Saturday, May 05, 2007

A couple of quick comments before moving on. . .

I thought I should take time out to respond to a couple of Missy's points before posting the next passage.

First, in the comments I misremembered the bit about the Tree of Life. (That's what I get for taking more than a month between posts.) The people are not forbidden to eat from it. Actually, nothing is said about it at all, except that it is there. We don't know what it means, it's just a stray mention. So I would say that it's not clear whether mortality is part of the punishment for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. You could take it that way, but it's not explicit. In any event, I find that puzzling. Why would death be the price of knowing good from evil?

Next, I certainly agree that this is a fable, and I don't know to what extent the ancient Hebrews took it literally, or how they interpreted it. Unfortunately, according to polling data, almost half of modern Americans do believe that it is literally true. Therefore, although it may not be an issue for people who are likely to read us, as we continue through the Bible, I feel that it is necessary to consider the implications if we were to take it literally. That's the only way to engage with the thinking of the majority of American Christians.

Of the remaining Christians, most tell pollsters that while they don't believe the Bible is literally factually accurate, they do believe that it is somehow dictated or inspired by God. I take it that is not quite the same as what Missy is saying, which as I understand it is that these early passages of Genesis represent the struggles of ancient people to understand God and their place in the universe, given the perspective of their time and the extent of their knowledge. I obviously agree with that, but that also means my attitude toward it is a bit different from Missy's. This is an artifact in the history of culture, but in that respect it is not particularly distinguished from Aesop's fables or the Vedas or the epic of Gilgamesh. To answer Neolotus's question, the reason I have chosen to read the Bible here rather than any of those other ancient documents is because of its importance in our own, contemporary society. But on its own terms, I don't give it any special respect.

And finally, to wrestle substantively with the concept of morality that seems to be at the heart of this tale, I would say that we generally consider moral agency to develop gradually in children, not come upon them suddenly. Infants, of course, are not moral agents, and we think of two-year-olds as close to our animal companions in their degree of moral agency. But pretty much as soon as children can talk, we start to try to teach them to understand good and evil and we expect them to begin to develop moral sensibilities. By the time they are in kindergarten, we're teaching them to share, not to steal, not to hit, to obey adults, etc. We expect children to have something close to a fully developed moral understanding by the time they are ten or so; innocence isn't suddenly shattered with puberty, although we don't hold people fully responsible as adults until they are a few years past sexual maturity, i.e. sixteen or so.

So this fable of a sudden loss of innocence doesn't really correspond to experience, and it continues to puzzle me. Of course, Christians in general (I don't know about Missy) believe that God is the source of morality. The typical stance is that people are inherently wicked (viz. the original sin) and that they require piety and the threat of hellfire to stay in line. Conservative Christians, and notably evolution deniers, insist on this: they claim that secularism will lead to the moral dissolution of society.

Since the enlightenment, secular thinkers have looked for the origins of morality in human nature, not divine mandate. Until recently, this sort of thinking tended to be rather vague and speculative, but in recent years there has been strong interest in a more empirically grounded analysis of the evolution of morality. One possibly revolutionary finding is that something akin to human morality can be discerned in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and that perhaps we should think about them as having the beginnings of moral agency. Evolution has equipped us with morality, as an essential attribute of a highly intelligent social species.

Now, scientists are doing empirical research into morality, and they have found that people have remarkably consistent responses to moral problems across religions, and cultures, and that religious and non-religious people do not differ in their judgments of most categories of moral problems. The exceptions, of course, have to do with specific rule-based forms of morality, such as the prohibition of homosexual acts. If you are interested in participating in some of this research, and you want to explore how you make certain moral judgments, you can go here, to the home page of the moral sense test, offered by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer.

We could get hung up in discussing these issues forever, and I don't want to derail our reading, so I'll leave it at that. I will post the next Bible passage this evening or tomorrow.