The Bible’s Methods of Social Control

Oxford Study Bible - The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians
Just thought I’d post my paper on the Bible’s method’s of social control. I wrote it last semester, got an A on it, though I have to admit that it could use a lotta polish. I have a bad habit of waitinguntil the last minute and skating by. Not my best work, and I actually intend to improve the paper when I’ve got some time. I also intend to actually read through Friedman’s The Hidden Face of God.

The Bible’s Methods of Social Control

Wistful Writer

Easy Class 231

Professor Kevin Smith

17 December 2009

Religion is defined as an “institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”. A religion is inherently a type of system: it has rules and laws that its believers must abide by. It is a system of organized doctrines and ideas that shape the psychologies and guide the actions of its followers. In order for a religion to be established as an institution, it must be defined, and order must be established. To be organized, a religion needs a definitive body of written text, something that becomes a sort of rule book if you will, so that the system will have order and a source of authority. In the creation of an organized religion comes the effort to control those who believe in it, to ensure that its followers act in accordance to a codified set of behaviors. A religion could not exist as an organized system without a base of power or the authority to assert that power.

In Judeo-Christian religions, the Bible is one such “rule book.” It is a collection of books that contain stories and laws that help define, portray, and promote values that are important to a specific belief system. The contents of the Bible contain text that serves to codify and legitimize a particular set of rules and laws in order to give organization to a religion. Moral codes are established and a particular set of behaviors are defined and prescribed to followers in these scriptures. Although the exact intentions of those who compiled the Bible can be debatable, it is not unreasonable to believe that the Bible was put together to create a unified body of work as the basis of the doctrine that is central to Judeo-Christian religions. In fact, the Bible contains many methods of social control.

Without getting into the debate of the actual existence of deities, religion is ultimately a social construct that is defined by humankind. Factually speaking, the Bible was written by humans and its laws were enforced by people in positions of religious power. These scriptures were deemed sacred, and is taken as “the word of God.” They were written as a definitive and final authority to be referred to in order to govern the constituents of a system based on it.

It would make sense that these scriptures are written this way: it is not unnatural for those in power to wish to retain their power. Therefore it would make sense that those who would create a social construct for others to submit themselves to would create one that allows for the retention of their own power. To that end, the Bible is useful in the way that it is structured because it is written in such a way that allows for just that: the retention of power and social control. Let us examine what methods the Bible employs to achieve such ends.

Starting in the very beginning, in Book of Genesis, we have the story of Adam and Eve. God places these two humans, the first of their kind, in a garden. In the middle of that garden is the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from this tree. Eve is tempted by the serpent and ignores God’s wishes and eats from the tree. God exacts his punishment on both Eve and Adam.

Here, we see that God interfaces very directly with the first humans. He provides for them by planting trees for sustenance. He speaks to Adam and Eve personally. And when these first humans disobey God, He punishes them in a very direct way. In the story of Cain and Abel, God speaks to Cain as He did with Adam and Eve. We see that Cain is able to speak to God Himself as well (Genesis 4:13). And again, we see that God punishes him in a very direct way: God exercises His power over His domain by cursing Cain. This is a show of God’s coercive power (Raven, 1999).

Later, when we come to Abraham’s story, we see even greater interaction between man and God. Abraham goes so far as to challenge God’s intentions to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23). He in fact engages with God on an interpersonal level that has not been exhibited before: Abraham “questions whether God can act inconsistently with His own standards” (Friedman, 1995, p. 33).

All of the above is an illustration that humans at one time had divine experiences. This establishes the legitimacy of the existence of God, and therefore the legitimacy of the Bible itself. The stories are used to illustrate that God exists and that at one point there was very obvious proof of His existence. Without these stories, the existence of God would be more questionable.

However, God slowly becomes more hidden and withdraws himself from having direct contact with humans. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God says to Moses, “I shall hide my face from them.” According to Friedman (1995), personal and public miracles (which serves as proof of divine existence) diminish in occurrence and by the Book of Esther, God is not even mentioned. Over time, He vanishes entirely and isolates Himself from humankind.

This achieves several very important things. For one, it is a clever explanation of why we do not see any signs of the divine anymore. The Bible conveniently removes human access to God as an opportune way to explain why God does not appear to us after the Bible was written and compiled. Because God has effectively disappeared, believers cannot reasonably expect miraculous and spectacular divine experiences like the ones they read about in the Bible.

It also aids in a very important factor of the survival of a religion: longevity and sustainability. Removing access to God and the expectation of evidence of the divine reduces the opportunity for people to challenge the legitimacy of the existing social structure. If God has been written to have disappeared and people are to understand that God will not show himself anymore, people cannot use the lack of miracles as an argument against God’s existence. Additionally, people may not make claims that contradict anything that was written in the Bible: the Bible is “the word of God”, and because God no longer appears to humans, it cannot be refuted.

By removing access to the deity, you remove a problematic source of authority in the event that anyone makes any serious religious claims that would disturb the stability of the religious system. This denial of access is especially usefulindebunking self-proclaimed prophets or anyone who may make his or her own divine claims because it makes it far more difficult for anybody outside a position of authority in the religious hierarchy to refute any existing beliefs or doctrine. Thus, the removal of access to the deity is important to the retention of power and legitimacy.

In order to further protect the religion from challenges to its power, the Bible must protect itself from those who may dispute its validity and from naysayers who may lead their followers astray. To that end, the Bible itself dictates that it is indeed the final authority of the religion; and that those who would challenge the Bible are not to be trusted or believed: in the Book of Matthew (7:15), the Bible warns of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” In the Book of Deuteronomy (18:20-22), there is a passage dealing with prophets as well:

“If you wonder, ‘How are we to recognize a word that the Lord has not uttered?’ here is the answer: When a word spoken by a prophet in the name of the Lord is not fulfilled and does not come true, it is not a word spoken by the Lord The prophet has spoken presumptuously.”

This is an incredibly expedient passage designed to ensure the image of infallibility, an important part of the retention of power. More specifically, it defends the expert power of the Bible (Raven, 1999, p. 168). That is, the Bible holds the definitive word in the same way an expert does. The passage has a logic that is designed to protect the religion from making any mistakes by putting its faith in the wrong person. Put another way, it states that if someone speaks in prophecy but that it does not come true then he has not spoken for God. With logic like this, it is impossible for the religion to be wrong and the religion proves to be infallible. All predictions, given enough time, can be proven as either true or false. If a prophecy predicts a particular event, and that event indeed passes, the prophecy is proven true, and therefore the prophet who spoke is a true prophet of God. However, should that predicted event not pass, the prophet is proven to be a false one. Either way, the passage in Deuteronomy is correct: it covers all its bases to ensure that. The passage is seemingly infallible. Additionally, the passage scares people away from attempting false prophecy by threatening such an act with death, with death being a form of coercive power.

God’s coercive power is also very clearly demonstrated in the Adam and Eve story (Genesis 3). The punishment for disobedience is harsh: He burdens women with great difficulty in childbirth and the slave-like submission to their husbands; and men with eternal toil and labor until the day that he dies (Genesis 3:16-19). In Exodus, God states that he will punish “children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 20:5-6). This is a display of the immense amount of coercive power that comes with the power to punish to such a degree. In this case fear is used to aid in the objective of retaining power.

Aside from coercion, the Bible shows evidence of encouraging an incredibly insular style of worship. In the First Letter of John there is a passage that says, “The way to recognize the Spirit of God is this: every spirit which acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and no spirit is from God which does not acknowledge Jesus. This is the spirit of antichrist (1 John 4:2-3).” The passage starts off warning about false prophets and seems to promote intolerance: it can be interpreted to mean that anyone who does not align themselves with the belief in Jesus Christ is an enemy. This fosters a belief in which members view outsiders (spirits that do not acknowledge Jesus) as hostiles (the antichrist), driving them further into their belief system. The Bible in fact encourages the idea of stratification and separation of believers versus non-believers later in the passage (1 John 4:4-6).

Further evidence of attempts to control followers can be seen in the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. By saying that “the folly of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25), the Bible reduces the power and wisdom in humans. This is actually an efficient invocation of two types of power as defined by Raven: the enhancing of God’s expert power and the minimizing of the target (the target being humans). The Bible also discourages people from becoming too confident in themselves and places God as ultimately superior to even the smartest and wisest of humankind (1 Corinthians 1:25-29).

In the same vein of removing power from followers, the Bible tells followers to “look to the Lord and be strong; at all times seek his presence (1 Chronicles 16:11).” In fact, the phrase is repeated in Psalms 105:4. It is implied that one should find their strength in God, and that one should always be mindful to look for God in times of weakness. If one is expected to rely on God to find strength, then it stands to reason that one would develop a dependence on God. It comes as no surprise that this is yet another way to garner power and control over followers.

Finally, the Bible preaches that “adherence and complete acceptance of the literal word of God and the Bible is an absolute necessity” (Raven, 175). In fact, intellectual engagement is discouraged: spiritual conviction and faith is encouraged instead (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). By removing the need for independent thought, the Bible further reduces the risk of its followers questioning the doctrine set forth before them. Raven calls this the “rejection of reasoning and informational power” (Raven, 175).

Upon closer examination, the Bible appears to be structured to retain as much power as possible. The scriptures use various techniques to promote this objective. The faith that is encouraged in the Bible is one that relies not on a healthy understanding of religious doctrine but blind acceptance of beliefs—some may call this faith. The Bible makes use of tautologies to reduce the possibility of dissent. It preaches to its followers not to rely on themselves but on God to create an emotional and psychological dependence. There are far more examples of the manifestations of various types of power in the Bible than have been covered here. Ultimately the Bible, through its careful composition, design, and choice of content, can be used by religions as an effective tool for social control. This is not to say that all religions are merely attempts to control people. Rather, this is only a recognition and observation that the Bible has much potential in allowing for interpretations that endorse a particular belief system’s power and hold on its constituents.