Monday, August 24, 2009

Bullshit Pulpit: So help me, Pythagoras...

Pop Quiz! The Bible contains which two of the following three things (answered by clicking, so don't cheat):
1. Instructions on how to sell one's daughter into slavery.
2. An explicit declaration that rape is morally wrong.
3. A proclamation that God is as strong as a unicorn.
If you answered 1 and 3, congratulations! You know your Bible! Next, please rank the following three ideas in order from greatest importance to least:
1. The lives and rights of women are just as important as those of men.
2. The comparative strength of God against that of other mythical creatures.
3. People are not property.
If you ranked 2 last, congratulations! You're civilized! Finally, please reconcile your answer to the previous question with the fact of the matter of the first. If you're an atheist, or some manner of theist who acknowledges that the Bible is just some book written by primitive men with a whole mess of backward ideas, congratulations! You're rational!

Now I shall abruptly switch gears. Suppose that I hold up a math textbook in one hand, and while gesturing wildly with the other, I proclaim that I believe everything in this book is true. Yes, I know that you know where I'm going with this, just trust me for now. Suppose also that you ask me, "Well, do you believe that the quantity, 'A plus B,' squared, is equal to A squared plus two AB plus B squared?" And suppose once more that I respond, "Preposterous twaddlecock!"

Well, as it happens, (a+b)2=(a2+2ab+b2) is a quadratic equation, and these are among the foundations of algebra. Also, the book in my hand is a high-school algebra textbook, so it damn well ought to be in there. Page 382, for the sake of argument. The point here is not whether this quadratic equation is true or not, or whether my math book has any errors or not; the point is that, by pronouncing my belief in a book I have not read and do not fully understand, I have put myself in a position to look awfully silly.

Let's shift back to the original topic of this evening's symposium: Biblical and moral pop quizzes. Respondents may be grouped by their answers and I suspect that these groups will have a strong correlation with the beliefs of those respondents. Those who recognize that the Bible does not say that rape is wrong will, for the most part, turn out to be atheists (or perhaps theologians, but these will be a clear minority unless I somehow acquire a selection bias in favor of theologians). Those who suspect that the Bible does not compare God's strength to that of an imaginary creature will, by and large, turn out to be believers. I'm not sure about that first one, though - it strikes me as less preposterous than 3, but less necessary than 2 - so I'll withhold any predictions about that one for now. And there will of course be those who are neither atheist nor Christian (you know, people who are religious but don't think the Bible is true) who could reject any one of them for a whole host of competing reasons (in America, they'd be a minority).

My point is that Biblical belief, absent Biblical education, will lead to something like the following general thought process in believers: "Hmm... well, the Bible is a morally good book, the word of God in fact, and so 2 is definitely in... and 1 is pretty bad, but 3 is just stupid. If I had to guess, I'd say 3 is the missing one; and I have to guess, so I'm going to say that 3 isn't in there, and 1 & 2 are." BZZT! Wrong! Beliefs about the book formed a rational prediction, and that prediction turned out to be incorrect. Since the prediction was incorrect, we are left to examine the beliefs from which the prediction was formed. I maintain that the Bible is not a morally good book and is not the word of God, but is rather the work of many different men throughout antiquity who didn't know what atoms or germs are and probably thought that unicorns are real. Other answers are possible, though: for instance, God may have been so preoccupied over the possibility of people wearing linen and wool together that he forgot to tell the men of his chosen people that they shouldn't fuck the women of his chosen people against their will. Hey, it's cool, sometimes I forget to pay the gas bill until I get an e-mail about it.

This type of thinking leads to some fairly silly situations, though. Consider the brouhaha over the Ten Commandments, as debated in Alabama (among other places). There are people who believe, and institutions who declare, that the Ten Commandments are an advanced and wonderful set universal moral laws which were ahead of their time and are respected by all societies. Really?! What the fuck?! Do these people even know what the Ten Commandments are?!

No, as it turns out, they don't. Ask a person on the street, or a Christian in church, to name all ten and you will get confused looks at least 90% of the time, and complete answers from perhaps two or three percent (again, unless you've got a selection bias in favor of theologians). Just about everyone will be able to give you "don't kill" and "don't steal." Other popular ones include "honor your parents" and "remember the Sabbath." Let's see if I can get all ten from my desk at work with no Bible (I'm not using SAB to cheat, I promise!):
1. I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any molten gods.
3. Honor thy father and mother.
4. Thou shalt not kill.
5. Thou shalt not steal.
6. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
7. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
8. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his goods, nor his ass, nor his house.
10. Thou... umm... something about yeast?
Shit! Only nine! OK, let's see how I did:
From Exodus 20:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honour thy father and thy mother.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
Argh! So close! OH, WAIT. NO, I AM NOT EVEN CLOSE. You know why? Because those aren't the Ten Commandments. I can prove it right now, too. Just grab your fuckin' Bible and follow along with me, no sleight of hand or shenanigans here at all.

Got your Bible? OK, open up to Exodus 19:20. This is after the Israelites have left their made-up captivity at the hands of the Egyptians (the latest archaeology shows that the Israelites, as they came to be known, were probably the lower classes of extant Canaanite civilizations who rose against, broke stuff, and then ran to the hills, using Egypt as a stand-in for their faceless oppressors), but before the milk and honey hijinks. In chapters 19 and 20, Moses goes on up to Mount Sinai and has a chat with God - no tablets, no commandments, they're just talking - and then Moses comes down. The End. Later on, in Exodus 31, Moses goes back up to Mount Sinai. This time, there is writing, but the Bible itself simply states that God wrote what he and Moses talked about - so it ought to be the same, right? Still no mention of any commandments, though. Well, Moses goes back on down with his two stone liqui-gels tablets, but he sees that Aaron has got them all worshipping a golden calf, so he throws a tantrum the tablets to the ground... no, wait, he throws a tantrum, too... and the tablets break. Then Moses has to talk God out of killing every last fucking Israelite stone-dead (no joke: read Exodus 32:9-14).

Nowhere in this part of the story is the writing on those tablets explicitly reviewed, and neither is this piece of genius referred to at any point thus far as "The Ten Commandments." You have to go back to chapter 20 to get the words themselves which are today called the Ten Commandments, and you have to go forward to Exodus 34:28 to get the word "commandments," and this is a problem. In Exodus 34, it says that Moses goes up Mount Sinai a third time, and this time he writes what was written on the tablets before, which writings bear no apparent relationship to what they had talked about the first time, and only now are they called commandments. So far, so good... except the commandments are entirely different, viz:
1. No other gods.
2. No molten gods. (So far, so good.)
2. Keep the feast of unleavened bread. (What?)
2. Work six days, rest on the seventh. (Oh, OK, back to normal...)
2. Ovserve the feast of weeks, the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end. (That's quite a few parties...)
2. All the male children should appear before God three times a year. (Double-what?!)
2. Don't offer a blood sacrifice with leavening.
2. Don't leave the passover sacrifice until morning.
2. The first of the firstfruits of the land are God's.
2. Don't boil a baby goat in its mother's milk.
Really? I mean, really?! Those are the Ten Commandments? You're goddamned right, they are. That is, until you get to Deuteronomy 5, where we're back to that first conversation that Moses had with God*.

I once had a professor tell me that, convoluted as the Bible was, it does not contain any contradictions because a contradiction is of the form "X is the case, and X is not the case." Leaving aside simple paradoxes (such as "People are good, people are evil," where "evil" means "not good" and therefore "people are evil" means "people are not good"), this is still false because we have here the statement, "The Ten Commandments are A, such that any B which is not A is not the Ten Commandments" (for any statement of A=C, it is implied that there is a B which is not C and is therefore also not A, otherwise A=C is an uninteresting tautology). And then later on we have the statement, "The Ten Commandments are B." So check it out in premise format:
1. A. (Where A is the Ten Commandments in Exodus 34 described as the Ten Commandments).
2. A implies ~B. ("~" means "not," or in this case, "B is not the case," where B is any non-A set of the Ten Commandments.)
3. ~B. (From 1 and 2, above, with modus ponens.)
4. B. (Where B is the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5 or Exodus 20, which is also a non-A set of the Ten Commandments - it's a "true B," in other words.)
So we have here A, A implies ~B, therefore ~B, and B. We have here a contradiction: ~B and B.

Something is wrong here. Options include, but are not limited to:
1. There are actually Twenty Commandments, with some duplicates.
2. Moses wrote it wrong (or dictated it wrong, or was transcribed wrong) in Exodus.
3. Deuteronomy is wrong with respect to the Big Ten, as well as parts of Exodus.
4. God changed his mind.
5. There has been a change which would be rather difficult to trace today and which has resulted in different accounts of what was supposed to be the same mythical (not literal) event.
6. The whole thing's hogwash.
As it happens, 6 is true - but so is 5! (Happily, they're not mutually exclusive like B and ~B, so they can both be true at the same time without contradiction.) You see, some people (who apparently had nothing better to do) have determined that the Old Testament is actually an amalgamation of no less than five distinct sets of writings. One of those sets of writings, the latest one (omitted by the Wikipedia article, it's called "R" for "redactor"), is the result of an ongoing attempt to work the other four into one continuous narrative, and this is why we have the Bible as we have it today (well, that and the third Council of Carthage in AD397). To accomplish this task, many techniques were employed under the general heading of midrash, the important parts of which (for our purposes) amount to the Biblical equivalent of DC re-telling Superman's origin over and over again, or of Nintendo's continuous re-telling of the Legend of Zelda: it is a regular sexing-up of otherwise outdated material for a new generation of audience members. One of these techniques is to take different accounts of the same event, like Moses' trip up Mt. Sinai, and to say that all versions happened in sequence (as opposed to instead of one another).

This professor of mine tried to explain away the "B and ~B" contradiction outlined above - yes, that very one - by saying that since the current version is just a re-telling of several other versions rolled up into one, it's not "really" a contradiction. That's like saying, "Well, you see, the original Superman was named Clark and raised by John and Martha Kent, but the next Superman is named Arthur and raised by John and Martha Dent, and so even though the newest Superman literature says in one place that he's always been named Clark and raised by the Kents, but in another place that he's always been named Arthur and raised by the Dents, it's not really a contradiction because it's just a re-telling." Oh, and don't forget that a whole lot of people worship Superman in this hypothetical world, insist that his comic-book history is the inspired word of Superman (who is perfect and therefore never lies) which is without flaw or error, and also that when people die they will be either resurrected by Superman to live in the Fortress of Solitude with him (for serious!) or they will be imprisoned in the Phantom Zone forever.

That's stupid.

Anyway, I really think that if more people read their damn Bibles, we'd have a lot fewer believers. Or at least a lot fewer literalists (though there would still be some). Also, I want to swear on math textbooks in a courtroom now. "Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you Pythagoras?" "I do, so help me Pythagoras."

- - -
* - Extra Credit: OK, so there are a few other things going on here as well. First of all, beyond Moses arguing with God (that's how you know he's a true Jew), you've also got the part in Exodus 34 where God say's he'll do the writing at the start of the chapter, but then he pussies out and has Moses doing the writing by the end of the chapter. Also, in Deuteronomy 5, it says that God made the covenant with Moses at Horeb, whereas Exodus places all covenantry clearly at Sinai. And do keep in mind that the only place in the Bible that the Big Ten are called the Big Ten - that is, the only place in the whole fuckin' Bible where the words "The Ten Commandments" are used thus - is in Exodus 34. What do you think ought to be the official ruling on this one?


Typhinius said...

You just showed why more people don't read the bible (beyond the fact that most people just don't read) and that is that the bible is confusing fucking mess. Even if the bible was internally cohesive (which it is not) it is written in such a way that makes it incomprehensible as a whole to most people who aren't determined enough to really delve into it and contemplate it in a rigorous manner.

Silver Garou said...

I have a theory that the bible is intentionally kept in its thick archaic language specifically to make it inaccessible to the everyday christian, who may have second thoughts upon fully understanding what is written within it.

I am sure that there probably is a modern english version of the bible, but large churches and hotels don't seem to stock them.

D said...

Wow... you're twice correct. See, that's exactly the reason the Bible was kept in Latin for centuries, and most speakers of Latin at the time were - have you guessed yet? - the clergy.

It took guys like Martin Luther, of all people, to try and put a stop to that shit. That, and indulgences. Martin Luther! Such a damned insightful guy, but going with the church for some reason. I don't know, maybe he was trying to destroy it from the inside. Weird.