Friday, March 29, 2013

Criticism of Religion: Why this Kolaveri?


Background

I had posted the following verse on my Facebook page along with a tongue in cheek wish at the end.
"And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people." - Matthew 27:50-53 (NIV) 
Have a great Matthew's Zombie Apocalypse!
I got a response from a good friend who asked me "why this kolaveri?". That's (roughly) Tamil for "why this thirst for blood?". It is also a reference to a popular Tamil song, the first line of which starts with the words 'why this Kolaveri'!

The person who asked me this is a good friend and is not a Christian. So, he really has no dog in the hunt here. And this is the second time I have been asked precisely this question! I thank my friend (who shall remain unnamed) for initiating this dialog. I am taking this opportunity to put together a lengthy response!

More Background

Let me first provide a little more background. I have been posting on my Facebook timeline, a verse from the Bible, every week, all through this lent season; verses that clearly show the biblical god as a vengeful one. The verses are cherry picked so as to be simple and clear examples of cruelty or bigotry. Here is a sample.
‎"This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."
- 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (NIV)

Why this Kolaveri?

The posts are provocative. I have received feedback from more than one reader that the posts are unsettling. I agree. The verses I have posted are indeed unsettling. So, why do I do this?

I grew up as a Christian and a Catholic. One thing that was taken for granted in my home was that the Christian god is a loving caring one - one that cares for us as a child is loved by its parents. Many Christians take this for granted. In fact, god is often defined to be good, often omnibenovolent.

Christians generally consider the Bible to be the inspired word of god. But beliefs vary. On one end of the spectrum are folks who assert that the Bible is completely inerrant and perfect. On the other end is the claim that it was written by man and is hence flawed. The Catholics generally settle for calling it the inspired words of god.

The problem is that, the Bible does not stand up to this status. It does not stand up to the claim that it is the inspired word of a god who is also good. (There are a multitude of other problems with the Bible, which I will not get into in this post).

The Old Testament was written over two thousand years ago. (Scholars date the Torah or the first five books of the Old Testament to some time between the ninth and the fifth century BC or so and this is not a well settled date!) The problem is that the it reads like it was written by people from that age and time. The values of that time were far different from the values we consider good today. Genocide, slavery, killing of infants, rape, forced marriages, savage laws etc are common place in this book. While this is as one would expect, assigning the book's inspiration to a benevolent deity is problematic to say the least.

Christians have a solution for this. Why don't you read the New Testament, they often ask. The Old Testament has been superseded by the teachings of Jesus Christ, they say. Sure, what can one fault with teachings like the golden rule or the command to forgive? The problem is that while the Bible certainly has a set of 'wisdom sayings', they also have apocalyptic content. The Gospels have Jesus actually predict the end of times within the lifetime of some of his followers and predicts that the sinners will be condemned to eternal damnation - to burn in hell for all eternity.

The situation is actually worse in the New Testament than the Old Testament, if you think about it. Instead of killing and raping and enslaving, this god (or the son of god) intends to bring on eternal damnation.

Medieval Christians had fun imagining how a person could burn for ever. They imagined people regrowing skin and flesh which then burns off in an infinite iteration of torment. Such is the Christian god's love for the sinners.

So, what do contemporary Christians do? They (at least, many of them) ignore these verses. Any verse that does not fit the bill of a benevolent deity is ignored. Some believe that the idea of hell is outdated. A minority even believes that all of us, good and bad, will eventually go to heaven.

The problem is that, this is not what the Bible (repeatedly) says.

I understand and appreciate the fact that Christians are decent people who have often moved past the violence and bigotry. I cannot imagine any of my Christian family and friends espousing (the god of the Old Testament) Yahweh's genocidal tendencies or Jesus' apocalyptic fire dance. We have moved on. Hallelujah! And the world is a better place, thanks to having moved on.

Yet they still hold on to a book that is in fact beneath contempt, when used as a moral guide. They still celebrate the Passover festival which celebrates the story that god's angel of death passed over Jewish babies and went on to kill all Egyptian babies. They just ignore the inconvenient killings. They still celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of their deity. This act of violence supposedly cleansed us of our sins!

I ask, why this Kolaveri?

Live and let live?

We live in a world where there is a lot of religious tension. There is a lot of religious intolerance. So, when I post verses that bring out the unpleasantness of the Bible, it is a natural reaction to ask, why I do this? Why not just live and let live?

Well, while I completely espouse religious tolerance and religious freedom, it does not mean that religion can get away with claims that are unsubstantiated. That is not tolerance. While people of all faiths do have every right to believe in any religion of their choice, they do not get a free pass on getting called out on their beliefs. Getting criticized is a part of living in a free society.

We should tolerate and get along, all of us. But doing so does not mean, not criticizing.

If Christians claim (and almost all of them do) that theirs is a religion of peace and love and forgiveness, I suggest that they pick up their "holy" book and read it. I ask that they not cherry pick the verses. See if what they read matches with their claim. See if they can work around the dissonance without cherry picking and making excuses. Much ink has been spilt trying to resolve the problems. If there were a handful of problematic verses, excuses could perhaps work. When the book is riddled with issues, it is time to face the writing on the wall.

Why is a book inspired by a supposedly omniscient and benevolent deity so problematic?

My modus operandi

Years ago, when I was a teenager and a newly minted atheist, my grandmother "cautioned" me that I would be a bad influence on my cousins. From that point on, I made it a rule to keep my religious views to myself. I made it a point to not talk about religion unless invited to talk. While I did not hide my atheism, I did not evangelize.

It is only recently that I stopped doing this. My stand now is still that I do not start conversations about religion unless someone brings up the subject. But my blog and my Facebook page are exceptions to this rule. I use these forums for my activism. Of course, not everyone appreciates it (and I am not referring to my friend who started me on this rambling post). But one can't be an activist and not deal with push back.