You are here:   Text > The Limits of Secularism
 

 
Isaiah Berlin: A secular Jew but a loyal Jew 

In 1830 a young French aristocrat visited the United States to see the new phenomenon of American democracy built on the principled separation of Church and state. He naturally expected to find a secular society, a place where religion, having been deprived of power, had no influence either. What he found was exactly the opposite: a society that was very religious indeed, a society in which religion was, in his words, "the first of its political institutions" — or, as we would say today, the first of its civil institutions.


The young aristocrat was Alexis de Tocqueville, and in the book that he wrote about his experiences, namely his experience of American democracy, he said: "18th-century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs: religious zeal was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread." In other words, Tocqueville was saying that every self-respecting 18th-century intellectual thought that religion was dying, in intensive care, and all that was needed was a little bit of help on its way — assisted suicide. "It is tiresome," Tocqueville said, "that the facts do not fit this theory at all." So he had this question: how come religion didn't die when everyone said it would?


One hundred and eighty years have passed since Tocqueville wrote these words, but until very recently intellectuals have been making the same mistake. In America today, for example, a higher percentage of the population attends a house of worship weekly than is the case in the theocratic state of Iran: 40 per cent in the US, 39 per cent in Iran. Furthermore, in China today, half a century after Chairman Mao declared China to be religion-free, there are more practising Christians than there are members of the Communist Party. One way or another, religion didn't die.


In 2009, the editor and the Washington correspondent of the Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, published a book, God is Back — an extraordinary title to come from the staff of that magazine. In 2000 the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone, in which he developed his famous thesis that more Americans than ever are going ten-pin bowling but fewer than ever are joining ten-pin bowling clubs or leagues. In other words, they're bowling alone. Putnam used this as his symbol for the loss of community in America, the loss of what American economists and sociologists call "social capital". So in 2000 he was arguing that there's no social capital left in America.

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Nina
May 18th, 2012
2:05 AM
How about you finish that Nietzsche quote- "But what if this should become more and more incredible, if nothing should prove to be divine any more unless it were error, blindness, the lie—if God himself should prove to be our most enduring lie?" I wonder why you didn't finish it...

R.A.Landbeck
April 4th, 2012
3:04 PM
"A society without faith is like one without art, music, beauty or grace, and no society without faith can endure for long." Considering the collection of unresolved conundrums and threats facing the modern world and near future, many linked directly to religion itself, it would appear that faith and fate are much too closely related to be of any consequence that would honor the very idea of God!

Step Left
February 25th, 2012
7:02 PM
Er, whose decision was it to award this piece the title 'the limits of secularlism'? Because, its entirely inappropriate.

ctaya
January 25th, 2012
2:01 PM
People like to quote "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind" to prove that he was a believer. But that was taken out of context. His meaning can be understood by reading the surrounding text of that quotation. The whole paragraph is: "Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." So what he said is that the scientists must hold a belief and faith that the regulations valid of the natural world are rational. Therefore, the natural world is knowable bit by bit through reasoning of the comprehensible world. Can such faith be proven? There have been much debate in philosophy and science about the comprehensibility of the real world. But without such a faith, the scientists would be at a lost and can hardy advance. In this sense, science without the passion and the faith like the one found in a religious world is lame. Does Einstein believe in a personal God/gods? See what he had said. "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this." "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." "During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution, human fantasy created gods in man's own image who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate influence, the phenomenal world." "It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere.... Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." Many leading scientists hold similar view. "I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him.” If Einstein had a god(gods), it would well be the Mother Nature and surely not a personal god.

Richard Wade
January 16th, 2012
5:01 AM
"Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?" DEEPLY reflective people are not satisfied with the simplistic, children's story-level answers that religion offers to those questions. There are many people who ask those questions shallowly, and they are easily made content by appealing to their desire to remain children. Adults are not interested in store-bought meaning. Adults are willing to do the hard work, and willing to take full responsibility for making their own decisions about what their life will be about, and creating their own meaning. They might or might not fully achieve what they choose to do, but adults do not give credit or blame to an outside authority. They own it. The main reason that religion persists is THE POWER OF CHILDHOOD INDOCTRINATION. The earlier an idea goes into a child's mind, the harder it is for him or her to ever extract it. Religion creates a self-perpetuating child-like mind that, like Peter Pan, protects itself from growing up, and will always prefer shallow answers to deep questions. If people were introduced to religion only when they were old enough to have a gatekeeper in their minds, when they could reason out and consciously make choices about what is being proposed, then far, far fewer people would accept those propositions, and religion would gradually go extinct.

JT
January 9th, 2012
5:01 PM
"I couldn't wade this all this verbiage." I.E., I know what I know and won't be bothered with contrary opinions. It is distressing but not at all surprising to see so many who defend science simultaneously attack different viewpoints as heresy.

Anonymous
January 9th, 2012
11:01 AM
I couldn't wade this all this verbiage. Did the good Rabbi mention another reason that religion hasn't died out: that it's an extremely useful tool for governments to control the populace? If religion is the opiate of the masses, kings, emperors and American Republicans are happy to peddle it.

Julian
January 9th, 2012
11:01 AM
Exactly. Religion provides the small-scale tribal identity which humans have evolved to desire, and which the modern State with its insistence on Nationalism is directly hostile to.

thegoodONE
January 4th, 2012
1:01 AM
The Rabbi makes a whole lot of weak arguments and analogies here. Those quotes from Freud, Einstein and Wittgenstein do not have any weight except to say they define religion as a quest for the meaning of life. It says nothing about their particular beliefs. I also doubt they have faith in archaic religious institutions; or that they think religion should not be piable to be advanced by personal insight, philosophy and science. As for Nietzsche... well if you think he is an atheist, I think you're missing the point. He was so deeply religious that he saw the Church as a corruption of the wonderment of life.

al
January 3rd, 2012
4:01 PM
"Religion." Such a long history of so many religions with such a variety of beliefs and practices, it seems a bit rough to write about "religion" in relation to an equally complex category, "science," as if they were were simple.

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.