Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Quote of the Day: Albert Einstein on Religion and the Desire for Transcendence

When I was a fairly precocious young man I became thoroughly impressed with the futility of the hopes and strivings that chase most men restlessly through life. Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase, which in those years was much more carefully covered up by hypocrisy and glittering words than is the case today. By the mere existence of his stomach everyone was condemned to participate in that chase. The stomach might well be satisfied by such participation, but not man insofar as he is a thinking and feeling being. As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine.

Thus I came - though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents - to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment-an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections.

It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the "merely personal," from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it. --Albert Einstein, Autobiographical Notes

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Request for JC Masterpiece Regarding Evolution

JC Masterpiece has been commenting on my blog recently, and I've been doing the same on his. He does not believe in evolution, but I think it is simply because he has been taught only one side of the story, not because he is close-minded. His posts and comments show an interest in learning. I think that if he realized how extensive the evidence for evolution is, he'd change his mind.

Anyway, I came across an online discussion started by a Christian who believed in Creationism until a debate with an evolutionist led him to start doing more rigorous research. Although he remains a devoted Christian, he now believes in evolution. Even more importantly, he learned how to do good research.

I believe JC Masterpiece might find it helpful, and if he doesn't mind, I'd like him to read the discussion and then respond to it here.

The discussion.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Quote of the Day: Mencken on Religious Opinions

"The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive. But the convention that I have mentioned frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed." -- H.L. Mencken

We could really use a Mencken today.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Creationism: God's Gift to the Ignorant

Excellent rant by Richard Dawkins.

The conclusion is great:

The creationists’ fondness for “gaps” in the fossil record is a metaphor for their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps, by default, are filled by God. You don’t know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don’t understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don’t go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don’t work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries for we can use them. Don’t squander precious ignorance by researching it away. Ignorance is God’s gift to Kansas.

Don't yeshivas have the same love of ignorance? Don't they forbid (or discourage) books and magazines which contain viewpoints counter to their own?

Monday, August 15, 2005

Quote of the Day: Moral Indignation

"Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo." -- H.G. Wells

I've often been mystified at the intense emotions of those usually religious people who become outraged when other people don't live according to their rules. Perhaps Mr. Wells is onto something. The idea that the strongest homophobes are repressed homosexuals is a cliche, but maybe a similar mechanism is at work for all of the loudest proponents of "morality." Maybe they want to have sex how they want and eat what they want and watch what movies they want. Maybe they want to look at all forms of art and listen to all kinds of music. Maybe they just want to read secular philosophy. Maybe deep down they're afraid that they're passing on these parts of life for no reason and so they must shout out the doubts in their own minds.

(Quote via the comments of this completely unrelated post.)

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Values and Religion

One idea which seems to be common, even among the non-religious, is that a religious upbringing is necessary to instill good values in children.

It's true that values come neatly packaged within many religions, and it's plausible that the belief in an Omnipresent God might be useful for preventing children from behaving badly in their parents' absence. Pragmatically speaking, though, religion is an imprecise tool for the task.

Religion as values-delivery package fails in two ways: first, it is overly broad, which may cause children to throw the values out if they don't agree with unrelated religious dogma; and second, religious people are vulnerable to having their values manipulated by religious figures and texts.

The first point is obvious: if a child is taught that one mustn't kill because God said so and later comes to believe that the Bible was written by men, then she might decide that murder is acceptable. Similarly, if she believes that the prohibition of eating milk and meat is silly, why refrain from stealing? Or, it could go the other way. Imagine a boy who is raised in a loosely religious household by parents who hold tolerance as an important value. If the boy decides to become more religious, he might be swayed by a religious figure or a book which extols discriminating against homosexuals.

The second point is a little less obvious since "religious values" are often thought to be consistent, at least within a particular religion. If you look at religion in practice, however, it's clear that two people of the same religion might hold completely opposite positions with regard to a particular value. Born again Christians are generally thought of as solidly Republican, but about a third of them consistently vote Democrat. Many Catholics enthusiastically support the Iraq war, while the Pope himself opposes it.

In short, religion is a bad tool for instilling values, and certainly not a necessary one. Parents must live their values, teach by example, and explain their value-beliefs to their children as well as they can.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Short Thought of the Day

When I was Orthodox, I felt a separation between myself and non-Jewish people. I was different in a fundamental way, and a Sikh was the same as a Buddhist was the same as a Christian: they weren't Jewish. When I met a non-Jew I knew he would never be a true friend. When my insurance company gave me a list of doctors to choose from, I scanned for Jewish names. When I entered the workforce, I looked for Jewish colleagues. When I heard tragic news from Africa or Asia, I cared, but still identified the victims as other. In some sense, the news about Africa wasn't real in the same way that news about Israel was.

Perhaps it doesn't have to be that way when you are Orthodox, but for me it was.

Now I feel a oneness with all people. It sounds cheesy, but it's true. I don't see Jews and non-Jews, I don't see Jews and Muslims and Christians and atheists, I see this person and this person and this person. When I meet a Muslim, I see a person, not a Muslim. We're all different, but we're all the same.