"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Ribbing the Rabbi

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie has a piece in the Huffington Post entitled Religion Is Divisive and Conservative -- and a Very Good Thing. It begins with
I am a person of liberal convictions, and I spend most of my time with other liberals. Many of my friends share my liberal political views but recoil from my liberal religious beliefs. The reason that they give most frequently is that "religion is divisive and conservative."
He goes on
Religion, I tell them, is divisive because it deals with important matters -- above all, the search for holiness and God and the struggle to determine the ultimate values that guide our lives.
Which strikes me as extremely niave as religion as it is practiced rarely attempts to deal with important matters. In fact it seems to dismiss them with the assumption that it already has the answers preserved in aspic from some dusty tome penned by the inhabitants of iron age cultures totally divorced from the present. But lets assume for a moment that religion really does try to debate the all important questions in life, is it really the best vehicle for doing this? Yoffie seems to think think so
Theology, precisely because it deals with weighty and difficult subjects, is a discipline of hard edges… …You are stuck, I go on, in a childish, simplistic mindset that sees religion as a gentle, "let's all get along" affair. But no one needs religion for that. And any religion that, from time to time, is not intellectually ferocious in asserting its idea of the good -- as opposed to someone else's idea of the good -- is not a religion to be taken seriously.
Well yes and no, some aspects of religion play the cosy-up ecumenical game, while some beat the living crap out of each other, but it’s rarely about “asserting ideas of the good” but more about asserting one dogma over another. Anyway he then goes on to usefully anticipate what he believes the liberal argument will be.
[That] Ferocious intellectual arguments about what is moral and what God expects of us can take an extremist turn. They can become an instrument to separate those with our beliefs from the despised "other" who thinks differently. They can become a rationale to hate and even to kill.
Well, yes they can and often do, but the reason is not just because of opposing views, it is because no religious views on “wrong” or “right” can ever be empirically proved to anyones satisfaction. Religious disagreement is not on a par with political debate. Although politics can get equally ugly, there can in most cases be a fact of the matter that can be demonstrated (whether or not both parties accept the evidence is beside the point, many substantial political disagreements could be resolved in principle). Competing religions have no fact of the matter, It’s one scripture against the other, one sect's interpretation of the same scripture against another's and one person’s personal belief against another’s. It is an unreconcilable situation so whether they really “struggle to determine [the] ultimate values” or not, religions will never do anything useful to actually enlighten us. But Yoffe then appeals to the wisdom of the ages
I argue that religion is conservative because it resists the tyranny of the new and the culture of now. It asserts that when we decide on the matters of greatest consequence, we must give a hearing to the sages of old and to the sacred texts that record their voices.
To which I offer in repost Tim Minchin’s line “Just because ideas are tenacious doesn’t mean that they’re worthy” and listening to either fundementalists insisting on the rigidity of the texts or liberals searching for relevant metaphores is in both cases a waste of everyones time. Neither Moses, Jesus or Mohammed had to contemplate the ethics of contraception, voluntary euthanasia, safe abortion, global warming, peak oil or nuclear proliferation. Neither did they have the scientific knowledge to usefully inform their opinions if they had. Yoffie’s liberal chums are correct, religion is divisive and will uselessly remain so since no evidential basis is available to bridge the many divides and it is conservative because at root it relies on dogmas set in tablets of stone that require theologians to indulge in absurd post modern pseudointellectual contortions to make them appear even vaguely relevant today.

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