Thursday, May 8, 2008

God, God's Words, & God's Followers

There is violence and intolerance aplenty in the world's leading holy books: see here a quiz and its answers comparing the viciousness of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Koran; here's more violence in the Koran; and still more violence in the Koran.

All well and good, but again and again, the point is made that no meaningful conclusions about a person's beliefs follow from the person's choice of holy books. Castigating Sam Harris for his most recent castigation of Islamic dogma, Tristero makes the point:

[W]hile it is certainly possible to read the texts of Islam (at least, the translated texts) as supporting a political program and the use of violence to gain power, it is not a necessary reading any more than a reading of the Hebrew Bible necessarily supports the violent suppression of objections to Israeli settlements.
And then broadens the point:
[T]here is no such thing as "Islam" but Islams - plural. To lump all Islams together and condemn the aggregate as inherently violent is not merely silly, but bizarre.
Granted, there are violent and non-violent people who self-label as devout Muslims, just as there are child-rapist-shielding and non-child-rapist-shielding people who self-label as devout Christians, and it's worthwhile to draw the distinctions.

To that end, how on earth do we draw the distinctions? I want to understand the non-literalists. Apparently a person can be a devout Muslim while blithely ignoring substantial swaths of the Koran. What is the Koran to such a person? Did god dictate it to Mohammed? If so, doesn't it have to be humbly accepted as the teaching of a much greater intelligence? If not, isn't it just another book? If it's somewhere between -- in part just another book, in part the words of god himself -- how do we know which is which? On whose authority? According to what interpretive scheme? If it's a matter of deducing the "correct" passages from their agreement with an overarching, fundamental essence of the faith -- peace, submission, love, charity, service, truth, what have you -- who decides the essence of the faith? Who defines these loaded terms? Doesn't this stance just beg the same basic questions?

I really don't get it. I have the same questions about the forms of Judaism and Christianity that manage to wish away substantial portions of god's supposed revelation.

Stripping away the platitudes and euphemisms, the forms of Abrahamic monotheism that sweep away the embarrassments and evils of the really-existing holy books amount to special pleading. They sound like mere assertions that a feeling in the gut is true, and the true stuff in the gut comes from god. This is good enough? This merits respect?

If someone has a better account of non-literalist belief in the major holy texts, please do offer it.

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