I was a more devout believer”, “I wish my faith was stronger”, and so on.

    What is a fundamentalist? The word suggests some violent terrorist, but, in reality, a fundamentalist is nothing more than a very devout believer, whose faith is the most important thing in his or her life.

    Remember also that moderates can’t criticize fundamentalists using religion. If they said to a fundie: “what you’re doing is against God’s will”, the fundie could easily answer with examples from the Bible (or the Qur’an) that show the exact opposite. What will the moderate do, then? Say that that part of the Bible it isn’t convenient to follow?

  • Rob

    Well said, Siamang. I think that’s true about any group of people, period. It’s one of things that makes life interesting. It would be pretty dull if we all thought the same way, don’t you think?

    Have a great day, everyone.

  • Logos

    Mike C, you are an intelligent and articulate person. Have you ever thought of Contacting Mr.Harris directly?

  • Simon

    Re: the thought experiment (and just typing out loud here)…

    I think that the extent (i.e. “worse-case” scenario for the now-minority religious) to an atheist ruling majority would be nothing more than a strict enforcement of the separation of church & state, along with funding/subsidies/tax breaks for religious organizations completely slashed/repealed. People would be allowed to do whatever they want, including prayer, in the privacy of their own home, and would still be allowed to organize, but now at their own financial expense. Religion would still be taught in school but would be scattered amongst the lessons, e.g. literature and history classes. A new emphasis on scientific education and research would emerge. Collectively realizing the importance of human life in the here and now, military budgets would be dramatically reduced and foreign aid, medical research, etc would be increased. And so on.

    Ahhh, dare to dream…

    There is no doubt in my mind, absolutely no doubt, that religious people would not be persecuted whatsoever in such a society. They’d merely be treated like anyone who believes that the earth is still flat: “What’s that, you believe in a Sky God? How quaint!”

  • Darryl

    Pedro said that fundamentalists are simply very devout believers. This is true, but more needs to be said. Religious fundamentalists of the Abrahamic variety are authoritarian, anti-intellectual, and militant. To return to Harris, the characteristics of some religions make them intolerable in their fundamentalist form. One can be very devout about Taoism and never turn to violence because it’s not in the religion (I don’t think). I can live happily with a Taoist, but not with an Islamic jihadist who thinks I’m an infidel. I haven’t paid close attention, but I can’t recall the last sectarian war involving Taoist provocateurs. If there was one, was it on account of Taoist religious dogma?

    All I require of my fellow citizens is that they avoid fundamentalism of any kind and prefer reason over blind belief. I can tolerate anyone’s beliefs no matter how whacky; what bothers me is when such beliefs are not publicly scrutinized by reason, but given cover because it is understood that one cannot criticize another’s religion. As Simon said, if someone wants to believe the Earth is flat, fine, but don’t expect them not to be treated as funny in the head. If you deny the Holocaust, I say you’re a nut and I’ve got plenty of proof you’re wrong.

    More to the present situation in the U.S., too many of those people who are drafting our laws and setting our policies are fundamentalists; to this extent they endanger a free, open, progressive society. I’ve got a thought experiment of my own: what do you think the likes of the James Dobsons, Jerry Falwells, Ted Haggards, and Pat Robertsons would do if they had unfettered political power in this country? What would they make public policy about gays? Sex outside marriage? Abortion? Stem cell research? Free speech? Profanity? Alchohol? Islam?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Mike C, you are an intelligent and articulate person. Have you ever thought of Contacting Mr.Harris directly?

    I’ve never been impressed enough by Harris to want to contact him. I prefer to interact with people who are open to dialogue and aren’t just out to stereotype and villify anyone who disagrees with them. Harris has never quite struck me as that sort of person. But, I could be wrong.

    What do you think? Would Harris be open to dialogue with an actual religious person, or would he just want to prove me wrong?

  • Steelman

    Mike C said: What do you think? Would Harris be open to dialogue with an actual religious person, or would he just want to prove me wrong?

    I haven’t read through it, but there’s been a back and forth going on between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan on Belief Net that might be of interest to you:
    http://www.beliefnet.com/story/209/story_20904_1.html

  • TXatheist

    He’d prove you wrong in that you perpetuate xianity in some form which he says inspires fundamentalists to keep xianity going as a valid belief system.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Mike C,

    The point I think you’re missing is that liberal christians and moderate christians like Jimmy Carter–folks who believe in miracles and evolution–cannot blast fundamentalists without confronting their own beliefs. What is at issue is not comparisons of theology, but the stupidity of a theology at all.

    Darryl, if you are correct about Harris’ real issue here (and I think you probably are), then it’s rather disingenuous of Harris to complain about liberal and moderate Christians providing cover for the fundamentalists. According to you, it’s not the fundamentalists that bother him, it’s the whole idea of religion in the first place. He might as well talk about the fundamentalists providing cover for the liberals.

    But if he starts with the assumption that there is no possible intelligent reason for religious belief and that all such belief is inherently bad and should be done away with, then there really isn’t much room for dialogue. If one thinks that the most important thing is for everyone to agree with your particular metaphysical views (whether theist or atheist) then it’s kind of hard to work together towards common ethical/political goals with people with whom you otherwise have much in common – and even rather difficult to coexist peacefully in a civil society for that matter. That’s why to me this just seems like fundamentalism of a different sort.

  • Richard Wade

    Mike C,
    I’m coming into this discussion late and it seems to be slowing down, so I hope you read this.

    When someone suggested that liberal Christians aren’t confronting the fundamentalists, you responded with,

    If you haven’t heard the liberal Christian response to fundamentalism you haven’t been paying attention. Those two camps have been at war for the past 100 years or so. I could point you to dozens of books and dozens of articles from the Christian left critiquing and attacking the Christian right (and vice versa).

    Now, what I’m going to propose may seem outrageous. I acknowledge that I’m speaking from ignorance but I am being sincerely respectful.

    Instead of writing dozens of books and dozens of articles perhaps you and your colleagues should consider writing a modern edition of your favorite book, the one over which you and the fundamentalists have clashed for a century.

    I get the impression that there are many parts of the Bible that you and your friends not only don’t adhere to, you just flat out don’t believe. I also imagine that in the course of your activities as a minister of your Emerging Church, you physically carry the Bible around with you at times.

    If there is much in the Bible that you don’t support or believe, if in fact much of it is an embarrassment for you and your fellow liberal Christians, why do you carry those portions around with you? Keeping those parts with you in your Bibles undermines your arguments with fundamentalists. Including those parts in your personal Bibles lends tacit credibility to them. You don’t follow significant parts of your book, yet you still physically cling to them. Why? Sentiment?

    Instead of constantly trying to ignore those parts, get rid of them.

    This act, of physically removing from your most sacred book the parts that you consider to be obsolete, inhumane, ridiculous, superstitious or originally included for questionable reasons would be an act of courageous assertion and an affirmation of your commitment to reforming Christianity. It would also certainly get the attention of the general public and bring the debate into a broader forum.

    If Phyllis Tickle is correct and the 500-year cycle has returned to the point of upheaval, then now is the time for a statement as bold as nailing a list of grievances on a church door. Don’t just continue to “ahem” and “uh, well” the absurd, inane and downright ugly parts of your old scripture. Repudiate, reject and remove them irreversibly.

  • MTran

    What is a fundamentalist? The word suggests some violent terrorist, but, in reality, a fundamentalist is nothing more than a very devout believer, whose faith is the most important thing in his or her life.

    That doesn’t sound like an accurate definition of “fundamentalist” to me. First of all, I don’t know what you mean by “devout” in this context. If it is related to outward behavior, then on a rather consistent basis, fundamentalist communities have a worse record of keeping true to their “morals”, e.g., fundamentalist populations have more divorce, adultery, wife abuse, teenage pregnancy, violence, criminality, incarceration, etc., than more moderate believers or, no real surprise, secularists. Check some of the numbers at the Barna Group’s web site.

    If “devout” means their self-image, well, that’s just a bit of hypocrisy. And I’m willing to bet that there are many very devout believers of non-fundamentalist sects and denominations.

    Fundamentalism relates more to the choice of certain religious teachings and practices that are held to be essential or core beliefs, with a tendency toward literalism. (Maybe we can make an analogy to the Back to Basics education movement, which emphasizes a narrow skill set.)

    In the US, the fundamentalist religionists have been quite noisy politically but that means they are very loud and very annoying, not very devout.

    Fundamentalists may well claim that their faith is the most important thing in their lives but the same can be said of many believers of more moderate religions or even adherants of secular philosophies.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    If there is much in the Bible that you don’t support or believe, if in fact much of it is an embarrassment for you and your fellow liberal Christians, why do you carry those portions around with you? Keeping those parts with you in your Bibles undermines your arguments with fundamentalists. Including those parts in your personal Bibles lends tacit credibility to them. You don’t follow significant parts of your book, yet you still physically cling to them. Why? Sentiment?

    Instead of constantly trying to ignore those parts, get rid of them.

    That’s an interesting suggestion Richard. As I’m sure you’re aware, some liberal Christians have already tried exactly that. Thomas Jefferson is famous for having taken a razor blade to all the miracles in the Bible, and more recently the Jesus Seminar folks have come up with a much revised version of the gospels by taking out all the parts they don’t think Jesus actually said.

    However, I’m afraid you’ve mistaken my own beliefs if you think that is my approach. I apologize for being unclear. It’s not that I don’t support or believe parts of the Bible. I’m not interested in throwing out parts of it. I think what’s in there is what God intended to be in there. The difference is in how I think it ought to be read and interpreted. The difference is in what kind of book I think the Bible is.

    Fundamentalists & most Evangelicals read the Bible as if it is a static document of primarily historical and propositional material that reveals God’s perfect moral will for all time. Thus, according to them, the “embarrassing” or “disturbing” parts have to be read without any accommodation for literary genre, or historical or cultural context, or any possibility of progressive revelation (i.e. the idea that God was revealing his nature and will gradually and over time according to our ability to adapt and understand – call an evolutionary view of revelation if you like :) ).

    In contrast, I view the Bible as dynamically unfolding story of God interacting with humanity at various points in our historical development. And it seems to me that God therefore has to deal with us differently depending on the culture and circumstances we faced at the time. What he told the Israelites 3500 years ago doesn’t necessarily apply to us today, because frankly, we’re not nomadic pastoralists trying to find land to settle in anymore (at least, most of us aren’t).

    However, that doesn’t mean I want to just throw out those parts of the Bible. If the Bible is a story, then to throw out those parts would be like throwing out the first few acts of Hamlet because they’re not as current as the last act! There’s value in the story – in knowing where we’ve been and where the story is headed. Thus my job, as someone who is trying to live my life within this grand drama I believe God is directing, is to continue the drama as best I can from this point forward, in resonance with what has gone before, but not just slavishly repeating the lines from first act again either. Rather I have to move the story forward, keep it heading in the direction that I believe scripture has pointed us (which is in the direction of increasing love and justice in the world). If I were to just throw out the first part of the story simply because those people weren’t as far along as we are now, I might lose the sense of moral trajectory and have a harder time figuring out where the story as a whole is headed.

    Does that make sense? That’s how I look at scripture and why I don’t want to just get rid of the “embarrassing” parts. They’re only embarrassing when you rip them out of their historical and literary context, as the fundamentalists do.

    I should also mention that when reading scripture I also recognize the differences between literary genres – something that fundamentalists rarely do. I “believe” the whole Bible, but not all of it as literal historical or scientific truth. Parts of it are poetry. Parts of it are mythic narratives. Parts of it are symbolic apocalyptic literature. To recognize them as such isn’t to disbelieve the Bible, it’s to appreciate it for what it is – not for what the fundamentalists want it to be. Thus it doesn’t bother me if Genesis 1 doesn’t match up with scientific theories of origins, since I don’t think the point of Genesis 1 was to give us a scientific or historical account anyway. It’s an entirely different genre with an entirely different literary purpose.

    Again, does that make sense? To me that is a more accurate and faithful reading of scripture that is true to what it really is and yet also enables it to coexist alongside other modern ways of viewing the world as well.

    I hope that clarifies where I’m coming from.

  • Richard Wade

    Mike,
    Yes, you have clarified your viewpoint very well. I’m sorry to have made you work so hard, but then I suppose you have to give this kind of explanation often.

    I’m afraid that most people don’t have the mental suppleness to view these things from so many angles. I can understand in principle how you do it but I can’t actually do it myself in every case. I’m pretty smart but I can’t apply some of those more advanced intellectual subtleties and come to acceptable conclusions. Hence we get folks who take it all literally or chuck the whole thing.

    For instance, (and I’m not being sarcastic) Leviticus says something about smashing my kid’s head in with a rock because she mouths off to me. If I take that in a historical context, that somehow doesn’t mitigate what I see as horrific lunacy. Millennia ago that made sense? How did any teenager survive? If I take it in a symbolic context, is he just saying it’s really important to respect your parents? Seems like a rather extreme metaphor for something that can and has been expressed in positive and very beautiful ways in non-biblical literature and poetry.

    Anyway, I don’t want to bog down this discussion with a tedious scripture debate. There are so many what-the-hell-does-that-mean parts for me that we’d never be finished. Thank you for your patience and your steadfast positivism.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    I’m sorry to have made you work so hard, but then I suppose you have to give this kind of explanation often.

    No worries! Funny thing, but I actually just had to give the same explanation to some conservative evangelicals I’m dialoguing with over at a friend’s blog. I get it from both sides! :)

    I’m afraid that most people don’t have the mental suppleness to view these things from so many angles… Hence we get folks who take it all literally or chuck the whole thing.

    I know what you mean. Sometimes I think God must have a higher opinion of our rational faculties than is sometimes warranted if he made his book so dang complex!

    But on the other hand, I have hope that people are capable of growing beyond mere literalism eventually. I’m currently leading a whole church full of people who are on that journey with me. And it’s slow, but they’re getting it!

    (And why not, after all, humans had a hand in writing the Bible in the first place – not to mention all the dozens of other types of literary creations throughout history. If human beings can produce and understand something like Joyce’s Ulysses, I think there’s hope that we can eventually make sense of the Bible too. We’re a pretty creative bunch when you come down to it.)

    For instance, (and I’m not being sarcastic) Leviticus says something about smashing my kid’s head in with a rock because she mouths off to me. If I take that in a historical context, that somehow doesn’t mitigate what I see as horrific lunacy. Millennia ago that made sense? How did any teenager survive? If I take it in a symbolic context, is he just saying it’s really important to respect your parents? Seems like a rather extreme metaphor for something that can and has been expressed in positive and very beautiful ways in non-biblical literature and poetry.

    Anyway, I don’t want to bog down this discussion with a tedious scripture debate. There are so many what-the-hell-does-that-mean parts for me that we’d never be finished.

    You’re referring to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and you’re right, neither of us have the time to get into explanations for every confusing bit of scripture (Lord knows there are enough that I still haven’t figured out!)

    However, just to give you a little snapshot of how I might approach a difficult passage like that from a historically & culturally informed perspective, consider the following:

    1. In the context, the command is clearly referring to an adult son, not to a young child or even a teenager. We’re talking about someone who has reached maturity and yet continues to act in destructive & rebellious ways.

    2. Keep in mind that ancient Israel, like most societies up till the industrial era, lived on the razor edge of survival (see the opening chapters of Jeffrey Sachs book “The End of Poverty” for more on that). Their economy was not unlike that of most third world nations today where whole families and whole villages often teeter on the brink of starvation. We’re not talking about people with a lot of resources to waste.

    In that context then, look at what the rebellious son’s crime is: he is profligate and a drunkard. In other words, he is wasting his family’s precious resources on his own selfish desires. He is literally putting his family’s very survival at risk. And he is stubborn (v. 20), meaning his family has already tried to correct him, extend grace to him, and he still continues in his selfish and harmful ways. There is nothing else they can do. You might say that at this point it’s a choice between the son’s death or the death whole of the family – maybe even the whole village depending on how slim their resources are.

    Anyhow, I think by looking at it through that lens of historical context we can see how serious the situation would have been. It’s not about stoning your daughter for mouthing off. It’s about a grown son who cares more for his own pleasures than for the survival of his family. Indeed, it seems very harsh to me too; but at the same time, I’ve never had to live in a subsistence level society. If everyday is a fight to have enough food, and the lives of my whole village depend on social unity, I can imagine how a wasteful and selfish individual would be seen as a very dangerous threat. I can begin to see why the Bible takes this kind of thing so seriously.

    Of course, I also think that the Bible eventually points us on an upward trajectory away from this kind of punishment. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 seems like a direct reversal of this scenario – in which the son wastes half of the family’s wealth and yet the loving father still comes running to him with tears to forgive him and lavish even more good things upon him. But consider… would Jesus’ story have been nearly so subversive and powerful if his 1st century Jewish hearers didn’t have Deuteronomy 21 in mind as he spoke? Would the wonderful absurdity of the father’s grace be as overwhelming if they weren’t well aware of the seriousness of the son’s crime (serious not in terms of the punishment, but in terms of the destructive effects on the family and society)?

    Anyhow, I’m just throwing that out there as an example of how this approach works. And I hope you can also catch a little glimpse of why this approach gets me so excited. When looked at this way, there are so many layers of cultural and historical meaning, so many interconnections between the different parts of scripture, so many nuances. Even if you think it’s complete fiction, it’s still a marvelous piece of literature. Well worth taking some time to understand, IMHO.

    Thanks for the dialogue,

    -Mike

  • Darryl

    Mike C’s long explanation of his view of the Bible reminds me of how his brand of Christianity came to its views of Scripture. Christians have continually struggled with a changing world–changing culture, science, politics, ethics, etc. Some Christians realized that to maintain an intellectual defense of their faith they had to modify their religion to match the times. Essential, continual discomfort with the situation of their faith in a post-enlightenment world required the kinds of explanations that Mike C has given.

    The fundamentalist, on the other hand, holds a static, authoritarian view of the Bible, so they have by necessity embraced anti-intellectualism and a suspicion of science (e.g., evolution is a myth). I can tolerate Mike C’s brand of Christianity, and I need not fear it; but I cannot tolerate those who will not tolerate me, and fundamentalists will not tolerate. Listen to their rhetoric–they think toleration is an evil idea of Satan.

    By the way, notice the parallels between the fundamentalist and liberalist view of the Bible and the “strict constructionist” vs. “evolving document” views of the U.S. Constitution. Antonin Scalia must be quite self-satisfied when he reflects upon how sweetly his conservative Roman Catholicism dovetails with his Constitutional theory.

  • Darryl

    Forgive me for my verbosity but, Mike C’s explanation about the O.T. instruction about stoning an unruly adolescent reminded me of something else that his type of Christianity has still not dealt with: it is irrelevant. These parts of the Bible that are so far removed from us in time and world-view simply have nothing but historical interest for modern-thinking people. So much of the Bible is like this; it simply doesn’t matter. This is why fundamentalists are so wrong-headed: they must literally accept the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice. Do we wonder why they are so barbaric? Look at their ethical manual. This part of Sam Harris’s argument is irrefutable.

  • Karen

    The fundamentalist, on the other hand, holds a static, authoritarian view of the Bible, so they have by necessity embraced anti-intellectualism and a suspicion of science (e.g., evolution is a myth). I can tolerate Mike C’s brand of Christianity, and I need not fear it; but I cannot tolerate those who will not tolerate me, and fundamentalists will not tolerate. Listen to their rhetoric–they think toleration is an evil idea of Satan.

    Oh, absolutely right. Tolerance, pluralism and compromise are “dirty words” in fundamentalist circles.

    By the way, notice the parallels between the fundamentalist and liberalist view of the Bible and the “strict constructionist” vs. “evolving document” views of the U.S. Constitution. Antonin Scalia must be quite self-satisfied when he reflects upon how sweetly his conservative Roman Catholicism dovetails with his Constitutional theory.

    Wow – that’s a great parallel! I never linked those two, but you’re so right.

    Mike C’s explanation about the O.T. instruction about stoning an unruly adolescent reminded me of something else that his type of Christianity has still not dealt with: it is irrelevant.

    It reminded me of the very interesting, recent science that’s being done on the evolution of morality and how strongly it is linked to neurological structures in the brain. For instance, studies show that both social primates and humans demonstrate a marked aversion to doing physical violence against a non-threatening individual, even if that violence will save many other lives. If the violence does not involve physical contact (something like flipping a switch), test subjects are more likely to endorse it.

    I think this is why we have a naturally negative reaction to the commands of a god that would endorse any kind of stoning. It’s not that morality comes from ancient texts, it’s arisen in our brain structures along with evolution.

  • Karen

    This NY Times story is the other recent article I’ve read on the topic of the evolution of morality.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Mike C’s long explanation of his view of the Bible reminds me of how his brand of Christianity came to its views of Scripture. Christians have continually struggled with a changing world–changing culture, science, politics, ethics, etc. Some Christians realized that to maintain an intellectual defense of their faith they had to modify their religion to match the times. Essential, continual discomfort with the situation of their faith in a post-enlightenment world required the kinds of explanations that Mike C has given.

    Kind of, but not exactly. You’re right that I believe Christianity is an adaptable religion, one that can be contextualized and adapted to any culture and to new ideas. However, I don’t think this is a recent idea, and it’s inaccurate to imply that it is “discomfort” with Enlightenment ideas that has forced this adaptation.

    (Actually that may be more true of the more classically “liberal” streams, like the ones I mentioned above – Jesus Seminar, etc. – but the emerging church stream that I am a part of is more of a third way between liberal accommodation and fundamentalist rigidity.)

    Anyhow, the idea of reading the Bible in light of it’s cultural and historical context is not new. St. Augustine, writing in the 4th century, was one of first to propose the theory of “divine accommodation” in scripture – i.e. the idea that God accommodated his word to the cultural and intellectual limitations of those he was communicating with. In fact, Augustine was the first to suggest a non-literal reading of Genesis 1, freely acknowledging that it didn’t even hold up to the scientific knowledge of his day (1400 years or so before Darwin!) if read as a literal, scientific text.

    I guess what I’m saying is that one shouldn’t assume that folks like me are just scrambling to find new ways to interpret the Bible because our old fundamentalist ways aren’t working anymore. What I’m saying is that a historically/culturally/literarily contextual way of reading has always been the right way to read it, and has been a common feature in many streams of the Christian tradition throughout history. The fundamentalist/literalist mode of interpretation is actually a fairly recent development, just within the last 200 years or so, and never really even took off until the last half of the 20th century with the explosion of conservative evangelicalism onto the American landscape.

    For people like me who have come out of an evangelical background it can seem like this new hermeneutic is just reactionary, but then I talk about this stuff with some of my friends who have lived their whole lives in the more liberal streams of Christianity, and they say “Well that’s nothing new. Our church has been talking about this stuff for decades.”

    Anyway, I guess this just comes back to a point that I’ve tried to make a few times, which is that we should all stop assuming that fundamentalism is the norm for Christian belief or practice. From my perspective (informed by a knowledge of Church history) the fundies are the anomaly and the distortion (though a rather large one at the moment) and a more balanced, contextual faith is really the norm.

    But again, that’s just my perspective, for whatever it’s worth.

    Peace,

    -Mike

  • Karen

    This NY Times story is the other recent article I’ve read on the topic of the evolution of morality.

    Yikes – wrong link. Trying again: Here’s the other article.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Forgive me for my verbosity but, Mike C’s explanation about the O.T. instruction about stoning an unruly adolescent reminded me of something else that his type of Christianity has still not dealt with: it is irrelevant. These parts of the Bible that are so far removed from us in time and world-view simply have nothing but historical interest for modern-thinking people. So much of the Bible is like this; it simply doesn’t matter.

    Tell me Darryl, were you one of those kids that thought History class was pointless because it was all just about a bunch of dead people and had no practical use to it today? ;)

    Seriously though, I understand why you might feel this way about the Bible Darryl, but my reality is that it remains very relevant to many people. I lead discussions on this “irrelevant” ancient history every week, and each week the people in our discussion find amazingly relevant applications of these stories to their 21st century lives.

    For instance, three weeks ago we were discussing the Prodigal Son story – which as I mentioned, has a strong connection to this ancient Hebrew law about killing rebellious sons – and as we retold that story the people in our community were able to see themselves and their own stories in the characters of the Luke 15 narrative. Their own experience, even 2000 years later, still mirrored the experiences of people back then, and we were still able to learn from the reaction of the compassionate father to his two rebellious sons – one a prodigal and one a self-righteous prig.

    Because of course, no acts like that anymore…

    The relevancy of the Bible is not just that the stories happened but that they happen – that is, we begin to see that humanity today and humanity 2000 or 3000 years ago isn’t really all that different when you get right down to it. We still laugh and love and struggle and fight and all of that. And thus there is still wisdom to be learned from the stories of those who have been there before us.

    But again, that’s just my experience, as one who’s job is to help people discover how these ancient texts actually are relevant. :)

  • Darryl

    Mike C, the “ancient texts” such as the Bible are not universally relevant, but are made relevant by people, like you, that desire for them to be relevant and meaningful. This desire is the response of your belief in the Christian religion. Other believers in other religions find their texts relevant–so what? My concern is not about where one gets their moral and ethical principles, my concern is how my fellow Americans speak and act. Quite many of them are speaking and acting based upon their belief in archaic, barbaric, irrational concepts taken from the sacred writings of their religions. The fundamentalists are dangerous for this very reason. I am no foe of history, on the contrary. Americans are perhaps the most a-historical actors in human history, to our shame. But, we set a problem for ourselves when we teach our children that they should look not to their own reason and reflection upon relevant history, but to their holy books–filled with fantastic and ridiculous elements–for answers as to how we ought to think and act in the world. This is the crux of Sam Harris’s critique and it is irrefutable.

    By the way, you want us to take the “ancient texts” seriously when it comes to religion, how about when it comes to science? Should we be consulting the ancient texts of the Greeks in order to learn our physics? We no longer think the that the cosmos is made of earth, air, fire, and water. We pay homage to our Greek forerunners, but we know that a whole lot has been experienced and learned since them. The same can be said of morals, ethics, politics, psychology, medicine, etc.: a whole lot has been learned and experienced since Jesus walked in Galilee. I can respect Jesus and make his teaching relevant if I choose to, but, I would be a fool to think that I could resolve even the simpler national problems that face us today by consulting the Bible.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    By the way, you want us to take the “ancient texts” seriously when it comes to religion, how about when it comes to science? Should we be consulting the ancient texts of the Greeks in order to learn our physics? We no longer think the that the cosmos is made of earth, air, fire, and water. We pay homage to our Greek forerunners, but we know that a whole lot has been experienced and learned since them. The same can be said of morals, ethics, politics, psychology, medicine, etc.: a whole lot has been learned and experienced since Jesus walked in Galilee. I can respect Jesus and make his teaching relevant if I choose to, but, I would be a fool to think that I could resolve even the simpler national problems that face us today by consulting the Bible.

    That actually sounds a lot like the point I’ve been trying to make this whole time about the moral trajectory of scripture and how it points us beyond itself as humanity continues to develop.

    But on the other hand, I think we could solve a lot of our national problems if we had the courage to actually do some of the things Jesus (and the Bible) said: like loving our enemies (Iraq), working for justice for the oppressed and exploited (corporate greed and Fair Trade), canceling the debts of the poor (the Jubilee movement and the UN’s Millenium Development Goals), caring for Creation rather than exploiting our natural resources (Environmentalism and Global Warming), treating all races and nationalities with equality (racism), welcoming the foreigners and aliens (immigration), etc.

    These things, I think, are all still very relevant to both national and personal morality, and too often ignored as well – judging by how our nation (and those of us in it) typically seem more concerned with increasing our power and wealth than with these issues of compassion and justice that Jesus preached about.