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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

I hear a voice in my head.  It is mine, and I know it is.  Knowing this though does not mean I do not wonder about it.

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I wonder, can consciousness exist without words?  Yes, some animals have at least some level of consciousness.  Apes, dogs, elephants, dolphins and whales, and many others. However, is there a limit to how far consciousness can be developed without words?  I know that those born deaf also carry on internal conversations, but in sign and gestures, not with words created in sounds.  So, do animals have a consciousness that communicates with itself through smells, gestures of the trunk, jumps out of water?  And can such communication of the self to self be considered language?  I wonder if the development of this, our, level of consciousness, was dependent upon language?  Did language come first and then consciousness?  Or did one go this far and then the other hurried to catch up and then pushed the other further?

From there I wonder at this need to communicate with ourselves.  We are our body, we are our brain.  So, why the words as if in conversation with another?  Even to the extent that many of us of talk out loud to ourselves.  What does this mean?

And I wonder what it means when sometimes this inner voice wonders what decision I am about to make. I resolve to not get pizza to eat for lunch.  And then my voice sometimes wonders if I will have pizza or not, resolving the question with the words “We’ll see”.  This last wonder may be about something particular to me, this uncertainty about what I am going to do as if I were observing the behavior of another person and not myself.  But, I do not think so.  I think it applies to many.

Which then leads me to wonder, is this part of the reason why our ancestors believed in spirits and gods.  Every time I read the Iliad  I am struck by how often the gods take control of individuals.  Or consider the world wide practice of shamanism in which a special person can become possessed by a spirit, or can contact and talk with such.  Is did this conversation with ourselves, when combined with dreams, hallucinations, fear of not existing and desire to know and understand all, lead to the creation of the supernatural and gods?

And then I wonder, is this why religion came first?  Many atheists like to believe that if religion had not come about and a secular alternative had come about instead that humanity would be hundreds or even thousands of years ahead of where we are now.  Yet, to me, this seems just an empty what if.  Just as it is impossible for a group of light sensing cells to make a jump to the eye of an eagle in one generation, so too with developing secular socials structures before religious ones. Secular social structures that could do the job that religious ones did not and could not exist in our ancient history.  Such structures needed time to develop.  Instead, due to our evolved nature, religious structures came first.

Inevitably so I believe, for many reasons.  One of which is the voice in my head.

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In the beginning, humanity hunted, humanity gathered, and they did so in family groups.  These groups were the earliest and most basic human social structure.

As time advanced, these groups grew larger through natural processes at work even today.  This natural increase was furthered and quickened by humanity’s growing knowledge and technology which allowed them to die less often and live longer.  And to support more people.

lepenskivirart2Larger groups had several advantages. With more people, some could be spared to become craftsmen or tradesmen – pottery, weaving, knapping, trade, etc.  This benefited the now enlarged family group.  Another important benefit is that having more people meant that it was harder for other, often competing, family groups to force you to move from favorable locations.  Or take away your resources and access to needed and important minerals and water.  Or, to just wipe you out.

And, being bigger meant that if felt it necessary, you could do that to them!

However, as primarily a hunting and gathering society, there were limits to how large your group could grow.  But, then along came agriculture.  Suddenly, those limits were gone.

But, as with most advances, there were problems too. Now a society could grow larger, but family groups could only grow so far and so fast. However, several family groups working together could grow quite quickly and with fewer limits.

But, you knew there was going to be another but, there was another problem.  How to hold these different family groups together when one family group became upset and mad at another. After all, their primary loyalty had been and was to their family.  Family feuds back then were often deadly.

The answer – Religion.  Well, really, the answer was to create a new identity that E0702 KLENZE 9463transcended  family loyalties so  that even when family groups got pissed at each other the society stayed whole and the conflict was largely worked out within the new, larger society instead of tearing it apart.  But, an essential part of that identity was religion.

This was a religion grown from the beliefs of these family groups but organized and made bigger.  And then used to create a new identity and to not only resolve potentially societal suicidal disputes, but to provide a means and motive to redistribute resources (even though abused, a necessity too – for example, irrigation).

For the most part I do not think this was consciously done, although at times I am sure that aspects of it were. But, rather, this was a natural growth.  Also, I would imagine that the attempt to create this new unity with religion failed often and the nascent society fell apart. But, some succeeded and when they did, well they were bigger with all the benefits mentioned above.  Further, they were more organized and able to have people do things not related to just providing food – arts, trades, trading, soldiers, etc

Religion was a success.  And nothing else worked as well.   It is why you never find an early civilization in which religion was not an essential part of its structure.  It had to be for such structures to exist.

Nothing human is static.  We change and grow and react in response to the non-static world around us. This holds true for religion too.  Religion started to move beyond largely societal commands and strictures and assume a more and more moral aspect to it. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and others are aspects of this changing nature.

One other aspect of this use of religion as national identity: those who were not of the same religion were then not a part of us, and thus dangerous and suspicious.  Reading the history of England as it switched from Church of England to Catholic and back again is an interesting read and an illustration of this truth.  It is why I say it is not so much religion that is the cause of so much violence, but its wedding to the state.

Which brings us to the gradual divorce of that married couple, once joined as one.  As Religious-Affiliationhumanity was more able to easily travel to other countries with other beliefs, and as humanity became better able to communicate about those other peoples – the printing press being the biggest boost to that – people within countries started to question their beliefs.  Which was a threat to the state – as mentioned earlier.

This warfare and violence though was abhorred by many good men, including some very religious believers.  And the idea started and grew and was developed that religion and state should be divorced, and then kept separated in order to control and lessen the violence and hatred.  Interestingly enough, the earliest proponent of a complete separation of religion and state was a Puritan theologian and founder of the Baptist Church in America, Roger Williams (he also founded the state of Rhode Island with that principle in mind).

A couple of hundred of years later a country was born in which the state and church were explicitly separate and forbidden to join together.   Note, by state I mean government.  And that is not the same as a society and culture.

Now, this was such a good idea that over the next two hundred years (a bit over actually) this idea spread and became the norm, or at least given lip service.  Secular non-religious institutions also grew that provided the same functions that only religion used to provide – education, healthcare, providing for the poor, etc. Abulcasis-blistering

However, a bit over two hundred years is a very short period of time. I imagine the transition from family groups to cities with religions took considerably longer.  Which is why we still see the remnants of the older attitude of identifying the state with a specific religion rise up.  It is why Buddhists in Myanmar are persecuting and committing genocide upon Muslims there.   Or why Muslims in many Islamic countries do not allow conversions.  Or why religious people in communist and officially atheistic countries were persecuted (what is the issue here is the identification of one religious view with the state, no matter what that view might be).

And why we still see it rear its head here in the United States.

Immediately after 9/11, the city of Fort Worth decided to hold a grand meeting of city employees to allow a sense of grief to be shared and supported by our shared unity. However, this meeting or ceremony was decidedly Christian, complete with the police Chaplain giving a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ amen.

My wife, who is an atheist, and a Buddhist friend of hers  were left with a sense of betrayal, of being left out. Were they not Americans too?  Did they not feel shock and grieve?   Instead of unifying all Americans, it divided.

It was just after this that God Bless America became a traditional 7th inning stretch song at baseball games.   A way to provide unity and show you were a true blue American. My wife and I, as atheist, refused to sing it, and even refused to stand for it because it came to symbolize the United States as a Christian nation.

Last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer, itself a relic of the old religion as national identity. Many presidents in the past have worked to offset that by trying to include other faiths in these prayers.  But, it still is a relic of the old identifying of the state with one religious view. 170x170bb

More recently our government has been more and more influenced and pandering to one specific religious group. Towards that end, they are working to make it easier to use religion as a justification for discrimination and injustice

I mentioned culture and society earlier and how they are different than governments.  But, while they are different, they do influence it.  This is especially true in a democracy and cannot be any other way.  It creates a bit of tension at times a lot of tensions at others, and it provides a challenge in regards to politicians and government workers at times.  For the most part though, the government has managed to stay secular and maintain that wall of separation. However, I believe that we are now undergoing one of those times when that wall will be attacked, and will be cracked.  Not destroyed, but cracked.

What this shows though is that the replacement of religion as a glue holding people together, as a way of providing a national identity and unity still exists and is still a powerful force.  However the difference between today and the past is that the population is diverse whereas in the past is was largely homogeneous.  That means instead providing a national identity and unifying us, it provides an identity for some and serves to divide us.

I do not think that religion will ever disappear (after all, the family has not disappeared, that primal beginning of all human societies) – nor should that be our goal (very far from it). But, I do think that our secular government with its secular institutions needs to be protected.  It is a necessity for the continued growth of a more peaceful and just world.

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“I know everyone who gave their life that day, some of which were my best friends and my daughter. And I guarantee you, beyond any shadow of a doubt, they are dancing with Jesus today.”

 

The above quote from Pastor Frank Pomeroy of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas captures one of the reasons why religion will never die.  It may diminish some.  It will certainly continue to change greatly. But die, no.

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This quote is from a sermon he preached on Sunday, Nov 12, 2017.  A week before this sermon a gunman had entered his church and murdered  26 members of his congregation, including his 14 year old daughter. He preached this sermon in a tent. At the front of the tent were the few remaining members of his congregation.

Many atheists say that religion will one day die out and be no more.  Some say it is already happening, that it is shrinking and will continue to do so until it no longer exists.   I believe that the number of atheists will continue to grow for awhile, but do not think it will ever become the dominant religious view of the planet. And by atheism, I mean the variety that does not believe in God or the supernatural.  Instead, I think some variety of religious belief, including in a God, will survive and still be the most common view.

The reason I think this is because I realize that humans are more heart than mind.  And, by the way, that is not a bad thing. While the heart can and has led to many evils, it is also the source of our morality and most of what is good too.  It is also an essential part of what gives our lives joy and happiness. Evidence, logic, reason all have an important role, but they are not the basis of what is good and right in our lives.

David Hume put it well when he said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Many atheists may be surprised at this quote from Hume. After all, he is a one of the pre-eminent empirical and skeptical philosophers in history.  However, Hume realized that we do not use our reason to determine our morality and our goals, but rather, they are chosen through our passions and emotions. And reason is then used in aide of them (which can include modifying them to if needed) and, to justify them (unfortunately).

Consider, did you reason your way to loving your parents and siblings?  Did you use logic and evidence and rational thought when meeting people to determine your friends?  Did you reason your way to loving your children?

In moral decisions, do you use abstract moral principles and reason from them to determine if a given action that you have to make now is moral or not?  And do you use reason to determine whether to get angry or not when you see a man knock down an old woman and steal her purse, a woman slapping a child hard enough to mark them, a child tormenting a cat?

Reason has a role to play, but it is in aide and support of, not in substitution of.

Which is why religion will never die away.

What arouses more passion than both the idea and reality of death.  Not only our own death, but, often more importantly, the death of your loved ones – parents, spouse, friends.  Children.

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171105195446-14-sutherland-springs-church-shooting-super-169            For most people, such losses need more than what reason and logic can provide.  I wrote a blog a few weeks ago, “There is No Immortality, But There Are Times I Chose to Believe Anyway”, about why I find traditional atheist platitudes on death unsatisfactory, and  why, on an emotional level, I find myself vested in the belief in the rainbow bridge and will continue to happily be so vested.

This is even though I have been an atheist for over 43 years now.  And this is despite my love of science, my commitment to rational thought, my being a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry since its first day when its journal was called the Zetetic, and my highly analytical nature.

Consider Martin Gardner, one of the founders of the modern skeptic movement, and a founding member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (called Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal at first). Even though a skeptic of the first order, he believed in God and immortality, even though he knew there was no evidence and that such a belief was irrational.

We are not rational creatures. We can harness rationality and use it, but the great majority of our pleasures and desires and goals are not the result of rational thought.  I did not sit down and say and make a list of things that I might like, put reasons by each of them, and then made a conscious choice.  I like to write because I love to read. And my love of reading did not come about by rational reflection but from emotional response.

And there is nothing wrong with this. It is an essential part of what it means to be human. Change it, and you are dealing with something that is something else than human.

So, when I see what atheism has to offer for comfort and support – atoms returning to the universe to last as long as the universe within the hearts of stars or in enormous gas clouds, living on in the memories and lives of others we have touched, living on in our memories and being one of the ones touched by the deceased, and so forth – and compare that to my friends and loved ones “dancing with Jesus” and waiting for me to join in when I eventually die….well, I know which one resonates more strongly.

One final thought.  While I enjoy discussing and disagreeing about various ideas and issues relating to religion – and do feel there is much that deserves strong condemnation – the most important thing is not religious beliefs per se, but an individual’s views towards choices.  Pastor Frank Pomeroy said this well in his sermon too;

“Folks, we have the freedom to choose, and rather than choose darkness, as the one young man did that day, I say we choose life. “

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What does the word father mean?  According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary (slightly paraphrased), a father is:

  • A man who has begotten a child.
  • God, the first person of the Trinity
  • Forefather, such as the founding fathers of the United States.
  • One related to another in a way suggesting that of father to child.
  • An old man – used as a respectful form of address
  • A pre-Scholastic, a Christian writer accepted by the church as an authoritative witness to its teaching and practice – called also church father
  • One that originates or institutes, such as the father of modern science.
  • Source, such as the sun, the father of warmth and light.
  • Prototype, such as the father of all libraries in the country,.
  • A priest of the regular clergy.
  • One of the leading men (as of a city) – usually used in plurals such as a council of the city fathers.

Wow, so many meanings embedded within one word.

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Now, those wedded to the idea a person can read the words of a tract, book, articles, manuscript, religious work or political document and understand exactly what it means, will, upon seeing where I am heading with this, point out that while the word father does have many different meanings, which meaning being used is usually made obvious by the context of the word.  In other words, the words around the word help define that word.  And to an extent they are right.

However, words are not only understood as an abstract intellectual concept. In fact, most of the time they are not. People insert meaning  and values to those words.

For example, what a father is will be something quite different  for a woman who was raped and abused by her father since she was a young child versus what it will mean for a young man who had a loving father who played games and helped with homework.  Which means that how a person understands a word within a given sentence embedded within a paragraph that is part of a page which is just one page in an article or a book and all of whose words influence the meaning and understanding of that particular word is going to also depend on that individual’s own feelings and emotions in reaction to that  particular word.  And let us not forget, that each and every one of those words influencing the understanding of the word in question is also being interpreted and understood by that person’s past too.

Put that way, it is really rather amazing that we communicate as well as we do.

And all of this Is happening before we start applying that rather abstract understanding of a word in a passage in a paragraph, etc to real world questions and problems.  Thou 24stephensWEB-facebookJumboshalt not kill seems simple enough commandment when seen on a page, but what does it mean when faced with a 220 pound six foot man with blood in his eye as well as on his clothes wielding a machete?   What about a person running away from you with your money and jewels when you have a gun in your hand?  What about if you accidently kill someone by stumbling over your untied shoelace, bumping into that person and causing her to take a header down an up escalator?  Is that still a sin?  Or even a crime?

To avoid spending too much time and way too many thousands of words, let me just condense it to this: how we understand words, especially words that are accompanied by a great many words, and even more so when those crowds of words have to be applied to the world, are only partly objective. They also have a large subjective element to it, a subjectivity that is dependent upon a person’s:

  • Parents
  • Personal history
  • Education
  • Culture
  • Society
  • Political economic status
  • Own readings
  • Friends
  • Acquaintances, both of the friendly and not so friendly sort.
  • Movies
  • Music (one person I know was greatly affected by John Denver’s songs, another by Pink Floyd’s)
  • And anything else

So, to cut to the chase since I am now  trying to keep these blogs at 1000 words or less, what does this mean in regards to a definition of religion?  Which is, after all, the title of this blog.

A religion can be and usually is defined by its sacred works and doctrine. However, this never quite seems to nail it down. Take a look and you will find a great deal of variety within even a small seemingly well defined group of believers.  Even the most uniform of them will disagree on some issues. And some will prove to be more amenable to different understandings than others.   Which is strong evidence against the idea that there is some plain and literal reading to be had, and for my own view is that, while there are objective limits, they bracket a wide range of subjective understandings and interpretations.

For myself, I have read many works taken to be sacred by different religions – the Tanakh, Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching.  In every  one of the works I have read I found things I considered good and things I considered bad. Some of these were very very good, and some were very very bad.  How these often conflicting passages are understood and applied to the world is very dependent upon how a person choses to understand them.

6259220Given this, I think the most practical and relevant definition of a religion is that a religion is what its followers make of it – both as a group and as individuals within that group.

 

I believe that the most practical definition of religion is a religion is what its followers make of it. What they make of it is, of course, influenced by the history of that group, their society, other aspects of their cultures, geography, political and economic realities, and so forth.  To get even more basic, religion usually differs even between members of the same group, so that more properly a religion can be said to be what a follower makes of it.

For example, Rais Bhuiyan, the lone survivor of an attack by a man intent on getting revenge for 9/11, suing to prevent the killer’s execution because he believed the Qur’an required him to forgive.

Harman Singh, a Sikhs required by his religion to not take his turban off, taking it off and using it to help a young boy hurt in an accident.

And the list goes ever on and covers every variety of religion, and non-religion – Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Wiccan….

For me, I believe that often the most important definition of a religion is what does that person or group make of their religion. It is why, although very important, a particular religions sacred scriptures and doctrine are, to my mind, of secondary importance.

 

 

 

Well dang. 1,174 words.

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This blog has been lurking around in the corners of my mind for quite a while now, ever since July 1, 2016 when I passed a church bulletin calling for all to come to its celebration of God and America. This sign bothered me for several reasons.  Of course, me being an atheist will probably cause most to figure out some of the reasons it bothered me. But only some. As for the rest, well, the rest I thought would be surprising and I hope interesting.

It bothered me because not only is such a mingling of church and state bad for the state, but it is just as bad for the church.

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Let me first say that this church, and the many others that I saw with a similar message, have every right to do so.  However, not everything that is legal and that people have a right to do is also wise. And in this blog I plan to discuss why it is not wise for a religion, in this case Christianity, to mix religion and nationalism. To do so, I will speak as if I were a much younger me, young enough to still be a Christian.

Let’s start with a question – what is the purpose of the Church?

Answer, to spread the good news of the Gospels, the news about Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection.  The church was also meant to provide support and teaching to fellow Christians, and to those who come to its doors seeking. And the church was also meant to serve as a moral guide and conscience of people, of societies, of nations, of the world.

While spreading the news of the Gospels might be easier done when part of a government, as part of the inside group, it does so at the expense of corrupting the church, and of causing great pain and suffering to others outside of that church.

A church is not the state.  Nor is it meant to be.  It is not meant to be a supporter of the state, an auxiliary of the state, a co-ruler with the state.

A church is meant to be an outsider in regards to government.

Christianity was born an outsider.

Jesus was born an outsider with Mary being pregnant before being married

Jesus was born into and preached to a people who were outsiders, the Jews.

Jesus served the outsiders among the Jews; tax collectors, the lepers, the unclean, the sinners.

An outsider preaching to a people of outsiders, that is part of what gave Jesus’ message its power.   His message was not to the rich and powerful, although it was theirs for the taking should they choose to listen.  His message was to the poor and powerless.

His message was not how to create a civil society, how to govern a country or state or city.  His message was about God’s love for humanity and how best to receive and spread that love.  It was a message of hope, not political positions.

Jesus, as the outsider, accepted all, but did not change his message, his standards, nor himself for any.

Jesus changed the world.

From its birth to its early years, Christianity was a religion off outsiders looking in.  Often ridiculed, sometimes persecuted, they nonetheless still for the most part, held firm to their standards and beliefs.  And they grew.

And then came the great split. No, not the Catholic and the Protestant split. Nor the disagreements among Christians, which had been present since the beginning as can be seen in the arguments about the nature of Jesus and his relation to God.

No, the great split I am referring to concerns the split from being outsiders to becoming insiders. The conversion of Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from being a religion of outsiders to being a religion of the insiders, of those with power and money. Or rather, one particular set of Christians became insiders.  As part of the bargain, with Constantine, they had to have a uniform set of beliefs.  So, one set modified some of their beliefs and won, the others became persecuted and died, along with the pagans.

As Paul Johnson wrote in his A History of Christianity:

How could the Christian Church, apparently quite willingly, accommodate this weird megalomaniac in its theocratic system? Was there a conscious bargain? Which side benefited most from this unseemly marriage between Church and State? Or, to put it another way, did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?”

Now, instead of criticizing the government and society, Christianity and the government tyndale-martyrdom-resized-600were one, and actions against the government were also actions against Christianity, and actions against Christianity were also actions against the government.  Given this, how could most Christians criticize any government action, no matter how bad or how flawed?  How could any government allow any deviation from the established religion, no matter how well argued and supported?

They couldn’t

An attack on the religion supported by the state was an attack on the state, and an attack vc006367on the state was an attack on the religion.  Such was the root cause of most of the religious violence and persecution throughout the years; the Inquisition, the forced conversion and persecution of the Jews, Catholics vs. Protestants, Protestants vs. Puritans, Puritans vs. Quakers, and on and on and on.

In addition to the violence against people, was the violence done to beliefs and morals as Churches assumed stately power. Compromises with principles and beliefs were common, as were the flat out ignoring of such principles and beliefs.

This violence against people and against the teachings of Jesus and of God is probably why the first person to propose an absolute and total separation of church and state was a Puritan theologian and the founder of the Baptist Church in America – Roger Williams. And he lived up to that ideal when he founded the state of Rhode Island.

The United States was the first secular government in the world. Something that the writers of the Constitution did intentionally, and with great forethought.

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Their foresight and awareness of history is something lacking today by too many Americans, and is evidenced by so much more than just the signs I saw that inspired this blog.  This lack of forethought and awareness is seen whenever anyone:

  • Claims that the United States is a Christian country. And then advocates for laws to make it so – prayer in the schools, recognition of the Bible as the state book, etc.
  • Work to limit or take away the rights of those who are not the right sort of Christian or believer.
  • Tells Muslims to go home, even those who were born in the United States. And then tries to make it so.
  • Whenever permits are denied to religious groups due to their beliefs.
  • When President H. Bush commented that atheist could not be patriots due to not believing in God.
  • When Trump sends out a White House bulletin in which he states “America is a Nation of believers. As long as we have faith in each other, and trust in God, we will succeed!”

We, as a nation, as a people, have never been very good at remembering. But, today, that

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lack of memory, of awareness, seems stronger than ever.  The evangelical support forTrump shows how far too many Christians and Christian organizations, are willing to go in dealing with the devil in order to gain political power.  And how many of their values and morals, and how much of the teachings of Jesus they are willing to ignore or give up in their quest for political power.

 

I think that they need to go back and read the history of religion, and of what happens when it becomes part of the state.  Some Madison, or Jefferson, or several others would be good.  But, perhaps, it would be best if they rediscovered the writings and thought of Roger Williams.  Before they manage to harm not just people, but the Constitution that will allow such harm to, eventually, be redressed.

 

 

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I thought I would try something a bit different in my blog today. Usually I pronounce my words of wisdom for all who have the wit to understand to receive and be enlightened. Today though I am going to post an observation of mine in regards to religion and various social issues. And then, instead of expounding on the reasons why this observation is true – since I have only the vaguest of ideas on why – I am hoping those who read it will provide some of their own thoughts.

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Atheists have a strong tendency to point out all the problems and flaws with different religions and argue that they have held up needed social change. As a result, they usually only see the obstructionist role religion has played in needed social change and overlook the other side.

Religious people though often go the other way and emphasize the positive while downplaying the negative.

My own personal view is that religion has been both positive and negative, has fought against social progress and needed cultural change (not surprising since one of the roles of a religion is to foster and support the current society as a sort of glue) but has also often been the sharp end of the stick in regards to creating and promoting social progress and needed cultural change. For example:

  • – Much is made of how religion controlled the state in times past (although often it was the other way around, and even more often both controlling the other in a partnership). However, religion also had a leading role in the development and promotion of the idea and reality of separation of church and state and is a vital component of our current secular government and societies. I detailed a part of this history in my blog “The Religious Root Leading to the Separation of Church and State”.
  • – The church and religion have a long history of providing aide to the poor and sick. The development of hospitals came from our religious history, for example. This link and this one provide some information on this.
  • – The abolition of slavery was led by Christians and churches. As was the Civil Rights movement. And Christian beliefs morphed in such a way that they provided not only comfort to the slaves in the years before the Civil War, but also caused them to fight back in various ways against their oppressors. For example, whenever a religious revival swept through an area there would be more slave unrest and uprisings.

There are other areas where religions also led the way in providing much needed progress and change – including science.

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However, in one very recent movement, and one relatively recent movement, instead of seeing this dichotomy in the role of religion, I have seen much more uniformity in religion opposing both movements. These movements are the feminist movement and the gay rights movements. The church and religion have not played as prominent a role in the promotion of either of these two human rights movements as they have in past ones. Yes, some individual religious people and churches have supported these causes, but they are even more of an exception (until recently) than were the churches that supported past progressive movements.

And I don’t fully know why this difference exists between these causes and those of the past.

So, rather than speculate and research further, I will instead let those readers who wish to comment on this. Consider it my lazy way to do research on this topic.

Now, there is no pressure to respond. After all, even if no one responds what am I going to do? Send hit men out? Refuse to let ungrateful and lazy readers read this blob by sending it only to myself from henceforth?

Instead, I will probably whine to my wife and sulk a bit. Perhaps have a good cry at the realization that I am not as popular and thought provoking as I had believed myself to be.

Now, respond!

Please.

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So many people believe that religion cannot change – most especially the sacred scripture of their religion. To use Christianity as an example, the words of the Bible do not change and therefor our understanding of it is timeless – all that needs to be done is to read its words plain and simply. That is what I see repeatedly from both conservative literalists Christians and from many atheists. I find it amazing that such a wrong idea can be so strongly promoted by those at the opposite ends of belief. I imagine that this is probably the only area of agreement that literalists Christians and many atheists have. And it is ironic that it is so very wrong.

indexI wrote a paper for one of my graduate classes a couple of years ago that illustrate very nicely some of the reasons why it is wrong. It doesn’t hit at all the reasons, but gives an idea about how religious believers understanding of their sacred scripture can and does change over time. Although this paper focuses exclusively upon slavery and the Bible in the pre-civil war United States, the idea behind it applies to any and all scriptures – such as the Qur’an for example – and even such documents as the United States Constitution.

The Bible Wars: It’s Use For and Against Slavery

Slavery still exists today, not only in other countries but even here in the United States. However, today slavery is almost universally condemned instead of almost universally accepted as it once was. Governments have made slavery illegal. Religion and Christianity almost universally condemn it now. Not so very long ago this was not true.

In colonial America and in pre-Civil War United States slavery was a flourishing institution, one that was supported by many arguments ranging from the economic to the supposed nature of blacks. One argument of special importance and interest was the one based upon the Bible. Both the proslavery people and the abolitionists claimed Biblical support for their beliefs and positions. In this paper I plan to look at how the Bible was used to both justify and argue against slavery.

1. Pro-slavery arguments

The pro-slavery side had the initial advantage in using the Bible to support their views. The reason for this is that no special interpretation or treatment of the Bible was needed to justify the institution of slavery. Nowhere within the Bible does anyone condemn slavery, not even Jesus. It was an accepted institution, one that seemingly was considered both normal and moral. Because of this, the proslavery groups could rely on a literal reading of the Bible and upon Christian history to make their case.

Most Christians throughout history did not see the practice of slavery as conflicting with the Bible. Many church leaders from the first days of Christianity had slaves. Church policy since its earliest days supported the institution of slavery and the rights of slaveholders. Several early Christian writings include codes of household management; how husbands, wives, children, slaves, and slaveholders should behave. In these codes, slaves “were told to subordinate their wills to the wills of their master” (Glancy 55). Christian teachings often seemed to reinforce “the power of the slaveholder, even as they affirmed the dignity of the slave in God’s eyes.” (Glancy 53).

In fact, although there are some hints that some early Christians might have questioned slavery, real and unambiguous writings against slavery as being un-Christian did not come until medieval times when people such as Gregory of Nissa, Saint Patrick, and Saint Eligus started to write and speak out against slavery. However, other church leaders, such as Saint Augustine, Saint Aquinas, Calvin, and Martin Luther wrote that slavery was not un-Christianity. Although slavery eventually disappeared in Christian Europe it was still not widely condemned or considered un-Christian by most.

Due to this weight of history, and to a literal interpretation of the Bible, the development of a Christian defense of slavery in the United States did not come about until the early 19th century. In the years before this in America there had been no need for one. It was not until the rise of a larger abolitionist movement and a radical form of antislavery during the 1830’s that proslavery literature began to become significant.

The fact that the proslavery side had a plain reading of the Bible on their side can be readily seen in one of the first conflicts with the abolitionists. Initially the abolitionists had argued that the word translated as “slave” in the Bible actually meant “servant” and thus there was no slavery in the Bible. The proslavery side quickly pointed out that this was not only not how it had been historically translated but that the best and newest methods of biblical scholarship showed that the word in question meant slave and not servant. What is ironic is that those who used and understood the Bible literally to argue for slavery were able to use the new biblical criticism of the Bible, a methodology that would show the problems inherent in a literal understanding of the Bible, to support their position.

Those arguing that slavery was Biblical used a variety of arguments based on quotes from the Bible. They used the story of the Centurion’s Servant (Luke 7:1 – 10; Matt 8:5 – 13) to show that Jesus had not only met slaves but also had commended the slave’s owner, a Roman soldier, as a faithful man such as he had not seen even in Israel.

Taking the argument even further, they argued, on the basis of the example of the Roman soldier above and Jesus’ praise of him, as well as other verses, that not only was slavery not immoral, but that the proper Christian stance towards the world was hierarchical and patriarchical. “Importantly, Jesus praised the centurion’s use of commands to order military and domestic subordinates….The plain sense of this language means that military hierarchy and other forms of patriarchy ought to order human relations, especially between master and slave.” (Harrill, 183).

When the abolitionists used the Golden Rule to argue against slavery, the proslavery groups responded by referring to the above verses, saying that Jesus was not teaching egalitarianism, but rather patriarchical love. Such love does not make men social equals, but instead means that “the master should treat his slave as if the master, imagining himself a slave and aware of his own good, would like to be treated.” (Harrill, 185).

Using a plain reading of the Bible with the understanding that passages were to be understood in light of patriarchalism, and with a selective use of the new biblical criticisms, the proslavery groups defended the institution of slavery as being Biblical and Christian.

2. Abolitionist Arguments.

As I mentioned above, the proslavery groups had the easier argument to make in regards to the Bible and slavery. This was something the abolitionists recognized from the beginning. Because of this, instead of a literalist approach they used an interpretive approach.

Of course the proslavery groups interpreted passages too, as seen by their interpretation of the meaning of the Golden Rule. And the proslavery groups were influenced in their interpretations by outside sources such as their economic and political views and their prejudices. However, the difference was that while the proslavery groups found their key to interpreting biblical texts within the Bible (patriarchy), the abolitionists found their key from outside the Bible.

First and foremost of these outside keys was the outrage that slavery inflicted on their sense of morality. Regardless of the source of this feeling, morally they knew that slavery was wrong and that therefore any interpretation of the Bible that defended slavery was flawed. They had only to be perceptive and knowledgeable enough to discover the flaw. Or, failing that, some counseled rejecting the Bible altogether as a moral guide to slavery. “Garrison concluded that slavery, like just war and woman’s suffrage, ‘was not a bible question’, since nothing in regards to controversial matters had ever been settled by the Bible.” (Harrill, 176). While most did not go as far as Garrison, some did. All though were motivated by the same sense of moral outrage.

A large reason why this attempt to use outside sources to aide in interpreting the Bible was possible was due to the Enlightenment. It was an age of questioning everything, including Christianity and the Bible. It was an age of discoveries that made old understandings of the Bible questionable. The age of the earth, the orbiting earth and central sun, evolution, and other discoveries of science showed that the Bible could not be understood literally in regards to matters of how the physical universe worked.

The new higher criticism coming out of Germany was becoming increasingly influential among American scholars. It demonstrated that Moses did not write the Torah, that the Bible had multiple authors and did not always agree with known history and, most importantly, that the Bible might not always be the best guide in understanding itself.

At the same time a new religious movement had developed and was expanding, that of evangelism with an emphasis on a personal experience of God and not necessarily to adherence to old doctrine. Quakers were the earliest evangelical group to start to criticize and work for abolition. However they were joined by other such new evangelical religions as Methodists and Baptists.

It took some trial and error for abolitionists to find their way to their final arguments. One of their first attempts was to deny that Jesus had ever met any slaves, saying that the word translated as slave could also and more probably did mean servant. However, as noted above, that argument did not hold up to the new scholarship.

From there, they looked for another key by which to understand the Bible and its verses about slavery, one that would hold up to the new biblical criticism and would also align with their moral understanding of the Bible. Part of the key consisted of viewing the Bible as a work in progress instead of a static work with a finished understanding.

Taking their cues from their times, a time when progress was not only much talked about but actually being seen in the industrial and scientific revolutions, they argued that the Bible had “seeds” planted within it that would blossom and bear fruit as societies grew in knowledge and moral sensibilities. They argued that Jesus knew any condemnation of slavery would not take root in the culture and society of his age. Instead he planted a seed that would grow and blossom in the fullness of time. History, and our understanding of the Bible, were not static but were instead dynamic, growing, and progressive.
With this understanding of the Bible and how to read it the abolitionists then argued that the Golden Rule, as related in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31, was the seed that Jesus planted and that now was the time for its blossoming. “True Christianity, through ‘fair application’ of the Golden Rule and related immutable principles such as charity and love of neighbor, is a Christianity against slavery.” (Harrill, 171)

The below quote of Dr. Thornton’s, taken from a report about slavery given to the Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina highlights this difference between the abolitionists and the proslavery groups.

“Opposition to Slavery has never been the offspring of the Bible. It has sprung from visionary theories of human nature and society. It has sprung from the misguided reason of man. It comes as natural, not as revealed truth; and when it is seen that the Word of God stands in the way of it, the lovely oracles will be stripped of their authority, and reduced to the level of mere human utterances.” (National Era).

Where the abolitionists would disagree with Dr. Thornton, is that this scheme amounted to “mere human utterances”. Instead they would say that, along with the Bible, God also created the natural world and the mind of man with its ability to reason.

Further, God had implanted within humanity a sense of morality. They would argue that theirs was taking the whole of what God had given them, whereas the literalist views of Dr. Thornton and the proslavery groups had rejected part of God’s revelations and gifts.

One final fact to note is that just because a white person was an abolitionist does not mean that they were not prejudiced. An argument that was used in conjunction with the early claim that Jesus had never met a slave was that if Jesus Christ had met slaves and condoned the institution, then it would have been the slavery of his time, a slavery involving whites. “This reductio ad absurdum disproof…. reveals the racism present in some abolitionist arguments: surely Jesus Christ agreed with the American beliefs that white people should not be enslaved.” (Harrill, 169).

While this was not an argument that was used as much after the abolitionists lost the argument on whether Jesus had met slaves, it does show that a white view of abolitionism might, and did, differ from that of an African American of the times.

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3. Free Blacks and Slaves

“Dark and Dismal was the day
When slavery began
All humble thoughts were put away
Then slaves were made by man.”

The above words are part of a poem by Jupiter Hammon, the first black poet in America and a slave since birth. The 25 stanza poem was titled: “An Essay on Slavery with Submission to Divine Providence Knowing that God Rules Over All Things” and, unlike his other poems and essays, it was never published; most likely due to its controversial nature.

In the beginning, blacks resisted Christianity. They feared that their master’s religion was meant as a means of control and oppression. At the time, the Christianity being preached was. As taught to the slaves, Christianity was strongly Calvinistic and taught that everyone had been put in their place by God, and that given this instead of questioning their God ordained station they should do their best within that station. Most African Americans were not attracted to this message.

Some blacks though did accept the religion of their masters; for example, Jupiter Hammon. Born a slave in Lloyd Harbor, NY in 1711, property of the Lloyd family of Queens, NY, he was fortunate enough to have owners who insisted that he attend school and learn to read and write. He was born and became Christian before the Great Awakening and the arrival of the evangelical Christianities that did not preach a religion of acquiescence to oppression, and so had a foot in both worlds.

The Christianity taught and accepted by Jupiter at his birth, and rejected by many blacks, was of a Calvinism that “did not believe that Christians, and even less so slaves, should do anything that distracted from a contemplation of a heavenly afterlife.” (Day, 2) This version of Calvinism, and not the one that “emphasized participation in the world with a view toward transforming it” (Day, 2) that many of the whites followed , was what the blacks were taught, when any were taught at all to become Christians. From the same poem:

“When God doth please for to permit
That slavery should be
It is our duty to submit
Till Christ shall set us free.”

But, while Christianity was taught as a means of oppression, it did not stay such. Instead it changed and became a means of resisting oppression; sometimes actively, sometimes more quietly. It did so by giving blacks “a sense of common identity and purpose that created the conditions for organization and collective action.” (Day, 3).

The African American was treated as and had the status of property, not person. Even Hammon’s owners, who by all accounts were good masters who treated him well, lists Hammon, along with their other slaves, as property in their ledgers, along with cattle and other goods. To resist this reduction to being nothing more than property, African Americans had to form a new identity as well as a new community. A large part of that new identity came with the arrival of the Great

Awakening. The Great Awakening created a number of new voices within religion, ones that were not part of the established religions with their political and economic ties, which allowed them to “reevaluate the old theologies and speak out against slavery as an organizational endeavor.” (Day, 15).

As a result of increasing literacy among the African Americans and the increasing numbers of itinerant ministers who were preaching a message of resistance to worldly oppression and not submission, blacks started to convert to Christianity in increasing numbers. They also started to assume leadership roles as preachers and ministers as well as organizing churches.

As they did so their understanding and ways of interpreting the Bible differed from that of not only their white masters and white society in general, but even from that of the white abolitionists. In fact, blacks often found themselves at loggerheads with their white abolitionist allies.

For example, the slave narrative became popular means by which the abolitionist movement pressed their cause. However, most of these narratives that had the approval of the white abolitionists were those that “focused on the ‘objective facts’ of slavery rather than on individuals’ ideas and interpretations.” (Day, 88).

This control of the narratives allowed the white abolitionists to control the content and priorities of the anti-slavery movement, resulting in an anti-slavery movement that was against slavery but not necessarily for equality. Even though sympathetic to the troubles of the blacks, most whites were not willing to give up power nor to examine with a critical eye their own views and thoughts about black.

Blacks agreed with and used the argument used by the white abolitionists of the Golden Rule being the key to understanding and interpreting the Bible. However, they also identified both themselves and their plight with biblical figures, most especially Moses and the Exodus narrative, although the figure of Christ as the “Suffering Servant” was also important. Blacks found much support and strength through such imagery and identification; and especially in the knowledge that both the Jews and Jesus were triumphant at the end of their sufferings.

And just like the earliest Christian groups, many blacks found the book of Revelation meaningful. It pointed to a time when slavery and prejudice would end, a time of the Apocalypse when “an abolitionist Warrior Jesus” (Harrill, 179) would come in wrath and retribution to end slavery and establish justice for the blacks.

Not only did the Bible provide support and comfort, but many blacks found within it the sense of group identity and organization necessary for an active resistance to slavery. Those times of unrest among the blacks that led into actual revolt against their masters were most often preceded by a rise in religious activity.

While the black community did have much in common with the white abolitionists, their goals and views were not identical. There were significant differences in how they understood and used the Bible. Given their differing social standings and needs this was inevitable.

4. Final Notes

These changes to Christian understanding of the Bible have now become ingrained and are considered the orthodox understanding today. Except for some small groups, even those Christians who claim to believe the Bible literally use this new interpretation of the Bible, this interpretation that takes into account ideas from outside the Bible to understand it, when they claim that the Bible is against slavery. This is a far cry from the literalists of the pre-Civil War era, and a change that has continued to create social changes up to today.

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