I would argue that to be well informed, it is not simply a question of how much your read, but (more importantly) what you read. I know of some people that have extensive libraries in their houses and/or have studied various topics in-depth for many years, and yet are so drastically misinformed (or uninformed) on many of the topics that they have focussed upon.
Many people prior to myself have made statements to the following effect, and I would largely concur:
“In this day and age, with access to the internet on any decent mobile phone or a variety of other portable devices (let alone desktop computers), there is no excuse for being misinformed.”
There are of course many cases whereby there are complex webs of evidence and arguments that are presented by multiple sides of an issue, in which it can be difficult to be properly informed from a quick glance at a topic. Serious topics like religion are perfect examples, as the psychological attachment people have to their particular religion of choice (and its sacred Scripture) frequently prevent them from being objective in considering the strengths and weaknesses of said religion and scripture. So, to be properly informed on religion you either need to be somewhat well-read yourself (and also quite objective in your consideration of comparative views), or you need to possess an innate, intuitive wisdom that helps you to recognise well informed perspectives as a whole from those that are driven by bias and personal attachment.
One absolutely critical sub-topic in the study of comparative religion is that of the moral and ethical problems of many ancient religious texts. Conservative followers of various faiths often project sacred status and authority onto the religious text/s of their faith in question (to which they will defend to the death), whilst they generally seek to view the scriptures of other faiths in the worst possible light. Alternatively, those of a liberal religious persuasion frequently seek to be as generous as possible to all sacred scriptures, and pass off any criticisms as mere misinterpretation.
Many people have raised serious criticisms towards the Hebrew Bible[i] (which Christians take as their Old Testament), accusing it of condoning and mandating slavery, presenting women as inferior to men (to the extent of being considered the literal property of men, to be owned like cattle), justifying cultural genocide and various other violent crimes, condemning homosexuals, denying any expression of religious freedom and various other things. Many critics have stated that the conception of God as Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible is one of a primitive and barbaric tribal deity, a bloodthirsty, violent, fickle, jealous deity; a projection of the lowest human potential, and not a transcendent, benevolent universal God of unconditional love, as those why typically defend it would like to claim.
Conservative Christians are heavily invested in the Hebrew Bible, as it forms the foundation for their own religion, and takes up the first half of the Christian Bible. Hence, there are extensive Christian apologetics available to attempt to defend the accusations levelled against the Hebrew Bible. One particular Christian apologist who has spent some time specifically focussing on this topic is Paul Copan (and Copan is frequently cited by other Christian apologists on this issue). Copan has a number of short articles freely available from his website on the topic[ii], and wrote a full-length book titled “Is God a Moral Monster” to attempt to counter such criticisms[iii].
Enter Thom Stark. Thom Stark is a liberal Christian with academic qualifications, and a published author. Stark wrote a book-length online response to “Is God a Moral Monster”, which he titled “Is God a Moral Compromiser”. In Stark’s response, he goes somewhat in-depth into every major claim and argument made by Copan (he ignores some of the less significant material), and effectively shows how utterly untenable Copan’s attempted defense is (and by extension, this also shows how erroneous pretty much all attempted defences are of the moral failings of the Hebrew Bible). Hence, I would like to state that “Is God a Moral Compromiser” is absolutely essential reading for anyone with an interest in comparative religion, religious history and Christianity (and the other Abrahamic faiths) in general.
I would like to state that I believe that there is absolutely no question that Stark utterly demolishes Copan’s apologetic dance. Piece by piece, Stark destroys every major claim made by Copan, showing effectively that many of the criticisms launched at the Hebrew Bible are in fact legitimate. The truth is that the Hebrew Bible was overall fairly well par for the course in terms of Ancient Near Eastern (abbreviated ANE) culture. That is, the flaws of the Hebrew Bible aren’t specific aberrations of the ancient Hebrews, but rather were cultural norms from the time they were written.
Whilst many people have used this fact to attempt to excuse the Hebrew Bible (as if it was simply a record of an imperfect people living in a backwards time, and a transcendent God trying to reach them), properly understood, it actually achieves the opposite. That is, understanding that the Hebrew Bible was par for the course actually reveals the historical context and “logic” that explains many of its bizarre features. Contrary to apologetic claims, the historical context of the Hebrew Bible does not excuse it, but rather reveals the true depths of its failings.
“Is God a Moral Compromiser” is freely available on the Internet, you can read it whenever you want as many times as you wish. It presents an extremely well informed response, referencing current mainstream scholarship from someone that (if anything) should be invested in the defense of the Bible, but is largely forced to concede the true nature of the Hebrew Bible in light of the undeniable reality. Hence, if you are interested in these topics you absolutely must read it (if you have not done so already). I have included a link in the endnotes for the benefits of my readers to the revised 2nd edition[iv], or you can just Google it just as easily.
As far as I am aware, Copan has still failed to offer any substantial response to Stark. Rather, he initially responded to Stark’s first edition by complaining of the sarcasm and wit employed by Stark (to which Stark then responded by revising his work to downplay his tone), whilst making no real attempt to debate any of the actual content of Stark’s response. In fact, whilst Stark’s work came out over five years ago, I haven’t seen any real attempts at responding to it from any Christians (If anyone knows of any such attempts, I would appreciate any links). I do recall seeing that J.P. Holding has offered some thoughts on Stark before, but hey, J.P. Holding is J.P. Holding; I just can’t take that guy seriously[v].
Unfortunately conservative Christianity survives largely through the sheltered and intellectually isolated world in which they live (in which I was once part, so I can speak from experience). That is, conservative Christians trust other Christians to give them honest, accurate, informed and unbiased information, whilst they often reject any contrary views with the presupposition that their critics must be dishonest, ill-informed and/or just plain biased. The way to truth is found through comparison of competing ideas. In this topic there is no question: Stark utterly refutes every single shred of Copan’s stance.
On a final note, I would like to concede that I personally don’t quite understand Thom Stark’s take on Christianity and religion as a whole. I have not read enough of his work outside of his response to Stark to be able to fully reflect his thoughts on the subject, but still, I can’t understand his overall perspective on the Bible. From what I understand, he (accurately) concedes that the Bible is a deeply flawed work with largely human (rather than divine) origins, but then argues that it is what it is, and that Christians have to work with it nevertheless.
I would argue that it makes much more sense to recognise the Bible for what it is, and likewise take other texts as they are (rather than as we want them to be), and move outside of the confines of Christianity for a universal, timeless perspective on spirituality and religion. In doing so one may still feel drawn to one particular tradition, and in fact, it is still ideal to have one primary path, through which one can travel inwards and discover the depths that can be experienced through a serious and prolonged spiritual discipline. But nevertheless, recognising the true strengths and weaknesses of various religions as they are is an essential step in both personal spiritual evolution, and the larger evolution of human perspectives of religion as a whole. Regarding the latter, I believe that both conservatives and progressives frequently fail at this due to their separate biases (of which I will be posting very shortly, and of which I have discussed in-depth in my upcoming book).
I would also like to express some slight disagree with Stark in his perspective of prominent atheist figures. I think we both share some mutual ground in our overall perspective on them, but I think we disagree on the details. In his response to Copan, Stark makes it clear that he thinks that many atheists are resorting to rhetoric and hyperbole in their criticisms of the Bible. Rather, Stark thinks that whilst Copan’s defense is erroneous, that this does not make the case that such atheists are seeking to make. And yet, I think it does. I think that after reading Stark’s response you can see just how legitimate many specific criticisms levelled by atheists against the Bible are.
Just to be clear, I would be on the same side as Stark in terms of more general criticisms by atheists against religion and spirituality as a whole (and I would actually be on the same side as Copan and Holding on that manner, even if I would largely reject their methodology on the topic). However, I think that many prominent atheists have made numerous legitimate criticisms of various religions and religious texts, and that genuine spiritual seekers and religious reformers need to integrate these perspectives into their overall worldview. In simple language, whilst I completely disagree with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett et al. as to their profession of metaphysical naturalism and their outright rejection of the objective reality to spirituality and paranormal phenomena, I think they have many legitimate criticisms to make of particular religions, and particular religious texts, practices and beliefs.
In perhaps one of the only occasions in which I would find myself in agreement with J.P. Holding on anything, I do recall reading Holding mocking Stark for considering himself Christian (in a tone typical of Holding), arguing instead that he should just come out and reject Christianity outright and become an atheist. Whilst I think that Stark has legitimate spiritual options outside of Christianity and therefore doesn’t necessarily doesn’t need to become an atheist upon rejection of Christianity[vi], I do somewhat agree with Holding here. I wonder if perhaps Stark is leaning more towards Secular Humanism whilst still holding onto the outer edges of liberal Christianity?
Anyways, the point of all this was to encourage people to actually read Stark’s work in full (several times would be ideal). It is very readable, quite easy to digest, and the 300 odd pages actually pass quite quickly once you consider the size of the font. Then, actually compare for yourself the quality of his work to that of Copan (which Stark also recommends you do for yourself in his introduction), and you will see for yourself which of the two is correct. If you actually read the two and you think that Stark is wrong and Copan is right, well, I don’t know what to say to that. Any further analysis I could give would simply be rehashing what Stark has already done, and it would be simpler and quicker to just point any such people back to Stark’s analysis.
Human beings have the potential to either move forward and upward, or to remain where we are, or even degenerate. There are important reasons why we need to reform religion, and I would challenge anyone personally involved in spirituality and religion to face up to this. I personally look forward to the possibility of humans realizing more of our potential, and expressing more of the highest facets of the human spirit.
[i] Traditionally known in full as the Tanakh – not to be confused with the Torah, which generally refers specifically to the first five books of the Tanakh (although it can also be taken to have a broader meaning).
[v] On a quick online search to find any such works it appears that Holding has discussed Stark in a newsletter, which appears to be available to purchase. Needless to say, I’m not paying to read Holding.
[vi] Some conservative Christians have attempted to dismiss practically all other religions out of hand with grossly oversimplistic and erroneous misrepresentations and arguments (as I have discussed in my upcoming book), and make it seem as if there were only two options: Christian or atheist.