March 30, 2008

"In Treatment"

In Treatment is the title of a highly addictive series on HBO television in the United States. It is about a psychotherapist, played by Gabriel Byrne. For anyone interested in psychotherapy it is compelling and I gather the whole fraternity (or to be more accurate, sorority, for there now seem to be far more women in the business) is hooked. The series involves not just Byrne but also his patients, family and his own therapist. Each half-hour segment is a separate case or situation dealing with a dysfunctional person, which they all are in their different ways.

The series is actually based on a very successful Israeli TV hit called B'Tipul. You would not know this from the American series until the credits roll at the end, replete with Israeli Jewish names and a line that says that each program is based on one in the original series. There are adjustments for the American version. Instead of an Israeli pilot, it's a black US Navy man who was given the wrong coordinates and bombed a madrassa in Iraq by mistake and is trying to deal with his guilt. In fact, the characters are all so typically American, in so many ways, but for one point. There is absolutely no mention of religion at all apart from one negative reference to the Bible. This is the clue, if any were needed, for its Israeli provenance. It underline how alienated most secular Israelis are from religion. Whatever one may think of American society, religion, in all its variegated forms, plays a far greater part in the lives of more of its citizens than it does in Israel where it tends to be an "all or nothing" game.

This explains the tension and dissonance that exists in Israel between religious and secular Jews, for which the religious usually and sometimes unfairly get all the blame. It also shows why so many Israelis simply have no understanding of the significance of the growing place of religion amongst their Muslim citizens and antagonists and why so many prefer dabbling in esoteric remote religions and some in the more peculiar variants of Judaism.

On a wider level, this programme raises an important issue about psychotherapy. There was a time when psychotherapy was taboo in Jewish circles, despite its being originated primarily by Jews. There was a sense of embarrassment and shame attached to it, as if seeing a therapist was a sign of weakness, failure, even madness. This is changing in certain societies more than others. Still, in many Orthodox circles psychiatrists are asked to bill for medical services because any whiff of seeing a psychotherapist can do untold harm, such as damaging arranged marriage plans. In addition, cliches abound about psychotherapists being far more screwed up than their patients and often incapable of getting their own acts together. As with all professions, you have to sift and filter and make enquiries, and a really good one is worth his or her weight in gold, and is just as rare and expensive.

On the other hand, more and more people are coming to recognize the value of discussing one's thoughts and problems, and a detached outsider can often be of great help. Woody Allen popularized the image of the neurotic Jew in need of constant therapy. Now virtually any New Yorker worth his or her salt has a "shrink", which term itself is derived from the implication that a psychotherapist might be no more than a sophisticated witch doctor!

Yes, talking can often help, and a great deal or rabbinic time nowadays is taken up with dealing with people's problems. Fortunately, more and more rabbis are actually getting training. When I started in the rabbinate no such possibility existed. But I sensed the importance of understanding people, so I devoted a lot of time to studying on my own. It seemed to work, because people kept coming back.

But at the root of the issue is the fact that psychoanalysis, if not strongly opposed to religion (that was certainly Freud's position), is at least negatively disposed to it. All innovators go to extremes, of course. Only Carl Jung amongst the early giants seriously tried to bring religion and faith into his psychiatric world, but Freud and his followers broke with him over this and other differences. It was the subtle antireligious subtext in the early history of psychoanalysis that alienated the religious world. This explains both rabbinic disapproval and the reluctance of religious societies to take it on enthusiastically.

Sadly, I think most religious communities are badly in need of a great deal of psychotherapy. In America, at least, more Orthodox men and women are acquiring the sort of expertise that allows them to bring the best of both worlds together, but still not enough.

In Treatment perfectly illustrates the problem. Religion has disadvantages of course--conformism, claustrophobia, and social pressure more than elsewhere. But it also brings important benefits that all the characters in "In Treatment" could have benefited from, such as structure, values, and discipline. I guess if one wants to know what's wrong with both wings of Israeli society, this would be a good place to start. There's material for a thesis here!

March 23, 2008

Peter Lipton

A few months ago, a brilliant philosopher named Peter Lipton died suddenly at the age of 53. Outside of Cambridge University, where he was professor of philosophy of science and a major figure in the Reform Jewish community, he was not well known in wider Jewish circles. I contend that his contribution to the philosophy of religion directly, and to Jewish philosophy indirectly, will come to be recognized as brilliantly innovative and seminal in the years to come.

Here is a brief extract from the obituary in The Times:
The Cambridge University academic Professor Peter Lipton was a leading philosopher of science, a supremely efficient head of department and an extraordinarily gifted teacher, renowned above all for his ability to reach out and bring philosophy to a wider audience. Peter Lipton was born in 1954. In 1991 he became assistant lecturer at Cambridge University's Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Three years after arriving he was appointed full lecturer, and two years after that he became head of department. He held this position until his death, as well as that of departmental chair, bestowed on him in 1997. Lipton turned out to be an administrator of genius, bringing fully to bear the intellectual and personal qualities that so distinguished his research and teaching. Another area that came to fascinate him was the intersection of philosophy and religion. Lipton described himself as a "religious atheist" and was a practicing Reform Jew. Lipton was a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. He collapsed and died after a game of squash. He is survived by his wife and two sons. Professor Peter Lipton was born on October 9, 1954. He died on November 25, 2007, aged 53.
I have argued for a long time that Judaism has lost too many intellectuals because Jewish thinkers are still locked into the Maimonidean model. However talented many Jewish thinkers are, their ties to philosophical mindsets that are limited in time and creativity have hampered their ability to break out of a very uninspiring mental cocoon. This is why no Jewish philosopher writing as a Jewish philosopher has achieved recognition in the wider philosophical world, certainly not since Buber. You might argue that Levinas ought to be included too, but if his essays on Talmudic passages might be a contribution in one sphere, I contend that his thought makes little contribution to philosophy in the wider sense. Perhaps it is because he was French, and we Anglo-Saxons tend to view the Continentals as thinkers rather than philosophers (while I'm sure they consider us too rooted in empiricism).

Peter addressed the issues of science and religion rigorously. I remember him dismissing Jay Gould's attempt to resolve the conflict through accepting different and irreconcilable magisteria. He did not find the "never the twain should meet" either intellectually honest or sustainable.

I would not be able to do him justice by trying to encapsulate his thought or his theory of the "Immersion Solution". No doubt, if he were around to hear my attempt, he would delicately change the subject and then proceed to direct my thinking to a totally different subject altogether where he would illustrate the clarity of his thought. But, in very simplified terms, Peter starts from the position that there are different ways of looking at the world and each comes with its own assumptions. Most of us look at a table and see wood or metal, but a scientist might see molecules and fields of energy. What we see when we look down a telescope is what we have been trained to see. In other words, we are immersed in specific ways of looking at the world, and in this immersion we accept the culture, religious or scientific, with its assumptions, even when they may not be the only way of looking at the world or the text, and may not be the way most people normally understand them. Immersion gives one a way of looking at the world, and there are others. So it is not that one or the other is right or wrong; they are different and, in their ways, may be both right.

Now, Peter was not an Orthodox Jew, and his position on God and Torah was not mine. But we can take his idea of how one comes to think about religious issues in particular ways and adapt it to Orthodoxy. It might not make a great deal of difference how the Torah appears to have been written or conveyed, mystically or scientifically, or how the world was created, if you are looking at it from an immersion in Torah point of view. Immersion means that the assumptions one has absorbed or been taught about God, history, and culture have influenced the way one understands ones religion and or feels committed. You accept the assumptions of Torah culture and religion in the same way that when you experiment in a lab you accept the conventions of scientific culture. It is not that one is right and the other is wrong, or that never the twain shall meet, as Jay Gould suggests with his magisteria.

Peter rightly balked at the idea that religion should have nothing to say to science and vice versa. After all, the rabbis of the Talmud used scientific experiment and practical observation freely and easily. The tensions between science and religion appear to have developed afterwards, largely because of the theological systems that emerged. He asserted that different paradigms may overlap and inform each other and influence each other. Nevertheless, they both come from different states of immersion. Someone not immersed in another culture simply cannot understand the process.

The conflict between science and religion has tended to be resolved either by adopting one and rejecting the other, or by trying to reconcile one to the other by reinterpreting texts or modifying language. Peter's position was that one does not need to attempt either. One can be immersed in both, and value both, and accept the orthodoxies of both (or not).

Previously, I came to the same conclusion using phenomenology as a way of saying that my experience of Torah as Divine is subjective, the result of my own encounter with Torah and the way I choose to see the world. This worked on an individual level, but not as a systematic solution. Immersion covers both. That is why I find it the most satisfying philosophical resolution of the conflict that I have ever come across, and why I think his contribution is so important, and his loss so great, not just to the general philosophical world, but to the Jewish world too.

March 13, 2008

All Politics Stinks

All politics stinks. In London, Mayor Ken Livingstone has been distributing excessively overpaid jobs and freebies to his buddies and placemen. In the USA, politics functions on a national, federal level and is virtually duplicated at state level, so there is added room for monkey business. Wherever it is, the whole system is predicated on "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," (and if it's not the back, it's some other part of the anatomy), and pork barrel politics whereby if I vote for your pet useless project you'll vote for mine. The result, of course, is that political life is a constant ebb and flow of little battles to undermine, overcome, and hold onto the goodies.

In New York State, the real power has been held for years by one Joseph Bruno, a Republican state senator. When a Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, was elected, a new battle was joined. Bruno was charged with everything from misusing state personnel and funds, to providing jobs for the boys, to getting favors for his union backers, and they in turn placing funds with his investment company, and all sorts of financial shenanigans. It looked bad. An article in New York Magazine had him on the ropes.

Then, glory hallelujah, someone revealed that Eliot Spitzer was using prostitutes (and I always thought he was too clever for that; it just goes to show which part of fellow's anatomy is more powerful). Now Eliot's on the ropes. This little side show distracts from the bigger battle for president, but there too every day new stories leak this one's indiscretion with an aide and that one's corrupt financial practices, and the other's friendship with crime bosses.

The only saving grace is that it doesn't matter who gets in, the guys with money, influence, and secret information will pull the strings. This goes for policy towards Israel too. The proof is that regardless of whether there have been opponents of Israel in the White House, like Baker or Brezinski, it hasn't mattered on the ground.

I wish I, as a religious guy, could say all this is not the case with religion. Sadly, I cannot. Religion can be as dirty and dishonest as politics--and worse when the two are combined, and money and power is at stake. If only religion were free of corruption, I'd be laughing all the way to heaven. Except I suspect that long before I got to those pearly gates some clerics would have made sure I got blocked for daring to suggest they might not deserve to get through.

Merkaz HaRav Kook

The terrible massacre in Merkaz HaRav Kook last week plumbs new depths in depravity. Teenage kids sitting studying Torah, gunned down in the name of what? God? Allah? Palestine? Islam? Were they combatants? Were combatants making and firing rockets from within the yeshiva itself? Of course not. Then to see the celebrations in Gaza only confirms, even to my liberal mind, that peace is a pipedream. And no doubt Israel will be censored for creating the conditions that led to this apology for a human being doing what he did. There is too much hatred, too deep, too endemic for anything other than separation.

Yet separation has been the policy of recent years. Has it worked? In one way it has. There have been fewer homicide bombers. This is, after all, the first fatal incursion in Jerusalem for four years. It is ironic that it came from an Arab in East Jerusalem who was employed as a driver by the yeshiva. Was he forced into it? Was he blackmailed? Was it just a fatal lapse of security? A lesson that separation was not complete enough? This will only reinforce those who argue against employing any Arabs. But, like the rockets from Gaza, it reminds us that until there is peace we are in a low-grade ongoing war situation and in war everyone suffers to some degree or other.

I studied in Merkaz HaRav Kook in the early 1960's. It was the spiritual and ideological Mecca (if that is not inappropriate) of the religious Zionist movement. Mizrahi, as it was called in those days, saw itself as the heir to the ideology of the first Rav Kook (Abraham Isaac). It was in the coalition government, led by pragmatic, some would say biddable, politicians of moderate, accommodationist bent. Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the son of the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, was the titular head of the yeshiva then, though by no means its driving force. He saw himself as a dreamer, an ideologue; he surrounded himself with a small group of young rabbinic guards who were dedicated to furthering his messianic dreams and who today hold important positions throughout the country. But, because of the political power of Mizrahi, Rav Tzvi Yehuda and his acolytes were largely ignored.

After the Six-Day War, the messianic fervor that led to the settler movement and to what became known as the Charedi Leumi, the nationalist ultra-Orthodox movement, catapulted Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda into quasi-prophetic status. He and his cadre were the impetus behind the massive expansion in building on the West Bank and the national fervor that followed. They suddenly became the real Zionist pioneers. While the old secular, antireligious Zionists sat drinking coffee in Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv, these young people were following the footsteps of Abraham, settling the land promised by God. And while the black-hatted Charedi world sat refusing military service in the safety of Benei Brak, they were endangering their lives to follow the Biblical word of God to live, to fight, and to study in the actual Promised Land, itself, not a mandated substitute.

Now, once the genie of messianic nationalism is out of bottle, there is no way of getting it back in. From Kahana, to Baruch Goldstein, to Rabin's assassin, the ideology of Rav Tzvi Yehuda was an inspiration for those who refused to compromise, accommodate, or make any concessions to Palestinian aspirations. Whether Rav Tzvi Yehuda was right or wrong is open to debate. That is not the issue I am interested in here. What I find sad is that those very forces unleashed by Merkaz, which suddenly expanded exponentially and moved from its old, cramped building in the centre of town to a new campus in Givat Shaul where it is today, became the hub of the Nationalist Movement. From being a marginal influence on Israeli life, suddenly it and its pupils became incredibly influential. The Mizrahi party completely lost its moderation and moved further and further to an extreme position. It is probably true to say that this sector of Israeli society now represents an ideological elite that has enormous influence in politics and in the army where they are regarded as the fighting elite, where once the kibbutz movement was.

So, it is significant that the perpetrator of the massacre chose Merkaz. Of course, it could be an accident that the terrorist movement found someone to exploit who had convenient access just to this yeshiva. But Merkaz is the icon of diehard nationalism. What could be a more symbolic target? Of course, what it will do is to strengthen the hands of the rejectionists, of those who want no peace, no compromise, and are ready to fight to the bitter end. Maybe that was the intention of Arab rejectionists of all colors.

The religious nationalists may in the end prove to be the victors. There may be no other way. But if they are, it will be a Pyrrhic victory, for all that violence ever brings is more violence. However, if the only way to stay in one's own home is to fight, if Hamas and Hezbollah want total destruction (as they say they do, and why should one not believe them), then what else can one do?

They died studying Torah. It sounds nobler to me than going out to kill, dreaming of seventy-two virgins.

March 11, 2008

Shakespeare Protest

Here's a report that has recently hit the headlines:
Teenagers at a Jewish comprehensive school have refused to sit a Shakespeare test because they believe the Bard is anti-Semitic. Nine students at the single-sex Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School in Hackney, east London, took their stance as part of a protest against the portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. As a result, they were stripped of their marks for the English national curriculum test for 14-year-olds - and their school plummeted from top of the league tables to 274th.

The girls, supported by their parents, refused to answer any questions on Shakespeare or even write their names on the top of the paper, even though the play they were studying was The Tempest - not The Merchant of Venice.
There are so many questions unanswered here! Why did the girls refuse to sign their names? How come it was the parents taking the initiative to protest and not the school? Why did Rabbi Pinter not seem to know what was going on; isn't it the school's responsibility to protest if it feels there is a problem? Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog? Why did the girls refuse to answer questions about The Tempest which was their text, while The Merchant of Venice was not in the curriculum? Isn't it better to protest expressing exactly what is one objects to, instead of a blind refusal to respond? No wonder their points were deducted.

There are wider issues here. One is the refusal to deal with secular culture, warts and all, reflecting a certain ideology. Virtually all Western Culture is infected with Christian anti-Semitism. Of course William Shakespeare, like all Christian Englishman of his day, regarded Jews as subhuman, in league with the devil, and cursed for rejecting their saviour. It is only amazing that he is so critical of Christian hypocrisy. If one refuses to deal with anti-Semitism in English literature and culture, then one might as well stop trying to pretend one is giving a secular education that conforms to the law in order to garner state financial support. Better to be honest and refuse the pact with the devil altogether.

There is a current climate in Europe so willing to allow any minority to demand what should or should not be taught, that governments and authorities are scared to take a stand, so simply appease aggressive, evangelical monoculturalists.

If Britain is now so frightened of offending religious extremists that it removes anything from the press or the school curriculum that upsets them, or allows some doctors to refuse to do anything professionally that they do not religiously approve of, like treating alcoholics or sexual diseases, or makes concessions to religious rules on bigamy, female circumcision and abuse, then why should ultra-Orthodox Jews not demand concessions on what they find offensive?

March 09, 2008

Jimmy Carter

I have never admired Jimmy Carter, but I tended to want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I thought he might be a decent, if naïve, man who really wanted to try to bring peace to the world. I began to think otherwise when he used the emotive term "Apartheid" to describe Israeli policies. I abhor occupation on principle. I hate the policies of suicidal violence and the blind reactions they cause. I detest violence as a solution to problems, even if almost everywhere else in the universe it is allowed. But to compare Israel to South African Apartheid (and I speak as former president of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement) is to be dishonest, and to use the very terms of abuse that irrational hatred uses. It is not the discourse of genuine solution seeking.

Perhaps he only saw too much of one pain and not enough of the other. Perhaps he confused David with Goliath or Samson with the Philistines. The trouble is now he has blown his cover. Simon and Schuster, the American publishing company, sell a set of CDs by Carter entitled Bringing Peace to a Changing World in which he spews out the most unbelievable and offensive nonsense about Judaism, Jews, and Israel. He regurgitates all the old teaching of contempt for primitive, cruel Pharisaic hypocrites worshipping an angry God of vengeance. There are such basic errors of text and meaning that either he was taught by a fool or misled by a mischief-maker.

Most of the time I laugh and think it pathetic that so many Christians, even media savvy and intelligent ones like Anne Coulter, think we are doomed to hell and need to convert. Who really thinks they are superior I wonder! But I am sad to realize how much hatred of Judaism there still is, that bubbles to the surface when the lid of outward civilization is removed. For all the recent popes have done to try to change things, at Christian grassroots the old animosities clearly remain.

To be fair, no one is immune from religious name-calling. We also have our clichés about non-Jews drinking anti-Semitism in with their mothers' milk, and all goyim being drunk and/or violent, delighting in burning heretics at the stake, and actually believing in such nonsense as Virgin Birth, all Muslims being homicidal and falling for Mohammad dreaming about God speaking to him. There is still far, far too much rubbishing, and denigrating of others.

The sad thing, of course, is that the media love to focus on the bad and rarely the good. No one seems to talk about all the wonderful things that are being done by individuals, organizations, and charities in Israel to bridge gaps, work with the suffering, and help the distressed of all races, religions, and political creeds. There is so much good that never gets reported.

Here's an example of people being constructive. It's called the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. "In an unusual joint appearance," reported Reuters, "senior Israeli and Palestinian religious leaders declared that they were not a roadblock to peace in the Middle East but a vital part of the process."
"Dressed in traditional religious garb, the chief rabbis of Israel sat alongside Muslim leaders and Christian patriarchs and said they had agreed on steps to help resolve the conflict.

'It is our responsibility to find the right way to live together in peace rather than to fight and kill one another,' the leaders, who make up the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, said in a joint statement."
According to a news release, "The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land grew out of the Alexandria Declaration of January 21, 2002 in which Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders made a "commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right to life and dignity" in the Holy Land. They announced then that they would establish a committee to engage with their respective political leadership to pursue specific steps toward this end. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Supreme Shaaria Courts in the Palestinian Authority and Waqf, and the Christian Ordinaries in Jerusalem (including the three Patriarchates and two bishoprics) formed such a committee." There is a tendency in certain Orthodox Jewish circles to rubbish interfaith initiatives. But thank goodness there are enough Orthodox rabbis who ignore the ostriches.

Here's another recent example. There's a Jewish high school basketball team in Denver, Colorado which was refused permission, last week, to reschedule a game due to be played on Shabbat. You would have thought that in the great and free United States this would be no problem. Sadly, petty officials refused. Now the national Islamic advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in Washington, has come out publicly in support of the Jewish team. Despite all the tensions that exist between Muslims and Jews because of the Middle East, it's nice and positive that on matters of common interest they can get together.

Religion gets blamed for almost everything, and sadly every religion has its small-minded, closed-minded fanatics. Thank goodness they are not all like Jimmy Carter. Focus on good deeds, Jimmy, and think before you do any more harm. What does it say about the "Road to Hell?"

March 04, 2008

Residents of Sderot

According to the Jerusalem Post (Itamar Sharon, Feb.27), residents of Sderot, the town continuously under attack from Palestinian-fired rockets from Gaza, have gone to the Israeli Supreme Court to ask why the army refused to buy the proven Nautilus anti-rocket defense system, which is readily available in the US. The fact that the army makes decisions in Israel that override the democratically elected government is worrying. Then when things don’t work out because of their incompetence (Winograd), they blame the politicos (not that I have much truck for them either).

For years now I have heard whispers of the power that billionaire arms dealers have in influencing army decisions. What weapons are bought is often a matter of who gets how much kickback. If the army does make the decisions, and if there are army top brass with a vested interest in not using defensive equipment instead of offensive tactics, then I fear far more for the ethical future of Israel than I did.

March 03, 2008

In Reply To Atheists

I have been reliably informed by friends who attended a recent series of debates between believers and atheists that the atheists won, hands down. In one way this upsets me, as a believer. But in another way I am delighted that false or inadequate arguments are shown up for what they are. In pursuit of truth, even arguments that appear to win a debate must be shown to be wrong if they are. The God Squad has tended to argue that religious people are generally better and that religions have brought more good than evil to the world. I have to say I am on the side of the atheists here.

There is absolutely no area of human activity I can think of, no ideal or dream, which has not been systematically plundered and destroyed by its most faithful adherents in the pursuit of power and triumph. Whether it is football, politics, art, music, or tiddlywinks. (I must tell you sometime about the Cambridge University Tiddlywinks Club in 1963.) When humans get involved they fight over the pettiest of things, argue over minutiae, and turn everything into a power struggle where the original goals and dreams become distorted. Sadly, religion is the same.

It might be argued that no one has yet bested the true and tested, so-called Ten Commandments as the moral touchstone of society, and they are a product of religion. One could counter that that several thousand years of their integration into the morality of human societies of all sorts have so distanced them from the original inspiration to have made them (minus the parts about God, of course) almost human nature. Some, indeed, argue that human nature is intrinsically good. This is codswallop--otherwise primitive tribes in Papua New Guinea would not be warmongering cannibals.

I do believe that humans need a moral system that overrides human mental ingenuity. As Hobbes said, humans left to their own devices are nasty and brutish. And the more intelligent are capable of justifying almost anything (as it was once said of Bertrand Russell, "The Higher the Brow, the Lower the Loins"). But still the contribution of morality neither proves the existence of God nor does it make up for the sins of religion, any more than do great works of architecture (built on the bodies of thousands), art, or music do.

If it were simply that atheists attacked religious abuse or credulity I'd be with them almost all the way. The weakness of their position lies simply in the arrogance of claiming to know what is not and could never be. Agnosticism is one thing. It is reasonable to say that one does not know anything about what people call God and has had no direct experience of anything spiritual or Divine, that one imagines death to be the end, like finally falling asleep. But to say, "I know there is absolutely nothing else in the universe beyond what I experience," is to arrogate the very omniscience they complain about in God.

If believers are guilty of wishful thinking, atheists are guilty of wishful doubting. Imagine I said to you, "There is no such thing as love. I can understand physical attraction and the pleasure of sex, but love is myth. It does not make any sense and it is responsible for countless deaths and agonies and tortures." You would laugh and say, "Well, clearly you have never been in love." Indeed, to someone who has never experienced God it is as meaningless as trying to describe the taste of butter to someone who has never tasted it. Impossible, of course, but that doesn’t mean butter cannot have a taste.

Atheists love to make fun of religious rituals. They are an easy target, but then so too are all conventions, rituals, and ceremonials of royalty, clubs, and societies. Most human rules and regulations are petty and infuriating. It is easy to make fun of a gentleman showing courtesy to a lady, or indeed eating with a knife and fork instead of his fingers. If it is claimed that ceremonies like male circumcision (totally different from female circumcision, because no sense or organ is permanently removed or incapacitated) impose inestimable psychological and physical damage on defenseless children, I would argue our societies do far more lasting damage by allowing people to get married without preparation and by imposing parental neuroses on innocent children, not to mention corporal punishment and child abuse. And if we balk at seeing animal slaughter then we ought to ban all killing of all animals for human food and be done with. But until we do, and until we have irrefutable scientific evidence of pain experienced rather than guesswork, which we do not, it cannot be used as an argument against religion alone.

The debate is healthy. Religious fundamentalists tend to be both arrogant and intellectually sloppy. So a good challenge is necessary. But the challengers need to be pricked too. False arguments are not going to do it. I do not believe there is any watertight proof of the existence of God. This doesn’t mean God does not exist. Empirical physical or scientific proofs are for the physical world, not the spiritual. Even if in the past great minds thought they had proofs, in all humility I assure you they did not. But God can survive absence of proof just as much as love defies logic, yet thank goodness most of us continue to fall head over heels at last once in our lives.

I had a very useful and valuable debate with the English philosopher Anthony Grayling at YAKAR in London in 2002. We ended most amicably with an appreciation of both points of view, and that’s how it should be. Victory is often an accident of debating skills. Valid arguments survive.