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Atheism is big business these days. The best-seller lists have been filled with books telling us why we should not believe in God - Dawkins's The God Delusion, Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great. If the question is "to believe or not to believe," they come down quite firmly on the side of not.
The story is told that in the early days of the Zionist settlement, the members of Hashomer Hatza'ir debated the question: Does God exist or not? All night they sat near the shores of the Kinneret considering that problem and as the dawn broke, they took a vote. Needless to say, God lost.
Of course, the existence of God has nothing to do with a vote. A vote does not change reality, but it does change the lives of those who accept the truth of the outcome. Unlike the prime minister, God does not require a vote in order to retain His position - in this case creator and sovereign of the universe. God cannot be voted out of office.
Many philosophers and scientists have pointed out that these books demonstrate that the authors really know little about theology and approach the problem like amateurs. As H. Allan Orr, a well-known evolutionary biologist, wrote, "You will find no serious examination of Christianity or Jewish theology and no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions."
These writers assume that belief in God must be equated with ancient superstitions rather than admitting that there can be concepts of God that are acceptable to modern thinkers. Einstein was no slouch, and he was able to find a concept of God that was acceptable to him even while rejecting some traditional concepts of God. "God does not play dice with the universe," he said.
Atheism is a product of our age. For one thing, science has taught us that much that we took for granted is not so. It makes it difficult - if not impossible - for us to believe that every event of nature is the result of the immediate will of God. Miracles, in the sense of supernatural events that contradict the laws of nature, have been brought into question. The theme park recently opened in Florida to try to prove that the literal story of creation is scientifically true is simply pathetic.
For others the presence of evil in the world makes belief in God - at least in a good God - questionable. As Archibald MacLeish wrote in his play J.B. based upon the book of Job - "If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God." These problems indeed raise questions that must be dealt with and they may even cause us to refine our concept of God, but they do not disprove the existence of God.
The prominent theologian Rabbi Milton Steinberg pointed out that the universe is dynamic, creative, rational and purposive and contains consciousness. "The entire universe," he wrote, "is the outward manifestation of Mind-Energy, of Spirit, or to use the older and better word, of God."
In view of all we know today about the world and all the scientific knowledge that we have, what is needed is a concept of God that is great enough to encompass the magnificence of the universe in which we live. In place of a God who acts upon the world in "supernatural" ways, we must conceive of a God manifested in the evolution of the universe and of humanity, working through the forces of history and human nature in a much more complex way than we might have previously thought.
Impulses, possibilities and capabilities come from God. Application comes from human beings. Like a power line, the world surges with divine forces we must learn to harness. We are God's partners in the work of creation. God does not change, but our understanding of God changes with the growth of knowledge. An understanding that does not grow can lead to misunderstanding and to rejection of the idea of the existence of God.
To quote Steinberg again, "If the believer has his troubles with evil, the atheist has more and graver difficulties to contend with. Reality stumps him altogether, leaving him baffled not by one consideration, but by many, from the existence of natural law through the instinctual cunning of the insect to the brain of the genius and heart of the prophet. This then is the intellectual reason for believing in God: that though this belief is not free from difficulties, it stands out head and shoulders, as the best answer to the riddle of the universe."
But in the end, neither science nor logic can offer proof. All is subject to belief - to our reaction to the wonders of the universe and of life itself - not to reason but to belief that is not contrary to reason but rises above it. Indeed, to believe or not to believe, that is the question.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.