Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
The entire realm of human morality was not brought to mankind by biblical religion. What was brought by biblical religion was the first religious intolerance and religious wars -- the whole one-God grandiosity. It also solidified cultural misogyny in the Bronze Age. The thing that's probably transcendent is the ability of human beings to confuse their ignorant awe at the universe with some kind of insight into the nature of reality. Miracles don't happen. Belief in miracles happens all the time. Your comments?
-- S., via email
Why believers and nonbelievers can't agree to disagree bewilders me. I know some religious folk are rude to nonbelievers, but the level of anti-religious polemic I receive, witness and read far exceeds the anti-atheist sentiments in our culture, though both are regrettable. Your email saddened me and reminded me of the bad weather of modern civilization for religion in our time.
Let me begin by wholeheartedly agreeing with your belief (mentioned elsewhere in your letter) that, "The whole universe operates without the aid of the human mind." This is precisely the belief of the world religions, which affirm that the universe operates through the mind of God. Perhaps we're not so very far apart, after all.
I hope you'll reconsider your view that the Bible had no role in developing our morality. I'm not sure where you think it came from if not the Bible. Do you have in mind Immanuel Kant, who was a religious Lutheran? Or do you believe that Nietzsche, Hitler's favorite philosopher, is the source of our moral intuitions? In the meantime, I would ask you to examine the central gift of biblical morality to the moral understandings of the West: the idea that human rights come not from the state, but from God, who made every person in God's image. Our rights are not granted by government, which can convey or withhold them for a variety of prejudiced reasons.
If there is no God, no sanctity of human life, then the state is the highest power and the final moral arbiter of our rights. If that state is Nazi Germany or antebellum Mississippi, then you are powerless to claim your God-given rights. This idea that God is superior to any nation is found in Isaiah 40:17: "All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity." It is found in the pleas of the prophet Samuel to the people not to want a king in 1 Samuel 8:11-18.
Is this elevation of the sanctity of the individual over the imperious power of king and state the biblical morality you despise? Let me also urge you to reconsider the still revolutionary concept of charity brought to us by biblical religion. Under our modern morality, we keep what we earn and that's that; private property is ultimate. The poor may or may not be supported by us, but we're under no moral obligation to give away what we get and own. That is secular morality.
In biblical morality, God owns everything, including our bodies and the earth. God commands us to share with others what we ultimately don't really own anyway. In biblical time, when the barley was cut each year, harvesters were forbidden to pick up fallen sheaves or to cut the corners of the fields. All the fallen and unharvested grain was to be left for the poor (Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22). That is biblical morality, and we have yet to live up to its compassionate, loving kindness.
The key elements of the best of modern morality sit on biblical foundations.
It was the Bible that demanded the freeing of slaves. It was the Bible that commanded a rest time for the fields. It was the Bible that prohibited child sacrifice. It was the Bible that prohibited murder, theft, perjury, adultery and covetousness. It was the Bible that prohibited the mistreatment of prisoners of war. It was the Bible that prohibited cutting down fruit trees during a siege. It was the Bible that prohibited magic and astrology and necromancy.
I can't defend every biblical utterance, law, ritual, scientific speculation. God was not through with us 4,000 years ago. However, we must never deny our roots, and our moral roots are in the Bible. This is more than a personal belief; it's an historical fact. I hope your head and your heart can come to see this. Now, that would be a miracle.