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Reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable May 25, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.

In the Huffington Post, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach opines that to claim the Holocaust was punishment for sin is “ignorant, repulsive, and wrong.” Also, “abhorrent” and “factually absurd.” Moreover, those who make such arguments aren’t doing God’s reputation any favors:

Let’s say for a moment that they’re right. God bears no responsibility for the gas chambers at Auschwitz because the Jews of Europe had it coming. They earned death by virtue of their iniquity. They deserved to be turned into ash because they had abrogated God’s covenant.

Now, how many of you feel like praying to a God who could do that? How many of you feel like loving a God who enacts the death penalty for eating a cheese burger? How many people would want to worship a God who cremates children when their parents drive on the Sabbath?

Good point! I wonder where anyone could possibly have gotten the “abhorrent” idea that God would do things like that… Well, I guess there is this:

But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant; I also will do this unto you: I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish… And if ye walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. And I will send the beast of the field among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number… And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat…

And this:

Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

And this

for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me;

But if, like Boteach, we choose to ignore the main theme of the Bible, and maintain that God is worthy of love and worship, surely the only position left available is that God is incapable of influencing our world at all — because horrible things happen to innocent people every fucking day. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense to give God credit for the good things that befall us, while absolving him of responsibility for the bad things! Right?

I don’t know why God allowed the holocaust. Nor do I care. Any explanation would not minimize the horror of it. Nor would it bring back my six millions murdered Jewish brothers and sisters. Indeed, asking for an answer is itself immoral insofar as it is an attempt to reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable. What we want is for God to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people, that they might live a blessed and peaceful existence, like so many other nations that are not perennial targets for genocide.

True, God has sustained us, for the most part, and we alone have survived from antiquity. We are grateful to God for our longevity. But it should not take the deaths of innocent Israeli soldiers to guarantee our survival.

It is high time that God show Himself in history and bless a people who have been, for the past three thousand years, the most devoted and religious of nations, deeply faithful to God, practicing charity, promoting scholarship, fostering hospitality, and spreading light and blessing to all nations of the earth.

High time, indeed. In fact, if God doesn’t show himself soon, some skeptical-minded individuals might interpret the consistent lack of divine intervention in our world as evidence that he doesn’t exist at all! Like, for instance, this Oklahoma woman whose home was ravaged by a tornado: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told her she’s “blessed,” then asked her if she “thanked the Lord.” She replied that she’s an atheist.

Rabbi Shmuley doesn’t know why his God allowed that tornado to kill two dozen people, including ten children; nor does he care. Indeed, he considers asking for an answer to be itself immoral. Nevertheless, he continues to pray for God’s blessings and to thank him for lovingly sustaining us. For the most part.

Religion has doomed Shmuley Boteach’s mind July 6, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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In the Jerusalem Post, Shmuley Boteach claims that “Godlessness has doomed Britain”:

British influence in the world […] has gone off a cliff over the past century. I would argue that the new, militant atheism that is becoming characteristic of Britain is a key reason. Atheism is a philosophy of nihilism in which nothing is sacred and all is an accidental.

While it has some brief, flashy moments, life is purposeless and meaningless.

There is no soul to illuminate and no spirit to enliven — just decadent flesh. Human love is a prank played by our genes to ensure the propagation of the species, and poetry and faith are shallow distractions masking the inevitability of death. Men are insemination machines incapable of ever being truly faithful, and women are genetically programmed to seek out billionaire hedge-fund managers, the better to support their offspring.

Boteach’s ratio of stupidity to word count is so high, it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, what exactly is “militant” about characteristic atheism? Atheists are not threatening anyone with violence or impinging upon anyone’s rights (which cannot be said of many religious activists). Why are atheist critiques of religion any more militant than Boteach’s critique of atheism?

Boteach’s screed is a textbook example of the straw man fallacy, with a generous sprinkling of non-sequiturs thrown in for good measure. Atheism is not a philosophy: it is merely the position that since there is no good evidence for the existence of any deities, there is no justification for believing in them. Apart from wishful thinking, does Boteach have any evidence for the existence of a god, or an immaterial soul that survives death, or purpose in nature? I don’t think so.

But of course, the fact that there is no god or soul or cosmic purpose does not entail that our lives are meaningless and not worth living; and I’m unfamiliar with any atheists who claim otherwise. I, for one, think that the opportunity to live in this amazing natural world and to understand it scientifically is quite precious and wonderful — in fact, I think life is far more wonderful for not being part of some cynical game set up by a dictator god. So who exactly are these nihilist atheists Boteach is talking about?

Boteach also commits the familiar fallacy of assuming that if we are the possessors of selfish genes evolved by natural selection (which is a fact), then we ought to respect our genes’ priorities and obey all our biological impulses. But we are clearly capable of making value judgements and taking actions that contravene the interests of our genes — has Boteach never heard of birth control, for instance?

After utterly misrepresenting atheistic worldviews, Boteach goes on to claim that religion is necessary for a moral society. For example, he tries to credit Christianity with abolishing slavery:

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 […] with Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce taking the lead against that abomination.

If slavery is such an abomination, why doesn’t the Bible condemn it instead of condoning it? Incidentally, William Wilberforce’s evangelical Christianity led him to support politically and socially repressive legislation, impinging upon free speech and workers’ rights; and here’s what he thought of women anti-slavery activists: “for ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions — these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.”

Finally, Boteach asserts that the decline of religion in Britain is to blame for its contemporary social woes — “football hooliganism, the gratuitous degradation of women in its most-circulated publications, and one of the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the world.” Obviously, we would never see such horrors in a highly religious society, like the United States (where 92 percent of the population believe in God). Right?

True, America has many of these same problems, and a great deal more of its own. But the spiritual underpinnings of the American republic ensure that values are constantly debated, and that soul-searching is a never-ending element of the national discourse.

Never mind that the teenage birth rate in the U.S. is the highest in the developed world — about ten times that of predominantly secular Switzerland and the Netherlands; never mind that forty percent of Americans believe the ludicrous proposition that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”; at least America has “spiritual underpinnings”! Somehow, though, all that never-ending debating and soul-searching leads to completely warped positions on issues like gay marriage and stem-cell research and abortion…

By the way: even if it were true that religious societies are the healthiest (which it isn’t), that still wouldn’t give us any reason to think that God really exists or that any religious doctrines are actually true.

So, was any critical thinking at all employed in the writing of Boteach’s column? One might almost be forgiven for thinking that religion dooms its followers to a life of sloppy reasoning and bad argument.

Show thanks to water and dust November 25, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach thinks that Jews who do not show immense gratitude towards Christians for donating money to Jewish and Israeli causes are not living up to Jewish values:

So great is the emphasis on appreciation in our religion that our greatest prophet, Moses, is commanded by G-d not to strike the Nile River and turn it into blood in the first plague against the Egyptians because that same river had saved his life when he was a baby. Later, in plague number three, G-d will again warn Moses against smiting the dust of Egypt and turning it into lice because the dust had saved his life when he had to bury the body of a murderous Egyptian taskmaster.

Imagine that. A man who speaks to G-d face to face is told he must show thanks to water and dust. But such is the extent to which Jewish values demands gratitude.

Imagination aside, what these absurd examples actually show is a severe case of misplaced priorities. After all, we are told that God did in fact turn the Nile into blood (killing all the fish and depriving the Egyptians of drinking water), and did smite all the Egyptians with lice — it’s just that the waving of the magic staff in these cases was done by Aaron instead of Moses. The entire bloody Exodus was merely Yahweh’s way of demonstrating his awesome superiority: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. . . . And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt” — including killing every Egyptian firstborn. According to Jewish values, then, showing gratitude to inanimate objects is far more important than the suffering of innocent people.

By the way, why does Boteach think evangelical Christians donate so much money to Israel?

To say they do this merely to convert us, or because gathering Jews to Israel will usher in the apocalypse, is to perpetrate a sacrilegious act of character assassination. Christians support Israel out of deep love and brotherhood. . . . I have traveled . . . on Christian relief missions to Zimbabwe, the poorest country on earth, and have listened as they have told me that their first commandment as Christians is to love and protect the Jewish people for no other reason other than G-d commanded it.

But doing something “for no other reason other than G-d commanded it” is nothing to be proud of (grammatically or morally). The corollary is that if you believed God wanted you to kill your neighbor for being gay, or kill your daughter for not being a virgin on her wedding night, you would do that too. This does not make you a moral person — it makes you a mindless slave, and a danger to us all.

Shmuley BoteachShmuley Boteach

A fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin October 22, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Religion.
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Shmuley Boteach writes that extreme homophobia among the religious stems from a “fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin.” He distinguishes between moral transgressions and religious transgressions:

The mistake of so many well-meaning people of faith is to believe that homosexuality is a moral rather than a religious sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates the divine will.

One of the worst effects of religion is making people think that obedience to the purported word of God is as important as (or even more important than) the actual well-being of those around them. In this case, Boteach ignores the obvious fact that labeling gays “an abomination” does cause injury to innocent parties — and is therefore immoral by his own definition! What would he suggest we do when “divine will” conflicts with morality? After all, the Bible doesn’t merely frown upon homosexuality; it commands that homosexuals be executed. Just like women who are not virgins on their wedding night, or those who worship other gods. Would Boteach be willing to carry out such sentences?

The moment you admit that morality deals with preventing suffering, you must realize that even if we had good reason to believe that homosexuality violates God’s will, it wouldn’t matter. Boteach’s distinction is actually between norms for which there are good reasons — and hence can be derived rationally with no need for divine command — and those that are just arbitrary whim, which ought to be discarded the moment they cause someone harm. “Sin” does not exist; there ain’t no such thing as a victimless crime.

By the way, since Boteach concedes that no one is harmed by a relationship between consenting adults, does he support marriage equality for gays?

For the record, I am in favor of gay civil unions rather than marriage because I am against redefining marriage.

For the record, that’s bullshit. It’s no different from saying (in the 1950s) that marriage is defined as between two people of the same race, so interracial marriage is out. I know this may be hard for the orthodox to grasp, but if a legal definition is unjust, we can change it. The essence of marriage is a state-recognized union between people, and it should be available to all citizens equally. If you want to discriminate against someone, you need a better reason than because your imaginary friend said so.