Mike the Mad Biologist

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.

Comments

  1. #1 writerdd
    May 12, 2007

    I have nothing to add, but I wanted to say– Great post, thanks. I hope thought provoking for many readers.

  2. #2 Stauffenberg
    May 12, 2007

    PZ hates ALL religion.

    Including JUDAISM.

    GET IT?!

    He would just as soon see it eliminated as spit, if he had the power. Hell, he has said he’d like to bring out the brass knuckles and STEEL TOED boots!

    Many brilliant and talented men, with far more ability than the Associate Professor from Morris, have tried to destroy religion.

    Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Russell, Sartre.

    They all failed.

    Dawkins, Christopher Snitchens (who praised the “ethical glories of Marxism” in his God Awful Book) and the angry little blogger PZ Myers will fail too.

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    May 12, 2007

    “so the whole supernatural being thing doesn’t really come into play.”

    So does this “religion” of your involve a God? I’m somewhat curious as to how religion works without a supernatural being at the helm.

  4. #4 DHF
    May 13, 2007

    The last parts of this remind me of an article by Slacktivist in which he writes,

    Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. “Believing when common sense tells you not to” is something else. That’s called “denial.”

    The more I learn about Judaism, the more I agree with you about the term “Judeo-Christian”. The term seems to have become popular during WW2 as a way of siding against the Nazis.

    Given our nation’s Protestant heritage, religion without dogma and belief strikes me as very strange, even irreligious, even though I recognize that there’s more to religion than that. Given the US rise of the Christian right and its fondness for denial, I wonder if a “secular religion” (for lack of a better term) would have much popular success.

  5. #5 Mike the Mad Biologist
    May 13, 2007

    writerdd,

    thanks for the kind words.

    Tyler,

    I guess the simplest way to describe why I would observe Jewish ritual is that ‘it’s what Jews do.’ I’ve often heard this referred to as ‘cultural’ Judaism, but I think that sells it short. I think the significance and meaning of Jewish ritual is derived from an accumulated wisdom that is human in origin. As I noted, the kosher dietary laws stem, in part, from a recognition that killing animals is a necessary evil. Do I think God will strike me down for not observing kashrut? Of course not (when I’ve ‘lapsed’, I’ve managed to dodge the thunderbolts. So far). But that doesn’t deny the importance of the ritual.

    Another analogy: many people observe Memorial Day ceremonies. I don’t think most people would argue that this is a divinely revealed practice. It still is worth doing.

    As to what God is, let’s just say I believe in a form of agnostic monism: God is humanity’s capacity to perform righteous acts. (I don’t mean this is a transcendental sense–I’m not a Jedi).

  6. #6 Joshua
    May 13, 2007

    Mad Biologist: It’s odd to me too: Judaism is far more concerned with heteropraxy, not heterodoxy.

    Come on, now. In general, you’d be right in that I don’t think any Jewish tradition has ever endorsed a concept as evil as excommunication or heresy, but there’s still all that dodging around the name of G_d to be reckoned with. So you can’t say that there’s no such thing as blasphemy in Judaism.

    As a more general comment, with all due respect for your views, which are admirable, I don’t think your personal practices and beliefs are at all relevant to the public sphere. Anybody who believes as you do is clearly not part of the problem, but the problem is that the majority of people in the United States are part of the problem. Same goes for all the Deists and Spinozans out there in the world.

    I also don’t think “religion” is an appropriate term for what you’ve described, either, as indebted to a religion as your views are.

  7. #7 SLC
    May 13, 2007

    Re Joshua

    Excuse me, but I was under the impression that Spinoza was excommunicated for heresy.

    Re Jews who sin against science.

    What about evolution deniers like David Klinghoffer and David Berlinski, both fellows of the Discovery Institute.

  8. #8 Ethan
    May 14, 2007

    “What about evolution deniers like David Klinghoffer and David Berlinski, both fellows of the Discovery Institute.”

    The title of the article refers to Judaism, not Jews. Jews have been guilty of just about everything that anyone else has ever been guilty of. Given the non-hierarchical nature of Judaism, it’s not clear who gets to speak for the religion as a whole, but these two gentlemen certainly don’t. For that matter, the Jewish elders of Amsterdam don’t either. It would be fair to blame Judaism for bad ideas that lie close to the center of Jewish opinion and practice. I don’t think either of these qualify. (And while other things might, I can’t offhand think of any that are relevant to science. It would be interesting to make a list.)

  9. #9 Joshua
    May 14, 2007

    SLC: I think my wording was ambiguous. I meant to say that Deists and Spinozans, just as more or less secular Jews like Mike, aren’t really part of the “problem” because their God doesn’t really conflict with natural science or secular morality.

  10. #10 Tyler DiPietro
    May 14, 2007

    I think that I agree with Joshua here (thanks for the heads up, Mike, btw). I don’t think that what you are talking about is so much “religion” as organized ritual for the purpose of cultural solidarity. It’s not exactly my prime target, or even a target at all really, of criticisms like what you responded to.

  11. #11 Dan Stoebel
    May 14, 2007

    Joshua’s and Tyler’s comments (“I also don’t think ‘religion’ is an appropriate term for what you’ve described…” and “I don’t think that what you are talking about is so much ‘religion’ as organized ritual…”) suggest that they have one specific notion of religion- a notion that Mike doesn’t share. (I don’t share it either.) People around the world have a tremendous variety of religious experiences, and to define as religion only those observances and beliefs that one finds offensive seems like shifty rhetoric.

    Perhaps Jeremiads would be better focused on the specific beliefs and practices that the author finds objectionable (as PZ did in the post that Mike is responding to) rather than on “religion”, narrowly defined. If nothing else, this more precise discussion might help to not alienate those, like myself, who agree with many of the specific objections of the authors, but still consider themselves religious.

  12. #12 Edward
    May 14, 2007

    I think Dan hits the nail on the head: The “religion” PZ and others are ranting against is a straw man. Mike is showing PZ’s concept of religion for the straw man it is. There is a huge variety in what people consider religion. For example, Unitarian Universalist is a religious denomination. However, a number of Unitarian Universalists are atheists. So one might say that a blanket condemnation of religion includes a condemnation of atheists. Obviously, a blanket condemnation of any big concept is silly. PZ raises some legitimate issues about things done in the name of religion. His mistake is in making the leap from “some things about religion are bad” to “we should do away with all religion.” It’s a leap of faith that seems at odds with being an objective materialist.

  13. #13 whig
    May 14, 2007

    Nice post. I was brought up in a Reform Jewish congregation, which stressed education more than practice. Orthodoxy was right out, it was not only absent it was unwelcome.

  14. This will probably have to be the subject of another post, but here are some thoughts:

    1) Joshua’s and Tyler’s comments (“I also don’t think ‘religion’ is an appropriate term for what you’ve described…” and “I don’t think that what you are talking about is so much ‘religion’ as organized ritual…”) suggest that they have one specific notion of religion- a notion that Mike doesn’t share. (I don’t share it either.) People around the world have a tremendous variety of religious experiences, and to define as religion only those observances and beliefs that one finds offensive seems like shifty rhetoric. I won’t call it shifty, but I do think Stoebel is dead on target. I know DS, and we’re both observant Jews (at least we try to be). Certainly, to outside observers we would appear so. This brings me to point #2…

    2) I’ve tried to make the ‘religion as culture’ argument before (and obviously not been very successful…). The point is that ‘religion as culture’ is a large part of why even theologically traditional people are religious. Most successful religions aren’t only about what you think/believe, but what you do. Judaism, being a covenantal, non-salvationist religion, much more so than most Christian dominations. This isn’t ‘cultural solidarity’ (although that may be an outcome), but a different frame of reference for religion. Which leads to point #3…

    3)My impression is that most atheists (including atheist ‘advocates’) became atheists (if they came from ‘theist’ families) for philosophical reasons. Like all people, including the Mad Biologist, there is a bit of self-projection, since there is an implicit assumption that the underlying motivation of religious people is philosophical (or theological). As I argue above, while for some, theology is predominant, but for others it’s not even if they are theological moderate or conservative (many people seem unclear about theological particulars, so just how important can those theological particulars actually be?).

    4) DS is absolutely right: object to specific religious practices/beliefs, not ‘religion’. As this post demonstrates (hopefully), there isn’t a religion.

    5) I’m glad I’m not perceived as the problem, but, by creating a binary system, two bad things happen. First, as DS notes, there’s a lot of inaccurate statements made (which then leads to a lot of bad blood). Second, people are forced to ‘choose up.’ I don’t think that’s a healthy thing at all. Many religious people aren’t zealots, and will be far more open minded if they’re not a priori lumped in with people they detest.

  15. #15 Tyler DiPietro
    May 14, 2007

    “People around the world have a tremendous variety of religious experiences, and to define as religion only those observances and beliefs that one finds offensive seems like shifty rhetoric.”

    Well then, as a compromise, why don’t I agree to shift my terminology to be more specific? What I’m targeting is 1.) supernaturalism, 2.) the cultural hegemony of supernaturalism that demands (among other things) deference in areas such as politics and 3.) the expansionist tendencies of certain religions like Christianity and Islam (or at least certain sects within those religions). I’m not targeting the things Mike points out. I hope he won’t take offense to the notion that an ardent atheo-rationalist like myself has more important things to be concerned with than the ethno-cultural traditions he observes. ;-)

  16. #16 Tlonista
    May 15, 2007

    Thank you! These Neo-Atheist debates all tend to be centred around Christianity (and occasionally, Islam); posts like yours are great because they expose the bias.

    - atheist Jew

  17. #17 Joshua
    May 15, 2007

    Mike,

    I was definitely in one of my crankier moods when I wrote my original comment in this thread. I blame spring. All the damned pollen is driving me nuts. ;)

    Your point is well-taken about the variety of religious experience, even within something as seemingly monolithic as Christianity. Any label that could contain people as diverse as Pat Robertson and Fred Clark of Slacktivist (I hate relying on him as a token “good Christian”, but he’s the best example I have with whom others may be familiar.) clearly is pretty flexible, and that’s not even engaging with the various religions outside the Abrahamic traditions.

    I also concur with your assessment that many atheists are such for philosophical reasons. That certainly applies in my case, and I think most atheists wouldn’t disagree with the characterisation either.

    However, even though religion is more important as a culture than specifically as a set of beliefs, the beliefs can’t be completely separated from religion. This is why I still object to religion in general rather than to specific beliefs. Fact is, I don’t object to any specific belief or practice so much as I object to the concept of belief itself and to the way beliefs are passed down through most religions. I object to the concept of revealed truth. Maybe those things aren’t common to all religions, but they do seem to pop up a lot, particularly in the most influential religions of the moment.

    Maybe modern religions are moving away from that and more toward “religion as culture”. If so, good for them. I encourage the religious to keep at it! I have no objection to shared culture, even if that culture is based on myth. Myths are useful. Myths are cool. I like superheroes and Star Wars, so it would be a bit silly of me to object to the idea of myth itself. ;)

    I’m just concerned that the presentation of religion’s package deal and especially the automatic respect and protection from criticism granted to religion in the public sphere amplify the negative characteristics and drown out the positive ones.

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