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Happy Eid!

“As to the book called the Bible, it is blasphemy to call it the word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book.”

Thomas Paine

“The Bible, itself the ultimate curse, is an in-depth portrait of the divine spleen.”

Ruth Hurmence Green

“A single atom of the sweetness of wisdom in a man’s heart is better than a thousand pavilions in Paradise.”

Abu Yazid al-Bistami

In an earlier entry, I characterized Ramadan as a stunt, a piece of group religious performance art whose main purpose is to demonstrate group loyalty. ALL forms of religious self-abuse and self-denial have this purpose, and to me they constitute wasted suffering, of which there is already plenty in the world.

That includes the fasting on Yom Kippur. God won’t care, because he doesn’t exist. There are much better ways to practice self-discipline.

Better use of time

As a Humanist, I think our time is much better spent in serving the needs of ourselves, those close to us, and humanity in general. That often takes a lot more effort and courage than going without food.

As our Muslim brothers and sisters begin their annual Eid observance, they do what Jews do around their new year: obsess over the fable about Abraham and Isaac.

As the Chicago Tribune notes (Dec. 20, 2007), the holiday celebrates Abraham’s/Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

Feh! How degrading.

You may remember that in the Book of Genesis, God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham is prepared to do so, when God intervenes and prevents him from this ultimate act of loyalty.

Again, obsessing over this story is fake behavior that’s supposed to demonstrate piety. It doesn’t accomplish anything practical. Why would anyone care that much about an ancient tale that has no bearing on modern times?

If I gave a sermon on it – and there’s no reason why I would –I would talk about the inhumanity of unquestioning obedience to authority, despite its prevalence everywhere in business, religion, government, and the military.

Authoritarianism and servility and the chain of command and the rewarding of obedience above all…why do they all persist, century after century? Why are they so intractable, given the harm they do?

Century after century, certifiably insane monarchs and CEOs have brought down whole countries and companies. They didn’t do it alone; they had hordes of obedient followers. Religious fanatics, who insist on total obedience, are one of the worst plagues that humanity faces. What keeps all this sickness going - and growing? (The worst bosses actually are rewarded more!)

That would be the gist of a Humanistic sermon on Abraham/Isaac. But there are more important things to talk about.

Maintaining the past

Jews and Muslims work hard to empathize with the mentality of ancient fanatics and make the story more sophisticated than it is.

It’s a waste of time that maintains people’s fantasies and takes their energies away from the real business of life.

This ancient story demonstrates only that unquestioning loyalty to the deity is required at all times, no matter what. This is what I would expect from an author whose mentality is located in the eighth century BCE, which was when the earliest parts of the Torah were first written down (and the same goes for the later but still still-primitive, mediaeval Quran).

But the Binding of Isaac and the blather that accompanies it also remind Humanists of something. They remind us that unquestioning devotion to invisible deities that do not exist is all too prevalent in our modern world. They remind us that otherwise intelligent adults encourage and maintain these fantasies, with the help of clerics who spin the stories so that they’re not so crude and degrading as the actual Biblical text.

To a Humanist, that’s about where the usefulness of the Abraham/Isaac story ends.

But obsessing about it is something that Jews and Muslims do, and this year they are at it again.

Only a story

My Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters, this is only a story. We might as well obsess about the relationship between Achilles and Zeus…or of Mohammed with Allah. If there’s a supernatural player, it’s impossible, it never happened, so who cares?

Jews, Christians and Muslims care a lot, because they maintain that both God and Abraham existed, and therefore the actions of both have to be explained and mulled over endlessly.

This process generates a lot of blather and BS on the part of people who are, as I say, otherwise intelligent and rational. Indeed, the blather about the Abraham/Isaac story is far more interesting than the story itself.

One rabbi got an important part of it right: “In a way it’s a kind of a horror story… in our state of mind, if somebody hears a voice and goes out to sacrifice his son[,] this man has to be put in a mental asylum” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 14, 2007; and ff.).

Quite right, rabbi. Anybody who did today what Abraham did would be considered insane. In fact, anybody who follows literally most of the advice in the Torah would be institutionalized and put on some very serious medication (see Deut. 25:11).

Who cares?

There is no reason to speculate about Abraham’s or God’s motives. There was no Abraham, and there is no God. Abraham is only a legendary figure! There’s no historical, archaeological, or other evidence that he ever existed.

But this rabbi, who does understand that Abraham’s actions are insane in modern terms, then goes completely off track and asks, “Why did the writers hand this down to us?”

I can never understand this kind of naïveté about religion and the Torah, this assumption that there’s hidden profundity. These early Jews thought at a pretty basic level, as you discover if you just read what they wrote.

Handed down??

So why did they hand it down to us? Well, they didn’t, not directly or consciously. They had no idea that people might read their writings 2,500 years later or what they might make of them. We are not their audience.

Their ways correspond to their times, not ours, which is why the Torah and the Bible in general are antithetical to our modern ideas of personal liberty, religious freedom or gender equality.

Still, over the centuries, the text was copied and preserved (not flawlessly, of course; we’ll never know what the original said), copied again into the Quran, and the two acquired lives of their own.

We’ve grown up a lot since then, though our ancestors’ thoughts and world-view are still preserved in the texts, and many people insist on taking them seriously and literally.

No mystery

There’s no mystery, no subtlety here. The writers of the Torah said what they meant to say: unquestioning obedience will be rewarded. That’s all the Torah says. I’m not surprised, and I don’t try to find wisdom that isn’t there.

But, as I say, the blather continues, year after year. The Trib reports that “many scholars say that the…Binding of Isaac…is one of the oldest cautionary tales against fanaticism… [according to one rabbi,] the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will.”

Oh, yeah? There are plenty of places in the Torah where people are put to death for not following God’s will, and he does a lot of the killing himself (24,000 people in one plague; torches Aarons two sons right on the spot).

The Torah frequently directs people to kill as a sign of faith (e.g., all the death penalties). And God does want the deaths of non-Israelite peoples whom the Israelites are to conquer and dispossess — that IS, very explicitly, his will.

Go figure. They were primitive shepherds and farmers! Enough already. Why do rabbis twist themselves into knots trying to put a good PR face on God’s behavior?

Meaning of Abraham/Isaac story

Listen, folks, we don’t have to imagine what God’s motives were! It says, right there in Genesis 22:12, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite one from me.”

Again, the message is unquestioning obedience, with the lowest and crudest motivator, fear. But then God goes into a list of things he’s going to do for Abraham, now that Abe has passed the test. Carrot and stick. It’s not a warning against fanaticism. It’s a story about how fanaticism is rewarded. Just read the damned text!

For believers, it’s not that simple. When you believe in this entire architecture of religious fantasy, you have to account for each part of it, and each part of it is enormously important.

The blather goes on among Muslims and Jews, who are are obsessed with this legendary figure Abraham. It’s really weird out there.

Stunts

And the stunts go on: the newspaper reports that one Jewish congregation conducted “a mock trial of [the] patriarch on charges of attempted manslaughter [which] discovered…”

… well, who cares what they discovered? It’s just a story. Abraham and Isaac never did anything for humanity. My favorite name-out-of-a-hat alternative is Julius Rosenwald. Nobody knows anything about him, yet he was a great, generous Jew who did much more for humanity than Abraham and Isaac put together, since he was one of the major philanthropists of the 20th century.

Why this obsession with legendary figures? They’re just not that interesting. Sure, fanaticism is bad. It was the rule then; it must be eradicated today. To whom is this news??

Still, the blather goes on in this debate between the faiths over “the God-inspired Abraham as opposed to the God-blinded Abraham,” according to yet another rabbi.

Who cares?

Again: why all this concern with the imaginary? In this brief life, we have so much to learn about our world and each other, we have so much to accomplish in our evolution as a species…yet we remain fixed on these tales of ancient desert shepherds? We can do better.

Well, that’s not quite a blanket condemnation. Some of the spin is actually partly OK.

Yet another rabbi compares Abraham’s “heartbreaking choice” with “the situation of parents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:…The only way is up that mountain…[from] confusion to clarity, ignorance to knowing, fear to faith.”

Again, the rabbi almost gets it right. We do want to accomplish the first two — confusion to clarity and ignorance to knowing. What clarity and knowing tell is that there’s no God and that Abraham is not a very interesting literary figure.

Fear and faith

But we don’t go from fear to faith. Au contraire. The rabbi ignores the extent to which fear is THE MAIN MOTIVATION FOR FAITH! There’s fear of death, fear of life, fear of boredom, fear of meaninglessness, fear of suffering…the list goes on and on. They all drive people into the arms of clerics and their stories, which invariably lead to humiliation (prayer) and worse (war).

See, you have to watch these rabbis with their words. Their hearts are in the right place. They actually do have some of it right. If only they would drop their stories and focus on the welfare of human beings, today and tomorrow. If only they would tell the truth about these Bible stories and stop treating people like little children who have to believe impossible fantasies.

Eid can be preserved and secularized, as Humanistic Jews have done with their whole calendar. I like the family- gathering-partying-gift-giving aspects of it.

Happy Eid!

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Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author — most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to www.trafford.com/06-0056. He is the founder of Positive Humanists International/PHI ©

4 Responses to “Happy Eid!”

  1. on 20 Dec 2007 at 8:51 pmArt Blog » Happy Eid!

    […] The Jewish Atheist added an interesting post today on Happy Eid!Here’s a small reading […]

  2. […] The Jewish Atheist put an intriguing blog post on Happy Eid!Here’s a quick excerpt […]

  3. on 21 Dec 2007 at 5:27 pmElisha

    Excellent post!!

  4. on 21 Dec 2007 at 7:00 pmAlan

    Thank you SO much! Made my day! Please pass it on if you think it worthy.

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