Dealing with the big colorful lie

The British ruling on “Who is a Jew” seems to have a lot of legs, see The Atlantic Wire for a link round-up. One of the problems with the intersection of religion and policy is that everyone has different standards and perspectives as to issues of fact. As an atheist who adheres to no religion I view all religion as ultimately a product of human history and psychology. Many adherents of a specific religion are atheists when it comes to the claims of other religions. And finally, there are shades of universalism; a liberal Episcopalian may assent that the conservative Muslim has a valid window upon the true sliver of the infinite, but the conservative Muslim may believe that the liberal Episcopalian is going to hell because of the manifest falsity of their beliefs.

In a democratic society which is also pluralist in regards to religion there is always the problem that the manner in which a given religion is accommodated is contingent upon the opinions of other religionists and irreligionists. In fact, this is also the case in a non-democratic society. Jews are an excellent illustration of this dynamic, what we today term “Orthodox Judaism” is a religious tradition which was incubated largely within the civilizational framework of Christianity and Islam. Though Jews within Christian and Muslim polities had a certain level of autonomy, they were strongly shaped implicitly and explicitly by the will and opinions of non-Jews (guess whether European Jews or Yemeni Jews accept polygyny). One thesis for why Jews as a whole adopted matrilineal descent is that it was a Roman legal practice, and most Jews were resident within the Roman Empire, or right beyond the frontiers of Rome (in Mesopotamia, where the population was likely mostly Christian by the 5th century despite rule by Sassanian Zoroastrians). I mooted this thesis to an acquaintance who was an Orthodox Jew. As a point of support I noted that Joseph, the son of Jacob, had two sons by an Egyptian woman, and that these two sons were the ancestors of two tribes of Israel. This fact presented no problem for my friend, she reported that “oral law” held that in fact Asenath, the Egyptian wife of Joseph was adopted by the priest Potipherah, and that she was by origin Jewish. As a non-Jew, and non-believer in the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims at that, I immediately found it more likely that the rabbis simply concocted this story after the fact to “tie up loose ends.”

I did not of course push this line of reasoning with my friend because there are limits to the utility of these discussions with sincere believers in religion. The axioms which an unbeliever and a believer hold are so fundamentally different on these questions that the probability of given inferences will be something one can never agree upon. But, there is an asymmetry in the discussion, and that is that many religious individuals imbue their beliefs, practices and customs with very powerful emotional valences.  The asymmetry is of course not always the case, some atheists have very strong emotional responses to religious symbols. To which one might wonder, what power does the image of the lie hold upon you? Atheists in religious societies often develop identities which are negations of the majoritarian sensibility. So an atheist from a Christian culture may find the display of the cross offensive, but other religious symbols interesting from the perspective of cultural anthropology. In other words, the offense lay not in the truth or falsity of claims pointed to by a given representation (e.g., crucifix or mandala), but the emotional associations which that given representation has in one’s mind (e.g., it seems likely that atheists from Protestant backgrounds would be conditioned by their religious culture to view the crucifix as a representation of a particularly medieval and oppressive religion).

In The Impossibility of Religious Freedom the legal scholar Winnifred Sullivan shows through a review of history and recent case law that the American conceit that our nation is neutral in matters of religion is not empirically tenable. Rather, the American polity has defined religion in a manner which makes neutrality more viable. Concretely, this has involved driving religion to the “private” domain, and making belief the sine qua non of religion. Immigrants from societies where belief is not the sine qua non of religion often have a difficult time understanding the parameters of the debate in the United States because they need time to update their assumptions. As I have asserted before, both Catholicism and Judaism have adapted to American assumptions. While in most of the world Jews are “religious” or “not religious,” in the United States most Jews are religiously affiliated with sects which are not considered to be religious Judaism in most of the world, the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements (as I have noted before, Reform Judaism even explicitly rejected Jewish nationhood for a span of several decades). The British situation is somewhat different, as it can be argued that the Establishment of the Anglican Church in England tacitly affirms that religion is not necessarily a matter of individual confession, rather, that the nation itself has a vested interest in a specific sect. The head of the British state is also simultaneously the head of the Anglican Church. This arrangement may seem exotic to Americans, but it is as old as civilization itself, and there is a high probability that it was temporal power which was fused onto sacral supremacy in terms of historical precedence. Different nations have different sensibilities, and a universal “solution” to the problem of religious pluralism is probably wrong-headed, and puts theory before empirical reality.

From the perspective of one who denies supernatural phenomena these facts compel one to accept the reality that responses to religion and its intersection with the public domain will be ad hoc, conditional on local variables. There is no true religion, simply the emotional and conceptual substance which human minds place onto religious symbols, beliefs and practices. The differences between Shia and Sunni may seem trivial to non-Muslims, but these abstruse differences serve as organizing principles which can tear societies apart. From the perspective of the unbeliever who operates within a society where most people take religious truths as givens, the key is to channel those “truths” to serve order, peace, stability, and human flourishing more generally. It is irrelevant, for example, whether “true Islam” is violent and antinomian, or an explicitly unitarian flavor of monotheism. In a society where most are non-Muslim only the latter is acceptable, permissible and viable. Practitioners of given religions have shown an empirical tendency to reshape “truth” post facto to minimize cognitive dissonance. American Judaism has by and large rejected the orthopraxy which is the sine qua non of Judaism the world over, but American Jews do not view themselves as false Jews. In fact, some Reform Jewish thinkers have developed ingenious revisions of Jewish history whereby they are the true heirs of Classical Judaism, with the 1,500 year ascendancy of Rabinnical Judaism being a historical anomaly. Your mileage may naturally vary as to what “truth” really is in this case, but from the American perspective Jews within these shores have stumbled upon a most convenient truth indeed!*

Though theology often depicts itself as a rational science, and religious law as a legal tradition premised upon eternal truths, in many ways religion is more analogous to art, and arguments about the evolution and development of religion similar to arguments about the history of art. Art co-opts and leans upon human intuitions and perceptions about the universe, and also has a “high culture” aspect whereby elites channel and shape its exemplary forms which are presumed to be closer to some ideal truth. Art in fact can serve as a totem or symbol which binds societies together, and reflects the spirit of the age. But from the perspective of evolutionary psychology art is also naturally constrained by our cognitive predispositions, and its utilitarian role within society is often prosaic. One can assent to the proposition that art will remain with us, that people will disputatiously argue about the naure of art, and invest emotional and financial capital into specific instantiations of art, without agreeing that art is in some metaphysical sense “True.” Partisans of disparate artistic movements may argue their cases with passion, sincerity and precision, but one knows at the end of the day that specific dominant forms of artistic expression are more often a reflection of the tenor of a society, than causal drivers of social change.

* One of the peculiarities of the American circumstance is that religious affiliation is often necessary for one to be “respectable.” So purely secular Jewishness is a less attractive option than it is in Europe or Israel. Reform and Conservative Judaism are popular in large part because they are religious traditions which allow American Jews to claim an affiliation, but not ones which are excessively exotic and would set Jews as a denomination apart.

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7 Responses to Dealing with the big colorful lie

  1. Caledonian says:

    The asymmetry is of course not always the case, some atheists have very strong emotional responses to religious symbols.

    It’s not the symbol, but the way it’s being presented, which creates intellectual objections – and emotional responses tend to arise as a consequence of those.

    Treating objecting to state endorsement of a religious view as equivalent to faith in a religious precept is ludicrous.

  2. Aaron says:

    Just a comment on the footnote: your explanation is totally at odds with my anecdotal experience. I’ve known a fair number of atheist Jews who were active in Reform “Judaism”, and it’s got nothing to do with a need to have a religious affiliation. If that were it, they could just say “I’m Jewish” when asked and leave it at that. But they’re really into their Reform practice.

    For these self-described atheists, Judaism is important as “culture” and “Jewish values”. (It’s a commonplace that these “Jewish values” are basically those of the left wing of the Democratic Party.) That’s what they say when asked, anyway. And while they don’t say it, good old-fashioned group identification is important as well, whether you want to call it ethnic, national, or something else. They identify strongly even with Jews who don’t share those “Jewish values”, namely most Orthodox Jews and most Israeli Jews.

    I’ll just add that I agree with the point in your previous post. Not only the British authorities, but many Reform and Reconstructionist Jews also look at being Jewish as a matter of belief and/or behavior. Again, it’s a commonplace that Reform and Reconstructionist “Judaism” are basically just liberal Protestant Christianity plus Fiddler on the Roof.

  3. In the New Testament (which was written for the most part by people who understood themselves to be Jews), the ancestry of Jesus is traced not only through his mother’s line (Mary’s ancestors) but also through Joseph’s line. In fact, in the New Testament Jesus’ legal descent was through Joseph, not through Mary. For what it is worth, that would seem to me to indicate that in at least one segment of the first century C.E. Jewish community there was a concept of patrilineal descent.

    Not, of course, that the rabbis would have looked to the New Testament for information on Jewish practice during the Second Temple period…


  4. David Hume says:

    For what it is worth, that would seem to me to indicate that in at least one segment of the first century C.E. Jewish community there was a concept of patrilineal descent.

    the normal date for crystallization of the matrilineal rule is the 200s. IOW, post-dates the xtian-jewish separation.

  5. Aaron says:

    Mark in Spokane :

    Mark in Spokane

    In fact, in the New Testament Jesus’ legal descent was through Joseph, not through Mary. For what it is worth, that would seem to me to indicate that in at least one segment of the first century C.E. Jewish community there was a concept of patrilineal descent.

    Patrilineal descent was always important in Judaism – just not for determining membership in the people Israel. Example: whether you’re kohen (priest), levi (Levite), or yisra’el (other) is still today determined by which of those your father is. More to your point, dynastic rule in Judah and Israel was patrilineal. Jesus’ descent via Joseph wasn’t intended to show he was a Jew – that was obvious. It was intended to show he was a descendant of King David.

  6. David Hume says:

    I’ve known a fair number of atheist Jews who were active in Reform “Judaism”, and it’s got nothing to do with a need to have a religious affiliation.

    yes. i know plenty of these too. the sociologist of religion rodney stark though has found data which shows theism among non-practicing jews who were immigrants in early 20th century america, and their american-born children who were reform. there was a radical increase in theism in the generation who were affiliated with non-orthodox religious congregations. technically reform jews are supposed to believe in god, but last i checked 20-25% of active reform jews are atheists or agnostics. this is high, but apparently the frequency was higher among european secular jews.

  7. Gregor S. says:

    Great post. In general, good output as of late, Razib. It’s refreshing to see a secular view of religion that sees it for what it is.

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