Ethics and Religion – Part II

Published: November 20, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Continuing my conversation with Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

How do you get people to look for the deeper, ethical insight in their beliefs?

“I usually pull up all the stuff in the Bible that makes no sense, ethically.

“A lot of people like to talk about Joshua at the battle of Jericho, where they knock the walls down, and there’s this great miracle and isn’t God great?  Except when you read thenext paragraph you discover that Joshua leads the army and they wipeout every man, woman and child in Jericho.

“There are other passages where they do the same thing to other cities, except they keep the gold and the cattle, because God wants that for some reason.  Well, you have to be pretty fundamentalist to believe that God wants gold and God needscattle. So, I bring up those kinds of issues and ask people, ‘Is this ethical?’  And it’s usually a thought-stopper.

“All of this is grist for the mill of thinking more deeply about ethics.”

Much of what you describe sounds similar to Socrates going around questioning people’s beliefs and then challenging those beliefs within an ethical context, and in that process, getting people to think more deeply into how to live a better life.

“I can’t always get people to see it just then, but I think that I’m planting a seed.  It will bother them enough that maybe they’ll give it some deeper thought later on.”

How do you discuss fanaticism, and how some people can be so blinded by dogma that their zeal will drive them to commit unspeakable acts of evil?

“Well, that’s the key.  Can you get them to see that what they’re talking about is evil?  It’s certainly evil when it’s done to me, but is it evil when I do it to them? And most people are very willing to say, ‘Of course, it’s evil when it’s done to me, but it’s God-sanctioned when I do it to them.’

“Everyone believes that what they’re doing is the right thing, even when what they are doing is the exact thing that others are doing to them.  So, there’s a lot of self-blinding going on.  But, if you can get a conversation started, then the conversation can be a fascinating one about fanaticism; about how we get caught up in believing things that sanction behavior that, in any other context, we would consider evil.

“My argument is that you lose your capacity for self-reflective thinking, and you’re so caught up in the mythos of your group and the group itself, that you just can’t think for yourself.  And that’s the danger of religion.

“In some religious traditions, they talk about thinking for yourself, and reading scripture for yourself and figuring it out for yourself, but that’s really a misnomer.  What they reallywant you to do is think it through for yourself, as long as you end up coming to our general conclusion.

“That’s the problem with religion, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s not about the individual, it’s about conformity to the group and the group’s conformity to this higher authority figure, which in my mind, nine times out of ten, is simply a socio-economic-political movement wearing the mask that says, ‘I’m God.’  It’s the Wizard of Oz and you have to pull back the curtain to see who’s really behind it.

“However, I think that there are people – and have been throughout history – who are truly spiritually sensitive and open to a higher, deeper, wider level of consciousness and can speak ethical truth to power, like Gandhi.”


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