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Despite their words, atheists really believe
By STEPHEN M. WYLEN
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
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
"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
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
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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