Consider a Mayan soldier before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors and their Catholic faith. He was brought up to worship the Mayan Gods and believed that he was required to sacrifice virgins and rip out the hearts of his enemies as a gesture of good will. OK, I previously said I wouldn’t discuss extinct gods, but I need to show that there probably have been a lot of people who just never found out about the “real” laws of god. So, the question is, does the Mayan soldier go to hell for his sins if he didn’t know they were sins or what a sin even is? For that matter, what about someone who is born with brain damage and is therefore incapable of understanding right from wrong? If he commits murder or other acts in violation of god’s known laws, does he go to hell? On the other hand, if an infant dies before it is capable of learning, does it get a free pass into heaven?
I’m going to give you your first answer to a really big question. No, there are no shortcuts to heaven or hell, assuming that it exists. If you don’t get the message, you have to go around and try again. Yes, you must be reincarnated until you get it right. Chalk one up for the Eastern religions. Anything else just makes no sense and would just allow people to make excuses for doing some very bad things. There may be a lot of exceptions, but there are no loopholes in god’s laws, whatever those laws may be. Unless, of course, god is just another fallible lawmaker who fails to consider the loopholes and unintended consequences of the laws he writes. That would be rather depressing. Congress has a bad enough public opinion rating–one would hope that an all-powerful god could do a better job.
Speaking of exceptions, it has always been difficult to know whether or not “Thou shalt not kill” is really a firm rule or needs to be interpreted loosely. After all, in the Old Testament, god commands the hebrews to claim the land of Canaan (Israel) and to drive out the non-believers that were already living there. This was a pretty clear order to kill the enemy in battle and take their land, and it was not limited to just the males. God made it clear that the Hebrews were not to marry the women and raise their children, since they were unbelievers and therefore enemies too. Since this war order came fairly soon after he issued the Ten Commandments, we have to assume that it was a valid exception to the rule. We know from the bible that the Hebrews didn’t actually kill or drive off all the women and children, to god’s dismay, and had to pay for that mistake later.
So, we can easily see that this commandment clearly has exceptions. Thou may kill when it is in god’s interest. Unfortunately, this pretty much opens the door to any kook who believes he needs to kill for god and has some basis for justifying it from scripture. Since we live in the most heavily armed country in the world, where just about anyone can get a gun, the right to bear arms to defend oneself is looking better and better to me right now.
Some claim that the original Hebrew text was translated incorrectly and should say “Thou shalt not murder.” But what is murder? Clearly it involves the killing of another human being, but the presumption is that you didn’t have a good enough reason for doing so. Today, you might have a perfectly good reason for killing someone, but a capital punishment case requires the approval of a court, which could take 8-10 years in the best of cases. Sorry, duels are no longer legal unless it involves beating each other to death in a boxing ring or killing someone with your car.
Since god already gave his approval, as cited in the Old Testament, to stone someone to death for high crimes such as adultery, it can’t be considered murder. It’s just a form of legal capital punishment. Here’s a list of the other approved reasons for capital punishment, at least according to the Old Testament, and how they compare with what Americans believe to be their god-given rights:
- Taking the name of the Lord in vain (the First Amendment right to freedom of speech does not apply)
- Worshiping false gods (the Fourth Amendment, the basis for our right to privacy, does not apply, nor does the First Amendment)
- Adultery (the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness does not apply)
- Murder (OK, many of us will agree on this one)
From this I think we can conclude that god is clearly not a fan of the core American values of liberty and free speech. He would rather kill you than hear your backtalk.
Waging war against the enemies of the Hebrew people, including those that seek the conquest of the land of Israel, are of course valid, explicitly approved reasons for killing. I’m sure that will not sit well with advocates of international law and the Arab world. But then again, many Muslims agree that god advocates the killing of unbelievers in order to defend one’s land and people from infidels. In this case, however, it means getting the Jews out of Palestine. So, you can see we have a big problem in that god has apparently told two separate groups that they must fight to the death over that little piece of land known as Israel or Palestine. If it weren’t such a deadly issue to humans, it would appear to be a funny, juvenile prank.
Wait, didn’t he also imply that the Christians had a stake in the holy land too, which led to the Crusades? I can’t seem to find anything specific in the New Testament that orders Christians to fight over Israel/Palestine and kill Jews or Muslims, so maybe that was just a teeny mistake on the part of early Christians. Nevertheless, god is responsible for causing at least three groups to believe they need to fight over the same land. He even apparently predicts that the end of the world will come after a climactic battle for the land at Armageddon. But we’ll get back to prophesy later.
Of course, Christians claim that the New Testament changed all the rules of the Old Testament. The Laws of Moses, the founders of the Christian faith argued, did not necessarily apply to them even though they were the acknowledged word of god. Maybe god decided he really didn’t need those rules about kosher food, the weekly sacrifice of animals, and all that other ceremonial nonsense. Instead, the Christians came up with their own whole new litany of ceremonial nonsense. They also decided to keep the Ten Commandments, but there were some new implied rules that could exempt people from the consequences of violating them. When Jesus refused to stone a woman that was clearly guilty of a capital crime (adultery) with a mandatory death sentence, and when he preferred to turn the other cheek rather than fight back against those who attacked him, he clearly signaled a change in the laws. Why the change of heart? Was god finally tired of all the killing? Was it just not working out or was it just time to see what would happen if he mixed up the rules and tried something new?
Religion is a subject that is more about questions than answers. The problem with most people is that they actually believe religion can give them the answers to life’s problems and mysteries rather than more questions. If we spent more time thinking about the questions, we would know that the answers are either impossible to fathom, in conflict with modem ethics and morality, or dependent upon one’s interpretation of an ambiguous and often contradictory holy book.
Of course, if you ask the wrong question, you will most likely get a wrong answer, especially if the person answering the question is just making it up anyway. If you are going to place most of your faith in the writings of a holy book, it makes sense to read the entire book end to end instead of quoting your favorite sayings out of context and ignoring the rest. Many people memorize sayings from the bible and quote them like modem newscasters deliver 10-second sound bites to capture your attention. They write the sayings on little cards and pin them up all over their house or office. They sound good, but their meaning may have been lost or distorted.
If I really wanted to know the answers to some really hard questions, I’d most likely want to see the greatest minds in the world get together and figure it out. Let’s call it the Manhattan Project of Life. You know, intellects like Einstein–people who are really good at studying a problem for years and slowly but surely working out a problem piece by piece. We’d let them battle it out in professional journals, debates, and conferences. We’d give them Nobel prizes when they proved something important. Unfortunately, this will never happen in the world of religion because it isn’t based on rational evidence. This isn’t to say there isn’t evidence; just that the evidence isn’t particularly consistent or rational and the people studying it are even less consistent or rational and normally not very objective. There is only so much you can do if all you are willing to study is a few books and other historical writings and artifacts. If scholars were willing to ask more questions and expand their range of evidence to other historical and scientific sources, the study of religion could become a rational endeavor.
Let’s also face the fact that many clerics and religious leaders are not the most intelligent people we know. They don’t win large bases of support and generate large donations by asking hard questions and challenging existing beliefs. They do so by giving people certain and absolute answers and making people feel either good, getting them angry, or scaring them out of their wits. Popular religious leaders know that their real business is entertainment and marketing and they know there are many ways to appeal to people. What makes you think that these leaders have any real answers or even care?