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This page is written from the perspective of Wittgenstein's logic of language, but it must not be taken to represent Wittgenstein's own views about its subject. (Introduction to Philosophy of Religion on page 1 of 4.)

Philosophy of Religion - Page 4 of 4

Should philosophy not criticize religious belief itself, as a way of thought and life? Is nationalistic religion consistent with human rights, indeed, with common humanity?

Outline of this page ...

Special note: I am uneasy in my mind about this final section, Page 4. On the one hand, it says something that I believe it is important to say. But on the other hand, I am doubtful whether it is philosophy. (I hope there is no hatred in what follows directed against anything but falsehood and inequity.)

Playing god to God - Foundational Beliefs have Consequences

... a picture which is at the root of all our thinking is to be respected and not treated as a superstition. (CV p. 83)

The problem with this, in my view, is that it treats foundational beliefs in isolation from their consequences. These beliefs are the reasons people have for what they do, and what they do is not morally neutral.

Question: if someone is faithful to his own values (conscience), then what can we reproach him with? Could you say: although we can attack him, we cannot reproach him? Could we say that there is a difference between being good (sincere) and doing good? No or not always, because although we do not call a hypocrite good, we do not call a murderer good either, even if he claims to have a clear conscience. Why? Because our application of the word 'good' is already connected to our basic judgments about good and evil.

If someone says that he worships a God who demands exclusivity and the destruction of indigenous people, we would ask him what is the difference between worshipping this God and worshipping the devil? If this God commands a man [Abraham] to kill a child, then what would the devil command that man to do -- kill two children? (The point of the story may be that God does not demand human sacrifice (a sheep will do), but the author of the story, myth, is nonetheless prepared to obey any command from God, even the sacrifice (murder) of a child.)

In order to believe in the rightness [goodness] of the slaughter of the Canaanites, one has to believe that God's ends justify the use of any and all means. That God can do no wrong ... even when he does.

My own religious ideas are "one hundred percent Greek", if by 'Greek' here is meant: "If God is good, it is because he wills that good be done." And that means that, if God plays god [interferes, intervenes, directs events], then God can also do wrong. This is the way, I believe, the Greeks who first told and heard the myths, as they are told in the Iliad, for example, saw the gods: the gods willed both good and bad things to happen (The Gods had all the vices of human beings). That is to say that unlike Plato, those early Greeks did not identify God with the good; so that whether or not something was good was unconnected with the will of gods. But that view of the gods seems to change, because Euripides says that "If gods do evil they are not gods", so that to demand the sacrifice of a human being, such as of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon at Aulis, would never be the demand of a god.

We must play god to God -- because our beliefs have consequences in our actions, e.g. in our actions toward other human beings. [Note 20]

The Bible must be read in the same spirit in which we read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey -- not as something to be believed in (Religion as credulity), but as something to be learned from. For far too long we have been dogmatic -- I would say "fools" (echoing Bonhoeffer's characterization of the Fascists of his day: people who are capable of burning witches and, by proxy, capable of dropping bombs on the heads of the people they have demonized) -- who treat "sacred scripture" with all the verificational requirements of astrology and for whom human rights are "secularism" or "humanism": man as the measurer of all things, so to speak, as if man had not invented (conceived, imagined, pictured) the gods, and written every "sacred text".

We must resist degradations of our concept 'truth'. There are not two moral truths -- one for God and one for human beings. Just as there are not e.g. two mutually exclusive truths -- archaeology and Scripture. They must agree. If archaeology shows that a story is mythic, then Scripture must be read accordingly. Like any ancient writing, Scripture may suggest things to investigate as possible historical events. But these suggestions must be verified by means independent of Scripture itself. Otherwise we have pre-critical history -- mythos rather than logos. We need a history of the Near East written independently of the Bible (Michael Prior, The Bible and Colonialism (1997), p. 250). [Note 21]

Putting the Question Marks at the Right Level

"Human rights", as e.g. expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, are the result of thousands of years of human experience and thought. The idea of tolerance -- of allowing freedom of conscience to other human beings, and of treating them with the same respect with which we ourselves want to be treated [In other words, the willingness not to try to control other people] -- did not come easily to human beings [If the Golden Rule (Luke 6.31) taken to its ultimate consequence implies tolerance, it took Christians a very long time to see this].

Tolerance is a possible "form of life" for human beings, but it is far from being the only one: other instincts seem to be stronger ... although most people have a basic sense of fairness [This is what we call 'fairness', i.e. examples of what we commonly apply that word to] -- although that may only show itself when they are presented with hypothetical cases, not with the case of their own neighbors (Prior, p. 36-39). Apart from hypothetical cases, however, most people do not naturally read the Bible -- or look at other ideologies -- "with Canaanite eyes" (ibid. p. 43). We always ask: What have we suffered, not: What have we caused others to suffer. And so it has usually happened -- and continues to happen -- that Jesus's "ethic of love" is turned into a pretext for hatred, his universalism (Luke 4.16-30) into nationalism [tribalism: denominations and state churches].

When someone refers to "the Judeo-Christian tradition" ["our common heritage of Judeo-Christian values" [Note 22]], I wonder if that person knows anything about that tradition [those values]. The history of European colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia does not support a high esteem for that tradition. The values of that tradition are not the values of the Enlightenment: they are the values of conquest and subjugation, precisely not that of treating other human lives as being of equal value with our own. [Note 23]

I do not want to follow Wittgenstein in regarding belief in dogma [dogmatic religious belief] as a way of life ["form of life"] that should be treated with respect -- as if the unquestioning acceptance of the dogmas of some "Holy Scriptures" ["Word of God", "Revealed Truths"] or other were on the same level as the reflections of a thoughtful philosophy. I would even go so far as to say that although a person might do good despite being religious, no one does good because [in the sense of having reasons] he is religious. Ethics [philosophical ethics] is subject to the critical use of reason, but religious dogma is not: for religion whatever the god commands must be done (like a soldier "only obeying orders").

Finally, if anyone says that he prefers to sweep certain texts [and their doctrines] under the rug and to look e.g. only at the universalism [inclusiveness] of the Book of Jonah and the New Testament, then I have to say that this person is not putting the question deep enough down. The problem is not with this or that bit of text, but with the very notions of "Holy Writ" and "the will of God" themselves.

One keeps forgetting to go right down to the foundations. One doesn't put the question marks deep enough down. (CV p. 62)

[Philosophy of Religion - Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4]


Note 20: What is the place of propaganda (LC p. 28) in philosophy? Has it no place? In philosophy there is on the one hand pure description, but on the other hand there is implicit advocacy of the use of reason (given that philosophy is itself an application of reason to philosophical problems). So what then do I mean by 'propaganda' here? It is a matter of form: when the implicit advocacy is made explicit. This final section is propaganda.

"Reason is better than unreason." That is surely the position of philosophy. If we did not believe that, we would not bother with philosophy. [BACK]

Note 21:

Myths of Origin - Nationality

Myths of origin are found in the world's religions, but sometimes such myths have a secular origin. As was the case in pre- and post-unified Italy, and in Japan after the Second World War:

The mythical origin of Japan was described by our [primary school] teacher with perfection. We memorized the story ... We recited the story of how the land of the Rising Sun was created by a pair of celestial Gods by stirring muddy water, and droplets turned into our islands. The celestial grandson was sent down to a point in Kyushu Island to reign over all Japan. There was no doubt in my mind that I was quoting a creation of history just as it happened 2600 years ago. (p. 31)

The newly revised [post-war] textbooks were ... a great improvement over the old textbooks that we had to paint over with black ink, leaving only a few pages which we were allowed to use. The teachers said it was by the order of ... the Occupational Army, which disallowed most of the contents of our old textbooks. Anything that had remotely to do with patriotism or warrior's codes was not to be seen or read.

... the content of the new texts were actually quite exciting. The history of Japan [i.e. "what really happened" (Thucydides)] was being reintroduced in place of mythical creation. (p. 81)

Sometime [a year or two after the war] the Emperor came to our desolate town... The former living God ... After all the years we were taught to live and die in his name until the worst of its consequences was brought down on all of us, I had to see him.... [now under the Occupational Army] the human Emperor. (Hideko Tamura Snider, One Sunny Day: a child's memories of Hiroshima (1996), p. 89)

It was as if the city of Hiroshima, which like the rest of the country had been under the warrior's codes, had been given a new myth of origin: out of the ruins left by the atomic bombing had been born a city under the code of peace. Hiroshima's Peace Dome was to become an international symbol of the human desire for peace on earth [no more wars] and the survivors of Hiroshima, through the recounting of their stories, were to become international peace-makers.

The word 'myth' here means: a way of looking at things [frame of reference], or, "the meaning of the events" (as opposed to the events themselves). This is a myth because, although it is based on actual events, those events could be looked at in more than one way. Rather than a symbol of peace, the dome might have been a symbol of condemnation or of resentment [with the suggestion that revenge should be sought] or of eternal mourning [the hopelessness of existence]. (The slogan "Never forget!" does not tell you [the meaning of] what you are to remember [nor the consequences that are supposed to follow from your remembering].)

Not all myths of origin are benevolent in their effects, of course, nor are all such myths based on actual historical events. The myths of the Old Testament have at times been utterly malevolent in their effects; anyone who wishes to maintain both that "the Bible is the Word of God" and that "God is good" must question [look at critically] the historical justification for reading the Bible's stories as if they were records of what really happened. According to Prior, that claim does not stand up to scholarship [critical-history] (Prior, p. 289-290): "historical Israel" and "biblical Israel" are not the same thing (ibid. p. 260):

Genesis - 2 Kings (creation to exile) is a fabricated history of origins using all available sources, including folk traditions and legends, which consolidated group identity in the present by fashioning its imagined origins in a distant past. (ibid. p. 242)

Of course their status as myths does not "allow the narratives to escape an evaluation based on criteria of morality" (ibid. p. 250). And I would say this was the point: it does not matter whether or not there ever was a "people of Israel" (in the Old Testament sense) or a "land of Israel" (again, in the Old Testament sense), because this would not affect the moral question of whether an actuality in the distant past could justify present actions. [Questions about the historicity of the Bible matter only within the context of dogmatic ["Word of God"] religion, because there are many human beings who believe that the "return" of "God's chosen people" to "God's promised land" is the will of God, and of course the will of God as "revealed" in the Bible must not be questioned.]

The religion of the Old Testament has always seemed to me to be essentially a religion of tribal identity [a group identity religion] (like the Shinto religion of Japan, and also the Hindu religion, especially under India's caste system, which you are also born into [and which therefore is regarded as "racism by any other name" by its victims]), as indeed is reflected in the expression 'secular Jew' -- i.e. "a non-religious adherent to a religion", which is an oxymoron if 'religion' does not just mean the same as 'tribalism' here. We do not speak of secular Catholics or of secular Moslems; -- a Christian or Moslem who does not practice his religion simply is not one [although there are of course also racist versions of these religions]. [But take tribal identity away from Judaism -- the essence of which is the relationship between a tribal god and his chosen people (i.e. tribe), and what is left?] But, then, I ask who would want [who would profit from the maintenance of] such a religion (an apartheid ("separateness") religion)? Priests, politicians, ideologues (fanatics, including racists)? [When Boris Pasternak criticized the preservation of the group-identity religion, he was condemned by Political Zionist politicians.]

Mussolini's "The Italian people are a warrior people" was a myth of origins [a militarist myth]: of modern Italians as direct descendants of the classical Romans [ancient Romans, Romans of antiquity], as if the Italian peninsula and Islands had not been invaded and resettled countless times since then, with of course inter-marriage and acculturation.

The "unifiers" of Italy also used such myths, although they knew that even the Romans had been conquerors of the Italian peninsula, a land where there were many other tribes of "Italians" already living. Mazzini's "Our problem is one of national education" was a recognition [admission] that the "Italian people" were no more than the inhabitants [the people living in a place] of the Italian peninsula and the Islands: they were not homogeneous: not a single "nation", or "race", or "ethnic group". [They spoke different languages, "dialects", had different customs, histories, rulers -- and loyalties.]

'Ethnic group' -- what does it mean? [Cf. 'people', 'nation'] And then we talk about tightly-knit, loosely-knit ... The meaning is lost [dissolves] in a mist of vagueness. [Cf. Wittgenstein's rebuke of Norman Malcolm for using the expression 'national character'.]

[It is not, of course, that these particular words ["signs": ink marks, spoken sounds] are meaningless in themselves, but that we do not apply them with any great care [thought] (and if we are too careless in applying words, then they are indeed meaningless), and therefore that a lot of harm can be done with them (even unintentionally). Our concept 'culture', for example, is too often indistinguishable from our concept 'stereotype' (except for the condemnation implied by the word 'stereotype').]

The terms ethnicity and nation ... are of dubious value. The concept ethnos is a political rather than anthropological aspect of human society -- a fiction created by writers .... the concepts of nation and nationality themselves are cultural artefacts with roots in eighteenth-century Europe. (Prior, p. 246n24)

One thinks, "But surely I know what those words mean!" Why does one so readily say this? Because one can easily point to examples, differences of language, dress, religion, food. But beyond that, what is anyone saying? Because the terms also seem to suggest [by word magic] some metaphysical relationship ["underlying reality"], like "blood", "race", something that makes one group essentially different from another. (What do "we" mean by 'race'? Differences in skin color? I don't even know. What significance, other than political [i.e. societal (because human beings do discriminate against each other)], do these differences have? "Genetic"? Family resemblance? Extremely vague [The language of demagogues].)

Jawaharlal Nehru (in his The Discovery of India), as I remember, wrote:

It is difficult to define what we mean by a "nation". But it is the sense that a people have that they belong together, and that together they face the rest of the world.

Is that a definition? What can one do with this? And if one refuses to use this tool, where does that leave one? How do we show that what is admittedly vague is so vague as to be meaningless? "A nation is like a family." What kind of family? A family at war with its neighbors? Etc. On the one hand, the people of India had the fundamental human right to end their subjugation by India's British colonizers. But, on the other hand, the immense suffering caused by the partition of India shows that "nation" is not an idea to take for granted: it can just as easily be a tool for the exclusion [persecution] of human beings as a tool for their inclusion [defense].

And that is the difference between Political Zionism and Palestinian nationalism: that Political Zionism is nothing more than colonialist nationalism; if it ever had a claim to be a liberation movement, the foundation of "the Jewish state" put an end to that. Whereas Palestinian nationalism remains a liberation movement. But it may be that all nationalisms degenerate into exclusive-isms once the cause of liberation is accomplished: and that is when all nationalisms must renounce themselves in favor of common humanity. In sum, the justification for nationalism is liberation from oppression, from the denial of existence; it must never itself be used for oppression, however (Nevertheless, too often after liberation it tends to be used for just that).

Two nationalisms

On the other hand, maybe there is a distinction to make between nationalism and chauvinistic nationalism as e.g. the nationalisms of the United States of America and of the Political Zionist state in Palestine are chauvinistic nationalisms: they claim to have a divine right to rule over other nations, disregarding international laws and agreements. In contrast to the nationalisms of Eastern Europe. For example, the rulers of Hungary do not claim that Hungary is superior to other nations but only that Hungary is a nation, that it has a culture of its own worth preserving, that it wants to preserve. Would we necessarily call this wrong-doing? (If I see this aright, which I may not at all.) [BACK]

Note 22: What is the origin of expression 'Judeo-Christian'? Indeed, who invented it and with what end in mind? It is really an oxymoron: these are two very different religions: one nationalistic, the other anti-nationalistic, one exclusive, the other inclusive. I don't know the expression's origin. It is certainly consistent, however, with the views of nationalists who used the Old Testament as a pretext for their colonialism, regarding themselves as "God's chosen people". [BACK]

Note 23: What is "the Judeo-Christian tradition" when it's at home other than the Bible and what has been justified by it?

In Washington, D.C., there is a monument to Abraham Lincoln, "the preserver of the Union and the freer of the slaves". However, Lincoln fought in -- and was proud to have fought in -- the "Indian Wars" -- i.e. the wars to subjugate and displace the indigenes of North America. What should those indigenes think of that monument (and of the day the U.S. government has designated to honor that former president)? Not so long ago there were very popular movies about "cowboys and Indians" that glorified the wars against the native "occupiers" of God's new Promised Land for God's new Chosen People. What must America's "Thanksgiving Day" look like through Canaanite eyes? (The American colonists' independence from Britain became the Native Americans' nakba institutionalized.)

In 1947-48, Political Zionists [i.e. Jewish nationalists] drove three-quarter of a million indigenes from Palestine and destroyed four-hundred of their villages so that the displaced people would have nothing to return to, once again demonstrating where tribalist exclusivity ["Chosen People"] leads. And the fabricated history [myth of origins] of the Bible is once again [post-historically; it was not the original "justification" given for Political Zionism, nor of course was the Holocaust -- Herzl's first Zionist World Congress met in 1897 --] being used to justify a native people's nakba ("catastrophe"). On the other hand, God's new Chosen People in God's new Promised Land of South Africa renounced Apartheid ("separateness"); so that at least in one instance humanity has been able to pass judgment on Sacred Scripture, not only in words ["Sentiment comes cheap" (Prior, p. 283)] but also in deeds.

The Bible as a source of high morality

In religious and many secular circles in the West and elsewhere, the Bible is considered to be a fundamental source for the construction of a high morality. It provides a paradigm from which one can fashion a morality not only fit for humankind, but worthy of God himself.... Nevertheless, as we have seen, history witnesses to interpretations of the Bible which have been baneful in their effects. (ibid. p. 266)

The Jewish Torah's Book of Deuteronomy 7.1-6

When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you -- the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you -- and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them ... for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of Yahweh would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. [But this is how you must deal with them:] Break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to Yahweh your God; Yahweh your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy Chapter 7, verses 1-6, quoted by Prior, p. 27. This text is being played out in Palestine in our day.)

The international conventions on human rights are mostly given mouth honor. Nonetheless, because they are the highest standard of morality that human experience has taught us, they serve as "benchmarks" with which to question the Bible's morality (Prior, p. 294). They are certainly a better model ("paradigm") for morality than the many parts of the Bible which present a "narrow and exclusivist concept of a tribal god" (ibid. p. 289). [BACK]

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