The historical reality of the Koran and the Bible are under the most serious question in history, and both Moslem and Christian religious zealots are threatening scholars who dare to say that historical and archaeological reality depart from 'revealed truth.'
In the March, 2002, issue of Harper's Magazine Daniel Lazare offers an article updating the latest discoveries in biblical archaeology. Over the last 25 years, the belief that the basic story of the Israelites is historically true has been refuted by archaeological discoveries.
Among the bible stories that have been refuted by archaeological reality is the notion that the Israelites were captive in Egypt and fought their way into a land called Canaan after a long period of wandering in the Sinai desert. In fact, archaeology has determined that the Israelites were indigenous to the area west of the Jordan River by around 1200 B.C. Their population expanded slowly and did not involve conquest.
Abraham, Isaac and the other patriarchs were not real people, but were 'spliced together out of various pieces of local lore,' according to Mr. Lazare. The empire of David never existed, but rather was invented by temple priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C.
Judaism did not coalesce as a religion until around 600 B.C. It was not handed down from time immemorial, but was invented in an attempt to unify the Israelites of that era, who were under pressure from Assyria and Babylon. The leaders of the last independent Israelite state, the Kingdom of Judah, attempted to galvanize their people by declaring that the local deity was, in reality, king of the universe.
They created an imperial past by inventing the adventures of the Israelites and making up the story of the empire of David and Solomon. This was done not only to inspire the loyalty of their people, but to validate their claim to the land that they had actually held probably since humans had populated the area. The reason for this was, in the ancient world, conquest was the only valid way of claiming territory. Simply living there was not enough.
That religious texts do not accord with historical reality should not be a surprise. There is no reason to believe that God has especially smiled on one of these texts or another. Across the span of human history, there have been many texts 'handed down by God' to various groups of believers.
Another of the popular 'God-given' texts of our era, the Koran, is coming under equally spirited scholarly attack. While Christian and Jewish extremists have so far contented themselves with threatening scientists and scholars, and attempting to impede their work in various ways, Moslem extremists are believed to be more dangerous, based upon the threats to the novelist Salman Rushdie for his supposed insults to Islam. As a result, some of these important scholarly works have only been published very hesitantly within the scholarly community, and then with the authors' identities disguised under pseudonyms.
Thus does the emotional need that believers have to defend their particular sets of belief as some sort of final truth impede the progress of both science and religion toward a real understanding of the world and a genuine connection to whatever numinous reality exists beyond the borders of life.
Radically new theories about the origins of the Koran and the meanings of the texts are being put forward. One Koranic scholar, Christopher Luxemberg in his book The Syro- Aramaic Reading of the Koran, based on the earliest copies of the Koran, shows that parts of the Islamic holy book were derived from Christian Aramaic texts and did not appear magically in the mind of Mohammed at all. They were then reconstructed and misinterpreted by the scholars who prepared the editions of the Koran in use today, disguising their real origins.
When scholar Suliman Bashear argued with force that Islam developed gradually as a religion, rather than coming about fully formed the moment the Koran was completed by Mohammed, he was thrown out of a window by his students in Nablus, and seriously injured.
According to an article in the New York Times on March 2, 2002, one scholar at an American university who was afraid to be named said, 'between fear and political correctness, it's not possible to say anything other than sugary nonsense about Islam.'
John Wansbrough of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London has said that the text of the Koran appears to be a composite of different voices or texts complied over dozens, if not hundreds of years. Scholars are in agreement that the first evidence of a Koran does not appear until 691 AD, 59 years after Mohammed's death. This evidence takes the form of inscriptions of Koranic texts on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. They are different from the version of the Koran that has been handed down as the word of God, suggesting, according to scholars, that the book was still evolving in the seventh century, long after Mohammed's death.
As there are no direct accounts of Mohammed from the period of his lifetime, but only stories recounted later, scholars have analyzed documents from his era that suggest that he was a teacher in the Old Testament tradition who was proclaiming a new messiah. When the Moslems took Jerusalem in 638 AD, the Jews welcomed them as liberators. At that time, it is probable that the Jewish Yahweh and the Arab Allah were viewed as the same god, and that Judaism and Islam were not really separate religions in the sense that they are today.
The Koran has never been subjected to the rational standards of proof that modern archaeology and historical scholarship can apply, but more and more this is being done both by scholars in the west and, where possible, in Moslem states.
Across the five hundred years from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, the world engaged in bloody wars of belief over which God, the Biblical Yahweh and his son Jesus, or the Arab Allah and his prophet Mohammed, were the true master of the universe and the true avatar of his message.
The stories that inflamed people in those years led to some of the most horrendous conflicts and acts in history, culminating in the infamous Children's Crusade, in which thousands of European children set out to re-conquer Palestine, assuming that success would be theirs because their God would protect and support their innocence. This fantasy did not accord with reality, and these children were absorbed in the brutality and chaos of the real world, circa 1212 AD.
Human beings, conscious of death, hunger for some sort of contact with something that is beyond death. Our own being is precious to each of us, and we cannot help but hope that we will somehow survive the death of the body. We see that we do not have the power to defeat death, and so we look to more powerful beings to do it for us. But there are none to be seen. Nobody can defeat death.
The mind, then, seeks into itself for an answer, and that answer has always come in the form of gods who rule the universe and have the power to preserve or condemn our souls. To make these gods seem more convincing, we build up stories around them. These stories are codified into holy books and then, in order to sustain our beliefs, we declare ourselves ready to fight and die for our gods.
Our history can be looked upon as a series of cycles of belief. In general, societies under pressure, such as the Israelites in the 7th Century BC and the Arabs of the 7th Century AD, have claimed the most power for their gods.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, both in the Christian and Moslem worlds, the rise of science began to displace the zealotries of the past. Secular societies were evolving, and in 1212, there were substantial numbers of thoughtful people in Europe who reacted with horror at the madness and futility of the Children's Crusade.
By the 16th Century, artists like Caravaggio were challenging doctrinaire beliefs by injecting elements of the old Arian heresy into paintings like 'Mary Magedelene,' which depicts her as being pregnant with the child of her husband, Jesus.
Modern scholarship has found little convincing evidence that Jesus was married, aside from the fact that Jewish men were virtually always married during his time, and that the washing of the feet performed by Mary Magdalene was a wifely duty in the culture. Aside from traditional stories that circulate in southern France, there is, additionally, no evidence that Jesus, Mary Magadalene or Mary the Mother of Jesus journeyed to Europe.
However the willingness of people to again explore these stories in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was an indication of the weakening of the dictatorial power of the Roman church, and the continuing tradition of bible scholarship which, over the next seven hundred years, led to what, in Europe, has become a relaxation of the stranglehold of extremist belief on Christian thought and exegesis.
Recently, the Jesus Seminar, organized in 1985 to rediscover the historical Jesus, has found that there is more than one voice in the New Testament purporting to proclaim as Jesus. They have divided the various statements traditionally attributed to Jesus, and found that there exists a core that preaches compassion, tolerance and a radical new vision of human society in which God is not the cruel judge depicted by Medieval believers and modern fundamentalists, but a profoundly merciful presence among us and--above all--within us.
During the period of radical social change that characterized the end of the classical era and the fall of the Roman Empire, Chrisitian believers expected the fiery end of the world at any moment. Again, in the tenth century, the change of the millennium sparked an outburst of 'end of the world' expectations. At the present time explosive advances in science and the rapid growth of stable social organization outside of the traditional 'first world' announce the coming of changes every bit as dramatic as the fall of Rome, and, as a result both Christian and Moslem fundamentalists announce the impending end of the world.
However, the world is not going to end, in all likelihood, any more that it was about to end when John wrote the Book of Revelation or hordes gathered on hillsides across Europe in the 10th century to await the second coming. That does not prevent millions of people from expecting a "rapture" of believers in the United States, or, more dangerously, fundamentalists within government from injecting the belief that doing anything to slow down the arrival of the Battle of Armageddon is sinful, and actively encouraging it is a positive moral good. How anybody could be so selfish as to wish death on the entire human species so that they, and they alone, can enter their imaginary heaven, is hard to understand. And how this amazingly arrogant and egocentric notion could have become associated with the achingly compassionate and Godly humanity of Jesus is a mystery indeed, and a vile travesty.
We live at a time when narrow and foolish ancient beliefs are again clouding the minds of people who fear change beyond their usually pitifully limited understanding. Fundamentalist Moslems, Jews, Christians and Hindus are all screaming for one another's blood. In Moslem Afghanistan religious 'criminals' were ritually gutted in soccer stadiums until recently, and ancient Buddhist statues were dynamited beyond repair. In the United States, fundamentalist prosecutors in Texas are zealously trying to convict a psychotic and put her to death for the bizarre and hideous drowning of her children. Because she and her husband were also fundamentalist Christians, and her beliefs became involved in her psychosis, the prosecutors feel that they must defend their faith by perverting modern justice into the'ironically' pre-Christian notion of 'an eye for an eye.' Since she was a fundamentalist, she cannot, in their eyes, have been psychotic. They must defend their belief system from the notion that it could drive somebody insane, and violently insane. Despite profound concern among her neighbors, she was not given access to the medical help she needed. Instead, she lived in isolation in her home with her children, suffering a deterioration of personality that probably could have been helped by proper psychiatric care.
Prosecutors cannot allow it to be said that her religion was responsible, in some significant part, for her collapse into madness. The only answer they will allow is that she answered the call of the devil, and thus must die. Thus has the system of justice of a great state been perverted into something out of the Middle Ages, when insanity was a crime punishable by death.
Children are the victims of madness brought on by religion in other ways as well. For generations, the Catholic Church in the United States has been a haven for pederasts, drawn to its celibate rules and the trusting proximity of children to priests. This same perversion is commonplace in the Moslem world, where boy prostitution and 'boy love' are integral parts of societies in which men are raised into a perverse neurosis about sex and pleasure, and carry a great deal of guilt about women. Both Catholicism and Islam, not to mention the other fundamentalisms, have the women of the world to answer to, and cannot be counted as moral organizations until they admit that women are equal to men, and declare to their believers that it is not pleasure and sex that are wrong, but the denial of God's gifts that is wrong.
Meanwhile, first in Egypt and then India, trainloads of people have been burned to death by religious zealots. Nearly four hundred lives were lost on an Egyptian train, the burning of which was officially called an accident. However, the Moslem underground believed otherwise, with the result that a train packed with Hindu extremists was burned a few days later in India, with equally horrendous loss of life.
These lunatic battles about whose god is the most "real" and prosecutions of the mad are liable go on and on, until they result in some sort of crazy conflagration that could consume us all. Among Christian fundamentalists in the United States, there exists a pernicious belief that it is sinful to do anything to delay the coming of the battle of Armageddon, because this would impede God's will, which is to draw his beloved believers into heaven during an expected fantasy they call the 'Rapture.'
At the same time, Moslem fundamentalists are told that they will enter heaven if they carry out the will of their fundamentalist leaders, who are no more real Moslems than western fundamentalists are real Christians.
To thoughtful people of faith, the resurgence of the madness of blind belief, zealotry and fanaticism should be a clear warning. It is incumbent upon civilized human beings the world over to stand up and be counted on behalf of moderation and tolerance. This means that a middle ground must be found that allows the fundamentalists to do what screaming they wish, but without doing the harm that they so eagerly seek to cause.
The first line of defense must be education, but it is also within the educational institutions of the world that the fanatics seek most vigorously to peddle their wares. Across the United States, Christian zealots have sought to influence or capture school boards to their beliefs, so that they can infuse scientific drivel into the curriculum. There has been a continuous assault on our traditional separation of church and state, and attempts to declare this a Christian country. But the United States was not founded under any particular religion. To make it otherwise would be a deep and evil subversion of its most essential meaning.
At the same time, in the Moslem world, a 'devil's bargain' has been made with fundamentalists in certain states, most notably Saudi Arabia. To maintain power, the Saudi dynasty has allowed fundamentalist Moslems to take over the educational system. The result is that two generations of Saudis have been raised to believe that violence against non- Moslems is the purest expression of Islam, and that to kill one's fellow-man, if he does not believe, is a guarantee of entry into a fictional heaven populated by beautiful young maidens who will, presumably, finally resolve the sexual conflicts that are routinely brought about in believers by their rejection of their sexual nature.
It was because of this devil's bargain that the greatest modern terrorist establishment, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, grew and expanded, backed by Saudi money and populated, especially in its most sensitive positions, by zealots graduated from the Saudi educational system.
Increasingly, science is suggesting that there is reason to believe that consciousness may persist after death, and that the age-old promise of religion, that being can survive physical death, may have some basis in fact. However, there is no evidence that the cosmologies of afterlife developed in one religion are any more or less true than those developed in another. Indeed, the central realities of the human soul are these: God is silent, and the question remains.
It is the anguish involved in facing these realities and being comfortable with question that the primitive souls who are drawn to our various fundamentalisms cannot bear. But why are these people so primitive? Why would anybody, in the modern world, make the absurd mistake of believing that some ancient text should prevail over science? Poor education, lack of education, and education based on religious fiction and lies are the answer to this question. If we do not begin to teach tolerance and open-mindedness in the classroom, we can only expect that our political institutions, our nations and ultimately the wonderful new world that most of us are trying so hard to create, will be drawn down into more ridiculous, meaningless wars and the folly of the zealots.
The most destructive of human impulses is the urge to belief. Belief poisons minds and turns good people into bloodthirsty murderers. Because of belief, billions have died over the last millenium and a half, as they fought bloody wars over religions that were really just collections of stories. In the twentieth century, this same impulse was harnessed by cynical politicians, who turned state-sponsored belief systems into the murderous religions of Nazism and communism. With the death of those particular fantasies, the old phantasms are re- emerging worldwide and the simple and the fearful are again falling victims to the power-hungry, as religious zealotries draw more and more adherents across the planet.
The world's religious fundamentalists are right about one thing: great change is indeed on the horizon. However, it is not the destruction of mankind that they so fervently and selfishly seek, but rather the freeing of the human spirit from their own superstitions. For, as always in the history of man, there are two sides to this question: on one side are arrayed the vast host of the good, committed heart, mind and soul to their own freedom and the freedom of others. On the other side are the fearful, the intellectually weak and the spiritually corrupt, screaming their mad faiths and threatening the ruin of the world.
We need to try our best to restrict our beliefs to the facts. Believe in the child, but only wonder if he came truly from afar, or only from his mother's womb. Take what is sublime from the old religions, but turn toward the future freed of the beliefs that have held us in bondage, and set us at one another's throats for so long.
In the end, perhaps the true man of faith is the one who dares to replace belief with question, and thus dares to join the real human search, for a life worth living and a death worth dying. In his immortal poem, "Ode on Intimations of Immortality Recollected from Early Childhood," William Wordsworth perhaps expressed the glory and beauty of a life free of false belief most beautifully:
'Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life's star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar; Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come, From God who is our home.'
In those words is the question that the fanatics push away by answering, the God they deny by proclaiming.
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