Photo by Masjid Pogung Dalangan
The Koran! well, come put me to the test
Lovely old book in hideous error drest
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.
And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave the Secret, and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.
These are the words of the great eleventh-century Persian polymath and opponent of dogma and fanaticism, Omar Khayyam, in his infamous Rubaiyat. This beautifully terse passage elucidates the hubristic and conceited presupposition of the religious in their most zealous guise: that God bequeathed “the Secret” of the universe to them—yet denied it to everybody else.
Khayyam notes that, ironically, atheists often become atheists precisely because they have read the allegedly holy books for themselves, and rejected their extraordinary claims. Seriously reading and studying the holy books is a sure fire way to make an atheist out of someone. Polls on religious knowledge have shown that atheists and agnostics (alongside Jews and Evangelicals) are, on average, more knowledgeable about religion than those who claim to be religious.
When interacting with religious people, I am often somewhat nonplussed by the realisation that I know more about their religion than they do — in some instances, a lot more—not just about the theology, but about the assortment of religious characters, the various stories concerning them, the history and core concepts. I can even quote the texts better, from memory. Most of those who proclaim a faith are relatively ill informed about their own belief system and scriptures.
People can be forgiven for ignorance. But, as Socrates said, the first measure of wisdom is recognising how little you actually know. Daunting as that may be, the consolation of ignorance is that it can form the start of an intellectual odyssey.
What can’t be excused is that some take pride in their ignorance and wish to remain credulous. Some votaries of religion spend their time robotically regurgitating bog standard religious apologetics, which have been easily debunked numerous times before. This reveals one of religion’s greatest iniquities: it teaches people what to think, not how to think. The worst culprits are knowledgeable but intellectually unscrupulous, dodging every opportunity to discuss the core texts, concepts and principles of the religion in question, because to do so would weaken their religion’s arrogant claim to moral superiority and ethical copyright. In such cases, I am reminded of an old debate between Christopher Hitchens and Reverend Al Sharpton: in which Sharpton would not defend Christianity on its own terms because he knew Hitchens would obliterate him in debate, since he was as intimate with the Bible as Al was. (Of course, Hitchens obliterated him anyway.)
Religion has never traumatised or oppressed me personally. I was raised secular: a de facto sceptic and a dormant atheist. It was only when I reached the age of reason that I became conscious of this fact and began to explicitly affirm it. Although, at the time, I lacked the intellectual maturity to be cognizant of it, from a very young age I suspected that the Abrahamic god probably didn’t exist, that the religious strictures on human behaviour (and on sex, in particular) were oppressive and absurd and that tales of heaven and hell were arrant nonsense. I have always been free from religion. I believed more firmly in the truth of Father Christmas than in that of God, whatever his alias: Yahweh, Jehovah or Allah. I will never understand the emotional and psychological tsunami of losing one’s faith or the struggles of those who miss their belief as if it were an amputated limb and who wish they could indulge in the soothing consolations of religion in our sombre and alienating world.
So I have never felt intimidated by the prospect of reading the Pentateuch, New Testament, Qur’an, Hadiths, Bhagavad Gita or the Buddhist sutras. The foundation of the atheist critique of religion is that man makes God in his own image—not vice versa. The religious texts are neither the word of God, nor portals to the supernatural. They are man-made creations, artefacts of history, a compendium of man’s early search for truth and wisdom, the phantasmagoria of the human race in its infancy. Religion is a fascinating subject for this reason. The argument about religion is the oldest argument known to humanity: “The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism,” as Karl Marx wrote in 1848.
Critics of religion familiarise themselves with holy writ primarily in order to know the enemy. To be more intimate with the ideas underpinning a religion than the religious themselves allows one to formulate confident and formidable critique. That is why a secular, but broad, religious education is important, so that the young can have access to the full gamut of knowledge about the world’s religious and spiritual belief systems.
But learning about religion also allows one to exercise one’s intellect, to analyse and interpret texts, to learn about the diverse ways in which human societies have developed and their historical conceptions of their relationships with the natural and social worlds.
It is also important to study religion for aesthetic and cultural reasons. The King James Bible, for example, is greatly superior to more modern translations, which strip the text of its melodious poetry and the grandeur and gravity of its prose in the name of accessibility and modernisation.
Compare these two passages from The Book of Job, where Yahweh speaks from the whirlwind:
King James Version: Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the cornerstone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
New International Version: Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
The purpose of the poetic prose, with its use of the earthy old English idiom of thee, thou and ye, is to dislodge the temporal from the minds of believers and perpetually remind them of the eternal, with its echo of the divine. Every major religion has its own unique, slightly arcane, grandiloquent vernacular of worship. Catholics use Latin in mass; many Orthodox Christian churches in Eastern Europe still use Church Slavonic; and Muslims have to recite the Qur’an in the original classical Arabic, since it is allegedly Allah’s literal speech and therefore shouldn’t be corrupted by translation.
The historical, cultural and aesthetic significance of the King James Bible cannot be overstated. The printing press democratised religious worship. Communities of believers could for the first time read and discuss their foundational texts, without the mediation of the traditional priest caste. Many of the everyday phrases we use in the English language, such as by the skin of your teeth, the apple of my eye and charity begins at home either originate or were popularised by the King James version. Without an intimacy with that text, it is difficult to fully appreciate the pantheon of English literature: Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens draw many of their allusions and metaphors from the King James version. Any culture that takes itself seriously would not neglect such a cultural store—even though its empirical truth claims are ridiculous and morally dubious. If such an argument holds for the Iliad and the Odyssey, it should also hold for The King James Bible. This also applies to texts like the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita, in their respective contexts.
The Bible and the other assortments of holy writ will one day, I hope, be regarded as equivalent to the collections of Greek and Roman myths: not as the word of God or the abiding, unimpeachable dictates of the supernatural, regulating human behaviour and laying down the arbitrary limits of human activity, but as part of the diverse repository of man-made mythology, historical artefacts of humanity’s historical development, a reflection of humanity’s estranged self-consciousness. Because they are man-made, they have historical and cultural value. One can comfortably argue in favour of studying them, without conceding one iota to religious illusions. In fact, a familiarity with holy writ will make any critique of religion more vigorous and all-encompassing. The unbeliever knows his Koran best.