Daring to state the obvious: the dark side of sacred scripture

The following is a draft excerpt from chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, Angry Atheists?: Why the Backlash Against Dawkins, Harris, And the Rest Is Silly.

One of the clearest examples of religious privilege is this: no one would think it rude to describe an overt racist or tract as “hate-filled.” That’s just being accurate. It’s only wrong to call a book hate-filled if it is not, in fact, hate filled. But far too many people are quick to dismiss accuracy as rudeness when the book being talked about is somebody’s holy book.

For example, Biblical scholar Jacques Berlinerblau, complaining about the “culture of incivility” of the “New Atheists,” cites an interview done by Bill Maher, where “The host went off on a smackdown of Islam that could just as well come from the Tea Party Training Manual replete with slights on the Quran as ‘a hate-filled Holy Book.’” (http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/new-atheismthe-tea-party-reflections-on-professors-ruse-and-barash/33501 Accessed 10 Dec 2011).

Now if there is anything wrong with calling the Quran “hate-filled,” it must be that the book is not, in fact, hate-filled. But it is easy to demonstrate that the Quran is full of nasty statements about unbelievers: in The End of Faith, Sam Harris fills up over five pages with quotations like, “God’s curse be upon the infidels!” and “They have incurred God’s most inexorable wrath. An ignomious punishment awaits [them]” (pp. 117-123).

A defender of Islam can protest that there is more to a religion than the contents of its holy book, and that religions often find ways to ignore the nastier bits of their scriptures. Saying that, however, does not make Maher’s statement about the Quran any less true. Berlinerblau, then, is condemning Maher for saying something that everybody with a basic knowledge of the subject knows to be true, and the specific complaint, “incivility,” is one that no one would make if the book in question were not a religious text. Even then, though, the mistake could have been avoided if Berlinerblau had focused on the question, “is this true?”

In a similar vein, here is a quotation from Alvin Plantinga’s review of The God Delusion:

As [the BBQ—see p. X of this book, Hallquist] suggests, one shouldn’t look to this book for evenhanded and thoughtful commentary. In fact the proportion of insult, ridicule, mockery, spleen, and vitriol is astounding. (Could it be that his mother, while carrying him, was frightened by an Anglican clergyman on the rampage?) If Dawkins ever gets tired of his day job, a promising future awaits him as a writer of political attack ads.

Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he’s a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. http://richarddawkins.net/articles/676-the-dawkins-confusion-naturalism-ad-absurdum Accessed 11 Dec 2011

This is really astounding. The BBQ, remember, was specifically referring to the god of the Old Testament, and among Christians “Old Testament” is a byword for harsh and unforgiving. I wouldn’t expect most Christians to know much more than that; I wouldn’t expect them to be able to draw up a list of the exact ways that god is harsh and unforgiving.

But Plantinga is a respected scholar of religion who has spent much of his career defending Christianity from its critics. Surely, when he read the BBQ, he realized that Dawkins could quote verses to back up every item in his list. Jealous and proud of it? See Exodus 20:4-5. An ethnic cleanser? See Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Homophobic? See Leviticus 20:13. Misogynistic? See the various laws that treat women more as property than human beings, including a law that would, in many cases, require a rapist to pay money to his victims father and then marry the victim (thus applying the “you break it you buy it” principle to rape) (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).

This is not to say that Plantinga should know all these verses by heart. When writing the above paragraph, Leviticus 20:13 is the only one I could cite from memory, but I found the others in under 20 minutes using Google and a bad internet connection. Plantinga could have done the same.

I suppose as an Evangelical, he might want to argue that the law from Deuteronomy is not really misogynistic, that imposing the death penalty for gay sex is not really homophobic, and so on. But at least he should be able to understand how a thoughtful person could disagree. Plantinga can treat the BBQ as evidence of non-thoughtfulness only because he writes from a perspective of religious privilege.

There is another reason for including the above quote from Plantinga’s review—the hypocrisy of it. Plantinga complains about “insult, ridicule, mockery” (etc.) Plantinga’s comment  about sophomores is nothing but insulting and mocking, and it is not the only instance of insult and mockery in the review. I’m not inclined to make much of it—I think mockery is sometimes justified, and that the problem with Plantinga’s review is not that it contains mockery but that Plantinga fails to back the mockery up with good arguments. But the hypocrisy is striking.

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