Isra-el, Inshah Allah, and Shit Happens: The implications of belief systems

In the December, 2007, Annals of Neurology, Sam Harris, Sameer Sheth, and Mark Cohen published a functional magnetic resonance study on how the brain processes ideas that it believes to be true, believes to be false, or about which it is uncertain. Different areas of the brain show activity in these different situations. Perhaps one of the most telling findings is that processing disbelief seems to occur in an area of the brain associated with negative feelings about other things such as pain or bad taste or bad smells. Other psychological studies also indicate that we tend to accept as true what we first hear and understand. This would imply that what we hear is often accepted uncritically. Disbelief is actually unpleasant. The skeptical mind of science has to adapt to being uncomfortable and is really rather abnormal. Citing a lot of evidence and applying logical analysis to try to persuade someone to change his mind about anything is often, if not usually unsuccessful. Perhaps this lack of success relates to the fact that the person’s belief system wasn’t adopted because of data driven analysis, so there should be no reason to think that such an approach would change it. George Bush’s criticism of John Kerry for changing his mind about a subject, which he termed, “flip flopping,” may now be understood as a very common, though troublesome, human attitude.

With this in mind let us look at three words or phrases that describe three of the world’s great religions and how the ideas expressed in these words and phrases have played out in their adherents.

Isra-el. This is the name Jacob, grandson of Abraham, was given after the night that he spent wrestling with the “angel.” It means, “He who has struggled with God.” “El” is the generic Hebrew word for god. The Jews’ relationship with God has historically been a combination of awe, reverence and argument. This has been true ever since Abraham negotiated with God over the proposed destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Later Moses argued with God continuously before, during, and after leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye argues with God, most enjoyably when singing, “If I were a rich man.” Throughout history Jews have sharpened their skills in argument, first in the Talmud, the commentaries on the Torah that had their beginnings in the Babylonian exile, then later as they became experimental scientists. The scholarly training on how to both defend and refute an argument became an invaluable aid in the analysis of experimental data. Though the Jews are not credited with beginning experimental science (the ancient Greeks and later, Galileo, deserve that credit) Jews have been undeniably prominent in science for the last couple of hundred years.

The Jewish tradition of the struggle with God may have also influenced its offspring, Christianity. Modern medicine and science are often criticized by fundamentalist religionists as “playing God” or interfering with God’s plan. When Edward Jenner developed the Cowpox vaccine for Smallpox in 1796, he was publicly criticized for interfering with God’s plan for human kind. Smallpox was so common that some people felt that God must have had a purpose for it. But, if one is willing to struggle with God, then the possibility of interfering with His plan is not so intellectually debilitating. It is noteworthy that both Judaism and Christianity encompass believers that are willing to struggle with God, generally well-educated, and those who are not willing to struggle. These people are generally not so well-educated and are fundamentalist in their religious beliefs. They take the easy path in life of believing that all the answers to all the questions have already been provided. Their struggle is with maintaining their faith when things go badly. But the tradition of struggle, even though founded on myth, has powerful implications for the rest of society. It may be no accident that the major scientific and technological advancements made by mankind have occurred in the Judeo-Christian cultures of Europe and America. Unwillingness to accept things as they are has led to essentially all the technology that we now associate with everyday life.

Inshah Allah. This phrase, common in the Muslim world, basically acknowledges that the will of God is supreme. Whatever God decrees must be accepted. The word, “Muslim” indicates one who submits to the will of God. The common name, “Abdullah,” means, “slave of Allah.” This is a stark contrast with the concept of Isra-el, “He who has struggled with God.” Democracy does not hold the same appeal to a mind that reveres submission to a higher authority as it does to those used to struggling with that same authority. The drive to conquer nature, both in medicine and engineering, might not be as likely in a society geared to submission. There was a flowering of the Islamic world from the time of Mohammed, in the seventh century AD, until the Crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. After that, even though the Islamic world repulsed the Christian assault on the Middle East, stagnation set in as absolute monarchies were established and submission became the rule in all things, earthly and divine. The Christian world also went through centuries of intellectual stagnation during the Middle Ages when the Church controlled knowledge, but it emerged into the Renaissance, partly due to the development of the printing press and Protestantism and the urge to struggle with authority and read for oneself, not depending solely on what the priests said. This did not happen in the Muslim world and still has not happened to this day. Israel publishes more books each year than any Arab country, in fact more than most of them combined. Critical Biblical scholarship, studying the historical origins of the Bible as literature produced by human beings is well-developed in European and American universities. Such studies of the Koran could be punished by death in some Arab countries today.

Shit happens. This phrase comes from a joke about Buddhism. Buddhism is a non-theistic religious philosophy. Concepts of causality are very different than they are for theists. Early Judeo-Christian ideas about the beginning of the cosmos, the creation of life, and of human beings all attributed everything to acts of God. Buddhism doesn’t have an official creation story. Here we are. How should we live our lives to attain perfection and peace? These concerns are most important. Charles Darwin proposed that the variety of species present on Earth today were caused by spontaneous modification of traits then selection because of survival or reproductive advantages conferred by those modifications. Motoo Kimura an evolutionary biologist from Japan, proposed that most speciation was due to neutral drift in the genome due to mutation followed by accidental isolation of breeding groups from each other. These two different views are not surprising. Though Darwin discarded “intelligent design” by God as the mechanism by which species came to differ, he proposed the unseen hand of selection as a causative mechanism. Kimura invoked a passive, “shit happens” mechanism that I think reflects a common idea in the society into which he was born. It may be no surprise that this society was also not as likely to produce the widespread technological advances of the Judeo-Christian west. Buddhism is a philosophy of acceptance and understanding, not so much of manipulation.

Where will all this lead? A prediction: the technological society of the west will become the dominant society on the entire Earth. For all practical purposes, it already is. Technology always runs roughshod over everything in its path. But we should keep in mind that Isra-el, Inshah Allah, and Shit Happens are all just different human ideas that have occurred to us in the 100,000 years since we walked out of Africa to populate the world. We attribute some of these ideas to God, another idea that some of our ancestors had, but they all originated in the mind of mankind. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the concept of Isra-el eventually led to the conclusion that the god with whom Jacob struggled was as mythological as all the other gods conjured up in the mind of man. All our ideas have strengths and weaknesses. We should not conclude that, because Isra-el has led to our technologically superior society, all our ideas about the rest of life are the best ideas that anyone has ever had. Perhaps the best idea we have ever had is skepticism.

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