Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are all religions equally kooky?

Rabbi Schmuley Boteach has written a piece, arguing that it's not fair to pick on Mormons as being weird, because all religions are weird, when you get right down to it. As per usual with Schmuley's writing, I find it a mix of interesting, thoughtful ideas and easily picked apart nonsense.

First, where we disagree: It's true that probably every religion makes claims which are, at least on some level, irrational (of course, he all but ignores non-literalist, highly rational approaches to religion, but that's a different complaint). But, are they all equally irrational?

This is an interesting question coming from my evangelical brothers and sisters whose belief that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of G-d, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected, is, with all due respect, not exactly the most rational belief either. It is equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself, who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam and the sun stood for Joshua.

Again, this doesn't apply to those of us who don't take our sacred text literally. But, even if I did, I'm still not sure that every literalist belief is equally rational or irrational. There is no way that I can disprove that God split the Red Sea. There is no way that I can disprove that Jesus was resurrected. I can disprove (even if not to the satisfaction of everyone) that dinosaurs never existed, or that they existed at the same time as human beings. And, I can disprove that ancient Israelites came to America.

Simply saying “we all believe crazy stuff” sounds very reasonable, and it might be a nice way to dispel tension at a cocktail party, if the conversation turns to religion. But, it really shouldn't be considered a serious analysis of religions!

Boteach also tries to claim that highly scientific people believe crazy things, for example by pointing to Richard Dawkins, a famous and vocal atheist, who believes that life could have been seeded on earth by aliens. Of course, Dawkins doesn't believe that. He actually proposed it as a thought experiment, showing how crazy he thought Intelligent Design actually was. He didn't believe it—he was using it to mock people who believe things like it. Oops…

So, what do I like from the article? Well, first of all, I agree that being kooky is not the worst thing. Even though I am always eager to jump in and defend rationality, ultimately, there might be better ways to judge a person, whether as a religious figure, or a political figure:

Nor should it matter. It is what a person does, rather than what they believe, that counts. It took four years for the Dalai Lama to be identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor in a process that to Western eyes can appear highly arbitrary. Yet, the Dalai Lama remains one of the most respected men alive because of his commitment to world peace and good works.

There are flaws with that approach, to be sure. I do think that “Are you rational?” is a relevant question to ask anyone who is assuming a leadership position, especially one as important as President. But, it also seems relatively clear to me that a person can be, at least partially, irrational and still be a good leader. So, I wouldn't think that these kinds of questions are out of bounds, in the political arena, but nor do I think that they are the end all, be all of campaigning.

But, where I think Schmuley has something most important to say is when he discusses Religious Fundamentalism. I often make the mistake of conflating Fundamentalism and Literalism, but they aren't exactly the same:

The religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve G-d and has begun worshipping their religion, making their faith into yet another false idol. Religion is solely the means by which by which we come to have a relationship with our Creator. But when it becomes a substitute for G-d it becomes soulless and fanatical, seeing as there is no loving deity to temper it. It is in this light that we can understand why an Islamic fundamentalist is so deadly, seeing as he is even prepared to go against G-d's express commandment not to murder in order to strike a blow for the glory, not of the deity, but Islam.

Again, it's an incomplete analysis. I would argue that, depending on a number of factors, it's often an incredibly short leap from Literalism to Fundamentalism. After all, if God spoke the words of your religion, then following that religion, even to the extreme, is following God, right? But, it's hard to argue that you can't be a Literalist without being a Fundamentalist; there are many, many people who are exactly that. I clearly don't agree with their literalism, but it would be ridiculous to claim that they are exactly the same as the Taliban, Westborough Baptist Church or Baruch Goldstein. I've heard it said that a non-fundamentalist literalist is just a fundamentalist without conviction. I can see the logical argument behind that, but reality proves it wrong, I think.

Comments are always welcome, of course, but I'd be especially interested to hear people's thoughts about the relationship between rationality/irrationality and leadership potential!

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