With all the recent eulogies of militant atheist Christopher Hitchens by many religious people, it is a good time to ask the question of the value of atheism for the religious soul? Many religious people were more impressed and placed themselves in dialogue with Hitchens than with sanctimonious religious followers. Many fine religious works were written as a response and new defense of religion. Religious blogs and journals are devoting more space to his eulogy than to those of religious figures.
How do we explain this influence?
Rav Kook thought God needs atheism.”Because atheism cleanses the dross of ‘petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established Jewish religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental. We need these people, these atheists, whom seek to befriend.”
Do we still have a theory that allows us to see a value in atheism? Rav Kook was happy to see late 19th century atheism wake up the simple Jewish masses because they had primitive views and they needed to evolve. You lose a few souls but the nation gains a purified idea of God. But what would Rav Kook have said about the primitive views of the 1990’s? Without the evolutionary sense of moving from peasant to modern world then what would he say about our current crop of vulgar believers who became vulgar atheists based on reading the new atheists? Rav Kook assumes that there would be an advancement in perception, in a Piaget or Kohlberg sense. He did not assume that they would remain un-evolved. What is being provided to these simple people who smashed their idols?
Are Jewish thinkers acknowledging that God as a supernatural force is dangerous for the community the way Rav Kook did?
Most of the best books written in response to the new atheism pointed out that the faith of Augustine, Calvin, Schleirermacher, or Kierkegaard was not the crude view of the atheists. Do we need a Jewish version? And for who? Those who already read books, can already read the best books. But the primitive believers who became primitive atheists still dont know how to read. I have no evolutionary belief that they will evolve.
And what about the darkness of atheism itself- what would be a current way to explain that it has a force for the good? Thoughts?
When the heretic smashes his “idols”, his preconceived notion of God, his activities are accompanied by danger. A concept of God has been shattered – and it must eventually be rebuilt. This brings the momentum of a religious community to a halt. Instead of continuing to climb ever higher on their pathway to spiritual uplifting, the religious community must now rethink its direction, as well as its confidence.
While the heretic is unable to destroy God, his arguments and critiques destroy the normative systems and patterns of belief. The heretic rejects the precepts and commandments of Torah and thereby brings into question any redeeming value that they appear to have. These commandments are the religious community’s guideposts for spiritual growth, and the heretic weakens them, if he does not destroy them completely.
Rav Kook, however, argues that a positive spark does emanate from the depths of the non-believer’s arguments. The non-believer challenges the religious man’s concept of the Divine, forcing the religious man to re-assess his perceptions. Not only does this strengthen the religious community by demanding a re-evaluation, it is also necessary for the community’s continued development. Since God is a priori undefinable, the religious community’s perceptions of the Divine, and their consequent behavior, must constantly be revised. Hence heresy, “kefira,” is the only dark force capable of contributing to world perfection
Confronting God can be an enjoyable and enriching experience for Man. However, if a person’s confrontation is based on a misconception of God, this can lead to crisis. This crisis may eventually result in a denial of God’s existence.
God is commonly described as a Supernatural Force. It is this common perception of God which R. Kook believes to be erroneous and thus dangerous.
For those who want to see some of the religious appreciations of Hitchens-see
Christianity Today This Evangelical one in Christianity Today is exceptional good, but the Baptist News has a good closing:
I would like to see the dialogue of Christian apologetics move from Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris into our houses, diners, and local community centers,” Stetzer wrote. “The AP news wire will not be abuzz with the passing of the atheist in your neighborhood, but your heart ought hurt for them. I am grateful for evangelical scholars who have engaged New Atheism with the level of intellectual commitment the movement deserves. But for most of us, we ought to concern ourselves with and grieve over the debates that war in the minds of our families, friends, and coworkers.
What these apologetics evade is that the believers want to believe in religion in its most vulgar, and this includes those unfortunate souls given the unhappy task of defending against the atheists. In the century since Rav Kook, the Judaism of his followers reached depths of vulgarity and superstition and evil unimaginable in Rav Kook’s time — and it turns out that the study and worship of Rav Kook is no vaccine against this vulgarity. On the contrary.
For all that the believers whine that Dawkins et.al. haven’t consulted the Guide before condemning religion, the believers spend little time refining their religion in the spirit of the Guide. We see, to take a local example, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach making a great show of debating Hitchens; but does he debate those in his community whose believe in the saving power of a dead rebbe?
The truth is that a refined religion would lack the certitudes of knowing that you have the one revealed handbook of the one true god, and that you are part of the elite who have been promised salvation in the next world and granted the privilege of voting for your leaders in this world. (And to be explicit, I’m saying that Rav Kook’s opposition to letting women vote is a forerunner of the idea of his followers that the West Bank could be colonized and its population treated as indigenous non-persons rather than as citizens of a democratic polis.)
In this critique of the religious who would have it both ways — who would have the comforting certitude and community of their orthodoxies, while assuring themselves of their modernity and liberalism through affiliation with YCT, Edah, and Uri L’Zedek — it is not Hitchens but Sam Harris who offers the sternest rebuke. He wants believers to take responsibility for their own enlightened faith, but also for how they enable the faith of those less enlightened. He demands we ask ourselves: How refined our religion if we are sending our children to schools that teach that God broke through history to dictate to Moses the Torah, with its view that killing women and children is acceptable behavior in time of war?
One can refine away enough of this “dross” to leave sufficient religion to provoke an argument from Hitchens. I think Andrew Sullivan has burnt enough of his childhood Catholicism, through his friendship with Hitchens, his disgust with the Church’s coverup for child molestation, and his own homosexuality, to have reached that point. But Sullivan’s Catholicism is not that of a liberal Orthodox Jew; it is that of a Reconstructionist or Reform Jew.
And just to pick on VBM for a minute:
What does this mean, dark force? Is Yetzer Hara a dark force? But can’t it be used for good, as indicated by the well-known midrashim? Dawkins would no doubt point out there the utter inherent stupidity of religious language, which pretends to have knowledge (“the only dark force”) which it does not. A physicist can speak of four known (and perhaps one unknown) forces, and point back ultimately to physical phenomenon that demonstrate such forces. A rabbi can just make up things with vague allusions to ancient books and with no expectation of critique or peer review.
You questions are difficult because they are vague. Hitchens is a sideshow. He was a wonderful entertainer, sparkling polemicist, but his views changed radically over time, he lost most battles, and he ended in bed with the neo-Conservatives, promoting the Iraqi war and a WW4 in perpetuity against Islamofascism. His character was not virtuous, in particular his intentional self abuse in smoking and drinking, ad delo yadah every day of the year. Why then the admiration? I say because he was a romantic figure, a Byronic- hero, and there are so few charismatic romantic figures available. Which brings me to my next point…what exactly is a vulgar believer and a vulgar atheist? For example, we can have scholastic religion, say Plantinga twists on epistemic justification, and Dennet style hard evolution on the other. Are these vulgar? I would think not, but both do little to breathe any life into either religion or atheism. They lead to very technical questions in epistemology, evolution, probability, interesting to the specialist, kind of boring to everyone else. The vulgar thesis becomes more interesting if we are talking of romantic religion vs. romantic versions of Communism or Conservativism. Then both sides are in a way vulgar, Gush colonial politics vs. world revolution, chassidic anti modernism vs. Fascism/cowboy capitalism.
Once you have a goal it is much easier to find an atheism that purifies. Before we can talk of the reconstruction of theology, we need to make a very basic decision. Do we want a pragmatic Judaism, working for the spiritual and material welfare of Jews in realistic and practical ways, with the goal of not getting even but winning, or are we missing a new plausible version of romantic Judaism, now that socialism , Zionism & American neo-liberalism have lost their attraction? Are we looking for some big messianic cause, are we in perpetual war against the world and its culture, or will we go for slow cumulative improvement at the margins? If you love a romantic religious sensibility, suburban self satisfied MO are problematic. If you are looking for spiritual and aesthetic improvement over time, MO like so many other Jews are on a learning curve.
Anti-Hitchens… http://leninology.blogspot.com/ (12/16/11)
I didn’t think much of Hitchens’ new atheism until I read his article in Vanity Fair on the King James translation of the Bible. It was as eloquent an argument for the importance of the Bible and the power of its language as I have ever read by any religionist after Buber and Rosenzweig or Robert Alter. No death bed conversion, the frame was thoroughly humanist, and I loved it. You can find it at: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/05/hitchens-201105
“In every man there is an unknown spark that demands to unite with God. And sometimes it comes to life and awakens to know God, or to deny God (which is the same thing)” (Ba’al ha-Sullam, Rav Yehudah Ashlag, The Final Generation).