Book Challenge

A while back, I wrote a post about a challenge given to me by a Christian proselytizer on my campus. If I read a book of their choice, they would read one of mine. Unfortunately, they never replied back to me after I emailed them, so it never happened. I don’t know what happened there. Maybe they changed their mind. Maybe the email got lost. No way to tell. But I was pretty disappointed about it, after having put a significant amount of effort into selecting a book.Read More »

On “True” Believers

As a rule, I refuse to debate over who is a “true” adherent of any religion. In my experience, everybody has a different opinion over who is or isn’t a “true” believer. Different people within the same religion say conflicting things about who is doing it “right”. Different sects and denominations say opposing things about which sects and denominations actually belong to their religion. There isn’t any sort of consensus that I have seen, and, as an outsider, I feel like I have even less to say about who is a “true” follower of a religion than those who are actually part of the religion. And since everyone disagrees with each other, I can’t just take anybody’s word for it that this person or that person isn’t a “true” adherent (unless that person themself says “no, actually I was just faking it”).Read More »

The Bible for Dummies

So, a couple of weeks ago, I had to return my copy of the Bible to the library because I ran out of renewals. Unlike the last time this happened, I couldn’t find another copy of the exact same Bible on the shelf. I wanted to keep reading the same version (NRSV), so I decided I’d just wait until the next time I came to the library to get one (probably the exact same copy I’d just returned, hehe). Basically the same thing happened with my copy of the Qur’an, except that I couldn’t even find the shelf with the Qur’ans on it. That bothered me because obviously I’d been able to find it before, and I knew I was looking in the right part of the library. Well, I guess it’s a lot harder to find a book when the various available copies take up at most one shelf, rather than several bookshelves. I did find it on a later trip to the library, but the only copies there were the one I’d checked out before (which I wasn’t sure how well I liked) and a handful of copies which were very large and heavy. Honestly, the most important factor in picking out a version of a holy book, to me (aside from obvious things like it being in a language that I am fluent in), is that it be comfortable to hold in my hands, so it is easy to carry around and read. So, I decided not to get a copy of the Qur’an from the library on that particular visit. I also passed on checking out a copy of the Bible because I already had several books checked out, and I hadn’t finished any of them, yet.

Anyway, having returned both my copy of the Bible and of the Qur’an without checking out replacement copies, I decided to get some different books from the library. I skimmed through an interesting book on Wicca but ending up checking out a book about Shinto, a book about Hinduism, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and a copy of The Bible for Dummies. The Bible for Dummies had some information about where the Bible comes from, and that was what I was most interested in. I finally got around to poking through The Bible for Dummies today, and I was somewhat disappointed. Although it had some good information, I didn’t learn as much as I had hoped about the origins of the Bible and the various translations available. I think what I really want is a more detailed, more scholarly work on the subject, as opposed to an introductory volume which only dedicates one chapter to the subject.

The section they wrote about how to choose which translation of the Bible to read got me thinking, though. They talked about literal vs. paraphrased versions, among other things, and their primary focus was on which type of translation might be more suited for which sort of reason for reading the Bible. The generic reasons they offered as being common ones to read the Bible didn’t really match up with my reasons for reading it. What exactly do I want to get out of reading the Bible, anyway? In my project of learning about religion, I suppose there are at least three things I am looking for. One is reading various holy texts for myself to see what they actually say and to form my own opinions and ideas about them. Another is to read about religious people’s own views of their religion. In this context, believers’ interpretations of their holy text(s) are more interesting than the texts themselves (for religions which have holy texts). The last thing I am looking for is outsider views of the religion and its adherents. It’s really easy to find outsider views on, say, Islam in a majority Christian nation (books on Islam written from outsider perspectives absolutely dominate my local library’s shelves in the section on Islam), but it’s a lot harder to find outsider views on Christianity in said majority Christian nation. For instance, I found dozens of books explaining the basics of Islam without assuming any prior knowledge, but I couldn’t find any similar 101 type books about Christianity.

I guess I was hoping I’d found something of a Christianity 101 book when I found The Bible for Dummies, but it’s mostly just a Bible 101 book. The majority of the book seems to be a Cliff’s Notes version of the Bible which also explains various common interpretations of (and even objections to) Bible passages. This could be interesting to me because it’s information about how people interpret the Bible. Then again, it’s written by Bible scholars, and it’s probably not going to tell me that much about the beliefs of the average Christian, who has probably only read a fraction of the Bible. In other words, Christianity 101 and Bible 101 are very different subjects, even though they overlap.

I think I’m basically done with The Bible for Dummies, and when I return it, I’ll check out another NRSV version of the Bible and perhaps a book with more in depth information on the origins of the Bible. In the mean time, I have some books about Hinduism to read, and I’m eager to dig in to those. I barely know anything about Hinduism, and it’s also my first substantial introduction to a polytheistic religion.

Thoughts on Genesis

So, I finally finished reading Genesis, and I’ve only had a copy of the Bible checked out from the library for four months now! Yea, I know, I’m such a fast reader. Well, the only library books I have out from the library at the moment are the Bible, the Qur’an, and a book about the Hadith, so that means I will actually be spending most of my reading time tackling those big, thick holy books, now. I’ll still probably end up returning and checking out a different copy of the exact same Bible a couple of times due to running out of renewals, though. That thing is like 1200 pages, and, well, while it does have its exciting stories, it also has things like incredibly boring and long lists of names and genealogy stuff. It’s not really the sort of book that’s easy to just sit down on the couch and read for five hours straight. I want to say it’s boring because that’s what I always wanted to say when I was a kid but didn’t because it felt like it was wrong to think/say that. Only, the Bible really isn’t all boring. The story of Joseph, for example, is a really great story. It’s got a great deal of irony, and I love irony. I actually didn’t want to put the book down at all when I was reading that story, yesterday, because it was the opposite of boring.

So anyway, one thing I kept noticing while reading through Genesis is how incredibly sexist it is. Women are just not considered to be as important as men. For instance, when genealogy is listed, they pretty much just concentrate on the men. Jacob’s children are listed out multiple times. He had twelve sons, in total. Only one daughter is ever mentioned. It seems far more likely that this is because daughters were not thought to be worth mentioning, rather than that a person had 13 children and only one of them was female. If I am doing my math correctly, then, assuming that a child is equally as likely to be male as to be female, the chance that only one child out of 13 will be female is 0.16%. Now, if this were the only example of this, I might be jumping to conclusions by saying that they usually only bother to mention people’s sons by name. It is a little more difficult to tell in cases where only a list of names is mentioned, because I don’t know how to tell which names are female and which are male and which, if any, can be either male or female. However, some of these lists of names have enough context provided to tell which ones are sons and which are daughters. In the section where the children of the children of Jacob are listed, Joseph has two children listed, both male, and Judah has five children listed, again all male. Noah has three sons; no daughters are mentioned. The three children of Adam that are mentioned by name are all male, although it is said that he had other sons and daughters. Lot had two (unnamed) daughters and no sons… until his daughters got pregnant by him and give birth to two (named) sons. Oh, and that one daughter of Jacob that is even mentioned by name? Her entire role in the story consists of getting raped.

Which brings me right to some of the really scary social norms in the book of Genesis. Women are “given” to be people’s wives. Slavery is totally normal. It’s perfectly ok for men to marry more than one wife (I’m not saying anything about polyamory, but polygamy in a highly patriarchal system tends to work out less than wonderfully for the women). When two of Jacob’s sons kill all of the male inhabitants of a city in revenge for the rape of their sister (the rapist asked to be given their sister as his wife after he raped her… just… what the fuck?), Jacob rebukes them, not for being mass-murderers, but because the other inhabitants in the region outnumber them and would totally destroy them if they attacked. The other brothers loot the city, taking all of the wealth, livestock, children, and wives (the latter two groups, presumably, as slaves).

Now, I understand that people have had different standards of what is considered right and wrong in different times and places and cultures, and I’m sure my own culture has some truly vile social norms that will be pointed out in other times and places (and some of them even in the here and now). However, just because a thing was considered normal at some point in time does not even remotely imply that it is ok. And, worse, this stuff is not just a few examples of ugly, vile social norms that were not unusual in their time and place, these are stories in a book that is considered to be holy and is held up as the ultimate source of morality. These vile social norms are not pointed out in the stories as being in any way bad. They’re just mentioned like they’re… normal. I understand that the Old Testament is usually considered to be less important or less relevant or something to Christians than the New Testament, but it is still used to justify things (e.g. bits of Leviticus are used to justify homophobia) and figures like Abraham (the one who was willing to murder his own son for his god–he also owned slaves) are still held up as role models.

Musings On Religion

So, I’ve been doing more reading on Islam of late, and, since this is really my first non-trivial exposure to a religion other than Christianity, it’s probably inevitable that I would be starting to notice some interesting things about religion in general (though some of the things are probably specific to Abrahamic religions–which makes me look forward to researching non-Abrahamic religions–but really, it is always going to be difficult to say much about religion in general without excluding some type(s) of religion).

One thing that really sticks out is all the prophets. I’ve got to wonder, if god(s) wanted to speak to humans, why would they limit themselves to speaking through specially chosen humans? God(s) are generally thought to be very powerful or even all-powerful, so surely they could choose more reliable modes of communication. So, why use flawed, biased, forgetful (and possibly malicious) individual humans to communicate with humankind? This is not a method of communication that makes sense if god(s) want humans to be able to tell messages from god(s) apart from messages from con artists and crazy people. Even assuming there is at least one true prophet out there, how could they be distinguished from all of the con artists and insane/deluded people who claim to speak to god(s)? Well, I suppose god(s) could add something extra to the communication, like giving their prophet miraculous powers or accurate predictions of the future, but these things can still be faked by con artists in ways that people will readily believe. There are claims of miracles and fulfilled prophecies in many different religions, some of which directly conflict. They can’t all be right. So how can I tell apart the false prophets from the true ones? If anyone actually has a convincing argument for why one particular prophet must be true, I would sincerely love to hear it, but I am not at all convinced that any sensible god(s) would choose such a method of communication when it is so frequently faked by humans.

Another thing that sticks out is religious people framing people who don’t believe in their god(s) as denying god(s)’ existence. In the translation of Abul A’la Maududi’s “Towards Understanding Islam” that I have, he says in the section on the nature of disbelief that a disbeliever “…does not exercise his faculties of reason, intellect and intuition to recognise his Lord and Creator and misuses his freedom of choice by choosing to deny Him.” My Christian roommate seems to have a similar view of unbelievers, consistently phrasing my lack of belief as a denial of god’s existence, no matter how many times I have tried to explain that atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s). There is a significant difference between a lack of belief and denial. Denial implies wrongness, and it hints that, deep down, the person who is denying a thing knows it is true (especially when used in the phrase “in denial”). It can be a condescending word, implying that the person talking about another person’s denial knows more about what is right and more about what that person really thinks than that person does. I wouldn’t go on about the usage of the word denial in Maududi’s book, however, since it is a translation, except he says explicitly what my roommate only implied through word choice, and he goes one step further by specifically calling it a choice. I take issue with this. Beliefs may be influenced by choice, but they are not directly chosen. I cannot simply decide to stop believing in gravity, for instance, and I cannot simply decide to start believing in fairies. If, however, I see some odd, scary shape in the darkness, I may be able to exercise some degree of control (though not complete control) over whether I end up believing it is a monster or a pile of clothes.

The preceding paragraph, though, is really just a good example of another thing I’ve noticed. Religion can shape a person’s entire world view (when I was a Christian, I saw pretty much everything through the lens of Christianity). It’s not surprising that this would lead to people seeing things in subtly, or not so subtly, different ways (lack of belief vs. denial, for instance, or natural human sexual behavior vs. sexual perversions). When people start with different premises, of course they are going to see things in different ways. This is why I think it is important for a person to recognize what they are basing their world view on (religion, science, materialism, idealism, whatever) and to critically analyze that thing in case it is a bad/contradictory/useless premise.