by Daniel A. Kaufman
[This essay first appeared on my original – now defunct – blog Apophenia. At the time, I was very involved with our local synagogue and Jewish community, and my daughter was on the cusp of her Bat-Mitzvah. While I am not involved in this way today and though I would probably dial back a bit the stuff about meaning and sacredness (in light of the sorts of considerations I took up in my recent essay, “Lives and Principles”), I still hold, largely, to the sentiments and ideas presented here, and as I’ve done quite a bit of writing and talking with people on the subject of religion lately, I thought it worth re-publishing, which just the barest editing.]
I’m sure that many will think I have made a mistake; that I inadvertently got my title backwards. I can hear people saying “Surely, you mean ‘Spirituality without religion’.”
It’s understandable enough. The media is awash with stories about those who have abandoned religious institutions but retained their spirituality, and the reasons commonly cited are compelling. Whether it is in response to the systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, the financial, sexual, and other scandals that have become almost de rigueur for evangelical and Pentecostal clergy, the orgy of violence engaged in by Islamic fundamentalists, or every manner of Swami, Yogi, Guru, etc., who has turned out to be a pervert or a fraud or both, not to mention the lifeless, going-through-the motions quality of so much of what passes for mainline religion today, there seems to be every reason in the world for people to abandon the religions to which they might otherwise belong. And given that many, if not most, human beings feel a powerful need for a sense of meaningfulness and sacredness in their lives, the idea of retaining one’s spirituality, while jettisoning one’s religion, makes a kind of obvious sense.
That said, I have not botched my title. I really do intend to talk about religion, in the absence of spirituality, and specifically, about how this combination has played out in my own life. On the surface it may seem quite odd: I am an atheist, but I participate actively in my religious community; I believe that much if not most of what one reads in the Bible is mythology, and yet I teach a Bible class to middle schoolers, as part of our synagogue’s religious school; I lead an almost entirely non-halakhic lifestyle and still, my Bar-Mitzvah remains one of the most significant events in my life, something that will be topped only by my daughter’s impending Bat-Mitzvah, about a month from now.
So, what to make of all of this?
I am an atheist, because I see no good reason to believe in the existence of anything supernatural. Please do not mistake this with an embrace of what is sometimes called “Scientism” – the view that all genuine explanations must be explanations in the language of some natural science or other. Rather, it is because there is nothing the understanding of which is bolstered or improved by – or conversely, is weaker for the lack of – the existence of supernatural entities and forces. God does not help us better understand the universe, morality, the meaning of life, or anything else, and while the belief that he does is understandable, it always involves fallacies or confused thinking of one kind or another, whether the sort that is the subject of the Euthyphro dilemma or the kind that has one muddling through talk of “first causes” and the like. [For reasons to think that the God of the Abrahamic religions, specifically, cannot make morality intelligible to us, see section 2 of the last installment of my Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics.]
Like most people, it is very important that my life be meaningful to me and have some sort of sacred dimension, by which I mean that it includes elements that are deserving of reverence and which are inviolable. Given my views of the supernatural, this sense of meaningfulness and of the sacred cannot come from God or from anything “spiritual,” if what is meant is something that is incorporeal or otherwise transcendent. Such things simply do not exist and cannot be justified even as useful fictions, as I am of the view – already mentioned – that they have no use in the search for understanding or virtue.
The arts, broadly construed, can provide a part of this sense of meaning and of the sacred, and certainly, music, literature, visual arts, and architecture have all played this sort of role, over the course of my life. I have had many experiences of the sacred in cathedrals, symphony halls, and art galleries — during Evensong services, at Christchurch Cathedral, over the years, when I was a regular participant in the British Society of Aesthetics’ annual meetings in Oxford; over the many afternoons spent strolling the grounds and galleries of the Cloisters, during the years that I lived in New York City; and in the balconies of Lincoln Center, while listening to music by Vaughan Williams or Debussy or William Byrd.
But these sorts of things can only penetrate so deeply, for they operate at the level of the intellect and what might be called the “nobler sentiments.” They reflect an appreciation of history and culture and the aesthetic experience of beauty. So while they may help to sacralize the world, generally speaking – and they have certainly done that in my experience — they could never sacralize my world, specifically. To do that, the experiences must be more personal; the beauty more heartfelt; and the sense of reverence and inviolability deeper. And it is here that I look to my family and to my people: the Jewish People.
This is the level at which I engage with my religion. The rituals, practices, holidays, music, and foods; they all serve to connect me with those to whom I am most closely and intimately connected. Every time my family celebrates Pesach, with a traditional Seder, lights the Chanukah candles and sings Maoz Tzur, listens to the Shofar being blown on Rosh Hashanah, or attends a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah, we experience our bondedness to one another, to our parents, to our ancestors, to those in our local Jewish community, and to Jewish people all around the world. When I teach our children Bible, during Sunday School, I am teaching them the myths and legends and ethical teachings, from which the story of the early history of our people has been formed and from which our distinctive values are derived. It doesn’t matter whether the stories are true, in whole or even in part. What matters is that they are constitutive of the Jewish consciousness; that they provide the common fabric, by which Jews are connected together, as a people, to which I am connected, as an individual, and against the backdrop of which my life is a part of a long, unbroken history of Jewish lives.
This is where my sense of the sacred and of a meaningful life comes from, and it matters not one whit whether there is a God or angels or heaven or anything else of that nature.
This is what I mean by religion without spirituality.
Some Relevant Links
Plato, Euthyphro (380 BC). http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html