Law & liberty: an atheist’s appreciation of a religious idea 2

Has there ever been a religious idea that did more good than harm?

Most religious ideas – that is to say, ideas about gods and how mortals should relate to them – have not been beneficial. For the greater part of history, religions required the sacrifice of human life. Deities were conceived of as cruel and destructive unless propitiated with human blood.

Exceptional and utterly different was the Mosaic idea of God-sanctioned Law that required people to deal justly with each other: the idea that a god of justice, a single abstract omnipotent god, commanded them to obey the Law.

The historical importance of the idea does not lie in its notion of a god who holds the scales of justice and can punish or reward, but in the setting of law above human authority and power; the keeping of it out of the hands of chieftains, kings, and tyrants, safe from whim, passion, folly, impulse and madness.

The doctrine that the Law was handed down by a single abstract just and omnipotent God, made it awful in the original sense of the word. Justice itself was sanctified. To obey the Law was to fear God. To obey the Law was all that God required of His people.

It was the Law itself that mattered, because justice mattered above everything. God mattered because justice mattered, not the other way about. To ensure justice was what He was for. The worship of God was the worship of justice.

By bestowing equal obligations on everyone to deal justly – or “righteously” – each with the other, the Law, eternal and unalterable, could be an impregnable house in which everyone could safely dwell. In the certainty of its protection, everyone was free to pursue his chosen path, to go about his personal affairs without fear.

It’s not important who wrote the laws. It’s irrelevant whether or not the idea was in actuality conceived by a man named Moses. But we can conjecture about its provenance. Perhaps the idea of the single, abstract, just, omnipotent God, which tradition associates with a man or a tribe called Abraham, really did arise as legend has it long before the laws were written. This God, uniquely, did not require human sacrifice: a lesson enshrined in the story that He ordered “Abraham” not to sacrifice his son to Him. But nobody knows when the story was first told. It may have been about the same time as the laws were inscribed, and nobody knows when that was either.

If a man called Moses did give some laws to a people who believed in such a God, he certainly did not write all the laws attributed to him. They were manifestly the work of many minds over a length of time.

Who might Moses have been? Probably, as Sigmund Freud speculates in Moses and Monotheism, he was a prince of Egypt.  (The legend of his having been sent floating on a stream by a Hebrew mother and fished out by a royal princess who then adopted him was transparently invented in retrospect to make him a true son of the people whose leader he became.)

So perhaps Egypt was the source of the great religious idea. But it remained the property of the Hebrews alone for centuries.

Other nations have held law itself to be above the ruling power – as did the Greeks in their city-states, and the English in the Middle Ages when Magna Carta affirmed the same principle. But it is the core and substance of only one religion.

When the nation whose religion it was became a part of Alexander’s vast empire, the idea spread, as ideas do when frontiers open and people travel and settle in foreign lands. But as ideas do when they disperse, it was reinterpreted, misunderstood, adjusted, complicated, simplified, emptied, augmented, adapted to satisfy changing political expedients. The new religion of Christianity, though it adopted the scriptures of the Jews (after some hesitation), dethroned Justice and set Love in its place. The unique and abstract God of Justice was superseded by a triune godhead of which one hypostasis was incarnated in human form in historical time. And the belief that deity required human sacrifice was revived. The great idea was despised, and even, by some heterodox Christian sects, abominated. Christianity was not a development of Judaism but a revolution against it.

Yet the idea lay in the baggage of Christianity wherever it traveled.

It was brought out into the light of day by the Founders of the United States, who expressed it in The Declaration of Independence when they wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …”; and it was perceptibly in their minds when they composed the Constitution which, though it does not mention God, was meant to provide the shelter of law for lasting liberty.

It is not necessary now to believe in the existence of a divine power presiding over human affairs, to understand and appreciate the idea. (And it is certainly not necessary to find every individual Mosaic law admirable. Indeed, to modern minds many of them are ridiculous. The actual 613 laws of Judaism, and all its ritual requirements, can be disregarded without the idea itself being in the least devalued.)

We do not now need a transcendent authority to keep us obeying the law and behaving towards each other with moral decency. We can choose to do so for sound reasons.

But the idea that an essential framework of law, informed by moral principles, should be conserved beyond the reach of transient governing powers, remains good: so good that it will not spoil if some uphold it in the name of God.

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Postscript: This essay should not be taken as an argument in vindication of Judaism. The Jewish God is also a Creator God, believed to have brought the material universe into existence ex nihilo. (The ancient Greeks did not entertain that absurdity: they believed that matter had always existed, and was shaped into the form it has by divine craftsmanship.) Such a god, answering a need for explanation in ages past, is no longer useful.

But viewed historically, the idea of an abstract God put to use as a transcendent authority for law and justice, can be seen as a foreshadowing of the anthropocentric, as opposed to deocentric, evaluation of human worth that the Renaissance proposed and the Enlightenment realized: an intellectual stepping-stone by which mankind advanced from superstitious dread of divine wrath to a rational, secular, appreciation of law-protected liberty.

Jillian Becker    November 1, 2010

Posted under Articles, Atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Law, liberty, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Monday, November 1, 2010

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  • Very good points. Also, the first thing that popped into my mind at your opening question was the Golden Rule. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you may seem like common sense but, as we all know, common sense isn’t.

  • Beautifully said. Granted that religion is false, nevertheless it has value. For me, that value is twofold: instrumentality and aesthetics.

    Speaking instrumentally, the relevant questions address whether a religion makes its adherents happier, better behaved citizens. Are they more law-abiding? More diligent? More self-sufficient? If so, then the religion is a net gain for the society in which it operates. Judaism meets this test, as does modern Christianity.

    Religious faith is probably going to be with us for a long time. It resists rational challenges, morphing into nontraditional forms when Reason and hedonism demolish traditional sects. How many Wiccans are ex-Catholics? Something basic in many people, probably tied to a genetic propensity, simply yearns for spirituality.

    The details of a faith matter a great deal. Radical Islam is unhealthy for any society concerned with liberty and free thought. Christianity may have the vigor to stand against it, but pure, rational atheism does not. As a religious skeptic myself, I have long recognized the weakness of mere argument in the face of religious passion. Sometimes it takes force to counter force. The reality is that many people simply need faith. My preference, if they’re going to be religious, is for something like Buddhism or (modern) Christianity and Judaism.

    Apart from its usefulness, its instrumental value, religion also has aesthetic value. Much of the world’s best in art and music has been inspired (or even just funded) by religion.

    For all these reasons, it seems prudent to approach civilized religions without scorn. Just don’t get me started on the Creation Museum.