TEL AVIV — Thirteen years ago when my mother was dying of cancer, her rabbi was a major support figure. The phrase “her rabbi” may imply religiosity, but actually she wasn’t very religious — not interested in God as an idea, belonging loosely to the framework of her Conservative synagogue.
The rabbi, however, was different from the several other support figures she had in that he symbolized something: the hope of a connection to the divine, the hope of an afterlife, which for her meant mainly the hope of being reunited with my stepfather and other loved ones. She was a worldly person and those, even in her last weeks in the hospital, weren’t her main concerns; still, his being a rabbi, invested with spiritual knowledge and authority, gave her a special kind of uplift.
It’s hard to see what the new, aggressive, bestselling atheists could find to object to in this scenario. True, organized religion has not infrequently been fanatic and harmful; but this has never been the case with soft, easygoing Conservative Judaism. Religion is a vast phenomenon and comes in all shades of malignity and benignity. One could almost say the same about government; beyond the most definitional, generic level, there is about as much similarity between Conservative Judaism and, say, jihadist Islam as between democracy and totalitarian regimes. In the case of governments, one would not say that the former type should not exist because the latter type does.
The atheists would also say that the hope for contact with the divine, an afterlife, and reunion with loved ones, which the rabbi represented, is — while perhaps excusable as a touching anachronism — the sort of thing one should “grow out of” in our rational, enlightened age. In fact, as Dinesh D’Souza argued so well in his recent debate with Daniel Dennett, even to allow the existence of free will is to grant the sphere of mind some autonomy, separateness, and power over the body. The atheist polemicists want to convince me of something, to change my mind; they want me to read their books, ponder their arguments, and repudiate my theism for atheism. All this presupposes free choice on my part; I doubt that Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al. believe that their words can, by some mechanical process, program my neurons to compel me to adopt a different view.
So if the mind has some degree of separateness and autonomy over the body, then it is reasonable to hope that it is not entirely dependent on the body/brain and could survive its death — not to mention that this has been believed by a line of great thinkers including great scientists. In representing this hope for my mother, the rabbi was contributing to keeping her spirits up and making her last span on earth more pleasant. I can’t see that the negations of the dogmatic atheists had anything to add to this scenario.
THESE DAYS, WALKING on the Tel Aviv shoreline in winter sunsets, seeing colored displays as the sun sinks into the Mediterranean, I’m affected in ways that I would call “transport.” It’s nothing new with me; I remember nature affecting me this way as far back as early childhood. I also began already, back then, to associate these elations with God. It wasn’t because anybody told me to do it — certainly not my not-too-religious parents. The God-idea was available as part of Western culture and my rather vague Jewish background, and I latched onto it without any individual or institution encouraging me to do so.
In other words, it was something in my personality; I may have “the God gene,” which is the title of an interesting book by Dean Hamer that summarizes evidence of a genetic component in spirituality, or the lack of spirituality. Here the atheists will say, “Oh yes, we too have the transports — from natural beauty, great music, great paintings and so on. But we see no justification to go from there to the assumption of an omniscient deity who is the source of all these great things.”
It is a fact, though, that deities appear just about everywhere that people do; associating mystery, or transport, with transcendent beings appears to be so widespread and cross-cultural as to be “natural.” For me it’s an inseparable part of the experience; someone out there is responsible for this, to whom I want to express gratitude. Again the atheists could counter that, if I had grown up in a more atheist environment like, say, today’s Scandinavia instead of 1960s America, I would have been less likely to make the God-connection with my experiences; my spiritual tendency, if that’s what it is, need not have taken a theistic form.
But, even if so, I can’t see how I would have been better off for it. The atheists claim that they lead totally fulfilled, meaningful lives despite their certainty of their own finitude and eventual — and rather imminent — complete disappearance from the world, and I have no right to doubt them. For me it’s different: the belief in a deity seems to add both serenity and energy, and to enhance the sense of purpose. It also led me to explore my Jewish heritage and find great riches in it, including quite worldly, ethical and psychological insights, not to mention the nonpareil energies of the Bible.
So, again, I can’t see that the dogmatic atheists have anything to offer but negation: do not feel what you feel, do not believe, do not hope, there’s nothing out there, our (self-)limited minds comprehend everything there is and it’s not much; above all, do not seek a consciousness beyond your own. They subtract from the world and don’t add anything to it except perhaps an opportunity to rediscover the basis of real openness and rationality.