Secularism’s false dichotomy

To claim that any conservatism is necessarily extremist is in itself illiberal, and makes liberalism into something extreme.

Sea of haredi men 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Sea of haredi men 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
In a recent Haaretz column, entitled “Thinking man vs. theocrat,” columnist Carlo Strenger issued a call for a defense – a counter-attack, in his words – of Israeli secular liberalism against the “theocratic tendencies” he claims are growing too strong within Israeli society.
Following the example of leading Western public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Strenger argues that only secular rationalism’s “vastly superior” ability to understand human nature, as well as the nature of the universe, can prevent the encroachment of religion and save the state from degenerating into a “primitive backwater.”
While the argument is not a new one, in Israel, a country that excels in the pursuit of knowledge but is also rooted in religious tradition, its resolution has clearly become essential to the future of the state. As the ultra-Orthodox community has grown from an insignificant minority to a rapidly expanding political force, the secular left has responded by closing ranks around its own set of absolutes.
Like in parts of the West, but particularly the US, the so-called counterattack of the Israeli secular left hinges on a dichotomy that pits the light of secular rationalism against the veiled darkness of religious faith and tradition.
While this dichotomy may have historical basis in the context of Christendom’s Dark Ages, in the context of Jewish history it depends on a wholesale reduction that has eliminated all notion of enlightened, moderate and authentic Jewish thought.
In the sphere of political ethics, the secular left has charged traditionalists with “theocrat’s ignorance” of the advances made by the likes of Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Kant and Mill. No doubt, parts of the ultra-Orthodox community have willfully ignored classical secular ethics. But many have not, and it wouldn’t be difficult to cite numerous examples of central Jewish figures, such as Rav Soleveitchik, Aryeh Kaplan and Rav Kook, who fit the “ultra-Orthodox” bill but nevertheless were masters of Western philosophy, and, moreover, used these new modes to advance the tradition.
But it’s in the field of science that secularists plant their flag, claiming that not only has their worldview given rise to the stunning progress of science, but that it did so by fighting off the perverse myths and superstitions of religious belief.
Making this claim in Israel requires a reduction even more massive than the one made in politics, one which ignores the legions of men of faith – many of Jewish faith – who have not just embraced the predictive power of scientific method, but number among its forbearers and brightest stars.
One among them is Arno Penzias, the Jewish physicist who, with fellow scientist Robert Wilson, won the Nobel Prize for discovering the microwave radiation that served as the first scientific corroboration of the theory of the Big Bang, the theory that sits at the very heart of the attempt to understand the universe.
Though Prenzias received modern science’s most prestigious accolade, and in this sense is a scientist, a “thinking man,” par excellence, he had to credit someone else for making the discovery long before him: “What we see of the world from a physical point of view,” he told the New York Times Magazine, “is consistent with what Maimonides observed from a metaphysical point of view – without a large telescope or watching the flight of galaxies.”
But Penzias goes much farther than that. He explains that far from being pitted one against the other, “science and religion are complementary competences” since science “doesn’t really say why anything happens,” it merely observes that it happens. Religion, on the other hand, at least provides a why, even if it’s one that can't be tested and proved (or rather, disproved).
In this sense, religion does what science cannot even attempt – which is to understand the universe, rather than merely describe it. It is exactly the opposite of what contemporary liberalism claims, and it’s no surprise that the archetypal man of faith, Maimonides, so completely overshadows the secularist’s straw man.
We see in this the falseness of the dichotomy, which did not originate in Israel but has been taken up here with fervor, between the sunshine of secular liberalism and the darkness of unenlightened religion. The fallacy depends not just on an omission of the lights of religion but also on a distortion of the true nature of liberalism, which has its roots in the deeply conservative beliefs of men like Burke, who insisted on social absolutes, and fathers of science like Descartes, who tried to use his enlightened rationalism to prove the existence of God.
Liberalism is a rich mode of thought that has given humanity so much. But to construe it and tradition as mutually exclusive, to demand that it operate in society without any counterbalance, and claim that any conservatism is necessarily extremist, is in itself illiberal, and makes liberalism into something extreme.
In Israel, we should work to continue the tradition of enlightenment and tolerance, but to do this we need to leave behind obscurantist “counterattacks” and look rationally at our own tradition if we are to move the country forward.

Ashley Rindsberg is an author and journalist.