Saturday, December 08, 2007

I Just Don't Get It...and Neither do They

The latest conservative to "get it right" completely by accident is Jonah Goldberg in a column on Mitt Romney's "big speech." Mr. Romney, you see, is trying to overcome his "Mormon handicap" in the presidential race. Since everyone thinks Mormonism is a bizzaro cult, it's important that he calm public fears on this point.

Goldberg's essential point is that yeah, Mormonism seems a little weird to him, but that doesn't matter since it's clear Romney is a decent guy with a conscience of faith. And there you have it folks - in the strange, twisted world of religion, it doesn't matter what you believe, exactly, so long as you have no basis for it.

From the point of view of religion, Goldberg makes a compelling case.

Evangelical Christians believe that when the Messiah returns, things won’t go too well for the Jews — two thirds die, one third convert. Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days, once complained to 60 Minutes, “As a Jew, I can’t feel very comfortable with the affections of somebody who looks forward to that scenario.”

Well, boohoo. In the horrible annals of Jewish problems, the fact that a whole bunch of Christians love Jews for the “wrong” reasons has got to rank pretty low. Besides, since presumably Jews don’t believe in Christian prophecy, what’s the problem? If it’s not true, then no harm, no foul. If it is true, well, who are we to argue with God? My guess is God’s response to the morally decent Jew who gets really worked up about this would be something akin to “Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.”

(This reads easier if you understand that Goldberg considers himself Jewish.)

I particularly like this line: "If it's not true, then no harm, no foul. If it is true, well, who are we to argue with God?"

That says so much about how the religious mind works. Things I notice:

  1. Not really knowing if what you believe is true is essential. Which is just perverse, if you think about it, because that makes your whole life a wager. Believing Jews are expected to keep God's laws. And yet, as Goldberg makes quite clear here, believing Jews don't actually know the first thing about what God wants. He entertains as a real possibility the idea that things will turn out just as the Christians predict. In which case ... oh, where to start? I just don't understand how someone could let something not only that they are not sure about, but which is fundamentally uncertain, be the basis of their "moral" code. In other words, morality for these people is something like "I do this because I'm guessing it's right, but I have no real way of knowing" rather than "I do this because is is right" or "I do this because I have good, rational reasons to believe it is right." How can you make people responsible for acting on the basis of something that cannot be known?

  2. Morality can, in fact, be determined apart from God. Or at least, that's the only way I know how to interpret the last bit - the bit about ...God's response to the morally decent Jew who gets really worked up about this would be something akin to "Don't worry, I've got you covered." The whole point of this column, in fact, is that it doesn't matter what you believe or why you do the things that you do so long as they are decent. Well, as a basis for interaction in a society, I can't fault that at all. It is the only basis for a functional free society, in fact. The law should punish actions, not thoughts. It's just that ... well, doesn't that kinda make the whole point of religion moot? It's all fine (in fact, it is essential) to believe that as a basis for running a secular society - but if you are religious and you take the Will of God to be the basis of what's moral (killing isn't wrong in and of itself, it's wrong because God decided it was), then surely this kind of thinking defeats the purpose? Jews can be "moral" even if they get it completely wrong about what God wants. So ... what need God, one hastens to ask?

At the end of the day, it's Gershom Gorenberg who understands what religion really is. "As a Jew, I can't feel very comfortable with the affections of somebody who looks forward to [the scenario where Christians are right and 2/3 of Jews are damned]." Well, right, but what about Goldberg's point? What if this really is what God wants? He's God (and Gershom Gorenberg is not), after all. Who is Gershom Gorenberg to say what God should want?

But this is the point. Gershom Gorenberg doesn't really believe in God, and neither does anyone else. The only possible basis for Gorenberg getting upset that Christians believe in this scenario is if he thinks they do it wilfully. That is, it's either the product of wish-fulfillment - a fantasy - or else it is actively embraced regardless of its truth. Without realizing it, Gorenberg is tipping his hand here: he is uncomfortable with the affections of people "who look forward to that scenario." As though it could be otherwise. As though their religious beliefs are based not on what they know to be true from God, but rather just what they want to believe. He's chastising them for not having chosen to believe in something less offensive.

And of course, he's absolutely right. Religion is just a product of their imagination, and they are responsible for having dreamed up a belief system that specifically says that most of the members of this other belief system are doomed. It could indeed have been otherwise, and it isn't. And Gorenberg himself is guilty of the same thing. Surely it is offensive to just about everyone else in the world that Gorenberg believes - chooses to believe - that there are all these tribes of people on the planet and God only gives a fig about one of them, of which he conveniently happens to be a member.

The farce of it is that any truly religious person can take offense at the beliefs of any other. Anyone who is honestly religious (which is virtually no one) does not get offended by competing religious beliefs any more than I get offended that Isaac Newton was wrong about gravity. To a person who truly believes in religion, false belief is, in the vast majority of cases, just a fault of wrong information, not of moral judgment. You cannot get offended at Christians for believing that 2/3 of the members of your religion are going to Hell on the last day if they are simply mistaken about this. It's only offensive if you believe they deliberately set it up that way. And you are, if you're honest with yourself, only in a position to believe they deliberately set it up that way if you yourself deliberately set your religion up as well.

So Goldberg's got it mostly right. Any truly religious person will not care what members of other religions think about God because he will assume they are simply mistaken. But then of course, Goldberg gives away the farm himself by admitting that he doesn't know the truth about God, and that he nevertheless knows what is right and decent.

My question to religious people, then, is that if you don't really know what God wants, but you can independently determine what is moral without this knowledge, WHAT USE IS RELIGION? Wait for God to reveal himself, then, if that's the case. Stop taking stabs in the dark. Or, if you're going to take stabs in the dark, can we at least leave it out of politics? That is, if you know that you don't need God to be moral, then why does each and every political candidate have to prove he has a faith-based conscience? Isn't it enough that he has a conscience?


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