Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Absolute atheism

Godlessness is all the rage, but faith remains a virtue

To maintain its New York State accreditation, my Manhattan yeshiva high school offered us 10th-graders a semester or two of Greek and Roman mythology. The textbooks were kept in a locked room, with monitors distributing them for our lessons and collecting them afterwards.

Orthodoxy during the 1970s was moving toward greater insularity - not an unreasonable phenomenon given the debasement of popular culture then taking place.

Frankly, paganism was not a spiritual threat in our neck of the woods. What the rabbis feared from unfettered exposure to Greek and Roman mythology (other than our adolescent gawking at illustrations of comely female gods), was that unguided philosophical inquiry might weaken our absolute faith.

The slippery slope our Old World teachers feared was that we might become vaguely "less religious."

The prospect of outright godlessness - apikorsus - could not have weighed heavily on their minds. After all, the Bible warns obsessively about false gods and polytheism, but it is silent about atheism.

THESE DAYS, however, talk of atheism is all the rage, driven by Richard Dawkins's new book The God Delusion, an international best-seller ranking among the top 20 on both Amazon and The New York Times lists, and by Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation.

In the US, ABC's Nightline program devoted a segment last week to atheist activists who proselytize believers, including teenagers, via the Web. One such posting read: "My name is Joel. I deny the Holy Spirit, as well as God, Jesus, Buddha, Zeus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Sponge Bob, the pope, Santa Clause [sic], Mother Mary, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, Optimus Prime, all the saints and Spiderman."

The National Catholic Register devoted part of an issue last month to "Answering the Attack: The Incoherence of Atheism"; while the blogosphere is agog with godless talk including debate over whether a person can be Jewish and atheist.

It used to be atheists kept a low profile. At Brooklyn College I took a couple of science classes in Ingersoll Hall, never realizing that its namesake, Robert G. Ingersoll, was a renowned atheist. Okay, the name Madalyn Murray O'Hair, "the atheist," would come up in the news, but she was the Christians' problem; and to us they were anyway on the wrong track.

I wonder if atheism has been propelled so high up the intellectual agenda as a consequence of the clash of civilizations. Militant Islam seems to know where it stands and what it wants. The pews of the Judeo-Christian world, in contrast, stand empty, with the ethos of Western society seemingly up for grabs.

The situation is made knottier by American social conservatives who are leading the campaign against the Islamist threat while simultaneously waging a cultural war over such issues as abortion and homosexuality.

Notwithstanding 9/11, those raised to be broadminded find it hard to acknowledge that the planet is being propelled into a sort of medieval time warp.

Meanwhile the detested war in Iraq has conflated all too many hot-button issues which are at the nexus of religion and politics, leading some to ponder whether "Bush's God" is really all that preferable to Osama bin Laden's.

This is the context in which Dawkins, an Oxford professor who's dedicated his life to promoting science among the masses, has elbowed his way onto the scene. The God Delusion is an unabashedly intolerant disputation against God and the religious.

THE BOOK offers the classically false either/or choices so favored by pundits, politicians, theologians and even scientists with an ax to grind. These alternatives are intended to paint the reader into a corner: Are you with God, or with the devil? With the Creator of Genesis or with Darwin? Do you believe in a supernatural micro-managing lord of the universe, or that everything in life is a throw of the dice? Do you embrace scriptural inerrancy - and with it divine dictation - or do you dismiss the Bible as middlebrow literature? Do you stand with promiscuous homosexuals, or the nuclear family? Do you favor killing babies in the womb, or a woman's right to control her own body?

It's the job of polemicists to frame the debate categorically, but the rest of us need not cede the field to those who abhor the possibility of a middle ground. Dawkins's straw man is absolutist religion - his antidote, absolutist atheism. He paints faith as inherently fundamentalist and those who embrace it as dangerously delusional.

Dawkins's reliance on secondary sources (he's a lapsed Anglican) leads him to mistakenly assume that Orthodox Jews are Bible-literalist - when in many ways they are far from it. Nevertheless, the more theologically conservative one is (Jewish, Christian or Muslim) the stronger Dawkins's rationalist challenge may seem.

His is an incendiary argument: Monotheism is in no way superior to polytheism. Belief in a supernatural God, or one who answers prayers, is delusional; but if you discount God's supernatural qualities you're playing fast and loose with the very definition of God. Agnostics are gutless for straddling the rational/delusional fence; and, as you might have guessed, Dawkins holds that religion doesn't deserve any more "respect" than witchcraft.

WHEN WE do good, behave altruistically or display empathy, writes Dawkins, such moral behavior is actually part of our evolutionary development; in contrast, blind adherence to the Bible's teachings often leads people to immorality - at least by the standards of contemporary humanism.

Among the many stupid or evil things preached, or done, in the name of God, Dawkins lists the kidnapping in 1858 of Edgardo Mortara in Italy after a "secret baptism." He decries both the fanaticism of the Church in not allowing a baptized child to be raised by his Jewish parents, and of Edgardo's parents for having employed a Christian nanny in the first place, out of their own misguided faith which necessitated the presence of a shabbos goy under their roof.

As for all the evil caused by atheists, writes Dawkins: "Individual atheists [like Hitler and Stalin] may do evil things, but they don't do evil things in the name of atheism [while] religious wars are really fought in the name of religion, and they have been horribly frequent in history."
Dawkins taunts readers who view religion in a favorable light: "Do those people who hold up the Bible as an inspiration to moral certitude have the slightest notion of what is actually written in it?" Have they read Deuteronomy 20, which advocates "genocide"; or Leviticus 20, which would get you stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath?

And he has no patience whatsoever for those who, as he sees it, pick and choose those parts of the Bible they take literally while either interpreting or dismissing as archaic those elements they're uncomfortable with.

THERE'S A lot in The God Delusion to grapple with. I'll leave it for Bible scholars and theologians to pick up the gauntlet.

But Dawkins is worth reading because he forces non-Orthodox traditionalists like me to distinguish between God and religion, to contemplate what we mean when we speak about God; to reflect on why we pray; to wrestle with Dawkins's critique of the moral conduct of even God, let alone that of Abraham, Moses and Joshua - which, let's face it, frequently leaves us baffled.

Yet his atheist alternative to faith leaves me cold. What matters is whether humanity can soar higher with God or with humanism. Even if we grant that Karl Marx had a point in arguing that "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world... the opium of the people" - what solace do the atheists have to offer humanity in its place?

Dawkins retorts: "Religion's power to console doesn't make it true." If the demise of God leaves a yawning gap, so be it.

But, as I said, much depends on a willingness to buy into Dawkins's anthropomorphic conception of God. And for Jews, I venture to say, God is incomprehensible and cannot be defined.
Jewish civilization allows for a variety of avenues to God. He is present in the lives of hassidim as well as in the lives of Reconstructionist Jews. For the former, God is an almost tangible presence, for the latter, depersonalized and ephemeral. But as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan wrote: To believe in God is to reckon with life's creative forces, to affirm that life has value. It is a hypothesis about reality that we call faith.

Personally, I'm with the post-rationalist approach of British rabbi Louis Jacobs who, back in the 1950s, rejected the either/or model of thinkers like Dawkins: "We refuse to accept that the only choice before us is the stark one of either rejecting all modern knowledge and scholarship or rejecting belief. We must believe that we can have both."

Or to paraphrase the Kotzker Rebbe: If I could understand God, I would be God. A god that Richard Dawkins can describe? Phooey - I don't need such a god.

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