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Apparently, I never knew that Judaism was the first religion

February 26, 2009


Somehow, I got directed to read Rabbi David Wolpe…and so I decided to judge a book by a short article. I saw a Huffington Post article on whether faith matters. Obviously, I jumped on the opportunity to write about it.

He’s responding to Sam Harris, one of the famed “new atheists” that theists just love to hate. Sam Harris, like most of the so-called new atheists, has a bone to pick with religion. I mean, this isn’t new news. Usually, what is clear is that people like Harris and Dawkins and the rest don’t necessarily have bones to pick with all religion, but just what seems to be a popular springing of it. (I mean, certainly, they take a position that religion itself is utterly silly…but disregarding that, I think the main problem that Harris or Dawkins has is that there seems to be this tendency for some practitioners of religion to do some silly things [as I guess theists are now coming to dislike atheists more because there seems to be this tendency for some atheists {called new atheists or militant or vocal or whatever else} to do some silly things]).

So, of course, Wolpe protests that Harris and company are simply targeting a straw man of religion. After all,

Countless generations of believers regulated their lives by faith. They believed not out of fear, but out of wonder; not from a desire to judge and exclude, but to understand and embrace. Where was that truth in this bitter broadside against faith?

And you know what, I agree with his idea. (But then again, I wasn’t a new atheist to begin with, I guess?)

However, the idea is…as it usually is…that the most vocal people often speak up for the rest (as some theists are apt to put into play with the new atheists by lumping all with them.) So, really, what I think ‘new atheists’ do is see that where power congregated by religious influence is not in the reasonably religious. No, we hear from young earth creationists who utterly reject evolution and not from, as Wolpe tries to argue for, the theists who reconcile theism with scientific research.

Even worse, these moderate religious people aren’t doing enough to sidestep the more zealous cousins (or if they are, they have terrible press.)

What got me was something that Wolpe said later though.

Does religion cause war? Before Judaism, before Christianity, was the world a peaceful garden? Did the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, not slaughter each other in numbers and proportions that would make later Christians blanch? The difference is that while religion has principles that oppose cruelty and conflict, no Assyrian stood up to say “How can we do this? After all, we are Assyrians!” Slaughter did not contradict their values. There was no restraining faith in God.

…So apparently, there was “no restraining faith in God” before Judaism. Nope. Those pantheons of multiple deities were fabricated later on.

I want to hope that Wolpe wasn’t really serious here. I mean, he claims to be some professor of theology.

But if not, I guess I will try to translate what I think a new atheist kind of reasoning would be. They would say that, as we can see from human nature, faith in general isn’t very “restraining.” Because the standards of righteousness for each religion have great moral blindspots that “don’t contradict” their “values.” Southern slaveowners could use the Bible just as well to be pro-slavery as northern abolitionists were anti-. And even today, we have people justifying bans on gay marriage (or even the most basic of civil rights [ok, I apologize, that second link is kinda angsty]).

So, for new atheists, it appears that religion doesn’t have principles good enough. Or even if it does, practitioners don’t seem to get it right. America’s murder and violence rates don’t really do too much justice to its religiosity in comparison to certain European states’ nonreligiosity, but that’s a low, unscientific blow.

Wolpe continues to make other points of varying merit. When he tries to toss the hot potato of moral culpability for atrocities away from religion, he fumbles a bit. He says that many of the so-called atrocities in religion’s name often had nonreligious factors (money, land, etc.,) motivating them…but even we atheists aren’t spotless with our communist purges and the tyrants who tried to suppress faith.

But I think when I concede something (that could make both sides happy), I have to realize though that atheism wasn’t responsible for these crimes. In fact, I’d say that what crimes that new atheists claim to have been committed in the name of religion and other the nonreligious atrocities touted by theists have in common is a dogmatic system that is not put under scrutiny and which is irrational. The Stalinist or Maoist cult of personality, although not religious, is exactly the same thing that new atheists decry in religion — but they fumble because they blankly condemn religion instead of recognizing that it’s the dogma (which just happens to be virtued in many congregations).

But I would say…that despite certain atheists attempts to falsify this…that atheism is somewhat immune to this dogmatic effect. Atheism alone is very slight — just a lack of belief in God — and I think many people recognize this when they hear it. They ask, “So, what does atheism provide as alternative?” as if that’s this great point. But the thing is, if atheism itself is very minimal, then it cannot become strong enough to cause all of these atrocities. We have to look elsewhere.

…I think Mere Atheism sounds a lot better than Mere Christianity, personally…

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  1. ophalm permalink

    seems to me that people with fundamentalist, dogmatic beliefs are the problem, whether they be religious, political, philosophical. they cause the wars

  2. agreed, ophalm

  3. Some religious scholars make a distinction between primitive religions like animism or Roman/Assyrian paganism on the one hand, and “axial”, ethical, monotheistic religions on the other. The “axial” religions are thought to have originated only after the development of agrarian living made possible a settled lifestyle with large, organized polities: we’re talking 1000-400 or so B.C. From this point of view (which is reasonably well-accepted but also at least partly an artificial construct), it might make sense to speak of Romans or Assyrians as lacking “restraining faith in God” prior to the rise of the likes of Judaism and Zoroastrianism. On the other hand, the passage you quoted seems to imply that “religion” was entirely, originally invented by the Jews. So maybe my reading here is much too generous.

  4. yeah, I mean, at the one hand, I think that Volpe meant it in the way you meant — because the way he puts Christianity and Judaism together suggests that he finds some kind of distinction in the big monotheistic religions.

    but throughout the rest of the article, it just seems like he’s trying to pass blame away from these religions.

  5. shamelesslyatheist permalink

    Indeed, it has historically been ideologues, religious or otherwise, that have committed the greatest crimes against humanity. However, I think the point that the ‘new atheists’ are trying to make (as if there is some new way in which to disbelieve), particularly Dawkins and Harris, is that religion is a legitimizing agent for irrationality. We don’t typically accord UFOlogists this courtesty of respect for their nonsense. As Sam Harris said to the FFRF two years ago, we do not excuse stupidity unless it is religious stupidity. And THAT’S where the problem with religion lies.

  6. shamelesslyatheist, that is a point I actually do agree with Harris and friends on (so I guess there is a place for the new atheists).

    I mean, I’m ok if people disagree with me on a great many issues…politics, economics, etc., but the distinction between all of these things and religion is that political, economic, etc., plans are judged by their coherency and scrutinized by whether they accurately reflect reality. On the other hand, religion has traditionally enjoyed a tremendous pass on such scrutiny because of its “sacred” status and of some people’s definitions of faith, etc.,

  7. I had to laugh when I read that Wolpe is a professor of theology after reading his comments. Did he not read the Bible? That question seems silly, but as someone who has read the Bible many times, I have to ask it if some professor of theology actually claims that Judaism had a “restraining faith in God.” The Old Testament is full of stories about the Israelites slaughtering tribe after tribe, nation after nation to claim the land of Canaan, which was supposed to be their “promised land”–as in promised by their god. It’s silly to say that slaughter wasn’t part of their lives, too.

    Christians certainly didn’t restrain themselves from slaughter through the centuries, either. The Crusades certainly weren’t missions of peace. The Spanish Inquisition held executions. The Spanish Conquistadors had missionaries with them, and the indigenous tribes of the new world met often with the decision: convert or die.

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