What a Tangled Web We Weave When We Practice to Believe
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
The title of this article is taken from the title of a section in an article, “The Psychology of Biblicism,” by Robert M. Price in the May-June issue of The Humanist.
Price concludes that biblicism, that stance toward the Bible whereby a believer intends to obey whatever the text asserts and orders, isn’t theological in nature at all, but, rather is entirely psychological. An examination of certain inconsistencies in biblicism makes nonsense of its theological claims but are quite consistent with its psychological functions. Since biblicism does the job biblicists want it to do, they simply never see the problems in it.
What attracts many people to biblicism? Why the desperate need for a sure word from God? This need stems from a lack of confidence in the ability of the human to discover necessary truth by reason and observation alone. The old deists believed the creator had written the only revelation book human beings needed in the world: nature, not scripture. But biblicists are flustered by overchoice, being faced with too many options, each with plausible arguments and spokespersons. A religious claim that God has tossed confused humanity the Bible as a life preserver sounds pretty good. The problem is that there are just as many competing revelation claims vying for our faith, and one has no clue as to how to decide between them.
Biblicists hold an unexamined assumption, a picture of God as some sort of punitive theology professor who stands ready to flunk you if you write the wrong answers on your theology exam. The floor is going to open beneath your feet, and you are going to slide down the shaft to hell. This is a god who doesn’t excuse honest mistakes.
“What element of theology implies that God should be unfair, even peevish?” asks Price. “To think him so is to project a childish fear of retribution that can only stifle intellectual growth. Surely it is a legacy of retrograde education, whether religious or secular.” The need for a sure word from God may grow out of the kind of intellectual laziness posited by Ludwig Feuerbach. The belief in a divine revelation is all too convenient. Price thinks we may chalk the desire for “a sure word from God” to a low tolerance for ambiguity. Sometimes the scriptural text is ambiguous as a guide for the discovery of the “divine will.” The biblicist awards him- herself a license for dogmatism, which is intentional regardless of which conclusions one winds up embracing. The only question is which dogma one chooses to promote.
More liberal theologies often accommodate the possibility that the Bible writers might have contradicted each other. Paul and James disagree over whether faith is sufficient to save one’s soul, or whether faith must be realized through works. Such sources would consider neither Paul nor James as mouthpieces of revelation but, rather as sources of religious wisdom. The task would be not to submit to the teaching of one or the other but to draw upon both in forming one’s own tentative beliefs. Fundamentalists cannot even recognize that Paul and James contradict one another for fear of disqualifying both as mouthpieces of revelation. A statement is authoritative simply because it appears somewhere in the canon of scripture, all such texts being equally authoritative. Reading the text literally, however, reveals “apparent contradictions.” In this case fundamentalists abandon literalism and read between the lines, after all. They find themselves situated like proverbial donkeys between two haystacks: they must decide whether it is Paul or James who is to be taken literally and which is to be read in a looser way, as if he agreed with the other. They are interpreting the text they don’t like as if it said the same thing as the one they do.
“How can biblicists continue in such self-deception?,” Price asks. “Simply because their choice is automatic, determined in advance by their particular church’s tradition of interpretation.” This, too, is fatal, since the first principle of biblicists is “scripture alone.”
Such contradictions reveal the origin of biblicism to be essentially nontheological. If it were theological in origin, it would have more consistency. A survey of horoscope readers in Britain revealed that most of them admitted the predictions proved accurate less than half of the time. Astrology believers do not seek knowledge of the future but peace of mind for the night, permission to sleep well in the confidence of being forewarned and thus forearmed for the morrow. When the predictions, probably forgotten, turned out to be wrong tomorrow, it hardly mattered. But the night before, they felt they needed an edge, and their horoscope allowed them to think they had it. Even so with biblicists. What they want from the Bible isn’t so much a coherent system for divining infallible revelations but only the permission to dogmatize, whether the goal is to quiet their own fears or to push others around. The psychological process goes thus: “My opinion is true. The Bible teaches the truth. Therefore the Bible must teach my opinion.” “Friend, there is your view, and then there is God’s view.”
Today most fundamentalists reject evolution because it contradicts the Bible, but most of them believe that the sun orbits the earth, that the earth is round and that it orbits the sun, contrary to the Biblical description. They have been told that the ancient writers of the Bible miraculously knew what it took modern science centuries to learn about these phenomena. What makes the difference between whether one recognizes contradictions between the Bible and science or pretends the Bible has anticipated modern science? It is simply peer pressure, massive and permeating public opinion. The day will come when biblicists will reinterpret Genesis to teach evolution and will claim that God revealed it to the ancient scriptural writers ages before scientists supposedly discovered it.
Price suggests, “If one wishes to get anywhere when reasoning with fundamentalists and biblicists, …try to determine the emotional issues that attach believers to their beliefs. The beliefs are, I think, a function of certain psychological needs that would be better met in other ways. Until these…needs are identified and met in other ways, we will have no way of getting believers to budge from their beliefs, and we might not even have the right to do so.”
Private Property Rights and Land Use Regulations
On October 11, 2001, Professor Gene Carr addressed the Humanists of Utah on “Private Property Rights and Land Use Regulations.” Gene Carr has spent most of his adult life dealing with this problem. Currently he is the Community Development Advisor for the Center for Public Policy at the University of Utah. He has been an adjunct professor of urban planning at the University for twenty-years. He holds degrees in political science, architecture and a Master’s Degree in urban planning. He came to the U after serving three years as head of urban design for the city of Seattle and several years as executive director of the Idaho Falls Community Development Commission. He received the Outstanding Service Award from the Utah chapter of the American Planning Association just three years ago. He has fought many battles over the issues of Private Property Rights and Land Use Regulations.
Carr described meeting with mayors of small towns over their kitchen tables to advise them of the complexities of zoning regulations; receiving threats and harassing hate mail over his stands for the Land Use Act; and the disappointment of former Governor Calvin Rampton in failing to enact the law.
Utah has a contradictory history, according to Carr. On the one hand are the utopian visions of Joseph Smith in conceiving the City of Zion; the masterful planning and execution, under Brigham Young, of Smith’s ideal; and on the other hand there is the decline in Utah’s planning objectives ever since. Many ultraconservative Utah politicians have tried to present land use planning as Marxist totalitarianism, in defiance of the Mormon founders’ example.
Professor Carr described the importance of planning and preparation for the legal implications of zoning ordinances. He also provided a relevant and concise history of land use, including a controversial land use decision under the Taft Supreme Court which stands as the constitutional basis for such planning ever since.
My Journey to Humanism
I was a senior at Skyline High School when I began to question my faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints.
I was addicted to Isaac Asimov, having read his Foundation series. The only thing I could relate his books to were Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series that I had watched avidly as a child, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: Space Odyssey. However, with exposure to these authors, conflict was inevitable. In January of 1992, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction released its February issue. In it was Isaac Asimov’s last article for the magazine before his death: “Of Human Folly.”
For the first time in my life, the idea that personal revelation was no different from superstition, that the belief in God itself was a myth, hit me. My first reaction was not fear of death, or a feeling of dread that I would not live again. My first thought was, “What will people think of me? What will my family think of me?” So strong was this fear, this amazingly potent anxiety, that I spent the next four years of my life trying to reason my way out of it.
I bought many books on Mormonism, mostly church institute manuals, and Deseret Book publications. I spent countless hours in the library, literally spending most of my time there. I found Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.
During these searches in the library, I also came across The Humanist magazine, having just been placed there, unbeknownst to me, by the newly formed Humanists of Utah. Isaac Asimov was listed as part of the editorial advisory staff, and president of the American Humanist Association. My mother caught me at it, and told me I shouldn’t read magazines like that. My father expressed concern at my purchase of Guide to the Bible, saying that he feared I was relying on the book when I should be relying on the advice of church authorities. At nineteen, I had just broken up with my first girl friend. College was shaky. My father wasn’t sure he could pay my way, and felt that I wasn’t working hard enough for the sacrifice it would take. The contradictions of my readings weighed heavy on my mind, but heavier weighed the social pressures of going on a mission. I finally bent, reasoning that a mission would be a good way to gain the “spiritual understanding” (testimony) necessary to overcome my skepticisms.
On a LDS mission, however, my skepticisms were only amplified. The more I taught Mormon doctrine the more it seemed like fantasy. Exposed to the doctrines in a way that required relying on them to their fullest extent, I found that they failed me miserably. It was then that I remembered The Humanist magazine I had found in the library. In July or August of 1995, I traded all of my Institute Manuals for a beat up copy of The Philosophy of Humanism. I devoured it twice, getting up at 5 each morning so that my companion wouldn’t ask what I was reading. For the remainder of my mission I was a heretic, but the thought of the social repercussions of going home early, and the commitment to completing a task I had started (a responsibility that my father and grandfather had engrained into me), pushed me through to the end of my mission. I committed to investigating both humanism and Mormonism fully when I returned from my mission that December. In July of 1996, I moved from home. Once out from under the eyes of my parents, and the people I had grown up with, I never went to church again. There were only four exceptions: two funerals, a missionary home coming, and a date. The date was an inactive member of the church, but the relationship finally ended at the beginning of November 1996, only a few days after I had joined the American Humanist Association. I still wonder if that was the basis for our breaking up.
I attended meetings of the Humanists of Utah, beginning with a board meeting in July of 1997, formally joining in June of 1997 (I had been taking the newsletter since March on a trial subscription). At that time I made the first suggestions to Wayne Wilson, then editor of The Utah Humanist, about a website he had put up for the Humanists of Utah. It was not long after that I took over the project, registered the humanistsofutah.org name, and was elected to the Board to fulfill it.
“The universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values. [This] does not deny the possibility of realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their relation to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.”
This has since been the approach I have taken in everything I do, from computers to religion, from the work place to inter-personal relationships.
As I write this in October of 2001, it is exactly five years from the time I made the decision to join the American Humanist Association. Philosophically, I have come a long way from that time. This has only increased my dedication to the humanist philosophy as expressed in Humanist Manifesto II. I don’t regret having become a humanist. In fact, I don’t think I could think of being anything else. I’m a humanist, and that’s as good as it gets.