With doubts on all those points, how can one talk about inerrancy? We are knowledgeable only of the final interpreted version, not of the original one.
We have to bear in mind that nobody can be isolated from the cultural and historical setting in which he or she is or was embedded. As a result, many of the passages in the holy text bear the imprint of the time when they were conceived. Some of them were formulated in a pre-scientific age and were based on assumptions that current science cannot endorse. Others date from times when humanity followed moral codes that the conscience of our present age would not tolerate. All this, of course, contradicts the claim that the individual religious answers are never outdated – that their validity is beyond question.
It is difficult to believe that any religion is the word of God, if it could be shown that it reflects and repeats prejudices, or even false beliefs, that were active at the time and place of its revelation. 2 The validity of the answers arrived at in times long past, when the scientific background was minimal and the level of general knowledge was relatively low, are still promoted today. A particularly vigorous defense of this situation was mounted by the Catholic Church: In the Syllabus of Errors, the beatified Pope Pius IX declared that the proposition:
must be reprobated, prescribed, and condemned. 3
Believers are asked to accept on faith that revelations made within the last six thousand years apply to the full life span of the universe. Since, in the Abrahamic faiths, there will no new revelations, the original message must apply forever, regardless of the changes which will take place in the billions of years to come. This is beyond belief. On the cosmic scale the human species has reached the present level of knowledge in a very short time. Archaic forms of Homo Sapiens appeared 500,000 years ago, the Neanderthals came to Europe 100,000 years ago, and the Cromagnons painted their cave walls and performed burial rites 30,000 years ago. It was only during the last five to six thousand years that the continuous intellectual development of humanity has occurred. This time-span has to be compared with the billions of years still to elapse before the Earth will be consumed by the expanding Sun. Translated into terms of human life, the level of maturity humanity has reached so far corresponds to that of a child that has just started to consciously react to the outside world. What level of knowledge can we expect of such a child to have?
We have no hope to assess how the next millennia will shape our religions. And what do we know about the millions of years to come? To say that we have not the slightest idea would be an understatement. And yet, the Scriptures produced during the last few thousand years are considered not only inerrant, but also to remain unchanged for the billions of years to come. To believe this requires a huge portion of faith.
The role of all religions as a force for good appears to be in decline. Only some religions are inherently pacifist: Buddhism, the Bahá’í faith, Taoism, Unitarianism/Unitarian Universalism, and the Anabaptist wing of Christianity fall into this category. However, the tradition is very old. The very early Christian movement was pacifist. A second example was the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu (c. 470-439 BCE) who argued that universal love for all was in accord with the will of heaven and was to the benefit of human beings.
In religions where images of violence, warfare, and martial exploits are prominent (such as in the Abrahamic religions), the elimination of all passages in the holy texts that incite to violence would certainly go some way towards rectifying the situation. But more should be done. Religion should be a positive force and not to stay on the sidelines in situations like that in Rwanda in 1994, where about 800,000 people were massacred even though 93% of the population are Christians. Also, regretfully, the world has no specific safeguards to prevent the misuse of religion in such tragedies as the Jonestown suicide, the Branch Davidian resistance in Waco, and the Solar Temple and the Heaven’s Gate deaths.
Unfortunately, there is little or no hope that the sacred scriptures of the world's religions will be edited to remove offensive commandments promoting violence. This concerns passages that provide a ready-made pretext for all shades of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalists to engage not just in intolerant rhetoric but also in violent actions they consider just. The alternative to removing the respective statements from the Scriptures would be to accept the following comment by Peter B. Medawar: "The only certain way to cause a religious belief to be held by everyone is to liquidate non-believers." 4
Only religion can justify the destruction of human life sanctimoniously. It is a serious mistake to downplay the problem of religious violence in 'sacred' texts. The violence-of-God tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Qur’an must be understood and challenged if we are to have any realistic hope of building a peaceful and tolerant world. Change, of course, is profoundly difficult for those who believe in God's inspiration of the authors, and the inerrancy of the entire text.
The willingness to trample on the rights of those who believe differently may best be understood as the consequence of two fundamental misconceptions:
A careful consideration of both these notions is long overdue.
Unless the religious traditions leading to violence and intolerance are named, exposed, and countered, there is little hope that the opposite traditions conducive to peace, compassion, justice, understanding of others, and tolerance, will find meaningful expression.
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Copyright © 2006
by Vladimir Tomek