Monday, October 8, 2012

The Secular Lens and The Bible

Charlie Fuqua, an Arkansas legislator, has written a book (entitled God's Law) in which he recommends following a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (quoted below) that lays out how to execute children--Yes, capital punishment for children!--who have been "rebellious" against their parents. What's more, because the Bible lays out a role for the "elders of the city" in adjudicating this grisly form of discipline, Mr. Fuqua proposes instituting this passage from Deuteronomy as public effing policy. This morning, I read the news of Fuqua's book in horror, but not shock. Its horror should be self-explanatory to any rational person reading this. Its lack of shock-value should be obvious to anyone with any knowledge or interest in the way the base of the Republican Party has been careening toward apocalyptic insanity in recent years. And by "recent years" I mean the last 40 or 50.

It is worth it to read the original article, the Good Book itself, just to get the full flavor of how wicked and vile holy scriptures can be. Here's the unholy passage cited by Mr. Fuqua (Deut. 21:18-21):

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

It is vaguely interesting that Fuqua has decided this passage refers to children, since "glutton, and a drunkard" would seem to connote an adult offender. Regardless, there are other questions begged here. Aside from the obvious questions about how much influence Fuqua has on, well, anyone, and how might we go about committing him to a psychiatric lockdown facility, there are more general religious questions raised by Fuqua's disturbing fundamentalist worldview. Do his views discredit only fundamentalism, or do they discredit all religion?

Sam Harris and other atheists have put forth the idea that even liberal religion is evil, for it gives cover to more violent strains of fundamentalism. This is a view of religion that I do not understand. I have found neither Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation nor interviews with him to be very convincing on this point (I have yet to finish The End of Faith as of this writing). Writing recently in The Humanist, Rob Boston echoes my own frustration with what I think of as atheist purism:

Blanket assertions that all religious people are stupid or that mainline faiths are just apologists for fundamentalism (or, worse yet, gateways to it) aren't only untrue, they're not helpful. They alienate and insult the millions of Americans who belong to moderate or liberal faith communities, people who share none of the values of politicized fundamentalism. [Emphasis mine.]

I have come to an alternative secular view. There are parts of the Bible, however few, that are moral ("love your neighbor"), and there are many other parts (see above) that are utterly immoral. We discern the "good parts" from the "bad parts" precisely because the good parts comport with a modern, enlightened, and reasoned view of secular morality.

What Fuqua has done is to discard the modern enlightened view, and that's the difference, to me, between fundamentalism and liberal or moderate religion. Parts of the Bible can be salvaged if they support actual moral behavior. But that also makes those parts of the Bible no more or less holy than the secular moral philosophies of Spinoza or A. Philip Randolph or Bertrand Russell or Paul Kurtz, to name just a few.

I don't think most religionists are fundamentalists. But those who are not fundamentalists perhaps forget that what makes them not-fundamentalist in the first place is that they look at their own religion and religion in general through the lens of the Enlightenment and modernity. A liberal or moderate religious person judges religious texts in a way not much different than that of a secularist.

Even fundamentalists use "the secular lens" when reading Scripture, only they use it much more sparingly. Of course, they would never admit this. But they don't take the Bible so literally as to propose, for example, that rapists should be allowed to buy their victims as brides for 50 pieces of silver (Deut. 22:28-29). Chances are, however, that Fuqua's working on that for his next book.

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