Aryeh Tepper reviews The Pale God: Israeli Secularism and Spinoza’s Philosophy of Culture for Jewish Ideas Daily. Katz argues (as Tepper paraphrases) that secular Israeli Jewry has come to embrace a notion of God “not as a stern judge smiting sinners from on high with his cosmic zap-gun, but as a grandfatherly figure . . . tolerant of the various paths his children have chosen, . . . desiring only to be recognized and see his offspring stay connected.” On this view “[i]t would take an outrageous sin for him to get up out of his chair and say something that might cause even slight discomfort.” Katz argues further that if religion is to peacefully and successfully coexist with liberal democracy, it needs a “pale God” – one who, among other things, doesn’t undermine political authority and the legitimacy of that state.
That God must not undermine the state’s legitimacy is worth fleshing out a little. It touches on a basic problem in political philosophy: how can a democracy mediate among citizens with divergent deeply-held religious convictions? What makes this so difficult is that religious people enter democratic discourse with loyalties to their respective religious traditions and values that are often mutually exclusive. A democracy, if it’s to include members of different faiths, has to have some kind of universally acceptable language just to begin the discussion. John Rawls’s theory of public reason offers one such language, which has its own problems, as I discussed in a previous post.
Katz’s answer is to posit a religion that makes the issue irrelevant because his pale God never undermines the state. The state thus doesn’t have to concern itself with mediating anything among anybody because this imagined national religion conveniently makes no threatening demands.
The silliness of Katz’s pale God aside – a God subservient to the state isn’t much of a God – there is a deep pessimism at work here. Katz doesn’t believe that a pluralistic democracy can survive any other kind of God. For Katz, a God who makes serious demands of His worshippers is fundamentally in conflict with a democracy where citizens rule each other by appealing to a secular-friendly common sense. That’s unfortunate. Because there is no Pale God and democracy, if it’s to succeed in peacefully governing real-life people with real-life religious convictions, has to do better.