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Jewish Atheism

Shabbat, 5/15/2010
Larry Gillick

Have you noticed that there is an apparent correlation between the people who recruit service leaders and the people who do D'vars? It's not easy to find someone willing to do a D'var! You should try it some time.

In any case, this time I didn’t try very hard because there is a topic that I actually wanted to speak about, namely Jewish atheism. I have always been a bit reluctant to talk about this issue at Shir Hadash, because it somehow seems out of keeping with being a member of a religious organization. In fact, all these years that we’ve belonged to Shir Hadash, I might have felt like an imposter, except for the strong suspicion that I am not alone in my lack of belief. But the publication in recent years of a spate of books professing what might be described as "Militant Atheism" renewed my interest and provided the inspiration for me to take this on.

As far back as I can remember I have always been an atheist. You shouldn't think that I actually mean that I am an agnostic. That's not it at all. I never really had any serious doubts about the God question. The existence of a supreme being just seemed much too implausible to take seriously. I know that there are many Jews who shed their childhood religious beliefs during adolescence. Typically it is after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony that some teenagers proceed to distance themselves from Judaism, and that process is often connected to a discomfort with the supernatural images and ideology found in our religious texts and in our liturgy. But this wasn't my story. Atheism for me goes way back.

Not only have I never believed in God; I've never believed in any supernatural phenomena. In fact, to this day, I dislike movies or literature in which there is some sort of supernatural deus ex machina, whether it's ghosts or demons or anything else. I love Isaac Bashevis Singer's realistic novels like "The Manor" or "The Estate" -- but I’m uncomfortable with even very short stories about dybbuks. Well, OK, in the interest of the truth, I have to admit that I have a vague recollection when I was four or five of wondering whether there might really be a tooth fairy, but only because my mother was so very insistent on this point. I can't think of any other instances of backsliding.

I don't think that my parents believed in God either. Classic Jewish parents in the shtetl dreamt that their children would grow up to be great Torah sages. But the Jewish sage that my mother hoped I would emulate was Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein's God was the God of physical law, which doesn't bear much of a resemblance to what you find in the Torah, the Talmud, or the Siddur.

Now I know that in an attempt to rescue classic Jewish theology from unbelief of my sort, philosophers like Mordechai Kaplan have attempted to redefine God, but in a less playful way than Einstein had done. I say “playful” because I always felt, perhaps projecting, that Einstein wasn’t entirely serious when he criticized quantum mechanics by saying that God doesn’t play dice with the world. As it turned out, though, given our modern understanding of evolution, it appears that God (in the form of Natural Selection) quite literally played dice with the world, and ended up with homo sapiens, along with mosquitoes, the malaria parasite, HIV, and other organisms of questionable value.

To return to the point, here is a quote from Kaplan: “God is the Power in the cosmos that gives human life the direction that enables the human being to reflect the image of God.” So the Reconstructionist God can be conceived of as some kind of cosmic force for goodness, or for creativity, or maybe for all our positive inclinations? I’m sorry. I just don’t buy this idea. It is a valiant attempt to rescue the idea of God, but I just don’t find it intelligible. Where is this force in the cosmos? We human beings have many drives; some are good, some are not so good; Jews traditionally refer to the yetzer tov and the yetzer ra, the good inclination and the evil inclination. These drives evolved in mammals and then in our more immediate forerunners through a process of natural selection over a period of more than a hundred million years. Now, of course, they are mediated by a complex culture. In the case, of Jews, they are mediated in part by Jewish culture. The hypothesis of some sort of cosmic force seems quite unnecessary and no more plausible to me than the existence of a supreme being.

But here’s the paradox. I like going to services. (Well, maybe not every week.) In fact, I began to like services when I was around 14 and sometimes attended a minyan that met in the basement of our synagogue. There was a mathematician who went to the weekly service (the first one I had ever encountered) and there was a future reconstructionist Rabbi who was a few years older than I was. It was a conservative synagogue named Temple Israel located in Upper Darby, which is a suburb of Philadelphia. That synagogue went out of business almost a decade ago, although the building still exists and, using Google’s “Streetview” I can see the steps at the side of the building where I used to hang out with my friends. I learned to chant Torah trop back then but forgot how and had to totally relearn this skill as an adult.

But it’s not only that I like going to services. I also like celebrating the holidays and studying Jewish history (and I’m excited that our son Jeremy will start a PhD program in Jewish history in September). Over the past year, I studied Talmud most Friday mornings at the Synagogue Council. For several years now, I’ve been trying to learn Yiddish (notice how I said “trying”). When our oldest son Daniel was just 2, Muriel and I were among the founders of a new Jewish day school, now known as “The Rashi School,” a name that Muriel proposed, by the way. I worry about Israel and, more generally, identify with Jews around the world and with the Jews of previous generations. Moreover, I don’t think that my simultaneous lack of belief and strong Jewish identification is at all uncommon.

A few years ago a neuroscientist named Sam Harris wrote a widely reviewed book called “The End of Faith” that bitterly attacked the major world religions, with a particular focus on the monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Harris argued that, generally speaking, religions inculcate false beliefs in people. Much worse than that, these false beliefs are far from harmless, and indeed have been responsible for causing an enormous amount of suffering over many generations. How does this work? Roughly speaking, the argument is that there are multiple different religions, each with its own distinct system of false beliefs. Moreover, each such religious system contends, of course, that the others are false. Since the various claims that religions make are generally unverifiable and not subject to any kind of falsification, Harris believes we are doomed to endless conflict as the various major religions pursue their incompatible ends, their desire for power and control over their adherents, and their desire to spread their influence. In his view, today’s suicide bombers are just the latest installment in a longstanding saga of religiously inspired mayhem. As it turns out, he is much more sympathetic towards Buddhism because of his interest in the power and utility of meditative practices, but that’s another subject entirely.

Harris’s book was followed by a series of well-reviewed and fairly popular books by other well known authors: for example, those of Daniel Dennett, a philosopher from Tufts; Richard Dawkins, the eminent biologist who wrote “The Selfish Gene,” and Christopher Hitchens, a prominent journalist. More recently, Rebecca Goldstein wrote a remarkable novel called “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction” – in which the protagonist is an academic psychologist who re-energizes his career by writing a successful book promoting the virtues of atheism. The appendix of her novel reproduces what is supposedly part of that book, in which arguments for the existence of God are systematically advanced and thoroughly demolished. Rebecca Goldstein is herself a PhD philosopher, who grew up in an Orthodox home and who lived within the Orthodox community for many years, apparently as a kind of closet atheist.

Now, I actually find myself in agreement with much of the critique that Harris and others make of our mainstream religious traditions. Islamic fundamentalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and evangelical Christians (among others) often promote bizarre and, to my mind, transparently false claims about human beings and the universe we find ourselves in. When people believe such claims -- for example, that Yitzchak Rabin deserved to be assassinated because he was willing to give up land that God had ordained for the Jews, or that suicide bombers are headed straight for paradise -- it is very dangerous.

On the other hand, I feel that an important element is missing from the militant atheist analysis. In their framework, it seems that if you are a serious adherent of a particular religious tradition and you are consistent in your beliefs, then you will inevitably be hostile towards other religions as well as towards contemporary science. The only alternative appears to be a kind of logical incoherence, where one realizes that various belief systems are incompatible, but one simply averts ones eyes from this problem. Can it really be that something as important and omnipresent in human life as religion cannot be reformulated in a way that allows for both tolerance and intellectual consistency?

What if we think about religion in a different way? What if we are selfconscious about the traditions that we belong to, and are aware that they are only that – that they are only traditions? Religious claims then are neither true nor false. They are claims that belong to a mythological framework with holidays, literature, rituals, and all of the other paraphernalia of religious life. It is when we start to actually believe in this mythology that we humans find ourselves getting into trouble. But what if believing in the claims of religions is something like believing that the characters in a novel or movie actually exist, and that the events depicted actually took place? Come to think of it, when Orson Welles did his famous radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” many people were actually persuaded that Martians had invaded the earth and there was widespread panic.

If religions provide a mythological framework that we can enter and exit at will, engaging in the usual "willing suspension of disbelief," then the problems of lack of tolerance and intellectual consistency seem to fade away or, at least, become less salient. On the other hand, once you start to think this way, maybe your religious identity will simply unravel out of sheer self-consciousness! For some people, that is exactly what happens, I think. But for others, being able to enter into imaginative engagement with the books of our tradition, or the liturgy composed by our ancestors, being able to enter dreamlike into ancient rituals, and to enjoy the community of others when we do so, maybe being able to do these things is good enough.

Shabbat Shalom.