Dr. Susan Neiman (born 1955) is Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. A moral philosopher, she is the author of books in English and German, including: Evil in Modern Thought: An alternative history of philosophy; The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant; and Slow Fire: Jewish notes from Berlin. Her latest book, Moral Clarity: A guide for grownup idealists, was published on 2008-05-01.
Beyond Belief conference (November 2006)
Susan Neiman spoke at the Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival conference (November 5-7, 2006) at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, which brought together a group of scientists and philosophers to explore questions and answers about human nature and society. She was asked to answer two questions: 1) Can we be good without God?; 2) Can there be a science of morality? The quotations below are from the talk she gave as well as the question period following it. A video of the conference is available. Neiman is the first speaker in session 6.
- However long Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians struggle to find multiple meanings in this text, the dominant seems to be this: Abraham’s unquestioning willingness to heed gods command to sacrifice the thing he loved most is what qualified him to become the father of what are called still the Abrahamic faiths.
- [T]hough religious thinkers will fight fiercely to show its standpoint to be the one religion really sanctions, each religion has signposts pointing in both ways. One the one hand towards a fundamentalist, authoritarian strain that insists if you want to be faithful you have to crucify your intellect; that is to believe just because your belief is absurd. And on the other hand, each of the three western religions has a rationalist tradition... far from viewing our capacity for reason as threatening our capacity to obey god, this tradition sees thinking as its very fulfillment. There are actually some wonderful Jewish parables, which show God laughing with pleasure as human beings defeat him with a particularly good argument. That is, god would rather be impressed than right on certain Jewish rationalist traditions. So if reason is God’s gift then he meant us to use it even against him if he is wrong or hasty. On this tradition our ability to make sense of the world whether with science or through the right moral actions, is just one more proof of gods goodness.
- Far less import than your belief of whether god exists is what you think your belief entails. Does it direct your behaviour by rules and commandments that are set out before you or does it require you to think them through yourself? Does it require you to try to make sense of the world, or does it give up on sense itself? And I think these are the crucial distinctions. Not whether you add belief in a god to them.
- Any ethics that needs religion is bad ethics, and any religion that tries to do so is bad religion. Of course, there are plenty of both around.
- [W]e should be clear that neither genuine religious nor genuine moral impulses will ever be expressed in terms that tie the two essentially together. If you view religion as necessary for ethics, you’ve reduced us to the ethical level of 4 year olds. "If you follow these commandments you’ll go to heaven, if you don’t' you'll burn in hell" is just a spectacular version of the carrots and sticks with which you raise your children.
- I’m delighted to hear someone make the claim that there is moral progress because it can be such a incendiary thing to say, and its something that I say and deeply believe in.
- One of the great moral advances of the Enlightenment was abolishing torture. Its interesting to think how far we've come when we think about the fact that 300 years ago in every square of every civilized city, certainly in Europe, torturing people to death was not just that took place, but was something you would've taken your children to go and see on a Saturday afternoon. Right? I mean, that's what was happening. Now, the question is what did people learn, empirically, when they decided, "Oh gosh, drawing and quartering actually causes too much suffering; I think we'll put it out?" I mean, I don't think there's a fact that changed there that somebody had to realize. I think the example, by the way, is particularly important because while it shows that there can be moral progress, it also shows that it's absolutely not necessary, and there can also be moral regression, as in the case of the current administration. But I don't see that what's taking place somehow when Bush decides to legalize torture and thereby cancel one of the major achievements of the Enlightenment (Well he has! Right? I mean many of the achievements of the enlightenment, but that one in particular.) I don't see that what's happened is that there's something that he doesn't know. That he could somehow be tutored on.
- [I]t turns out to be the case that torture's not very effective. And so if you're dealing with someone who has no moral qualms whatsoever, like Donald Rumsfeld, it might be worth pointing out that its not in his interests to continue a policy that's simply feeding us false information. I mean, somebody where you know that the moral - whatever part of the brain that deals with moral reactions, they're defunct at some point - but ... it’s a good thing that we found that out. It’s a bit or argument that we can use to make abolishing torture more appealing to people. But supposing it did... I mean the whole point is... I mean you're talking about two very very different levels of objection, right? Supposing it were true that every time you tortured someone, they actually revealed what you couldn't get revealed in some other way. Would you then continue torturing? One of the problems with those arguments is that someone like Rumsfeld or whomever will be able to come up with a case - somebody who was tortured and did reveal information that intelligence wanted to know (there'll be 70 other cases where it didn't). But they'll be able to come up with one. And then what do you say? Well it's alright??
- Yes, it was.