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One odd thing about religion is that I'm supposed to accept the divine authority of figures who couldn't even author their own book. Most sacred text are, in fact littered with self-contradictions, constant obfuscation, and things you wouldn't want in a Holy Code of Conduct.

I think I can do better. And I think it will make for an interesting fantasy concept. This question focuses on making a religious texts clearer by design and content.

My religious text's primary purpose is to tell people what to do in pretty much any situation, so I don't have to intervene much. It's laws and doctrines for the most part, fluff (story) is kept separate to make things nice and tidy and because I don't condone religious persecution and child murder.

How could a religious text be organized in a clear and concise way by the design? More precisely what is the most suitable, already existing format for it?

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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure it's possible. People have quite wildly interpreted various statements both religious and otherwise. It seems almost impossible to create some text that is not misinterpreted, even technical documentation can and does get misread and misunderstood. In fact, even mathematical definitions of pure logic leave holes that don't quite work. Look at...all of programming, for an example of how logical instructions can misfire. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Oct 8 '19 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ Does it have to be text? You are a deity, can't you do better? $\endgroup$ – Andrey Oct 8 '19 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ Artistic works exploit ambiguity. Think of the Odyssey: are any character's actions clearly intended as examplary behaviors? Is Ulysses master of his own destiny, or is he a pawn of the gods? Are any characters actions intended to represent the position of the author? Contrast with a clear-cut text, such as the Code of Hammurabi: which of the two has stood the test of time? (And the entire question may be too provincial; only some Muslims and some Americans believe that religious texts are supposed to be clear, direct instructions; others embrace and enjoy the artistic depth of Scripture.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 8 '19 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ Can it have frequent updates? The world is a chaotic place and yesterday's strategies won't necessarily help you tomorrow. That would be great, a real miracle, a holy book that regularly updates. $\endgroup$ – kleer001 Oct 8 '19 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ @kleer001 You might very well think that, until you see Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment, about a theocracy whose holy book comes in a three-ring binder for extra commandments. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Oct 9 '19 at 0:13
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I am going to address this question first in regard to identifying the barriers that prevent the clear and concise interpretation of any religious text.

  1. Translation: Different languages have different words for things. Just like in English, words in other languages can also have more than one meaning, which lends to the confusion. If a text is translated multiple times, this makes it increasingly difficult.
  2. Cultural or personal differences: Each culture, or even each individual, has their own way of thinking. Even when speaking the same language, people still miscommunicate with one another. Some words might hold a different meaning or weight for one person than another. Upon reading the religious text, people will come to their own conclusions and thus will spread their own personal meaning.
  3. Margin of error: People make mistakes. Maybe the prophet or scribe, upon hearing his God's words, wrote down the wrong thing, or made a misinterpretation. Or maybe the religious text was originally spread by word of mouth, which makes it change over time. By the time it is written down, it might not resemble the God's original vision.

So how can these issues be addressed?

In the first version, put specific instructions on how to translate it into different languages.

In the religious text itself, clear instruction should be made in how to translate words, instructions, and ideas. Saying things like "Do not translate words into a meaning that can be misinterpreted or have more than one definition" might help. Telling the translator to use any and all options necessary to clarify everything is important.

Repeat yourself in different ways.

Having a single sentence saying "Do not kill." can be easily misinterpreted. But going further and saying "Do not kill. Do not murder. Do not assassinate. Do not terminate life." etc. is a way to make it very clear what the intent is. People will take the average of these expressions.

One problem with current religious texts is that they repeat, but it's often written the same exact way. For example, "Do not kill. Killing - don't do it. Killing is bad." uses the same root (kill) and if that one word is translated badly, it could very well end up like: "Do not poop. Pooping - don't do it. Pooping is bad".

Get involved in the translation directly.

This defeats the purpose of not wanting to intervene much, but making sure that the translations are done correctly might ensure that the God's key ideas are not misinterpreted as much.


But unfortunately, it still comes down to the final bottom line:

No matter what, people will still find ways to misinterpret it.

You can do your best to reduce the amount of misinterpretation, but that's really the best you can do. Unfortunately, communication is such a complex interaction that the God's intent might not ever be interpreted correctly 100% of the time.

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    $\begingroup$ "Do not kill. Do not murder. Do not assassinate. Do not terminate life." etc. is a way to make it very clear what the intent is. People will take the average of these expressions. I'd worry that they wouldn't take the average. They would instead take the most convenient wording for what they'd like to impose on each-other. Sure, they could fight it out, but then your religion isn't any better than a real world one. $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Oct 8 '19 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ "In the religious text itself, clear instruction should be made in how to translate words, instructions, and ideas." this can be quite challenging. When the East Roman Empire (Byzantium) started translating Christian holy texts for the their northern neighbours (Bulgiara) to help out with their conversion, they faced a challenge that some concepts just did not have any equivalent in their Slavic language. Concepts that at least they thought were key. So, you either make up words which is barely translation and not very effective as one or use existing words that have a different meaning. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Oct 9 '19 at 6:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Zwuwdz and then you get into "I didn't kill him, I caused his death through my inaction". Is that against the commandment? In spirit, probably yes, in literal reading, probably not. Or what about accidents? You are on your roof and you drop a brick that kills somebody - you did kill but not intentionally, nor might you have foreseen or prevented it for whatever reason. So...it does get a bit murky, even if you start enumerating all options of "do not take life". $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Oct 9 '19 at 6:19
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ You simply account for those specifications within the text itself. "If it is an accident, do this. If it is through inaction, do that." Writing something so it can't be easily misinterpreted (you can't eliminate misinterpretation completely) can be done; but it will probably span many volumes due to length of content. $\endgroup$ – overlord Oct 9 '19 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Zwuwdz If you are not following the religious text strictly, then the point of the text is moot in the first place. "Do not kill. Do not murder. Do not assassinate. Do not terminate life." - One of these sentences will surely mean to the interpreter the same message the God intends to convey. If they don't follow it - that's on the person. $\endgroup$ – overlord Oct 9 '19 at 13:35
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As a starting point I would suggest the following would be required but would not be sufficient on its own:

The author should use word processing technology to ensure that spelling and grammar mistakes were eliminated or at least reduced to a very low level. The author should be a good writer familiar with the language and its usage. A team of linguistic experts should be employed to check and recheck the text for errors. A written procedure should be agreed to control how the final text was approved and how changes to the draft were dealt with.

The real problem lies with the message / content and the time span over which the texts were required to remain clear and concise. There almost certainly would be argument over what to include, what to exclude and how to present it (even with near perfect language), but assuming some form of consensus could be agreed upon the next problem would be to maintain the message over time and two issues then arise.

Firstly language usage changes over time and it can be hard or impossible to interpret text that was written a few centuries in the past. This problem can be addressed to a certain extent by discussing this very issue in the text and by having an officially sanctioned contemporary dictionary and thesaurus as “attachments”. As a further aid a priesthood of linguistic experts could be established to ensure that translations between the original text and later altered language could be made accurately.

Secondly and most problematically morality changes over time. Much of what was acceptable in the days when the bible was written are not acceptable today and many things that were considered unacceptable then are now acceptable. I don’t think there is much that can be done about this. The clear and concise text would simply become more out of step with current thinking as time went by. As has happened with accient holy texts (IMO)

Examples of what was acceptable in biblical times but is generally not now: Slavery, genocide, animal sacrifice Examples of what wasn’t acceptable in biblical time but is now: Eating shellfish, homosexuality Suggested example of an issue that in recent times is has changed its status: Protection of the natural environment

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    $\begingroup$ One way i would describe this is "context". Context changes. Just as few people get the jokes in Shakespeare because the times have changed, the context and even meanings of the same words have changed. Slavery as an example: in modern times we think of slavery as a permanent servitude. However that is a rather recent development of the practice, historically there was a maximum amount of time you could keep someone as a slave before their debt was considered paid and you had to free them. That would have been common knowledge then, and no longer is, coloring our interpretation of the text. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Oct 8 '19 at 20:32
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Parables are probably the most timeless ways of communicating a religious doctrine because it shows you in general how to do something instead of trying to tell you with exact words.

When you try to explain with exact words, people will try to take things out of context to serve their own desires. They will extract the exact phrase that suits their need and disregard the rest, because that one little phrase sounds like it works as a stand alone lesson. For example, take something like the 10 commandments. They seem like a really good formate at first. They are short, concise, and to the point. What could go wrong? As it turns out, a lot.

When you rely on a one-liner like "Thou shall not kill.", it leads to a lot of unresolved question about things like self-defense, abortion, acts of war, etc. It can be confusing when written by one civilization with 1 word for kill, and then read by another with 20 words for kill.

If you instead tell a story about several brother who each decided to kill for various reasons all coming to unfortunate ends, but then one brother who refuses to kill being saved by his God for refusing to give into temptation, then suddenly, the message has nothing to do with the words. The message is the story itself which can be horribly mauled in one translation after another and still get across the same point.

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    $\begingroup$ It is of note that the original hebrew does not translate as "thou shalt not kill," but "thou shalt not murder." The difference is subtle, but more specific, as murder requires malicious intent (at least under our modern legal definition). It is perhaps unfortunate that it is translated as "kill," as that would imply one may not use lethal force to defend oneself, or that capital punishment for crimes is not permissible. This leads to contradictions when taken with other parts of the bible, such as specifying that the punishment for murder is death. $\endgroup$ – stix Oct 8 '19 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ "*Parables are probably the most timeless ways of communicating a religious doctrine because it shows you in general how to do something instead of trying to tell you with exact words." and have been misinterpreted since time immemorial. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Oct 9 '19 at 6:18
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ anything can be "misinterpreted" by someone who is intent enough on reading what they want to read, or pushing the agenda they want to push, that is not my point. A parable's original meaning is hard to lose without significant manipulation; whereas, a 1-liner can be forever turned on its head over a single word choice by a biased translator. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Oct 11 '19 at 20:43
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More precisely what is the most suitable, already existing format for it?

Currently existing format of text... Series of rules that are carried out one way every time... Give an instruction for every situation... You're a deity that thinks they can do better...

How about a computer program? That's a form of text. Honestly all the pieces for a device that can detect the surrounding area (sensors, voice-recognition, image classification) and then run it through a decision making algorithm are already there. We just need a smart person to put them all together. And look! You're a deity. Presumably true machine learning isn't even required for this case, since you, the deity, know rules for every scenario and presumably exist outside of the context of time, you could just program a 90's style scifi AI with a huge number of cases.

Now your followers just have to pull out their... Tech-ble? Comp-ran? And ask it what your will is. They may not listen, but they'll have your word on the matter.

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Use simple, concise language...

Use the simplest form of a word. English has over 1 million words, for example, which leads to subtle errors in translation. Say what you mean as though you were trying to explain it to a child. Avoid idioms as much as possible, the same with metaphors.

Parables are okay, so long as they use simple language and are easy to understand, but cultural problems will still arise. Save them for difficult to understand spiritual topics rather than explanations of what to do for daily life and how to treat each other well.

By the same token, be precise and exact in your meaning whenever possible. If you don't want people to murder each other, but you still want to allow for capital punishment or allow people to use lethal force in defending themselves, don't say "Thou shalt not kill," but instead say "Thou shalt not commit murder." The difference is subtle, but one implies malicious intent while one does not. You can't necessarily rely on common sense to help you here, as what defines "common" changes over time. If my actions accidentally result in a death, have I killed them, and thus violated your commandments? If so, then use "kill," if not, then use "murder." If you're concerned about how it will be interpreted, then also make clear the distinction between "killing" and "murdering."

The same can be applied to other standard commandments. Does "thou shalt not steal" mean you must starve to death if your only option for food is to take it from someone?


There is no one language; you will need many...

Languages change over time, and the meaning of words and idioms changes with them.

"Well-regulated" once meant "in proper working order," or "properly equipped," but now is taken to mean "well-controlled." If one of your commandments was "ensure your mind is well-regulated," at first it would tell people to think rationally and value intelligence, but later would have the opposite effect and justify your clergy controlling everyone!

"Gay" once meant happy, but now means "homosexual," and is once again seemingly changing from that definition to mean "annoying," "unpleasant," or "stupid." If one of your commandments meant "be happy" but instead you said it as "be gay," you can see how this would lead to quite some interesting changes to how your people behave over time as their culture changed the meaning of the language. First they would be happy, but eventually they would all be terrible to each other!

Similarly, "dumb" once meant to be quiet, so if you had a parable that stated "a wise man is dumb," what would that mean today?

All of these examples also equally apply to the previous bullet of "use simple, concise language."

So how do you get around this problem? Well, languages don't all change in the same way, so give your people an accurate translation of your holy books in multiple different languages. This way, scholars long in the future could trace back to the original intent behind your divine words.

This is actually seen today in modern scholastic theology, where researchers will parse the meaning of the original words. A prime example is Christian eschatological thinking regarding the Rapture, such as the phrase "I will keep you from the hour of tribulation." Some scholars believe this means there is no rapture for the faithful, and that they must suffer with the damned until the Second Coming, but other scholars argue that the original Greek word for "...keep you from..." is "eck," which has a more accurate translation of "...keep you out of...," implying that the faithful will be evacuated during the tribulation.

What does "Honor thy mother and thy father mean?" In the times of Moses, it meant to have children of your own and continue the bloodline. Today it's often taken to mean "be kind" to them or to "be obedient" to them. This is silly, since there are already commandments to treat each other with respect and kindness, so why would it need to be restated specifically for your parents? Taken to an extreme, the modern interpretation of honor thy father and thy mother would mean to be a doormat and accept any kind of abuse from them, no matter how obscene (thus justifying even molestation).

This is just a small example of the kind of detailed parsing scholars will do of your holy works, so ensure you have a lot of linguistic examples that will get your exact meaning across in no uncertain terms.

This also protects you from nefarious editors. They may change or abridge your words in one language, but can they do it in many?


Include lots of language about mercy...

The letter of the law kills, but the spirit of the law brings life...

Assuming you're a merciful god that wants everyone to get along and to minimize atrocities, be sure that you provide language that ensures mistakes are OK, and that what is important is not the perfect adherence to your commandments, but a general willingness to try and better one's self and the world.

...the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”

Lawyers spend every day trying to find loopholes and tricks based on the letter of the law, and not the intent of the law. Your religious adherents will be no different. They will try to catch each other, and perhaps even be so arrogant as to try and catch you, in every "gotcha" they can to weasel out of things or get what they want.

As a diety, you must be smarter than your humans.


Ensure that there is no central authority and that everyone has access to your holy works

Assuming you want everyone to follow what you say, you should probably make your holy works accessible to everyone. Often in the past only the clergy had access to the holy works and only the clergy could read them. Obviously this leads to the perfect conditions for a corrupt priest to control worshipers by twisting your words, or even outright lying about the content of your holy books, after all, if only the priests can read the books, who can challenge them on their content?


Ensure literacy

Similarly, if you're going to make everyone decide for themselves what you want from them by reading your holy works, they need to be able to read in the first place, so you should make literacy an absolute commandment, perhaps even requiring that your people help those who are illiterate to learn.

Not only will this ensure your religious flock has direct access to your word, it will make it more difficult for any one faction to attempt a takeover.

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