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Religion v. Secularism? Let’s Skip This Fight.

July 20th, 2008by Gershom Gorenberg · 10 Comments · Judaism and Religion

A guest post from Sam Fleischacker, Chicago philosopher and honorary resident of South Jerusalem (Thanks, Sam!):

A conferee at the Madrid interfaith conference called by King Abdullah said on the radio last week that he thinks religious people of all faiths should unite against the threat posed to them by secularists. As a religious Jew myself, I applaud the call for unity, but deplore this basis for unity. Religious people should unite with one another, but will only continue to wreak havoc if they take secular people as their enemy. They will also harm themselves: the secular world is good for religion.

What can religious people gain from living in a secular world? Well, for one thing, the fact that we have a community around us that is not dominated by our co-religionists allows us, if we ever decide that our religion is wrong or confused, to change it or become secular. The existence of a realm to which we don’t need to bring our religious commitments allows us to examine those commitments freely, and alter them if we think necessary. The secular world provides a break from religion, a place in which one can, if only metaphorically, stop and catch one’s breath from one’s religious passions, and assess them in a cooler fashion.

This break will enable some to stop being religious, or become a more liberal member of their religion, or convert from one religion to another. Others will at most allow consider doing these things, and then return to the religious commitment they had with renewed fervor. But the mere fact that this opportunity is available, the mere fact that one can, if one wants, drop one’s religious commitments or alter them or convert, reassures us that the commitments we have, when we are not dropping or changing them, are freely chosen. The secular world thus guarantees the freedom of my own religious beliefs – which makes them more truly religious, less a product of fear or ignorance or habit.

There are also a number of cognitive advantages, for the religious project, of living among secular people. Just as it is always helpful to get the advice of an uninvolved outsider when trying to figure out what to do in a charged personal situation, so it can be helpful to get factual information, even on matters relevant to one’s religious beliefs, from people who are not caught up in one’s religious passions. I want to learn about the physics and chemistry and biology of our world, and about human history, from people who are not committed to a religion (at least in their work on those subjects); I trust them to be more objective than I or my co-religionists would be about such matters. On subjects other than metaphysics, and the question of what, overall, our lives are for, religious people seek information in ways that we share with all other human beings, whether or not they share our religious commitments, and in ways that are best pursued by abstracting from ethical commitments, by striving for objectivity.

I might put this point in religious terms by saying that God wants us to come to Him only through a community of humanity that He created as cognitive siblings: as creatures who need to work together, independently of their views about Him, to seek knowledge. Perhaps the religious significance of this essentially non-religious cognitive process is to ensure that we eventually bring everyone else to God; perhaps it is to ensure that love of God does not lead us to lose our love of humanity; perhaps it is to make sure we recognize that the super-natural God we worship created the natural world; or perhaps it ensures precisely that we recognize God as radically different from the natural world. I’m not sure. But I am quite sure, as a religious person, that God meant me to find most of my knowledge in the secular ways, not by way of His direct revelation – that the divine teaching He has given me, indeed, gains clarity and power by standing in and against the light of our secular knowledge.

I am also convinced that God meant me to determine most of my relations to my fellow human beings – my morality – in interaction with those fellow human beings, rather than via revelation. We cannot expect to build a community of trust and friendship in which we can bring each other, freely, to the love of God unless we first have decent relationships with one another that were not predicated on a love for or belief in God. We cannot, indeed, maintain even our religious community – for Jews, the community in which Torah is studied – without such pre-religious virtues. How else can we resolve disputes over religion, in our community, fairly and peacefully? Again, there is an explicitly religious way of putting these points: God, Who created us all and loves and respects us all, wants us to love and respect each other directly, not just as a consequence of our relations to Him, and to bring each other to Him out of that love and respect, not out of fear or shame or blind obedience.

Revelation does not replace secularized reason; it grafts itself, rather, onto a way of thinking and acting that we develop independently. That doesn’t mean that the secular realm is wholly adequate in itself, that divine teachings add nothing of significance to them. But what is missing in the secular world, what it cannot accomplish, comes out clearly only when we give it free rein to demonstrate what it can accomplish. Only then does the true gift of revelation (matan Torah) come out. God’s Word is uncanny, sublime, Other, to our ordinary human expectations, and it appears in its sublimity only when we allow it to set itself against our ordinary way of being.

I cannot therefore join the Madrid conferee in seeing a struggle between religion and secularism. Rather, the two complement one another in a way that can enhance both. Monotheists, certainly, do not think there is any aspect of our universe that God abandons or fears. We should therefore find the spark of God in secularism, not write it off.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Yehonatan Avraham // Jul 20, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    Sam, there are two things which you overlook when you state that it is better for religious people to live in a secularized world:

    (1) The existence of unfaith around us causes religious people to be filled with a legitimate fear, both fear of their brethren and children leaving the faith, and fear of the collapse of values heralded by secularism. It is this fear that lead s religious people to quench religious innovation, and at times to irrational and immoral acts which are hurtful to the religious purpose.

    (2) There really is a contradiction of values between religion and secularism. in a recent visit to Colorado in which I spent most of my time in the capacity of American liberals. My views on abortion (termination of life should be prevented and limited as much as possible), “homosexuality”(an immoral and abhorrent deed), cremation (barbaric disrespect for the deceased) and narcotics (Murder includes poisoning of oneself) made me feel like public enemy number one. so much for living in a secular world.

    Sam, we may sometime be critical of our co-religionists, our religious leaders , and our religious societies, but that should not lead us to the illusion the the secular world is any better. it’s not.

    On a final note, considering the amount of religious bloodshed that has been inthis region since the days of Hajj Amin, I think it is better to applaud interriligious dialogue and cooperation rather than bemoan the fact that it does not comform to western individualism.

    *Full disclosure this blog may soon be paying for my bed, board, and tuition*

  • 2 Y. Ben-David // Jul 21, 2008 at 6:45 am

    No ideology makes people good or bad. I define “ideology” as a belief that certain things are true. Thus, religion can be considered an ideology. One can believe in the truth of Judaism (i.e. the Torah was given on Mt Sinai to the Jewish people through Moshe Rabbenu), or the beliefs of other religions that certain people were prophets or saviors. One can also believe that Karl Marx was the one person who completely understood the economic development of society and the the ultimate triumph of Communism.
    Marx’s ideas sound, in theory, fine…everyone sharing and working for the common good. Did it really work out that way when implemented? No, it created the most corrupt, repressive, bloodthirsty societies in history. Similarly, the combatants in the 30-years War had different ideological systems defining Christianity and they had no problem slaughtering each other. Today, in Iraq, we see Muslims, all of whom accept Muhammed as the final prophet butchering each other as well.
    Thus, we see, “ideology” does not make people good, even if it supposedly calls for this. What IS important is what Jews call “middot”, i.e. character. Doest the Jewish believer take from the religious ideology he believes in the imperative to DO good, and not just BELIEVE the right things? Also, is he TOLERANT of those who don’t agree with him?
    People ask how different groups who have different religions can live together in peace if each believes his religion is the true one. The answer is that the major religions believe that all the other main religions accept basic truths about G-d and man, even if they disagree with the details (how was G-d’s revelation made and to whom) and as long as everyone agrees on these things they can live in peace, and indeed, different religions have co-existed in peace throughout the ages, in spite of the outbreaks of intolerance and wars.
    Do fanatical atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens have this tolerance? They seem to disparage those who don’t agree with them. If they were given power, would they institute a police state in order to enforce their “enlightened” ideology?

    In the end, it does seem that, in spite of all the flaws of the different religious communities in the world through the ages, religious people HAVE been more successful in imparting these good “middot” on their followers than have been the secular ideologues. As Dennis Prager has asked: “if you were walking down a dark alley and you saw two big men walking towards you, would you feel better if you knew they had just come out of Bible study class, or a tavern or porno movie?”

  • 3 george a.hilborn // Jul 21, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    Define secular ;thats the problem. That’s like Americans what class they are and 90% will say middle class.Some the kindest , most humane and tolerant of my friends are atheists ,some of which are also gay.Thank G-d Hitchens is just an atheist and not a religious fanatic.I think he is just a big mouthed “pain in the a-s” who gets too much media exposure and says little of value.

    There is a big gap between believes and religion. Most of the conflicts arise out of believes not religion If we go to the fundamentals members of the three great religions all believe in the G-d of Abraham after that it’s a ” free for all” If we all can have a believe in this invisible all- omnipotent G-d why can’t we believe that he had a higher purpose for us than to spend so much time and money killing each other?

  • 4 Lyra // Jul 22, 2008 at 12:26 am

    Wonderful essay Mr. Fleischacker. Here in the United States, religious belief flourishes precisely because of the religious freedom that comes only with a secular government.

    However, I find the first two comments curious. The first writer seems to suggest that a person can’t have an abortion or be gay AND also be “a religious person”. This seems to suggest that only those who believe as the writer believes should be considered religious, and that would be a ridiculous and bigoted view to hold.

    The second writer states “religious people HAVE been more successful in imparting these good “middot” on their followers than have been the secular ideologues.” I think this is also a false view, and I would suggest he review a contemporary Humanist Manifesto” to further his understanding of nontheistic moral values.

    And I should also point out that while I agree with his distaste for the style of Dawkins and Hitchens, and believe they defeat their purposes with their vitriol, by far and away, all over the world, it is the non-religious who suffer disparagement, as the writer proves when he draws a false paraelle of the tavern customer and the x rated film viewers equated with non-theistic people.

  • 5 anonymous // Jul 22, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Mr. Y. Ben David. In your reply, you might have gotten a thing or two right, but most of it is complete and utter RUBBISH!

    Firstly,to have a certain ideology, is not only to believe in a certain truth, but also a different course of action. One may believe in socialism, but that is not the full ideology, how they put this Belief into action is also part of their personal ideology.

    Secondly, the connection between the subjects in your reply is frail, that is to say your reply is a endless mumbo jumbo of facts and non-facts hurled at Mr. Sam Fleischacker post. you may disagree with Mr. Fleischacker, but simply hurling fruitless information as a reply is a very silly way to express your beliefs.

    Thirdly, saying things like that the Muslims are “butchering” each other, is not politically correct, and is an insulting and unintelligent way to say things. You should have minimal respect for others, to say the very least.

    And lastly, as to the tolerance you mention: Judging from your previous replys and this one, where you are commonly radical, fanatical, and even childish, you are unfit to say a thing as to tolerance, something you quite obviously lack.

    Have a good day.

  • 6 Shiiz // Jul 22, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Interesting.

  • 7 Clif // Jul 22, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Sam said, “I might put this point in religious terms by saying that God wants us to…”

    There’s the rub the makes me back away from any religion: a claim to know the mind of God.

    As one whose father was ordained and who was raised with religion, I know how powerful it can be to watch many people worshiping, praying, chanting in unison, saying the same things repeatedly. It is mesmerizing on a child, independent of content.

    It took me years to break free of the powerful effect and realize that the Pope and the man on the street are no different in their claims to know the mind of God.

    Let anyone believe as he or she wishes and congregate with those who feel the same without restriction, but let diversity reign for only in that way is there freedom.

    Sam, thank goodness there is secularism for us to step back, as you put it.

    Carl Sagan said science is a candle in the darkness. With competing claims to know the word of God and refusal to admit the possibility of error in those claims, we are lost without any common foundation in the real world of facts. The darkness waits to swallow us up once again when we decide what we believe is unquestionable and put God’s name behind it.

  • 8 Y. Ben-David // Jul 23, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Clif-
    People have an ability to understand what G-d wants from us if we admit that the G-d who “went out of his way” to create would also want us to know how to live. This leads us to revelation, prophecy and the such. For Jews, it is found in the Torah, other religions have their sources as well. It also requires that we ackowledge the need for tolerance towards those who don’t accept our view of things. All the major religions have basic views that agree-opposition to murder, theft, deceit and other values that make civilized life possible. Since we all agree on these basic things, we can live together while disagreeing on other aspects of our individual faiths. Judaism does not require non-Jews to observe the distinctly Jewish observances, i.e. dietary laws, Shabbat pr0hibitions, etc. Judaism only demands that non-Jews observe the basic laws of civilization I mentioned above. (i.e. “the Seven Noachide Laws”). A good deal of modesty is needed in interpreting G-d’s message to the world. Although the truth is with G-d, we are all fallible in trying to interpret it…we do the best we can, but we must admit they we may be wrong and recognize that others may have a better understanding of it.

    Regarding Sagan’s “candle in the darkness”-Sagan seemed to think that religion and science were in opposition. This is not true. Although science is useful, it is not a value system unto itself. It is a tool for understanding the world around us. “Scientific thinking” is also important, but many scientists have crazy and dangerous ideas outside their own realm of specialization. For example, one of the first Nobel Prize Winners in Physics was Phillipe Lenard who became an enthusiastic follower of Hitler and Nazism, and who denounced Einstein for creating a supposedly “corrupt Jewish science” in opposition to “true Aryan Science”.
    So worship of “science” and “scientists” can be just as harmful as blind religious fanaticism.

  • 9 Randall // Jul 27, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    I believe part of the problem of equating ‘secularism’ with a-theism. Secularism could be easily interpreted as being non-religious or better described as neutral in that area. As in religion or belief system aren’t necessary to many aspects of gov’t and science. However to increasingly many people of religious bend in the USA anything is fair game to be part of religious thought. A danger to all of us. Morals aren’t something only religions can have for themselves. One of the most common canards is that a-theism is next to immorality. Considering that some of us accept things and do things forbidden by various religions , like variant sexuality not limited to strictly reproduction needs, and many other extreme limitations others would wish to force upon me and others who do not wish to be part of it. Including laws by gov’t enforced by police and including incarceration for such ‘offenses.’ The mixture of religion and state is bad for someone in that society. I have no need to force others to do anything for themselves. It is just when it is forced on me by otherwise secular laws directed at people like myself who are contrary to them.

    Also this need for worship I find troubling. I surmise it has something to do with evolution and the general structure of the human brain. Some of us are free from such and I dare say won’t survive considering the billions on planet earth who need to believe in some invisible somethings that are larger than they are and somehow better. It has been found that evolution is an ongoing process and is constantly putting out traits because the environment can change and as such traits that are optimum for survival at one time won’t be later. What I have is one such trait. We are at a critical juncture for survival of our species and if we don’t fix that which ails us we shall either return to our marginalized existence of 100,000 years ago or become extinct as the other 99% over the 3.8 (or so) billion years of life on earth. Intelligence and opposing thumbs aren’t enough for us.

    What we need for survival is to work with our differences and not use them to suppress that which we personally don’t like. To believe or not is fine with me as long as we don’t force it on each other and put it in places where it doesn’t fit like gov’t, and science. I could certainly be wrong on that about science but not concerning survival. I wish I had a greater mentality to be able to see the highest probable outcome of our past and present decisions will affect us and the biosphere we live on.

    My motto is to not directly harm others and live and let live. Maybe we can all live like that.

  • 10 Secularism is good for religion « Open Parachute // Sep 16, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    [...] Fleischaker makes these points in an article Religion v. Secularism? Let’s Skip This Fight recently posted on the South Jerusalem blog. As a religious Jew, Sam is in favour of religious [...]

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