Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thinkers in the New Secularism: Susan Neiman

8/21/2008--All of the people in the New Secularism—that is, people who are thinking about a world without the dominant authority of institutional religion—have to decide what role religious wisdom is to play in this new secular world. (For those readers who are new to this blog, don’t be fooled by the current upsurge in religious fundamentalism—the underlying growth in secularism, especially among the young, is the story of this century).

One of those thinkers is Susan Neiman and her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (Harcourt 2008). Neiman’s approach to the New Secularism’s relationship to religion is to revive Enlightenment values. (Take back the Enlightenment, she says). Unlike Austin Dacey in The Secular Conscience (Prometheus 2008), Neiman obviously values our religious traditions. Nevertheless, Neiman’s basic position is the same as Dacey’s: religion is a matter of authority in which the human being loses autonomy, while morality is (or should be) a matter of human reason. Both Neiman and Dacey want secularists to return to the language of morality and not to be relativists, but also not to surrender to religious authority.

Neiman contrasts Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with Abraham meekly accepting a death sentence for his son Isaac. In the former, Abraham is the Enlightenment hero. In the latter, Abraham is the man of religion following divine authority. (Neiman is not alone in this contrast. Kierkegaard might have agreed with this distinction.)

But Abraham would not have agreed this distinction. When Abraham confronted God, he did so in the name of that same God, not in the name of some prior commitment to the categories of reason. In arguing that the innocent should be saved, Abraham famously says, “Shall not the Judge of all the world do right?” In English, one might be fooled into thinking that “right” is somehow a separate category from God. But in Hebrew, the question is, “hashofet (the judge) kol haaretz (of the whole world) lo yaaseh (not do) mishpat (right)?” In the Hebrew, shofet and mishpat are the same root word. Or, as we might say, shall not the Justice do justice?

So Abraham is appealing to God in the name of God. Shall not God do godly things? The question, is something right because God wills it or does God will it because it is right, is senseless in biblical monotheism, where God has created everything, including the very structure we call “right”.

The point of this is that the secularist cannot enforce the division authority/autonomy—or religion/morality—on Our Religions when they say that God created human reason to be used. The religious figures Neiman says are using reason versus following God’s will, would all respond, “But we were following God’s will.” Secularism needs a less caricatured version of religion.

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