Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Religion and Its Critics

Lately, the issue of criticizing religion has been a hot topic. On one extreme are those who want absolutely no critique of religious belief and or holy books whatsoever. On the other extreme are those who are tying criticism of faiths to their own brand of bigotry and vitriolic language. Of course, there are many folks in the middle.  In particular, the criticism of Islam has landed itself into the midst of this.

 All belief systems need criticism, including those that I hold dear. For instance, I tend to champion secularism, the scientific method and democracy, to name a few. I not only accept that these things will be criticized, but I understand that such scrutiny helps improve these thought systems. Ideas and ideologies can thrive as a result of being exposed to criticism, scrutiny and even parody. This allows invalid ideas to be discarded, paves the way for ideas that need improvement to be modified, and illuminates the strength of really good ideas. Religious belief is no exception. It is vital that in a free society, folks discuss and debate ideas. Religion touches upon our world in so many ways and must be included in the debate and discussion.

When a belief system is not open to criticism, it creates all sorts of problems. First, if I were to accept that religion should not be criticized, than I would logically insist that a whole range of other beliefs that I cherish, should also not be criticized. In addition, when folks commit irrational or immoral acts in the name of the religion, a prohibition on criticism removes the ability to examine the motivations as well as to fully expose these actions.

Ironically, though I am a nonbeliever and I often argue that we need to be free to criticize religion, I often find myself praising it as often as I disapprove of certain aspects of it. I also prefer, but do not insist, that criticism be polite and sensitive to the feelings of reasonable believers. This is not just because I like to be nice. When people’s thought systems come under scathing attack, they become understandably defensive. In addition, a one-sided view of religion, its history and how it motivates people to act does not seem reflective of reality. There is a lot of good motivated by and done in the name of religion. There are worthwhile ideas and concepts that come out of it both historically and in our present day. I wrote about the need to have a balanced view on these topics in more detail here.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a group that is called the “New Atheists.” Richard Dawkins is the most prominent of this group that includes Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others. This group uses strong rhetoric and has little respect for any religious ideas. Though they seem careful not to attack individuals, their commentary on religion is often scathing.

Though I agree with much of what they say, I find that not only is their tone too harsh for my taste, but that their view of religion is too lopsided, never emphasizing the good that comes out of it. There are also those who go well beyond this group. Social media is full of people who express biting hatred of religion. Sometimes this hatred is paired with racism. Nevertheless, in a free society, such voices will inevitably speak, and unless they are calling for violence, they should not be censored.

Just because speech is permissible does not make it right. I support reasoned criticism of all belief systems. I also like to be respectful unless a belief is hateful or promoting discrimination or violence. With that, I also think that parody as well as harsh criticism is often in order. This is especially true when the subject is murder, violence, brutality, discrimination, etc. that are driven by the things written in holy books. Simply put, there are abominable things in both the Old Testament and the Koran. The fact that these holy books also include a lot of good things does not alleviate the need for scrutiny.

As of late, Islam seems to be at the center of this debate. There has been very harsh criticism of that belief system lately. There has also been outright hate, bigotry and violence directed at Muslims. There has also been lots of fair and reasoned criticism that has unfairly been labeled “Islamophobia.” Maryam Namazie, a critic of extremist violence and mistreatment of women in Islam, has been exposed to caustic verbal attacks and harassment by extremists. Even worse, violence has been aimed at religious critics. The very worst of this involved the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. The Charlie Hebdo attacks served as a stark reminder to those of us who believe in freedom of speech just how far people will go to suppress that liberty in the name of religion.

There have been cases where non – Muslim commentators, such as Emmanuel Todd, have joined in and partially blamed the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for the violence and excoriated those who are criticizing Islam. In turn, some secularists have coined the term “Regressive Left” for liberals who they deem to be apologizing for violence and discrimination in the name of Islam. 

Folks will point out with much truth that these violent fanatics do not represent the Islamic faith. It is absolutely true that most Muslims do not support such things. However, the Koran (Since the question comes up when I discuss this topic, I have read the Koran twice), which despite containing a lot of good things is full of racism, misogyny and calls for violence, points to the fact there is some connection. The fact that many of those who perpetuate oppression and violence directly cite the text of this holy book further supports this contention. 

A popular response to criticism of Islam is that parts of Old Testament advocates terrible barbarities. This is true. Though it seems apparent that it is not driving as much violence and oppression in out current age, belief in certain aspects Old Testament ideology drives some discrimination and violence. Since it is connected to all three Abrahamic Religions, this is particularly significant.  This is another good argument as to why it is imperative that people be free to criticize religious belief systems.

Though in my opinion the New Testament does not advocate violence and discrimination like other holy books do, it is full of ideas about how people should live. It touches upon morality, human nature, the nature of existence, and even economics. Such a comprehensive set of beliefs also lends itself and must be open to scrutiny. 

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the positive actions that the various religions as well the texts of the holy books seem to motivate. All the major religions drive an enormous amount of charitable and humanitarian action. With that, such positive aspects of these faith - based systems do not exempt these systems from scrutiny and criticism. However, such activities must be considered when formulating any comprehensive view of these belief systems.

Though I have read multiple texts connected with the Eastern religions I am less knowledgeable concerning these belief systems and their impact on humanity. With that, I believe most of the issues and arguments that I raise here also apply to Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, etc.

Folks may disagree with some of my opinions on various belief systems. Such disagreement is actually part of the very important discussion that humanity needs to be having about the enormously influential  group of ideas known as religion.

No doubt religion will always be criticized, in ways that I agree with and in ways that I disagree with. There will also be folks who defend these belief systems. There will be others who insist that religious beliefs are above criticism. I have argued before that a society where folks are free and open to various ideas as well as to criticize these ideas is ideal. I have also mentioned that I am a believer in The Marketplace of Ideas. In such a marketplace, all ideas, including religious ones, must be open to discussion and  debate.


Suko said...

Brian Joseph, your commentary about this book is interesting, fair and balanced. This book does sound one-sided. I like the idea of The Marketplace of Ideas.

@parridhlantern said...

Having read The God Delusion & also various tracts on differing faiths & philosophies over the years, I have pretty much come to the same conclusions. If a faith/believe whether religious or otherwise cannot stand up to pleasant reasoned debate/scrutiny there must be some inherent issues that the believers (religious or otherwise) have concerns with themselves.

Caroline said...

I'm an anti-clerical and have a hige problem with Monotheism. Other than that - I'm interested in spirituality and mysticism. Nonetheless, I agree with your points.
I'm still baffled about one post that I wrote years ago on my war movie blog. It was just a list containing movies about the crusades and the hatred in the cmooments section is unbelievable. It was directed against me as I voiced hardly any opinions but against others who somehow misunderstood the post believing it was about the crusades. That goes to show - the moment you write about religion it gets heated. Most of these reactions can only be understood applying psychology. It very obviously is about something else entirely.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

Without a doubt book like the God Delusion are biased. With that they are expressions of opinion/philosophy so is acceptable. Of course religious teaching is by nature biased.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - Throughout history religion has propagated itself by stifling dissent. That itself is a reason to criticize it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Indeed there are folks put there who will adamantly attack those whose view on religion differs from theirs. Throughout human history these folks have had the upper hand. In some nations they still do. This isa reason to champion secularism.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! The question is what is true? Is there a God and if there is what is our relationship to Him?
If there's not, what really matters? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.

The Bible declares that all of creation declares His existence. In other words, everything we see is too orderly to be a random evolutionary accident. And there must be a first cause. Something can't appear from nothing by itself. Something (Someone) must preexist and call creation into existence.

I've never heard or read anything or anyone substantiate the belief in a Godless evolutionary process with infallible proof. It's easy enough to make assertions. It's another thing to back your assertions up with proof or good logic.

I believe in God because I know that I cannot create morals inside myself. There has to be a first cause and a Universal law giver.

But I guess that's not your point. You are saying everyone should be respectful of each other even when they disagree.

I would rather adhere to God's mandate in the Bible which takes it higher:

Love God with all your heart might and soul.

And love others as much as you love yourself.

I also disagree with your view of the Old Testament but that is a discussion for another time.

RFD@15037 said...

What a fascinating posting! I do not think anyone can choose not to believe something without first thoroughly understanding the arguments for believing that something. In other words, I lose patience with self-proclaimed atheists who rail against Christianity when they know next to nothing about Christianity (or any other theistic belief system). I also look at it this way: Countless billions of people throughout history have chosen different belief systems, and who am I to either ridicule or dismiss their choices? Continuing, I also look at it this way: People (e.g., Christians, Muslims, or others) who disparage (or do worse to) people for not believing as they do need to be respectful, tolerant, and not critical of any other person's existential choices and beliefs. But perhaps I have said too much. Let's just stick with my first sentence. Readers should feel free to ignore all that is sandwiched in between the first sentence and this sentence.

Jonathan said...

Great post Brian. This is a particular bugbear of mine also. But I find it more general than just with religions. A lot of people seem to demand respect from others and want to be protected from any criticism from others, though they usually want to be free to criticise those they don't approve of themselves.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I want folks to be civil. But more importantly I want a free and open exchange of ideas.

Lots of people who do not believe in God are moral and ethical. In no way do I believe in hedonism as a viable path in life.

If everything had to have something that pre - existed it, the same thing is true of God. We have the same problem.

Infallible proof in for these things is impossible. I do not have the answer to everything. We are piecing together the nature of the Universe as best we can. Science seems to be honing in upon real truths however.

With that, the big complex ideologies espoused in the Holy Books seems to be baseless. These books are brilliant works of art. They also contain some morality and philosophy that is very important as well as worthwhile. But they are enormously flawed as a description of the big picture. That are filled with factual as well as moral lapses, They are full of contradictions. If there is a God, it seems that these books do not seem to be accurate descriptions of his nature or the nature of the Universe.

Thanks for the great comment!

Take care.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - In do not think that you said too much.

I agree that anyone who keeps their own believes within their own lives should be free from criticism.

With that, religious folks are often espousing their beliefs to others, using them yo influence politics, social trends etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, it opens the door to discussion, agreement, criticism, pushback, etc.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - Without a doubt, the demand that beliefs not be criticized goes beyond religion. This tendency seems to be permanently enshrined in human nature,

When it applies to religion, all sorts of unique issues seem to apply however.

Sharon Wilfong said...

With all due respect to you Brian, and I do respect you which is why I enjoy your blog:

What great questions has science answered? What does a particle have to say about how I treat my neighbor or how do I find meaning and purpose in having evolved from lower life forms? It's good to know how a car runs, but isn't it more important where you drive it?

And again you are making general statements without expounding on what exactly you find failing in the Bible.

As for God, why does He need to have an origin? Why can't He be self-sufficient?

And frankly, if there is no God and my inner moral compass says I don't need to respect others' opinions, why should I (speaking hypothetically, of course)? Is getting along with others something to pursue? Obviously not, according to some political candidates-oops!!! Better not go there (smile).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I welcome you posting here to discuss and disagree. I really enjoy your comments whether we agree or disagree :)

Science allows us, a part of the Universe to know itself. We are peering into the origins of the Universe. We are looking at both the incredibly tiny as well as the monumentally large. We are not just looking at our origins but those of conciseness itself. These are wonders that no one ever knew before. But, this incredible understanding is not all there is to life. It is one of the important things, but just one.

Another of those things that makes it all worthwhile is human morality and ethics. I would ask, why is morality better if it was placed there by an outside source? I say that it no way makes it less valuable. My moral compass tells me that I must respect others no matter what. It is a part of me that has great value. Who cares that it formed through natural processes?

Your question about God applies to the Universe, why does it have to have an origin, why can it not be self sufficient?

The problems that I have with the Bible are enormous. I could write blog after blog, but as you mention this might be best discussed detail later. But just a few example:

The Old Testament is filled with horrible immorality. For instance: In Numbers 41, the Israelites are ordered by God to destroy the Midianites: Some relevant quotes -

"And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,. 2 Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites"

"And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males."

"Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him."

"But all the young girls, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."

There are dozens of passages like this.

We can also look at the New Testament. There is a lot that I like about the Gospels. But if they are the word of God they are incomplete morality. There is little or nothing about equality, or freedom, or thinking for oneself. These are key human values. How can a book that folks claims is the to be the be all and end all of morality be missing these key ethical principles?

These are just a few examples that make the Bible inadequate when comes to morality and ethics. The Bible is a huge collection of diverse works and I could spend years finding factual and moral problems within it.

Citizen Reader said...

All very interesting, as per usual.
I tend to dismiss the new Atheists pretty much out of hand--Dawkins, Dennett, etc., because they are so dogmatic in their criticisms of dogma that it seems to me they miss the hilarity that is them following their own religion (of no religion). And because, although I consider myself a Christian and a Catholic (with so many failures every day achieving the best aims of both of those beliefs), I don't really have anything against atheists. For the most part believe and let believe (or not), is what I try to follow.

Unfortunately for the commenter above, who got nasty comments on a post she wrote, I would say the Internet in general is not a good place for reasoned discussion, particularly if a woman is starting the discussion. Sad but true.

I totally, totally agree that religion should be talked about and discussed. If your belief system can't even withstand that it is not really much of a system.

Thanks for the thoughtful post!

Citizen Reader said...

Incidentally--once I wrote something in a post about how I wasn't a fan of the actress Rachel Weisz, and one particularly driven commenter got very nasty about that! Sheesh. So really: anything will set people off.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sarah.

From the limited amount of things that I read from Dennett, he seems to be a lot less one sided then Dawkins who seems to often lack sensitivity.

As for women being harassed and attacked on the Internet, I talk about it a little here:

One very bright spot, we are able to have reasoned and very civil discussions about even hot button issues like this in the comments sections of our book blogs :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! Thanks for taking the time tell me what you disagree with in the Bible. Arguments are like graph theory, which are mathematical problems of logic. One starts with a premise and then builds on that premise. If the premise is true, great and wonderful truths are discovered and enjoyed.

But if the premise is false, all the conclusions built on the premise come falling down like a house of cards.

The question is, as Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial: What is truth?

I also love science because it shows me how awesome God is as Creator.

As for the universe being self-sufficient, the theory of a stagnate universe was debunked years ago and replaced with the Big Bang theory which says that since the universe is ever expanding, that means to go back in time it shrinks to a single point and moment in time when there was an explosion of information that contained everything that was and has become. Now before that moment of time, it did not exist but something or Someone brought it into existence.

You say that your internal moral code that was created through an evolutionary process is the guide you use to determine right and wrong.

Pushing aside for the moment that it is impossible to prove or explain how an organic process produced a spiritual outcome or that this code is infallible, it still doesn’t tell you that the Bible is false.

In other words, you may find the Bible immoral but that doesn’t make it untrue. You cannot reduce truth to human preference.

For myself, I see God’s great love for people in the Bible. He is so patient, waiting for people to come to Him and have relationship with Him.

As for the Midianites, He gave them every chance to turn from their immorality, child sacrifice, temple prostitution etc.. it was the Midianites that sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. They worshiped idols. They tried to get Balaam to curse the Israelites. Even then they could have turned and worshipped God but they refused and even thought they could war against Him.

God wanted them wiped out so their abominable sin practices wouldn’t corrupt Israel, as we see it almost did. We see this through out the Bible: people practicing horrible, abominable atrocities and God waiting for them to turn to Him. But He doesn’t wait forever. A good judge does not allow evil to continue indefinitely. That gives me great hope when I look at man’s inhumanities today.

Instead of judging God and determining that He is wrong or unjust in this matter, we need to seek understanding about the nature of God. He is a God of love but He is also a God of justice. If He created life, why does He not have the right to remove it as well?

Here’s a link that goes into it more:

As for the Old and New Testament, I see God’s amazing love for us. In the book of Isaiah, how many times does God cry out at the adulteries (which is what God calls idol worship-which is anything we love that replaces our love for Him) but tells them if they would turn back to Him He would embrace them.

Jesus showed so much love and compassion for people. Look how he healed and forgave them. He died for them.

Finally, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to win an argument. Winning an argument proves nothing.

But if you believed that God as revealed in the Bible was true and that judgment is coming to all who reject Him, what would you do?

And really, if there is no God what are you left with? A Hobbesian optimism that explains away starvation, child abuse, terrorism, Donald Trump…with “ that’s just the process evolution uses to perfect life”. I see no proof for that, nor do I find it an adequate explanation. My heart cries out against these evils and my hope is in God who is only going to wait so long until He stops it.

There are many directions I could take with this argument but I’ll stop here.

Thanks for allowing room for respectful discussion! Take care.

Stefanie said...

No belief system be it religious or otherwise is perfect because humans are not perfect. But if we could all manage to take a fair and ope-minded approach like you have, the world would certainly be a better place.

Harvee said...

So much depends on how people interpret their religion. The Old Testament is more violent and extreme than the New, and many don't subscribe to those practices any more.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon –

I know that you are not just here to argue. This is actually great discussion.

Of course I welcome you to continue to post your thoughts here and in the comments section of any of my posts.

I think I detect three points that you are making that though related can stand on their own.

It is true that if the Bible was the word of God, my objection to its moral structure would not disprove it. But I do not see a lot of reasons to believe that it is the word of God.

It is possible that there is a God but I do not see evidence that this is the case. Arguments based on philosophy such as something had to come before the Universe do not seem to ring very true for the reasons that I mention above.

Believing that the Bible is true goes beyond the contention that God exists. Many people believe in God but do not literally believe in the Bible. There are many alternate belief systems.

As for the morality, the worst parts as we have discussed above are simply abominable to me. I think that we humans should recoil at the things that I pointed out. If that is cruelty and barbarity is morality, then there is no point in having any morality . It would be more moral if one just ate, drank and was merry.

If i thought that the Old Testament was true, I could give it lip service at best. I could never really accept the things that this book espouses. As for the New Testament, though I have areas where I disagree, and it is an incomplete set of morals, I could accept it if I thought that it was true. In fact, I find it to be inspirational and some of the philosophy contained in it has become part of my moral compass. Not because I believe that God insists that I accept it, but because I choose to accept it.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee – Indeed most believers do not subscribe to the worst aspects of these books.

With that, enough do to create misery for a lot of people in this world.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie – thanks so much. i am optimistic and think that most people when they are reasoned with and calm, can be very open minded and fair.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian, me once again. I see we have reached an impasse. You have reasserted your beliefs and I can do little but to reassert mine.

Therefore, I am going to add one thought and then bow out.

The reasons you reject the Bible and consequently Christianity are the same reasons I reject atheism.

You say your morals come from within you. I contend your morals come from having been raised in a country whose cultural mores originated in Judaeo-Christian values.

When I look at countries whose belief systems are atheistic, I don't see people abiding by the same moral code: North Korea, the former Soviet Union, Cambodia's Pol Pot to name a few and I see unimaginable atrocities committed in those countries. Nietzsche endorsed this "might makes right" philosophy.

I believe that God does exist and that He loves us but is also a just judge. There is an eternity waiting for all of us. The Bible says this eternity will either be in relationship with Him or in permanent isolation and darkness.

And if I'm wrong?

I have nothing to lose.

But what if you're wrong?

You have everything to lose.

If I didn't care, I wouldn't be so dogged on this subject.

Once again, take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that Judeo - Christian philosophy has contributed to the positive aspects of our current moral systems. In fact, it has done so in some major ways. Hence my comment about the "good things" in the Holy Books.

I think that our positive mores come from many sources including secular sources of thought.

I also recognize that really bad things have come out of atheistic thinking. Your examples are good ones.I touched on this a little here:

In addition, there is a nasty pairing of atheism and misogyny that is occurring on social media right now.

Obviously a lot of bad things come out of religion too. I try to see the big picture.

As for being fearful of punishment in the afterlife, if there is God I have no reason to think that he is punishing people in an afterlife for skepticism. If he were, I might guess that he would be anger if I were to act like I believed in him, when I really did not, just to avoid punishment.

Deepika Ramesh said...

This is an enlightening post. Thank you, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Deepika.

James said...

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on these issues. I generally share your approach to these issues and while I am not religious I have an interest in spiritual thought and writings. In that vein I have read the Koran, Confucius, Lao Tse, the Bhagavad Gita, and other similar works in addition to my lifelong readings in the Bible. Each of these is enlightening in its own way and your commentary highlights the importance of keeping an open mind.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - i agree, It is interesting how Non - Believers and skeptics can get so much from such spiritual writings.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

As always a considered and balanced post. Despite being a non-believer I've always been fascinated by matters of faith and religion.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - As i mentioned in response to James, it is so interesting how so many of us non - believers are interested in religious thought.

Maria Behar said...

This is, I believe, your most fascinating, brilliant, and thought-provoking post to date, Brian!! And I say that because it deals with the basic issue of human existence: the meaning of life.

Back in college, I was sort of an existentialist (I think everyone is, in college, lo).) This was despite the fact that I had only a cursory knowledge of this philosophical system at the time. However, I had begun to question the Catholicism I had been brought up with.

Human nature being what it is, many people tend to criticize religions they were not brought up in. But there are those of us who do step back from our religious tradition in order to examine and even question it.

I might have to return for more comments, so I'll get right to the point. I believe that every religious system has its good and bad points, except that it seems to me that the Eastern religions have more bad than good ones, and are egregiously false.

When I was growing up, I was not taught to read the Bible. Most Catholics still aren't. The whole emphasis is on Church ritual and traditions. Since being exposed to Protestant ideas several years back, I have seen the glaring flaws in Catholic theology, although its moral system is indeed based on the Bible.

As I became more familiar with the Bible, and began reading (although not in order) parts of the Old and New Testament, I became shocked at some of the things Jehovah did in the Old Testament. So I have to agree with you there, Brian.

So the Midianites were evil. God supposedly gave them every chance to repent of their evil deeds. But did He, really? Did God send prophets to them, to let them know that He was the true God? Did He send an Isaiah, a Jeremiah, a Samuel, to them? There is no record of such actiosn in the Bible. There are plenty of Bible passages that recount the care and guidance God had for the Jewish people. But then, they were His chosen people. And the Bible was written from their point of view.

The same thing applies in the case of the Egyptians. God sent plague after plague on them. Why didn't He send them prophets to speak of Him, to convince them that He is the only true God? And the Bible even says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that Pharaoh became even MORE stubborn about letting the Jewish people go.

All of the above hardly seems fair. And, even though Life is not fair, as we all know, surely God should be. He is, after all, the Arbiter of morality for those who believe in Him.

Then there's that little passage (don't recall the verse) in which some poor Jew -- most likely a peasant, with no servants -- went out to gather branches on the Sabbath, so as to start a fire warm himself up on a cold day. No work was supposed to be done on the Sabbath. He was caught, and, when Moses consulted God, the Almighty told him that the poor man was to be stoned to death, for profaning the Sabbath.

I believe in God. I believe in Jesus with all my heart, mind and soul. I believe He died for me, and for all humanity, and rose from the dead on the third day after His burial.

But the things I have pointed out above deeply disturb me.

There are parts of the Bible that are beautiful and comforting. Psalms 23 and 91 are cases in point. But there are other parts -- mostly in the Old Testament -- that make me shudder.

Perhaps this just means that God is a mystery. Be that as it may, when reading such sections of the Bible, it's the Greek god Zeus who comes to mind, not Jehovah. Zeus, like all the other Greek gods, had all the vices and whims of human beings. Of course, because he came from the human imagination. To find the One True God sometimes acting in similar ways is, again, deeply disturbing.

As I said, I might have to continue....

Thanks for the AWESOME post, Brian!! :)

Maria Behar said...

Two more point, Brian.

First, it strikes me as very odd that the Almighty God of the Universe would give such detailed instructions regarding what to do with the conquered Midianites. The Jews (meaning the Jewish warriors, of course) were to kill all the males AND children, as well as any women who were not virgins. However, they were to keep the virgins for themselves. I see the hand of MAN here. I see the cruel hand of the patriarchy here, selecting pure mates for their own convenience. And how, I wonder, were these warriors to separate the virgins from the non-virgins? Obviously, through the crudest and cruelest method available at the time....

Second, Brian, I must point out that you didn't create your ethics and morals from an evolutionary background; you got them from the Catholic Church, into which you were born. That you later supplemented that with philosophical readings is obviously true, because you have stated as much in your posts. But your moral foundation was laid by the Catholic Church, as was mine.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the great comment Maria. Also thank you for the good word.

I like the idea of looking at these belief systems as both good and bad.

It seems clear from what everyone has written that the Old Testament is no guide to morality.

It also seems clear that based on evidence, much, but not all of our moral systems come to us in our genes. there are al of sources out there but I recommend Stephen Pinker's the Blank Slate for summary of what is very strong evidence. Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene is also a great source. It was written before his current tendency to be abrasive.

With that, much of our moral systems come from culture. A good chuck of my moral system was influenced by Catholic teachings. But early on, I was also exposed to liberal, secular ideas which also played a big part in my place of ethics. i was exposed to several people, including my much older sister, who fostered these ideas.

I wrote about it here:

Maria Behar said...

I had forgotten this post. I went back and re-read it. I noticed right away that, at your earliest formative period, you were surrounded by religious people; some were Catholic, others Protestants, and other Jews. At the the same time, you were exposed to those who "questioned the existence of God as well as of supernatural phenomena."

So you were actually exposed to a mixed bag of beliefs. But surely your earliest notions of morality and ethics were shaped by religious values. I don't think you would be the person you are today without this exposure.

In re-reading this post, it appeared to me that you were engaged in a process of selecting what you thought was valuable, and discarding what was not. I have been engaged in a similar process throughout my life, except that I tend to gravitate much more toward a spiritual world view. While I have attempted to reason my way through what I accept and do not accept, I must declare that my adherence to spiritual values is not always based on reason, but on feelings, on a sense of wonder about it all.

I must do some reading on the origins of ethics and morality. I know I have a book somewhere -- alas, I think it's probably in storage -- that discusses the idea of "evil genes". And I have read something about the brains of psychopaths being differently-wired from the brains of regular people. I'll be sure to check out the books you've mentioned above, as well.

BTW, I'd like to commend you on the balanced view you take on the evils perpetrated by various groups throughout history. Religious fanatics have indeed committed many atrocities, but so have non-religious groups, like those during the French Revolution and the Communists. I appreciate your pointing this out, as those from each side like to demonize the other while conveniently glossing over their own egregious faults. Jesus Himself said to those who were self-righteous that, instead of being hypocrites, they should take the plank out of their own eyes before presuming to take the straw out of their brothers' eye.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the good word.

Without a doubt the Catholicism influenced me, but I think that what is often described as Secular Humanist thought was very strong too. With that, it gets complicated. My parents were what I would describe as blue collar liberal Catholics. I would clarify this to say this group were not nearly as liberal as some of today's progressives. That Catholic liberalism was itself influenced by certain secular ideas. These same secular ideas were themselves influenced by certain Christian beliefs. I think that may of our values are really a melting pot of ideas.

In terms of Genes and morality, in The Better Angels of our nature, Pinker contends that as society improves, the positive tendencies in our genes, empathy, non violence, the belief in equality, etc. are expressing themselves more.

HKatz said...

I enjoyed reading your post and agree that there needs to be open discussion and criticisms of beliefs. One thing people are so bad at is making distinctions (both in terms of action and perception) between criticism and calls for violence or persecution.

One of the things that bothers me most in discussions about religion is a kind of aggressive ignorance that insists on expertise where there isn't any. For example, with every holy book there's tons of surrounding commentary and additional laws and customs. Not to mention the complexity of the books themselves (hence multiple interpretations even of a single passage). What bothers me is when people - whether religious or not - skim through the Bible in English, for instance, and pick a passage here and there, decide that their literal reading in English is truth, and claim to Know Everything about the religion and how it's practiced. Even read as a literary work, the Bible is enormously complex and things get lost in translation. And again, there's the surrounding laws and customs built around holy books that may either mitigate or intensify any perceived "calls to violent action" within those books.

People have enormous trouble with uncertainty. That's part of the problem. Uncertainty is terrifying. And that's understandable. But when the fear of uncertainty turns aggressive it can get frightening. I write this as someone who is religious but can't rest easy with any simple explanations. It's really possible to be religious and grapple with uncertainty and admit to that. Admit to not knowing. But it isn't easy. It's tempting to want definitive answers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - It is complex indeed.

I agree with you that the subject of translation is an important one and adds to the complexity. With that, some of the translated versions of Holy Books, such as the King James Bible, have become major drivers of religious thought even among people of faith themselves.

The uncertainty thing is also big. I think it is also something non - believers struggle with.

Priya said...

I am sorry I saw this post as late as now. What an interesting discussion, I will come back to read the comments with greater attention later. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said about Dawkins and the new atheists. Not many in my circles would be happy to find me criticizing their approach. While logical in what they promote, their tone is too militant and as you rightly said, unfairly scathing. I happen to be currently reading the excellent book called The Case For God by Karen Armstrong. It addresses the anthropological basis for religion and gives a new way of looking at atheism as a belief system as well.
If you haven't read it, in the very initial pages, she says:

"It is a pity that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris express themselves so intemperately, because some of their criticisms are valid. Religious people have indeed committed atrocities and crimes, and the fundamentalist theology the new atheists attack is indeed "unskillful," as the Buddhists would say. But they refuse, on principle, to dialogue with theologians who are more representative of mainstream tradition. As a result, their analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology. In fact, the new atheists are not radical enough. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is "nothing" out there; in making these assertions, their aim was not to deny the reality of God but to safeguard God's transcendence. In our talkative and highly opinionated society, however, we seem to have lost sight of this important tradition that could solve many of our current religious problems."

Sorry for adding such a long quote, but I thought it might interest you. :)

So many books, so little time said...

Really interesting post Brian, religion is always a hot topic and can often get nasty when trying to discuss it, even with level headed adults.

I have read the God delusion, I remember very little of it but I find different religions fascinating and the horror people manage to achieve in the name of it is very scary!

As always, very thought provoking post!


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Priya - No rush at all in getting a comment up.

That is a very interesting quote. I think that I would like that book.

Sometimes I am so torn over the New Atheists. I agree with so many of their points. There are also so many folks on t6he other side whose faith based rhetoric is just as, if not more scathing. In this world we also need strong secular voices. In the end however, I think that we would all do matter in their approach were more temperate.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy.

i am also very intrigued by the different belief systems. And also like you, horrified by the things some people do in their name. With the news from Belgium over the last few days, this seems especially relevant.

The Bookworm said...

Such a hot topic and one that can get really nasty. Like you say, belief systems do need to be discussed and questioned and in order to really find the truth. I feel like at the end of the day, those who believe, no matter what religion they follow, are believing in some form of God. They just call Him by a different name.

Now when people commit horrendous acts in the name of their religion, it is just sad and scary. Then it gives a bad name to the people who follow said religion but who are decent people and not violent.
All throughout history some of the most atrocious acts were committed in the name of religion.

I also find that some people get really defensive and almost irrational on the topic of religion.
Other religions interest me as well. I have a few close friends who are Muslim and I see how they hold their beliefs close to their hearts and how their religious customs and celebrations bring their families together. I think that can be said for most religious customs and it's nice having those traditions. It should be about that not about whose religion is best and right.

Great post as always!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The nastiness on social media and elsewhere over this topic is out of control.

I think traditions are great as well as the works that folks do in the name of religion are great and need to be acknowledged.

In terms of religions competing with one another most of the Holy Books do this and tend to castigate or in cases like the Old Testament and the Koran, call for violence against other religions and non believers. Thus, there will inevitably be at least rhetorical conflict.