Sunday, June 8, 2014

Scripture as Metaphor

Recently, I was speaking with someone on the value of religion (or rather, the absolute lack thereof), and he raised the question of whether I think the stories themselves have any sort of value.  I've said on numerous occasions that I do think that at least being aware of the tales within religion is an unavoidable quantity because of the fact that religion has imbued every corner of culture wherever you might happen to be.  For a lot of Westerners who travel anywhere where Christianity is not prevalent, they find themselves completely unable to comprehend any of the cultural norms because they generally don't have a clue about religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, etc. in the first place let alone how they have influenced the local culture.  Common expressions or phrases that are somehow rooted in Biblical reference are pretty widespread here in this corner of the planet, but you will find similar use of references to Hindu religious literature and the works of religious philosophers throughout India.  That, too, most of us who are atheists are atheists because we know about religion.  We know it well enough to spot the absurdities.  So even in that sense, I think it's worth knowing about the religions themselves.

So in short, I will admit knowing about the religions gives you a lot of information that sets up a sort of cultural backdrop for understanding where people are coming from.  You can't avoid that religion is deeply seated in the extant nature of society, and that even if we grow out of it someday, it's worth knowing that we as a race were once this stupid.  But one question posed to me was that even if you treat all the religious texts of any religion as fables and folklore, do they hold any value in that respect?  We can look at the fable of the boy who cried wolf and at least see that it teaches a valuable lesson.  Do the stories in the Bible hold that kind of value?  Do the Puranas teach those kinds of meaningful lessons?  Do the tales within the Avesta?

Well, to that, I have to ask...  which stories did you have in mind?

The first example that was brought up at the time was the Old Testament creation myth.  I've said this over and over again, but I happen to feel the Judeo-Christian creation myth teaches the single worst moral precept that can ever be taught -- that knowledge is bad.  You cannot possibly espouse a philosophy that is more evil than that.  You could support racism, genocide, misogyny, homophobia, and faith healing all at the same time, and it still wouldn't be as bad as that.  I say this only because at least so long as you're not against knowledge itself, you leave open avenues to grow out of all the aforementioned horrors.  Yes, I know it's knowledge of good and evil, and guess what...?  That changes nothing.  As I've pointed out before, and shift of topic to the question of "obedience" fails utterly, because the ultimate decree that Yahweh laid down for which its violation condemns all of humanity could have been anything, but the authors of the Old Testament decided to make it acquiring knowledge.  So no...  I don't think that story teaches a valuable lesson.  Unless you want to think of it as a lesson on what is diametrically opposed to good moral values.

I actually gave an example with one of the Vishnu Puranas -- specifically the tale of Parashurama.  Since a considerable portion of my readers are not Desis themselves, I'll give you the Cliff Notes version of the story.  It boils down to a tale of vengeful genocide in which a god taking the form of a man of Brahmin caste took vengeance for the murder of his father by killing off members of the Kshatriya caste.  The backdrop does include the fact that the Kshatriyas were engaged in constant war with each other and innocents were often caught in the crossfire.  While there was technically cause for worry with regards to one particularly powerful warlord (who was in fact the one who killed Parashurama's father and stole a calf from their farm), Parashurama didn't stop at getting his revenge and killing the one king and reclaiming the stolen calf.  No, no...  he killed off every person of that caste and did so indiscriminately without regard for whether or not the individuals he killed were harmful elements in society or not.  That, too, he didn't stop at doing it once -- the story goes that he repeated this genocide over and over for a total of 21 generations.  Sure, it ends with him eventually giving up his quest and giving away his possessions and so on (although he reappears in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata), but are you really going to tell me that the important details all lie in the ending alone?  What about the moral lessons that came before all that?  You did something bad to me, so I'll do the same to you and your entire race?  Oh, but I'll stop eventually...  after finally killing your great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandchildren, so it's okay?

When you look through the Mahabharata, there is a considerable amount of effort to impress upon the reader how how times were changing through the course of the story.  Instead of a unifying moral umbrella, there was a divergence of values across kingdoms.  More than anything, previous generations took part in certain practices that fell out of favor by the time the major story beats really take place.  And in this new era, even the main characters (the Pandavas) who are positioned as the new moral paragons who appear as if they can bring humanity back to its supposed golden age of flawless wisdom slowly have their respective values subverted over time.  That, too, the one doing the subverting is Krishna, who is supposed to be God on Earth... until eventually, he espouses a sort of ends justifies the means mentality and often defends it by citing prior precedent of himself being unfair and unreasonable in prior incarnations.  Sure...  that works.

Sure, there are the occasional nice stories.  There's one tale in the Puranas in which Narada is impressed with a lesson about his own devotion.  In that one, Narada toots his horn as quite possibly the greatest devotee of Vishnu, but he's ultimately taught a lesson that the only reason he can show his devotion to the extent he does is because he's got nothing better to do.  In full form, it's a story that teaches the lesson that religion should be secondary to the trappings and responsibilities of day-to-day life.  That's not a terrible lesson, though a lesson that religion has no place at all would be better.  Still, so long as we're in a world where religion is pervasive, we might as well have a religion that teaches that religion shouldn't have primary importance.  This was actually one of the examples I used to use in defense of Hinduism when I was much younger.  Even at that time, I didn't really believe any of it, but I took the position that Hinduism as a religion wasn't anywhere near as bad as Christianity or Islam -- a position which has changed considerably since then -- because it was at least kind of loose on a lot of matters.  It is even one of the few religions that states rather explicitly that one's own "path" in religion is something that is inherently personal and up to the individual rather than being something that is laid out for you as if there is only one road to Rome.  But of course, defending it this way meant I was ultimately cherry-picking the same way Christians will cherry-pick "[turning] the other cheek" or the Good Samaritan or other such parables.  That's why I don't do this anymore.

The Avesta contains a parable which is strangely connected to the martyring of Zoroaster. In that one, it kind of leans in the direction of pointing out a sort of bigotry among those who followed the then predominant religions.  That one has to do with Zoroaster laughing immediately after coming out of the womb, which is strange to everybody around him, but for a few who somehow or other basked in the glory of it.  Somehow or other, the people who found it strange that a newborn baby would not be crying for the first 40 days of its life decided that the newborn Zoroaster must be of the devil, and that this proves that whatever that child does as he grows will necessarily be evil.  Well, that's a pretty strange deduction to make, but given the sort of reasoning skills religious fanatics apply in this day and age, it doesn't sound even an inch beyond the pale.  That story however fictitious is basically fine as a parable so long as you're looking at it as an explanation that the majority of people are prejudiced based on their expectations.  May not be a "happy" lesson, but it's a true one nonetheless.

I'm not about to say it's all bad, but likewise, I'm not about to say it's all good either.  I think a lot of the knee-jerk retorts that one tends to use in the course of online discussions in social media contexts will jump quickly to the worst of the worst tales, but here is one spot where I'm at a little more liberty to avoid that.  The thing about fables in general is that they're really quite an effective way to drive home points and ideas and principles that can't really be equaled by straightforward exposition.  Indeed, it is one of the reasons why religious mores and ideas tend to stick (aside from indoctrination and the fact that there is little to no thought involved) and are very hard to wear down.  Often times, when I hear a lot of recent converts who just started to reject religion, it's rarely a particular bit of knowledge that turns them over.  Those types of things are typically just the camel's nose peeking into the tent.  Important as well are the stories of what other nonbelievers go through and how they came to their shift in view.  One person I met who didn't quite drop their belief, but changed their tune on their previously anti-science views did so after reading my copy of Dawkins' The God Delusion.  I asked him what really struck him most of all, and he said it was the story about the professor who doubted the existence of the Golgi apparatus and thanked a biologist for proving him wrong.  Even if Dawkins had made it up (which he didn't), it's a perfect example of a story that showcases the intellectual honesty that is the sort of ideal for scientists.  That's the sort of thing that really gets the point across.  So as far as the potential of any mythology to impress good moral lessons, it is something that I'd agree is there in spades.  But when we confine to religious scripture and literature, the potential and the reality are not really the same thing by any means.

What I would prefer to say is that scripture as metaphor and as a tool to impart moral lessons is certainly valid as a statement, one can't escape that there are both good and bad moral lessons in there.  As much as it is easy to complain about the looney-bin fundamentalists who take the bad with the good and proclaim that the horrible bits are actually better than the good stuff...  most people pick and choose and prefer the good bits and ignore all the other stuff, but that which is "not so great" isn't always that obvious nor is it always all that avoidable.  As a Christian, it's virtually impossible to avoid the story of Noah and the flood, and that means exposing the ludicrous inequity and unfairness of Yahweh.  It is impossible to avoid the creation myth and the "Fall" simply because the concepts of sin and salvation are nonexistent without them.  As a Hindu, it is absolutely impossible to avoid the Mahabharata and that even more famous section of chapters from within that tale called the Bhagavad Gita.  In the Mahabharata, you'll find countless examples of Krishna bending the rules and saying they don't apply because it was more important that they didn't apply then.  In the Gita, you will find a considerable degree of time glorifying life while attempting to provide comfort from the grief of loss by almost trivializing death.  A child exposed to this for the first time is actually more likely to notice these things than an already indoctrinated parent, and trying to justify it is where a parent will start to feel the walls close in.

The framing of the original question was really as to whether or not keeping scripture as a major fixed point in raising children simply on the basis of taking it as parable.  I will say there's no obvious yes or no answer here, because as a nonbeliever raising your kids, you can just as easily give them the story and actively encourage them to find the flaws.  And as I mentioned before, you can't really escape the need for at least making kids aware of this content in order to relate it to the culture that surrounds them, but I feel like that is best done when children are a little older and able to put two and two together.  Of course, there's the problem of how most people do it where they just shift attention away from and sweep the nasty bits under the rug and say it's all okay because "GOD!!!"  If that's your method, then the short answer is no -- it has no value at all, and it's fundamentally a bad thing.  That's the thing about life lessons;  it's the teacher and not the textbook that counts.