I’m sure that the reader has heard several religious people arguing over differing interpretations of the book to which all subscribe. Yet, this discussion represents only the partition of territory after the region has been occupied and conquered.
More than is the case for most other areas of argument, such discussions have a literary and a utilitarian aspect; what I wish to move is that all actionable derivations from religious texts are equally valid from a literary perspective – the texts themselves are contradictory and lend themselves to elaboration and selectivity. Clearly these derivations will have an ethical rank, but this has nothing to do with scripture but rather with the experience of humans. As such, a given derivation can be an exemplar for malice, but, by definition, has parity with all others if it has literary support. The peril is that if one actually believes in a holy book, one can only ever advance beyond its morality by abandoning it – until that point, the believer will derive their morality arbitrarily and will only live the good life by accident.
To focus (for example) on whether Jesus considered women to be inferior or equal to men is to focus on the pixel and to ignore the image, which is that both contenders believe that they have access to the word of God. Amusingly, it is often the interpretations which are the most tenuous and metaphorical and in some ways weakest, which are the least harmful. It is amusing, also, how believers in a holy book frantically metaphor their way into something like compliance with nature or actual ethics while emphasizing the book’s supremacy – the onus being on them to stop trying to square the circle and to seize the true square.
People who make the claim that absolute truth can be found in an ancient tome dignify all others who do so. Even those, such as the Rowan Williams and the Rabi Jonathan Sachs (whose worldviews are clearly centred around human wellbeing and liberty, they only pretend that they are based on texts) make those who extrapolate rules straight from the pages into their lives seem a little less insane. As I mentioned before, so many religious people behave with decency and intelligence but still labour with their compass and straight edge, attempting to have their book comply with the social precepts of dignity and productivity which civilisation has developed for itself; the true and worthy contention is not between High and Low Church, between Catholic and Orthadox, or between Hindu and Muslim, rather it is between those who think that morality is developed and those who think that it is revealed.
So, I don’t care much for that style of debate, the true cause of humanitarianism is the human, and, while there is a moral gulf between radical and moderate religion, the gulf between believing innocuous impossible nonsense for no reason and believing deadly impossible nonsense for no reason is far smaller than that which lies between those two and not believing in anything without the proper evidence – people can and do traverse the former gulf. The first two categories include, of course, Lysenkoism, Homeopathy, Dianetics and all those other absurdities which people force themselves to believe. Really, such derivations from holy books are correct only when is impossible to be wrong (in as much as the way a poem makes you feel cannot be wrong) and when it is possible to be right are usually wrong – in the domain of human experience, where wellbeing can be measured and tested.
Reza Aslan, whose appearance on Fox News was viral recently, once expressed this dichotomy exactly. He spoke words to the effect of: ‘When religion goes bad, people blame religion; when science goes bad, people don’t blame science. Science should be blamed when it messes up.’ Definitionally, his argument is backwards. If falsehood and/or harm result when a scientist fabricates their results or permits sloppy technique, their actions are no longer science; when someone diverges from the scientific method they are no longer a scientist. Different readings of religious books, however, aren’t so categorical – the Jehovah’s Whitnesses’ reading of the Christian bible is just as supported, patchy and picky as that of any other denomination. The only meaningful distinction between denominations is external, id est how they affect their adherents. In instances in which science is wrong or harmful it will have been diverted from the principles of openness, repeatability and double-blind testing; when religions are violent, backward and prejudiced, faith will be present to the same extent as when they are mild.
All instances in which speakers claim that science caused suffering are ones in which the scientific principles were jettisoned. In the case of Nazi policies (for example), which people often cite as following the principles of Natural Selection, their prescriptions were contrary to Natural Selection, which favoured diversity (to say nothing of how the leaders are supposed to have extrapolated social policy from a theory which only explained things as they are). When religious fanatics act on their beliefs one has no recourse to scripture, the warrant for all their crimes can be found there, the only recourse is to reality and to the freedom, wellbeing and suffering of conscious creatures. This is the only domain in which truth can be apprehended and the only domain which matters.
Of course, the above makes no reference to the spiritual or to questions of art or music. Nevertheless, these questions can no more be true or false than they can be tested, and why would one want to do so? People will be moved by scripture, by spiritual practice or by art, and the reality of their experience is as true it is possible for things to be. Danger exists when the subjective reasoning which is used to determine these questions is used to make claims on legal or cosmic subjects, as religions always do. The only way in which one can address subjects such as whether a given work is moving is subjectively – when one speaks with this sort of reasoning on questions which do have factual and testable answers, the results are impoverishing.
The above probably represent two of the most significant con-jobs in the history of thought – the idea that something which manifests beyond the confines of the mind is true simply because it resonates, and the idea that responsibility for ethics can be transferred to scripture which supposedly transcends humanity. This is alongside the idea that faith can mean anything in a discussion of reality.
Lawrence Krauss tells a very amusing story about science and theology. To summarize, he asks an individual from a given scientific field to name the way in which their field has advanced human knowledge; for example a biologist would answer that their discipline helped to discover the enzymes which operate human biochemistry. The answers are of this sort for most sciences. Then Krauss reaches a theologian, who, when asked ‘How has your field advanced human knowledge.’, answers: ‘What do you mean by “knowledge”.’ I move that these three cons represent the bulk of the explanation for why a theologian would answer in this way, and why so many religions claim knowledge which they can’t have – with about as much to show for it in the real world as one would expect given these premises.