« Writings from the 395 | Main | Common Sense »

April 10, 2005

Religion, The Bible, Absolutes, Bias, Politics and Terri Schiavo.

Its quite a title and unfortunately for fans of brevity, required writing at quite some length.

I have written extensively on the topic of bias... some of which I've published (A Treatise on Debate: Part I, A Treatise on Debate: Part II - Bias and POV). For a while now I've been thinking about the relationship between bias, religion and politics. The recent Terri Schiavo fiasco has given me more to chew on. Also, I've been reading a book by George Lakoff ("don't think of an elephant!"), which was lent to my by my roommate Brandon. All of this has prompted me to refine my thinking into a more cohesive explainable position. I have a plethora of writing on this issue and have only published a small portion. Most of what I've left unpublished I've done so because it was either, incomplete and not cohesive enough, or too controversial. I've been somewhat rue to go into this because of how sensitive a topic it is, but here goes. It took long enough to write that I didn't re-read it. What am I saying, I never reread before publishing. I see this as a weakness of mine. As such, I see all my works as incomplete. I very much invite comments, disagreements, other analogies, help with definitions or explanations, personal anecdotes, or anything else any of you think would help make this more complete.

I'm going to start with religion and work my way through politics to Terri Schiavo.

Religions are based on beliefs. One could say that what makes a religion different from other system of beliefs is the requirement of faith. Almost all religions are based on beliefs that can not be 'proved' and thus must be believed on faith. I am not going to go into a critique of religion in general, or any particular religion other than to say I do not accept arguments that all religion is bunk because none of them can empirically prove their beliefs through the socratic method. All people have beliefs that are based on faith, whether they are religious, agnostic, or atheist. Furthermore, none of us know how we got here or why and thus none of us can automatically rule out others explanations. In fact, for the purpose of this piece, assume I am talking about Religion in terms of the man made organized religion and not a specific set of beliefs.

In order to have faith in a belief that can not be proved, you must belief in and have faith in the source or sources of that belief. Sources of religious beliefs all come down to people. In most religions, I am using most to mean religions believed by a majority of the earths population, there is a set of writing which defines the religion. It is extremely important for the cohesiveness of a religion to have such writings. Having things in writing that go back a long way gives a point of reference for so many people to agree they all believe roughly the same thing. Religions, as institutions, rely on agreement. The more people that agree as closely as possible, the easier it is to act as a larger unit, which is stronger than individuals. The ability to postulates, influence other organizations such as government, collect the funding required to further the religions causes, all of these things require a large group of people who agree enough to work towards a collective good and not just selfish motivation.

I am going to use Christianity as my example for the rest of this piece, only because I know more about it than any other religion, but I am not picking on Christianity, nor am I saying this does not apply to most other religions. If you ask people what Christianity is based on, you will get may answers, but the only practical answer is, "The Bible". One could say it is about God, or Jesus, but we would not have a cohesive understanding of these things without "The Bible". The Bible is the singular written law of Christianity, which defines not only the history, but the significance of that history, members of that history, and the law that results from that history. Without The Bible, christianity is merely another mystical decentralized set of beliefs. Without the Bible, there would have been no way for the church to organize the way it has. As I stated earlier, in order to further a singular religion, you need large organized groups, and in order to organize a large group you need agreement on beliefs. The Bible provides the basis for that agreement. Without the Bible I doubt it would be possible to organize in the same way. That's actually not true, but I'll get back to that.

Recognizing that the Bible is the central organizing element of Christianity, it is important that The Bible not be robust in its foundation and somewhat immune to criticism. If any part of the Bible was found to be completely false, the entire collection would be put into question. In order for the whole to be believed, its constituent parts must also be believed. How can the church say, "our religion says you should give 10% of your income," and be believed if their source was in question. Thus, the Christian Church calls The Bible the Word of God. It is believed to be perfect and MUST be believed perfect for the reasons stated above. As long as the individuals of the religion agree, they can be organized.

But its not that simple. People disagree on the meanings of the Bible. For example, here are two essays, one defending the Biblican justification of capitalism and the accumulation of wealth and the other deriding it. (Three New Testament Roots of Economic Liberty, Prosperity and Poverty In The Urban Context) Its been a long time since I read those. I have to say that in my research it was far more difficult to find essays defending the poor in a religious context, than those defending the rich, but I digress. If you are trying to organize your religion based on agreement of this book, The Bible, you can not have people disagreeing on what it means. It doesn't matter whether the book is absolutely right or not if people can't agree on what that 'right' is! In Christianity, how is this resolved? It isn't. Churches split, denominations start and split. Wars are fought. They all agree The Bible is their one truth source, but they disagree one who's interpretation of The Bible is absolute. Christians do not even agree on how much of the Bible they have to agree on.

On a technical tangent... There are a number of important concepts on Biblical interpretation that are debated. Some of these concepts are Infallibility, inherency, and verbal plenary inspiration. Layered over this is the issue of literal vs. metaphorical interpretation, ie. "was the world created in literally 6 days." It is not my place to answer these questions, but I will try to explain why the church holds its positions and more important why they MUST hold the positions they do. Going back to the concept that in order to lead an organized group, they must agree, you can't just have anyone spouting off ideas willy nilly. It is NOT acceptable to the organization that more than one interpretation could be correct. You can not lead if you can not say with authority what to believe. Even if there was only one copy of one translation of the Bible such that everyone reading it was literally reading the same words, there would be disagreement on what it means. As it is, people are reading many translations in many languages with different sets of books (The Apocrypha). So, the first thing the church must claim is that the Bible is infallible and/or inherent. To be honest, I have a hard time with the distinction between these two. They basically mean, The Bible is without error and does not contain misleading information.

So where does one get a perfect book? Who wrote and translated all these books? The issue of man's influence on a work that must be seen as perfect leaves the church with a conundrum. How can the Bible be perfect, but written by imperfect men. No one denies it was written by the hands of men. Here's where verbal plenary inspiration comes in. In order to believe the Bible is perfect even though it was written by imperfect men, most Christian organizations believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Essentially that men just took dictation as God spoke through them. This eliminations the issue of whether the writers made mistakes. What about all those translations? They too must have translated by the inspired word of God. If they were translating on their own, there would no doubt be errors and there can they can not accept error for all the reasons stated above.

So that seems to cover all the basis right? God dictated the Bible through men. He then dictated translation through other men. Thus, man could not introduce error into the Bible. Thus, the Bible is perfect and free from error. This works until people start disagree what the Bible means. If people can disagree on what it means. that means people can 'interpret' the Bible. If people can interpret the Bible, than who can say with authority what the true meaning is? No one. If two people disagree, who can settle their agreement? If someone COULD settle their agreement, who gave that person the authority to know the truth. If the absolute truth is unknowable, how can there be agreement and organization. In the beginning I mentioned that a work of writing is necessary for agreement and organization. In reality, all that is needed is faith in a book OR person and in reality, it comes down to faith in a person anyway. In the case of the Bible, you are trusting the person giving you their interpretation. You are trusting they have the authority to KNOW and properly EXPLAIN the 'truth'. Even if you are coming to your own conclusions, you are still believing in yourself for the above. This notion that Bible IS interpreted is unacceptable to the church. If its interpreted, then they can interpret it wrong and are can no longer lead with authority. Lead is the key word here. For the good of the people in your organization who, as 'children', can not lead themselves, they must trust your authority to lead, else the organization has no hierarchy. In order to combat this conundrum, the church must hold that the Bible is NOT interpreted. In other words, The Bible has one truth meaning or interpretation of which all other interpretations are wrong. This sounds extreme and it is unlikely you will get a member of the clergy to admit this, but it is essential. For this same reason, the Bible must be literal and not metaphorical. If the Bible is metaphorical, it is open for interpretation. If the creation taking 6 days is merely a metaphor up for interpretation, than what else is a metaphor open for interpretation and who decides that? Down come the cards.

I've gone in some length about these technical issues, but it is important for the foundation of the rest of what I have to say. To summarize this last portion... In order to 'lead' an organization. there must be agreement. In order for there to be agreement, there must be some source of authority to dictate what is to be agreed on. In as far as that source is written, there must be some human authority to dictate the meaning of what is written. For there to be authority, there can not be any break in the chain of communication of authority from the origins of the source to the present interpreters of the source. If any break is found, it calls the entire thing into question. If any one along the chain is to be questioned, then anyone can have their own interpretation which may or may not be right. If it can be proven that NO ONE can KNOW what IS and IS NOT the truth than the basis of the organization which is based on hierarchy's of authority fall down.

Now that we've past that we can move on to a brief look at how Bias is involved. I won't go into too much detail about this because I've written in painful detail about this before in (A Treatise on Debate: Part I, A Treatise on Debate: Part II - Bias and POV). Instead I'll just summarize. To believe one has bias is to believe that one's 'truth' and 'reality' is influenced by many things including, but not limited to, environment, genetics, intelligence, culture, upbringing, etc... If one believes his/her 'truth' can be 'influenced', one must logically conclude that one can not KNOW for certain what the truth is. Truth because more of an educated guess which is refined with time and further education. One can attempt to distinguish between truths that are influenced by bias and those that are absolute, outside of bias, but unfortunately, it is difficult to argue one can even make that distinction without bias, even if those two categories of beliefs DID exist. However, that is in fact what most religious people do and MUST do in order to hold their position. They must believe they have beliefs which are not influenced by bias or point of view (POV), but are in fact TRUTH. Going back to Christianity, to be wrong is to go to hell, which is unacceptable. Nor do you want your friends going to hell, so it is important you can relay that 'truth' to others. It would be difficult to postalize with authority if you believed that you did NOT know the absolute truth, but in fact where just going on educated guesses based on what was passed to you from many other's educated guesses, their bias and indeed your own bias. Suddenly, your argument because far less urgent. So, you must believe that your beliefs and the beliefs of those above you, your teachers, are above and without bias. If you believe you have one or more beliefs that are without bias, than you believe it is possible to have beliefs which you know are absolutely true outside of bias. This is an important aspect of the rest of this piece.

In "don't think of an elephant" George Lakoff proposes a theory on how the conservatives view of government differs from that of progressives. He explains that it all goes back to ones parenting beliefs. One one hand you believe in the disciplining father figure. His job is to be tough on his child and use his moral authority to teach, enforce and punish the child based on what the father knows is right. Once the child is old enough to be on his/her own, the father is to completely back off from his disciplining duties and let the child (now adult) fend for themselves. If he did a good job, his child will themselves be a disciplined, prosperous person, who will later become a disciplining parent to their children. From the book, "The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good. ... What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is the moral authority who knows right from wrong. It is further assumed that the only way to teach kids obedience, that is, right from wrong, is punishment... when they do wrong.

On the other side you have the notion of the nurturing parent, who can be either the mother or father. Their job is less to dictate reality as to encourage the child to find his/her own reality, steering them along the way based on the parents knowledge and experience. The child will always be their child and the parents will always try and help/nurture the child throughout their life. I've taken some liberty in paraphrasing his idea of the nurturing parent. He emphasizes the importance of 'freedom', 'opportunity', 'communication', and 'community'. In most cases, parents are a little of both to some degree or another.

Lakoff then tries to explain how the differing governing styles of the right and left are reflective of these differing values. He demonstrates this relationship in the language used by both sides. For example, the idea that America had the right to ignore the UN and go after Iraq to put them in line is a good demonstration of this idea. America, and our president by extension, represents the moral authority, disciplining father. We do not need a "permission slip" (GWB) to protect ourselves. Iraq was out of line, and we have the right to discipline them.

I haven't completed the book, but it is very interesting so far. I am not one to accept what I read at face value. As I was reading his explanation, I couldn't help but feel, while there was some truth in it, it didn't paint the whole picture. My feeling is that religion and religious beliefs have more to do with governing style than ones parenting model. Specifically, the notion of authority based on unbiased truth. I explained earlier why it is essential in religious organizations for the members to be subordinate to the authority of the leaders. They must trust the leaders implicitly in order to foster their group agreement to keep the organization together. Its not enough to 'follow' the leaders, they must 'believe' the leaders. They must believe the leaders are speaking with authority based on unbiased truth. If the members believe this, there is no reason to question the authority of their leaders. The leaders can do and teach what is in the best interests of the members of their organization because as leaders, they know more than the members. It can be very Machiavellian. Leaders may even justify doing things contrary to what they teach. If you believe the members of your organization do not understand enough to have their own best interests at heart, your teaching will be geared more toward morality than true understanding of the truth. If you, as a leader, found or questioned some aspect of the Bible, it would not be in your flock's best interest to share that doubt. That would only cause others to doubt. Worse still. they would doubt you and everything you had told them before.

I can think of many examples, involving our president, where it appears he acted as the Moral Authority, acting as if he believed he had unbiased truth. However, I am going to focus on the Terri Shiavo case because it is such a clear example of this POV. Our founders created three branches of government, so no single group could act without accountability. The legislative branch MAKES the law and the judicial branch interprets the law. Just in the act of seeing the need for an creating a judicial branch you are admitting no one has a monopoly on the correct interpretation of the law. We are admitting that many people may have different interpretations and some arbiter is needed else arguments would never be resolved. The founding fathers were not saying that these judges have an unbiased absolute understanding of the truth meaning of the law, but someone has to decide. Their job is to attempt to interpret the law without bias. Judges disagree though, showing even judges have bias. In this way we can say a judge's ruling can never actually be 'wrong'. This is a bit extreme and in practice isn't totally true, but let me explain. The judge or a jury decides what the correct interpretation of the law is. We gave them that authority. There is nothing above a judge other than other judges. Indeed there is a process for rulings of a judge to be appealed to other judges. These appeals can make it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. What they rule is true. At this point you may have examples of clear mistakes they made. If your thinking in this way, you've missed the point. Understanding that people disagree on right and wrong, we gave the authority to judges (and juries) to rule, case by case, what right and wrong are given the law we've all accepted. That is their authority. You may disagree, but that doesn't make their ruling wrong. If they were wrong, who would say? Who is above them?

Now back to Terri. There were a number of laws in question. Does a person have the right to refuse treatment? Who becomes the legal guardian if a person becomes unable to make decisions for themselves? Is a feeding tube considered extraordinary means to keep someone alive? Did Terri say she would NOT want to be kept alive by extraordinary means? These are all good questions. The first two have very definitely answers under our constitution. Both sides in this case agreed to the answers to both these questions. A person DOES have the right to refuse treatment. The spouse is automatically the legal guardian if his/her spouse is incapacitated and can not make decisions for themselves. The last two questions are up for much interpretation. Who makes the call? Judges. That's their job. Judges rule, appeals are made to other judges. Other judges rule. More appeals. Finally the full course is run and a final judgment is accepted.

What if we disagree with the ruling of the judges? In practice, we can work to change the laws of the land for the next case. Can we change an existing case? Can we say, "we KNOW this judge ruled incorrectly so we should be able to step in and reverse his/her decision." In order to say that we must believe we know the unbiased truth on that. If we believed our truth to be influenced by bias, then we'd have to accept that, while we may disagree with the judges decision, since we are in no better position to know the truth, we have no right to overturn their decision. Yet, that is exactly what congress tried to do. They tried to over turn the judges decision on the basis that the judge/court was wrong. Furthermore, by stating that, they implied THEY knew what was right... what the unbiased truth was. In other-words, they believed their truth to be above bias.
Who would believe this? As explained earlier, religious people would believe this because it is essential to the foundation of their belief. It is essential that truth can exist above bias and can be known by the individual without claim of bias. If they KNOW the truth, they have the right, even the duty, to act on it.

I do not know whether Terri actually said she would not want to be kept on feeding tube. If you asked me, I could probably come up with an answer on what I thought were extraordinary means. All of my answers, however, would be based on my limited knowledge of this cased, combined with all the bias I have towards these issues. If I knew everything the judge knew, I could come to an educated ruling, just as he did. My ruling might even be different. None of that, however, matters. It only matters that the courts that heard her case ruled that, she had a fair trial, she WOULD NOT have wished to be kept alive by extraordinary means, and that a feeding tube would be considered extraordinary means. In the final debate, those are the only facts that matter. It doesn't matter what I think is fair, or what the parents think is fair. Fairness is relative and somewhat arbitrary sometimes. That is, again, why we have a judicial system, whose sole job is to interpret the law and come to conclusions on a case by case basis, based on existing law and precedence.

This case has caused many members of congress to make a lot of noise about 'Activist Judges.' As an outsider it appears that the definition of an Activist Judge is a judge that rules contrary to what you believe. Put that way, it seems crazy that they have a case against these out-of-control judges. Just because you disagree doesn't mean they're wrong right? Unless you know your right. If you KNOW you're right, then you can KNOW they are wrong and call them activist. These congressmen and women, in the name of God (watch CSPAN), KNOW what is the unbiased true. They know what is the unbiased right and wrong and thus can decree that a judge ruled WRONG. Its not just political maneuvering either. They really do believe it.

The Schiavo case is just one of the hundreds of cases of the current administration's implied belief that they KNOW absolute truth. Furthermore, I think it can be easily demonstrated that our current government believes their absolute knowledge of the truth gives them the authority to do things we would not want, and lie to us, because it is in our best interest. It is easy to justify this behavior if you really do believe you KNOW the truth. Since there are those that disagree and seemingly will never agree, you must do everything in your power to save them from their own ignorance. If you assume they won't just accept your truth if you told them, then just telling the truth isn't enough. Just as a parent, when asked by the child why they can't cross the road, has the right to say, "Because I said so," and offer no further explanation. The assumption is that the child won't understand or won't agree with your actual reason and since you have moral authority in the situation you can just dictate the truth. It is also common for parents to tell white lies to their kids to convince them to agree. Fully justifiable as it is in the best interests of the child.

As an adjunct. people seem to have a hard time accepting that in a free society, such as America, our government would exert extreme influence on our free media. However, there are entire schools of thought, theories of government that say the purpose of government is to do what is in the best interest of its people, assuming their people do not know themselves what is in their best interests. In this way, telling the whole truth isn't sufficient and indeed can be contrary to the final objective. It is important that people believe they influence government however. As such, it is important that people support what you do, even if you know ahead of time your people really wouldn't support what you were doing if they knew what you were doing. The people, however, do not have all the facts. Plus, there is only one truth and you know it, so there is no need for public opinion or involvement. If you know the truth, the people are not going to change your mind by disagreeing.

In summary. I believe most organized religions, by necessity, need to foster the belief that the truth can be known above bias. Furthermore, that higher ranking individuals have the authority to tell you what that unbiased truth is. That this acceptance of that one can know truth above bias spills into all aspects of life, including government. That when this notion is applied to government, it fosters a more Machiavellian government in which the government is justified in lying or coercing its own people for their own good.

I have tried many times to communicate the idea that truth can not be known without bias to various religious people with only limited success. It seems so far outside their realm of reality to accept this concept. It is too un-tethering. As a final attempt I present this metaphor of a person deciding to build a large brick wall around their house to keep their family safe. For whatever reason they decide they can only use red bricks for their wall. After months of work they are laying the final bricks, while perched high atop their wall, when they look down and notice 30% of the bricks are actually orange. It is far easier to deny those bricks exist, or convince themselves they are merely a shade of red, or call them an inconsequential exception, than to deal with the problem. They realize, if subconsciously and/or instinctively, that to try and remove the red bricks will likely bring the whole wall down and they will be forced to build again from the beginning. Un-tethering indeed.

Personal Epilogue
This piece was not meant to be an attack on religion, the bible, nor an attempt to prove all religious beliefs to be false. However, personally, I have a hard time finding a basis for organized hierarchical religious institutions given all the above. That is why I said in the beginning that I was talking about Religion, the human institution. rather than religion as the personal exploration of the soul and beyond. Indeed, it is even possible to have religious organizations that accept the pliability of truth. An organization can be joined on shared beliefs without being so arrogant as to believe they are the only ones that have a handle on the truth. Also, just because none of us can KNOW the truth absolutely doesn't mean we shouldn't have beliefs. We can do the best we can and constantly refine our beliefs with age, experience and education. We all believe things we can't prove. In my mind, it takes just as much faith to believe this whole universe was just an accident as it does to believe in intelligent design. Neither is more provable than the other and both require HUGE leaps of faith to get from there to here.

Posted by wonko at April 10, 2005 04:27 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


I really can't say to have absorbed this entire paper yet. But I feel like there are some areas that could use a little work. Mostly in firming down with a little more solidity your relations between your conclusion and "organized religions"

here are my notes mostly looking at that as a context while reading.

1) in the catholic faith the bible is not the foundation of the religion but rather the institution of the church. What the bible says is far less important than what is defined as creed by the church.

2) Becuase the catholics place their faith in the church, the religion becomes more like a government which can make mistakes

3) A perfect example of a fluid religion is judaism. Where there are three major bodies of "knowledge" the Tanakh, and the Talmud and the Midrash.

The talmud is a collection of articles by rabbi's on the aplication of torah study to the lives of men. How does one take the current accepted interpretation of the torah, and aply it to ones life.

The Midrash is the Oral tradition of the torah. Which allows the torah to be interpreted in wildly different ways.

And the Tanakh is the static body of hebrew literature... "the hebrew bible"

In the case of the jewish religion, the torah has been a static basis for the religion, setting up a set of axioms from which to begin. However the conclusions drawn from the talmud and the midrash have arrived at a religion that is completely different. The basis then of the jewish tradition is not founded truely in the torah, but in the discussion of it's meaning and aplications. We can see this progression clearly in the modern split of the judaic religions in the the "reform" jews. Who have completely abandoned the torah as a central aspect of the religion.

4) The key to the prodestant revolution was that martin luther (a professor of theology) believed that all people were given by god the power to To read and interpret the bible. He removed the power from the church that sence then had been the sole owners of this power, and returned it to the people. Modern prodestantism strays far from this of course. But there is a basis in christian tradition for the idea that the bible is meant to be interpreted and in fact by individuals.

5) "The judge or a jury decides what the correct interpretation of the law is. We gave them that authority." I thought this was an interesting statement considering that we actualy didn't give them that authority. It didn't derive from the people. But rather by way of a lead whom we elected. (which in my own mind doesn't lead to implications on our own ethical involvement in their selection).

- Anders

Posted by: Anders at April 10, 2005 05:30 PM

While you make some valid points, I do not think it changes the basis of my argument. No matter what written material you use as a source, you still need people to decree what the real interpretation is. The example of the catholic church is a more extreme one. I believe the whole invention of the Pope was in response to the need to be able to have a living person who was the ultimate authority. Having said person removes all sorts of issues with 'who' to believe about what different texts mean and how they should apply to the present day. This is likely why the catholic church has remained so well organized and cohesive.

The prodestant church has seen far more dissent as denominations continue to splinter off from each other. With no single authority, they can all claim to teach 'The Truth'.

Your point about Martin Luther is a good one and is why I said I believed it WAS possible to have religious organizations without the issues I presented. However, at ths point it would take quite a cultural shift for the church's leadership to relinquish that authority to its parishioners.

Finally, you're right about how we did not explicitly give the judges that power in that they are not elected. However, we implicitly did when we decided on and decided to follow this form of government. By agreeing and believing that this form of government is sufficient we are giving the judges that power.

Posted by: Wonko at April 10, 2005 06:46 PM

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?