An Unabashed Atheist: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, A Review

Thinking Outside the Box- Winter 2007

Atheism is a dirty word in America. The hatred of atheists was aggravated by the con­nection of atheism with Marxism. Ironically, Marx made a mistake. Most people who are poor or who are in the working class are very religious. Atheism was a deterrent to Com­munism. Most atheists are the children of the middle class.

Whereas secularization in Europe has made atheism mildly respectable, secularization in America has left large pockets of deeply reli­gious people. Atheists in America are discreet. Political safety demands that they show an appropriate level of humility. Religious people can safely denounce atheism as immoral and dangerous, but atheists must “behave.” They must always express their deep respect for the religious option. They must often disguise their convictions as agnosticism, a designation that implies that theism and atheism are equally valid choices. If they are sufficiently obsequi­ous, they will agree with the opposition that science and religion are compatible and that science cannot be the foundation of ethical values. Anti-atheists do not have to be nice. But atheists must always know their place.

One of the most famous self-proclaimed atheists in the world is Richard Dawkins. He is an Oxford professor and one of the most articulate defenders of Darwinian evolution. In his latest best seller, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), he refuses to be “ap­propriately humble.” He refuses to cater to the power of religion in America. He refuses to be deferent. He behaves as though atheism were as respectable as religion. Given the normal public discourse between theists and atheists, he is outrageous. He refuses to be patronized. The mere privilege of freely expressing his convictions is not enough.

Dawkins maintains that statements about God are no different from statements about the weather. They are statements about reality. They are statements open to scientific investi­gation. Science is not a procedure confined to the events of the “natural world.” It is a method for the discovery of truth that relies on hu­man observation and controlled investigation. Supernatural events, if they exist, are open to human observation. Certainly the biblical au­thors thought so. Believers always appealed to human experience to demonstrate the existence and goodness of God. If God is real, then faith is not enough. Faith is the hypothesis. Faith without evidence is wishful thinking.

Dawkins addresses all the available proofs for the existence of God and finds them want­ing. Part of the problem is that the God who is the conscious creator and manager of the uni­verse vanishes into philosophic abstraction. He becomes very much like the emperor’s clothing. You are never quite sure what you are looking for. And you are never quite sure why one god is better than several. The flesh and blood gods of mythology have turned into the verbal toys of theologians.

Dawkins asserts that ethics does not need God to be valid. The authority behind moral commands does not lie in the commander. It lies in the consequences of behavior. Ethics begins with genes struggling to reproduce themselves. It continues with individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring. It moves on to groups that make it possible for individuals and their offspring to survive. It completes itself with a global world of strangers where the instincts of group living reach out beyond the family and the tribe to embrace others. Morality does not emerge from the drama of divine revela­tion. It is the child of evolution, negotiating the demands of selfish genes with the agenda of group survival. Along the way people put their convictions into the mouths of the gods. The authority of God ultimately rests on the authority of ancestors who struggled for life and happiness.

Dawkins does not stand in awe of reli­gious literature. He does not play the part of the humble atheist who pays tribute to the greatness of the Bible and the Koran even though he does not believe in the reality of their central character. He finds no moral greatness in the angry and vengeful Yahveh of the Old Testament. He discovers no great truth in the absurdities of New Testament theology. The roots of humanism do not lie here. They lie in the work of those who resisted the mes­sage of this literature.

Finally, Dawkins does not regard the ubiquity of religious conviction and religious behavior as evidence of their value. In the course of evolution genes “misfire.” They undergo mutations that are harmful, not use­ful. Religion, like the fear of strangers, may be an evolutionary aberration that may inhibit the struggle for human happiness rather than enhance it. The “God delusion” is not the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom emerges only when you fully recover from it.

For people who tolerate atheists and expect them to “know their place,” Dawkins is infuriat­ing. But for those who want to confront the alter­native to religion as a clear and self-respecting option, the honesty of Dawkins is refreshing.

Is Humanistic Judaism A Religion?

Humanistic Judaism, An Anthology – Spring, 1986

In recent years, I have encountered, a persistent objection: “How can you call your organization a temple? Humanism may be a great philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth-century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion.”

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the words he uses. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

To discover the authentic significance of religion, we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the phenomenon under analysis. To define religion as “the pursuit of fulfillment” or “the pursuit of salvation” or “the act of relating to the universe as a whole” is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particu­lar. For after all, what human activity, from psychiatry to politics, is not con­cerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe “as a whole”?

Initially, we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of desig­nating the religious experience as the

moral dimension of human life, the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally des­ignated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are morally neutral. Moreover, large num­bers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers associate reli­gion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Reli­gion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not hold water. Reasoning through obser­vable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed author­ities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identi­fy religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradi­tion and the Buddhist Nirvana are reli­giously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley defi­nition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the sacred as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and rever­ence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis, the definition simply substitutes one mystery for an­other.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain histor­ical realities:

  1.  In almost every culture, religious in­stitutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesias­tical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as commonplace in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established priesthoods is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  2.  Religious teachers and prophets per­sistently refuse to admit that their ideas are new; if they do, the indispensable sa­cred character of their revelations disap­pears. The religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus in­sisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies; Mohammed posed as the re­viver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he denied originality and at­tributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish Reformers vehemently af­firmed that they were simply recapturing the true message of the Prophets. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  3.  In ordinary English, the word reli­gious is usually equivalent to the Yiddish frumm. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as “more religious” or “less reli­gious” by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, when they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  4.  The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the life cycle of human growth and decay, are universal concerns of all orga­nized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension, but they are more characteristic of historic re­ligious interest than is social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Bar Mitzvah. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  5.  Despite Whitehead’s popular defini­tion of religion as that which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with groups. In most cultures, sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patrio­tism. The root word religio is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult that defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that di­minishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  6.  The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the reli­gious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space, and time is his special forte. The mystic expe­rience has almost universally been regar­ded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate elements together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory takes care of all of them. And this theory is in­separable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

The origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in a disdain for the sensi­ble world of continual change and a per­sistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theologians because of his “religious” temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was concerned only with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space­time events that modern science inves­tigates was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiri­cism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for had to be deathless and eternal. They could never end up being in­terested in what was tentative and condi­tional.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experi­ence. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his per­sonal separateness from other members of his species and conscious of the tem­porary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety, he searches for persons or forces that enjoy the bles­sing of immortality. With these, he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something “bigger than me.” The religious experience is universally an act of feeling at one with what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we test this definition by the evi­dence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mere opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered by the cloak of rein­terpretation. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be divinely old.

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not sig­nificant because of its ethical content; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual acts derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of con­tinual and frightening change, they give to human behavior a mood of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically char­ming, but they lack the religious dimen­sion. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violent social upheaval; they may experience the over­throw of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter — birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more eternal than the seasons. Their continual repetition and observance is an ultimate security.

Moreover, the group character of most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally ex­plained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the saint is ra­tionalized as an encounter with the changeless. To “transcend” the world of space and time may be informationally ab­surd; but as an exclamation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If, then, the unique character of the religious experience is the act of identify­ing with what appears to be permanent, a proper understanding of humanism re­quires the following observations:

  1.  The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within that framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiri­cism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge, with an in­finite capacity for adjustment, is its spe­cial power and glory.
  2.  Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, if man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more perma­nent than the individual, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two means of satisfaction ex­ist. By asserting that every person is com­posed of the same matter/energy from which all other phenomena derive, hu­manistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with everything in this universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our na­ture. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all human beings, humanism pro­claims that all of us share in the ongoing existence of humanity as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can feel himself only as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is feasible only when people sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that sepa­rate them.

Thus, humanism is more than a reli­gion. While there are certain areas of its discipline that provide the religious expe­rience, there are many areas in which the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. Therefore, the humanist never regards the description “less religious” as a threat. Humanists rather view it as a compliment. They are aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While they resist the invasion of all life by the religious temperament, they, at the same time, affirm the value of the religious experience in the simple rehear­sal of nature’s seasons and the image of immortality in human survival.

Humanistic Judaism – A Religion

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn/Winter, Volume 4, No. 1, 1975-76

In recent years I have encountered a persistent objection to the vocabulary of the Birmingham Temple. Many perceptive and sensitive observers have affirmed the value of the Temple philosophy and program. They readily acknowledge that the group work and fellowship are meaningful experiences. But they encounter with the objection, “How can you call your organization at Temple?“ Humanism may be a ‘great’ philosophy of life. It may even be the ideological answer to man’s twentieth century needs. Yet, if there is one thing it isn’t, it isn’t a religion. If you’re so concerned about the meticulous use of vocabulary that you abstain from God language, why then would you not be equally careful with the word ‘religion’?

The question is a significant one. If we are going to designate our philosophy and institution as religious, then we must be as precise and accurate with the phrases we employ as we expect the theologian to be with the word he uses. After all, there is something called the ethics of words. One has a moral obligation to be faithful to the historic meaning of ordinary words.

Now to discover the authentic significance of ‘religion’ we must clarify the unique characteristics of the religious experience. It will not do to either arbitrarily pick a definition that is convenient to one’s vested interest or to cite those qualities of the experience it shares with other human possibilities. A proper definition must rely on what is peculiar to the event under analysis. Nor will selecting a vague phrase that makes ‘religion’ the sum total of everything promote understanding. To define religion as ‘the pursuit of fulfillment’ or ‘the pursuit of salvation’ or ‘the act of relating to the universe as a whole’ is to consign the term to the limbo of words that have lots of prestige but refer to nothing in particular. For after all, what human activity from psychiatry to politics is not concerned with human fulfillment? And what human procedure does not involve relating to the universe ‘as a whole’?

Initially we must do away with the verbal debris; we must clarify what religion is not. Many liberals are fond of designating the religious experience as the moral dimension of human life, as the ethical commitment of the individual. However, while it is certainly true that all historic religions have been vitally concerned with social right and wrong, it is also true that there are hosts of activities, normally designated as religious, that have nothing at all to do with ethical propriety. Lighting candles and celebrating spring festivals are part of piety and morally neutral. Moreover, large numbers of sincere and sensitive people think of themselves and are regarded by others as both ethical and nonreligious.

Many popular definers prefer to associate religion with the act of faith as opposed to the procedures of empirical reasoning. Religion is viewed as a unique approach to questions of truth. While this definition may be attractive by its simplicity, it will not “hold water“. Certainly the act of reasoning through observable evidence is common to parts of all sacred scriptures; and the procedure of intuitive trust in the truthfulness of self-proclaimed authorities is as common to the daily procedures of politics and business as it is to those endeavors that are normally regarded as religious.

As for the persistent attempts to identify religion with the worship of God, they may be appropriate within the narrow framework of Western culture but invalid universally. The Confucian ethical tradition and the Buddhist Nirvana are religiously as significant as God and yet are quite distinct from the normal notion of deity. Nor will the Julian Huxley definition of the religious experience as the apprehension of the sacred quite do. To simply describe the secret as that which is able to arouse awe, wonder, and reverence is to identify its consequences but not to clarify the nature of its constituent parts. Without analysis the definition simply substitute one mystery for another.

A proper view of religion requires an honest confrontation with certain historical realities. Too often clerical liberals choose to designate what is ‘unpleasant’ about traditional religious practice as secondary and peripheral. They refuse to confront the possibility that what they stand for may in any way be ‘less religious’ than what the traditionalists proclaim. In a culture where to be ‘more religious’ is to be more respectable, the refusal is understandable although it is hardly conducive to an objective study of religion.

What are the historical realities which our study cannot ignore? Six facts are most significant.

  • in almost every culture religious institutions are the most conservative. It is historically demonstrable that ecclesiastical procedures change more slowly than other social patterns. Ideas which are regarded as radical and revolutionary within the framework of church and synagogue are usually regarded as common place in other areas of human behavior. While most institutions resist change, organized religion has been the most supportive of the status quo. Intrinsic to established ‘priesthoods’ is the notion that change may be necessary but not desirable.
  • Religious teachers and prophets persistently refused to admit that their ideas are new. If they do, the indispensable sacred character of their revelations disappear. From Moses to Bahaullah the religious radical must always demonstrate that he is, in reality, the most genuine of conservatives. Moses pleaded the endorsement of Abraham; Jesus insisted that he was but the fulfiller of old prophecies. Mohammed posed as the reviver of pure monotheism; and Luther claimed that he desired only to restore the pristine and authentic Christianity. As for Confucius, he did Nied originality and attributed all his wisdom to old emperors. Even the Jewish reformers the vehemently affirmed that they were guilty of no basic novelty but were simply recapturing the true message of the true Prophets. No historic religious ‘genius’ has ever desired to claim a new idea. Change is made to appear an illusion. ‘New’ concepts are either old ones long forgotten or old ones reinterpreted. Novelty is historically irreligious.
  • In ordinary English the word ‘religious’ is usually equivalent to the Yiddish ‘frumm’. Both adjectives are tied up with the notion of ritualism. An individual is judged as ‘more religious’ or ‘less religious’ by the degree of his ritual behavior. The liberal may protest that this usage is narrow and primitive. But he still has to explain why even sophisticated speakers, then they relax with the word religious and are non-defensive, choose to associate it with repetitive ceremonies.
  • The annual cycle of seasons, as well as the lifecycle of human growth and decay are universal concerns of all organized religions. Spring and puberty may have no apparent ethical dimension but they are certainly more characteristic of historic religious interest than social action. We may deplore the religious obsession with Barmitsva. But then, after all, we have to explain it.
  • Despite Whitehead’s popular definition of religion as that, which man does with his solitude, most religious activities have to do with group action. In most cultures sacred events are not separable from either family loyalty or national patriotism. The very word ‘religio’ is a Roman term for the sum of public ceremonies that express the allegiance of the citizen to the state. Even the ancestor cult which defines the popular religion of most of the Eastern world is an act of group loyalty that diminishes the significance of the isolated individual and enhances the importance of family continuity. Historic religion started with the group and is not easily separable from it.
  • The notion of the saint or the holy man permeates most religious cultures. This revered individual achieves his status not only because of his impeccable ritual and moral behavior but also because he is able to enjoy the summit of the religious experience. To be able to transcend this messy world of space-time change and to unite mystically with what is beyond change, space and time is his special forte. The mystic experience has almost universally been regarded as the supreme religious event and the entree into the supernatural.

Any adequate theory about the nature of the religious experience and its unique characteristics must be able to explain these six facts. It must find the common cord that binds these disparate events together. While many factors can account for some of them, only one theory is inseparable from the initial concern of historic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the origin of philosophic inquiry and metaphysics lies in the disdain for the sensible world of continual change and, any persistent love of what is eternal and beyond decay. Plato was adored by later theology ends because of his ‘religious’ temperament. He detested the world of impermanence and asserted that wisdom was only concerned with entities that never change. The chaotic world of space time events which modern science investigator was anathema to his pursuit of knowledge. If the Greeks were unable to develop the rudiments of a real empiricism, herein lay their problem. Whatever they searched for it had to be deathless and eternal.

In fact, the search for the deathless is the psychic origin of the religious experience. The human individual is a unique animal. He alone is fully aware of his personal separate this from other members of his species and countries of the temporary nature of his own existence. He fears death and needs to believe that dying is an illusion. In his anxiety he probes the world for persons and forces which enjoy the blessing of immortality. With these he seeks to identify and find the thrill of being part of something ‘bigger than me’. The religious experience is universally an act of feeling ‘at one with’ what seems to possess the aura of eternity.

If we take this definition, and test it by the evidence, it works superbly. It explains the essentially conservative nature of historic religion. Change, experiment, and mirror opinion are in spirit nonreligious. Only eternal truths will do. All seeming change is pure illusion; and even the most radical steps must be covered up by the cloak of ‘reinterpretation’. The definition also clarifies why all new truths must be labeled as old. The religious temperament requires the solace of age, and venerability. Even if the good word is humanly new, it turns out to be ‘divinely old.’

The theory explains the religious power of ritual. Traditional ceremony is not significant because of its ethical symbolism; that excuse is a sop for the modern intellect. Ritual ask derive their psychic punch from the fact that they are meticulously identical and repetitive. In a world of continual and frightening change they give to human behavior the feeling of eternity. Their power is not symbolic; it is intrinsic to the ceremony itself. New observances that are labeled as new may be aesthetically charming, but they lack the religious dimension. As for the seasons and life-cycle events, what greater evidence is required to substantiate the thesis? Societies may undergo revolutions and violence social upheaval; they may experience the overthrow of every existing value and idea. But the explosion is powerless to alter the relentless sequence of spring, summer, fall, winter – birth, puberty, maturity, and death. Nothing is more ‘eternal’ than the seasons. Their continual repetition is an ultimate ‘security’.

Moreover, the group character of the most religious observance reflects the human desire for permanence. The family and the nation have always been inseparable from the major religious experiences of any culture, simply because they suggest the immortality the individual does not. And the mystic experience is equally explained by this need to defeat change and death. The ecstasy of the ‘saint’ is rationalized as an encounter with the changeless. To ‘transcend’ the world of space and time may be informationally absurd; but as an explanation of victory over the fear of death it has emotional significance.

If then the unique character of the religious experience is the active identifying with what appears to be ‘permanent’, a proper understanding of Humanism requires the following observations.

  • The religious temperament and the pursuit of knowledge through empirical procedures are incompatible. Humanism is committed to the techniques of modern science; and all proper statements within the framework are tentative, subject to the refutation of future evidence. Empiricism cannot tolerate eternal truths about man and the universe. The conditional character of all knowledge with an infinite capacity for adjustment is its special power and glory. Whenever the religious need and the pursuit of truth come together there is disaster. The Greeks prove that point magnificently: they could never end up being interested in what was tentative and conditional.
  • Humanism is a total philosophy of life, which does not allow the religious temperament to invade every area of its discipline. However, there is one aspect of living where religion is indispensable. If man has a need to transcend his temporariness and identify with something or someone more permanent than the individual ‘I’, this need cannot be ignored. Within the framework of humanism, two ways of satisfaction exist. By asserting that every man is composed of the same matter – energy – that all other events in the universe derive from, humanistic teaching affirms that each of us shares an intimate bond, a basic identity, with any conceivable happening in the universe. Stars and flowers are material brothers to our nature. And by proclaiming that before and beyond the individuality of any person, each of us shares an essential oneness with all men, humanism proclaims that all of us individually share in the immortality of mankind as a whole. In fact, the very basis of ethical behavior lies in this religious experience. If every person can only feel himself as an individual, the social character of morality is impossible. Ethical behavior is only feasible when men sense that the essential nature that binds them together is more significant than the individual differences that separate them.
  • Humanism is more than a religion. There are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvements where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘ there are certain areas of its discipline which provides the religious experience. But there are many involvement where the religious temperament is either irrelevant or harmful. In opposition to the temper of much traditional philosophy with the mood of ‘eternity’ pervades, humanism affirms the value of conditional knowledge and change. Therefore, the humanist never guards the description ‘less religious’ as a threat. He rather views it as a compliment. He is aware of the fact that the balanced life requires much more. While he resists the invasion of all lies by the religious temperament, he, at the same time, affirms the value of the religious experience in the simple rehearsal of nature’s seasons and in the image of in mortality in mankind’s survival.

The Rabbi Writes – Prayer in Public Schools

Volume 31, No. 6, January 1995

Newt Gingrich has spoken. He wants prayer in the public schools. And so do millions of other American. Most of them are not members of the Religious Right. They just want to improve the personal and social values of their children.

The separation of religion and government is a traditional political principle in our nation. It is embodied in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. It has been made sacred by the endorsement of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It has been confirmed by the decisions of the Federal Supreme Court.

Separation in America had three roots. One was pragmatic. America was Protestant. There were many Protestant denominations, none of them holding the allegiance of a majority of the American people. They were often at war with each other, competing for members and state support. It was not feasible to establish any one of them as the state religion. The most practical solution was to establish none of them.

The second root was a minority new among Protestant dissenters, many of whom had come to America. Both the Quakers and the Baptists subscribed to the supreme importance of individual conscience. Religion only had value when it was free and uncoerced. State religion was coercing religion. It had the power to violate individual conscience. It was unacceptable, even though religion and God were indispensable to salvation. Every individual had to work out his own personal connection to God.

The third root was the Enlightenment. The spokesmen of the Enlightenment exalted reason over faith. There were contemptuous of religious superstition. They were hostile to intrusive clergy and established churches. They wanted to mold a new kind of citizen who would assume responsibility for his own life and who would use science as the path to knowledge. They saw no benefit to the state from religion. If individual citizens wanted to be religious, they should pursue it privately in private institutions and at private expense.

The anti-establishment clause of the Constitution arose from these three diverse roots. All three groups were in favor of it, but for different reasons. Ultimately, they would disagree about what “no establishment” meant.

For conservatives, state schools were Protestant schools. They could authorize Protestant prayers and Protestant Bible readings and Protestant holiday celebrations so long as they did not favor any particular Protestant denomination. For moderates, state schools were agencies of an American civil religion, which was neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor Jewish.

They acknowledged the importance of God and prayer and believed that public ceremonies where God was included were perfectly appropriate.

For Catholics separation meant that their children did not have to go to state schools. But it was only fair that the neutral government would support their own parochial schools, as other governments did in many of the countries of Europe.

For liberals, separation meant the total absence of religious vocabulary, religious literature and religious celebration in the public schools and in the public life of the nation. It also meant no state money for religion sponsored schools. Up until the 1960’s the courts did not completely support this position. But in the early 1960’s the Supreme Court explicitly forbade prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Over the years, with religious diversity the state schools had become increasingly more secular. The Supreme Court confirmed this trend and gave a victory to the liberals.

 Through the years the liberal agenda had been ironically reinforced by the hostility between fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic Church. Many Protestants who were in favor of prayer in the public schools supported a strict separation because they did not want any state money going to Catholic parochial schools. In the past three decades, however, anti-Communism, anti-secularism and anti-feminism have broken down the old hostility and united the Protestant Right with the Catholic Right. It is very important for all of us who embrace the political position of “strict separation” to understand that we can no longer rely on the old religious hatreds to serve our purpose. Anxiety over moral change has broken down the barriers to cooperation.

Some liberals, like Bill Clinton, are running scared. They see compromise as the best strategy. They are willing to settle for a “moment of silence”, but they fail to understand the real nature of the opposition. The opposition feeds on the ever-present anxiety that our children are not receiving the moral training they need to be good citizens. And for most people, moral training is tied up with religion. Prayer and morality go together in their minds.

Most Americans want the public schools to teach values as well as information. They want the schools to be a bulwark against drugs, crime and self-destruction. In the past, public schools did teach the values of good citizenship. And they taught them in a secular way.

Somewhere, along the way, many separationists gave up on the importance of teaching values in the public schools. They replaced values indoctrination with values clarification. They abdicated the responsibility of the schools to provide for direct moral education. Disagreeing on abortion, pre-marital sex and homosexuality does not mean that you cannot agree on self-discipline, responsibility and abstinence from drugs. Relying on the Constitution and the Supreme Court as the chief strategy of survival is a weak program for separationists. Both the Constitution and the Supreme Court can be changed. Strict separationists are a distinct minority in this country.

The most effective counter to prayer in the public schools is to demonstrate that good values can be taught without prayer. The focus of our message must not be only personal freedom and individual conscience. Those issues are not at the heart of the Gingrich initiative. The focus of our message has to be what secular schools can do to enhance the moral behavior of our children. It needs to concentrate less on liberty and more on discipline.

The Rabbi Writes – American Civil Religion

Volume 31, No. 7 2, 1995

February is the month when both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were born. They were the two “gods“ of the American civil religion in which I grew up. Together with the American flag their portraits graced the walls of almost every classroom I used.

Fifty years ago there was a powerful American patriotic “religion“ which lay at the heart of public school education. Its gods were the Founding Fathers. Its Torah was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Its vivid symbol was the American flag. Its ethics with the requirements of good citizenship. (We even received the grades and cooperation, reliability and self-control.) Its sacred songs with the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. Its clergy with thousands of WASP spinsters who had committed their lives to American public education and to Americanizing the children of European immigrants.

National pride, instead of God, lay at the heart of this “religion.” National history, rather than mythology, was the foundation of its holiday celebrations. While the Fourth of July was not a Day of prayer, it was a joyous holiday with your folks to memories of our sacred patriotic American saga. Everybody regardless of his or her personal theology or lack of theology, could participate in the pageantry and commitments of the civic cult.

The American civil religion was the reason why the separation of church and state worked in America. The removal of denominational religion from the heart of public education was not replaced by a spiritual and ethical vacuum. It was replaced by a full-blown and powerful secular patriotic “religion“ which provided the foundation for group solidarity, civic pride and ethical behavior. Without it the separation of traditional religion and government would not have worked. It was one of the great unrecognized achievements of the American political system.

This achievement rested on certain ideological and emotional foundations which gave it stability. There was the belief that there was an American nation, with a unique and powerful culture all its own. There was the conviction that the major cultural element was Anglosaxon and that the English language, which was inseparable from the foundations of America, was intimately tied to that cultural core. There was the understanding that immigrants would be stimulated into this American culture and when identified with the symbols of the patriotic religion. There was the understanding that while diversity was important for personal freedom there had to be a certain level of public conformity in order to ensure community solidarity and moral empathy. If everybody looks and acts like a stranger, it is difficult to develop a sense of community solidarity.

One of the reasons why the separation of church and state is collapsing in this country, why the Religious Right and Christian Coalition are seizing power, is that the American civil religion is vanishing. In its place is a moral vacuum in public education which cries out for replacement. Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed are more than happy to provide one.

Why is this “patriotic religion“ vanishing?

The Anglosaxons are no longer what they used to be. They are now a minority in the nation which they founded. They are no longer providing the major cultural drive in America. They now live amid millions of people who have no connection to Anglosaxon culture and no desire to participate in it. We Americans are all part of a multi-cultural and multi-racial pot pourri which lacks a core cultural commitment in which glorifies diversity over solidarity. Patriotism was struck a powerful blow by the Vietnam War. But it was mainly undone by the emergence of ethnic politics and raise conflict. Values were no longer American. They now became African, Latin or European. In fact, there were no universal shared American values beyond the general agreement not to impose our personal or a group of values on everyone else. In liberal circles it became fashionable to regard values as subjective matters of personal choice and his attributes of ethnic loyalty rather than civic virtue or good citizenship. No one had the right to tell anybody else what to think, feel or value. Every individual was autonomous. And every group with autonomous. There was nothing left for the community as a whole to teach about right or wrong. The public school could provide information. It could help students clarify their personal and ethnic values. But it could no longer indoctrinate. It could no longer be the instrument of the American civil religion as the transmitter of the ideal vision of the American citizen.

The appropriate educational expression of a society committed to multi-cultural loyalty is a multic-cultural school system in which parents and children can choose the culture they wish to identify with. The role of the state is to support and subsidize this choice. It is not to provide a vision, all its own, of ideal behavior.The government becomes like the commander of an army post with many different regiments, each with its own agenda. If what we want is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual America, in the public schools will become an irrelevant issue because there will be no public schools.

I regret the feeding of the “American civil religion.” I regarded it as the major bulwark of the separation of conventional religion from government institutions. I regarded it as the major cultural glue of diverse people and strangers struggling to stick together. Although I often resent the naïve glorification of Washington and Lincoln, I’m up much prefer it to the propaganda of segregationist multi-culturalism which has replaced it. The year “melting pot“ idea is now in disrepute. But, at least, it had a workable vision for a united America.

God and Human Knowledge

“God and Human Knowledge” from Judaism Beyond God, (1985)

God was the central figure in the world of tradition. The universe was his creation. He could do with it whatever he wanted. As an all-powerful, demanding, intervening superfather, he dwarfed the rest of reality. God was part of a supernatural world of angels and demons who did not have to obey the laws of nature and who possessed extraordinary powers that natural creatures did not have and could not understand. The world of faith was a frightening place, loaded with natural disaster and supernatural terror.

God was an unchallenged given. In the age of faith, you might argue about the nature of his personality and desires, but you never challenged his existence. Jews, Christians, and Muslims disputed endlessly. But atheists were never part of the discussion. To question the reality of God was to question the validity of faith.

The need to prove the existence of God is the beginning of his end. It means that people are starting to doubt. An organization where the employees begin to doubt the existence of their employer is in deep trouble. As reason grew in strength, more and more religious philosophers became embarrassed with their divine superstar and his behavior. Why does an all-powerful God allow the suffering he can certainly prevent? Why does an all-knowing God hold people responsible for behavior he already knows they will perform? Why is a God of the whole universe interested in the daily behavior of an insignificant peasant?

Answers were not easy to come by. Ultimately, God was turned into a vague abstract retired superstar who was so distant and mysterious that nothing positive could be said about him. Any atheist could almost be comfortable with the God of Maimonides. But then why bother with God at all?

As modem science revealed the vastness of the universe, a divine father figure with a personal interest in planet Earth became less believable. The world of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton made people too small to be noticeable and God too big to be approachable. For many thoughtful people, having him around was pragmatically the same as not having him around. Since he had lost his power to intimidate, God became a perfunctory sweet frosting on the natural cake of the world.

Ultimately, Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of Koenigsberg, a mild and unpretentious man, did God in. He demonstrated that the existence of a supreme being was problematical and that reason could neither prove his reality nor disprove it. This unseemly slaughter transformed theology. The main question shifted from “Does God really exist?” to “Do people need God?” Theology became a department of psychology. The issue was no longer whether God was really there, only whether people needed God to be there. How humiliating! By the twentieth century, the religious experience—which, at least, is open to

study and investigation— became the new focus of theology. Believing in God became a new form of psychotherapy.

The age of reason did not kill God through angry disbelief. It disposed of him in a much more deadly fashion. It made him too vague to be interesting. Theology passed from the excitement of hell, fire, and brimstone to the boredom of abstraction with capital letters. The “All,” the “One,” the “Ground of Being” are like the emperor’s clothing. You are not even sure they are there. And if they are, who cares? Ultimately, the masters of contemporary religion refused to admit to any God that was meaningful. He lingered on as a word of reverence. Most people believed—but there was nothing to believe in.

In a world without God, people’s attention turned to the natural world. Theology was replaced by physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. These new sciences changed our view of the world. The planet Earth became a small satellite spinning around a small star. The earth grew older and older. And humanity discovered that it was the cousin of the ape.

Divine creation was out. Evolution was in.

Evolution is the monumental epic story of the secular age. It is more than the story of the development of life. It includes the entire universe—from the moment of the Big Bang to the present. It starts with electrons and photons, gravitons and gluons. It moves on to atoms, stars, and galaxies. It features explosions, transformations, and glorious fires. It encompasses the birth and death of millions of suns, the formation of billions of moons. Nothing ever stops changing, always turning from one thing into another.

The stuff of evolution is not the divine word. It is elusive energy. Everything is a disguise for energy. Comets and leopards, rocks and people—all share the same little particles, the same little flashes of substance. The evolution of earthly life is only a small chapter in the saga of a changing universe.

Bible stories cannot match the grandeur of this unfolding epic. Boiling rocks and flying reptiles are only two of a trillion wonders. Instead of emerging neatly packaged and classified for human use, the universe moves on its messy way in cruel indifference to human desire.

The Garden of Eden has been replaced by East African gorges. Adam and Eve walk upright, but they have sloping foreheads and jutting jaws. Our roots are not in heaven. They are in water holes and swamps. And our embryonic bodies cannot hide the fact that fish and frogs are part of our family tree.

Reason has presented us with a new setting. The world we live in is both messy and orderly. All units of energy under the same conditions behave in the same way, no matter where they are or when they are.

Since the universe is a collection of events, not a thing, it was not “manufactured” or “created.” Energy changes form and association. It may squeeze together or thinly spread. It may contract and explode. But its universal drama has no beginning and no end.

Events in the universe have causes. But the universe, as a whole, has no cause. The question, “Who made the World?” is naive. Even if we incorrectly assume that the world is a manufactured object, the conventional answer, “God,” is unsatisfying. For if one can legitimately ask, “Who made the world?” one can, with equal justice, ask, “Who made God?” The logical answer, “Super-God,” leads us down a trail of regression that provides no enlightenment. If we can imagine a God without a beginning, we can much more easily imagine a world without a beginning.

The age of reason is the age without God. While nostalgia preserves him in the vocabulary of the powerful, he has lost his substance. The terrifying heavenly super father has been replaced by a dispensable philosophical abstraction. He has lost his ability to intimidate and to attract. The world he supposedly created is now more interesting than he is. Science has replaced theology as the intellectual commitment of modern times. If science and modem theology appear compatible, it is hardly a tribute to religion. Liberal religion has produced a God too vacuous to be taken seriously. Fundamentalist religion, as the surviving popular resistance to the age of reason, may be rude and assaultive. But at least its God is worth noticing. The God of the fundamentalists can enforce what he commands.

The problem in the contemporary world is not the power of God. It is the power of people. The technology that is born of science has given humanity the intimidating force that was formerly reserved for divinity. In a time of biological engineering and computer slaves, new “deities” of knowledge and power have emerged. The natural world, all by itself, provides us with access to overwhelming might.

In the age of science, the leaders of humanity are faced with the question only gods used to ask: “How do we use the terrifying power we possess?” The tricks of old Yahveh on mountaintops are now easily duplicated by run-of-the-mill military establishments. And the non-traditional electric switch has turned “Let there be light” into a routine human experience.

No redefining the word God will change the reality we now perceive. The world that reason has revealed to us may give us more anxiety than we want. Or it may fill us with the pleasant anticipation of new adventure and opportunity. But its new face cannot be easily denied.