All posts filed under: Religion

God and the Pandemic

If God gives you technology, use it to reach people! ~Rabbi David Eliezrie The Secret of Chabad During this most miserable of years, religion, like virtually every major social institution, has been profoundly disrupted. There have been church closures and the ranks of outdoor—or socially distanced—worshipers represent a mere fraction of those who engaged before. Yet the pandemic may also mark a critical breaking point, leading to profound changes in how spirituality is experienced and sustained. In some senses, we are witnessing a shift as important as that brought about by Guttenberg’s press and Luther’s vernacular Bible during the Reformation. As sociologist and historian Max Weber suggested, these developments overturned the notion that “magic and the supernatural quest for salvation” belonged to the Latin-speaking priesthood.1 The pandemic and the flood of new online spiritual offerings have combined to transform religious life in much the same way. This will be a disruptive and painful transition for many established religious institutions; empty pews and church closures augur what Fordham’s David Gibson has called a “religious recession.” COVID-19 restrictions, …

Circling Back to My Grandfather’s Judaism, Seventy Years Later

I was born in Toronto in 1942. My earliest memories were Jewishly buoyant because of the excitement in my home and close-knit community around the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948. It was only when I was a teenager that I became fully aware of the cataclysm that had preceded this miracle. Until the 1950s, there was a kind of taboo about discussing the Holocaust with children—or even discussing it at all. It was too recent. I knew, but didn’t know. North American Jews needed time to absorb the scope and originality of the horror they had been spared. The public high school I attended was almost entirely Jewish. (Our district was mostly gentile, but almost all the gentiles sent their children to private schools.) Few of us were prepared when our history teacher showed us a film about the liberation of the concentration camps. I was shocked by the newsreel footage of stacked corpses, the skeletal camp inmates staring, stunned, at their approaching liberators, the mound of children’s shoes, the numbers. …

My White Privilege Didn’t Save Me. But God Did

Following the furore over Netflix’s Cuties movie in the fall, Quillette editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann tweeted that the creepy conservative obsession with paedophilia is as bizarre as the feminist obsession with rape. I took umbrage, and noted my annoyance—though I knew what she meant. Sexual violence, particularly toward children, is becoming more of a marginal topic. Rape, while a serious problem in every society, has been in historic decline in the west. I am not naturally conservative, and I do not exhibit the required antagonism toward men to qualify me as a decent feminist. But in the area of sex, rape, and paedophilia, I am unable to separate my politics from what is fashionably called my “lived experience.” As a young girl, I was raped, as were other members of my family (not all of them female). It was only in my reaction to this tweet that I started to think of how those experiences, and the circumstances that surrounded them, shaped my politics. My experience is not uncommon among those who share my socioeconomic background. …

My Journey from Born Again Christian to the Church of Woke—And Halfway Back Again

My Christian faith died thrashing in 2004. It was the thick of summer, and I was a hyper-earnest teenage bible-thumper volunteering my time for a church-mission trip in the slums of Tijuana, Mexico. I was partway through a Sunday-School lesson with a small group of boys when my youth pastor—a man I considered equivalent to a Jedi Master, religious mentor, and rock star all rolled into one—tapped me affectionately on the crown of my head. He awkwardly stepped through our cross-legged circle en route to an ominous black cruiser with tinted windows that was idling outside. Somehow, I understood immediately that this would be the last time I saw him in person. Earlier that morning, I’d woken up inexplicably crying and dehydrated, in the midst of murmuring my way through a desperate prayer of some sort. I’d recently finished The End of the Affair, a Graham Greene novel in which the spiritually embattled protagonist concludes his story with this line: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old …

Enlightenment Literature as Foreign Aid

“If God were to humiliate a human being,” wrote Imam Ali bin abi Talib in the sixth century, “He would deny him knowledge.” If the woeful state of knowledge in lands beset by authoritarian regimes is any indication, a great number of human beings in our world have been lavishly humiliated, albeit by natural rather than supernatural forces. Nearly 20 years ago, a clique of Arab intellectuals sounded the alarm about this widespread denial of knowledge in their realm, and its many malign effects. The Arab Development Report of 2002, published by the United Nations Development Program, vividly illustrated the miserable condition to which Arab societies had been reduced at the dawn of the new millennium. It called attention to the “closed circle” that had long held sway across the region. In the past 1,000 years, the authors declared, Arabs collectively have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year. This is a breathtaking fact, notwithstanding a thriving black market for prohibited books that escaped the official tally as well as the habit of …

Secular Modernity under Theocratic Assault

Professor Leszek Kołakowski, one of the great Polish intellectual dissidents from the Stalinist period, liked to say that when he debated with apologists for the system, he often found himself almost on the losing side. Kołakowski hastened to add that this fact did not owe to the superior arguments of his opponents. To the contrary. The arguments of his opponents were so foolish and antiquated that he’d simply forgotten what the original refutations were. A similar phenomenon can be registered in the West today with respect to heady accusations of blasphemy. With homicidal religious maniacs avenging the hurt feelings of the faithful, many liberal-minded people have taken to questioning fundamental republican norms and the basis of secular democracy. The recent events in France, which has again become the target of Islamist menace, provide a useful occasion to review the newly contested principles of the Enlightenment. This autumn has brought news of three separate Islamist attacks on French soil. It began with a knife attack last month in Paris outside the former office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. A few weeks …

The Importance of Blasphemy

Anyone who thought the age of plague might have banished the specter of religious fanaticism was disabused last week when a middle school teacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by an Islamist fanatic for displaying caricatures of the prophet Mohammad during a class discussion about free speech. The assailant, a teenager of Chechen origin, murdered and then decapitated his victim before being killed by French police. Less than a fortnight before, there was a stabbing outside the Parisian offices formerly occupied by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which France’s interior minister also described as an “act of Islamist terrorism.” The stubborn persistence of Islamist terror speaks to the durability of ferocious faith-based dogmas, one of which seeks to reintroduce secular Western democracies to the long-forgotten notion of “blasphemy.” This will only come as a surprise to those with short memories. Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie for merely writing a novel reignited the old debate about the place of tolerance in an age of religious hatred. More than 30 years …

The Hagia Sophia Should Remain a Beacon to All

On July 10th, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan undid the symbolic roots of his republic by declaring that the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine structure, would be converted from a museum to a mosque. The first Islamic service in the building is scheduled for July 24th. The international response was a mix of shock, resignation, and near universal condemnation. Most official government statements were somewhere between the United States (“disappointed”) and Greece (an “open provocation to the civilized world”). If the furor over a single museum strikes you as mystifying, consider the central role the Hagia Sophia has played for the last 1,500 years. Even from the beginning, it was far more than just a pile of brick and marble. It was a statement. A vision, both sacred and secular, for several different empires. The Hagia Sophia was the brainchild of a unique figure in history. At birth, Justinian was a nobody among nobodies in a grindingly poor part of what is today North Macedonia. By his mid-40s, he was a Byzantine emperor. His appetites were …

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization—A Review

A review of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg, Gateway Editions (June 2019) 256 pages. The role of Christianity in Western history presents an interesting puzzle. Those who argue that Christianity has nothing to do with the success of the modern West need to explain why the scientific method, constitutional government, market economics, and the modern concept of human rights arose in Christian Europe rather than somewhere else. On the other hand, those who argue that Christianity is critical or integral to the success of the modern West need to explain why these developments did not occur until 12 centuries after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For most of its history, Christianity didn’t seem to be making much of a contribution to freedom, peace, and prosperity. One interpretation which has gained currency is the “Athens and Jerusalem” argument, according to which, Western civilisation is based in a unique combination of Greek reason and Judeo-Christian faith. This argument was recently rehearsed, for example, by Ben Shapiro in …

Pell’s Pyrrhic Victory

In an essay published on this site nearly two months ago, I analysed George Pell’s conviction for child sex offences alleged to have occurred in Melbourne, Australia, in December 1996 and February 1997. On Tuesday, Australia’s highest court unanimously ruled—along substantially the same lines as those explored in my argument—that Pell was wrongfully convicted. A short time later the 78-year-old was released from the maximum security prison in which he had been serving his sentence in solitary confinement. The question for the High Court was the same as that presented to the Victorian Court of Appeal which rejected Pell’s first appeal: was it open to the jury, acting reasonably, to convict the accused based on the available evidence? Rarely for a case heard in the nation’s highest court, the judges were concerned principally with factual rather than legal matters. The court reviewed the evidence and concluded that a rational jury could not have convicted Pell on this basis, and that the Victorian Court of Appeal erred in failing to find this. The accusations, briefly stated, …