Is Religion Important?

Neiman:  Religion is important and it isn’t important. I think we’ve been misled by the idea that the central cultural divide is between religious and secular people. I think once again the divide is between people who are committed to using reason and people who are not and all three Western religion- religious traditions have one line which says, “God gave us the faculty of reason and he meant us to use it.”  You have that in all three religious traditions and you similarly of course have a fundamentalist tradition in all three religions which says, “No, no. Whatever the word of God is is the word that we have to take. God tells us directly what to do and we have to follow.”  I start the book off with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is a story that everybody thinks they know. The Sodomites sinned and God destroyed them. The question is what the sin was. People are sure that it’s fornication or at least homosexuality and people can get outraged about this and the fundamentalist right of course will use it for that reason. As a matter of fact, the Sodomites’ sins were much more complicated than that. It wasn’t fornication and it wasn’t homosexuality. It was gang raping someone to death, which is pretty much beyond the pale on anybody’s list, and according to the legends actually the Sodomites turned morality upside down. It was prescribed by law that if a stranger came in to the gates they should be gang raped to death. It’s pretty bad stuff, okay, and one could go on about that, but what’s most important about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is what happens right before it. God tells Abraham that he’s about to destroy the cities and Abraham speaks up and says, “Wait a sec. What if there are 50 righteous men inside the cities?  Surely the God of justice is not going to destroy the just and the unjust alike,” and God says, “Well, actually--  Okay. If there are 50 men I’ll save the city,” and then Abraham says, “Well, what about 45?  Certainly, you’re not going to be pedantic about this.”  It’s an extraordinary passage because it shows three things. One is universalism. Abraham doesn’t know the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is not his tribe. This is not his kin. These are just innocent people everywhere that he’s willing to take a stand for and he’s willing to stand up to God who can after all blast him in an instant. The other thing that I find important about this story is what it shows about moral clarity, which is that it’s not a matter of general principles. It’s a matter of fine distinctions and gradations and looking at particular cases, and what it shows in the end is that even if you have a direct line to God, which Abraham did, that’s not where you get your sense of ethics from. You get your sense of ethics from human reason. There is one take on the story by the way which says that Abraham wasn’t giving God lessons in ethics, God was testing Abraham, but that’s fine either way. Abraham passed the test by showing that if God proposed to do something unjust he was able to stand up to God, and I think that’s the kind of thing that shows even if you accept a religious framework you have to accept that reason, reasoning about morality in particular, plays a role.

Susan Neiman on how the Bible applies human reason to solve moral questions.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

Ultracold gas exhibits bizarre quantum behavior

New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Experiments on an ultracold gas show strange quantum behavior.
  • The observations point to applications in quantum computing.
  • The find may also advance chaos theory and explain the butterfly effect.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

    Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.

    Big Think LIVE

    Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.

    Keep reading Show less

    3 cognitive biases perpetuating racism at work — and how to overcome them

    Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."

    Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
    Personal Growth

    Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.

    Keep reading Show less

    A new minimoon is headed towards Earth, and it’s not natural

    Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.

    Credit: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Paitoon Pornsuksomboon/Shutterstock/Big Think
    Surprising Science
  • Small objects such as asteroids get trapped for a time in Earth orbit, becoming "minimoons."
  • Minimoons are typically asteroids, but this one is something else.
  • The new minimoon may be part of an old rocket from the 1960s.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

    Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.

    Photo: Lightspring / Shutterstock
    Mind & Brain
    • A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
    • Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
    • An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast