Let us reason together

He blamed the Book of Mormon – not the actual book, but the show of the same name now running in the West End of London. Jonathan Freedland, a lead writer with The Guardian, said that after spending “a couple of hours in the theatre with Elder Price, Elder Cunningham and the gang, it is hard to take any kind of religious ritual seriously. Not after you’ve spent an evening giggling at the poor saps idiotic enough to venerate nothing more than a book.”

In an article entitled “Religion is like sex – it can seem absurd but it works” and published last year, Freedland issued the confession that, thanks to seeing and hearing this show, Book of Mormon, he now “looks at sacred rites differently, including those I think of as my own.” Jonathan Freedland is an adherent to the Jewish faith.

As an example of this reappraisal of perspective on sacred rites, Freedland recalls his most recent experience of being at his synagogue for last year’s Yom Kippur remembrance, perhaps the most solemn day of all for the Jewish faith. He had a completed what he called a “marathon stint” in the synagogue on the Jewish day of atonement. What followed is worthy of a quoted paragraph all to itself – it is witty, frank and to the point:

“There we were, with the holy scroll – on whose yellow parchment are etched the Hebrew words that make up the five books of Moses – placed at the centre of the room. We made a great ceremony of bringing it out and another of putting it back again. Each time the scroll was revealed, we stood up as a mark of respect, only sitting down again when it was covered up. We sang, in a language few of us truly understand, our praise for the holy text. At one point one of us held the parchment aloft so that we could all see it. Those who wore the distinctive woollen prayer shawls of black and white would occasionally touch the scroll with the shawl’s fringes, raising them to their lips for a small kiss of reverence.“

Following this, Freedland reflected on the similarities between religious rituals and sex. He suggested that, if the physical actions involved in the sequence in which both sex and religious rituals are performed, then they both look “absurd, embarrassing, or both.” In his view the producers of the stage show Book of Mormon chose Mormonism because it is “a small and calm, unexcitable and unemotional“, sectarian branch of American Protestantism.

Freedland further conjectures that, in choosing Mormonism as the vehicle for satirising religious ritual, the show’s production team were probably thinking that there was little risk of this church answering back. So too, founded in 19th century America, Mormonism is a relatively recent addition to worldwide religious faith. Therefore, the founding myth of this new branch of Christianity might sound, to many observers and critics, as being especially implausible.

As with all expressions of religion, Mormons have their own beliefs and rituals – including baptism and the church ordinances (washing, anointing and sealing – weddings). These are available to all “worthy adult members” of the religion. Otherwise known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, this church believes that it is the restoration of the true gospel and a revelation of the true god. The Book of Mormon is its primary scripture.

Freedland’s conclusion to this review of the West End musical and his comments on his own religious faith is to say that the target of the producers could have been any of the world’s religions, “whose rites inhabit a distant realm from the cold rigours of reason.” However, some founding myths are more memorable and powerful and have a greater longevity than others.

As a teacher of Islam within a secondary school Religious Studies syllabus, I taught students about the Five Pillars of Islam. One of these concerned the Haj – the pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca. At one point in the Haj ritual, at a place called Mina, devout Muslims throw seven stones at pillars said to represent Satan. At one recent pilgrimage a horrific stampede occurred at Mina that resulted in the deaths of 700 ritual-observing pilgrims.

Coincidentally, as Freedland informs his readers, “on the same day (as the stampede at Mina), the US Congress stood in rapt silence listening to a man in a white robe held to be incapable of error and who teaches that 2,000 years ago a child was born to a virgin.” The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest of the Christian churches, claims power and authority from that child. Freedland concludes his article by saying that, “whatever else the seers of the past, from the Aldous Huxleys, Jules Vernes and H.G.Welles, imagined for the 21st century, it wasn’t this…”

I came across Jonathan Freedland’s article as I began reading the reviews and text of the first book by Sam Harris, “The End of Faith – Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason”. Sam Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and has a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA. His book is provocative and persuasive as it attacks ideals held very dear by many, “from the sanctity of religious faith to the desirability of religious tolerance.” It has been said by one reviewer that the book is “a timely wake-up call to anyone who dislikes religion but believes that private beliefs should go unchallenged.”

The key concern of this book is the author’s stated opinion that “there are religious fundamentalists who are happy to kill themselves and others on the basis of their faith in particular holy books.” It might also be added that these religious fundamentalists are dogmatically committed to the necessity of observing specific religious rituals that are purported to be found in their holy books.

Harris is of the view that the most effective way must be found to prevent this from happening. Most interestingly, his view is that the way to do this is to “undermine all religion, not just that of the fundamentalists.” He further considers that religious fundamentalism is allowed to flourish as a consequence of “religious tolerance”. This is the liberal consensus which minimises conflict between believers and non-believers, and between moderates and radicals. This situation “creates a climate where only actions can be challenged, not the beliefs which cause them.” In other words, it focuses on ethics (behavioural outcomes, moral actions) and not on philosophy (ideas, foundational beliefs – from which come ideologies).

Both philosophy and ethics are discussed in Harris’s book. He is, however, certain that “your beliefs define your vision of the world; they dictate your behaviour; they determine your emotional response to other human beings.” This viewpoint is somewhat at odds with some popular contemporary perspectives, for example, those of the Cambridge philosopher Don Cupitt.

Interestingly, of the three holy books of the primary religions discussed, Harris pours more scorn on Christianity and Islam than he does on Judaism. But each of these three religions claims primacy for its holy book – its beliefs and rituals, the source of their creeds and dogmas. Applying Jonathan Freedland’s earlier analogy, each claims to be more “sexy” than the other, that is, more absurd, more embarrassing, or more of both!

However, the climax of this activity in each of these religions, especially so in Christianity and Islam, is the promise of a significant reward in the afterlife. This is to further suggest that, when it comes to terrorism, for example, the political causes should be downplayed and the cultic and sectarian, if not spiritual, background emphasized and critiqued.

This, then, goes to the central core of Harris’s book, that is, when it comes to religion, there is a distinct lack of rationality – in premise and practice. This becomes axiomatic when it is considered that the holy books of these religions were written by human beings. That being the case, rationalism and scientific proof should not be abandoned to religious “faith”.

In a superb epilogue to his book, Sam Harris says: “Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connections to the world and to one another.” As Richard Dawkins has stated: “Read Sam Harris and wake up.”

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About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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