Posts Tagged ‘Isaac’

The Sacrifice of Isaac: Francis Wheen Spouts Mumbo Jumbo

June 3, 2013

You may remember that way back in the last decade there was a spate of sceptical books attacking what their authors saw as pseudo-science. These included various New Age beliefs, and very often also Creationism and Intelligent Design. These books included Bad Science, by the Roman Catholic writer and science jounralist, Ben Goldacre, and How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, by Francis Wheen. Wheen’s a left-wing journalist, who has, I believe, written for the Guardian. He is a frequent guest on the News Quiz, a satirical panel show about the news on BBC’s Radio 4. In his introduction he stated that part of his purpose in writing the book was to defend the Enlightenment. These revivals of what he considered irrationalism threatened it. He confessed his admiration for the Enlightenment and its values, including its secularism.

Strange Days and Paranoia, Terrorism and Psychiatric Abuse of Dissidents in the 1970s

Now Wheen is an excellent writer. His book on the paranoia and chaos of the ’70s, Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, is very good. It begins with Nixon and Watergate, and expands to include the fear surrounding Mao and the Gang of Four. He traces the way Mao’s doctrine of guerilla warfare formed the template for that decades western urban terrorists, including the Provisional IRA in Britain, the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Maoist terrorists in France. These latter emerged following the failure of the 1968 uprising to topple French capitalism, and drew intellectual inspiration and support from radical academics. One of these latter appears to have done little except march around his university campus disrupting the classes of other lecturers he considered to be bourgeois and reactionary. He also discusses the murky events surrouding Harold Wilson’s prime ministership and the preparations to remove him in a coup by those who suspected him of being a KGB agent. One of the most fascinating, and relevant pieces in the book is his description of how Soviet psychiatry came up with a new mental illness that would justify the forcible incarceration of dissidents. This was done under the pretext that they must be insane to challenge the great, Soviet workers’ paradise. The Soviet political abuse of psychiatry strongly influenced the BBC SF series, Blake’s 7. In the series, the totalitarian Federation used mind control, including drugged food and water, and the conditioning, brainwashing and psychiatric brutalisation of dissidents to maintain its brutal and corrupt rule. This particular episode in Soviet history should be particularly alarming and provide a stark warning to people of faith concerning some of the pronouncements made by contemporary atheists. Some of the New Atheists, like the Rational Response Squad, made it clear they thought religion was a psychiatric disorder. Even now some professional neurologists have stated that they look forward to the day when neuroscience will be used to cure radical or dangerous religious beliefs. Blake’s 7’s fictional federation also closed churches. Science Fiction has been described as the literature of warning, and Blake’s 7 provided a fictional treatment of the Soviet psychiatric persecution of dissidents. The Soviet medicalisation of religion as a psychiatric disorder is one that some atheist scientists now seem to be following on their own. They’re either unaware of or unconcerned by their totalitarian predecessors.

Wheen’s Mumbo Jumbo and the Sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis

Much of Wheen’s book on ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ is unremarkable. It tackles some of the bizarre New Age beliefs. It shows his own left-wing views in criticising Thatcherism and her pursuit of the free market. Wheen is, however, an atheist. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, to which Wheen has contributed, has joked about how Wheen called him an ‘irrational theist’. The book makes it clear that Wheen views religion as not just wrong, but dangerous. It shows the effect of 9/11 and the subsequent jihadi attacks on atheist opinions towards religion in general. Wheen does not consider them the action of just one religion, or even or a movement within that religion, but due to religion as a whole. He specifically blames the patriarch Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, for causing suicide bombing. God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is, in Wheen’s view, a demand for the blind faith and for believers to give up their lives in the service of their God. It is the origin of the blind faith of the suicide bombers. He then rants about how Abraham was a barbarian who should be excluded from the tables of civilised people.

This is profoundly wrong. Wheen misses the point about the sacrifice of Isaac completely. His Comments do, however, say volumes about received atheist opinion towards religion. Mostly, this is that many prominent atheists actually aren’t concerned about the basic facts behind religious events and phenomena before they utter their opinions.

Abraham and God’s Mercy: God Unlike Pagan Gods, Does Not Demand Human Sacrifice

For Jews, Abraham is not a symbol of fanaticism and blind faith, but mercy. This is shown by his conversation with the Almighty concerning the number of good people, who would have to be in Sodom before the Lord destroyed the city. This goes down to about ten, showing that even if only a minuscule number of righteous people are present in a place so steeped in evil that the outcry against it goes up to the Lord Himself, God will withhold His anger from it. As for the sacrifice of Isaac, that has to be seen in the context of the pagan religious practices of the Ancient Near East. Human sacrifice was an accepted part of the ancient Near Eastern religions. It’s found in the law codes of the Hittites. In ancient Phoenicia, Canaan and Carthage infant children were burned alive as sacrifices to the pgan gods. The tophets, the sacrificial altars on which these poor mites were killed, have been found in the remains of Carthage itself. The remains of these sacrifices have also been found in ancient Canaan. The point the story of God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac makes is that the Lord does not want people to sacrifice humans to Him. Yes, He rewards the faith that makes people wish to fulfill His commands, even to death, but does not want them to make that sacrifice. Abraham does indeed make the pyre and prepare to sacrifice his son, but this is halted by God sending a ram, caught in a thicket, for the patriarch to sacrifice instead. The whole point of the story is against suicide bombing.

Wheen Ignorant of Scholarship on Ancient Paganism and the Meaning of Isaac’s Sacrifice

Few people are experts in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But you don’t have to be. I remember studying the sacrifice of Isaac in RE (Religious Education) at my old Church of England School. Wheen went to one of the British public schools, which in this case, for transatlantic readers, means that he went to an elite private school. Despite having a very expensive education, he clearly either didn’t study this part of the Bible in RE, or simply wasn’t paying attention when they did. Even if they didn’t study that part of the Bible, Wheen could still have tried to understand it simply by consulting a commentary. There are a number of good commentaries on scripture, some of which are available online. But Wheen didn’t. He simply assumed that the apparent message he read into the text was the correct one. His failure to consult a commentary or what Christians and Jews actually historically believe and say about this event also shows a completely dismissive attitude towards their beliefs. He appears to beleive that traditional Jewish and Christian views of scripture are of so little importance, so automatically wrong, that an atheist should not even remotely consider studying them before making their pronouncements.

The Marxist Origin of Suicide Bombing

As for suicide bombing, although this is now a favourite weapon of militant Islam, it was first used by the Tamil Tigers. As Marxists, they were atheists, who clearly wre not following a divine command, still less of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. But this is not mentioned by Wheen. Possibly he didn’t know about it. It does, however, show the deep antipathy of part of the atheist Left towards Judeo-Christian religion. There’s also an element of the secularist belief that all religions are somehow the same. If that is true, then therefore all religions must be equally violent. Thus Wheen sought to find the ultimate origin of the contemporary jihadist attacks not in today’s politics, or the violent theology and ideology of the terrorists themselves, but further back in Abraham’s lifetime, so he could blame and disparage all of the three Abrahamic faiths. Wheen’s other book are well worth reading, and much of his book on Mumbo Jumbo is too. Rather than being a product of reasoned thought and careful consideration, Wheen’s views on the sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament are merely the product of atheist ignorance and anti-religious bigotry.

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