Back to Basics #29
A fair number of people are familiar with the idea that you really can't have a useful argument over tastes ("De gustibus non est disputandum"), and a quick check of what people think neat to put up on YouTube — or a quicker check of YouTube's pornographic spawn — will point to the truth of that assertion.
Less well known in the injunction from the Hebrew Fathers to, not surprisingly, "Be diligent in the study of Torah, and," relevant here, "know how to answer an Epicurean."
That is, at least for my purposes, the old rabbis enjoined knowing one's own tradition and premises and being able to argue with someone with very different ideas. A religious follower of Scriptures, the rabbis taught, should know how to argue with — the rabbis would want you to defeat — a materialist philosopher.
In arguing with an "Epicurean," a religious person could not use the final formulation of more recent rabbis and their more authoritarian followers: "Er steht!" — "It's written"; "It's a commandment!"
The obvious response to that would be, "So what?" To answer effectively a materialist, a secularist — then and now — one would have to argue from premises you can both agree on.
And, more important in our time, vice versa, adding what we might call "some philosophical work-arounds," at least for the sake of argument.
For a secularist to argue effectively with a religious person, the secular person must know "Torah": i.e., what the religious person at least claims to hold authoritative.
It's nice that Protestants and Catholics are no longer burning one another at the stake nor taking turns burning Baptists and flogging Quakers. And it's nice that atheists are coming out of the closet and arguing for their position.
The danger to my beliefs, though, is an alliance of Believers against not just strident atheists but secularists in general, and against those of us who want to follow a religious tradition in a society that welcomes us and (aiding that welcome) runs a thoroughly secular state.
The danger to my political positions, and that of many, is a Left that becomes increasingly militant in its secularism and (therefore) increasingly politically marginalized among an American public composed largely of various kinds of cooperating Believers.
So, my atheist friends: a bit of advice. Recall the great principle of Occam's Razor and the story of the mathematician-astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace and Napoleon. When Napoleon asked Laplace how he, Laplace, could write a substantial book "on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator," Laplace replied that he "had no need of that hypothesis." So American atheists, when an argument comes up about God, just say, "I have no need of that hypothesis" — and let it go at that.
More generally on the Left: gals and guys, "Know how to work with religious people" — including at times with religious people with whom you have profound disagreements.
If some apocalyptically-minded Christians are right, it's important to get Jews in control of all of what was ancient Israel and Judea and (even) Samaria to bring on the End of Days, at which time those Jews will either submit to Jesus or burn forever in the Lake of Fire. No Jews like that idea, but if they're Likudnik Jews or even further to the Right, they can ally with Right-wing Christians on Zionist issues. And they have allied, and not just regarding Israel.
So it shouldn't be so goddamn difficult for today's secular Leftists to learn the history of effective political movements in the USA, bone up on the more radical teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, and renew the old alliances for peace, social justice, and the equitable distribution of the world's resources and wealth.
"The Earth is the Lord's / and the fullness thereof, / The sea and all that in them is" saith the 24th Psalm, and the psalmist goes on to justify God's ownership by a labor theory of property: "for he founded [the world] upon the seas / And established it upon the waters." If you're trying to get people to make the US economy more fair, that's a good place to start — and you can omit arguing that the true story of creation is Big-Bang Cosmology.
Et bloody cetera for the divinity of Jesus if you want allies against militarism and against coddling the rich. You, my Liberal-Leftist-Peacenik friend want a more humble US foreign policy; Jesus enjoined downright pacificism. Use that!
And if anyone accuses you, correctly, of "cherry-picking" teachings, point out that there are not ten commandments in Torah but, by traditional count, 613 — and Moses was just a beginning. Selecting, emphasizing, de-emphasizing, rationalizing, modifying, allegorizing, and sensibly gentling religious doctrines has been the name of the game since the old rabbis decided that "an eye for an eye" meant equitable compensation, Jesus healed chronic medical problems on the Sabbath, and St. Paul said a guy could be a saved follower of Messiah without circumcision and that nobody needed to follow all those finicky Jewish food regulations.
So, devout religious folk, "Know how to answer" us materialists — or at least talk with us politely. My fellow Leftist-pinko-peacenik sorts (including small "b" believers): If you want to effect change, learn how to talk to and with religious people.
Effective politics are coalition politics, and as of now the Right is kicking our asses at it.