Sunday, September 27, 2009
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
I suppose it's appropriate to conclude the Ten Days of Awe of the Jewish calendar by tying up, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a loose end I started to unravel when I was sitting here at my computer instead of participating in ritual observance on Rosh Hashanah. As I noted, "what I find difficult about religious ritual, which is the reification of the sense of awe, wonder, and mystery of life, being, and consciousness into a set of rules. (Hence, my appreciation instead for the music.) That's the tension I described three years ago, between kevah - fixed prayer - and kavanah - inspiration." I have a lot of regard for what Martha Nussbaum described as the source of the religious (and all conscience-related) impulse: "the faculty in human beings in which they search for life's ultimate meaning." I'm just not crazy about what my fellow humans generally do to act on that impulse. (I also have the same kind of naive idealism about academia as a place of pure exchange of ideas, with much the same result. But that's not new. I had a kind of naive idealism about fiduciary obligations when I was a corporate officer and general counsel. My conclusion is nobody is more or less insulated from human nature in the actual practice of religion, scholarship, or business.)
Some time over the last ten days, I came across Brian Leiter's published essay on the constitutional tolerance of religion by way of his more recent draft on whether religion is even entitled to moral respect. (I agree with him that, as a matter of law, the appropriate standard is tolerance. I also agreed not to quote or cite the draft, other than this minimal reference to its context, and with the clear indication it is a draft. It is available publicly available on SSRN, albeit with the "don't quote or cite" request.) The arguments depend on his already completed conceptual construct of religion with which I take issue, and I've posted an essay to that effect on SSRN. The title is Can There Be a Religion of Reasons? A Response to Leiter's Circular Conception of Religion, and this is the abstract:
This is a comment on a definition of religion recently proffered by Brian Leiter in support of different conclusions we ought to draw with respect to religion. His analysis is ultimately circular: the problem with religion is that it is not science. Exposing the circularity requires identifying the trick, which is that he employs an appeal to common sense to distinguish religion and science. Nevertheless, the very belief in common sense is the same as the religion Leiter attacks: it is categorical and insulated from further reasons. My argument in response has three major themes. (1) The argument based on receptiveness to reasons and evidence itself arbitrarily picks and chooses reasons and evidence. (2) It is possible to posit a religion whose categorical demands on action and requirements of foundational bedrock are minimal. (3) Religion uses reason (in the sense of concepts apart from evidence) to grapple with the source of our bedrock beliefs. It differs from other such grappling only in degree and not kind of thought; once we accept the role of concept (or reason) in such work, religious or secular, we necessarily must accord bedrock status (or categoricity) to at least one concept. Finally, I suggest that adoption of Leiter's definition has a troubling implication as to our respect for personhood.
By the way, if you are curious what to say to a Jewish person on Yom Kippur, since "happy Yom Kippur" is something of a contradiction, say "g'mar tov" which is short for the full Hebrew phrase that means "may you be sealed well." The mythology is that we are inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year on Rosh Hashanah, and the inscription is sealed on Yom Kippur. The actual prayer is called the Unetaneh Tokef, and it is the inspiration of Leonard Cohen's (above left) "Who By Fire." Consistent with the kind of grappling with which I credit the religious impulse in the essay, I interpret this as "Recognize there is a distinction between what is and what ought to be, and we can't always make them match. Let's do the best we can even when the world throws obstacles in our way."
G'mar Tov. (UPDATE: A good friend reminds me that a less highfalutin' greeting or wish is "fast fast" or "easy fast." Since that rarely applies to me, I forgot!)