Thursday, February 03, 2005

Morality and Hypocrisy

Morality has become my hobby-horse of late. More and more, I am interested in the behaviors as well as the principles that make up living a “good” life.

One prominent thinker of moral matters is Dennis Prager. Though I am always interested in the subjects he raises, his way of reasoning bothers me greatly. To me, it always smacks of self-righteous scolding. But what’s worse is that Prager seemingly addresses like-minded folks for the primary purpose of bashing people who take a different view. His otherwise interesting articles debase themselves by informing, entertaining, and inciting an audience that he must imagine is already prejudiced against “the Left” (capital L).

Sooner or later – but I suspect later, once my generation, the so-called Generation X, assumes major positions of public power – the cheap ideological use of terms such as “Left” will become tiresome to society at large. Stripped of their constitutive prejudice, people-bashing in the guise of moral posturing will become recognized, finally, for what it is at heart: immature thinking.

However, these writings can actually be both immoral and harmful. As an example, I want to present two paragraphs from Prager’s “On Worthless Humanity”:

Since I was an adolescent, I have been preoccupied with evil: specifically, why people engage in it and why other people refuse to acknowledge its existence. As I have gotten older, I often find the latter group more infuriating. Somehow, as much as I don't want to, I can understand why a Muslim raised in a world permeated with hate-filled lies about America and Israel, and taught from childhood that G-d loves death, will blow himself up and joyfully maim and murder children. As evil as the Muslim terrorist is, given the Islamic world in which he was raised, he has some excuse.

But the non-Muslims who fail to acknowledge and confront the evil of Muslim terror and the evil of those monsters who cut innocent people's throats and murder those trying to make a democracy — these people are truly worth nothing. Unlike the Muslims raised in a religious totalitarian society, they have no excuse. And in my lifetime, these people have overwhelmingly congregated on the political Left.
In these paragraphs, Prager's subject is the willingness to recognize and distinguish good and evil. A suicide bomber commits an evil act, and, as Prager says, simply “is” evil. This is presented matter-of-factly: no need for further consideration because it’s obvious. Now, even though he knows that the suicide bomber is evil, Prager apparently also possesses an understanding of the evil act; that is, its origins lie in a world saturated with hatred and lies, and in a culture that misrepresents to children what G-d loves. Who knows, Prager may even have some compassion for that terrorist, since the joyful maiming and murder came about partly because of the terrorist’s world and education!

Prager goes on to assert that any non-Muslim (Muslims are apparently exempt) who does not stand up and declare that the suicide bomber committed an evil act, who does not state that terrorism is evil, is “truly worth nothing.” Such a person is worthless for refusing to identify evil. Unfortunately, Prager provides no real evidence – names, dates, etc. – of any non-Muslim actually failing “to acknowledge and confront” the evil or terror. It seems that if “we” are already on “the Right,” or maybe in “the Middle,” we may blithely assume that not acknowledging and confronting evil is just what “the Left” does.

Prager’s thinking is weak in this case because it remains at a general, assumptive level. It never gets into the messiness of details and evidence. From my point of view, arguments involving morality that fail to use – or even attempt to use – any hard evidence at all are hypocritical and immorally conceived. Living and behaving morally, and taking moral stances to the events and activities of the real world, require effort and generous amount of reflection. At least, this is true for me.

However, Prager’s thinking is irresponsible and even dangerous at another level. The Muslim who blew himself up and joyfully maimed and murdered children: did he believe he was committing an evil act? Prager himself says no. The Muslim actually thought he was doing a virtuous deed. He was, after all, “raised in a world permeated with hate-filled lies about America and Israel, and taught from childhood that G-d loves death.”

So, we now have two conflicting moral ideas: the suicide bomber thinks his act is good and Prager, representing the non-Muslim world, thinks the act is evil. The question is how to determine who is right. What standard is to be used and how is it to be applied? And, if one view is right, is it 100% right or are there any individual points at which the other view prevails?

The huge failure of Prager’s thinking is that he refuses to confront these legitimate questions as surely as he glosses over the alternate perspective of the suicide bomber. Prager clearly acknowledges this perspective, but then dismisses it quickly by tying it to lies and corrupt education.

Yet, refusing to confront this alternative view can hardly be anything except moral cowardice. Now, I am not necessarily calling Prager a moral coward, and I do not really know whether Prager is or is not willing to confront the tough issues that his own words raise. However, I am saying that in “On Worthless Humanity,” Prager fails to make a similar confrontation to the one he himself accuses "the Left" of avoiding.

It almost makes one wonder whether a more moral world, whatever that is, is at all Prager's goal. If Prager, or Muslims, or “the Left,” truly want to live in a moral world, then what’s needed are serious attempts to confront the environments and perspectives that people use to justify actions.

But perhaps it's not about a better world, anyway. The ideology Prager employs is useful for demonizing and scapegoating “the Left,” but it does not otherwise appear meant to change minds or contribute to the betterment of the world. It does not even help honest people to identify the difference between good and evil.

Ironically, Prager’s article is worthless in the same way the "Leftist" congregants it describes are. Sadly, though, the article had so much potential to be more and to do more with its chosen subject.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

What Does It Take to Live a Religious Life?

What does it take to live a religious life?

I don’t mean “religious life” necessarily in the sense of being diligently observant of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim rituals. Certainly a religious life would entail one’s being observant in this way, but I think it is more important to be philosophically committed to the core ideas of one’s religion.

Abstract, egghead terms like “philosophically committed” are easy to dismiss. What I mean, though, is a kind of default mindset, a natural way of thinking all the time. As an example, I remember that my wife and I, at an early point in our relationship, understood that we were going to be together, to be married, and to build a life together. Breaking up or not being together ceased to be any part of our thinking – they ceased to be at all likely outcomes of anything happening in our lives.

I want this same kind of comfort and stability in my relationship with religion, specifically Judaism. I want to have a similar kind of entrenched commitment to and belief in a Jewish understanding of the universe. Obviously, I don’t feel that I live a religious life or that I have a strong internal foundation of Jewish belief.

Having doubt is perhaps a virtue. Posing questions about G-d, even directly to G-d, is about as Jewish as you can get. Besides, who can take seriously a person unwilling to examine his or her own spirituality? The problem for me is that I never seem to reach a point where I can say, “OK, I believe. Tomorrow, I might have doubts again, but right at this moment, I fully and genuinely believe in and love G-d.”

I understand that the best way to overcome my doubt is to study Torah, perform mitzvot, and participate in a Jewish community. Reading advice columns and other commentary – such as can be found abundantly online – provides little help for me.

For example, in “Is the Divine Just a Cosmic Party Pooper?” Rabbi David Aaron says, “People think that serving G-d is demeaning; servitude implies a slave-master relationship. But that is not the real meaning of serving G-d. The opportunity to serve G-d is the greatest gift we could ever imagine. It's empowering. To serve G-d means that we can do something on behalf of G-d. It's an unbelievable honor!”

If this formulation of the matter is intended to be persuasive, I don’t find it so – it’s essentially a he-said, she-said. One person equates serving G-d as a form of diminution; another feels honored to serve G-d.

Two sets of standards are needed here: criteria for diminution and for honor. Now, I am not looking to try and objectively determine whether it IS demeaning to serve G-d or whether it IS an honor. The criteria will influence the outcome, and if your definitions are more restrictive than mine, then we’ll get different results.

The point is, though, that someone needs to consciously install a standard. This is something I never see commentators do. Everyone gives his or her side of the he-said, she-said angle, and that’s it. Making a case is apparently a dying art.

I think that, for me, these are two sympathetic concerns, living a religious life and making cases. One way I need to find, explore, and express my beliefs is to argue for them. No, I don’t think I am someone who argues for certain beliefs; I argue for the things that justify and support beliefs. Maybe I hope to achieve a religious life and a certainty of belief by establishing the proper context.

It sounds silly when it is formulated like this, but it’s good at least to come to a conclusion. Conclusions are, after all, the context of conclusions yet to come.