Should the Bible be censored?
“Most people don’t feel the need to examine the details of the religious propositions they profess.” –Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell)
A recent Colorado Law which will protect gay’s rights and safeguard the homosexual community against discrimination in print or slander in public may also make it perfectly legal to censor the Bible (the Bible calls for the murder of gays). This got me to thinking, along with the previous article on “Smut for Smut,” whether or not the Bible should be censored? Or even just regulated with a ratings system like film and video games are? Here are my thoughts on the subject.
It’s true that Christian organizations are normally the first to try and invoke censorship rules against things they find to be “UnChristian” in nature, everything except for their Bibles that is. They have banned Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin from school libraries simply because it had the word “nigger” in historical context. And if they can get away with this small offense, even as their Bibles condone slavery in the first place, why can’t we protect gays by regulating the Bible as well?
Christians have also at various times tried to ban the works of Darwin, and certain zealous faith mongers have taken to burning books they didn’t agree with such as the congregants of the Full Gospel Assembly in Grande Cache, Alberta, Canada in the 1990s burned books with ideas in them that they did not agree with, or that they deemed contained ideas contrary to the teachings of God. (But who are they to decide? Were they objective? Did they read all the books in the entire world and compare? Did they consult with professionals and academics? Or did they, in all piety, just arbitrarily decide?). More recently, there have been several incidents of Harry Potter books being burned, including those directed by churches at Alamogordo, New Mexico and Charleston, South Carolina.[i] It’s no surprise that the main criticism comes mainly from Christian Evangelical groups. (See: Controversy over Harry Potter.)
Other religions, such as Islam, have not only tried to ban the books they don’t agree with, but they have also murdered and attempted to assassinate the authors and artists of those works they deemed to be too blasphemous or go against the teaching of their faith! The film maker Theo van Gogh was successfully assassinated in 2004 for making his film Submission, which was critical of Islam’s abusive treatment of women, and in 1991 Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was slain in accordance to the prior established Khomeini declaration of fatwa against the author Rushdie and anyone affiliated with him for having written a work of fiction.
The Salman Rushdie Episode: A Not so Funny Sitcom
Fear is the great ally for the reactionary right wing religious mobs who seek to put death sentences on any artist who dares any such portrayal of the Prophet. In 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic spiritual leader of Iran at the time, manipulated this irrational fear in what can only be described as a holy terrorist tactic, by inciting a death sentence (or fatwa) against the author Salman Rushdie for having written a work of fiction. Salman Rushdie is the leading example of a modern day Voltaire in regards to his persecution over publishing his novel The Satanic Verses. How can we possibly contend otherwise? We have the historical account of an independent and free thinking person refusing to give into an act of cowardice by relinquishing his civil freedoms to the incessant bullying of the religious reactionaries who take offense at apparently innocuous literature and art.
As a consequence of standing up to such coordinated attacks against his personal egalitarian beliefs, Rushdie has certainly felt the wrath of what is currently being deemed Islamic fascism,[ii] not to mention general closed mindedness, in what any decent human being would consider an act of unforgiving inhumanity toward one’s individual’s independence. Such a garish invasion into one’s personal privacy, the strict imposition of Sharia stipulations and regulations on secular men and women including non-practitioners’ of the Muslim faith, and the desire to control others can only be viewed as a direct threat to modern democratic freedom and the freedom of artistic expression, including the freedom of speech. Such a design is antithetical to liberty and is the frightening example of what will come if we allow such cruel religious schemes to override secular values and replace justice with righteousness and reason with idiosyncratic manmade superstitions.
Back in early 2005, still in my university days, I had the distinct honor to shake Sir Salman Rushdie’s hand and sit with him for a few hours while we enjoyed a civil conversation ranging from personal liberties, including the freedom of speech, all the way to literature, art, cinema, and jazz music. At the time, it occurred to me that this intelligent and thoughtful man was being hounded for doing what he loved best—writing, telling stories, and being creative. What cold reality awaited me, an aspiring writer, I wondered?
If anything, Mr. Rushdie’s perseverance continually reminds me that there are still decent human beings who will stand up for the good, upholding human decency, having respect for other’s opinions (even though we may disagree with them), and letting reason be our moral guide, despite what the terrible and fanatical religious extremists might preach. Rushdie’s tribulations shockingly paint in detail what lengths religiously sponsored zealots will go through in order to ensure their oppressive tyranny shapes the world according to how they see fit. If you dare to dance to the beat of a different drum they try and get rid of you—often through the use of political pressure, incessant caterwauling, and assassination attempts if necessary.
Anytime a valid counter claim is offered which is so detrimental to religious core theology of the faith that it can dismantle it exposing its weaknesses, the best defense by religion has always been to silence the rationalist by maiming, slandering, and murdering if necessary—always in the name of God just to make it kosher of course. Apostates of every flavor, free thinking atheists, nonbelievers who don’t have a religious bone in their body, skeptics and satirists, such as Voltaire, have all been hunted down and made an example of by monotheistic regimes which seem unsatisfied with the perseverance of independent will and the freethinking multitude.
It is not the first time Democracy has been threatened by its very antithesis, however, and it won’t be the last either. For those of us concerned it is clearly vital, not to mention timely necessary, to reaffirm the importance of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the ‘wall of separation’ which seeks to forever keep church and state affairs separate, and further more ensure the safety and protect the rights of those citizens living in a democratic republic and keep them free from hierarchical rule (religious or otherwise). In his Notes on the State of Virginia Statute, Jefferson wrote:
Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves.[iii]
I am highly skeptical of any omniscient being who tries to keep such rationality as that which Jefferson so admired at bay. It seems to me a highly duplicitous existence to be all knowing yet also be the very agent which oppresses rational knowing in the universe. The tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden story is a perfect example of God not being concerned with our well-being, but simply our obedience. But this hasn’t stopped the hypocrites from preaching God’s greatness. Shouldn’t we be more offended by the fact that religious zeal has forced its slave-mentality onto the principles of universal freedom for all?[iv]
But the Bible has good too, right? Should we censor the whole thing or just certain parts? Or should we find a compromise? Should we create a ratings system in the vein of the MPAA’s system for films? Might we label the various books of the Bible with various age appropriate warnings, such as PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 and so on? We could red flag chapters that were relatively harmless but then suddenly, and arbitrarily, have a grotesque, obscene, racist, or extremely inappropriate passage. We could still have our Bibles, but it would be better regulated.
Now I know what Christians are going to say. They’ll be adamant about not wanting to be carded every time they buy a Bible, and they’ll protest by countering with something along the lines of, then shouldn’t we censor Shakespeare as well?! The point is missed on those who don’t realize the distinguishing points of difference here. Shakespeare is rarely obscene, and the parts that are aren’t being read to children as bed time stories. That’s the difference here folks! And reading Shakespeare has never killed anyone, but many have become martyrs in the name of their faith because their holy books called them to it.
A Riotous Cartoon
As of late 2005 the tradition of censorship and religious over-reaction to art continues in the modern world. The Danish newspaper debacle over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy is the shadowy reminder of artistic censorship at its worst. Meanwhile, even as authors and journalists were feeling the righteous heat of that fiery writers block coming down upon them (to call it that), on the Christian side of things everyone else was boycotting all things Dan Brown; along with his novel The Da Vinci Code and its consequent film adaptation.
It would seem Dan Brown had the audacity to envision Christ marrying Mary Magdalene and having kids—never mind the historical fantasy created by Brown is a contending theory supported by some Biblical scholars—you can take it or leave it without having to get angry about it. Dan Brown himself expressed that his novel was a work of fiction, reiterating the fact that The DaVinci Code, like Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, was simply imaginative entertainment. Harmless enough, one might think. Heretical according to the religious stand point, sure, stimulating a religious response of course, but innocent from an artistic sentiment as it was never meant to be fact—it was only meant to be a flight of the imagination. Although Dan Brown’s audacious re-imagining of Christianity was not detrimental to the faith itself he certainly felt his fair share of the righteous heat too.
Strange that the Catholic Church worked so hard to censor Dan Brown when it was Pope Gregory I (591 C.E.) who started the nasty (and wholly unfounded) rumor that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Pope Gregory’s imaginative characterization of Mary Magdalene, as misconstrued as it was, was certainly no more lofty a fictitious re-imagining than Dan Brown’s propagating Christ (although it certainly was a lot crueler). In fact, we might even agree that a reasonable supposition is to infer that if it wasn’t for Pope Gregory’s vilifying act of “slutting up” Mary Magdalene and turning her into a woman of the night in a vicious attack on her character in the first place, then Dan Brown may have never had the inclination to use her in a light less than Saintly to begin with. Stranger still that so many good Christians should forget this fact in light of their keenly orchestrated media attacks against Dan Brown’s integrity, artistic and otherwise.
Purportedly it seems there is a double standard at work when it comes to religious expression vs. artistic expression of religion. Here we find an inconsistency in which the religious commentator is strictly censored but the religion itself is (always) free to make up any form of poppycock it wishes to pass off as doctrinal fact. This critical censorship is especially true if the artist fails to meet the standard of those who profess a most sincere devotion to their faith, or else, rubs them the wrong way. Dan Brown suddenly found himself the prodigal scapegoat for the bothersome and overly forgetful Church leaders and religious reactionaries the world over. Luckily for Brown, for all his negative press, this didn’t hinder his book sales or film revenue any.
I don’t believe in censorship on things that aren’t highly controversial, and I’ll always back the freedom of speech before the right to critically censor, but I do feel we should censor pornography from young children, and it is well known (even by religious practitioners whether they want to admit it or not) that religious books often contain things which any rational minded person would consider pornographic, or at the least, R rated material. More over, religions regularly call for more than just censorship as Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others are familiar with, it can also call for your unjust murder. Or as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown are concerned,[v] it can call for the banning and burning of your books. And this form of attack on our basic unalienable rights should be defended against and keep tabs on as to ensure our continued sovereignty without the worry of the threat of religious patriarchs seeking to impose their iniquitous religious standards or destroy our life’s work and thereby unjustly strip away our freedoms.
Additionally, let’s not forget that for centuries the Bible was the driving article that supported the murder of heretics, the torture and abuse of “supposed” blasphemers, the burning of innocent women (whether they were witches or saints is of no consequence–all innocent–innocent being the key word here), and slavery in the New World, something which outraged Mark Twain in his day. All this because “the bible told them so.” Religion’s monopoly on slavery is not a new notion as it has been a common practice of the Church throughout the ages. Only with the advent of more secular moral guidelines and a decline of religious popularity did the Church give up the barbaric practice, but not without controversy. The famed Mark Twain, one of America’s most infamous atheists, was a harsh critic of the Churches propensity for slavery, and in a rather scathing quote Twain made his disgust perfectly felt, berating:
In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers. If any could know, to absolute certainty, that all this was right, and according to God’s will and desire, surely it was she, since she was God’s specially appointed representative in the earth and sole authorized and infallible expounder of his Bible. There were the texts; there was no mistaking their meaning; she was right, she was doing in this thing what the bible had mapped out for her to do. So unassailable was her position that in all the centuries she had no word to say against human slavery.[vi]
Willingly, this unassailable position that the Church knows what’s best, such as issues of keeping humans as personal property, has recently been challenged by the secular and free thinking moralist writers of the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Most recently, in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris states the obvious farce that is the (basically non-existent) Biblical objection in regards to slavery:
The only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth (Exodus 21). It should go without saying that is not the kind of moral insight that put an end to slavery in the United States.[vii]
Quick to point out that Jesus never made any objection or condemning remarks on slavery, something he should have done if we are to consider him a source of morality and the Son of an all loving omniscient God, Harris reaches out to our human decency by adding:
The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment. It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany—and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever known.[viii]
Of course we might say the same for gay rights or even better animal treatment today. But this evolved form of ethical thinking is with unusual regularity oddly missing from religious thought. Indeed, if the Christian holy book was a source for morality, then it is a bad source. And to paraphrase Harris’ point, anybody who thinks the Bible is the best guide we have on the question of morality has some very peculiar ideas about either guidance or morality. I would go one further and presume that many have not even read their Bibles in full and so are not aware of all the unacceptable and abominable content it contains. Furthermore, those who have read their Bibles in full and continue to believe do not likely believe because they have understood the content of their Bibles. They may, perhaps, believe in spite of it—allowing their modern moral sense and notions of equality to inform their outlook while ignoring the dangerous pitfalls of imperfect, immoral, and inhumane teachings of their holy books and making the choice to stick with only the most virtuous principles.[ix] Here Mark Twain brings us a bit of irony when he quips:
It is not well worth of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.[x]
Anybody can cherry-pick from the best their religious works have to offer and put up a mental partition and block out the bad stuff if they want to. Ignoring the negative aspects of your holy text, however, is not the best way to provide a reliable justification to the problems at hand, and it is a flawed practice for anyone who wishes to enhance their moral understanding. Instead of quote-mining for just the best verses we should be regulating, rating, or else restricting the harmful impact of the bad or morally damaging verses altogether, as a consequence creating a more moral text in the same fashion that Thomas Jefferson created a more practical text when he went to town on the Bible cutting out the superstitious and mythical verses it contained.
Outrageous as it may seem to us, as of the 21st century the crimes of religious oppression and persecution persist, crimes informed by the backing of religious texts, and wherever there is religious censorship we can be sure there is a desire for better, more egalitarian, society. As is common, the religious like to caterwaul about perceived “religious intolerance” anytime they meet critical scrutiny, but what about intolerant religions? Can they really shift the blame so easily? Not taking responsibility for your own trespasses is despicable, surely it shouldn’t go ignored or un-criticized. It’s funny to me how religion can always pronounce itself guiltless by shifting the blame and passing the crimes of the establishment off onto the individual, and thereby placing all of the blame for its own wickedness and depravity squarely onto the shoulders of the one, effectively safeguarding itself from further criticism by offering up a scapegoat. But man is never allowed to place the sins and depravities on the institution squarely on the shoulders of that religious establishment. If a skeptic criticizes the misdeeds of the faith the faith offers up another scapegoat. If a devout person becomes the victim of the institution and lashes out and criticizes the faith they are called a heretic and traitor.
Religious institutions have always sought to safeguard themselves in an ideological maze of smoke and mirrors, never ever wanting to face the ugliness which resides just beneath the surface of the illusion—the desire to see humanity broken in accordance with its deplorable teachings that we are somehow fallen, sinful, undeserving beings so that we may submit to its will (or the will of God). Stripping us of our self esteem, religion tells us we are unworthy so that it might offer us, in our confusion and angst, a sense of false hope as it step by step destroys our sense of dignity. According to religion, only once you are ruined can you be saved, and they have the key to your salvation! All you have to do is believe what they tell you to. Those who see the sham for what it is and defy the religious ploy often get hammered by a robust and bombastic faith which will hammer you down relentlessly until you are put back in your place. Apostates everywhere no what is at stake when they leave their faith, since they don’t just leave behind a book of harmless fairytales, they often times are forced to leave behind their family, friends, and community as well. Sometimes, if they try to maintain good relations, they will be ostracized and offered up as the sacrificial scapegoat, and their emotional and social lives with be utterly destroyed so that the institution can go on without their dangerous independence, free-thinking, and skepticism. Clearly, as anyone who has studied religion can see, such deficient ideological premises and practices exist in superfluous and are prevalently found in more than one faith and in more than one holy book—and what is a holy book if not a guide on how to practice one’s faith?
Although I think we should keep the Bible, since it is an important work of literature, I do feel that some of its content is age inappropriate and much of it transparently obscene, and that to teach it to Children is a sign of negligence. I know theist parents will say they don’t read their kids those explicitly offensive or violent parts of the Bible, but some do, and that’s more than enough to be critical.
As for the Evangelical inerrantists who claim the Bible is the perfect word of God and that we have simply misunderstood it, wise up. Anyone with a thinking brain full well knows that you would not even need to make such a defense if there was no controversy or inherent conflict within the text in the first place. And even assuming we have all (somehow) misunderstood the deeper moral truths, then this claim of sophisticated moral reasoning which so often gets misapprehended by our feeble intellects, does not necessarily mean that children have the capacity to deduce or discern the content in quite the same way as thinking adults. To suggest otherwise is to be precariously ignorant. Those who may not be Fundamentalists but still feel that the Bible is a good moral guide, and that its teachings are beneficial, think again. In fact, it would behoove you to actually read your Bible in full, because anyone who has would not make such badly informed comments. After a second read through, if you still feel certain verses contain morsels of axiomatic wisdom, then that’s fine, but children should not be expected to be as well versed in their reasoning skills, or for that matter, even socially capable of making such minute distinctions in a text. Simply put, children are neither mentally nor emotionally equipped to deal with the callous content of the Bible on their own, and to this we must protect their fragile imaginations and susceptible minds from the nefarious content of any and all holy books.
Not all parent keep their Bibles out of reach of prying eyes, and what’s more, what measures are they taking to protect their children from those in the service of the Church or church community which might (without parental consent) teach other people’s kids about some horrible concept, such as hating gays, or making women inferior, or else frighten them with the idea of being punished in hell where their parents can’t save them, among other disreputable religious teachings while their parents are elsewhere? I’m not saying that Sunday school is a form of child abuse per se, but it can be. What happens when your kid is stuck in Sunday school with old crazy Ms. Braybrook?
What I propose is a ratings system for the (unavoidable) extremely graphic content, and yes, I believe people should be carded when they buy a religious Holy Book that contains adults themes and content, and they should be of the age of consent to purchase it. And if they are convicted of a religious crime, in which the religious ideologies found in that holy book have motivated them (in part) to enact horrible atrocities or crimes against their fellow human beings, thus breaking the law, then their holy books should be confiscated and they should be denied further access to it until they can be rehabilitated as a law abiding citizen. But beyond this, people should be free to purchase it as they would The Catcher in the Rye, porn, or any other material—under freedom of speech rules—as long as they are of the proper age designated.
So what do you think? Should the Christian Bible be regulated, rated, or censored? Why or why not?
[i] Harry Potter and the Ministry of Fire:
[ii] Fascism, according to the Random House Dictionary, is a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism. This is the Islamist agenda, more or less, and it has always been the goal of those extremists like the Taliban to establish a totalitarian regime by which they can create a global Islamic Empire. Such a poisonous ideology is derived, not from a radical literalism of Islamic creeds; a rather worrisome side effect in those who approach Islamic theology and the teachings of the Qur’an, Hadith, ijma and qiyas with a legalistic interpretation and dedication.
[iii] Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Notes on the State of Virginia, p.286
[iv] To find an example of such crude and oppressive monotheistic ideologies run dangerously amuck one need look no further than the Hamas Charter (1988). According to the charter, Hamas seeks to reshape the world into a universal Muslim world. Article 8 states the slogan of Hamas: Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief. Such reason, however, I would caution, is unsound since all non-Muslims must fear such charters which go on to promote violent and forceful conversion of non-Muslims and that seeks militancy instead of peace, discord instead of harmony, despotism instead of equality, self-sacrifice instead of mutual cooperation, and intolerance instead of understanding and acceptance.
[v] Iran has banned and burned all translations of Dan Brown’s popular novel The Da Vinci Code. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_books_banned_in_Iran
[vi] Mark Twain, Bible Teaching and Religious Practice, from: Europe and Elsewhere and a Pen Warmed Up in Hell.
[vii] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, p. 17
[x] Mark Twain, Bible Teaching and Religious Practice, from: Europe and Elsewhere and a Pen Warmed Up in Hell.