By Ido Sokolovsky
(Original article in Hebrew here)
Basically, there are two types of religious people in our world. There are those who draw the line between their world of values and the real world, still there are those who don’t. In Israel, the most prominent representative of the first kind was the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He was a religious man, some would say a fanatic, yet his faith was not influenced by the factual reality. Leibowitz claimed that faith is a matter of values: As there is no logical explanation to the issue of why one person is ready to die for his/her country while other doesn’t – there is also no logical explanation for observing religious rules. He recognized the fact that the Bible (the Old Testament) was written by man, but this didn’t make it any less sacred for him. A good friend of mine who became religious remained the same skeptic and rational person he’d always been, and it’s clear to him – also nowadays – that the story of the flood never took place exactly as written, and he does not believe in some know-all figure in heaven that will punish him for stealing or reward him for giving charity. If all religious people knew to draw that line, the situation in Israel and worldwide would be much better. The problem is not with those who believe in one religion or another, but with the inability to separate the two domains – values and facts.
In order to explain why this mix is so dangerous, let’s take the example of Jonas Salk – the man who developed the polio vaccine. Polio – also known as ‘infantile paralysis’ – had many thousands of victims until Salk managed to create a proper vaccine for it. Salk, on top of being a great scientist, was also an outstanding person. He deliberately gave up the profit he could have made from his discovery. The amount of money he could have made is nowadays estimated in no less than 5 billion dollars! But Salk was satisfied with the honor and the knowledge about the millions of children he saved from bitter fate.
Now let’s imagine a fictitious scientist named ‘Kalk’ who developed a vaccine for cancer or AIDS. However, unlike the real Salk, our ‘Kalk’ refuses to reveal the results of his studies to the public and to the rest of the scientists. Let’s imagine our Kalk says he’s ready to give a free vaccine to whoever promises to hang Kalk’s portrait on the wall, or declares ‘Long live Kalk’ three times a day, or performs some other gesture of admiration. In this case, it’s clear to us that people would doubt Kalk really has such a vaccine. There are plenty of charlatans and megalomaniacs in our world. Note that we, in our imaginary story, know that the vaccine actually works, but doesn’t it make sense that at least some of the people would doubt the story? Doesn’t it make sense that many people would decide not to make fools of themselves for this mad Kalk?
Beyond the moral question – is it really right for a person to demand all kinds of treats in order to save children from paralysis – there is the factual question already mentioned above. Yes, I would bow to him, or perform any other acts of worship, had I been convinced this would save my son from a bitter fate… which parent wouldn’t? The problem is I don’t believe him, I’m waiting for a proof and in our imaginary story – Kalk refuses to give me a proof and demands I believe him unconditionally.
Religious people often explain to me that they, just like the real Salk, only try to save me. After all, if he who observes religious rules goes to heaven, then my religious friend does me a big favor by making me observing those rules. Think of a parent who vaccinated his child using Dr. Kalk’s vaccine, and now tries to convince his neighbor to do the same. You can imagine him saying: “C’mon John, kiss Kalk’s shoe and save your child, what the hell do you care?” And in our imaginary story he would be right.
Thus it’s clear why a religious person tries to convince me to be like him (or her). He is a good person who tries to help me. The problem is that unknowingly he’s turned his god into a sinister character just like Kalk, the fictitious scientist. Jonas Salk immediately published his researches, presented all the proofs, and (as already mentioned) even gave up the possibility to be rich, so that as many children as possible will be saved. What does the religious people’s god do? According to them, it’s ok with him that I suffer eternally, not because I did something wrong in purpose, but because I wasn’t convinced by a certain factual claim.
At this point some religious person may say “well, what will convince you, heretic? What proof of god do you look for?” And the answer to this is simple – if there is a god, he surely knows what will convince me. You see, there are things I’m convinced of. The god believed by the religious people should be able to provide a convincing proof for anyone. One may need letters of fire in the sky, another need some mathematical equation, yet another wants some warm feeling deep inside. The religious’ god could have provided each with the required proof, thus eliminate the doubts in the factual matter. This is like fixing our imaginary story about Dr. Kalk: This time the arrogant scientist agrees to provide sufficient proof of holding the vaccine for cancer, but still asks for whoever gets the vaccine to bow to him. The religious people’s god is not even ready to provide this. He is like the scientist I invented – having great abilities and miserable mean personality.
Dr. Salk was not the only one who preferred the interest of humanity over personal wealth. Wilhelm Rontgen refused to get rich from the invention of the machine carrying his name, and like him – many scientific pioneers revolutionized science, while merely seeing the interest of mankind. What does it mean for the god you believe in, if he is meaner and more evil than several mortal people we know of?
Jonas Edward Salk
Better than God
(Picture from Wikipedia)