If God says to do it, it must be ok, right?

7 03 2007

And I thought I was done for the day; my critical look at religion and cognition had some gas poured on the fire when I caught sight an article in the upcoming edition of Nature that suggests reading violent Bible passages out of context and where the violence is condoned by God can increase aggression. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that people who justify violence through religion are capable of abominable atrocities, but what about just reading scripture? Surely that could have no harm, right? Well, according to the article, even secular folk exhibit more aggression after reading a violent Bible passage where the horrors of war are endorsed by God, and if we were to believe every nutjob who killed in God’s name (referring to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God), then God would be even more terrifying and bloodthirsty than Mars.

What’s often puzzling to me are Old Testament war stories that are stripped down for children, one example being the episode of “Veggie Tales” that recounts the fall of the walls of Jericho. The show itself it about trusting God, doing what God wants instead of what you want, etc., but the what becomes of Jericho’s residents when the walls comes down is not shown in the cartoon, the godly vegetables singing happily that God delivered the Promised Land to them. After viewing the show, I went home and looking up the passages about what happened when the walls came down, and here’s what the Bible has to say;

Joshua 6:24

Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the LORD’s house. 25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.

I think it’s safe to assume that the other people in the city were not so lucky, an earlier verse (Joshua 6:16) stating that “Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared.” In discussing this, many Christians get a bit uncomfortable about the slaughter of all the people within Jericho’s walls, seemingly flying right in the face of the concept of a “loving God,” and so (as in the cartoon) the violence is left out. This concept, essentially editing out the violence and hate that is so prevalent in the Old Testament, is often balked against (“You want to do what to my Bible?”), but at the same time many Christians are uncomfortable with the violent passages. The article touches on this, mentioning;

A lot of churches have a series of passages that they read during the year,” says [theologian Hector] Avalos. “And usually they don’t choose the passages involving genocide.

When I led a small-group study on the film Kingdom of Heaven and the issues of involved in religious war a few months ago, I was surprised to find that a good number of people in the group (this is at a Baptist church, just for clarification) believed that God still does will war on some nations and that as Christians we should be in support of “righteous warfare.” These things were said after a 3 hour film depicting the depravity of those who claim that it is God’s will to go to war and to wipe out other religions, so needless to say I was a bit surprised.

Related to this topic, my behavioral biology class recently covered aggression and the old idea that it is a phenomenon that somehow “builds up” in the body periodically and needs to be the least. Surely, without high school football teams the boys would be killing each other in the streets, as all males are inherently violent because of their testosterone levels. Much to the chagrin of conventional wisdom, however, this is not the case, and those who engage in aggressive sports, constantly watch aggressive shows/play aggressive video games, etc. are more likely to be more aggressive than those that do not. This isn’t a case of predestiny, and while some high school extracurriculars may be of some help to keep crime rates down by keeping teens who would be likely to engage in criminal acts occupied and supervised, it actually promotes aggressive behavior. Think back to high school; were the football jocks the nicest, most relaxed people in the school? Hell no! At least in my experience, they made life a living hell for a good number of students and spend all weekend going through a drink-puke-smoke-drink-puke-drink-pass out cycle.

While I am not for censoring the violent Biblical passages, I can understand why the notion has been brought up. I don’t oppose the idea because it’s blasphemous, but rather the book should have the good taken with the bad so that the religion can be viewed as objectively as possible by the individual, not sugarcoated to make it seem more benign. Even if such a Bible were produced, I doubt it would be popular (how many people do you know that refer to the Jeffersonian Bible first and foremost?) and likely would not quell religious-based aggression. What is needed is more critical thinking and honesty; to take a cold, hard look at what’s in scripture and consider it, not simply pretend like parts of it don’t exist because it’s more convenient.


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