A good day: Uncle Eric sends plaudits

Well,  Mondays don’t get much better than this: I’ve become a meme-let and subject of a Facebook exchange, and now, over at Choice in Dying, Uncle Eric MacDonald has written a post about my having finished the Bible: “C0ngratulations, Jerry Coyne!”  Of course being Uncle Eric, he reminds me that I’ve omitted 9 books from the Ethiopian canon and 11 from the Western canon, but for now I’m satisfied with the King James version. I’m going to reread the Qur’an, but somehow I quail at having to read the Book of Mormon.

Eric has read the Bible four times (he was once an Anglican priest), but gave up the last time after reading just the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). He adds:

Jerry deserves our congratulations for persevering to the end, though, to be frank, the only reason for doing something like this is to be able to say that you had actually done it.

Well, it’s a bit more than that: I wanted to see for myself what it said rather than taking the word of others, I wanted to be conversant with the most important religious work of Western culture, and, of course, if I’m to continue engaging with religion I need the benefit of being familiar with scripture.  I have learned a lot: including that Jesus’s wisdom was overrated, that the Old Testament God is an arrogant, praise-courting bully, and that the Bible is not a great work of literature.  That much I was told before, but I’m a scientist and wanted to replicate the findings of others.

Eric does, however, find more literary merit than I do in the Bible:

The Bible, though, has some genuine treasures, amongst them the Song of Songs, a lively erotic work of some subtlety, and the book of Job, perhaps the most unrelentingly searching study of the problem of evil ever written. The book ends, of course, on an entirely false note, as though lives can substitute for lives, or wealth for suffering, but the poetic heart of the book is an ageless and so far unanswered challenge to the justice of any imaginable god. Another text of some value is Ecclesiastes, the author of which was almost certainly not a true believer, who provides as convincing a case for atheism as any of the new atheists. It’s fundamental message is that “shit happens.” The world goes on in its accustomed way without any sign of design or purpose, and so one should live stoically, drifting with the tide of change, accepting the goodness that may come one’s way, and enduring the suffering without complaint.

I found Job overly long and oppressive; and the whole point is undercut, as Eric says, by Job’s acceptance of blind obedience to a supposedly loving deity who is really unspeakably cruel. And, to be honest, I found the tale tedious. But yes, the Song of Songs and much of Ecclesiastes has its poetic bits. Literary taste is subjective, of course, but all in all I like the Bhagavad Gita better.

Of course the point of Eric’s post was not to congratulate me, but to use my completed reading as a platform to proclaim his own take on the Bible, which is precisely why his post is so good. It contains, for example, this important point:

Like everything we say about god or gods, its answers largely consist in a suppression of the questions that ordinary people ask, but it does so in such a way as to suggest that real answers have been given. Holy books are illusions that people play with words.

This is something that it took me a long time to recognise. It’s most obvious in the case of the problem of evil, but it is also present in practically everything that religion proposes about itself, and this is where apophatic theology gets its leverage, because, in the end, there are no answers to the kinds of questions that religion asks. The Bible, and religion in general, recognises the mystery of human life, the urgent questions, all unanswered, that most people, in one way or another, are exercised with most of their lives, and it pretends that, by talking about them, by thematising them, they are somehow answered, without noticing that the answers are really questions rephrased as words of worship, praise and adulation, or are simply the same questions asked in the context of worship.

In debating theologians, or any believers, I’d like to ask them, “Precisely how has religion answered any of The Big Questions?”  If they adduce the Golden Rule, one can say that that moral dictum came from Confucius, and probably well before. Any “answer” common to most faiths will have been arrived at with equal ease by secular reason. As for the other Big Questions, like “What is our purpose?” or “How are we saved?”, every religion has a different answer. Faith cannot answer any questions, scientific or otherwise, at least not in a way that holds for all people. (Scientific answers, in contrast, are valid for everyone.)

Eric’s post is much meatier than I can convey here, but go over and see how he defends his claim that the idea of finding truth through revelation is completely incoherent.

Thanks, Uncle Eric!

50 Comments

  1. Posted January 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations are in order to you for finishing. At least no religious person can say you are cherry picking the parts of the bible you don’t like.
    Eric’s post is quite good and interesting.

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I think one big value of having read the Bible is that it will convict the religious of their own hypocrisy (at least inside). VERY VERY few Christians have read the bible through, yet they claim it is the divine word of God, the guide for our lives. How embarrassing to know that atheists, who think it’s just a bad book, have read it when you haven’t. Just today, a Christian friend posted on Facebook an article full of tips to help Christians follow through on their New Years resolution to read the Bible through. It’s frank about the fact that most people fail at this resolution.

      That’s how boring and badly written the Bible is, that even if you actually believe it is from the hand of God himself…. ugh… you just can’t do it.

      I would not trust any statistics that purport to say how many Christians have read the Bible cover to cover, since who wants to admit to a poll they haven’t, but from my first hand experience in a fundamentalist church where Bible reading was considered a personal duty and Bible knowledge was overtly tested, even in this group I’d say that much less than 10% have ever read the whole thing. It’s astonishing,really, and this fact alone stands as proof of the human origins of the Bible.

    • Posted January 14, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

      Yup, you have my congrats too, Jerry. I’ve tried to get through the bible 3 times in my life, & have pooped out 3 times. I’d rather read Stephen King or Terry Pratchett in the realm of fiction. Given the number of books that continue to be published annually, I’ll stick withe something that doesn’t put me to sleep.

      • Posted January 14, 2013 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        am in the process of reading the book and some passages are so boring that one can’t help sleeping. what was these people thinking giving rules on bbq and presents for priests.

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    but for now I’m satisfied with the King James version.

    Buybull scholars will tell you that the King James Version is a poor translation from poor sources.
    Just one oddity: the KJV contains numerous references to corn, even though corn(maize) is a New World crop. Many other versions use grain instead.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      In British English, “corn” didn’t use to mean “maize”, it meant any kind of grain.

      • Posted January 14, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Yes, it still does, although perhaps the usage isn’t so prevalent now. But, usually, in England corn meant wheat and if one was referring to say barley, one would say “barley corn”. In Scotland corn more commonly means oats, I think. Certainly, one wouldn’t visualise Ruth “amid the alien corn” as a girl standing in a maize field :).

    • Daryl
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read that the KJV isn’t that bad a translation. Yes, it was based on later manuscripts as you say, but there was probably less doctrinal bias in translation than what you find in the New International Version, a modern version that tends to skewer everything in an evangelical direction.

      I’m certainly not advocating some KJV only policy as many fundamentalists do (something that almost borders on some kind of literary fetish) but it does have its plus points, like this gem, from Deuteronomy 23:1 –

      He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

      ‘Wounded in the stones.’ That’s marvellously evocative.

      • Miles_Teg
        Posted January 14, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

        I like the KJV. Why? I just do. The one I use is the New Scofield Reference Bible. It has some of the more archaic language modernised and later MSS used where it’s important. I’ve tried the NIV but don’t enjoy reading it as much, as I just like early C17 English and the NIV adds supplied words (to make the text flow in English) whereas the KJV puts them in italics so you know what was in the original and what is supplied by the translator.

  3. Alex Shuffell
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Good luck with the Qur’an. It’s just as boring as most of the bible, but most of the hatred and genocide is gone and it’s much shorter. And you’ll always have the criticism that you read it in the wrong language.

    If you haven’t already, read some Norse mythology by Snorri Sturlusson. The Prose Edda and Saga of The Volsungs. They are genuinely exciting stories, regardless of the historical context. The introductions by Jesse Byock to the Penguin editions are worth their own books.

  4. Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Excellent read and I thank you, Jerry. May I suggest that it was most helpful to have the assist of an Imam when reading the Qur’an. There are many that can assist without attempting to covert. The same could be said about learning the Old or New Testaments, in their original languages. Though I believe you have a complete idea of the use and forces within that book.

    • Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Convert – sorry typo or just poor editing.

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Excellent idea.

  5. Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    You and Uncle need to write English which does not hurt my eyes.

    OK, on to your ‘Theology.’ You did not say much worthy of reflection. That does not surprise me since Theology is not your expertise. However, you seem to believe Confucius wrote the Golden Rule and implied we would have that without Religion ….

    OK. Is that valid to a point? And if so, how far is that valid? His influence upon the Monks was HUGE. I do not believe his wisdom would have survived if it had not melded with Buddhism.

    Do you believe Confucius thought would have survived without Buddhism?

    ghost.

    • Larry C
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      We would have the Golden Rule without Confucius.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your insulting post–NOT. I did not say Confucius originated the Golden Rule; I said he promulgated it, and it was undoubtedly earlier.

      I won’t respond to your other points because you won’t be posting here again. We don’t write English for your benefit.

    • Dan
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read several of your posts the last few days, and find it very ironic that you are criticizing the English of Jerry and Eric. Just a friendly suggestion, if people can tell English is your second language from your writing then you probably shouldn’t criticize other people for their English, especially clear writers like Jerry and Eric.

  6. Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I was checking out the albums on the Facebook page you link to in the “LOLzy publicity” post and found the “Great Writers” page with this quote from Robert A Heinlein apropos to this post: “The Bible is such a gargantuan collection of conflicting values that anyone can ‘prove’ anything from it.” See http://tinyurl.com/bcsq3kf

    • lisa
      Posted January 15, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I think Jesus said that.

  7. Posted January 14, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:
    WOW.

    Absolutism.

    And I thought absolutism was contrary to most Scientific thought.

    OK. Jerry brings up his having read the Bible in King James – and that is an accomplishment. Congratulations on that.

    However, he wrote his reason was to be able to argue against the Bible. And only to argue against.

    Does that speak against his motive? Or, for his motive?

    I find that disturbing …. how do we get past prejudice and hatred if we must suspect a Scientist’s motive? Can we?

    Ghost.

    • Larry C
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Mr. Coyne obviously does not need anyone to defend him, but I can’t stand the way you changed what he wrote and then attacked it. “…if I’m to continue engaging with religion I need the benefit of being familiar with scripture.” That’s not the same as writing that his reason is to argue against the bible and only against. Anybody can win an argument they pick if they get to invent the other side’s position. Try writing something honest.

      • SLC
        Posted January 15, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        Its Professor Coyne or Dr. Coyne. He worked hard to attain those titles and thus is entitled to them.

        • Larry
          Posted January 15, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

          You are right. I apologize, Dr. Coyne. I wasn’t thinking about anything except the offense I took at TheWordpressGhost’s deceitful misquote. Thank you for correcting me.

  8. Pliny
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I recommend Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Job. His introduction is an eye-opener about the structure of the beginning and end of the book, and resolves the problem of the “false note” ending. Best wishes.

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      +1 for that. It’s also a great deal shorter than the original, cutting out one entire friend, the most long winded and odious friend, on the premise that this friend’s monologue was pious addition to the text long after the original was set down.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Coynegrats!

    the Song of Songs, a lively erotic work of some subtlety,

    Translation: “It has smut too!”
    :-)

  10. gluonspring
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    ” Holy books are illusions that people play with words.”

    Indeed. And holy books benefit from being something almost impossible to read and comprehend. If they were engaging and easy to read and easy to comprehend people would read and comprehend them, and then reject them for their overt errors and obvious perfidy. The very low quality of the Bible (and, I presume, other holy texts, though I don’t know first hand) serves as a kind of shield for it, keeping it’s true content hidden and providing room for religious leaders to fill in whatever they desire.

  11. Alektorophile
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I tried to read the Book of Mormon once, out of boredom in a NM motel, but I had to give up after an hour or so. Twain’s “Chloroform in print” assessment was far too kind. Still, I did manage to read parts of the BofM’s account of the prehistory of the Americas. How anybody in their right mind can believe any of it, when it is so patently false and utterly conflicts with everything we know about the prehistory of the New World never ceases to amaze me. The phone book in the drawer next to it turned out being much more interesting and better written.

    As for the Bible, it was required reading for two of the core classes when I was an undergraduate in college. Never again. Funny how the text that inspired so much great literature and art largely lacks any literary merit itself.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

      There’s also an enormous style-problem with the BofM. It is a poorly educated farm boy’s naive impression of the genuinely elegant King James Bible.

      When I teach English composition or coach for the writing portion of the SAT, I always mention the rule to vary your sentence structure!! A widely distributed sample of a “bad essay” in SAT coaching circles is one that has five consecutive sentences beginning with the word “Abigail”. The Bk of Mrmn on several occasions has nearly TEN(10) sentences beginning with the phrase “And it came to pass”!!! I noticed this 30 years ago, but congratulate Christopher Hitchens for being just about the first writer I found to mention it in print!!!

      • steeve
        Posted January 15, 2013 at 4:07 am | Permalink

        In a Virginia hotel bedside drawer last year, I also found and then started reading the Book of Mormon. The “And it came to pass” hit me in the head so hard that it is one of the only things I remember clearly from the writing “style”. I kept bursting out laughing with sarcastic shouts of “OMG There it is again” to my wife and kids. Really, really, really, very, very, very bad writing. Really, it is very, very bad!(snark)

    • Posted January 14, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      I live in upstate NY & once attended the Mormon pageant in Palmyra. Believable it wasn’t.

    • lisa
      Posted January 15, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I agree with your assessment (and Twain’s)of BofM. I try hard to not be judge mental, but once a person tells me he/she is LDS, I have a hard time taking anything they say seriously.

      • lisa
        Posted January 15, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I also try hard to not be judgmental.

  12. Gordon Hill
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    If you have trouble falling asleep, try Dianetics.

    • Miles_Teg
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      I use The Bell Curve by Herrenstein and Murray for insomnia, although the Qu’ran has much the same effect. The latter is the most boring and repetitive book I’ve ever read. Mohamed sure had a one track mind.

      • SLC
        Posted January 15, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        The Bell Curve is at least as fictional as the (un)holy babble.

  13. Posted January 14, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations on finishing the Bible!
    On to the Tibetan Book of the Dead! :-)

  14. Sastra
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    from Eric:

    … the answers are really questions rephrased as words of worship, praise and adulation, or are simply the same questions asked in the context of worship.

    And outside the context of revealed theology and into natural theology, the “explanations” are simply questions rephrased as answers.

    Where do morals come from? A moral source. Where does reason come from? A reason force. Where did consciousness come from? A consciousness force. Where does meaning come from? A meaning source. Where did life come from? A life force. Where did the universe come from? A creation source — a creation source which is the force of creation in its creative nature of creativity essence. And energy.

    Supernatural answers are empty non-explanations.

  15. Yiam Cross
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    ” If they adduce the Golden Rule, one can say that that moral dictum came from Confucius, and probably well before. ”

    Seems like chimps have a sense of fair play,

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20973753

    I wonder how god gave them their morality? I mean, they couldn’t possibly have worked it out for themselves, could they?

    I guess next time some religious fundiot accuses the godless of acting like animals we could all utter a heartfelt “I wish”.

    The search for the simian bible will now commence or they’re going to have to concede that no god is required for morality to spontaneously and accidentally arise.

  16. Stonyground
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    The Bible that I read from cover to cover was the RSV. Oddly I find it more readable than more modern translations, don’t know why.

    I only managed half of the Koran. It isn’t as long but it is intensely boring and very repetative. It might be an easier read if all the repeats were deleted, because it would be a whole lot shorter.

    • lisa
      Posted January 15, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      I really wish someone would do that before I try to read it again.

  17. Posted January 15, 2013 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    “I’m going to reread the Qur’an[...]”

    Interesting! It’s a difficult book even though much of it contains material that will now be familiar to you since you’ve read the Bible. But the Qur’anic versions of the stories are opaque and often, in order to make any sense of it at all, you have to know what the story is about! I used to study Arabic before going to make a living from music, and I should still have notes on all sorts of explanations about the difficult points – both traditional views and revisionist views. So please post (or email) about all the incomprehensibilites and I’ll try to find explanations! :) BTW, which translation will you use? And don’t pay any attention to those who claim you will have to read it in Arabic to make sense of it!

  18. gbjames
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Once finished with the Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon, I suppose one moves on to The Urantia Book?

  19. lisa
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that congratulations are exactly in order, but you accomplished something you wanted to do for laudable reasons, so that’s at least a “good job!” I personally have read the bible some number more than 10 times. (However, I still can’t get through all 74 pages of ‘Red Badge of Courage’ without falling asleep.)My reasons for reading such a tomb were legion (just a little religious humor, sorry) I realized by the second grade that different ‘versions’ of the bible made for very different meanings. (We were doing Job as a play, and my bible had the line as “Curse God and die” where the other student’s said “Bless God and die.”) As far as I am aware, there are 3 main versions: the Ethiopian, the Catholic (not sure where Eastern Orthodox goes) and the protestant. The essential difference is the number of books excluded or included. There are also several new ‘books’ discovered, like those in the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose authenticity haven’t been “blessed.”But the problem (like the difference in ‘curse’ and ‘bless’) is which translation you read. The bible was written over the course of many centuries and in several languages. A word could have several meanings (especially the more primitive languages) depending not only in the context of one sentence, but a large amount of language before and after. Sometimes it varied by its position on the page. Most of the earliest translators did not understand this, so the earliest translations tell a whole different story than the next, depending on the education of the translator (this was a lot less important than one might think) and how regulated spelling was. This, by the way, is why I cannot even vaguely understand anyone taking the bible literally; which one? I read it once as a young child, another time because it was required in school, several other times once I got really interested in how it differed from one translation to the next, and a few other times because I realized that my age at the time made a great deal of difference in how I interpreted what I was reading. Understand that in the culture I lived in then, it was a good idea to know the bible if you weren’t willing to blindly accept what you were told. I think I got to that by about age 4 (so my parents said.) I am planning one more time because they are publishing an entirely new translation employing many different linguistic anthropologists and other scholars and going back to what remains of the original texts and for those whose original text are gone, they have taken what has been determined, after a great deal of comparisons and studies of how languages change over time, to be closest to what the authors intended to say.
    I have read several different ‘stories’ form the Hindu holy books and some sort of ‘Hindu for Dummies’, and I’m hoping to find a proper translation of The Vedas, and I am going to try the Quran again along with the Book of Mormon. I am doing this because of an anthropological interest and I very much doubt I will have any kind of Great Awakening, especially from the last 2; I do expect to get some sleep. I have great hopes of completing this before I die. The only 2 books that have beaten me so far are Red Badge of Courage and Moby Dick. Perhaps once inspired by all this religiosity, I might even finish them.

  20. lisa
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Sorry; I had no idea that comment was so long. Must be possessed by Melville again.


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