Is Any Religion Inherently Anything?

Is Any Religion Inherently Anything? March 26, 2010

by VorJack

Over at NPR, there’s a discussion over which book is more violent, the Qur’an or the Bible. Historian Philip Jenkins, author of The Lost History of Christianity and Jesus Wars, comes down on the side of the Bible. That is, he believes that the Bible is more bloody and violent:

“By the standards of the time, which is the 7th century A.D., the laws of war that are laid down by the Quran are actually reasonably humane,” he says. “Then we turn to the Bible, and we actually find something that is for many people a real surprise. There is a specific kind of warfare laid down in the Bible which we can only call genocide.”

Jenkins is referring to the stories in the OT of the early Hebrews completely destroying other tribes, killing everything but the women they took as slaves. Right now the archeology shows that this probably never happened, but the stories now exist in the Bible. Another scholar provides a counterpoint:

Andrew Bostom calls this analysis “preposterous.” Bostom, editor of The Legacy of Jihad, says there’s a major difference between the Bible, which describes the destruction of an enemy at a point in time, and the Quran, which urges an ongoing struggle to defeat unbelievers.

I start to see a problem. Calling either book “violent” ignores the fact that it’s the community who read the book who actually bring the violence about. If the readers decided to interpret the violence as symbolic, literary or from a previous dispensation, then the violence in the book is academic.

Notice that no one is arguing that the Lord of the Rings is more violent than the Bible. It might be true, but no one cares because no one is apt to use the Rings trilogy as justification for violence. (well, except the frodologists, but they’ve been quiet lately)

I suspect this is part of what Bostom is getting at. The descriptions of genocide in the OT are time-bound to a certain age, and should not be considered guidance for modern conflicts. So these stories are supposedly not germane to this discussion. But this ignore the complex and frighteningly creative ways that believers have used their holy texts.

Puritans arriving in the New World likened the continent to Canaan and the inhabitants to Canaanites. A story from ancient time became, typologically, a guide for present action and helped to justify the treatment of the Native Americans. Bostom is right that the Bible issues no clear instructions that this is to be done, but that’s cold comfort to the natives.

So there’s the problem: its not so much the text as the way that people use it that matters. And I suspect that this is completely unpredictable. Let’s say we gave the Bible to that philosophical cliche, the Man from Mars. Our Martian would read all the passages in about economic justice (“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.”). Do you think he would predict that the wealthiest country in the world would be predominately made up of people who venerate this book, and that most of them would be perfectly comfortable with their consumer capitalism?

Or take Pre-millennial dispensationalism for example. As Slacktivist has shown in his deconstruction of the Left Behind books, a few snippets of texts produced centuries apart have been stitched together to form an apocalyptic scenario which justifies some truly dubious attitudes. Is there any way that someone a few hundred years ago could have predicted this? If you can read the Bible and end up with the Left Behind series, you can end up with anything.

Rather than looking at the texts themselves and pronouncing them peaceful or violent, it would seem better to recognize that believers are freely able to interpret or ignore passages. The article ends:

In the end, the scholars can agree on one thing: The DNA of early Judaism, Christianity and Islam code for a lot of violence. Whether they can evolve out of it is another thing altogether.

But tradition, economics, politics, personality and chance all contribute to how portions of that DNA are expressed, and which portions are ignored all together. Each generation, and each community, decides for itself how best to use the holy texts. That being the case, arguing about which genome contains more violence seems beside the point.

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