March 21, 2010

History and Religion

Wendy Doniger recently published a book about Hinduism to which many Hindus took exception. I have been waiting for this to happen with some religion or another over recent years. The reason is that historians investigating those religions- whether it be Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other- have found details which the believers in those religions do not believe in. To take some examples: David did not rule an empire, Solomon was not widely known even down to Sheba in the ancient world, if Christ rose from the dead then so did the entire Jewish nation who had died before that point, the Hadith cannot in some cases be the sayings of Muhammed. We could go on- but the central point is that religious tradition has not neccessarily always interpreted its texts to make accurate historical claims. That of course does not neccessarily undermine the whole basis of religion- you can still like Tom Sheehan be a Christian and a historian- but it does place traditional accounts of religion into a different context.

Doniger's book appears to have roused the ire of Hindus because she represents the Hindu gods as sexual beings. They call her book pornography about the Gods. The interesting thing about this is how it represents a very modern attitude to sexuality. I do not know much about ancient India but what I know of other ancient religions suggest that sex and the divine were not as segregated as we like to think of them. Just take a look at one of the greatest examples of erotic poetry in the Western canon- the Song of Solomon- which parades its author's love of his lover's breasts. Or look to Greek or Norse mythology for a description of loose goddesses and priapic Gods. That does not mean that all ancient religion was about sex- but attitudes to sex in religion have changed over the years. It would not seem strange to me that attitudes to sex in Hinduism have likewise changed over the years and that Hindus today, who are much more nervous about sex, choose, like Christians today with the Song of Solomon, to give their texts allegorical meanings rather than reading the actual words.

Let us imagine though that Donniger has got everything wrong- many Hindus suggesting that she has are campaigning for her book to be withdrawn. I think that is a ridiculous claim. If free speech is to mean anything, it means the right to offend others with what you say. If we do not believe in that, we should abandon free speech itself entirely and have a list of things which can or cannot be said. There are good reasons for allowing free speech for things that are mistaken: for a start the common understanding of a society about something can be wrong (in history for example most people today read the Christian scriptures in the wrong order- assuming therefore that things in the later texts (the Gospels) can be read into the earlier texts (Paul)). It is always possible that we are mistaken about what we know. Let us go further, it is only through debate that mistaken ideas can actually be corrected- if Doniger is wrong, the correct way to refute her is to publish a book explaining why. Shouting that you are offended and the book should be withdrawn suggests that this knowledge needs hiding, rather than that this is an easily refuted set of statements. Argument is useful, even with someone who doesn't know what they are talking about, because it may force those who know the truth to refine their understanding of it too.

Banning books because of their arguments is not an answer that can be consistent with a democracy. The precedents for book burnings are not good.


James said...

"If free speech is to mean anything, it means the right to offend others with what you say. If we do not believe in that, we should abandon free speech itself entirely and have a list of things which can or cannot be said."

I've two thoughts on this, both sparked by this excellent post. First, is it conceivable that having "a list of things which can or cannot be said" is the more common state of things in UK society, and that the recent period since the abolition of the role of the Lord Chamberlain is an exception to the rule?

And second, it's quite possible of course that the idea of a list of what can and cannot be said is already too far down the line to be stopped. Assuming that it cannot be stopped, is this new, or, in view of my first question, is it really just an example of reversion to the mean?

Paul said...

The answer to all these issues is simply education and understanding. These matters have been discussed on so many sites an example of which is and from what I have read, all we need is to do is accept the diversity around us

James said...

That's actually quite a GOOD piece of comment spam, Paul. But the link does rather give it away. Shall we say 5/10?

Gracchi said...

I was being charitable James! But you are right looking again, I should have deleted.

On your comment, yes you are entirely right its not a constant and perhaps there is something interesting there about the a need within human society at some level to repress speech. Definitely toleration say is not a norm either.