In preparation for the High Holy Days, the Jewish new year, we are asked to do a cheshbon hanefesh, a soul inventory, as a guide to whatever repair, redirection, rededication we will make for the coming year. I love new beginnings, so this is my favorite time of the year, when tradition supports my repentence and grounds my hope.
I guess you could say I’m religious in my own peculiar way. My idea of God is about as diffuse as can be imagined–the mystery at the core of existence, the energy that drives life, the healing intention to which one’s life can be aligned –and I reserve the right to explore, interpret and apply religious ideas and customs according to my own best judgment. Although I’m certain we see it differently, I agree with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who calls freedom of choice “a manifestation of the divine” in we humans, who can “extricate ourselves from the…chain of causality that otherwise compels us to follow a path of no return.”
So I don’t like it when people lump all believers into the same discardable ball of dismissal, as in Natalie Angier’s piece in the September 5th New York Times Book Review.” Angier confesses she acquired her own “florid strain of atheism” from a rabidly, punitively religious grandmother, but I won’t take space here to examine why some people never find a way to integrate their childhood experiences and move on.
Instead, I’ll point out three things that are egregiously stupid about outraged atheism of the type professed by Angier and the author discussed in her review.
First, its adherents arrogantly reserve to themselves the right to say which manifestations of religious belief are authentic, and inevitably choose the most extreme and bloodthirsty for that designation. Violent fundamentalists, to quote Angier’s piece, “are taking their religion seriously, attending to the holy texts on which their faith is built.” Right, and Jonah really was swallowed by a whale. I know we hear much of fundamentalism, but it isn’t the whole story: the vast majority of religous practitioners I have met believe their sacred texts are deep metaphor, which is why they are such useful guides to the examined life. If you reject faith itself as mad, psychotic and delusional (all adjectives used in Angier’s review), you have to reject the soup kitchen worker along with the jihadist, the Unitarian as well as the biblical literalist.
Second, in condemning the excesses of extreme believers, the adherents of outraged atheism conveniently neglect to note that secular extremists are just as capable of and just as likely to commit barbaric acts. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (and unhappily, countless others) were not motivated in their purges and bloodlettings by religious faith. People in the grip of extreme ideas are often willing to spill innocent blood in their service, whether or not they have religious faith. It’s the extremity, not the faith, that explains their acts.
Third, outraged atheists seem never to consider the weakness of their own absolute certainty. We know a great deal about how things work nowadays, but no one can ever know why they work, what we are doing here, spinning through space on a very large rock. Allowing oneself to face this truth produces a state of mind Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” underpinning the awe in the face of the ineffable that is the foundation of religion. Compared to that essential truth, valorizing “modern neuroscience” (as Angier does) is a joke, like saying love can be explained away as a cocktail of brain chemicals.
I have friends who are agnostics, and see no need to convince these thoughtful and moderate unbelievers to adopt my own views, which aren’t so different, after all. In intellectual terms, not knowing is a far more defensible position that Angier’s unshakeable certainty. In the end, hers is one species of faith I just can’t buy.