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.
Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it's a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives therefore insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.
So why has the left become so attached to scientism? The left emerged as part of the broad movement against the feudal order, which taught that God had appointed people to their place in the hierarchical economic and political order for the good of the greater whole. Our current economic system, capitalism, was created by challenging the church's role in organizing social life, and empirical observation and rational thought became the battering ram the merchant class used to weaken the church's authority. Many of Marx's followers thought they were merely drawing out the full implications of their new worldview when they adopted a scientistic approach that not only dismissed God and spirit as being without empirical foundation but also reduced all ethical and aesthetic judgments to little more than reflections of class interests.
The idea that people are only motivated by material self-interest became the basis for a significant part of what we now call the political left, or labor movement, and the Democratic Party ("It's the economy, stupid"). But in the research I did with thousands of middle-income working-class people, I found that there was a pervasive desire for meaning and a purpose-driven life, and for recognition by others in a nonutilitarian way, and that the absence of this kind of recognition and deprivation of meaning caused a huge amount of suffering and could best be described as a deep spiritual hunger that had little to do with how much money people were making. Granted, most people on the left would probably agree, in the abstract, that money can't buy love (or meaning). But when it comes down to the choices they make in trying to formulate goals for a union or a political party or a social change organization, they often revert to their deeply internalized materialistic assumptions, which leads them to deny the potential efficacy of addressing the "meaning" needs.
The truth is that most people on the left already have a set of moral principles that guide their lives and have led them to be Democrats or Greens or social change activists. But their scientistic worldview makes them feel slightly embarrassed to acknowledge and articulate those values. And the intense skepticism about religion and spirituality on the left makes them reluctant to talk in a language that could be seen as inherently religious or spiritual. In this, they are reflecting a long history of indoctrination into the scientistic assumptions of the dominant secular society, assumptions that have shaped our educational system, permeated our economic marketplace and been internalized as "sophisticated thinking" by the self-appointed (and capital-sustained) arbitrators of culture.
The public sphere is currently dominated by a scientism that validates money and power (which can be measured) and steadfastly rejects the introduction of spiritual values. But since that public sphere generates a deep spiritual emptiness and validates an ethos of materialism and selfishness, the religious right gains huge credibility by challenging the alleged neutrality of the public sphere and insists on introducing values. But what it really has in mind is to impose Christianity and undermine the separation of church and state. If the left could recognize that the capitalist marketplace already imposes a set of values in the public sphere, it would understand that the most effective way to combat the challenge of the religious right is not to fight for values neutrality in a public sphere already fully permeated by the values of materialism and selfishness but instead to introduce a set of spiritual values with progressive content. That is why we in the Network of Spiritual Progressives are calling for a New Bottom Line: institutions, corporations, legislation and social practices should be judged efficient, rational and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power (the empirically verifiable dimension) but also to the extent that they maximize love and kindness, generosity and compassion, ecological and ethical behavior, enhance our capacities to respond to other human beings as inherently (and not just instrumentally) valuable, and to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of all that is. With these values, we could counter the right and save the First Amendment.
This New Bottom Line is the essence of a spiritual politics, and the Network of Spiritual Progressives that advocates for it is a movement not only of people who believe in God but also the many "spiritual but not religious" people who share a recognition that the spiritual dimension of reality has to be brought into the center of progressive politics. And yes, we want these values--not the capitalist values that currently describe themselves as "neutral," or the values of the religious right--to shape our public life. But keeping all values out of the public sphere is a nonstarter because it fails to recognize that there already are values built into every economic and political and educational and legal institution in our society--and that they are the capitalist values that cause so much pain to people in daily life.
I don't mean that the secular left ought to give up its secularism. I am not suggesting that a secularist should convert to some particular religion in order to garner popularity and win votes. What I do mean is that a leftist secularist ought to approach other belief systems with a greater spirit of humility, recognizing that secularism is one possible answer among many to the question of how to understand the universe and how to live one's life. Secularism is not "the rational approach" but "a rational approach" among other rational approaches. To be effective, a social change movement will need to make a place for everyone who shares the same political values, even though they may belong to different religious traditions or hold different philosophical positions. Speaking from a religious perspective should be normal in political meetings or at public events sponsored by the left--and the left should work as hard to create an inclusive feel for this as it does to include any other constituency.
The secular left consistently disarms itself of what could be its most powerful weapon: a spiritual vision of the world. I've used the word "spiritual" as a label to identify a meaning-oriented approach to politics. Its focus is on the yearning of human beings for a world of love and caring, for genuine connection and mutual recognition, for kindness and generosity, for connection to the common good, to the sacred and to a transcendent purpose for our lives. Understand human history and contemporary society and individual psychology from the standpoint of these needs and the ways they have been frustrated, and then develop a strategy that addresses those needs, and we will be able to build a movement and a political party that will be in a position to bring about all the good things liberals and progressives have fought for with such limited success over the past 100 years.
Visit The Nation
If you like this article, please consider subscribing to The Nation at special discounted rates. You can order online https://ssl.thenation.com or call our toll-free number at 1-800-333-8536.