A response to Arthur Milner
Si comprehendis non est deus. (If you understand it, it’s not God.)
— Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
by Bob Chodos
I am, by Arthur Milner’s standards, religious; that is, I “actually enter a religious institution” (“The Offence of Atheism,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2010, p. 10). I don’t kn
ow whether this makes me unique among Inroads editorial board members, but I have no doubt that in devoting his column to a spirited plea for atheism, Arthur spoke for a majority of my colleagues. If I don’t speak up for religion in these pages, it is unlikely that anyone else will.
Arthur’s vigorous attack on religion did more than make me want to offer an equally vigorous defence. It also made me examine why I do what I do. After all, I agree with much of what Arthur wrote. Organized religion does have a lot to answer for. The existence of God is, as a rational proposition, indefensible. But I don’t think that’s the whole story.
Back when I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine persuaded me that agnosticism was not an intellectually honest position. You couldn’t wait for all the evidence to be in to decide whether or not there was a God, because all the evidence would never be in. Either you believed in God or you didn’t. Having accepted my friend’s argument, I was faced with that choice, and I decided I believed in God.
And in a way, I just left it at that. When the life of my newborn son hung in the balance for several months in 1982, I was sustained not by belief in a God who would tip the balance in my son’s favour if I prayed hard enough and did good deeds, but rather by faith (justified, as it turned out) in the competence and compassion of the nurses and doctors who were caring for him. Nevertheless, my religious tradition did come to play an increasingly important role in my life. I became a regular synagogue-goer, and then a religious school teacher and principal, congregation president, ritual committee chair and lay service leader. For the last four years I have been meeting monthly with a diverse group of people to study the Bible.
Some two decades ago my religious involvement acquired another dimension when I unexpectedly received, and subsequently accepted, an invitation from the Jesuits of English Canada to edit their magazine. After financial cutbacks forced the closing of Compass: A Jesuit Journal in 1997, I was involved with a group of people (including some of my former Compass colleagues) in a venture called Across Boundaries that published two multifaith magazines and carried out other educational activities. That too fell victim to financial constraints, but I remain involved in my local interfaith organization, Interfaith Grand River.
Is what I do absurd for a “grown-up, educated human being … in this day and age”? To gain deeper insight into this question, I decided to read one of the atheist books Arthur found so compelling. His account, like others I have seen, indicated that Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion is the most substantial of these books, and so that is the one I borrowed from the library.
It turns out that the God Dawkins rejects is “a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.” Anyone who doesn’t believe in such a God is an atheist, a company that includes Albert Einstein, who was an exponent of what Dawkins calls “Einsteinian religion,” which he refuses to recognize as true religion. He quotes Einstein as saying, “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.” And then Dawkins adds, “In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that ‘cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable’.”
Well, if Dawkins is religious in Einstein’s sense, then I happily acknowledge being an atheist in Dawkins’s sense – even if I have serious qualms about his “reservation,” which I suspect is the real difference between our positions. Reading Dawkins’s book, I kept thinking of the story of a rabbi who, when a woman told him she didn’t believe in God, replied, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” Arthur defines stricter criteria for membership in the atheist club (or at least the club of “proper” atheists), and I fall well short of those criteria. But even if I am an atheist, that’s not going to stop me from going to the synagogue on Saturday morning.
Dawkins repeatedly uses the existence of religious extremists and fundamentalists to discredit all those who have a more nuanced view of their religion. Arthur uses a similar ploy: citing Karen Armstrong, he summarizes a view of God advanced by some of the most subtle and profound religious writers since ancient times and then dismisses it with “Take that, you fundamentalists.” This strategy can be seen most clearly in Dawkins’s scathing treatment of the Bible. What he objects to is not so much the Bible itself as the fact that “religious zealots hold [it] up as the inerrant source of our morals and rules for living.” He passes in review some of the Bible’s most dismal and unedifying passages as evidence that no one could possibly take the Bible seriously as a moral guide.
Of course, Dawkins’s selections from the Bible are partial and unrepresentative (I suspect he would cheerfully acknowledge that). He misses the point of some of the stories that he does cite. More seriously, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that someone could read the Bible and study it and take it seriously without treating it as an inerrant source of rules for living – that the Bible, like all great literature (and especially ancient literature), might yield its insights in more complex ways.
But he is close to the mark when he describes the Bible as “an arresting and poetic work of fiction,” and perhaps even closer when he notes that it is “a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.” Now that sounds like a book I want to pay close attention to.
Okay then, but why do I go to the synagogue on Saturday mornings? Don’t I have to say a lot of words in which – as a “grown-up, educated human being … in this day and age” – I can’t possibly believe?
Back in late 2003, I had the honour of presiding at the aufruf of two friends of mine whose wedding was scheduled for two weeks later. An aufruf is a ceremony in which someone about to get married is called to the Torah during Saturday morning services. In traditional synagogues, it would be just the groom who would come up to the Torah; in liberal synagogues such as the one I belong to, he would be joined by the bride. In any case, since my friends are both women, these terms don’t really apply. An Ontario court decision a few months earlier had opened the possibility of marriage to them. Theirs would be the third same-sex wedding to take place in a synagogue in Canada.
One of the standard Sabbath prayers is the hoda’a, the prayer of thanksgiving:
Nodeh l’cha un’sapeir t’hilatecha, al chayeinu hamsurim b’yadecha, v’al nishmoteinu hapkudim lach, v’al nisecha sheb’chol yom imanu …
(Let us thank you and praise you for our lives that are in your hand, for our souls that are in your care, for your miracles that are with us every day …)
Previously, the word miracles in that prayer had made me a bit nervous – evidently I was not alone since an earlier edition of the Reform Jewish prayer book had excised the word in the English translation. But that day I felt that I was truly experiencing a miracle. Only three years earlier, Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, in passing a bill extending the rights of same-sex couples, had explicitly denied that those rights included marriage. Now, that very same government had introduced a bill in the House of Commons that would legalize same-sex marriage across the country.
Richard Dawkins would call this a change in the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, the societal consensus that even he acknowledges is “somewhat mysterious.” A rapid change such as the one around same-sex marriage that took place in Canada between 2000 and 2003 is even more mysterious. Perhaps the word for such a mysterious change is a miracle. The prayer of thanksgiving had stared me in the face countless times before, but now its meaning had manifested itself to me. There are numerous other expressions in the Jewish prayer book that make me nervous – m’chayeh meitim (God who revives the dead), shomeia t’fila (God who hears prayer) – but I hold open the possibility that they too will one day yield a meaning that I have not yet seen. That possibility is one of the things that keeps me going to the synagogue on Saturday mornings.
Still other statements in the Jewish tradition unsettle me on a deeper level. These are the ones indicating that Jews have some sort of exclusive relationship with God, or exclusive insight into God’s intentions – or exclusive claim, on the basis of God’s promises, to a particular piece of territory. Religious exclusivism is by no means unique to Judaism; it exists, in some form, in all religious traditions. Many people, religious and nonreligious alike, assume that religion is religious exclusivism: you believe in your god and reject all the other gods.
Most of the horrors that are attributed to religion are actually products of religious exclusivism of one sort or another. The multifaith dimension of my religious involvement has strengthened my conviction that religion without exclusivism is both necessary and possible. Nor is this a new idea. Proponents of a nonexclusive form of religion can take inspiration from religious teachers such as the prophet Amos in the eighth century BCE, who told the Israelites that in God’s eyes they were the same as the children of the Ethiopians; or the Sufi poet Ibn Arabi in the 13th century CE, who warned against equating the God of one’s belief with the real God; or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the 20th century, who said that “as far as I can judge, and I try to judge God’s will from history, it seems to be the will of God that there would be more than one religion.”
There is a mystery at the heart of existence that some have called God. I will never understand that mystery; in that I agree with Augustine. I don’t think scientists will ever understand it either; in that I disagree with Dawkins. It is important to me to acknowledge that mystery, to express my awe at it, to try to peer into it. I don’t believe that my religious tradition is the only way of doing that, but it is one way. Because of my upbringing and temperament, it is a way that makes sense to me. The same motivation may draw others to other religious traditions, old or new; or to art; or to nature. Still others may not share that motivation at all. But I do think it deserves some respect – even in this day and age.