Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Religion: Worth It?


Given the fact that religion has played a negative role in history, shouldn't we work to minimize and eliminate it?


At the outset, I don't agree to define Judaism as a "religion." It is more accurate to define Judaism as a civilization with a popular religious aspect. This "religious" -- if by that you mean "theistic" -- element in Judaism is so distinct from that of Christianity or Islam that it should be spoken of separately. Both Christianity and Islam have a central historical or mythological personality and episode at the heart of their theology and belief structure. This is not the case with Judaism, which in its inception and history is best characterized as an evolving and developing popular expression of our perception of our place in the world vis-a-vis a Great Force in the universe; or, stated otherwise but equally accurately, an evolving expression of how we should behave in this world given our consciousness of ethical demands and a larger context for our lives. The Torah itself is a description of an evolving civilization, including evolving perceptions of "God" and God's relationship to humanity and to Israel. Judaism, in this way, is more a philosophy of living, as opposed to a set of Theological doctrines. In other words, I don't agree with characterizing Judaism "a religion" in the sense you are using.

Further: I don't accept the framework of your question. I don't think it is accurate or meaningful to say that "religion" is the source of so much evil. You may as well say that it is "ideologies" that are behind these evils -- whatever ideologies -- nationalist, Marxist, religious -- that underlie the Nazi regime, atheist Stalinist Russia (which killed more people in its brief tenure than a thousand years of religious warfare), or the American conquest of Hawaii. It is thus "ideologies" or "ideas" that cause these problems, and according to the logic behind your question, you should ask if we ought not eliminate once and for all the dangerous notion of freedom of thought and speech, suppress the press and send anyone who disagrees to re-education camps. That approach has worked pretty well in China, by some accounts. If you could just suppress ideas, it would take away so much evil. And it doesn't really matter whether the ideas are "true" or not, because it is the existence of ideas themselves, and the differences between them, that is at the root of conflict. If everyone where to hold no ideas, there would be nothing to fight over.

It is people acting "anti' the Jewish religion, specifically, that has been a great harm to humanity, particularly to the Jews. The anti-religious sentiment of the Nazis and fundamentalist Muslim in the Arab world and Iran have been of epic and tragic proportions. In contrast, any measurable violence and harm emanating from every and all self-described "religious" Jews has been incidental and of miniscule proportions (and that not to discount the suffering of its victims).

I would suggest that the problem you want to point to is not based on "religion" in general but specific beliefs that are false and malicious, or the inability of societies to coexist with alternative beliefs. From this perspective, theoretical classical Judaism, in part as expressed by the Masorti ideology (if not the actual practice) of our day, would represent a solution, not the source of the problem. Classical rabbinic thought teaches tolerance for other "religions" and ways of life within certain parameters (specifically, the Noahide laws, and the rules for non-Jews living among Jews). Classical Judaism teaches that a teacher may teach whatever he wants as long as he abides by the democratically-determined law; that certain conflicts of belief cannot be resolved, but are left for future generations to resolve; that what some people hold to be "absolute truths" can be reconciled by compromise, specifically, compromise in practice. Classical Judaism teaches that we seek the truth, wherever it takes us, and that logic, what we see before our own eyes, and the authority of experts are the most reliable sources for rules and beliefs. Sages such as Maimonides taught that while some aspects of Christianity and Islam seem untrue to us, we should value the positive influence they have on society.

Finally, I would suggest that you have underestimated the function of "religion" in individuals and society, and that positing the "reduction" or "elimination" of religion leaves a hazardous void. Instead of talking of "religion," I suggest you identify specific and much more discrete beliefs or attitudes that are false and harmful and work to replace them with better ones.


Because so many elements of culture, tradition, doctrine, ideology, and even legal theory have been intertwined in various modern religions, I used the term "religion" as a blunt knife to make the first incision into the discussion.

Now for the scalpel. Ingrained deeply within the ideology of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is faith. Followers of these religions indoctrinate their children with the various theologies of their religions. As these children become adults, they carry with them the beliefs their parents or priests gave them. Their beliefs are so strong that they remain steadfast in their delusions even to the point of denying science because it contradicts things they read in the Torah, the Koran, or the New Testament. Their beliefs are so strong that they spend ten hours a week praying to a god who isn't listening instead of improving themselves or society. Their beliefs are so strong that they commit mass murder in the first degree.

Furthermore, the faith culture hinders social progress on many levels. Religious organizations sap tax dollars from government, effectively stealing from society. Religious indoctrination makes education difficult. Religious influence over the government threatens to restrict science teachers in some states and countries. In turn, the uneducated electorate leaves democracy collapsing under its own weight, or worse yet perpetuates an authoritarian or even theocratic regime. Theological elements of religion coupled with cultural heritages, driven through history by indoctrination, lead to intense hatred, social division, and even war.

On a more abstract ideological note, theology distracts the world from deep societal issues such as how to be a good person, how to lead a positive life, and how to govern effectively. Cheap answers to questions of "morality" such as "God said it is good" or "That's the way my parents did it" keep people from considering the possibility that perhaps there is no such thing as morality, and the only way for us to be good people and govern fairly and properly is by societal consensus. Or something else. But not faith.

I grant that many sects of Judaism have moved away from their theological roots and have come to focus on the cultural, communal, and legal aspects of the Jewish tradition. In that way, we are less of a religion and more of a nation, albeit an until recently homeless one. The Jewish people is on average very highly educated. For that reason, many Jews, especially young ones like myself, have become agnostic or atheist, even though they may still identify themselves as members of the Jewish nation. And the Jewish nation has historically been very legally progressive, with a common consensus amendment system in place for millennia. However, the fact remains that Jewish liturgy and text are chock full of faith positions. And these texts are beaten into the skulls of children as soundly as any other religion. Twice a day, we are required to recite a prayer which essentially says "I am your God. Love me, and tell your children about me.", an easily identifiable virus. Most of the rest praises god and names his mighty deeds, which invariably either are accounted for by science, are false claims, or are just plain nonsense. Anyone studying Jewish "religious" text would conclude that Jews believe in one god, who created the world and life, intervenes in history, listens and responds to prayers, and keeps our minds operational after our bodies expire. These doctrines are in direct opposition to science and reason, and are distasteful to those who truly seek to explore the beauty of the natural world and the human potential. If this faith system is a metaphor, that is a well kept secret. Never, in my 9 years attending a Jewish elementary school, 9 summers at a Jewish summer camp, and over 3000 hours of sitting through services at one synagogue or another, have I ever been told god and faith are metaphors. I've never even heard anyone explain clearly what such a metaphor might mean or what purpose it might serve.

I'm not suggesting that we suppress ideas or restrict freedom of religious practice. People have fundamental rights to delusion and waste and hatred. Were these rights to be abridged, along with them would necessarily go basic freedoms that no society or government should ever encroach upon, lest the human spirit be crushed. I'm suggesting that all modern religions have, as you say, multiple elements, and that we should identify the useful and positive ones, and leave the rest in the history books. Take prayer. It has useful parts and harmful parts.

Good for society:

Builds community by bringing people together and giving them a common experience

Gives people a routine to hold on to

Gives people a chance to sing, and singing is fun

Gives people a chance to relax and reflect

Provides educational opportunities, such as group discussions

Bad for society:

Perpetuates and validates through social proof the delusions of faith and all of the destructive effects that follow

Wastes time on quite an impressive scale

Publicly and communally alienates other religions as well as non-believers, sometimes implicitly, but often explicitly

Powerfully and deeply indoctrinates children with delusions of faith

Falsely associates good feelings of community and medition and learning with delusional traditions of faith in a conspicuously absent higher power

Instead, why not live up to the name Beit Knesset (Hebrew for "House of Assembly"), Synagogue (approximate Greek for "learning together"), Shul (Yiddish for "school")? Bring people together not to worship but to meditate, sing songs of the world, of life, love, and joy, to teach, to learn, to discuss government, education, and culture.

Instead of going to church, go to a soup kitchen.

Instead of praying five times a day, do 20 pushups five times a day.

You want to say that Judaism "is more a philosophy of living, as opposed to a set of theological doctrines"? Make it so.

Now let me address one of your more bizarre deflections. You brought up the Nazi regime and "atheist Stalinist Russia".

Whether or not he himself was an atheist (accounts vary), Hitler used the idea of the divine right of domination of the German people to manipulate Germany. From Mein Kampf: "What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and the reproduction of our that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe...Peoples that bastardize themselves, or let themselves be bastardized, sin against the will of eternal Providence." As history has shown time and time again (the Crusades, the bloody conquest of the Americas, the ethno-religious civil wars in Ireland and many Arab nations, etc.), "divine mandate" is a very effective motivator to war. Briefly, people go to war in the name of God, but never in the name of atheism. Stalin was oppressive, yes, but that makes oppression bad, not atheism. There is nothing in the meme complex of atheism that could be taken to somehow imply that a war should be fought.


  1. really interesting stuff man. follow me. I look forward to reading more.

  2. interesting...

  3. i dont care the religion when u believe in an invisible person who tells u to do shit = LOLOLOLZ if u want to be religious dont think u can get away with what the invisible man told u can do like killing people in the world trade center or us counter attacking them which was necessary but war and religion are so co-mingled maybe neither should exist ask yourself that


  5. @peedewba Although the faith culture of religion is clearly responsible for many conflicts and for exacerbating existing conflicts, not all wars are necessarily related to religion. Also, how do you justify our invasion of Iraq?