I am an atheist. This may surprise you given the title of this essay but it’s true. As is the title. The last time I believed in God was when I was ten and Judy Blume’s book Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret almost convinced me He was there. I tried talking to him. I told him about my day, about the things that bothered me, about the questions I had. And it was helpful. My tenyear- old mind created a presence by the mere fact that I addressed my comments to someone. In the end it didn’t last. By fourteen I started yeshiva and was as certain in my atheism going in as I was coming out.And yet, I am a believer.
Let me explain.
In recent years there’s been a surge in the public debate between those who believe in God and those who don’t, due in part to the lawsuits surrounding classroom policies (whether or not to teach intelligent design), in part to shifting demographics (a decreasing number of Americans identify as religious), and in part because of the explosion of scientific research in areas such as biology, environmental science, and neuroscience.
In response to this surge, a wide variety of books have appeared, representing virtually every religious and non-religious denomination. Among the recent books that have joined the debate within Judaism are David J. Wolpe’s Why Faith Matters (HarperOne, 2008) and Lawrence Bush’s Waiting for God (Ben Yehuda Press, 2008). Through the authors’ personal journeys, these books capture the debate that is playing out in the media.
David J. Wolpe is the rabbi at Sinai Temple in L.A. He grew up religious, but at an early age the horror of the Holocaust shook his faith to its core. His eventual return to religion served him well through many family traumas. His mother had a stroke at fifty-two and lost her ability to speak and write. His wife was diagnosed with cancer at thirty-one, leaving her unable to have more children. Rabbi Wolpe himself was diagnosed with lymphoma. Among the most moving passages in the book are those in which he shows how his belief in God helped him grapple with the most profound questions about life and death.
At the heart of Wolpe’s argument is that faith is essential for living a life committed to doing good. He argues that a true faith in God moves us to charity, moves us to asking in times of trouble not “why me” but rather how can I grow from this situation and help others in the process? He reminds us of all the good that comes from religion and suggests that without religion there’s no incentive to do good.
But Wolpe gets caught up in many of the same contradictions that other theists do. He reminds us of the limitations of the scientific search for explanations by quoting the Talmud: “Teach your tongue to say I don’t know.” But if we stay true to that sentiment we’d answer the question of how the universe was created with “I don’t know,” rather than offering as an answer, God. It is in fact the scientists who are saying “I don’t know” while offering bits of information that may help with the search.
Wolpe suggests that without religion there’s no incentive to do good. Given the savagery of which human beings are capable, what will they do if there is no overarching standard and Guide? This kind of thinking ignores the savagery that has been committed in the name of religion (a fact he addresses inadequately in one chapter) and doesn’t sufficiently honor the many acts of collective kindness have been committed without offering God as an incentive.
Lawrence Bush, who grew up an atheist, has entirely different sensibilities about God than Wolpe. He describes himself as a young baby boomer who was drawn to the search for spirituality that his generation yearned for in response to World War II.
At the heart of Bush’s argument is that the mind fools us into thinking that the feeling of oneness we experience with God or the universe or even with others stems from something outside of us rather than within ourselves— from supernatural rather than natural sources. But this is a mind trick, he says. In fact the source of these sensations is internal. More importantly, he argues that this reality is not devoid of faith. He writes, “There is a leap of faith implicit in this vision of mine: faith in the human capacity for change, faith in the validity and usefulness of at least some therapeutic theories and modalities, and faith in the superior value of the ‘examined life’ over the ‘unexamined life’ for individuals and for society at large.” B u s h refers to himself, as many do, as a spiritual atheist. For him spirituality means love, nature, science, “political activism of people, their collective risk-taking and sacrifice in the name of justice and self-transcendence.” Bush has been inspired “to try to see all human beings, even the stranger — even the wicked stranger — as having the same multi-dimensionality behind the mask of their appearance that I have behind mine.” These words are not much different from the words a believer might use, from the words David Wolpe might use. So why is God necessary?
It is difficult to talk about spirituality or the sacred without evoking God. Words like joy or humility don’t quite capture the transcendence that the religious terms evoke. Believers would argue that what they experience when they pray is different than the words used to describe emotions like connection or oneness. What we have is a linguistic problem of extraordinary proportions. We need a new language.
For starters, why don’t we reformulate the questions: Where do you find your spirituality? (Rather than do you or don’t you believe)? Atheists are defined as disbelievers in a supreme being, but atheists are also believers in a great many things that are not incompatible with spirituality. To reduce the world to believers and non-believers is to cheat all of us out of the extraordinary nuance of life.
What does it mean to be Jewish and atheist? It means valuing the practices that celebrate the elevation of the human spirit. Atheism doesn’t diminish the solemnity of lighting the Sabbath candles, even if the candles aren’t lit for God, and even if we acknowledge that that particular ritual is only one of many that can move our spirits.
Rituals, traditions, practices are not unique to religion. Families develop their own traditions and rituals that revolve around experiences that are meaningful to them. A Jewish atheist might see the lighting of the candles as a tradition that connects us to a past whose stories we grew up with. Does the story of Job offer any less inspiration if it didn’t come from God? Do the epic tales of longing, of rage, of stupidity, of jealousy, of generations lost, of strength tested— do they offer any less of a guide if they came from people rather than God?
Rabbi David Wolpe grappled with the most difficult of life’s questions by looking to God for guidance. Lawrence Bush found his faith in the human mind and spirit, in discovering that our life guides can come from within as well as from without, that it’s possible to celebrate the sacred without worshipping it. For those of us who do not believe in God, let’s create a new language, one that does not define itself by an absence of belief but by a humbling, joyous, persistent belief in the beauty and power of humanity and the natural world. Let’s call it profound optimism in the worst of times and in the best of times; for lack of a better word, let’s call it sublime.