Another bit of proof that all religions are different

A Jewish friend rang me this morning to ask what she could do about a situation in Indonesia where a Catholic Church has been attacked by local mobs. We were both made aware of this from a circular newsletter from an Indonesian Catholic whom we met at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. I said that there does not appear to be much that we can do, and that the locals appear to be handling the situation. I recommended however that we need not be “bystanders” – “Write back to him and say that you will keep the situation in your prayers”, I advised, since praying is often the most affective thing we can do in cases like this.

“But what if you don’t believe in God?” she answered. I was not aware that my friend was what is called a “secular Jew”, that is, a person who follows all the Jewish religious laws and cultural traditions, but is, in fact, an atheist. It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog that in fact the category “secular Jew” is one of the dominant kinds of Judaism represented in Australia. Another friend told me that there are even synagogues for secular Jews now…

So I was not particularly surprised – in fact, I guessed when I saw the title on my igoogle news widget – that this article “Why we need religion, but God is optional” was written by a secular Jew.

Which is proof once again that the word “religion” is used so very many ways, that it is practically impossible to come up with a “one size fits all” definition. Oddly enough, even Zwier puts forward a rather standard definition of religion “as being represented by God, Revelation and Truth”. But this simply isn’t the case. It is well known that Buddhism does not have a deity (properly speaking). And as this article demonstrates, it is quite possible to be an observant Jew AND an atheist. I have heard of “secular Muslims”, but they usually don’t go as far as the secular Jews in rejecting faith as such. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there is strong 20th Century “tradtion” of Christianity which rejects “religion” in favour of God.

Just an observation.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Another bit of proof that all religions are different

  1. Odd. I would have thought that praying to God was a fairly fundamental aspect of the Jewish religious laws!

    Still, “religion” is a word which encompasses so many different things, that it is hardly a useful word at all. I rarely use it myself and have little to no time for people who reject “religion” in favour of God. Makes you wonder what they’re even talking about half the time.

    “Religion poisons everything” for example is practically meaningless. I mean, you could prove that religion X poisons everything (which wouldn’t be hard) and then just extrapolate from there to other religions. I assume this is what Hitchens (?) has actually done.

  2. My wife has some relatives I would describe as ‘secular Muslims’, and I think Richard Dawkins recently described himself as a ‘cultural Christian’, believe it or not, but I do think atheist jews pioneered this sort of ‘religiosity’.

  3. Paul

    As is the case every year, I have just experienced a Christmas day meeting some friends who are faithful Catholics, faithful Anglicans, and some who are “cultural” Christians. The last group often have the most elaborate celebrations of the lot, with lots of music, carol singing, holly everywhere, trees, presents and of course Christmas cake, but very little interest in what the day actually means, beyond “peace, joy etc.”

    I always feel I don’t react honestly and adequately to this and am too concerned with being polite to people in the middle of various parties. What I actually think is that I would much prefer Richard Dawkins to cultural Christians. At least he doesn’t spend time in phoney jollity and empty words.

    • Richard Dawkins doesn’t appear to engage in any jollity!

      • Paul

        well, at least as regards jollity, I agree with Richard!!!

        Seriously though, I was thinking about Andrew Denton’s interview with Dawkins, and his comment that:

        “My moral code is definitely nothing to do with the sort of busy-bodyish religious moral code that cares about what people do in private. What they do with their sex organs and things like that, seems to me to be an utterly private matter, nothing to do with morals. I despise that kind of alleged morality, deeply despise it. ”

        Dawkins is asserting the common sentiment (or dogma, if you like) that the only test of morality is how your action affects another person. The unstated assumption is that private actions and habits have no influence on your public actions. The more you think about this, the more silly this assumption is. You can see the contrary idea in the Church’s concept of virtues as habits, and you can see contrary examples in the newspapers every day.

        The same idea is behind the proposed ethics course in NSW public schools. The only example of any sort of syllabus I have found for this reads more like a conflict resolution course rather than an ethics course. I discusses things like bullying, fairness etc. As important as these are (and of course they are already addressed very well by most public schools), they intentionally deny that private morality, and especially a lawgiver and moral absolutes exist.

        This is the real, but unstated issue in the debate on “ethics education” in NSW public schools.

  4. Peregrinus

    David is right to point out that this illustrates the diversity encompassed in the term “religion”.

    Everyone comes from some religious background and tradition. The Christian background is so dominant in the west that westerners – atheists and Christians alike – tend to generalise, and assume that what is true of Christianity is generally true of all religion. Thus religion is assumed to deal with God, and with an afterlife which offers the alternatives of reward and punishment. And religion is assumed to deal with faith.

    It ain’t necessarily so, and in particular in Judaism it (largely) isn’t so. Paul’s emphasis on (and reflections on) faith are a Christian innovation. Judaism was, and is, much more about how you live than about what you think. A “good” Jew is one who observes the Law.

    Yes, it’s probably easier to observe the Law if you are motivated by faith in a personal God. But, actually, your motive for observing the Law is unimportant. If you observe the Law because you think that’s a good way to live, you’re just as “good” a Jew as the next Law-observant bloke.

    Of course, it’s not quite that simple. As Louise points out, some of the commandments of the Law do in fact refer directly to God – but surprisingly few. The Law is traditionally analysed into 613 mitzvot (commandments); only ten of these concern themselves directly with God. (And none of the ten, as it happens, explicitly requires prayer to God.) And some of the ten can be observed by an atheist (e.g. not to profane God’s name, Lev 22:32). There’s also whole slew of commandments referring to what must, and must not, be done in the Temple, but none of these can be observed by Jews – theist or atheist – in the current circumstances, so the failure of atheists to observe them is not an issue. Synagogue attendance or membership is not the subject of any mitzvah.

    There are a few mitzvot which present real challenges to the atheist – e.g. to know that God exists, and is one; Deut 5:6, 6:4. This requires some nifty intellectual footwork. Still, a Jew who stumbles over these, but observes the other commandments, is seen as a “better” Jew than one who professes to believe in God, and regularly attends the synagogue, but ignores the commandments relating to the poor, the stranger, marriage, diet, sex, etc.

    I quibble, though, with David’s use of the term “secular Jews” for atheist, but observant, Jews. In the Jewish circles than I’m acquainted with, “secular Jew” refers to a Jew who is to a greater or lesser extent unobservant, either because of atheism or – more usually – because of indifference. There’s no term for the atheist observant Jew, largely because there is no need for such a term; there is no pressing need to distinguish between atheist and theist observant Jews.

    But none of this translates to Christianity. Faith is central to Christianity in a way that it simply isn’t in Judaism. Sure, somebody can call himself Christian, a follower of Christ, while rejecting or discounting a good deal of what St Paul says about the significance of faith. But such a person is rejecting a core aspect of mainstream Christianity in a way that simply isn’t the case for an atheist Jew. What Paul (not Paul the Apostle, but Paul the Blog Commenter) calls cultural Christianity – signing Christmas carols, going to midnight mass, for that matter even going to daily mass – for social, conventional or sentimental reasons is radically deficient because it is not the outcome of faith in Jesus Christ.