The great physicist Niels Bohr, used to start his lectures by telling his students, “Consider everything I say as a question, not a statement.” Scientific skepticism accounts for its great success as a truth finder, and the blind acceptance of myth, causes fundamentalist religion to be “mythguided”, “mythinformed” “mythled” and often “mythogynistic” towards women.
Most religions discourage questions about God and demand faith, i.e. belief in the absence of evidence, which is notoriously prone to error. This is like a politician saying “Believe me” and should be rejected by any thinking person.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, most religious authorities fear questions as witches fear the rising of the sun, because their concept of God does not hold up to rational inquiry, and their goal is brainwashing not education. Thus, they respond to those who challenge dogma with evasion, anger, and even murder. Many people erroneously consider all religions the same, or merely different paths to the same destination or the same god, which is as false as deeming all governments the same and equating fascism with democracy. In politics or religion, this reflects not truth, but lazy thinking, prejudice, or ignorance.
Beginning with Abraham, Jews have always asked questions, and modern Jews even question the Biblical account of Abraham, but for the sake of argument, let’s take the story of his life at face value.
According to the Torah, when God told Abraham that he would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham challenged God’s decree asking “How could the master of justice not act justly?” He then negotiated with God, who agreed to spare the cities if Abraham could find 10 pious men, which is the origin of the minyan, a minimum of 10 good men necessary to save a community.
When Abraham failed to meet the quota, these depraved cities were destroyed, but God rewarded Abraham’s chutzpah in challenging God by making him the first Jew, and giving him the “privilege” of circumcising himself and his sons.
Abraham was an iconoclast, i.e., “one who smashes idols”, and the Jewish people has been a smashing success ever since due to our refusal to capitulate to any authority, placing reason and justice even above God. This is in sharp contrast to Christian Scripture which claims that all earthly authority, including Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other deranged madmen, were appointed by God and therefore must be obeyed. A more odious philosophy, which was used by God-fearing Americans to justify slavery, genocide against Native Americans, oppression of women and gays and the rejection of science, is hard to imagine.
The name “Yisroel” (Israel), means “one who struggles with God”. Thus, one who struggles with and/or rejects the traditional, or any view of God, is more Jewish than one who blindly accepts what he is told.
In Judaism, God first demanded human sacrifice, then renounced this odious practice when Isaac was spared from his father’s blade. The Hebrew word “Melech” or “king”, referring to God, is similar to Moloch, the Canaanite God who demanded human sacrifice. The prophets taught that God was literally “fed up” with sacrifices and simply required us to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. With the Babylonian exile, God was transformed from a local Jewish deity to a universal God, who used the Babylonians to punish the apostate Jews.
Einstein traced this evolving belief in God through three phases: 1) a scary God who requires sacrifice to appease his wrath and ward off disasters like flood, drought, famine and disease; 2) a father figure who rewards good behavior and punishes the bad, and 3) a “cosmic religious feeling” he described as follows:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
Einstein, who described himself as a deeply religious non-believer, described this sense of awe and wonder as “cosmic religion”. He referred to this as a new type of religion, but did not develop the concept. The time has come for Jews, as a light unto the nations, to follow in the footsteps of Einstein by developing this new phase of religion that we might call “Cosmic Judaism”. Its motto could be Einstein’s observation that “science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Carl Sagan believed that religion could be transformed by inspiration, reverence and awe that would dwarf Bronze Age Biblical notions, by tapping into the astonishing revelations of science. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, revered by Jews of all denominations and an ally of Dr. Martin Luther King referred to this feeling as “radical amazement.”
The creed of this new outlook could be “There is no God but nature, and Einstein, Sagan and Heschel are its prophets.” This approach could lead our people to not only be wandering, but wondering Jews, filled with awe and wonder, to begin a wonderful new phase of religious evolution, replacing walls of ignorance and conflict with bridges of reason, understanding and love.
An evolving concept of God strengthens Judaism and all religions
In our first co-authored column, my son Ari and I tackled the existence of God. A strident atheist, Ari made my iconoclastic views seem moderate. Ari received many accolades, but also stern rebuke from some atheists, who insisted that Ari should not criticize belief in God, not because he is wrong, but because believers are better off living in delusion, and too fragile to handle the truth.
Now that we are free to speak our minds in America, they advise Ari to remain silent, just as Jews and free thinkers of the past were forced into silence by death and torture. Neil De Grasse Tyson agreed with Ari and said, “Ignorance is a virus. Once it starts spreading it can only be cured by reason. For the sake of humanity, we must be that cure.” Thomas Jefferson concurred, advising us to “Question with boldness even the existence of God, because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” The greatest minds in history share this view:
“For me, it is better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring”. Carl Sagan “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn’t.” Jules Renard “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Voltaire “Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong.” –Thomas Jefferson
A great modern Jewish sage and ally of Dr. Martin Luther King said “A faith that does not challenge us, nudge us from our comfortable places, and call us to a higher sense of being and living is not worthy of our time, energy and resources.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Another champion of free thought provides this stern admonition “The danger of religious faith is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy. Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still being besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?” Sam Harris
Bishop Shelby Spong claims anti-Semitism is as integral to the Catholic Church as the flying buttress. Catholic theologian James Carroll traced 2000 years of anti-Semitism, from Crusades, Inquisitions, pogroms, ghettos, the holocaust and today’s current hatred to belief in a Christian God who rejected Jews. A visiting pastor explained to our congregation that his religion taught him that since God was going to send all Jews to hell, Jews are expendable, and thus it was godly to remain silent during the holocaust, and to send Jews on board the MS St. Louis back to their death in Europe. The God of the Koran is also not just innocuous nonsense, it is lethal. It is time to end the political correctness of the left, which refuses to acknowledge Muslim violence, and it is equally wrong for the right to exonerate Christian intolerance. And for Jews to play a constructive role, it is time for us to admit that the Chosen people concept of the Torah, which sanctioned genocide against non-believers, is the source for the violence in the daughter faiths which has often been unleashed against us and so many others.
Elie Wiesel asserts that many Jews were led to slaughter during the holocaust, waiting in vain for divine intervention that was promised by their rabbis if they prayed hard enough, but never arrived. These rabbis told them that they were to blame for their current predicament which was God’s punishment for their lack of faith and failure to observe his laws, just as the Jews of ancient days were punished by the loss of the first and second Temple according to the Torah and sages due to lack of faith in God. Not all Jews believed such nonsense and Wiesel notes that it was mostly secular Jews who staged resistance, such as in the Warsaw ghetto, and who founded the state of Israel rather than waiting around for God to deliver them.
Charles Darwin said “To kill an error is as good a service, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.” Many Jews agree with Elie Wiesel that the old concept of a personal God seems to have died in the ashes of Auschwitz and was buried at Babi Yar along with the bodies of our people. Albert Einstein offers us a rational concept of God as the sublime power intrinsic, not extrinsic to the symmetry, causality, and subtle beauty of the universe, and Carl Sagan offers us this challenge to religious/spiritual thinkers everywhere:
“In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”
The time has come to make the vision of Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein a reality by introducing cosmic religion, an evolutionary advance that could transform the religions of the world with the revelations, wonders and insights of science and reason. The time has come, and the fate of humanity may hinge, on our ability to combine the profound truths of science with the ideals, dreams and inspiration of religion to not only allow our species to survive, but to thrive in this new century. Only then, can religion bring out the best in us, rather than the beast in us. It is also time for the Jewish people to share our indomitable spirit, faith in humanity’s goodness, and devotion to intelligence and reason, with all other peoples of the earth, which is our mission and our raison d’etre, in order to help humanity meet the daunting challenges we face today and will confront in the future.
A rabbi responds to the Four Horsemen of Atheism … with a horse of a different color
In Christian Scripture, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse usher in the “rapture”, when traditional Christians believe this world will come to an end, Jesus will return in glory, believers will live happily ever after, and free thinkers will be sent by a loving God to eternal torment. The fact that they look forward to violence and suffering with glee, speaks volumes.
One horsemen in the Book of Revelations wields a bow and another, a sword, representing conquest by violence; the cross shaped bow and arrow represents Christianity, and the sword symbolizes Islam. The third horse represents famine and the last horse is plague; the natural results of climate change, environmental destruction and overpopulation. These mythological horses run wild in the modern world, and pathological religion exacerbates them all.
Challenging this cult of death and religion itself, the “Four Horsemen of Atheism”, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, (alav ha-shalom), have galloped into super star status with best-selling books, riveting debates and sold-out lectures. While our society tends to praise blind faith, these four horsemen say “neigh” to belief without evidence. Naturally, most clergy seek to “unhorse” these iconoclastic equestrians, but I greatly admire their chutzpah, brilliance, humor, and tikkun olam.
Rather than condemn, I commend their impassioned eloquence, which has “spurred” long overdue debate and reflection on previously taboo topics. But unlike the Four Horsemen of Atheism who seek to end religion, I propose a horse of a different color, i.e. Silver, the Lone Ranger’s faithful, intelligent horse, and thus, I advocate an intelligent and intelligible approach to the Jewish faith, and all other religions, consistent with science. Just as we don’t seek to abolish government because some of them are bad, we should not throw out the baby with the holy water by abandoning all religion, due to the excesses of many of them. A non-dogmatic, open-minded approach to government and religion would serve us well, rather than giving up on both of these institutions.
In a rare moment, Christopher Hitchens said something nice about Judaism, observing that unlike Christianity and Islam which require absolute obedience to authority, Judaism has a rebellious streak, even against God. Yisroel (Israel) means “one who struggles with God” and Jacob a/k/a Israel, emerged victorious in his struggle. The intolerant, angry God of Jewish Scripture has evolved over the millennia. The groundbreaking revelations of Darwin accelerated this process and today, God may be viewed not as a thing or an entity, but rather as a creative process in the universe that changes what is, into what could be, present in all, uniting all and greater than all. Einstein taught that there is no supernatural, but the natural is super, and advocated religion’s primitive tribal perspective, giving way to a cosmic perspective, with unity our goal, as reflected in the Shema. He described himself as a “deeply religious non-believer” and considered those who cannot experience the numinous and the miracles of everyday life as spiritually dead, like a snuffed out candle. Thus, Einstein did not reject religion, he hoped to see it continue to evolve to one day incorporate the truths of science.
Unbridled religious fanaticism threatens civilization as we know it, beginning with violence against Jews, and “allows otherwise normal people to reap the fruits of madness and call them holy”. (Harris) A Trojan horse in the religious community, consisting of those who share Einstein’s view of spirituality, could challenge the misuse of religion that builds walls of hate and replace them with bridges of love. A cosmic religious approach could bring unaffiliated “cultural” Jews back to the fold and reinvigorate our people’s historic mission to illuminate a world of darkness with the light of science and reason.
When humans emerged from the forest onto the Savannah, and had to compete with bigger and more ferocious mammals, we seemed like a dark horse in the struggle to survive, but thanks to our intelligence, we beat the odds. Today, once again, we must rely upon reason to survive, especially in the realm of religion, where a rational approach makes the difference between life and death, the blessing or the curse.
As Jews revolutionized religion in the past with concepts of monotheism, justice, compassion and love, we must once again seize the reins of spiritual progress. Hillel said, “He who refuses to learn, deserves extinction”. The Jewish ability to adapt helps explain the “Survival of the Yiddish” after our more powerful enemies have long since disappeared. The Jewish people’s faith in progress, reason, and justice, infused with our indomitable spirit and love of life, are essential to prevent humanity from going the way of the dinosaur and living to see the dawn of a new day. Rather than condemn the four horsemen of atheism, I am profoundly grateful for their ability to point out what is wrong in religion to help us chart a better course for tomorrow, which is the goal of any mature spiritual heritage. Perhaps as the horsemen have trotted out an approach to life which is grounded in reason, religion could run with this idea and turn it into a gallop, as we help humanity reach its stride to arrive at a blessed tomorrow.