Atheists, Agnostics and Believers Part II
— Celebrating the Festival of Faith, Passover 2004/5746 —
After addressing atheists in last week’s article, allow me to vent about believers.
But first let me share some of the correspondence I received about the issues of atheism.
Some atheists took me to task as they felt that I was unfairly attacking their beliefs. [One such letter is posted below this article]. They wrote to me explaining that atheism is not the belief that G-d does not exist but rather the lack of belief that G-d exists. This therefore renders invalid my definition of an atheist as a person who is “absolutely sure and convinced that G-d does NOT exist.”
I was made to understand that there are “strong atheists” who claim to “know” there is no god, but most atheists are “weak atheists” meaning that they simply “lack belief in god.” Basic atheism is not a belief. It is merely the lack of belief.
The distinction is small but important. Denying something means that you have knowledge of what it is that you are being asked to affirm, but that you have rejected that particular concept. To be without a belief in G-d merely means that the term ‘G-d’ has no importance or possibly no meaning to you. Belief in G-d is not a factor in their lives. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of G-d.
Many atheists, in other words, don’t deny or reject the existence of G-d. Rather, they don’t find that G-d is relevant to them. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not.
Then there are atheists that are in between “strong” and “weak” and they believe that it is substantially more likely than not (though by no means a certainty) that G-d does not exist.
It’s gets more complicated. Because in addition to all these dimensions of atheism, comes a thing that Professor T.H. Huxley coined “agnostic,” referring to someone who disclaimed both atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether G-d exists. The “undecided.” Some agnostics believe that we can never know.
What then, you may ask, is the difference between agnosticism and “weak” atheism, when both are unsure? I guess only G-d (sic) knows!
And you thought faith was complex!
Frankly, I was surprised to discover an extensive amount of literature explaining the meaning of atheism and all its variations. I assume that atheists too have a right to create their bible and set of laws.
But it does seem like quite a stretch that atheists need to create a philosophy out of something that is nothing more than a… lack of belief.
Let me make this clear: Everyone has a right to choose what and what not to believe. I respect that right, and in truth any person of faith has to believe that G-d endowed everyone with free will and the inalienable right to make their own choices. And atheists, just as believers, also have the right to doubt and question, and even to feel insecure at times, with the need to justify their attitudes.
However, it’s just a little difficult to understand how lack of belief should itself turn into a system and a philosophy. I understand why believers need a system – that is very much part of their belief, that G-d created a system by which humans must live. But if one had doubts, or is pretty sure that G-d does not exist, why the need to turn that into a philosophy? Is it in order to present a counter-argument to faith?
To sum up, we have an entire series of categories:
Strong atheists, firm non-believers.
Weak agnostics (or as some call them “empirical agnostics”).
Strong agnostics (or “strict agnostics”).
And of course, the many shades in between.
One thing is for sure: In one way or another people are wrestling with G-d. I don’t know what G-d is thinking, but he sure has us spinning our wheels.
Now to faith.
I wonder whether in faith there are also both “strong believers” and “weak believers.”
A prominent Jewish leader once wrote that mainstream Jews don’t accept the “radical immanence of G-d” as do Chassidim. It made me laugh. What does he exactly mean with the “radical immanence of G-d”? Does is mean that G-d actually exists…?
I gather that he was referring to the different opinions in the meaning of the Lurianic doctrine of Tzimzum (as mentioned in last week’s article). Some are of the opinion that the Tzimtzum was “literal,” G-d actually withdrew His presence from our existence, and G-d guides the universe from “above,” from the “outside”. (This too breaks down into two opinions: G-d literally withdrew His presence, or He literally withdrew His light, i.e. His conscious presence).
The other opinion, as elaborated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in Tanya (section 2 chapter 7), is that the Tzimtzum is not “literal.” It is a withdrawal only from the perspective of human consciousness, we don’t feel G-d’s revealed presence, but from G-d’s perspective He fills all of existence.
This makes you wonder: Which is more “radical” – G-d’s immanence or G-d’s withdrawal? To say that G-d literally withdrew Himself is applying an inappropriate corporeality to G-d, as explained in Tanya. That is quite a radical position.
Perhaps a few stories can help illuminate these issues.
They tell the story that when Czarist Russia was seeking to arrest Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Rebbe consulted with some of his Chassidim whether he should allow himself to be arrested or go into hiding. One of the people he consulted was the great Chassid, Rabbi Shmuel Munkes. Rabbi Shmuel unequivocally stated his opinion that the Rebbe should not resist being arrested. “But how,” asked the Rebbe, “how can you suggest that I place myself in such danger?” Rabbi Shmuel answered: “Because either or. If you are a true Rebbe then no harm will befall you. If you are not, you deserve what’s coming to you for depriving so many Jews of material pleasure in this world!”
This story always moves me. This is what we call “radical immanence” of G-d. Yes, G-d actually exists within our lives, and yes, you either believe it completely or faith is rendered a farce. Faith is qualitative; it cannot be dissected into parts. Faith does not exist only when it’s convenient. Either G-d is here with us completely, or He is completely not here. If G-d exists then you have to go all the way.
When the Torah states that “ayn oid melvado,” “nothing else exists but Him,” it means literally, not as a figure of poetry.
Which leads us to story #2: An excellent Talmud student once came to his Rosh Yeshiva (the head of the school), in deep frustration. “I have been studying here many years. I feel that I have grown immensely and I appreciate your dedication in teaching me to master the Talmud and all its commentaries. But something is missing in my soul. I feel the need to explore.”
“Where do you intend to go,” asked the Rosh Yeshiva. “I think I want to go to the Chassidim and study some Chassidic teachings,” replied the student. The Rosh Yeshiva was deeply disappointed, but he could do nothing to stop his student.
Years later the student returned to his old teacher, and shared with him his experiences and how he had indeed discovered amongst Chassidim what was missing in his soul. The teacher became very curious. “What did you learn there that you could not learn here?” The student couldn’t find the right words to explain, so he blurted out: “There I learned how to read minds.”
“How to read minds – give me break”! the teacher exclaimed. “What mishugas is that? I always told you that the Chassidim were weird.” Yet the student persisted. So his teacher played along. “Ok, if you can read minds, tell me what I am now thinking?” The student replied: “It’s not so simple. First concentrate on something important to you, and then I’ll read your mind.”
The teacher closed his eyes and concentrated. “You’re thinking about G-d,” the student said, “as it says ‘shoviti Hashem l’negdi tomid,’ I place G-d always before me.” The teacher triumphantly exclaimed, “You see, you can’t read my mind. No, that’s not what I am thinking about!”
Somberly the student said: “well, that’s why I left…”
Story #3: A philosopher was arguing with a respected rabbi about the existence of G-d. The philosopher felt that, although there were some valid arguments for proving G-d’s existence, there were many equally valid ones disproving His existence. After a time, the philosopher grew exasperated. “You are a wise man,” he said to the rabbi. “Why is it that you are not moved by all the arguments disputing G-d’s existence?”
The rabbi smiled. “I envy you,” he said to the philosopher. “Because you are so involved in pondering the existence of G-d, you are always thinking about Him, while I spend most of my time thinking about myself.” With that, they parted ways.
The philosopher was flattered by the rabbi’s remarks, yet disturbed that his question was never answered. Later, as he was telling a friend about the encounter, the deeper meaning of the rabbi’s words dawned on him. “The rabbi actually insulted me,” he said to the friend. “The reason I spend all my time pondering G-d’s existence is that I am sure that I exist, so the only question is whether G-d also exists. For the rabbi, G-d’s existence is a given, so the eternal question is whether he exists, and if so, why?”
“Strong” faith means that G-d is actually present in our lives in a very real way. It is not just an abstract belief in some detached concept. If faith in G-d is true, then like the nature of truth itself, faith cannot be conditional or compartmentalized.
And that’s what makes faith so difficult and demanding. Faith in G-d is the absolute belief that there is Higher Reality that we must live up to, and that this calling must permeate every aspect of our lives.
Faith therefore requires constant nourishing and cultivation. It can never be taken for granted. Indeed, there are many religious atheists and non-religious believers. There are people who lack belief in G-d, yet they are the most G-d fearing people I know. Perhaps their integrity and sincerity allowed them the courage to reject the false gods that were presented to them. Perhaps if they discovered a new type of G-d, or better said, the “original” G-d before He was shaped and distorted by humans, they would be the firmest believers. I have no doubt about that.
What non-believers can teach us all is that G-d’s existence is nothing like the way we humans perceive existence. In other words, when mortals say “G-d exists” they mean “exists” as we humans understand existence. In truth, however, G-d does “not exist” as we understand the term. G-d does not exist in our context of material, corporeal existence. Conversely, G-d’s type of existence is not an “existence” as we define existence. As some Jewish philosophers put it, G-d’s existence is a “non-existential existence,” an existence that we can never fathom or experience.
Then there are people who look like or claim to be believers, and their behavior is anything but. Indeed, the Talmud says that there is a thief who prays to G-d before he goes out to steal! How is it possible that a person should turn to G-d and beseech Him to help him succeed in defying G-d’s very command “thou shalt not steal”?!
The nature of faith is such that it can remain detached form the person professing faith. Yes, he may be a man or woman of true faith, but the faith is amorphous and abstract, it has not permeated the person’s behavior. All people believe in ideals that they don’t live up to. Our ideals always exceed our actions to reach those ideals.
So whether you are an atheist or a believer we are all in the same boat – do we truly believe in our convictions, and do we live up to them.
Perhaps we are all both believers and non-believers. After all, G-d did create a pretty powerful agnostic universe, and the tzimtzum engine after all is driven by Divine energy. So it’s inevitable that there are areas in each of our lives where the tzimtzum takes its toll and leaves us feeling often alone and disconnected from G-d.
Yet, it is not an airtight tzimtzum, and even non-believers have their doubts. I even know some self-proclaimed atheists that put on tefillin daily.
It is true that ultimately the virtue of our lives is dependent not merely on our claims for or against religion, but on our behavior, hence, the phenomenon of so called “non-believers” being more G-d fearing and ethical than so called “believers.” Yet I submit that a refined human being who also embraces G-d has the ability to reach much farther than he would with his natural virtue.
After all is said and done it feels more secure to live in a world driven by faith in G-d than in a godless world. Though religion can and has been abused, atheism or agnosticism is hardly the solution. True and healthy faith creates a platform for a life of meaning and purpose, a life in which our actions matter and our experiences are driven with direction. While a life of no belief may feel alright, it renders life as a random set of circumstances, with survival of the fittest being the cardinal rule.
Religion is no panacea. History is a witness to the immeasurable misery that has been perpetrated in the name of so-called religious beliefs. Many power hungry, corrupt individuals simply (ab)used religion as a good cloak to smokescreen their own depravity.
Yet, when religion does live up to its standards, it can produce the noblest results. Take this country: Belief in a Creator inspired the opening of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Faith in G-d dictates faith that all people are equal. Can atheism or agnosticism offer the same guarantee?
The key is not to throw out the “baby with the bath water” and reject the power of faith in G-d while we reject false prophets.
I speak for myself when I say that it is hardly comforting to wake up each morning and feel that my actions make no true difference. It is hard to live a life with no mission statement that has cosmic consequences. So, I say this to my atheist and agnostic friends: whether it is mathematically correct or not, I would rather delude myself into thinking that life has true meaning than live in a reality where life has no meaning.
Of course, it helps to know that this may be no delusion but the actual truth.
At the same time I sometimes envy those people that have pure faith with no doubts. Yes, there are some very normal people that carry such innocence. They too have the challenge of integrating their faith into their daily lives, but they never have doubts.
And finally, I can’t help but wonder what G-d is thinking about all us people contemplating whether He exists. If it weren’t so hurtful it probably would be quite amusing.
Happy Passover! May the pure “food of faith” in the Matzah enrich all our lives and bring deeper faith into all our lives.
I have heard you speak on at least two occasions… I’ve also read one of your books. Based on those experiences, I have a high regard for your thoughtfulness and tolerance. I was therefore surprised by the intolerance and lack of rigor reflected in your piece on atheists. I am an atheist. You assume that to be an atheist a person must “be absolutely sure and convinced that G-d does NOT exist.” This is not true. I believe a lot of things – including things relating to tax policy, the likely winner of elections, the likely outcome of sporting events, etc. As to none of these am I absolutely sure and convinced that I am right.
You are correct that no one can prove whether or not G-d exists. You are a theist because you believe, despite this uncertainty, that G-d exists. I am an atheist because I believe, despite this uncertainty, that G-d does not exist. I respect your conclusion which I readily admit is supported (but not conclusively) by many facts, in addition to faith. I would request that you respect my conclusion which is supported (but not conclusively) by many facts (such as overwhelming events like the Holocaust, and mundane events like my father’s Alzheimers).
Your implication that, without theism, the only alternative is moral relativism is also unfounded. Many systems of moral philosophy are not based on divine will and are not relativistic. Moreover, history is replete with examples of religions and religious people applying morality in a relativistic or worse way. Again, I respect your morality and I expect mine to be respected based on my actions, not on my theism or lack thereof.
Finally, it is disturbing to me that you fail to see the dangers to our society (and especially to Jews) that would arise from failing to maintain a strong fence between church and state (like the fence that our laws build around the Torah). Our founding fathers did (generally) believe in G-d, and they also believed in Jesus Christ as the messiah. They had the wisdom to know that government should not sponsor their religious views. We need to guard against a society that shows intolerance towards Jews and adherents to other religious (including atheist) belief systems. One way to guard against that is to avoid the intolerance towards atheists that you demonstrate and support in your article. I hope that this is not a path that you will continue to follow.
Your points are well taken, and I appreciate them. I would even ask your permission to post your e-mail on our website as a reply to my article (with or without your name, as you see fit).
I also want to extend my empathy and best wishes that you have the strength to get through your father’s condition, and that he be as healthy and peaceful as is humanly and (as a believer) divinely possible.
To continue the discussion, may I say this: Firstly, I am sorry to hear that you took my words as an attack on and intolerance of atheism. That was not at all my intention. Indeed, I know many so-called atheists who are more G-dly and more ethical than so-called “theists.” I even know atheists that put on tefillin every day. My intention was to be rigorous with the topic, not any personal attack, and to help create a dialogue between us all. It’s funny, because right before I read your e-mail I received an e-mail from a believer criticizing me for attacking believers.
I think we are all mature enough to get beyond our personal beliefs and discuss the issues on their own merit. As such, even if atheism does not mean that one must “be absolutely sure and convinced that G-d does NOT exist,” the questions I posed in my article are still valid. If I may ask you, I would be interested to know, if you have an instinct, intuition or emotion that G-d does not exist? Or is it based on lack of proof, or because you have seen senseless pain? I understand what you write that your atheism is supported by many facts, such as the Holocaust and your father’s Alzheimer’s — but I am wondering what made you come to this conclusion in the final analysis of things?
Also, why atheist more than agnostic since it isn’t conclusive either way?
Regarding moral relativism – I don’t see how one can possible argue absolute morality if the laws of morality are not etched in stone by some higher authority. Indeed, if there is no G-d than all morality is simply a result of man-made laws that help us live efficiently, like red lights and green lights, which are completely relativistic. Which non-relativistic moral philosophical system are you referring to that is not based on divine will?
Thank you again for writing. I intend to continue this subject in next week’s article, and hopefully we will all grow through this dialogue.
Blessings and best wishes,
Thank you for your response. I’m sure you did not intend to be intolerant or to attack atheists, but if you reread your piece as I have, I think you will see the tone I am referring to in a number of places, including: your reference to an “atheist’s irrational conviction”; your reference to “Mr. Atheist”; your question whether an atheist is “worshipping himself” with “irrational certainty”; your suggestion that Dr. Newdow’s desire that his daughter not have thrust upon her religious beliefs at school that are contrary to his own is just the result of an “injured ego” and of his taking himself “too seriously”. All of these are essentially ad hominem in nature rather than reasoned argument.
You ask why I don’t refer to myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Since you acknowledge that there is no certainty either way, why don’t you refer to yourself as an agnostic? I think the answer for both of us is that an agnostic is someone who thinks there is approximately a 50/50 chance (give or take a few percentage points) of G-d’s existence. A theist, like you, believes it is substantially more likely than not (though by no means a certainty) that G-d exists. An atheist, like me, believes it is substantially more likely than not (though by no means a certainty) that G-d does not exist.
You ask about whether I have an intuition as to G-d’s non-existence and what is the ultimate source of my non-belief. I would say that I do have an intuition that G-d does not exist. There is no single source. I believe that the single most important source was my father’s worldview. He was brought up in Brooklyn by orthodox eastern European immigrants. I was raised in a conservative suburban Philadelphia synagogue (Beth Sholom – Frank Lloyd Wright). My parents attended Friday night services almost every week until my mother’s M.S. made it impractical.
My father’s ethnic identity was extremely important to him. However, even though he never talked about it directly and I picked it up only subliminally, his worldview did not admit of any divine intervention. I think this is what I absorbed. I would also add that the brand of conservative Judaism propounded at Beth Sholom in those years was so lacking in any sense of spirituality that it contributed to my intuition of atheism.
Beginning around when I turned 40 (I’m now 51), I engaged in a spiritual quest of sorts that involved study of Judaism (with both Chasidic and Reconstructionist teachers) as well as study of eastern philosophy and, to a lesser extent, Christian mysticism. This was very useful to me. Although I never changed my atheist beliefs, I became more sympathetic to theistic beliefs. However, watching Alzheimer’s strip my father’s humanity from him inch by inch (he died two and a half years ago) made me much more resentful of the notion that there is a divinity that chose to create diseases like that (I realize that there are worse evils in the world that Alzheimer’s, but I guess we tend to react most strongly to things that strike closest to home).
As to moral relativism, I understand that to refer to the notion that there is no principled basis on which to judge one moral system superior to another. Plato for example had a fairly elaborate moral system that was not relativistic. More modern systems were propounded by Mill and Kant. Of course, no one can say for sure which if any of these systems is right – just as no one can say which religion’s moral system is right. It is also significant to note that the Jewish moral system, even from an orthodox standpoint, is not static. We obviously would not permit slavery or polygamy today. More fundamentally, as my younger son the philosophy major points out, whether or not maintaining a moral system without a G-d is problematic implies nothing about whether G-d exists.
Again, all that I am asking is respect for my beliefs and that I not be referred to as irrational or egotistical or too self-serious or lacking in moral foundations on account of them. I would also ask that you be mindful of the dangers to Jews, theist and atheist alike, from permitting government to impose religious beliefs (however much you may agree with them) on our children. You can be confident that if governmental imposition of religious beliefs is allowed to continue, it won’t be long before some of those beliefs will be very noxious to you and by then it may be too late.
Feel free to use my initial response and/or this response, but please do not include my name. I trust you with it, but not necessarily all those you may send it to.