The Range of Permissible Acts

3:39 pm Philosophy, Religion

Say you’ve picked out a private kindergarten for your little girl, and you’ve gone down to take a look at the place to check on a last few details.

During the hourlong tour and consultation, you ask “What are the classroom rules here at Bronfield Academy? What will be expected of my daughter while she’s actually in class?”

“Ah,” says the director. “Glad you asked, because we’ve got a list of the rules we send home for each new student before the term begins. Let me get you a copy of that. Yes, here we are.”

You read it, and it’s a lot of stuff you’d expect. Things you approve of.

  • Students must be under adult supervision at all times. Students outside the classroom must be accompanied by a teacher, adult aide, or parent.
  • A student must say ‘please’ when asking for additional art materials such as paper or crayons.
  • Students must say ‘thank you’ when teachers hand out snacks at snack time.
  • Students must act fairly with each other, so that each gets a turn on playground equipment.
  • Students may not bring sharp objects such as metal scissors, knives, etc., onto the school grounds.
  • Outside toys brought for playtime must be approved in advance by the teacher.

All good stuff, you think. But on page two, far down the list, you see this:

  • The strongest boy in each classroom may be allowed to assist the teacher by spanking misbehaving girl students.

You look up in astonishment. “Wait, what? What’s this?”

“Oh, that’s something left over from the early days. The school was founded in the mid-1800s as you know, and it was a rule back then, just something the teacher could do if they chose.”

“But why is it still on the list of rules? There’s no way that can even be legal, can it? And I certainly don’t want a boy student SPANKING my daughter.”

“Oh, we don’t use it anymore. I mean, technically, it’s part of the Bronfield tradition, you know, but it’s extremely unlikely any teacher would think of using it these days.”

Whoa. Would you send your daughter to that school? However much you liked the rest of the place? Holy crap, no!

You’re checking the web for a nearby plumber, looking for someone reputable to fix the leaking faucet in the bathroom. You find one, but on the “About” page, you find this:

“As well-fed plumbers do their best work, we ask customers to allow our men free access to the home’s refrigerator, so each plumber may, on his own discretion, make himself a sandwich during break time.”

Would you hire that plumbing repair company? I wouldn’t, and I don’t think you would either. The thing sounds … well, tweaked. If they think rummaging in your refrigerator is acceptable enough to write it into their ad, what ELSE are they likely to do once they get into your home and you leave the room for a second?

You pick up your computer from the repair guy and he says “Okay, I upgraded your RAM like you asked, and dropped in a new 2-terabyte hard drive. The graphics card was old, so I got you a new one of those too. Oh, by the way, I hope you don’t mind, I used your bank account to transfer some funds around to keep the IRS off my back. I had to hack your passwords, but it’s no big deal, everything’s back to normal now.”

Will you ever go back to that guy? In flashing neon letters six feet high, the answer is NO.

Assuming that all three of these services – the school, the plumber, the computer geek – are otherwise reputable and efficient, why really would you not deal with them?

Because even if everything else is fine, there’s a sharp limit to how much stuff you can allow to go on in the “not fine” domain.

Doesn’t matter how great a fellow your Cousin Clem is – he might be a pillar of the community, a self-made millionaire who gives to charity, organizes food drives for the poor, volunteers at his church, leads a Boy Scout troop, and tutors under-privileged youth in his spare time – if you know he fools around with underaged girls, you’re not going to leave him alone with your 12-year-old daughter. Not for 10 seconds. Not ever.

The Why of all of this is something I call “the range of permissible acts.”

Even if you openly admitted their good traits …

“Everybody down at the office sends their kids there, and their graduates have higher grades in every subject.” “This plumbing company shows up on time, does excellent work, and leaves everything clean.” “He’s the only computer repair guy I ever met who really knows what he’s doing.” “Cousin Clem is the most energetic and generous guy I know, and he does more charity work than any three people put together.”

… you’d still shy away from using them.

Each of these people might be ninety-nine and ninety-nine-one-hundredths percent reputable. But that tiny bit of unacceptable behavior would make them, for any normal person, for any good parent, untrustworthy. Because no matter what good might be contained in a service or a person, some things are completely beyond the range of what you can permit. Given a choice, you’d refuse to deal with this school, this plumber, this computer repair service, or this cousin.

And that’s really the problem I have with religion. The Range of Permissible Acts in religion is very, very broad. Not just in the things people in religious cultures do, based in their individual minds on the details of their religion, but in the things it actually says in each religion’s source book. The Bible and the Koran both have some freaky stuff in them.

The Bible clearly says “If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by the private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.”


The Koran says “… (as to women) on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them …”


Religious apologists would accuse in both cases that any critic of such passages was taking things out of context, or misunderstanding them.

But in words that are hard to misunderstand, one says that it’s okay in certain specific circumstances to cut off a woman’s hands, the other says you should beat women, in situations where you fear they may leave you.

Believers would argue two more things:

One, that these passages are not taken seriously by anyone today. Second, that the good their religion does far outweighs any little aberrations written into it in some more primitive time.

The problem is, these things ARE written down. And not in some obscure commentary by a distant weirdo who happened to belong to some little splinter sect of Christianity or Islam, but in the very sourcebooks from which Christianity and Islam arise.

It’s not as if there weren’t opportunities to clean up those things. After scores of translations and secret meetings by religious leaders over the centuries, after passing through countless hands of those deciding what stayed in and what got taken out, it STILL says you should, in certain circumstances, cut off a woman’s hands.

There’s no way around it: The Range of Permissible Acts in Christianity includes cutting off women’s hands. The Range of Permissible Acts in Islam includes beating women to keep them from leaving you.

Here in the predominantly-Christian U.S., we see stories a couple of times a year in which people refuse medical care to critically ill children, who then die. We see stories in which people practice exorcism on children, who die or suffer psychological harm. A recent story entailed a woman bleeding to death while giving birth to twins, because she and her family refused a blood transfusion that would have saved her life. Growing up in the South, I must have seen a dozen stories over the course of my lifetime in which some Christian fool died from handling poisonous snakes. (And as to Islamic suicide bombers, which are now so common they’re hardly front page news … well, bloody-goddam-hell-on-steroids.)

Each time, though there is some public condemnation, we seem to assume that these things are aberrations. Something OUTSIDE the bounds of the religion.

But they’re not. They are written down, right in the Bible, there for everybody to see, there for anybody to believe and act on.

Though they may be outside the core beliefs of most Christians today, they are absolutely, provably, without doubt, within the Range of Permissible Acts for Christians.

Sure, nothing and nobody is perfect. But given that this is a widespread system of belief, purported to be something so good that it must be aggressively taught to both your children and mine, shouldn’t the effort be made to clean it up so that at least the letter of the religion should be as perfect as possible? To close down those boundaries of permissible acts so that each new generation would get the clear message that beating your wife is NEVER permissible? That refusing medical care to children is NEVER acceptable? That mutilating a woman by cutting off her hands is so abhorrent that only a disgusting psychopath would even THINK of it? That slavery is NEVER okay?

And yet it isn’t. Whatever good they might do, like that generous cousin, the Range of Permissible Acts in Christianity includes beating women and children. Burning unbelievers in fire. Allowing children to be torn to bits by bears. Performing unnecessary elective surgery on babies. Torturing and killing helpless enemies. Keeping slaves.

Things that should never-never not-ever be allowed. Things that should never, not ever, be believed.

One more thing, a point I think worth making in the broader context of religious beliefs in relation to society:

Right now in the U.S., there’s at least one preacher – and not some extreme freak who slithered out of an inbred backwoods swamp, but a mainstream voice reputable enough to make it into the news – who encourages his flock to pray for the death of the president.

Whether this is based on specific words in the Bible – frankly, right this moment I’m not interested enough to look it up – it is based on something well-enough known in religious circles that there’s a common term for it: Imprecatory Prayer.

Imagine two prominent men saying this: “I hope the president dies. I want everybody within the sound of my voice to hope the president dies. It would be a great thing, friends and neighbors, if the president died. I call on all of you to actively contemplate the death of the president, to cherish the notion of him dying, and soon.”

The one is a religious leader. The other is a school teacher, an electrician, or a department store manager.

Which of those guys is going to get a visit from the Secret Service? Which may not? Right.

Which means the Range of Permissible Acts not only applies to people within these religious sects, it applies outside it. Whether or not we ourselves are believers, those of us in the larger society give great accommodation to these beliefs and acts. Not only do we not pass laws making such beliefs and acts unacceptable (which we know would have unpleasant side effects), we usually don’t even bother to make even the mildest of condemnatory statements.

If you’re a school teacher, or a mother, or a truck driver, or even a lawyer, there are socially accepted rules. There are some things you absolutely cannot permit yourself to believe or do, things all the rest of us insist you should not be allowed to believe or do.

But if you’re religious, the range of things you can allow yourself to think or do is so broad that it encompasses even vomit-inducing atrocities. It includes murder, torture, rape, bloody mutilation, genocide, even the wanton execution of your own children.

It’s been that way for thousands of years.

Considering the fact that no holy book I ever heard of undergoes revision, it will always be that way.

The over-broad, over-generous, over-zealous Range of Permissible Acts is why Christianity and Islam, and even religion generally – no matter how much good it claims to do, or to be able to do – must be unacceptable to any reasonable person.

6 Responses
  1. Andrew :

    Date: February 18, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    Thanks for this post. It’s really powerful and I have re-read it several times since you posted it. Religions are full of moderates who will quickly say “those outrageous statements aren’t really Jewish or Christian or whatever”. But the truth is that they are all working from books and traditions which open the door to extreme behavior, for all the other good they can and do also encourage.

    I have also been trying to think of a solution to your post. One argument for not updating the bible or whatever is that it contains interesting history of people’s relationships with each other, with suffering and with their mortality. So you couldn’t really delete all that (although Jefferson did edit his bible). So what do you think the answer should be, in a perfect world or in the real world?

  2. Hank Fox :

    Date: February 19, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

    Andrew, once you realize it’s not divine, that it’s just one of … what, several million books? … you decide to live your life by some other standard. Hopefully one based on reason, and the compassion which is one of our natural gifts.

    And thanks for the compliment.

  3. Cynthia Feist :

    Date: February 20, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    That was a fantastic analogy, especially the bits about what’s written in contracts, since humans seem to gravitate towards the written word as if that’s the absolute truth, many times without questioning the validity of the information. I’ve heard people (who are religious) say “well, it’s the law” about churches not paying taxes and I reply just because someone wrote down a stupid sentence doesn’t make it right – take slavery for instance that was law. Do you never question anything? But these analogies you’ve come up with are priceless! Thanks.

  4. julio :

    Date: February 20, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    I was a fundamentalist Christian for several decades.
    I endorsed the Bible and defended the KJV.
    At one terrible spiritual crisis I freed myself from that rabid intolerance, and abandoned the faith.
    I now propose wherever I go that the Bible [or the Koran, for that matter] should be symbolically BURNED once a year in front of the UN and its ashes removed from the planet – all in a symbolic ceremony.
    People get offended and outraged with my proposition, but I insist that a holy book that is the source of much CRIME throughout the history of the last 40 centuries should be OFFICIALLY condemned by people of good will.
    One way or another, I know some future generation will do exactly that in remembrance of those millions of innocents that were murdered & slaughtered exactly because of those holy books – all done to exalt some almighty’s holy character!

  5. David Harmon :

    Date: March 4, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    One big reason no religion wants to edit their holy books is the same reason as why Constitutional amendments rarely get traction — once you’ve opened up the process, everything becomes fair game. And in the religious case, they’d also have to actually examine and argue over all sorts of things that really don’t bear examination.

  6. GNU Atheist :

    Date: September 19, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    Well said, Hank.

Leave a Comment

Your comment

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.