Can There Be a Religion in Which the Concept of God is Irrelevant?
A HUMANISTIC RABBI’S VIEWPOINT RABBI
SHERWIN T. WINE
Humanistic Judaism Magazine June 1967
The crisis of religion today is a crisis of belief. In a scientific age when the empirical method dominates the pursuit of truth, the belief frame works that sustained conventional religious activity have collapsed. What a man believes about himself, and his universe determines how he behaves; and, therefore, a change in belief is no trivial matter.
The decline of prayer and worship among thousands of the educated middle class (who, unlike the urban proletariat, have no economic ax to grind with church hierarchy) is a direct consequence of altered belief. No man can be motivated to pray when he has lost the possibility of a personal God; and no individual can be persuaded to worship when he views all persons, objects, feelings, and forces as ideal items for analysis and measurement. If, indeed, religion is dependent on the notions of a personal deity and sacred mystery, then it will be sustained in twentieth-century America not by individual conviction, but by social inertia.
In our contemporary culture the institutions that most effectively “imitate” the historic functions of organized religion are no longer the churches and synagogues. In the areas of pageantry, pilgrimage, and wisdom prestige, the secular schools and universities have become our modern shrines. While the clergy of urban America are peripheral powers, (whose weakness is hidden by immense respectability), the academic leadership in the social, physical, and biological sciences has become the new priesthood (whose strength is disguised by the novelty of power). Much of the social reverence that used to be directed toward priestly hierarchies and church establishments is now directed toward academic institutions. The major reason for this significant shift of respect is the new belief that the university, and not the church, is the source of extraordinary power in our present society.
In fact, the issue of “extraordinary power” is the issue of religion; for all historic religions have been structured attempts to deal with those powers and forces that contemporary wisdom viewed as significant. Whatever persons or things, celestial or earthly, possessed an immense potential to implement or frustrate human happiness and survival have been of religious interest. The emotions of adoration and awesome fear are normal human reactions to confrontation with great power. Gods are not religiously interesting because they are gods; they are religiously interesting because they are powerful. Both the Epicureans and the primitive Buddhists believed in the existence of gods; and both found divinities religiously irrelevant, since the deities they believed in were helpless to influence human salvation.
Modern man is still concerned with the age-old religious question; “How do I discover and use the extraordinary powers of my universe in order to achieve my happiness?” The programs of salvation outlined by Jews, Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Confucianists, and hosts of other groups normally identified as religious, are all related to this question. It is false to assert that historic religion has been God-centered in terms of goal; it has always been man-centered and a function of human need and desire (for how else would you motivate man to follow the program?) From the point of view of most historic religions, God is a means to an end. He is overwhelmingly significant not because he is God, but because it is believed that his power and presence are indispensable to human happiness. If, on the contrary, one believes that God is powerless to influence human welfare, he is justifiably ignored as religiously irrelevant.
Moreover, the meaninglessness of life does not arise out of man’s lack of purpose or goal. All men consciously desire happiness (a favorable balance of satisfaction over frustration). The meaninglessness of life arises out of the belief that in this universe happiness is not achievable, that man’s “destiny” is frustration. Religion has historically been identified with the quest for meaning, not because it has provided man with the goal of life, but because it has affirmed that the established goal was achievable and outlined the procedures necessary for such achievement.
A viable modern religion must enable man to understand and use the significant forces within and without him that make life meaningful. The decline of traditional religion is due to the ever-increasing belief that the old religion is unrelated to the social and physical forces that count. An effective contemporary viewpoint must acknowledge this problem and must clearly direct human attention to those forces that do count. A useful religion is always open to new information and revises its schedule of significant powers on the basis of new evidence.
Under these circumstances, it is obvious that theology, as a source of information about available powers, is an anachronism. In the middle ages theology was the “queen of the sciences”; no other discipline was more important. It was universally believed that without proper knowledge of God’s desire and God’s power human salvation was not possible. Therefore, any disclosure about God was crucial. To ignore theology would be to ignore happiness; it would be a deliberate act of masochism.
But the modern world has effected a dramatic change. The contemporary university, the center of wisdom authority, is devoid of theological interest. Hosts of students pass through its discipline, vitally absorbed with the powers that influence and control their destiny, and yet with total indifference to the issue of God. Theology has become an academic irrelevance. In the practical religion of faculty and students, God has ceased to be a significant power and is, therefore, “religiously” uninteresting. He survives in most intellectual circles as a nostalgic word and as a nod to social respectability.
The “death” of theology is not something to be deplored; it was inevitable in an age which applauds the procedures of science. What is deplorable is the inability of organized religion to dispense with a study which inhibits its religious effectiveness. The repeated theological furors of the post-war years are no sign of renewed vitality; they are the noisy friction between religious vested interests and the university culture which resists them.
There are four good reasons why theology stands in the way of an effective religion.
(1) Religion should be identified with the most effective procedure for the achievement of informational truth available today. That procedure is the empirical or scientific method. The virtue of this method is that it is responsible to the structured evidence of public experience and not to the whim of personal feeling and intuition. Its additional virtue is that it is self- correcting. Since truth is a function of the evidence of sense-experience, and new experience is always forthcoming, there can be no fixed statements about the world. How man views the power structure of the universe is continually alterable. Specific conclusions can be revised without the necessity of rejecting the method that sponsored them.
While Biblical theology relied on a naive empiricism , citing unusual events, voices, apparitions, and personal conversations with God as evidence for divine reality, the classical theology that emerged in the middle ages denied the relevance of sense-experience to the demonstration of theological truth. Since God was metaphysical (beyond space-time), observable events in space-time could neither demonstrate nor refute the nature or power of God. Personal intuition and inner certainty became the sophisticated alternatives to testing by experience; and no real discussion or revision of beliefs was possible in an age when acts of faith were elevated to absolute truth. Fixed conclusions turned disagreement into heresy.
Mere freedom of expression is no corrective to the abuses of the past, because freedom without responsibility is a waste of time. Since even modern, “sophisticated”, liberal theologians resist the idea that the existence, nature, and power of God are empirical questions, theology is profitably dispensed with. A “science” that has no adequate technique for distinguishing between reality and creative fiction beyond the presence of inner certainty may provide short-run therapy but hardly long-run usefulness.
(2) The derivative powers of modern education are the result of intellectual fearlessness. Jewish anti-idolatry carried to its logical conclusion means that there is no word, idea, hypothesis, or value which a man should be afraid to reject. It also means that there is no person, place, thing, or force which a man should be afraid to investigate or measure.
However, traditional religion thrived on the category of sacredness. Sacred persons, objects, or ideas are “taboo,” dangerous to investigate and absolutely non-rejectable. The appropriate response to sacredness is not measured probing; it is the act of worship. Worship is an awesome adoration which precludes sober investigation. When a worshipper lacks information about the object of his reverence, he generally replies, “It’s a mystery,” (with all its implications of the dangerous unknown). When a scientist lacks information about the object of his research, he usually re plies, “I don’t know,” (with all its aura of pedestrian sobriety).
In an age when man has replaced worship with the techniques of analysis and free inquiry, the category of the sacred is inappropriate. Scientific man, on the basis of research, may respect persons, values, and ideas, but he cannot adore them.
The problem with theology and the whole notion of God is that the object of investigation is simultaneously an object of worship. How can one ever secure accurate and useful information about man’s relationship to a supposed deity if the object of study requires the mood of reverence and the attitude of “ga-ga.” Theology, by its very nature, violates the conditions under which investigation is valid. “God” as a kind of personified sacredness is not divorceable from worship. It, therefore, reveals no information about the power structure of the universe; it merely inhibits proper inquiry and rom anticizes ignorance.
(3) One of the many justifications proposed for a theistic religion is that without God as the authority source of m orality, there can be no valid or effective basis for traditional social ethics. If kindness, truth-telling, loyalty, and love are only cultural conventions or human options, then, in the absence of state coercion, what possible motivation exists for the compelling nature of m oral behavior. Without God to lend sanction to ethical precepts, there can be neither ethics nor precepts.
The fallacy in this reasoning is obvious. Firstly, it is an “odd” sociological fact that the “divine” commandments of a culture seem to correspond to the prevailing m oral standards and alter as the culture alters. If divine sanction has been attached to what we presently regard as m orally commendable, it has more frequently been attached to what is morally reprehensible. The problem with so much historic antisemitism , race hatred, blood warfare, and deprivation of liberty is that it has been tied up with “God’s will.” Divine sanction, as a m orals enforcer, has historically caused as much social harm as social good, and aggravated the problem by making objectionable behavior sacred. The enemies of the prophets, as well as the prophets, loved to cite the untestable approval of the Deity.
Secondly, the ethical “authority” of God derived from his supposed power and intention. To assert that God commands a particular behavioral procedure is in itself to provide no motivation for doing the action. For one may reasonably ask, “Why ought I to obey God?” The traditional reply was twofold; God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience; and God is both supremely wise and benevolent. The form er reply finds its ultimate authority in man’s desire for happiness and the consequent wish to avoid punishment; the second reply assumes that if the observer is able to describe God as desiring good, he already knows what “good” is before he so describes God. If, in a rational age, it is no longer possible to believe in a celestial policeman, the “ethical” authority of God is nil.
And, thirdly, what is conducive to human happiness is not a function of cultural whim and human option. It is an empirical question that depends on the accurate observation of human nature and environment. The correctness of an ethical procedure is testable by its consequence on human satisfaction and frustration. If the psychological and social sciences have been morally weak guides up to now, it is largely due to the prevailing “religious” myth that values are distinct from the informational sciences. Too many people confuse the difficulty of empirically handling value questions with the impossibility of doing so.
(4) The prevailing attitude in educated circles toward matters theological is vast indifference. The mystic fondness and the atheist hatred are absent; an “I could care less” reaction dominates. While many people are aroused by the “God is Dead” controversy, they are more attracted by the social non-conformity than the theological shock. If we assume that this indifference is the result of spiritual insensitivity to vital information, we will misunderstand. The truth of the matter is that the indifferent are not quite sure that theologians are giving them any information at all.
This problem highlights the whole question of truth. Before a statement can be evaluated as true or false, the assertion must be meaningful; it must make sense. If I utter, “Scubbish-mubbish,” and ask you to tell me whether it is true or false, you would reply, “Impossible, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Now most ordinary conversations about “God” are meaningful. They concern a heavenly father-figure with a distinct personality who is capable of the full range of human sensation and emotion and who possesses immense power to execute his desire. While one may not presently be able to directly verify his existence, one can imagine the conditions (in this life or the next) under which such an encounter would be possible. Although a rational age has made such a God an impossible attachment to admit to, the assertion of his existence has at least one virtue – it may be false, but at least it is meaningful. The fundamentalist may utter naive absurdities, yet he never suffers from the “sophisticated” disease of preferring vagueness to clarity. An anthropomorphic God has the delightful advantage over most other varieties of simply being conceivable.
In an age when all scientific disciplines from physics to psychology seek to make their concepts and language more precise, the theologian alone reverses the procedure. While in Biblical times statements about God were fairly clear and specific, today analytic precision in theological matters is regarded as childish. While all other sources of useful power are subjected to increasing human measurement, divine power recedes into a protective realm “beyond space and time” where mortal hands can never defile it. In classical theology the most profound concepts are always the most nebulous and vague; to have any specific image of God is to hold a primitive notion.
Medieval and modern “liberal” theologians are the most guilty of providing noninformation. To define God as “ultimate reality,” “necessary existence,” or “ground of being” is to utter pretty phrases but to do no more than that. In order for a statement to be meaningful, one must be able to conceive the evidence which would prove it true and the evidence which would prove it false. If it is not possible to imagine any situation which would prove it false (i.e., if it is protected by definition from all possible refutation) it is either trivial or nonsensical. The three definitions cited above exemplify this fault; they border on “Scubbish-mubbish.”
For those theologians who discard the ordinary meaning of the word “God” and identify it with some natural object, feeling, or value, their problem is providing pseudo-information about the world. Certainly “God is Love” provides no more information than “Love is Love”; nor does “God is Nature” say any more than “Nature is Nature.” To equate an historic person-word with perfectly adequate thing-words is to abuse language and invite confusion.
All that the theological naturalist ends up doing is absurdly talking to “Love” and talking to “Nature.” These awkward definitions prompt a question: Why should perfectly rational human beings, who have at their disposal a host of English words more adequate than “God” to describe the natural events they are interested in, feel emotionally compelled to rip a three- letter word out of its historic context in order to save it for their belief vocabulary?
The reality of the theological situation for hosts of com m on-sensical people is that God “died” a long time ago. It is the word “God” with all its overtones of social respectability and ancestral approval that survives for graduates of the “university religion.
If, then, man is to appropriately answer the age-old religious question: “How do I adequately relate to the extraordinary powers of the universe in order to achieve my salvation?”, he must discard the colossal wasteland of theology and turn to a study of those realistic powers that most dramatically affect his future. It seem s to me that the most significant religious discipline of modern times would be anthropology, the study of man in his totality. For it is empirically obvious that the most effective and available powers for human happiness are man’s reason and man’s love. To understand their origin, nature, and possibility is the primary task of modern religion.