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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

The Desert God

The Desert God
By Michael Berumen 6-18-06

The god of Abraham is not worthy of the worship of free men and women. He is a vengeful, petty, mercurial, vain, and mean god, and, often enough, he is an immoral one, too. This is the god depicted in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of these religions presents him as a variation of a common theme: a god who demands slave-like subservience with a host of silly and sometimes inconsistent rules, one who like the proverbial schoolyard bully inspires obedience and respect through the fear of retribution.

Given the eschatologies of these desert religions and what is held to be at stake, namely, everlasting bliss or pain, it is not altogether surprising that adherents avoid questioning the merits of their obsequiousness, not to mention the many preposterous doctrines adumbrated by their prophets and sages. Much more attention is paid to the possibility of incurring the wrath of this manic god and, more specifically, to avoiding it, rather than inspecting the logical, empirical, or moral foundations of his various prescriptions and proscriptions. And it is simply off limits, beyond propriety, to consider the personal character of the object of their worship, god himself, for he is supposed to be the epitome of moral perfection. And yet, if some of his traits were exhibited by a mere mortal, the person would be considered morally reprehensible.

Many believers claim god defines what is good or right simply by his having deemed it to be such. They are perpetuating a bit of rubbish that Plato dispensed with over two thousand years ago. They would have us believe that god is exempt from moral scrutiny, for he is the ultimate arbiter and definer of it. But as Plato asked, would not god love that which is good or what is right because he apprehends it as being such, and not simply because he loves it? To believe otherwise is to suggest that god might as well call anything he wants good, even changing that which most would consider to be amongst the greatest evils into good on a mere whim. Religionists who decry moral relativism (as do I) must therefore admit that their god is the ultimate moral relativist.

One ought to expect much more from an omnipotent, omniscient being than the one described in these holy texts. The creator of all things, the prime mover, the first cause, the one who knew all outcomes, necessarily also causes the suffering in the world, whether the suffering emanates from natural causes or the acts of man. In the case of man’s malefactions, free will is no sop, either, for god obviously knew what would occur beforehand, and he let it happen anyway. He cannot possibly be perfect from a moral perspective. Far from it. To the extent god is the creator and cause of all things, or even, I suppose, of most things, his character is in fact very flawed.

I come to this view, which is to me an obvious conclusion, simply because the most important moral rules, those rules that apply to everyone, everywhere, and all of the time, are those that require us to avoid causing others to suffer without justification. Of course, one might also posit that god is not all powerful and that he is not the creator of everything, and, consequently, we could admit to the possibility that he may not such a bad guy after all. However, this would not accurately depict the god of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths. Indeed, not only do these faiths claim he all powerful, they also claim he is all good, an absurdity on the face of it. The creator of famine, earthquakes, pestilence, deformity, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot is all powerful and simultaneously supremely benevolent? The religionists are simply shameless at every turn with their lack of logic, but that, after all, is the essential nature of religious faith: the utter suspension of reason.

Let’s face it, the god of the Old Testament is a paragon of cruelty and sadism. In Genesis 22, poor Abraham is told by god to murder his beloved son as a demonstration of his fealty; his blade stayed only at the last moment when his vain host is fully satisfied by Abraham’s utter obedience. A god of serious bloodlust, he was often feted with burnt offerings of fatted calves and lambs, their vivisections meticulously described throughout the Old Testament, and perhaps no place more than in Leviticus 8, where the lord commands Moses to purify an altar with a poor beast’s blood, followed by scorching its chopped-up organs and limbs.

If one were to disobey the various statutes god sets forth, even ones such as bowing before a graven image, disobeying the Sabbath, or looking upon our naked aunt, Leviticus 26 tells us god will “even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes and cause sorrow of heart.” If one persists in disobedience, “ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat.” In Deuteronomy 23, we are instructed that a man who discovers his wife is not a virgin should arrange to have her stoned to death by the men of her village in front of her father’s house.

The god of the New Testament is a much more peaceable chap, having changed (at least according to his Christian followers) into his other aspect for an earthly visit by becoming his own son and masquerading as a man, whilst simultaneously remaining as the father in heaven. Omnipotence is handy for feats such as this. But every so often his old vigor returns, for example, when in Mark 3 Jesus proclaims that one who blasphemes his (other) alter ego, the Holy Spirit, shall suffer eternal damnation, or when in Matthew 25 he consigns sinners who turn their backs on him to everlasting fire. In Matthew 21 Jesus was displeased when a fig tree did not bear fruit, so he petulantly made it wither away, a childish act to say the least. The God of Moses is never far below the surface. There is plenty of talk of hellfire and gnashing of teeth and damnation throughout the New Testament.

To be sure, Jesus also tells us to give to the poor, to be honest, to avoid violence, and to perform other kindly acts, and he is on the whole exemplary in his personal conduct. However, none of these things is particularly original with him or depend on his having recommended them for their worth as moral precepts. I wish that his followers accepted the worthwhile tenets of the New Testament without all of the accompanying magic, superstition, and nonsense. In any case, notwithstanding his generally good demeanor, in terms of his overall temperament, Jesus still seems to fall somewhat short of the moral excellence of Socrates or the Buddha, neither of whom claimed divinity or was prone to fits of petulance.

The god of the Koran seems especially hateful. Hardly a page goes by without threatening nonbelievers or sinners with violent retribution. We learn early in Surah 2 that a special fire has been prepared for infidels, a fire whose fuel will be men and stone. In Surah 3 we are told all non-Muslims will be rejected by god and that their faces will be blackened (presumably by fire…the desert god is something of a pyromaniac) on judgment day. It is not enough to leave matters to god, though, for in the Surah 4 believers are told to kill non-believers wherever they are found and that there is a great reward for fighting religious wars. This obviously has some currency in contemporary Islamic circles. The god of the Koran tells us in Surah 8 that he will smite the fingers and necks of disbelievers, and that to not believe in him is by far the most immoral act. In Surah 30 we are told Christians will be torn apart for having ascribed a partner to god (Jesus). In Surah 58 we are told that believers will reject their non-Muslim relatives and friends, even their own children.

This is but a mere sampling of the violent temperament of the merciful, benevolent deity imagined by generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Of course, many believers would say that these stories and proclamations must be taken in the context of the ancient times they were uttered, that some are merely meant as metaphors for the purpose of instruction, and that many of the edicts (presumably including some of those relating to food preparation, dress, body hair, women, witches, homosexuals, slaves, and infidels.) are now out-of-date. How is it, then, that some of the words uttered 1500, 2000, even 3000+ years ago are more acceptable than others? How does one choose exactly what is and what is not applicable to today’s world, or what is metaphorical and what is not? Where is the formula in the word of god for determining the rules with which one ought to comply as opposed to those that are obsolete? The fact is that there is no such formula or meta-rule(s). Indeed, one would be stoned to death in a prior age or even in some places today if one were to suggest that some things are no longer applicable or that they are merely metaphorical tales.

Believers want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to believe in the things concordant with their world views and desires, and reject the rest, notwithstanding any evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, in recent centuries, the confluence of reason and science; growing compassion for people beyond one's immediate group; and the increasing appreciation for individual dignity, have caused many people to reject some of the vilest prescriptions in these holy texts, or at least, to ignore them in actual practice. Many religionists have even become more moderate and tolerant of others as a result. This more enlightened attitude has been greatly buttressed by the advent of the secular, democratic state, as well, making it more difficult for both rulers and the religious authorities, who were once often the same, to use religion as a means of controlling the masses and to perpetuate their power. We see in bold relief an example of how the theocratic state is apt to behave by observing what occurs in the Islamic world, today. It wasn't so long ago that Christendom was much the same. It is paramount that we who live in more liberal, enlightened nations take special note of this, and that we make every effort to protect the separation of church and state.

The problem with moderate religionists is that they still believe things, even the most preposterous sorts of things, on the basis of faith, and they are quite willing to ignore reason or evidence whenever it conflicts with their worldview. Moderate silliness is silliness, nonetheless. What is more troubling is that they also encourage tolerance towards the beliefs of fanatical fundamentalists, which helps perpetuate dangerous beliefs and practices, some of which could harm others. No doubt, from the perspective of the moderates, this tolerance of the most intolerant is meant to protect their own belief in and practice of their religion. It is difficult to ignore the danger of even moderate superstition when the core of that belief is that others are somehow less worthy for not sharing the same doctrine, or more importantly, and when tolerance is granted to those who would bring harm to others for the sake of their beliefs.

History bears witness to the adherents of each of these religions engaging in their fair share of wars, stonings, burnings, tortures, and beheadings , and all in the name of their desert god. Christians should not be too supercilious in judging the savagery of some followers of Islam, today, for the sordid history of Christendom is replete with bloody and barbaric episodes of intolerance, especially prior to the age of the Enlightenment and before the emergence of the secular state, an era that some leaders of the Christian right would hasten to reinstate if matters were left to them. And it is simply not enough to suggest that the desires of god must be distinguished from the aberrant ways of the faithful, as one sometimes hears, for the evidence is quite clear from the sacred texts of each of these religions, texts which purport to be divinely inspired or even the inerrant word of god: intolerance and the thirst for the blood and suffering of others are quite in keeping with the proclivities and commands of their deity.

I do not propose a secular religion in place of these or any other religious doctrines, which, for example, is what Marxist communism became. Instead, I hold that we should reject all doctrines that cannot be supported by logic or empirical evidence. And, while I believe tolerance is an important aspect of the liberal outlook, I do not take an extreme view that we must therefore tolerate everything, including the forms of religious intolerance that harm nonbeievers or society as a whole. Consider, for example, the recent editorial comics in the Netherlands that depicted the Prophet Mohammad. This created quite a stir among many Muslims. Ideas, even offensive ones, must be tolerated, even though we do not approve of them. But actions that harm others or incite people to violence need not be tolerated. Religious groups do not have license to riot in the streets and risk life and property because of their hurt feelings or because they believe their god or prophet has been blasphemed under the rubric of "freedom of religion."

If I am wrong about all of this, when I come before the god of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad for my final judgment, assuming that I have any courage left in me, I shall nevertheless feel compelled to inform him that he is a rather sorry excuse of an omnipotent being; that he ought to put an end to the needless death and suffering that he visits upon his living creations; and that he does not now deserve the worship or admiration of free men and women. I should also advise him that being all powerful, he is quite obviously capable of changing his character for the better and, in time, of even meriting my respect.