Let’s get this out of the way. My core values are 0 and 1.
Are we going out on that joke? No, we do reprise of song. That helps, but not much.
I’m here all week folks. Try the fish. Early in the week.
Being serious, a recent discussion on a friend’s FB threat that devolved into a discussion of religion and values got me thinking about my beliefs and values. As this is a discussion that comes up on a regular basis, I thought I would write them down so I could point others to them. Your values may differ, and that’s fine.
Respect. Let’s start with the basics: I attempt to respect others, and to keep discussions focused on ideas and not individuals. I encourage others to do the same. What this means is that I do my best to eschew ad hominem attacks and name calling. I do not feel it is ever appropriate to make fun of people, nor do I feel that someone else making fun of someone is an excuse to make fun of that person. And before you ask: Yes, that does extend to the President. As this post will discuss later, I do not agree with President Trump’s policy and approach. But I do not feel it is appropriate to make fun of his appearance or his children or staff’s appearance. There’s plenty to criticize on what they do that we don’t need to make fun of what they are.
Especially in my interactions on the Internet, I ask for (nay demand) mutual respect. Listen and consider other arguments, and let people make them (within reason). You do not have to agree to listen, but through listening there can be at least understanding.
This is something I have learned over many years, and I will admit that even 15 years ago, I wasn’t as good at living up to these ideas (translation: I regret how I behaved in political discussions during the Bush 43 presidency).
Belief. I am a life-long, 4th or 5th generation Reform Jew (not “Reformed”), which is called Progressive Judaism outside of the US. For those unfamiliar with term, I direct you to the FAQ. The key notion is that the Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) is not the literal writing of God, but divine inspiration written in the language and mores of its time, subject to reinterpretation to adapt the timeless values to today. With respect to God, I tend to take the Deist view of a disinterested God who may have started everything in motion and inspired the moral and legal system, but then let us take it from there. I strongly believe in personal choice and its importance, and that it is up to us to choose to do the right thing. More on that later.
As a result of the above, there are only a few places where I am truly spiritual. For me, Judaism is the moral and social justice precepts, which I find vitally important, and the community and the shared values and culture.
Is there a God? That’s an interesting question, and an issue that cannot be proved one way or the other (and please, don’t try). Those who try to prove God exists invariably do so by pointing to faith texts, which are not proof. Those who try to disprove God point to science, but science cannot disprove God — especially a disinterested God. Hence, to me, atheism is a belief system just built on a different faith. Some call that religion; I reserve the “religion” term for organized, structured, and formalized belief systems, often with central organizations. I’ll argue that the existence of God may not matter, for we should be good and moral whether or not God exists. I believe we have the capability to do good without the promise of reward or the threat of eternal damnation. To quote Penn Jillette, a noted atheist:
The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you. You know what I mean?
Legislating Morality. This leads to the next subject: Is it our place to legislate morality? Do we need laws to prevent abortion or homosexuality or any of these myriad of things that various religions have taught over the years. To answer that question, we need to go down a few paths first.
Mutual respect, in my eyes, goes hand in hand with freedom of religion. That means you are welcome to practice your belief systems, and I mine, and we should be able to do so without interfering with each others. It is not your place to impose your religious values upon me, nor me to impose mine upon you. Furthermore, it is not Government’s place to impose a specific religion’s values over a different religion.
Morality means nothing when we do not choose to do the right thing. Even if abortion is legal, that does not mean it should be done or encouraged. That is up to the woman and her values, and most woman do not want to have abortions — situations and circumstances (often not of their choice) force them into it. We should build a society that values more than just the unborn life, but that supports life through out the lifecycle: from the children born into poverty and degradation to our seniors.
But if we legislate that only what we think is the right thing, then we remove the ability for people to be good and to choose the right thing. For those that so believe, I’ll note this is fundamental in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;” You shall choose — not that society shall choose for you, but that you need to choose to do the right thing. You can’t choose if society takes that choice away from you.
In this, I subscribe to the talmudic and kabbalistic notion of ha-Satan, which the Christians mistakenly treat as Satan, the Devil. ha-Satan is a different notion: the notion that ha-Satan puts temptations in our path specifically so we have to make that choice to do the right thing.
Does this mean that I think murder should be legal, or that rape should be legal? No. I do believe there is a distinction between crimes against others without their choice, and things we do to ourselves. Murder, rape, theft, and such, are non-consensual crimes against others. Things like drugs and such are choice we make to ourselves. This invariably leads to the question of whether abortion is murder, and that really devolves quickly into when there is an other to commit a crime against. Note that I did not say “when life begins”, for cell division arguably begins the mechanics of life. But living — existence — being — is something different. There is a time during gestation — quite likely not exact — when that begins. When that occurs is a matter of belief, and this then becomes a matter of not pushing your beliefs onto me. Legally we impose a compromise: a time when we believe that existence independent of the mother is possible. Recognize that is what it is: a compromise between differing beliefs, and one that — even though we might not like — it is what we can accept for society. Does that mean we should encourage abortion? Of course not, but it ultimately should be the mother’s choice, dictated by their beliefs and their relationship with God as they understand God. We must respect their beliefs. Does this mean some promising lives will be lost? Quite probably, but we seem to have no problem as a society when equally promising lives are lost on the battlefield or to poverty or to sickness. Argue with me about the sanctity of life and that we must value life when you demonstrably and through actions value it equally after birth. Then, and only then, will I respect your call for valuing the unborn life throughout its lifecycle.
Christianity. This, then, brings us to my views on Christianity. As I noted at the start, my fundamental value is respect. Judaism does recognize that other religions exist, and that other paths to enlightenment are valid. The Mi Chamocha prayer, recited regularly, acknowledges this when it asks, “Who is like unto you, O God, among the Gods that are worshipped?”
I have no problem with Christian beliefs, nor people who follow Christianity. I do not view them a backward or archaic. Their belief system is simply that — theirs. It is not mine, and as long as they do not attempt to “save” me or impose their belief system upon me, we can live harmoniously. I do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or the Messiah (he doesn’t meet the job qualifications), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in his teachings. Just as the Torah contains divine inspiration, so do the teachings of Jesus (as a child of God, as are we all). They deserve study and interpretation for modern times.
On the other hand, there are some Christians….
I do believe that many Christians today do not act as Jesus taught. My understanding of Jesus is that he taught love for one’s fellow man (as a general term), to treat others as we want to be treated, to care for the fallen and the sick, to treat the least among us as an equal. It was Jesus who reached out to the whores and beggars to help them. It was Jesus who saw the good in people.
Far too many Christians in name fail to recall those ideas. Too many believe in the gospel of prosperity, and worship the god of wealth instead of the god of compassion. I think that notion — which is practiced by far too many of our political leaders — is wrong and non-Christian (at least as I understand things). I’ll gladly debate those ideas. Note that I didn’t say anything about the individuals — it is the notion I disagree with. They are welcome to their beliefs, but I don’t have to agree with them.
Armageddon and the End Days. One of the key differences between Judaism and Christianity is the view of the end days and the afterlife. Some have characterized the difference as Judaism focusing on this world and the rewards in this world, and Christianity focusing on doing good for the rewards in the world to come. The latter explains why Christianity became so popular during the middle ages: in horrible and horrid times, one gains comfort in trusting the world after you die will be a better one.
But does believing in the end days, Armageddon, and an uplifting of the dead to heaven a reason to hasten the end? Some in Salvation Christianity appear to believe that, and there appear to be leaders who are pushing that — or at least acting that way. I’ll argue that to do so is presumptuous and to put yourself in the place of God. If there is to be an end of days and such, it is God that must establish the timetable and bring it about, not man. Man’s job, as noted above, is to make the conscious choice to do the right thing and to make the world a better place. It is our job to be responsible stewards of the world and ensure its survival. It is our job to treat our fellows on this planet the best we can, to make this a world of justice and respect. If God then wants to end the world, it is his or her choice and timetable, not ours.
Life on Other Worlds. Is there life on other worlds? Probably, but it doesn’t make a difference. Given the billions and billions of worlds and conditions, it is statistically unlikely that some other form of life didn’t start on another world, and likely even evolved to be intelligent. But given how short of a time period intelligent life, able to communicate, has been on this world compared to the life of this world, the odds that our time period coincided with that on another world is small. Further, the distances between planets would make it such that even if our intelligent life periods overlapped, we likely could not communicate. As such, it really doesn’t make a difference. We shouldn’t think other worlds are coming to destroy us; nor should we believe that another world will come and get us out of our dilemmas. We have to choose to do the right thing.
Similarly, we should not be so presumptuous as to assume we are the only intelligent life on this planet. Other species do communicate with each other — in different ways. Other species are intelligent, but we just can’t communicate with them in the same way. Treating each other with respect includes doing the same for other species. I don’t go so far as to be vegetarian, but I do believe we should treat animals humanely, not kill just for the sport of it, and if we eat other animals, we should ensure that their life does not go to waste by wasting the food that they give us. If God exists, we can’t presume to fathom God’s plan for us and our world. In particular, we don’t know what species God might choose to promote next, and we shouldn’t put a stumbling block in front of those plans. We will be judged, if we are judged, by how we treat others, and that includes our animal brethren.
Wrapping It Up with a Bow. Ultimately, it comes back to where I started: Respect for others. Discuss the ideas and the actions, not the person. Consciously make the choices to do the right thing, as you have been taught through your belief systems; don’t depend on the law to impose it on you, nor use the law to impose what you think is the right thing upon others.
Oh, and my favorite adage: Never ascribe to malice what you can to stupidity.