Sunday, June 30, 2013

jew cannot be serious

Really tremendous work from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks this week in The Spectator, as befits the de facto spokesman for non-scary secular-ish Judaism in the UK. And by "as befits" I mean: at this stage of human cultural development you're unlikely to be making an awful lot of new recruits, certainly from outside your standard catchment area of people born into the religion anyway, so your focus really ought to be turning to hanging onto as much of your current flock as possible. And the best way to do that is to talk about the alternatives (i.e. atheism, secularism, humanism, rationalism and the like) while waving your arms about in a spooky manner and to throw as many tired old tropes at the wall as possible and hope a few of them stick, at least for long enough for the faithful to be scared into pulling their yarmulkes on a bit tighter and lighting a few more sacrificial candles or whatever the fuck it is that they do.

The whole thing is basically a checklist of all the laziest, most facile anti-atheism jibes you can imagine; the only originality points I can award are for the last-minute swerve Sacks makes away from Godwinning himself, contenting himself with banging on about how Nietzsche had some ideas that weren't very nice: well, no shit, Sherlock.

The one section I'd pick out demonstrates how religion, instead of granting its adherents some sort of special magical Spidey-sense regarding moral and ethical matters, in fact rots the ethical faculties in certain unique ways that those who don't adhere to religion just aren't subject to (thought that's not of course to say that they aren't capable of their very own moral turpitude and depravity; I know I am). The rabbi is an intelligent and widely-read man, so I can absolutely guarantee that he knows pretty much every word of this paragraph is a lie:
But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it.
Most rationalists who've given the issue any thought will tell you pretty much the same thing: no, there is no such thing as an "objective" morality - how could there be? That said, most successful societies have operated around some broadly similar rules ever since we stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and started being social creatures, cultivating crops and the like; the development of these rules is explained in large part by fascinating things like game theory. There really is very little mystery around all this.

I don't know about the Torah specifically, but there is definitely something in the Bible about not bearing false witness. The following seems to be a sentiment that various people have expressed in various ways through the years, but the current definitive version is attributed to Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

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