In “Do We Need Faith?” [Nov. 15/22], Barbara Sostaita notes that the faith of many victims of injustice helps them to survive and emboldens them to confront the powers that be. Phil Zuckerman admits that religion sometimes serves social justice, but contends that reason, when “wedded to humanist values,” has produced results “better than what religion can muster alone.”
Both debaters make valid points, which is possible because they refer to different segments of the religious spectrum. Zuckerman apparently thinks of the religious right and those whose otherworldly faith shuns political engagement. His indictments of these groups are well-deserved, but his qualifying words are telling. Yes, religion alone is impotent—if we mean religion divorced from the realities of earthly existence. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the original function of faith was inextricably linked to social justice, as evidenced in the economic provisions of the Torah, the oracles of the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus’s solidarity with the poor. It is disgusting that this emphasis has been obscured by segments of the religious populace, but the values Zuckerman celebrates are demonstrably derivative of religious sources.
If religion alone is impotent, the same is true of reason alone, which is presumably why Zuckerman extols it when joined with humanist values. Reason needs both a starting point and a goal outside itself. Yes, it gave us the Covid-19 vaccines; it also gave us weapons of mass destruction. Because there is no logical path from “is” to “ought,” neither reason nor science can provide us with values, but that is precisely what religion seeks to do.
Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus
Re “People Watching” [Nov. 15/22]: In her engaging review of Mark Harris’s Mike Nichols: A Life, Lindsay Zoladz writes, “[Elaine] May was one of the only famous female comics of her time, which meant Nichols was virtually the only famous male comic with an ego sturdy enough to share the stage each night with a blazingly talented woman.” This is true only if one ignores television: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Audrey Meadows and Jackie Gleason, and Gracie Allen and George Burns shared the screen. Solo female acts from that era include Eve Arden, Betty White, and Phyllis Diller. While these great female comics made fun of women’s subordinate role, they never explicitly rejected it.
May’s uniqueness in the late ’50s/early ’60s comedy scene lay in her being an independent, strong-willed comedienne, equal to her stage partner within the bits they performed. Her avant-garde status in the late ’50s was also unique. (Zoladz’s comparison to Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce is apt.) She laid the groundwork for the generation of great female comics that came of age in the ’60s, including Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, and Goldie Hawn.