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« Brecht and Hook | Main | Stuff »

May 25, 2008

Comments

Shuggy

Hmmm - mostly agree with you but I think the emphasis is wrong.

"If you know the will of God, or at least know who is God's intermediary in the communication of those truths, then it is presumptively unlikely that you will be content to leave alone those of us who are not in a state of grace."

Couple of points:

A belief in revelation is simply another way of saying there are other ways of knowing things. The more intelligent amongst believers understand that just because this gives *you* a reason to believe, this doesn't follow for others. Therefore evangelism is pointless. I'd agree this is a rare position for followers of salvation religions to take.

Assuming believers forgo this reasonable attitude to revelation, they are bound to try and persuade others of the Truth, as you say. But if this is confined to persuasion, to preaching, while we may find many aspects of this distasteful, I think describing it as *destructive* overstates the problem.

Rather, I feel strongly we should confine ourselves to opposing religion when it has *political* implications. It is intrinsically likely that salvation religion will express itself in this way because it is one of the three ways it can accommodate the fact that, for them, the world is evil. But there are - following Weber - two other possibilities: to live in the world ascetically or to retreat from it in a spirit of quietism. These distinctions are absolutely crucial - and it is these that people like Dawkins and Hitchens simply don't get. I'm afraid there's something in the criticism that they are 'fundamentalists' - not in their atheism but in the way they engage with the 'Holy Books' in question. It doesn't matter anything like as much as they think it does what the texts *say* - what matters is how these texts are interpreted and applied through social institutions. Or to put it another way, I don't give a damn if a Christian or a Muslim thinks I'm going to hell. If we live in a secular society, this has no political implications for me whatsoever. It may be socially annoying but this is a relatively trivial matter.

If, on the other hand, a believer in a salvation religion has political power over me, I fear for my liberty. I had you down as someone who in your rather elegant defences of secularism understood this very well. I trust this latest post isn't a sign you are being seduced by the simplicities touted by Dawkins, Hitchens et al?

Matt

Shugggy,
In your criticism of Dawkins and Hitchens I think you miss their central argument. The defence you offer the religious is that "there's something in the criticism that they (Dawkins and Hitchens) are 'fundamentalists' - not in their atheism but in the way they engage with the 'Holy Books' in question". This is true, but you mistake its importance.

They do this because they recognise that both 'moderate' and 'fundamentalist' interpretations of religious piety have the same source. By choosing one interpretation over, the religious are choosing the parts of their religious text that they agree with and discarding the rest. When they make such an election they explicitly refute their central argument; that the revelation is the will of a universal god. This is the basis for both Dawkins and Hitchens arguments against revealed texts.

Regards

Judy

"If you know the will of God, or at least know who is God's intermediary in the communication of those truths, then it is presumptively unlikely that you will be content to leave alone those of us who are not in a state of grace."

Couple of points:

A belief in revelation is simply another way of saying there are other ways of knowing things. The more intelligent amongst believers understand that just because this gives *you* a reason to believe, this doesn't follow for others. Therefore evangelism is pointless. I'd agree this is a rare position for followers of salvation religions to take.

Assuming believers forgo this reasonable attitude to revelation, they are bound to try and persuade others of the Truth, as you say

Orthodox Judaism, which is revelation based, explicitly prohibits evangelism aimed at non-Jews. The assumption that a belief in revelation is wedded to a belief in evangelism is steeped in the heritage of Christianity from Paul--who laid down the project of Christian evangelism aimed at gentiles when Christianity failed to gain the interest of the overwhelming majority of Jews. I don't know enough about Islam to know whether it simply inherited the Pauline perspective; the fact that the Jews of Arabia also rejected the evangelism of Mohammed made them his targets for destruction.

Shuggy

By choosing one interpretation over (another?), the religious are choosing the parts of their religious text that they agree with and discarding the rest. When they make such an election they explicitly refute their central argument; that the revelation is the will of a universal god. This is the basis for both Dawkins and Hitchens arguments against revealed texts.

Disagree. Both Hitchens and Dawkins - and now you - seem to be arguing that all followers of salvation religions are fundamentalists - which is to say they are scripturalists. There are two objections to this:

1) The major divisions in Christianity, for example, are not scripturalists. It is wrong, therefore, to say they are 'refuting their central argument' since neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy holds the Bible to be exhaustive on matters of faith and doctrine. Hitchens and Dawkins - and you - are thinking like protestants on this matter.

2) What *if* fundamentalists (protestant Christians and Muslims) pick and choose from their sacred texts and thereby negate the basis of their own beliefs? It is both sociologically and psychologically impossible for them to do otherwise. By making this observation they are merely making a mundane and frankly schoolboy observation about the human condition and I don't understand why you think this undermines my point, which was: what matters is not what the texts say but how they are mediated through social institutions.

Orthodox Judaism, which is revelation based, explicitly prohibits evangelism aimed at non-Jews. The assumption that a belief in revelation is wedded to a belief in evangelism is steeped in the heritage of Christianity from Paul--who laid down the project of Christian evangelism aimed at gentiles when Christianity failed to gain the interest of the overwhelming majority of Jews. I don't know enough about Islam to know whether it simply inherited the Pauline perspective; the fact that the Jews of Arabia also rejected the evangelism of Mohammed made them his targets for destruction.

I disagree that Judaism is revelation based. Or at least it certainly isn't revelation based in the way that Islam and protestant Christianity is. The term 'revelation' is perhaps misleading - what we are talking about here is scripturalism, or 'fundamentalism'. It is often suggested that the defining feature of fundamentalism is the taking of the Holy text as literal truth. I don't agree with this: the defining feature of fundamentalism is the idea that the scripture as *exhaustive*. Mainstream Judaism is not fundamentalist in this sense. If I can link this with my comment about Catholicism above, Judaism is much more like this. It's no coincidence, for example, that Judaism, like Roman Catholicism, seeks to expand its ecclesia by breeding, rather than by evangelism. Both are much more about what you *do* rather than what you believe. This is what's wrong with the analysis offered by Hitchens and Dawkins: it's too cerebral - understanding religion as the mental assent to certain doctrines. It's too *protestant*, in other words. Hey, I'm a protestant atheist myself - I think I recognise the phenomenon when I see it...

Fabian from Israel

Shuggy, you are wrong. Judaism is also revelation based. What else, if not revelation, is the burning bush, the tables of the Law from Mount Sinai or any other of the miracles that found Judaism in the Bible? Christianity is "revelation over the revelation" and Islam is "revelation over the revelation of revelation".

Regarding literalism: every text needs to be interpreted, that is clear. From the mullahs to the rabbis to the pastor to the priest, all of them read a text or some texts and provide their interpretation. However, that would make it impossible to talk about "literalism" as a concept. However, I think the concept is important because it distinguishes, although not perfectly, between those people who may see the text as having many meanings, maybe evolving with time, and those who extract just one meaning from it and think that it is the only valid one. Moreover, the issue is also a matter of perspective: do you think that the elders were closer to the truth of the text (a fundamentalist position) or do you think that wise people in all ages can reach valid interpretations? (a non-fundamentalist position).

I remember from a course of Jewish history from an Orthodox perspective I listened once, that their belief is that past generations of Jews were closer to the truth and were on a "higher" level than our generation. That is why, for example, it was explained that their punishments for transgressions were harsher, and why you could never make a newer interpretation that contradicted older ones, by definition, more authoritative.

Shuggy

Shuggy, you are wrong. Judaism is also revelation based. What else, if not revelation, is the burning bush, the tables of the Law from Mount Sinai or any other of the miracles that found Judaism in the Bible?

They're part of a tradition - oral then incorporated into the Torah. But you've missed my meaning - perhaps I didn't explain myself very well: I meant Judaism - and Roman Catholicism along with Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism for that matter - are not scripturalist in the way Islam and protestant Christianity is. I don't really think it's a controversial point.

However, I think the (literalism) concept is important because it distinguishes, although not perfectly, between those people who may see the text as having many meanings, maybe evolving with time, and those who extract just one meaning from it and think that it is the only valid one.

I know what you mean. Some liberal protestants talk about 'progressive revelation', for example (tribal war god, to lawmaker to universal deity offering salvation for all mankind etc.) But I personally think the emphasis on the *exhaustiveness* of the text is better - and is close to this idea of revelation developing over time. The process you outline in the last paragraph is more conservative than that but it is still more liberal than that of the scripturalism of the evangelical. The 'fundamentalism' of the protestant evangelical does not express itself so much in the idea that the text should be taken *literally* - it's in the idea that in this book God's word is *complete* and He has nothing further to say. Reactionary in the extreme - but it doesn't necessarily express itself theocratically, which was my original point. It's only when it does that we should concern ourselves with it politically.

Snorri Godhi

Speaking for myself, I strongly object to Dawkins for a single reason: because he has betrayed the spirit of Darwinism. A real Darwinist, when looking at religion, would begin by asking the empirical questions: do religious people survive and reproduce more than non-religious people? and if so, why? Without empirical evidence on these issues, all the talk about religious memes replicating without offering any advantage to the believer is just blabber.

David Boothroyd

Being an atheist for all my adult life, I was originally of the Dawkinsite view that religious thought was not merely false but literally ridiculous and that religious believers should be challenged on their beliefs. I have since changed my view on that, not so much through having mellowed but because I realised the logical trap I had fallen into.

It seems to me that views about religion and the supernatural are often regarded, simply because they are about fundamental beliefs, as being precious and therefore protected from ridicule. Having rejected all supernatural beliefs, and in fact disputing the existence of anything 'supernatural', does that mean that religious beliefs are subject to ridicule? Well, no; it means that beliefs about the supernatural are on the same level as beliefs about the natural world.

To treat religious beliefs which are regarded as false as though they were far more important than any other false beliefs people may have is to fall into the trap of recreating the supernatural world and endowing it with a significance it does not merit.

Fabian from Israel

"They're part of a tradition - oral then incorporated into the Torah. But you've missed my meaning - perhaps I didn't explain myself very well: I meant Judaism - and Roman Catholicism along with Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism for that matter - are not scripturalist in the way Islam and protestant Christianity is. I don't really think it's a controversial point."

Well, I don't know. For example, a relative of mine is a Protestant evangelist. She was told that she couldn't eat black pudding (is that what you call sausages made mainly of blood? in Argentina they are called morcillas) because in the (for her) Old Testament says that people are forbidden from eating or drinking blood (something that is part of the beliefs of modern Judaism). However, she was told that they are allowed to eat pork and to rest on Sunday instead of Shabat because "those other regulations were good for the times before Jesus). So protestant Christians, especially of these small sects, want to literalists, (because they want to be as close as they can to how supposedly the apostles lived), but they can't. They always interpret the text, take whatever they want and drop the rest.

peter

David -- you say you dispute "the existence of anything 'supernatural'."

I don't know what you mean by this statement. You surely can't mean you dispute the existence of natural phenomena which science has yet to explain. There are lots of those (eg, the navigational capabilities of pigeons), and as we invent new scientific instruments we continually discover new phenomena which our existing scientific theories cannot yet explain.

And you surely can't mean you dispute the existence of scientific explanations of natural phenomena which stretch our understanding of what is "natural". From electro-magnetism to complex numbers (square roots of negative numbers) to transfinite arithmetic (different sizes of infinity) to radio waves to quantum uncertainty to multiple possible universes to vibrating super-strings, scientists have proposed explanations for natural phenomena which are initially considered bizarre, outlandish and completely unintuitive; yet, despite this, these ideas have all become accepted by science, and usually taken for granted by subsequent generations of scientists. Who now disputes the existence of negative numbers, which was a hot debate among mathematicians at the start of the 19th century?

It is worth dwelling on the example of string theory, and its generalization, brane theory. As it happens, for all the millions of dollars, thousands of person-hours, and hundreds of clever PhDs applied to the topic over the last 40 years, the empirical evidence for the existence of superstrings is still absolutely zilch. A religious believer could readily point to more empirical evidence (even if only subjective) for angels and jinns than anyone can point to for superstrings.

David Boothroyd

A natural phenomenon which science has yet to explain is still a natural phenomenon; science continues to test and explore and as a result to provide explanations which are eventually established as correct. This is how the scientific method, or perhaps I should say scientific methods, have worked so far.

The supernatural is different; it is the assertion that there exist phenomena which science is not able to explain even if given an infinity in which to do so.

Beliefs in the supernatural are not generally in the area where there are unexplained natural phenomena; they are in areas where natural phenomena have been explained but are disliked for whatever reason. Supernatural believers occasionally use parodies of the methods of science to investigate them (called 'pseudoscience' by some) but they do not amount to proper tests. James Randi is among the more vigorous debunkers of these methods.

David Duff

I read Hook's words, as kindly supplied by our host, twice. The second time I substituted the word 'socialism' for the word 'religion'. It made perfect sense both ways.

Judy

Shuggy, you are wrong. Judaism is also revelation based. What else, if not revelation, is the burning bush, the tables of the Law from Mount Sinai or any other of the miracles that found Judaism in the Bible?

They're part of a tradition - oral then incorporated into the Torah. But you've missed my meaning - perhaps I didn't explain myself very well: I meant Judaism - and Roman Catholicism along with Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism for that matter - are not scripturalist in the way Islam and protestant Christianity is. I don't really think it's a controversial point.

Despite your response to Fabian, your interpretation is based on a radical misunderstanding (or possibly ignorance) of the beliefs orthodox Judaism is founded on:

i. the revelation element is the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in which the Almighty literally spoke to the Jewish people

and the "scripturalist" dimension is equally central to Judaism:

ii. the words of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew bible were dictated by the Almighty to Moses and the laws and observances they dictate are eternal and unalterable

iii the interpretations of the Talmud are founded on detailed analysis of the words of the Torah; according to the Sages, each letter and word, being the word of the Almighty, (and even the spaces between them) is/are saturated with significance, and allusive meaning, even the apparently inconsequential name of a servant or a descendant of a distant tribe.

I don't see how you can get much more revelationist and scripturalist than that. Yet it remains the case that Jews are forbidden to proselytise.

unkle e

There are more than one type of evangelism. One sort confronts, offends (almost deliberately), often alienates. Another sort serves, assists, encourages. The first might be done by the sort of vacuum cleaner salesman televangelist none of us respect. The second might be done by a missionary doctor.

An example of the second is Catherine Hamlin whose Fistula Hospitals provide a wonderful service to young girls in desperate need, who otherwise have a bleak future. I'm sure these girls are not offended by any evangelism done, but welcome it.

As a christian, I think it is the arrogance and unhelpfulness that is the main problem, not the offering of a different belief as truth, provided the offer is sensitive and done out of friendship.

Judy

Unkle e, there's no way any sort of evangelism from another faith is ever acceptable or other than alienating and offensive to a Jew with even the most fragile link to their religious tradition.

Doing it "out of friendship" does not make it in the least acceptable. It is by definition insensitive and arrogant, from a Jewish perspective.

The poorest immigrant Jews of the East End up till the time of the establishment of the National Health Service sometimes had to go to Christian Missionary doctors based in the area, as they had no money and no other way of getting treatment; they hated having to do so, and feared those who dished out the medicine, knowing that it was being done with a view to (as Jews would see it) enticing them into Christianity--and particularly the horror of having to resort to missionary doctors was at its highest in relation to children and young people who might be vulnerable to their "friendly" blandishments about their faith. Fortunately, the missionaries' efforts yielded them almost no converts.

When my daughter was a little girl of about six, one day, she opened the front door when I was taking a shower. She was faced by a missionary who proceeded to give her a shpiel about how Jesus was there to save her, and would be her friend etc etc. No doubt the perpetrator though he was being very sensitive, doing it out of the best of motives and to save her etc etc. I was absolutely outraged when I learnt what had happened.

Taking advantage of the desperate to push your beliefs because they are vulnerable and you are the only source of help they can get is in my view utterly reprehensible.

Shuggy

Despite your response to Fabian, your interpretation is based on a radical misunderstanding (or possibly ignorance) of the beliefs orthodox Judaism is founded on:

i. the revelation element is the giving of the Torah at Sinai, in which the Almighty literally spoke to the Jewish people etc.

Judy - with respect, I know all this; you're not getting my meaning. If I might explain myself, while I have an amateur interest in theology, I'm looking at religion from an essentially sociological perspective. I appreciate that Judaism is founded on faith in revelation - what I'm arguing is that it isn't scripturalist in the way protestantism and Islam is. There's a lot of examples one could use to illustrate the point but the fact that orthodox Judaism does not, despite the injunctions in the Torah to do so, practice animal sacrifice any more is as good as any. In practice at least surely this illustrates my earlier point that, if we accept fundamentalism views the text as exhaustive, Judaism is not fundamentalist in this sense? Relate this to point ii that you make. They may insist that they believe the Torah is 'unalterable' but in practice this is not so.

So protestant Christians, especially of these small sects, want to literalists, (because they want to be as close as they can to how supposedly the apostles lived), but they can't. They always interpret the text, take whatever they want and drop the rest.

Fabian: agreed - and the examples you use are good ones. But I feel they make my point for me: literalism isn't the essence of fundamentalism because the sociological reality is that no-one really behaves as if all of the Bible or the Koran is literally true. There are plenty of others in the same vein. I think it is, for example, reasonably clear that Jesus gave men and women equal non-rights to divorce, whereas the consumption of alcohol is not proscribed. Yet in the United States there are plenty of divorced evangelicals who won't touch a drop of alcohol. This can be explained by one of my original points, which was that it doesn't seem to matter too much what the text actually says - what matters is how it is mediated through social institutions.

Judy

Shuggy, the fact that sacrifices are no longer practised as commanded in the Torah does not make Judaism one bit less scriptural. The Talmud is the scriptural text which is the reference point --and each and every rabbinically established text is grounded in the Torah--the Talmud is after all known in orthodox Jewish discourse as "the oral Torah" (HaTorah she be'al Peh), which is based on the tradition that it is derived from the word of the Almighty spoken to Moses, and not written by him but passed on orally to his successors, starting from Joshua.

Islam is really very similar to Judaism, in that the equivalent of the Talmud, as I understand it, are the Hadith scriptures.

Even where Jewish practice appears to vary from what is literally commanded in the surface text of the Torah, orthodox Jewish interpretation either regards the practices as to be restored with the coming of the Messiah, or reconcilable by the process of oral-Torah reasoning. That's what fundamentalism means in Jewish tradition-- the literal truth of the Torah and the interpretative truth derived, according to orthodox tradition, from the handed down oral revelations given to Moses during his forty days on Mount Sinai. That literal truth is assumed to have many layers of meaning, and in the orthodox Jewish tradition only an ignoramus would claim that the laws of the Torah are no more than a reading off of the surface text. It remains fundamentalist, because the belief is that the Almighty literally dictated those embedded layers of truth through the words of the text.

I'm also a sociologist inter alia, and I'd say your definitions and explanations of what you really meant reveal an assumptive discourse located in Christian and Graeco-Roman derived quasi secular Enlightenment discourse, ultimately rooted in the intellectual power relations between European Christianity vis a vis Judaism and Islam, and which perceives itself to be uniquely objective, and above and independent of its roots.

Luckily, I speak and try to write plain English most of the time....

peter

For a current Protestant view of Catholicism, see this recent article by the Anglican Dean of Sydney, regarding the Catholic World Youth Congress to be held shortly in Sydney:

http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/church-of-rome-hath-erred-but-anglicans-wont-rain-on-popesparade/2008/05/26/1211653937358.html

unkle e

Judy,

Thanks for your response, and your interest. I'd like to explore two of your points a little more if I may.

1. You say, which I was already aware, that many Jews find Christian or other evangelism offensive. But what should I conclude from that statement?

I'm sure you don't mean that our cherished freedom of speech does not extend to religion. After all, that would mean that Richard Dawkins would be prevented from speaking and writing that which some christians (not me) find offensive. I have been an active member of an atheist discussion forum for two years, and from time to time avid atheists discuss "raiding" christian websites to teach some logic to the deluded inhabitants, and discuss whether their approach should be coated with honey, or barbed and scornful. I'm sure you wouldn't want to prevent their freedom to do this, any more than I would. I would like to see them behave courteously, but that is up to them.

So I'm guessing you mean to emphasise that talking about one's beliefs with a view to influencing another should be done sensitively, and should stop if the other party requests this. If that is so, then we are in agreement. But I wonder if you could clarify this please.

2. Your comments about offering services to the needy and then taking advantage of them raise some important issues, and I take your points. But surely we must also consider why it is that it is the christians who are often (including the cases you mention) offering the services.

I was part of a church once that offered all sorts of support for people who were unemployed, suffering from relationship breakdown, or mental illness or substance abuse. We offered free food, money to pay necessary bills, friendship, cheap meals, free use of facilities, occasional activities, and yes, we offered spiritual support also, in the form of prayer, counselling and a "cafe church". There was no sense of obligation, no-one was pressured, some wouldn't have even been aware of the full range of services on offer, but when it was appropriate, people would be offered spiritual help. Some accepted it, many didn't. No-one was taken advantage of. We made many lasting friends as a result. rather than being offended, people were grateful.

But the point is, it would have been dishonest of us not to offer the lot. We wanted to help however we could, and spiritual help (which included low key evangelism) was part of what we believed people needed. We offered the whole package, and they chose what they accepted.

I cannot see anything wrong with that, and a lot that was right. I understand that help is not always offered in this way, but when it is, could you bring yourself to agree with that?

I am interested in your response. Best wishes.

Fabian from Israel

"Your comments about offering services to the needy and then taking advantage of them raise some important issues, and I take your points. But surely we must also consider why it is that it is the christians who are often (including the cases you mention) offering the services."

Well, I know the case in Argentina. After the 2001 economic crisis, the Jewish social welfare institutions opened, for example, free drug dispensaries (pharmacies) to the public. They worked primarily with Jewish people in needed but they were also opened to the non-Jewish public. I know this for a fact. Never in their wildest dreams they thought of using that help to promote Judaism among the Christians.

Besides, historical context is important: Jews have almost 2000 years of history in which they were sometimes forcibly converted, other times killed for not converting, in other times penalized for not converting to Christianity. Christianity was in a position of power regarding Judaism and took advantage of this, just like evangelizing charity workers take advantage of people in need to proselitize.

And all for what? Delusions about a guy who "suffered for all of us"? Let me keep my own delusions, they are older than yours, thank you very much, and shut up.

Dennis Clough

Lost in the unbeliever’s advice to Christians, is the command of his Savior to His followers to be witnesses and to preach the Gospel. This is to be done personally as well as corporately.

The fact that unbelievers are going to Hell outweighs the niceties of conventional decorum. One IS indeed permitted to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded room, if indeed there is a fire. There is.

Repent and be saved today by faith in the Son of God who suffered to keep you out of that horrible place. He loves you still ...

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