Religion, God, history, morality

From Steve Paulson’s interview with Robert Wright, “God, He’s moody” (Salon: 24 June 2009):

Do you think religions share certain core principles?

Not many. People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn’t originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

And bad things happened because the gods were against you or certain spirits had it out for you?

Yes, you had done something to offend a god or spirit. However, it was not originally a moral lapse. That’s an idea you see as societies get more complex. When you have a small group of hunter-gatherers, a robust moral system is not a big challenge. Everyone knows everybody, so it’s hard to conceal anything you steal. If you mess with somebody too much, there will be payback. Moral regulation is not a big problem in a simple society. But as society got more complex with the invention of agriculture and writing, morality did become a challenge. Religion filled that gap.

For people who claim that Israel was monotheistic from the get-go and its flirtations with polytheism were rare aberrations, it’s interesting that the Jerusalem temple, according to the Bible’s account, had all these other gods being worshiped in it. Asherah was in the temple. She seemed to be a consort or wife of Yahweh. And there were vessels devoted to Baal, the reviled Canaanite god. So Israel was fundamentally polytheistic at this point. Then King Josiah goes on a rampage as he tries to consolidate his own power by wiping out the other gods.

You make the point that the Quran is a different kind of sacred text than the Bible. It was probably written over the course of two decades, while the stories collected in the Bible were written over centuries. That’s why the Bible is such a diverse document.

We think of the Bible as a book, but in ancient times it would have been thought of as a library. There were books written by lots of different people, including a lot of cosmopolitan elites. You also see elements of Greek philosophy. The Quran is just one guy talking. In the Muslim view, he’s mediating the word of God. He’s not especially cosmopolitan. He is, according to Islamic tradition, illiterate. So it’s not surprising that the Quran didn’t have the intellectual diversity and, in some cases, the philosophical depth that you find in the Bible. I do think he was actually a very modern thinker. Muhammad’s argument for why you should be devoted exclusively to this one God is very modern.

Are you also saying we can be religious without believing in God?

By some definitions, yes. It’s hard to find a definition of religion that encompasses everything we call religion. The definition I like comes from William James. He said, “Religious belief consists of the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting to that order.” In that sense, you can be religious without believing in God. In that sense, I’m religious. On the God question, I’m not sure.

A beheading in Saudi Arabia

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Oil on canvas, 19...
Image via Wikipedia

From Adam St. Patrick’s “Chop Chop Square: Inside Saudi Arabia’s brutal justice system” (The Walrus: May 2009):

This is Saudi Arabia, one of the last places on earth where capital punishment is a public spectacle. Decapitation awaits murderers, but the death penalty also applies to many other crimes, such as armed robbery, rape, adultery, drug use and trafficking, and renouncing Islam. There’s a woman on death row now for witchcraft, and the charge is based partly on a man’s accusation that her spell made him impotent. Saudi Arabia executed some 1,750 convicts between 1985 and 2008, yet reliable information about the practice is scarce. In Riyadh, beheadings happen at 9 a.m. any given day of the week, and there is no advance notice. There is also no written penal code, so questions of illegality depend on the on-the-spot interpretations of police and judges.

… The Saudi interpretation of the Koran discourages all forms of evidence other than confessions and eyewitness accounts in capital trials, on the theory that doing otherwise would leave too much discretion to the judge. But at any time until the sword strikes, a victim’s family can pardon the condemned — usually for a cash settlement of at least two million riyals ($690,000 or so) from the convict or his family.

Many who live to recount their experience in the Saudi justice system report that police promised freedom in exchange for a confession — or tortured them to get one.

In Riyadh, beheadings take place in a downtown public square equipped with a drain the size of a pizza box in its centre. Expatriates call it Chop Chop Square. … The job is a coveted one, often passed from father to son. In a Lebanese TV clip now on YouTube, a Saudi executioner shows off his swords and describes his approach: “If the heart is compassionate, the hand fails.”

4 sources of tension between science and religion

From Steven Weinberg’s “Without God” (The New York Review of Books: 25 September 2008):

But if the direct conflict between scientific knowledge and specific religious beliefs has not been so important in itself, there are at least four sources of tension between science and religion that have been important.

The first source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena – thunder, earthquakes, disease – that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways. Explaining this or that about the natural world does not of course rule out religious belief. But if people believe in God because no other explanation seems possible for a whole host of mysteries, and then over the years these mysteries were one by one resolved naturalistically, then a certain weakening of belief can be expected.

Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be. The important thing is that we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation. There are some today who cling to the remaining gaps in our understanding (such as our ignorance about the origin of life) as evidence for God. But as time passes and more and more of these gaps are filled in, their position gives an impression of people desperately holding on to outmoded opinions.

The problem for religious belief is not just that science has explained a lot of odds and ends about the world. There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life. As Richard Feynman has said, “The theory that it’s all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

A third source of tension between science and religious belief has been more important in Islam than in Christianity. Around 1100, the Sufi philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali argued against the very idea of laws of nature, on the grounds that any such law would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smolder because of the heat of the flame, but because God wants it to darken and smolder. Laws of nature could have been reconciled with Islam, as a summary of what God usually wants to happen, but al-Ghazzali did not take that path.

Al-Ghazzali is often described as the most influential Islamic philosopher. I wish I knew enough to judge how great was the impact on Islam of his rejection of science. At any rate, science in Muslim countries, which had led the world in the ninth and tenth centuries, went into a decline in the century or two after al-Ghazzali. As a portent of this decline, in 1194 the Ulama of Córdoba burned all scientific and medical texts.

Nor has science revived in the Islamic world. … in 2002 the periodical Nature carried out a survey of science in Islamic countries, and found just three areas in which the Islamic world produced excellent science, all three directed toward applications rather than basic science. They were desalination, falconry, and camel breeding.

Something like al-Ghazzali’s concern for God’s freedom surfaced for a while in Christian Europe, but with very different results. In Paris and Canterbury in the thirteenth century there was a wave of condemnations of those teachings of Aristotle that seemed to limit the freedom of God to do things like create a vacuum or make several worlds or move the heavens in straight lines. The influence of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus saved the philosophy of Aristotle for Europe, and with it the idea of laws of nature. But although Aristotle was no longer condemned, his authority had been questioned – which was fortunate, since nothing could be built on his physics. Perhaps it was the weakening of Aristotle’s authority by reactionary churchmen that opened the door to the first small steps toward finding the true laws of nature at Paris and Lisieux and Oxford in the fourteenth century.

There is a fourth source of tension between science and religion that may be the most important of all. Traditional religions generally rely on authority, whether the authority is an infallible leader, such as a prophet or a pope or an imam, or a body of sacred writings, a Bible or a Koran. …

Of course, scientists rely on authorities, but of a very different sort. If I want to understand some fine point about the general theory of relativity, I might look up a recent paper by an expert in the field. But I would know that the expert might be wrong. One thing I probably would not do is to look up the original papers of Einstein, because today any good graduate student understands general relativity better than Einstein did. We progress. Indeed, in the form in which Einstein described his theory it is today generally regarded as only what is known in the trade as an effective field theory; that is, it is an approximation, valid for the large scales of distance for which it has been tested, but not under very cramped conditions, as in the early big bang.

We have our heroes in science, like Einstein, who was certainly the greatest physicist of the past century, but for us they are not infallible prophets.