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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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