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The Pope and the Patriarch February 15, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Religion.
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Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church finally got together after a thousand years, and they issued a joint declaration of what’s been on their minds lately.

In affirming the foremost value of religious freedom, we give thanks to God for the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe, formerly dominated for decades by atheist regimes. Today, the chains of militant atheism have been broken and in many places Christians can now freely confess their faith…

I’m not myself a fan of the Christian faith, or of religious faith in general, but I certainly think people should be free to confess it. I must say, given the history of Christianity, I’m glad to hear the holy duo are such big supporters of religious freedom. I assume they know what it means, right?

At the same time, we are concerned about the situation in many countries in which Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them. In particular, we observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not their outright discrimination, when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.

And… no. Sorry, guys, but the secularization of society, the removal of God from politics, does not restrict or threaten your religious freedom — that’s exactly backwards: secularism is what makes religious freedom possible, because it denies official status and privilege to any particular religion. That means no one gets to force their religion on you — although I’m afraid you don’t get to force yours on anyone, either.

Anyway, back to the declaration: you were concerned about discrimination against Christians and the curtailment of their religious freedom?

The process of European integration, which began after centuries of blood–soaked conflicts, was welcomed by many with hope, as a guarantee of peace and security. Nonetheless, we invite vigilance against an integration that is devoid of respect for religious identities. While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots. We call upon Christians of Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ and the Gospel, so that Europe may preserve its soul, shaped by two thousand years of Christian tradition.

If I didn’t know how deeply Francis and Kirill care about religious freedom, I’d almost think they were encouraging some discrimination against non-Christians there…

Any other big problems to be concerned about?

The family is the natural centre of human life and society. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries…

The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman… We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.

Oops, see what you did there? You’re trying to make the general public conform to your own religious rules. I’m sorry, but you don’t get that power any more. I know you’ve been used to having it for a long time, so losing it feels like persecution, but it’s really not. You still get to practice your religion and preach it; but you don’t get to force it on anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it. Isn’t freedom wonderful?

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill hug each other after signing agreements in Havana

Propagate a perverted interpretation February 7, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Religion.
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President Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore this week. Before I critique some of his remarks, let me first emphasize what I agree with: Anti-Muslim bigotry is no more acceptable than any other kind of bigotry. All Muslim individuals deserve to be treated with dignity as human beings, and should not have to face prejudice or discrimination or hate crime. But — and this is where the confusion begins — it does not follow that Islam, as a belief system, must be treated with respect; or that criticism of Islam is tantamount to bigotry. Islam is a set of ideas, and if some of those ideas are wrong or harmful, that’s something we need to talk about, no matter if some people find it offensive.

On with the criticism, then:

For more than a thousand years, people have been drawn to Islam’s message of peace…  And like so many faiths, Islam is rooted in a commitment to compassion and mercy and justice and charity.

I realize politicians often play fast-and-loose with the meanings of words when telling an audience what it wants to hear, but this Orwellian whitewashing is a very cruel joke at the expense of those who actually live under Islamic law. Like in Saudi Arabia, where the poet Ashraf Fayadh just had his death sentence for apostasy downgraded (after an international outcry) to a mere eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Or in Pakistan, where those accused of blasphemy are often lynched before they even make it to trial, and a 15-year-old recently cut off his own hand to atone for inadvertent blasphemy. Or in Iran, where it’s legal to have sex with a girl — or execute her — at the age of nine (the age of Muhammad’s bride Aisha when their marriage was consummated).

Wait a minute, what am I saying: everyone knows that while religion deserves credit for inspiring people to do good things, it’s never at fault when people’s religious beliefs motivate them to do bad things. Islam is defined to be compassionate and merciful and just, so anyone who commits hateful or cruel or unjust acts in the name of Islam must be perverting the True Faith!

Even as the overwhelming majority — and I repeat, the overwhelming majority — of the world’s Muslims embrace Islam as a source of peace, it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam…

Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, they’re not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name.  We’ve seen it before, across faiths.  But right now, there is a organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror…

Groups like ISIL are desperate for legitimacy.  They try to portray themselves as religious leaders and holy warriors who speak for Islam.  I refuse to give them legitimacy…

We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda.  And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem.  That betrays our values.  It alienates Muslim Americans.  It’s hurtful to those kids who are trying to go to school and are members of the Boy Scouts, and are thinking about joining our military.

That kind of mindset helps our enemies.  It helps our enemies recruit.  It makes us all less safe.  So let’s be clear about that.

I don’t know which would be more depressing: if Obama really believes all that, or if he thinks that pretending to believe it is the politically expedient thing to do. I don’t doubt that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans are horrified by the actions of ISIL; so I understand they might not welcome the idea that their religion is part of the problem. But that’s the truth: the beliefs, methods, and goals of ISIL are taken directly from the seventh-century worldview of Muhammad and his followers, no selective twisting necessary.

We desperately need moderate Muslims to modernize and reform their religion, to discard those parts of it that are incompatible with civil society; but that’s not likely to happen while the President insists that Islam is as awesome as apple pie (and that to suggest otherwise is terrorist propaganda that helps our enemies). By refusing to acknowledge the link between specific Islamic doctrines and the atrocities motivated by them, it’s Obama who’s betraying “our values” (which hopefully include things like freedom of speech and gender equality), turning his back on those who are oppressed daily by Islamic regimes following Islamic teachings.

Muslim Americans shouldn’t be treated like immature children who might decide to go fight for ISIL if we hurt their feelings by criticizing their beliefs. Those who share our values should be willing to stand up for them, even if that means rethinking and revising their own religion when it conflicts with those values. And if some of our fellow citizens are actually committed to anti-democratic ideas (which I’m sure is true for many non-Muslims as well), that’s something we need to recognize and talk about honestly. Denying the problem doesn’t make us safer. I wish the President were more clear about that.

I create my own religion January 25, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Religion, Science.
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As part of their upcoming “7 Days of Genius” festival, the 92nd Street Y is sponsoring a “Challenge for a New Religion”:

challenge-for-a-new-religion

Here’s my entry:

The greatest force for good in this world, which cuts across boundaries and is at the core of what it means to be human, is REASON. It is through the rigorous application of reason, using the tools of the scientific method, that we have been able to make continuous material, intellectual, and ethical progress: advancing our understanding of the universe and how we came to be in it, breaking down the divisive dogmas bequeathed to us from the infancy of our species, and gradually widening the scope of our moral concern to encompass all human beings (and nonhuman life as well). I therefore propose the following:

A new tradition: To mark the birth of a child, the parents will choose an existing tradition in our culture to challenge. They will pledge to fight for the elimination of that bad tradition, in order to make the world a better place for all our children to grow up in.

A new rite of passage: On their thirteenth birthday, children will attempt to replicate a famous scientific experiment, and determine whether they accept its conclusions. This will demonstrate the understanding that our beliefs about the world must always be open to reevaluation, and should be based on objective evidence and independent thought, not reverence for authority.

New holidays will commemorate various bad ideas from human history, that were at one time universally accepted. This will serve as a reminder that we must all do our part to correct past mistakes and move humanity forward, and that it’s possible for everyone you know to be certain of something and still be wrong.

You can vote for me here!

(via Why Evolution is True)

Don’t let Scalia tell you there’s nothing wrong January 5, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Religion.
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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently graced some students in Louisiana with his learned opinions.

He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.

“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”

I wonder, what are Scalia’s criteria for a religion to be eligible for favored status? Would he include Scientologists? Satanists? Followers of Zeus and Ra? Is any belief too crazy, or is it sufficient to believe in something for which there is no evidence?

He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him…

“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.

“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.

I’m afraid there are several things wrong with that. If we actually look at the other countries of the world, we find that highly nonreligious societies like Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands rank higher than the U.S. on indexes like life expectancy and education; while the poorest countries tend to be the most religious. And you know who else believed they had God on their side? The Romans. And the Mayans. And the Egyptians. For a while, anyway.

It turns out that societies do better when they base their policies on reason and evidence rather than magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition. After all, one person’s religion is just another’s superstition. Do we really want our leaders invoking the magical, and our laws favoring the superstitious? Even Scalia ought to be able to see what’s wrong with that.

(via Why Evolution is True)

scalia

In God’s name October 24, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK, has written a book named Not in God’s Name (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal), in which he provides his recipe for defeating religious violence:

Yes, there are passages in the sacred scriptures of each of the Abrahamic monotheisms that, interpreted literally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain interpretive traditions that in the past have read them in the larger context of coexistence, respect for difference and the pursuit of peace, and can do so today. Fundamentalism—text without context, and application without interpretation—is not faith but an aberration of faith…

We must raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the name of the God of peace, and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Now is the time for us to say what we have failed to say in the past: We are all the children of Abraham. We are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. God is calling us to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and to live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honoring God’s name by honoring his image, humankind.

Aw, that’s nice. Though I can’t help but wonder: How does Sacks know all that? How does he know God’s love works one way and not another? How does he know what God is calling us to do? I realize Sacks is a member of the House of Lords, but he admits that a literal reading of the sacred scriptures supports the fundamentalists’ interpretation of God’s will rather than his own. While I’m glad Sacks has found a way to cherry-pick and “reinterpret” the texts such that he doesn’t feel obliged to kill anyone, wouldn’t the fundamentalists be justified in judging his faith an aberration?

The truth is that Sacks is committing the same fundamental error as the fundamentalists: speaking in God’s name, identifying life’s meaning with obedience to God’s commandments, and glorifying faith. That is the real cause of religious violence — and in order to defeat it, we must raise a generation of young people to be wary of claims to knowledge not supported by evidence; to value life, love, peace and compassion for rational reasons, not because “God said so”; and to understand that no scripture is sacred and that faith is not a virtue but a vice.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

A widespread and insensitive mentality September 6, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Listen up, ladies — an important message from the Pope:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.

That’s funny, because it seems to me that there is a widespread and insensitive mentality and a lack of proper sensitivity regarding the health and autonomy of women — one example of which is the perverse characterization of abortion as a “tragedy” that entails “extreme harm”.

Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.

That’s interesting, because a recent study found that 99% of women who’ve had abortions reported that it was the right decision for them (up to three years later), with both negative and positive emotions about the abortion declining over time. The study also found that higher perceived community abortion stigma was associated with more negative emotions. So I wonder whether the Pope realizes that it’s his callous teachings that are exacerbating the agony and pain of so many women? But then, it’s not the reduction of actual harm to women that is the Pope’s main concern, is it.

The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.

If anyone tells you you’ve committed a grave sin and then offers to forgive you for it if you repent, turn around and walk away.

pope

Easy issues July 16, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Rabbi Avi Weiss supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry — even though it “runs contrary” to his religious beliefs — due to his commitment to the separation of church and state. But he tries to have his wedding cake and eat it too:

Still, as an Orthodox Jew, I submit to the Biblical prohibition. But as an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject the person who seeks to lead a life of same sex love. If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation.

First of all, let’s not forget exactly what the Biblical guidance on this matter is:

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Weiss tries to downplay the magnitude of the Biblical condemnation by quibbling over the accuracy of “abomination” as a translation for the Hebrew to’evah — without quoting the entire verse or mentioning the death penalty it prescribes. In any case, he accepts the Bible’s denunciation of homosexuals, yet he still wants credit for “welcoming” them. How would Weiss feel about, say, a Christian claiming to “welcome” Jews while simultaneously maintaining that the Jewish people are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus?

Weiss is clearly a good person trying to do the right thing, but his religion is getting in the way, creating conflict and strife where there need be none:

Are these easy issues? No.

Certainly, the role of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is something that must be deeply considered, discussed and evaluated. We must bring the plurality of voices to the table as complex dynamics will require thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation.

There are many difficult problems in this world, but homosexuality is not one of them. Indeed, Weiss never even attempts to make any kind of argument against it. He concedes that homosexuals are born with their orientation, yet he still considers them sinners — because the Bible says so. One can only hope that the outcome of all that thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation will be the long-overdue realization that the Bible was wrong about this issue (as about so many others), and that rational people should not be submitting to dogma. There are many difficult problems in this world, so we mustn’t get hung up on the easy ones.

rainbow

Declining standards May 31, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
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As if being a Chasidic mom in London wasn’t hard enough already:

The British leaders of a major Chasidic sect have declared that women should not be allowed to drive. In a letter sent out last week, Belz rabbis said that having female drivers goes against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of Chasidic institutions.

It added that, from August, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them there.

According to the letter — which was signed by leaders from Belz educational institutions and endorsed by the group’s rabbis — there has been an increased incidence of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” which has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

They said that the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has advised them to introduce a policy of not allowing pupils to come to their schools if their mothers drive.

The UK Education Secretary launched an inquiry, and in response, the Chief Executive of the Belz Day School wrote her a letter of explanation. After complaining about “misrepresentation” and apologizing for a “negative impression” created by an “unfortunate” choice of words, the letter continues:

Our community is guided by religious principles and strong traditional values. We are concerned by the erosion of such values, especially amongst our youth, caused by the proliferation of technology and the declining standards of visual and printed media.

We are proud of what we stand for and we do not feel the need to excuse ourselves for our deeply held beliefs and staunchly maintained way of life. It has withstood the test of time and is not prone to the vagaries of passing fads.

We fully accept that despite being private schools we have responsibilities to our members and to the wider public. However, as private schools we have the freedom to set our own high standards by which we seek to live and bring up our children. Our community invest in our way of life and it is our duty to ensure that we provide an education in line with our time-hallowed traditions.

For this reason we have seen it necessary to issue guidelines which are restricted to our community and guided by the Torah and by the teachings of the Rebbes of Belz. We do not impose these guidelines on anyone who has not chosen to adhere to the mores of our community of his or her own free will.

That claim is disingenuous with regards to the community’s women — who know that their children will be expelled from school and their families ostracized if they choose to disobey any of the “guidelines” handed down from the rabbis — but it’s downright false with regards to those who are most vulnerable: the children.

We hope that this clarifies our true intentions. We will continue to remain vigilant and unbending in ensuring that our children are shielded from the onslaught with which we are all faced today. It is our belief that only in this way will they grow up proud of our traditions and lifestyle which is built around the Torah, the family and mutual kindness. This is our purpose in life and for which we will always stand up proudly and unflinchingly.

You might be proud of a tradition that subordinates women and obsesses over policing their “modesty”, but your children deserve a fair chance to make up their own minds — and that requires exposing them to the existence of other worldviews and allowing them to think for themselves, without penalty. Otherwise, the claim that they have freely chosen to belong to your community is a mockery. And if the only way you can get your children to grow up proud of your traditions and lifestyle is by “shielding” them from alternative viewpoints and demanding obedience and conformity, then perhaps your principles are nothing to be proud of, after all?

belz

Glib and simple-minded January 10, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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In a piece entitled “Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?”, Nicholas Kristof starts by presenting good evidence for an affirmative answer — which he then ignores. He begins:

The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo skewers people of all faiths and backgrounds. One cartoon showed rolls of toilet paper marked “Bible,” “Torah” and “Quran,” and the explanation: “In the toilet, all religions.”

Yet when masked gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris on Wednesday with AK-47s, murdering 12 people in the worst terror attack on French soil in decades, many of us assumed immediately that the perpetrators weren’t Christian or Jewish fanatics but more likely Islamic extremists.

Outraged Christians, Jews or atheists might vent frustrations on Facebook or Twitter. Yet it looks as if Islamic extremists once again have expressed their displeasure with bullets.

Many ask, Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?

The question arises because fanatical Muslims so often seem to murder in the name of God, from the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people to the murder of hostages at a cafe in Sydney, Australia, last month. I wrote last year of a growing strain of intolerance in the Islamic world after a brave Pakistani lawyer friend of mine, Rashid Rehman, was murdered for defending a university professor falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Note some revealing word choices by Kristof: fanatical Muslims only seem to murder in the name of God, implying that their self-declared motivations shouldn’t be taken at face value; and the university professor was falsely accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, implying that “insulting the Prophet” is a crime one could legitimately be accused of.

In any case, Kristof admits that lampooning Christianity, Judaism or atheism won’t get you murdered, while lampooning Islam might. But instead of attempting to explain why that is, he argues that it can’t possibly be Islam’s fault — because not all Muslims are murderers:

Terror incidents lead many Westerners to perceive Islam as inherently extremist, but I think that is too glib and simple-minded. Small numbers of terrorists make headlines, but they aren’t representative of a complex and diverse religion of 1.6 billion adherents

The vast majority of Muslims of course have nothing to do with the insanity of such attacks — except that they are disproportionately the victims of terrorism. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo murders weren’t even the most lethal terror attack on Wednesday: A car bomb outside a police college in Yemen, possibly planted by Al Qaeda, killed at least 37 people.

I’m not sure how another example of Islamic terrorism is supposed to make Islam look better, but in any case there’s no reason to think Al Qaeda or the Charlie Hebdo terrorists are clinically insane: their actions are completely comprehensible based on the beliefs they profess. And unfortunately, many of those beliefs are not extremely rare in the Muslim world. For example, a 2013 Pew poll found that in many countries, large majorities of Muslims think sharia (which mandates severe punishments for blasphemers, heretics, adulterers, homosexuals, etc.) is the revealed word of God and should be the law of the land — 86% in Malaysia, 83% in Morocco, 74% in Egypt, 72% in Indonesia, 71% in Jordan, to name but a few. And where sharia is the law of the land, you will not find freedom or equality or tolerance. Just last week, Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian writer, was shackled in a public square and given 50 lashes out of the 1,000 he was sentenced to for “insulting Islam” on his website.

Kristof is correct that no one is suffering the effects of Islamic ideology more than Muslims, but we do them no service by denying the root of the problem. We should be encouraging Muslims to reform the illiberal doctrines of their religion, not pretending that Islam-inspired violence has nothing to do with Islam. But instead of acknowledging that some values are better (or worse) than others, Kristof opts for glib and simple-minded ecumenism:

The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who “otherize.” … Let’s denounce terrorism, oppression and misogyny in the Islamic world — and everywhere else. But let’s be careful not to respond to terrorists’ intolerance with our own.

It’s not intolerant to criticize bad ideas, or to point out the link between beliefs and the actions they motivate. Terrorism, oppression and misogyny are not randomly distributed across the globe: they are products of ideology and culture. The real divide is between dogmatism and reason, between tribalism and humanism, between theocracy and liberalism. If your faith is on the wrong side of that divide, then it’s part of the problem.

Charlie Hebdo

It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas December 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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In a New York Times piece entitled “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks tries hard to avoid saying anything too concrete or specific that might cast doubt on his faith that faith is The Bestest Thing Ever. Between mind-numbing platitudes (“faith is unpredictable and ever-changing”) and word salad (“trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience”), however, those readers who remain awake should be able to see why he’s wrong.

It begins, for many people, with an elusive experience of wonder and mystery. The best modern book on belief is “My Bright Abyss” by my Yale colleague, Christian Wiman. In it, he writes, “When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?

Most believers seem to have had these magical moments of wonder and clearest consciousness, which suggested a dimension of existence beyond the everyday. Maybe it happened during childbirth, with music, in nature, in love or pain, or during a moment of overwhelming gratitude and exaltation.

These glimmering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith…

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

To see what a sneaky trick Brooks is trying to pull here, imagine he’d said that the experiences of childbirth, music and love justify faith in Jesus’s resurrection. Or in Allah’s revelation to Mohammed. Brooks goes on to assert that “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason” — but that’s just false: religious faith is defined as belief without evidence, which is the antithesis of reason. Appreciating the awe-inspiring moments of our lives, even those we do not fully understand, does not require that we accept any unjustified beliefs about the nature of the universe. In fact, doing so can be extremely dangerous, which Brooks fails to acknowledge — though we need only consider how his idealized picture plays out in the real world:

All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves… They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

Indeed: That’s exactly what ISIS is doing when it enforces sharia by the sword. And that’s what the Catholic Church is doing when it fights contraception and abortion and gays. Who’s to say what it is that the creator loves? Or hates?

The problem with religious faith is that it fills the void of doubt with conviction that cannot be argued with. Brooks tries to make it look respectable, but faith is a thief taking credit it hasn’t earned. We are better served by letting the wonders of our universe inspire us to expand our knowledge through careful reasoning, one step at a time. As for those mysteries we haven’t yet solved, we should reserve judgement — never surrender them to faith.

(via Pharyngula)

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