God, Doubt and Dawkins

Article excerpt

There are many religious people in Britain at the moment who feel they have been stabbed in the back, then turned around and punched in the face. The attack from behind is because they feel they are pursuing a religious lifestyle that is largely caring and considerate, yet they have become associated with religious extremists whose murderous fanaticism has tainted all people of faith.

The punch in the face is because despite holding beliefs that they do not impose on others, they find themselves the victim of a series of literary attacks by those espousing a militant atheism. There is a real sense of hurt, and also of bewilderment--what have we done to deserve this?

Of course, those who have a moderate liberal faith are not the cause of the atheist attacks. The latter have been prompted by two factors. First, general surprise that the genteel decline of faith that had seemed likely in the 1960s has not continued; instead, not only has religion rallied, but it has often been led by those whose commitment to their own faith has meant intolerance to those of others.

Secondly, the September 11 atrocity in the United States in 2001, and that of July 7 in London in 2005, served to impel some secular thinkers to mount an intellectual fightback against such trends. It should be noted that whilst they were appalled by Muslim suicide bombers, they were equally concerned at attempts by some Christians to censor public entertainment (e.g. Jerry Springer the Opera) or terrorise abortion clinics.

Accusations could be levelled at other religious groups too. These came to a head in 2006 when Richard Dawkins published 'The God Delusion', with Christopher Hitchens writing 'God Is Not Great' the following year. The reason these books gained so much attention was that they articulated the growing disquiet of ordinary people.

The irony is that many moderate believers actually sympathize with the questions being raised by Dawkins and Hitchins. If God is good, how come the world can be so rotten? If religion preaches kindness, why is it responsible for so much violence? It is precisely those who take their faith seriously who question themselves most as to the state of the world and the plight of individuals within it.

Such issues resonate particularly during the High Holy Days, a time of introspection when we re-evaluate who we are and how we are using the gift of life. It is for this reason that several Reform rabbis decided to address the themes raised by Dawkins in their 2007 New Year or Day of Atonement sermons

These were collected, edited and published as 'God, Doubt and Dawkins' to form the first Jewish response to the controversy. Although the rabbis all deal with the same subject, what is fascinating is the very different approaches they take, while their style varies markedly.

For Colin Eimer a key aspect of being religious is being self-critical and constantly checking one's assumptions and perceptions. In his view, this is the factor that stops Reform Judaism descending into the type of fundamentalism that Dawkins so opposes:

   Irving Greenberg is a seriously-Orthodox American rabbi. In the
   middle of a lecture many years ago, he said, 'I don't care what
   branch of Judaism you belong to, as long as you are ashamed of it.'
   What I understood him to be saying was something about the need to
   hold on to the faculty of self-criticism.

      Nor did his dictum apply only to Judaism. For me it means that
   whatever you are, whatever philosophy, creed, system you subscribe
   to--Tory, Muslim, Biologist, Psychoanalyst, Reform Jew, Socialist,
   Zionist, even Arsenal supporter, whatever--there needs to be
   something about your system that you are ashamed of--almost as a
   matter of course. It prevents complacent thinking or thinking that
   your system is indeed perfect, beyond question and so on.

      ... Another seriously-Orthodox rabbi Shmuel Sperber is quoted in
   the anthology of our old prayer book: 'Religion offers answers
   without obliterating the questions. …