Saturday, February 2, 2013

Religion, Evil, Circumcision

"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. " 

- Steven Weinberg 

The above quotation comes from a 1999 address by Steven Weinberg. 

A good commentary by him on intelligent design can be read by clicking on: 

Some quotes from that article: 
The prevalence of evil and misery has always bothered those who believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God. Sometimes God is excused by pointing to the need for free will. Milton gives God this argument in Paradise Lost

I formed them free, and free they must remain 
Till they enthral themselves: I else must change 
Their nature, and revoke the high decree 
Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained 
Their freedom; they themselves ordained their fall. 

It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors? 
 * * * * *
In an e-mail message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science I learned that the aim of this conference is to have a constructive dialogue between science and religion. I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment. 
* * * * * 

Steven Weinberg (1933- ) is an American theoretical physicist, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize and a high profile advocate for science over religion. 

* * * * * 

The same philosophy – that religion can make moral people do evil things – was put forward in a 2009 TV panel debate. In the following transcript Christopher Hitchens, Reverend Peter Gomes and Rabbi Harold Kushner discuss circumcision, known as bris milah in the Jewish religion. This portion of the debate can be viewed by clicking on:

(I apologise for the lack of transcription of some of the words. I tried to find a transcript of the clip online but was unable to come up with anything. I therefore transcribed it myself using the pause button a lot but some words beat me. Court transcribers deserve what they earn). 

Moderator: Rabbi, I suppose you’ve heard this question before but it’s for the panel, why do good things happen to bad people? 
Rabbi Kushner: Why do people get away with murder? I have lost track of how many people have urged me to write a book by that title and my response is who would buy it, who would you give it as a present to? 
Hitchens: Well it’s too late for Mr Madoff now, he would have liked it a year ago. 
Rabbi Kushner: The bottom line is, yeah, it is a very disturbing phenomenon. Much, most of the time, I think, we don’t get away with very much in this world. We pay for everything we take in this world in one currency or another. The Bernard Madoffs.. even if he had not been caught, would have missed out on much of what has been given to him. The guy who cheats on his wife and doesn’t get caught, and thinks he’s really clever and he has pulled it off will never know what it feels like to invest all your love in a single relationship. You pay for everything you take in life in one currency or another and sometimes when the bill comes due, you go back and wish you’d taken it differently. 
Moderator: Professor, any thoughts on this? 
Professor/Reverend Peter Gomes: I once said that the Rabbi had given me a wonderful definition of the word ‘envy’ - I envied his royalties – and there was a service in which he spoke and does speak the fundamental question that we all ask but I would write a slightly different book, my book would be ‘Why Do Good People Do Wicked Things?’ and the church is full of good people who are tempted and actually sometimes succeed in doing wicked things. Now, my tradition teaches there’s the doctrine of original sin and that explains everything, you’re all naturally wicked and you’ll do wicked things unless you’re inhibited against them, which provides a very rational theology but wouldn’t preach very well these days, especially at (?) in Connecticut, but the fact of the matter, the graver question for me, is people who want to right things, want to do, want to be thought of as good and virtuous, often end up doing terrible things and I think that St Paul’s famous line – ‘The good that would do that I do not, and that which I would not and I do’ – that’s the human and the moral (?), it seems to me that’s the task to which our confession, forgiveness, amendment of life, is directed toward so that would be my take but I don’t think my book would do as well as the Rabbi’s. 
Hitchens: There are things that a normally average, even if they are a morally average or mediocre, person, would not, unprompted, do, for example, hold down their daughter at the age of six, tear off her underwear and cut her genitalia with a sharp stone. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think God was saying to them, or the mullahs, or if it’s a boy, the rabbis, were telling them to do it. Now one of the reasons I have the lurid subtitle that I do for my book, ‘Religion is Poison’, is that it makes ordinary moral people, compels, them, forces them, and in some cases orders them, to do disgusting, wicked, unforgivable things. There’s no expiation for the generations of dissolute suffering that religion has inflicted, continues to inflict, and I still haven’t heard enough apology for it. 
Rabbi Kushner: Chris, I’ve got to call you down on referring to circumcision as ‘genital mutilation’. My son cried more at his first haircut than he did at his bris and statistically... 
Hitchens: You weren’t doing it right then. 
Rabbi Kushner: ...statistically the only long term effect that it seems to have on people is that it increases their chances of winning a Nobel Prize. 
Hitchens: I can’t - I can’t find the compulsory mutilation of the genitals of children as something for humour in that way or flippancy in that way. My (?) says very plainly that it’s designed to repress sexual pleasure, to deprive us, the male, as far as possible of the opportunity that, the full excision, not just the snip, the full mandatory covenant, is fantastically painful, leads to trauma, leads to the dulling of the sexual relationship and can be itself life threatening. At the moment we have records, I can show them to you, of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds in the United States of boy babies who have died or had life threatening infections as a result of this disgusting practice.  That you, that a person as humane as yourself, can sit here and consider that as a fit subject for humour, shows what I mean: religion makes normally moral people say and do disgusting and wicked things and you’ve just proved my point. Shame on you for saying what you just said. Shame on you for saying it about your own son, my God. 
Moderator: Let’s move on. 
Rabbi Kushner: Yes, let’s. 
Hitchens: What next? Cutting the labia of little girls? At least Judaism doesn’t do that. What if I was to say to you right now ‘My little girl cried more at her first haircut than when I cut off her clitoris.’ What would you think of me if I were to say such a disgusting thing? We are not talking about detail here, we are talking about whether religion makes people behave better or not. 
Moderator: Let’s give the Rabbi a chance to respond because it got pretty personal here so... 
Rabbi Kushner: Again, my experience in my own son, my own grandson, hundreds of (?), is that it is nothing like you are talking about and that for whatever reason this has become an issue for you, I just think that it’s excessive. 
Hitchens: What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that? 
Rabbi Kushner: That I am more personally – 
Hitchens: There is an undertone of innuendo to this, let’s bring it on. 
Rabbi Kushner: No, there’s no innuendo. What I’m saying is, I’ve lived through this, personally, and you can’t - 
Hitchens: Inflicted it, is what you are saying. 
Rabbi Kushner: I’ve what? 
Hitchens: You’ve inflicted it, or officiated at it, is what you are saying, isn’t it? 
Rabbi Kushner: Well, officiated, yes; inflicted, no.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. To correct this written record, here you have documented:

    "Hitchens: I can’t - I can’t find the compulsory mutilation of the genitals of children as something for humour in that way or flippancy in that way. **My (?)** says very plainly..."

    [emphasis mine]

    He's referring to the philosopher Maimonides:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.