Most of us live our lives using beliefs based upon one of a handful of principal scriptures, but do they deserve the high importance we place in them?
Because of the limited extent of documentation at the times when most scriptures were written, they tended to cover several facets of life. For those peoples who don't have historical writings, the teachings have been passed down by word of mouth. Even for those that did have writing around at the time of founding, such as Christianity and Buddhism, their formal documentation did not appear for decades after the founder had died.
While religions largely appear monolithic, many rely upon principal proponents that gather followers around them, such as gurus in Hinduism, rabbis in Judaism, and imans in Islam. These principals will often have different interpretations of their scriptures, and require extra behaviours and expectations of their followers. They become known as a sect with the purpose of perpetuating their particular interpretations and instructions.
The topics scriptures typically cover are:
Typically, these elements will be intermingled in the text.
While many religions have a single founder, they often are based upon an earlier religion which the founder diverged from. The new religion did not really take hold until formally documented after the life of the founder. For example, Christianity comes out of Judaism, and Buddhism out of Hinduism. Those earlier religions typically have many that could be classed as founders as sources for scriptures.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran provides a good example of how a founder may have talked at gatherings, answering questions on various topics from attendees. Their answers, recorded by followers, would become the basis for their scriptures when documented much later on.
The creation story explains how the world and humans came into being.
Creation stories provide a sense of the scale of god's activities, and thus the context, influences and drivers of our lives.
The factors limiting how well a creation story can be explained are:
Followers seem to assume that the teller is somehow perfect, despite being human. We have no way of knowing the teller's capacities, so an assumption of perfection becomes a leap of faith, rather than a known fact. Even if the teller's abilities for the first three were perfect, the last two provide a substantial difficulty to communication, so the teller may have made some adjustments to the story to accommodate the limitations.
Given all these factors, assuming that the story is an accurate representation of the creation reality is rather a stretch. Then we have the ever-increasing knowledge about the processes of nature. Any past story that tries to explain these processes in any other way opens itself to being legitimately challenged.
Descriptions of the life of the founder are attempts to show how they lived a life that exemplified what they taught.
The life of any person contains too much to document. Biographies are a cherry-pick of events, depending upon the bias of the writer. The depiction of the life of the founder contained in a scripture will tend not to contain anything that contradicts the impression that the writer/teller is trying to give. Basically, the depiction will be filtered through rose-coloured glasses, and should be viewed in that light.
Quotations of the founder are given to show the extent of their wisdom.
We now all have a mobile phone that can be used to record what is being said. Recording of what people said in the past relied upon someone to write it down, or at least remember it, completely and accurately, and transmit it accurately to others and so on until it was eventually recorded for posterity. There is a lot of opportunity in that process for modifying text to fit the agenda of each person in the chain. We have no idea how accurately the founder's sayings were recorded and transmitted before being incorporated into a verifiable format.
People are given instructions in how to live the life according to the wisdom of the founder.
Unless there are explicit instructions from the founder, such instructions will tend to reflect the agenda of those charged with enforcing them. In a sect, there will be others defined by the sect's principal. We have no way of knowing how strictly the founder would enforce such laws now, or even if they would still apply them.
In recent history, we have seen laws changed according to the understanding and needs of people as they change, so enforcing laws from hundreds or thousands of years ago may be improperly restricting the legitimate opportunities people can avail themselves of now. A lot of laws reflect the customs of the times, such as dress codes, which may well be inappropriate in different societies and locations.
The other aspect of the law is that scriptures are pretty well no match for the comprehensiveness and rigorousness of modern law making processes. Often being based upon the word of their founders as a result of questions asked, there can be large gaps in coverage compared to the laws of the land which have to have that coverage.
Generally, in democracies at least, laws are not now enacted to decree what people must believe, mainly because it is open to discrimination, manipulation and corruption, but scriptures are still allowed to be used to indoctrinate the young. At some point, patent untruths promulgated in scriptures will need to be outlawed, so that unwarranted brainwashing cannot be used to poison young minds against reality.
I am not talking about banning opinion, per se, about the still unknown, but as modern research uncovers more of reality, much of what was used to placate the enquiring minds of the past may be shown to be definitively false, with others misleading. Everything must be open to scrutiny.
Scriptures provide history as the context into which the founder brought changes for the better.
History is often written from the perspective of the victors, with villians ascribed accordingly. In the absence of corroborate evidence, scriptural history can only be assumed to be a story, which may or not be an accurate reflection of what happened.
Archaeology, combined with measurement technology to verify dates, is being used to verify, or at least give a more accurate context for, scriptural history, but there are still many details that have rather fuzzy dates associated with them, providing opportunity for a range of interpretations when trying to determine their historical context. It may be tempting for some to claim, just because the historical research may corroborate some details from the scripture, that the more esoteric aspects are true. That is still belief, not proof.
With formal scriptures not coming into being until sometime after the founder, the process of formalisation may have resulted in changes to the structure and contents.
There are over 5000 versions of the Bible. Some parts didn't appear until after several hundred years, such as Jesus rescuing the woman being stoned, with the famous phrase
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. So the question is really about how much credence is to be given to it, given that it is likely Jesus never said it. It then comes down to whether it makes sense, rather than just being the words of a particular person. However, most differences seem to be due to transcription errors, or translators making differing interpretations.
Some passages in the Bible are at odds with others. For example Genesis II differs from the first in the sequencing of the creation events, and in what happened and their purpose. At face value, this would seem to indicate two different people wrote them, with radically different ideas about women and animals in relation to men. However, since the assumption about the Bible is that it all must be true, these significant differences have led to serious doctrinal discussions about how to make them seem to make sense together.
Thus, formalisation typically involves creating an ideology in the hope of bringing orthodoxy to the belief and practices of its followers. Of course, it is also an opportunity for some to centralise control and power, which has typically led to ongoing wars using religious doctrinal differences as the pretext for dominion over others and their land.
Typically, during the life of the founder of a system of thought, there will be much dynamism in their philosophy as they are getting it straight in their heads. It doesn't seem to stay that way!
There will be a lot of experimentation as they refine their philosophy and explore ways of how their followers can live the teachings. Many of their followers will come and go, depending upon what of the new or old appeals to them.
After the founder dies, there will be many vying to take on their mantle, creating factions and sects, some of which will gather enough followers to be able to define and enforce their ongoing orthodoxy. The orthodoxy is what solidifies the political power in them, so they have a vested interest in maintaining their orthodoxy. However, that relies upon the assumption that their orthodoxy is valid, and that the founder would have wanted it to stay fixed.
In this way, ideology and the resulting orthodoxy has become the antithesis of how the founder lived their life. Dynamism and openness has been replaced by a staid determinism to be dependable and reliable, unchanging in the face of the uncertainty of life, attempting to be a rock for their followers, rather than an example of a willingness to change and adapt, and thus overcome difficulties in life through understanding themselves and their essential nature more.
Historically, pre-mass writing/printing, teachings were given to the people present at the time. That does not mean that it wouldn't have evolved had the teacher still been living now.
Because we do not have the notes written by the founder in preparation for their public speaking, we don't know the full context within which their spoken words were framed. When people make public appearances, people tend to ask questions, and a lot of what is recorded in scriptures may have resulted from the answers to them. Due to time constraints, a prepared lecture will only cover some aspects of a philosophy, and questions will only reflect what some of those present were interested in.
Teachers, and not just religious ones, will hold classes for those who are really interested, especially those receiving training. Such private sessions may not be part of the recorded teaching because their content was:
As a result of all these factors, scriptures are probably not a complete representation of the teachings of the founders, but what was suitable for and given to the public at the time. Now, not having the complete philosophy of the founders would not be an issue, except that people are expecting guidance for all of what life will throw at them.
That means that where something is not covered directly in the founder's teachings, the actions are to either:
Of course, the resulting guidance will be somewhere between these, depending upon the capacity and authority of those called upon to give it. Most religious organisations have formulated advice on how to handle issues not covered by the founders.
All of this raises the question about whether the founder would still be expecting their legacy to be tied to only what they publicly said, and how much of it would still be relevant today. Unfortunately, not knowing where a founder would stand today has led to differences in the doctrine and practices of the inheritors of the philosophy, all trying to nail down their version as the most authentic.
In the end, we, as individuals, have to make up our own minds as to what to keep and what to modify through reflection and judgement based upon our own experience.
It is understandable that followers of a religion want their scriptures to be an infallible source of truth, but the reality may be far from that.
This is just because the process by which they arrived into the present has too many opportunities to be subverted, unintentionally or deliberately, by each participant in the process. And even if every detail in a scripture was true, a person doesn't have to believe it. After all, there are many politicians who blatantly tell disproven lies, yet many still believe them. People have free will to live by their own delusional beliefs, as well as those parts of the truth they perceive.
Therefore, care must be taken before making unilateral decisions which assume the absolute accuracy of scriptures. The most extreme action is when people are attacked because they do not seem to follow the actions or behaviours prescribed in the scriptures, but enacting laws based upon them may place unfair restrictions upon whole sections of a population.
We have seen the affect that scriptural statements have on public discourse when viewing the problems created by those who believe the Bible states that homosexuality is an abomination, which seems to rely on probable mistranslations of the original Hebrew and Greek texts, or significant embellishment of to what the words apply. Fortunately, centuries of religious political agendas to put these interpretations into law has been unwound in recent decades, mainly because people have withdrawn their trust in scriptures in general, rather than more accurate translations of the text.
Basically, scriptures are just opinions compiled to provide guidance for their followers. Making them anything more is stretching the truth, but making them into laws will tend to work against the evolution of society.
In recent times, people have been using various scientific, technological and archaeological means to ascertain the veracity of much of what is in scriptures. This will likely reveal details that may not agree with what we have come to know, especially in regard to creation stories and histories cited. New facts will challenge some to be more flexible with their interpretations of the scriptures, which may have already resulted in more people disconnecting from formal religions in favour of choosing what aspects they personally want to retain belief in.
People being willing to stop unquestionally following set doctrines has weakened the grip on their societies of many religious institutions, but also allowed their bad practices to be revealed, such as child abuse and their coverups. This at last allows the teachings to be separated from the power to enforce them, allowing them to be judged on their merits.