TCS Daily

Bumper Sticker Moralities?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - March 16, 2004 12:00 AM

The residents in my apartment building all have assigned parking spaces, which means that whenever I go to my car, I see the same cars around me. One truck that is parked near my four-door car has a bumper sticker on its rear that I have not seen before, or seen on any other car since. The sticker reads "Don't Pray In Our Schools. I Won't Think In Your Church."

The message of the sticker brings up, of course, an old charge that is used by atheists and agnostics against those who subscribe to a particular religion -- namely, that people of faith cannot at the same time be people of reason. Contrary to the message of the bumper sticker -- and this frankly should come as a surprise to few -- many of the world's most prominent religions encourage and mandate intellectual contemplation and study. And one need not subscribe to prayer in schools to see that.

My faith is Judaism, where intellection and study is part and parcel of the practice of the religion. We Jews are commanded to be contemplative in the Shema, one of the holiest of Jewish prayers. In Deuteronomy 6:6-7, God says the following to the Jewish people:

And these words, which I command thee, this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house and walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up.

It was the philosophy derived from this command in the Shema that helped inspire generations of Jews to devote themselves to the study of the Torah, and the 63 volumes of the Talmud that offer commentary on Jewish laws, customs and history. It was this philosophy that encouraged learning in general in the Jewish community -- along with inspiring traditions like having Jewish teachers place a drop of sugar or honey on the pages of the books their students were reading in order to remind them of the sweetness of study and contemplation, of leading the life of the intellect.

The Jewish tradition of exalting the life of the mind endures even today. One of the most intellectual environments I was placed in as a youth was my old synagogue and Hebrew school in the Hyde Park section of Chicago. Of course, part of the reason for the intellectual nature of that environment was that the synagogue was only blocks away from the campus of the University of Chicago -- which ran an elementary and high school that I and a majority of the other students attended, and where a few of the parents who participated in joint parent-child discussion classes were professors. Other parents held intellectually demanding professional jobs. As such, it was no surprise that we were encouraged to argue, to think, to dispute and to study in search of further answers to the questions we had and the issues we grappled with. But whatever the origins or reasons behind the intellectual atmosphere of my synagogue and Hebrew school, the nature of my experience in it causes me to raise my eyebrows in puzzlement over any slogan conveying the message that somehow religion and the life of the mind cannot go hand in hand.

Indeed, many aspects of the Jewish intellectual life can be seen replicated in the non-Jewish, secular world. I found William Helmreich's The World of the Yeshiva on the bookshelves when I was 14 years old. It tells the story of the history, development, and functions of the Jewish yeshiva, a post-high school institution where Orthodox Jews study the religious laws and customs of their faith. Although I have never been an Orthodox Jew, I found the description of the intensely intellectual nature of the yeshiva fascinating. I was even more fascinated when, upon entering law school, I found that the analytical tools used in the study of secular law were similar to the tools used to study Jewish law. In both the yeshiva and in American law schools, the approach to studying and analyzing legal problems and issues was the same: (1) Identify the main issue or question from a particular hypothetical; (2) Understand and state the correct and applicable rule of law to address the issue; (3) Apply the law to the facts at hand; and (4) Issue a cogent conclusion that answers and addresses the issue or question at hand. This is but one example of the way in which the supposed gulf between the religious and secular worlds is bridged by a shared commitment among many in both worlds to a life of the mind.

Judaism is not the only religion where faith and reason can go hand in hand. Christianity has made its own contributions to the enrichment of the intellectual and philosophical life thanks to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Niebuhr and others. The world of Islam can claim similar seminal contributions to the scholarly life -- thanks to religious scholars such as Abdollah ibn Sina (better known as Avicenna), who fused neo-Platonism and Aristotelian thought to the Islamic faith. Whether one is religious, atheist or agnostic, and no matter which religion one follows, one is compelled to take heed of, and grapple with the works of these scholars if one is to understand and appreciate the development of philosophical thought throughout history. One certainly need not agree with their philosophy, but their works cannot be dismissed by those living the life of the mind merely because there is a religious element to the arguments and thoughts they promulgated. And of course, a particular religious belief has spawned a whole host of significant and profound intellectual accomplishments. Isaac Newton, after all, began his own research into the physical laws governing our world out of a desire to understand the plan and mind of God.

Religion can, of course, come into conflict with reason and intellection. It did during the Inquisition and in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, as well as in other circumstances. But it is profoundly unfair to contend -- as the bumper sticker of the car neighboring mine in the parking lot of my apartment does -- that religion and reason cannot coexist. Such shortsighted arguments accomplish nothing other than to widen any chasm between those who subscribe to a particular religion and those who do not. It is one thing to have a preference on whether to subscribe to a particular religion. It is another thing altogether to misrepresent religion or to attack people who subscribe to a religion by generalization.

Pejman Yousefzadeh recently wrote for TCS about the Bush administration becoming pro-choice.


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