Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Whose Fault Is Atheism?

There are 2 aspects to atheism that one must examine.  The first is the belief, or rather lack of belief, in God, chalilah.  This post won't address that.  The existence of God is provable by logic and philosophy and is addressed by far better authors than me so I won't go into that right now.
The second aspect is the motivation of atheists.  Many, I'm sure, are quiet types who don't believe, don't care that they don't believe and don't care that others do believe as long as those others don't show up at their door with pitchforks and flaming torches.
Others, however, are quite militant about their atheism.  Folks like Richard Dawkins, Christophen Hitchens and others not only don't believe but are genuinely perturbed by those who insist on continuing to believe after hearing all the arguments against it.  Again, when confronted with rational counterarguments (usually offered long after the militant atheist in question has left the building in order to avoid a blow-up) most of their positions fall through.  But we must step back and consider what motivates them.
One of the simplest rules in the business world is that if you're doing a good job your loyal customer base will stay with you even in the presence of competition.  In the presence of stiff competition your business then has to up its game in order to remain viable but your customers will still give you a chance if they see you're adapting to the new market conditions.
If we extrapolate this to religion we can see this very model at work and perhaps this can explain why militant atheism has had such a strong rise in the last few decades.
For millenia a religion's only real competition was another religion.  As a result all your religion had to do was promise some unique feature available only to followers in order to retain them.  Chrisianity promised you Heaven if you believed in their saviour.  Islam promised not to slaughter you if you accepted their prophet.  Judaism promised you tzimmes and humentaschen along with a fierce defiance of history's tendency to wipe up small nations.
With the rise of Western intellectualism along with the rise in economic status of the average citizen of society all this changed.  At one time you wanted to be a part of the big picture because that was the only way to matter.  Now that people had their own homes, cars and stocks a rise in the status of the individual became paramount.  Despite JFK's great speech people have, over the last few decades, been far more interested in what the state can do for them then what they can do for that state.
And religion's response?  Tepid at best.  People wanted a belief system without any accompanying obligations and religion offered the exact opposite.  Just ask Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister in the United States who was recently defrocked by his parent church organization.  Despite clear rules against it he conducted the marriage rites at his son's gay wedding.  His response to the defrocking is typical of modern Western attitudes.  He doesn't think he did anything wrong, he doesn't think he broke any rules because the rules he broke aren't fair (according to him) and he won't accept being defrocked because, well because he doesn't want to.  He simulatneously refuses to recognize the authority of his church while insisting on remaining an official within it.
What has this to do with the rise of atheism?  Well part of it, I would guess, is a sense of authenticity.  The bottom line for folks like Schaefer is that their god is a personal one.  The deity, whatever they call him these days, agrees with their personal views 100% of the time.  What they think is right, He thinks is right.  Perhaps without realizing it they are worshipping themselves, each man a religion unto himself.  An intellectually honest person would call them out on this and point out that since they don't have an external, objective source of divine revelation in their lives they are really atheists themselves.
The other is harder to deal with.In his essay "The Pangs of Cleansing" Rav Kook, ztk"l, writes that atheism is a response to religion that has gone off the rails.  It is a challenge to a religious order that is no longer doing what it is supposed to do.  Instead atheism arises and tries to fill the moral void that religion has left behind. 
When we look around at our world we can easily see that this is what is happening.  Every day it seems another scandal erupts either within the Orthodox community, the Catholic church or somewhere in the Dar al Islam.  Religion, which should be a force for moral improvement and the advancement of human decency, seems to be the vanguard of a new Dark Ages and happily so.  Is it any wonder people are making the simple equation and leaving religion, along with God, behind?
Therefore it behooves us not to be annoyed with the existence of militant atheism but to instead see it for what it is: a symptom of our illness as a religion and a call to improve ourselves.  Should we do that, should we be able to restore Judaism as a consistent, moral order it would solve this problem and bring our final redemption that much closer.


Giles said...

You state:
"The existence of God is provable by logic and philosophy and is addressed by far better authors than me so I won't go into that right now."

I used to think that until I actually examined the various arguments and concluded that the existence of god is actually not provable. This has been addressed by far better authors than me so I won't go into that right now. At the end of the day someone either believes in a god or they don't.

SJ said...

>> instead see it for what it is: a symptom of our illness as a religion and a call to improve ourselves. Should we do that, should we be able to restore Judaism as a consistent, moral order it would solve this problem and bring our final redemption that much closer.

we used to make the point incessantly that most of jewish practice has nothing to do with morality, but anyways, good luck with that. Every week there's another pedo story in FM.

Anonymous said...

I am reading a book about secular thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. It is really incredible how long this debate goes on about the value of religion. The greatest intellectuals of that time were convinced that the best footing for the United States was going to be one that one hundred percent repudiated G-d in the workings of the country; and one hundred percent disallowed a religious litmus test for full citizenship and rights. This of course was all very novel at the time.

It is truly amazing to me how well the US has done by purposely excluding and eviscerating the role of belief and religion in the legal framework. I believe that the founders would have been eviscerated by orthodox rabbis – they are very close to a Christopher Hitchens on this subject. Yet the society they began is simply the true “light unto the nations” that Judaism seeks to be. The world has benefited directly from the values pioneered by the United States in our system of world governance, and individual countries fight more and more for their own Bill of Rights and obligations to NOT abrige the rights of others.

Religious people purposely ignore the contributions of the Enlightenment, as the Enlightenment values are in many ways of a higher quality than the religious ones. Of course, the Enlightenment has a way to go on giving life meaning – which is chiefly why religion still thrives. The future of religion may wind up being what the Dalai Lama advocates: one religion founded on shared principles. Of course this is not acceptable to organized religion today of the fundamentalist strain.


Atheodox Jew said...

I'm sure there are atheists who reject God on account of "religion gone bad".

But that's just ONE reason for atheism. For me, whose "fault" is atheism? AVRAHAM AVINU's. He and all the greats after him who refused to accept a set of beliefs simply because everyone around him believed it, people who rejected falsity and took up the dogged search for truth even if that truth led them to surprising places, places which caused them to be rejected by the rest of society, those are the greats who - for people like me - serve not as the "fault" for atheism, but as the INSPIRATION for it.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

AJ, that's a complete misunderstanding of what Avraham Avinu, a"h, stood for. Yes we emphasize the "Ivri" part of it because he was against idolatry but he and his descendants (us) weren't simply about opposing dominant beliefs but about spreading the word that the world has a Leader who guides everything. Using him to justify your lack of belief opposed what he stood for just as much as idolatry did.

Mr. Cohen said...

Tehillim chapter 14, verse 1:
The degenerate has thought in his mind:
“There is no G_d.”

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

To throw my two cents into this dialogue, I would ask all to take a look at my latest Huffington Post blog As a Man of God, I See the Value in Atheism at

The issue is thought. The problem is dogmatism be it theist or atheist. The call of HaKadosh Baruch Hu is for Man to think and, to allow for such ability, a human being must also have the possibility of erring in that process. In my article, I refer to Yitro who tried every avodah zara until he found Hashem -- he was given the chance to think and discover God on his own. This, of course, is the story of Avraham Avinu.

People in our world, perhaps through the advancements of science and the effects of the Enlightenment, value thought (on some level) -- and, as such, they are clearly going to reject any dogmatic theism based on an argument of 'just believe because I am right'. Hopefully, this will get someone to really think. The result however may also be a dogmatic atheism, which we are also seeing, with the person himself/herself just making the same argument "because I am right." The call of Torah must be to the path of thought -- which is really the essence of our value of limud haTorah.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Atheodox Jew said...

Rabbi Hecht,

Thanks for the link to your HuffPost piece. (I'm commenting here because the login there is too cumbersome.) I very much appreciate your emphasis on "thinking" and respecting the fact that with freedom of thought comes the freedom to err, to arrive at incorrect conclusions insofar as belief. It's an important perspective to give over, and I wish more frum folks shared it.

The only place we differ is in our perception of who is doing the "erring". I find it hard to understand how unbiased thinking can lead a person to believe that the Torah is the word of God or that the supernatural narratives of the Torah are literally/historically true. Yes, I recognize that this has been an enormously "useful" error, being largely responsible for the survival of the Jewish people until today, but at the same time my integrity as a Jew requires me to separate truth from falsity to the best of my ability. So I have to call it like I see it.

Also, know that the word "atheist" as a blanket term is not so useful. Because while I'm more of an atheist regarding the Biblical God, I'm a solid agnostic where it comes to the idea of Creator of the universe. (Read here for more on that.) So in order to talk about belief or lack thereof, you really have to be clear what specific idea of God or what belief exactly you're referring to.

Anyway, thanks again. Best, AJ

Temujin said...

Sir Ironheart, Temujin has been very busy lately with moving his flocks, scouting and consolidating tribal lands...the usual parnassa stuff... and so, he guards his time jealously, resenting anything that steals minutes from his allotted days. But he six or seven hours one spent this evening carefully reading your excellent posts and their comments going back to July have been very well spent indeed. Thank you for the wisdom, the ideas, the Torah and the pleasure!