Monday, October 01, 2007

A Jewish perspective on the New Atheists

Here is a thoughtful article from a (moderate) Jewish perspective: The New Atheism: What's a Liberal Spiritual Jew to do?

It’s hard to be a liberal religious Jew these days. Some of us first felt this way back in September 2001, when we felt forced to make statements like, “Al Qaeda is not really Islam” or, “Religion still is good for humankind — just not that kind of religion.” Others started getting uncomfortable when the “clash of civilizations” entered the political mainstream, trying, with difficulty, to chart a “third way” between the religious right’s war of Christianity against Islam and the secular left’s struggle of secularism against religion, fundamentalism and intolerance — all three of which seemed to be synonyms for one another.

But now, with the rise of the “new atheism,” given voice by such writers as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and, most recently, Christopher Hitchens, the battle lines have grown even starker. These days, religion — all of it, not just the bomb-wearing, stone-throwing kind — has been blamed for everything from war to ignorance, racism and sexism, even just plain stupidity. Oy.

But here he makes a valid argument, that religion is more than just bad science:

To begin with, all the leading atheist tracts assume that religion is, first and foremost, a matter of belief. Religion is bad science, basically, which insists that untenable propositions be taken on faith — especially since they can’t be proved, and can often be disproved relatively easily. This may be the religion of most Christians and some Jews, but most of Judaism is, in the familiar formulation, more about deed than creed — more what you do than what you believe. Keep the Sabbath, act justly, pray, obey the dietary laws? You’ve got most of Jewish law covered right there, regardless of what you believe about God and history. Now, of course, it makes sense that neo-atheism targets Christianity and Islam rather than Judaism, since the former are more populous and more important. But a lot of what their leading advocates say has nothing to do with me, or my less “moderate” co-religionists.

Second, and relatedly, the religion conjured by the atheists is altogether too rational. It’s as if people woke up in the morning and selected a belief system as they would a box of cereal off the shelf. For most spiritual liberals, however, religion is what gets you in your guts: It’s the primal archetypes that speak to the heart, the embodied rituals, the symbols pregnant with thousands of years of history. Harris wants us all to meditate and become Buddhists (the last chapter of “The End of Faith” is a straight dharma talk, like those I’ve heard on many a Buddhist retreat), but this prescription ignores the role that myth plays in individual and communal life. As a Buddhist practitioner myself, I do think that the world would be better off if more people would meditate. But most people don’t have the time, aptitude or enthusiasm for such pursuits. They need a system that provides meaning, community, ethics and story; they thirst for symbol and myth. Religion, not meditation, does that — including in the Buddhist world, which, as Harris fails to mention, is just as full of ritual, deities, dogma and myth as the Jewish and Christian ones.

Finally, there is the element of community. Yes, as Hitchens relentlessly points out, most people’s images of God are primitive. But this is the genius, not the failure, of religion. As Maimonides wrote more than 800 years ago, religion works because it speaks on multiple levels. Philosophers can find their truth in biblical text (albeit with some linguistic stretching), and people too busy feeding their families to study philosophy can find ethical guidance and communal myth. Of course, there is always the danger in such a system that some less-philosophical types will over-literalize and fetishize their religious beliefs. In the mystical metaphor, they mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. But the alternative is a medieval world in which one must be a theologian in order to be religious.

However, he does point to some valid arguments of the New Atheists:

None of this is to deny the trenchancy of many atheist arguments. Certain beliefs are indeed risible. Jews, like just about every other religious group, have long believed that our tribe is better than others, a notion that once ensured our survival but has long outlived its usefulness. Primitive ideas about God — again, that He likes us more than other people, or that He is a He — should evolve, just as our primitive ideas about cosmology, disease and technology have evolved. And we should never confuse religion (why the world is, and what we should do) with science (how the world is, and what we can do). Neither does a good job of impersonating the other.

Harris is also right that we moderates are kidding ourselves if we think we’re not complicit in the far right’s “distortions” of our religious and spiritual ideas. Those of us who style ourselves religious moderates must take responsibility for acts of intolerance and violence committed in our religion’s name — which, to be fair, Jews of all political stripes almost always condemn, even as we argue over the details.

In short, the new atheism is an important, useful auditing of our religious ideas. We should read its arguments and, rather than defensively parry them, consider them with a critical mind. And where appropriate, we should check our religious zealotries with careful reflection, ethical consideration and, yes, quiet meditation before they lead to dangerous consequences.

Read the full article here.