THE END OF FAITH? A ROSH HASHANAH MESSAGE
September 18, 2007
The religion-related group which has figured most prominently in the
Book Review sections of our newspapers of late – has been … not Jews,
not Christians, not Muslims, but atheists. There has been a plethora
of books published in the last two years by Sam Harris, David Dennett,
Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others with such titles as
"The End of Faith," "Breaking the Faith," "The God Delusion," and,
best of all, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."
The case these books have been making is no surprise to any of us:
Religions, we’re told, have triggered bigotry, hatred and war,
religions have exacerbated ethnic conflict, horrific practices like
female genital mutilation have been justified (erroneously, it’s worth
noting) on religious grounds, and religion runs counter to science.
I find atheism interesting for a number of reasons beyond this recent
spate of anti-religion diatribes.
For one thing, atheism is growing more rapidly at present than any
Western religious denomination. For another, it’s much younger. Judaism
and Hinduism are about 4000 years old.
Large-scale atheism is only about 200 years old.
Before the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, there were
barely any people
who did not believe in a god of some kind – and still fewer who were
willing to talk about their non-belief.
The challenge of this atheism and of the often compelling ideas
presented in these books provide us, I believe, with a most useful
opportunity to examine our faith and the connection, the identification
we have with our faith and with our heritage – surely one of the most
valuable things we can be doing during these Days of Awe. What, after
all, is this religious faith we’re holding on to? What would be the
effect on our lives if we dropped it? What would life be like if there
were no rituals to mark the births, the coming of age, the marriages,
the deaths of our loved ones?
What would life be like if our religious heritage was no longer a
part of our lives?
These books attacking religion, indeed, deserve to be taken seriously
and to be discussed and debated openly by all of us, maybe particularly
by the most religious among us. Perhaps the emergence of all these
books within such a short time span is meant to serve us with a wake-up
call, a call to look seriously at the way a growing number of people
are viewing religions today. So let’s briefly examine their basic
arguments one by one: those relating to God, to science, to war and
to religious communities.
First about the God thing. As I read the anti-religion books, I am
struck by the fact that the God-belief being attacked by these authors
is pretty stereotyped and one-dimensional – mostly they are attacks on
people following unquestioningly what is assumed to be the dictates
of a supreme potentate in the sky. I’m not one to stand in judgment
of that kind of faith unless its exclusivity alienates one group
from another. But my sense is that the beliefs of many of us who do
subscribe to some type of faith, are a lot more interesting than that.
My survey of our congregation last year found that many of us don’t,
in fact, have a sky-centered vision of God at all. For many, God is
a spirit or life force in the world that lives within us and outside
of us, harkening back, perhaps, to our ancient belief that after God
created the universe, God made the universe part of God. For many,
faith merges into a spirituality that can be found in nature as easily
as in sanctuaries. Even Sam Harris, one of the authors battering
religion, acknowledges the importance of spiritual experiences. And
finally, rather than submitting meekly to a stern and judgmental
divine being, many of us think of ourselves as partners of a loving
God in completing the work of creation, particularly with respect to
protecting the earth, and eradicating hunger and disease. And, being
the people of Israel, a word which itself means "wrestling with the
divine," we don’t hesitate to do so – and God can take it.
Put another way, most of us would have trouble agreeing unequivocally
with statements such as "God feeds the hungry," "God cares for the
sick," or "God protects the innocent." But most of us could agree
heartily that feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and protecting
the innocent are holy endeavors. Once we remove God as a noun and
as a sole actor, and focus rather on the godliness of these acts in
which we serve as partners of God, the personal struggle of belief
become much less of a struggle.
(Let me add, lest any of you who question or outright deny the
existence of God get too worried, that if you care enough about Judaism
as cultural heritage or as spiritual base to attend services on the
High Holidays or to participate in Jewish life cycle events you are
one of us, and that if you also contribute to our people’s primary
mission of tikkun olam, of healing the world, then you are indeed
What about the claims in these books that most violence in the
world stems from religion? If we look at the conflicts of the 20th
century resulting in the greatest number of deaths: the World Wars,
the Armenian genocide, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Stalinist
purges, and wars in the Congo, Sudan, Mozambique, Rwanda, Nigeria
and Bangladesh, we find some miserable and absolutist powers at work,
but usually not religion, per se. In fact some of the worst of this
violence carried out by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot has been
anti-religious in nature.
Even the dreadfully misguided Jihadists have a long way to go to match
these folks. One can argue that the dichotomy often created between
cruel religious fanaticism on the one side (the "them") and rational,
secular groups on the other (the "us") is a false dichotomy – yet
one widely touted by policy makers who would have us believe that
the violence of those people is religious, while our violence is
peace promoting and rational – even when we have to bomb them into
a higher rationality.
Let’s talk for a moment about the scientific arguments put forth by
these authors. It seems to me that the anti-religion authors too often
make the facile assumption that we’re either rational beings or we’re
superstitious bumpsters. Once again, I think we’re more interesting
than that. Sure, most of us are rational beings, and we make rational
choices countless times each day.
But there’s another part of us that wants to put rationality aside
from time to time, that wants simply to sink into the universe, that
wants simply to sink into a sunset or a symphony or a poem or the
sacredness of a relationship. And when we lose a loved one, we don’t
wish to employ our rational faculties which serve us so poorly at such
a time, but rather keep them consciously at bay while we envisage
some future time in Olam Ha Ba, the World to Come, when we shall be
reunited with that loved one. The popular book Kitchen Table Wisdom
puts it well when it talks about the experiences we have that are
mysterious, that are unexplainable, but are ineffably wondrous. We
wouldn’t want to give up those experiences for any amount of science.
And finally, what about the attacks these authors make on the faith
communities themselves? Once again, I find the pictures drawn of these
faith communities to be caricatures. I would challenge any of these
authors, even Christopher Hitchens – the most cynical and unfeeling
of them all (despite his pretty good book about the excesses of Henry
Kissinger) – to visit services of our congregations in Brattleboro and
find them, to use his words: vapid, fear mongering, superstitious,
incendiary, irrelevant, offensive, vulgar, lacking in seriousness,
or lacking in meaning.
I would challenge any of these authors to come also to our interfaith
events that facilitate understanding among the religious faiths and
that promote justice to undercut religious-based violence at its
source and find them lacking in meaning. I would challenge these
authors to have participated in our Abraham’s Family Reunion or our
Jewish-Christian-Muslim memorial service for the victims of the recent
war in Lebanon, or to participate in our upcoming interfaith Fast for
Peace (Oct. 8) or our Abrahamic Musical Service for Worship (Oct. 28)
and find them lacking in meaning.
I would challenge these authors, I would challenge anyone to be with
us at such times and not find meaning, not value a community so filled
with meaning at a time in the world when community and meaning are
often hard to find.
Jim Levinson is the Spiritual Leader of the Brattleboro Area Jewish
Community and teaches at the School for International Training.