Sunday, April 17, 2011

How About We Promote the Good with Discussion Rather than with Pleasant Fictions?

"Pleasant" fictions, from left to right: Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn; the Easter Bunny; iconography of the Jewish messiah.

I have mentioned before how I enjoy reading R. Joseph Hoffmann, although I frequently disagree with him. Hoffmann recently stirred up the Atheist blogosphere by criticizing the New Atheists. Hoffmann, himself an unbeliever, has been taken as accusing the New Atheists of philosophical naivety and ignorance of the history of religions.

New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists) such as Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers lash back at Hoffmann. Rightly so, in my opinion. However, rather than jumping on the anti-Hoffmann bandwagon, I want to observe a few simple points and ask questions about them.

Point #1: Hoffmann, ever eloquent, offers the following philosophical pillar in one of his exasperated mock-manifestos:
We accept religion as a way of valuing and expressing ideals. We look skeptically at its role as a guide for human behavior, and as a system of doctrines that must be believed at the risk of peril to an immortal soul. But we acknowledge that the religions of the world have profoundly affected both the content, formation and direction of ethical discussion.
On the surface, this magnanimous statement seems eminently reasonable. But let's hold the statement for a moment and introduce Point #2, a standard teaching that may be delivered in any Christian pre-school classroom around Easter time:
Basic Truth: Jesus wants to be my friend forever.
Bottom Line: Jesus wants to be my friend forever.
Memory Verse: “I am with you always.” Matthew 28:20, NIV
Since Passover draws nigh, here is Point #3, guidance on communicating the Pesach story to young children:
Wording you may want to use in your classrooms:
“Pharaoh didn’t want any Jewish boy babies … So the Mommy had to come up with a plan … She put the baby in a very soft basket in the water, hidden in the reeds. The big sister was going to watch from the side the whole time.”

After telling some unpleasant part of the story, end the lesson on a happy note, “When Mashiach comes, everything will be good.”
  • When telling the story of Pesach (or any part of Torah), the teacher/ rabbi should read or at least hold a Chumash, so that the children understand that this is from the Torah and not simply a story.
  • Use props such as puppets, costumes and facial expressions when telling the story.
I have no reliable data on what Muslims, Hindus, or other religions teach their children. Nevertheless, without reducing all religion to Christianity and Judaism, let's ask what it means to "accept religion as a way of valuing and expressing ideals," a la Hoffmann. Surely, we acknowledge that people can teach the lessons cited above. We acknowledge the right of believers to teach such lessons to any who freely choose to hear. This right does not seem to me to be the main issue.

Does Hoffmann's "accept" mean we must refrain from comment and criticism? Should we not question the ethics of teaching children that "Jesus" wants to be their friend forever? Let's look at the the "memory verse" in context:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20)
Should we not ask why Jesus makes a point not about friendship but rather about the dissemination of power and authority, that is, about imperialism? Should we not ask whether Jesus' friendship extends only to the disciples, as it seems, or to all? Should we not ask whether Jesus' friendship is free or coerced? Should we not ask what is meant by "end of the age," and why other translations emphasize end-times, as in the KJV's "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world"?

Dear Hoffmann, must we "look skeptically" at such lessons in silence or only amongst ourselves? If we disagree that the Jesus of the New Testament wants to be anyone's friend, or if we suggest that Jesus is not the kind of friend that anyone would want, should we simply just let these thoughts sail on by without taking any action on them? If "we acknowledge that the religions of the world have profoundly affected both the content, formation and direction of ethical discussion," does that mean we agree with bald assertion of the Torah as an authority for the truth of the Exodus myth? Does acknowledgment mean that we should not examine and--heaven forfend, criticize--the profound effect of the religions of the world on ethical discussion?

Hoffmann believes we New Atheists need to employ greater nuance in our approach both to religions themselves and to criticism of different religions. We must take pains to show our understanding of how individual religions and sects differ from others. We must stress religion is not a synonym for "bad." Hoffmann thinks the New Atheism is far cruder and un-philosophical than it actually is. We use crudeness and visceral response, but the Gnus can be very sophisticated, and Hoffmann ought to recognize this. Neither is the New Atheism a "my way or the highway" movement. We do not demand that people adopt one "way of valuing and expressing ideals." On the contrary, we value plurality and difference.

But we cannot and should not abide people just making stuff up--even palatable stuff--to coerce behavior. On this point, I like what Sam Harris said at the end of his recent debate with William Lane Craig:
Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. Whatever is true about our circumstance in moral terms… is discoverable now, and can be talked about in language that is not an outright affront to everything we’ve learned in the last 2,000 years.
In other words, you can't just say Jesus wants to be friends and that everyone should worship him because neither the text nor the religion says he wants to be friends. You can't just say that everything will be hunky-dory when the Moshiach comes--and enforce rigid behaviors around mitzvot--because the whole Jewish concept of the Messiah is highly problematic.

The ideas we want to communicate, the ones we want to pass along to our children and our world, can be conveyed without bunnies, false friends, and warrior kings of the future.

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