The Bible is unquestionably one of the most written and talked about -- if not the most written and talked about -- book in the world. It may also be one of the most lied about.
I know that's harsh. But bear with me. It is the only charge that can conscionably be leveled by a person who believes in science and reason as the paths to truth.
There are basically two ways of learning the truth: reason and faith. They have been in conflict for millennia.
Almost everything about our daily lives requires the processing of information and, oftentimes, we must act upon that information. So the questions of what we believe and how we believe, even if we don't think about them, are very important. Some people subscribe to science. Some to faith. Some try hard to reconcile the two. Others, as we’ll see, don’t even bother.
Most of us in the industrialized Western world in 2006 live by science and reason. "Science" is more than computers and labs and people in white coats. It is a way of believing and knowing. For thousands of years, beginning with the crudest tools and the mastery of fire, human beings have learned about their world and improved their lives through experimentation and experience or -- via writing and other media -- through the experience of other, reliable sources.
The other kind of knowing, faith, is belief without proof. Things are true because we so much want them to be true, or it seems that they ought to be true, or they fit well with beliefs we already have, or the right people are recommending them to us, or – very important -- people have been repeating them for thousands of years...and perhaps for other reasons as well. Belief without proof is nothing more than belief founded upon perpetuated hearsay and accumulated say-so.
You would think that the two kinds of knowing would be incompatible -- that if you don't believe without proof, then you would not be able to take part in most organized religions. But the fact is that a great many people manage to do just that. Surgeons don't pray for instructions on how to operate on the patient; they get those from knowledge and experience. But these same surgeons may also go to church or synagogue on the Sabbath.
I don't pretend to know what's going on in people's minds. I do believe, from watching and listening to people over the years, that the attendees at any religious service (Christian or Jewish, at least) represent a wide spectrum of belief, from sincere subjective experience of the supernatural to “what the hell am I doing here?”
Many attendees can apparently accomplish some sort of compartmentalization. You leave your wits and your skepticism at the door and go along with the show. Everybody else is doing it.
And the priest/minister/rabbi really seems to believe it. In fact, he/she is kind of dressed for the part, like some sort of medieval priest, and in synagogues, there’s the scroll in the box, so people can pray to it just as those ancient shepherds did. In Judaism, the pray-ers dress up too, with prayer shawls and skullcaps.
And so everybody goes ahead and does exactly what people have been doing for thousands of years, pretending, for that hour or two, that they are ancient or medieval folks who believe in an invisible deity, whereas in fact, in the other 99% of their lives, they are modern people who know things through knowledge and experience.
There are many reasons why people consent to the inconsistent, demeaning behavior that most prayer and worship services involve: early indoctrination, immense social pressure, fear of death, charming and comfortable stories, inspiring songs and rhetoric, not to mention a lifetime invested in it and, probably very important for some, the sense that Someone is in charge. No wonder they come back, week after week.
If prayer and worship are dependency addictions, then the clergy person is the key enabler. He or she performs the absolutely essential task of convincing the attendees that the ancient texts that form the core of their religion are tremendously meaningful.
The fact is that they are not.
How could they be? They're ancient texts. Some of what they say has stood the test of time. Much has not.
Many Westerners are unfortunately very nearsighted about their core texts. Side-by-side comparison with Eastern philosophical and religious tracts of the same period shows that the latter are much more sophisticated in terms of their psychological and spiritual insights.
But to most clerics, objectivity is not an issue. They are not content with merely translating ancient texts, difficult and uncertain as that is. They reinterpret them. They spin them.
They make the Biblical passages say what they do not, by a variety of techniques (which I spell out and document in my book). These include:
- freely mixing their interpretations with actual Biblical quotations and paraphrases, even in the same sentence, thereby leading people to think that the document says what it does not say;
- quoting out of context, thereby making a passage seem to say what it does not say;
- quoting passages together that are far removed from each other in the original document;
- quoting selectively (ignoring, for example, God's horrible plagues on the Israelites, the arcane rules and regs in Leviticus, or the exquisitely grotesque curses in Deuteronomy);
- sometimes just making stuff up!
I am probably one of the few non-clerical Jews who has read the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) cover to cover.
I read the Jewish Publication's Society's meticulously revised, authoritative, and generally highly understandable translation. Countless scholar-hours went into making this the extraordinary work that it is.
I read it because, for one thing, I had long had misgivings about the Torah. I wasn’t sure how they got all that profundity out of this ancient document.
I read it because I really wanted to find out what was in there. I was growing alarmed by the explosive growth of superstition and fundamentalism during my lifetime (I had at least expected secular humanism, with its long and distinguished history, to get a fair hearing, but it does not).
Finally, I read it because I kept losing arguments with a rabbi who kept telling me what was in the Torah -- and I couldn't refute him. Now I can.
In addition, I got some surprises, one of which was to discover the prevalence and all-pervasiveness of what I call "rabbinical spin" -- the dishonest language practices listed above. Rabbinical spin is the only way in which the ancient texts can be "rescued" (that’s the actual word used by Jewish clergy).
In the case of the Torah, spin (often politely called “commentary” or “interpretation”) is the only way in which the text, which dates from the 8th century B.C.E., can be made relevant and palatable. After all, it’s the product of a very few ancient priests (probably four, plus an editor), aided by centuries of copyists and editors, known and unknown. It’s no wonder that some of it is, as we would expect, simply beyond our ken. If you want quick evidence, just look at Deuteronomy 25:12.
Some time ago, it was decided by the predecessors of today's rabbis that the words of the ancient text would be preserved, along with the skull caps and prayer shawls, to keep Jews in line, to keep rabbis in business, to keep questions to a minimum, and to preserve the all-important continuity of tradition.
To a secular humanist like me, the price is too high. I can’t leave my wits at the door. I want honesty in my life, and I want honesty in my religion. Honesty means accepting the Torah -- and all ancient texts -- as what they are, and no more.
They may or may not have important information for us. In the case of the Torah, my judgment is "not much." I went through all of its commands and directives and counted only 29 that are relevant to modern people (and that's by a generous count). I enumerate these in my book.
Now I am going to come to a conclusion that's probably as shocking as the assertion that I opened up with, but I hope you’ll get used to it: a secular humanist respects the Torah more than a fundamentalist.
We accept the Torah for what it is. We accept it as a window on our ancestors' world. We accept it as a reflection of how at least some of them viewed their past and imagined the creation of the earth. We accept it as a good first draft of morality, although other, contemporaneous societies were more advanced.
The humanist accepts the Scriptures. The believer distorts them. Think about that the next time you attend a religious service.
Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author -- most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to www.trafford.com/06-0056.