When I woke up last Saturday and saw the New York Times Book Review, I couldn’t help wondering: What would Rabbi Lookstein think? Featuring Richard Dawkins’ attack on the creator God on the day Jews around the world would read the creation story!
Ironic or not, reading Jim Holt’s review of The God Delusion on Shabbat Bereshit was a nice bit of synchronicity. So I thought I’d roll with that and, over the next week or so, dip into Dawkins’ defense of atheism.
Dawkins begins The God Delusion by framing it as a sort of self help book. It’s purpose: to “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one.” Dawkins seems to believe that there are millions of people who would “come out” as atheists if only they thought it was okay (he actually explicitly compares his mission to the gay rights movement), and he wants to give encouragement and support to these folks.
Dawkins points out correctly and appropriately that there’s something odd about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to be an elected official of any significance in the USA and be an avowed atheist, but I’m skeptical as to whether the level of discrimination he believes exists actually does. More importantly, Dawkins seems intent on conflating theism with religion. That is, for him, religion is defined, first and foremost, by an affirmation that God exists. And I’m not sure this definition works for Judaism and Jews. I’ve written about thinkers and trends in Judaism that downplay the centrality of God elsewhere on MJL, but my issue with Dawkins here is more practical than theological.
Later in his book Dawkins discusses the Ontological argument for God’s existence, which attempts to prove God’s existence from the very fact that we can conceive of God. (Something like: “I have an idea of a perfect God. Existence is a characteristic of perfection. Therefore, God exists.”) Like Dawkins, this proof never really resonated for me, but I do think that an Ontological proof for “a Judaism without God” is viable.
The proof: I know Jews who live meaningful Jewish lives without thinking much about God, therefore one can be a Jew and not think much about God. Mind you, I’m choosing my words carefully. I’m specifically not using the term Jewish Atheist. But not because I think they don’t or couldn’t exist, but rather because most Jews I know — whether they ultimately believe in some sort of God or not — don’t put God on the top of their list of Jewish concerns (that spot is usually reserved for “community”; “tradition”; “meaning”; “spirituality” and the like). I’m not saying this is good or bad, right or wrong, just that it’s true. And if belief in God is not the necessary essence of Judaism, how relevant is Dawkins’ analysis?
In other words: Richard Dawkins’ has diagnosed Jews with God Delusion, but it might be worth getting a second opinion.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.