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!