Monday, May 28, 2007

A couple of general observations

I don't think I much resemble Lou Grant. Mary once discovered that Lou's breakfast consists of oreos and beer, and I can assure you that I don't have the oreos and beer until lunch.

Here's my basic attitude toward the material we're reading now, and the overall point I'm trying to make, however ineffectively. These texts are interesting because they are very old; indeed they reach back into preliterate society, and represent early records of formerly oral traditions. So they are archaeologically important. They give us clues about how ancient people understood the world.

The first thing you notice about them if you undertake a dispassionate reading is that they are incoherent -- frequently illogical, self-contradictory, and preposterous. That is not surprising, this early part of Genesis is a compendium of tales, indeed a compendium of compendia, a patchwork of different original texts. Furthermore people in those days were struggling to explain the world around them and they came up with various hypotheses, speculations, and metaphors.

However, there is a common idea, and it's very important. People attributed nature and natural events to intelligent actors -- originally multiple gods, with various powers and spheres of action. The Hebrews were not yet monotheists, but they did decide that one particular god was the chief one, and that he had a particular interest in them.

Unfortunately, the world was capricious and often cruel. If floods, and famines happen, and YHWH is the cause, well, either he's one really nasty son of a bitch, or we must have done something to deserve it. Hence the conclusion that he is disappointed in us, we are wicked, and we deserve what we get.

Nowadays, however, we know better. We know why bad weather happens, why there are epidemics, why we have a limited life span. (Death is essential for the long-term success of a species. We cannot reproduce if the old don't make way for the young, given finite resources, and without reproduction there is no evolution.) Fundamentalists still insist that God wiped out New Orleans as punishment for Gay Pride Day. Pat Robertson claims he prayed hurricane Bob away from his mansion and horse stables in Virginia, but it came on up to New England and killed some folks here. Pat and Jerry Falwell said that God slaughtered 3,000 people on 9/11/01 to punish the United States for harboring homosexuals, abortionists, and the ACLU.

Well, now we know that hurricanes are caused by convection off of warm ocean waters, driven by condensation from humid tropical air into powerful rain and windstorms which are spun into a vortex by the rotation of the earth. Their motions are controlled by upper level steering currents. The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by people who were angry at the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, it's unquestioning support for Israeli policies concerning Palestine, etc. God has nothing to do with it -- which for those who believe in him ought to be a relief. Otherwise, God is a very nasty character who kills and injures innocent people by the thousands and tens of thousands, and bereaves their loved ones, in retaliation for actions they had absolutely nothing to do with.

Well, that is indeed the God of genesis. An evil sociopath. An ugly, cruel, vindictive God who reflects the hard life in which certain inhabitants of a poor, parched land found themselves. That's understandable, and it is of historic interest. However, it most certainly does not suggest any wisdom, or guidance, for how we ought to live today or what we ought to believe. It is not philosophically enlightening for us today, because we know a whole lot more than people did then.

And that's great news for us. We don't have to live under the oppressive shadow of this cruel and vengeful God. We can seek knowledge, and wisdom. We can learn how to predict bad weather, and prepare for it. We can study human psychology, and society, and learn how to prevent crime, how to reduce the chances of criminal recidivism, even how to bring about international reconciliation and reduce terrorism and war. We can do these things with our senses and our reason.

But this old time religion does not help in any of those endeavors. It is an obstacle. It deceives, it misleads. It frustrates our intelligence and corrupts our better nature. It is from the infancy of our species. Now that I am grown, I have put away childish things, starting with Genesis. It is time for all humanity to move beyond it.