Saturday, May 30, 2009

Stone and Enslave: Selection Bias in Religious Readings

This weekend was a religious event for the Saideman clan as my brother's girls were bat mitzahed. This tradition is actually somewhat new as my generation was essentially the first where the girls were given some of the same opportunities/traditions that the boys had always received. Now, the synagogues and temples have women in leadership roles--not in all of them, but more than when I was growing up.

Anyhow, during a three-hour service, one has much time to reflect. Rather than reflecting upon my life, I reflected upon religion. During the service, portions of the Torah (old testament) are read, and we had books that contained the Hebrew version, an English translation and then some footnotes and other explanatory text. The Torah is read progressively through out the year, and it was my good luck that the sections read for this week were from Deuteronomy--the rules (613 commandments in addition to the famous ten). The previous week's passage was on the rules of food--what is kosher and what is not. Eagles--not kosher, bunnies--not kosher. I guess Seals (given my last post) would not be kosher, although they were not specifically mentioned.

This week, there were instructions on what one should do with someone who disparages God. If you have two witnesses and a hearing, the rules indicate that the person should be stoned to death. There were also instructions on how to treat slaves (you release them after seven years unless they want to stay, then they are your slaves forever); how to distribute income, including forgiving debts every seven years, and, the next section (I read ahead out of curiosity) had some rules on war, such as forced labor for those cities that give up, and killing all the males and enslaving all the children and women if the target (town/city/whatever) resists. While that might have been the style of the time, it surprised me a bit since this religious document was legitimating (perhaps even requiring) what we would easily consider to be war crimes today.

It reminded me, as the gay marriage debate often does, how much selection bias there is in one's reading of the Bible and any other religious document. There is so much that is specific to the time period, so it is obvious that we have "progressed" and have developed new beliefs and norms so that normal behavior two or three thousand years ago is abhorrent today. This may not invalidate the entire text, but should raise questions about the use of such texts to justify public policy. If one cites any passage or dictum as being a justification by itself for any course of action---just because it is in the Bible, the Koran, whatever, well, again, these books contain other passages that the cite-er would find extremely problematic. As I would remind my students, just getting a citation to support your argument does not mean that the argument is valid or persuasive.

Finally, I found the experience ironic as I ended up carrying the Torah (as a favor to my brother to be involved in the service for the two girls since I would not read any of the service stuff), containing this week's passage--instructions for stoning me due to my stated beliefs and lack thereof.

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