Monday, February 4, 2013

Among the Believers

While I'm on the subject of religion, I should mention Richard Seymour's new book Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (Verso, 2012).  It's a good read, well-researched, with some material from Seymour's own interviews with some of Hitchens's friends and colleagues, and it gives its subject credit for his virtues while mercilessly dissecting his faults.

I've noticed before that Seymour seems to take a softer line on religion than I do.  From Unhitched I suspect that we're closer to agreement than I thought, but we still disagree on a lot of details.  First he shows a few of Hitchens's factual errors from his anti-religion polemic God Is Not Great.  I'd already seen Terry Eagleton sneering at Hitchens's distaste for Jesus' teaching against wealth and good bourgeois concern for the future; from reading Seymour I see that it's a survival from Hitchens's own bourgeois upbringing.  But I'd noticed that Eagleton is unreliable about religion himself.  Seymour is better, but he still has something to learn.

He mentions that "Hitchens complained that religions have historically staunchly resisted the translation of their texts -- the Talmud, the Bible, the Quran -- into the language of the common people.  He remonstrated that this demonstrates a desire on the part of arbiters of faith to keep the people in ignorance.  Again, even with a will to believe the worst of religion, this claim is impossible to sustain" (63).

I haven't yet read God Is Not Great, so this stupidity on Hitchens's part entertained me.  Could he really have been that ignorant?  In the first place, those "texts" were originally written in the vernacular.  The Vulgate, the Latin version that was adopted as official by the Roman Catholic Church, put the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek original into the vernacular of the Roman Empire.  But I also noticed something odd in that list of holy texts -- "the Talmud, the Bible, the Quran."  Was it Hitchens's, or Seymour's list?  The Talmud, though very important in post-biblical Judaism, doesn't have quite the same status as the Bible.  But "the Bible" is shared by Christianity and Judaism; it sounds to me as though someone was trying to name a specifically Jewish text, whether it was "Scripture" or not, but wasn't informed enough to get it right.  Let him who is without sin ...

Seymour then quotes William Hamblin, a professor of history at Brigham Young University (!):
In reality the translation of religious texts has been a major cultural phenomenon in ancient and medieval times and has steadily increased through the present.  The Bible, of course, is the most translated book in the history of the world ... The Bible was also the most widely translated book in the ancient world ... The earliest translation of the Qur'an appeared within a couple of centuries of Muhammad's death.  By the tenth century there were extensive commentaries on the Qur'an in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish -- the three great cultural languages of medieval Islamic civilization.  These included a word-for-word grammatical analysis of the Arabic text, thereby providing translations.  In the Middle Ages there were numerous interlinear translations of the Qur'an.  In addition, the Qur'an was translated by non-Muslims, largely for polemical purposes ... [63].
This has the tone of an infomercial more than information, and there are problems with it.  A commentary, even word-for-word, isn't a translation.  Interlinear translations can be read, but they're probably not used in worship; they're meant for study, and like commentaries they are more likely to be used by professional students than ordinary laypeople.  A good commentary, simply by detailing the manifold interpretations possible, will probably annoy most laypeople, who want to believe that the meaning of a text is accessible to honest common sense.  (Similar difficulties attend the translation of the Hebrew Bible into modern languages: among Jews, translations weren't forbidden so much as discouraged in favor of studying the text in the original. That isn't a bad idea in any case. Seymour and Hamblin must be aware of the problems involved in translation of any text.)  I don't know as much about the history of Islam or the Quran as I do about Christianity, but I'm suspicious of Hamblin's polemic here.  He's comparing apples to oranges.  He goes on to decry Hitchens's complaint that
'devout men like Wycliffe, Coverdale, and Tyndale were burned alive for even attempting early translations' (p. 125) of the Bible into vernacular literature ... Far from being burned at the stake, John Wycliffe (1330-1384) died of natural causes while hearing Catholic mass in his parish church.  Miles Coverdale likewise, died unburned in 1568 at the age of eighty-one.  Of the three translators mentioned by Hitchens, only William Tyndale ... was burned at the stake.  But Tyndale's execution in 1536 was as much for his opposition to Henry VIII's divorce -- entailing what was viewed as a treasonous rejection of the Succession Act -- as it was for his translation efforts [ibid].
This is disingenuous to the point of dishonesty.  Hitchens's turning Wycliffe and Coverdale into martyrs is inexcusable sloppiness, of course.  As I've often said, if we atheists are going to criticize believers, we have to be more scrupulous about telling the truth.  But Hamblin is guilty of distortion too.  True, neither Wycliffe nor Coverdale were martyred for their translations, but Wycliffe was declared a heretic on multiple grounds.  His body was exhumed and burned, and the Church attempted to destroy every copy of his translation they could find.  (Minor detail: he suffered a fatal stroke while saying mass, not hearing it.)

Coverdale produced his translation while in self-imposed exile from England, in Protestant Antwerp, and it circulated in England after Henry VIII had broken with Rome, so it was not produced under the auspices of the Vatican.  After a brief return to England, he went back into exile on the continent, due to religious controversy at home.  As for Tyndale, Hamblin's trying to muddy the waters.  While his execution was overdetermined, he produced his translation in the face of ecclesiastical opposition, and he complained: "They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture."  The picture is more complicated than either Hitchens or Hamblin allow.  It may be difficult to disentangle all the reasons why these men got into trouble, because their determination to make the Bible available to laypeople in English went along with other heterodox beliefs, but it's clear that the Roman Catholic Church objected to the translation projects for their own sake.

Hamblin's attempt to blame Tyndale's execution on politics -- his refusal to condone Henry VIII's divorce -- is a popular diversionary tactic; it's often used to explain away Galileo's problems with the Church, for instance.  (He got in trouble because of his tactlessness with the Princes of the Church, not because he taught that the earth moved.)  It seems to assume that there is a pure, unworldly essence of religion that isn't weighed down by worldly concerns and conflicts.  If this is true, then it implies that real religion is useless as a guide to living in the real world, where political entanglements are inescapable; I don't think most believers really want to assert that.  But the burden in that case would be on religious leaders to stop getting bogged down in worldly politics, which isn't going to happen.  It also can be used to get rid of almost any criticism of religion, since whatever one doesn't like can be blamed on corrupt human beings, not the pure essence of faith.
A further example of literal-minded obtuseness is Hitchens's reading of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac.  Here, Hitchens thundered, there is no softening of the plain meaning of this frightful story, which is the Almighty's sanction of child murder.  The literalism is compounded by the absence of contextual awareness.  The ancient Israelite readers of this story, as well as their neighbors in pagan society, would have been accustomed to the idea of human sacrifice.  In its context the function of the story was precisely to outlaw the killing of humans [63].
Oh, dear: that word "literal" again.  I agree that the original function of the story was probably to abolish child sacrifice in Israel -- not "child murder," which was fine with Yahweh when the children were the children of idol worshipers, and certainly not "the killing of humans," which Yahweh not only didn't outlaw but demanded on numerous occasions.  But Seymour's historicist reading of the Akeda, the story of Abraham and Isaac, overlooks a few crucial points: it implies that Yahweh had previously demanded the sacrifice of Israelite children, but later changed his mind (as a deity is entitled to do).  Later in the Torah, Israelites are instructed to dedicate their first-born sons to Yahweh, and then to redeem them with a cash payment.  First-born livestock were not to be redeemed; presumably they were to be sacrificed.   When did he change his mind?  Not in the time of Abraham, or in the time of Moses.  Most scholars today think this part of Genesis was written after 1000 BCE and probably nearer to 600 BCE -- up to a thousand years after Abraham is supposed to have lived, and centuries after Moses.

There's also a story in Judges 11, which takes place long after Moses, in which a chieftain named Jephthah vows to sacrifice whoever or whatever first comes out the door to meet him, if Yahweh gives him success in battle.  Yahweh grants his wish, and Jephthah's daughter comes out to greet him.  (In context, this indicates that Yahweh selected his reward for Jephthah's victory and inspired the girl to present herself to her father.)  Jephthah weeps and wails, but carries out his promise after granting her two months to mourn her virginity.  Some modern theologians have argued that Jephthah didn't actually kill her, but dedicated her to perpetual virginity or solitary confinement. This apologetic reading hasn't been generally accepted.  I think that the story of Jephthah's daughter shows that the biblical writers weren't all on the same page, and that the ban on human sacrifice in Israel came later, even much later than Abraham or Moses.

It should also be remembered that Hitchens wasn't the first to disapprove fiercely of the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Medieval rabbis disputed about it; one fourteenth-century rabbi asked, "How could God command such a revolting thing?"  Seymour can hardly accuse them of foolish literalism: they took the story seriously.  Christian interpreters have wrestled with the story too.  One of the most famous is Soren Kierkegaard, who in 1843 devoted a book, Fear and Trembling, to the subject, exalting Abraham for his faith.  For believers, the import of the story is not as simple as Seymour would have you believe.  Hitchens's objections aren't entirely off-base either.  Anyone who doesn't question Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac isn't taking the story as seriously as Seymour thinks we should.