Back in 1997 when I started at uni it was quite exciting to see the difference between a small hippyish market town and a big city. Hebden Bridge wasn’t particularly cosmopolitan so moving to Manchester with lots of different cultures was quite a change. I liked being able to look around and find out more about what was going on. I’d lived in Harehills in Leeds until I was 5 so I was obviously aware of some of the differences, but we were all just kids so we didn’t pay that much attention. One of the less pleasant things about Manchester was seeing some pretty shocking posters around the uni campus. They were posted by Al Muhajiroun which was one of Anjem Choudary’s early outfits. It was pretty obvious that they were something of a joke and no one took them too seriously.
Al Muhajiroun and various other aliases became a lot more prominent after the terrorist attacks on the US and UK in the early to mid 00s. The groups were banned under the Terrorism Act but Choudary always seemed to get off with just a slap on the wrist regardless of how provocative his behaviour was. One of the most notable was setting fire to a Remembrance Day wreath on Remembrance Day itself a few years ago. I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s being used as an agent provocateur to flush out hot-headed but rather dim people who think they’re supporting his cause. They may not necessarily join whatever group he runs at the time, but they may be “inspired” by him. One of the biggest ways of making an impact is putting posters up saying basically “Your kind is not welcome here”. It might be something like “Shariah Law Zone” or, as in Cardiff last week, “Voting is not Islamic”. The thing with posters is that anyone can put them up anonymously. They don’t have to be members of a particular group and might even be put up by an opposing group just to wind people up.
What is pretty obvious is that these “Voting is not Islamic” posters certainly don’t speak for Islam in general. It’s a bit like saying the Westboro Baptist Church speaks for Christianity. I daresay whoever put them up did so with the intent of annoying people who are already suspicious of Islam. Whether it was some extremist Islamic group or someone else is neither here nor there. As with the old Al Muhajiroun posters, I think the best option is not to pay them too much attention. “But what are the Muzzies up to now?” I hear some say. They’re not up to anything. One may as well say “Aren’t the Crizzies daft?” whenever some bonkers televangelist opens his mouth.
I’m an atheist and I do have strong beliefs but I prefer them to come from a position of knowledge. I’ve been known to check bits of the Bible and I’m interested to know why people believe certain things. I think if more people took the time to understand what other belief systems say, they’d be less like to get wound up by some daft posters or other made up nonsense. It’s easy to cherry-pick or quote-mine, but pretty much all religions (and those of us who don’t follow any) have the central idea of respecting people for who they are.
The joys of starting a new job and being busy. Anyway, lots going on, including the Doonesbury strip covering the ludicrous Texan law that says women wanting an abortion must have an transvaginal ultrasound scan. Not for any sound medical reason but to intimidate vulnerable women to try to persuade them not to go through with it. Why? Cherry-picking the big book of tribal stories again as far as I can tell.
As I’ve said before, either you accept the Bible in its entirety including all the anomalies and bits you disagree with, or you accept that it is largely irrelevant as a “how to live your life” guide, particularly because English language versions have only been around since the 1500s and there was a lot of editorializing to get people to accept the change from the Latin versions. The 1535 Coverdale Bible was translated by Miles Coverdale who used Martin Luther’s German Bible and a couple of others because he didn’t understand Hebrew or Latin. Luther’s influences on the Reformation and other aspects of Christianity could easily fill an entire academic career, let alone a blog like this one. Let’s just say that a collection of stories that have gone through thousands of years of history, politics and argument, quite apart from errata and the Medieval and Renaissance equivalents of Google Translate, probably don’t have quite the same meaning that they did when they were first written down. For example there’s some debate about whether Moses’ burning bush was actually a bush and if it was on fire at all. It might even be a typo.
I think a lot of the “you must do X because the Bible says so” brigade would try to control people even if the Bible didn’t exist. Interesting how a lot of the “pro-life” campaigners become a lot less “pro-life” when it comes to the death penalty. Women will still have abortions regardless of the law, but some of the back street techniques can be quite horrific. Without going into too much detail, one technique uses a wire coat hanger, and that would be a burning bush. If abortion is legal, it can be done using safer techniques and the woman can receive counselling and medical care. There may be medical reasons why an abortion is necessary or the woman may have been raped. Even some “pro-lifers” accept these as exceptions.
People don’t just have sex for procreation and sometimes accidents happen. Maybe the woman is in no situation to take on the responsibilities of motherhood, either for the time being or permanently. Up to a point an undeveloped foetus is just a collection of cells rather than a partly-grown human baby and there’s a massive difference between a medical procedure and giving up a baby for adoption. It is a horrendously complex issue and not one that it helped by a bunch of busybodies deciding what they think is best based on a misinterpretation of a very old text. Is it murder? Not under English common law, which says that life begins once the baby has been born and starts breathing on its own. Whether the Bible defines it as murder is irrelevant because there’s no way of saying what the original intention of the “thou shalt not kill” bit actually was, for reasons discussed above.
TL;DR: it’s going to happen anyway whether it’s right or wrong, so you may as well reduce the unpleasantness of the situation as much as possible.
Someone who’s been in the news over the last few days is Cardinal Keith O’Brien with his comments about gay marriage, claiming that it’s an “aberration” and playing the “what about the children?” card. I suppose I don’t need to mention that if a gay couple decide to have children then they have to make a conscious decision and plan it carefully. By contrast a straight couple can become parents by accident, no matter how careful they are.
Anyway, whatever the arguments for and against gay marriage, I don’t think saying “the Bible forbids homosexuality” is really a valid reason for saying it (or indeed anything else) shouldn’t be allowed. It’s worth remembering what the Bible is and where it came from. It is a collection of religious texts from the early days of Judaism and Christianity. There are arguments about which books are canon and which order they should appear in. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the Gospels in the New Testament include different versions of the same events.
Without going into lots of detail, it’s safe to say that the Bible as it’s known now was thrashed out over hundreds of years and went through many different versions. Even for an atheist like myself the story of how tribal stories from thousands of years ago formed the basis of society as it is now is a fascinating one. It’s probably also safe to say that mistakes and interpretations were made over time, and the people involved in writing it down probably couldn’t resist for urge for editorializing and adding their own spin on things. Some of the stories in it were clearly of their time: Leviticus and Deuteronomy form the main basis of a lot of Christian “laws”, but Leviticus includes a handy “what not to eat” guide, and Deuteronomy includes various tips on public hygiene.
If Exodus is a story about how a tribe went searching for a country of their own, Deuteronomy and Leviticus are the rules that were laid down to ensure the tribe didn’t lose its identity or got killed off. Nothing like the threat of a death sentence and shame on generations to come to make sure people don’t question authority. Not all of these rules are relevant today: I don’t think ritual sacrifices (Lev 19:5-9) or wearing clothes made from different fabrics (Lev 19:19) are on most people’s “not to do” lists.
The point of this is that if you’re going to use the Bible as a moral guide then I think you should either go the whole hog and accept everything in it, even the anomalies and contradictions, or understand that some bits are irrelevant for today’s society. Have opinions by all means, but make it clear that they are your own opinions. The rules laid down for a tribe travelling from Egypt to Israel thousands of years ago are certainly interesting but I don’t entirely follow why picking and choosing certain bits to support personal prejudices is particularly helpful.