Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Everyone is dumb

...even some atheists. Since the two verdicts on the 10 Commandments, there has naturally been all sorts of derisive commentary in the "progressive" blogosphere. (I write "progressive" because I think that turn of phrase is preposterous. In fact, I think progress is a slightly goofy notion, but that's another issue.) I followed a link to the American Atheists website to find an essay on, of course, the 10 Commandments, which is well-enough researched, in the sense that the author is capable of including more than one book of the Bible in his analysis. The author takes a particular joy in rendering every biblical phrase in the most profoundly archaic way possible--always "thou," "wast," "hath"--which I find somehow disingenuous; no one claims that Shakespeare was out-to-lunch on the basis of his archaic usage. Anyway, to save the reader some time--the essay boils down to the observation that the Decalogue, in its several forms, is largely a cultic mission statement, rather than genuinely moral code.

Well, yeah. That's not exactly news. You may notice that the statements 10 Commandments do not include an injunction of the form, "You shall have no other gods before me because I'm the only one there is." What would be the point of divine jealousy in a fully monotheistic context? None. The first four commandments delineate a novel relationship between the Hebrews and thier god (with a little g)--the novelty being that it's actually exclusive. I'm not aware of any reports of Marduke, or Osiris, handing down commands not to talk with anyone else's gods. That's an awfully bold step for a people who do believe that there are other gods. (I will say, by the way, that the evil-eye presupposes some class of small godlings, at least, unless you have a very modern notion of mental powers.) Similarly, what's the big deal about graven images? From the perspective of a propagandist, if you want to set yourself up as the mega-super-ultra-lightning dude of all dudes, it's a good idea let yourself be seen in your splendor, especially if the competitors are showing up to the party as ultra-mega dudes made of gold. My own interpretation is the following: this commandment is a demonstration that a god is just nothing like a human being. If you could can render something as a lion-eagle-man-with-a-beard, you can more-or-less wrap your mind around it, but this god says, "you insult me by trying." Which is a little petulant, admitted. I'm going to claim (without further argument), that this is a great departure.

The 10 Commandments represent a moment in the development of monotheism. I might call it the point of no return along that road. Is the Decalogue moral? A little bit, yeah. Hammurabi had a code, and he was sort of a god-king. The Egyptians must have had some kind of ethics--I don't know if the weighing-your-heart-for-sin-content model antedates the Hebrew exodus. Be that as it may, attaching even a few ethical maxims to divine commandment is terribly important if you believe that morality is essenitally divine. (Two points of digression. (1) You will note that I did not specify the nature of that morality; don't even think about confusing what I've said with any flavor of "wingnuttery." (2) If you are an atheist and claim that you are a "moral" person in the sense that a religious person (hopefully) is "moral," you have not understood what religious people mean by that word. This is not to say that atheism need be immoral or even amoral. This is a broader issue.)

The 10 Commandments ad literam are not the moral foundation of western civilization--probably not more than, say, Roman Law or Germanic tribal customs--but as a historical document, they are a moment of Genesis for moral monotheism. That's why they're important--not because we thought killing and adultery were just fine before them

But onto dumbness: What is the mistake that Fundamentalists make when they talk about the Ten Commandments, or most anything else? (Well, actually, I think most of these folks are not really monotheists in any sense of the word that affiliate myself with. For the most part, they are actually engaged in cultic worship of the sort that is discussed in the commandments. Witness the folks who come out to lay hands on the 10 Commandments monument as it travels around the Bible belt on a flatbed truck. (beam in my eye...)) They are convinced that the Bible has no engagement with history, that the truth of a given passage has nothing to do with the audience to which it was initially adressed. (Incidently, you don't hear Fundamentalists mention Hosea so often. Funny thing that.) Well, that's goofy, and we all know it, including most religious folks I associate with. Then why, in attacks like the one from the American Atheists, do the attackers insist on taking the same bizarre assumption as the point of departure? Why would you assume that a modern reader of the Bible must read the thing the same way that a sadducee living in 200BCE? Why would you assume that a sadducee read it the same way that one of Moses' contemporaries would have? You wouldn't, if it were any other book in the history mankind.

Blah. For all that, this is what really got my ire up:

Readers of the third set might also be astute enough to note that although Yahweh is represented as promising to write the Decalogue on stone tablets provided by Moses, in the end it is Moses who is indicated as having done the writing - even though nowhere in the text does it indicate he took with him a chisel. It merely says, "And Yahweh said unto Moses, write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel." For all anyone might suppose, Moses was taking dictation with pen and papyrus!

This post of mine, did I write it? Or did I type it? Is it an essay or a blog-post? The time-stamp at the bottom, is it true? It's important to be absolutely perfectly clear on these things at all times, always.