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When Religion Fails

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.” (Heinlein) We can rationalize just about anything, and frequently do. It is how billions of people the world over, with access to approximately the same information, can each tell you, knowing that they are rational, why they act and believe differently than billions of other people. Sometimes this is a result of nationalism or tribalism, the belief that my team is superior because it is my team. There is security in being on a given team, but there is not necessarily any underlying superiority of one team over another. It is merely herd identity for safety in numbers.

Our rationalizing takes many forms, and it has little to do with empirical data. Instead, the foundation stones of our civilizations are entirely unprovable assertions about things that have no measurable physical data: the importance of one culture or society (team) over all others; The existence (or non-existence) of G-d – or gods; Whether there is a purpose to our existence, and what that purpose might be?

We all rationalize why we are here, but we invariably fail to make a case that is so convincing that all – or even most – of humanity is converted to any one point of view.

This tells me that, at least so far, no one belief system is actually succeeding. And that is a problem, at least if you would like to think that the course of human history has an actual point.

Here’s my summary of each dominant belief system, and its failures (please accept my apology in advance for very plain speaking: I am writing this because I want to understand, not because I want to avoid offense):

Rational Atheism: This faith always attracts intellectuals who are too clever to fall for conventional religions. But very few people are satisfied by the idea that we are all somehow just statistical accidents. And since without a Creator there is no ultimate reason why Might does not Make Right, human rights and freedom invariably are shredded in atheistic regimes like the French Revolution, fascism and communism. As a result, Rational Atheism rarely has staying power, either burning out, or acting as a way-station, over the generations, between other belief systems that make people feel more fulfilled.

Rabbi Sacks put it beautifully:

Of course an atheist might say – Sigmund Freud came close to saying this – that faith is simply a comforting illusion. That really is not so. It is far more demanding to believe that God summons us to responsibility, that He asks us to fight for justice, equality and human dignity, and that He holds us accountable for what we do, than to believe that there is no meaning to human existence other than ones we invent for ourselves, no ultimate truth, no absolute moral standards, and no one to whom we will have to give an account of our lives. Fifty years of reflection on this issue have led me to conclude that it is atheism that is, morally and existentially, the easy option – and I say this having known and studied with some of the greatest atheists of our time. That is not to say that I am critical of atheists. To the contrary, in a secular age, it is the default option. That is why now, more than at any other time in the past two thousand years, it takes courage to have and live by religious faith.

But not all religious faiths. The default human religious faith is, after all…

Paganism: Paganism is what the Torah referred to as idol worship. Paganism is making a comeback, to be sure. It is widely agreed, for example, that mankind is bad for Earth – and all data to the contrary is ignored. Earth-worship is on the rise, along with a host of associated practices, from wiccanism to environmentalism.

Most of the world that believes in fate, destiny and fortune (as opposed to a relationship with the divine) are ultimately following a pagan belief system. I believe that ultimately anyone who sees themselves as victims fall into this category, since they believe in nature or nurture, as opposed to possessing free will and responsibility. Paganism is what the aforementioned Rational Atheism most easily morphs into, especially in our society: everything that happens is someone else’s fault. This is the language of identity politics.

Islam: One of the three primary faiths that claim descent from Abraham, Islam is not a mere religion: it is an entire worldview. The dominant characteristic of Islam is the subjugation of the self to Allah’s will, obedience.

Islam appeals to the people who crave structure and are happy to follow authority figures. The biggest appeal Islam has to outsiders is that when it appears to be ascendant, many people act as bin Laden put it: they prefer the strong horse. As with the herd mentality, following the strong horse means that underlying questions about whether something is good or right is entirely beside the point. Most people would much rather follow a strong leader, even an incorrect strong leader, rather than strike out on their own.

In Islam the gap between man and any Creator is far too large to span. Intellectual curiosity is largely absent or punished, and as a result, Islam has failed in the modern era, since it lacks all notions of science or engineering or human progress beyond aspiring to a nonexistent golden age of a world governed by Allah’s servants.

Christianity views god as Father or King. Mankind’s starting state, given Christian understanding of Genesis, is sin. Jesus is the Savior, who provides atonement. Many of the underlying ideals within Christianity are not from the Torah, but from the ancient Greeks who were the intellectuals of that age: ideas like perfection and truth. Suffering is often seen as a way to be closer to Jesus, and divine grace is sometimes disconnected from good works: together, this makes Christian more passive then they might otherwise be.

Christianity is the most successful faith in the modern world. It has done a superb job of adapting to local tribes. It also has a deep sense of heaven and hell, as well as god as savior that both explain why the world appears unfair, and satisfy deep human insecurities about man’s place in the world, and what happens after life.

Judaism is the most intellectual of the faiths, though this is not always helpful. Observant Jews are much more connected to the deep and convoluted discussions about the intricacies of The Law than they are to why the law exists in the first place. Early Christian criticisms of the Pharisees were not necessarily incorrect, because Judaism, in its attention to the minutiae of Jewish Law, often misses the big picture.

Of the three major Abrahamic religions, Judaism has been the least successful by any numeric metric, but in terms of ideas, Judaism has been far more influential than the numbers would suggest.

Still, Judaism has been corrupted, over the ages, by exposure to other faiths: the idea of a messiah (from Christianity), Heaven (from paganism as well as Christianity), Natural Law (Aristotle, reformulated by Maimonides). And Judaism has increasingly become a High Priest faith, where access to deep understanding appears to be accessible only to an intellectual priesthood. Any who lack a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and Talmudic skills is therefore seen as unable to connect with Judaism itself.

Judaism, though strong in core communities, increasingly is locked away from the world, devolving in influence. Jews are fighting the noble fight – but it is a rearguard retreat, back into sheltered and closed ghettos of our own creation.

My Problem:

I believe that the Torah has been greatly misunderstood – certainly by Muslims and Christians, but also by Jews. Because people are blithely unaware of our own presuppositions and assumptions, we tend to read the document with confirmation bias: Christians read the Torah to find Christianity in it (as well as defects that suggest the need for later, and updated, texts). Jews read the Torah not to understand why we are here and what G-d wants from us, but to derive specific commandments with great precision, though without any awareness of what those commandments are supposed to do, and how and why they got there.

For me, the corruption of Judaism has been the idea that, even though the text says that it is self-explanatory, we insist that we cannot understand the commandments. Even though our role models Abraham and Moshe argued with and questioned G-d, doing so ourselves is seen as a lack of faith. Because of Christian influences we see G-d as an infinitely-superior King, while the text itself depicts G-d as our partner, spouse, and lover. Because of Greek influences, we insist, despite all the Torah to the contrary, that G-d is “perfect” – which means He is incapable of changing His mind. Many Jews even go so far as to adopt the Christian belief that eating the fruit was a sin – and thus Original Sin – despite the text not saying anything of the kind.

Jews are still here. The Torah is still here. But, theologically speaking, the world has stood still for a long time. If we want to move forward, we need to start to ask the basic questions that the Torah begs us to ask – and they all come together in the very same text: Why are we here? Why did G-d create us?

Comments are welcome!