“The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” – Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev
In between the preening self-righteousness, the fundamentalist discrimination, and patting their own backs, atheists occasionally make arguments.
These arguments, supporting their intellectually superior beliefs, generally fall into two categories. First, there are the arguments from scientific discoveries. These usually involve aspects of our modern knowledge that either contradict or make irrelevant classic religious teachings. In this category I would include both darwinism and its strange nephew, evolutionary psychology, the former an explanation of man’s origins that allegedly contradicts the bible and the latter a “scientific” attempt to explain man’s moral universe, another traditionally religious realm. These types of arguments are boring. They’ve been done to death; no one is changing their mind; many of us can predict the first thousand facebook comments on these ideas with a fair amount of accuracy.
Then there is the second category, the dumb arguments. These are the ones I want to talk about. This is when your atheist friend will say something glib that could fit on a bumper sticker that is so outlandish, strange, and wrongheaded that you are caught off-balance. I have a strange thesis about these arguments: these are actually the more intelligent ones. These intellectual haymakers deal with the realm of the a priori and the logical. They are not derived from empirical observation, nor do they claim to be. They are condensed examples of an almost folksy village wisdom; they are the type of thing the village atheist would say, and they deal not with the world but the way we see the world.
I, being a fan of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and other Chassidic masters, have a weak space in my heart for glib-sounding folksy wisdom that could fit on a bumper sticker. I love aphorisms, I love turns of phrase. I love what Kabbalists call Chachma, the flash of insight that is obviously brilliant, but whose brilliance defies explication.
I believe that in their dumb arguments, atheists are actually onto something, and that by looking at these arguments and accepting their validity we can actually improve our belief in God. In other words, I want to fearlessly follow the quote at the beginning of this post wherever it leads. I want my God to be beyond these arguments, even if pushing Him past them requires abandoning my easy preconceptions of the divine.
Who knew atheism was good for something?
1. Atheism Vs. Monotheism Is an Arithmetical Dispute
“A practitioner of Hinduism has millions of gods. A follower of Zoroaster has two. Christians, Muslims, and Jews have one. And an atheist has zero. So (the argument goes) just as a Jew fails to believe in the second god of the Zoroastrians, so the atheist fails to believe in the G-d of the Jew. An atheist is simply a monotheist who subtracted one extra god. What’s the big deal?”
I love this thought. In fact, this could be called the necessary beginning of any appreciation of monotheism. Why the hell do we only have one god? Is it important?
If we merely chose an arbitrary number, namely one, then the atheist is right. Just as monotheism is valid, so are polytheism and atheism. Of course, appeals to revelation (“the one god told me he was the one god!”) impress no one.
And so, on the contrary, the monotheist’s god must be different than another Shiva or Zeus. The conception of the one god as some sort of demigod or mythical superhero is indeed open to a play from other religions. Too often, monotheists have no answer as to why their god is different.
Which is sad, because different He is. According to the greatest philosophers of each of the three major montheistic religions, G-d is different from absolutely everything else. Everything else (and any other god we can possibly conceive of) is a contingent reality, the effect of a cause. The G-d of monotheism is uncaused, infinite, and the very essence of being. He is, for various reasons these philosophers demonstrate, not one of many possible gods, but the first cause that must maintain the existence of the universe.
The point is not whether we know those arguments for the Necessary G-d. The point is that theists and atheists should know that the being they do or do not believe in is indeed a very different deity than those of the pagan polytheists. Not arithmetically different, but categorically different.
Until we engage with these deeper conceptions of monotheism’s god, we are supporting or criticizing something else entirely, something which, in Western countries at least, very few people believe.
We’ll continue on the difference between the monotheistic and polythesistic gods in the next installment when we’ll compare G-d and the toothfairy.