Holy books talk about such things as: the issues of the day when they were written; the nature of the universe; and how people should think and behave. Each of these separately ceases to be relevant over centuries, even if they ever were relevant.
I’m largely ignoring whether or not gods exist, and whether or not those texts were influenced by gods. Much of what I’m saying applies even if gods exist and influenced those texts!
(I’m basing this article on the Bible and the Koran. What I say may not be true of some other holy books).
“The issues of the day”
Holy texts were typically not written for some distant future audience. They were written for immediate purposes, to gain action from the audience or to re-assure them that relief was coming.
Example from Islam:
Much of what Muhammad “recited” (supposedly from the Angel Gabriel) was concerned with his conflicts (including battles) with other groups, or with his own sex-life. What remained of these statements were later collected together into a single work, (variants were burned), and this (the Koran, or “recital”) is promoted as the final and eternal word of Allah.
The Koran was recited by Muhammad over decades. In the (early) “Mecca years”, he had few followers and little power, so those early parts of the Koran had themes of peace and tolerance. In the (later) “Medina years”, he became a powerful leader and warrior-chief with many followers, and the later parts of the Koran increasingly have themes of battle, intolerance, and what we would see as an unenlightened attitude towards women. There are some incompatibilities, which are typically recognised as needing “abrogation”, with later statements superseding earlier ones.
When Muhammad needed extra wives, whether for personal reasons or to help unite tribes, he received convenient revelations permitting him to do so, and these are in the Koran. These parts of the Koran have no applicability to anyone else at the time or to future generations.
Example from Christianity:
The Bible too often dealt with temporary problems, although typically less personal and much longer lasting than the Koran. (It had many authors, spanning many centuries). Much of the Bible, both old and new testaments, has the context of beleaguered people needing hope for the future.
This continues into the sayings of Jesus, an initially relatively obscure apocalyptic Jewish preacher. His messages were directed at what his disciples should do, and what would happen in the near future.
Holy books would gain relevance and clarity if they separated historical matters from material intended for future generations.
“The nature of the universe”
The writers of holy books typically couldn’t resist making statements about the nature of the universe that they couldn’t have known. Perhaps this is because (see above) they were not writing for some distant future audience. They were writing for immediate purposes, to gain action from the audience or to re-assure them that relief was coming, and not making the equivalent of scientific predictions. Those statements were often wrong from the start, but it wasn’t until later that this could be judged.
The obvious example is the creation myth in Genesis. (Or rather “myths“, because there are 2 incompatible versions). It is comprehensively contradicted by science (and not just by Evolution).
Here are 3 major obstacles to extending our knowledge and understanding of anything complicated, such as society & morality, or the universe:
- There are vastly more ways to be wrong than to be right.
- Knowledge and understanding come in dribs and drabs, not all at once.
- The inquiry is conducted by fallible human beings.
If we systematically address each of these obstacles, we end up with “the scientific method”. Evidence-based reasoning; open publication; arguments to force more research; models & paradigm shifts; scepticism; peer review; etc.
(Why don’t scientific papers need expiry dates? Because other scientists are eager to make them expire by superseding them! And if authoritative scientists are impeding progress in a particular topic, they can only do so until they die!)
If we fail to address all of these 3 major obstacles, we end up with out-of-date incompatible religions (plural). The “religious method” often resolves conflict by suppression, including force & censorship, or by spawning new religions. Incremental knowledge can meet resistance for centuries.
“How people should think and behave”
Holy texts typically supply a morality; they say how we should behave, and even how we should think. Some of these may have been relevant at the time, perhaps being better than alternatives, but have become out-of-date as we become more sophisticated and mature as a species.
Many religious people claim that their god(s) and holy texts are the source for some sort of absolute or universal morality, and without it we are in danger of an “anything goes” attitude. But there is no universal morality that can be used as a reference:
- Different religions have different moralities. (As do different groups of non-religious people).
- The morality of any religion typically evolves over centuries.
- Different denominations of the same religion tend to have different moralities.
- Aliens with different biology might necessarily have a different morality. Imagine aliens with one or three sexes.
We all (including atheists) tend to be constrained in our behaviour by: law; human nature; moral zeitgeist; upbringing; local community norms; etc. This builds a morality that each of us starts with. The Moral Zeitgeist is available to all of us. It comprises universal consensuses within a society about what makes something morally acceptable, based originally on our instinctive behaviour. As society changes, so the Moral Zeitgeist itself evolves to adapt to new experiences and conditions. It will typically be compatible with local laws.
Where do modern-day religious people get their moralities? Typically as a mixture of the moralities in their ancient religious texts and the current local Moral Zeitgeist, modified if desired. The more fundamental their religious beliefs, the more the moralities in their religious texts will be used without modification, if necessary by dropping contradictory aspects of the current local Moral Zeitgeist. It is possible for religious people to be enlightened by rejecting the bad bits of their religion, cherry-picking the good bits, and supplementing and complementing those with principles from outside their religion.
Muhammad was unenlightened by today’s standards. But many people, Muslims and others, consider that he was progressive for his time, and considerably improved things for many people. Perhaps he would be thought of in a better light had there been expiry dates on the original texts of Islam.
For example, the Koran (and Hadith) defines women as second class people, subject to beatings from their husbands in some cases, with unequal inheritance, and lesser credibility in court. However, many Muslims point out that Muhammad improved the typical status of women compared with their even worse status beforehand. So the following alternatives were possible:
- Muhammad’s steps to raise the status of women, (initially from third class status to second class status), can be seen as something for future Muslims to emulate, and by now Muslim women might be first class people, with equal status to men.
- Muhammad’s recital of the Koran really was intended to fix women’s second class status for the rest of eternity. And the current validity of the Koran continues that status even in the 21st Century.
Had those bits of the Koran had an expiry date, the first option would have been available for Muslims to further raise the status of women in a progressive way. But the lack of an expiry date fixes Islam at the level of the first steps of what might have been continual improvement, and causes Islam to remain unprogressive; indeed, in comparison with the rest of the world, regressive.
If Muhammad really was (on the whole) a progressive leader by the standards of the day, then without the handicap of its holy texts centuries later, Islam could potentially have been a relatively enlightened religion today, instead of being at best medieval and at worst barbaric.
To be fair, some of the things that Jesus said did have an expiry date! He variously said about some of his apocalyptic predictions (Matthew 23:36, Matthew 24:34, and Luke 21:32): “Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation”.
But when they didn’t happen, his predictions were (without any justification whatsoever) transferred to a long-distant future, which some people in each century believe means their century (for example, 2011!)
Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church appears to have little respect for the Bible. Instead, it relies upon Apostolic Succession. But this doesn’t resolve the problem. Without new input from their God, Apostolic Succession itself needs an expiry date! After all, the pronouncements of the Church’s hierarchy get out of date in the same way that holy books do. We know the Pope doesn’t have a hot-line to Jesus:
“Hi Jesus! We’ve arrested this guy who claims that the Earth revolves around the Sun. We know it’s wrong, but it’s amusing, don’t you think? …. What’s that? It really does revolve around the Sun? Oh Christ … oops … I mean Oh Heck, we’d better let him go and tell everyone the news”.
I don’t believe that religious people would typically honour expiry dates were they provided. But religions are poorer without expiry dates!
“Never trust people who’ve only got one book.” Billy Connolly