The following is a (somewhat) condensed adaption of a recent add-on I wrote for my upcoming book “The Web Unwoven”, the last extra material I wanted to add prior to publication. My original version of The Web Unwoven featured an in-depth discussion of Jewish and Christian origins and the nature of the Bible as a whole. However, the entire text ended up around 1,000 pages, which I felt was fairly well unreadable, so I eventually separated the text into two halves, the first of which I will publish shortly specifically on comparative religion, and the second half which I will later re-write and seek to publish separately.
Whilst reviewing part 1 (on comparative religion) I felt that I needed to put back in a (relatively) short discussion of the actual problems within some religious scriptures, and the way that people seek to view and interpret these texts. I feel it is fundamental to understanding comparative religion and religious pluralism properly. Hence, I feel that this is perhaps one of the most important sub-topics on which I can write (or speak). I believe that reviewing religious texts as they are will naturally refute the far left and right perspectives on comparative religion, and naturally push both ends towards the centre. Hence, this article summarizes a subject which I believe is central to why we are not currently resolving the problems inherent in religion, and I hope that it offers a solution and a way forward.
Please note that this article touches on things that really tend to upset a lot of people on both sides of the religious spectrum. Please understand that I do not seek to go about offending people, and that I do not take any pleasure from doing so. However, I think it is important to speak out on important issues, and I believe that the conclusions that I am laying forth here are well founded. There is no need for this to be taken personally. When I make strong claims about certain views being untenable, misinformed or simply due to attachment and bias, I do not mean to denigrate individuals that hold such views. We human beings are complex creatures and we have a myriad of different strengths and weaknesses. I know of many people that will hold the views of which I am seeking to refute, who have great strengths in areas where I am personally weak. So again, this doesn’t have to be personal.
Religious conservatives frequently attempt to portray their scripture of choice as a flawless, divinely inspired work, whilst attempting to portray holy texts of other faiths in the worst possible light. Alternatively, religious progressives generally attempt to portray all holy texts as genuinely inspired texts that all teach the same philosophy. Hence, when critics point out obvious flaws in these scriptures, both religious conservatives and progressives attempt to argue that the critics are taking the text out of context (with the difference being that conservatives will only defend their own text, whilst progressives will generally defend all of them).
These approaches correspond directly with the overall views of comparative religion as taken by conservatives and progressives. Conservatives generally believe that their faith alone is good and true, whilst all others are evil and false, whilst progressives generally believe that all religions are equally good and true. As a result of this, both sides attempt to make the evidence fit their presuppositions, rather than considering the evidence as it actually stands. This approach has a long history through many cultures, in which human beings become psychologically attached (or even addicted) to particular texts and give them divine status, from which they attempt to defend such texts against any criticism and refuse to acknowledge the actual content of such texts in the context of how they were originally conceived.
If we actually approach the interpretation of holy texts without any presuppositions, we can see that there is a great diversity amongst the world’s scriptures, though I would argue that we can still indeed see a universal philosophy as the highest-common denominator between them. If we approach each text on its own merits, we can see that many of the criticisms of ancient religious texts are indeed legitimate (and are not simply the case of less mature believers twisting the tenets of a faith). Hence, I believe that genuine spiritual seekers should denounce the divine status of such texts. Likewise however, not all religious texts suffer equally from these flaws, and whilst some are the product of primitive superstitious minds, others espouse a sublime philosophy capable of leading a genuine seeker towards true liberation.
Whilst conservatives are correct that not all religions are equal or identical, and that they do contain mutually exclusive concepts, their general conclusion that there is one true faith at the exclusion of all others is completely untenable. On the other hand, whilst the common approach of progressives to proclaim all faiths pure and equal is also untenable, an honest investigation of comparative religion will indeed result in the conclusion that spirituality is truly universal, and no single faith or text can claim exclusive rights to truth. However, examining the world’s scriptures on their own merit will lead to the conclusion that we must differentiate between genuine spiritual insights and backwards superstitions.
Anyone that has ever been involved in debating religion knows that it is common for people to claim that their sacred text is being misquoted, or taken out of context whenever someone criticises some aspect of it. Practically everyone does this. The question is whether this is sometimes true, and if so, how do we differentiate times when it is from other times when it is not?
Obviously we must attempt to consider the facts on a case-by-case basis, and leave personal biases at the door. It is vital that we form our opinions on the basis of the facts, rather than trying to make the facts fit our preconceived opinions. Obviously religious literature contains a mixture of historical or pseudo-historical narratives, ancient law, mythology, allegory, poetry, philosophy and metaphysics. Once cannot simply read all religious texts in the same manner; however I would argue that it is usually fairly easy to determine which texts should be read in which manner.
A common problem that we face here is that human beings typically become psychologically attached to religions and sacred scriptures as wholes, and find it hard (or even impossible) to differentiate different features of said religion or scripture which may be true, from others, which may not. That is, we typically elevate our faith and scripture of choice to a divine status, and refuse to acknowledge its true strengths and weakness. Rather, we reject contrary views out of hand, as if the very fact that someone is not of the same persuasion as us renders their opinion ideologically biased, and thus mute.
The fickleness of the Greek gods and the evolution of Yahweh:
This behaviour has a long history, from ancient Israel and the classical Greek Empire, through to the Christian and Muslim worlds. Likewise, the same can also be found in the East, with the elevation of the Vedas to divine status within orthodox Hinduism, amongst other examples. The Homeric writings were held in high esteem in ancient Greece, to the point that the Greeks encountered natural problems as their own ethical ideals and conceptions of divinity transcended the norms of Homers time. In the Homeric works the gods were portrayed as fickle and harsh, with little genuine concern for human suffering, and this largely reflected social norms of the time (which were likewise found in other nations and cultures). However, the elite Greek philosophers of the 6th century BCE onwards held to higher ideals, to a universal morality and a more transcendent conception of Deity.
This produced problems in relation to the content of the Homeric works, as their content didn’t match with the new emerging ethical and spiritual ideals. As a result, prominent Greek intellectuals started to project their newer ideals back onto the Homeric texts, and sought to reinterpret them in light of the new standards. So, the mistake that some of the ancient Greeks made was to give (almost) divine status to the Homeric texts, to consider them to be flawless and beyond critique. As their own morality and metaphysics evolved, they didn’t face up to the challenges of the Homeric texts, and rather than accept them as simply being important works of classical literature, they tried to see them as they wished they were, rather than how they actually were.
We see a very similar situation with regards to the Hebrew Bible. That is, the Tanakh reflects the religious and social norms of the time and place in which it was conceived, leaving much room for critics to point out legitimate flaws in its theology, narrative and law. Whilst conservative Christians try to see Yahweh in the same conception throughout the Bible, mainstream Biblical scholarship recognises that the conception of Yahweh evolved over time, from originally being a tribal god – one of many sons of the supreme Canaanite deity El – into merging with El as the highest God in their pantheon, and later into a transcendent, universal conception of God.
The Hebrew Bible condones and mandates full-blown slavery[i], presents women as the property of men[ii], condones cultural genocide (including the slaughter of women and children), presents God as frequently lashing out against mankind in murderous rampages, demands the death penalty for all manner of trivial affairs, mandates a form of theocratic government in which there was no religious freedom, and it attests to the practice of human sacrifice in conflicting terms[iii]. Yahweh is presented for the most part in quite unflattering terms: As jealous, vengeful, petty and fickle.
Throughout much of the Tanakh we see the general theology of the text as a whole played out in the narratives that are told. We see a correspondence between the law sections and the stories of the Hebrews, whereby the laws are applied, often in a literal manner. Likewise, the general theology of the Tanakh – whereby Yahweh is thought to bless the Hebrews for obeying his covenant, and curse them when they break it and worship other gods – is likewise played out in the narratives themselves. So, we see a direct relationship between the laws, prophecies and the historical (or pseudo-historical) narratives within the text. For this reasons, mainstream Biblical scholarship largely accepts much of the laws and narratives in the Tanakh as being intended for a fairly literal reading (even if they reject the full historicity of the narratives in question), and see them in their historical context as being largely par for the course in the ancient Near East.
However, in due course Jewish culture developed, partially through the natural process whereby cultures evolve by themselves, and also due to their close contact with neighbouring civilizations and foreign invaders (Persian, Greek and Roman). At the turn of the Common Era we encounter Philo of Alexandria, a prolific writer and philosopher from the centre of Greek culture and learning at the time. Philo synthesized Greek philosophy with traditional Judaism, seeking to portray Judaism as a contemporary to the highest metaphysics of the Hellenistic world. However, as is typically the case, Philo did not see himself as changing Judaism, as reinterpreting it or merging it with Greek philosophical monotheism. Rather, he saw himself as explaining the true nature of the Hebrew scriptures.
Following in the manner of Philo came an abundance of Christian philosophers and theologians, who likewise reinterpreted the Hebrew scriptures to attempt to make it fit their own needs. That is, they claimed that the Jews themselves had misread much of their own scriptures, they mined the Hebrew scriptures for anything that they could reinterpret as prophetic of Christ, and one can argue that they blended the theology of the Hebrew bible with that of contemporary Greek philosophy.
Obviously there is much allegory in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. Psalms and the Song of Solomon are spiritual poetry, Daniel is filled with allegorical imagery, and the prophecies of Isaiah are also open for interpretation. Likewise, the Gospels themselves are filled with parables and the Epistles are somewhat open for interpretation as to the original theological and historical context of these letters. And obviously the Book of Revelation is filled with allegorical imagery that cannot be read in a strictly literal manner. However, the fact remains that the allegorical excuse cannot be applied to the Bible as a whole. Let us now have a brief look at some of the specific problems with the Hebrew Bible.
Ethical problems within the Bible:
(Please note my previous article where I recommended my readers to check out Thom Stark’s online response to Paul Copan titled “Is God a Moral Compromiser?” for a detailed examination of this sub-topic[iv].)
“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”[v]
In the above passage it is said that slaves are literarily the property of the slave owner, and a distinction is made between foreign slaves who can be ruled harshly, and Israelite slaves, which cannot be treated in the same way. There were provisions for Hebrew slaves to be released after six years (as with other ANE nations); however no such provisions applied to foreign slaves, who were seen as mere chattel. So, just as with slavery in the southern US states prior to the American civil war, a distinction was made between citizens of the nation that were granted basic human rights, and those outside the nation that were not.
“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property (or money).”[vi]
Whilst some Christian apologists have been known to present this passage as showing that Hebrews weren’t allowed to mistreat their slaves, the exact opposite is indeed the case. Rather, the above passage shows that Hebrews were legally entitled to beat their slaves to a pulp, as long as they “recovered” after a few days, as the slave was their possession.
Furthermore, women in general were also treated as the property of men, who could literarily own a woman just as they could own a slave or animal. Critics of the Bible have long pointed to the rape laws in Deuteronomy 22 to highlight the injustices of Biblical law:
“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father 50 shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives”.[vii]
So, if a woman is not married (or pledged to be) and is violated, her rapist is “punished” by being forced to marry her, and she likewise has no choice but to marry him. To our modern sensibilities this seems to go against basic reason, but to the culture from which this emerged there was a simple logic behind this, as can be seen in the other verses from Deuteronomy 22:13-30 (read it all for yourself). The common logic throughout this section is that if a woman is violated then a property offence has been committed against her “owner”; either her father (if she is unmarried) or her husband. In the above cited passage from Deuteronomy 22:28-29, the rapist is forced to pay the dowry to the woman’s owner (her father), as his property was violated and he would no longer be able to fetch the price from his property that it was worth (the dowry upon marriage), not to mention that other potential husbands would not accept her, as she was no longer a virgin.
Of course, conservative Christian apologists have tried various tricks to attempt to defend the text. However, they all fall apart on close examination. Paul Copan has tried to argue that the passage cited above does not refer to rape, but merely consensual extra-marital sex. Thom Stark however pointed out that the Hebrew word used in the passage explicitly refers to the taking of something by force[viii]. Likewise, J.P. Holding has also tried the same erroneous argument[ix], as well as a number of other responses that stretch things even further. For example, Holding has also argued that the rape victim may have wanted to marry her rapist[x], and he has also argued that similar laws that are found in other cultures have been found to “hold the culture together”[xi].
Whilst on the subject, we should also mention that the Hebrew Bible also contains many examples of the Hebrews capturing “virgins” (pre-pubescent girls) as the spoils of war, or even simply because they “needed” them! In possibly one of the very worst segments of the Bible as a whole, Judges 21:10-24 tells a disturbing account of the Israelites complaining to Yahweh that they don’t have enough wives for all of them. So Yahweh tells them to wait by the roadside until some virgins come past, and then leap out and grab them. The parent’s of the young girls complain to the Israelites, but the Israelites explain in response that they “needed them”. Likewise, multiple passages refer to the Israelites taking women (sometimes specifically referenced as virgins) as the spoils of war[xii], again with the blessing of Yahweh.
Another common criticism of the Hebrew Bible is that it presents Yahweh either ordering the murder of women and children (not to mentioned the indiscriminate massacre of adult men) in war narratives, or performing the massacre himself by supernatural means. For example, in the well-known story of Jericho we read:
“When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it; men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”[xiii]
Similar things are found throughout Joshua and Judges, and although we should note that there are good reasons for doubting the historicity of the accounts, the texts are clearly attempting to present a (pseudo) historical narrative, hence we may therefore still judge the morality of the text as it reads.
A number of Christian scholars/apologists have argued that the frequent commands to murder all women, children and animals along with adult men was simply typical ANE hyperbole, and that in such instances only the enemy soldiers (adult men) were actually killed. However, various examples from the Tanakh itself differentiate between civilians (women and children) and soldiers (adult men), thus refuting such apologetic claims. For example, Deuteronomy 20:10-18 makes a differentiation between how the Hebrews were to treat the “plunder” (women, children, livestock and treasures etc.) they took as part of their conquests, depending on whether or not the city was far away from them and not part of their neighboring nations that Yahweh had commanded them to take:
“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves…This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them…as the Lord your God has commanded you…”.
So, there is no possible way to argue that in the second example the text does not explicitly command that women, children and livestock are to be killed along with adult men.
Likewise, in Judges 20 the Israelite tribes attacked a fellow Israelite tribe (the Benjamites) for failing to hand over some rapists, and killed nearly all the Benjamite soldiers, and all of the women and children. Just to confirm that all the women and children really were killed in the story and it wasn’t merely ANE hyperbole, the next chapter (21) shows the Israelites being concerned for how the surviving Benjamite soldiers were to find wives, as they themselves had sworn an oath not to give them any of their own daughters, and all the women (young and old) had been killed. So they decided to attack another Israelite town (that hadn’t participated in the Benjamite massacre), murdered everyone except for virgin women and then brought the virgins to the surviving Benjamites as wives. So again, in the above example there is no possible way that the original massacre of the Benjamites could not have included women and children, as the rest of the story is dependent upon this being the case (and we should mention that the entire story is just rotten).
1 Samuel 15 tells of Saul being commanded (by Yahweh, through the prophet Samuel) to attack the Amalekites, being told:
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”[xiv]
So Saul attacked the Amalekites:
“…and all his (the kings) people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag (the king) and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs…”.[xv]
This angers Yahweh, because he had commanded Saul to kill everything, so Yahweh sends his prophet Samuel to rebuke Saul and to tell him that Yahweh regrets making him king. So again, contrary to claims that these passages shouldn’t be read literarily we have a case where the Israelites get into trouble with Yahweh for not taking his command to kill everything literarily.
And then we have Numbers 31:1-18, which tells of the Israelites going into battle against the Midianites, killing all the men and taking all the plunder (which is explicitly said to include people and animals) back to camp with them. However, Moses cracks it with them when they arrive:
““Have you allowed the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who…enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord…Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
So yeah, let us not entertain any apologetic claims that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t really mean to imply that the Israelites really killed civilian women and children along with male soldiers. And let us remember that in many, many passages, the command to kill women and children apparently comes directly from Yahweh, and that many of the laws (which were likewise regarded as handed directly from Yahweh) also command the destruction of civilians in war.
And then of course, there are various laws that demand death for things that we can argue were not really crimes (or not worthy of death):
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman…They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”[xvi]
“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town…Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.”[xvii]
“Anyone who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to the Lord your God is to be put to death.”[xviii]
“Do not allow a sorceress to live.”[xix]
“A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.”[xx]
“…Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death.”
“All who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.”[xxi]
“If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods”…you must not listen to the words of that prophet…That prophet or dreamer must be put to death…If your own brother…secretly entices you, saying “let us go and worship other gods”…Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death…If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods”, then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true…you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. ”[xxii]
And just to be clear; these are not isolated examples. Rather, these kinds of passages are found throughout the Hebrew Bible, and the above is only a very short list.
Again, in response to Christians who claim that such things were never meant to be taken literarily, I present the following example to show that at the very least, in some cases, such passages were indeed intended to be read literarily. Exodus 31:14 reads as follows:
“Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death.”
An example of this law being applied in practice can be shown in Numbers 15:32-36:
“While the Israelites were in the wilderness a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
There are also examples in the Bible of Yahweh employing supernatural power to murder people for trivial things. In 2 Kings 2:23-24 we read the following:
“From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.”
This story seeks to illustrate the message that to mock one of Yahweh’s prophets is to mock Yahweh, and that Yahweh will have his revenge. Again, this is wholly consistent with the theology of the ancient Hebrews, as attested throughout the text. Without any supportive evidence (and contrary to all evidence), many Christian apologists (such as J.P. Holding) have argued that the above was simply a tale of some youths first harassing Elisha, and then attacking some bears, after which some of the youths were injured (or killed). To refute these claims by Christian apologists that we are misreading the text, take note of a very similar story in 1 Kings 20:35-36:
“By the word of the Lord one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with your weapon,” be he refused. So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the Lord, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him.”
Again, the point of this story was that Yahweh’s prophets must be obeyed as the voice of Yahweh himself, and anyone that defies Yahweh will die. We can therefore see how erroneous it is to attempt to defend the Biblical text, whether that be from conservative Christian apologists or even liberal, Eastern or New Age sources, who may also attempt an allegorical, mystical reading of the text to suit their needs.
So, we can see that critics are indeed correct in their critiques of the Hebrew Bible, and that it is actually those seeking to defend it that are twisting it with egregious misinterpretations in attempting to preserve it’s reputation. So, it is quite clear that the Bible has enormous moral issues.
Ethical problems with the Koran:
Similar problems are also found within the Koran. Two of the primary themes of the Koran are strictly exclusive monotheism (with dire consequences for those outside the faith) and a coming day of judgment in which sinners/non-Muslims will be condemned to eternal torment. For example:
“…then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.” 2:24
“And those who disbelieve and deny Our signs – those will be companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.” 2:39
“Yes, whoever earns evil and his sin has encompassed him – those are the companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.” 2:81
“And whoever disbelieves…I will force him to the punishment of the Fire, and wretched is the destination.” 2:126
“Those who followed will say, “If only we had another turn (at worldly life) so we could disassociate ourselves from them (those who worship other gods)”…And they are never to emerge from the Fire.” 2:167
“Indeed, they who conceal what Allah has sent down of the Book…those consume not into their bellies except the Fire. And Allah will not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection…And they will have a painful punishment…How patient they are in pursuit of the Fire! That is (deserved by them)…” 2:174-176
“Indeed, those who disbelieve…And it is they who are fuel for the Fire.” 3:10
“And fear the Fire, which has been prepared for the disbelievers.” 3:131
“We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve…And their refuge will be the Fire, and wretched is the residence of the wrongdoers.” 3:151
“Allah has certainly heard the statement of those (Jews) who said, “Indeed, Allah is poor, while we are rich.” We…will say, “Taste the punishment of the Burning Fire.” 3.181
“And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger…He will put him into the Fire to abide eternally therein, and he will have a humiliating punishment.” 4:14
“Indeed, those who disbelieve in Our verses – We will drive them into a Fire. Every time their skins are roasted through We will replace them with other skins so they may taste the punishment. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted in Might and Wise.” 4:56
“But those who disbelieve and deny Our signs – those are the companions of Hellfire.” 5:10
“They will wish to get out of the Fire, but never are they to emerge therefrom, and for them is an enduring punishment.” 5:37
“Indeed, he who associates others with Allah (anyone who ascribes divinity to any other being or god)…his refuge is the Fire.” 5:72
“But those who disbelieved and denied Our signs – they are the companions of Hellfire.” 5:8
“But the ones who deny Our verses…those are the companions of the Fire; they will abide therein eternally.” 7:36
“…indeed, Allah is severe in penalty. “That (is yours), so taste it.” And indeed for the disbelievers is the punishment of Fire.” 8:14
“And if you could but see when the angels take the souls of those who disbelieved…They are striking their faces and their backs and (saying), “Taste the punishment of the Burning Fire.” 8:50
And of course, this is only a small sample. These passages are found throughout the Koran, and they are a defining element of it. Likewise, many passages urge Muslims to fight and forcibly convert others:
“O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination.” 9:73
“And when We intend to destroy a city, We command its affluent but they defiantly disobey therein; so the word comes into effect upon it, and We destroy it with (complete) destruction.” 17:16
“And let not those who disbelieve think they will escape. Indeed, they will not cause failure (to Allah). And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy…” 8:59-60.
“Fight against those who do not believe in Allah or the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth (Islam) from those who were given the Scripture – (fight) until they give the jizyah (tax) willingly while they are humbled…May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?” 9:29-30
“And when the sacred months have passed, the kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush”. 9:5
The passage directly above (9:5) clearly establishes that the Koran is not merely speaking of self-defense, but rather of offensive war against unbelievers. The passage goes on to say that if they should repent, convert and pay a tax they can be spared, after which it says, “Allah is forgiving and merciful”. So, when apologists claim that the Koran teaches forgiveness and mercy, this is the context in which it speaks.
Apologists and other defenders of Islam often claim that such passages are speaking of a spiritual struggle, as in purging the ignorance and hatred from oneself. However, to argue such a thing is to ignore the context of the Koran as a whole, as these verses are found repeatedly throughout the work. Furthermore, these passages reflect the historical reality in which Mohammad lived. The late great Perennialist Huston Smith argued in his book “Islam: A concise introduction”[xxiii] that Mohammad unified a previously war-torn Arabia, fighting only out of necessity for survival. However, history tells us that Islam has repeatedly sought to expand its power and bring the world’s nations and their people into submission to its totalitarian rule.
As with the problems inherent in the Bible, giving divine status to these texts takes a snapshot of human barbarity and makes it sacred, to be kept alive and passed down to future generations. Certainly, Mohammad himself preached a doctrine of judgment and hellfire, he himself held to the cultural norms of the day in regards to women (in which they were most certainly not treated as equals), he insisted repeatedly that no form of religion other than that which he himself preached was acceptable[xxiv], and Mohammad and continuous generations after him initiated war against people of practically all lands and faiths, seeking to establish a theocratic Islamic kingdom across the globe.
Obviously this doesn’t make all Muslims bad people; likewise criticisms of the Tanakh are not the same as anti-Semitism, and criticism of Christianity doesn’t denigrate Christians as people. However, it is vital that we recognize when there is a link between the actual content of religious texts and the problems that we see with the behavior of some of those who hold such texts to be sacred. Many religious liberals seem to believe that we can denounce bigotry whilst simultaneously upholding the Bible and Koran as they stand. I can only point out that this makes no sense, and this approach is destined to fail.
Many people have managed to avoid facing the issues inherent in various religious texts by convincing themselves that their critics are simply motivated by ignorance, bigotry and bias. However, even if someone is incorrect about many topics, it does not mean that everything they claim is incorrect by means of association. It is not hard in this day and age to get access to a translation of a sacred text in most languages. Therefore, there is no excuse now for being unaware of the actual content of these texts.
New revelations on the apocalypse of St. John:
Before moving on, I’d like to quickly point out that whilst most moral criticisms of the Bible relate to the Old Testament, there are some issues in the NT as well, most notably in the Apocalypse of St. John (Revelation). There are a number of different traditional views on the interpretation of Revelation, and many New Age authors have recently given their own opinions on this matter. However, upon a quick examination of the relevant facts, any informed and unbiased observer should be able to clearly identify what the text is largely about.
Aside from its introduction (which is largely an anti-heretical polemic), Revelation is a nightmarish recollection of visions, portraying a cosmic battle preceding the end of the world. Without a shadow of a doubt, Revelations was an outpouring of anger and hatred towards the Roman Empire, in hope of divine revenge as compensation for the hard times that had fallen upon Jews and/or Christians. Many scholars attribute the persecution of Christians under Domitian (81-96 CE) as the primary cause of the anger of the author/s, though the motivating cause could easily have been (possible) persecutions under Nero (60 CE), or even the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Either way, an objective reader must conclude that the author of the visions was largely motivated by the desire for revenge against the Romans.
Whilst the visions contain a vast number of symbols (of which the precise meaning are open for interpretation), there are a number of symbols that explicitly link the visions to the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Revelations 17 refers to the “whore of Babylon” as a clear code for the Roman Empire (Rome and the Roman Empire as a whole were often depicted as a woman – Roma[xxv]), saying she was “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus”[xxvi]. Revelation contains many common symbols with the Book of Daniel, which presents itself as being written during the Babylonian captivity[xxvii]. The Roman Empire fulfilled the same role relative to Jews and Christians in the 1st century, given that Judea was under Roman rule, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE after 3 years of war, and Christians were alleged to have been persecuted by a number of Roman emperors. A number of other Jewish/Christian texts from the same period likewise use the same metaphor[xxviii], one example even being found in the NT itself (1 Peter 5:13).
Likewise, Revelations 17:18 states that the whore of Babylon is “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (clearly Rome, given that it was the center of the most powerful Empire in the world at the time), and 17:9 states that the woman sits on seven hills, referring to the seven hills of Rome[xxix]. Furthermore, the infamous passage about 666 being the number of the beast was almost certainly a reference to Emperor Nero. Jewish people had a numerological practice called gematria, in which letters were given numerical value. Nero Caesar’s name thus becomes the number 666 in its Hebrew transliteration from the Greek, whilst the Hebrew transliteration from the Latin becomes 616, which is attested in a number of manuscript variants as being the number of the beast. Likewise, Revelation 17:10-11 refers to seven kings, five of which have fallen, noting “the beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king”. Whilst the exact reading of this is complex, the seven (and five fallen) kings are almost certainly the Roman Emperors[xxx], and the reference to the Beast here references a legend in which it was thought that Nero would return from the dead.
Furthermore, the “mark of the Beast” almost certainly refers to the image of the Emperor on Roman coins, which was essential for trading in the Roman Empire. The Jewish prohibition against idolatry in the Ten Commandments[xxxi] was considered by many to include the images of faces on coins, hence simply using Roman coins could have been considered idolatry under Jewish law, and during the first Jewish-Roman war (under Nero) the Jews revolted and coined their own money, which did not feature any human faces on them. Furthermore, the “image of the beast” which men were forced to worship in Revelations 13:14-16 probably refers to the Roman Imperial cult, in which Roman Emperors were seen as gods, and the population were legally compelled to worship them and offer sacrifices to them. All of this combined means that there really isn’t much in the way of doubt that the author was indeed literarily speaking of the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE, and there are no shortages of sources that have reached this conclusion, dating back to the 2nd century CE[xxxii].
Now that we have dealt with the interpretation side of things, we may now consider the moral nature of the text itself. As a whole, Revelation is a nightmare of gruesome imagery, of supernatural entities torturing humanity:
“Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake…The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died…”[xxxiii]
“And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were not allowed to kill them but only torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes. During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.”[xxxiv]
“And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind…A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulphur…”[xxxv]
“If anyone worships the beast…They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presences of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night….”[xxxvi]
“The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath…and blood flowed out of the press…”[xxxvii]
“The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast…The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood…and every living thing in the sea died…The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire…God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath….From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds fell on people…”[xxxviii]
“When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth…But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”[xxxix]
“The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books…Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”[xl]
New Age authors James Redfield and Eckhart Tolle have attempted to present Revelation in terms of a coming golden age, in which large portions of humanity become spiritually awakened, and thus create a “New Earth”. Likewise, Edgar Cayce also offered an interpretation of Revelation as relating to the various stages and processes of spiritual evolution within an individual, and humanity at large. Whilst I admire Cayce, Redfield and Tolle (and particularly recommend Tolle as essential reading on psychology and spirituality), their readings of Revelation are quite simply untenable. Trying to imagine that Revelation is a spiritual allegory is like arguing that a horror movie is actually a love story.
Here is the part that so many people do not seem to understand:
Recognizing Cayce, Redfield and Tolle as overall preaching legitimate spiritual truths does not necessarily mean that we have to by association, accept every single view that they gave. Likewise, rejecting their perspectives on Revelation does not mean that we have to reject their overall worldview. Rather, we need to be careful that when we ascribe a somewhat enlightened status to someone, that we do not therefore abandon reason, and simply side with them on particular sub-topics whereby it is quite clear that they are simply wrong.
Can’t it all just be allegorical?
In the face of the above, many will still argue that the Bible and the Koran are allegorical, and that the primitive, violent language and imagery is simply allegories for the struggles of the soul. Many progressives respond to critiques of religious scriptures by stating that such critics shouldn’t simply believe everything the media tells them, as if it were only highly biased, tabloid conservative media that make these cases, contrary to what they encounter from liberal academics. We can however be honest about the reality of world religions and scriptures without condoning the overall methodology and conclusions of those that commonly are vocal in pointing out the flaws in various religions.
Claims that religious texts are allegorical can only go so far. One could seek to extrapolate the same methodology onto any text and thus conclude that it actually means the opposite of what it presents. Perhaps “50 Shades of Grey” is an allegory for a healthy, respectful relationship? Maybe “The Communist Manifesto” was a satirical critique of socialism, and perhaps Ayn Rand was a closet communist? Obviously, such things are utterly ridiculous. The same is true of the misuse of the allegory argument, which has now amounted to a blanket excuse for the flaws of many a religious text.
Obviously, people are free to believe as they wish, and I don’t wish to come across as being overtly harsh as to other people’s spiritual beliefs. I know many wonderful people who hold these common liberal views on religion (and I generally commend such people for rejecting religious fundamentalism). Ultimately my goal here is to counter religious exclusivity and to promote a more open, tolerant perspective on spirituality and world religion. However again, the reason why I also critique the current progressive approach is because it is clearly flawed, and it is preventing further progress. Religious liberals and those amongst the “spiritual, not religious” crowd should not take offense at this, as I believe that I am on their side. Rather, I wish to show how we can be far more effective, in taking a truly informed perspective on world religion, in order to lay the foundation for lasting religious reformation.
The difference between criticisms of other faiths and religious scriptures relative to the Abrahamic faiths:
A common claim made by fellow progressives is that the problems associated with Christianity and Islam are not specific to these faiths, but rather are shared equally by all faiths. I understand that many people believe that this sounds like a tolerant and mature perspective on world religion; the problem is that it is categorically false. The Tao Te Ching does not have a single passage that could possibly be read in a light comparable to the issues with the Bible or the Koran. I have never seen anybody quote a single passage from one of the many Buddhist sutras that compares in any way to the problems of the Abrahamic scriptures.
Amongst the vast Vedic library there are indeed some problematic passages, such as those that discuss the Indian caste system, or the place of women. Likewise, there are some Tantric practices that are quite challenging, of which we may find somewhat disgusting. However, again, I have never seen any evidence of issues in the vast Vedic library comparable to those found in the Bible and Koran. Rather, whilst there are legitimate criticisms to be made of some aspects of Indian religion and culture (which are reflected in some Indian texts), such issues are not of the same scale as those relevant to the Abrahamic faiths.
In seeking to present Buddhism as having the same potential for violence and other misuse as Christianity and Islam, many people have raised the example of the role of Zen Buddhism in WW2 Japan. Whilst it is indeed true that many Buddhist Temples were openly supportive of the Japanese governments war efforts, this doesn’t mean in any way that Buddhism was responsible for the military aggression and general wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese during WW2.
In his book “Zen at War”, Brian Daizen Victoria discussed various aspects of Buddhism that were adapted by the Japanese government in favor of their war effort. However, unlike the relative problems of the Abrahamic faiths, the most that could be produced was the emphasis of Buddhism on person spiritual development (rather than social activism), with teachings on inner peace and the acceptance of things as they are possibly leading to a failure of Japanese Buddhists to stand against their government. As far as I am aware, there aren’t any Zen Buddhist sutras that can be cited in favor of violence or other injustices. Rather, we just have the case that unfortunately the presence of a spiritual tradition within a culture did not prevent the people of that culture from being swept up in violence and injustice.
A similar situation is found in relation to Christianity in Nazi Germany. That being, WW2 Germany was predominantly a Christian nation. It is difficult to pin down the precise religious views of the Nazi party as a whole, as there are a complex mixture of different elements at play, and one will encounter a range of different opinions on the topic[xli]. Certainly at some times the Nazi party was professed to be Christian, as it presented its own form of anti-Semitic Christianity: Positive Christianity (which, by the measures of orthodoxy was certainly heterodox). Likewise, there were a number of prominent occultists within the Nazi ranks. However, it seems that by and large, the Nazi party were predominantly driven by racial and nationalistic ideology, though of course religious views naturally come into that mix.
In many respects the Nazi party waged a war against Christian churches, as part of broader measures that persecuted various peoples and organizations. However, the fact remains that the majority of Christians in WW2 Germany were either supportive of Hitler or passively complicit to the atrocities committed by the ruling Nazi party. Most members of the Nazi party and German soldiers considered themselves to be Christians (even if one can argue that their actions were not generally consistent with the teachings of Christ). There was a small percentage of Christians in Nazi held territories that were involved in hiding Jewish people and helping them escape. However, by and large, the moral teachings of Christianity did not lead to a widespread resistance against the Nazis by German Christians.
Here’s the thing, we don’t blame Christianity for Hitler, and neither do we have any right to blame Zen for Japan’s WW2 activities. Christianity has long had association with religious anti-Semitism (or more correctly, Jew hatred), with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther being a prominent figure in its development (not to mention many early Church fathers), and the NT shows mixed views in regards to the Jewish people. However, one can legitimately cite various NT passages as preaching love and compassion, and thus opposing the atrocities committed by WW2 Germany. Therefore, one simply cannot blame the Holocaust (and other atrocities committed by Nazi Germany) upon Christianity.
Hence, we can see that the military aggression and general atrocities of Japan and Germany during WW2 and their relationship to Zen and Christianity are a different category by comparison to the previously raised issues within the Bible and Koran. That is, we are not applying a double standard here. Rather, we are simply differentiating different cases whereby in some cases the religion (and religious scripture) explicitly promotes the injustices in question, and other in which they do not.
An example that is often raised by conservative Christians in their attempts to present Hinduism as a dark, demonic religion is that of the Hindu goddess Kali, and the atrocities that have been committed in her honor. Presented as a fierce, bloodthirsty deity with a garland of skulls hanging around her neck, the goddess Kali is presented in Hinduism as a representation of the destructive power of nature, and a divine power that destroys demons (which is often interpreted allegorically as destroying ignorance). In this sense, Kali is more akin to a Biblical angel of death than an evil spirit or deity, as the wrath of Kali is pretty much always directed at forces of evil. Mythological tales abound of Hindu goddesses transforming into Kali in order to kill demons, hence showing the inherent potential within the divine feminine principle to unleash awesome power to defeat evil.
The well-known movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” featured an Indian Thuggee cult that worshipped Kali and offered human sacrifices to her. Many people seem to think that this is the true face of Hinduism. There were indeed real Thuggee cults in Indian that were associated with the worship of Kali. They were essentially a tribe of professional thieves and murderers, and much of the literature about them claims that they worshipped in front of large statues of Kali. Likewise, in rural India there have been cases whereby sorcerers[xlii] calling themselves Tantriks (practitioners of Tantra) have told their clients to murder people (even infants) as a sacrifice to Kali in order to gain some boon from the goddess.
So, it is indeed true that Kali is represented in fearsome imagery as a bloodthirsty goddess, and that there have indeed been well documented cases of people in India committing atrocities in her name. However, this does not mean that this reveals the true dark nature of Hinduism. The earliest evidence we have for the conception of Kali is as a fierce protector of goodness, a defender of righteousness and enemy of evil (rather than a perpetrator of evil). Only later do we have evidence showing Indian cults and individuals doing evil works in the name of Kali. So, this is indeed a very different kettle of fish to cases whereby the original conception of a deity was as a barbaric tribal deity that incurred divine wrath on all those that defied it, and only later evolved into a benevolent, transcendent and universal deity.
These examples of the Thuggee cult and Tantriks committing (or ordering) atrocities in the name of Kali actually bear the same relationship to orthodox Hinduism as Theistic Satanism has to orthodox Christianity. That is, Theistic Satanism exists within the same overall religious bubble as Christianity, except that it exists as its polar opposite, opposed to all its central tenets. In a similar vein, the Thuggee cult exists within the vast, dynamic and diverse religious world known as Hinduism, yet they likewise defy all the central tenets of orthodox Hinduism (which has always taught strict moral and ethical codes).
In this regard then, using examples of atrocities committed in the name of Kali to try and denigrate Hinduism as a whole would be similar to citing examples of heavy metal obsessed teenagers committing atrocities in the name of Satan to denigrate orthodox Christianity. Obviously the latter is absurd; therefore, so is the former.
Whilst on the topic we should probably mention the Indian Aghori cult, an ascetic Shaivite or Tantrik sect known for their complete rejection of social norms and deliberate seeking out of various taboos. The Aghori’s denounce clothing, smear their (sometimes completely naked) bodies with cremation ash, meditate with corpses and human skulls, and smoke hashish (and/or marijuana) amongst other things. Hence, they deliberately seek to immerse themselves in unclean practices in order to realize the illusionary nature of dualistic opposites, and thus transcend duality and attain the state of liberation to which more orthodox Hindu sects also aim. Now, whilst the various practices of the Aghori may raise our eyebrows, I’m not sure if they are really harming those outside their sect, and we have no way to really assess their personal spiritual attainment.
Again though, it would be extremely misleading to present such examples as indicative of the true nature of Hinduism as a whole. Let us remember that even orthodox Christians have been known to whip themselves in imitation of the suffering of Christ. Likewise, we should note that in their descriptions of various heterodox Christian sects, the early proto-orthodox heresiologists (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius et al.) cite various beliefs and practices that would certainly raise the eyebrows of modern readers. Hence, were it not for the state sanctioned purge of heterodox Christianity in the 4th century, we would know Christianity as having a similar degree of diversity to Hinduism, and one would be able to cite Christian (albeit heterodox) examples to parallel that of the Hindu Aghori.
I will certainly concede that the fearsome imagery and mythology surrounding Kali leaves the door open for people to commit atrocities under the guise of religion, citing Kali as their example. Regarding the use of dark and violent symbolism in religion and mythology, I’m not sure where we draw the line, and this is a problem that plagues many different faiths. This is perhaps a topic which should be discussed in more detail elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is a different case to that of the violent imagery found in the Bible and Koran, as in both cases we historical context of the works reveals that they were intended to be read largely in a literal manner.
The problem is of course that religious conservatives are compelled to argue that their sacred scripture alone should be read in the most generous light and that all others should be read in the worst possible way, whilst progressives are likewise generally compelled to argue that all scriptures should be read generously. And of course, people like myself will generally get accused of applying double standards when we attempt to differentiate cases whereby a text actually is bad and directly causes injustices, from other cases whereby a text uses symbolism which is taken out of context and misappropriated to support some aberration in the name of religion, or where atrocities committed by members of a religion are effectively unrelated to the teachings of the religion in question (as was the case regarding Zen and Japan’s WW2 atrocities).
Followers of Aleister Crowley and his religion Thelema often find themselves accused of child sacrifice. In the Thelemic holy book “The Book of the Law”, we find the following:
“Now let it be understood that I am a god of War and of Vengeance…I will give you a war-engine. With it ye shall smite the peoples; and none shall stand before you…Worship me with fire & blood; worship me with swords & with spears. Let the woman be girt with a sword before me: let blood flow to my name. Trample down the Heathen; be upon them, o warrior, I will give you of their flesh to eat! Sacrifice cattle, little and big: after a child…Mercy let be off; damn them who pity! Kill and torture; spare not; be upon them! The best blood is of the moon, monthly: then the fresh blood of a child, or dropping from the host of heaven: then of enemies; then of the priest or of the worshippers: last of some beast, no matter what.”[xliii]
Now, that is certainly some nasty sounding stuff above, and if we took it literarily then one would certainly be right to view Crowley and his followers as bloodthirsty practitioners of a barbaric and wicked form of black magic. However, in truth, the above is simply code for sex magic, involving the consummation of menstrual fluids and semen in magical ritual (Crowley used to joke about masturbation as sacrificing children). Ok, so that’s still pretty full on, and I could understand many people still viewing it with repulsion. I have to say that I think Aleister Crowley had a sick sense of humor; not indicative of a spiritually advanced soul. However, it seems debatable as to whether they actually hurt anybody else outside of their own cult (directly at least), so one can certainly argue that their faith is perhaps less offensive than those religions that have indeed used violence against others outside their religion of choice.
I am no big fan of Crowley, and I am not seeking to defend him here. Nevertheless, my point is simply that whilst the above cited passages from The Book of the Law are pretty awful as read straight off the page, we do here have a true example whereby something that seems awful if taken literarily is certainly (at very least) somewhat less so in its true context[xliv].
This is indeed very different to the examples previously cited from the Bible and Koran, as in both cases we do indeed have direct evidence from the pages of history that they were originally intended to be taken literarily. That is, we know that many of the horrible passages from the Bible were intended to be taken as given, by the fact that they simply represented cultural norms of the Ancient Near East, and by the fact that the Bible contains many stories that relate to the relevant laws, showing their literal application. Likewise, the same is true of the Koran. That is, the pages of history tell us how Mohammad himself was said to have acted, along with those that directly followed him. Hence, with the Koran we can see that the atrocities contained within were acted out by those that were directly involved in writing the text itself.
If followers of the Abrahamic faiths are able to bypass and transcend the psychological processes that prevent them from viewing their own faith and sacred text objectively, they will see a completely different reality. Comparatively, the Bible and the Koran are not great texts at all; rather, they contain some of the lowest expressions of human potential in written form[xlv]. It is time for reasonable, intelligent and decent people to recognize the vastly inflated importance that has been given to the Bible and the Koran, and look elsewhere for spiritual and philosophical wisdom, both amongst the myriad of works that have emerged from all over the world over history, and also amongst modern works, many of which are free from the dogmas that have diluted true spirituality across the ages.
A falsehood repeated a thousand times does not become true:
The common and deeply flawed approaches of both conservatives and progressives in relation to religious scriptures are largely held in place through repetition, and because the public at large are dependent upon specialists to direct their opinion. Conservatives have armies of apologists and religious scholars trained from their very own universities that tell them exactly what they want to hear, regardless of what the truth actually is. Conservative academia merely exists to maintain the status quo, to uphold the divine status of the Bible and Koran. Regardless of what evidence and argument is given against them, conservative apologetics always holds their ground.
Likewise, progressives at large are influenced by liberal academics (who are also often university qualified) and otherwise well-meaning spiritual teachers, who tell them that religious scriptures should be upheld, and that we simply need to read them differently. In the cases of the Bible and Koran, liberal Muslims, liberal Christians and New Age spiritual teachers all largely seek to uphold the texts, arguing that all criticisms are the results of misinterpretation, and are largely motivated by bias and bigotry.
In both case, the common apologetics are preventing spiritual seekers from actually examining religious scriptures themselves, and/or accessing unbiased and informed opinions on them. Both conservatives and progressives respond to criticisms of their scripture of choice (or all scriptures for progressives) by viewing the critic as being misinformed by poor journalism and scholarship, driven by ideology and bias. Hence we need to spread the word that there is another option for how to view religious scriptures, and how to apply this perspective to our approach to comparative religion as a whole.
Throughout the 20th century there was an outpouring of Western esotericism and Eastern mysticism through the Western world, with Theosophy, Spiritualism, Edgar Cayce, Dion Fortune etc., through to a great number of Indian sages (Yogananda, Vivekananda et al.). Common to nearly all of them was the attempt to interpret Christianity in light of a Perennial Philosophy (which is basically philosophical Hinduism). As such, many tried to force their interpretations upon the Biblical text, with the sincere belief that they were actually revealing the original truth of the text.
For example, I am a big fan of Paramahansa Yogananda, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read “Autobiography of a Yogi”. Yoganandas guru Sri Yukteswar wrote a book titled “The Holy Science”, in which he argued for the fundamental unity of all religions, in particular focusing on attempting to harmonize the Bible with philosophical Hinduism. Whilst I am personally a big fan of Yogananda, the unfortunate fact is that the view of Jesus and the Bible as a whole taught by him and his guru (Sri Yukteswar) is simply untenable. That is, whilst I am certainly down with their overall philosophy, their perspective on Christianity and its sacred text just cannot possibly be correct. I would like to emphasize the following, as I think it sums up the heart of the problem here:
Unfortunately many people who lean towards Eastern religion or general New Age spirituality can’t seem to accept that they can simultaneously acknowledge someone like Yogananda as a legitimate spiritual teacher, whilst rejecting his perspective on Christianity, as it is incompatible with the relevant data. Whilst Sri Yukteswar was no doubt a great yogi who may indeed have been extremely enlightened, this does not mean that his opinion on absolutely everything must necessarily have been correct.
The truth is that whilst I admire much of what most Eastern and New Age spiritual teachers have taught, very few (if any) of them have actually examined the evidence in question for themselves in relation to many of the world religions they seek to defend. Just to clarify, I am not saying that Eastern and New Age spiritual teachers are completely unfamiliar with world religion. Rather, I am only stating that they are not familiar with the textual and historical evidence that shows that the criticisms launched against some particular faiths are in fact legitimate. Hence, whilst their overall teachings may be good and true, they are largely speaking out of ignorance and wishful thinking when it comes to the problems inherent in many religious texts.
I personally suspect that higher spiritual beings do not attempt to directly overturn human belief systems, but rather leave that to us, and instead try to communicate to us through the context of our sacred beliefs. For example, in his altered states of consciousness Edgar Cayce was not told to abandon Christianity, but rather was told to view Christianity through the filter of Perennialism. Likewise, the same is true of countless people who have had Near-Death experiences, or visions and peak mystical experiences through the practice of meditation, or who have communicated with non-physical beings through mediumship and trance.
It is ironic that so few people within the field of religion itself can actually perceive the true nature of religious scriptures as they as are. Rather, it has often been those outside the field (that being naturalists – atheists) who seem to be some of the only ones able to look at texts such as the Bible and the Koran without presuppositions, and take the texts as they stand. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (amongst others) have all raised very legitimate objections against the Bible and the Koran, and a large percentage of religious people of all persuasions have failed to integrate the truths that they have spoken into their overall worldview (though obviously I disagree with naturalists on more general counts, such as the objective reality of spirituality as a whole).
I believe that the defence of certain religious texts is entirely untenable, and completely lacking in credibility. Now, I realize that the preceding and following statements could certainly be taken as offensive to many. However, we are not discussing the overall worth of human beings here. We are simply discussing whether particular perspectives on ancient religious texts are correct, and it is important that we view the facts without emotional attachment. As such, there are three reasons why such a large percentage of religious believers of various persuasions have taken obviously flawed perspectives on religious texts:
- a) The persons in question are simply unaware of the actual content of the text as a whole, the historical context from which it originates, and the ways in which the content of the text has a direct causal relationship with atrocities committed throughout the history of the faith in question. This is true of both progressives and conservatives that hold firm views about the divine status of religious texts (and defend them with fervor), yet have not actually read them for themselves.
- b) The persons in question are in fact intimately familiar with the source material in question, yet are so attached to a particular religious perspective that they approach the text/s in question with firm presuppositions, and then attempt to view the text in light of these prior beliefs.
- c) The persons in question have some degree of familiarity with a text and the criticisms of it, but they have been swayed by apologetic arguments in its defence from those of the same camp. This applies to conservatives that believe that their texts have survived centuries of attack, thanks to the apologetic responses of conservative Bible scholars, historians, philosophers and theologians. Likewise, this applies equally to progressives who are swayed by university trained liberal academics who tell us that Islam is a religion of peace and that critics of the Koran are motivated by racism and religious bigotry, that the Bible is an allegorical work and that the doctrine of eternal damnation in hell was invented by the Catholic Church in the Middle-Ages
As a result of this, both sides attempt to make the evidence fit their presuppositions, rather than considering the evidence as it actually stands. This approach has a long history through many cultures, in which human beings become psychologically attached (or even addicted) to particular texts and give them divine status, from which they attempt to defend such texts against any criticism, and refuse to acknowledge the actual content of such texts in the context of how they were originally conceived.
If we actually approach the interpretation of holy texts without any presuppositions, we can see that there is a great diversity amongst the world’s scriptures (though I would argue that we can still see much common ground between them). If we approach each text on its own merits, we can see that many of the criticisms of ancient religious texts are indeed legitimate (and are not simply the case of less mature believers twisting the tenets of a faith). Hence, there is a need for genuine spiritual seekers to denounce the divine status of such texts. Likewise however, not all religious texts suffer equally from these flaws, and whilst some are the product of primitive superstitious minds, others espouse a sublime philosophy capable of leading a genuine seeker towards true liberation.
We can clearly see that the claims of conservatives that their religious scriptures of choice are alone good and pure at the exclusion of all others is completely untenable. Likewise however, the claims of progressives that all the worlds scriptures are equally good and pure and essentially identical in their core message, are equally untenable. However, despite the latter case, I will still argue that an honest investigation of comparative religion will indeed result in the conclusion that spirituality is truly universal and no single faith or text can claim exclusive rights to truth. However, examining the world’s scriptures on their own merit will also lead to the conclusion that we must differentiate between genuine spiritual insights and backwards superstitions.
In light of all of this may I suggest that we should seek to apply the following approach to reading and interpreting religious scriptures. Whilst this approach may seem novel and controversial to many, I would suggest that it is simply common sense:
- a) Firstly, we examine different religious texts on a case-by-case basis, and we do not approach them with presuppositions about their nature. That is, we remain open about the nature of a text until we have examined it for ourselves (or weighed up multiple competing views about it), and we remember that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in world religion.
- b) Secondly, we remember that even if we take a low opinion about a particular scripture, that it doesn’t necessarily mean that we reject everything that is taught and practiced in the faith in question, nor does it mean that followers of the faith in question are necessarily bad people.
- c) Thirdly, just because a faith and culture in general may contain much in the way of dogma and superstition, it doesn’t mean that people within that context cannot still have genuine spiritual experiences. That is, even in a faith that preaches hate, some followers will still find divine love regardless. Likewise, the opposite is still true; even if a faith had been purged of imperfection, human beings would still pollute it with the lower aspect of their nature.
- d) Hence, when we encounter examples of mystical streams within larger faiths that are dramatically different to the orthodox forms, we need not conclude that these mystical forms are the original, pure form of the faith. Rather, these may simply be examples of evolution within a religion, rather than a return to their primal state.
- e) Ultimately, we can take a critical view on particular religious scriptures (and religions as a whole) whilst still upholding a universal, timeless perspective on world religion and spirituality. That is, Perennial Philosophy does not depend upon all scriptures being pure and equal. Rather, when properly defined, Perennialism should differentiate between spiritual truth and religious dogma, both in the practices and beliefs of a faith, and in the scriptures that they hold sacred.
May we all be honest with ourselves and each other, transforming our inner states and reforming the structures in the world around us.
[i] Whilst Christian apologists attempt to twist the source material to present Hebrew slavery as merely a form of employment.
[ii] If a woman was married she was seen as the literal property of her husband, otherwise she belonged to her father.
[iii] That is, portions of the Tanakh believed to be of older origin mandate the sacrifice of first-born male children (and animals), whilst accepting the power of a human sacrifice to gain the assistance of the gods, particularly in war, as well as demanding the literal sacrifice of the spoils of war (including people) to Yahweh. Fortunately, there was a later reformation following Jeremiah in which human sacrifice was denounced outright (regardless of which god it was to), and hence we see evidence of redaction in the Old Testament texts relating to this issue.
[iv] https://jameshiscoxblogs.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/essential-reading-on-the-historical-context-of-moral-issues-with-the-hebrew-bible-thom-starks-is-god-a-moral-compromiser/. Stark’s work can be read at the following: http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf.
[v] Leviticus 25:44-46.
[vi] Exodus 21:20-21.
[vii] Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
[viii] See Thom Stark, “Is God a Moral Compromiser”, pages 133-140.
[ix] In the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahJpxUjOzuE, and he also provides a link to the following page: http://www.mandm.org.nz/2009/07/sunday-study-does-the-bible-teach-that-a-rape-victim-has-to-marry-her-rapist.html.
[x] “First, our subject objects that the victim may not want to marry the rapist. In modern times this would be a sensible objection; but for the ancients, this was a highly viable and indeed merciful solution…”; http://www.tektonics.org/af/ancientmores.html.
[xii] For example, Numbers 31:7-18 and Deuteronomy 21:10-14.
[xiii] Joshua 6:20-21.
[xiv] 1 Samuel 15:3.
[xv] 1 Samuel 15:7-9.
[xvi] Leviticus 20:13.
[xvii] Deuteronomy 21:18-21.
[xviii] Deuteronomy 17:12.
[xix] Exodus 22:18
[xx] Leviticus 20:27.
[xxi] 2 Chronicles 15:13.
[xxii] Deuteronomy 13. Also Deuteronomy 17:2-5 and Numbers 25:1-9 continue the same theme.
[xxiv] Though it should be noted that at some points in the Koran, Mohammad somewhat accepted Jews and Christians as part of the same religious tradition as himself. Different passages in the Koran are both positive and negative towards Jews and Christians, though certainly the Koran is absolutely and consistently negative towards all other faiths.
[xxvi] Revelations 17:6.
[xxvii] Though modern scholars have good reason to believe it was actually written in the 2nd century BCE. Nevertheless, the book presents itself as being written during the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE.
[xxix] And a coin from 70 CE shows Rome as a woman sitting on seven hills.
[xxx] The exact calculations are dependent upon both the time at which this verse was originally composed, and whether or not the author counted all of the Emperors from the “Year of the Four Emperor’s”, as the relatively short rules of Galba, Otho and Vitellius may not have been known throughout the kingdom. I cannot comment further on this.
[xxxi] Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 4:15-18.
[xxxii] “In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord’s disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules (the earth) shall be partitioned.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 26:1: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103526.htm.
[xxxiii] Revelation 8:3-9.
[xxxiv] Revelation 9:3-6.
[xxxv] Revelation 9:15-18.
[xxxvi] Revelation 14:9-11.
[xxxvii] Revelation 14:19-20.
[xxxviii] Revelation 16:2-21.
[xxxix] Revelation 20:7-10.
[xl] Revelation 20:12-15.
[xli] Of which I am not going to attempt to unravel.
[xlii] Whether or not they actually possess supernatural power through the practices of black magic, I think it is appropriate to refer to them as sorcerers.
[xliii] Aleister Crowley, The Book of the Law, Chapter 3, Verses 3-24.
[xliv] That being, whatever you think of Crowley, surely ceremonial magick involving sex and drugs is ultimately less horrendous than bloodlust and human sacrifice.
[xlv] Though again, they are not wholly bad. Rather, they do of course also contain inspirational passages mixed in, which believers can quote mine in order to paint a rosy picture of their sacred text.