The Atheists’ Unintended Gift

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The tone of the recent spate of books by proponents of Atheism (capitalized, correctly, like any faith) says much. The writers don’t suffice with presenting their cases; they insist on berating all who dare disagree, belittling religious believers as intellectual defectives.

Their confident public personae notwithstanding, the New Atheists’ cynicism and name-calling telegraph insecurity. They seem to realize, at least subconsciously, that the very same universe that inspires them to worship chance and venerate “nature’s laws” moves others to recognize a Creator.

The Disbelievers may have come to realize the unintended psychological message sent by all their sound and fury. Or maybe they are just spent from all their howling. Whichever, they – or at least some of them – have morphed their evangelical zeal into a kinder, gentler effort to reach the believing public.

A coalition of Atheist organizations has placed advertisements in Manhattan subway stations asserting that “a million New Yorkers are good without G-d” (the respectful hyphen, of course, is this dissident New Yorker’s emendation), and then posing the question “Are you?”

Those of us who would respond in the negative, who affirm both the existence and exaltedness of a Supreme Being, might be expected to bristle at the ad campaign. But there is something heartening in the thought that average people rushing to and from jobs and errands might have their thoughts about bosses and holiday sales interrupted by some mention of the Creator – that the input of iPods and television reruns playing in heads might be forced to yield, even momentarily, to consideration of whether or not life contains a greater purpose than just living.

Because most people, even those who readily profess belief in G-d if asked, don’t often dwell on that belief’s implications. It sits in their heads, a checked-off box filed away for posterity.

And yet, belief in G-d is not like sports or politics. It is – or should be – the most basic issue any thinking human being seriously engages. When we awaken from childhood and begin to think serious thoughts, when we first confront consciousness and self and others and our place in the universe, what more pressing question could there be than whether we are mere randomly-generated organisms (highly evolved but mere all the same) or subjects of Something larger?

It is told how a doubter once asked to meet with the founder of the Novardhok yeshiva system, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz (1849-1919), known as the “Der Alter” – “the Elder” – of Novardhok, and was welcomed into the revered rabbi’s home. The two began to discuss the meaning of life and the goals toward which human beings are meant to strive. After some hours of deep discussion, the freethinker politely asked his host’s pardon for a moment, turned to his servant and ordered him to prepare his carriage for the journey home. The Alter abruptly ended the conversation.

Puzzled at the sudden interruption of what had seemed to be a productive back-and-forth, the guest asked his host if he had done anything wrong. The Alter calmly explained that, for him, a conversation like the one they had been having was no mere philosophical sparring, not an intellectual exercise and certainly not a social pleasantry. It was a means of ascertaining deep truths, with the determined goal of acting on them. Had the freethinker seen their conversation the same way, said the Alter, he would have been fixed to the spot, anchored by the implications of what they had discussed – and incapable of leaving before reaching all the necessary conclusions and making whatever personal decisions were indicated.

By deciding instead that their “time was up” and it was time to go, said the Alter, his guest had demonstrated that, in his own eyes, the interaction had all been of a theoretical nature, an intellectual discussion, a game. For such things, the rabbi demurred, he simply had no time. There were important things to do.

For too many of us, even many of us who live seemingly religious lives, serious thoughts of G-d and our relationship to Him – if we think them at all – are often overwhelmed by the muddle of daily life. A major function, in fact, of prayer in Judaism is to shake off our tangle of quotidian concerns and focus on the Divine. If we are successful, we take away a keener awareness of our places in the world, and it accompanies us as we wade back into the mundane.

The Atheist ad campaign is far, to be sure, from a prayer. And it might be hard to imagine subway riders spurred by the posters to think thoughts of G-d. But, well, you never know. One of nature’s laws, after all, is about unintended consequences.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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8 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    That’s true of /some/ in the kiruv world, Moshe.

    When I read the phrase, “we are ‘good without God'” I imagined a sapling that was plucked from the earth saying “look how beautiful I am.”

  2. moshe shoshan says:

    Does not the kiruv world’s instance on “proving” the truth of the Torah beyond a shadow of a doubt, rejecting the possibility of other positions suggest a similar in security on our community’s part?

  3. Mr. Cohen says:

    Sir Isaac Newton handwrote:

    Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto LeOlam VaEd, in Hebrew.

    SOURCE: http://www.haaretz.co.il/
    *********************************************************

    Sir Isaac Newton was always known for his genius in physics and mathematics, but now, a newly-released collection of 300-year-old manuscripts by Britain’s most famous scientist shows he delved deeply into the Tanach [Jewish Hebrew Bible] the Rambam [Maimonides, who was born in 1134 and died 1204] and even the Zohar [part of Kaballah] to try and solve cosmic puzzles fare beyond the grasp of science.

    The Newton manuscripts, purchased at Sotheby’s auction in 1936, then bequeathed to Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1951 by a Jewish intellectual, went on display last week at the university’s Jewish and National and University Library after having been under lock and key since 1969. While details of the manuscripts were revealed in 2003, this is the first time that they are being publicly exhibited.

    Exhibit curator Yemima Ben-Menachem said that the papers reveal that Newton believed “there was wisdom in the world that was lost.”

    One of them included sketches of the Beit HaMikdah [Jewish Temple in Jerusalem], whose plans, Newton perceived, mirrored the arrangement of the cosmos, a concept that is brought down in Midrashim [sacred Jewish stories] and in the Zohar. >>

    SOURCE: article titled: Newton’s Wisdom on Display by Dr. Yaakov Wise of Manchester, Mishapacha Jewish Family Weekly, 2007 June 27, page 16
    *********************************************************

    “When Henry VIII issued a royal letter in 1546 calling
    for the creation of a new Cambridge college in honor
    of the ‘Holy and Undivided Trinity,’ the monarch never
    dreamed that its most gifted scholar would one day
    reject the very Christian doctrine for which the institution
    was named.”

    SOURCE: Page 248 of In the Presence of the Creator:
    Isaac Newton and His Times by Gale E. Christianson,
    1984, Free Press / MacMillian, New York, ISBN 0-02-905190-8)
    *********************************************************

  4. Shades of Gray says:

    At times, I hear non-Jewish preachers on the New York City subway system, and I wonder if I should take a personal message in the spirit of hashgacha pratis, Providence. They might say, for example, “Repent today”, or “have you thanked the Lord for waking you up today?” I might substitute “Hashem” or “HKBH”, and I reflect if I ought to see the itinerant preacher as having delivered to me something of a personal mussar schmooze(after eliding any faith-specific content).

    When I saw the atheist posters “a million New Yorkers are good without G-d” on the backdrop of ethereal clouds, I did not quite know what to make of it, and simply ignored it. I thank R. Shafran for the idea that one can see a spiritual message even in this!

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I congratulate R. Avi on seeing the silver lining in such a cloud. I think that is the way a Jew is supposed to be. Such an attitude will also attract people in the long run if it is sustained and not found to be a PR strategem. Let us try to live up to that approach in our lives in general and in kiruv in particular. Kiruv starts with ourselves and our families. What you do and what you teach in your daily life is what people pick up on. There is all too much quashing of honest questions in the religious world today.

  6. One Christian's perspective says:

    “I read the sign differently – not as meaning “good without G-d” in the sense of “ok without G-d” or “ok with not believing in G-d”, but as implying “[morally] good without G-d.” That’s a more interesting challenge from the atheists, I think.”

    Comment by Benjamin Epstein

    The ultimate challenge from the atheists is “God is not” however they package their drivel. I would be interested is seeing how they define “good” and how do they see that being worked out in society today considering even people of faith struggle to walk with God daily and often don’t realize they do wrong – usually, only until God has revealed the wrong to our hearts so we can turn back to Him -.

  7. Benjamin Epstein says:

    I read the sign differently – not as meaning “good without G-d” in the sense of “ok without G-d” or “ok with not believing in G-d”, but as implying “[morally] good without G-d.” That’s a more interesting challenge from the atheists, I think.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    The basic impulse to disbelieve is often the realization that belief has consequences; you can no longer do any old thing you want to.