By Vexen Crabtree 2014
Despite what some religious folk claim, especially Christians and Muslims, it simply isn't possible to have a "Book of Truth" that can be read objectively, with a shared meaning agreed upon by everyone, especially when it comes to moral instruction and ethics. It is impossible to derive "absolute morals" from holy books like The Bible and The Qur'an. Unfortunately, because many religionists think that correct interpretation is of extreme importance, then, all these different possible conclusions lead to schism and the formation of competing denominations, often violently opposed to others who haven't come to the same conclusions.
Language: When we read, our brains interpret the words according to our understanding of language. Prof. Loughlin warns about this when it comes to lawmaking. He says "language has an open-textured quality", "there is an inherent vagueness in the ordinary use of language [...] and, because of this, rules - even if we accept that they have a core of settled meaning - are often surrounded by a penumbra of uncertainty [... and] often acquire meaning within particular contexts"1. Thomas Paine gave us the same warning, saying that "Human language is local and changeable, and is therefore incapable of being used as the means of unchangeable and universal information"2.
Subjectivism: Our own wild experiences in life, our own flawed understandings, both conspire continually to colour everything we see in the world. In epistemology, this basic fact is called subjectivism and the subjective nature of our perception of reality is one of the oldest topics in human philosophy, going back thousands of years3.
“Subjectivism is a problem of epistemology (theory of knowledge). The word describes the fact that we can only understand the world through our own senses and our own rational deliberations, in conjunction with our own limited experience in life. Our brains are imperfect organic machines, not a mystical repository of truth. Our senses are imperfect, our point of view limited, and the reality we experience is never the total picture. Our divergent contexts result in each of us interpreting, understanding and perceiving the world differently to one another even when looking at the same stimulus. Human thought is infused with systematic thinking errors. Our knowledge of absolute reality is hampered by our limited insights and imperfect brains, and we can never truly escape from the shackles of our own minds. Our total take on reality is a mix of guesses and patchwork. These problems have been debated by the most ancient philosophers, thousands of years ago, and no practical answers have yet been forthcoming.3.”
Personal Bias: When people approach a religious text or any large book from which they intend to derive ethical teachings, nearly without exception the person will pick up the book and pay very particular attention to all the morals they already agree with. The philosopher George Smith says that "Christian theologians have a strong tendency to read their own moral convictions into the ethics of Jesus. Jesus is made to say what theologians think he should have said"4. A homophobe will pick up the Christian Bible and realise that homosexuality is an evil sin. A misogynist will pick up the Bible or Qur'an and realise that after all this time he's right: Women are inferior, and he can quote the Bible or Qur'an to prove it. A fluffy liberal will read it and find all the hippy love-thy-neighbour bits and therefore will be able to prove that all those homophobes and misogynists have it wrong. In arguing against extremism, Neil J. Kressel5 points out that "everyone picks and chooses, at least a little. Everyone interprets"6.
Complexity and Contradictions: Long texts that dance with moral issues suffer from the problem that some morals in one place step on the toes of other morals in other parts. The debates over which verses have precedence over others is a major symptom of this issue. In addition because of the volume of text and its frequent obscurity and complexity, there is plenty of scope for the imagination, and for personal bias, to find a way to interpret lines in a way that beat to the drum of the reader. Because of the kaleidoscope of different plotlines and levels of possible interpretation, one's subconscious and imagination is given accidental freedom to invent all kinds of morals.
Most Holy Books' Texts is Not About Morals: Most stories in holy books are about personalities - tales about what people are said to have done what. Most of them also involve war and cultural struggles between different peoples, and are often written from within one particular geographical area. It is possible to read these stories and take out of them a wide range of morals, and therefore, to think that these indirect lessons have divine mandate. The same occurs with all long texts. Take Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - it is very much like the Bible (in style), and it is clear to see that you could spend your entire life analyzing it for morals. Many people who undertook such a task would come to different conclusions, just as with Holy Books. The simple fact remains that the parts of the text that say "Here follows a moral rule, to be obeyed by all people for all time" are very infrequent indeed. The Qur'an is much more frank than the Bible, but is still mostly about the retelling of events.
See if you can work out if the following questions are being raised with regards to The Lord of the Rings, The Bible, or the Qur'an:
The people in the book all have their own aims, which are relevant to the topic of the book and the life circumstances of that person. Most people's actions are simply not centered around any wish to provide universal instruction on behaviour - it's all about their problems at that time.
Using characters from within this book we would find many seemingly contradictory morals. For example, for the side of Good, there is much killing to be done, yet part of the morals is that the bad guys kill people.
People interpret the "real meanings" behind various stories in hugely varying ways, and volumes of books have been written on such interpretations based on political and moral undertones.
The answer is that this describes all large books written by Humans. Attempts to read them as places for moral instruction is itself the problem, and the cause of schism, violent disagreements and fundamentalism.
Cultural Context: As time passes, the original cultural assumptions and cultural understanding of phrases and words will all change, making it impossible for many things to be understood by future audiences in the same way that the original authors meant them. The longer ago something was written, the less the context is clear to us today, and this opens the way for much culturally subjective opinion. "Love thy neighbour as thyself" has meant various things at various times: A land of barbarians may feel quite free to brutalize others just as they brutalize themselves7, whereas band of 1970s hippies spread love in a much more physical way. Over time, morals are simply read into texts differently, hence why religious prohibitions change over time too. We read text literally, chronologically and philosophically, but both The Koran and much of The Bible was written in prose, in poetry, using many symbolic aspects and word games. Shifts in time and place mean that there are unknown cultural references that we cannot possibly understand now, even if text that we think we are reading correctly.
Translations: All of the above problems come together when translations of holy texts are made. One thing that fundamentalists do get right is their determined and enviable attempts to read scripture in its original language (which is easier for Muslim Arabs who still speak the same language the Koran was written in). But we have very few of the original texts of our major religions. We rely on copies-of-copies-of-copies, which at some point, have often been translated - quotations changed from Aramaic to Greek, entire texts from Latin to English, based on Greek translations. We know that even from very early on numerous mistranslations have been introduced8, such as the mistaken usage of the word "virgin" to describe the prophecy of Jesus' birth since the major Septuagint translation.
It is surprising that anyone thinks a god would attempt to communicate with us in any particular language, let alone ancient ones. If I was god, I would transmit my message directly into everyone's brain. That way problems with translation and subjectivism would be removed and people could make informed decisions and moral choices based on the full facts, rather than miscommunicated ideals. This would end all translation and transmission problems too.
Clearly, no gods have imparted such a universal moral message into the minds of mankind. If there is a supreme and omniscient creator god then it is responsible for creating the way that our brains work. Such a being knows that we can only interpret life subjectively, and that no text will mean the same thing for any two people. Therefore by design, any sacred text must only be designed by God for the specific culture into which the text arose.
Robert G Ingersol wrote of how the problem of subjectivism applies to Christianity:
“It is probably safe to say that not one-third of the inhabitants of this world ever heard of the Bible, and not one- tenth ever read it. It is also safe to say that no two persons who ever read it agreed as to its meaning, and it is not likely that even one person has ever understood it. Nothing is more needed at the present time than an inspired translator. Then we shall need an inspired commentator, and the translation and the commentary should be written in an inspired universal language, incapable of change, and then the whole world should be inspired to understand this language precisely the same. Until these things are accomplished, all written revelations from God will fill the world with contending sects, contradictory creeds and opinions.
All persons who know anything of constitutions and laws know how impossible it is to use words that will convey the same ideas to all. The best statesmen, the profoundest lawyers, differ as widely about the real meaning of treaties and statutes as do theologians about the Bible. When the differences of lawyers are left to courts, and the courts give written decisions, the lawyers will again differ as to the real meaning of the opinions. Probably no two lawyers in the United States understand our Constitution alike. To allow a few men to tell what the Constitution means, and to hang for treason all who refuse to accept the opinions of these few men, would accomplish in politics what most churches have asked for in religion.”
The legal profession has much experience with determining the accurate meaning of texts. We quoted Prof Loughlin on this already, but here is a fuller quote from him:
“Law is not merely an attempt to subject human conduct to the governance of rules; it is an attempt to guide the future through the use of rules. [...] It is an attempt through the use of language to devise rules. The problem which this presents is that language has an open-textured quality; language, we might say, has a limited grip over reality. There is an inherent vagueness in the ordinary use of language and, because of this, rules - even if we accept that they have a core of settled meaning - are often surrounded by a penumbra of uncertainty. [...] Words do not always have simple, literal meanings: they often acquire meaning within particular contexts.”
"Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics" by Martin Loughlin (2000)1
Current edition: 2014 Dec 0510
Last Modified: 2018 Sep 04
Originally published 2003 Oct 2611
Parent page: Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Holy Bibles Across Different Traditions
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(2000) Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics. Published by Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK. A paperback book.
(1807) The Age of Reason. Published by Musiaicum Books. Part 1 published 1794, part 2 in 1795 and part 3 in 1807. An e-book.