Internal Moral Relativism

On certain Christian websites, moral relativism is derided almost as some sort of modern evil. “How do you know what is right and what is wrong if you don’t have an absolute source of morals? You need God to make your world make sense.”

The problem I have always had, but haven’t fully articulated, is the problem that there is always moral relativism, and specifically so in the Bible. Perhaps, actually, most egregiously so in the Bible.

At first glance, the Bible offers some fairly clear rules, but if you start thinking about it too much, things get… Weird.

I mean, let’s rank some of the moral precepts of the Bible, and I think you’ll find we can do this with some degree of objectivity.

Let’s open with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” That one’s pretty easy.

Unless you work on the Sabbath–then you can be stoned. Therefore, since you are allowed to kill someone for breaching the sanctity of the Sabbath, our list looks like this, ranked from most severe to least severe:

1 – Breaching the sanctity of the Sabbath.
2 – Killing.

In fact,  the punishment for MANY things is killing. Killing is obviously not a moral absolute, otherwise you couldn’t use it as a punishment, because you wouldn’t morally be allowed to. So let’s list a few things in the Bible that are worse than killing: Talking back to your parents, homosexuality, bestiality, theft, lust, adultery, worshiping different gods, living on the land God has set aside for you (even though he set it aside after you settled there, and even though he didn’t tell you).

Even in the modern world, as laid out by the Assassination of George Tiller, there are modern Christians who still subscribe to moral relativism. “His aborting of human fetuses is more evil than my killing him,” is the logic employed.

The counter, of course, is that “Death is OK, if God tells me it is OK,” but the problem is the application of that in the absence of God’s final approval. The best the modern Christian can do is to apply their own slant on it, but here’s the thing:

If God has laid the Commandments upon our soul, and if He is the ultimate authority, why does it feel so wrong to contemplate killing prostitutes? Are you miswired? Have God’s Comments, writ upon thy soul, gone awry?

“Jesus commanded us to love, and freed us from The Law!”

Then God’s commandments aren’t writ upon our soul? Like our souls just had a cosmic dry-erase marker applied? But then, why is the application of Old Testament verse allowed at all? How do we know which parts were stricken from the record?

What did Jesus mean by the following? 17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven..” (Matthew 5:17-20) 

Until heaven and earth pass away. That is the King James, by the way–the NIV is a bit looser with its translation, stating instead “Until all is accomplished.” Those two sentences mean very different things to me.

Long story short, though, even if we are free from The Law, which parts? The Commandments were part of the law. Again, are they really writ upon my soul, if they are changed/abolished? If you are still skeptical, then consider the fact that breach of any of the Ten Commandments is punishable by death, and this is the second commandment (Exodus 20:4):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…

Again, NKJV. Is that commandment writ upon thy soul?

So there, there is a large degree of relative moral ideas in the Bible. You can say that God is the ultimate moral authority, but God is not here to adjudicate… Which leaves man, fallible man, to judge how laws from 2000-3500 years ago apply to our lives today. How do you do that? By relating a situation in our life to a situation in the Bible. One might even say you rate a situation relatively to a situation in the Bible.

But you definitely have moral absolutism. Just applied in a relativistic way. Cough

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The Odd Problem with Learning from your Mistakes…

… is that your opponents will remember your mistakes long after you are dead.

This isn’t only about religion, but it comes up a lot in religious debates–between religious people and atheists, or religious people and other religious people, between atheists and other atheists, and I think it is setting everyone back, setting the whole human race back.

I don’t have the citation on me, but an article I read recently criticized so called “liberal views of morality” by saying “in the late 19th century, atheists were racists.” I’ve spoken about that idea extensively in previous posts, noting that “so were the religious among us,” because most people in that era were racist. Most people today are racist to some degree, though obviously not as bad as say… Turn of the century American South.

That being said, the whole argument is moot, isn’t it? “Remember that time when you were four and you peed in that guy’s shoe? You’re 28 now, and I still don’t trust you around my shoes.”

That statement is absurd, so why is it not considered absurd to say “19th century atheists were sometimes bigots,” or “But look at the crusades!”? Those were mistakes, they will forever be considered mistakes, and you will be hard pressed to find someone involved in main stream politics who says “The crusades were justified!” So why do things like this even come up?

Why do we talk about how a 19th century liberal philosopher was a racist? Why does that same 19th century philosopher undermine my ability to posit a better moral outlook today? The author I spoke at great length about in my previous series of posts seemed to think I am culpable for what other atheists have done (and his article can be read here). That completely ignores that fact that we have, as a society and as a whole, grown up.

Saying that the Bible, a book canonized in the third and fourth centuries, is the final word on morality is just a like a twenty-eight year old saying “Peeing in shoes at four was good enough then, so it’s good enough now.”

And saying “Some humans got it wrong 120 years ago, so you have it wrong today,” is grossly disingenuous.

So I’ll say it again; let’s work together, maybe? Find a better moral code, a moral code that improves the happiness of everyone? A moral code that does not accept or endorse bigotry towards people who have caused no one harm?

Or we can complain that old timey people were racist, and argue that this is somehow relevant.

Maybe that works, too?

An Unjust and Unfair World

I happened to bump up against an article about psychological belief systems, varied between “the world is a just place” and “the world is an uncaring place.” I don’t think saying the world is uncaring is a pessimistic or nihilistic viewpoint, I would argue that it is just fact. Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people, it is a refrain that echoes through all of history. The reason it has found a home on my blog is the way it echoes through religion, especially where certain factions are concerned.

I was actually looking for a specific reference for the belief in a just world when I came across a wikipedia page showing not just one reason that people believed Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution, but that there were so many reasons that it has its own page! It wasn’t a tragedy, some claimed; New Orleans deserved it. But it goes deeper than that, doesn’t it? If Sodom and Gomorrah were historical, I’d say we could call it some kind of syndrome named after them; bad news comes from that place, so only bad things must happen there.

For those who believe the world is an unjust place, Hurricane Katrina was simply an unfortunate tragedy. We offer our sympathy, we support however it is that we can, and we move on. But for some, that isn’t the case, and after 1800 died, and countless had their lives ruined, they went on the air to spew hateful rhetoric about how people in New Orleans deserved it. Victim blaming, it was, but not like someone who was raped being blamed for “asking for it,” it is worse. No one asks to be raped, but there is a motive; the rapist is a terrible person. Was New Orleans “asking for it?” If they were, does that make your God the rapist in your own analogy?

Pat Robertson (always a classy guy [that was sarcasm]) suggested that the hurricane was God’s punishment for America’s stance on abortion, and obviously God lets it rain on the just and unjust alike. Ignore the fact that your all powerful, all knowing God apparently can’t target his cataclysms any better than a 3 year old shooting a shotgun at a target a foot from the barrel. It’s ok, certainly of the thousands whose lives were ruined, of those killed, I am sure none were pious, God-fearing people. I am sure they all deserved it in some way. Right?

For a religion that preaches an eternally loving, endlessly forgiving God, it is amazing how quickly they resort to hateful rhetoric. The Westboro Baptist Church is low hanging fruit in this debate, but they aren’t the only ones who have found an angry, spiteful God in the pages of their book.

I am making a bit of an unfair argument against religion in this case, but I believe those who think the world is a just place have to believe in some outside force that keeps the justice in check. Perhaps it is Karma, that eternal force that balances the Hindu and Buddhist world, but I don’t think many of my readers subscribe to that view. Given the polling, I’d say most of my readers are atheist or Christian, and very few of my atheist friends believe in a just world. The Christian may believe in a just world, through the inscrutable hand of God, but I don’t understand how.

I think the world could be a better place, that is a theme that runs through all of my writing. The issue that I have is that for the world to be a better place, we would all have to rely on some level of sympathy or empathy, and if your first reaction to a horrible disaster is “they deserved it”, your empathy is effectively shut off.

If you believe your God enforces a just world, why can HIV pass from an infected mother to her child? What sin has the child committed, for God to put such a burden upon it? Why does the child of a cocaine addicted mother inherit that lovely addiction (and likely die from withdrawal as a consequence)? Where is the justice in that?

If you will quote Exodus 20:5 to me (the inequity of the father passes to the child unto the third and fourth generation), then are you saying our legal system these days is better than God’s? Worse? Should we be arresting the children of murderers? Would that be justice?

Step back, and don’t assume the world is a just place. Ironically, we have empirical evidence showing that the very belief in a just world reduces the justice in that world (as per top linked article). Instead, just be empathetic, and help those in need. If something terrible happens, give some sympathy to those affected. Spread some love. Be kind.

Pointless Cynicism

As tends to happen on the Internet, or really any community over time, some drama has cropped up that managed to grab the attention of a huge proportion of Reddit’s users. If you don’t care to read the rather lengthy story, it adds up to a man live tweeting the discovery that his wife of a few years is cheating on him. Over time, additional characters are added to the story, including his brother, his sister-in-law, an unnamed character, a PI, and a few additional set pieces. I won’t lie, the story is not well written, but the fact that the original writer is not, in fact, a writer of high skill adds more credence than it takes away.

There are other bits in the story that really strain one’s disbelief, such as the idea that a 30 year old man would write “they kissed then she touched his penis a little,” but that line is really what sparked the true drama of the situation, and that has given me the concrete example of what I have been preaching (for lack of  a better word) for a very long time.

Immediately, three camps sprung up, and two of them actively went to war. One, claiming that this person was not in fact telling the truth, and another attempting to offer this person some sympathy in what is (or, if it is made up, would be) a very difficult time in his life. The cynics quote lines that don’t add up, while the sympathetics just want to help another human in need. I think the sympathetics have the right of it, but that needs some deeper exploration.

I know I mentioned three camps; the third is people with bags of popcorn who get three full servings of delicious, nutritious drama. The first serving is the story itself, the next two servings are the ongoing war between the cynics and the sympathetics. The third camp is immaterial, but for a while I was an active member in Camp Popcorn.

As I mentioned briefly on my Facebook, the cynicism of the cynics is pointless in this case. The sympathetics, so long as they do not give him money (and he neither asked for it, nor gave identifying information that would even allow it to be given), have no lost anything by their sympathies. They sent him typed internet messages. The time he wasted was perhaps 45 minutes of their life (the time it took to read it and write their reply). If this story is true, they may be offering a suffering man the only solace he will receive in this difficult time. Afterwards, time will pass, and all will forget. If the story is, in fact, a fabrication, then the sympathetics can be said to be playing along, and at worst have wasted a small part of their life. Time will pass, and all will forget.

The cynics, though, add up to internet bullies (though I am sure if any of them read this blog I could expect wild backlash from them to the tune of “No, we are just skeptical!”). If the story is true, and they are telling everyone to stop playing along, then what they are doing is adding another layer of stress that is helping no one. If the story is fake, they are the person in the theater during “The Usual Suspects” shouting “Well, of COURSE he is Kaiser Soze,” ruining the film for everyone who just wanted an escape from the real world.

This may be stretching it for some “internet armchair cynics”, but some of them are certainly the kind of people who would walk by someone about to jump off a bridge and tell the person “You’re just doing this to get attention.” It is cruel, and it isn’t helping anyone.

You can be cynical, I am cynical. Just keep your cynicism to yourself, because if there is even a 1% chance that the story is true, there could be a human suffering on the other end of your keyboard strokes. I don’t believe the story for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean I am willing to call the writer a fraud. I would never run up to George RR Martin and shout “DRAGONS AREN’T REAL, DUMMY!” even if some of the readers of A Song of Ice and Fire believe the events actually happened. There’s no point to it.

What people on the Internet so often forget is that there are, no matter the situation, other humans out there reading what you have said. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t type it at them.

The Internet, as media, is more transient than any form of media that has ever come at any point in history. Books have survived millennia. Quotes from TV shows have survived decades. The shelf life of an internet meme, at its longest and best preserved, is two years. Memes from 2012 are all but forgotten, save by Know Your Meme’s databases. The thing is, while next week we may all have forgotten this story, the person who (may/may not) be living it will never forget. You will forget it. The sympathetics may forget it. The story itself is transient. But the human being on the other end could suffer for an eternity, and you would never know or care.

So take a thought for your vehemence, your pointless pointing out of your cynicism. Save your cynicism for perennial issues, save your cynicism for government, save your cynicism for religion or atheism, as is your flavor. Save your cynicism for ideas. You can’t hurt an idea. When an idea dies, no humans were harmed in the process. But when you are cynical towards a human being? You can cause harm.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again. If we took a moment to care for the happiness of others, the world would be a better place in the month. The cynic is perhaps angered by the story, or the fact that some people believe the story, but why should they attempt to spread their misery or anger? No one increases their happiness by so doing. Not one person will ever be happier for your cynicism.

I know I have opened myself up for a world of criticism by saying so (“But Chad, you write about the bad parts of religion!! Religion makes so many people happy!”), but I have accepted my lot in life. I have my justifications for what I do, fickle as some may think them.

I wonder what the armchair cynic would say is their justification?

A Monkey Wrench in the Gears

I was reading this blog post that was discussing religion and morality and came across a term I hadn’t heard before. It is called Hedonic Calculus, and is designed to weight the happiness an action will bring into the world.

“AHA!” I thought to myself. “This is it! This is someone else who thought exactly like I do!”

It seems I was overly optimistic, because my own human emotions get in the way of my motto (I am sure most of my readers know it, but it is to bring more happiness into the world than I take out of it). The very first example given was that of two sinking ships. One contains your family, one contains a rock star. By Hedonic Calculus, of course, one is required to save the rock star. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized Hedonic Calculus would require, for example, that I support Justin Bieber in whatever it is that Justin Bieber does, for it makes a huge number of people happy — sort of. If you go deeper, Justin Bieber’s antics make me sad, and I would imagine the antics of daughters taking part in #CutForBieber or #DrunkForBieber counts as sadness. Too many confounding factors.

Talking about Hedonic Calculus, I realize it is very similar to the mathematical system I created for myself that governs a very large portion of my life — but unlike pure Hedonic Calculus, I left in an error margin for my own emotions because … Well, one way or another humans are emotional creatures. And again, I ended up jumping down into the giant cave that is morality, with a new tool on my belt–perhaps this time I could get deeper.

One field that is contained in Hedonic Calculus (it is more formal than I tend to be in my theoretical mathematics of sociology) is purity, described as the probability that it will not be followed by feelings of the opposite kind. To use an example from the linked Rational Wiki page with a slight twist for my own purposes, an orgy will make you feel happy or give you pleasure, but once it is over many people in the general populace will feel shame. Very low purity score, then.

To apply that to my own example of Justin Bieber, his antics may make 10-15 year old girls (is that his target demographic? I am not hip to what the jive kids are doing these days…) happy, but when their parents punish them for whatever stupid hashtag 4chan has popularized today, they will feel sadness. Liking Justin Bieber has a very low purity score, then! And it is true that he is a bad person, because now math says so! Though I won’t lie, Justin Bieber’s “Extent” score would be quite high, and that is sad, because that doesn’t change the fact that he is pretty much awful.

That being said, for anyone who says science can have no bearing on morals, I think Hedonic Calculus (not to be confused with hedonistic calculus, which is a whole different bag of dangly bits) puts at least a partial lie to that. The values may be somewhat arbitrary, but they are based on happiness. Is it a mature morality? Probably not; nothing absolute is ever mature. The world is not black and white, no matter how much math you throw at it. That being said, it is definitely something to think about.

Morality

I have engaged in the international time waste that is the Facebook debate for as long as there have been people to debate on Facebook. I don’t know that debate is the proper term, the discussions seldom follow rules, and there is often a disconnect between the participants that prevents meaningful discussion. Recently, I was engaged in a discussion that spanned some 23 pages of text. It was sparked by this article advocating the repeal of drunk driving laws.

(A transcript of the discussion is available here. At over 16,000 words, it should kill a solid portion of your day.)

A topic that came up over and over and over again was morality. I am not moral philosopher, and when I do give my opinions on morality it should be interpreted as the opinions of a lay person. I didn’t make that clear enough during the discussion and it came back to bite me. That being said, if I were to offer the most succinct version of my own morals, it would be a morality leaning moral relativist. That is, at best, disingenuous; going back to elementary school lessons, I have just used a word to define itself.

People fear moral relativism, because it relies on the morality of the person using it. “Well, if I kill him quickly, it would be less bad than killing him slowly. By moral relativism, killing him quickly is moral.” I just made your argument for you, no reason to make that argument in the comments unless you really want to. That’s the point, though, and the point so few people want to address; morality is deeper than a single layer paradigm. (Sorry about the words there, that sounded douchey, but please let me explain.)

Many would claim to be Biblical moral absolutists, that the Bible, being the height of all moral teaching, should be adhered to in all things. That being said, when you ask them about some of the Bible’s less tenable teachings… Well, they will say they would jump if God said jump, right up until they saw the cliff. That tells you that they are not Biblical moral absolutists, they are … Something more complicated.

In the same way, a moral relativist may not be able to draw binding lines in the stone and say “I will do all that lies between these lines and nothing else,” but there is some other moral judgment at work. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, that my motto, my creed, my life goal, and a piece of short philosophy that defines many of my choices is the idea that “I will bring more happiness into the world than I take out of it.”

While it may not contain any explicitly moral content, a friend has been teaching me (with great resistance) to read more than what words say. When I am presented with a moral choice, then, I have to weigh things in the case of many decisions. Some are concluded before ever reaching my conscious mind (will raping this person bring more happiness into the world right now?), and get resolved before the question is ever asked — but even then, something in my subconscious has to have a bearing for this choice, so I assume somewhere in my brain these questions are answered.

Moral gray areas are much harder to resolve, as the debate referenced above pointed out in great detail. It ended up as an argument hinging on what I am going to call moral chaos theory versus moral order theory. The other participants may disagree, but let me explain.

My argument is something akin to moral chaos theory; letting a drunk driver into a driver’s seat begins a chain of events that could lead to the death of a person or people, and the irreversible alteration of an untold number of lives. By this chain, I could be indirectly responsible for the loss of happiness of hundreds of people, or a thousand people, even if they never saw my hand in it. If I extend that idea to the Police force, their not enforcing drunk driving laws is similar; by allowing drunk drivers on the road, they may end up indirectly responsible for untold numbers of drunk driving related accidents. Therefore, by my own personal moral chaos theory (I still find that to be an over simplification, but it at least illustrates a picture), allowing drunk driving is immoral.

Moral order theory, while again a term lacking in the required depth, is somewhat akin to that preached by my discussion partner(s). This morality theory does not plumb as deeply, though that is disingenuous (DAMN YOU, KYLE! My realization that words suck is your fault!). In any case, his approach was that of the fact that potential harm is irrelevant and shouldn’t be weighed against the real harm done by a police officer enforcing the law. The irony is that despite what became a very heated discussion, I believe our morals (my opponent and myself) would align in most cases.

The point I am trying to make here is a point as old as words themselves; trying to reduce a human being, in all of their complexity, down to a single word, or a single sentence–that is impossible. Trying to describe my morals would take a book larger than any written, and taking longer to write than the lifespan of the universe. The thing is, while morals may boil down further and further, they lose integrity as they are simplified.

Morality is more than your religion. It is more than your upbringing. It is more than your genetics.

And do you know what? For all of history, humans have fought to prove who is the most moral. “Killing in the name of peace,” is something that probably doesn’t sound unfamiliar to most reading this.

And yet… Here we are. I got in a heated argument to prove my morals were better.

I am a monster.

What was Meant

There are two versions of this blog post, one short, and one long. I’ll put the short version first, so you can skip all the words without losing the overall message. EFFICIENCY!

Today, many people will tout that they know what the Bible means, or how to interpret the stories in it. Some will use that knowledge to preach love, some will use it to preach hate. I hope that statement isn’t overly controversial, the Westboro Baptist Church has the same Bible you do, at the very least.

But really, no matter your confidence, do we know what the people who wrote the Bible down, from Old Testament to New Testament, really wanted us to learn?

Short version answer: Nope.

Long version answer: That is a complicated question, and certainly you require a redefinition of terms at the very least to even begin to unravel the ball of yarn that is historical interpretation, translation, and intent.

To start, before the books of the Bible’s Old Testament were written down (and yea, before they could be written down) they were oral traditions. How long were they oral traditions? Well, to pin that down with any high degree of accuracy, we’d have to rely on either asking them, or having them write it dow… Wait. Nope.

So we don’t know exactly how old some of the stories are (though they do have historical markers in many of them, which help to date them). Then we continue to walk down the road of history as far as oral tradition can take us. Well, how do we know the stories that got written down were anything close to the original orations?

Well, the common rebuttal is that there were professional oral historians whose sole job was the maintain and recite history. We can see Hebrew mnemonics in certain areas of the Old Testament that are evidence of methods in use to improve recall of the stories. Certainly, a person whose sole job is to remember would do better in such an arena than would your average person off the streets… But they would have no error checking, no oversight. What would happen if or when they make a mistake?

And if you are going to tell me that stories survived 800 years orally, without any errors, I have some pieces of the original cross to sell you. Or maybe the Shroud of Turin is more up your alley?

Let me make a few modern examples to show you the flaws in that logic, in any case.

A banker’s primary role is in dealing with money. I would say the bulk of it is counting money, and ensuring accuracy in tallies and counts. They have the money in front of them, concrete, physical, unchanging. They will double and triple count money at the beginning, end, and during the day. And yet bank errors occur, despite the fact that the banker’s sole (and some would say primary) purpose is to ensure money changes hands reliably without change and… Wait, was I describing your orator or a banker? Some of those words got a little aligned there. Weird how that is.

Howe about me, in my current field of information technology. A server is designed, from the ground up, to prevent me from making errors. In order to do anything on a server that runs, say, the heating and cooling for an entire building, I will have to accept one hundred warnings, check one hundred boxes, agree to one hundred confirmations… And there are times when I, or yea, people with many years more experience than me have made errors. My sole purpose is to change these settings, to ensure they are changed properly and correctly and without error, and there are systems whose sole purpose are to stop me from making said error… But errors get made.

How about your grandparent? They will tell stories, and I am sure you have thought at times that it could not have happened like your grandparent recalled, but you’d not say anything, of course. But it is well known that dementia and Alzheimer’s are diseases primarily affecting the elderly in the population. In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, I’d be willing to say that your slips would be so minor that they could be attributed to a slight dimming of your recollection, to the point you (and anyone around you) would write them off simply as slips of memo–oh damn, what was the sole purpose of the orators? Memorizing things?

And who was the most revered, respected person who would pass along knowledge? The elders of the tribe? Let’s give that elder a generous age of 60 (if they lived in a nice place, a clean(ish) city, it could have happened even in time before history), and they’d be the elder for… We’ll say 20 years? Hell, give them 30 years, we’ll say for the sake of gentle argument that they were the elder for a full generation. If we assume only 800 years of oral tradition (The earliest parts of the Bible were written down in 800BC, and I know they reference events at times as early as 1600BC, though the accuracy is in question), then that was some 26 or 27 generations of elders. That is a lot of time for one of them to have had some degree of early Alzheimer’s.

But… But they obviously wouldn’t be trusted when they couldn’t recognize the face of their own kin, they wouldn’t be the elder any more! So they wouldn’t have passed on the failed stories!

You have to remember that even if we assume a generous life expectancy, they would never have had an 80 or 90 year old Alzheimer’s sufferer, or Dementia sufferer in the 10th and earlier centuries BC. The person entrusted with oration could have had slight slips of memory and died, and so the story altered over time.

But… But there would have been many orators! Many people who remembered! Several for each village, maybe!

Yes, but then you’d have conflicting versions of the story, and how would you resolve those? Well, I don’t know how they’d have done that, but it wouldn’t be hard to think that they would accede to the eldest and most respected of the elders–the one ironically with the highest chance of misremembering a detail. Even if that wasn’t their method, even if it was democratic (against all logic, since democracy was certainly not widespread at the time), you’d have younger elders who learned the slightly altered version voting for the slightly altered version.

You’d have inaccuracies creeping in over time, even if you had ten thousand safeguards. The modern translations of the Bible attest to that, for even within two years there will be versions with differing translations, errors, typos, mistakes in meaning or scholarship. Think of the monks who made copies of the Bible before the printing press; again, they had concrete copies, and yet if you look at old Bibles, you will see scholars marking “Copyist error” in the margin… And that is when they had an older version to copy-check again.

Or how about some of the earlier mass produced Bibles? There was a copy with the Commandment “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery” that was mass produced in the 17th century, only 30 years before the King James version was officially published.

So tell me again that there were no errors in the oral histories, and again I will find more evidence to show that wishful line of thinking will not hold.

How about even the word “history”? Certainly in the times of the Roman Empire, history was a much more sinuous beast, harder to catch, harder to pin down. People did not write down history as we understand the term, history was an idea, was morals and fables, not so much “writing down an accurate account of what happened.” What we call history today is more often viewed in the tax records of the time, or the census records, birth and death certificates, than it is in things that people wrote down — for what people wrote down and what happened are often at odds, and you can see what happened far more in the number of troops reported dead at some location than you can with some historian writing down about the battle. A historian may have written down that it was a great victory, where the death toll was nearly equal on both sides. This is two knives, not just a double edged sword; at work here is the fact that history was the lessons (in this case, the lesson of “we are so much better than x barbarian tribe), and also the fact that history is, was, and will be often written by the victors. In the global world we live in, it is becoming less so, and underdogs tell their tale to fanfare in these days more than ever before, but the principle still stands.

Reza Aslan wrote about this in greater length and with more gravitas than I can–though if you don’t trust Aslan, you can check with any historian who specializes in the centuries around year 0 and you will find similar messages.

So what was written down in the Bible, even when it was close to the events that happened (and you must remember that the earliest gospels were at the very minimum written in 70AD, 40 years after the death of Christ) likely weren’t written with a mind for exactly what happened. They would have been written with a mind for teaching the lessons of Christ, and if those lessons were of humility and sacrifice, well… The events of his life were certainly a great parallel. Almost a perfect parallel. One might say they were perfect for teaching the lessons of his ministry, and by gosh, we’ve come full circle. Again.

I am not calling into question the lessons they taught, as they are certainly good lessons. I am calling into account the historical veracity of the Bible. The YECs may be the only faction to take the Old Testament as historical fact (or as absolute historical fact, as in a 6000 year old world created in exactly 6 days, and with genealogies that can be traced back to Adam), but most people believe the life of Jesus was reliably written down.

It wasn’t. Depending on the details you are viewing, many traditions were in the Bible that were not present at any other time. The tradition of freeing a single prisoner during passover? Find me another reference to that outside of the Bible. Or, even taking that tradition as fact, what about freeing Barabus instead of Jesus? Were there only two prisoners? When given the choice of a rabble rouser (Jesus) and a serial killer (Barabus), wouldn’t they just vote to release no one at all?

Or what about the trial before Pilate? Pilate is recorded by history as having signed so many death warrants without having even so much as read the name on them that a formal complaint against him was lodged with Rome. The crime for which Jesus was condemned, Sedition, wasn’t even a crime for which you would have been given a trial. If you were said to be guilty of sedition, it was off to the cross with you, no questions asked. And during the Passover, when tensions were already heightened? The idea of Jesus having an audience with Pilate is almost silly.

I think I’ve belabored that point extensively enough. The idea is that the Bible can’t be taken as historical fact, as it had a political fact from over a thousand years before it would even have been recognized as a cohesive book, as the Bible you know.

So the people who decide what was meant by these stories? What allegories and laws and ideas and histories and world views should be taught? That adulterers should be stoned, that it is OK to kill an abortion doctor, that homosexual sex is a sin, that Jesus would support this or that idea… Those are what you have discovered two or three thousand years separated from the person who originally came up with what you are reading. Who is to say you learned the lessons they even wanted to teach?

For those reading between the lines in the Old Testament to come up with meanings that aren’t there in a plain reading of the text, I’d like you to step back and read this story, told colloquially (I can find no reference for it aside from a newspaper clipping, so it is at best anecdotal).

When asked about the themes and morals in his book Hatchet (part of the Life of Brian series), Gary Paulsen said that he was happy that so many people have gotten so much out of his book, but that he didn’t write it with all of these themes and morals in mind. He just wanted to tell a good story.

With that in mind, how can anyone today say that it is they that have the themes of the Bible correct? That they have interpreted them correctly, when billions of Christians who came before them with likely billions of differing interpretations have obviously gotten them wrong? That is it you who knows exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke the parable of the mustard seed, when it is a completely nonsensical parable unless it is explained to you?

Again, I do not want to shake your faith or your morals, but I want you to be careful what you claim you know. You don’t know it any better than I do, and believing that someone is going to hell because they believe differently than you is condemning everyone who isn’t you to hell, because chances are their beliefs differ in some core way from yours, but you haven’t had a conversation with everyone in your congregation, and who knows what is going on in your pastor’s head. He can’t tell you one tenth of what he is thinking in all of his sermon’s combined, so who knows where you differ from him? Where your core beliefs, something you completely disagree on based on some word of Jesus or another, may shake your relationship to the core–if you ever knew.

Just some things to think about.