Category Archives: Religion

A Bait and Switch Argument

Writing for the Family Research Council, Rob Schwarzwalder attempts to make a religious liberty argument against Bruce Leiter’s new book, Why Tolerate Religion?.
Schwarzwalder quotes Leiter almost correctly, “[N]o one has been able to articulate a credible principled argument for tolerating religion qua religion – that is, an argument that would explain why, as a matter of moral principle, we ought to accord special legal and moral [treatment – sic] to religious practices” (p.7).” Schwarzwalder omitted the rather important word “treatment.” After a little history lesson on the “oppression of Christians, “ Schwarzwalder responds, “The assertion that a ‘principled’ case for religious liberty remains unmade is so striking in its ignorance that it invites the derision a serious academic should find embarrassing [highlight added -des].” Leirter worries about religions toleration; Schwarzwalder worries about “religious liberty” throughout his review. They are not the same thing.
I don’t know either Bruce Leiter or Rob Schwarzwalder (I’ve exchanged an email or two with Leiter over the years) but I do know that Leiter wouldn’t just flat out change the subject and pretend that he didn’t. From reading Leiter’s philosophy blog I’m pretty sure he would be against “the persecution of the early church, the Inquisition, anti-Catholic violence, or the Holocaust” – part of Schwarzwalder irrelevant history lesson. I’m also pretty sure Leiter is well aware of “the Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition and its contribution to the foundations of liberal democracy.” The quotation here is part of a more extended quotation from Joe Loconte in Schwarzwalder’s review. That there is an important and influential “Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition” is beyond question (I do worry about what is exactly meant by “Judeo-Christian . . . tradition” but that’s another question.) I even think that one can make a strong case that the Enlightenment came out of that tradition. But the foundation of liberal democracy is a child of the Enlightenment and at the very best a grandchild of our western religious traditions.
I’ve read a draft paper that I think Leiter expanded into his book (while I’ve started reading his book, to my regret I haven’t finishing it). This paper and what I’ve read of the book speak to quite different issues than Schwarzwalder seems to think the book does. He only speaks to Leiter ‘s book; he may not know the paper. It makes me wonder if he has really even read the book. On the one hand, Leiter addresses what Mark Twain was getting at when Paine quoted him as saying,

So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code. apud Paine, Mark Twain: a Biography

On the other hand, Leiter’s paper and his book (or as much as I’ve read of it) speaks to policy questions that would (and should) arise if we were to practice religions indifference rather than merely religious toleration. Leiter’s position has nothing to do with religious liberty as Schwarzwalder seems to wish it did. Leiter and, for that matter, I may well question the intellectual basis for religious beliefs but I’m rather sure that neither one of us would even be indifferent to the loss of religious liberty. I don’t know about Leiter, but I’m fearful about what might replace it. It might be Schwarzwalder’s brand religion!
For another take on Why Tolerate Religion? check out R. C. Robinson at Choice Reviews Online.
Via Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog

Primitive With Modern Conveniences

Last night Shirley and I were watching a lecture on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Sprint” by Robert Greenberg. Greenberg mentioned Debussy’s rather sarcastic comment on the Rite, “If you like it, it’s primitive music with every modern convenience.” Debussy’s comment struck me as an apt metaphor for much that passes for Biblical interpretation. It is primitive, both as anachronistic and as uninformed. Still, it has all the modern conveniences. Like Stravinsky’s Rite, much modern Biblical interpretation, nearly all of it that passes as hermeneutics, is detached from its ancient roots to make modern if misguided points.
No, I don’t need to defend this. One, this is a blog. Two, look at any attempt to find guidance in the Bible as a whole or in any passage or set of passages with regard to some modern issue or moral dilemma.

Are Rabbis In The Plan?

If one follows Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s logic perhaps not. Rabbi Lapin said on the American Family radio show,

In the Lord’s language there is no word for retire. I hope you’re not thinking of retirement, but if you are, it’s not in accordance with the plan. There is not word for retire. One of the great things about our deteriorating culture is that it now serves as a very good comfort, whatever it does go the other way. And the reason for that is, and I think most people are familiar with this with friends and family, people who retire tend to go downhill health wise – yery very common. And there is a reason for that. Basically what you are saying to God is, “You know what? I’ve got enough, I’m taking my toys and going home.” If you’re not existing to service people anymore, then who needs you? [My transcription from YouTube clip]

When Rabbi Lapin refers to “the Lord’s language,” I can only suppose he is talking about Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic. He may be including Mishnaic and Talmudic dialects but where does one draw the line. There certainly are expressions for retirement in the Modern Hebrew. Designations begin to appear in a language as the thing they designate appears in society. I’m not sure when or how “retirement” came into Modern Hebrew but it was no doubt quite late. I’m too lazy to research this. To me, the usages in Tanakh seem as good (should I say “arbitrary”?) a place to draw the line between “the Lord’s language” and something that isn’t “the Lord’s language” as does any place else. With this premise and Rabbi Lapin’s logic, a rabbi isn’t “in accord with the plan” either. Tanakh does not contain רבי, “rabbi.” No רבי, no רבנים in the plan. It’s as simple as that. Therefore it seems to me that Rabbi Lapin should retire before he further offends the Lord.
Rabbi Lapin’s self-confirming bias confounds a couple of other things. First, the lack of a word in “the Lord’s language” has no consequences, ethical or otherwise. I noticed that Rabbi Lapin was pictured wearing a suit with a neck tie. Oh, the shame of it. Second, within the framework of his comments, many people thrive in retirement. His God seems rather capricious in condemning some retirees to declining health while others thrive. Some folks even retire so they can serve people in ways they couldn’t while working.
Via Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture War.

Some Of His Best Friends Are Muslims

There was no photo-op or press release from Rep. Walter Jones’ (R-NC) office when a local library in his district was awarded a federal grant to expand its collection.
Instead, in an exceedingly rare move, Jones actually criticized the grant money that will soon be coming to eastern North Carolina for one reason: it will be used to buy books about Muslim culture.
Craven Community College, a small school in New Bern, was recently awarded a small National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The money, enough for 25 books and a DVD, is intended to expand the library’s Muslim culture collection. Jones protested that the money was unfairly benefiting Muslims and harming Christians, as he explained in a local TV interview. [Think Progress]

Jones thinks these 25 books and a DVD should be offset by an equal number of “Judeo-Christian” items.
I ent to the Craven Community College online catalog and found 70 titles under the subject heading “Christianity,” and 29 under “Judaism.” While I’m sure there is some overlap, there were 84 titles under “Bible.” In case you were wondering, “Islam” returned 32 titles and “Koran” returned but a single title. My search returned no subject match for “Quran.” Overlap or not, I’m reasonably these findings do not represent the whole of their “Judeo-Christian” or Islamic collections. But they likely represent the approximate ratio of “Judeo-Christian” books to Muslim books narrowly defined. Library resources reflecting the broader “Judeo-Christian” culture, like say, most books on philosophy, art and literature, certainly far outnumber those on Islamic culture by a large margin.
Not knowing the demographics of Craven’s student body and facility and being too lazy to find out, I have no idea how many resources in each category are appropriate. In addition, while Jones claims to want to balance the books (as it were) so that the “Judeo-Christian” tradition isn’t slighted, it seems that he forgot to ask the Jewish community to help in the effort.

Jones told WITN he wrote a letter in response to the grant to a local Christian organization, asking for them to provide an equal number of Judeo-Christians tradition items to offset the new Islamic tradition books in the library’s collection.

While I don’t really know if Rep. Jones did as much research into this as I have, I’d bet my one of my Qurans that he didn’t. But still, according to Jones, he has nothing against Muslims. As he said, “Keith Ellison from Minnesota is a friend of mine and he’s a Muslim.”
Via Think Progress

Will This Make It Twice As Binding?

President Barack Obama is putting a symbolic twist on a time-honored tradition, taking the oath of office for his second term with his hand placed not on a single Bible but on two – one owned by Martin Luther King Jr. and one by Abraham Lincoln. – Huffington Post

Will this start a Bible race in which each succeeding presidential inauguration adds another Bible to the stack?
Perhaps the presidential oath would be made even more binding if they used several different translations. I’m not sure but I imaging that both the Bibles President Obama plans to use are King James versions. Maybe Presidents should swear on Bibles in original languages. If so, should they use eclectic editions or diplomatic editions of the text?

For Only ₪200 You Too Can Learn To Be A Prophet

I’m a little late with this. A couple of days ago Yahoo News (and others) reported,

For just 200 shekels, about $53, and in only 40 short classes, the Cain and Abel School for Prophets says it will certify anyone as a modern-day Jewish soothsayer.
The school, which launched classes this month, has baffled critics, many of whom have dismissed it as a blasphemy or a fraud.

I say a fraud or possibly a joke. The story continues,

On a religious level, Jewish tradition recognizes a few dozen prophets from the biblical era — from the monumental figures of Abraham, Moses and Elijah to lesser known foretellers of doom and tormented questioners like Micah the Morashtite and Habakkuk. Tradition says no one can be a prophet ever since the Romans destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 and the era of prophecy can only be revived with the arrival of the Messiah and the temple’s rebuilding. As one Talmudic phrase puts it, the only prophets now are children and fools.

The Talmudic phrase is from Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 12b,

R. Johanan said: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.

I’m not sure why the Talmud didn’t include frauds and jokesters. But who am I to judge.
By the way, I’m thinking of opening an ophiomancy school. Tuition may be a little higher than prophet school but I’ll provide the snakes for free. Let me know if you’re interested.
Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars

Merry Christmas!

To all my secular readers in the western tradition, to all my Christian readers, and to anyone else who likes the greeting, I wish you the warmest Merry Christmas. To those who don’t appreciate the greeting, I remind you that Christmas, in the form it exists today, is a secular holiday. Christmas is a living museum of the good and wonderful in western civilization. (And a few things that aren’t so good and wonderful, but I’m trying to be merry in keeping with the season.) Whatever religious significance it may have once had is now diluted by the more universal values of family, sharing and love (plus some other stuff that isn’t so merry, like rapid consumerism and gift anxiety) and by a host of traditions that do not speak to the human incarnation of a god. So I shout, “Merry Christmas!”
George Skelton recalls his atheist wife’s affection for Christmas in “Christmas is for people of all faiths.” I may be a little more militant, a little less tolerant of government endorsement of specifically religious traditions, than was Nereida Skelton but I know exactly where she came from. Unlike her, I even like many of the bluntly religious Christmas carols. Many carols are wonderful monuments to human creativity.
Christmas isn’t my favorite secular holiday. That would be Thanksgiving, a celebration as free from obligations as a holiday can be. It never disappoints. But Christmas, even with its obligations, is great. Again I wish you and yours, “Merry Christmas!”

Crazies Target the Sphinx And The Pyramids

And the Egyptian government must take it seriously. Al Arabiya News reports,

Egypt is taking a jihadist’s calls to destroy the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx “seriously,” an Egyptian interior ministry source has said, according to reports.
The source, who was not named, spoke to the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper late Monday in response to Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary’s television interview earlier this week.
Gohary, a jihadist with self-professed links to the Taliban, called for the “destruction of the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids in Egypt,” drawing ties between the Egyptian relics and Buddha statues.
The Islamist, previously twice-sentenced under former President Hosni Mubarak for advocating violence, called on Muslims to remove such “idols.”
“All Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove such idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues,” he said on Saturday during a television interview on an Egyptian private channel, widely watched by Egyptian and Arab audiences.
“God ordered Prophet Mohammed to destroy idols,” he added. “When I was with the Taliban we destroyed the statue of Buddha, something the government failed to do.”

Check out the rest of the story at Al Arabiya News.
Of course destroying the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids is crazy but not to ideologues. Yes, I know that as I write more damning events are actually taking place in the neighborhood. But both the threats to the Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids and the current far more dangerous Gaza crisis have ideological bases rather than moral or even pragmatic bases. No, they are not morally equivalent. One threatens to destroy our shared heritage. The other is destroying life and limb. One is based on religious ideology pure and simple. The other is based on ideologically amplified responses to long standing evil policies and behavior of the Israeli government and to evil policies and behavior of Hamas.
Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars.

Sun Myung Moon Dead

Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, died today. I’m never sure what to say when someone like Moon dies. What I do know is that his life and his church will join L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology and Joseph Smith and the Church of the Latter Day Saints as wonderful data sources for discussion of how faith based notions propagate and become institutionalized. Their biographies and the histories of the religions they founded are almost completely accessible for study. Of course, commonalities among these people and their respective legacies may not help us understand the origins of more ancient religions with far less accessible histories of origin directly. But as Mark Twain said and I repeat again, “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also [apud Paine, Mark Twain: a Biography].”

The Effect Of Aliens On Religious Beliefs

MSNBC is running a story that asks the question, “Would finding aliens shatter religious beliefs?” “Experts” don’t think so and neither do I. When belief is faced with any potentially contradicting evidence, it reacts in one of four ways.

  • Morphs to accommodate the evidence
  • Claims that the evidence supports faith
  • Finds some reason to claim that faith predicted the evidence
  • Denys the evidence

In addition, schisms often develop over which of these approaches best reflects core beliefs. Once in a while a new religion, supposedly based on the new evidence, comes into existence. But faith remains. Only a very very few people see new evidence as negating their core beliefs.
Faith does not fall to evidence because faith doesn’t rest on evidence. All evidence is explainable one way or another. Faith does fall to parsimony. Faith doesn’t provide anything useful to any discussion except a discussion of faith itself. But because human cognition is complex, I think we’ll have faith to kick around for some time to come.
The MSNBC article approaches the subject from a compatible but somewhat different angle.