November 28, 2009 at 10:30 pm #32732
THE RELIGIOUS WARS
By Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times
November 25, 2009
Just a few years ago, it seemed curious that an omniscient, omnipotent God
wouldnt smite tormentors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam
Harris. They all published best-selling books excoriating religion and
practically inviting lightning bolts.
Traditionally, religious wars were fought with swords and sieges; today,
they often are fought with books. And in literary circles, these battles
have usually been fought at the extremes.
Fundamentalists fired volleys of Left Behind novels, in which Jesus returns
to Earth to battle the Anti-Christ (whose day job was secretary general of
the United Nations). Meanwhile, devout atheists built mocking Web sites like
http://www.whydoesGodhateamputees.com. That site notes that although believers
periodically credit prayer with curing cancer, God never seems to regrow
lost limbs. It demands an end to divine discrimination against amputees.
This year is different, with a crop of books that are less combative and
more thoughtful. One of these is The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright,
who explores how religions have changed — improved — over the millennia.
He notes that God, as perceived by humans, has mellowed from the capricious
warlord sometimes depicted in the Old Testament who periodically orders
(In 1 Samuel 15:3, the Lord orders a mass slaughter of the Amalekite tribe:
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do
not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child.
These days, that would earn God an indictment before the International
Mr. Wright also argues that monotheism emerged only gradually among
Israelites, and that the God familiar to us may have resulted from a merger
of a creator god, El, and a warrior god, Yahweh. Mr. Wright also argues that
monotheism wasnt firmly established until after the Babylonian exile, and
he says that Mosess point was that other gods shouldnt be worshiped, not
that they didnt exist. For example, he notes the troubling references to a
divine council and gods — plural — in Psalm 82.
In another revelation not usually found in Sunday School classes, Mr. Wright
cites Biblical evidence that God (both El and Yahweh) had a sex life, rather
like the Greek gods, and notes archaeological discoveries indicating that
Yahweh may have had a wife, Asherah.
As for Christianity, Mr. Wright argues that it was Saint Paul — more than
Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet — who emphasized love and universalism and
built Christian faith as it is known today. Saint Paul focused on these
elements, he says, partly as a way to broaden the appeal of the church and
Mr. Wright detects an evolution toward an image of God as a more beneficient
and universal deity, one whose moral compass favors compassion for humans of
whatever race or tribe, one who is now firmly in the antigenocide camp. Mr.
Wrights focus is not on whether God exists, but he does suggest that
changing perceptions of God reflect a moral direction to history — and that
this in turn perhaps reflects some kind of spiritual force.
To the extent that god grows, that is evidence — maybe not massive
evidence, but some evidence — of higher purpose, Mr. Wright says.
Another best-seller this year, Karen Armstrongs The Case for God,
likewise doesnt posit a Grandpa-in-the-Sky; rather, she sees God in terms
of an ineffable presence that can be neither proven nor disproven in any
rational sense. To Ms. Armstrong, faith belongs to the realm of lifes
mysteries, beyond the world of reason, and people on both sides of the God
gap make the mistake of interpreting religious traditions too literally.
Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their
reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether,
and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a
transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and
courage, Ms. Armstrong writes. Her book suggests that religion is not meant
to regrow lost limbs, but that it may help some amputees come to terms with
Whatever ones take on God, theres no doubt that religion remains one of
the most powerful forces in the world. Today, millions of people will be
giving thanks to Him — or Her or It.
Another new book, The Faith Instinct, by my Times colleague Nicholas Wade,
suggests a reason for the durability of faith: humans may be programmed for
religious belief, because faith conferred evolutionary advantages in
primitive times. That doesnt go to the question of whether God exists, but
it suggests that religion in some form may be with us for eons to come.
Im hoping that the latest crop of books marks an armistice in the religious
wars, a move away from both religious intolerance and irreligious
intolerance. That would be a sign that perhaps we, along with God, are
evolving toward a higher moral order.
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.