After the 2004 election, I met with a funder who was interested in supporting projects that could counter the growth of the right. The meeting was going well until I showed her a poster for an upcoming conference on fostering progressive spiritual activism. Her eye fell on one workshop, which was called “God and the Economy: How Can Making a Living Become Sacred Work?” “Why do you have to bring God into this?” she asked angrily.
Perhaps she forgot I was a rabbi, but what did she think a spiritual answer to the religious right would look like? Couldn’t one of the twenty workshops mention God and speak to concerns of people who take their religious lives seriously?
In my research on the psychodynamics of American society I discovered that the left’s hostility to religion is one of the main reasons people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off. So it becomes important to ask why.
One reason is that conservatives have historically used religion to justify oppressive social systems and political regimes. But this can’t be the whole answer, since it’s not as if the left has never seen anyone misuse its own ideas to serve hateful and repressive purposes, from the Terror during the French Revolution to the Stalinist gulag in the Soviet Union. Another reason is that many of the most rigidly antireligious folk on the left are themselves refugees from repressive religious communities. Rightly rejecting the sexism, homophobia and authoritarianism they experienced in their own religious community, they unfairly generalize that to include all religious communities, unaware of the many religious communities that have played leadership roles in combating these and other forms of social injustice. Yet a third possible reason is that some on the left have never seen a religious community that embodies progressive values. But the left enjoyed some of its greatest success in the 1960s, when it was led by a black religious community and by a religious leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
So I am led to the conclusion that the main reason that underlies the left’s deep skepticism about religion is its members’ strong faith in a different kind of belief system. Even though many people on the left think of themselves as merely trying to hold on to a rational consciousness and resist the emotionalism that can contribute to fascistic movements, it’s not true that the left is without belief. The left is captivated by a belief that has been called scientism. As a religious person, I rely on science to tell me about many aspects of the physical world in which I live, and in the new organization I’ve founded with Cornel West and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, called the Network of Spiritual Progressives (www.spiritualprogressives.org), we have developed an eight-point Spiritual Covenant with America in which one of the eight planks is about defending science from interference by the state, religion or the capitalist marketplace. We’ll be presenting the covenant to Congress during our Spiritual Activism Conference, May 17-20 in Washington.
Science, however, is not the same as scientism–the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification–all these spiritual dimensions of life–are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.