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How About Secular Values?

Maybe I’ve just had enough of the Republican presidential candidates. I suspect, however, that something more fundamental bothers me every time I hear about the common values and identity that I supposedly share with all people of faith. In fact, when I consider my associations with the term “religious values” in 21st-century American culture, I cringe. My first thoughts are denial of science, persecution of gays, mind-numbing dogma, and blinding cognitive dissonance. Even worse, when considering the most powerful manifestations of religion in today’s world, I think first of fanatical Islam, hatred in the name of God, and martyrdom for the sake of murder. And yet I persistently encounter this notion of shared religious values and common ground with other people of faith nowadays, generally as I am being beaten over the head with it.

First, Senator Joe Lieberman arrived in YU and told adoring crowds of his special bond to religious Christians, in many ways stronger than his bond to non-observant Jews. Then a prominent visiting rosh yeshivah spoke here about how he can relate to and respect Islamic terrorists’ absolute devotion to God, despite seeing their murderous acts with revulsion. In another case, a friend of mine composed a note to lecture others about what he sees as a great moral offense inherent in celebrating New Year’s. “It’s a holiday that honors hedonism and partying,” he said, “and we would even be better off celebrating Christmas, because at least it’s religious.” Worst of all though, and much more pervasive than these extreme positions, is the new norm in Orthodox communities in America of strong identification with the Christian Right.

It is time for me, one little believing Jew, to protest, and I’d like to make myself very clear in doing so: I do not feel any more comfortable with people who fear God than with those who do not. Faith does not impress me, and I do not respect people for having it. I do not share common moral ground with the religious believers of the world in 2011, as a whole. I prefer to join the tent more commonly known as “secular values.” And, as a religious person, I see no contradiction in these feelings.

It’s nice to have all this off my chest.

Think about it this way: by nearly all accounts, a large majority of the world’s 6.7 billion people adhere to organized, belief-based religions. It is not unique to believe in God, but actually quite typical. Religion is a ubiquitous feature of billions of people from vastly different perspectives, and these people do remarkably different things with it. Belief itself is inherently morally neutral, and is subject to all sorts of influences from organized religions. It can drive someone to devalue and persecute people different from oneself (and examples abound), to embrace and love all people and work towards building a better humanity (in a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks identified “sacred codes” as the greatest pro-social motivators of all), or even just to mind one’s own business and not bother anyone else. We shouldn’t view people through the prism of their faith at all, but through the values that that faith engenders. In other words, the only means that people have to judge the respectability of someone’s faith is a subjective sense of morality. So let’s try that.

My belief in God and Torah from Sinai tells me nothing about my ability to connect with believers in other faith systems. Of course, the nature of my religious observance grants me similar perspective to other Jews, and even to many Christians and Muslims, whose codes have similar origin. But I have come to realize that my views often differ radically from theirs. My community and I feel that, despite our own beliefs, we should tolerate others. We choose acceptance of difference over persecution, and contribution to mankind over destruction. I am proud to be a member of this community and of a Torah tradition that preaches social justice and respect for all people created ­in the image of God. And I know that, throughout the world, countless other individuals, of many faiths and codes, both religious and secular, also commit to these forces of good. I respect and admire these people for what they do, not for what they believe.

However, I also recognize the unfortunate reality of the most powerful voices in religion today. For them, belief means the elimination of nuance and doubt in life, and the triumph of intolerance and egocentrism. I don’t see why I, or my community as a whole, should have any association with them. Religion alone should not be seen as a common ground, but the values to which it drives us should. That said, I’d like to pick my favorite values with different moral discretion than does Senator Lieberman.