Friday, 13 June 2014

Context, logic and the horrors in religious books

According to reports from the UK schools inspector, Ofsted, an English primary school in Luton has been found to have books in it that involve what most people would regard as fairly extreme ideas, including stonings and lashings.

The BBC has stated that books in the schoollibrary included “The Ideal Muslim by Dr Muhammad Ali Al-Hashimi, which advocates parents hitting children if they do not pray by the age of 10, the report said.

“Another, Commanders Of The Muslim Army by Mahmood Ahmad Ghadanfar, was said to praise individuals who ‘loved death more than life in their pursuit of righteous and true religion’.”

The school has been told that it must act to meet “key standards for independent schools.

“These include ensuring the curriculum ‘better prepares [pupils] for living in modern Britain ... in line with the laws of the land’ and having library books with ‘balanced and tolerant views which reflect British democratic values’.”

A couple of things occur.

First, its actually worth asking why some people find the idea of stoning as a method of execution so bad, if they believe that capital punishment is otherwise acceptable. Could there be anything less civilised than employing – and paying – people to come up with methods of execution that are not cruel and unusual?

If you find the idea of burying someone up to their chest or neck and then belting them with rocks until bloodied and dead, do you not also find the idea of hanging bad? And what about strapping someone to a table and injecting them with chemicals that, when they work properly, stop that persons heart?

Anyway, back in 2012, education secretary Michael Gove announced that every school was to be sent a special copy of the King James Bible, to mark the 400th anniversary of its translation, and complete with an introduction by the minister himself.

As it happened, even Prime Minister David Cameron baulked at the idea of public funding for the project at a time of cuts, and it was decided that it would be done via donations.

It was never made clear just how many UK schools do not already possess at least one Bible – and in that particular translation – but it seems unlikely to be a large number.

But if we can feel fairly safe in the assumption that the overwhelming majority of schools will already be in possession of at least one Bible, then it’s also clear that the overwhelming majority of schools will be in possession of a book that condones and suggests an awful lot of spectacularly nasty stuff.

There are stonings and plenty of other brutal killings in the Bible.

Take the tale of Onan, for instance. After his brother died, God ordered him to, in effect, ‘take over’ his widowed sister in law.

He refused to take her sexually, ‘spilled his seed on the ground’ and was killed for that. Hence ‘onanism’ being a synonym for masturbation.

The Bible is full of stuff like that.

Now obviously, most believers – well, at least those in what we like to see as the tolerant, generally sensible West – don’t take all the Old Testament horrors too literally.

Some believers play the old pick ‘n’ mix game and ignore some of the most horrific bits – few will demand, for instance, that a woman should take two birds to her priest to be sacrificed after her period has finished, so as to ‘cleanse’ her, although plenty who would reject that will still quote the same book of Leviticus on homosexuality.

Colour your own child sacrifice
But it’s all too easy to think that no Christian would ever take the most brutal aspects of the Bible things literally.

The woman, who subsequently tried to kill herself, left a note saying that the sermon had really affected her, but that God never told me to stop!

A solitary exception?

As the BBC reported yesterday, around 50 independent schools in the UK use the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, which has been imported from the US.

The course makes some interesting observations on homosexuality, which are worth reproducing at length.

Homosexuality. Homosexual activity is another of man’s corruptions of God’s plan. The prefix homo- comes from a Greek word that means “same.” Homosexuals engage in sexual activity with their own sex. The Bible records that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexual activity.

“Some people mistakenly believe that an individual is born a homosexual and his attraction to those of the same sex is normal. Because extensive tests have shown that there is no biological difference between homosexuals and others, these tests seem to prove that homosexuality is learned behavior [sic]. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is sin. In Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death. Since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions, it is as unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal as it to say that murder is normal.”

Where shall we start?

First, it presents the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by God as having been an historic event – and because of homosexuality.

And nowhere does it suggest that God might just have been a bit OTT and that, obviously, He wouldn’t go around acting like that nowadays.

Nowhere does it point out that God saved one ‘good’ man from Sodom and Gomorrah – and his daughters and (almost) his wife – but that Lot was considered as the one good man worth saving irrespective of his having tried to pimp his daughters to be gang-raped as a way of distracting a group of adult males wanting sex with other adult males.

Go on – read the story, because that’s what the Good Book says.

If that should alert people to one point, its that what might have been acceptable in the dim and distant past is not acceptable now – in other words, that humanity has moved on since such books were written and such stories told. And that applies to every single ancient religious text.

Nor does the ACE brainwashing teaching point out that after Lot and his daughters successfully flee (his wife is turned to a pillar of salt by God after she looks back at Sodom), the daughters rape their father when he’s drunk and get themselves up the duff.

Then, of course, there’s the absence of basic logic in the conclusions on homosexuality being “learned”, which are nonsense. There doesn’t have to be a discernible biological difference for sexuality not to be “learned”.

The thing is, though, once you introduce children to certain parts of a story as a literal, historic truth that must be accepted uncritically, how do they know not to take the rest of it in the same manner when they read that later on – particularly when the entire book is being taught as the word of God?

Indeed, very carefully, the ACE teaching effectively presents God’s condemnation of homosexuals as factual, without any moral comment. But since it also presents that god as all-knowing and generally infallible – He’s God, after all – then how can God be wrong if He chooses to punish homosexuals with death?

You can probably guess the approach that ACE takes toward evolution and science.

But these are the sort of values that are contained in the book that Michael Gove thought needed sending to every school in the UK.

‘British values’, one wonders? It’s rather doubtful that many people would think so.

But in recent years, religious faith has taken on a sort of ‘special’ nature that political leaders seem happy to encourage.

It leaves us with a situation where questioning any religious beliefs can be decried as offensive’ or even ‘discriminatory.

Well, how about a quite simple question on about what many non-fundamentalist believers believe?

For instance, many mainstream Christians, while absolutely rejecting the horrors of the Old Testament, would still says that they believe that God was the father of Jesus Christ.

The trouble is, if you believe that, how do you reconcile it with modern morals – and, indeed, with ‘British values’ – given that the Bible story makes it entirely clear that God didn’t ask Mary’s permission first, and that she was only notified by an angel after she had been impregnated?

Wouldn’t that be classed as rape?

There are layers to all this. Some indoctrination is rather more subtle/sophisticated that other indoctrination.

And there are questions of harm: in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if someone believes that Mary was impregnated by God – and then quietly fudges over the ethical implications of that belief?

The mere presence of a book on a school library shelf does not automatically mean that children are being taught that everything in it is acceptable.

But it is entirely reasonable to ask what any school is doing – never mind a primary school – with a modern book (first published in 2007) that proclaims beating a child if he or she doesn’t say their prayers by the age of 10.

Its not censorship to say theres no place for such a book in any school any more than it would be for any such library to have modern Christian books on parenting that promote regular beatings – a variety of literary endeavour to which a number of cases of child murder in the US have been linked.

There is a difference between modern books and ancient ones – even when the latter include particularly nasty things, as does the Bible and, no doubt the Quran too (I havent read any of the latter so am in no position to comment specifically on it).

Perfect entertainment for children
The differences between different flavours of fundamentalists are not as wide as some might imagine.

Everyone has – or should have – the right to believe whatever they want.

Clearly they have the right to tell their children what they believe.

But in that case, perhaps the ultimate solution is for all education to be secular – if for no other reason than to give every child the space in which to learn about the wider world, outside their own parents’ ideologies and beliefs.

Any curriculum should include teaching children about religion in the broadest sense – in that it exists in many forms and has done throughout history etc. This should be entirely neutral.

In the meantime, if we’re going to have politicians near the end of their term in office wittering on about ‘British values’, then it would be rather nice if they would make at least a tiny effort to think through what they’re on about.

And if were going to have edicts about school libraries that contain only books with ‘balanced and tolerant views which reflect British democratic values’, then whoever came up with that garbled, populist soundbite better get ready to ban the Bible, the Quran and plenty, plenty more, including, but not limited to, any books of Greek or Norse myths and legends.

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