Jewish Studies (Theology)

Humanity's 100 Questions

Imagine that reality is a square, consisting of 100 boxes. Each box represents a question man has asked themselves – and each time they have gone to the Church, Imam, Rabbi or Shaman for the answer.

My contention is that the answers given were inadequate. Therefore, as time has gone by, people have abandoned religion as the source for answers. One by one, those boxes, now containing scientific answers, reduce the number of boxes that contain correct, religious answers to the questions:

Let’s transport ourselves 1000 years back in time. Back then, in the Nordic countries, “we” [1] believed that when we heard thunder, the God Thor was using his hammer to make noise.

Everything back then, every reality box was “explained" by religion. Nothing happened that the priest (or the Rabbi, or the Imam, or the Shaman) was not consulted for an “explanation” for.

A little later, real scientists realized that it was probably not a god who caused thunder, but that there were scientific explanations.

Another example:
You get sick, back in Biblical times, and all the way through medieval times, there were no “doctors”. Again, the “professional” that was consulted did not know anything about medicine, and their answers were, consequently, inadequate. Later we learned that Medicine is a science. Box 2 turned from “religion has the answer” to “Religion does not have the answer”
So, in my little example, 100 boxes of reality that could be explained by religion now shrunk to 98.
Then other things happened, including Newton, Galileo Darwin and suddenly the reality square that could be explained by religion was down to 50.

Then we learned about DNA, we started brain research, we are starting understand genetics, I argue that the number of squares is now down to a very low number.
And it would be ARROGANT to say that we now “know everything” - like the genius said in 1899, when they tried closing the Patent Office because, and I quote: “Everything that can be invented ever has already been invented”.

So, what is the little corner of the 100 boxes that is still “held” by religion?
Well, it is for sure NOTHING that has to do with Nature, Science, Technology, or anything tangible.

There is nothing in “life” – giving birth, growing up, and so on that even remotely can be explained by religion.
Now, what do the religious still claim: “Feelings”? "Comfort”? “Trust”?

Well, modern brain research now show that we will be able to explain those neuro-scientifically too. Maybe not completely today, maybe not in 5 years, but I would think that within this decade, or the next, maybe before 2030, we will be able to explain all those things scientifically.
In his excellent book, “The Moral Landscape” [2] , Sam Harris gives an overview of the progress in neuro-science – primarily through fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and through the understanding about the role of neurotransmitters for our memory – and shows that we are still just in the beginning of the journey that will lead to the understanding of our psyche.

Societal Memory
The problem is that we view our societal memory in very short terms: When we say: “Well, this has always been this way, and it will never change” - it is simply not true. Our perspective is too short.

A few examples.

“The help in our household has always been black people. This is not something new”
What the speaker conveniently forgets is that only 125-150 years ago, that help was part of a group we called Slaves. Saying that they “always” been our help is only true of if your time perspective is 30, 40, 50 years old.

“That grocery store has always stood at the corner of Main and Elm Street”. No, it hasn’t. “Always” here is used as a shortcut for “as long as I can remember, or per what I heard through my grandparents”. But the grocery store wasn’t always there.
“Dogs have always looked like they do now!” No, they haven’t! All dogs were, in the not far past, wolves. Every one of them. Breeding turned wolves into dogs.[3] If science is your guide, these are not difficult facts to grasp.
“A rose is a rose is a rose” - Rudimentary knowledge of horticulture informs you that it ain’t
And, to turn back to religion, this is one their favorites, that is totally false as well: “The human relationships and the insights of the human nature that are described in the Bible still hold true today.” --- Then they sigh: “Man is just the same!” “Nothing is new under the sun”.
Again, they are not aware of the facts in the matter.

Just take this recent book[4] where Steven Pinker shows, like others have before him, that in proportion to the population, and despite “better” “technology” to kill people, the number of war deaths has actually declined the last 200 years and is steadily declining. Just because the Holocaust and Hiroshima provided “technologies” for mass killings does not mean that Human Nature is getting more violent. In fact, it is getting less so and many scientists explain this because of the decline of religious influence while scientific knowledge is growing.

The Bible as a source for moral truth
This is to say that the “remaining” boxes that apologists still try to claim for religion may not be so.

The premise: Bronze-age, undereducated (really only schooled in their own texts) “prophets” (like Ezra who is the most likely candidate for the title of the actual author of the Bible) with no knowledge of nature, genetics, chemistry, history or physics compiled old stories – handed down over the generations – into a book that later was revered as containing “eternal wisdom”. What possible “eternal” wisdom could they have, especially when they – and their descendants – later claimed that the book was written by a supernatural god and handed to his “Servant”, whose existence is highly historically questionable?

Furthermore, the “wisdom” provided in the book is full of violence, slavery, inequality and sanction for cruel death penalties for the smallest crime.
“If you find that your wife to be is not a virgin on your wedding day, she shall be stoned to death”[6]

“If you find a man collecting wood on the Sabbath, he shall be stoned to death”. [6]
The latter example even includes an opportunity for the “wise” “Servant of god” to reconsider and grant a pardon for the poor stick-picking man. The answer – after some thoughts – was “No, he shall be stoned to death”

That is the “wisdom” we are supposed to learn and take to our hearts.

This is the source for moral behavior, they say. The problem is that – even if we were to find that the “morality” of the bible something to strive for - we know right from wrong before we even open the book the first time!

 Here is how. They say: “We must not take the words of the Bible literally!” (Although every word in the Bible is the Word of God!) – And we have to understand it “symbolically”- this comes from people who accept reason and science – and who still want to hold on to the “ol’ time religion”. These people are trying reconciling their religion with reason.

“You have to understand the metaphoric language of the Bible” - “It really doesn’t mean that you should stone sinners to death!”

“You have to understand the metaphoric language of the Bible” - “It really doesn’t mean that you should stone sinners to death!”

So, they would say: “Of course, we wouldn’t stone to death non-virgins today, in 2011!!!” They may even joke about it and say: “There aren’t enough rocks around to make that happen!”

The problem is that they - by stating this - admit that the Bible is not the source for their moral choice! 

Even if they never had opened a Bible, they would have said: “Of course, we wouldn’t stone to death non-virgins today, in 2011!!!” So, the Bible does not add anything to their moral choice foundation! In fact, they make a moral choice in spite of what the Bible says.

No wonder, then, that when apologists say that there are lessons to be learned from the Bible, it is really hard to find that credible.

Warmth, Comfort, Community, Confidence (in illness, before death)

So, no aspect of the natural world gives us any reason to go to religion for answers. You can list all the empirical sciences, like Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Medicine, Geology, History, Archeology, Engineering, Computer Science, Statistics, and more, and find that no reasonable person would go to religion to find answers. Yes, there are even religious fanatics who prevent real doctors from treating their sick kids, and rather let them die than being treated by a scientist. That’s just confirms the insanity that religion induces.

No, most reasonable people would go elsewhere to answer questions regarding these aspects of reality.
So, let’s go back to our 100 square box: 
What’s left?

I list 4 squares “unfilled” – see above. The first 96 questions can be answered by science and not by religion – provided you want accurate answers. The remaining boxes may be:

- Warmth. Feeling of warmth, including music in the church (or Synagogue or Mosque or whatever), food, culture (jokes, familiar stories etc.,) are provided by religion – and it is possible we cannot go to science to get that. At least not yet. One has to remember though, that throughout the history of Christianity, its church has had a lot of power and artists and musicians were forced to write church music, paint church paintings, etc., because the powerful church provided a source of living for the artists.

Just look at the works of Mozart.

He wrote a lot of church work, because his employer ordered him to. An illustrative example of the hypocrisy can be found here.[7]

You are sad, you are depressed and you need some cheering up. In years past, the first (and maybe only) place to turn was your priest. Were there many people who found comfort in the church, in their faith, with their clergy? Absolutely! The problem, of course, were the “side effects” – like kids being taken advantage of by unscrupulous priests and other clergy, the false hopes that were given, not to mention the notion (at least in Christianity, and in Islam) that “it is OK to suffer n this world, in the next you’ll be in heaven, and that’ll be wonderful.”That notion worked real well in feudal times when the feudal masters and the church worked in tandem to send that message instead of improving working and living conditions.
Today, the concept is of course still there with Islamic suicide bombers who are promised 72 virgins in heaven. The question you must ask yourself if you find comfort in the church is: Are there other sources for reassurance that would work the same or even better? If the answer is: “I have searched high and low, and I have honestly looked for comfort elsewhere and only the Church can provide it”, then I guess religion is for you.
In other cases, comfort can be found elsewhere, music, poetry, friendship, meaningful jobs, and many other places.

Mordechai Kaplan, a revolutionary Rabbi (1881 – 1983) stated that religion has components, Belonging, Believing, and Behaving.
The Belonging – the community – is indisputable.
However, secular people can also find community. Religion is not the only way to feel you belong to something, or that “this is your community, this is your home”.
Many people feel that being a sports fan, a group of people who go fishing together, playing cards together, and so on, also feel Belonging, experience community.

Confidence (in illness, before death) Many people turn to the church to hear that their illness will be cured, if you are suffering from a painful disease. And if you are dying, your suffering will end with your passing. The Priest may visit you at the hospital, come to a house of mourning, and you may feel that the knowledge that visit will comfort you and your loved ones one day, makes you coming back to the Church, even when you are not sick and far from your last days.
But what can the priest really say?.

What insights to illness does he (or she) have? What insights to death, if any, can the Priest provide?
Yes, one can feel comforted after having talked to a clergy person, but ask yourself if you cannot feel that way after having talked to a Social Worker, a therapist or a friend?
So, if you look at the world with intellectual honesty, free from superstition and wishful thinking, you will see that the box truly should look like this:

And we pay money to, spend our time with and expend lots of energy, swords and words on something that, at its best, would provide answers to 4% of your questions. And if you are humble enough to realize that we do not know everything about our psyche yet, and that neuro-science is making huge strides in understanding, then the last 4 (in this example) boxes that may still – today – have answers coming from clergy.

An open mind would demand that you allow for the possibility that “hold-outs” for religion will be explained scientifically within a decade, in the same way as the Human Genome was mapped and that DNA was explained – and was the source for so much additional explanation in just the last 50 – 60 years.

[1] “We” – because I was a Scandinavian
[2] Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (September 13, 2011)
[3] The Greatest Show on Earth – Evidence for Evolution (Richard Dawkins, 2009) where you can learn do much about biology, physics, chemistry and medicine.
[4] The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [Hardcover] by Steven Pinker (2011) Publisher: Viking Adult (October 4, 2011)
[5] Devarim/Deuteronomy Chapter 22, Verse 20.
[6] Bamidbar/Numbers Chapter 15, verses: 32-35.
[7] In 1779 Mozart wrote the so called Coronation Mass, a beautiful work. He wrote the Mass for the coronation of the Virgin Mary in Plain, a small village outside of Salzburg. Especially beautiful is the mass’ last movement, Agnus Dei (the lamb of God).
Seven years later when he wrote the totally secular opera, The Marriage of Figaro, he “borrowed” the melody from Agnus Dei and is used it in one of the feature arias in the opera, the Countess’ grand third act aria, ‘Dove Sono’. So, is this a secular or religious piece of wonderful music?
Subsequently, histories were written by his childhood friend Isaak Jost and by the Reform leader Abraham Geiger, but Zunz felt that these were inaccurate and actually detrimental to Judaism.

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