In a video interview on Al Jazeera English, the well-known Professor Richard Dawkins is asked why murder is wrong if life isn’t sacred (about 29:45 into the video). “Where do we get the notion of morality,” a caller asks, “from physics or from God?”
It’s an excellent question.
Unfortunately, Dr. Dawkins — usually known for using evidence to support his positions — here essentially reprimands the caller for asking a stupid question: “I cannot believe you’re suggesting” that there could be morality only with God. “Do you seriously think,” he continues mockingly, that people didn’t know that killing was wrong until Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and told the people “thou shalt not kill.”
To me (as I said at the very start of my TEDx presentation), this is like saying that of course we don’t need farmers any more because we can get food from supermarkets. I might equally ask Dr. Dawkins, “do you seriously believe that we need people to grow fruits and vegetables when they’re available at any supermarket?”
More specifically, Dr. Dawkins’ response is troubling for three reasons:
- I think he’s misunderstood the role of religion.
- I know he’s misquoted the Bible.
- I think he’s wrong.
The Role of Religion
Dr. Dawkins seems to be missing the essential point. He says that everyone knows murder is wrong, that there are certain evolutionary reasons to come to abhor murder, that it’s better to live in a society where people don’t kill for no reason, and so forth. But even if all of that is true, it’s religion that encodes this important information, and it’s religion that brings the message to people who are trying to decide how to live their lives.
In other words, even if Dr. Dawkins is right that God has nothing to do with morality because some things are immoral simply because they are immoral, it’s still religion that occupies itself with pushing people toward doing what’s right.
The Importance of Being Informed
Ironically, just before the question about morality, Dr. Dawkins stresses that “people who don’t know what they’re talking about should keep quiet,” yet then minutes later he misquotes the Bible to make his point about religion.
It’s well know that the translation “thou shalt not kill” is inaccurate. (I go through all of the evidence in chapter 7 of my And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning. The short version is that the commandment only applies to illegal killing, and the point is that laws about killing, unlike some other laws, are both matters of law and of morality.) In other circumstances, Dr. Dawkins might be forgiven for relying on a mistranslation, but here he’s trying to speak to the very nature of religion and he’s asserting that he knows what he’s talking about.
The point of the Ten Commandments is that some things are not only illegal but also immoral, and illegal killing is one of those things. (Again, I go into more detail in my TEDx presentation, starting around 15:20 into the video.) So it’s important to distinguish between “kill” and “kill illegally” (“murder” is pretty close, though a little too narrow, because some killing is illegal but not murder).
More generally, Dr. Dawkins seems not to understand the role of religion that he is attacking. He seems to think that, according to the Ten Commandments and religions based on them, the only reason not to murder is that God might catch you and punish you. Some people believe this. But another religion-based approach is that these things are wrong because God doesn’t want us to do them, even if God doesn’t actually punish us.
This is no different than making murder illegal — a step that probably makes sense even though most people wouldn’t murder even if it were legal, and some murderers don’t get caught.
Perhaps most importantly, I think Dr. Dawkins is wrong.
I imagine a thought experiment. You’re a sharpshooter and you’re flying over an island in international waters. As it happens, two people are living on the island. No one (except, now, you) knows they’re there. They have no living relatives. And they’re too old to have children. Because you enjoy your craft you take aim and shoot them both dead. Have you done anything wrong?
My answer is yes, because it displeases God.
My question is whether Dr. Dawkins thinks it’s wrong, and, if so, why? After all, no one suffers. No one is around to mourn their death, and (because Dr. Dawkins admits no afterlife of any sort) they themselves don’t care that they’re dead. Because the island is in international waters, it’s not even clear that any laws have been broken. In fact, the world may be better off, because you’ve had a fun day, there’s a tiny bit more oxygen left for the rest of us, and you’ve improved your skills, which you can now put to good use.
I suppose Dr. Dawkins would mock me, as he did the caller, for asking, but I’ve been asking this question for 20 years, and I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer other than, “it’s wrong because of some external determination.”
I call that God.
Dear Mr. Morgan:
I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.
During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn’t ask him where the Bible says that.
It’s both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn’t provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that homosexuality is a sin.
It seems to me that Pastor Osteen, as a religious leader, has a right to believe what he wants and to encourage others to follow. So if he doesn’t accept homosexuality, it’s his prerogative to spread his anti-homosexuality message. But I think it’s dishonest when he pretends that his opinions are those of the Bible.
Similarly, if you don’t like homosexuality, it’s your right to say so on air. But I think it’s irresponsible of you to let a guest tell your audience that something is in the Bible without even asking where.
This glaring omission is all the more surprising in light of your claim to be “challenging.” Why didn’t you challenge Pastor Osteen on this basic factual issue?
I look forward to your response.
|Copies:||Meghan McPartland, email@example.com|
|Jonathan Wald, firstname.lastname@example.org|
A debate has been raging about whether Adam was an historical figure. I think it’s important, because it represents a more general debate about how to live a modern religious life. I also think it highlights a fundamental misunderstanding.
The historical Adam is apparently important for fundamental Christian theological reasons, which is why Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that, “The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity … produces a false grasp of the Gospel” and told NPR that “without [an historical] Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense…”
His basic point, shared by many others, is that, “the Apostle Paul … clearly understood Adam to be a fully historical human.”
It may surprise some that I don’t agree at all. I don’t think that Paul believed in an historical Adam.
I think that the whole notion of “historical” is a modern one, created by modern science, and that it’s this entirely modern approach that pits history against myth. Paul didn’t believe in an historical Adam or a non-historical Adam. He just believed in Adam. It’s only as modern readers that we divide things — for ourselves — into historical and non-historical.
Even ancient historians like Herodotus (5th century BC) and Josephus (1st century AD) freely mixed what we would now call history with literature. As part of their histories, they included verbatim conversations that they had no way of knowing. Similarly, they mixed history with myth, as when Herodotus writes about the phoenix in the same terms as the crocodile or when Josephus, whose life overlapped with Paul’s, describes a cow that gave birth to a lamb during his own lifetime.
So while I understand the modern inclination to ask whether or not the Adam that Paul believed in was historical, I think it’s an anachronistic question. And more than any answer to it, it’s the question itself that parts with Scripture.
[Update: John Farrell has a review on Forbes.com of Peter Enns' new book, Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say About Human Origins, including a discussion of some issues surrounding the historical Adam. Also, Dr. Enns just posted a 40-minute lecture in which he talks about the material in his book. (5/14/2012)]
[Update 2: Along similar lines, my father, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, has a piece that I think everyone should read: "Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because..." Read the rest. (5/31/2012)]
I’m pleased to announce that my TEDx presentation on Bible translation, the Ten Commandments, and the next generation is on-line on TED.com and YouTube, as well as on my Exploring the Bible Videos site. Enjoy!
I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.
The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:
- Do you speak KJV? Take the quiz!
- Thou Shalt Not Covet – Why “covet” is a mistranslation in the Ten Commandments.
- John 3:16 – What does “God so loved the world” really mean?
Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes
My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.
Please let me know what you think.
The Jewish month of Elul, which begins now, is traditionally connected to Psalm 27. And with its familiar haunting melody, the 4th verse of the Psalm is particularly well known: “I ask only one thing of God — it is what I want: To live in God’s house all the days of my life, to gaze upon God’s glory, and to visit God’s Temple.”
The nuances of the words — is it “glory” or “beauty,” “visit” or “seek,” etc. — are less interesting to me than the obvious contradiction in the line, because after specifically claiming only to want “one thing,” the Psalmist lists three: The Psalmist wants (1) to live in God’s house, (2) to gaze upon God’s glory, and (3) to visit God’s Temple.
What are we to make of this? Why can’t the Psalmist count to one?
I see insight into the nature of being human and wanting.
The Psalmist wants to live in God’s house not just for the sake of being there, but for what it will lead to, namely, seeing God’s glory. The next lines, verse 5-6, continue in a similar vein: …because in times of trouble God will hide me and keep me safe, bring me safely out of reach, and bring me victory over my enemies who are all around me. The Psalmist has the whole thing planned out. If he can only manage to live in God’s house, he’ll see God’s glory, then get God’s defensive protection, which will naturally lead to an offensive victory over his adversaries. “If only I could live in God’s house,” the Psalmist thinks, “I could finally beat them!”
The Psalmist has perpetrated his own internal bait-and-switch on himself, confusing what he wants with how he will get there. The result is a jumble in his mind, with tranquility, Godliness, safety, and retribution all mixed up.
It seems to be human nature to confuse our desires with the paths that might lead to them, and advertisers exploit this trait of ours.
Coca Cola’s website, for example, displays a prominent image of a Coca Cola bottle with the caption “open happiness.” Who wouldn’t like a little more happiness? The advertising at Coca Cola nudges us into thinking that Coke will lead us in that direction. Next thing we know, we get confused between buying Coke and becoming happier.
Most of the material goods we think we want work the same way. We get confused and think that they are a path to happiness. Then when we buy something and it doesn’t make us happy, we come to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that we have bought the wrong thing. Like Charlie Brown — who is the only one who doesn’t know that Lucy will never cooperate — we think that all we have to do is try again and buy something else. Most of us keep stumbling, and we never learn that what we really have to do is play a different game.
Non-material desires are really no different. We want power, a loyal following, recognition, or what-not, but for what we imagine they will lead to, not for what they are.
I have nothing against money or material possessions. (As the Russians say, it’s better to be healthy and rich than sick and poor.) Money can buy really important things like medicine and education and food, and make it easier to visit friends and fix the world, just to name a few benefits. On a smaller scale, if buying new clothes makes you happy for a day, it seems like money well spent.
We just have to be careful not to get confused. The Psalmist’s mistake is not that he wants to be with God or that he wants to defeat his enemies. His error is right at the start of verse 4: “I ask only one thing.”
We are seldom seeing clearly when we think that our lives lack only one thing or that with the addition of one thing our lives would be perfect. Yet even without the incessant prodding of advertisers, it would be part of our very nature to make this mistake. Ignore it, and we can’t even notice when “one” is “three.”
But once we see past it — once we differentiate between what we want and what we think it will do for us — we begin our journey toward spending our time, money, and energy wisely.
One of my favorite activities is meeting with pre-bar/bat mitzvah students to talk about their Torah and Haftarah readings.
I recently asked a student, Jennifer, about Parashat Korah, and, in particular, about the sequence of events that involves Korah and Moses. I explained that in her Torah portion, Korah, a prominent Israelite wandering in the desert under God’s leadership through Moses, was unhappy with how Moses was handling things. But rather than try to work things out, Korah instigated revolution. Numbers 16:3 reports that Korah publicly chastised Moses, and then one verse later, that Moses “fell upon his face.” I asked Jennifer if she knew what “fell upon his face” means.
I didn’t expect her to know. How could she? It’s a biblical expression that we don’t have in English, and, in fact, as a translator I wouldn’t even use that odd phrase in English.
But Jennifer surprised me and answered the question with remarkable and unusual insight. She told me she thought that Moses tripped over Korah’s words.
In that one answer, the student brilliantly understood what is widely regarded to be the point of the story, and she based it firmly in the larger context of Judaism.
Our words have power. Judaism is clear on that. This Yom Kippur — as we do every year — we will read from Deuteronomy about the power of words. God puts before all of us blessing and curse, commanding that we choose blessing over curse. The point there is not “cursing out” (though that’s probably a bad idea, too), but rather actual curses: saying something bad to make something bad happen. Contrarily, blessings are when you say something good to make something good happen. On our holiest day of the year we remind the congregation that we all have the power to bless and to curse, and that we are commanded to choose blessing.
Of course, the connected notions that our words have power and that we have to choose wisely are not confined to Jewish thought. We find the same sentiments in aphorisms — “The pen is mightier than the sword,” after all, and “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” — and in laws against slander.
We actually have two Torah readings on Yom Kippur. The first, as we just saw, deals with the power of words. The second, generally called the holiness code, comes from Leviticus 19. It’s a detailed description of what to do and what not to do in order to be holy.
Some of the ordinances seem to be particularly innovative and forward looking, as in Leviticus 19:15, which warns against judicial favoritism based on economic position. That’s something we’re still grappling with thousands of years later.
By contrast, Leviticus 19:14, just one verse earlier, seems to prohibit something so cruel that, one would hope, we wouldn’t need a warning not to do it: “Don’t place an obstacle before the blind.” Is that something people were doing? Is that, like favoritism, something we have to worry about?
Yes, says my student, because the obstacle can be our unseen words. When Korah spoke out publicly against Moses, he put an obstacle before him. And because even Moses couldn’t see spoken words, Moses was like a blind man, and he tripped.
Korah’s unkind actions had a short-term and long-term impact, and neither of them was good. First, 250 people died. Then 14,700 more. All because of Korah’s words.
When children think of power, physicality most naturally comes to mind. One of my projects for the upcoming year is to make it clearer that words — of education, praise, consolation, and support, but also of misdirection, condemnation, antagonism, and back-stabbing — all have power. When we open our mouths, we change the world.
I’m going to take my cue from Jennifer who insightfully connected both Yom Kippur readings. There’s the easy part: we shouldn’t make the blind stumble. And there’s the harder part: if we’re not careful, our words can be the instruments of damage. And there’s the lesson from Leviticus: when we fail, the whole community suffers.
I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to a year free of verbal stumbling blocks.