Sunday, August 24, 2014

Unforgiveable sins

What's the worst thing a person can do? The utterly worst, most despicable, abominable, loathsome, unforgiveable thing? Murder? Rape? Raping a baby? Genocide? Torturing an innocent to death, slowly, over many days?

How about swearing an oath in the name of something or someone other than god?

In Islam, the only unforgiveable sins are "kufr" (disbelief) and "shirk" (ascribing a partner to Allah). Disbelief is obvious: you better believe or you're in trouble. (One wonders why a supposedly all-powerful deity who created the entire universe cares so much about being worshipped by beings who are like ants compared to him.) Shirk is a little more complicated: it encompasses a variety of sins, such as the belief that some other being is an equal or a peer of Allah. There is major shirk, such heinous sins like making fun of religion, belief in other gods, loving anyone as much as you love Allah, or creating laws that take priority over Allah's laws.

There is also minor shirk, such as superstition, or swearing an oath in the name of something other than Allah (although Allah himself is permitted to do such a thing, since he makes the rules and the rules don't apply to him). Unlike major shirk, minor shirk alone doesn't quite put the transgressor beyond the pale, but it's a near thing. It is a major sin to swear a false oath by Allah, a terrible sin, but it is worse by far to swear an honest oath by something else.

This tells us the priorities of the (supposed) all-good, all-loving, all-knowing god (or rather, the priorities of the people who made this stuff up): you can spend a lifetime stealing, murdering, raping little babies and torturing people to death, polluting the world, ruining the lives of all those around you, and still be forgiven. You can be a totally immoral, lying, cheating, despicable monster, and still be forgiven. You can be a blight on the lives of everyone around you, and still be forgiven. But entertain the merest thought that god has a rival or peer? Unforgiveable.

Christians should not feel too superior here. Have you read your Ten Commandments? They too make it obvious that the number one ethical principle of god is the jealous insistence on being worshipped.

Numbering the so-called Ten Commandments is not simple: they are listed three times in the Bible, twice in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy, where they are worded differently, unnumbered, and in no simple or obvious set of ten. Consequently, the major religious groups disagree on what the Ten actually are: Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and Samaritan sects do not agree on either the wording, numbering or even what the Commandments are. One Mormon sect, the Strangites, includes as one of the Ten something which no other group includes: Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself. The second set from Exodus 34 are especially problematic: although they are stated by god to be the same words as those written on the stone tablets smashed by Moses, they are radically, and obviously, different.

But however you divide them, it is clear that a high priority is not good, ethical behaviour, but protecting Yahwah's monopoly on worship. There is no prohibition on rape, the molestation of children, torture, or despoiling the earth, and especially not genocide (beloved by the god of the Old Testament -- god warns the Israelites that if they aren't successful in his ordered genocide of the Caananites, he will change sides and do to them what he was originally planning to do to the Caananites). There's no nothing about respecting human dignity, justice or mercy, or prohibiting slavery. (There is a minority view among some biblical scholars that Thou Shalt Not Steal refers not to mere theft of property, but to theft of people, that is kidnapping and slavery, but that seems unlikely given that the Israelites were enthusiastic slave holders.) Except for the Strangite Mormon addition, there's nothing even close to the Golden Rule of ethical behaviour, to treat others as you would hope to be treated in their shoes.

Depending on how you count them, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 might contain as few as 3 out of 10 or as many as 5 out of 11 commandments about protecting Yahweh's monopoly: Thou shalt have no other gods before me, remembering the sabbath, and variations on the same theme. Exodus 34 is even more extreme: all of the commandments relate to worshipping Yahweh, making sacrifices to Yahweh, keeping the sabbath, avoiding worshipping other gods, and then right at the end, almost like an afterthought, a strange comment about not cooking lambs in the milk of their mother. And these are supposed to be the great moral and ethical principles that Christianity rests on.

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