The good book
Both believers and nonbelievers can learn from a newly released Humanist Bible
Here at the University, reminders of Thomas Jefferson are ubiquitous, and students are well-educated about many of the former president’s political and intellectual endeavors. Perhaps a less well known endeavor, however, is Jefferson’s creation of his own version of the Bible. “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” as Jefferson titled it — or the Jefferson Bible, as it has also come to be known — was the result of Jefferson’s manipulation of the first four books of the New Testament, in which he removed all traces of divine occurrences and left only Jesus’ teachings. Jefferson’s Bible was for his personal use and was an attempt to better understand the morality presented in the New Testament while excluding the religious preachings of which Jefferson was skeptical.
In the spirit of Jefferson, the American Humanist Association has released a similar work, calling it “A Jefferson Bible for the 21st Century.” This book, in addition to including the original Jefferson Bible, presents passages from sacred texts of many other religions that do not describe events that were caused by deities. The Humanist Association desires that their publication be read by all members of Congress as a way to increase tolerance of opposing viewpoints. But while seeking to improve tolerance in Congress is a worthy cause, hopefully the 21st Century Jefferson Bible will be marketed heavily to Americans outside of Congress. There is much that may be gained by looking at the teachings espoused by various religions, especially when supernatural claims are left out. It would be a universally beneficial initiative to make the 21st Century Jefferson Bible available to as many people as possible and ultimately may benefit both believers and nonbelievers.
Though the nonreligious demographic is steadily becoming larger, the United States is still a fairly religious society. And when it comes to seriously respecting nonbelievers, we can benefit from what the Jefferson Bible offers. There is still an often-expressed sentiment that one’s religious beliefs are fundamentally intertwined with his or her morality. Often you may hear someone refer to himself or another person as a “good Christian” or “good Muslim” as if that somehow makes him more morally righteous than someone who is not religious. Jefferson’s Bible is beneficial because it attempts to debunk the idea that belief in an intervening deity leads to superior morality. Take away the supernatural events giving authority to a holy text’s claims — the “artificial scaffolding” as Jefferson called it in reference to Jesus’ miracles — and what remains are moral lessons that can be concluded via secular reasoning.
The end of the 21st Century Jefferson Bible is a plug from humanists titled the “Humanist Manifesto,” which stresses the importance of rationally observing the world. With any luck, critics of nonbelievers who read that chapter will come away with a greater respect for how moral holdings are reached via debate, political and ethical theory or life experience. Through this, they can see that nonbelievers are not necessarily disregarding a crucial source of morality because they deny religion; rather, nonbelievers likely base their moral foundation on the observations they have collected.
Conversely, supporting the 21st Century Jefferson Bible is not to say that drawing on religion as a moral foundation is necessarily bad. Critics of religious dogma can also benefit from the 21st Century Jefferson Bible. It is all too easy for one to dismiss a particular religion because it promotes happenings that cannot be proven and seem outside the realm of reality. Jesus resurrecting the dead or walking on water come immediately to mind. But, when just the moral lessons are exposed, even secularists can see that many religious teachings are not entirely filled with disagreeable subject matter. Indeed, the authors of the 21st Century Jefferson Bible took the passages selected for the book and placed them into one of two designations. There are “best” and “worst” labels that can be applied to the passages, indicating whether the authors believe the passages to be beneficial tenets of that religion, or harmful ones. By looking at the passages under “best,” nonbelievers can see where they agree with religious teachings, making often-scrutinized religions like Mormonism seem less ridiculous. One may not believe the story of Joseph Smith and his seeing stones but will probably agree with Mormon sentiments such as “Woe onto them that call evil good, and good evil.”
By focusing mainly on morals instead of improvable events, a more reasonable connection can be made between believers and nonbelievers. Through the widespread distribution of the humanist Bible, the conflict between the two sides could become less polarized. Both factions have supporters that view opposing factions as entirely right or entirely wrong. If nothing else, the 21st Century Jefferson Bible has the ability to increase tolerance by teaching ordinary Americans more about potentially unknown religious stances.
Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.