I found this amusing and, over on the Book of Face, commented on it by way of a quote from from G.K. Chesterton in which he remarks on the various odd ways in which cult has helped create culture:
Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, “I will not hit you if you do not hit me”; there is no trace of such a transaction. There IS a trace of both men having said, “We must not hit each other in the holy place.” They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine, and found they had become courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean. The history of the Jews is the only early document known to most Englishmen, and the facts can be judged sufficiently from that. The Ten Commandments which have been found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands; a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across a certain desert. Anarchy was evil because it endangered the sanctity. And only when they made a holy day for God did they find they had made a holiday for men.
At this point an old atheist friend responded and the following conversation ensued, which I share because I thought it was interesting:
I can’t tell if that paradoxical quote is supposed to be real or parody. The beginnings of law, politics and religion begins with temporary mutually assured destruction or cooperation. Laws, politics and religion just write the obvious down. And they are all the same thing. Politics is religion and religion is politics. Not that history shows any ability to stick to those basic principles. Humans always will disregard or make particular excuses for the basic “do on to others”, to be awful, if it benefits themselves. We are humans after all.
I’m not clear what you think you are disagreeing with. “Laws, politics and religion just write the obvious down. And they are all the same thing. Politics is religion and religion is politics.” does not seem substantially different from “The Ten Commandments which have been found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands; a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across a certain desert.” Meanwhile, it is simply reality that when ancients encoded the natural law, they always viewed as some variation on the Will of Heaven, the gods, or God. The Ten Commandments don’t claim that the moral law was discovered by Moses on Sinai (the moral law is perfectly obvious to all the characters of Genesis who live centuries before Moses, which is why Cain feels guilty for murdering Abel). The point of the Ten Commandments is to ground the moral law everybody already knows in the God with whom Israel is entering into covenant. The news, for Israel, is not the moral law but the covenant.
All that said, I just thought it was fun that we owe waffles to communion wafer makers.
I don’t disagree with the basic principle of the thing, I’m just observing that laws and religion share the basic idea that “Grog not kill Crug to take things” did not require religion. Early religions accepted that gods engaged in horrible human behaviors. It took thousands of years before dieties would embody what we would define as moral or ethical and old testament I am looking at you.
Actually, the ethical is right there in the OT from the start. What is not there is the idea that the ethical always applies to those outside the covenant people (a common error, as every outgroup Other can tell you). But even then, what is remarkable is not that Israel behaved like every other Bronze Age Semite in exterminating its tribal enemies, but that right from the get-go they are also commanded to treat the *stranger* with respect “for you were strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt”.
The OT, unique in ancient literature, is a view of the world and world history from the perspective of a people who are, except for a very brief period, almost entirely the underdogs and losers, kicked around by one imperial power after another. God is the defender of the alien, the orphan and the widow, and while the prophets rage at Israel’s enemies, they rage much more at Israel and the powerful who “sell the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Sure OT warfare is brutal. Welcome to the ancient Near East. But also, OT warfare is *exaggerated*. The gazillions killed are standard ancient Near Eastern boasting.
This is world before the invention of the concept of the Person (an invention of early Christian philosophers wrestling with the idea of the Trinity). In the Bronze Age you were “guilty” of being an Ammonite or Perizzite or what have you and distinctions between what we today think of as persons didn’t exist. Hence the destruction of whole tribal peoples. It is *huge* news when Ezekiel, writing some 800 years after the conquest of Canaan figures out that just because your father sinned does not make you guilty of sin. We stand on his shoulders in taking that for granted. In an ancient culture where membership in the tribe is *everything* necessary for staying alive in the rawboned world of scarce resources and frontier justice, we should not judge such people too harshly for being slow to work that out.
Also, weirdly, it was considered an act of unselfishness not to keep the property and persons of your conquests but to “put them under the ban” (i.e. destroy them completely) rather than keep them for oneself. This does not impress us, of course. But it has a weird logic to it and was seen as a form of self-denying sacrifice in that culture.
I give the ancients leeway, but I don’t give moderns the same. We need to do better.
“Those to whom much is given, much will be required. The servant who does not know his master’s will and does not do it shall be beaten with few blows. The servant who knows his master’s will and does not do it will be beaten with many blows.” – Jesus of Nazareth