Humanistic Judaism, Fall, Winter 1974-75
An enthusiastic modernist asked me recently if I thought that the advance of science and empirical procedures would usher in the possibility of a world religion. If, with the exposure of the masses to secular education, acceptance of humanist message becomes fairly universal, then the basis of a genuine unity exists. While traditional religions with their closed methodologies of faith created exclusive cultural enclaves, the new humanism, characterized by an anti-dogmatic and responsible openness, would enable men of radically different backgrounds to hurtle their home barriers and merge into the religion of mankind.
The heady optimism that characterizes this question was not unique to my questioner. Over a century ago the naive exponents of free-thinking imagine that the use of reason, once widely spread, would prove the key to a universal ideology in which all men would participate. However, they cannot be too severely condemned, for, after all, naïveté was the mood of the era. Even a contemporary Rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, was proclaiming, in all seriousness, that by the beginning of the 20th century Reform Judaism and a purified Hebrew monotheism would have won the world.
The problem is that the question I received contained a hidden promise. The asker assumes that scientific humanism is one religion. He assumed that, if all men embrace the empirical approach, all meaningful controversy would be ultimately resolvable. While men may disagree about conclusions when evidence is meager, the responsibility to public experience will enable men to agree when evidence becomes overwhelming. (After Magellan’s crew sailed around the planet, it was pretty impossible to maintain that the earth was flat.) Thus, disagreement is theoretically only temporary. Time and patience will heal all arguments and reduce men to increasing unanimity of opinion. Controversy will never cease, but each disagreement is conceivably “settleable” by a set of imagined experiences. The logical possibility of a single conclusion makes unity possible.
If religion were concerned with information about man in the universe alone, then one would have to assert that empiricism provides the basis for a universal religion. But, of course, it’s primary concern transcends information and reaches out to evaluation. Religion has historically, although not uniquely, been concerned with the question of meaning in life; and meaning, or purpose, is a function of ultimate values and final goals. The discovery of an achievement of those value and has been a persistent driving traditional religion and secular philosophy.
Now, certainly, most of our values can be empirically determined. Because the vast majority of our ethical judgment or involved with means and not ends, they are extrinsic. An activity that had extrinsic value is never good in itself; it is good for achieving some other action or experience that is “self-validating:” that needs no justification beyond itself. Science can conceivably answer all questions of extrinsic value. If the empiricist knows the goal, and if he has available the relevant data, he can determine what procedures are necessary to achieve the goal. But he could not demonstrate that any end is worth pursuing, simply for its own sake. While he may lead his student to experiences he personally finds intrinsically meaningful, and teach him how to achieve them, he cannot prove their value from his own perception of the student himself.
Intrinsic or ultimate value is not a proper subject for scientific demonstration. Science may do a statistical survey on what ultimate values people do have. They cannot, however, make a list of ultimate values people ought to have. Science may open up a host of new activities which individuals may find meaningful and self-justifying; it cannot, however, demonstrate their meaningfulness. Final values are the result of personal intuition. To talk about them is to talk about a personal situation, not a universal one. Each individual, through his own experience, finds those actions and passions he wishes to repeat.
It is, therefore, obvious that all humanists, no matter how united on a method for the discovery of informational truth, will not find the same “meaning” in life. Unless we assume against the personal testimony we daily encounter, that all men share the same ultimate values, you will have to conclude that among humanists a variety of different “religions” may exist, each religion a function of a unique set of values.
Of course, it is possible for two people to share the same ideas about the intrinsic merits of certain experience and still not share the same religion. The difference lies in the ordering. Even if both individuals find ultimate meaning in the act of compassion and in the act of intellectual discovery, one person may regard compassion as the more significant while the other may view intellectual discovery as qualitatively superior. There are degrees of intrinsic value; and the discernment of degrees is again both personal and intuitive. One humanist, on the basis of his value order, may prefer to devote the major part of his life to the cause of social justice, and only a small part to academic pursuits, while another may prefer the thrill of pure your research and indulge asocial crusade now and then. Neither humanist is expressing the humanistic value order. Each of them simply reflects a different temperament.
Even if all men become humanists (which is highly unlikely) organized religion would still reflect these differences of “temperament”. Even if all humanists came to endorse the same side of ultimate values, the religious expression would still have to deal with the fact that the same values may be ordered differently. Some congregations would be primarily devoted to you in the mystic experience; others to the thrill of understanding the operation of the universe. Some would prefer to build their program around the kinesthetic pleasure of song and dance; others to emphasizing help for the underprivileged. Available religious society would be committed to do more than the empirical method; it would be billed on a sense of shared meaning, a set of final values that call into a certain order of emphasis. The personality of a congregation like that of an individual is determined by its value structure; and this structure provides a basis for organized activity.
Value imperialism of the disease that good humanists resist. To assume that the welfare of mankind requires a single set of moral ends which the young must be educated to accept is to cultivate self-righteousness and to frustrate the creation of a workable society. It might be eco-satisfying to know that “my” values are the values; but it breeds the danger that “I” will treat contemptuously alternative moral choices. To assume, as many modern Christian humanists do, that all men ought to accept a radical and suffering love as their primary ethic is to project the personal side of ultimates onto the universal scene and violate the obvious uniqueness of individual taste and temperament. Love as a secondary motif might give life a different meaning from love is a primary motive (and, therefore, provide a different religion); it but it is consistent with an empirical outlook.
Thus, world united by its commitment to the scientific method and its rejection of intuition as a valid means to information truth will still spawn and sustain a variety of religions, each religion a derivative of how individuals and groups perceive the character and order of their values.
In fact, the variety may be further increased by another factor, the factor of aesthetics. Two humanists may share the same life goals and therefore share the same religion and yet choose to symbolize and dramatize their commitment to different poetries. The consistent Christian humanist may fully acknowledge that the validity of the values Jesus proclaimed are independent of the fact that he proclaimed them and may further admit that many other historic figures preached pretty much the same message, and still choose to use the figure of Jesus as the personal symbol of his ethical commitment. Alternative symbols are possible, but none is as compelling for him.
The Jewish humanist will readily admit that his value system does not depend on prophetic or Talmudic endorsement for its validity, and yet he will choose to use certain events in Jewish history as dramatizing of these commitments. Alternative poetry is certainly available, but for him no other possibility has the same emotional impact. He certainly has no objection to using items in other poetic traditions. It’s just that, since he desired to devote only a limited amount of time to symbolism in ceremony, he would prefer to use one set of related symbols well, rather than a variety of culturally unrelated symbols superficially.
One can conceive of a host of different poetic styles to express a given side of religious values. On a theoretical value, that difference in aesthetics would not make a difference in religion; but, on the practical, or organized level, it would provide an emotional basis for separate development. Aesthetic modes are not easily merged, because they are so tied up with the pleasures of what is visible and audible. Moreover, certain options may possess a kind of intrinsic value for those to use them.
This observation confirms the “problem” our optimistic questioner faces. While the world of the future may, therefore, see the continuing advance of science and empirical thinking; and while it may witness a general disintegration of the theoretically oriented religious denominations, the emergence of one system of value meaning is highly unlikely. In fact, technological this already, with its opportunities for leisure and study will hide in the sense of individuality and provide within the framework of a comment with method, a wide variety of ethical and aesthetic alternatives.