Does God need a better press agent?
Judging by a series of recent books and articles that question the deity’s existence, He at least needs better press.
Last Sunday’s New York Times book review section highlighted Christopher Hitchens’ bestseller “god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (Warner Books), as does the current issue of The New Yorker. Hitchens’ book follows several with similar themes, including “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” (Penguin, 2007) by Daniel Dennett. Their message: There is no God, He is a man-made creation, His powers are greatly overrated, and those who believe in Him are deluded.
Hitchens, a British-born son of a Christian father and Jewish mother who writes dismissively of biblical truth (“none of the gruesome, disordered events described in Exodus ever took place”), Jewish celebrations (he calls Chanukah a “vapid and annoying holiday”) and Jewish traditions (circumcision, in his view, is “sexual mutilation”), is a self-declared atheist.
An atheist who has little use for religion, which, he writes, “has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”
Dawkins, a professor at Oxford University, in a like vein paints the object of Jewish worship as “a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.” Such books are part of a questioning-God trend that followed 9/11, which was committed in the name of Islam and brought a well-documented return-to-God movement among many Jews and Christians, Anthony Gottlieb writes in The New Yorker. “A string of best-selling books,” he observes, “illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith.”
Are these books bad for God?“It may be bad for religion. Whether it is bad for God, who knows,” says Rabbi David Nelson, author of “Judaism, Physics And God: Searching For Sacred Metaphors In a Post-Einstein World” (Jewish Lights, 2005). “It sets up religion and science as competitors in a zero-sum game, which I don’t think it is.”
The books are a mixed blessing, says Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “They’re bad for religion in the sense that gullible people will be taken in by them.” But they make readers think about the theological questions raised within that “without God there can not be good.”
The spate of similar books does not necessarily reflect a growing cynicism in Western society about the verities of religious thought, Rabbi Nelson says.
“The trend is not about science. I think it’s about politics,” he says, referring to liberal-conservative tension in American life, of which the divide along religious lines is one example. “A lot of it is about business,” Rabbi Nelson adds. Controversial books sell. “My guess is that someone comes up with the idea of a book” that is popular, and “four more people come up with it.”
Rabbi Nelson says his friends in the scientific community don’t share the conclusions of the atheist-oriented books. “The scientists I speak to are very circumspect” about a clean break between faith and empirical facts. They see, he says, “intersections between their work and religious life.”
Rabbi Natan Slifkin, an Israeli rabbi who has written several books about the interface between Judaism and the natural sciences, says he disputes the credentials of these atheistic polemicists to write about religious matters. “The ‘God’ that Dawkins and Co. ‘disprove’ is a very shallow and simplistic conception of God,” he says. “Unfortunately, such shallow conceptions of God are indeed held by many true believers. One can only hope that these books will stimulate people to make their understanding of religion more sophisticated.”
Does God need a better press agent? “God’s best press agent is all around us,” Rabbi Shafran says. “A person who walks outside and looks at a starry night knows that there is a God.”