“It’s hard to be a liberal religious Jew these days,” Jay Michaelson writes in last week’s Forward, heaping much of the blame on the rise of The New Atheists.
Unfortunately, the Jewish communityâs religious writers have often replied with little subtlety and much defensiveness. Dennis Prager, for example, debating Harris in the online journal Jewcy.com, trotted out the old medieval proofs for the existence of God and then argued essentially that if so many people believe something, it simply has to be true. (Surely, by that reasoning, Christianity is right and Judaism is wrong, but I digress.) David Klinghoffer, in these pages, argued for ahistorical fideism: Forget the hard textual evidence about the authorship of the Bible and the Zohar, he said, weâve got to stand up for what we believe â as though religion would become âindefensibleâ (his word) if the Orthodox claims of authorship ever turned out to be false.
But these are just the kinds of flimsy arguments that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens love to hear: faith, surrounded by fallacy. They validate the atheistsâ claims that religion is for the soft-minded and thick-skulled. Itâs either something you believe or something you donât, and once you take away the preposterous truth-claims at its foundation (for example, the world is 6,000 years old, or that a self-contradictory text was authored by an omniscient deity), the edifice of religion crumbles.
These are also poor allies for real religious moderates â by which I mean the sort of people who donât believe the fundamentalist myth but do cherish the power of myth; who keep the mitzvot as spiritual practices, not as commandments from a rewarding-and-punishing God; who have a notion of the Divine in their lives, but not necessarily the traditional image of judgmental Yahweh ready to strike down sinners. Where is a Jewish moderate to turn in a polarized world where our allies are so disagreeable and our adversaries speak the words we ourselves long to hear?
Letâs admit it: Thereâs an attractive ebullience in the new atheism.