Acknowledging Prayers Offered On Our Behalf

On 30th July, I hiked up to Corbet High Camp–operated by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides–in Wyoming’s Teton range in the Grand Teton National Park–to begin an attempt to scale the Grand Teton on August 1st. There, at high camp, my climbing partner and I met another pair of climbers, young lads from Louisiana, headed up the Grand the very next morning; we would be sharing camp with them for the afternoon and evening. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries; many notes of excited and nervous anticipation made the rounds; we each confessed to the peculiar state of excitement and apprehension that seemed to possess us. Later, as time for dinner approached, the older of the two lads asked us if we would mind if he offered a ‘mountain blessing’ before mealtime. We said we had no problem with him doing so.

And so our new friend took off his hat and bent his knee in prayer. He asked his Lord and God for protection on this mountain; to aid him with good luck as he attempted to climb the mountain with his cousin; to bless all those he had met today and made friends with and who would also be climbing the mountain; to lay his protective hand over all of them alike. As he spoke, we laid down our spoons and forks and waited; when he had finished speaking, we all thanked him. (I cannot, in this text, recapture my friend’s distinctive Louisiana accent, but it was present, and it added a little touch of the South to the Western alpine setting.)

I’m an atheist; I do not pray. But I was unambiguously grateful for the prayer that had been offered on my behalf; my thanks were sincere. They were so not because I expected benedictions to now flow my way but rather, because I was deeply appreciative of the gesture of kindness that had just been directed at me. I did not doubt the sincerity of the faith of that young man from Louisiana; he believed all right. And if he did, and had the relationship to his faith that I thought he did, then his asking for blessings to be sent my way which would protect me on the mountain and return me safely to my family were an expression of genuine concern and friendship on his part. Up there on that mountainous perch, the majestic Middle Teton and its enormous snowfields clearly visible, I was conscious of my own insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and might; my friend’s blessing was a fortification of my humanity in the face of such natural power, it was a reminder that when we climb mountains we always seek to return to those who love and care for us, that friendships and companionship are ever more important on the mountains, that I would need the help of the others to get up and down safely. Acknowledging the sincerity and warmth and these diverse messages of that blessing, the gesture it made, was the only right thing to do. Even for a non-believer.

Science And The Provision Of Existential Comfort

Stephen Asma offers a well-worn and reasonable defense of religious belief in The Stone–but ironically enough, in a plea for more tolerance, strikes a rather dogmatic note himself. The defense of religious belief and ritual is a familiar one: religion may be an opiate but it is an effective painkiller as a result. Asma offers us a story of a bereaved student and his family to illustrate the kind of tragic personal situation whose attendant pain can be palliated by religion:

Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and mutilated….My student, his mother and his sister were shattered. His mother…would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife….These bolstering beliefs, along with the church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow….

Asma goes on:

[R]eligion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder at the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation….Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue….we need religion because it is a road-tested form of emotional management….No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy…..the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her….we can see why religion persists.

The italicized sections above are in tension with the overall tenor of Asma’s claims: they insist, seemingly as a matter of principle, of conceptual definition, that ‘scientific alleviation’ and ‘scientific explanation’ can provide no consoling, no comfort, whatsoever, in the face of this world’s relentless capacity to dish out inexplicable suffering to humans. But how can Asma claim, in the face of the diversity of the human condition, that scientific claims will provide no comfort at all to the afflicted, the bereaved, the suffering? Sometimes understanding the workings of disease may calm a terminally ill patient and those who love them; understanding the physical composition of the body and its relationship with the world of material forces may comfort both those who die and those who grieve for them; sometimes understanding the molecular basis of bodily pathology may ease the feeling of having being struck down by a malevolent curse. We need religion and science both to accommodate the diversity of the human condition; the knowledge science provides may too repel, in part, that terrible anxiety which underwrites our deepest fears.

Asma is right to try to make room for religion; but the catholic attitude he is calling for requires him to be open-minded about the role that science and scientific knowledge can play in providing humans existential and spiritual comfort. Not exclusively, of course. We are many; so are our solutions.

A Conversation On Religious Experience

A couple of summers ago, a friend and I waited at a parking lot by Cottonwood Pass in Colorado for a ride back to Buena Vista. Bad weather had forced us off the Colorado Trail, and we now needed transportation to the nearest lodging venue. A pair of daytrippers, a middle-aged couple, appeared, walking back to their parked vehicle, done with their viewing and photography for the day. We walked over and made our request: could we please hitch a ride with them? They were not going back all the way to Buena Vista, but only to a campground nearby; would that work? We said it would; we would find another ride from there. In we hopped, and off we went.

As we drove, introductions were made; we were from Brooklyn, our benefactors were visiting from Texas, sans children and grandchildren.  When asked what I ‘did,’ I said I was a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York. Intrigued, they asked which classes I taught; when I listed philosophy of religion as one of them, they asked me if I was religious. I said that I wasn’t religious in belief or practice, but was very interested in the problems and questions that arose in that domain of philosophy. I asked my newly made friends if they were religious; they both said they were devout Christians. I asked them if their faith had been a matter of being born into a devout family, and they both replied that while they had been born into churchgoing families, each had had an individual ‘experience’ that had cemented their faith, given it a new dimension, and indeed caused them to say they ‘found Christ’ only later in life–in each case, following a profound ‘crisis’ of one sort or the other. When Christ ‘had come’ to them, they had ‘felt’ it immediately, and had never had any doubt ‘in their hearts’ from that point on. I listened, fascinated. I made note of the fact that I taught an section on ‘religious experiences’ in my class, and mentioned William James and St. Teresa of Avila‘s theoretical and personal accounts of its phenomena.

When my new friends were done recounting the story of their journey to their faith, they asked me again if I was sure I wasn’t religious. I said that I was quite sure I had no theistic belief–even as I remained fascinated by religion as a social, cultural, psychological, and intellectual phenomena and by the nature of religious feeling–which is why, of course, I had inquired into the nature of their religious belief and how they came by their beliefs. In response, my friends said they were ‘relieved’ to hear of my attitude, that they frequently skirted the subject in conversation with ‘strangers’ because they didn’t want anyone to feel they were proselytizing; I assured them I didn’t think they were, and that I had found the conversation singularly illuminating.

We had driven on past the campground that was supposed to be our destination; our friends said they found our conversation worth continuing; they would drop us to Buena Vista. Rain clouds were still threatening, so this offer was most welcome. Soon, we found ourselves on Buena Vista’s Main Street, our destination for the day. We alighted, grabbed our backpacks, posed for a photograph or two, and then bade them farewell; I asked for their names, but did not write them down, and so have forgotten them. But not that conversation; there was a refreshing warmth and openness on display that was refreshing, and in the context of the US and its endless ‘religious wars,’ a genuine sense of novelty.

The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

I am, supposedly, ‘Hindu’; my wife is similarly ‘Muslim.’ The scare quotes are there because we both regard our supposed ‘religious identities’ as ambiguous; we are not observant, but we were born into Hindu and Muslim families, and thus raised and acculturated into certain norms and cultural rites of passage–and their associated loyalties. (Such loose identification comes a little easier to me as the supposed object of my affiliation is, at best, quite idiosyncratically defined.) Moreover, most importantly, this is how the ‘rest of the world’ identifies us; bureaucratic form-filling forces into certain templates; our names seem to proclaim, quite loudly, our religious affiliations. This identification proceeds, inexorably, by its own inner logic to the small matter of our child, our four-year old daughter: sometimes we are asked, in tones that indicate the appropriate grave import of the query, how we will ‘raise’ her, by the dictates of which religion. And sometimes, she will be referred to as ‘half-Muslim, half-Hindu.’

This past week, I met an old friend of mine from graduate school; he is Australian, his wife is English; they have two teen-aged sons, born and brought up in England, but raised as passionate supporters of Australia in all matters sporting, cricketing or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, they love bantering with their mother about their unambiguous dislike for the English in those same domains. During my conversation with them, as we discussed their favorite cricket players, their mother protested–only semi-seriously–that they were ‘half-English’ and thus, not appropriately loyal to one of their ‘homelands.’ Her boys said they were ‘all Australian.’

Religion and nationality are too easily supposed heritable, natural kinds of sorts. As these descriptions–serious and semi-serious alike–indicate, so definitive of our identities, so fundamental, so constitutive, are these affiliations supposed to be that we inherit them, along with our genomic codes from our parents. The query, ‘what are you?’ can only be answered in two ways: you indicate your religion or your indicate your nationality. If you are an atheist or a Palestinian, you are out of luck in answering this query. (The related query, ‘where are you from,’ does not literally inquire into place of residence or place of birth; it means, instead, ‘what is your ethnic background–whether you claim it as your identity or not’?) We do not imagine other kinds of affiliations to be similarly heritable; the children of anarchist or libertarian couples are not considered to have inherited their parents’ political inclinations in quite the same way; the children of couples with differing political beliefs are not considered hybrids. I would love for this to be the case; it would certainly ease one of my many irrational parenting anxieties.

It is part of the success of the ideology of religion and nationalism that they have elevated themselves to the status of heritable qualities and attributes; the branding begins early and it is facilitated and supported at life’s many stages and turns by an elaborate infrastructure of language and description and social behavioral response. We all comply; we are conditioned to.

 

No, Shmuel Rosner, Jews Should Not Keep Their Politics Out Of Passover

Shmuel Rosner suggests we should keep Passover apolitical and disdains the new Seders that reconfigure the Haggadah:

In some ways, new readings of the Haggadah are a blessing. They take an ancient text and make it relevant. They make it easier for disconnected Jews to find meaning in the Passover Seder. They enable a contemporary — often secular — Jew to relate to a text that is in many ways culturally foreign. And it is reasonable to expect that a text that was devised in a messy and unorderly process over hundreds of years will continue to evolve.

But in other ways, the modern Haggadot are a curse. They take a historically unifying celebration of a people and turn it into a politically divisive event. Some Jews celebrate their Passover by mourning an occupation of land; others celebrate by highlighting the reclamation of the same land. Some Jews celebrate by stressing the need for compassion for the stranger; others celebrate by underscoring the merits of tribalism. Passover is a time for Jews to acknowledge their shared roots and their covenants of fate and destiny. Yet many new Haggadot define Jewish groups by pitting them against one another.

They also trivialize Judaism and its sacred festivals and texts. And this is not unique to Passover. There’s a growing tendency among Jews — whether rabbis, teachers, community leaders or lay people — to employ Jewish texts to score political points. A Passover Seder during which you spend time criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policies or regretting the evacuation of Israeli settlements from Gaza is not a “relevant” Seder, it is a mediocre and redundant one. Passover is for celebrating the transcendent, the mysterious, the eternal, not rehashing worn-out political debates. It is a night to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.

Oh dear. Yet another ‘don’t politicize the actually already politicized, and fundamentally political’ screed. Rosner will get ample pushback from Jewish folks themselves on this piece of pompous hectoring, but let me throw in my (external) tuppence.

Rosner would have done well enough to have stopped at the first paragraph quoted above. The ‘modern Haggadot‘ are indeed a blessing that takes many forms; besides the ones Rosner himself notes above, I can add–as a non-Jewish person who has been fortunate enough to participate in a couple of Seders himself thanks to some kind invitations from near and dear Jewish friends–that the modern Haggadot make it possible for folks like me to gain insights into the history and practices of Judaism, into how the Jewish sensibility, such as it is, has come about, and what its present day concerns are. My participation in these Seders has added to my respect for the spirit of social justice and the concern for freedom that animates so many of my Jewish friends. It is no exaggeration to say that my views on the Palestinian crisis and the rights of the Palestinian are a direct consequence of my encounters with Jewish writings and thoughts on these subjects.

Moreover, and Rosner really should know this better than anyone else, Jews are not a monolithic bloc; tremendous diversity of political, cultural, religious, and moral opinion is to be found among them. Remember that old saw about ‘ask two Jews, and you get three opinions’?  Debates and argumentation and contentiousness–sometimes fertile, sometimes futile–are found here in ample measure; why should Passover be any different? Indeed, wouldn’t engaging in so-called ‘politically divisive’ celebrations of Passover be a classically Jewish thing to do?

Rosner considers the ‘politicization’ of Passover to follow from the usage of Jewish texts to ‘score political points,’ an act that he considers makes Passover Seders ‘mediocre and redundant.’ Au contraire; paying attention to the political subtext of Passover, casting Seders in a form relevant to everyday politics keeps Passover alive and reinvigorates it for the next generation, especially for those secular Jews who might not be so taken by its connections with the with spiritual and the transcendent. These new understandings can help bring about new debates on theological, moral, and political issues, keeping alive Judaism’s intense engagements in these domains. Seders featuring the ‘modern Haggadot’ do not ‘trivialize’ religious texts; they bring them alive in newer ways.

So Rosner’s conclusion above is correct in at least one sense: Passover is a night “to find new meaning in an old script, not to force the text into a preconceived political platform.” The folks coming up with modern Haggadot are doing just that, while Rosner is the one forcing Passover into a “preconceived political platform.” The supposedly apolitical never is.

 

 

Richard Dawkins’ Inconsistent Reliance On Pragmatism

A very popular video on YouTube featuring Richard Dawkins is titled ‘Science Works, Bitches.’ It periodically makes the rounds on social media; as it does, Dawkins acolytes–in the video and on social media–applaud him as he ‘smacks down’ a questioner who inquires into the ‘justification’ for the scientific method. (A familiar enough question; for instance, science relies on induction, but the justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is itself an inductive argument, so how do you break out of this circle, without relying on some kind of ‘faith’?) Dawkins’ response is ‘It works, bitches!’ Science’s claim to rationality rests on its proven track record–going to the moon, curing disease etc.; this is an entirely pragmatic claim with which I’m in total agreement. The success of inductive claims is part of our understanding and definition of rationality; rationality does not exist independent of our practices; they define it.

Still, the provision of this answer also reveals Dawkins’ utter dishonesty when it comes to the matter of his sustained attacks on religion over the years. For the open-mindedness and the acknowledgment of the primacy of practice that is on display in this answer is nowhere visible in his attitude toward religion.

Dawkins is entirely correct in noting that science is superior to religion when it comes to the business of solving certain kinds of problems. You want to make things fly; you rely on science. You want to go to the moon; you rely on science. You want to cure cancer; you rely on science. Rely on religion for any of these things and you will fail miserably. But Dawkins will be simply unwilling to accept as an answer from a religious person that the justification for his or her faith is that ‘it works’ when it comes to providing a ‘solution’ for a ‘problem’ that is not of the kind specified above. At those moments, Dawkins will demand a kind of ‘rational’ answer that he is himself unwilling to–and indeed, cannot–provide for science.

Consider a religious person who when asked to ‘justify’ faith, responds ‘It works for me when it comes to achieving the end or the outcome of making me happy [or more contented, more accepting of my fate, reconciling myself to the death of loved ones or my own death; the list goes on.]’ Dawkins’ response to this would be that this is a pathetic delusional comfort, that this is based on fairy tales and poppycock. Here too, Dawkins would demand that the religious person accept scientific answers to these questions and scientific resolutions of these ‘problems.’ Here, Dawkins would be unable to accept the pragmatic nature of the religious person’s answer that faith ‘works’ for them. Here, Dawkins would demand a ‘justified, rational, grounded in evidence’ answer; that is, an imposition of standards that he is unwilling to place on the foundations of scientific reasoning.

As I noted above, pragmatism is the best justification for science and the scientific method; science works best to achieve particular ends. Dawkins is entirely right to note that religion cannot answer the kinds of questions or solve the kinds of problems science can; he should be prepared to admit the possibility that there are questions to which religion offers answers that ‘work’ for its adherents–in preference to other alternatives. Pragmatism demands we accept this answer too; you can’t lean on pragmatism to defend science, and then abandon it in your attacks on religion. That’s scientism. Which is a load of poppycock.

‘Silence’ And Shūsaku Endō’s Christianity

Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence is a remarkable religious novel, one whose close reading and discussion in a philosophy classroom pays rich dividends. This week marks the concluding sessions of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class’ discussion of Endō’s novel; I can enthusiastically recommend it–in whole or in part–for use in classes on epistemology and philosophy of religion. This is because the novel–ostensibly a historical work set in seventeenth century Japan as the systematic persecution of Christians commenced following a brief flourishing of the faith–is at heart about the nature of faith, its relationship to knowledge and belief, the nature of ‘commitment’ to religious ideals and beliefs, the possibility of voluntarism about belief, the relationship between belief and action, the relationship between organized and ‘personal’ religion, between moral sentiments and religious strictures, between geographically and nationally specific cultures and supposedly universal belief systems, and so on.

Endō’s novel also proves the truth of the wisdom contained in the claim that the doubts of the religious and the agnostic or atheist are more interesting than the certainty of the believer. In this regard, observant Christians will find the book just as provocative as atheists or agnostics might. As Charles Peirce had noted, doubt is that irritation which leads to inquiry. And that is certainly one thing that Endō’s novel does; it prompts inquiry and investigation. It creates more doubt in turn, and prompts that most useful activity of all: self-examination. (My classroom discussions with my students about the philosophical issues the novel raises and examines have often been quite rich even as I suspect that, as usual, some students are simply not keeping up with the reading and are thus unwilling and unable to participate or contribute.)

Silence is the story of Sebastião Rodrigues, a missionary who travels to Japan to ‘rescue’ a Christianity sought to be driven out from Japan, and finds himself the latest target of the campaign to do so. Rodrigues takes inspiration from Christ through his trials and travails at the hands of his Japanese tormentors–even as the events around him shake his faith like never before. The determination of his inquisitors to make him an apostate makes Rodrigues sense he will become, rather than Christ, Judas instead; he will not be the defender and promulgator of his faith, but its betrayer instead. As his greatest trial approaches, Rodrigues comes to understand that the man he had imagined the Judas to his Christ is closer to him than he had imagined, that his dislike for him, his failure to feel sympathy or empathy for him, is his greatest failing as a Christian.The novel’s provocative claim–under one interpretation–is that he becomes a better Christian by becoming Judas. And that is because in doing so, he is better able to understand someone, Christ, and something, Christian faith, that he had imagined himself, arrogantly, to understand all too well before his trials began.

Rodrigues worries that God is silent; his most powerful realization is that God speaks through man, and man alone.