A major component of my case for abandoning religious life was the realization that religious law constitutes the complete abdication of ethical responsibility. Around 1500 years ago the Jewish sages recorded the rough drafts of Jewish law, later organized and codified, and these laws, no matter how antiquated they become, are considered permanent; settled law as they say. As the world and our society evolve, the original laws are merely extrapolated and applied to modern circumstances, and the more they evolve in inexplicable and capricious directions, the more loosely and dubiously the laws are applied. For instance, biblical and rabbinical injunctions concerning the use of fire and other activities on the Sabbath in ancient times are applied to the use of automobiles and televisions on the Sabbath today.
One is first struck by the laws that are most obviously superannuated such as the barbaric laws against heresy, compulsory genital mutilation, the separation of menstruating women, and the various methods of being put to death. These are enough to wend your way on a journey toward secular humanism, but my skepticism became more acute as I witnessed people abscond to the bookshelf or the Rabbi when faced with questions about basic human behavior and propriety. I recall being at my in-law’s once watching my father-in-law and brother-in-law flip through a book of Jewish law to satisfy my question about waiting for the women to join us at the table before breaking bread. I remember thinking that my parents taught me basic courtesy and having to seek the answer to such a question was worthy of derision. I said just as much and my protest was received with great confusion. When they determined that they should make the blessings without my wife at the table, I boycotted and refused to make the blessing. That was met by serious bewilderment. The episode set my mind on a course.
This issue really came to a head recently at a religious friend’s house. Someone at the table started talking about self driving cars; how they work, and how they are being used in California. I don’t know much about technology, but I’ve listened to Sam Harris talk about artificial intelligence on his podcast enough times to feel like I could add to the direction of the conversation and fulfill my social obligation. I brought up a question about self driving cars similar to one I heard Sam Harris offer a guest on one of his episodes. I asked how we would program morals and ethics into these machines. How will a self driving car one day make the split decision whether to hit a group of school children or sacrifice itself over a cliff instead? I thought this was a great question to discuss. I mentally simulated a face-palm in my mind when I was told that we had to see what the sages wrote. He just as soon said that as he lamented the fact that federal and state legislation is unlikely to consider what the Jewish sages wrote. I deserved this, I should have known it was coming – conversation over. We will not think about the ethical implications of the future, and we will not discuss it. Why not? Because we are not allowed to. The law will not allow it. They wrote everything we need to know 1500 years ago and that is final. (It is worth pointing out as an aside, that the sages, when discussing the law all those centuries ago, were clearly considering biblical implications in their own time. They discussed the laws of making wine based on the method of making wine in the time and place they lived. I am pointing this out because I am not certain that the sages at that time agreed that their legal assertions should be final and unchanged. I believe that to a certain extent, later fundamentalists decided that for them. That being said, there is however a demarcation of original biblical law that cannot be encroached.) Every such conversation about modern ethics is abandoned the same way. We have a responsibility to consider our actions in a quickly changing, and I must say shrinking, world. The religious have abdicated that responsibility and it is in itself unethical.
As I slowly evicted religion from my mind, it was slowly replaced, and the point of evicting superstition and belief was to replace it with the truth. Embracing the truth is not just a return serve to the belief in god, but to every aspect of life that religion sought to occupy. I couldn’t just seek to replace one mental compartment with the truth, I have an obligation to the truth now. I identified tribalism and confirmation bias at the base of all my beliefs and opinions wherever they lay on the truth spectrum. My mind was opened – I needed to rethink everything.
As a gym rat I believed that animal protein was the best quality protein and the optimal way to build strength and muscle. I still think there is some truth to that. I adopted a lot of gym culture and was influenced by a lot of disparaging propaganda about vegetarians and vegans. Some of my favorite professional weight lifters have said they would never work with a vegan. I know that at some point in human history we started eating large amounts of animal protein, and that this increase likely jettisoned human intelligence and creativity. I know that primitive humans did not enjoy the same food quantity and nutritional diversity that we do today. However, we’ve come to understand more about the sentience of certain animals and the range of suffering that they can experience. Unfortunately, by the time we all realized this, and applied it lovingly to our pet dog and cat, the horrors of factory farming animals for billions of meat eaters was already in full swing. Modern American society is privileged with unprecedented access to food and nutritional science, and I have decided to personally take advantage of it. I can receive what I need nutritionally (Hell, I can even sit down in a fancy vegan restaurant) and not participate in treating sentient animals as inanimate commodities. Personally, the cost of my convictions here seems, to me, rather cheap. From a religious perspective, a religious Jew will always argue that we must eat meat. It is a commandment for enjoyment on the Sabbath, and when the Messiah comes, sacrifices will again be practiced, and the meat must be roasted and eaten. They will also invariable make mention of the Pesach sacrifice represented on the seder plate. So a religious Jew is preemptively cut off from considering or even becoming conscious of the meat industry, we could legitimately say, as early as the first biblical sacrifice.
I keep saying “personally” to stress that I am not trying to make the case for veganism or convince anyone of it. I am only making the case that casting off antiquated religious convictions allowed me to consider how to live the best life I can live. I am satisfied with my options as a vegan in NYC, and the cost once again does not seem too taxing, so I am thrilled to have been able to make this decision for myself. My food source is not the only thing I’ve amended due to ethical considerations, in fact my politics have changed drastically. As I’ve said I am thrilled about the change, but the most thrilling part was the toil of learning and thinking; reconsidering. I can only describe it as removing a long time clamp from some kind of nerve and being hit with instant and unprecedented sensation. Looking back on all the weird stages of my life, it is clear to me that I have always embodied the Socratic imperative: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” What better way for me to live my life right now than to consider how to live the most ethical and fulfilling life that I can?
Often when I produce some sort of criticism against Jewish ethics, the person I am speaking to will neglect to defend their ethics, and simply inform me that the book is closed. After exhaustingly identifying the plethora of moral issues in the world today I simply say; “sorry friend – BOOK OPEN.”
“We have examined a number of ethical issues. We have seen that many accepted practices are open to serious objections. What ought we to do about it? This, too, is an ethical issue.”
― Peter Singer, Practical Ethics