Monday, May 19, 2014

Religious Auto-Exceptionalism

Most rationalist are fascinated by the religious mind. There are many aspects to be fascinated by. The failure to see obvious self-contractions and fatal inconsistencies. The failure to follow simple arguments. The love of supposed “mysteries”, and so on. One aspect that seems to have received no attention to date is the phenomenon of making up oppressive rules and then making up reasons to ignore them. This phenomenon of what we might call religious auto-exceptionalism appears to be restricted to monotheistic religions.

Here are a few examples. Let’s start with a couple of Jewish ones. The first is an Hasidic tradition of Jewish women wearing a sheitel, a wig or half-wig. The underlying idea is that, as in Moslem communities, a woman must not let anyone outside her immediate family see her hair. To ensure that no-one can see her hair, she cuts it off, or at least hides it under a sheitel. The sheitel is considered like a sort of hat and there is no rule about who can see your hat. But of course a good sheitel looks just like a natural head of hair. So women wearing a sheitel can go around looking like women with a normal head of hair – even an attractive head of hair. What is going on is that they have made a rule about female modesty, and then developed a way to flout it. In a wonderful piece of triple-think Some Jewish women will then cover their sheitel for the sake of modesty!

Here’s another Jewish example. In the Jewish scriptures God gives his chosen people one day off in every seven. People do not need to work on the Sabbath. The provision permitting people not to work became an injunction not to work. God told Moses to kill a man for collecting firewood on the Sabbath day. The word “work” is interpreted to cover all sorts of activity. Orthodox Jews will not perform such everyday tasks as lighting a fire, making a telephone call or opening an umbrella. In short, all sorts of normal activity is banned, so a small industry has grown up inventing ways of doing things automatically without performing even basic activities. At one end of the spectrum people will prepare a meal the day before, and set an oven timer to cook it for their Sabbath meal. At the other end of the spectrum are a host of specially made devices designed specifically to get around these pointless restrictions. And it gets better. Jeremiah 17:22 says
neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, neither do ye any work; but hallow ye the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.
So as well as a prohibition on doing things, there is also a prohibition on carrying things out of your house. This covers anything. People cannot for example carry their car keys out of the house. They cannot even carry a prayer book to the synagogue. And the rule affects everyone, so mothers cannot carry babies, not even in strollers. Old people cannot “carry” walking sticks. Sick people cannot carry medicines. Handicapped people cannot “carry” wheelchairs. As has often been observed, only a religious mind can invent nonsense of a magnitude such as this.

This prohibition on “carrying” is taken very seriously by Orthodox Jews who have developed a vast collection of law on the subject, many rules made by one group contradicting rules made by other groups. (If you take something out of your house then bring it back, have you carried it out?). These rules are not only pointless in any rational universe, but seriously oppressive. So religious minds have found ways to justify ways around the rules. An obvious problem is that the rule prohibits the wearing of clothes, and no religious person wants to enforce that. So clothes are considered exempt. And that opens up possibilities. For example if your car key is built into a belt, and you wear the belt, then you are not technically carrying the key! Incidentally, if you think I’m making this up, you can check the facts with any Orthodox Jew, or any book of Jewish law or any Orthodox Jewish website. In the Orthodox community there is much debate over the wearing of spectacles, hearing aids, bandages and plaster casts, and wristwatches, with separate debates over men’s and women’s jewelry.

Wearing instead of carrying is not the only way of getting around the rules. Another is to extend the definition of your “house”. Rabbis have developed a whole fantasy world where “houses” are not actual houses but neighbourhoods. These fantasy houses are ritual enclosures. Originally they had to be linked courtyards, but that proved impractical. So the rules were relaxed to allow an area surrounded by a substantial wall. When that became impractical the rules were changed again to allow a flimsy fence. A ritual area regarded as a single house for the purposes of Jewish law is called an erov. Today, there are erovs in most major cities in the western world, allowing Orthodox Jews to ignore the oppressive arbitrary rules that they invented for themselves.

Individuals do much the same thing as the rabbis, playing linguistic tricks, but on a smaller scale. The technique might be less subtle, but it is identical in principle. It is not uncommon to find Jewish people who will not eat pork, but will eat bacon, ham, gammon and wild boar. A simple redefinition of the word pork achieves the desired result.  Instead of denoting all pig-meat, the word pork is regarded as denoting only particular types of pig-meat.

Muslims are also adept at making up rules and then finding ways around them. One rule prohibits telling lies in all circumstances, but this is unrealistic so a doctrine called taqiyya permits Muslims to lie in certain circumstances. Again, the Quran prohibits the drinking of fermented grape juice but says nothing about palm wine or other forms of alcohol. Even so the Quranic injunction is almost universally extended to all forms of alcohol. In practice this is too harsh for many and those who want to can find exceptions. So in some countries there is a market in medical tinctures, permitting Muslims to consume alcohol ostensibly for medicinal reasons. Again the hardship of pilgrimage – an essential element of the hajj –  is routinely avoided and the hajj is converted into a holiday. Instead of spending months travelling on foot through deserts, living in the open and scavenging for food, many Muslims just jump on an airplane and stay in luxury hotels. Again, in Saudi Arabia the month of Ramadan is intended to be a month of fasting and hardship. In practice it is often a month of daytime indolence and all-night parties and feasting.

For Christians the position is much the same. Restrictions are routinely imposed. Often they are exaggerated and made oppressive. Then reasons are found to ignore them. Jews, Christians and Moslems have all made up rules about making images, and then had to change those rules. Again they all made up rules about money lending and then founds ways around them. Historically, at least a dozen different reasons have been found to ignore the comprehensive biblical prohibition on killing. As with the Jews, observance of the Sabbath was converted from a privilege permitting people not to work became an obligation forcing them not to enjoy themselves. Protestants tried imposing Muslim style prohibitions on alcohol, even though there is no prohibition, or even criticism, of it in the Bible. Again, lying is absolutely prohibited, except when the requirement becomes too onerous. Catholics have their own form of taqiyya, allowing them to tell lies in contravention of the Ten Commandments (Its called "equivocation" or mental reservation). No matter how clear a teaching, there are ways around it. Churches have created whole industries dedicated to finding ways around the clear biblical requirement for believers to give away everything they own.

Perhaps the best example of Christian auto-exceptionalism concerns the historic rules around fasting. The idea was that Christians in general, and monks in particular, should eat moderately, avoiding rich foods and over-indulgence. This was formalized into rules restricting the consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products for Christians on certain days, with stricter and more onerous restrictions for monks. In some cases these rules became too onerous, often causing ill-health because of inadequate diets. Various ways around the restrictions were therefore found. For the rich, the Church simply sold the right to eat forbidden foods. We still have a reminder of how lucrative this trade was. Europe is dotted with “butter towers” – ecclesiastical buildings funded by money obtained by selling the right to consume dairy products during Lent. 

The Butter Tower of the Cathedral at Rouen, painted by Thomas Colman Dibdin, 1879

Monks were more parsimonious and exploited exceptions instead of paying for exemptions. These exceptions had been perfectly reasonable in principle and covered those who were ill or travelling. Anyone in a monastic hospital could be served meat and dairy products. Over time more and more monks took to eating in the hospital rather than the refectory. Some monasteries interpreted the rule even more liberally. It was applied only to food served in the refectory – so monks simply found reasons to eat elsewhere, setting up alternative dining rooms where the rules did not apply. Better still, monks found that they could get around the prohibitions, even in the refectory, simply by classifying animals in ways that suited their purpose. Since fish was allowed on fast days, a simple solution was to classify various animals as fish. So it was that monks classified beaver as a fish, arguing that it had a scaly tail. They also classified Barnacle Geese as fish, arguing that these geese grew from the sea creatures we still call goose barnacles.

Truly, the religious mind is an endless source of fascination for normal people.


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