Let’s Talk About Atheism.

I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable being a closeted Jew-ish (and newly religious) person. (I will use that word, “Jew-ish”, with the pronounced hyphen, to describe myself until such time as I get my mikveh dip.) Part of the discomfort is hearing all the arguments that I used to make against religion and theism generally, and Christianity in particular, being raised in current posts by atheist friends of mine on LJ and Facebook. And since many of them are poking at stories in the Tanakh (the “Old Testament,” for the non-Jewish readers in the blogging audience), they are also arguments against Judaism.

Although I used to be an atheist, I never stopped being a traditionalist. This might make me sound like I should be a political conservative, but it didn’t actually affect me that way. I am a liberal and I always will be, but tradition is important to me. Community is important to me. I’ve always looked at the American push for individualism and “go it alone” and “look out for Number One” with a bit of a fisheye. In many ways, the values of Judaism and the values of liberalism go right together. The concept of tikkun olam, “repair the world,” is inherently a liberal value, as are the ideals of community support and tradition.

While I don’t agree with his conclusions, I find Rabbi Yonason Goldson’s article “The Real Reason Why Jews are Liberals” makes some cogent points about this connection.

Judaism is an ideology devoted to the betterment of the human condition based upon values and goals that are fundamentally liberal.

Goldson also points out that liberalism and conservatism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are inextricably tied to one another. They inform one another. Conservatism that never allows change becomes stagnant and brittle, and cannot survive. Liberalism that has no basis in tradition or a shared value system goes off the rails and crashes. So, both are needed.

The problem is, both conservatives and liberals are fighting caricatures of their opposite poles. Conservatives think that liberalism has no values; liberalism finds many of the values of conservatism abhorrent or outdated. And yet when I look at liberal positions, the best and most enduring ones are rooted in already-established conservative traditions: community, treating each other compassionately, living up to our obligations to those who serve, including people in the traditions that create community (marriage, religious practice, creation of family, meaningful work).

So I think that the practice of Judaism at its best and most honest is an inherently liberal practice, based in a set of conservative values that changes slowly over time in response to changing cultural conditions.

I’ve never met a conservative atheist. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist; I’ve just never met one. But I think that most modern atheists tend to go right off the rails because they see no value in tradition and they’d like to sweep it all up and throw it into the dustbin of history, where they feel it belongs. This isn’t to say that atheists don’t hold important and moral values – they do – but they miss the point of tradition and history and often say it’s just not important. I disagree with them on this point, obviously.

But I can also understand why atheists demonize religion and theism. I did it myself, not so long ago, and it’s easy to do. Atheists tend to be surface readers. They look only at the letter of the laws and the literal descriptions of the histories, without knowing the spirit of the laws or the backstory/context of the histories. They also tend to ignore practice for belief or history, thinking that the entire religion must be judged only on its beliefs or histories, and ignoring what the members of that religion do in their day-to-day lives.

For example, I recently saw a meme here on WordPress that ranted about how Judaism implied that it allowed child sacrifice (not to mention blind obedience to G-d), and referenced the Abraham and Isaac story as a supporting point.

I’ve edited to add the actual story from Torah, for context. It is from the Torah parshah called Vayeira, which spans Genesis 18:1 to 22:24. This particular story is Genesis 22:1-19, and is known by most Jews as “The Binding of Isaac,” or the Akedah.

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. 2 And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. 3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? 8 And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. 12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, 16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: 17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

When you read only the words of the Torah on this story, it’s easy to get the idea that G-d was demanding blind obedience while also commanding the horrific act of child sacrifice. I know that this looks very problematic.

But there’s backstory there that you can’t get just from those verses. There’s context that changes the entire meaning of the story. The ancient Hebrews lived in a time and place where child sacrifice to deities was routine, so for Abraham, the initial command from G-d to take his son up on the mountain and sacrifice him was, if certainly devastating, not entirely unexpected. But in this story, G-d is actually providing Abraham (who had been Abram, a pagan, up until G-d called him to found the Jewish people) with a kind of logical proof: Yes, everyone else does this, but from now on the Hebrews will not. Yes, you were willing to when I commanded you to, and for that you are blessed, but as you see, I’m not that much of a jerk. You and your descendants will never know the loss of your children as meaningless sacrifices; their lives and deaths will have some greater meaning.

Now, many atheists will insist that that doesn’t matter and G-d should not have demanded this of Abraham in the first place – he could have just said “So, you know how the other people around here sacrifice their children? Don’t do that.” And that can certainly be argued. But what do people remember more? An object lesson, or a decree?

As a teacher, I’d say that people tend to remember the object lesson far more than the decree. Despite the decree in my syllabus that plagiarism results in an automatic zero on the assignment, I have had students every term who have plagiarized on their papers “because everyone else does it.” Yep, and when you get caught doing it, you get a zero on your paper. Of course these students come begging for another chance and I routinely deny them that chance. Do they remember, the next time they write a paper, that they cannot simply copy from websites? I’d bet they do.

Abraham lived in a culture where it was normative to sacrifice your kids when things got bad. Absent the object lesson, he might have dragged Isaac to an altar at another time when things got bad, unless G-d had put him in the position of being ordered to do it and then reprieved from it. He had to experience it to understand it. He had to gain experiential, not just theoretical, knowledge of it to really get what G-d was driving at, in the same way that some of my students have to gain experiential knowledge that cheating will result in a zero.

But those who read only the surface of the text never get that far. Most of the time, atheists are simply cherry-picking theist scriptures to find “zinger verses,” without understanding the background of those verses. This is something I wouldn’t put up with in my students, and I’m ashamed and appalled that I ever allowed myself to do it, either. Doing this is simply making a caricature of theism. It’s literal-mindedness taken to an extreme.

Are there a lot of very violent stories in the Torah? Yes. Why? Because the people of that time lived in a harsh world and a harsh culture, and let’s face it – they still had a lot of growing up to do. (And let’s not kid ourselves; if the human race should last so long, our two-millenia-hence descendants will look back on our histories of World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq with the same kind of horror that we look back on Jericho, Sodom, and so forth. We’re not as civilized as we like to pretend we are.) Judging the current religion and its practices based on its historical flaws is like judging someone who’s in their 40s for the dumb things they did when they were 15. Atheists who judge religion based only on the religion’s starting point are not being honest in their analysis.

But one of the best things about the Torah is that, given this harsh context, the people in it are not perfect paragons of virtue. They are dysfunctional. They are real people, dealing with real problems. Their stories express the truths of the human condition. Yes, Abraham could have just said to his people: “We don’t sacrifice our kids, even though the other tribes do.” Or he could have said, “I went up there to sacrifice my son Isaac, and G-d told me not to do it. Thus we know by G-d’s demonstration to me that we are not child-killers, and that he has better expectations for us than that when times get tough.” Most people tend to take the second version of the commandment more seriously than the first.

Or we could just lean on the atheistic caricature of what happened and say “G-d set him up for a harsh test of obedience because G-d was being a jerk.” Well, okay, if you want to believe that, you can – but that’s only the surface of what was going on here. It’s a caricature and it misses the deeper meaning. By making a caricature of theism, atheists are simply setting up a strawman. By only looking at the surface, they miss the deeper point. And certainly, that’s their right – but I do not have to listen to them or take it seriously.

It’s human to make caricatures of things we don’t like. I do it myself, and have done it recently. The person to whom I needed to apologize yesterday had become a caricature in my head, and that was unfair to them. I was judging them based on my own assumptions about them instead of discovering the truth (and I’ll be writing another post on why I feel that this was lashon hara on my part, later on). But part of the Torah is about us striving to be more than human – to look to our better nature and keep on enacting it, instead of giving in to our weaker side.

Knowing this makes it easier to contemplate coming out as a Jew-ish person on my Facebook page and my LiveJournal account. Knowing why some people reject theism based on the caricatures in their heads makes it easier to understand how and why some of my friends are going to reject me when I come out. But I also know that I’m going to lose friends when I do it, for the same reasons that I once rejected my religious friends. And I just hope that someday they will understand that it was a caricature that they were fighting, not the reality. It took me long enough; I am willing to give them time to come to the same conclusion.

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7 Comments

Filed under Conversion Process, Identities, Judaism

7 responses to “Let’s Talk About Atheism.

  1. Atheists tend to view Judaism through the lens of Christianity. They are often unaware of the difference in biblical interpretation.

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    • It’s unfortunately not surprising that this happens. I recently read a blog post that despaired of understanding how Christians could claim the Tanakh as part of their scriptures when the Christian scriptures are so completely unlike the Tanakh. The blogger wanted to know how Christians could hold both sets of scriptures in their heads without going crazy, since so much of the Tanakh contradicts the Christian scriptures and vice-versa.

      I think it was Telushkin who said that most Jewish scholars are aware of what is metaphor and what is supposed to be literal in the Tanakh and the Talmud; most non-Jewish scholars assume it’s all supposed to be literal. This way lies difficulty if you don’t understand the underlying background and context.

      Thanks for the comments and the follow!

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      • Sam Harris has stated that anyone who adheres to biblical teachings must interpret them literally in order to be intellectually honest. Now, I like Sam Harris but I think there are many scholars who would disagree with him on that issue. There are stories included in the Hebrew Bible that were never intended to be taken literally. And like anything else in the Jewish world, there are multiple interpretations.To say that religious Jews must adhere to one, literal interpretation makes absolutely no sense. Perhaps for Christians it does but it doesn’t for Jews. Some atheists are familiar with this line of thinking and some are not.

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  2. Dawn Davidson

    I love reading your thinking, and seeing your movement, here. I hope that eventually your friends can understand this shift in you. And if they don’t… well, “some people are in your life for a lifetime, a season, or a reason.” Perhaps they aren’t lifetime people, is all. Not good or bad for either of you; just not a lifetime fit for you.

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