God, Doubt and Dawkins
Romain, Jonathan, European Judaism
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. They become blunted and will not attack you with the same ferocity. But without them the answer would dry up and wither away. The question is a great religious act. It helps you live great religious truth'.
Brian Fox prefers to respond to Dawkins by a passionate defence of his Judaism. He also quotes from and refutes Christopher Hitchins' book God Is Not Great, according to which, religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance, hostile to free enquiry, guilty of misogyny, child abuse and fraud on a monumental scale. Fox protests:
I don't recognise my religion in Hitchins' list ... let me say it again: I still cannot see us in that description of religion ... Are we Jews children of a lesser God or a greater God? Surely a lesser God would have left Isaac bound on the altar: and would not have had father and son return together. A lesser God would have let Israel drown in the Red Sea and not let Miriam pick up a timbrel on the other side and dance with such joy. A lesser God would have left Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and not let them eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is something amazing about our conception of God, and it is unique in the world of faith: that every quality we ascribe to God merciful, loving, loyal, true, sound, Redeemer, Maker and Rock--we set as a challenge to ourselves to emulate.
Paul Freedman gives more space than most in conveying Dawkins views, and is willing to credit him with some useful criticisms of religious blindspots. However, he is forthright in rebutting the errors Dawkins is guilty of committing, especially with regard to Reform Judaism, and Freeman refers instead to the notion of a 'plausible God':
Dawkins gives both strong and weak arguments against intelligent design, but philosophically he has a good case: the complexity and sheer improbability of the universe in which we find ourselves might inspire awe, wonder and perhaps a little humility but they don't prove the existence of a supernatural Creator. ... But my real problem with Dawkins is that he wants to pick a fight with me but he doesn't. He picks a fight with a kind of literalism, or fundamentalism, that--I would hope--most of us do not hold. He ignores centuries, even millennia of religious sophistication in Judaism and liberal Christianity and equates religion with a plain reading of the Bible. Some accuse Dawkins of a kind of atheist fundamentalism though that is probably unfair. Religious fundamentalists see their Scripture as the authoritative source of truth. Dawkins is passionately opposed to belief in a God for which there is no evidence and who is scientifically improbable, but that isn't really fundamentalism. Our reading of the Bible, and our conception of God, can be layered and nuanced with centuries of Talmud and Midrash, of mediaeval commentary and philosophy, of post-enlightenment critical studies and modern theology. ... In a few moments, when we read the story of the Binding of Isaac we will raise the scroll and sing v'zot ha-torah: 'this is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites, from God's mouth, through Moses' hand'. I'll sing it, and I'll even mean it; but I won't for one minute believe it to be literally true. This is my book. This is my story. I'll turn it and turn it, for, if I bring my head and my heart, my intellect and my moral compass, my whole soul, to the conversation, then everything is in it. I choose to live as Yisrael, to contend with God, with Judaism and its rich narrative.
For her part, Helen Freeman is less concerned with the intellectual objections that Dawkins raises, but the wonderful benefits of faith that he is ignoring, and perhaps even harming:
Religion can be seen as a counterforce to that sense of rootlessness, of being adrift in a world that doesn't care for ordinary individuals, that doesn't connect us with something greater than the small concerns of our everyday lives. The very word religion comes from a Latin root that means 'to make a connection back', to link us to the past. Religion aims to give us anchorage and connection, a sense that we DO have eternal value as an individual, that there IS a greater power than us in the universe that looks upon our own little lives with love and with interest. That can be wonderful and enriching, and can allow people to feel grounded in something of profound and eternal meaning. ... A radical atheist such as Richard Dawkins would diminish the support and comfort these people have found as a delusion, and their faith, I am sorry to say, as a kind of viral infection that needs curing. ... Yet the relationship of love (consecrated at Mount Sinai) we sustained the Jewish people through thousands of years of our history, through painful times and joyful ones too. Our task today is not to get bogged down in some kind of need to prove the rationality of religious belief. Our task is to move that love relationship between God and the Jewish people forward into this new year.
In very different vein, Laura Janner-Klausner confronts Dawkins directly and declares that, despite the attention he has received, he is little more than the latest manifestation of that age-old Jewish foe, the missionary:
Evangelists come in all shapes and sizes. At least the old fashioned style of evangelists was easy to spot. I used to feel like an evangelist-magnet when I was a student, because I was that rare creature, a Jewish Christian theology student. My neighbour in Trinity Hall, Cambridge was a student of engineering called Eldred. Eldred often used to comer me and attempt to persuade me to convert to Christianity. He made three mistakes first assuming that words alone can convince another person to believe in God; second--that it is appropriate to foist your views aggressively on others. Lastly--his most serious mistake--he picked the wrong woman! After a long break, a new breed of Eldred is trying to gatecrash my life in the form of Dawkins and Hitchens--a breed less obvious but just as myopic and aggressive. The new fundamentalist, like all its kind, views the world in black and white; exaggerates other's faults and completely belittles, dismisses and misrepresents its opponents. Where they differ from Eldred is that their zealotry is not religious but anti-religious. ... Dawkin's speciality is dismantling arguments for the existence of God .... spent three years in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge studying abstract theological theories about this or that intellectual arguments for and against God's existence. The ontological, the teleological, the cosmological and the frankly stupid-illogical. They only proved one thing to me you don't prove or disprove God's existence through sophistry and mind-games. Belief in a spiritual reality is not of the same fabric of experience as is science. Yet all personal experiences of spiritual realities are rejected by Dawkins and Hitchens science is the new god. In their view, science is perfect, infallible and unbiased whilst religious experiences; the strength of ritual; the sense of identity, joy of belonging to a community are dismissed and derided.
The only non-rabbinic contributor is Professor Peter Lipton, who, until his unexpected death in November 2007 was Head of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. It was his talk on Dawkins at the Assembly of Rabbis in the beginning of September that had inspired many to address the subject from the pulpit a few weeks later. He reveals his academic background by rigorously critiquing the arguments of those whom he labels 'secular fundamentalists':
Their first objection is that there is no strong objective evidence for the existence of a supernatural person. Now I happen to agree about the absence of evidence, but there is a great deal in this argument with which I disagree. The assumption that it is wrong to believe anything except on the basis of objective evidence is of course controversial. It ignores the possibility of defensible belief based on faith or on personal experience. But my main reaction is that the secular fundamentalist comes up against a problem that will arise repeatedly for him, the problem of making his argument cover the ground. The trouble is that of course this does not come near to covering the religious ground, not near to covering the varieties of religious practice and commitment. The fundamentalist is simply not addressing religion as we know it and live it. Their second objection is that religion is unnecessary. I accept that there is for many of us conflict between some of the moral judgements that Torah seems to make and our own moral stance. I also accept that this shows that there must be sources of our ethical intuitions in addition to Torah. And in a straightforward sense I accept that religion is unnecessary for ethics, because I believe an entirely secular person may be an ethical paragon. What is wrong with the fundamentalist's second objection to religion is the implied move from the claim that our ethical intuitions sometimes conflict with what the Torah seems to say to the conclusion that Torah is of no ethical use. This is an astounding leap. It sounds too much like someone who argues that Newton's physics is worthless because it conflicts with some observations (as indeed it does). The ethics of our tradition is a powerful tool for constructive thought, even when and perhaps especially when we end up disagreeing with some of it.
The third objection of the fundamentalists--that religion is harmful--is taken up by Nancy Morris:
[Dawkins] cites a long list of biblical examples, including the Binding of Isaac. There is no doubt that the sacrifice of Isaac is a troubling tale. It describes a God who decides to test the faith of Abraham by asking him to brutally sacrifice his most beloved son. How could we not be bothered, troubled, unsettled by this? Yet I would argue that in some ways, this is exactly what religion does best. It poses the most troubling questions arising from a challenging, incomprehensible and seemingly unjust world. It doesn't ignore them. The world is indeed traumatic, the story recognizes, and no matter how profoundly we believe in a transcendent entity, or power, this being will always be so outside the realm of our understanding that we cannot hope to fathom His purposes or Nature. In other words Dawkins is right. It's a terrible tale. The lesson he draws from it is a logical one from the mind of a literalist. Religion, especially Jewish tradition, has always had a more ambivalent, nuanced reaction to it. The story provides no easy answers--only questions. Much as life. In other words the story is, indeed, a metaphor for something and its very ambiguity and ambivalence seem to represent the religious quest and dilemma as powerfully as almost any other story we can think of. That is why we read it every year on this awesome day.
In nay own contribution, I explore the idea that doubts about God are not nearly as important as Dawkins suggests. Judaism is based on God, but is much more than a belief system, and finds room for the Jewish agnostic and Jewish atheist:
When Richard Harries, then Bishop of Oxford, reviewed a book of mine called 'Faith and Practice: A Guide to Reform Judaism Today', he said: 'This is a typically Jewish book, two hundred pages on what to do and ten on what to believe; if it had been a Christian book, it would have been the other way round!' Whereas other faiths have had internal wars and sectarian heresies over the right or wrong concepts of God, Judaism never sought to tie down God in the same way and that is why it is still possible to have very different images of God: be it as puppet-master who pulls the strings of our lives; or as the watch-maker, who puts life together and then stands back to leave it to run of its own accord; or as the judge who weighs up our worth at the end of our life; or as the still small voice, the conscience within us; or as the source of nature. All are the Jewish God, or the God of the Jews and the reason Judaism has been so relaxed about it is two-fold: firstly, it considers it a form of arrogance to say we know exactly what God is and is not. Secondly, the prime object of Judaism is not worshipping God, but getting on with fellow human beings. If we praise God in our prayers for 'supporting the fallen, healing the sick, and rescuing the oppressed' it is as a reminder of what we should be doing. For this reason there are many Jews today who say they are agnostic, yet they are not berated but calmly told they are doing no more than joining a queue started by none other than Moses who, when God first speaks to him, wants some hard evidence that God really exists and is not a figment of his imagination. It has led to many Jews taking the attitude that what counts is an extreme version of 'deed rather than creed'. They would sum up their view by claiming that 'to be a good Jew, you don't have to believe in God, you just have to do what God says'. There is also an increasing number of Jews who admit they are atheist. You cannot have a Christian atheist because either you believe in Jesus or you are not a Christian; that is the litmus test, but you can have Jewish atheists: Jews who have no belief in a deity but who do believe in Jewish values or the Jewish community.
Sybil Sheridan returns to the theme of those who do believe, but she asserts that faith can neither be proved nor disapproved; it simply exists and that is justification in itself. Dawkins' arguments may be very clever, but they are irrelevant to the way that believers feel about God:
What Dawkins misses, or deliberately misunderstands is that people do not come to belief in God through argument, but through feeling. Knowledge of God is not rational, it is experiential. Some people simply believe, others simply do not and both positions are valid. Two people going through the Shoah, with very similar experiences could end up with very different conclusions. For one, the terrible events meant they lost their faith. 'How could God permit such awful injustice?' For another it strengthened their faith. 'Without God', they would claim, 'I would never have survived.' ... The truth is, we can't know for certain if there really is a God. We can only guess that there is a God by picking up clues left around the world for us to find. Just because you can't see or touch something doesn't mean it isn't there. You can't see electricity, but you can see what it does. You can't touch oxygen, but without it you would die. Look around the universe and you can see God working, keeping it all going for us to enjoy. We cannot prove there is a God. It just is not like that. We can only believe.
Daniel Smith adopts a very conciliatory approach to the debate, referring to the different stages of religious development through which every person goes. He calls for a dialogue between the religious and secular camps, pointing out that the attitudes of both can often coexist within the same person:
Over the years, in my psychology studies and in my therapy, I came to see faith as a dynamic and changing process with stages. The faith of a child is not the same as the faith of an adolescent, and adolescent faith must be discarded as we become adults, and then comes mid life crisis--and doubt is part of the process at every stage, challenging faith, developing it, refining it, maturing it. So doubt is acceptable, in good religion as in good science. ... Religion does provide access to traditions, texts and rituals that can provide a sense of meaning, while secularism can bring in a commitment to question, to search for truth, and to work hard for the good of the wider community. ! imagine that some of us here feel a mixture of religion and secularism in ourselves. We are not militant extremists who believe that we have the absolute truth and all others are wrong. And we are not completely certain that our present faith will not undergo changes in the coming year.
If one message emerges from the sermons as a whole, it is a genuine willingness to accept criticism of religion combined with enormous confidence in its many good features. Dawkins may have exposed some of the weaknesses of faith, but he has also been blind to its many qualities, especially the way it gives meaning to individuals and hope for society at large.
There is also a shared amazement that Dawkins--an eminent scientist who fully concurs with Darwin and his evolutionary principles--should have completely failed to realise that evolution applies to religion too, and his attacks often confuse the modern version with the dinosaur model.
Another constant theme is that although Dawkins claims that religion is responsible for much individual suffering and countless wars, many are quick to point out that the greatest crimes of modern times have been carried out by those with no faith at all--Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
The various ripostes also highlight a serious problem in the attacks of Dawkins and others: they may be on-target with some points, off-target with others, but they never offer any positive alternative in their place. They only throw stones and do not provide any alternative foundation for personal values or communal mores in place of religion. The faults in religion can be rectified, but its strengths are hard to replace.
It is hard to deny the human progress that has come from those inspired by their faith to work for the greater good of humanity. The long list includes hospitals, schools and the fight against the slave trade; it covers religious art, architecture, music and literature; it extends to organisations founded by religious individuals such as the Red Cross, NSPCC, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Samaritans, Amnesty International, Oxfam and the National Trust.
We also know of many whose lives have been changed for the better through their religion: how it can help average people rise above themselves, surprise others with what they are capable of; how it can be the bedrock for those who desperately need the support to stay away from drink or drugs or crime; how it can make powerful people more humble and patient; how it can teach the talented how to measure time, establish priorities and value relationships.
For those who believe in Progressive Revelation--that the will of God is constantly unfolding and every generation needs to discover God's will for its own time--the path ahead is clear: to adhere to that which has long-lasting value and to put aside that which is no longer appropriate morally or ritually. We need to marry the best of tradition with the insights of modernity. Many of us call that Reform Judaism. Dawkins is not a serious obstacle but a useful warning sign that can help us avoid religious cul-de-sacs.
Jonathan Romain *
* Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and editor of God, Doubt and Dawkins (published by the Movement for Reform Judaism, London; ISBN: 139780947884-17-8 at 9.99 [pounds sterling]).…
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Publication information: Article title: God, Doubt and Dawkins. Contributors: Romain, Jonathan - Author. Journal title: European Judaism. Volume: 41. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn 2008. Page number: 71+. © 2001 Berghahn Books, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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