Meaning? 40

What meaning of “meaning” is our subject? Significance. Purpose. 

We took the following sentences from an article by Dennis Prager at Townhall, in which he laments that Americans seem to be more unhappy now than they used to be. He mentions various probable causes, then comes to his main point:

And now we come to the biggest problem of all: the lack of meaning.

Aside from food, the greatest human need is meaning.

Poor people who have meaning can be happy, but wealthy people who lack meaning cannot be.

Nothing has given Americans – or any other people, for that matter – as much meaning as religion. But since World War II, God and religion have been relegated to the dustbin of history.The result? More than a third of Americans born after 1980 affiliate with no religion. This is unprecedented in American history; until this generation, the vast majority of Americans have been religious.

Maybe, just maybe, the death of religion – the greatest provider of meaning, while certainly not the only – is the single biggest factor in the increasing sadness and loneliness among Americans (and so many others).

Dennis Prager believes that religion provides the individual with meaning to his life, and endows all human life with meaning.

What is that meaning?

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What does Christian doctrine say it is?

This answer comes from CARM (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry):

What Does the Bible say is the purpose of our lives?

According to the Bible, our purpose, the reason we are here, is for God’s glory.  In other words, our purpose is to praise God, worship him, to proclaim his greatness, and to accomplish his will.  This is what glorifies him.  Therefore, in this we find that God has given us a reason for our existence, a meaning for our existence.  We were created by him, according to his desire, and our lives are to be lived for him so that we might accomplish what he has for us to do. …

Even though things can go wrong in our lives, the ultimate reason we are here is to glorify God – even through the difficulties.  We do this by praising him and trusting him through difficult times.

So: “Our purpose is to praise God.” “The reason we are here is to glorify God.”

Was the universe made so that we self-conscious living beings on this planet will “glorify” the maker?

If such a purpose is supreme, the question arises, why was the maker so counterproductive as to make the viruses, and the adverse conditions of nature, and predators, and the propensities for things to fail, and all the adversities and hindrances that incapacitate us? Why provide a multitude of ways the purpose of all creation can be thwarted?

And again if such a purpose is supreme, why did he, the Purposer, bother to make billions of stars and planets with no living beings on them to do any glorifying whatsoever?

And does that purpose, that meaning, keep Christians happy?

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What does Islam say?

From Arab news:

Islam is the response to humanity’s search for meaning. The purpose of creation for all men and women for all times has been one: To know and worship God.

Here again is the belief that the universe was made so that we on this planet can know and worship (praise, glorify) its maker.

On this Islam and Christianity agree.

And do they agree that believing it makes a lot of people happy? Are Muslims happy?

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What does Judaism say?

We find its answer to “What is the meaning and purpose of human life and the existence of the universe?” is not much different from those of Christianity and Islam: glorify, know, worship. (Not surprisingly, as it inspired both the younger religions.) But its expression of the idea is less succinct, more recondite and perplexing, even vague – and as is common with vague ideas, long-winded.

This is from an article in Commentary by the highly respected authority Emil L. Fackenheim (April 1965):

In the eyes of Judaism, whatever meaning life acquires derives from this encounter: the Divine accepts and confirms the human in the moment of [their] meeting. But the meaning conferred upon human life by the Divine-human encounter cannot be understood in terms of some finite human purpose, supposedly more ultimate than the meeting itself. For what could be more ultimate than the Presence of God? The Presence of God, then, as Martin Buber puts it, is an “inexpressible confirmation of meaning. . . . The question of the meaning of life is no longer there. But were it there, it would not have to be answered.” …

So: Human beings – or at least the followers of Judaism – can and do “encounter” God. If a human being does “encounter” – or “meet” – God, his existence has meaning. And the whole of “creation” has meaning because some human beings “encounter” God? Wait, no. The encounter “confirms” meaning. And at the same time abolishes the need for knowing it.

But what meaning does it “confirm”?

In Judaism, however, this “inexpressible confirmation of meaning” does, after all, assume expression; and this is because the Divine-human meeting assumes structure and content. … through the way man is accepted and confirmed as a consequence of this meeting. In Judaism God accepts and confirms man by commanding him in his humanity; and the response called for is obedience to God—an obedience to be expressed in finite human form. …

So obey the God-given Law. That is the purpose of your life. Your own reward is here and now on this earth. 

… The God of Judaism is no Deistic First Cause which, having caused the world, goes into perpetual retirement. Neither is He a Law-giver who, having given laws, leaves man to respond in human solitariness. Along with the commandment, handed over for human action, goes the promise of Divine action. And because Divine action makes itself contingent upon human action, a relationship of mutuality is established. God gives to man a covenant—that is, a contract; He binds Himself by its terms and becomes a partner.

You fulfill your side of the covenant or contract, and God will fulfill his.

… God is long-suffering enough to put up with persistent human failures; and at length it becomes clear that the covenant can survive only if God’s patience is absolute. The covenant, to be sure, remains mutual; and Divine action remains part of this mutuality, as a response to human deeds. But Divine action also breaks through this limitation and maintains the covenant in unilateral love. …  Sin still causes God to punish Israel; but no conceivable sin on Israel’s part can cause Him to forsake her. Divine Love has made the covenant indestructible. …

Then what happened between 1942 and 1945? The all-powerful merciful god plainly did not act as an all-powerful merciful god could be expected to act when his human partner was in extreme need of powerful merciful intervention. Then how can any Jew go on believing in him, let alone worshiping him?

It is incomprehensible. Why didn’t the Holocaust convince the entire Jewish people that their god is either non-existent or evil? 

This month is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The leaders of many nations met in Jerusalem to show sympathy with the survivors of the Nazi genocide. In speech after speech by Christian and Jew, the blessing of “God” is asked for Israel. Why? Because continuing to believe he exists and is good and merciful makes for happiness, even as they stood inside a monument to the slaughtered six million? 

Emil Fackenheim states:    

A meaning at once manifest in history and yet indifferent to poverty, war, and tyranny is unthinkable to the Jewish mind.

So unthinkable that the “Jewish mind” can pretend it didn’t happen?

Apparently so. But why?

Because, you see, “His” divine ways are inscrutable:

But the Jewish search for meaning in history is bounded by a … limitation … Not only is the disclosure of meaning in history fragmentary; the meaning itself is fragmentary. Past and present point not only to a finite future but to one which is absolute and all-consummating as well. Not until an eschatological dimension, a messianic belief, comes into view is the Jewish understanding of meaning in history complete.

The Messiah will come, then all will become clear. It will be the end of history; the eschaton. The whole picture will be seen at last and it will be absolutely glorious.

That was as far as traditional Judaism looked: to the end of time.

Jews were … forced to go beyond acceptance of an undisclosed meaning in history. They had to question meaning in history itself, in the light of historical realities. This questioning, to be sure, did not result in wholesale skepticism, or a despair of meaning in history. But it did result in the belief that meaning has remained incomplete in past history, and must remain so in any future that does not differ qualitatively from the past.

In other words, yes, what has happened to the Jews, and to human beings generally, has largely been pretty bloody nasty, which is precisely why we can expect the future to be  superlatively delightful.

Or not. Maybe the whole picture, the glorious fulfillment, the purpose and meaning of earthly existence will come only in an afterlife. Beyond the Messiah, beyond the eschaton, beyond death –  so later Judaism allowed itself to consider – there may be another life:

The messianic future, while the earliest, is not the only eschatological expectation in Judaism. Beside and beyond it emerges the hope for a “world-to-come”—a hope which, although post-Biblical in origin, was always implicit in the Jewish belief that God gives meaning to individual lives wholly and in their own right. Whereas the Messianic future redeems an incomplete history, the world-to-come redeems the incomplete individual lives which exist in history.

By “incomplete lives” does he mean miserable lives? Lives in which believing does not make for happiness? Lives cut off by murder for religious reasons?

Despite the absence of the belief in life after death from the Hebrew Bible, Orthodox post-Biblical theology quite deliberately embraces it. For the Divine commandment has accepted the individual and therefore any Redemption would remain incomplete—as the Messianic end by itself does—if it did not give completion to the individual. But no more can the Messianic goal of a redeemed future be identified with an Eternity beyond all time. A primordial Divine commanding Love has endowed history with meaning, in that it calls for meaningful human action. The great Divine-human drama of history thus initiated cannot be retroactively destroyed by an end which makes this world merely a place in which to prepare for another, and in itself meaningless. Redemption must consummate both the history in which men work and wait, and the lives of the individuals who work and wait in it.

What is meant by “redemption”?  Some sort of compensation? Or merely “forgiveness” of “sins”?

The two aspects of the eschatological expectation, then, must remain mutually irreducible, even despite the conscious recognition that Eternity must surely supersede all future history. This can be so because the world-to-come remains radically unintelligible. The rabbinic sources confine themselves to saying that it will redeem the whole man whom the Divine commandment has accepted from the beginning—not an immortal soul only, but a resurrected psychosomatic totality.

That is a reference to the belief in bodily resurrection that was held by all but one faction of the Jews (the Sadducees, the party of the priests), when Judea was a province of Rome. The time of “Jesus” who, Christians believe, rose bodily to a physical heaven. To which also his virgin mother was heaved up bodily by angels.

They are well aware that this is past all understanding, and they view silence on the subject as a necessity imposed by the silence of the Bible itself.

They can’t say anything about it because they don’t know anything about it. Yet they know that it will be. They know there is an end, a purpose, a meaning. And that it is good. But not what it is. 

What does Hinduism say?

From the Ohio State University:

According to Hinduism, the meaning (purpose) of life is four-fold: to achieve Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha.

The first, Dharma, means to act virtuously and righteously. That is, it means to act morally and ethically throughout one’s life. However, dharma also has a secondary aspect; since Hindus believe that they are born in debt to the Gods and other human beings, dharma calls for Hindus to repay this debt. The five different debts are as follows: debt to the Gods for their blessings, debt to parents and teachers, debt to guests, debt to other human beings, and debt to all other living beings.

The second meaning of life according to Hinduism is Artha, which refers to the pursuit of wealth and prosperity in one’s life. Importantly, one must stay within the bounds of dharma while pursuing this wealth and prosperity (i.e. one must not step outside moral and ethical grounds in order to do so).

The third purpose of a Hindu’s life is to seek Kama. In simple terms, Kama can be defined as obtaining enjoyment from life.

So far, so good. Live well. Behave decently towards your fellow human beings. Strive for prosperity. All sound and sensible. All stands up to examination in the light of day.

But then the murkiness which characterizes religious belief closes in:

The fourth and final meaning of life according to Hinduism is Moksha, enlightenment. By far the most difficult meaning of life to achieve, Moksha may take an individual just one lifetime to accomplish (rarely) or it may take several. However, it is considered the most important meaning of life and offers such rewards as liberation from reincarnation, self-realization, enlightenment, or unity with God.

“Unity with God” is what it’s for, the reason we endure our sufferings through many lives. That’s how hard it is to achieve.

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What does Buddhism say?

Buddhism denies that there is any permanent and absolute significance of life, and described life as unsatisfactory (s. dukkha) and void (s. sunyata). However, Buddha acknowledged that there is a relative significance of life, and it is through this relative and conditioned nature of life that we can achieve and realize the universal truth. According to the discourses of the Buddha, our lives, and the world, are nothing but phenomena that rise and fall. It is a process of forming and degenerating. There is nothing that is not subject to change or impermanence. Impermanence indicates that there is no eternal bliss, because even a joyous state will eventually cease and become suffering.

Individuals can, however, attain a state of bliss temporarily. It’s not a purpose, not a meaning, not a significance, but a release from suffering. And that’s a lot!

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No, Mr. Prager. Religion does not provide anything close to a satisfactory meaning of the universe’s existence or purpose of human lives.  

There is no meaning to existence.

The significance, or value, of human life cannot be measured because human life itself is the measure. Trying to assess the value of life is like trying to assess the wetness of water.

As for happiness, we each find it, if we do, as we can.

A few things that help most of us:  Living in a free country. Doing work we like doing. Making money. (Never mind being called a gross materialist. Even if money can’t buy happiness, lack of it can’t buy anything.)  Having a family. Having friends. Learning and thinking. Pleasures of the appetites and senses. Achieving our self-chosen purposes.

But to live is to suffer. Even the most fortunate of human beings cannot escape pain, disappointment, failure, and loss. And suffering  has not and cannot conceivably have any meaning or purpose that makes it good (except, within civilized limits, as legally imposed punishment).

We concede that some find happiness, or consolation for unhappiness, in religion. But for countless millions religion has been and continues to be a source of fear, anguish, and death.

 

Jillian Becker   January 29, 2020

Posted under Articles, Philosophy, Religion general, United States by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, January 29, 2020

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Judaism and Atheism 0

Today is the festival of Passover when Jews celebrate a legendary exodus from Egypt of their Hebrew ancestors under the leadership of an Egyptian prince named Moses. According to the legend, the Hebrews were slaves, and the Egyptian prince was really a Hebrew himself who had been adopted soon after birth by an Egyptian princess. Well, he had to be “re-adopted” somehow by the Hebrews because he it was (so the legend goes) who gave them the laws which bound them together as a nation and founded the religion of Judaism. It is, as all the world knows, a monotheistic religion based on an idea attributed to one Abraham, a Hebrew ancestor who, it is believed, had conceived it hundreds or possibly thousands of years earlier.

It may have been the case that an historical Moses did indeed lead a host of Hebrews out of Egypt, making common cause with them because  – as Sigmund Freud theorizes in his book Moses and Monotheism – he too was a monotheist; a faithful follower of Pharaoh Akhnaton, who had worshiped the sun as the only god, and whose cult after his death had been all but wiped out of history by the priests of the old, revived, polytheistic religion.

One of our founders and editors, C.Gee, has been discussing Judaism and Atheism with one of our readers, Aeschines, as comments on our post On religion (March 25, 2010). We think the discussion is so interesting that we are re-posting it on our front page today:

C.Gee: I regard Judaism as extremely important in the history of rationality. Judaism was the first step to atheism. By making an abstract God, and making him a law-giver (never mind that some of the particular laws were practiced in the region generally), and elevating the principle of obedience to law not man, it constituted a major victory for rationality over superstition, and paved the way for the national, secular, polity. As science progresses, God the law-giver and creator, can have his remit broadened to become God the giver of the laws of nature. He becomes Spinoza’s God, identical with the universe, and thereafter may be ignored, leaving the universe to stand for Him, and then for itself. The two next Books of the [Jewish] Bible should be the Book of Spinoza and the Book of Einstein.

Aeschines: Just curious, but when do you think that Judaism started to influence thought towards atheism?

C.Gee: The idea of an abstract God began in Abrahamic times – 5000 or so years ago. That idea identified the Hebrew people. By the time Moses brought down the Law in God’s name, the Jews had accepted the authority of a God that was everywhere and nowhere (although with some idol-worship recidivism) and we had the beginning of a polity centered on responsibility to fellow men – righteousness to one’s people in God’s name – and an emphasis on how to live this law-abiding life. The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God. Christianity kept the idea of an abstract God, although its immediate object of worship was an idol of God-made-flesh, Jesus. That abstract, absentee God became useful to Christendom during the Enlightenment – precisely because he was absent. Deism was an accommodation with institutional religion for the growing number of people whose frame of mind was secular and scientific. Scientific inquiry could only be undertaken by those who had accepted that there were explanations for phenomena other than animating magic spirits. An abstract, one-time, singular animating spirit called God was a kind of systemic noise – an absent presence that did not interfere with the discovery of the mathematics of universal physical laws. That the Judaic God was a creator and a law-giver, could permit the discovery of His natural laws, in His creation. The Enlightenment was a time of proto-atheism. Further discoveries pushed the originating God further into scientific irrelevance, and secular politics has pushed the law-giving God into social irrelevance. With even the nominality of God now attenuated to vanishing, we are entering into the age of atheism.

Interestingly enough, a recent survey showed that 41% of Jews regard themselves as atheist.

Aeschines: Yes, but what do you think of the horrendous slaughters of native people by the Jews? I am of course referring to the Old Testament genocides and annihilations done in the name of God. The Jews in this regard don’t seem much different from many other religions of that time.

The Assyrians are regarded as “cruel,” but the Jews seem to escape this description, even though they tended to destroy EVERYTHING in their path (with the exception of virgin women, spared presumably for raping).

“The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God.”

Yes, but even a cursory examination of the Bible reveals Yahweh as a malicious, cruel, jealous, contradictory tyrant, much like many of the other gods of antiquity.

C.Gee: The ancient way of war was fierce – no matter in whose name the war was conducted. Even an abstract God can take on human characteristics in the retelling of legendary conquests boasting of the might and mettle of his people in establishing their national territory. (Who knows whether the early conquest by the Jews of those numerous peoples really happened? The Bible is often the only record of it.) But Yahweh had no statue, no location, no maw to feed with living human flesh – even though he was malicious, cruel, jealous, and contradictory. His abstract nature allowed him to be the God of War, of Law, of Creation, of the Hearth, of Everything. No doubt some of these personae conflicted with others, but then a nation must regulate itself in peace and conduct wars. It must sustain itself through Ecclesiastical exigencies. An abstract God is authority for all national endeavors, an unwritten “living” constitution. That constitution kept the nation together even when the territory of its homeland was lost. The idea of nationhood was coterminous with that of God. Belief in one could stand in for belief in the other. I think that many, many Jews now believe in the idea of their nationhood (even those among the diaspora ) and not God.

The Bible is not the constitution of the Jewish people. (It was not, in any case an original founding document, but written at various times ). It is a mythical and historical record and a statute book. Even if it is seen as the literal word of God, its interpreters do not take literally the passages where metaphorical or allegorical meanings must be sought to avoid nonsense. ( God was obviously a versatile speaker – could bark out directions, or hint enigmatically, as the occasion warranted.) Despite that, there is a whole sub-speciality of antisemitism claiming that the Bible is a “blueprint” for modern Israel’s cruel colonialist enterprise – what Joshua did at Jericho, the Zionists are doing to the Palestinians.

You seem to be implying, though, that atheists would not have conducted war, or conducted cruel wars. While no war has been fought in the name of atheism, there are rational justifications for war (conquest was – and still is, despite Geneva conventions – definitely one of them). There is nothing in atheism – the absence of a belief in God – that requires pacifism. There is nothing in atheism that precludes blood-thirstiness.

Posted under Atheism, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Monday, March 29, 2010

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On religion 5

One of our readers and commenters, bornagainpagan, sent us a link to this American Thinker article. We thank bornagainpagan. It is well worth reading. But on several points we take issue with the author. (Please read it all, as we are only quoting the parts we particularly want to comment on, and do not wish to give a distorted impression of the whole.)

We want to reply to, not quarrel with, a fellow atheist. We would be foolish to deny the historical importance of religion, especially of Christianity and Judaism to the West (and we greatly value the Bible as literature). But we do not think that religion as such, or any particular religion of any particular culture, has ever been, or ever could be, a force for good, even though good people might feel motivated by it.

Rational thought may provide better answers to many of life’s riddles than does faith alone. However, it is rational to conclude that religious faith has made possible the advancement of Western civilization. That is, the glue that has held Western civilization together over the centuries is the Judeo-Christian tradition. To the extent that the West loses its religious faith in favor of non-judgmental secularism, then to the same extent, it loses that which holds all else together.

We strongly disagree. First: By “the Judeo-Christian tradition” is always meant Christianity, and we think – as Edward Gibbon demonstrates in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – that Christianity brought a thousand years of darkness down on Europe. Next: Secularism does not have to be non-judgmental. It is actually  impossible to be non-judgmental. Even to choose to be what a person thinks is non-judgmental is to make a judgment. Third: We believe it was the Enlightenment (starting with the Renaissance) – ie the bursting out of the confining Christian world-view – that made possible the real progress of the Western world, towards ever more scientific knowledge and, with luck, a continual shrinking (though never of course to the total vanishing) of superstition.

Arguably the two most defining and influential Christian concepts are summarized in two verses of the New Testament. Those verses are Romans 14:10 and John 8:32.

Romans 14:10, says: “Remember, each of us must stand alone before the judgment seat of God.” That verse explicitly recognizes not only each man’s uniqueness, but, of necessity, implies that man has free will — that individual acts do result in consequences, and that those acts will be judged against objective standards. It is but a step from the habit of accepting individual accountability before God to thinking of individual accountability in secular things. It thus follows that personal and political freedom is premised upon the Christian concept of the unique individual exercising accountable free will.

Did not the Athenians of pre-Christian antiquity, the fathers of philosophy and science, recognize the importance of the individual? Was not Greek democracy based on the counting of individual choices? One does not have to be accountable “to God” to live in civil society, treat others respectfully, and obey objective law.

John 8:32 says: “And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Whatever the theological meanings that have been imputed to that verse, its implicit secular meaning is that the search for truth is in and of itself praiseworthy.

No, that is not the implicit meaning. The very particular meaning is that the truth is the Jesus cult. And it isn’t, of course.

Although I am a secularist (atheist, if you will), I accept that the great majority of people would be morally and spiritually lost without religion. Can anyone seriously argue that crime and debauchery are not held in check by religion? Is it not comforting to live in a community where the rule of law and fairness are respected? Would such be likely if Christianity were not there to provide a moral compass to the great majority? Do we secularists not benefit out of all proportion from a morally responsible society?

An orderly society is dependent on a generally accepted morality. There can be no such morality without religion.

We don’t know what is meant by “spiritually”. Morality need not depend on religion. In fact, no religion has a history or a literature that fits with the morality any of the so-called “moral religions” preach, certainly not those “moral religions” themselves. Enlightened self-interest and the practical requirements of civilized existence are strong regulators of human behavior.

Has there ever been a more perfect and concise moral code than the one Moses brought down from the mountain?

Some of the ten commandments are indeed concise. (Moses did not of course “bring them down from the mountain” except in a symbolic sense.) But the concise ones are the same as far more ancient laws. The crimes “Moses”  forbids were held to be crimes by the time Hammurabi had the punishments for them codified.

Those who doubt the effect of religion on morality should seriously ask the question: Just what are the immutable moral laws of secularism? Be prepared to answer, if you are honest, that such laws simply do not exist! …

The secular laws are the laws of the state. They are intended to be moral. They are not immutable. The values of a culture that underlie law may seem immutable, but in our time many “Western values” have been turned upside down or inside out. Liberty? Justice? Loyalty? Modesty? Chastity? Decency? Erudition? Profundity? Bravery? Self-reliance? – to name but a few – are they now, consciously or unconsciously, valued by most people in Western societies?  Most Americans may agree intellectually that they ought to be: Europeans are more likely to deride them.

For the majority of a culture’s population, religious tradition is inextricably woven into their self-awareness. It gives them their identity. It is why those of religious faith are more socially stable and experience less difficulty in forming and maintaining binding attachments than do we secularists.

Are they and do they? It may be the case, but we haven’t observed it.

To the extent that Western elites distance themselves from their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage in favor of secular constructs, and as they give deference to a multicultural acceptance that all beliefs are of equal validity, they lose their will to defend against a determined attack from another culture, such as from militant Islam. For having destroyed the ancient faith of their people, they will have found themselves with nothing to defend.

We cannot see how an irrationality like Islam can be fought by another irrationality like Christianity. Religion as such is and always has been a common cause of war, persecution, massacre, cruelty, oppression, and waste of human potential.

What we really need to defend, especially now under the onslaught of Islam, is our culture of reason. We need to teach it to our children. What any individual does with the gifts and burdens his culture bequeaths him is inescapably a choice that he must make.

Against all gods 2

A. C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, writes in his book Against All Gods (Oberon Books, London, 2007):

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule. It is time to refuse to tiptoe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason… [T]o believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect.

He further asserts that ‘it is the business of all religious doctrines to keep their votaries in a state of intellectual infancy’, and that ‘inculcating [any one of] the various competing falsehoods of the major [or minor, for that matter] faiths into small children is a form of child abuse, and a scandal’.

With these opinions we agree.

But we are not  sure that he is right when he  declares in the same book that religion is on the decline, and ‘as a factor in public and international affairs it is having what might be its last – characteristically bloody – fling’.

If he is alluding to the jihad being waged by Islam on the rest of the world – as he surely is – it is certainly bloody. But whether it will prove to be religion’s last act on the world stage, or  fail in its aim to spread Islam as the predominant faith and only system of law on earth, is uncertain. A belief that mankind as a whole is continually progressing towards an ever more reason-directed future, can only be held on faith. Grayling seems to have that belief, that faith. But we do not.

With the spread of Islam through Europe, and the election of Obama in America, there is a double threat  to individual liberty, and so to the triumph of reason; because reason can flourish, create, and persuade, only where individuals are free.

Posted under Atheism, Christianity, Commentary, Europe, Islam, jihad, Judaism, Religion general, Socialism, United States, War by Jillian Becker on Friday, August 28, 2009

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Judaism and the Jews: a draft for an obituary? 6

The founding myth of the monotheistic faith that evolved into Judaism, is the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham sacrifices to his god not his son but an animal. The story is often interpreted as an hortatory tale about having to obey God. But that is not its significance.

Its essential message is that the God of Abraham, the one and only God, does not require human sacrifice.

The idea of a god who did not want human beings sacrificed to him was a great leap forward for mankind. The other gods of ancient times were all given human flesh to eat and human blood to drink. The huge statue of the god Moloch was a hollow bronze image, a human body with a bull’s head, in which his worshippers, the Canaanites, made a fire and heated the metal until it glowed red-hot, and then they fed their first-born babies into the furnace through the gaping mouth.

Such gods, it was believed, needed propitiation with human flesh and blood, suffering and death, so that they’d allow the tribe to survive and prosper.

The Chaldees, whose god Ba’al was the counterpart of Moloch, similarly sacrificed living people. It was from them that Abraham and his tribe broke away, both in a physical-geographical sense, and in a moral-religious sense.

One of the four main reasons why Jews faithful to their religion could not possibly accept Christianity was because Christ was held by Christians to be a human sacrifice. No idea could be further from Judaism (and would certainly have been absent from the mind of an orthodox Jew like Jesus of Nazareth). The other reasons were: God cannot be incarnate; God is One, and cannot be Three as Christianity holds its triune divinity to be; and Judaism requires obedience to the Law. The Jews were set free physically when they left Egypt where they had been slaves, and became a free civilization when they were granted and accepted the law – traditionally fifty days after the accomplishment of the exodus. Law protects and guarantees freedom. Freedom is only possible in practice under the rule of law.

St Paul, the author of the Christian religion, was willing and eager to abandon the Law. The Catholic Church did not after all do this, and accepted Judaism’s moral law though not its rituals.

As a people, the Jews’ first great gift to humanity was the idea that God, an abstract being, was a moral authority who required people to treat each other justly, and did not himself require them to suffer or die for him.

When the center of their religion, the Temple, was destroyed by the Romans in the first century CE, and they were exiled from Jerusalem and dispersed from their land, the Jews clung to their religion, adapting such rituals as it was possible for them to observe in the absence of a Temple and a priesthood; and their faith held them together for two millennia as a people though they were physically scattered through the world.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in Europe, and then the Age of Science, belief in the supernatural began to die in the Western world generally. But the Jews still needed to adhere to their religious tradition. Only since the land of Israel has been restored to them, has the Jews’ need for religion as a kind of abstract glue to hold them together become less compelling.

It is true that orthodox Jews still observe the religion as it has long been observed. But orthodoxy has spawned a crowd of rivals, some of which have become such broad churches that traditional Judaism is hardly discernible in them. Rabbis (male and female) in Reform synagogues now call God ‘he or she’, and even speak of a plurality of gods. What is left of Judaism there? And if the answer is nothing, does it matter? For ever-increasing numbers (even in America), all religions have passed their use-by date.

If the State of Israel were again to be destroyed – a tragedy that looks all too possible now – would the religion revive to bind the Jews together again?

Just possibly, but much more probably not. The only thing that could and should bind the Jews together in this age is loyalty to their peoplehood in the light of their history. But that is a nationalist kind of idea, and nationalism is despised by the loudest intellectuals of our time. Many of those loud voices are Jewish voices. Treasonously they decry Zionism – the nationalism of the Jews – and raise moral objections to the existence of the Jewish state. If the State of Israel is destroyed, brought to political extinction, can the Jews continue to exist, either as a religion or as a people?

Jillian Becker  June 3, 2009

Posted under Articles, Atheism, Commentary, Israel, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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