All religions are not the same

Ancient beliefs such as Judaism cannot simply be lumped together with Scientology

By Daniel Finkelstein, May 14, 2009

Here’s the argument. I will lay it out for you as simply and as swiftly as I can. I am a Scientologist. Well, no better than a Scientologist. Religions are man-made, and there is no reason to favour their claims to moral authority or special protection. And what demonstrates this is our attitude to new religions.

Many people regard Scientologists as creepy. But why is what they believe any more eccentric than Judaism? Yes, they stand on Tottenham Court Road offering free personality tests. But we go to synagogue in plimsolls and chant in a strange language. Privileging religions allows pretty much anybody to place a cloth over their dining-room table and call it an altar.

This, as you have probably guessed by now, being Jews and therefore fiendishly clever, is not my argument. It is a brutal précis of a point made by people such as Richard Dawkins and my valued colleague David Aaronovitch (who prefers using the Moonies to illustrate the same point).

It was made many times during the debate on Dawkins’s The God Delusion. And now it is being made again in response to a compelling new book, God is Back, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, on the global rise of faith. And I want to explain why I think this argument is wrong.

Of course, I could try and say this with a simple assertion of my faith. The Jews are right. Yes, there’s only one God. No, God didn’t have a son. No, the Scientologists are wrong about psychotherapy and childbirth. It would not be hard. But it wouldn’t get us all that far. Instead, I want to make an argument for ancient religions such as ours that does not rely on faith. One that can be accepted even if you believe Judaism is entirely man-made.

Let me start here. I am a Reform Jew. I believe the Reform idea provides a good guide to modern religious thinking and, while we are at it, the most convincing account of Jewish history.

I recognise that departing from Orthodoxy means departing from certainty; I have huge respect for Orthodox Jews without whose observance many features of our religion might be lost. But I think that, if we prayed for enlightenment for 1,000 years and didn’t learn a thing, we wouldn’t be much of a people.

Our species evolves. We do so in the Darwinian sense but I also believe, to use the term in a less scientific, less formal sense, that our thinking evolves. That, over time, good ideas become stronger and bad ideas get discarded. We are constantly thinking of new stupid ideas so we never reach perfection. But I think that ideas that have survived for thousands of years often (of course — of course! — not always) embody a certain wisdom.

This idea leads me to three assertions. The first is that Judaism is improved by allowing it to be seasoned by the wisdom of the ages. The second is that, in practice, it has been — even the practices and ideas of the most Orthodox have evolved. And finally, that this process makes ancient practices and observance worthy of a degree of courtesy and respect that might not be so readily accorded to a newly minted faith.

The case for being tactful, politically, about the deeply held faith of sections of the population is obvious. But I think that the argument for recognising the moral authority of religion goes far beyond this.

There is a traditional conservative (with a small c) argument for according religion special status. Religions should adapt, should be open to change. And, whatever their protestations, they almost always are. But the flip side of this should be a recognition of the value of the wisdom of the ages. And that is something that holds even if that wisdom is man-made.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

Last updated: 12:25pm, May 14 2009