Monday, June 18, 2007

A response to "G-d is Greater than Christopher Hitchens"

In an effort to have an understanding of my fiancé's religious beliefs, I read a few Jewish blogs, and also subscribe to a Jewish Wisdom newsletter from Beliefnet. I don't maintain that Beliefnet is the ultimate authority on any faith, but it's a good way for me to at least get an idea of what's going on; I can always ask my fiancé later if something seems inaccurate.

In Sunday's newsletter, there is a link to a blog article written by Rabbi Smuley Boteach entitled "G-d is Greater Than Christopher Hitchens." I am not a follower of Rabbi Boteach's blog, because the few articles I have read seem reactionary/inflammatory, and don't seem to present the view of Judaism that I have come to view from my fiancé and his friends. They have demonstrated that Judaism is a religion that is tolerant, peaceful, and focused on self-improvement as well as social justice (but in a way that doesn't involve trying to win converts at the same time). Although I disagree with Judaism on the premise that a god exists, and while I disagree with some of the traditions, I respect the overarching themes I have come to see expressed by my Jewish friends. However, Rabbi Boteach's articles are antithetical to what I have learned. But because this particular article targeted atheism, I felt compelled to read and respond.

Rabbi Boteach's main point is a fairly familiar one: that if we all simply believed in evolution and "survival of the fittest," there would not be any morality. It is only because the Bible exists that humans know the difference between good and evil, and it is what motivates us to care for others. He uses Stephen Hawking as an example. Rabbi Boteach claims that it is because of our Bible-given morality that Hawking has received ongoing treatment for his illness; it is because of religion we did not leave him to die once it became clear that he was not "valuable" to the overall survival of the species. However, Rabbi Boteach is taking an inaccurate view of "survival of the fittest." This phrase does not apply to whether or not an individual being lives into old age. "Survival of the fittest" is a reproductive concept; an animal/being is considered fit if he/she/it is capable of reproducing, of passing his/her/its genetic material down to the next generation. Hawking's fitness and survival are determined by whether or not he was able to produce offspring (he did).

Beyond that, all animals, be they humans or otherwise, exhibit prosocial behavior whether or not they are religious. Caring for others of your family/tribe/group, even when it poses stress or risk on your finances, time, or biological/reproductive resources, is something that all creatures do whether or not they have religious beliefs. Prairie dogs, for example, put themselves at risk by being vocal when they spot a predator. Although this allows the rest of the group to find shelter, the individual animal is at risk for being spotted and killed. In fact, although prosocial behavior may limit an individual's resources and biological fitness, it can in fact improve the overall fitness of the rest of the group. Putting oneself at risk can better ensure the survival of the species; in the prairie dog example, the risk of one animal's life means that fewer members of the group will be killed, meaning better chances for reproduction. Prairie dogs don't have the kind of neurological development that allows for religious belief, and yet they exhbit moral behavior, putting others before themselves.

Rabbi Boteach's article takes an underlying assumption that evolutionary theory is inherently evil. He cites the example of Francis Crick advocating observing newborns for 48 hours and killing them if they were "defective." He also uses the racist views of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, as well as the mass killings under the atheist regimes of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. However, I maintain that his position of evolution being inherently evil and religion being inherently good is inaccurate. I believe that all thoughts and tools have the potential to be used for good as well as for evil. How you use a particular ideology or technology determines its status as "good" or "evil"; context is key. Biotechnology has provided us with medical treatments for severe illnesses; it has also given us the power to create biological weapons to be used for terrorism. The internet allows us new methods of communication, but it also leaves children vulnerable to pedophilia. Ideas of evolution can be misconstrued to advocate racism, but also provide us with new ways of understanding our world and our origins. Even religion isn't safe. Religious beliefs can be peaceful, tolerant, and open-minded, or their messages can be twised around to advocate intolerance and stereotype those who do not follow their particular beliefs.