Minds In Bondage?

Orthodox males recite a blessing each morning thanking God “for not making me a woman.”

In eSkeptic, Tim Callahan reviewed R. D. Gold’s book entitled Bondage of the Mind: How Old Testament Fundamentalism Shackles the Mind and Enslaves the Spirit and writes:

Most of us involved with issues of critical thinking are accustomed to dealing with what we think of as fundamentalism, which implies specifically Christian fundamentalism. 'Bondage of the Mind' deals, specifically, with Jewish fundamentalism. Just as evangelicalism, and particularly evangelical fundamentalism, is a potent force in Christianity, so too is modern Orthodox Judaism a potent force among Jews today.

Orthodox Judaism, like fundamentalist Christianity, claims to be the only valid form of Judaism. In the process of evangelizing Jews, particularly Jewish youth, it refers to Jews who switch their allegiance from Reform Judaism to Orthodox Judaism as returnees.

The spread of democratic ideologies in the 19th century led to a repudiation of anti-Semitism among at least some of the intellectuals of that day, as well as a reduction in legal isolation of the Jews. There was a resulting reaction to these reforms among Jewish intellectuals: the Jewish Enlightenment. Jews began to question the excessive importance laid upon such practices as the dietary laws and the peculiarities of dress affected by the encapsulated Jews. The end result was the repudiation of these peculiarities among those who became reformed Jews. Reformed Jews also engaged and integrated into the greater society around them. Some Jews among those in the reform movement felt that the degree of assimilation had gone too far and made a point of returning to such practices as maintaining the dietary laws and the study of Hebrew, though they did not return to the traditional peculiarities of dress. They became the Conservative Jews. Those Jews who did not engage the greater society, who in fact resisted all such efforts, hardened their resolve to retain all the outward signs of separation, became the Orthodox Jews. We might compare this movement to the Catholic counter-reformation, which was a reaction to Protestantism. Another apt comparison from the Christian experience would be the reaction of those who became fundamentalists to the wholehearted liberal acceptance of modern scientific views, particularly to the theory of evolution, among American Protestants.

'Bondage of the Mind' deals with the active proselytizing of Orthodox rabbis, who specifically target the youth of Reformed Jewry. In his examination of the thoughts, goals and tactics of resurgent Jewish fundamentalism, Gold focuses on three tracts commonly used by Orthodox proselytizers: 'On Judaism' by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, 'Choose Life' by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, and 'Living Up … to the Truth' by Rabbi David Gottlieb. In the latter two titles one can see the implicit assumption of moral superiority by the Orthodox rabbis: If you accept my hyper-religious view and abandon your secularism, you will be choosing life and truth. If you disagree, you’re obviously deliberately choosing lies and death.

As in Christian fundamentalism, the Orthodox proselytizers target the youth among secular and Reformed Jews. In his book Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman, speaking of his own involvement in evangelical Christianity in his teenage years, pointed out that those proselytizing youth for Protestant fundamentalism homed in on the insecurities and uncertainties of the young. The Orthodox proselytizers do the same thing. The person fishing for converts seems very positive and very certain of his views. He affects a paternal benevolence toward the potential convert and, lo and behold, he seems to know something about the youth’s state of mind, saying, “You’re confused, aren’t you?” The youth thinks, “How did he know that?” Ehrman pointed out that, of course, he was confused. He was a teenager, after all.

Gold begins his book with a series of chapters detailing the Old Testament’s failure to live up to the Orthodox claim that it is the word of God rather than the writings of men. This begins with the failure of biblical claims to match archaeology. There is, despite exhaustive attempts on the part of biblical archaeologists — many of whom were and are either committed Christians or devout Jews — no evidence of the presence of large numbers of Hebrews in late Bronze Age Egypt (i.e. the Egyptian captivity), nor is there any evidence of either the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites as detailed in the Book of Joshua. Nor is there any evidence of the united monarchy under David and Solomon. Further, while the Bible claims that the army of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, which was besieging Jerusalem, was miraculously annihilated by the angel of the Lord in a single night and that King Hezekiah triumphed over the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35–37), history and archaeology instead support the Assyrian version of events, that Sennacherib sacked and devastated every city of Judah but Jerusalem, and that Hezekiah paid a huge tribute to the Assyrians just to hang on to Jerusalem and its environs.

Gold also details the failure of the biblical claim of divine retribution and the failure of biblical prophecies. A spectacular example of the good being punished, while the bad obviously get off free is to be found at the end of 2 Kings. Manasseh, the evil king of Judah who worshipped other gods, and consulted soothsayers and wizards, enjoyed a long and peaceful reign (692–639 BCE, 53 years), while King Josiah, the greatest among Judah’s reformers was killed in battle when he was only 37. Josiah was only eight when he took the throne. He reigned from 638–609 BCE, a total of 29 years, much of it when he was in his minority. So why did the evil King Manasseh prosper, while the good King Josiah was cut off in his youth? The Bible explains it this way (2 Kings 23:25–26):

And like unto him there was no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding, the LORD turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.

So, there you have it. According to the Bible, God kills the good for the sins of the evil and punishes the people for wrongdoing on the part of their king. It reminds one of the old vaudeville routine: “The act before me was so bad, the audience was still booing when I got off the stage.” Apologists, both Christian and Jewish, have wrestled with the passage above, often indulging in bizarre convolutions of logic to explain why it really makes sense and shows that God is good and just in killing Josiah, while not punishing Manasseh.

Gold next takes on the Orthodox dogma of the unique survival of the Jewish people, one of their main arguments for the Jews being God’s specifically chosen people. The argument goes like this: No people in history has suffered the way the Jews have. By all rights, the Jewish people should be extinct by now. Yet, not only have they miraculously survived the Holocaust, but, against all probability, they have returned to Israel and revived their ancient nation. Gold points out that the Jews aren’t the only people with an ancient pedigree to survive into the modern age.

Nor is the survival of the Jewish people for thousands of years the unique phenomenon the Orthodox like to claim that it is. The Basques, for example, have been around a lot longer than the Jews have. In fact, the Basque presence in the Pyrenees predates recorded history. The most recent genetic evidence suggests that they have survived in place for some forty thousand years, more than ten times the duration of an identifiable Jewish culture. And in (for them) modern times they handily survived violent passages of Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Franks and Nazis.

Gold goes from this example and others into a detailed argument pointing out that, while the survival of the Jews in the face of diasporas and pogroms is remarkable it can be explained without divine intervention.

After pointing out that Western society, despite its problems is still the one in which men and women enjoy the greatest personal freedom, Gold turns his attention to the problem of what values Orthodox Judaism would replace the secular freedoms we currently enjoy. First, he points out the intolerance of the Orthodox for other forms of Judaism. In 2001 Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that Israeli citizens converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis were to be registered as Jews. This hardly seems a radical move; but the response from the Orthodox was that the decision was scandalous and disastrous.

Gold then examines the position of women in Orthodox Judaism. Not only are women excluded from participation in religious services, they aren’t likely to be treated as fully human outside that context either. Gold relates the nature of an interview given to Deborah Sontag by Rabbi Menacham Mendel Taub in 2000. Questions and answers were related through a secretary, since the rabbi didn’t take questions from women, and assistants placed a barrier between Sontag and the Rabbi, so he wouldn’t have to even see her. Orthodox males recite a blessing each morning thanking God “for not making me a woman.” One of the great reforms of the Jewish Enlightenment was to give women the right to an education.

Gold goes on to point out examples of virulent Orthodox rage against any opposition, making an excellent case for the comparison of these rabbis and their followers to Muslim theocrats. Common to both groups is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, hostility towards democracy. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that, should their views overwhelm opposing viewpoints in Israel’s pluralist society, that nation would, in short order, be converted into a theocratic state, not unlike Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Christopher Hitchens said that “R. D. Gold is a fresh new voice, a witty and mordant guide through the moral and intellectual chaos of the tribalism and special pleading that is Orthodox Judaism - and, by extension, all religious fundamentalism. I enjoyed this book immensely. You will, too.”

Dinesh D'souza agrees saying “Bondage of the Mind is a strong, original, and very readable book that addresses an important topic in a clear and convincing manner - and it could not be more timely. It is not only for a Jewish audience or a liberal audience. I am a conservative columnist and former editor of a Catholic magazine, and I found the book captivating. Bondage of the Mind provocatively confronts issues of interest to everyone.”

Are orthodox Jews in Bondage?

Posted April 10, 2008

God Has A Problem?

“The problem of suffering has haunted me for a long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith" – Bart D. Ehrman

The vindications of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of suffering, known as theodicies, are perhaps the most difficult topics of theological discussion. Some argue that suffering leads one to be a better person. Bart Ehrman is dissatisfied with most of the theodices that are current and writes that "my ultimate goal is to examine the biblical responses to suffering. What comes as a surprise is that some of the answers stand at odds with one another".

The cover of Ehrman's book says: In times of questioning and despair, people often quote the Bible to provide answers. Surprisingly, though, the Bible does not have one answer but many "answers" that often contradict one another. Consider these competing explanations for suffering put forth by various biblical writers:

The prophets: suffering is a punishment for sin.

The book of Job, which offers two different answers: suffering is a test, and you will be rewarded later for passing it; and suffering is beyond comprehension, since we are just human beings and God, after all, is God.

Ecclesiastes: suffering is the nature of things, so just accept it.

All apocalyptic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: God will eventually make right all that is wrong with the world.

For Ehrman, the question of why there is so much suffering in the world is more than a haunting thought. Ehrman's inability to reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of real life led the former pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church to reject Christianity. In God's Problem, Ehrman discusses his personal anguish upon discovering the Bible's contradictory explanations for suffering and invites all people of faith--or no faith--to confront their deepest questions about how God engages the world and each of us.

Publishers Weekly commented: In this memoir of his own attempts to answer the great theological question about the persistence of evil in the world, Ehrman refuses to accept the standard theological answers. Through close readings of every section of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, he discovers that the Bible offers numerous answers that are often contradictory. The prophets think God sends pain and suffering as a punishment for sin and also that human beings who oppress others create such misery; the writers who tell the Jesus story and the Joseph stories think God works through suffering to achieve redemptive purposes; the writers of Job view pain as God's test; and the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes conclude that we simply cannot know why we suffer. In the end, frustrated that the Bible offers such a range of opposing answers, Ehrman gives up on his Christian faith and fashions a peculiarly utilitarian solution to suffering and evil in the world: first, make this life as pleasing to ourselves as we can and then make it pleasing to others.

Suffering, God's greatest problem?

Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestselling Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a leading authority on the early Church and the life of Jesus. He has been featured in Time and has appeared on NBC's Dateline, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, The History Channel, major NPR shows, and other top media outlets.

Posted March 16, 2008

The Four Loves

“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities" – C. S. Lewis

Recently I decided to reread C. S. Lewis's book "The Four Loves" which was published in 1960. While some of the examples have become outdated and are ethno-centric the book still retains a beautiful simplicity which permits one to look at how and why one loves from four distinct perspectives.

The English word 'love' encompasses four distinct ideas which the Greeks described as "storge" (affection), "philia" (friendship), "eros" (sexual or romantic love) and "agape" (selfless love). Lewis's book summarizes these four kinds of human love--drawing on examples from Jane Austen and St. Augustine. He suggests that all earthly love will be eventually lost and indeed one outcome of accepting love in any form is that it will eventually lead to suffering.

Wikipedia summarizes Lewis's thoughts as follows :

Affection (storge, στοργη) is fondness through familiarity, especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance. It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity; and most widely diffused because it pays the least attention to those characteristics deemed "valuable" or worthy of love and, as a result, is able to transcend most discriminating factors. Ironically, its strength, however, is what makes it vulnerable. Affection has the appearance of being "built-in" or "ready made", says Lewis, and as a result people come to expect, even to demand, its presence--irrespective of their behavior and its natural consequences.

Friendship (philia, φιλια) is a strong bond existing between people who share a common interest or activity. Lewis explicitly says that his definition of friendship is narrower than mere companionship: friendship in his sense only exists if there is something for the friendship to be "about". It is the least natural of loves, states Lewis; i.e., it is not biologically necessary to progeny like either affection (e.g., rearing a child), eros (e.g., creating a child), or charity (e.g., providing for a child). It has the least association with impulse or emotion. In spite of these characteristics, it was the belief of the ancients that it was the most admirable of loves because it looked not at the beloved (like eros), but it looked towards that "about"--that thing because of which the relationship was formed. This freed the participants in this friendship from self-consciousness. Because they were looking towards something beyond or above themselves, the more who were looking towards that thing with them were welcomed with the same sincerity, which freed the relationship from jealousy. The relationship is by its nature selective, and therefore, exclusive.

Eros (έρως) is love in the sense of 'being in love'. This is distinct from sexuality, which Lewis calls Venus, although he does spend time discussing sexual activity and its spiritual significance in both a pagan and a Christian sense. He identifies eros as indifferent. This is good because it promotes appreciation of the beloved regardless of any pleasure that can be obtained from them. It can be bad, however, because this blind devotion has been at the root of many of history's most abominable tragedies. In keeping with his warning that "love begins to be a demon the moment [it] begins to be a god", he warns against the danger of elevating eros to the status of a god.

Caritas (agapē, αγαπη) is an unconditional love directed towards one's neighbor which is not dependent on any lovable qualities that the object of love possesses. Agape is the love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance. Lewis metaphorically compares love with a garden, charity with the gardening utensils, the lover as the gardener, and God as the elements of nature. God's love and guidance act on our natural love (that cannot remain what it is by itself) as the sun and rain act on a garden: without either, the object (metaphorically the garden; realistically love itself) would cease to be beautiful or worthy. Lewis warns that those who exhibit charity must constantly check themselves that they do not flaunt--and thereby warp--this love which is its potential threat.

Charity, the greatest of the loves?

Posted March 5, 2008

Melancholia Is A Miracle?

“Chase away the demons and they will take the angels with them." – Joni Mitchell, Canadian musician, songwriter, and painter.

Eric G. Wilson in a Los Angeles Times opinion article entitled 'The Miracle of Melancholia’ suggests that we are a nation obsessed with being happy, but sometimes feeling bad can do you some good. Wilson writes: In April of 1819, right around the time that he began to suffer the first symptoms of tuberculosis the poet John Keats sat down and wrote, in a letter to his brother, George, the following question: "Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?"

Implied in this inquiry is an idea that is not very popular these days which is characterized by an almost collective yearning for complete happiness. That idea is this: A person can only become a fully formed human being, as opposed to a mere mind, through suffering and sorrow. This notion would seem quite strange, possibly even deranged, in a country in which almost 85% of the population claims to be "very happy" or at least "happy." Indeed, in light of our recent craze for positive psychology as well as in light of our increasing reliance on pills that reduce sadness, anxiety and fear, we are likely to challenge Keats' meditation outright, to condemn it as a dangerous and dated affront to the modern American dream.

But does the American addiction to happiness make any sense, especially in light of the poverty, ecological disaster and war that now haunt the globe, daily annihilating hundreds if not thousands? Isn't it, in fact, a recipe for delusion? And aren't we merely trying to slice away what is most probably an essential part of our hearts, that part that can reconcile us to facts, no matter how harsh, and that also can inspire us to imagine new and more creative ways to engage with the world? Bereft of this integral element of our selves, we settle for a status quo. We yearn for comfort at any cost. We covet a good night's sleep. We trade fortitude for blandness.

When Keats invoked the fertility of pain, he knew what he was talking about. Though he was young when he composed his question -- only 24 -- he had already experienced a lifetime of pain. His father had died after falling from a horse when the future poet was only 9. A few years later, Keats nursed his mother assiduously through tuberculosis, but she died in 1810, when he was 15. Soon after, he was taken from a boarding school he loved and required to apprentice as an apothecary; he then underwent a gruesome course in surgery in one of London's hospitals (in the days before anesthesia).

Orphaned and mournful, Keats spent his days brooding. But after much contemplation, he decided that sorrow was not a state to be avoided, not a weakness of the will or a disease requiring cure. On the contrary, Keats discovered that his ongoing gloom was in fact the inspiration for his greatest ideas and his most enduring creations. What makes us melancholy, Keats concluded, is our awareness of things inevitably passing -- of brothers dying before they reach 20; of nightingales that cease their songs; of peonies drooping at noon. But it is precisely when we sense impending death that we grasp the world's beauty.

Keats was of course not the only great artist to translate melancholia into exuberance. This metamorphosis of sadness to joy has been a perennial if frequently unacknowledged current in Western art. Consider George Frideric Handel, the 18th century composer. By 1741, when he was in his mid-50s, Handel found himself a fallen man. Once a ruler of the musical world, he had suffered several failed operas as well as poor health. He was left in a state of poverty, sickness and heartsickness. Living in a run-down house in a poor part of London, he expected any day to be thrown into debtor's prison or to die. But then, out of nowhere, as if by some divine agency, Handel received a libretto based on the life of Jesus and an invitation to compose a work for a charity benefit performance. On Aug. 22, 1741, in his squalid rooms on Brook Street, Handel saw potentialities no one had before seen. Immediately, he felt a creative vitality course through his veins. During a 24-day period, he barely slept or ate. He only composed, and then composed more. At the close of this brief period, he had completed "Messiah" his greatest work, a gift from the depths of melancholia.

We could also recall Georgia O'Keeffe, the 20th century painter. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, O'Keeffe left the East Coast for Taos, N.M. She fell profoundly in love with the lonely vistas of this world denuded of human corruption. However, even though she was enlivened by this part of the world, in 1932, her lifelong battle with melancholia caught up with her. She was hospitalized for psychoneurosis. Rather than quelling her creative spirit, this breakdown did the opposite. Upon being discharged, she returned to the Southwest. There, in 1935, she painted some of her bleakest and most beautiful landscapes: "Purple Hills near Abiquiu" and "Ram's Head, White Hollyhock Hills." Both feature dark things amid the desert's glare -- gloomy shadows and stormy clouds. Into these haunting shades -- hovering amid hard-scrabble rock and a sinister skull -- one stares. One senses something there as silent and sacred as bones.

Joni Mitchell confessed in an interview that she has frequently endured long periods of gloom. But she has not shied away from the darkness. Instead, she sees her sorrow as the "sand that makes the pearl" -- as the terrible friction that produces the lustrous sphere. Given her fruitful struggles with sadness, Mitchell has understandably feared its absence. "Chase away the demons," she has said, "and they will take the angels with them."

Melancholia, far from error or defect, is an almost miraculous invitation to rise above the contented status quo and imagine untapped possibilities. We need sorrow, constant and robust, to make us human, alive, sensitive to the sweet rhythms of growth and decay, death and life. This of course does not mean that we should simply wallow in gloom, that we should wantonly cultivate depression. I'm not out to romanticize mental illnesses that can end in madness or suicide. On the contrary, following Keats and those like him, I'm valorizing a fundamental emotion too frequently avoided in the American scene. I'm offering hope to those millions who feel guilty for being downhearted. I'm saying that it's more than all right to descend into introspective gloom. In fact, it is crucial, a call to what might be the best portion of ourselves, those depths where the most lasting truths lie.

Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy."

Melancholia - a miraculous invention?

Posted February 26, 2008

Shari’ah law For Britain?

“Right, I’m off to get a burqa for the mother-in-law” – British subject Tom Harrop

In a series of threads in this blog (A Picture Worth a Thousand Words, London Bridge is Falling Down and Muslim Britain) we have discussed the problem of integrating a growing muslim population into the historical British culture. This photograph, published in The Daily Express, shows Muslim radicals demonstrating in favor of establishing Shari’ah law in the UK. The proposal to introduce Shari'ah law is also discussed in an article in the NY Times of February 8, 2008 entitled “Top Anglican Seeks a Role for Islamic Law in Britain” where John Burns writes about the proposal from the leader of the world’s Anglican to permit the practice of Shariah law in the United Kingdom:

The archbishop of Canterbury called Thursday for Britain to adopt aspects of Islamic Shariah law alongside the existing legal system. His speech set off a storm of opposition among politicians, lawyers and others, including some Muslims. The archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, said in his speech that the introduction of Shariah in family law was “unavoidable.” But he said such “constructive accommodation” should not deprive Muslims of their right to take their cases to the existing court system.

The archbishop compared allowing Muslims to take carefully defined issues to their own religious courts to the established practice among Orthodox Jews here of referring religious disputes to rabbinical courts. Roman Catholics might also benefit from what he called “plural jurisdiction” in matters affecting religious conscience, he said. He noted that the Church of England, formally headed by the monarch, also has its own ecclesiastical courts. Shariah is drawn from the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. It prescribes religious and secular duties, along with punishments for their breach.

In countries where Islamic militants have gained power, like Afghanistan under the Taliban, harsh forms of Shariah law have been imposed. These have included stoning to death for adultery and the chopping off of hands for theft, along with severe restraints on women’s rights and provisions subjugating them to the will of men. But much of Shariah law deals with issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance, and many Muslims in Britain, a small but often isolated minority of 1.5 million in this nation of 60 million, have for many years taken disputes in these areas to Shariah councils in neighborhood mosques.

Nobody in their right mind,” the archbishop told the BBC, “would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states — the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.” But equally, he said, “I don’t think we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstrously incompatible with human rights simply because it doesn’t immediately fit with how we understand it.”

The 57-year-old archbishop, an Oxford-educated theologian, was met with immediate repudiation from political and legal leaders. A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking anonymously in the tradition of Downing Street, told reporters that Mr. Brown did not “welcome or support” the proposals, and added that Mr. Brown “believes that British laws should be based on British values.” Spokesmen for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties, the main opposition groups, issued similar responses. Baroness Sayeeda Hussain Warsi, a 36-year-old lawyer who is a rising star in the Conservative Party and one of its most influential Muslim figures, issued a statement calling the archbishop’s remarks “unhelpful.” “Of course the important principle is one of equality, and we must ensure that people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally before the law,” she said. “But let’s be absolutely clear: All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts.”

The archbishop’s proposal, if adopted, would set a precedent in the West. In 2005, Muslims in Ontario appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough when the province’s attorney general proposed Shariah-based law for use in Muslim family disputes. But the provincial government abandoned the proposal, saying there should be one law for all Canadians. Legal recognition of Shariah has been a longstanding demand among some Muslim groups in Britain, and their spokesmen endorsed the archbishop’s proposals. Faisal Siddiqui, a lawyer, told the BBC that sensational stories about extreme punishments had distorted the benefits of Islamic law. “The reality is that it has enriched civilization and humanity for 1,400 years,” he said.

The archbishop’s speech was made at the Royal Courts of Justice, before an audience of leading judges and lawyers. Typically, it was steeped in historical and philosophical nuances that risked being lost in the headlines. He argued, for example, that the principle enshrined during the 18th-century Enlightenment, that all citizens should be under the uniform law of a sovereign state, was a reaction to despotism. He said that a modern democratic society should “acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration with procedures or practices that are in tension with demands of particular religious groups.” This, the archbishop said, could be extended to create new legal rights for all faiths, not only Muslims. He cited Catholic adoption agencies that have resisted accepting gay couples as adoptive parents, a stand that has brought them into conflict with the law in Britain, and other religious groups that have resisted stem cell research.

But within hours of the BBC interview, the broadcaster’s Web site was inundated with angry postings. One man, Tom Harrop, left a mocking comment that was typical of many others: “Right, I’m off to get a burqa for the mother-in-law,” a reference to the head-to-toe veil worn by many conservative Muslim women.

Could Shari'ah law be viable in Britain?

Posted February 8, 2008

What Is The Meaning Of Life?

"If you were to ask what provides some meaning in life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply 'football.' Not many of them perhaps would be willing to admit as much; but sport stands in for all those noble causes--religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honor, ethnic identity--for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people." - Terry Eagleton

A synopsis of this book states: The phrase "the meaning of life" for many seems a quaint notion fit for satirical mauling by Monty Python or Douglas Adams. But in this spirited, stimulating, and quirky enquiry, famed critic Terry Eagleton takes a serious if often amusing look at the question and offers his own surprising answer.

Eagleton first examines how centuries of thinkers and writers--from Marx and Schopenhauer to Shakespeare, Sartre, and Beckett--have responded to the ultimate question of meaning. He suggests, however, that it is only in modern times that the question has become problematic. But instead of tackling it head-on, many of us cope with the feelings of meaninglessness in our lives by filling them with everything from football to sex, Kabbala, Scientology, "New Age softheadedness," or fundamentalism.

On the other hand, Eagleton notes, many educated people believe that life is an evolutionary accident that has no intrinsic meaning. If our lives have meaning, it is something with which we manage to invest them, not something with which they come ready made. Eagleton probes this view of meaning as a kind of private enterprise, and concludes that it fails to holds up. He argues instead that the meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical but ethical. It is not something separate from life, but what makes it worth living--that is, a certain quality, depth, abundance and intensity of life.

Here is a brilliant discussion of the problem of meaning by a leading thinker, who writes with a light and often irreverent touch, but with a very serious end in mind.

So just what is the meaning of life?

Posted January 23, 2008

Is Morality Instinctual?

"Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them, the starry heavens above and the moral law within” - Immanuel Kant

“The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell”
– Bertrand Russell

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the author of “The Language Instinct” and “The Stuff ofThought” asks in his article ‘The Moral Instinct’ (NY Times – January 13, 2008):

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this trio should be so out of line with the good they have done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.

In an earlier thread God: Why Do They Hate Him there was a substantial discussion on whether morality can have arisen from evolutionary forces or whether morality must have its origins in a divine source. These points again arise in Pinker’s article as he writes:

It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes. Illusions are a favorite tool of perception scientists for exposing the workings of the five senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of the naïve belief that our minds give us a transparent window onto the world (since if our eyes can be fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at other times?). Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. So dissecting moral intuitions is no small matter. If morality is a mere trick of the brain, some may fear, our very grounds for being moral could be eroded. Yet as we shall see, the science of the moral sense can instead be seen as a way to strengthen those grounds, by clarifying what morality is and how it should steer our actions.

Pinker disusses several elements pertaining to morality:

1. The Moralization Switch
Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).

2. Reasoning and Rationalizing
It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is often questionable, but the way we arrive at them. We like to think that when we have a conviction, there are good reasons that drove us to adopt it. Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

3. A Universal Morality?
According to
Noam Chomsky, we are born with a “universal grammar” that forces us to analyze speech in terms of its grammatical structure, with no conscious awareness of the rules in play. By analogy, we are born with a universal moral grammar that forces us to analyze human action in terms of its moral structure, with just as little awareness. Four-year-olds say that it is not O.K. to wear pajamas to school (a convention) and also not O.K. to hit a little girl for no reason (a moral principle). But when asked whether these actions would be O.K. if the teacher allowed them, most of the children said that wearing pajamas would now be fine but that hitting a little girl would still not be.

4. The Varieties of Moral Experience
People everywhere think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

5. The Genealogy of Morals
The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm can be found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest.

The other two moralized spheres match up with the classic examples of how altruism can evolve … Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future. .

Community, the very different emotion that prompts people to share and sacrifice without an expectation of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives. Sometimes it pays people (in an evolutionary sense) to love their companions because their interests are yoked, like spouses with common children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with common tastes or allies with common enemies.

Juggling the Spheres
All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion,
diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

Is Morality a Figment?
Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

Far from debunking morality the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

Can science of the moral sense clarify what morality is and how it should steer our actions?

Posted January 16, 2008