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An Atheist Reads the Bible: The Lockean Covenant

An atheist reads the Bible and discovers how the concept of a “covenant” has profoundly shaped our politics.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been slowly whittling away at a long-term project I call “An Atheist Reads the Bible.”

Unlike the “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins types, I’m not reading the Bible simply to refute it or to highlight every time the Judeo-Christian god seems to sanction murder or oppression. I’m reading to understand what the Bible has to say, and to understand the impact it has had over the centuries on those who believe it is true.

In the last installment, though, I left off with one of the darker aspects of the Bible: the way that Moses, after leading the Israelites out of Egypt, established a kind of religious dictatorship. In effect, he replaced the Pharaoh of the Oppression with the Prophet of the Oppression.

But I ended by promising to “describe one other idea that emerges from these chapters, and from the Mosaic law, that makes up a better, more liberating part of the Judeo-Christian legacy.” It also turns out to be an idea that has profoundly shaped our contemporary political debate, without being openly acknowledged.

While Moses created a personal dictatorship, with himself as sole source of religious and political authority among the Israelites, he also created something that is the opposite of dictatorship: a system of law. And it was the law that outlived him.

The Hebrew religion survived and came to exercise wide influence for a reason. It had to have something to offer. One of those things is a law that places its principles above the mere will of the stronger.

We’ve already looked at how the law laid down by Moses contained provisions about hygiene and quarantine—i.e., what is “clean” and “unclean”—and also how it created a priestly caste, the Levites, and gave them special privileges. But it also decrees rules for charity and for honesty and fairness in trade, such as these, which are included along with one of the versions of the Ten Commandments, in Chapter 19 of Leviticus.

“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.

An ephah, in case you were wondering, is about as much as a bushel, and a hin is somewhere in the neighborhood of a gallon. So this is a religious proscription for honest weights and measures, prompt payment of employees, honesty in contracts, and charity for the poor.

Similarly, Chapter 25 mandates a “jubilee” that is supposed to occur every 50 years, which includes a version of debt forgiveness and the release of “bondmen” who have sold themselves into indentured servitude. You might think of this as the Biblical version of bankruptcy law.

In amongst these is one other provision that is far broader, in Leviticus 19:15.

“Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.”

This is the basis for the phrase “the law is no respecter of persons,” which means that the same law should apply equally to the rich as to the poor and to the powerful as to the powerless. So the religion established by Moses called for an early version of the rule of law.

But there is an even more important idea behind the Mosaic law, an idea that is implicit beneath every one of its provisions and which is distinctive to the Judeo-Christian tradition: the idea of a covenant with God.

In the Old Testament, God makes versions of this covenant with Adam, then a new one with Noah, then with Abraham, and then does so again with the Mosaic Law. There are a few other minor variations on this idea, and then—according to Christians—there is a New Covenant offered by Jesus. We’ll return to some of those earlier covenants, but let’s start with the one offered under Moses. There is a passage at the end of Leviticus that sums up God’s end of the bargain. Moses has just finished laying down all the details of the law, then he concludes with this message from God.

“If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them;

Note the part about scattering the Israelites among the heathen, which may well be a later addition to explain what happened to the Jews in the years before the Old Testament was put down in its official written form.

But God’s deal is always still open.

“If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me;

This was the big message to the Jews who were just returning to their homeland from Babylonian exile when the Bible was being written down.

What is important here is the message that would be taken away by future readers of the Bible and followers of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The point of the covenant is to convey to them that, if they follow the right rules, if they adhere to the religious law—then they will be prosperous, safe, powerful, and happy.

It is a little less clear whether God will always deliver prosperity and happiness; that’s what the Book of Job puzzles out. In the most common interpretation, God isn’t promising to deliver prosperity to you directly; you will have to work for it. But if you uphold your end of the covenant, God will tend to look favorably on your endeavors.

What modern readers take from the Old Testament covenant is the idea that it gives them a moral sanction to live and pursue prosperity. Thus, a contemporary Jewish writer describes what he sees as the upshot of the Bible: “human beings do not have to apologize for their existence” because “the Divine created the world in order for it to be inhabited by human beings.”

This is not quite right. His view isn’t that we need no justification for our existence. Rather, it’s the idea that we already have one, which is provided by our covenant with God. So we need no new, further, modern justification. We’ll see in a moment how that contrasts to the views of the contemporary left.

In short, God loves us and wants us to be happy. Which, as I recall, was also Benjamin Franklin’s argument for beer (or maybe wine). So if you follow God’s laws, you have what amounts to a license to pursue growth, prosperity, success, happiness. And following God’s laws is not all that tough—depending on how strictly you interpret them—since it involves a lot of things that come naturally to decent folks, like not killing and not stealing.

In effect, the concept of a covenant tells believers that it’s OK to get rich. I think you can begin to see the modern political ramifications of this idea.

Just as a plant tries to grow, human beings want to work, build, expand, and pursue prosperity. It is our biological imperative; it’s not automatic, since we have free will, but it is consistent with and required by our nature. So it is the main object of most people’s lives. What they seek from any code of morality, therefore, is some kind of moral sanction for this central activity of their lives. The Biblical concept of the covenant gives it to them.

There is a more specific connection between the Biblical covenant and American politics. You are probably familiar with John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, which lays out his theory of individual rights and “the consent of the governed,” which was the ideological basis for the English Revolution of 1689 and for the American Revolution about a century later. Less well remembered is Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government. It has been forgotten because it is Locke’s refutation of a theory that is long since dead and gone: the theory of the divine right of kings, as put forward by Robert Filmer, who in Locke’s day was the most famous theorist of monarchical absolutism. Filmer may not be very relevant to today’s politics, but he is absolutely relevant to the concept of a Biblical covenant.

Filmer’s argument was based on the first covenant in the Bible, the covenant God made with Adam. The very first words spoken by God to his new creation, in Genesis 1:28 are:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Based on this passage, Filmer argued that God gave Adam dominion over the Earth, and kings are the rightful inheritors of this dominion.

Locke’s First Treatise is a long, complex refutation of this idea, based on his interpretation of history and the Bible. He argues that there is no way to trace man’s dominion over the Earth from Adam to any modern inheritors. In the absence of a rightful claim by any one individual, Locke argues that such a right may be claimed equally by every individual. Any man may rightfully claim dominion over a part of the earth that he himself develops and improves. It is a preview of the argument for property rights that Locke states more fully in the Second Treatise. Locke even develops an intriguing formula for this viewpoint: since God gave the earth to men “for their benefit and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed He meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labor was to be his title to it).”

Call this the Lockean Covenant. No, God did not appear to John Locke in a burning bush. Rather, this was Locke’s interpretation of the Biblical relationship between God and man, as influenced by his Enlightenment philosophy.

You can imagine how this went over very well in the New World. The American was Locke’s “industrious and rational” man par excellence, charging off into the untamed wilderness “with his Bible, ax, and newspaper,” as Tocqueville put it, and claiming his patch of the earth by title of his labor.

This has had a direct influence on the contemporary American right. See if you recognize this attitude: if you take responsibility for your life, work hard to achieve success, and try to be a decent person in your personal life, then there is a good chance you will be blessed with wealth and happiness, and you have a right to keep the rewards of your effort and enjoy them. You don’t have to apologize for having too big a carbon footprint or for enjoying unequal success compared to others. I can’t think of a better summary of the popular American attitude in the “heartland,” and of the implicit case for capitalism among today’s conservatives. And it all goes back to the Biblical covenant, in the Enlightenment-era version promoted by Locke.

Yet this reliance on the Biblical covenant comes with one big trade-off: to get a covenant that allows you to gain everything, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything. That was the upshot of another version of the covenant, the one God makes with Abraham. The significance of the story of Abraham and Isaac is that the Hebrew God renounces human sacrifice (specifically child sacrifice, which was common in the ancient Near East) and establishes animal sacrifice as a substitute. But he first makes sure that Abraham would be willing to make such a sacrifice. So those are the terms for the Biblical covenant: man can gain permission to live only by appeasing a higher power.

I am reminded of a phrase from Nietzsche that seems to sum up this contradiction: “to love man for God’s sake,” i.e., to love mankind, not for any positive qualities of his own, but only for the sake of some higher power.

As an atheist quoting Nietzsche, I know there are going to be readers who assume that I must be a devotee of the nihilistic, half-insane German philosopher. I’m not, and in this case Nietzsche is on the side of religion. He coins that phrase about loving man for God’s sake in order to express his admiration for the attitude behind it.

To love man for God’s sake—that has so far been the noblest and most remote feeling attained among men. That the love of man is just one more stupidity and brutishness if there is no ulterior intent to sanctify it; that the inclination to such love of man must receive its measure, its subtlety, its grain of salt and dash of ambergris from some higher inclination—whoever the human being may have been who first felt and “experienced” this, however much his tongue may have stumbled as it tried to express such delicatesse, let him remain holy and venerable for us for all time as the human being who has flown highest yet and gone astray most beautifully!

This is the basic philosophical pattern for the creation of the modern left. They take the Biblical idea of a covenant, secularize it, and then go casting about for a new covenant, a new higher good whose service will justify our existence. In Nietzsche’s case it was the improvement of the race, an idea that was discredited by its association with Nazism. For the contemporary left, the main candidates for a higher power are society—mankind as a collective—or the environment.

Hence the common observation that the doctrines of left seem to be a secularized version of religion. David Goldman quotes Joseph Bottum.

We live in a spiritual age, in other words, when we believe ourselves surrounded by social beings of occult and mystic power. When we live with titanic cultural forces contending across the sky, and our moral sense of ourselves—of whether or not we are good people, of whether or not we are saved—takes its cues primarily from our relation to those forces. We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological. When how we vote is how our souls are saved.

For some, this means they have a sanction to pursue the prosperity which their professional education makes possible to them so long as they vote for Democratic politicians, pay their taxes (or at least most of their taxes), and live in a building with a good LEED score. One of the open secrets of environmentalism is the phenomenon of “greenwashing,” in which luxury goods and an upper middle class lifestyle are rebranded as “organic” and “sustainable” and thus made kosher for the faithful.

Yet the idea of trying to justify humanity by reference to some non-human higher good turns out to be a hole we can never quite fill. If you want—and I don’t particularly recommend it—you can see the result in Darren Aronofsky’s recent film Noah. As an avowed atheist, Aronofsky reworks to story of Noah into a parable for the modern secular religion of environmentalism. According to the opening narration, the great sin of the descendants of Cain, the ones who are about to be wiped out by the flood, is that they built “an industrial civilization.” That’s why the film’s villain is Tubal-Cain. He is mentioned in the Bible, though not in connection with Noah, but he is described as a smith and worker with metals, which makes him the right villain for a screed against industrialism.

Reflecting the modern environmental left, Aronofsky introduces two big theological innovations into the Biblical story. First, Aronofsky’s Noah concludes that God intends to wipe out all of mankind, allowing Noah and his family to live only long enough to save the world’s animals. In service to this vision, Noah vows to murder his newborn granddaughters in order to prevent the further propagation of the human line. He relents and humanity survives—no big spoiler there—but the tone is regretful, and he agonizes that he has failed to do God’s will. This turns the original story on its head, since the covenant God makes with Noah is precisely the promise never again to wipe out humanity.

The second innovation is that Aronofsky puts into his villain’s mouth the idea that God gave man dominion over the earth. This is spoken as the villain eats meat, because Aronofsky is a militant vegan. So there goes God’s covenant with Adam, and the Lockean Covenant along with it.

The result is a film without a scrap of love for humanity.

If you think this is an aberration, consider a recent screed from prominent British environmentalist George Monbiot. He is reacting to new evidence from paleontologists that mankind has powerfully shaped our environment from the first moments of our existence—in fact, from the first days of our predecessors, before the development of modern humans.

The Anthropocene, now a popular term among scientists, is the epoch in which we live: one dominated by human impacts on the living world. Most date it from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But it might have begun much earlier, with a killing spree that commenced two million years ago. What rose onto its hind legs on the African savannahs was, from the outset, death: the destroyer of worlds…. As the paleontologists Lars Werdelin and Margaret Lewis show, the disappearance of much of the African megafauna appears to have coincided with the switch towards meat eating by human ancestors…. [T]he most reliable indicator of human arrival in the fossil record is a wave of large mammal extinctions.”

With no Lockean Covenant to sustain him, Monbiot is driven to a grim conclusion.

You want to know who we are? Really? You think you do, but you will regret it. This article, if you have any love for the world, will inject you with a venom—a soul-scraping sadness—without an obvious antidote…. Is this all we are? A diminutive monster that can leave no door closed, no hiding place intact, that is now doing to the great beasts of the sea what we did so long ago to the great beasts of the land? Or can we stop? Can we use our ingenuity, which for two million years has turned so inventively to destruction, to defy our evolutionary history?

The headline and subhead of the article are more succinct. They declare that “there was never a state of grace” and that humans have always been “diminutive monsters of death and destruction.”

I submit that this outdoes the most fire-and-brimstone sermon ever offered by any Puritan, or the most bitter Biblical Jeremiad. When I finished reading it, the phrase that popped into my mind was, “There’ll be no butter in Hell!” If we have to justify our existence by an appeal to the higher good of a wild, untouched environment, we are doomed to fall short, and environmentalists will be left fantasizing about a deluge that will scourge the earth of our sinful carcasses.

The biggest mistake conservatives ever made was to call the left “secular humanists.” Secular, maybe, but there is nothing “humanist” about those who advocate the inhuman doctrines of collectivism, which Orwell aptly summed up as “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” And there is certainly no humanism in the environmentalism of Aronofsky and Monbiot.

Mankind does need a moral code that gives it a sanction for life and growth and prosperity. The left, either in its collectivist or environmentalist denominations, cannot provide this. But we need an alternative that does not depend on an ancient myth of a covenant that is, for many of us—well, let’s just say that it is implausible. I did warn you that I’m an atheist reading the Bible, right?

Nietzsche’s phrase inadvertently captures the absurdity of it: “to love man for God’s sake.” Why not love man for man’s sake? What we need is a new, fully secular version of the Lockean Covenant in which we love mankind for being “industrious and rational,” not because we surmise that this is what the ancient Hebrew God wants, but because these are the virtues actually required by nature for our survival and flourishing.

Let’s go back to that passage in Leviticus where God lays out the rewards and punishments for abiding by the covenant. The reward for virtue is ever-increasing economic production, booming population, domestic peace, security against enemies, and victory in war. The punishment for vice is poverty and starvation, discord, defeat, cannibalism, and enslavement. Isn’t there ample evidence from purely secular sources, from the lessons of history and the science of economics, to tell us what kinds of societies produce these results? Didn’t we just have precisely such a test in the 20th century, pitting free societies against dictatorships? Weren’t the results definitive?

This indicates the potential for a secular basis for morality, for human dignity, for rights, and for the American system. It comes from recognizing human nature, the conditions set by reality for our existence, and everything we have discovered about the “best practices” for building a flourishing civilization. In my view, the bulk of this work has already been done in the moral and political theories of Ayn Rand. In her philosophy, the sanction for man’s existence and the promise of prosperity and flourishing come from our covenant, not with God, but with reality.

And it begins with loving man for man’s sake.

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