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Warning: Irrationality

Alan Rutkowski
March 15, 2018


By Alan Rutkowski


AN UNAPPRECIATED but dangerous consequence of the Trump era is widespread liberal/secular oversimplification of the emerging danger. In their attacks on religion, for example, the so-called New Atheists — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens (RIP), and Sam Harris — have fostered the notion that the most primitive, science-denying fundamentalists are representative of all religious believers. The danger they rightfully see in the growing pervasiveness of an irrational, anti-science discourse is the pernicious influence it can have on education and public policy. Christian Evangelical and Orthodox Jewish support for Trump has reinforced this view of the threat that religious believers pose.

But not all religious people believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, or that global warming doesn’t matter because Jesus will be coming back soon, or that gays and lesbians are going to Hell. Many religious believers are sophisticated and scientifically literate. Non-Orthodox religious Jews are notable examples. For the most past, they accept the scientific evidence for evolution, the scientific consensus on global warming (not so much the one on the safety of GMOs), and many welcome LGBTQ members into their congregations. And they definitely don’t support Trump.

It is tempting to neatly divide religious believers into “true-believers” — legitimate targets of the New Atheists — and the modern, rational majority of believers who remain “religious” for such benefits as the sense of community religion provides, without buying into the traditional irrationality. But the situation is actually much more complicated. In fact, many otherwise sophisticated and scientifically literate liberal Christians and Jews have their own cherished evidence-free beliefs.


FOR MANY religiously affiliated non-Orthodox Jews, for example, traditional Jewish ideas have been replaced by New Age woo, which is then dressed up in traditional Jewish garb, especially Kabbalah. Conservative and Reform rabbis are often at pains to interpret the tradition in ways that tap into so-called “New Age Spirituality” while at the same time keeping the tent as big as possible. I know one Conservative rabbi who, in addition to talking about spirit guides and borrowing Hindu practices for Yom Kippur, proclaimed that a person of faith is anyone who believes the world can be made a better place. That’s pretty inclusive in the liberal Jewish diaspora. (The rabbi dropped this notion when it was pointed out to him that antisemites believe the world can be made a better place by getting rid of all the Jews.)

These New Age believers still offer prayers for the sick, not because they necessarily think a personal God can be persuaded by prayer to, say, cure cancer — although some might — but because they believe that prayer sends out a mysterious healing energy. They may not believe in the immortal soul, but many do believe that with proper breathing, qigong, a Chinese dynamic meditation method, will provide access to higher realms of awareness. Sophisticated religious believers don’t pray to saints, but some do try to get in touch with their spirit guides. Such New Age discourse should be no less anathema to the New Atheists, though clearly it doesn’t pose the same threat to education and public policy that fundamentalism does. But, alas, it does pose other threats, among them a tendency to legitimize the pseudoscience that is commonplace in alternative medicine.

Many religiously affiliated people aren’t religious at all in the way that the New Atheists define religion; in fact, some are themselves de facto atheists. For many Jews, Jewish religious affiliation is an ethnic and political marker. Few Conservative and Reform Jews dance around with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah with religious ecstasy, but they do pack synagogues and community centers for Holocaust memorials. Many who pay synagogue and temple dues, but rarely cross the synagogue or temple threshold, flock to meet and hear visiting Israeli dignitaries.

Often religion — and Judaism is far from alone in this — is really just an expression of nationalism and ethnic pride. And these secular religious expressions have their own orthodoxies and heresies that are no more rational than the orthodoxies and heresies of the fundamentalist true-believers; and they’re often even more destructive.

For some in the American and Canadian organized Jewish communities, Zionism is a more “religious” marker of Jewish identity than actual religious belief or practice. For many Zionists, anyone who seriously questions the fundamental premises of Zionism is a heretic. Liberal and left-wing Zionists envision the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a democratic Israel that respects the rights of minorities. For them, the viability of the two-state solution is an article of faith and any suggestion that the two-state solution is dead is heresy. For many years, Zionist dogma held that Palestinian violent resistance meant Israel had no partner for peace; today Zionists of all stripes are guided by the same orthodoxy  in opposing the main avenue of Palestinian nonviolent resistance — the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.


THANKFULLY, dogmas don’t hold up forever. In the 17th century, the Amsterdam Jewish community excommunicated the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and in the 20th century, 200 Orthodox American rabbis placed a ban (herem) on Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the modernizing Jewish Reconstructionist movement, and publicly burned his Reconstructionist prayer book. Kaplan lamented the herem in his journal: “If I were asked what I regard as the most disheartening aspect in Jewish life as reflected in the tragi-comedy of the herem, I would say that . . . we have rabbinical gangsters who resort to Nazi methods in order to regain their authority . . .”

Today Spinoza is widely respected as a philosopher, at least by non-Orthodox Jews, and Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, while a minority Jewish movement, is flourishing.

Jews, I should note, are not alone in making religious affiliation a matter of tribal identity. For many Poles and other East Europeans, non-Catholics, especially Jewish non-Catholics, cannot be truly part of the nation. The resurgent antisemitism in Poland today draws on a tribal view of what it means to be a Pole. Father Henryk Zielinski, editor-in-chief of the Catholic weekly Idziemy, for example, has suggested that Jews have “a completely different system of values, a different concept of truth. For us, the truth corresponds to facts.” Zielinski’s essentializing depiction of Jews is not so different from Jewish-Israeli depictions of Palestinians and the so-called “Arab mind.”

Irrationality, in other words, comes in all shapes and sizes, and secular liberals run the risk of focusing too narrowly on low-hanging fruit — the obscurantism of Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews — while overlooking irrationalities across the political and religious spectrum. In America today, fundamentalist Christians and Jews argue that they overlook Trump’s obvious moral flaws because, on balance, they believe he will advance their agenda. There is a real danger, however, that Trump could be replaced by another minimally qualified, anti-science celebrity whose flaws are overlooked by liberals just because he/she would supposedly advance the liberal agenda. Oprah, with her proclivity for junk science, leaps to mind.


Alan Rutkowski lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is a founding member of the Canadian Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? His views do not represent an official position of that group.