Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dawkins Revisited

I have blogged before about Richard Dawkins and his popular book, The God Delusion. I read it a few years ago and was very impressed with a lot of his arguments. I have slowly come to disagree with a lot of his views, and I no longer find his book as valuable as I once did. While I think some of his points are worthwhile, many of his other points are exaggerated, extreme, and imprecise.

I have some problems with him as an individual. Saying that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach shrieks like Hitler is inexcusable. His behaviour in the Elevatorgate tumult last year was also unconscionable. However, my main concerns with his approach lie in his views on religion, primarily as a social vehicle for many people to find meaning in their lives. God may not exist, but to dismiss religion without paying sufficient attention to its social role and benefits is to simply miss the point.

For all his hysterics about honour killings and suicide bombers, does he address the role religion plays in social life? Does he address the fact that religions have been around for a long time, and that they have done a lot to organize people into cultural groups? Humans are social animals, and as a social construct I find it hard to knock religion. Sure, it’s not perfect, but then what is? Saying “there is no God” is irrelevant to the question of religion’s social utility, and saying religion is evil is a claim that he has attempted valiantly to make in the book, and it is an argument that I think he has failed at.

His book starts off with a number of arguments against God’s existence. Garden fairy, teapot, blah blah blah. I have nothing against philosophical arguments for or against God, but I didn’t read the book for these. I read it for his arguments against religion as a social reality and about morality and the evils of religion. I find that he has failed on most of these counts. He barely addresses the social value of religion, and his discussion of the evils of religion is just unfair, overblown, and simplistic. He has some insight on morality (with his zeitgeist), but that too is far from earth-shattering, and his discussion of the evils of childhood indoctrination is, you guessed it, exaggerated.
He gets off to a roaring start:

Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers', no Northern Ireland 'troubles', no 'honour killings', no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money ('God wants you to give till it hurts'). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it. (p. 1)
I get it. Religion is the root of all evil. Let’s all go torch a bunch of churches now. I bet they’re all just a bunch of child molesters, anyway.

I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'. Speak of a 'child of Catholic parents' if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a 'Catholic child', stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics... I'll say it again. That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not. There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child. (p.3)
Good grief. I bet there’s no such thing as a rich kid, either.
I am also conscious that the Abrahamic God is (to put it mildly) aggressively male, and this too I shall accept as a convention in my use of pronouns. More sophisticated theologians proclaim the sexlessness of God, while some feminist theologians seek to redress historic injustices by designating her female. But what, after all, is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male? I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might indeed be a less salient attribute than gender. (p. 36, emphasis added)

I see. You hate theology and feminism. Good thing you’re a science teacher. You wouldn’t last a minute in the humanities.

Yes yes, of course the troubles in Northern Ireland are political. There really has been economic and political oppression of one group by another, and it goes back centuries. There really are genuine grievances and injustices, and these seem to have little to do with religion; except that - and this is important and widely overlooked - without religion there would be no labels by which to decide whom to oppress and whom to avenge. And the real problem in Northern Ireland is that the labels are inherited down many generations. Catholics, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went to Catholic schools, send their children to Catholic schools. Protestants, whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents went to Protestant schools, send their children to Protestant schools. The two sets of people have the same skin colour, they speak the same language, they enjoy the same things, but they might as well belong to different species, so deep is the historic divide. And without religion, and religiously segregated education, the divide simply would not be there. From Kosovo to Palestine, from Iraq to Sudan, from Ulster to the Indian subcontinent, look carefully at any region of the world where you find intractable enmity and violence between rival groups. I cannot guarantee that you'll find religions as the dominant labels for ingroups and out-groups. But it's a very good bet. (p. 260)

So it’s about labels now? Without religion, there would be wars but there would be no labels? Or there would be no wars? In other news, Moshiach is here.

Even Adolf Hitler, widely regarded as pushing the envelope of evil into uncharted territory, would not have stood out in the time of Caligula or of Genghis Khan. Hitler no doubt killed more people than Genghis, but he had twentieth-century technology at his disposal. And did even Hitler gain his greatest pleasure, as Genghis avowedly did, from seeing his victims' 'near and dear bathed in tears'? We judge Hitler's degree of evil by the standards of today, and the moral Zeitgeist has moved on since Caligula's time, just as the technology has. Hitler seems especially evil only by the more benign standards of our time. (269)

Yeah right, Hitler would have been quite the nice guy back in the day.

There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture. A small part of me can see something in this. But the larger part of me is made to feel very queasy indeed. (p. 331)

This is quite unfair. As a society, we try to be tolerant and inclusive (if you, Dawkins, are another one of those angry old white men who wants all the Muslims kicked out of England and you can’t stand diversity one bit, please just go right ahead and admit it). There is a thing called multiculturalism. It means we tolerate and allow other cultures to flourish alongside us, and we generally don’t mix into their business. Yes, this sometimes allows for excesses, where, for instance, children are denied an education, but for the most part, it means people are given the privacy to carry on their lives without authorities prying their noses in. No, we don’t promote diversity because we like their “quaint little buggies” but because we believe in tolerance and allowing various cultures to coexist independently. We don’t allow them this freedom for our benefit, but for theirs. One does not need a graduate degree in theology or feminism to see that.

While I thought some of his points were worthwhile, the majority were overshadowed with rhetoric and nitpicking. I would have been happier with a little less attacking of religion, and a slightly more balanced approach.

Since he barely addressed the role religion plays in contemporary life, I thought I’d do a little research of my own. This writer found that active involvement in religious organizations is among the strongest predictors of both philanthropy and volunteering, and that American religious communities spend roughly $15-20 billion annually on social services:

Religious involvement is an especially strong predictor of volunteering and philanthropy.  About 75-80 percent of church members give to charity, as compared with 55-60 percent of nonmembers, and 50-60% of church members volunteer, while only 30-35 percent of non-members do. In part, of course, this is because churches themselves do things that require funds and volunteers, but religious adherents are also more likely to contribute time and money to activities beyond their own congregation. Even excluding contributions to religious causes, active involvement in religious organizations is among the strongest predictors of both philanthropy and volunteering.

...Churches have been and continue to be important institutional providers of social services. American religious communities spend roughly $15-$20 billion annually on social services. Nationwide in 1998 nearly 60 percent of all congregations (and an even higher proportion of larger congregations) reported contributing to social service, community development, or neighborhood organizing projects. Congregations representing 33 percent of all churchgoers support food programs for the hungry, and congregations representing 18 percent of all churchgoers support housing programs like Habitat for Humanity. Partners for Sacred Places found that the overwhelming majority (93 percent) of older urban congregations provide community services, such as food pantries, self-help groups, and recreational programs, and that 80 percent of the beneficiaries of these programs are not members of the congregations... (pp. 67-68).

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Conversation on the Way

I just read A Conversation on the Way. The author contacted me and asked whether I would be interested in writing a review for his book. I replied that I would be happy to do so, and I looked forward to receiving my free copy in the mail. It arrived a few days later, and I got to work reading it and writing this review. It is my first review of this sort, and I certainly hope it’s not the last!

The book is essentially a conversation between two men on their way to shul. One is sort of simple-minded: he doesn’t believe in evolution, and his beliefs correspond largely to typical frum beliefs. The other guy reads a lot and has lots of information and questions about these beliefs. He basically spends the entire book trying to convince his friend about the weaknesses in his frum outlook.
There were a number of things I liked and did not like about the book. It reminds me of Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s books, as some of those are also in the conversation format. I enjoyed some of R’ Miller’s books, and while some of Miller's science and ideas are simplistic, I found the format somewhat captivating. At its best, this format is more engaging and flows well; at its worst, this format can mask poor writing and saves the writer the trouble of coming up with other ways of making the story flow smoothly.
The thing I probably like most about the book is the range of ideas covered in the book. The skeptical friend is very well-read and touches on a wide variety of subjects, from the Argument from Poor Design, to the Anthropic Principle to hybrid vigor. A lot of subjects are discussed, and it is an excellent compilation of arguments against the beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. The skeptical guy does believe in God and considers himself a part of the Orthodox community, yet his beliefs and interests seem well outside those of the Orthodox mainstream.

One thing I would have liked to see more of in the book is a more thorough discussion of arguments against Orthodoxy from a non-scientific perspective. A more full discussion of morality would have been welcome, as well as a more thorough treatment of suffering and pain in this world and how that relates to belief in God. There was some discussion of the Holocaust, and a very brief discussion of morality. I would have loved to have seen a lot more on these topics, especially on morality.

It was an interesting read. A lot of arguments against a worldview are condensed in one thin volume, the author strikes a nice balance of original opinions together with traditional tendencies, and the words flow rather nicely. A welcome addition to the skeptic’s library.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I Am Forbidden

I recently read I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits. The writer was raised in a Satmar home in France, but left to avoid an arranged marriage. She has a PhD in Romance Studies, and this is her first English-language novel.

A young boy is taken in by a housemaid after losing his parents in Transylvania during World War II. The boy sees a young girl lose her parents later, and he helps her find a train to go back home and helps her bury her parents. The girl, who winds up at a family friend, tells them about the boy who helped her and that he is Jewish too. Her new father goes and finds the boy and takes him into his house, as well.
The boy is sent shortly to the States where he joins the Satmar community in New York. The girl stays in Europe where she is raised in her adopted family. Her name is Mila (for Blima) and her “sister” is Atara. We follow their formative years, as they navigate a very restrictive lifestyle and deal with an especially overbearing and domineering father. Atara, in particular, is unsatisfied with the lifestyle and dreams of a future where she is free to read and to learn and to live a more free life. The story takes us through the next fifty or so years of their lives, outlining events and changes they experience. There is quite a bit of detail about the father, Zalman, and his intolerant outlook, and there is even a nice focus on mamzerus, or bastard-child. There is also a lot of discussion about the Satmar Rebbe’s hypocritical and cowardly secret deal with Kastner and other Zionists to secure passage for himself out of war-torn Europe while continuously disparaging Zionism and, more problematically, encouraging his followers to stay in Europe to meet what he had to have known would be a certain death.
I didn’t like the novel. I didn’t like the WWII setting, I didn’t like the super-extreme father, and I found the book just slightly too critical of Orthodoxy, or Satmar in particular. The father came across as a real monster, and there were very few redeeming features about the community, the Rebbe, and especially the father. I thought there could be one or two nice things to say about the lot of them, and I found the book somewhat cruel in that it made it difficult to see any positive in that world.
I felt the father character was just a bit over the top, and I think that degree of extremism is unusual even for Satmar. I don’t come from a Satmar background so I can’t be too sure, but my sense is the character was something of a caricature, representative of very few even within the most isolated, fringe groups. For example, he goes batty and beats his daughter (maybe eight years old?) for driving a bike on Shabbos. I don’t think this experience reflects anything the author has actually seen, but is more of a hypothetical, nightmarish scenario dreamt up. This subject is especially sensitive for me because I have witnessed a lot of this kind of religious extremism myself and I spend a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing, yet I still think this is just beyond the pale even for Satmar. I want to think they’re much better than that, and I didn’t appreciate such a consistently negative, almost villainous role for Zalman.
The book is also not that well-written. While some pages show promise, paragraphs start and stop rather abruptly, and there is no steady flow to the novel. Some of the writing is just dull and uncaptivating, and, as I’ve pointed out, is cliché by relying on a WWII setting, and also portrays that world in an overly-negative manner. For an author’s first English-language novel it was all right, but it was by no means amazing. It didn’t do it for me, but if you find these topics interesting, you might appreciate it.

From a particularly touching scene, where the children are doing kapparos (atonements) shortly after Mila joined her adopted family:
On the eve of the Day of Atonement, Hannah circled a rooster above the boys’ heads, three times, then she circled a hen over the girls’ heads, three times. She lowered the cackling fowl to the ground. “Place your foot on its neck,” Hannah coached Mila.
Mila shook her head, no.
“Surely you remember this from home,” Hannah said. “You need not press on it. Just brush your foot against its head and repeat after me: You to death and I to life . . . do it.” Then, softly: “You don’t have to say it aloud, child, but think it to yourself.”
Tears filled Mila’s eyes.
Atara cried out: “Why does the chicken have to die?”
“So the children will not die.” Once more, Hannah lowered the fowl to the ground.
Staring into the hen’s darting eye, Mila extended a shaking leg.
Hannah coached: “You to death. . . .”
Mila pulled back her leg.
“Why, why does the chicken have to die?” Atara insisted.
“So we won’t die for our sins. The chicken is our Kappures. It will die instead of us.”
Atara frowned. “But don’t we empty our sins into the river?”
Hannah sighed, placed the fowl back in its crate. With her apron, she dried Mila’s tears and her own. (p. 30)
From an especially difficult scene, after the girls have desecrated Sabbath by riding bicycles:
The girls appeared, gazes cast down. Zalman intoned the prayer that separates Sabbath from weekday, sacred from profane. When he finished, the room was silent. Mila started for the kitchen, for the sink full of dirty Sabbath dishes.
“Stay!” Zalman commanded.
He slid off his belt.
Mila froze in the doorway.
Atara plunged under the daybed.
Zalman pulled the bed from the wall.
Atara swerved to maintain cover.
The bed jerked right, left; Atara ducked right, left.
The bed lurched and seesawed and Zalman grew angrier. “You’re only making matters worse! Get out of there!"
Atara stilled. Zalman’s hand reached for her, his yad chazakah molded on God’s own mighty hand. He dragged the girl out, bent her over his knee, pulled down her pajamas.
Even toddlers did not crawl naked in Zalman’s house.
“My child mocks God’s word in public?”
The belt lashed the air and Atara’s buttocks. Her legs wriggled, trying to escape, but her feet did not reach the ground.
“A profaner of the Sabbath—a man who gathers sticks on the Sabbath, all the congregation shall stone him!”
Mila shuddered with each blow.
“Stop, Tatta, stop!” the children sobbed.
“The rebellious son, his parents must do the stoning.”
Belt bet belt.
“I will instill fear of Heaven in my children.”
Belt. Belt. Belt.
“Zalman! Isn’t it enough?” Hannah pleaded.
“Do not intervene! I will break secularism.” Belt. “Zionism.” Belt. “Modernity.” Belt.
Atara was no longer screaming.
“Repeat after me: Never again will I transgress the Sabbath, not the Sabbath nor any of the Lord’s Holy Days.”
The girl hiccupped the commanded words.
Zalman let go of her.
She slid under the daybed. Zalman rose and took a step toward Mila, belt coiled in hand. Anger dented and swelled his forehead.
He saw the spreading stain on Mila’s white tights and the puddle around her shoes, widening. His head turned away. His raised arm dropped to his side.
He stopped in the doorway. “You have disobeyed the Lord and you have shamed me, deeply. You have shamed the family. Now the apikorsim (nonbelievers) mock: Here goes the pious Hasid whose children transgress the Sabbath." (p. 81)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A few links

I know I haven't posted in a while. I will try to post again on a slightly more regular basis in the future. I will try and post a lengthy review of both Deborah Feldman's book and of The God Delusion over the next month or two.

Here are some links I've been meaning to post for a while:

Coin Laundry

Off the Path

Chai, Chai, V'Kayam

The Hidden Within

Shunah Uporash


The following is a blog that attempts to refute claims made in Letter to My Rabbi:


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Deborah Feldman

Deborah Feldman's new book is out. I could use a copy (hint hint). I have not had the chance yet to read the book, and I'm ashamed to admit I haven't even watched her numerous interviews on the View, CNN, etc. I will get around to that shortly. It seems there is a lot of controversy. The Orthodox world is, of course, angry that she bashes their world. Even among the ex-Orthodox she has quite a few detractors, and the main argument I get from that side is her story about a kid who had his head sawed off (is that right?) may have in fact been a suicide rather than a homicide. I don't know. I think it's okay to question her story, and if this one does turn out to be an exaggeration, she should take flak for it.

That said, I'm very happy that she has written the book. She brings a lot of publicity to the OTD world that really wasn't there before. Bottom line, there are not many published OTD authors who discuss OTDness in particular, and she has achieved substantial success at the young age of 25. I say congratulations, and I hope when the dust settles she will be vindicated. Besides, some of the criticism directed at her strikes me as of the petty and jealous sort, and I'd hate to see the OTD world divided over such minor issues.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I went to an interesting shiur today. I was at my campus Hillel, and someone talked me into staying for an hour to listen to a rabbi speak. I stayed, and had a somewhat interesting time. The rabbi was not insufferably boring. He was slightly entertaining, and seemed quite caught up in the material he was teaching. He was discussing the weekly parsha about Moses and the plagues in Egypt. He stressed how the Bible has God telling Moses to raise his hand and his staff, and “hand” is mentioned a few times. He tried saying that this is because Moses was such a servant of God that his hand was like God’s. That sort of thing.

It was fairly interesting, and I’ve heard far worse lectures. Still, I didn’t like the emphasis on God and serving him (as well as the hairsplitting with grammar, but that’s minor). It was all Moses, God and very lofty and abstract. Way too theoretical. Very little relevance to daily life, and even less relevant on a human, or humanistic level. For example, he pointed out that Aharon hit the water for the first three plagues as opposed to Moses WITHOUT EVEN MENTIONING the famous midrash that says this was because Moses was grateful to the water, so to speak, because it saved his life as a child and therefore he wouldn’t hit it. Simple lessons like that that I remember from kindergarten Pre-1A I find I can relate to, and all the abstract, technical stuff about sticks and hands, not as much.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jewish Philosopher

The only Internet character more repulsive than Garnel (if this is possible to envision), Jewish Philosopher, is back to his evil, trolling ways. He is harassing a blogger that I have a lot of respect for, The Atheist Rabbi. The Atheist Rabbi is a rabbi for secular humanist Judaism, and judging from my numerous interactions with him in the J-blogosphere, is quite a mensch. Jewish Philosopher has chosen to single him out for especially spiteful treatment, publishing a plethora of personal information about him, including details on his employers (I suppose he hopes to get him fired for his blogging the way he was fired for his own blogging. Only difference is the Atheist Rabbi has not harassed anyone. Further, the rabbi has not even bothered Jewish Philosopher on his own blog - these attacks are entirely undeserved).

Be sure to let Jewish Philosopher know what you think about his bullying. Also, do your part to get Blogger to ban Jewish Philosopher from the blogosphere by reporting him to Blogger. Click "report abuse" on the top left of his blog, and when prompted, report him for hate speech. Maybe if enough people complain, Blogger/Google will actually do something.