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Home > OP-ED > Atheists

Despite their words, atheists really believe

April 26, 2001

I do not think that there are many atheists in America or anywhere else. When I was a young rabbi, I allowed myself to be drawn into many a debate with a professed atheist over whether God exists.

I finally gave up on these debates. Early on in every debate, it became apparent that they are not atheists. Every atheist with whom I discussed his or her beliefs demonstrated a belief in God.

Some atheists even acknowledge this in advance and make it part of the premise of the discussion. They say, "I will only talk with you about this if you will promise me that you will not say, 'But, you do believe in God!' " An odd prerequisite, it would seem, except that the professed atheist knows himself.

If everyone believes in God, why do some people profess atheism? There are many good reasons. The most common reason is that the atheist is angry with God. Many atheists are passionately pious people who believe that God is in complete control of the world and human society. These atheists blame God for every mortal accident and moral failure of humankind. How can there be a God when people die in floods and avalanches? How could a God have permitted the Holocaust? How can there be a God when my aunt Sadie, who was a very good person, died of cancer at the age of 30 and left behind two young children and a bereaved husband?

How do you get even with God? You cannot hurt God, and you can't take away anything that God owns. For a person who believes that God controls everything, demonstrating anger at God could be dangerous. If God zapped Aunt Sadie for no good reason at all, imagine what God might do to you for hating God. There is only one way to take revenge on God, and that is to withhold belief.

"God, I will not believe in you until I can see a demonstration of your justice in the world." That is the message of many atheists.

Some atheists suffer from an arrested theological development, probably caused by dropping out of Sunday school too early in life. Most children think of God as a nice old man with a long white beard, sitting on a chair on a cloud in the sky. As we grow older and more sophisticated in our knowledge of the world, we can no longer believe in such an image of God.

If we continue to study religion, then our God-idea can grow and mature along with us. If we abandon religious study after Jewish bar mitzvah or Christian confirmation, then we are likely to retain a childlike notion of God as the rest of our mind matures.

Many professed atheists reject nothing more than their own childish idea of God. They may acknowledge a deity appropriate to their adult mindset to which they attach a different label, because the word "God" is already assigned in their thinking to that nice old man in the heavenly chair.

Some atheists feel obligated to profess atheism because sophistication demands cynicism. In this category, we may place many bons vivants as well as many scientists who may fear that acknowledging God will compromise their chances of advancement in their profession.

My uncle Herb was a distinguished physicist, university professor, and administrator at the National Academy of Science. On his deathbed, he told me of the depth of his religious faith, despite having been raised to be an atheist by his father, my grandfather. Scientific study convinced him, as it convinced Albert Einstein, that there is a higher power beyond the created universe.

Of course God is, by definition, beyond measurement, which means that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, believed that it is a religious obligation to study science, and anyone who does not know science is a heretic. He based this teaching on the verse from Psalms: "Know God in all of His ways." What are the ways of God? These are the laws of nature as determined through scientific investigation.

As a professor of religion (professor in the original sense, but also in the sense of "teacher") I may seem to have a stake in promoting the idea of God, but really religion is much bigger than the God-idea. I like to say, "If God exists, then we need God, but if God does not exist, then we need God even more."

What I mean by this is that if there is a God, then God surely demands of us to be moral, just, and loving, so we must follow and obey God. If there is no God then everything is permissible, as Feodor Dostoevski wrote. That prospect is so terrifying that, if there is no God, we desperately need to promote morality and discover a higher meaning in our existence. This being the role of religion, religion is equally necessary with or without God.

I believe in God, then, not to uphold my profession, but because God seems to insist on being discovered by me and all men and women. The human species is homo religiosus, the religious species. We cannot be ourselves without God. To me this seems not a useful fiction, as the cynics would claim, but a sign of a higher reality insisting upon itself through our human consciousness. Like a child playing hide-and-seek, God is hoping to be found.

Stephen M. Wylen is rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne.
He may be reached by e-mail at TheRecordReligion@northjersey. com.


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