September 06, 2004

Righteous indignation

Bjørn Stærk has an excellent post about interpreting religion. I find I am alternately amused and annoyed at people’s attempt to explain to me my religion. The problem, however, is not just their “superficial reading of the scriptures” but their inability to put down the lens of their own worldview to see the world through another’s eyes. Excerpt:

Outsiders are always tempted to explain religions in simplistic terms based on a superficial reading of the scriptures of those belief systems. Whatever else we disagree about, I'm sure we can all agree about that.

My own experience with this problem comes from reading atheist criticism of Christianity. I'm an atheist myself, but I used to be Christian, and I believe I still have a good idea of what protestant Christians really believe. And what I've noticed again and again is how simplistic and unfair much criticism of Christianity is. The atheist may quote the bloodier chapters of the Old Testament, and then tell a Christian that "you believe in an evil God!" Well, no, they don't. Most Christians I've known believe in a good and compassionate God.

To a liberal Christian, atheists may quote the Bible's many scriptures against homosexuality, and to a conservative Christian scriptures about love and forgiveness, concluding that Christians have somehow misunderstood the message of their own religion. Non-believers also use these scriptures to attack Christians who claim that Christianity is compassionate and ethical. "How can you say that, when you believe in a God who ordered all witches to be killed, and commanded the Hebrews to massacre civilians?"

These critics assume that there is one correct interpretation of the Bible, an essence of Christianity, and that, lacking faith, it is possible to discern that essence through logic. If a Christian believes that his God is compassionate, he's not just wrong because that God does not exist, he's also wrong because this God, which does not exist, is nothing like the Christian believes he is.

That is absurd. Why should a non-believer have opinions about how to interpret a religion he doesn't believe in?

I can vouch for the fact that the same is true for Judaism (just change the relevant details). However, with Judaism there’s another factor at play: Judaism is part of the Christian (and Muslim) religion, i.e. these religions have their own concept of Judaism which is theologically important to them. Unfortunately, it is somewhat different from the Jewish concept of Judaism – which, of course is not itself uniform. My personal concept of Judaism, which I do not believe to be exceptional, or objectionable to the vast majority of Jews, is one of the themes of this blog. If you are new here, and this subject interests you, look around. I am one of the horse’s mouths.

This is as good a place to start as any.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 6, 2004 09:26 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

If you look at religions as being similar to political parties it makes sense how the "newcomers" try to explain how the "old people" lost the message and they suddenly found it.

I agree with you that it is really irritating to listen to people try and define your beliefs. I find it irritating when people within Judaism try and tell me what and how to believe, let alone folks who are not MOT.

Posted by: Jack at September 7, 2004 07:45 AM Permalink

I have no problem with people telling me about their own religion - even if they claim that it is mine. Every religion has an internal debate about what it is, and that's the way it should be. It's just ridiculous when the person is an outsider who doesn't really care.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at September 7, 2004 08:39 AM Permalink

I have had so many interactions with the evangelists that I have gotten pretty tired of listening to anything they have to say, especially about Judaism.

It has gotten to the point where I can be pretty aggressive in my response, but that is usually when they insist on trying to continue a discussion I am not interested in.

Posted by: Jack at September 7, 2004 05:31 PM Permalink

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