Edis Interview in Salon

Salon has posted this interview with physicist Taner Edis. You might recognize Edis as the coeditor (with Matt Young) of the magisterial book Why Intelligent Design Fails.

The subject of the present interview is his new book, An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam. Edis has a lot of insightful things to say about the state of Muslim science, including a few tidbits about creationism, so I recommend reading the whole thing.

Actually, though, it was the beginning of the article that caught my eye:

In October, Malaysia’s first astronaut will join a Russian crew and blast off into space. The news of a Muslim astronaut was cause for celebration in the Islamic world, but then certain questions started popping up. How will he face Mecca during his five daily prayers while his space ship is whizzing around the Earth? How can he hold the prayer position in zero gravity? Such concerns may sound absurd to us, but the Malaysian space chief is taking them quite seriously. A team of Muslim scholars and scientists has spent more than a year drawing up an Islamic code of conduct for space travel.

The image of serious and intelligent people getting worked up over God’s opinion of such trivia reminded me of an experience I had during my sophomore year of college. I was living in a suite with five other people, one of whom was an Orthodox Jew named Dov. When Hanukkah rolled around, he invited me to join him and his girlfriend as they lit the traditional candles.

For any goyim who might be reading this, let me explain that the Hanukkah menorah consists of eight candle holders, with a ninth that is set off in some way from the others. The offset candle is called, phonetically, the “Shamash.” On the k-th night of Hanukkah you place candles in k of the holders, with one additional candle being placed in the Shamash holder. You then light the Shamash, and use it in turn to light the other candles.

Now, when I was a little kid Jew, the conservative synagogue where I went to Hebrew school made a big production about the placement and lighting of the candles. The rule was something like this: you place the candles in from right to left, and then light them from left to right. Alas. it might have been exactly the opposite. I couldn’t remember which one it was, but I remembered it was viewed as an issue of some import.

But then I saw Dov placing the candles in haphazardly, showing no respect at all for the whole left-right business. Somewhat uncomfortable, I asked him whether the candles were supposed to be placed in the menorah left to right or right to left.

He looked at me like I was insane. After some impressive eye rolling he said emphatically, “No one cares which way you put the candles in or which way you light them! You can do it any way you want” And he finished putting in the candles, said the traditional blessings, and lit the candles.

The moral of the story? Genuinely religious people don’t waste their time worrying about ritualistic minutiae. It is the ones who want everyone else to think they are really pious who do that.

Comments

  1. #1 Crudely Wrott
    August 14, 2007

    And yet great schisms have sometimes been precipitated by just this kind of disrespect for ritual, for tradition. Hence, many, many religions.

    How different it would be if no change in worship had ever been made. Not one, not ever. Think of it! We would still have the Ur-Faith. A living laboratory in which to study the workings of primitive minds. The possible insights would be manifold and exciting. Yet I don’t think it would be any more revealing than personal attendance at a variety of churches, having both religious and non-religious friends, and observing the way religion has attempted to alter or prevent just about everything interesting (or fun) that people have ever tried, suggested or imagined.

    The more things change . . .

  2. #2 Jeremy
    August 14, 2007

    And yet great schisms have sometimes been precipitated by just this kind of disrespect for ritual, for tradition. Hence, many, many religions.

    I’ve often thought that exactly this element of religion – the tendency to schism – is probably very important in the history of human culture. Or of religion, anyway. Think of it as a neutral evolutionary process: Assume there is no “selective” benefit or cost to any given set of doctrines, and that the tendency to splinter (or not) is roughly heritable. Then religious movements that spawn the most splinter groups (have the highest “birth” rate) are going to end up dominating the population of human religions over time. Which is good news for the Amish but bad news for the Unitarians.

  3. #3 Crudely Wrott
    August 14, 2007

    Interesting, Jeremy. Note that schisms take place not only in human endeavors such as science, politics, philosophy and art as well as religion, but that when a biological line bifurcates and a new specie is underfoot, that may be viewed as a schism too. Might one stretch this to include stellar nucleosynthesis?

    If so, one might say that such a process is built into the fabric of the universe.

    The tag line again seems appropriate; the more things change, the more they stay (seem?) the same.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    August 14, 2007

    My father was your typical Italian, raised in a strict Catholic family. His mother was insanely attached to ritual from what I heard: rosaries, Hail Mary’s, all that bullshit. It drove him nuts, and after he moved out he never attended church again (he and my mother were married in a UU church).

    Funny thing is, he’s still a huge mark for the culinary traditions he grew up with. If any recipe diverges at all from how his nonna (who I only know as the mysterious “Manucci” for some reason) did it, he flips.

  5. #5 David D.G.
    August 14, 2007

    Crudely Wrott wrote:

    And yet great schisms have sometimes been precipitated by just this kind of disrespect for ritual, for tradition. Hence, many, many religions.

    You can say that again. Heck, I have heard of one church that split just over the choice of new carpeting for the building!

    ~David D.G.

  6. #6 Caledonian
    August 14, 2007

    Genuinely religious people don’t waste their time worrying about ritualistic minutiae.

    Translation: only the aspects of religious observance that *I* think are important actually are.

  7. #7 Kurt
    August 14, 2007

    Off-topic, but I just saw you on TV… Over the weekend BookTV broadcasted video of Behe’s talk in Washington D.C. that you attended back in June. I don’t recall if you had previously mentioned that it was being recorded.

    The talk was, as you described it, mind-numbingly dull, so I was fast-forwarding toward the end and all of a sudden, there you were. I didn’t realize until then that it was the same talk you had posted about.

  8. #8 Ed Darrell
    August 14, 2007

    Reminds me: Recently met a guy from the Church of Christ, from a congregation from someplace out of town. In the course of conversation he made it clear he considered himself a very pious Christian, and sure enough (this being Texas), he asked me if I “known Jesus.” I told him I attend a Disciples of Christ congregation in our town. He asked me about our worship service, which I thought a little odd. I explained to him that the Disciples and CofC had split about a century ago, and other than the fact that CofC services would be a capella, since the schism issue was whether musical instruments could be used in worship, it should match his church’s service pretty well.

    He looked at me blankly for a moment, and then said, “What do you mean Church of Christ services are a capella.” “No musical instruments,” I said. “Oh, no, that’s not right,” he said. “We have a band, with guitars, piano, a drummer — you know, a real praise band.”

    I laughed. He was offended. It was a serious enough issue a century ago to split one of America’s larger sects; today? Who remembers why the split?

  9. #9 Glen Davidson
    August 14, 2007

    Reading this blog reminded me that the first (unfortunately, tragic) Israeli astronaut had the odd task of observing the Sabbath in space. I didn’t know then that he in fact was not a religious Jew, which fact probably made the arbitrary demarcations of the Sabbath in space (or on a revolving sphere, indeed) somewhat easier to accommodate.

    I found that out because I thought I should provide a link, which states this:

    While Ramon was not a religious Jew, he asked for kosher food aboard the shuttle and he observed the Jewish Sabbath, day of rest, in space.

    http://judaism.about.com/library/1_culture/bl_spaceshuttle.htm

    I presume it was cultural solidarity that led him to do these things, but it reminds me of the tedious problems of the Sabbath of my childhood, as a Christian Seventh-day Adventist. On the other hand, having not been a member of a very ritualistic religion, I do look at the Catholics and others and wonder if I didn’t miss the essence of a communal religion (traditional religions are typically quite ritualistic). Not all bad, of course, since I never felt like I had much of any meaningful tie to that religion.

    I suppose the upshot of it is that while it was probably nice of Ilan Ramon to sort of wave the flag with the star of David by keeping kosher and some semblance of the Sabbath, whenever Jews, Xians, or Muslims try to fit their antiquated beliefs to contexts that clearly show the meaninglessness of their religious claims, it’s a triumph of belief over evidence. Not a problem for Ramon himself, but the problems for believing Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Xians who maintain belief against science, are obviously insurmountable.

    It might be good to point this out a little more, in fact, since the absurdities of traditional beliefs really ought to be made a problem for their believers.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  10. #10 realpc
    August 14, 2007

    Following traditions and rituals gives people a sense of stability and togetherness. It’s reassuring. It is not true that genuinely religious people don’t need traditions — we all need them, but many of us now leave that need unfilled.

    You could also say that a genuinely religious person doesn’t need to go to church, and only those who want to be seen as religious bother with it. But that is wrong. Attending church reinforces the sense of community that is one of the benefits of religion.

    Rituals, traditions and myths are not rational or scientific.

    I don’t belong to any organized religion but I can see their value. It doesn’t matter if you think Moses turned his staff into a snake or that Jesus turned water into wine. These are meant to be believed as symbolic myths, not scientific facts.

    Scientific atheism also has its irrational myths, such as neo-Darwinism, and therefore qualifies as a religion.

    Some of us get by with vague and amorphous beliefs and we manage to accept uncertainty. Others have to know the “truth.” And there is everything in between. Scientific atheists are similar to fundamentalist Christians and Muslims in the degree of certainty they require. And, of course, a great need for certainty results in extreme intolerance of other faiths.

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 14, 2007

    realpc-

    I didn’t say rituals aren’t important. It is ritualistic minutiae that I criticized. People more sensible than the zealots mentioned at the start of the Salon article understand the concept of your heart being in the right place. Getting worked up over how the candles are placed in the menorah has nothing to do with stability and togetherness. It has to do with creating the illusion of great piety, as I said in my post.

    Likewise, fretting about the precise position you are in or the direction you are facing during prayer, especially when you’re in a very unusual, short-term situation like flying through outer space, has nothing to do with genuine religiousness. It has to do instead with self-proclaimed religious authorities tending to their own power by pretending that they are the only ones who know how God is to be worshipped.

    The rest of your comment is both completely moronic and totally irrelevant to anything I wrote. So I will ignore it.

  12. #12 Crudely Wrott
    August 14, 2007

    realpc sez: “Following traditions and rituals gives people a sense of stability and togetherness. It’s reassuring. It is not true that genuinely religious people don’t need traditions — we all need them, but many of us now leave that need unfilled.”

    This is true for cannibalistic tribes and street gangs, yes? And for people who practice the shedding of blood to appease a spook? And for those who just know and just believe so fully that sex is only for reproduction? And for those who have formalized an approach to telling you what you must do? For politicians and preachers who tell you that you should think in this ritualistic way and you are un-American if you don’t? Or evil? Phaaagh!

    I can think of only one ritual that has stood the test of time and application and that has had any demonstrable benefit for the human race. The first kiss shared by two very interested people. All other rituals are merely a cry for recognition from those who can no longer kiss by virtue of their ritualistic baggage, the origins of which are long forgotten but frequently reinvented to cater to a more sophisticated consumer. Again I say, “Phaaagh!” And a humbug on such flacid sentiment.

  13. #13 cbutterb
    August 15, 2007

    genuine religiousness

    An interesting, and potentially useful, term. Care to define it?

  14. #14 Caledonian
    August 15, 2007

    The act of putting candles in a holder and lighting them has nothing to do with creating a feeling of togetherness and shared community… so obviously, no genuinely religious people care about whether the menorah ritual is performed or not.

    Keeping to a set of dietary restrictions is less important than having your heart in the right place, so genuinely religious people eat whatever they like.

    Ritually-recited prayers are just collections of words, go genuinely religious people don’t care about the change of a single word in a creed.

    Right? Right?

  15. #15 Barnaby Dawson
    August 15, 2007

    I’m waiting with greatest anticipation to learn weather you break your boiled egg at the fat or the thin end…

    Upon this matter shall I judge you!

  16. #16 Caledonian
    August 15, 2007

    If trying to show off how pious you are by adhering to a complex and exacting ritual system is a bad thing, what about trying to show off how pious you are by complaining about others adhering to complex and exacting ritual systems?

  17. #17 windy
    August 15, 2007

    Sorry to pick on your cute story, but I am getting the same whiff of unintended irony here as Caledonian seems to be:

    After some impressive eye rolling he said emphatically, “No one cares which way you put the candles in or which way you light them! You can do it any way you want” And he finished putting in the candles, said the traditional blessings, and lit the candles.

    That latter part looks like “religious minutiae” to me, too.

    As for the Muslim astronaut, those are weird concerns for sure, but not unprecedented ones. Apparently the first Israeli astronaut had similar worries.

    And more recently an atheist astronaut insisted on observing certain traditions in orbit. (Those other astronauts were lucky it wasn’t Midsummer, that pole would have been a bitch to erect in space…)

  18. #18 DuWayne
    August 15, 2007

    David D.G. –

    Hey, the difference between shag and berber could be the difference between heaven and hell.

    I think the most bizarre schism that I ever heard of (actually witnessed) was over organ pipes. Mind, the church didn’t have an organ, but many in the church wanted to spend over a hundred grand on pipes to put on the walls anyways. They did and more than half the church walked. They subsequently went under, due to the loss of tithe.

  19. #19 khan
    August 17, 2007

    If it made sense it wouldn’t be religion.

    http://www.heretication.info/_schismatics.html

    In the seventeenth century for example the Patriarch Nicon tried to introduce Greek practices to Russia. The principal point at issue was whether to use two or three fingers in giving a blessing . For refusing to adopt the three finger option a number of people were executed. One Patriarch (Avvakum) was burned at the stake.

  20. #20 Strider
    August 17, 2007

    Alternative moral to the story:
    Don’t waste your time with the rituals at all cuz they don’t do nuthin’

  21. #21 Sastra
    August 19, 2007

    I also sniff the irony. The only objective marker for something being “genuinely religious” is a sincere desire to please or follow God/the Divine.

    I think that when atheists or other non-religious folk decide to define “true religion” as “only those beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors which make secular sense,” they help create a climate where religion is automatically seen as a fine, good, moral thing (and not having a religion, like an atheist, is a sad thing.) Unitarians and Bishop Spong “understand” Christianity in a way that evangelical baptists don’t. Christianity really just comes down to loving your neighbor; True Islam is a religion of peace. Anyone who does something we don’t like in the name of religion, or because they were inspired or instructed by their religion, obviously doesn’t understand their own fine religion as much as liberal outsiders do.

    No. Knock it off. There are many sincere, devout, pious people who take rituals very, very seriously. Classifying them as “not really religious” is playing the Let’s All Agree that Religion Means Reason and Goodness game.

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