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The Embarrassment of Noah

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NOAH MOVIE
ASSOCIATED PRESS

One of the persistent criticisms of the so-called New Atheists -- Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al. -- is that many of their arguments, although directed against religious belief in general, are really relevant only for fundamentalists. Sure, if you interpret the Bible literally, God comes across as a homicidal, genocidal, misogynistic monster, but this crude understanding of scripture is held only by ignorant believers, who, at most, constitute a substantial minority of the faithful. Therefore, the New Atheists present a distorted view of religion and show little understanding of the mindset of "moderate" religionists. The moderate religionists do not believe the Bible provides us with a literally true history of ancient times, nor do they regard the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, as providing an accurate conception of God and God's relationship to humanity.

Mmm, OK. Well, now there's the perfect opportunity for all those moderate religious leaders, including presumably Pope "Who am I to judge?" Francis, to publicize their rejection of the simplistic, literal interpretation of scripture. They can discuss the story of Noah and God's destruction of the world by flood, and in doing so they can repudiate the depiction of God that's set forth in this story.

The recently released film Noah, starring, among others, Russell Crowe, is being marketed aggressively and is receiving wide publicity. Millions of people will be watching it across the world. Although the film deviates from the biblical version in some details, the key parts of the story are represented just as they are related in Genesis: God kills most humans and (non-marine) animals by causing them to drown. He does so because he is angered by the wickedness of most humans. Noah, his immediate family, and representatives of the various animal species are spared. In their publicity, the makers of the film assure us that they have tried to stay true to the values of a story that is a "cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide." Having seen the movie, I think the filmmakers have stayed true to those values. It is also undoubtedly true that the Noah story, with its accompanying values, is a "cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide." The problem is these values are morally repugnant.

Let's not mince words: if the story of the Flood is to be believed, God is a moral monster. To say his response to the alleged wickedness of humans is disproportionate is a gross understatement. Moreover, God engages in conduct that we would expect from the worst dictators, namely collective punishment that sweeps in the innocent along with the guilty. Children, presumably, were among those drowned (unless we assume that wicked adults had no offspring) as were most all of the animals, who bore no responsibility whatsoever for the misdeeds of humans. Intentionally drowning a kitten is conduct we'd expect of some psychopathic juvenile, not a loving deity.

For those who accept the truth of scripture, the "lessons" of Noah are that violence and destruction are perfectly acceptable means of addressing problems, human rights (let alone animal rights) are an illusion, and power is ultimately what counts. God could destroy humanity and all animal life because -- well, who's going to try to stop him?

Anyway, now that Noah is on the minds of many, it's an opportune time for all those moderate religious leaders to set the record straight. Indeed, one would think these religious leaders would feel obliged to repudiate the literal interpretation of the biblical story, lest the faithful misapprehend the true nature of God. Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing for the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other respected leaders to issue a joint statement declaring the Noah story to be a pernicious fable, not to be taken seriously by believers today? This would be morally edifying, and, of course, would put those coarse New Atheists in their place.

But we know this is not going to happen. Of course, there are many religious people, including some religious leaders, who do not interpret scripture literally. They don't believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans, that God expelled us from Eden, that God destroyed the world by flood, that Noah built an ark that somehow housed representatives of all the animal species, and so on. They do not accept the Bronze Age myths found in the Bible. However, unless they are leaders of denominations which have expressly moved away from reliance on scripture (e.g., the Unitarians) religious leaders generally keep quiet about their skepticism. Because the dirty little secret of moderate religious leaders is that their authority ultimately depends on the continued loyalty of the naïve believer, that is, the person who does accept these Bible stories more or less at face value, and it would not be prudent to have these believers begin to doubt scripture. Once one begins to cast doubt on the veracity of biblical accounts, it's hard to know where to draw the line. It's one thing to be skeptical of the Noah story, but Moses? And what of Jesus and the Resurrection? And what happens when believers stop relying on holy writ entirely and actually use reasons and facts to come to an understanding of their world and their moral obligations? Without the authority of scripture to legitimize their positions, religious leaders are out of business.

So best keep silent about some of the absurdities and embarrassments in the Bible. Oh, you can have some learned theologians write essays criticizing the New Atheists for their unsophisticated understanding of religion, waxing eloquent about how the Bible is only metaphor, and how God is not a personal deity but the ground of all Being, but for the ordinary believer, mum's the word. Shh! It's movie time. Pass the popcorn -- and the collection plate.