In response to my previous post (an excerpt from chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes), Dan wrote:
What principled distinction is there between scientific authority and theological authority, surely your point that we should be open minded and skeptical about scientific papers, pronouncements, etc, should also apply to religion. We should also be open minded and not simply accept everything that religious authorities pronounce. Do you agree with this? If not I would appreciate it if you could explain the difference.
Broadly speaking, I agree with Dan. Would any rational person disagree? We place our trust in people or institutions on the basis of evidence. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch points out that the famous Jewish proclivity for scepticism begins at the dawn of our history. Hirsch writes:
“They [the Israelites] began to have doubts concerning the mission of Moses. In view of their situation, it is easy to account for their misgivings. How could they have assumed so unquestioningly that God would lead them to their goal in such an extraordinary manner, unprecedented in history, in a manner running counter to all natural assumptions? As Judah HaLevi points out in his Kuzari, these persistent doubts in fact constituted an important documentation for the authenticity of Moses’ mission. Moses was dealing with a people whose minds were clear and lucid, not befogged by fanciful notions, a nation that was not easily taken in…” [The Pentateuch T’rumath Tzvi, (Hirsch Chumash) page 263. Emphasis added].
At the other end of history, contemporary Jewish outreach (kiruv) typically involves, as a major component, the presentation of rational arguments. You may agree or disagree with the argument, but you won’t be asked to chomp on mushrooms and hum Ohmm for hours on end.
On a personal level, I consider myself a sceptic twice over: by temperament and by training. I grew up in a thoroughly secular home, with no Jewish education to speak of. My journey to observance involved endless questioning and doubt. Furthermore, I have been a Talmudic scholar for seventeen years, and there is no more sceptical document in human history than the Talmud, in which the most common refrain is, “How do you know that?”
Having said all of this, I should point out that scepticism is often an excuse for inaction; it functions as a mask for laziness. Anyone who wishes to avoid the cognitive dissonance that follows from a refusal to live by one’s convictions can claim that his inaction stems from scepticism.
More to the point – as far as Dan’s comment goes – is the fact that scepticism does not mean that we never take things on authority. On the contrary; part of being rational means trusting those who have proven their expertise. I may not understand precisely why a doctor prescribes medicine A as opposed to medicine B, or why my mechanic thinks that the tappets need replacing, but if he has proven himself competent in the past, I would most likely trust his expertise in this case.
I don’t know what Dan means by religious authorities. I do know that my commitment to Torah Judaism came about through a long and thorough exploration of the relevant issues. I also know that the Torah tradition has proved itself to be the most trustworthy, reliable, rationally-defensible ideology in history. On the basis of experience and evidence, I have no reason to doubt it, even if I do not pretend to know every nook and cranny of this enormous intellectual edifice.