Well, that got your attention, didn’t it? Actually, I’m referring to a post by PZ where he discusses his objections to religion. In reading them, they really didn’t seem to describe my religion, so I thought it would be interesting to go through them.
For background, I guess I’m a Reconstructionist when it comes to theology, Reform when it comes to politics (i.e., my politics and stands on social issues most resemble those of the Reform movement), and Conservative when it comes to observance (what Christians would call practice). I’m not going to pretend to speak for “Jews”, but simply describe how this individual Jew approaches these objections (an aside: I can’t get the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions” out of my head…). You will always be able to find some who disagree: like any civilization that punches in the same weight class as the Chinese or the Ancient Egyptians, there is such a long history and multiple strains of thought, that to claim there is a Jewish perspective is silly.
Let’s begin (for brevity, I have cut some of what PZ writes and put his words in italics).
Theft.…Tornado demolishes home, tearful survivor comes before news cameras and “thanks God” that she was spared…. Cancer patient goes into remission, lies in bed surrounded by his expensive, highly trained medical team, calls it a miracle. What religion does is steal human accomplishment and bestows it on a fickle imaginary being. Modern medicine is not a product of religion, it’s the highly refined outcome of years of empirical science, yet people still babble about miracles and prayers.
Mad Biologist: No problem here. Frankly, if miracles do happen (which I really, really don’t believe), I’m not planning my day around them. When people are just, it should be noted; when they are unjust, ditto.
Literalism. We in the evo-creo wars know this one well. If the Bible says it, it must be literally true. There was a world-wide flood, there was an ark, the earth is 6000 years old, etc. One antiquated hodge-podge of a book becomes the arbiter of truth, with the added benefit that its clutter and inconsistency and diversity of authorship means you can justify anything with the right random quote.
Mad Biologist: Given that the basic justification of the Oral Law (the Mishnah and Talmud, which is the cornerstone of Jewish observance) is that there are inconsistencies in the Bible, the idea that the Bible should be interpreted literally is really foreign to most Jews. Also, Maimonides dealt with this issue in the twelfth century. Literalism is silly. By the way, if a burning bush started talking to me, I hope I would seek medical attention. I approach the Bible as a set of national myths (I mean myth in the sociological sense. While I’m certain some ancient Greeks thought their tales were literal, I’m sure many did not, but still found significance and meaning in them).
Authoritarianism. Once you’ve abandoned individual thought to the dictates of a book, you’re accustomed to surrendering intellectual autonomy…so you pass responsibility on to others. Religious history is a parade of petty tyrannies, where religious authorities, from your local parish priest to the pope and Pat Robertson, get to tell you what is right. Unfortunately, their credentials as authorities on righteousness always seem to rest on assertions about the words of prior religious authorities.
Mad Biologist: A religion built around legal scholarship doesn’t really strike me as inherently authoritarian (particularly since the minority views are recorded for posterity). I’m not saying we don’t have our Lizard Brain People–every group does–but my experience with Judaism doesn’t smack of authoritarianism.
Hierarchies. The pattern of authoritarianism leads easily to hierarchies. Secular organizations often fall into hierarchies, too, and often they’re an efficient way of getting things done; with religion, though, we go a few steps further, with the invention of an invisible, all-powerful being at the top who has everything but accountability. In addition, we impose this pattern on the world around us; our picture of the universe is colored by the scala naturæ, a false picture of our relationship to nature that distorts reality.
Mad Biologist: Since my views on God don’t involve a guy with a white beard telling us what to do, for me, this isn’t really an issue.
Dominion. Near the top of the chain of being, just below that imaginary old guy with the beard, is us. We rule the world. It’s an interesting thought, but it’s false: we are part of the world, the rest does not obey us, and we are fools on the road to destruction to pretend that we can dominate. It’s a way of thinking that urges us to control rather than adapt, oppress rather than accommodate. It cheapens the complexity and beauty of the natural world that surrounds us.
Mad Biologist: I don’t believe in the whole dominion idea. To the extent that we are “near the top of the chain of being”, that implies responsibility, not dominion. One of the motivations behind the laws of kashrut is that all life–not human life–all life is sacred and should only be shed out of necessity. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to dominion.
Predestination. I’ve had a few one-on-one conversations with creationists, and one of the weirder but fairly common discoveries is that they reject the concept of chance. Everything must have an intentional cause. A branch fell off my tree because the wind blew it down; similarly, if an ancient ape evolved into a human it must be because…? They’ve filled in the ellipsis with “God”, and they are not satisfied with explanations that do not invoke causes and intent.
Mad Biologist: Nearly 2,000 years of discrimination (and far worse) that started with the destruction of the Temple does tend to make one reconsider cause and intent. Sometimes awful things happen without any just cause.
Miracles. Religion’s universal lazy way out of anything. Forget evidence, forget logic, you got a problem explaining something? Poof. It was a miracle. It’s a cheap excuse to throw away the hard work of reason.
Mad Biologist: Regular readers of this blog will know that I don’t fall back on non-materalist explanations of physical phenomena. I agree with PZ.
Credulity. If you’ve got miracles, if you’ve got gods and devils and angels, who needs evidence and rigor? A chain of reasoning is going to be easily vitiated by a convenient miracle, so why bother? We are god’s creation, we are under his divine plan, so bad things can’t possibly happen to the world–a god will step in and make it all better….
Religion provides a get-out-of-jail-free card for the consequences of our actions.
Mad Biologist: Regarding the first part, I don’t do the divine intervention in history thing, so it’s not a problem. The second part (which I don’t think relates to the first, although it is a valid criticism of some religions) is actually something that really bothers me about certain hyper-salvationist Christian dogmas: I agree with PZ, but I don’t think it’s an accurate description of what I, or many other Jews, think. You are responsible for your actions. Period.
Inflexibility. The first time I heard this argument I could hardly believe it: religion never changes, while science changes all the time, therefore religion is better.
Mad Biologist: Given that Judaism is built around an evolving code of law, this statement is anti-ethical to the Jewish experience (note: I’m not claiming that PZ claims otherwise).
Blasphemy. This is a thoroughly stultifying concept. The idea that there are thoughts that must not be expressed, ideas that must not be pursued, dogma that must not be questioned…what an evil constraint.
Mad Biologist: It’s odd to me too: Judaism is far more concerned with heteropraxy, not heterodoxy.
Supernaturalism. One of the worst outcomes (or perhaps it is partly a cause) of religion is the willingness to invent a whole class of reality without evidence and without need.
Mad Biologist: Like I said at the beginning, I’m philosophically and theologically most aligned with the Reconstructionists, so the whole supernatural being thing doesn’t really come into play.
Faith. Faith is the greatest sin of religion. I despise it; I’m particularly appalled that it is so universally regarded as a virtue. Listen, if I ever call someone a “person of faith”, you should be aware that I have just insulted them terribly. It’s astonishing how easily that sails over people’s heads, though.
Faith is this amazing idea that it is a good thing to hold incredible beliefs in the complete absence of evidence to support them; the more outrageous the belief and the weaker the logic behind them, the stronger your faith and the more virtuous your conduct. It short-circuits everything that works in the world and puts ignorance on a pedestal.
Mad Biologist: A couple of points to make here. First, I’ve never liked the “person of faith” thing. It’s a way to say religious without actually saying the word, which is disingenuous (my dislike for the phrase is only rivaled by my dislike of Judeo-Christian which is even more obnoxious). Where I disagree with PZ is that faith inherently is a bad thing. I would argue that it depends on what the “incredible beliefs in the complete absence of evidence” are.
Most movements that have led to profound change were not forgone conclusions, and require incredible faith–that is, an irrational belief that right would will out in the face of extensive oppression–to sustain them (e.g., the civil rights movement). In retrospect, many such movements appear inevitable, but it certainly didn’t look that way to those engaged in those movements at the time. So, some ‘faiths’ are not bad.
Mad Biologist: My responses are why most atheist critiques don’t hit home for me. The majority of atheist objections really have little to do with how I live my life as a Jew. Something ScienceBlogling Josh wrote may be relevant here:
I think there’s a lot of room for a “secular Christianity” modeled on the cultural form of Judaism that is most common in America. I think that would connect with a lot of people, and would shift the discussion about what religion means in a way that would be productive in a lot of ways.
While I wouldn’t use the word ‘secular’ to describe Jewish thought any more than I would use ‘religious’ (thinking about Judaism along that axis is alien to a ‘covenantal’ religion), I think Josh hits on an important point. There are a lot of reasons why people are religious, and dogma and ‘belief’ often have very little to do with those reasons.