Monday, December 7, 2009

WSJ Letter on Quran: Religion and Randomness

I've written about religion and randomness before, but I don't think I've published the following post. Here you go:

From the WSJ's letters section, A18, December 10, 2008:

One of the most important verses in the Quran reads, "Those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does good, they have their reward with the Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve." (Surah 5, verse 69) ... I know of no other religion as inclusive as Islam. In Sura 2, verse 256, the Quran commands, "Let there be no compulsion in religion..." -- Donald A. Jordan, Doha, Qatar

Some people allege the Quran appears to be more inclusive than Christianity. See, for instance, Matthew 11:27:

All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.

There are, however, two ways of interpreting this verse. One interpretation equates it with the Quranic verses above, which require belief in the one Abrahamic God and therefore also Jesus and Judgment Day to achieve piety. Another interpretation is more restrictive and can be used to argue that only Christians are able to achieve God's good graces. Certainly, there are plenty of verses in the Torah, Bible, and Quran to lend support to any particular philosophy, but any competent analysis of religion must consider the following:

Religion is determined, most of the time, by the accident of birth. For example, if you are born in Israel, you are most likely to practice Judaism or secularism rather than Buddhism. You can cite similar examples ad infinitum--e.g., if you are born in Malaysia the year 2009, you are most likely to practice Islam rather than Judaism; if you are born in Poland, you are most likely to practice Christianity instead of Islam, etc.

But as far as a child is concerned, being born in a particular place is an accident. Therefore, a system that requires belief only in one particular religion to achieve piety is basing a child's fate primarily on chance and parental decision (or, in some cases, another "accident"). Yet, no reasonable philosophy can elevate chance or other people's random actions as primary factors in achieving piety. Therefore, unless God is unreasonable, either all religions or no religion is required to achieve piety or good graces.

In short, assuming God is just, no just God would allow the accidental factor of birth to play such a substantial (and almost determinative) part in a person's fate or opportunity to achieve piety.

In addition, if God predates religion, and religion is required to achieve piety, then all human beings prior to organized religion had no chance of achieving piety. But this conclusion is absurd. Some human beings prior to the introduction of religion must have acted in ways that we would now consider religious or that allowed them to fall into God's good graces.

Therefore, assuming God is just and reasonable, a person's behavior and actions--not his/her religion--must be the primary factors in determining his/her piety.

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