a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘bible’ Category

on religion, secularism, tolerance and women

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Over the years, I’ve read, listened to and encountered non-religious people defending religions and the religious in the name of tolerance, decency, human rights and more. A non-religious philosophy tutor once told the discussion group that I was a member of that western morality was based on Christianity. This claim appeared to be made as a criticism of the ‘new atheist’ movement that was prevalent at the time (some 15 or so years ago). I found it to be highly dubious on its face, so I engaged in a ‘deep dive’ into the key texts of Christianity – the so-called gospels, the purported reportage of the life, actions and teachings of Jesus, the son of the Judeao-Christian or Abrahamic god. Did these most basic Christian texts provide a coherent moral system for the western world, or even the barest framework of such a system?

Needless to say, I found no such thing, nor did I find any evidence that the gospel authors had ever even met the central figure in Christianity, Jesus. Whether such a person ever existed is a question with no clear answer. Jesus was a relatively common name at the time, a period which provides no written records of the existence of individuals outside of monarchs, governors and the like. Much research has explored the production and dating of the gospels, which were not contemporaneous with the life of their subject, who was said to have been crucified sometime between 30 and 40 AD (it doesn’t help that our current dating system is based on his conjectured birth). My writings on the subject (about a dozen blog posts, referenced below) were, as with most of my writings, a kind of self-education project. Amongst my gleanings were that the different gospels were inconsistent, both internally and compared to each other, and included interpolations from as late as the third or fourth century AD.

Let me focus briefly on one gospel example, the so-called ‘woman taken in adultery’ in John 8 (3-11), since it’s all about a topic of interest, the treatment of women. It’s now generally accepted as a later interpolation, but it’s still useful in terms of its lack of context – a problem with most gospel anecdotes. In modern jurisprudence, and modern (WEIRD) morality, context is absolutely essential. This is explored in much detail in Joseph Henrich’s book The weirdest people in the world, in which motive, intention, effect and a host of other factors are included in our judgment and appraisal of others.

So here is the story, from the ‘New Revised Standard Version’ of the Bible:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,4 they said to him [Jesus], “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

So this is where we need to add, if we can, the context lacking in the story. For example, what does ‘caught in the act of adultery’ mean here? And indeed, what does ‘woman’ mean? It’s well established that, in this region, at this time, females were sold into marriage on a regular basis. Furthermore, these females were often – in fact customarily – children as young as ten, or younger, and once married, they were referred to as ‘women’.

But we hardly need to go into detail to recognise that adultery is here quite undefined, that stoning to death for this or any other crime is disproportionate to say the least, and that it’s highly unlikely that a man would be threatened with the same punishment as the ‘woman’ is in this case.

This of course isn’t an isolated anecdote – all of the parables, speeches and actions of Jesus, as described, lack  the contextual elements we would need to arrive at the kinds of judgments expected of us in the WEIRD world.

Then again, it might be argued that the proscriptions enumerated in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 2-17) are a better starting point for western or WEIRD morality. Yet while it’s hardly surprising that lying, stealing and killing fellow humans would be offensive to an omnipotent god who wants to see his prize creations behaving nicely, it does seem odd that he should be so concerned about his own position in their lives that he must have their love more or less constantly (second commandment). It suggests a degree of insecurity not quite in keeping with omnipotence. The tenth commandment, too, strikes a flat note to a WEIRD individual keen to promote a bonobo humanity, as it speaks against coveting one’s neighbour’s wife along with other property items. It’s a bald reminder, as if one needed it after reading Genesis, etc, that this god is definitively male.

The whole point here is that, if western or WEIRD morality emerged from Christianity or the Bible, which to some extent is true, it needs to also be pointed out that the Bible and its ‘gospels’ are human documents. The Pentateuch was written five or six hundred years before the putative birth of Jesus, and was arguably the first successful creation of an omnipotent, controlling god, designed to unite a tribe or people as ‘special’ and chosen, while seeking to explain the origin of the world in which they lived (though of course its creation myths were derived from earlier versions).  The god’s concern, through the commandments – or rather the concern of the Jewish leaders and authors who wrote them, was to unite and separate the Jewish people in the context of a multi-ethnic region with a bewildering array of gods, with ambiguous powers and rankings. Given the context, these commandments are bog-standard – don’t lie to, steal from or kill each other, don’t covet each others’ property (including women), treat your one and only god (creator of all things) with respect, treat marriage as sacred, honour your parents and kin, and follow the proper rituals. Basically, a recipe for the survival and thriving of the group, in what was, then and for a long time before and afterwards, a god-obsessed human world.

The interesting innovation of Christianity, of course, was that it dispensed with the chosen people concept, making it more universalisable, if that’s a word. The concept of Christ dying for our sins, or so that the rest of humanity might be ‘saved’, does seem rather obscure, but it has doubtless provided grounds for thousands of theological theses over the centuries.

I began this piece reflecting on those non-believers who look askance at other non-believers criticising religion and the religious. I understand full well that, had I been born many centuries ago, I too would have believed in the gods of my region. Galileo, the foremost mathematician and astronomer of his day, was a lifelong Catholic. Newton, born in the year of Galileo’s death, and the foremost scientist of his generation, was also a thorough if idiosyncratic Christian. Whatever one thinks of free will, we can’t escape the zeitgeist we’re born into. The thing is, today’s zeitgeist is more complex than anything that’s gone before, and will probably become more so, and the tensions between religious beliefs and secular, scientific explorations of every imaginable research field, including religion, its origins, modalities and effects, and why it is losing its grip on WEIRD humanity, will continue long into the foreseeable. I have no idea how it will all end, but I suspect that the feminine side of humanity will be an essential element in bringing about a best-case resolution, if such a resolution ever comes.




Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest people in the world: how the west became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous, 2020.

Bible: Child Marriage in Ancient Israelite times – Paedophilia?


Dava Sobel, Galileo’s daughter: a drama of science, faith and love, 1999

Written by stewart henderson

August 14, 2023 at 9:13 pm

Trumpdagistan: the new fundamentalism

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The legitimate powers of government extend only to such acts as are injurious to others, but it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Thomas Jefferson

A recent Point of Inquiry podcast has again turned my attention to what I should now call Trumpdagistan, a more or less dictatorial state that borders Canada and Mexico, which for various reasons I shouldn’t really be concerning myself with, as I live very far from the country and have never had any intention of visiting it, even if I had the means. It just seems to be a kind of ghoulishness on my part, my version of addiction to rotten.com, if that website still exists.

As a completely non-religious person, I’m obviously opposed to any interference of the state by religion, that terribly bad explanation of any and all phenomena. Trumpdagistan, even before it was renamed, was the most religious of all the democratic countries. Their national god is Guard, who guards Trumpdagistan against all evils, including secularism, the world’s primary evil, according to Billy Barr, the dictatorship’s chief toady, who believes that all morality derives from the book of Guard.

Whilst the wanker in the white palace (WWP) is very unlikely to believe in Guard (for his self-obsession is all-consuming but exhausting, as it basically consists of constantly puffing hot air into a balloon full of holes), he recognises the usefulness of a national god in much the same way as every previous dictator has. So he’s happy, indeed delighted, to unleash his toady on secularism and more particularly, secularists. Free-thinkers, in the words of Stephen Dedalus.

The WWP and his toadies have made every effort in their few years of control to create a compliant, Guard-worshipping judiciary, especially at the very top, the Supreme Court. As the Point of Inquiry podcast has pointed out, that court is now stacked with Guard-botherers, more or less bent on overturning the separation between politics and religion, through particular interpretations of the country’s much-worshipped Constitution which somehow bestow a kind of second-class citizenship on secularists. It’s unclear, however, how the Constitution can be so interpreted.

In any case, the WWP’s ‘administration’ has managed to promote two more religious right-wingers to the Supreme Court, for a total of five – just another couple of bricks in the wall, so to speak. The much-worshipped constitution of the former USA actually has very little to say on religion. The first amendment to that constitution, as it pertains to religion, says only this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

That’s it. It’s since been known as the ‘establishment clause’. The rest of that amendment, also quite brief, deals with freedom of speech, without particular reference to religion. The only possible ambiguity in the above clause is ‘respecting’, which could mean ‘having respect for’ or ‘with respect or reference to’. Neither interpretation suggests that the constitution, or the bill of rights, supports any religion; rather it clearly supports keeping out of religion, or maintaining a separation between religion and law-making. And yet, mischief-making religionists, some of them rather powerful, have tried hard to distort the simple meaning. Take the late unlamented Justice Scalia, who in one forgettable judicial opinion came up with this gem:

The establishment clause permits the disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.

Of course the clause has nothing whatever to do with permitting disregard, it simply avoids permission and prohibition equally. Nothing could be clearer. What Scalia seems to be wanting the clause to say is that the law should disregard and so not protect polytheists, atheists and the like. This defies any serious interpretation.

And so we come to the toady. He’s apparently a catholic, and believes that secularism is the principle cause of the ills that Trumpdagistan is suffering from. Those ills don’t, of course, include white collar corruption, which he avidly supports. To their credit, many other catholics are condemning Barr’s evidence-free claims, but in Barr’s Trumpdagistan, a collection of writings penned many centuries ago by scores of individuals of widely varying views and experience, and known today, at least by some, as the bible, is the only source of morality for all humanity, and will no doubt be installed as the basis of all Trumpdagistani law. All of this is making the WWP very popular, if polls are to be believed, so expect much more of it in the future. What would Thomas Jefferson think?

Written by stewart henderson

February 23, 2020 at 5:08 pm