Who gets credit for ideas?

Earlier today, I attended a virtual memorial service, streamed on YouTube. These have become more common in the age of COVID when we can’t be together in person. The image on the screen was a minuscule group of family gathered together outdoors, wearing mask, with a Rabbi standing behind a microphone. Despite the health-and-safety mandated austerity, the service was brief and beautiful.

But something in the service struck me. Three times, the Rabbi mentioned “important values from Judaism”. And my mind silently screamed out: Those aren’t Jewish ideas. They’re human ideas!

In order to be a theist, you have to believe that at some point in human history, certain humans were deemed special and chosen to receive knowledge and insight about the way the universe works, beyond what was available to the ordinary humans wandering around. In the absence of that (meaning you’re agnostic, a deist or an atheist) all we have when answering important questions about how to live, where we came from and what our purpose is, is ideas put forth by humans. Possibly very smart humans, but still just humans.

Therein lies the moral con of religion. It’s a quiet non-sequitur or sleight of hand slipped in. Humans had good ideas that many found compelling. These humans were Jewish (or Christian or Buddhist or what have you) but their names are lost to history so we will call them Jewish (or etc.) ideas. And now going forward, we want you to believe that the values put forth by [insert religion here] are more likely to be true. Therefore you should just generally assume our teachings are valid, even if we extend them to unrelated areas of science, biology or politics. And it’s a sneaky bait-and-switch.

Individual ideas need to stand up on their own. They need to be evaluated one by one. You can’t just throw up two good ones (typically this is the commandments against theft and murder with scarcely anyone able to remember what the rest of them are) and just accept everything else to be accepted.

Currently, we have accurate record keeping, so much that we can attribute good ideas to specific people. We give Shakespeare credit for coining umpteen zillion words. We don’t call it the Jewish-German theory of Relativity; we call it’ Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. In math, we can even credit the invention of the decimal point to a single person. (Look it up, he’s a neat dude.)

And this is not to take the slightest issues with the values the Rabbi was sharing. I accept them as genuinely virtuous ideas and the more people who share them, the better off we will all be. I just object to the casual name-dropping associating them with a specific religious tradition, which gently leads to the religion getting credit for inventing them. Which is why we still have this tremendous uphill battle to wrest important conversations about morality out of the hands of religious organizations.

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