A couple of months ago, two men in bad suits knocked on my door and reminded me that I hadn’t posted much of general interest on Wordmunger.com recently. Then they handed me a cute little book and taunted me by saying “This stuff is so good that no self-respecting blogger can resist writing about it, especially an atheist like yourself.” Then they told me if I didn’t blog about it, they’d be back in a few weeks to mock me more.
It’s all true, every word of it. Okay, maybe they didn’t say it in so many words, but I could see it in the earnest expressions on their faces. If I wasn’t willing to publicly defend my atheism against the propaganda of one of the most twisted sects in all Christianity, I might as well just sign away all my worldly possessions to the estate of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, they returned.
Actually, the front man was the same, but he had a different sidekick. Perhaps he was running a training operation. He must have given the kid a pep-talk before they approached our door — both of them were smiling and earnest.
“Did you have a chance to read the booklet I gave you the last time I visited?” he asked.
Here’s what the book looked like:
Snazzy, isn’t it? The book actually has four-color illustrations throughout.
“Yeah, I took a look at it,” I said. (I was striving for a hint of “is that all you got?” in my intonation. I don’t think he picked up on it)
“Do you have any questions about it?”
“Actually, I was a little curious about Chapter 14, which says the father is be the uncontested ‘head’ of families, and that women should submit to their husbands no matter what, that divorce is permitted only in cases of fornication. That bothers me. What if a husband is abusing his wife?”
“Well, did you take a look at Chapter 3, where the book discusses God’s purpose for the earth?” Then he earnestly flipped through to a well-marked section of the book, which he said showed that God wants the earth to be a really great place. There were even pictures of how great the earth will be when God’s vision for us is realized. Check this out:
Accordions? Really? The last thing I expected in an earthly paradise was accordions. Apparently there are accordions, pan flutes, and guitars, but no booze. Great.
The thing we have to avoid is Satan. Satan, apparently, is responsible for all manner of evil, including women who divorce their wife-beating husbands — and of course, blood transfusions.
I didn’t get around to asking them about the blood transfusions. It was getting a little awkward, with me asking questions, and them avoiding them. They said a little prayer for me, then left. They haven’t been back.
But I was a little curious about the blood thing. I’m no Bible scholar, but it seemed odd to me that the Jehovah’s Witnesses alone are so opposed to blood transfusions. What Does the Bible Really Teach? cites Acts 15:28-29 as justification for it. Here’s what the passage says:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
Seems pretty straightforward — a proclamation that people should abstain from blood. But the context of the quote was the Council at Jerusalem, which was all about making the Christian Church more palatable to “Gentiles” — recent converts from Judaism. In short, it was propaganda, which came out of this earlier statement:
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.
See! Christianity is Jew-friendly! Hop on board!
Just because it’s okay to abstain from blood doesn’t mean that God commands us all to abstain from blood. And clearly this was all in a context where blood transfusions hadn’t even been conceived of.
For me, this all points to how ridiculous it is to frame your life based on decontextualized quotes from a 2,000 year-old book. I’m sure some Jehovah scholar could present me with a more principled scripture-based argument for why we should refuse blood transfusions, but my larger point is that if these books take so much hand-waving to interpret, then why should we take every single word of them as the overriding dictates of how to run our lives?
Why not pick and choose? Clearly some Christian philosophy is quite worthwhile, and a good place to start building a comprehensive moral system. But I’d also submit that there are a heck of a lot of other great philosophers and moral thinkers out there, some Christian, and some not. I try to live the best life I can, not because it’s written some book, but because based on the whole span of my education I’ve found that some moral principles work and others don’t.
One thing that doesn’t is the idea that there’s some God out there who really cares about the individual lives of billions of creatures on a tiny speck of the universe. We care, because we’re here. We can learn a whole lot about our world simply by exploring and studying it. Sticking our heads in a dusty old book and ignoring the world around us isn’t going to help us live better lives. Learning and thinking about the world just might.