Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Atheistic Religiosity in Leon Kass's Reading of the Bible


Does modern science and technology give us greater understanding of and greater power over the world?  Or should we recognize the limits of scientific knowledge?  Do we need to search for a wisdom that is beyond science?  And should we worry that modern science and technology give us no wise moral guidance for their proper uses, and thus we have no way to prevent the dehumanizing effects of scientific technology?  Does philosophy or religion give us the wise moral guidance that we need?  For example, can we develop a philosophic or religious bioethics that can guide us in regulating biotechnology so that it promotes human dignity rather than human degradation? 

Leon Kass has devoted his life to pondering these questions.  “I esteem scientific discovery, and I treasure medical advance,” Kass told the Chicago Tribune.  “But it’s very clear that the powers we are now acquiring to alter the human body and mind also pose a certain threat to the long-term future of the things that make us human" (Manier and Grossman 2001).  He has argued that we need a bioethics rooted in a wise understanding of nature and human nature that teaches us the requirements for a worthy human life, so that we can defend those conditions of human dignity against the threat of dehumanization by modern science and the technological manipulation of nature.   He has shown how we can find that humanizing wisdom by reading the “great books” of philosophy, literature, and religion.  He has done that through his published writings, his work as chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001-2005), and through his influence on other scholars (such as those who write for the journal The New Atlantis).

His argument is weakened, however, by four problems.  First, his argument is ambiguous in that while he recognizes that the appeal to unaided natural reason is opposed to the appeal to any supernatural revelation, which he identifies as the choice between Athens and Jerusalem, he shifts back and forth between these two opposing positions; and he never resolves the contradiction.  

Second, while his philosophical defense of an Aristotelian and Darwinian ethical naturalism is plausible, his religious defense of biblical revelation is self-contradictory and self-deceptive in promoting an atheistic religiosity.  That was suggested in his first biblical book The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2003), and it has become clear in his new book Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus (2021).  

The third problem is that while Kass tries to interpret the Bible as providing religious reasons for limiting biotechnology, the Bible cannot resolve our debates over biotechnology, because we cannot agree on the moral authority, the moral clarity, or the moral reliability of the Bible.  

The fourth problem is that his account of the limitations of modern scientific knowledge assumes an implausible caricature of modern science as a crudely reductionistic and mechanistic view of nature.

I have written a book chapter on the third problem--"The Bible and Biotechnology" (2009).  Richard Sherlock (2009) has written a good reply to my paper.  I have written some posts on the fourth problem herehere, and here.

In this post, I will consider the first two problems.


The ambiguity of Kass's position in the reason/revelation debate was evident in how different readers saw conflicting messages in Kass's Genesis book.  Richard Sherlock (a Christian believer) thought the book showed that Kass was "a person of faith" (Sherlock 2005).  Alan Jacobs (also a Christian believer) said that despite Kass's claim that his book was "addressed to believers and nonbelievers alike," this was not really a book for believers like himself, and so nonbelievers would be more comfortable with Kass's "philosophic reading" of the Bible.  Kass summarized his interpretation of Genesis in one sentence: "The book of Genesis is mainly concerned with this question: is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life that accords with man's true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his godlike possibilities?" (Kass 2003: 661).  Jacobs responded: "It seems to me that not a single significant word in this sentence accords with what the book of Genesis is about.  Genesis, and the culture from which it emerges, doesn't seem to me to give a damn about our 'true standing in the world' and our 'godlike possibilities'; rather, as far as I can tell, it is about God and what He has done, and is doing, to repair what His rebellious and arrogant creatures have broken: our relations with ourselves, with one another, with the creation, and with God Himself" (Jacobs 2003). 

While Sherlock puts Kass on the side of Jerusalem, and Jacobs puts him on the side of Athens, Hayyim Angel (an Orthodox rabbi) places him somewhere in between the two poles.  He says that Kass shows "an unorthodox step toward revelation" or "a step toward a faith commitment" (Angel 2012: 61, 70).

So why did readers find mixed messages in Kass's Genesis book?  For Sherlock's identification of Kass as "a man of faith," the crucial passage was this:

"The reader may well wonder how these studies have affected my own outlook on life, morals, and religion.  I wish I could give a definitive answer; but I am still in the middle of my journey.  There are truths that I think I have discovered only with the Bible's help, and I know that my sympathies have shifted toward the biblical pole of the age-old tension between Athens and Jerusalem.  I am no longer confident of the sufficiency of unaided human reason.  I find congenial the moral sensibilities and demands of the Torah, though I must confess that my practice is still wanting.  And I am frankly filled with wonder at the fact that I have been led to this spiritual point, God knows how" (2003: xiv).

This is what Sherlock saw as Kass's profession of faith.  But notice that Kass speaks only of his "sympathies" and "moral sensibilities" as shifting towards the biblical pole.  He does not say that he believes in the existence of God or in the Bible as His revelation.  Notice also that Kass says "my practice is still wanting"--he is not a practicing believer.  A few pages earlier, he says that he is not "religiously observant" (xii).  He also makes it clear that he does not believe any of the theological doctrines of orthodox biblical religion.  He says that he has deliberately avoided "any specific doctrine" (2017:35).  For example, he denies the doctrines of the immortality of the soul in an afterlife with rewards for the saved in Heaven and punishments for the lost in Hell (2017:21).

Why then did Kass's "sympathies" shift towards the Hebrew Bible?  In his new Exodus book, Kass says that after the birth of his first child, he and his wife joined a Conservative synagogue in 1967.  He says they were "preparing ourselves to offer our children an experience of Jewish tradition that they could later embrace or reject as they wished.  Better, we thought, to be something rather than nothing, and our something was nothing to be ashamed of" (x-xi).  But notice that he does not say that this "experience of Jewish tradition" led him to become a pious Jewish believer.  He can be a member of a Conservative synagogue without being "religiously observant."

For Conservative Judaism, the authority of Jewish law and tradition derives more from an evolving popular agreement than from any divine revelation of theological doctrines.  Moreover, most Conservative Jews are not religiously observant.

And yet, Angel is a leader of Orthodox Judaism--a rabbi and biblical scholar--who says that Kass's "greatest moment" in the Genesis book is this passage: "If we allow ourselves to travel its narrative journey, the book may reward our openness and gain our trust.  Who knows, we may even learn who (or Who) is speaking to us, and why" (17).  Angel says this shows how a secularized reading of the Torah can lead to "a step toward a faith commitment" (70).  Perhaps.  But Kass has never explicitly affirmed a "faith commitment," and Angel offers no evidence that he has.

On the contrary, Kass says that he does not read the Bible in the manner of "those fundamentalist Protestants and Orthodox Jews who approach the text piously and who study it reverently" (2003:2).  Instead of that, he will offer a "philosophic reading" of the Bible--reading it in the same way he reads Homer's Iliad, Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (2003:1).  

Amazingly, he admits that this contradicts what he says about the opposition of reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem.  "The Bible, I freely acknowledge, is not a work of philosophy, ordinarily understood.  Neither its manner nor its manifest purposes are philosophical.  Indeed, there is even good reason for saying that they are antiphilosophical, and deliberately so.  Religion and piety are one thing, philosophy and inquiry another.  The latter seek wisdom looking to nature and relying on unaided human reason; the former offer wisdom based on divine revelation and relying on prophecy.  There is, I readily admit, a reason to be suspicious of a philosophical approach to the Bible" (2003:3).

Therefore, sometimes Kass stresses the tension between reason and revelation, which forces us to choose one side or the other.  But at other times, he suggests overcoming this tension by finding some middle ground between the two.  That middle ground must be nature.  But to say that, Kass must contradict himself because he says repeatedly that the philosopher's appeal to nature contradicts the pious man's appeal to revelation.

By "nature" I mean the idea of the regular order of the observable world as knowable by human reason.  As Kass indicates, the Hebrew Bible has no word for "nature," and this has been noted by some people who believe the very idea of nature is absent from the Bible.  If everything is created by God, then we might think that everything exists not by any regular order but only by the contingent will of God.  If there is no natural order in things, then philosophy or science as the inquiry into the causal regularity of the universe is futile.  The only true wisdom would be unquestioning obedience to the arbitrary contingencies of God's inscrutable will.

Kass admits: "we run the risk of distorting the biblical teaching by referring anachronistically to the Bible's view of 'nature,' or indeed by using the term at all in this volume.  Nevertheless, we shall do so, albeit nervously, in order to bring our study of the biblical text into conversation with other wisdom-seeking activities.  We shall, no doubt, have later occasions to visit this question of nature.  For now, let the reader beware" (2003:44).  Actually, he never does "visit this question of nature" in the Bible later in his book.  Consequently, he never resolves this fundamental contradiction in both affirming and denying the opposition between natural reason and divine revelation.

The only way for Kass to resolve this contradiction would be for him to admit that he was mistaken in turning away from the Aristotelian and Darwinian naturalism of his Towards a More Natural Science (1985) and moving towards biblical revelation.  If he were to do this, he could still read the Bible for whatever philosophical wisdom it might contain; but he would have to correct the Bible to conform to a philosophical conception of natural morality and natural understanding.


In his new book on Exodus, Kass says while he has "no single epiphany to report" from his years of reading the Bible, he can say that reading Exodus has had a profound effect on him, especially in recent years.  "I have lived with the book and allowed it to work on me. . . . And it has changed me" (2021:xiii).  The biggest change has come from his reading of the last third of Exodus, which is devoted to the construction of the portable Tabernacle that the people of Israel will carry with them as they wander for forty years in the Sinai desert.  

Kass has seen that the ritual enactments in the Tabernacle "speak to the human soul's deep longings for transcendence and that--quite mysteriously--can bring a numinous Presence into the daily lives of ordinary human beings" (2021:xv).  "Having witnessed the Tabernacle's raising," Kass says, "I try to imagine it occupied, myself among the assembled," and thus "we bear collective witness to His awesome Presence":

"When performing the prescribed rituals or raising our voices in worship and song, we may on occasion be lifted up to otherworldly states of feeling and awareness, sensing for a moment that attachment to God is the core and peak of existence.  Could this be what is meant by knowing His Spirit and feeling His Presence?" (2021:604)

This does sound like a religious conversion, in which Kass has actually felt the Divine Presence.  Does this suggest that Kass can now affirm the real existence of the biblical God, because by living with the final chapters of Exodus and imagining himself performing the rituals in the Tabernacle, he has felt the Presence of God?

Well, not exactly.  If you study carefully what Kass says about the meaning of the Divine Presence in the Tabernacle, I think you will see he's teaching what I call atheistic religiosity--religious feelings of transcendence, of being in touch with God, but without believing any religious doctrines about the real existence of God.  God "exists" only in the minds and actions of people who feel awe and reverence in their experience of a transcendent Dionysian frenzy elicited by religious ceremony.  (I have also identified atheistic religiosity in the work of Friedrich NietzscheRoger Scruton, and Jordan Peterson.)

God requires daily sacrifices in the Tabernacle.  At the beginning and end of each day, a young lamb is to be burned on the Altar (Exodus 29:38-42).  These sacrifices are imitations of a human meal, but the meal is for God.  Why?  Kass explains:  "Surely He has no ordinary need for nourishment.  Are the offerings then solely for our sake, to remind us daily--when we rise up and when we lie down--of what we owe for our existence, given us not for our merit but as an act of grace?  Are the offerings of gratitude intended to introduce a similar gracious disposition into our souls" (2021:499).  Yes.  But Kass sees more here than that:

"The sacrifices are not only for the human beings; they are important also for Him.  Strange though it is to say, the Lord needs the sacrifices, not to eat, but analogously to our need for food: in order to live in our world.  He 'needs' for human beings to recognize His presence in order to be Himself fully present in His world.  The purpose of the daily sacrifices, He comes close to saying, is to keep the association alive: [if] you bring the daily sacrifices to the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord, [then] 'I will meet with you and speak unto you there.'  If there are no sacrifices, there can be no meeting.  The Lord will go into eclipse--not as an act of will or as punishment to us, but as an unavoidable consequence of being ignored.  If God's Presence is unnoticed, unknown, or unacknowledged, He is not Present.  Not to be known is, in a very real sense, to cease to be.  I-Will-Be-What-I-Will-Be depends on His creatures for 'Being-What-He-Is.'"  (2021:500)

 Therefore, God exists only in the religious thoughts and actions of the human beings who know or acknowledge Him.  If He were not recognized by those who believe in Him, He would "go into eclipse"--He would "cease to be."

Kass thinks this point is made more explicit when God says that He needs the ritual sacrifices in the Tabernacle "that I might dwell among them" (Exodus 29:43-46).  This states the "ultimate purpose" of God and the purpose of the whole Torah (2021:500-503, 598, 603).  When God dwells in the religious life of Israel, there is a mutual benefit:  it benefits Israel that they come to know God, and it benefits God to exist as part of Israel's life forever.  If Israel were to stop worshiping God, then God would be dead.  As Kass says, "The Lord God of Israel needs the recognition of His children for His living Presence in the world" (689).

Kass draws a similar conclusion from his reading of the first chapter of Genesis, particularly Genesis 1:27:  "And God created the human being in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them."  Kass sees this verse as important because it provides the biblical basis for seeing man as the most godlike of the animals, and thus supporting the moral equality of all human beings as equal in their human dignity.  He also sees this equal human dignity as the fundamental principle for religious bioethics, which claims that we ought to prohibit any biotechnological alteration of the human body or mind that would violate that equal human dignity.

How can Kass interpret the creation story in Genesis 1 so that it shows us that this is a truth, even a self-evident truth--that God created human beings in His image?  Kass states his interpretation first in his Genesis book and then repeats it in almost the same words in other writings (2003:36-40; 2017:310-314; 2021:591-593).

I need to quote some of this at length:

"To see how man might be godlike, we look at the text to see what God is like.  In the course of recounting His creation, Genesis 1 introduces us to God's activities and powers: (1) God speaks, commands, names, blesses, and hallows; (2) God makes, and makes freely; (3) God looks at and beholds the world; (4) God is concerned with the goodness and or perfection of things; (5) God addresses solicitously other living creatures and provides for their sustenance."

"In short: God exercises speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, and the powers of contemplation, judgment, and care."

"Doubters may wonder whether this is truly the case about God--after all, it is only on biblical authority that we regard God as possessing these powers and activities.  But it is indubitably clear--even to atheists--that we human beings have them, and that they lift us above the plane of a merely animal existence.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, speak, plan, create, contemplate, and judge.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, can articular a future goal and use that articulation to guide them in bringing it into being by their own purposive conduct.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, can think about the whole, marvel at its many-splendored forms and articulated order, wonder about its beginning, and feel awe in beholding its grandeur and in pondering the mystery of its source."

"These self-evident truths do not rest on biblical authority.  Rather, the biblical text enables us to confirm them by an act of self-reflection.  Our reading of this text, addressable and intelligible only to us human beings, and our responses to it, possible only to us human beings, provide all the proof we need to confirm the text's assertion of our special being.  Reading Genesis 1 performatively demonstrates the truth of its claims about the superior ontological standing of the human.  This is no anthropocentric prejudice, but cosmological truth.  And nothing we shall ever learn about how we came to be this way could ever make it false." (2003:37-38).

We thus confirm the truth of Genesis 1 "by an act of self-reflection," because in reading the text we are "holding up a mirror in which we see reflected our special standing in the world."  Another way of putting this, Kass observes, is that "not until there are human beings does the universe become conscious of itself--a remarkable achievement that should surely inspire awe and wonder, even in atheists" (2017:313).

Notice how Kass says that the teaching of Genesis 1 should be clear "even to atheists," and it should "inspire awe and wonder, even in atheists"--atheists like Kass?  Doesn't Kass here suggest that God's mental powers exist only as an anthropomorphic projection or mirror of human mental powers? 

Doesn't Kass express the same idea in his Exodus book in saying that God needs to dwell in the minds of His believers who acknowledge Him, because without that human acknowledgement, God would "in a very real sense . . . cease to be"?

That's what I call atheistic religiosity--the idea that human beings have a natural longing for God that can be satisfied through religious feelings, but without any doctrinal faith in God's existence, because God does not exist outside of those human religious feelings.

The problem with Kass's atheistic religiosity is that it's incoherent self-deception.  It's incoherent in trying to both affirm and deny the existence of God.  It's self-deception because it's a fake religiosity that doesn't work if we know its fake.

The atheistic religiosity of Kass's reading of the Bible also fails to sustain a religious bioethics.  That became evident in Kass's chairing of the President's Council on Bioethics.  Kass never introduced Bible-reading into the Council's meetings (Arnhart 2005; Briggle 2010).  And in Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (2003)--perhaps the best of the Council's reports--there are no references to the Bible and only a few vague references to "souls with longings for the eternal" (200, 206, 288, 299).  

In a section of the report that considers the "appreciation of the giftedness of life," it is said that "although it is in part a religious sensibility, its resonance reaches beyond religion."  There is no attempt to identify God as the giver of life.  Instead, nature and human nature are identified as "the naturally given," which has arisen as "wondrous products of evolutionary selection" (287-290).

The report appeals repeatedly to a purely naturalistic ethics rooted in human nature and the natural human pursuit of happiness as the complete and comprehensive satisfaction of natural human desires--Athens rather than Jerusalem (205, 235, 260, 265, 270).


Angel, Hayyim. 2012. "An Unorthodox Step Toward Revelation: Leon Kass on Genesis Revisited." Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 45 (4): 61-70.

Arnhart, Larry. 2005. "President's Council on Bioethics." In Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, edited by Carl Mitcham, 1482-86.  New York: Macmillan Reference.

Arnhart, Larry. 2009.  "The Bible and Biotechnology." In Sean D. Sutton, ed., Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, 123-157. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Briggle, Adam. 2010. A Rich Bioethics: Public Policy, Biotechnology, and the Kass Council. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Jacobs, Alan. 2003. "Leon Kass and the Genesis of Wisdom." First Things (June).

Kass, Leon. 1985. Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. New York: The Free Press.

Kass, Leon. 2003. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. New York: The Free Press.

Kass, Leon. 2017. Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times. New York: Encounter Books.

Kass, Leon. 2021. Founding God's Nation: Reading Genesis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Manier, Jeremy, and Ron Grossman. 2001. "Bush's Guardian of Bioethics." The Chicago Tribune.

The President's Council on Bioethics. 2003. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Washington, DC: President's Council on Bioethics.

Sherlock, Richard. 2005. "Jerusalem and Athens." Modern Age 47 (1) (Winter).

Sherlock, Richard. 2009. "A Transcendent Vision: Theology and Human Transformation." In Sean D. Sutton, ed., Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, 159-188.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

No comments: