Thanks for trying to save me from atheism — but I’m fine with it

I gave up on religious belief long ago and I'm not changing now


Close up image depicting the Jewish religious symbol of the star of David inside a synagogue. The star is in silhouette, while in the background stained glass windows are blurred out of focus. Horizontal colour image with copy space.

June 08, 2023 11:55

Recently, I have been sent through the post several Bibles, Watchtowers, and Qurans. I have also received a number of letters from well-meaning people telling me how I would be much happier, and all my issues would be sorted, if I opened my heart to whichever God they were writing on behalf of. This was initially confusing, but then I received another book called Free Yourself From Death Anxiety and realised that all these books were a response to my book, The God Desire. They were all sent by people trying to help.

The God Desire, you see, is a book about why I’m an atheist, and its argument can be boiled down to noticing that I, along with many others, would really like God to exist (in order to free myself from fears of mortality) — and it’s the ferocity of that desire which leads me to believe that His existence may be more about wish-fulfilment than objective reality. But in saying that I would really like God to exist, I appear to have opened a door to various evangelicals, keen to help me turn that desire into reality.

I’ve noticed, though, that most of these books and letters have not come from Jews. There could be many reasons for this. Jews are, as I’ve said in this column before, more likely to be atheist than most religious groupings. Also, there are only 275,000 Jews in the UK, and it can seem some days like I know most of them, so I imagine I’ve already had the conversation about Hashem with all the religious ones, and they’ve given up on me.

One specific reason might be, however, that Judaism is not a proselytising religion. Being Jewish is mainly about being born Jewish. You can convert, of course, but to do it Orthodox-ly (not a word) is a long and complicated process, and you have to do a big bloody test at the end of it. Which really doesn’t make for increasing the numbers, unlike, for example, just saying “I love Jesus”. Moreover, once you’re in, there’s 613 Mitzvot to do, Yiddish to understand, lokshen pudding to make, and not even a clear idea of eternal bliss after death to look forward to. It all feels like too much homework with not enough jam today or indeed tomorrow — which would be my guess why maybe “evangelical Jew” is not a phrase you hear that much.

Having said that, I’m talking here about the way the religion works en masse; on an individual level, things are a bit different. I haven’t received any copies of the Talmud through the post, but several rabbis have got in touch suggesting “chats”. One stopped me at Brent Cross to tell me that I’d misunderstood how Orthodox Judaism thinks about the afterlife, and he would be happy to explain it to me (obviously the most Jewish thing about this very Jewish moment is that it happened at Brent Cross). In New York recently, I ended up in conversation with a group of Orthodox Jews who offered to show me scripture, parts of the Torah and Talmud, that might help me with — well, with The God Desire. With wanting God to exist, by showing me ways, Jewish ways, in which He perhaps does.

I find this moving, by the way. I think all the people, Jews and non-Jews, who have written to me, or talked to me, about how I might salve my fear of death and meaninglessness through a particular door they can show me, behind which lies divine understanding — I think all of them are kind. But they are also mistaken; about me, that is. Because desiring God doesn’t operate in my mind like The God Desire. The desire is real, but I have, I’m afraid, written it off as never leading anywhere. A bit like wanting to win the lottery, or have sex with Scarlett Johansson, I may still feel the desire, but I have long ago given up any sense of a connection between that desire and reality. I am still interested in the desire, and what it tells me, which is — in my opinion — that that desire is what generates God in the human imagination.

However, even though it might indeed make me happier to believe, at the end of the day what I am most concerned about is truth. And I am more comfortable — or at least, more me — sitting with my desolate truth than I would be moving towards what I would always suspect to be a reassuring fantasy. Don’t stop the postings though, as I am thinking of opening a religious bookshop.

‘The God Desire’ by David Baddiel (TLS/HarperCollins) is out now

June 08, 2023 11:55

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