Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cherry-Picking Sacred Texts: An Obvious Double Standard

I recently had a Facebook conversation with a few friends that began based upon a conflict now occurring in New York concerning whether or not a mosque should be allowed to be constructed near ground zero. The conversation went on for a couple of days and ran in many different directions most of which dealt with trying to determine the actual facts about the issue and then arguing over the political and moral ideas surrounding the issue. I was by far the weakest and most ill-equipped for the conversation. American political issues are always of interest to me and like so many I have my own opinions but I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of the subject in all its subtleties is limited in large part because of my ignorance of the daily developments in current events. But the issues that always perk me up the most are any that bump into religion or philosophy in any way. This issue of course ran into the issue of religion due to the fact that it was a mosque that American Muslims were trying to build and all the issues and problems surrounding Islam as a whole in the United States.

Now it seems like every time I have some sort of conversation that runs into Islam in anyway it is not long before the Quran begins to be quoted in an attempt to demonstrate the moral or ethical shortcomings of Islam or to prove it to be inherently warlike in nature. And I never fail to be the one to speak up against my friends (or whoever) cautioning them in their attempt to prove or disprove something about Islam based upon cherry-picking from the Quran or from isolated historical examples. Cherry-picking is a tool that merely proves what one already believes. The whole is never examined rather small chunks are picked, which display exactly, or so they think, what the picker is trying to prove. When seen for what it is cherry-picking merely exposes the pickers for what they are, ignorant and or lazy.

When looking at Islam most of my Christian friends begin any study or examination of it assuming that it is false, which makes any of their conclusions problematic from the start. But what is good is that they look at Islam from outside of the system of Islam itself and try to use evidence and reason to make their judgments. It should be noted that while I do believe all people should be considered equal in value by no means should all opinions be regarded as equal in value and since most of the people I discuss Islam with study so little of it’s beliefs, scriptures and history their opinions and judgments are all but worthless in any serious effort to understand Islam but still I believe they rely more on their reason to judge Islam and that is good. They examine the evidence, no matter how little of it they actually bother to look at, and then they make their judgment. But then once Christianity is brought into the conversation everything changes. The method and tools they used to examine Islam (reason and evidence) get thrown out the window and new methods and tools are adopted (faith and mystery) all of which are designed to protect and maintain the belief that is already assumed at the beginning. Christianity is not examined from outside of the system rather it is only looked at through the rose colored glasses of a believer. Science and reason are used only in so much as they help defend the faith and are quickly abandoned and even attacked when they become problematic to the pre-held beliefs that are trying to be affirmed. Any attempt to cherry-pick bible verses or use singular historical examines is quickly pounced upon as not fair. It is explained that one cannot judge the whole of Christianity based upon single verses in scripture or disprove it based upon historical examples because humans are sinners and we must understand that people often do not live the way a true Christian is supposed to live.

What is encouraging is that the idiocy of cherry-picking and limited study has become obvious to the picker even if it is only because it is now being used against the religion of the picker herself. But what is truly frustrating is seeing how the picker uses two completely different systems to judge a religion that is not her own and one that is her own. She looks from the outside and relies on reason and demands evidence when examining a different religion but then suddenly changes and jumps inside and relies on faith and mystery to protect her from ever actually examining her own religion.

Now cherry-picking from any sacred scriptures or religion’s history is a poor way to prove a point. The fact of the matter is that no Abrahamic religion does everything its scriptures tell them to do or believes everything their scriptures say to believe due to the simple fact that their scriptures contradict themselves over and over again. The reason these religions have theologians and philosophers are because their systems are in constant need of maintenance due to their complex (contradictory) set of beliefs and traditions. The Quran like the bible has not been static in its meaning rather what it means and how it has been understood has changed throughout history based upon the context it was in and who was reading and extrapolating meaning from it. Both Christians and Muslims always create a canon within a canon meaning when they read the bible or Quran there are verses that come to be held in higher regard which are then used to understand and interpret other and often very unpleasant verses and commands.

I want to share some writing of Mark Twain. First just because I love Mark Twain’s writing on religion. He is insightful, witty and forceful. I believe he offers some wonderful thoughts on the evolutionary nature of biblical interpretation and displays what I mean by a canon within a canon. Further he shows not only how the Church continues to change and adapt their understanding of what the scriptures mean but also that they change and adapt only after society has changed. Truly the Church changes far too slowly and only when forced to and I believe these observations could be made of Islam too, though of course the specific examples Twain uses can not be applied to Islam. Any emphasis made in the text is my own. Twain writes,

The Christian Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes. For eighteen hundred years these changes were slight—scarcely noticeable. The practice was allopathic—allopathic in its rudest and crudest form. The dull and ignorant physician day and night, and all the days and all the nights, drenched his patient with vast and hideous doses of the most repulsive drugs to be found in the store’s stock; he bled him, cupped him, purged him, puked him, salivated him, never gave his system a chance to rally, nor nature a chance to help. He kept him religion sick for eighteen centuries, and allowed him not a well day during all that time. The stock in the store was made up of about equal portions of baleful and debilitation poisons, and healing and comforting medicines; but the practice of the time confined the physician to the use of the former; by consequence, he could only damage his patient, and that is what he did.

Not until far within our century was any considerable change in the practice introduced…The patient fell to doctoring himself, and the physician’s practice began to fall off. He modified his method to get back his trade. He did it gradually, reluctantly; and never yielded more at a time than the pressure compelled, At first he relinquished the daily does of hell and damnation, and administered it every other day only; next he allowed another day to pass; then another and presently another; when he had restricted it at last to Sundays, and imagined that now there would surely be a truce, the homeopath arrived on the field and made him abandon hell and damnation altogether, and administered Christ’s love, and comfort, and charity and compassion in its stead. These had been in the drug store all the time, gold labeled and conspicuous among the long shelf loads of repulsive purges and vomits and poisons, and so the practice was to blame that they had remained unused, not the pharmacy. To the ecclesiastical physician of fifty years ago, his predecessor for eighteen centuries was a quack; to the ecclesiastical physician of today, his predecessor of fifty years ago was a quack. To the every-man-his-own-ecclesiastical-doctor of—when?—what will the ecclesiastical physician of today be?...

The methods of the priest and the parson have been very curious; their history very entertaining. In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slave, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers. If any could know, to absolute certainty, that all this was right, and according to God’s will and desire, surely it was she, since she was God’s specially appointed representative in the earth and sole authorized and infallible expounder of his Bible. There were the texts; there was no mistaking their meaning; she was right, she was doing in this thing what the Bible had mapped out for her to do. So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery. Yet now at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending and expedition to Africa to stop it. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession—and take the credit of the correction. As she will presently do in this instance

Our own conversion came at last. We began to stir against slavery. Hearts grew soft, here, there, and yonder. There was no place in the land where the seeker could not find some small budding sign of pity for the slave. No place in all the land but one—the pulpit. It yielded at last; it always does. It fought a strong and stubborn fight, and then did what it always does, joined the procession—at the tail end. Slavery fell. The slavery text remained; the practice changed, that was all.

During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.

Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch—the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything. At Salem, the parson clung pathetically to his witch text after the laity had abandoned it in remorse and tears for the crimes and cruelties it had persuaded them to do. The parson wanted more blood, more shame, more brutalities; it was the unconsecrated laity that stayed his hand. In Scotland the parson killed the witch after the magistrate had pronounced her innocent; and when the merciful legislature proposed to sweep the hideous laws against witches from the statute book, it was the parson who came imploring, with tears and imprecations, that they be suffered to stand.

There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.

Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.

The Quran clearly has no shortage of texts commanding evil and legislating horrors that no modern person would support and the modern Christian is often aware and quite excited to point these out. Yet the bible also has no shortage of texts commanding evil and legislating horrors that no modern person would support but the modern Christian is all but blind to these texts and ignorant of how they have been understood and used throughout history. As Twain notes the texts will always remain the same but people will continue to change and with them so too will what the bible “actually” means change. People will continue to find ways to get their god off the hook for the evils done in his name and the texts that supposedly bear his authorship when the simple fact is that if their god exists no one is more to blame for evil than himself. If one is capable of stopping evil from happening and does not stop it one is responsible for the evil that happens and even more so if that person or being is the one who commanded the evil to be done in the first place.

So as usual I’m sure I will be seen as defending Islam, which in a way I am but not in the way that I believe it is usually perceived. When most hear me warn them not to judge Islam based on isolated verses or singular historical examples they see that as me trying to show them that Islam is as valid and good as Christianity but my warnings to my friends are not meant to show them that Islam is as “good” as they perceive Christianity to be but rather to show them that Christianity is as “bad” as they perceive Islam to be. Both worship the same god, though many would dispute that, and the evil they see in the god of Islam is an evil they seem happily blind to in their own version of that same god. So as time goes on I truly hope that more people will stop cherry-picking from other faith's sacred texts and histories but rather put in the time and effort to study that which they seek to judge and more importantly I hope more people will be brave enough to examine and judge their own faith by the same standards they examine and judge other faiths, now that would be truly wonderful.

I will add on a side note that both the Quran and Bible deserve to be read and enjoyed. One cannot even begin to understand the history, philosophy, politics or really any significant aspect of the West without solid exposure to these texts. I think English often does not do the Quran justice but it is a beautiful piece of writing despite many of the unpleasant messages it supports and don’t be fooled it supports ideas of justice and fairness that were well ahead of its time and superior to many texts of the bible.

I had a great conversation concerning this piece. Check it out

1 comment:

  1. informative, thought provoking--great work. I really enjoyed reading this and look forward to reading more of your blogs.