Selection bias is a famous cognitive bias, whereby you can only consider the outcomes that have actually survived to be considered. For example, if you look at the buildings across these Isles that were built more than 200 years ago, you’ll find very few weak wooden buildings, and a lot of very strong stone buildings.
This is not because all buildings 200 years ago were very strong stone buildings. It is because all the weak buildings have been destroyed over the intervening period. They’ve rotted away, they’ve burned away, they’ve been knocked down and replaced. Thus, the buildings that survive are unusually strong, and not representative of the building standards of the 18th century.
The same principle applies to ideas. The ideas that have survived for hundreds – or thousands – of years are probably pretty resilient. They’ve been challenged by humans for literally hundreds of generations, and the ideas that have withstood those challenges are likely to be pretty strong.
The ideas of the Old Testament and Judaism are one such group of ideas. Many people – from the ancient Babylonians, the ancient Persians, the ancient Romans, the medieval Christians, the modern Athiests, have tried to destroy Judaism, and they have failed. That implies some degree of strength in the ideas of Judaism (an alternative explanation, of course, is that God is looking out for them! I’ll leave that to you to consider if you feel that way!).
Last week was the celebration of Purim, a Jewish celebration of escaping one such attempted genocide: in ancient Persia. This podcast by Eli Lake is an excellent discussion of the wisdom of the Book of Esther, which is unusual amongst the books of Hebrew Bible (and the Old Testament) in that it does not mention a key character: God. Instead, the Book of Esther tells the story of human political intrigue in the ancient Persian empire.
In that context, this podcast also features an excellent discussion about why evil happens in the world, and why evil is the required contrast of love. It discusses the issue from a position of humble wisdom: the humility of recognising that our answers are insufficient to explain terrible events in human history.
This podcast discusses both the story of Purim, and associated ethical tangents at great length, and does so in a manner which is very accessible to modern and secular audiences. If you want to learn a little about a strong and resilient idea, you should do yourself a favour and listen.
By happy coincidence, Purim this week coincided with International Women’s Day. In many respects, the Book of Esther is the story of a woman who rises from being oppressed and trafficked, into becoming a woman who exerts great power wisely, and helps to avert a genocide. May all our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and women be heroes of humanity like Esther.