Bible Hub: A Website Review

http://biblehub.com/

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Whether one is a Christian, or not, we should all be able to agree that the Bible is an important book, and that greater understanding of it will benefit anyone who lives on this planet. There are, after all, well over a billion people, alive today, living in families which try to use the Bible as a guidebook for life. (As an aside: is it also true that anyone on earth can benefit from improving their understanding of the Qur’an? Of course it is — and for exactly the same reason.)

Before today, I had never encountered a website which serves that purpose — greater understanding of this important book we call the Bible — with the purity of Bible Hub. I found it by accident, while discussing, with my wife, the original languages in which the Bible was written: Hebrew for the Old Testament, and, in the New Testament, an ancient form of Greek — plus one important sentence (depicted as the last pre-death-and-resurrection words spoken by Jesus) in Aramaic. The New Testament was not written for an audience which understood Aramaic, so the books of the Bible which include this sentence (Matthew and Mark), as originally written (as far as we can tell), follow the Aramaic words of this sentence with a translation into the same form of Greek (Koine, or the ancient Greek of the common people, as opposed to the ruling class) in which the rest of the New Testament is written. The influence of Greek culture (which could have spread along with the Greek language) could only have affected the New Testament, not the Old Testament, for historical reasons. The two of us were discussing the possibility that the absence, then presence, of a Greek influence might help explain why the Old and New Testaments are so radically different from each other. For quite some time, though, I became sidetracked by my inability to remember the last words of Jesus on the cross, in Aramaic, and I decided to investigate that topic more closely.

I do not read Greek, so I have read the words in this important New Testament sentence (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) only in English translations of the Bible. I simply used Google to do a search for this sentence — and that’s how I found Bible Hub.

On the two pages at this website related to the verses I was researching, the first thing I found was an amazing variety of English translations of each verse, clearly labeled, including many translations of which I was previously unaware. Navigating to other languages is easy, at the upper right. Below the numerous English translations, there is commentary, but it is clearly labeled as such, so that no one will confuse the commentary with the various translations of the verses in question. If one wants to read sermons related to a given verse, there is an easy-to-find link provided for that purpose, but it is easier, of course, to not click on a hyperlink than it is to click on it.

My favorite feature of this website, by far, is that I was able to get the information I wanted quickly, without anything at all telling me how to interpret what I read. At Bible Hub, the default format is to let readers interpret the various parts of the Bible for themselves. For that reason, in addition to other features described above, I give this website an A+ grade.

On Peace (Thanks, Mom)

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I am posting this to make one fact obvious: I want my blog to be a place where believers (of various types), and non-believers, can interact peacefully. There is a need for such places. This is one of the things my mother taught me.

Recovering from Theophobia: My Personal, Secular Jihad

640px-Lutte_de_Jacob_avec_l'Ange

The image above is a 19th-Century painting by Eugène Delacroix, depicting the story of Jacob, wrestling with a being often described as an angel, as described in the Book of Genesis. An interesting part of the story is that there were no witnesses to this struggle in the darkness (“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak,” Gen. 32:24, NIV), which tells me that the conflict could have occurred entirely inside Jacob’s mind. It does not matter if there was, or was not, an actual person, named Jacob, who had such an experience. No supernatural beliefs are necessary to find this story interesting, and there is no good reason to avoid thinking about it.

Thought is, of course, a mental activity which can bring clarity to confusing things in life, just as a sunrise can enable one to see things which have previously been hidden by night. There are times when thinking requires solitude, and the process of figuring out difficult problems usually doesn’t succeed without some sort of internal struggle. If you have ever wrestled with a single, difficult mathematical problem for several days running, as I have, then you understand this already — but the need for clear, rational thinking is certainly not limited to the field of mathematics. Rational thought is important in all parts of life.

Whether we like it or not, life contains a series of both external and internal struggles. Many people dislike conflict, and go to great lengths to avoid it. I am not one of those people, but this is not by choice. It is, rather, a result of the fact that I was born into an intense struggle-in-progress:  the efforts of my now-deceased father, a religious fanatic, to control the lives of everyone around him, and use them for his own selfish purposes — and the efforts of some of these other people, myself included, to escape his efforts to control every facet of our lives. From an early age, out of necessity, I had to develop complex techniques of mental and verbal combat, both defensive and offensive, simply to survive childhood with some semblance of sanity intact — although the resulting PTSD, from growing up in the war zone I called “home,” is something with which I will always have to cope. My earliest memory, after all, is surviving shaken baby syndrome at age 2½, and that sort of experience simply cannot be escaped without consequences.

My mental-combat techniques still exist, available for use at any time of my choosing, and can have devastating impact on others — I seldom lose an argument — but using these verbal and mental weapons at full power is, I now realize, quite dangerous, more so to myself than to anyone else. Now, decades later, I still have to be careful not to be overly eager to jump headlong, as if by instinct, into any conflict which presents itself, especially if I see those I care about being bullied, or otherwise abused. I have neither the time, nor the mental energy, to fight every single injustice I see, but it took many years for me to understand the wisdom of the well-known saying that it is important to choose one’s battles carefully.

The word “jihad,” which I deliberately used in the title of this post, is complex, and has multiple definitions. It is also an emotionally-charged word, and out-of-control emotions are, perhaps, the greatest enemy of rational thought. So, first, please understand this: when I use this word, I am not referring to any sort of “holy war,” which is the first thing that comes to mind, for many people, when they hear what I sometimes call the “j-word.” I am also not making any sort of comment for, nor against, Islam, but am simply borrowing a word from another language, Arabic, because it applies so well to much of my own life. Another definition you will find here is “a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline” — in other words, an internal struggle to do the right thing. While I am not religious in any conventional sense, I definitely understand the important idea of an internal, mental — or “spiritual,” if you prefer — struggle. My personal internal struggle involves a never-ending effort to maintain self-control, especially over destructive emotions, such as hatred, and fury. Fury isn’t simply anger, after all — it goes far beyond that. It is an absolutely horrific state of mind where one is so overcome by anger that the rational self becomes utterly consumed by white-hot, blinding rage.

For years, without realizing it, I was a theophobe — hardly surprising, considering the religious elements of the more unpleasant parts of my childhood. Theophobia is not a familiar word to most people, but it can exist in both religious and non-religious people, and can be defined as an irrational fear and hatred of God, religion, religious people, and religious institutions, such as churches and mosques. There have been entire years — especially since the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal blew wide-open in the media, worldwide — when I could not bring myself to go near a church of any denomination, let alone enter one, for fear that being near such a place would trigger a panic attack, or, even worse, a PTSD “freakout” episode. It isn’t hard to spot theophobes, of course; they are easily identified, especially among the much larger, rapidly-growing group of people who call themselves atheists. You probably know at least a few atheists yourself, and might have noticed that some of them seem to be at peace with life, and can easily interact peacefully with religious people — while others are a perfect fit for the “angry atheist” stereotype, attacking religion as if it were the source of all evil in the world. It isn’t, but that didn’t stop me from thinking that it was, for many years.  Recovering from theophobia is not easy, and is definitely a struggle, but is also very much worth the effort.

Unusually, several of the people I am now grateful to, specifically for helping me recover from theophobia, are practicing Muslims. This doesn’t fit the stereotype of Islam portrayed in the Western media, of course. If you get all of your information about Islam from stories in the news, you might think all Muslims hijack airplanes, commit suicide bombings, oppress women, and decapitate “infidels” every time they get they chance. Fortunately, I started using another approach, while still in college:  conversation. Simply by talking to Muslims I am now proud to call my friends, I have learned several things, among them that most Muslims are kind and decent people, and also that most Muslims intensely dislike the extremists within Islam — about as much as the average Christian dislikes, say, the Westboro Baptist Church. Adding practicing Christians to the list of people I can successfully engage in productive conversation took a lot longer, but the reason for this has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with my own personal history. My father was, after all (among many other things), an ordained Christian minister. Later, he moved through several other religions, attempting to drag my family along with him, and these religions included his own warped version of amalgamated Native American religious traditions, the Soka Gakkai sect of Buddhism, and several others. A notable absence on this list — one of the few religions with which my father never developed an obsession — is Islam. This fact made Islam, and those who practice it, a logical place for me to start the process of making peace with certain inescapable facts: (1) the world contains billions of religious people, most of whom are not dangerous fanatics, and (2) religion is not going away any time soon, no matter how much the furious theophobes of the world rage against it.

This personal recovery-process is not over; I still have much internal, mental work left to do, especially when it comes to establishing peace with Christianity, the world’s largest religion. The important thing, at this point, is that I am doing it. I’m quite happy to have left the “angry atheist” phase of my life in the past, where it belongs, and have no intention of returning there.

The Ill-Fated Quest for “Genesis”

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In the “too funny to be made up” category, I recently had someone ask me for help, because he could not find “Genesis” in the paperback New Testament he was reading. I referred him to the complete Bible on the bookshelf, told him to look in the front, and somehow didn’t laugh until he was out of the room, but this took extreme effort.

Forgiveness: Not a Virtue, But a Dangerous Practice

Over the millennia, religion has done much harm, in myriad ways. Of the major world religions, the one that places the greatest emphasis on forgiveness is, to my knowledge, Christianity. This was an error in reasoning made many centuries ago, and it is impossible to calculate the amount of harm this doctrine has caused . . . but the number of people harmed by this terrible idea certainly numbers in the millions.

Consider one of the most oft-quoted passages from the New Testament concerning this topic, from Matthew 18:21-22 (NASB):  “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’” Seventy times seven is, of course, 490, but it is rare to find anyone who takes that number literally. It is much more common to encounter the explanation that large numbers were viewed differently in the ancient world, and “seventy times seven” was simply a way for Jesus to say, in a way Peter would understand, “an indefinitely large number.”

Now, consider what we know about the modern world. At least one-third of women are raped during their lifetimes. Serial killers often murder dozens of people before getting caught. Powerful people, in positions of public trust and great responsibility, betray that trust for their own selfish reasons. This list could be much longer, but I trust the point has been made:  you live in a world with many others in it who are not nice people . . . and many of them have no intention of changing.

Consider this:  a newly-married woman discovers her husband is betraying her in one of the worst possible ways, by sexually molesting children who live in nearby homes. She decides to leave him, and contacts her (devoutly religious) family, asking for help – only to be told that marriage is a sacred covenant, divorce is a sin, and the evil deeds of others are, according to the Bible, supposed to be forgiven. “Pray for him,” she is told — but the real support she is asking for is not given. She tries to forgive him. She stays in the marriage for many more years. The unsurprising result? Dozens more children are abused by the man over the following decades, with far-reaching, horrible consequences.

That last example was not hypothetical. The woman, and her family, are people I know.

There are people – many of them – who simply do not deserve to be forgiven for the crimes they commit. They are dangerous, and will remain so, until and unless they are stopped. Some stop only when they die — and those deaths, I do not mourn. Others are caught, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. However, those people are, too often, released while still dangerous, due to another nonsensical idea (that of having paid one’s “debt to society”), or simply because prisons are overcrowded with many people who only committed non-violent illegal acts. Both problems are easy to solve, however. First, we should stop locking up non-violent offenders – that’s the obvious part of the solution. The other part is more difficult, for it would require major legislative changes:  the abolition of specific, time-limited sentences for violent criminals.  Why lock up, say, a murderer or rapist for ten years, and then let them go, more dangerous than ever? It would make more sense to leave such people – anyone who is clearly dangerous to the rest of us – locked up for life, or at least until they have become so weakened by illness or advancing age that they are no longer capable of harming other people.

What about lesser offenses? What if, for example, you catch someone you know in a harmful, deliberate, and malicious lie? Should you forgive them? My answer is often a flat “no” – at least, not until the person has regained the trust they have damaged or destroyed, and sometimes that simply is not possible. (Who decides when trust is restored? The person who was lied to, of course.) Forgive a pathological liar, and what you are really doing is inviting them to lie to you again. A far better thing to do would be to warn others not to trust the liar, and explain exactly why that is the case.

Some who wish to cling to their religious beliefs, even when those very beliefs cause obvious problems, have devised a way to try to get around the problem that forgiving those who harm you, or your loved ones, invites further harm. You are likely to have heard it, or something like it:  “I forgive them, but I will not forget what they have done, for they may well do it again, and I must be on my guard.” Such a statement is an improvement over total, unconditional forgiveness, but it is not without problems. First, if one is constantly vigilant for a repeat offense, has forgiveness really taken place? Not by the Biblical standard of divine forgiveness of the evil deeds of people, it hasn’t, as Hebrews 8:12 (NIV) makes clear: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Many other verses tie the acts of forgiving and forgetting together. Separating the two, as many people do now, is an improvement, to be certain . . . but it is in no sense an idea rooted in either the Bible, or in traditional Christian doctrine. It is, instead, a modern concession to reason and common sense.

What about really small things?  Accidents, honest mistakes . . . that sort of thing?  Is there a problem with forgiveness in those sorts of situations?  No, there isn’t . . . but there also would have been no problem with not getting angry at a person for such a “crime” in the first place. As a good rule of thumb, if it made perfect, rational sense to get angry at someone because they did something truly terrible, then it does not make sense to forgive them for it ten minutes later, nor the next day . . . perhaps not even until they die, because at that point, the chances of them repeating the offense drops to zero. In other words, it isn’t yet time to forgive a person who still poses a danger. This is simple logic.

Monsters in human form, like everything and everyone else, are part of the physical universe. If one or more of them does something terrible to you, or to someone you care for, it makes sense to take steps to prevent their repeating such an act. It does not make sense to forgive them for it. To do so is the equivalent of telling the universe that you want you or your loved ones to have to endure further suffering. That is not a logical way to live one’s life. “Forgiveness is a virtue” is a pernicious idea – one we should, as a species, leave in the past, if we want to make progress in the future.

The Problem of Gumball-Machine Theology

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Within the nontheistic community, which includes agnostics, atheists, and many who eschew such labels, much debate and discussion has occurred on the subject of tactics. Should religion be fought by any means necessary, including outright ridicule, as if it were a self-evident evil, under any and all circumstances? Or should a different approach be used — a friendlier one, albeit one which still argues against religion as a whole? Anyone can easily find examples of the latter approach, by doing such things as a Google search for the terms “friendly atheism,” or reading Daniel Dennett’s excellent book, Breaking the Spell, which is quite reasonable, engaging, and, well, friendly, in its tone. He is nothing like, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens, whose writing is quite angry, and therefore much more likely to cause offense to believers.

I’d like to suggest a third approach, one that focuses only on one particularly harmful type of religion, and I welcome discussion on the subject. I have noticed religion doing harm, in many ways. I have also noticed religious people doing extremely good things, and thereby making the world a better place, and I am proud to call many such people my friends. However, I have never seen good come from the actions of a religious person who subscribes to what I call “gumball-machine theology,” or GMT for short (with apologies to the residents of Greenwich). Perhaps this is where the nontheistic community should focus their efforts. Perhaps there are even religious people who will wish to help in the effort to rid the world of GMT, in order to “clean their own houses.” I hope this is a way that all reasonable, intelligent people can find common ground on the often-divisive topic of religion.

I should, of course, explain exactly what I mean by GMT. I will begin with an example from my childhood.

From approximately ages 10-14 (my ages, not his), my father was deeply involved in a variant of Buddhism known as “Soka Gakkai.” Fans or adherents of true Buddhism will find little of value here; I consider it a degenerate form of that religion, and recently learned (reading Hitchens) that Soka Gakkai was the driving ideology behind the Imperial Japanese extremists who led their country to fight on the same side as the Nazis during WWII. No one else in my family was interested in practicing Soka Gakkai, but that did not stop my father from dragging us to meetings, proselytizing to us (in this group, or call it a cult if you wish, this is called “shakabuku,” which translates to “bend and flatten” — I may have been bent, but I was not flattened), and generally making our lives completely miserable for these four long years. Soka Gakkai involves a lot of solemn chanting, in ancient Japanese, and the alleged power of such chanting is quite amazing. I actually heard the following at one of those horrible meetings: “If you need a new refrigerator, and you chant long enough, you will GET a new refrigerator.” That’s GMT in a nutshell. Need a fridge? Well, they’re stored in a celestial gumball machine. Insert ample chanting, twist the knob, and a refrigerator will fall out and land in your kitchen. True Buddhists would be both offended and embarrassed by this — and rightly so, for it is blatantly ridiculous to anyone with their brain set in the “on” position.

Another example of GMT can be found within Christianity, although not all Christians use GMT, any more than all Buddhists do. As with Soka Gakkai, “Gumball Christianity” is a degenerate form of one of the world’s major religions. Especially if you live in the American South, which is, sadly, infested with GMT, you’ll recognize the “reasoning” often found on small tracts, often left in public restrooms and similarly odd places: say this simple prayer, believe it in your heart, and you are saved forever, and can be assured until your dying day that you will see heaven when that day comes — no matter what you do in the meantime (!). GMT often includes the phrase “once saved, always saved,” and it is easy to find alleged Christians who use GMT to justify drinking like thirsty camels (alcohol, though, not water), engaging in promiscuous sex (or worse), committing the sins of gossip and slander, spreading bigotry (I’d bet that many Ku Klux Klansmen have these tracts in their back pockets, probably marking a page in Mein Kampf or The Turner Diaries), but still remaining smugly assured that heaven awaits them after death, for they, after all, bought the divine gumball. True Christians are appalled by this; they find it extremely insulting to portray God as an easily-controllable salvation device. If you believe that God created you, it simply makes no sense to also believe that you can control His decision regarding your eternal post-death abode. Non-theists are also appalled by such “reasoning,” but it can be hard to tell that they are, for you’ll typically find them laughing (they can’t help it) at such vivid displays of illogic. Often, they’re laughing to keep from crying.

Many, many people also have also cried — any many lost their lives — because of my last example of GMT: the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The hijackers of the jets on that day believed that martyrdom would secure, for them, a never-ending place of honor in a luxurious, sensual heaven. Yes, they called themselves Muslims, but this essay is no attack on Islam. My first Muslim friend ever, a Saudi Shi’ite I met at UALR, taught me long ago that he had no belief in a gumball-machine deity. He was wracked by guilt, one day, because he had been eating pepperoni pizza with some American friends. He had asked them if pepperoni contained pork (forbidden to Muslims), and had been assured by these ignorant Americans that pepperoni was pork-free, made only from beef. Thus assured, he had eaten the pizza, only to find out later he had been misinformed (perhaps deliberately, as a sick joke — he wasn’t sure), which is when his guilt began. He was sincerely worried about the fate of his immortal soul, and I did not wish to see my friend suffer. I asked him if Islam contained anything like the Catholic Sacrament of Penance (Confession), only to be told that he could pray, he could discuss the incident and ask for advice from his imam, and he could apologize to God for his transgression, but he could have no assurance forgiveness would be given to him, because the final decision would be God’s alone, and God cannot be controlled, he said, by any man, nor even any religion, nor religious organization. I respected that, offered what comfort I could, and remembered this well when the 9/11 attacks occurred. It was, no doubt, those early conversations with my friend which prevented me from falling into the trap of blaming all Muslims, rather than simply the individuals responsible, for the crimes committed on that horrible September day. The best thing that can be said for these “Gumball Muslims” (the hijackers, of course) is that they were, at least, willing to pay a very high price for their “gumball,” for they all lost their lives. That’s (deliberately) very faint praise, however. No matter how expensive the gumball, there can be no justification for what those people did — as many, many of my Muslim friends have told me in the years since 2001. Gumball Muslims offend and embarrass true Muslims, just as Gumball Christians offend and embarrass true Christians, and Gumball Buddhists offend and embarrass true Buddhists. And, of course, non-theists roll their eyes at all of this, often using these outrageous excesses to attack religion as a whole.

Whether or not you are religious, I do hope I have convinced you that GMT is a bad thing — a perversion of religion, if you will. I hope my non-theistic friends who actively oppose religion will make GMT a primary focus, for it is clearly among the most dangerous forms of religion. I hope my theistic friends will oppose GMT as well, and try to cleanse their own religions of these perversions, for such “repair work” is much easier done by insiders, rather than outsiders, in any group.

(This was originally published in December, 2009, as a Facebook-note. It has been slightly revised here.)

Progress

As the people in my life (even in its periphery) get to know me better, I’m finding it necessary less and less often to point out that I’m an atheist, for I’m not running into the assumption-of-Christianity much any more.

On a related note, I also don’t ever have to tell anyone that I don’t collect stamps.

What I do not know:  is this a widespread phenomenon, or is it just me who is experiencing it?