Jewish Journal


October 2, 2007

The allure of atheism for a liberal Jew


“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 community’s 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, we’ve got to stand up for what we believe — as though religion would become “indefensible” (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 atheists’ claims that religion is for the soft-minded and thick-skulled. It’s either something you believe or something you don’t, 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 — by which I mean the sort of people who don’t 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?

            Let’s admit it: There’s an attractive ebullience in the new atheism.

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