Sacred Scripture or Me? The Quran/Bible or the Believer? Who is to Blame?

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by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here the main part, with minor modifications, of a comment I left at my previous post. I get the impression some readers just drop by to leave a polemic comment without bothering to return to see what anyone else might have said in reply or to follow up any broader discussion.

Yes, McCants is questioning your own dogmatic view about the role of scripture and religion as a cause for violence. Religion is an abstraction. Abstractions by themselves do not trigger actions. Abstractions don’t even exist except in our minds. And what I do with abstractions in my mind depends on a whole lot of other stuff in my makeup and the world around me.

Texts are dead letters. I can read a Nazi tract and it does not jump up and grab my mind and make me a Nazi. I can read anti-semitic literature without its words possessing my mind and turning me into an anti-semite. I have read the Bible and found in it justifications to wage war; I have read it at other times and found in it firm rationales for being a pacifist. I have used the Bible to tear down a family and build up a family.

So what gives here? Is the Bible some manic depressive with demonic power that sweeps me back and forth according to its own mood swings?

Would I have done certain terrible things in my past if I had never come across the Bible? Hopefully not. Yes, the Bible has played a very destructive role in my life and how I have affected others. Does that mean the Bible is to blame for my actions? No, I am to blame. I am responsible. I was responsible for my own beliefs and how I used the Bible to rationalize some very ugly behaviour in the past. There was a three-way negotiation going on there between me and others and a text. I cannot say the Bible made me do it.

Actually there was a four-way negotiation. Another group in my life were trying to talk me out of going the way of the cult. I chose to resist and argue against them. Why did I do that? Why were they also not swept up by the same ugly interpretation of the Bible that I was entering?

Now who or what was responsible for the belief system that I chose to follow? If the Bible, then how do we explain most people trying to talk me out of that view of the Bible? They also believed in and loved the Bible but they believed I was missing the spiritual intent of its dominant message. I believed they were missing the spiritual intent.

Yes, the Bible did play a key role. But other factors led me to open my mind to such a literal and fundamentalist reading of the Bible and they also need to be understood.

I’ve been posting at length about those factors for over a year now. Not everyone is interested in reading ideas that challenge their prejudices, sadly.


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7 thoughts on “Sacred Scripture or Me? The Quran/Bible or the Believer? Who is to Blame?”

  1. In lots of American school contests these days, they give EVERYONE who participates a trophy. So I propose a four-way tie. 1) We ourselves, each of us. 2) Radicalizing groups. 3) Our holy books. And 4) our mainstream religious institutions, churches.

    Everybody goes home with a trophy.

  2. The sacred texts, of which the Bible books are a small subset, are the result of human efforts to persuade other humans to engage in certain behaviours. These behaviours range from praying, to giving money, to attending meetings, to loving and yes even to stealing and killing. Through the written texts the authors who are long dead still speak. We may choose to listen or not listen. I am an atheist and study the ancient texts with impunity and a sense of wonder. Sometimes I am disgusted by what I read. But I see a person, a man behind the writing, someone with motivation and a message. I am often still moved by the sentiments expressed. For example in the Wisdom of Sirach. “A word is the source of every deed; a thought, of every act. The root of all conduct is the mind; four branches it shoots forth: Good and evil, death and life, their absolute mistress is the tongue.” So who is to blame for the misuse of the texts? These texts are owned collectively by all mankind. I do not advocate expunging them. Unfortunately they are too often like some dangerous chemical, left in the wrong hands. They are not dead. For me they will always live. Our argument is still with those authors (and their children) and they argue back.

    1. If you re-read what you wrote here after a break of some weeks or months you might notice more clearly just how often you actually describe your own mind acting on and finding relevant meaning in the texts and their provenance — none of which are inherent in the print itself. You are finding emotive meanings, whether inspiring or disgusting, in certain texts because of what you yourself are bringing to them. What you find disgusting someone else at another time and place has surely found sobering, for example.

      I have posted a follow up since this one that elaborates this point somewhat — See “Atheism and Fundamentalism”.

      1. “You are finding emotive meanings, whether inspiring or disgusting, in certain texts because of what you yourself are bringing to them.” Yes and No. I and other scholars can distinguish between our private reaction and the private reactions of others in whatever time and space, and also the intention behind the text. Meaning has more than one dimension. There is still I think in many texts a core meaning that reasonable scholars will agree with objectively. That doesn’t mean everyone will always agree on everything or react in the same way to the same text. But given the material we are working with ie documents and text that varies enormously in scope and power, I think it is the best that can be hoped for. It is superficially true that the material is just marks on a piece of paper, but the wonder is what those marks can inspire in human activity and how they do it.

        1. We are still left with the fact that the same scriptures are used to justify and promote quite opposing agendas. This alone tells us that it is not the text of itself that is inspiring people but that there has to be some sort of dialogue between the reader and the text — and the reader is an active partner with his or her own thoughts, feelings, ideas, that are responsible for feeling repelled by or excited by or bored by a text. It is the reader’s own prior belief system as part of a community that decides what words in a text will generate in them a feeling of warmth or cold.

          Texts do not brainwash people or manipulate them like puppets.

  3. This is an extremely thoughtful and provocative essay. I agree generally with the observation that sacred texts are, like guns, knives, cars, and baby rattles, generally things of utility, but can be made deadly weapons in the wrong hands.
    On the other hand, perhaps guns are not quite as often things of utility. Perhaps they are more often deadly weapons and their results in the wrong hands so awful that clear laws restricting their use are needed.
    Maybe texts are like guns, knives, cars, and baby rattles in the sense of being distinguishable. Some of them, like Dr. Suess’ “Cat in the Hat” are almost completely undangerous (although it can cause a desire to rhyme in young children, which can turn them into bad song writers later in life). On the other hand, maybe some texts are more dangerous, like certain political works that drastically shape people’s ideas about the way the world is or can be, and some sacred texts which lead people to insanity and barbarism.
    Perhaps understanding the diverse use of texts and how groups use them is the key here.

    Thanks, Neil.

    1. Thanks, Jay. Someone else recently compared religion to guns with the “guns don’t kill people” line. I suppose books are a technology like any other and can be used for good (something to stand on to reach a higher shelf) or evil (use to hit someone on the head). The guns comparison, however, seems inapt given that i can’t think of any reason for a gun except to kill something. Maybe we could argue with some soundness that the Bible was put together as a tool to assist clerics in their efforts to have converts “kill their old selves” to adopt an alien persona of obedience to faith and to anticipate the death of nonbelievers.

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