If you pay attention to what goes on in the world of atheism/humanism/secularism, you’ve probably seen scuttlebutt about a number of accusations of sexual misconduct by Big Names in that corner of the world. There has also been some significant worry about what these accusations and the response to it mean for the future of these movements. Questions like, “Why is it that the population of conferences on secularism are overwhelmingly male?,” and whether some Big Names who aren’t accused of misconduct are making matters worse by minimizing the problem and engaging in casual sexism and victim-blaming.
There is also the on-again, off-again furor Sam Harris creates every time he talks about Islam. Harris seems to me to have taken up the mantle left behind by Christopher Hitchens as a kind of gadfly, poking at the ability of any form of religion involving any kind of belief in any kind of divinity to be “good.” (For the record: I loved how Hitch wrote, but often hated what he had to say.)
I’m not going to talk directly about any of this–not because I don’t think these questions matter, but because they are symptoms of another problem: secularism has taken on a reactionary color that sometimes makes secularists a mirror image of those whom they cast as their enemies. The reactionary problem drags along with it gender and sexual issues, and issues about talking about religion, and it is biting the secularist movement in the ass.
We’ve come into the month of Elul, the lead-up to the High Holidays in the traditional Jewish cycle of the year. Elul is traditionally viewed as a time for repentance, which Jewish tradition understands as not only seeking absolution but for making changes to avoid ever again committing the sins of the past.
A podcast I listened to recently tied in nicely to one of the ideas that comes with Elul: thinking about the value of what we do.
Tablet Magazine recently ran a story about the rising costs associated with maintaining Orthodox-level Jewish observance (the article focuses on Toco Hills in Atlanta, a heavily-Orthodox suburb). From food to housing to education, the article notes, it’s always been costly (when compared with how others fare) to be strictly Torah observant. It’s expensive to keep kosher in a manner that will pass muster in those communities. Housing costs get driven upward because of the need to live within an eruv (a legal fiction that defines a kind of private space in which the laws for carrying items between public and private spaces on Shabbat do not apply) or otherwise be within walking distance of a synagogue. And public education simply “won’t do” because no one teaches Torah and Talmud in the public schools.
(“Legal fiction,” by the way, does not mean that something is false. It means that the entity, concept, etc., is created by a legal enactment because it would not otherwise exist. Your Latin lesson for today: “fiction” comes from the same Latin verb–facio–as our words “fact” and “manufacture.”)
You could say many things about the economic circumstances at work here. It’s possible, for example, to “blame the victim.” I won’t do that here, and wouldn’t do so in any case. My concern is a systemic one.
I’ve spent some amount of time thinking about (male) circumcision. It’s a fraught topic; some regard it as barbaric, some as hygienic, some as a sacred sign, and still others as a foolish impairment of sexual pleasure. I’m not well-informed enough to sort out the validity of the various back-and-forth claims about the hygienic aspects of circumcision, nor capable of investigating the sexual health perspective. What is “barbaric” largely depends on the culture that issues the judgment, though a circumcision performed by a clinician seems a bit different from one performed with metzitzah be-peh (a practice where upon circumcision by a mohel, the mohel draws the blood off orally).
But I can evaluate it from a Jewish perspective, and from a Secular Humanistic Jewish perspective, at that. And sitting down and thinking that out led me to a new view on the subject of male circumcision.
My result: “it’s just a commandment.” And that conclusion is interesting to me.
This book review on Slate.com is an essential read if you’re an atheist or humanist. Why? Because it points out some of the very problems that inhere in the Four Horsemen’s approach to the subject of religion. I’ve written aboutthis before. The Slate piece is simply timely in pointing out some of the snarkiness and mean-spiritedness that’s coming along with “New Atheism.”
So, tolle, lege.
(P.S.: “Tolle, lege.” is what Augustine of Hippo reported hearing at the moment of his conversion experience to Christianity. It means “take it up and read.” I use it here in sincere irony.)
It likely comes as no surprise to members (and observers) of the secular movements in the United States that the secular and humanist world is in the midst of no small uproar over the results of the Hobby Lobby case decided recently by the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to my work and the ethical obligations that come with it, I won’t be commenting on the case at all. You’ll have to go somewhere else for that analysis. (Same for same-sex marriage cases, and really pretty much any case.)
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, writing at SophiaStreet, has a post prompted by the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel. (I’ve previously posted about this here and here.) In her post, Rabbi Kaplan argues that theodicy helps respond to suffering. She briefly catalogs the weaknesses of theodicy. For brevity’s sake, we will say that the basic problem with theodicy responses is that they have to contend with logical contradictions inherent to understanding God as all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing, and yet allowing evil into the world.
She turns at the end of the post to say that yesterday, she would have thought these responses to be useless. Today (in light of the three students’ murders), however:
(Warning–this is not a post written for the linguistically or intellectually faint-of-heart. If you’re a casual reader, you’ve been warned.)
In response to my post a couple of days ago about the implications of biblical criticism for Jewish thought–which was itself a response to Jay Michaelson at the Forward–the Society for Humanistic Judaism in its Facebook feed asked when a hypothesis becomes a theory. I’ve been mulling that over a bit, and came belatedly upon TheTorah.com‘s meme about what biblical criticism is:
This week, the traditional Torah reading cycle brings us to Parshat Korach, the biblical tale of a rebellion within the Israelite camp which included Korach, a member of the Levites, and 250 other leaders of the Israelites.
The short version of the story: Korach is angry that he and others didn’t have the priesthood opened up to them, he objects that the entire people is holy, and he challenges Moses and Aaron. Moses says, in essence, (1) Don’t be mad at Aaron, and (2) You would presume to challenge the divine plan!? As a Levite, you’ve been given privilege already–how dare you ask for more!?