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The Triumph of Science: From Darwin to Einstein

Recorded April 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

The 19th Century featured an explosion of scientific thinking and scientific exploration. The vision of the universe which traditional religion had championed was overthrown by the discoveries of science. From the age and history of the universe to the development of life, the old ideology yielded to a powerful assault of empirical evidence. Both Darwin and Einstein transformed the images of reality which guided human thinking. These scientists became the ‘prophets’ of the new secularism. Millions of people became their disciples.

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Judaism Beyond God

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.

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The New Atheists

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 2003/Winter 2004

This is the season for atheism. Three intellectuals have ridden the train of fame to the top of the bestseller list with three atheist books. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have clearly proclaimed that atheism is the only path for honest, consistent, rational thinkers.

Atheists are usually more discreet. They are reluctant to publicly acknowledge their lack of faith. They often hide behind more ambiguous designations like “agnostic,” “free thinker,” or “skeptic.” They often plead their respect for religion and religious values and express regret for not believing. Atheists are always on the defensive. They never feel really comfortable in a society that places such a high value on religious faith. They never feel really safe in a society that still equates atheism with immorality.

Our three writers are bold and fearless. Two of them, Dawkins and Harris, describe religious belief as ridiculous and without a stitch of evidence. They also denounce the religious penchant to distinguish between scientific truth and religious truth. For them there is only one kind of truth. It is the truth that is supported by the evidence of controlled investigation. Faith and intuition are the beginning of the truth process. They are “hunches” and hypotheses that require future verification. Knowledge demands more than internal conviction. It insists on external evidence. Truth is responsible to fact. Whether one is talking about Bible stories or about transcendent deities, the same criterion applies. Whether one is describing angels or atomic particles, the same test for reality is relevant. Feeling that something is true is never enough.

Dawkins, who is a biological scientist and the world’s most famous science writer, dismisses religion as a useless and often dangerous evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of any underlying psychological propensity which . . . once was useful.” [The God Delusion, p. 65] In other words, religion cannot help us. It may even harm us. It may be the cause of intense hatred and violence.

Jewish Humanist

Capitalism and the Jews

“Capitalism and the Jews”  from The Jewish Humanist March-April 1976

Hester Street. Eighty years ago.

They came by the thousands. The greatest mass migration in the history of the Jewish people.

They came from Minsk and Pinsk. They came from Zhitomir and Berdichev. They came from Lodz and Bialystok.

Most of them were pious and Orthodox, obsessed by the rituals of shtetl life. Many of them were secular and socialist, impatient with poverty and dreamers of the proletarian revolution.

Eastern Europe was the homeland of the Ashkenazic Jew. Eighty percent of world Jewry was squeezed into the ghetto of Western Russia, Galicia, Slovakia and Transylvania.

By 1945 the “homeland” was ten thousand miles away. Emigration and holocaust were the movers. America became the new center of Ashkenazic life. English replaced Yiddish as the major language of Western Jews. Six million Americans represented half of world Jewry.

Collins Avenue. The faded focus of a new migration. An internal migration.

They came from New York and Pittsburgh. They go to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They come from Detroit and Chicago. They go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland are old Jewish words. Houston, Phoenix and Aspen are new Jewish words.

The second migration is different from the first one. The Jews are different. In a short span of eighty years the Western Jew was transformed by the most dramatic revolution in Jewish history. Never before had any Jew been changed so much so quickly.

Secular capitalism did it. It undermined traditional Christianity. It undermined the Jewish life style. It “destroyed” —not by being mean. It subverted—by being so very nice.

All the characteristics of the historic Jew, which feudal society deplored and condemned, applauded and rewarded.

Jews had a head start for survival in a capitalistic society. They had skills that other people lacked.

Capitalism sponsors a mobile society. Rooted peasant people find moving traumatic. Jews are addicted to wandering. Because of antisemitism, they had to defend themselves against a heavy emotional investment in any place (except the fantasy land of Israel). Long before the bourgeoisie made a distinction between ancestral land and real estate, the Jews had experienced the difference. Feudal society condemned them for their rootlessness. The industrial world rewards their mobile skills with wealth.

Capitalism admires verbal abilities. Language is the intellectual vehicle for science and technology. Language is the way you educate workers in schools for new professions and jobs. Language is the tool of salesmanship—the art of convincing consumers to consume. If Jews are anything, they are verbal. They had to be. Deprived of all physical means of self-defense, they had, to train their mouth to do what weapons do for most people. The Jewish mouth became a formidable instrument of war and protection. Hostile, non-verbal peasants find this characteristic frightening and unattractive. The\urban bourgeoisie pay a lot of money to acquire it. Lawyers, writers and academicians become the conspicuous edge of an industrial culture. Jews take to these professions like birds to air.

Capitalism adores aggressiveness. How else can you sell? How else can you promote new ideas and sponsor new products? Peasants and feudal lords hate pushiness. It is so inconsistent with the tranquil and stable life of village and manor. But urban survival demands aggressiveness. The passive waiter is a winner in the eternal scheme of the feudal world. He is a guaranteed loser in the urban scene. Jews are pushy because they were never able to relax. Antisemitism produced a continuous state of alert. Jews were never safe enough to be less than nervous. Now nervous pushiness may not be the most attractive aggressive style. But, in a capitalistic world, it is better than dull passivity.

Capitalism was the first environment to reward the very Jewish characteristics which the feudal antisemite found intolerable.

No Jewish community, in the long history of the Jewish people, has been as wealthy, educated and politically powerful as the American Jewish community.

The radical changes in contemporary Judaism, whether conservative, liberal or humanistic—which make it a distinct religion from traditional Judaism—are the results of a revolutionary adjustment. Secular capitalism has created a new Jewish religion. What is it? What is it becoming?

Judaism in America.

It is unlike any Judaism that ever came before

It is a radical break with the past and with the life style of the Jewish tradition.

It is a product of western capitalism and the urban industrial society which capitalism spawned.

Western capitalism presented the Jew with social realities that violated the essence of Jewish piety.

It sponsored female liberation. An expanding industrial economy provided women with options other than motherhood and wifehood. Female freedom is the consequence of money power and financial alternatives

Western capitalism sponsored secularism. The industrial state was built on the premise that the most readily available power for economic expansion was natural— not supernatural. Divine power was so secondary that it could be relegated to private choice. The state could not be bothered with religious controversy because no essential power was being provided anymore by religious institutions and by clerical professionals.

Western capitalism sponsored the right to happiness. Divine justice had decreed that, given Jewish behavior and Jewish disobedience, suffering and death were deserved. If the Messiah came, it would be an act of divine mercy, a gracious Yom Kippur style act of a sentimental deity. But the capitalist consumer culture cannot be built on the right to suffer.

The growing industrial state needs the citizen conviction that pleasure is appropriate and that happiness is deserved. The early stages of development can use masochistic thrift. But the later stages require massive spending.

Western capitalism sponsored individualism. The traditional family unit makes sense in an agrarian environment where children are free labor and protectors of the aged. In an urban culture the most efficient labor unit is the mobile individual. Individualism is the social product of this economic reality.

Judaism in America cannot survive unless it affirms these four realities of an industrial economy. It does not have the power to repudiate the social reality.

It must reject male chauvinism and affirm female liberation.

It must reject the primary significance of supernatural power and affirm that the essential available energies are secular, human and natural.

It must reject the ethics of sacrifice and suffering and affirm the right of men and women to personal fulfillment now.

It must reject the primacy of the family unit and affirm the significance of individual identity in all relationships—whether marriage or work. The revolutionary consequence is the endorsement of temporary relations as kosher.

The life style of this new Judaism is not a gradual evolution of the old life style. It is a radical and traumatic break with the past.

When the majority of American Jews will be able to accept this reality, official Judaism will stop playing around with the nostalgia and will be able to use its creative energies to celebrate the new life style.