Why I'm Not an Atheist
by Michael Dallen
I was an atheist, starting out. By the time I was nine I firmly believed that religion was nonsense - that it was all just a stew of superstition and wishful thinking. The world was the way it was due to blind, unconscious forces, I thought; no spirits or gods or God had anything to do with it. People died, like other animals, and that's all there was to it; promises of an afterlife were just nonsense.
I deeply disliked Judaism, the religion I was born into. I considered it pointless. However rich it might be culturally, Judaism without God is a lie - so why live a lie? But it still required me to suffer through the tedium of Hebrew school for hours on weekday afternoons and Sundays. Beyond that, it imposed all sorts of incovenient and incomprehensible rituals and restrictions that meant nothing, all through the year. My neighbors ate pork, which looked and smelled good; why couldn't I eat it? My neighbors didn't stop everything and dress up to to go to formal, incomprehensible religious services in the middle of the week; why should I?
Hanukah (Chanuka) had its points It was like a Jewish Christmas, a time of gift-getting. But I also liked the history behind it. Most Jewish holidays follow the same theme: they tried to stamp us out, they didn't, let's eat! Hanuka, on the other hand, centered on a tremendous military conflict, a terrible war waged over more than 20 years, in which the good guys - our own guys, with their own generals, bows and swords - finally prevailed, stood out. But even Passover, or Pesach, which permitted wine-drinking and the chance to play with my cousins at the seders, the big dinners where we celebrated the Exodus and our freedom from slavery - seemed like a drag. Whatever pleasure I took in the seders was far outweighed by the tedium of sitting around in my best clothes for hours while my oldest male relatives recited meaningless Hebrew. Then there were the uncomfortable eight days that followed, of not being able to eat bread, noodles, good-tasting cereal, and other restrictions. I was a fairly bright kid and a devoted, almost compulsive reader as a child: nothing in anything I read or saw or heard inclined me to think positively about anything connected to God or gods.
Children often begin to feel what might be called spiritual or religious stirrings sometime around the time of puberty, anywhere from 9 or 10 to 14 years of age. I never did. The more I thought about religion - I didn't think about it much, but one could see that it had been terribly important in history (as a leading cause, I thought, of many of the world's problems) - the less I thought of it. At the same time, one could see how the Bible, and biblical religion generally, had such a tremendous impact on both literature and history. So I read the Bible - the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures too. Some of the language impressed me - the same way that the language of Shakespeare's plays had impressed me. Other than that, it just made me glad to be living in modern times, where people had science instead of mere stories and faith to make sense of the universe.
One could see that millions, or even billions, of people followed religions that had nothing to do with the Bible. So I tried to learn about them, too. I read about them and I read, or tried to read, their main source-texts, just as I'd read through the Bible. I came away from that experience respecting the Bible a little more. [Later I came across a famous line by the Archbishop of Mieux, France, Jacques Benigne Bossuet (c. 1680): The Jews were the only ones whose sacred Scriptures were held in ever greater veneration as they became better known.] I felt a little sorry for people - all people - who believed in religion; they had attached themselves to bad fiction, I thought. The world would be a better place if people weren't so devoted to the illogic of religion, with all its misleading, superstitious fantasties.
Growing up in middle-class America as a baby-boomer, almost in the shadow of the Holocaust, I like being Jewish. European anti-Semites had deliberately eliminated one-third of all the world's Jews, as many as they could get their hands on; one didn't thrill in belonging to a people of victims. I thought that the Jews' Bible-based claim of being somehow "chosen" was somewhat boastful. I felt proud to be an American and very little pride in being Jewish.
Then came June, 1967. I was just a kid but I could watch TV. After months of hearing Arab leaders bragging that their huge, well-armed armies would soon "finish Hitler's work" by driving the Jews of Israel, men, women, children and babies, "into the sea," the armed men and women of the tiny, struggling State of Israel rose up and clobbered them, spectacularly. I would have delighted in that - the designated victim, a supposed weakling, beating the murderous bully - whether I was Jewish or not. But that was only half the story.
So long as the Arabs claimed to be winning, their allies - most of the world's worst countries, the biggest tyrannies, the whole Communist bloc and the Arab and Muslim countries, among others - cheered them on. After the first few days - the whole war lasted only six days - when the Arabs were visibly crumbling, the ambassadors of those same countries suddenly became pacifists! Suddenly, they hated war, and called the Israelis war-mongers. One saw them speaking before the United Nations - the same UN that had made the war possible by suddenly, cravenly, pulling its troops out, out of the way of the Arab armies, at the Arab leaders' request - red-faced with venom, ranting, swearing, damning Israel up and down, and lying the most fantastic, blatant lies.
For the first time, it occurred to me that belonging to a people who were so hated by such hateful characters was actually pretty good.
After that I still disliked religion but I felt some national pride in being Jewish after that. It occurred to me that I simply had an inbuilt lack of any religious impulse, taste or yearning. Then, towards the end of high school, I came across an article, "The First Revolutionary," in a magazine published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. By Wilfried Daim, a Christian writer and psychiatrist, it described "the Moses story," as Daim called it, in moving terms. It described as a prototypical revolution, as a model for other revolutionaries to follow - and as the most radically liberating, long-lasting revolution in history.
It "peculiarly qualified and motivated" the Jews to bring liberty to other nations, Daim wrote. It raised a free nation out of the slavish dregs of ancient Egypt, turning the "old regime," Egypt, upside down. It was a violent revolution. It fought off right-wing counter-revolutionaries, like those connected to the Golden Calf, and left-wing counter-revolutionaries or "deviationists"- the party of Korah - as well as foreign opportunists, like Amalek and Midian. It created a complete system of police and courts. It organized the Hebrew masses with revolutionary discipline - even to the extent of creating a cadre of supervisory officers to watch over the people and each other. Then, before Daim's "first revolutionary" died, Moses - directed by the God of freedom - invested his people with the purpose and ability to carry on his cause.
What particularly grabbed me in Daim's thesis, other than his psychiatrist's analysis of Moses' psychology, was his statement that the American labor movement's modern struggle for the 40-hour week was practically nothing compared to the Hebrew Revolution's Shabbat, the Sabbath. Egypt's pharoah couldn't understand it. What slave has the right and even obligation to stop working for the master at all, let alone one day in every seven? What slave has the right to take a full-day break from work on the last day of every week, to rest, to take a breather, to not even think about work-related things?
I'd always thought of shabbos, as my family called it, as a pain in the neck, a smothering inconvenience, a restriction more in the nature of a punishment than a privilege. But here this Christian writer was telling me that the Sabbath, and the other laws of Sinai, were actually radically revolutionary and tremendously liberating and progressive!
One needed to rethink things. Finally, in the ongoing rush of college and romance and work, I re-read the Bible - this time just the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis through Psalms and Proverbs and Daniel and Second Chronicles. I realized then that, if one needs some kind of running commentary just to make sense of the archaic language of a Shakespeare, one certainly must have a decent commentary to make sense of the many puzzles in the Bible. I looked through different commentaries on the Torah - the Bible's first five books - and the rest of the Bible, and settled on the most readily available at the time, the excellent Soncino Books of the Bible series, including the Pentateuch and Haftorahs, in Hebrew and English, with its wonderfully naturalistic, rationalistic English-language commentary by Rabbi J.H. Hertz.
If one really gets into the Bible, particularly the Torah, one finds the most amazing treasures. I still didn't think of the Torah as being God-made, though. I considered it to be a remarkable work, better than Shakespeare by far, but I thought it just reflected the genius of the Jewish people, of generation after generation of brilliant writers, editors and story-tellers.
This is a work in progress. What follows is a draft from another manuscript which may later be rationally incorporated here, in part.
Back to Frequently Asked Questions
Can a Thinking Person Accept the Bible as True?
Michael Dallen writes:
[September 9, 2005. Scientists discover a "brain-building gene" in human beings and calculate that it "arose about 5,800 years ago." According to the ancient Hebrew calendar, the first man began to walk the earth 5,765 - now almost 5,766 - years ago. This just reported today in two "very well-done" University of Chicago-sponsored studies appearing in the journal Science, and then in The New York Times (p. A-14) and other newspapers.]
Many first-rank scientists, scholars, and brilliant, highly educated people of all stripes love the Bible* and consider it truly holy. At the same time, many first-rank scientists, scholars, etc., think of the Bible as nothing much more than a collection of old myths, poetry, and odd, outdated rules.
I used to count myself in the second group. When I eventually came to think that the story of the Exodus was the story of a revolution - of a great, radically liberating revolution, which, despite any mythic elements to the contrary, seems to have actually happened historically in some way - my faith in the utterly non-sacred character of the Bible faltered.
Religion has certainly played a major role in human affairs. Even after deciding that some things in the Bible might be true, I still had so little interest in religion personally, in the sense of wanting any for myself, that I couldn't account for its importance to others. That made me curious. And, as I looked into the mystery of religion more, over the years, I came to appreciate the Bible more.
Before you read much further, you should understand that I'm not speaking for the foundation in this essay, nor for any of my fellow trustees. I'm speaking of my own concerns and doubts - in the hope that they may help answer yours. What follows is a summary narrative of what and how I believe, and why:
My immediate predecessors, my relatives from the generation that fought World War II, were taught from the time that they first entered college that the so-called Old Testament was largely myth. They had learned to read and pray in Hebrew as children, but their own elders hardly ever took the trouble to tell them why that mattered. Accordingly, the knowledge they valued most was secular knowledge, about law, literature, science, business, medicine and art. They were good students. I've had the chance to look at some of the textbooks they used. Those books come from a very different age: they are, in places, not just wrong (according to the science and assumptions of today), they are absurdly, comically over-confident when they are most wrong.. The experts who wrote them lived when the world's leading experts had never heard of the Big Bang, the creation of the Universe ex nihilo (in Hebrew, yesh me-ayin) - from nothing. The idea of the eternality of the Universe pervaded the "best" scientific thought, as it had since Aristotle's time. "Science," it was said, proved that the account of the Creation in Genesis - which really involved a big bang! - was mere myth. To believe the Bible, according to their thinking, was simply superstition.
"Science" also tried to teach my elders that the Universe had no room in it for God. He had practically nothing to do, supposedly, nothing to occupy Him. In terms of physics, they lived in a clockwork universe, basically, a Newtonian universe. My elders' teachers knew of Einstein but nothing of quantum mechanics. No one had told them that a particle at a subatomic level might leap this way or that way, randomly, as it seems. The Torah-concept, that God sustains every particle and atom in existence and directs them for His purposes, as quantum mechanics allows, didn't fit into the worldview of their physics teachers. My predecessors lost out on other things, too - remarkable archaeological discoveries, for instance, demonstrating that great parts of the Bible were historically true - that came along only later, after their minds were fully furnished.
History kept unfolding in the meantime - very dramatically and substantially in their lifetimes. They lived, for instance, through the Great Depression, the Holocaust in Europe, the creation of history's Third Jewish Commonwealth in the land of Israel, and the Six Day War of 1967, when Jewish armies re-took Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. But they were too adult and busy, by the end of World War II, to think deep thoughts about all that or fully incorporate it in a philosophy or worldview..
One thing they didn't get that I, coming along later, got while I was still fairly young: the sight of increasingly well-developed patterns in history, including the apparent historical realization of many Biblical promises.
These promises - call them prophecies, if you prefer - particularly stood out, at least for me:
* The promises, in Deuteronomy, about the cycles of Hebrew history and its causes. Especially, that the land of Israel would remain barren, almost deserted, and unwanted, for ages - in fact, as long as the Jews weren't there to make it productive and desirable again.
* That the people of Israel do indeed function as the Torah says they must: as a force in the world, as a spark-plug or turbo-charger of histor, hurrying civilization along, as it were. Not just as a nation of priests, a light to the nations, as the Bible says, but as something more elemental, more a part of the world than that. The Jews challenge people to be more than they were. So they have given the world people like - well, the list is extremely long. It includes Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Peter and the other early Christian apostles, the Macabees, Maimonides, Einstein, Steinmetz, Heine, Freud, Spinoza, Marx, Engels, great physicists and scientists, chess masters, mathematicians, poets, builders, physicians, engineers, soldiers, sailors, philosophers, photographers, musicians, fashion designers, movie tycoons, labor leaders, financial leaders, comedians, actors, and department store moguls. It includes countless anonymous or nearly anonymous Jewish men and women who made "priestly" contributions (i.e., unusually literate, fluent, brighter than average, sober, imaginative, dedicated, sensitive, passionate about justice, peace, cleanliness and learning, charitable, spiritual, self-disciplined, etc.) to the world while they lived in it . . . The story, if one only knew the half of it, would be almost unbelievable. Especially when one considers that, when one speaks of the Jews, one is speaking of no more than about 1/4 of only one percent (1%) of the human race! They are literally one of "the fewest of all nations," as the Bible says, fewer than two or three of every thousand people alive today.
* The promise that, when the Jews fail to follow Torah precepts in the land of Israel, "a non-nation, a cruel nation," as the Bible says, would rise up to function as "pins in the eyes and thorns in the sides" of the Jews in the land - and, if allowed to persist in the land, would eventually drive the Jews out of the land into another exile.
* The promise that those who bless Israel are blessed, in some sense, while those who curse the Jews - one thinks immediately of Nazis, Communist anti-Semites, Cossack pogromists and the Spanish Inquisition's torturers, and now the modern enemies of the State of Israel, including people willing to make bombs out of their own young children in order to maim and slaughter Jewish children - are themselves cursed, even though they may sometimes flourish briefly.
Finally, after years of watching my fellow adults in committees and meeting rooms and their own offices, in courtrooms and legislative chambers and the like, I began to realize how easy it is for people to get things terribly, terribly wrong. One should consider Moses' comments about the value of the Torah's statutes, judgments, commandments and ordinances: that the people of other nations would hear of their greatness, their superhuman wisdom and righteousness, and cherish them accordingly (Deuteronomy 4:5-9). As I learned more about those statutes, etc., I began to appreciate them that way too.
Finally, after years of reading and listening to people's best thoughts on all manner of subjects, and compared them to the Torah, the "Guidance" or "Teaching," I concluded that the Torah is far too great to be just a manmade work. Mere humans don't get things right like that. Then I found out about the First Covenant, the Universal Covenant and the Seven Noahide Commandments. That made a big difference to me. I saw that the Bible's "kingdom of priests" has a priestly doctrine that it's meant to share with others.
I also discovered this principle, which is recorded in The Rainbow Covenant: If anything about the Torah ever strikes you as wrong, perverse or cruel, you are either misunderstanding it or it isn't genuine Torah. Or, as the great sages of Israel teach, if one finds a conflict between the Torah and the truth, either that "truth" is untrue or one is getting the Torah wrong.
For more on this matter, about things in the Bible that may appear fanciful or impossible, click here: Biblical Riddles.
* One refers here solely to the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis to the end of Second Chronicles. The Christian Bible, the New Testament - the word testament coming from the Latin testamentum, or covenant - as it's called, is another book, outside the scope of this article. The focus of this article, and of "Biblical Riddles" too, is the First Covenant and the Covenant of Sinai.