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Christianity, Bible, etc.

Editing holy books in order to
modify beliefs & alter behaviors

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Quotation:

bulletAlfred North Whitehead: "The religion which stays in place is the last refuge of human savagery."
 
bulletBlaise Paschal: "Men [sic] never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
 
bulletDeuteronomy 7:2: "... thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them."
 
bulletDeuteronomy 20:16-17: "...thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth. But thou shalt utterly destroy them."
 
bulletDeuteronomy 2:26-35: "...we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city. We left none to remain.

Note:

One of our web site's policies is to avoid criticizing the religious beliefs of any individual or group. In this essay, the authors recommend that certain passages from the Bible and other holy texts be edited to remove passages that promote or condone genocide; mass murder; human slavery; oppression of women; torturing prisoners; execution of homosexuals, religious minorities, children, and persons guilty of trivial offenses, etc. The essay is based on the belief that such evil and immoral deeds can promote religious hatred, discrimination, and violence today.

We realize that believers who regard their holy text as God's word might interpret this essay as an attack on their beliefs. However, with the world sliding so rapidly into religiously-motivated mass terror, we felt that we should bend the rules in this case. If you are easily distressed, we recommend that you not read this essay. Alternately, you may wish to submit your own rebuttal in the form of an essay for our visitors' essays section.

Discussion:

We will primarily cite Christian examples here because it is the main religion in North America, which is our main service area.

People's behaviors are greatly influenced by their beliefs. Thus, the elimination of religiously-motivated hatred, discrimination, intolerance, oppression, violence, terrorism, murder, genocide, etc. requires that we first have to replace our current beliefs with better ones. We will have to discard some of what we have been taught, and change some of our traditional patterns of thinking.

Humanity cannot continue to resolve twenty-first century dilemmas with 1st or 7th century CE guidelines, much less guidelines that came during the 6th century BCE or earlier. Present and future generations must not be held hostage to beliefs and practices originating in an ancient parochial world organized in tribal groups. We need to deal with the problem of religiously-motivated hatred and oppression at its source, by introducing major changes into our "sacred texts." This will be extremely difficult to achieve.

To break the spiral of violence and intolerance in the world, we need to eliminate the sanctification of wrong attitudes and evil deeds which are contained in our "sacred texts." Consider two modern-day examples inspired by the book of Joshua in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament). You will recall that this book records numerous genocides committed by Joshua against the Canaanites.

bulletIn Vietnam, some American soldiers "quoted from Joshua to condone the My Lai massacre. They claimed that butchering babies would purge Vietnam of the 'commie stain,' and that they [the soldiers] were on God's side." 1
bulletDuring the " 'ethnic cleansing' of the Muslims in Bosnia. [some Serbian Orthodox Christian believers]... quoted the book of Joshua to justify slaughter. They saw it as 'god's will' to slay the infidels." 1

Other examples from the Hebrew Scriptures that inspire oppression -- and worse -- include the condoning and regulation of human slavery, genocide, oppression of women, execution and oppression of homosexuals, transferring sin from the guilty to innocent persons, and many other activities that are considered profoundly immoral by most faiths today.

Progress can be seriously impeded by religious leaders' rigid attitudes against change. More flexibility will be needed, particularly with regard to the inerrancy, immutability, and universal applicability of sacred texts. Literalist and absolutist interpretations will have to be challenged before change will be possible.

As humanity's intellectual and spiritual capacity grows, so does our ability to understand complex phenomena. Our imperfect ideas are gradually replaced by more adequate ones. Our judgments are not final and often need to be modified. These attitudes should extend also to our consideration of our Scriptures. Unfortunately, reason cannot tell us how to treat logical problems created by traditional religious doctrines that do not seem to make coherent sense in today's world, but which claim to present eternal truth. Trying to overcome intolerance by simply reinterpreting existing holy texts may well be insufficient. More basic changes may be needed.

The Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- with which most of the Earth's population identify, will probably be very resistant to change. These faiths have no need to retain references to historical atrocities and immoral behaviors in their scriptures. However, there is little hope that they will be easily persuaded to effect changes to the text, such as removing those offensive commandments that serve no positive purpose. Still, retaining these commandments is dangerous, because some of the passages provide a ready-made pretext for many types of hatred and violence.

Perhaps the most that can be hoped for in the near future is a change in attitude towards the existing scriptures. This was largely accomplished over a century ago with the biblical passages that recognized, condoned, and regulated slavery. They are largely ignored today. Hopefully, religious leaders will proactively teach that passages promoting genocide, oppression of women and sexual minorities, religious intolerance, etc. are devoid of value and must also be ignored.

Further comments on Abrahamic religions:

bulletSome scripture passages are being used as a religious imperative for war, terrorism, and the formation of mass suicide groups, while turning a blind eye not only to tolerance, but also to genocide, the misuse of nature, the maltreatment of animals, etc.
bulletMany faith groups find change very difficult. They obstinately cling to doctrines which cannot be reconciled with modern culture.
bulletMany faith groups fear change. They are extremely reluctant to alter religious passages, even where obviously needed -- such as the biblical injunction to execute a child for cursing a parent. 2 They feel that any changes would undermine the "word of God," and thus reduce their group's authority. Many faith groups are motivated by a desire to preserve status quo -- to teach "The faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" 3 -- and to maintain their spiritual authority.
bulletOrganized religions find it helpful to teach exclusivity -- that their way is the only way; their belief system is the only truth. This helps Churches seek, acquire, and retain members, and thus, to grow in size and influence.
bulletIt is a well known that the various sacred writings contain contradictions, that obviously impossible claims are made, that commandments are given that cannot be complied with, and that there are statements that cannot be proven in spite of many hundreds of serious attempts. Recently, there has been a strong tendency to gloss over or avoid discussion of such matters.
bulletScholars from the third world are the main voices calling for a Bible that will reflect the realities and possibilities of today's world. 4 They are joined by progressive Christians and some others.

The concept of progressive revelation:

"Progressive revelation" is the concept that some instruction that was originally revealed for a particular age may be superseded by later revelations. These do not necessarily negate the earlier beliefs; they may simply bring them up to date. 5 Those earlier revelations that are considered still valid today, may well be superseded in the future.

Prominent among the faith groups that believe in progressive revelation are the Unitarians / Unitarian Universalists and the Bah''s. Also, the Sikhs allow, in each generation, for a change in interpretation of their revelation by the Panth, the Sikh community.

bulletUnitarians and Unitarian Universalists do not accept the idea of a final or 'sealed' divine revelation. They do not accept revealed truth as immutable. Rather, they view knowledge as continually evolving.
bulletThe Bah'' assert that because God is, in essence, unknowable, religious truth relative, and our consciousness only gradually expanding, human progress must be facilitated by a progressive and continuous revelation of God's word. According to the Bah'', no religion, including the Bah'' Faith itself, can claim to be the final revelation of God to humanity. Revelations are both recurrent and progressive.
bulletThe Mormon movement also accepts a limited type of progressive revelation. They believe that they received an instruction from God to at least temporarily suspend polygyny -- the practice of one man marrying multiple wives. This was the "Great Accommodation" of 1890. In 1978, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received another revelation from God: to eliminate racism within the denomination.

Is change of scripture possible?

Changing sacred literature in order to make the teaching more up-to-date and ethical may be extremely difficult, but, not necessarily impossible. Consider, for example:

bulletThe Council of Nicaea in 325 CE: The followers of the Egyptian theologian Athanasius claimed that Christ and God were of the same essence, while the followers of Arius, a priest from Alexandria, believed that Christ was essentially inferior to God. These two approaches triggered endless debate in the Christian communities, with the two sides rather evenly matched. A vote was taken and Arius lost -- largely due to the heavy handed influence of the Roman Emperor. The Church sanctioned the theology of Athanasius and condemned the view of Arius as heresy. The fact that an issue of such magnitude could be decided by casting a ballot gives us hope that lesser problems could be solved as well, once we set aside our biases.
bulletHistory records many gradual changes in Christian beliefs and practices in the direction of "justice and liberty for all." Typically, these changes start with those denominations most concerned with human rights, and gradually work their way through the remaining denominations. Often this happens from the most liberal faith group to the most conservative.

Examples are:
bulletThe movement to abolish human slavery in the 19th century. This started with the Mennonites and Quakers in the late 17th century and eventually permeated Christianity, except for a very few radical denominations who still advocate the practice.
bulletThe gradual acceptance of women as having status equal to men. This started with the theological debate in the late 19th century to decide whether women actually had souls. The theologians decided that they did. Eventually, women obtained the vote in North America. They have achieved near equality with men in most western countries, except for some positions in the Armed Forces and in some conservative religious groups.
bulletThe gradual granting of equal rights to sexual minorities. This movement was initially promoted by gays, lesbians, bisexuals, secularists, and liberal religious groups. Some mainline denominations are currently debating their ordination and same-sex union policies. The Episcopal Church, USA is undergoing a schism over these matters. Most conservative denominations have yet to initiate the debate.
bulletWith little public acknowledgment, most Christian denominations have abandoned the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torture for people guilty of thought crimes -- i.e. those individuals who do not accept certain Christian beliefs or practices. Some faith groups have abandoned the idea of Hell completely; others are now describing it as a place of isolation from God where unbelievers will spend eternity. The Bible's description of the worms, unbearable thirst, flogging, and extreme heat of Hell are rarely mentioned in modern sermons.
bulletThe Bible lists many dozens of "crimes" that were punishable by execution ranging from murder, eating leavened bread during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a male engaging in sexual activity with a woman who is menstruating, teaching people about another religion, blasphemy, to working on Saturday, etc. Over many centuries, predominately Christian countries gradually reduced the list of capital crimes to one: aggravated murder. Almost all democracies, with the notable exception of the United States, have now abandoned executions entirely.

The Jefferson Bible:

Creating an edited Bible may sound like a radical concept. However, it is feasible, because it has already partly been done. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826) created an abbreviated version of the Gospels. It is now called the "Jefferson Bible" and has remained in print since the first edition.

Marilyn Mellowes wrote:

"Thomas Jefferson was frustrated. It was not the burdens of office that bothered him. It was his Bible."

"Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus written in the New Testament had been contaminated. Early Christians, overly eager to make their religion appealing to the pagans, had obscured the words of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Plato. These "Platonists" had thoroughly muddled Jesus' original message. Jefferson assured his friend and rival, John Adams, that the authentic words of Jesus were still there. The task, as he put it, was one of

'abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill'." 6,7

Jefferson told John Adams that he was rescuing the philosophy of Jesus and the:

"pure principles which he taught ... [from the] artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves." 8

The material that Jefferson described as "rubbish" that he removed from the gospels included what he considered to be religious dogma, supernatural elements, and miracles. He deleted passages dealing with the annunciation, the virgin birth, appearance of the angels to the shepherds, the wise men, the Christmas star, Jesus' resurrection and ascension, etc. What is left makes interesting reading. 9

The precedent has been established. An edited Bible would not be a difficult task, particularly in the age of word processors.

Alternative approaches:

If organized religions are intransigent and unwilling to cooperate in removing intolerant passages from their scriptures, our only option may be to alleviate the problem without really solving it. There are a few possibilities:

bulletThe widespread dissemination of information about individual religions is important. People are often intolerant because of ignorance. Improved knowledge of the religious beliefs and practices of others often promote tolerance. Fortunately, the Internet contains an enormous amount of freely available information on religion. 10,11
bulletAttitudes learned in childhood have a lasting and profound influence upon a person's entire approach to life. The educational systems can actively teach tolerance and promote understanding that will carry over into adulthood. This may prove difficult to achieve in some in one-religion schools.
bulletPeople of different faiths can appreciation diverse religious traditions interacting in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. There are many ways in which to improve the contact between members of various religions. One technique is to organize inter-religious discussions as the Bah'' do. Another is to organize local groups that promote interfaith dialogue. 12,13
bulletA particularly effective method to promote religious tolerance is for individual faith groups to cooperate on specific projects. For example, there are many multi-faith groups working on environmental protection, each religion contributing to the total effort:
bulletThe National Religious Partnership for the Environment is composed of four major religious organizations in the U.S.: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Coalition of Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network. See: http://www.nrpe.org/
bulletThe United Religions Initiative (URI) considers care for the earth central to its activities. It unites more than 26,000 members of different religious traditions in fifty countries. Each group must have at least seven members from at least three different religious, spiritual, or indigenous traditions. See: http://environment.harvard.edu/
bulletThe Interfaith Global Climate Change Campaign is part of the Washington Association of Churches. They are involved with native Americans. See: http://www.thewac.org/
bulletThe Partners for Environmental Quality, Inc. is composed of members of 15 diverse religious communities including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, and Judaism. It collaborates with state, national and international environmental organizations. http://www.environment.harvard.edu/
bulletThe Interfaith Coalition for the Environment is an American organization open to all spiritual traditions. See: http://www.interfaith-coalition-for-the-environment.org/
bulletThe Forum on Religion and Ecology is an inter-religious initiative engaged in scholarly dialogue on the environment. See: http://environment.harvard.edu/
bulletThe 'Religions of the World and Ecology' series at Harvard Divinity school lasted over 3 years. There were 10 conferences, attended by 800 scholars, leaders and environmental specialist from different religions. A book series has been published covering Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Indigenous Traditions, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Shinto.
bulletAlso, environmental groups such as the WorldWildlife Fund have sponsored inter-religious meetings. http://www.futurist.com/p

Individuals, local groups, national groups and international organizations can improve mutual religious tolerance to some degree. However, without full cooperation of the main world religions, it will be an uphill struggle to achieve even a modest improvement in reducing the level of intolerance and violence. It is not sufficient to have the Bah'', the Unitarians, the Quakers, the far-Eastern religions, and others active in promoting peace and harmony. All of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are needed to play their part as well.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Christ Yes! Christendom No," at: http://home.primus.com.au/
  2. Exodus 21:17.
  3. Jude 3.
  4. Canaan S. Banana, "The Case for a New Bible," in: Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, Ed., "Voices from the Margin," Orbis/SPCK, (2004).
  5. Mel Thompson, "Philosophy of Religion," Teach Yourself Books, (1997).
  6. Marilyn Mellowes, "Thomas Jefferson and his Bible," Frontline program, PBS, at: http://www.pbs.org/
  7. The Basic Text of the Jefferson Bible is available in a Word file at: http://www.angelfire.com. It is also available in a plain text file suitable for Wordpad at: http://www.angelfire.com/
  8. Eyler Coates, Sr., "The Jefferson Bible," at: http://www.angelfire.com/
  9. Thomas Jefferson, "The Jefferson Bible," Beacon Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  10. Yahoo! directory of faiths and practices at: http://dir.yahoo.com/
  11. Google directory on religious tolerance, at: http://www.google.com/
  12. A list of mostly local "North American Interfaith Organizations and Activities" is maintained at: http://www.pluralism.org/ You may need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  13. Women Transcending Boundaries publishes an essay "Tips on Starting a Group" at: http://www.wtb.org/

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-SEP-27
Latest update on: 2006-SEP-27
Author. Vladimir Tomek, supplemented by contributions by B.A. Robinson

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