Thursday, August 20, 2015
Bibliolatry -- the worship of a book -- is the curse that plagues the three major religions of the western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Regarding a Holy Book as containing sacred power by itself makes it unquestionable, and freezes the mind of the worshipers in the mental attitudes common at the time of the book's writing, and allows no possibility of change or learning from subsequent experience, even over centuries -- a rigidity which puts the worshipers increasingly out of touch with the real world, with all the friction that implies.
The Jews, to their credit, consider only the first five books of the Old Testament to be sacred -- the Five Books of Moses -- and all the rest are commentary. Even so, the ambiguities of ancient Hebrew allow for wide interpretation of even those five books. Ancient Hebrew was a pidgin, a trade-language cobbled together from the tongues of twelve different tribes, with a large smattering of ancient Egyptian, and as such it was word-poor -- containing less than 10,000 words when the Five Books were written. Since there weren't very many words in the language, each word had to carry the freight of several meanings; just which meaning was intended in any given sentence had to be guessed at from the context. This makes a language excellent for poetry, but very poor at anything requiring precision -- such as history or law -- as the authors were quite aware. This means that the Old Testament was never meant to be taken literally, not even by those who wrote it. This did not stop the Orthodox Jews, over the centuries, from arguing over the precise meaning of those imprecise words until they created a rigid code of behavior and ritual which sets them apart -- sometimes dangerously so -- from the rest of the world. Reform Judaism grew up after modern scholarship revealed the facts about the Old Testament -- the ambiguity of the original language, the effect of ancient Egyptian politics on the writing, and the multiple authorship. That last had been obvious from the beginning; the collection is called the Five Books of Moses, but in the accounts Moses dies in the second book, so somebody else had to finish the rest of them. The likeliest candidate is Aaron, Moses' brother, who had been a priest in Egypt -- and not a priest of Yahweh. The Reform Jews used this knowledge to break free of the ancient bibliolatry and shape their religion with a more enlightened attitude, extracting moral and philosophical lessons out of the ancient writings, rather than being bound to ritual observances. This is why most modern Jews are Reform rather than Orthodox.
Christianity, which evolved out of Judaism, followed a somewhat similar path. Its holy book, the New Testament, is the account of the life and death of Ieshua bar-Ioseph of Nazareth and his immediate followers, and was written in Aramaic sometime in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. This was during the Roman occupation of Judea, which followed the Alexandrian Greek occupation after the conquests of Alexander the Great. At that time the literate people in Judea spoke, and wrote, in Aramaic -- which was a hybrid of Hebrew and Greek. Whether Ieshua himself spoke Aramaic or Hebrew is anyone's guess, since he was the son of a carpenter and wasn't raised with the expectation of a literary profession but worked -- presumably at his father's trade -- until he took up preaching in his 30s. Just what he preached was religious reform: direct mental contact with the Jewish god, rather than blind observance of ritual and dutiful subservience to the temple priesthood. His proposed reforms earned him the enmity of the priesthood, and his popularity gained him the hostility of the paranoid local king, which got him killed. Ieshua never claimed to be anything but a Jewish religious reformer; it was his followers who labeled him Messiah and deified him in memory, so that his legend spread after his death. The first written account of his life wasn't penned until nearly 60 years after his death, and the rest still later, so none of the Gospels were eyewitness accounts. The official New Testament was put together by a council of bishops in the 3rd century, and those bishops left accounts of the several other books that they threw out of the final version. The custom of considering the book itself to be holy and unuestionable didn't start until Constantine (on his death-bed, if indeed it was him instead of his pious wife speaking) made Christianity the official religion of the floundering Roman empire. As the religion spread and the empire collapsed, the book became the emblem of the church's power -- and so remained holy and unquestionable for another thousand years. It wasn't until literacy and learning returned to Europe on any sizable scale, during the Renaissance, that anyone started questioning the book's supposed absolute accuracy. Not until the 19th century did scientific discoveries, contradicting the book's claims, make acceptance of its literal inaccuracy widespread. The parables of Ieshua -- which he clearly labeled as parables -- and the obvious symbols and allegories of the gospel of John made it easier to accept the entire book as a collection of parables, myths and symbols. Even so, there are large numbers of people even today who try to insist that the entire book is literally true -- and therefore science is wrong.
Islam was largely the creation, in the 600s, of one man: an Arabian tent-maker who lucked into early marriage to a wealthy widow. Muhammed was prone to mild epileptic fits, during which he saw ecstatic visions. When his wife died and left him a wealthy widower, he consolidated his visions into a religion composed of fragments from the Christian bible and his own creations. Muhammed was illiterate, so he hired a small army of clerks and dictated his visions, thoughts and memories to them. Just how accurately those clerks transcribed his accounts, and how much they added or subtracted according to their own political agendas, nobody knows. Muhammed was also ambitious, and used his inherited wealth to hire troops and entice armed allies. He courted the local Jews and Christians, hoping to win them over to his religion, but when they declined he grew angry with them and took to conquering them instead. By the time he died, Muhammed was an exceedingly wealthy conqueror whose empire stretched across Arabia and much of the middle-east. His notes to his clerks were collected into a single book, which was subsequently called the Koran; it was used as the emblem of his new religion and the justification for his empire. His heirs fell to squabbling over who would inherit which part of his empire, thus creating the major divisions within Islam, but all of them claimed the Koran as their holy and unquestionable justification. No one in the conquered territories dared to question the absolute truth and holiness of the Koran for another thousand years. In the 19th century the Baha'i sect dared to claim that the revelations of the Koran might be transcended by later revelations, for which various imams and ayatollahs denounced the Baha'is and declared them not to be Muslims at all. In the 20th century a scholar revealed, in a novel called "The Satanic Verses", the fact that Muhammed had not directly written the Koran, for which various imams and ayatollahs put out a death-order on him. Only in the safety of distant countries have any modern Muslim scholars questioned the holy unquestionability of the Koran, and they haven't made much headway anywhere else. Instead, the current wave of Jihadis -- typified by ISIL -- have made themselves a threat to everyone else in the world with their strict adherence to the absolute literal interpretation of the Koran.
What history has shown is that bibliolatry creates extensive and unnecessary warfare with one's neighbors, and likewise destructive treatment of one's own people. Religions that indulge in it descend into stagnation at best and savagery at worst. No religion has advanced into modern enlightenment without freeing itself from such holy-book worship and allowing its worshipers to think for themselves. To put it another way, no sensible god would be pleased at seeing humans blindly worship questionable writings, instead of learning from the signs the god currently gives them or using the brains he gave them in the first place.