How an atheist came to accept God’s existence
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A new Reform sermon collection responds to the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins. Here are two excerpts
Rabbi Daniel Smith
I remember when I left home to go to university. I was 18, away from my family and from my close Jewish community, launched into an atmosphere where religion was either criticised or mocked by highly intelligent people.
The professor of my philosophy course was Antony Flew — an outstanding teacher, stimulating and challenging — but he did have this thing about religion being false and without foundation. He was the Richard Dawkins of his generation. He would go up and down Britain, debating in universities, writing articles, challenging religion, saying there was not enough evidence for the existence of God.
My Sunday-class Judaism had not prepared me for this level of discussion. My synagogue did not provide the excellent post-barmitzvah GCSE course that is now offered in Edgware and District Synagogue. But even with a GCSE in Judaism, the move from adolescence to adulthood does require a re-adjustment in faith, as does every significant transition in life. In this atmosphere, I had a mini-crisis of faith and was very fortunate to find another teacher who introduced me, in the writings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, to some mature Jewish philosophy.
As a Jew, I had never seen “faith” as a body of propositions, as statements to be affirmed or denied. Theology was not a normal Jewish exercise. I did not sign up to a set of beliefs. On the contrary, I had done enough Bible study to know that everything was open to interpretation, that all statements could be questioned. I had not done theology, but I did know some Jewish history, and felt part of the Jewish story. I knew that Judaism was based on ethical behaviour and ritual practice. Holiness was developed in action, through justice, mercy, keeping the Sabbath, and loving your neighbour as yourself.
Normal Jewish practice expressed faith in action, while non-Jewish theology expressed faith in words. I had intuitively understood “faith” as “relationship”, and was excited to find Martin Buber stating this in beautiful words: “God can be addressed but not expressed.” In other words, God could be encountered in an I-Thou relationship, met with, argued with, served — but God was beyond description or definition or limitation.
As soon as we speak of “God” in theology, trying to define “God”, turning “God” into a finite concept, limiting “God”, then we are not dealing with the Living God, but we are speaking of an object, an “it”, and that is not God . This made sense to me for many years, until my next crisis of faith some years later—which was not solved by books, but had to be worked through in a different way — through people and community as well as by prayer and meditation.
Over the years, in my psychology studies and in my therapy, I came to see faith as a dynamic and changing process with stages. The faith of a child is not the same as the faith of an adolescent, and adolescent faith must be discarded as we become adults. And then comes mid-life crisis. And doubt is part of the process at every stage, challenging faith, developing it, refining it, maturing it. So doubt is acceptable, in good religion as in good science. I became a rabbi.
What about Antony Flew, the atheist spokesperson? I noted with great interest a few years ago —it actually made the news headlines — when he announced that he had come to accept the existence of God. He had stopped being an atheist, and became a theist, because he came to a philosophical acceptance of the existence of God. In his words he simply “had to go where the evidence leads”.
He agreed with Einstein and quoted this statement: “Certain it is a conviction akin to a religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world, which lies behind all scientific work of a higher order. This firm belief, a belief bound up with the deep feeling in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.”
Flew came to accept an Aristotelian notion of God, a God who gives the universe design, purpose and meaning. Flew also said, importantly, that religion had a key role in passing on moral values and maintaining a sense of community in a society that was fragmenting. Flew remained a faithful philosopher, doing “God” through philosophy.
But for me, I never did see faith as a set of propositions, but as a dynamic process — which includes elements of questioning and doubt.
I think that, ideally, a Jew is not concerned with “having” faith; that is, having a static set of beliefs. A Jew is ideally concerned with “living” faith, being faithful and meeting every challenge or every call with as much responsibility, care and integrity as one can manage.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain
For those who are agnostic — who are genuinely not sure, who simply don’t know if there is a God or not — join the queue! A queue started by none other than Moses who, when God first speaks to him, demands some proof, wants some hard evidence that God really exists and is not a figment of his imagination. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because belief is secondary to action. Judaism is about how you view life, treat others, use your time on Earth; do those well, and that’s what counts. To be a good Jew, you don’t have to believe in God, you just have to do what God says.
For those who are atheist — in case you think it’s not worth addressing them because atheists wouldn’t be here in the first place, that’s quite wrong, they may not be here for religious reasons, but we have quite a few, and who come because of family, or nostalgia, or sense of community, but either way, they are still welcome, what’s more they are Jewish atheists.
You can’t have a Christian atheist because either you believe in Jesus or you don’t, that’s the litmus test. But you can have Jewish atheists: Jews who have no belief in a deity but who do believe in Jewish values or Jewish peoplehood; who firmly don’t worship, but still feel it is important to act as if there is a God. It’s not always a comfortable balance — but we’re fairly good at keeping going, living with inconsistencies and juggling with compromises.
Deed has always been more important than creed for Judaism, with much more attention paid to the right actions rather than the right beliefs. So if you are hit by a lorry and terminally injured, if a Catholic priest is passing by, he will ask “Do you believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost?”. But if a rabbi gets to you first, he’s more likely to ask whom he should inform, and if you’ve made a will. For a Jew, God matters; but what matters even more is what you do in God’s name.