Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jesus: Devil or Dingbat?

It's quite fascinating the way Christians can come up with convoluted interpretations to justify their views. The usual claim is that the more vile passages in the Bible were meant metaphorically, and that people have misunderstood them and used them to justify their harmful actions. But what does it tell about the person who preached them in the first place?

In an ancient civilization where slavery was common, if you preach them to keep slaves, and expect them to take it as a metaphor and not treat it literally, either you're endorsing slavery, or you're pretty stupid. So which was it? For Jesus, I mean. If he existed, that is.

Speaking of slavery, here's a wonderful passage from Professor Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in Physics.

It is certainly true that the campaign against slavery and the slave trade was greatly strengthened by devout Christians, including the Evangelical layman William Wilberforce in England and the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in America. But Christianity, like other great world religions, lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries, and slavery was endorsed in the New Testament. So what was different for anti-slavery Christians like Wilberforce and Channing? There had been no discovery of new sacred scriptures, and neither Wilberforce nor Channing claimed to have received any supernatural revelations. Rather, the eighteenth century had seen a widespread increase in rationality and humanitarianism that led others—for instance, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—also to oppose slavery, on grounds having nothing to do with religion. Lord Mansfield, the author of the decision in Somersett's Case, which ended slavery in England (though not its colonies), was no more than conventionally religious, and his decision did not mention religious arguments. Although Wilberforce was the instigator of the campaign against the slave trade in the 1790s, this movement had essential support from many in Parliament like Fox and Pitt, who were not known for their piety. As far as I can tell, the moral tone of religion benefited more from the spirit of the times than the spirit of the times benefited from religion.


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