Friday, July 31, 2009

Lily, Tisha Ba'av and Songs of Loss

It has been a few years since I've heard a reading of Eichah (Lamentations). I only attend shul when it involves my family and so I've skipped the last few Tisha Ba'av's.

I've always liked Eichah - one of the few bright spots of Tisha Ba'av - if you could call it that. In my opinion it is the most purely poetic of the Megilote, and perhaps the apex of poetry in all of the biblical writings. The magic is in how the canter and voicing of the words mesh together. The phrasing is repetitive but each verse contains a phonic variation which gives the reading a beautiful and powerful flow.

Poems like this are not meant to be read silently - they are to be sung slowly and hauntingly so that the majesty of the sounds can seep in.

This Tisha Ba'av found me a state of unshakable sadness. One week ago, Lily Burk, who I know only slightly as my stepdaughter's classmate and friend, was kidnapped and murdered in Los Angeles. It is the sort of sudden, shocking loss which aches through and through. There are so many dimensions about this which just boggle the mind and tear at your heart. Not only is the death of this gifted and beautiful seventeen year old girl an unspeakable tragedy, but the grim circumstances of her death are also incredibly painful. I won't recount the details - they have been well enough reported.

What struck me so powerfully as I listened to Eichah at this painful time was how soothing the sounds of the verses really were. Eichah represents a genre of literature which has been lost. And, with it, we may have lost one of our greatest means to deal with overwhelming loss and grief. The poem is comforting in how it voices our grief - it gives expression to those feelings for which ordinary words fail.

Scholars point out that Eichah follows the stylistic genre of the "City Lament", of which there are many examples in Sumerian and Mesopotamian literature. Here is an excerpt from "The Lament of Urim". Those who are familiar with Eichah will immediately see the similarities:

"O city, your name exists but you have been destroyed. O city, your wall rises high but your Land has perished. O my city, like an innocent ewe your lamb has been torn from you. O Urim, like an innocent goat your kid has perished. O city, your rites have been alienated from you, your powers have been changed into alien powers. How long will your bitter lament grieve your lord who weeps? How long will your bitter lament grieve Nanna who weeps? "

This poem predates Eichah by around 1,500 years, being composed around 2000 BC. The literary style is far less sophisticated, though I'm sure that it is better in the original language - and probably better still if one has a context for the imagery used. I sometimes can't help wondering if one of the reasons that the Torah has been so successful is that it's just plain written better.

I wonder about the disappearance of this genre of poetry. Perhaps it really only has the same power when it is recited out loud, and loses too much of the auditory flavor when it is read. It is interesting that while I like Eichah, I hate the Kinote. Part of that is because they are simply too torturously long - especially for a dyslexic like me. But part of if may be that, although many of them are beautiful poems, when you read them to yourself they come across as dry and repetitive.

But this year I let the words and sounds of Eichah flow over me and perhaps help mend the wound in my heart for Lily Burk and for all who feel her loss so deeply.

עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם--כִּי-רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי

"Of this I weep,
my eyes...
my eyes flow with tears -
consolation is far from me,
restore my soul."

May we heal and remember her with joy.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What Would They Believe?

Baal Habos asks:

If you dropped someone from a different environment who was never exposed to religion or philosophic thoughts. Exposing them to fair debate, don't you think they would all land on the secular side?

For all of you intellectual purists out there, I will point out that it is impossible to actually run this experiment in a satisfactory way. After all, there is no such thing as a person who has no prior experience with belief. Some people are raised towards a specific faith, some are raised as atheists, and some are raised in homes where belief is not considered at all. However, in each of these cases, by the time that person has reached an age of thinking, they have much invested in the outlook from which they have been raised. Even if their environment is completely areligous, that in itself is the norm to which they are accustomed, and they will have to overcome the inertia of that practice in order to change.

But, understanding that we cannot answer this question scientifically, it is still a fascinating question. I would say that most non-believers would side with Baal Habos and conclude that very few rational people without a strong prior background in religion would end up in the believers’ camp. And, conversely, I would say that the Orthodox community would argue that, given a full and informed education into the richness and sophistication of the Torah, and if they could be ‘objective’ (i.e. rise above their material and physical desires), that most would see the truth of Torah.

In fact, it seems logical that it is a fundamental requirement of any religion to believe that if anyone truly seeks the truth, without any bias or weakness, the path will lead them to that religion. After all, if that is not the case, why should anyone be rewarded for finding that faith, and why should anyone be punished for not having found it?

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that they may both have it wrong. I do believe, as I wrote to Baal Habos, that, these people would reject all of the incongruous claims by all of the major organized religions. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that the majority of them would end up in the strong atheist camp.

Many people can’t believe in the complex mythology and arcane moralism of organized religion. But, at the same time, they still seek to find satisfying answers to the great questions which those systems address so neatly. Where did we come from, what are we doing here, how should I live my life? Many people are not bothered by these questions, or can find satisfying answers in the secular domain. But many people are willing and motivated to seek answers in the spiritual realm.

So, at least in this country, there has emerged a new type of religion. This is the force behind the massive success of books and dvds such as “The Secret”, or “A New Earth”. There is no sacred text, so people are very individualistic about how they shape these beliefs, and the range of how they interpret spirituality borrows from everyone from The Buddha to Obe Wan Kenobe.

I think that it is a good trend. It may be the best of all worlds – spirituality and humanism rolled into one. And, though I'm biased to my own team, there will also be room for a few of us agnostics thrown into the mix.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Out of the Looking Glass

I’ve been exchanging comments on one of my old posts with Baal Habos, who has a two part post on the same topic (the question being why most people maintain their beliefs while others do not), and he posed the following question/comment.

What really is driving me nuts, is understanding the switch from belief to non-belief. Why do some [who] get exposed to science & history accept the truth [while] others resort to all sorts of apologetica.

And he postulates the following:

If you dropped someone from a different environment who was never exposed to religion or philosophic thoughts. Exposing them to fair debate, don't you think they would all land on the secular side?

(I’ll focus on this second comment in a future post.)

One interesting, if peripheral, aspect of these comments is that they reflect a phase that most of us skeptics seem to go though sooner or later. There is a very tangible change which happens some time after you have left religion and have had a chance to reacclimate to the world. At some point, you look back at the belief system which you left behind and feel a sense of shock at what you see.

This may really be the point of no return. Up until then, there is a sort of built in defensiveness in your thinking. You have all of your reasons – logical and moral, all worked out in your mind - as if you have to justify your choice to leave the Orthodox world. But at that moment, you suddenly grasp that the shoe belongs firmly on the other foot. You have the powerful feeling of seeing, for the first time, your old beliefs on equal footing with the claims of the other religious groups.

And, just as suddenly, your need to justify your ideas evaporates. “Am I really concerned about explaining why I don’t believe in this outrageous mythology?” “Am I really worried about proving that I’m still moral?” You feel, for the first time, that it would be just as absurd to have to justify why you are not a Mormon or Scientologies.

All of us skeptics are keenly aware of the Orthodox notion that we leave religion because of our personal weakness – our lusts, our laziness, our misguided thinking. But once we reach this point, that idea is simply laughable. Whatever the causes are for our lost faith, we haven’t been blinded – on the contrary, we’ve been given sight.

With this turning point comes the frustration that Baal Habos is voicing. Up until then, Orthodox thinking is such a strong part of your own perspective that you have an intuitive grasp of why the everyone believes. But once you cross this line, and the Orthodox haze retreats farther and farther into the past, it becomes more and more difficult to understand.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Proof Delusion

I just finished reading Bondage of the Mind by R.D. Gold. If nothing else, the book is a fantastic example of why books which try to disprove the claims of religion are a waste of good ink and paper (and, in this case, bad cover art).

The fundamental problem with these books, which seek to provide rational formulations to disprove religious claims, is that they are an argument in search of an audience. For those who don’t believe in orthodoxy, the beliefs which Gold challenges are obvious mythology, and they certainly don’t need a book to prove it – any more than Orthodox Jews need a book to ‘prove’ that Mormonism must be false. And for those who do believe, there is no book on earth which will challenge that belief.

I suppose that there may be a tiny group somewhere who really are scouring through mountains of archeological scholarship to figure out whether or not to sleep through the shabbos hagodol drasha (no offense to Baal Habos). And, to be sure, there is an entire industry devoted to churning out kiruv literature, much of which focuses on arguing the other side of the same issues raised by Gold. So perhaps, if nothing else, this book acts to counterbalance those hackneyed polemics.

But it amazes me that the author, who clearly has a strong grasp of the dynamics of Orthodox Judaism can be so completely clueless about the nature of belief. To listen to him argue, it seems that the premise is that the Orthodox are poor, uninformed deluded souls, and, if we just educate them about modern science, anthropology and literary analysis, they’ll all snap out of their haze and rejoin reality.

And what information is he imparting that is so compelling? That most archeologists, zoologists and bible critics don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah? Well that’s going to be quite a news flash to the Orthodox community. Anyway, let’s face it, if you dug up the authentic Ten Commandments and found that there were eleven, it wouldn’t change Orthodoxy the slightest bit.

The book has the chance to provoke some deeper thought in its discussion of Orthodox morality – an aspect of religion which one can certainly take issue with. If I would project myself back to my Orthodox days, I would lose more sleep about building a monument for Baruch Goldstein than about doublets in the Torah. Gold starts out competently enough in his treatment of the problems in the Orthodox system, and does a good job dispelling the often-heard ‘subjective morality’ argument. However, he ends up exhuming and recycling the familiar list of Orthodox scandals and abuses. This device (to me, at least) undermines the entire discussion. There is no weaker an argument against the moral nature of any society than to judge its worst element.

It is still easy for me to read this book from an Orthodox perspective and to gauge how I would have reacted in my religious days. At best, I would gain some insight into how the secular community is able to explain away the extraordinary phenomenon of the Torah – by creating alternative theories which they claim to be ‘scientific’ and which they attempt to support by imposing their own subjective interpretations on archeology and biblical writings. At worst, the insult to my intelligence and trivialization of my beliefs would be too offensive for me to garner anything useful from this book.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Back to Blogging

It has now been just short of a full year since my last blog post, and I find myself being drawn back to the lively writing and obscure hypertext of the bloggesphere.

Of the numerous reasons for my absence from posting over the past year, the primary (though not only) problem which has plagued me has been the looming trap of repetition. Unlike some of the other ‘skeptical’ blogs, I have little to contribute to the great and interminable religious debates.

I am far more interested in the internal mechanisms and consequences of belief and non-belief.

Over the 16 months which spanned my (active) blogging career, I have written of the potent differences between the religious and the secular mindset. In many cases, the starkness of the difference in orientation is so powerful that few people within one group can appreciate how reasonable and compassionate people can hold the disparate views of the other group. Often, the two sides see only a vague and distorted caricature of the other, from which they seek to explain each others’ behavior and values.

It is a product, for better or worse, of the uniqueness of my experiences (and quirkiness of my personality) that I have a singular insight into these two very polarized views.

If there is any possible significant contribution of my blog, it is to help each group catch a small, fleeting glimpse of the world through the perspective of the other. If you are secular, perhaps you can gain a momentary insight into the depth, complexity and multi-leveled sophistication of the religious experience. If you are religious, perhaps you can appreciate for a brief moment how people who never worried for an instant how the universe came into being can feel so passionately and certainly about a moral world.

And, with that, I will set out to scribble onward - on this topic and perhaps on areas beyond….

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Fall of a Godol (Part 1)

The big news in the sub-nanoscopic world of Orthodox Jewish blogging is that the Godol Hador, by far the widest read blogger in this tiny arena, has renounced his skepticism and, at least for now, returned to the fold. And, though I will probably find his blog to be somewhat less interesting than it was in the past, I certainly wish him well in his choice.

Much of the reasons which Godol has pointed to in his turn back to faith relate to his personal enjoyment and affinity to Orthodox Judaism. In that sense, I have no axe to grind whatsoever. He, as much as anyone, has the right to choose the path which brings happiness and fulfillment to his life.

But, as a rationalist, Godol also presents several key reasons for his choice:

1. That the Orthodox story, while not likely, is at least possible.
2. That without belief, there is no objective moral compass or meaning to life.
3. That Orthodox practice of rituals promotes moral behavior.

While I certainly respect Godol’s personal choice, and hope that it will work for him (and not hurt his hit rate too much), the arguments which he puts forward are worth discussing. These ideas, which GH states in his characteristically well written and entertaining style, lurk in the minds of many people who deal with religious doubts and uncertainties. They were certainly very present in my mind as I went through the difficult process of religious evaluation.

So here is the first installment of my own thoughts on these three points:

1. That the Orthodox story, while not likely, is at least possible.

Godol writes:

Could OJ be (mostly) true? Could be. Could it be false? Certainly. But I don't think it makes that much difference to me. I'll still be on the lookout just in case I find the killer proof (either way), but we all know that's not going to happen.

At first blush, this argument may seem trivial. It is, after all, only a ‘maybe, maybe not’ presentation, and it certainly falls short of the ‘with perfect faith’ standard with which we tend to associate religious dogma.

But, in fact, this is the thin but crucial dividing line which defines which skeptics land back in the orthodox fold and which do not. To be sure, this is only the end point – the process of getting there depends on endless issues which are specific to each individual who goes through this. But how one concludes on this issue is critical in defining how one goes forward.

If you feel that the orthodox story of divine revelation through the Torah and associated oral tradition is plausible, then you are, at least technically, safely within the acceptable orthodox sphere. Moreover, maintaining this idea preserves the integrity of practicing orthodoxy, after all, belief – which is inherently not based on factual proof – is always a continuum between certainty and doubt.

Crossing this line is remarkably difficult. It represents, more than anything else in the process of examining your beliefs, a point of no return. Not only does the world look completely different once you have crossed it, but the question itself looks completely different.

Before you have crossed, you are viewing the question from the perspective of belief. All of your family, friends and loved ones accept, believe and privilege the TMS (Torah from Sinai) story above everything else. It is the fundamental assumption upon which everything in your life is premised. Even in the questioning process, you tend to explore the answers from within the Torah system, looking for contradictions and proofs by exploring the texts and their commentaries.

Once you are across the line, and look back from a distance, the world looks very different. You are being swayed much less by the influence of groupthink, and you have begun to break the habit of accepting far-fetched notions as fundamental facts. You suddenly feel as if everyone has been trying to convince you that – in spite of what you are seeing – the sky is actually yellow. While you still may maintain a love of the concepts in the Torah, the story which underlies its divinity is equally far fetched as the claims of any other religion – Mormon, Scientology, Islam, Christianity, etc.. And it looks as clearly mythological as is any ancient pagan belief.

As many people point out, one can not prove or disprove the TMS story. I suppose that this is true, though this is partly because a miracle-performing God can always trump any form of challenge. Why is there scientific evidence that the universe is older than 6,000 years? Because God placed that evidence in the world. Also, religious dogma is actually more flexible than meets the eye – it is constantly (though slowly) being redefined in order to not be too contrary to existing science. How can the world be older than 6,000 years? Dogma no longer requires that we believe that the story of creation is to be taken by its plain meaning – each day could have lasted many millennia.

GH points out that some religious claims are more plausible that others, and he invokes the famous “Flying Spaghetti Monster” proof. While I understand what he is saying conceptually, I don’t really see how you begin to go about constructing this argument. Each religion seems, from the outside, to be ridiculous. That Jesus is the Son of God? That Mohammed was transported to heaven and taught the teachings of Islam? That John Smith received the Golden Tablets of Mormon?

Is this really that much better that believing that L. Ron Hubbard discovered the secrets of the warlord Xanu while traveling through the Galaxy? Or, for that matter, that Moses received the Torah directly from God’s dictation, along with a much more detailed set of oral laws which were only documented a thousand years later?

Every major religion has its own ‘killer proofs’ which are touted by their adherents as being compelling. Judaism may point to its remarkable longevity through greatly adverse conditions. Christianity may speak about its remarkable dominance of the western world – from amazingly humble beginnings. Buddhism and Hindu have both pre-dated Judaism by centuries and hold sway over enormous populations. Even the recent religions such as Mormon can point out how remarkably vibrant they have been, even after being expelled from State after State and being forced to settle in the inhospitable and unfarmable lands of Utah.

And everyone has their personal proofs – those things which we experience which seem to uncannily jibe with our religious beliefs. And, in case we are running low on our own experiences, there is a burgeoning market for ‘small miracle’ books.

For whatever reason – perhaps there really is a universal hidden spirituality, perhaps our minds have more psychic power than we realize, perhaps it is all just the power of wishful thinking – humans all have experiences which seem to go beyond the realm of coincidence. And, we all place them in our personal context. If we are Christians, it’s Jesus taking the wheel. If we’re frum, Hashem is exerting His hashgacha in the world.

But, even if you can’t ‘disprove’ a religious claim, you can apply the ‘can a person reasonably believe this’ test. While this is a completely subjective standard, and everyone will reach their own conclusions, shouldn’t we be able to use the same rational thought processes which we rely on to make all of the other decisions in our lives?

Is it really plausible that God spoke to humans? It certainly contradicts the vast experience of mankind. Is it possible that He dictated the epic stories of the Pentateuch, complete with its’ sacrificial laws, arcane histories and genealogies and repetitive, meandering storytelling? I certainly don’t think that would be the most rational conclusion. Is it possible that He inscribed two miraculous stone tablets with the Ten Commandments? Is it possible that He gave an incredibly detailed and intricate Oral Law to Moses – one which largely contradicts the written law? Is it possible that He kept an eternal flame burning in the Temple? Or that He stopped the sun from setting for Joshua? Or that He performed all of the other great miracles and sent all of the detailed prophesies in the Bible?

When you live within an insular community which takes these things for granted, it is true that they lose their absurdity. We have been brought up reciting these beliefs even before we went to school, and we have invested huge parts of our lives and our energies to studying the Torah and living its laws. And, if nothing else, we all know many outstanding people who are incredibly bright and thoughtful who are believers, so we certainly have enough role models to help us keep our faith. This is what we have been socialized to believe, and we have too much of vested interest in these ideas to see them with any level of objectivity.

But the reality is that, if you are on the outside of the community, and are able to look at these beliefs with the same impassiveness which we would apply to the claims of some foreign religion, Godol’s assertion of plausibility sounds starkly absurd. Just as it sounds absurd for us to hear a Mormon, Moslem or Christian talk about the rationality of their own beliefs.

So when GH writes that Orthodoxy is plausible, he is right, but only for a very select audience.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ad d'Lo Yodah

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Rabbah said: A person is obligated to celebrate on Purim until he can not distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai’.

Megillah 7b

A brief d’var torah from my pre-skeptical days:

The above statement from the Talmud, is usually taken to mean that one must become so intoxicated on Purim that he becomes confused between Haman - the evil villain in the story, and Mordechai - the hero.

There are many strange things about this law. There is no source quoted for this unprecedented requirement, which seems to defy the usual emphasis which chazal place on decorum and sobriety. And, the level of intoxication being described seems virtually impossible. If you searched out the drunkest Purim revelers you could find and put the question to them, they could probably still keep track of which character is good and which is bad.

A fascinating thing about the Purim story, is that although Haman is ranked among the most notorious villians in a long line of terrible oppressors, he, of all of them, probably has the best rational for his actions.

Think about it. Haman was a descendent from the last remaining member of the nation of Amalek – a people who were massacred down to the last man, woman and child by the Jews some 460 years earlier. But he had not only the vengeance of his people to motivate him. The Jews held that they were commanded by God to continue to hunt down and kill any living members of Amalek. So, one could reasonably argue that Haman had an understandable concern of self-defense.

Imagine if the story was told in reverse: Mordechai, the Jew, rises through the ranks to become the viceroy of the king. The evil Amalekites have moved to Persia and are growing in numbers and political strength. As they grow, their leaders begin to demonstrate outright distain for the Jews. In reaction to the growing threat to his people, and in concert with God’s explicit commandment, Mordechai engineers a plan to incite the king against the Amalekites, and have them murdered en mass. Haman, however, averts this plan through his nepotistic relationship with the queen (a secret Amalekite), through who’s influence, Mordechai is summarily executed (along with his family), and the Amalekites are given a free killing day to go seek revenge on whomever they see fit.

So was Haman evil? Was Mordechai a hero?

Sure. But it does depend a little on your point of view.

And, sometimes a little celebrating can help give us a glimpse at the other side of the story.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Purim Torah and the Hermeneutics of Mishnaic Legislative Morphology

I’ll blame e-kvetcher for starting this. He has an interesting post on the nature of Mishnah, in which he uses an amusing example to demonstrate the point (originaly from here):

"What do we do upon reaching a red light? Stop entirely; this is the opinion of Joe. Jane says that a rolling stop is acceptable. In the opinion of Sue, the answer depends on whether there are other cars on the road. Once, Joe's sons were coming home from a party in the middle of the night, and they admitted to their father that they had neglected to stop at a stop sign...")

So, here in the spirit of Purim, is the associated Gemorah, originaly from here:

G’M: From where do we know this (that one must stop at a red light)? For it says “…and he (Joshua) spoke before the eyes of Israel, sun in Gibon, stand!” Read it not ‘dome’ (stand), but rather ‘adome’ (red).

The Rabbis taught: What do you do when you reach a red light? Sue taught: stop immediately, but if the pedestrians start walking early, you can freak them out a little, for it says “in all cases, a person may not stand in a place of danger”. Jane says: Whether there are pedestrians or not, one may roll to a stop, for it says “I shall go by clouds in the day and by fire in the night”.

Sue is contradicting Sue! Here, (in the beraisah) you are driving your own ride, There, (in the mishnah), you’re driving your Uncle Milton’s clunker– these are the words of Snoop-Lakish. Or you can say; Here, the light is red when you approach the intersection, There, it’s one of those really short yellows where before you know it, the light turns red – these are the words of Larry, son of Milton.

The Rabbis taught: Joe says: One must always drive with ones eyes on the road, for it says, “thou shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes”; ‘hearts’ – this refers to adjusting ones makeup while driving, ‘eyes’ – this refers to dialing your cell phone. And Sue says, chauvinist! ‘hearts’ - this is looking through the CDs buried under your seat, ‘eyes’ this refers to checking us out when you should be watching the road.

The Rabbis taught: Fortunate is Israel, for they shall always be blessed with green lights, for it says “…you shall deliver the blessings on Mount Greezim…” do not read it ‘Greezim’, but rather ‘Green lights’.

Happy Purim!

A Meaningless Flash of Brilliance

I know that he's borderline bipolar on religious issues and that he recycles material faster than a girl scout troop on a sugar high, but riffs like this are what make him The Godol.

"As for meaninglessness, I think it’s reasonably true that a hard core secularist/materialist ideology inevitably leads to the conclusion that mankind is here by chance, and even worse, we are probably just meat machines with an illusion of free will and consciousness. This could in theory lead to despair, nihilism and hedonism, though in practice it doesn’t seem to. This may be because the kind of people who get to this point intellectually are usually the kind of people who have the mental abilities to not descend into despair, and are also usually the kind of people for whom hedonism is probably not that attractive anyway. In fact, if you look around, the people who live hedonistic, nihilistic lifestyles are more often the simple, shallow types, who would probably claim to have a belief in God and the afterlife."

And, actually, this could be not only amusing, but true.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Respect - Beyond Platitudes

In my writing here, I often find myself discussing the differences in perspective between believers and non-believers. As one who has seen both sides, I can attest to how stark the differences in outlook can be. Our religious convictions are perhaps our most strongly held beliefs, and these ideals hold great sway over how we interpret and relate to almost everything which we experience.

And, it is virtually impossible to divorce these strong feelings for our own beliefs from equally strong negative feelings about those who believe the opposite. The words which we use to describe religious disagreements are heavily charged with negative connotations – ‘heresy’, ‘apostasy’, ‘k’firah’, ‘apikorsus’. And non-believers also have a lexicon of pejoratives which describe religious believers.

Theists tend to think that non-believers (or those who believe differently) are failing to fulfill God’s will. And this failure not only damns them to suffer whatever personal consequences may befall them, but it also harms mankind by spreading morals and ideals which are contrary to God’s design. At best, they can claim ignorance – being a “tinoke shenishbah”, never having been taught the true path. At worst, they are immoral hedonists, too caught up in their selfish pleasures to acknowledge the word of God.

Atheists, for their part, feel that believers are naively clinging to their ancient mythology. At best, they are harming only themselves – suffering their privations and practicing their ancient bigotry only within their group. At worst, they are endangering the safety and security of the world, forcing their beliefs on others, and persecuting those who their arcane ideologies have identified as enemies.

Sometimes we use platitudes which disguise the extent of our feelings in these differences. We may say that we ‘respectfully disagree’, we may emphasize our recognition of each other’s right to their own opinions, and we may make statements endorsing religious tolerance. But it is difficult to fill these statements with any real meaning.

So what is tolerance? What is the process of truly respecting fundamental differences in belief?

And ‘respect’ is an interesting word. I have heard, in many contexts, people state that they respect the religious beliefs of others. This sometimes puzzles me.

Do the ideas themselves merit respect? Do we respect the belief of Scientologists, who believe that Xanu, the evil warlord, massacred 13 billion people on earth 75 million years ago? Do we respect the belief that God gave Joseph Smith the Golden Tablets which constitute the Book of Mormon?

Certainly, we may respect certain things which are practiced or taught within a particular religion. We can easily respect the priority which many religions place on charity and altruism. But what of the elements which we do not think are positive? Do we respect those beliefs? Do we respect the idea of Jihad? Do we respect the role to which many religions relegate women, or the manner in which they treat Gays? Do we respect the shunning of excomunicatees in the Mennonite Church? Or the Hindu concept of Pariah?

So, what do we do with this disagreement? Where do we place it in our worldview? How do we all get along if we hold such diametrically opposing ideas? How do we truly treat each others with tolerance and respect? Just paying lip service to our respect for others is not a solution – it does not address what is really going on within us.

We all live in a world where, regardless of what we believe, the majority of other humans disagree with us. Do we just go through our lives believing that these others are unworthy of our respect?

At least for me, respect is about having empathy and regard for people, not necessarily for the ideas in which they believe. There is no fundamental reason that an idea must demand respect, but people do merit respect – inherently – regardless of what they believe.

And what does that respect mean? What constitutes respect?

A good start, and a necessary element is the recognition of a right. Each individual has the right to choose which beliefs they wish to hold. And no one has the right to force them to change their beliefs. As with other human rights, there is a reciprocal logic in this recognition – we can not expect to have our own rights respected unless we are willing to respect the rights of others.

This level of respect is important, but it doesn’t really give us a handle on our negative feelings. We may acknowledge someone’s right to believe something which we think is absurd or harmful, but we still may not feel very highly of them.

We can achieve a much deeper level of respect if we can have a clearer view of the importance of belief, and can recognize that our beliefs are a fundamental aspect of our happiness.

Pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain – long term or short term – is a primary motivator in our lives. We may be seeking the momentary happiness which comes from a pleasurable experience. We may be striving to achieve the happiness which comes with the accomplishment of a task, or the overcoming of a challenge. We may be looking for the feelings of love, connection and acceptance which come from the sharing of beliefs with our family, friends and community. We may be achieving the satisfaction of helping mankind. And, we may be avoiding the fear of death by earning an eternal afterlife. In the end, everyone seeks happiness – whether it is Tibetan Monk living in great privation and austerity or the secularist who enjoys all of the available comforts.

This world is not perfect, and all of us have our share of difficulty. We all have the right to seek a path which leads us to a happier time on this earth. And, beliefs play an enormous role in defining what this path is.

Feeling an empathy for each other’s right to pursue their own path for happiness, and to adopt the beliefs which can take them there is a powerful key to truly accepting and respecting each others differences. It is not difficult to look around at the other people of this world and wish for them to be happier. A happier humanity makes this planet a better place for all of us. And it is easy, when viewed through this lens, to feel positive about those who believe differently.

As with many things, our own right for happiness is not elevated above that of others. So it does not excuse or mitigate behaviors which are hurtful - even if these behaviors are considered important to a religious dogma. A practice or teaching may be good or may be bad, and I reserve the right to have respect for practices which are beneficial, and to not accept or respect those practices which are detrimental.

But I will limit my critical judgments for those actions which diminish mankind. And, I will preserve my respect and my empathy for the people of this earth – and I will wish for their happiness.