In The Beginning was The Word
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Some people say that dictionaries are records of common usage… meaning that if enough people understand a word to mean a particular thing, that’s what it does mean. Likewise for spelling and pronunciation. In other words, the dictionary definition reflects the common understanding, even if that understanding is ignorant and wrong.
Indeed, people look to dictionaries for guidance and enlightenment about the proper meanings of words. They rarely think to themselves, as they look up an entry, “even though this is what it says …” that was how people used the word at the time it was compiled, but that might not be the appropriate of the word now, in this context. For example, works on Shakespeare, whose Saxon English did not contain esoteric words from the Latin, Greek and “Romance” languages, still needs footnotes that explain the different meaning of many common words as they were used in his times. Even in my lifetime words have changed meaning (and I don’t mean just as result of my travels). The term “Gay” is a good example.
Even this: Random House Unabridged Dictionary 2006 definition lists all of the “archaic” forms before the contemporary usage.
So when we come to how the Miriam-Webster redefines the term “atheism” – as mentioned in this article
http://h3h.net/2005/05/atheism-debunked/ one wonders just how
good a job of separation of Church and State the constitutional forces in the USA are doing.
To the Founding Fathers of the USA it was important that the special privilege accorded to the Aristocracy and the Church in Europe, and in particular in England, should not be the case in their new society. This applied also to the legal system. Status was not to confer any advantage in legal proceedings – all disputes would be settled in court. (Yes we can see the unfortunate side effect of that today where wealth is the ‘privilege’ and advantage, and even that is comparative. There is no shortage of examples where the ‘little guy’ gives in because the legal costs would be ruinous and the ‘big guy’ can afford a better legal legal team. It happens even when the ‘little guy’ is a multi-million dollar corporation!)
Now its the turn of separation of church and state to be diluted. Political leaders are talking about moral weakness and turning to the Bible and encouraging “family values” based on the Bible. Let’s leave aside for the moment what is happening in other countries that are putting the values of another religious work, also one geared for pre-technic herdsmen moving to a city culture, ahead of ‘the state’, and look at what some of those ‘family values’ are.
Let’s start with marriage. Some of those speaking out against “gay marriage” insist that marriage1 is the union of one man and one woman. The bible says otherwise: Solomon has 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob had only two wives, his brother Easu had three – the overall pattern in the bible is polygamy. (Gen 4:19, 4:23, 16:1-4, 26:34,
28:9, 29:26-30, 30:26, 31:17, 32:22, 36:2, 36:10, 37:2, Ex. 21:10,
Deut 21:15, Judges 8:30, 1 Sam 1:2, 25:43, 27:3, 30:5, 30:18, 2 Sam 2:2, 3:2-5, 1 Chron 3:1-3, 4:5, 8:8, 14:3, 2 Chron 11:21, 13:21, 24:3) and concubinage (Gen 25:6, Judges 8:31, 2 Sam 5:13, 1 Kings 11:3, 1 Chron 3:9, 2 Chron 11:21, Dan 5:2-3).
The bible says the can take any woman he wants (Gen 6:2, Deut 21:11), provided only that she is not already another man’s wife (Lev 18:14-16, Deut. 22:30) or his [half-]sister (Lev 18:11, 20:17), nor the mother (Lev 20:14) or the sister (Lev 18:18) of a woman who is already his wife. The concept that a woman has any say in the matter is foreign to the Biblical mindset.
Then lets add in prostituting one’s wife, a Abraham (not once but twice! – Genesis 13:13-17, Genesis 20:2 ) and Issac did Genesis (26:7), prostituting your daughters (Genesis 19:8), father-daughter incest (Genesis 19:32-36), slavery (Leviticus 25:44, Luke 7:2) – including selling unmarried daughters into slavery.
Its in the Book! – a Johnny Standley used to say.
The cultural practices described in the bible – and the Koran for that matter – are far removed from the sensibilities of Western society; the authors of the Bible would scarcely recognize the partnership of equals that marks a contemporary American marriage and tolerance and belief in fairness for all . But its not just “contemporary”, “Western” and “American” that are key here. The culture of the Bible and the Koran was one, as I said, of tribes and herdsmen moving to a “city” – their kind not ours – culture, dealing with tribal issues of command and control, health and sanitation in the hot, marginal ecology of Mesopotamia. We are in a society of nation states, with a great deal of control over our environment, advanced public hygiene, a food surplus (but politically limited logistics), of understanding of mechanics and biology. Our ancestors of 4,000, 2,000 and 1,200 years ago lacked our tools and knowledge.
The Founding Fathers examined English “Common Law” critically to decide what to retain. Even in England the last few centuries have seen a great deal of reform, to religious freedom, the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in the middle of the 19th century, the abolition of slavery, parliamentary reform, female and universal suffrage in the 20th century. These are all things we consider “modern Western Values”. In some areas the United Stated led Europe, in other areas lagged. But certainly by the time the United States was formed, the shift from a ‘tribal’ outlook and value system to that of a “national identity” had occurred.
Dictionaries, despite – or perhaps because of – the work of dedicated enthusiasts and self mutilating madmen are backward-looking documents. They document the sources of the language, the first use, the shifts in pronunciation and meaning with time, how the words have their roots on other, more ancient languages. Even with electronic tools, the dictionaries are not up to date.
Similarly, the issue isn’t the veracity or inerrancy of the Bible, its isn’t about whether or not God did actually dictate the text of the Koran to Mohammad. In many ways its not even about the translation and the various political agendas that have and always will surround that. It is especially not about whether God exists or any particular religion is “The One True Faith”. It is about our understanding of the culture in which they were written – more importantly that it is not the culture of today. We cannot obsessively and literally apply the institutions that were suitable thousands of years ago to the modern age.
This is no different from understanding the different cultures that exist in our contemporary world. Not just between the USA, Asia and the Middle East, but the rich set of cultures that exist within the USA itself. Anyone who has relocated from San Francisco to NYC knows what I mean.
1 Historically, “marriage” was about property and inheritance and ensuring that the ‘legitimate’ offspring inherited.
In many societies only the aristocrats “married”; the peasants simply cohabited. Our contemporary religious bombasts, like their predecessors, fail to recognize that nobody else’s actions can affect their moral stature. Similarly those who insist on using the adjective “gay” alongside the word “marriage” also fail to recognize that the issue is one of legality – who shall inherit by default, who shall share health benefits, retirement benefits – when in so many jurisdictions such matters are determined by the state and any religious recognition of the union is an adjunct – that the civil ceremony is what is recognized by the state, not the religious one. The rest of us keep getting bothered by a question of very little real impact to us. But then its common for religious zealots to want to impose their views on others.