Science, Faith, Scepticism, Belief and The Great Unknown

Negotiating with dog god…

Judaism is a religion of scepticism, made for and used by sceptics. The relationship with Jews and God is not a one-way thing in which God says ‘thou-shalt-not’ and everyone jumps. It’s a constantly evolving contract. It’s not inappropriate to remind ourselves, especially today, how a panel of rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial and found him guilty. Such an action would hardly be possible in a religion in which obedience is unquestioning, unthinking.

This is at Henry Gee’s joint.
Go piss on his rug!!!11!!

(Only kidding about the part about the rug.)

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36 thoughts on “Science, Faith, Scepticism, Belief and The Great Unknown

  1. Well, Henry has a very cockeyed revisionist version of Judaism then. Reading articles by real jews like Harry Golden or Chaim Potok give you a good idea of the various jewish cults and what they believe. No, Henry, skepticism is not a tradition in any jewish cult – you must have it confused with sophistry. Using Henry-like arguments we can say exactly the same thing about the fundamentalist jesus cultists. It’s a constantly evolving contract; Pat Robertson uses his skepticism on the bible and comes up with new revisions of the contract. The deluded masses at the oxymoronic Liberty University likewise argue skeptically and come up with new meanings for their contract with god all the time. See Henry – you’re confused – or did you just See The Light?

  2. The traditions of Judaism do encourage interpretation and re-interpretation of ancient commandments, from the oral laws and traditions of the ancients, through the Mishna, and down into modern rabbinic law. Like any other religion, we Jews do have our unthinking fundamentalist cults. However, I would say that the vast majority of American Jewry fits the description in Henry’s article, and I think MadScientist shows his ignorance of the region with his comments about “real jews” (much like Sarah Palin and “Real America”!)

  3. The situation is complicated. Judaism has a tradition of intelluctualism that is stronger than in some other religions. And aspects of Judaism have been skeptical and skepticism is acceptable in Judaism far more than it is in other religions.

    But Judaism is also a religion of fanatics and extremists. It is as far as I am aware the only major religion which has religious leaders who believe in spontaneous generation simply because their holy texts say so. For a run-down of how incredibly anti-intellectual and anti-critical thinking Judaism can be see

  4. So, Mad, are there unreal Jews? I am confused. Are their multiples versions of Judaism which make such broad brush strokes unwise, and is Gee making the same generalization that invokes the “true scotsman” fallacy when people disagree with him?

  5. “Are their multiples versions of Judaism which make such broad brush strokes unwise…?”

    Yes, there are. Orthodox and Chassidic Jewish theologians are generally very willing to argue religious law, drawing on a variety of sources. However, this doesn’t mean they’re actually open to change – these arguments always seem to end up supporting the status quo, or even imposing additional restrictions on the faithful (the modern proscription of using light switches on Shabbat because it’s like making fire is a favorite of mine – the technology didn’t exist in Moses’ day, and electricity isn’t fire, but it’s generally agreed that you shouldn’t use them anyway). By contrast, Reconstructionist theologians are generally quite comfortable abandoning long-held notions of what’s required or forbidden, using a variety of historical and contemporary sources to support the change after-the-fact. Other streams of Judaism fall somewhere in between.

  6. Martin, it is much more complicated than that. For example, Conservative Judaism, which is one of the more modern (for lack of a better word, liberal? progressive?) movements, has a stricter standard about organ donation than most of the the Modern Orthodox. That’s because the Conservative theology has been in some ways more influenced by Christianity and thus they are willing to to buy into a notion that organ donation violates some sort of intrinsic dignity of the body whereas the MO don’t. In general, this is true for a lot of medical related issues where the moral problems are primarily the ick-factor. (These are generalizations which are only somewhat true but there is a general pattern here).

  7. I think you should add “the Great Unknowable” to the title of this post.

    I think the Great Unknowable is equivalent to the idea of NOMA, an idea which to me is not even wrong.

  8. @pworthen: You fall for Henry’s claims as well – what you describe is *NOT* skepticism. As I said in the earlier post, such “reinterpretation” as you call it is common in the jesus cults as well. It is not critical thinking or skepticism, it is sophistry.

  9. @Mike: I mean people who grew up in an established Jewish tradition. You may get converts who have their own peculiar view of things which is not part of any mainstream or older niche sect; such things are not limited to religion either. So if you were to apply such a definition to “real americans” you’d have to rule out first generation migrants because although they are american as per the law, they didn’t grow up in the same society and most likely are different in many cultural respects. Why do people seem to assume that “Real X” is a pejorative exclusion of “Not X”? That’s fuzzy groupthink.

  10. The setting was the internment camp at Auschwitz during the war. As legend has it, in the midst of their suffering three Rabbi prisoners in the barracks put God on trial:

    Wiesel: Yes, we really did put God on trial | The Jewish Chronicle – “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than â??guilty’. It means â??He owes us something’. Then we went to pray.”

    So here are three Rabbis who in spite of their circumstance not only continue to believe in God, but believe they hold a negotiable position! This is not an example of skepticism from which personal pride might be derived. This is delusion. Delusion under duress most notably, but delusion nevertheless.

    Perhaps some measure of solace can be taken from the legend of Jesus, upon his conviction for blasphemy by the Jewish court and crucified by the Romans on that courts insistence, who during his agonies cried out to the heavens, “why hath thou forsaken me?” A skeptical moment?

    Granted a bit of a stretch. Perhaps Jesus near the end of his fatal tortures didn’t question the very existence of his Father, but for skeptic Jews wouldn’t this be a better source of personal pride than the tawdry example of three Rabbis putting God on trial in absentia only to find in their favor that God owes them? Talk about embracing a stereotype.

    So, could the physical experience of Jesus during his time upon the cross, been compelled to question his beliefs? Read “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ : pdf” for the science, if you haven’t already.

  11. Greg: Submitted links are not working, or leastwise as they once did. Rather than garbage up the comments, please feel free to delete my posts. – Bill

  12. @Bill James: I also recall another survivor of the concentration camps telling of how he could no longer believe in a god because of all that happened – now that may be genuine skepticism at work; from what little I can recall (or imagine to recall – isn’t memory a funny thing) I believe it is indeed skepticism rather than a simple case of rejection due to misery resulting in ill will. I wish I could remember the name of that person; the only other thing I can remember about him is that he settled in Italy after the war (like so many other survivors).

    To say “he owes us”, as you point out, is hardly skepticism. It is very likely that there are numerous people in Haiti who feel the same way and who say the same things: why is god doing this to us? Surely god owes us – I hope he pays us back soon. No, not skepticism at all but a vain expectation of reparation from a demonstrably brutal god. Quite silly. This is only one of numerous reasons why I say Henry Gee must be confusing sophistry with skepticism.

  13. @MadScientist: I think what we have is a difference in our definition of skepticism. I view any questioning of religious authority as skepticism, while it appears that you view only complete rejection of religious authority as skepticism. (or perhaps I should say “real skepticism”)

    In my view, questioning the long-held tenets of your faith and revising them to modern standards is an act of skepticism. It’s a difficult thing to reject the concepts that your ancestors lived by, even if you’re only going to change them slightly.

  14. I think that it depends on whether you view skepticism as an “all or nothing” condition, or whether you think that there are degrees of skepticism. If one has to completely reject anything that is not and can not be proven scientifically in order to be a skeptic, then it is impossible to be a religious believer and a skeptic at the same time. If one can take a few things on faith but still look at other things with a more critical eye, then there are definitely a lot of forms of religion that are quite skeptical. In fact, religious believers of a more skeptical or critical bent are probably at least as aware of the problems and issues of their faith as any atheist.

  15. No one is skeptical in everything. Insisting that everyone else be skeptical of religion, even if their religious views don’t affect you, is both ridiculous and hypocritical.

  16. No, noel. Skepticism is a fair amount of work. There are plenty of things in your life to which you don’t do the work to get the information you would need to apply skepticism. They may not be important things, but neither is a religious belief that is of next to no practical consequence.

    For example, do you choose paper or plastic, and do you actually know which is better for the environment? Based on what information? Do you keep that information up to date as more environmental-impact research is done and bags shift in their composition of fresh and recycled materials or as forestry and oil-drilling practices change?

  17. No Stephanie, skepticism is about belief and the basis for that belief. One can use paper and/or plastic and still be a skeptic provided one is intellectually honest about one’s lack of knowledge regarding which is “better” and under what circumstances. Being a skeptic does not require one to be paralyzed in the face of insufficient knowledge, it requires one to be unsure.

    I generally prefer plastic because it doesn’t release methane in landfills, I prefer trees to be in forests and because they are waterproof and durable I can (and do) reuse them multiple times.

  18. As I understand the term, a skeptic is one who requires evidence for belief, and even then may have doubts. That excludes the religious and the credulous. Stephanie would also exclude the ignorant, which sort of makes sense, but I think is a little beside the point.

  19. So, Noel, someone who isn’t sure whether to vaccinate their children because they haven’t done the work to sort out all the conflicting information thrown their way–because they’re ignorant–is still a skeptic? If not, how is that different than you not doing the work to sort out whether paper or plastic bags are better for the environment?

  20. @Greg: Yes, Primo Levy.

    @pworthen: You are right; we have different notions of skepticism. I do not consider minor changes in religious conduct as being due to skepticism but more utilitarianism. Even the various groups of christians and mohammedans have made numerous such changes over the years. This is why I find Henry’s claim that Judaism is more tolerant of skepticism to be very bizarre and unconnected with reality. Of course Henry could be comparing more liberal Jewish sects with more fundamentalist sects of other religions, but that is hardly a fair comparison.

    One thing I find amusing is how different groups react to new things. Let’s say two migrant groups discover the lobster. Now can the lobster be eaten or is it taboo like mussels? Some decide it is taboo, some decide the taboo is not applicable. Now according to Henry those different decisions would have arisen from ‘skepticism’, but he is wrong. Oration is not skepticism. Not to mention many religions have what they consider to be core inviolable beliefs and custom and tradition. For catholics for example the core beliefs are in the Nicaean creed; if you do not believe what is in that creed you are (officially, if not practically) not considered catholic. However if you go against tradition, say you don’t go to church on the feast day of your local patron saint, that’s officially OK even though in practice most of the townsfolk will shun you for a week. So for Henry to claim that people are being skeptical because they make changes to things which they do not really consider of utmost importance is a truly bizarre claim.

    [OT] Henry even misrepresents Dawkins by claiming “… The God Delusion is a profoundly misconceived book because it advances, as an axiom, that the existence of God is a hypothesis that can be tested by science.” That is absolute nonsense; if Henry has read the book at all then he has a severe deficiency in basic english literacy. The claim that Dawkins does make is that the bible is full of claims asserted as facts and science can test those claims and show that they are wrong. In a similar fashion, religions make many other claims (not necessarily in the bible even if the bible is quoted as the “inspiration”) and many of those claims can be tested and shown to be incorrect. Dawkins does concede that some claims cannot be tested such as the deist claim that there is a god though we must admit we know nothing about him – that contradicts Henry’s ridiculous claim that Dawkins asserts that god is a hypothesis that can be tested by science.

  21. No, people who are skeptical of things about which they know very little aren’t really paying attention to the evidence. So they are not “skeptics” by my definition even if it may correctly be said of them that they are skeptical of vaccines. I agree with you that a claim of skepticism should entail significant knowledge of a subject.

  22. @MS: Your post reminds me of the funniest thing my sister’s ex hubby said: “Just because you’re Catholic doesn’t mean you have to do everything the Pope says!”. I was flabberghasted because I was under the impression that that’s exactly what it means.

  23. Noel, first, I was talking about not knowing the answer about vaccines. Second, you didn’t answer the second question, the one about being skeptical about paper or plastic. I still contend that by the definition you seem to be applying to the religious, you’re not a skeptic either.

  24. I must agree with Stephanie, to be a skeptic, you must know the limits of your knowledge. You can’t just “wing it”, (known as making shit up) when you don’t know what you are talking about.

  25. @noel: hehehe; it’s even funnier that many catholics believe that too, but if you were so unlucky to be coerced into studying Canon Law (among other things) as I was, you would learn that that is not quite the case – and also learn that the vast majority of catholic priests are unaware of the official rules as well. It’s truly a case of the blind leading the blind and yet the sect persists – almost 2000 years and still going. One of my favorites is the “infallibility” of the pope. The official rules say that the pope is infallible on issues of morals and doctrines when he issues proclamations with the accord of a magisterial council. The last magisterial council was the Second Vatican Council which concluded during the reign of pope John #6. The pope famously (well, famous in some circles) issued a Papal Bull declaring his personal opinion on the use of prophylactics for birth control. The magesterial council could not agree on anything so the pope stood up and said he believed that it was immoral – however we must credit that pope with some honesty because in the same declaration he stated that it is his own opinion and that it is up to individuals to make a decision based on their own conscience. The pope John Paul #2 was a voracious liar who attempted to project an image of absolute infallibility, frequently declaring that the use of contraceptives is deemed by the church (not solely by the pope) as immoral. The new pope is also a goddamned liar.

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