We are Naught (cont.): The Real Meaning of Religion
In memory of my dear friend Leo Meyers z.l., Amsterdam
As I mentioned in the previous chapter, it became clear to me at a later stage of my life that most of those surrounding me did not properly understand the nature of science and its limitations, and that religion belongs to an altogether different realm.
The primary difference between science and religion is that science does not address the question of meaning. Science investigates our physical reality, arrives at an understanding thereof and proposes theories that explain the phenomena of the universe. Science states the “facts,” so to speak, as to what lies at the basis of various phenomena, and not what these facts signify on a spiritual level. This distinction between science and religion is expressed quite clearly by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z.l.: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean” (The Great Partnership, God, Science and the Search for Meaning, Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).
The constantly repeated argument that science and intellectual progress had outdone religion was a comfortable hiding place people retreated into to justify their secularization. However, most of the time this argument lacked substantiation and appeared hollow to me. Even Spinoza’s attack on religion did not refute religion, rather, it sidestepped, dismissed and misrepresented religion.
Over the years I started to read more about religious belief and science, and I realized that religious belief was not defeated by science or secular philosophy; rather, religion had become irrelevant, dull, and insipid—and this was mostly its own doing. Religion itself had forgotten what it itself was all about.
Not only is the task of religion to emphasize the mystery of all existence and to stand in amazement and awe of existence, but as Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed so well, what to do with this awareness, and how to respond to that which is mostly ineffable. While general philosophy also deals with the mystery of existence and begins in amazement, it does not see its task to teach people what to do with this awe. However, this is by far the most important question.
While the Church and the Synagogue continued to observe their prayer services, traditions, rituals, and customs, they no longer emphasized that all these traditions are to be a response to the question of dealing with the mystery of all existence and the awe the entire existence should generate. The average leadership of the Church, and the Synagogue, did not realize this and therefore did not respond to this question in a meaningful, encompassing manner (although there were individual exceptions).
Rather, these spiritual institutions made an unfortunate substitution. Instead of emphasizing the purpose of the religious traditions, they decided to join those who offered religious self-assurance and religious contentment. They offered creed instead of deep faith, discipline instead of true worship, habit instead of love. They ignored the crisis of so many modern human beings who were looking for meaning but received dogma and religious authority instead of spiritual authenticity. They worshipped the splendor of the past, instead of offering a way to challenge the future and shatter the (material) idols of today. These spiritual institutions stopped challenging ideologies that saw the purpose of human beings as searching for as much comfort, luxury, and ease as possible (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings, edited by Susannah Heschel).
These spiritual institutions forgot that it is the task of religion to “disturb” the complacency of human beings. Instead, religion was now utilized to acquiesce to these material attitudes and in fact support them so as to find favor in the eyes of the masses.
Thus, religion was turned on its head and it traveled in the wrong direction, becoming irrelevant for the many seekers looking for guidance and to discover deep meaning in their lives. Once I had come to this realization, I understood that “To be Naught” with regard religious belief was not an option at all—for it was nothing more than an attempt to justify not looking for the deeper meaning of life.
To ignore that there is more to life than just contentment hinders the most precious part of human existence. Or in the beautiful words of Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs: “Who wants a life of contentment? Religion throughout the ages has been used to comfort the troubled. We should now use it to trouble the comfortable” (Jerusalem Post, December 4, 2007).
It was this insight that set me and many other seekers on the road to discover the world of religion.
 See: Spinoza’s Critique of Religion by Leo Strauss, To Mend the World by Emile Fackenheim, and Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai, edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein and Gil Student.