The Atheists’ Unintended Gift
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.