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Over the past two years, a series on National Public Radio has solicited nearly 20,000 brief essays on the topic "What I Believe." Contributors have spoken of believing in politics, trees, a mother's love, the neighbors' kindness and, yes, in a God who speaks and soothes.
The single most popular entry, however, was one that began with the declaration, "I believe that there is no god." Disbelief, the essayist went on, "makes me want to be more thoughtful," "stops me from being solipsistic," and holds out "the possibility of less suffering in the future."
Anyone who professes faith is clinging to a childish dependence on an "imaginary friend."
It is no quirk that the segment, written by the comic and magician Penn Jillette, has received more than 450,000 page views on the NPR Web site since it was broadcast. In his tones of stridence and mockery, Jillette typifies the emerging mode of in-your-face atheism, a very hot commodity in what passes for public discourse in America.
When I checked the best-seller list on Amazon.com on Monday afternoon, the No. 3 book out of the millions being ranked was The God Delusion, by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Coming in at No. 38 was Letter To A Christian Nation by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist building on the audience he first won with a preceding book, The End of Faith.
Those volumes do not settle for celebrating atheism while leaving poor, misguided theists alone. The new books are the literary equivalent of an intervention for a drug-addicted friend, a frontal assault on the very possibility that any intelligent human being could actually believe in God.
As Dawkins put it during a recent conference, according to The New York Times: "I am utterly fed up with the respect that we - all of us, including the secular among us - are brainwashed into bestowing on religion." (The article sat high atop the Times's most-emailed list for days, by the way.)
YOU HARDLY need to be a genius to understand the immediate causes of the atheist backlash. Across the globe, Islamic jihadists bomb, murder and behead in the name of Allah. In the United States, the Christian Right, with the support of the Bush Administration, infuses religious language and dogma into debates over public policy. Scientists in particular have endured the most offensive assaults, as Christian activists (with a tacit nod from President Bush) have tried to equate the thinly-masked creationism of "Intelligent Design" with the evolutionary theory accepted by virtually every reputable scholar in the field.
So there is a natural temptation for any Jew to stand aside and let this be a battle about the goyim. If America wants to replay the Enlightenment versus the Papal States, then maybe we should just observe the spectacle, relieved not to be among the chief combatants. But that desire, I think, ignores some deeply Jewish aspects of the argument and the outcome.
With a lineage that includes Spinoza, Marx and Freud, Jews are proudly represented among critics of religion. Our history of exile, persecution, blood libel and Holocaust broke the faith of innumerable believers. From our own midst, Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein embodied the strain of political violence executed on the pretext of divine sanction.
Yet in our complicated, simultaneous existence as a people, a nation and a religious community, we rely on Judaism for much of our identity. For good reason, Zionism in its secular heyday offered a belief system with everything except a supernatural being. It appropriated the Bible, the Magen David and the menora as symbols of Jewish self-determination. In contemporary America, a majority of even unobservant Jews attend a Seder and light Hanukka candles, using religious ritual as the ballast for ethnic identity.
A century ago, even a generation or two ago, many American Jews could and did plausibly conceive of Judaism as merely one of many viable ways to be Jewish, a way no better or worse than being in the Farband or the Yiddish theater or the garment-workers' union or the civil-rights movement. At the very least, the hatred of gentiles imposed identity on us.
Those old ways no longer work. The present reality in a tolerant, polyglot country is that religious practice offers the only irreducible way to sustain continuity. I say this not as an advertisement for religion over atheism but as a historical truth. Supporting social justice cannot be claimed as the ethical property of just one faith. Appeals to class consciousness ring hollow when we're in the management suite instead of on the factory floor. Yiddish these days is the lingua franca of the hassidim of Brooklyn, not the socialists of the Lower East Side. The intermarriage rate is - well, you get the idea.
If religion becomes something we feel we must renounce or apologize for, as the new breed of atheists believe in their own brand of orthodoxy, then we lose more than our chosen opiate. We lose a body of cultural practice - rites, texts, rules, collective memory - that have helped to give meaning even to those many Jews who find it impossible to make the leap of faith.
I lost track long ago of how many Jewish homes of wavering belief or none at all have a painting of a wizened, Old World rabbi or a print of Marc Chagall's biblical scenes. Such a gesture is both flimsy and profound. If you take the art off the wall, if you hide it out of embarrassment or ridicule, then maybe you have snipped the last tenuous psychic connection to who you are.
The writer, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of six books.
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