Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Read the Bible; don’t think for yourself

I know this isn’t a new argument, but I am getting a bit tired of it being dusted off and paraded around by intelligent people who should know better. I am talking about the accusation leveled at religion in general and at Christianity in particular that it is an escape from rationality and a subscription to herd mentality.

The latest example of this canard (to use a term favored by militant atheists) comes from the list of "8 books every intelligent person should read" by Neil deGrasse Tyson. The list is excellent, in my opinion, with great works like Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tsu's Art of War and Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, among others. Each book is also accompanied by a statement of what its "actual influence on human behavior" has been - in Tyson's opinion. For example, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations is accompanied by “to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself.”

When it comes to the Bible, which is first on the list, Tyson characterizes its impact on humanity as “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.” From the comments it is clear that this characterization is highly contested, and Tyson comes back with its justification as follows: "The one-line comment after each book is not a review but a statement about how the book’s content influenced the behavior of people who shaped the western world. So, for example, it does no good to say what the Bible “really” meant, if its actual influence on human behavior is something else."

This - and pardon my language - is bullspit ... I have great respect for Tyson as I believe his work on the popularization of science and his efforts for increased funding for science in the US are both extremely positive, but when it comes to his views on religion, statements like the latest one are a let-down. And my point here is not that controversial statements should not be made, or that there should be any form of negativity directed at him, but that I consider his one-line comment to be highly biased, uninformed and lacking in a factual basis.

Just to illustrate why I have an issue with it, let me do two things: first, give a handful of examples of what the Bible actually says (rather than "really" means) about independent thought and second, provide one or two examples of some of the "behavior of people," actually influenced by the Bible, whose actions were anything but "being told by others what to think instead of thinking for oneself."

So, what does the Bible say about independent thought?
  1. "The naive believe everything, but the shrewd watch their steps." (Proverbs 14:15)

  2. "Desire without knowledge is not good; and whoever acts hastily, blunders." (Proverbs 19:2)

  3. “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves." (Matthew 10:16)

  4. Brothers, stop being childish in your thinking. In respect to evil be like infants, but in your thinking be mature." (1 Corinthians 14:20)

  5. "Test everything; retain what is good." (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

  6. "Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1)
And how about the Bible's "actual influence on human behavior"?
  1. Abolition of slavery. From the 13th century "Sachsenspiegel" German code of law that condemns slavery as a violation of God's likeness to man, via Pope Eugene IV's Sicut Dudum (banning enslavement on pain of excommunication in the 15th century) and William Wilberforce's campaign for the abolition of slavery in 19th century Britain, to Pope Francis' outcry against human trafficking, the Bible has influenced humans to rebel against the status quo of exploitation.

  2. Scientific advances. The list of scientists who have taken their adherence to the Bible - either as Christians or Jews - to be anything but a ban on free thinking, have been responsible for some of the greatest breakthroughs in science: William of Ockham (the English Franciscan friar who posited his "razor" - a staple even of contemporary scientific thought), Nicolaus Copernicus (author of the heliocentric model of the universe and Catholic priest), Marin Mersenne (father of acoustics, discoverer of Mersenne primes and Minim friar), Gregor Mendel (Augustinian Abbot and "father of modern genetics"), Georges Lemaître (Catholic priest who postulated the Big Bang theory) and Donald Knuth (author of The Art of Computer Programming, the TeX typesetting system and a practicing Lutheran) - to name just a random few.

  3. Conscience above authority. The number of Bible-adherents who have chosen to follow their own consciences and understanding, even in the face of persecution by their fellow Bible-adherents is long and a highly frequent feature in the lives of who later are recognized as saints, as has been discussed at length in a previous post.
To come along, given both what the Bible "actually" says and what those who have taken it as their guiding light have "actually" enacted, and say that it's influence on human behavior has been "that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself," is simply divorced from facts. And, it does no good to say that these people were “really” influenced by something else, if they all actually took the Bible to be the basis of their beliefs and the source of their actions - as interpreted by their reason and conscience.