01 November 2008

Another perspective

Guest post by Dr. Solomon Schimmel, Professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College.

Dear Baalhabos,

The question you raise on October 29th about James Kugel’s warning to potential readers of his book is quite interesting. Knowing Professor Kugel personally, as I do, I am sure he is quite sincere in what he wrote. Apropos of this matter, in my new book, The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth (Oxford University Press, 2008), Chapter Seven titled "On De-fundamentalizing Fundamentalists" deals with the moral considerations one should take into account when trying to undermine someone’s faith and beliefs.

Allow me also to paraphrase and summarize an exchange I had a few days ago relevant to this issue. I received an e-mail from a very thoughtful individual who had read my first book, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Psychological Reflections on Human Psychology. He sensed from that book that I am a believer and said that my book has played a role in assisting him on his current journey from secularism to belief and faith. So he searched for other books I had written and came across The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs. However, after reading the book description and readers' comments he received the impression that this new book reflects or advocates agnosticism or atheism. He is very much concerned about and opposed to religious extremism and fundamentalism but wanted to know if my book was like the recent super critical books about religion, or whether "it reflects someone who believes in the strength of the traditional religious ethical and moral teachings, but is simply troubled – as so many of us are – by extremism.” I sensed that this individual is in a delicate stage of religious exploration and might be concerned about exposing himself to a book that would be inimical to his journey.

So I answered him as follows:

"Thank you very much for your kind words about my book The Seven Deadly Sins, and for writing to me about my recent one.

In The Seven Deadly Sins I try to explain that from my perspective there is much psychological, ethical, and spiritual wisdom in religious devotional literature even for people who do not accept the theological assumptions of the religions I deal with, primarily Judaism and Christianity. So I don’t think that in that book I present myself as a ‘believer’ or a "non-believer" in the traditional theologies. I don’t really discuss theology except insofar as it is useful to do so to address my main concerns of the book, the specific seven deadly sins. In The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs I primarily analyze and critique fundamentalist versions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, focusing on their respective claims about the direct divine revelation and origin of their sacred scriptures. At times I also analyze and critique other aspects of theology, but primarily in order to point out that the claims that some religious people make for some of their beliefs, and the theological concepts they posit and evoke, don’t meet the criteria of rational coherence and consistency. However I do not argue for or against atheism or agnosticism per se. I do not criticize people who believe in God, but criticize people who claim that their belief is either provable, or who ignore evidence and experiences that challenge their beliefs. I also critique what I consider to be some immoral or unethical teachings in the various sacred scriptures. So if you are on a journey to faith, or are already a person of faith, you might find aspects of my book disconcerting and not conducive to where you are or would like to be going in your spiritual quest."

I then recommended to him that he might find another book of mine, Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness, to be more conducive to his present interest and inclinations. He appreciated my response and said that he will first read Wounds Not Healed by Time before deciding whether to go ahead and read The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs.

So, even though I publish a book which I want people to read and which I hope will challenge some of their beliefs or at least get them to think critically and with greater self-awareness about them, it is still their choice as to whether or not they want to expose themselves to ideas that might be threatening. However, when someone lets me know that they are concerned about exposing themselves to threatening ideas and asks me if my book may be in that category, I think it is only proper to give them an honest answer and respect their needs and sensitivities.

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