With Apologies to Bertrand Russell: Why I Am Not a Believer!
A few posts ago I mentioned that I am an atheist. I was raised as a Modern Classical Reform Jew in the suburbs of the North Shore of Chicago however I never much found the need to devote much effort to a piecemeal Jewish education. As an undergraduate student I took an elective in comparative religions. During that semester I came across the works of Joseph Campbell and his inquiry into comparative mythology. I became more convinced that man created his gods and not the other way round.
After undergraduate school I chose to go to St. Louis University for graduate studies in Latin American history under the mentorship of John Francis Bannon, SJ. Being one of only a handful of Jewish students (it’s like the mafia, once you’re in you’re in and there is but one way out) at a Catholic university, I experienced a sort of strange, albeit, unexpected acceptance. This was the time of John XXIII and Vatican II when the Jews were absolved of any further guilt for their perceived sins. I actually felt no relief, rather the raw emotion was one of indigence; who gave you the right to absolve me of sins I could never have committed and where is the apology for nearly 2000 years of persecution and lies? It helps to remember that this was a mere twenty years after the Shoah (you might know it as the Holocaust). As a brief note, Shoah is a Hebrew word meaning destruction while Holocaust derives from a Greek word meaning burnt offering. Most Jews today prefer the term Shoah to Holocaust because of the sacrificial (religious) undertones of the latter.
In my middle years I looked at the synagogue as a place to go for weddings, funerals and bar (bat) mitzvahs. The general liturgy made little sense to me. I went about my life, not seeking a god but not avoiding one either. As an atheist it was and is clear to me that if there were convincing (not self-serving) evidence for the existence of a god, any god, then I would be convinced and would no longer be an atheist. I make a rational choice to reject the theistic choice based on evidence rather than take the coward’s way out and claim to be an agnostic.
Much to my surprise, about ten years ago I became quite interested in the notion of the ethics of responsibility, a postmodern idea arising from the work of Emmanuel Levinas. The more I read Levinas the more I became attracted to Jewish texts, many of which had a profound influence on Levinas’s work. I began reading Torah and Talmud, studying first with a Lubavitcher rabbi and later, for a very brief time, with a Conservative rabbi. When I moved to the Northwestern suburbs of Chicago I no longer had ready access to a Chabad house and so I stopped studying. About three months ago a Chabad house not 10 miles from my house opened and I am pleased to announce that I will be reading Talmud and Torah with the new Lubavitcher rabbi at this Chabad house.
Why would an atheist Jew want to read sacred texts? Frankly, the answer is quite simple. I find great ethical wisdom in the methodology attached to reading Jewish text. The readings are alive, subject to interpretation in the postmodern world we live in, have significant influence on social justice and, if one can read beyond the verse as expected, the ethical implications are significant. Furthermore, reading these texts, the texts that are so closely attached to my cultural history, is another way of knowing. The pages of the Talmud are filled with an existential argument deconstructing the very texts they are commenting upon. As an alternative to the Greek approach of logical argumentation, that which I am steeped in, the arguments of the Talmud appear to skirt around the point until the point can be made and even then there is potential disagreement among the sages.
Learning to think in Jewish (Talmudic discourse) as opposed to thinking in Greek (philosophical discourse) allows for the potential to synthesize the two, to join the two in a proximity that affords a deeper understanding of my own ethical obligation to others even before I have an obligation to myself. This does not mean that this course of study will “allow” me to “find” god or gods; that, I think, is not my motivation. The evidence for the existence of such a deity is overwhelmingly absent. What it will do, however, is allow me to pursue a course of study that is open to a different way of thinking.
I was, to tell the truth, inspired to write this because so many people who have visited my blog have offered to pray for me. While I have no objection to those finding comfort in prayer (I meditate after all), I have no expectation that those prayers will be heard by anyone or any thing other than anyone within earshot. I certainly have no expectation that such prayers will make any difference at all in my course of treatment.
Please, don’t get the wrong idea. I am not disrespecting your beliefs or your religious practices. I am merely explaining briefly why I am not a believer; I do not expect miracles, expect to be singled out, either positively or negatively, by some inaccessible deity hovering around in some supra-natural context. I do not believe that my cancer is a punishment for past sins or that any potential recovery will be a miracle. I put my trust in the existential moment of existence, try to show up the best I can at any given moment and deal with the messy stuff that is the hallmark of the existential life.
Given my encounter with my own mortality, I take great comfort in those atheists who have faced their demise with dignity and hope; Christopher Hitchens comes immediately to mind. Like Bertrand Russell once said when he was asked what he would tell god if, after his death god asked him why he did not believe, “Not enough evidence!” replied Russell. I might alter Russell’s quip to be, “Far too much evidence against!”
So pray for me if you must. I won’t object. But, please, don’t come back to me with reasons I should become a believer, work on my eternal soul, or take a positive stance rather than one that you feel endangers my eternal soul. Look, there is nothing positive about cancer; there is, however, something quite positive in living in this very moment and continuing to do what must be done. There is, it seems to me, clarity in being a post-Shoah Jew with a lust for life yet being aware of living within the bookends of the infinity of nothingness. I refuse to hang on to the Bronze Age mythology that just happens to have a history of longevity, other than to understand it as a discourse worthy of engagement on an intellectual rather than on a spiritual level.