Sunday, March 1, 2009

David Bodanis, Circular Firing Squad-Leader

In the opening pages of chapter seven of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens considers the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. Hitchens:

Then there is the very salient question of what the commandments do not say. Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly "in context" to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended? In verse 2 of the immediately following chapter, God tells Moses to instruct his followers about the conditions under which they may buy or sell slaves (or bore their ears through with an awl) and the rules governing the sale of their daughters. This is succeeded by the insanely detailed regulations governing oxes that gore and are gored, and including the notorious verses forfeiting "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth." Micromanagement of agricultural disputes breaks off for a moment, with the abrupt verse (22:18) "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." This was, for centuries, the warrant for the Christian torture and burning of women who did not conform.
All of this is offered in support of Hitchens's broader thesis, stated explicitly a page before the passage cited above, that "it would be harder to find an easier proof that religion is man-made" than to look at religious texts such as Exodus and the absurd rules they lay down. Their limited, ugly moral vision signals their origins in sordid, messy human history.

It would require a studious and sustained effort for a reader of God Is Not Great or an observer of any of Hitchens's countless public statements about religion to mistake this. David Bodanis has put in that effort: sometimes, he sniffs, Hitchens
gets things very wrong, and his attitude to the ten commandments—one he shares with many modern atheists—is one such mistake. They represent little more, he argues, than the rantings of an angry, vain and vengeful God. Who would possibly want to follow their "vague pre-Christian desert morality," which shows every sign of being invented by a "Bronze Age demagogue"? ... Hitchens is responding to the mythical story of the commandments found in the standard religious accounts: the Koran and the old testament. But if he looked at them as a historian or an anthropologist, he might take a more sympathetic view of this extraordinary list—which has bequeathed to us the weekend, the principle of innocent until proved guilty, the Sunni/Shia split and much else besides ...
Hitchens does regard the ten commandments and other "sacred" texts as an historian, anthropologist, and humanist; he is on the side Bodanis claims to be on.

Does David Bodanis see the world divided between serious adults like himself who understand the humanistic origins of ancient texts and cranky atheists like Hitchens who rail against the limitations of the ancient texts? It would seem so, and what an enchanted and enlightened lounge his world must be. For purposes of lobbing rhetorical rounds into this world, however, it would behoove Bodanis to learn a little something about Judge Roy Moore, the Christian Dominionists, and similar movements here and abroad that take the ten commandments and other "sacred" texts very, very seriously.

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