In God we don't trust: Five Israeli atheists bare their souls
Alongside a rise in the number of Jewish Israelis who say they believe in God, the country also has a well-established atheist community.
1. Regression to infantalism
“Because of the snake,” the acclaimed playwright Joshua Sobol says, assuming an amused expression. Wearing a black shirt, he sits at a large wooden table at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. He recalls the moment at which he lost his belief in a supreme power that brings order to the world.
“One day, when I was 5 or 6, an ultra-Orthodox relative came to our village to visit,” Sobol recalls. “He usually prayed but in our house he did not pray. I wondered why this was so. He explained to me that if one does not pray, God sends a snake and the snake will bite me. I grew up in Tel Mond, a town teeming with snakes, so I was scared. Out of fear I decided to pray with him. I didn’t really know what to do but I saw him mumbling incomprehensible words, so I started to mumble, too.”
A few days later, the Haredi relative packed his bags and left. “He went but I continued to pray,” Sobol says. “One day I didn’t pray and I waited for the snake to come. But no snake came. I understood, perhaps for the first time in my life, that there was something false about the story the man had told me. I suddenly viewed that relative as a stupid man who had tried to trick me. I saw that he believed in what he told me, but also that it was nonsense.”
Sobol is probably the highest and most illuminating atheistic beacon in Israel. When he was young he read Camus and Sartre, and was later a student in Paris. “At a certain point, while I was studying in Paris, I was torn between two approaches,” he notes. “One was secular existentialism; the other was the religious existentialism of Martin Buber. In the end, I made a very clear choice, which stemmed from a conviction that the world is random and that we are randomly in the world. Today, even though I identify completely with Jewish history, it is difficult for me to define myself as a Jew. What does my being a Jew mean if I have no connection to the Jewish religion?” he asks, running a large hand through his white beard.
Sobol terms himself first of all an Israeli with a Hebrew-Israeli identity. “For my parents, who immigrated here, the great act was to become fluent in Hebrew. They did not observe any of the precepts, major or minor. They were totally secular people who possessed a Hebrew − not a Jewish − identity. The distinction was clear. There was one rabbi in our town, poor man, who was maintained for the old folk. A funny-looking synagogue existed in the town like an alien presence. It was located in a workers’ trailer that was supposed to be pulled by a tractor or something. A synagogue was burned into my consciousness as a structure on wheels, temporary and strange.”
Despite his repulsion to religion, or maybe because of it, many of Sobol’s works − such as “Repentance,” “The Gog and Magog Show” and “Weininger’s Night” (aka “The Soul of a Jew”) − deal with the place of God in human life. His attitude toward Judaism is most acutely expressed in “Weininger’s Night” (1982), whose protagonist tries to liberate himself from the curse of Judaism.
Weininger, Sobol says, “thought that if a Jewish state were established it would come to a bad end, because Judaism would overcome Zionism,” whereas he himself thought that the Jewish religion pulls against the establishment of a state. “Regrettably,” he says, “the Israeli public is only being drawn more powerfully into the realms of belief and religion.”
Sobol is right. A survey conducted recently by the Israel Democracy Institute shows a strengthening of religious faith and religious customs among Jews in Israeli society. Intriguingly, the survey shows that even though 43 percent of Jews in Israel style themselves secular, 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe in the existence of God and 69 percent maintain that the Torah and the commandments are God-given.
The survey also indicates that the religious outlook has surged in the past decade as compared to the preceding 10 years. Thus, between 1999 and 2009, the proportion of Jews who said they believe in the coming of the messiah rose from 45 percent to 55 percent. Similarly, 37 percent of those asked replied affirmatively to the question of whether a Jew who does not observe the commandments endangers the Jewish people, up from 30 percent in the previous survey.
“I don’t call this a strengthening of faith but a strengthening of infantilism,” Sobol snaps. “The reality of life is becoming more and more complicated to understand and more difficult to cope with. So there is a tendency to regress to the infantile stage in which you look for someone to take responsibility for you. Infantilism is manifested in all sorts of ways, such as the tendency to wrap oneself in a diaper − to me, putting on a tallit [prayer shawl] is to wrap oneself in a diaper. For example, stickers that declare, ‘We have no one to rely on but our father in heaven’ and the like. Those slogans have become a national mantra signaling a danger of extinction. The moment a whole nation absolves itself of responsibility to look after itself and believes that there is a higher force that will do it, it can be taken over by all kinds of deviants and crazies.”
How did the secular public in Israel become so susceptible to religious dominance?
“The fact that the middle class, which bears the burden of the education and progress that underlie freedom, is becoming impoverished is a terrible danger. When the middle class grows anxious and feels it is sliding into poverty and losing its assets, that fear generates irrational behavior.”
And also pushes the atheistic approach from the stage?
“Definitely. An atheistic outlook in Israeli society is a rare commodity these days. The surroundings are swarming with religion – a situation I believe is leading to catastrophe. Religions separate people; they do not unite people but set them against one other. Judaism is like that, too: It is replete with an exclusionary terminology referring to people who cannot be accepted. I refer, for example, to terms such as ‘bastards’ and ‘forbidden to marry.’ Those are labels of idol worshippers. Why should someone be forbidden to marry and termed ‘impure’ because his mother fell in love with someone else and slept with a man who was not her husband? That is an outlook that is darker than dark. I am stunned when I see rabbis engaged in ‘allowing bastards.’ By what right do they ‘allow’ a person who is equal to them?”
What do you see as sacred values?
“Values that, if violated, reduce human worth. I think the true atheistic approach is that if there is something that needs to be sanctified, it is life and human beings. From this point of view, all life and every person are equal. There is no difference. We all came into the world by chance, including the greatest zaddikim, who only tell themselves tales that their presence here is God’s work. That is my feeling and my struggle is to implant it. One thing I have learned is that if you do not expand the realms of freedom, freedom contracts. If you do not recruit more and more people to believe that human freedom is the most wonderful thing you can have in this life, the circles of freedom will shrink. In Israel we have forgone the struggle to expand the circles of freedom, whereas we need to go outside the fence and do battle.”
2. Temporary trait
Yaakov Malkin is a pillar in the search for Israeli atheists – a community estimated to number hundreds of thousands. A professor emeritus in the arts faculty at Tel Aviv University and a founder of the university’s film and television department, Malkin is considered one of the spiritual leaders of the local atheist community. He is a productive thinker and the author of many works about secular humanistic ethics. In 2009, his book “Judaism without God? Judaism as Culture and Bible as Literature” was published in English by Gorgias Press.
He is the chief editor of Free Judaism, a journal for Judaism as a culture, which he founded in 1995. He is also the academic director of Tmura, an international institute for humanistic secular Judaism, which trains community leaders for secular communities and trains holders of graduate degrees to be secular rabbis.
Books cover the walls of his study in Jerusalem’s affluent Greek Colony. “I am a second-generation atheist,” the 86-year-old Malkin says. He declares that he is a traditionalist Jew, despite the fact that the absence of God is part of his family heritage. “My children, Prof. Irad Malkin, and Rabbi Sivan Maas, the dean of Tmura in Jerusalem, are just the same. My grandchildren, too. It’s a family tradition that began in Warsaw, where I was born and attended an atheistic school run by the Bund.
“When I came to Tel Aviv, at the age of 7, I received similar schooling in the education system of the Histadrut labor federation. Throughout my youth I was aware of religion as something foreign that belongs to an unfamiliar minority. My only exposure to religion was through my maternal grandfather, who was a Ger Hasid. My mother fled from religion while she was a university student. Not only was she an atheist, she was hostile to religion.”
In contrast to atheistic thinkers who view atheism as “nonbelief,” Malkin devotes his writing to the beliefs that prevail among the nonreligious public. There is no such thing as a nonbelieving person, he says. “As a boy, my home was filled with beliefs. We discussed beliefs from an early age. My friends and I were socialists. I took part in May Day parades. We believed in a just society, in fighting wrong, in human rights. Those were the regular subjects of conversation. In the family we celebrated the Jewish holidays − but according to the tradition in the secular kibbutz community, through the meaning conferred on them by atheistic beliefs. Within that framework, secular life, without religion or God, seemed perfectly natural. It was religion that was incomprehensible.”
The situation today is different, he notes. “At present, the secular and the religious world are intermingling in Israeli society. That is only reasonable, because secularism as I see it does not take the form of boycotting religion but of an absence of commitment to fulfill the religious commandments. That is why I view the traditionalist public in Israeli society as being free people, in a certain sense. They choose − sometimes to kiss a mezuzah, to wear a skullcap or observe Shabbat − sometimes, not always. In other words, I see them as being as free as I am. In the final analysis, the difference between what they do and what I do is quantitative.”
But there is also a substantive difference, which stems from the clear-eyed awareness Malkin has formulated about his identity. “In terms of consciousness there is a big difference between us,” he says in a torrent of words. “I think the 1960s in the Israeli secular education system can be seen as the benchmark for understanding the sad process undergone by secular society. The curricula started to identify Jewish consciousness with religious consciousness. Since then we have viewed Judaism through the prism of Orthodoxy and identified the word ‘Judaism’ with the word ‘religion’ − even though this is a serious distortion with direct implications for the way secular people perceive themselves.”
Malkin views Judaism as the culture of the Jewish people, which encompasses both secular cultures and religious cultures that incorporate a vast range of Judaisms. “In the biblical period, for example, there was a Judaism that worshipped Asherah,” he points out with satisfaction. “According to the testimony of the prophets in both kingdoms, Judah and Israel, Jews worshipped idols and built altars on which parents sacrificed their children to the Moloch. The God of Moses was not the God of Aaron. Even though I consider Bible study the greatest secular project in the history of Jewish culture, I maintain that many people are mistaken in their understanding of the Bible and view it as a religious book. The education system reinforced this erroneous perception and it is incumbent on us to rectify this. The Bible is not a religious book, even if its lead actor is God.”
In other words, you consider the Bible to be a work of literature.
“Absolutely. Gods were created as literary heroes − all we know about them is contained in the work that shaped them. This is so both with the Bible and with Greek mythology, which we accept without any problem as a literary work. Every god in the world was transformed from being the hero of a literary work into a superman, a supernatural being, omnipotent and omniscient. But because divinity is a temporary trait, the hero’s divinity is gone after a time and he reverts to being a literary hero, like Zeus, Hera or Yahweh.”
Do you suggest including the Bible in the “writings” of Jewish atheists in Israel?
“Of course. You have to understand that secular Jewish thought has existed for more than 300 years. Its sources lie in the writings of Maimonides, Jewish thought in Spain and, afterward, in the works of [Baruch] Spinoza, who inaugurated the secularization process. Since Spinoza, the belief in the rightness of scientific knowledge has spread in secular Jewish culture. That belief has no place for a personal God who manages the world as he sees fit, who foments miracles contrary to the laws of nature or issues religious precepts. Atheistic and humanistic beliefs see man as sovereign, meaning he is free to choose his path in life and in Judaism. It is true that the rejection of the commitment to obey precepts and commandments stems from the belief of humanistic secular Jews, but there is no conflict between this and the awareness of our cultural and historic heritage, which is based on the Bible. That is our formative classic literature.”
Many secular individuals would seem to be close to your approach. They do not observe religious precepts and they believe in the validity of scientific knowledge. Yet they are not ready to acknowledge themselves as atheists. How do you explain this?
“I agree with what you say. Most Israelis behave like atheists, but do not acknowledge themselves to be such. The main weakness is due to the fact that there is no recognition of this by the secular leadership. Although the majority of the leaders of the political parties are secular, and most of the parties themselves are secular, they are not conscious of their secularity, of the secular Jewish culture that is so vital − and without which there would be no Zionism and the State of Israel would not exist. The absence of leadership of the secular camp in Israel creates perplexity regarding the approach of education for ‘Judaism as a culture.’ The very terms ‘secularity’ and ‘atheism,’ which guide the concept of Judaism as multicultured, are completely absent from the education system at both high school and university. That is one of the paradoxes of our life.”
3. A simple life
One of the leading and best-known atheist activists in Israel is Yaron Yadan, founder of the Or party, which advocates the separation of religion from state. Yadan is also the founding father of a nonprofit association called Daat Emet, which styles itself as “a movement for liberation from religion.” The association, which has been operating since 1998, was born out of deep crises, both in Israeli society and Yadan’s personal life.
He was born into a secular family that immigrated from North Africa at the beginning of the 1960s. Yadan became religiously observant at the age of 17, after a childhood fraught with skepticism and inquisitiveness. “I first arrived in the yeshiva wearing Levi jeans and with long hair, a street kid. Slowly I started to wear black, got a haircut, wore tziziyot [fringes worn on garments by Orthodox men] ... I immersed myself in the practice, I had the motivation to be a zaddik, to elevate myself spiritually and reach high ethical levels. Fantasies. I wanted to be perfect.”
Yadan’s determination led him to become a rabbi and head of a kollel, a yeshiva for married men; and an expert in Jewish religious law in the Lithuanian community at Rechasim, near Haifa. After 17 years in the Haredi world, he recanted − a move that, he says, stemmed from the “Jewish bookcase” itself.
“I discovered that God is not there,” he says. “That the Jewish religion is a human creation, just like the very term ‘God.’ As I was teaching students to infer religious law from the Talmudic text, I found serious mistakes in the description of the factual reality from which the laws were inferred. Just to mention one example: The rules about ritually impure food state that the trachea of the cow splits into the lung, heart and liver. But in actuality it only splits into the heart. That is one example of thousands of mistakes I found and which led to the question: Who made a mistake here?”
His heart knew no rest. “Because God is infallible, I concluded that God was not involved and that the Bible and the Talmud are human works, not the word of the living God. From that point I went on to reexamine the ethics and morality of the Jewish religion, and came to the realization that this was not where I wanted to be. I understood that the ethics of Judaism are based on racism, on the story of a chosen people to whom God revealed himself and said, ‘You are holy, you are my children.’ That was the foundation for laws like those forbidding the baby of a gentile woman to be delivered on the Sabbath, permitting heretics to be killed and declaring that a wife is a husband’s ‘helpmate.’ I started to read external books. I even spoke secretly with Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who strengthened me. One night, after I had persuaded my wife, we left Rechasim with our seven children.”
In that upheaval, how did you cope with “God”?
“At that stage I did not discuss his existence. It was only in my secular life that I embarked on a natural quest for God. At a certain stage I grasped that the concept of ‘God’ is a fiction invented by man at a time of crisis, which stemmed from intellectual ignorance or from a psychological need. My atheistic awareness developed in stages. A few years after I lost my religion, I understood that it was I who had created the concept of ‘God,’ because I could not accept a meaningless reality. Because I created him, I was also the one who killed him.”
How would you describe your atheistic life?
“It is rooted in the wisdom of the natural, in the authentic lust for life. Natural life and human desire are what occupy my life. In other words, when someone believes in God he is detached from his authenticity, because God is too serious an authority. The moment you feel there is something bigger than everyone and bigger than you, you reduce yourself, your wisdom, your desire and your existence. In that situation you lack the motivation to live your life to the hilt.”
“To live your life to the hilt” sounds a little New Age.
“It is not New Age. Sartre talks about what it means to be authentic − it is part of existentialist philosophy. I don’t intend to say here that I lead a wild life, because I lead a simple life, but I can say that I am happier. People imagine that religiously observant people are happy. That’s a bluff. They are not happy; they are cut off from themselves. A happy person, according to my experience, can only be someone who is able to live his life and his desires. I am now living life and not creating a fiction external to life. I understand that I have to seize the day, exploit my potential and fulfill myself. As a religious person, my life was a bridge. That is why I think an atheistic society is far happier. It is a society that wants to live in this life and not in the next world.”
In addition to the association you founded, you entered politics. In 2001, you ran in the primaries of the Shinui party but did not get enough votes to be placed on the Knesset list. In 2008, you founded and headed the Or party, which got only 815 votes in the 2009 election. It doesn’t appear that your atheistic values got much of a response.
“Yes. I estimated that the party would get between 30,000 and 40,000 votes. It was a blow. I didn’t think we would get enough votes to enter the Knesset, but I believed I would be able to raise the public consciousness about the subjects I deal with. It was a failure. That election took place against the background of Operation Cast Lead, and the public discourse turned to issues of security and Arab-Jewish relations.
“In that situation, even atheists were struck by fear of ‘the Arabs.’ In that sense, the atheists are a very wide-ranging public who undergo Israeli experiences like everyone else. You can be a salient atheist and still be a nationalist who votes for [Avigdor] Lieberman.”
4. To be alone
She turns off the radio, which is playing classical music that fills her home in Kibbutz Ma’abarot, near Netanya. “Man is born into a situation in which he is protected and dependent on strong figures, his parents,” says Prof. Ada Lampert, an expert in evolutionary psychology and author of “The Evolution of Love,” among other books. “Every person starts his life surrounded by responsible adults who look after his well-being, food, clothing, health and love. This is not an easy situation to part from, and I would say that most people never part from it. People love being in this condition, because it is the one into which they are born. It is frightening to leap alone into the water and remain alone. Belief in God reflects a powerful need for parents. The feeling that I have parents affords a certain security.”
Lampert goes even further: “I recently heard a lecture in which the speaker claimed that there are indications in the Bible, backed up by archaeological evidence, showing that our ancestors in this land worshipped a pair of gods,” she says. “The god was called Baal and the goddess Asherah. I also wonder about the fact that ‘Elohim’ [Hebrew for God] is a plural noun; in other words, not one God but many. Even after our forebears parted from their abominated ritual platforms in the land of the Bible, we were still accompanied by two figures: Elohim and the Shekhina [divine spirit]. Mom and dad.
“You have the same in Christianity,” she continues, “where there are three − the father, the son and the holy spirit − who are arranged quite well as a family. The Eastern religions have whole families of gods, as of course did the mythological gods of Greece and Rome. Across history, there is something about the figures and names of the gods that recalls a family.”
The result is to show how human the God concept is, Lampert says. “God was created in the image of man so that I can feel that I am descended from the chimpanzees,” she laughs, in a conversation amid a tropical garden she has cultivated for herself. “At base, man needs God because he longs for the state in which he was born. We also aspire to that situation for fear of remaining alone. Most people are afraid to be alone, and therefore, even if a person remains alone from a religious point of view, and is secular, he will find another belief system. For example, belief in an ideology. This creates the feeling of a shelter above him. Every adherence to ideological life − communism, Scientology, fascism, protection of the planet, veganism, membership in the Friends of the Dalai Lama association or the wonderful fan club of Maccabi Tel Aviv − acts as a kind of extended family that gives its adherents the feeling that they are not alone.”
As an individualist who abhors every hint of conformism or herd thinking, she herself feels that “true loneliness is true freedom. I have a powerful instinct for freedom, which does not allow me to be part of any group of people who share the same views.” The same applies to her professional life.
“Even though I affiliated myself and was affiliated by others to a branch of psychology known as evolutionary psychology, I had and have many disagreements about various theories and approaches put forward by evolutionary psychologists − so much so, that I did not like being part of this branch of psychology. I would rather be described as dealing with human evolution. I have a need for freedom of thought and freedom of opinion. I don’t need a group to give me the right to exist. When a person is born he is equipped with a greater or lesser strength of different traits. In my case, I have a very strong sense of personal freedom, liberty and an unwillingness to subordinate myself to a large body that tells me what to think.”
Scientists, too, are a community that exhibits religious characteristics.
“If you look at science from a sociological perspective you find religious elements,” she says. “People view science as omniscient, as having the right answers. They think the results of every research study can be trusted, in the same way that God can be trusted. Scientists themselves display quasi-religious behavior, as in their salient factionalism. Theoretical disputes bring about the formation of rival groups of researchers, which disdain the ‘heresies’ uttered by researchers who do not belong to the new sect. The Higgs particle, also known as the God particle, which was discovered by means of the particle accelerator in Geneva, underlines the quasi-religious belief that people have in science.”
People tend to view those scientists as omniscient.
“But the physicists who are looking for the particle don’t even know whether they have found it or not. All they might possibly be able to see are indications it may have left behind in the fraction of the instant of its hypothesized existence. They are blessed with wisdom and very learned, and I have great respect for them, but they are playing at theories and speculations and the game is a pleasure for them. They are propounding hypotheses. They do not hold ‘truth’ in their hands. But the people who read newspapers attribute to them the ability to discover truth. Only religion can hold ‘truth.’”
Not the theory of evolution?
“No. Evolutionary theory offers a wonderful explanation for what we see. As the sciences of life, the brain and genetics advance, they supply increasing reinforcement for the evolutionary hypothesis. Still, no scientific advance makes any hypothesis true. There is no truth. Fear of being alone leads us to cling to an authority that we call truth.”
Could people take your views as an additional cause to attack evolutionary theory and advocate creationism?
“As an evolutionist I have no truth and I have the courage to remain alone, to exist in a state of uncertainty and say that there is no purpose, no cause, no guiding hand and no higher plan for our existence. God is definitely a wild success worldwide. It is difficult to find another equally successful concept or idea. If we compare the percentage of those who believe in God with the percentage of those who believe in the theory of evolution − which I find to be a much better way of thought − we will find that only about 25 percent of the people in the Western world believe in evolutionary theory. That’s all.
“If we ask people in Israel whether they believe we come from monkeys, only 25 percent will say they do. There is no doubt that religion is the strongest and most influential idea in the human world. Nevertheless, I do not believe in the idea of God and I have a very high regard for the theory of evolution. I consider it the most important theory ever propounded in the history of culture.”
Recently there was much talk about a theory put forward by an American scientist named Dean Hamer. He maintains there is a genetic basis for belief, which can be located in the human DNA code. He calls it the “God gene.” Do you think it is a genetic thing?
“I read a study claiming that the propensity for religiosity is found in certain genes. The claim is that these genes operate more powerfully in people who turn to religion or adhere to religion, and are less active in people who do not adhere to religion. I would not rush to buy any such claim. I would say that a child comes into the world with a salient and very strong genetic inclination, lasting until death, to need parents. A newborn who receives only food and the fulfillment of other physiological needs but does not see parental figures around him will die. A thinking adult person seeks other paths to the same experience of needing parents. That is a strong genetic inclination, in my opinion.”
Was there never a moment in your life when you asked God for something?
“I remember one time. I must have been about 5, in kindergarten. We were supposed to go for an outing, if it didn’t rain. I remember saying something like, ‘God, make it so there is no rain.’ That is the only time I remember having a God thought. I never addressed the big questions − how everything came to be, where everything is going − through a religious prism. I turned to the scientific direction, even though the more I advanced in my personal scientific development, the more I learned that there are no answers, only hypotheses, and we have to examine which of them is better.”
5. The whole truth
Dr. Dan Boneh, an anthropologist who last year published a book (in Hebrew) setting forth a “systematic atheist doctrine,” represents a firm approach against the religious outlook. He sees religion as a dominant factor in the cultivation of evil in the world and cruelty in human society. Following in the footsteps of writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris − the authors of best-selling books that reject the existence of God − Boneh, driven by a powerful sense of mission, decided “to reject the existence of God in Hebrew.”
“I did not do it in order to preach to the converted, but to reach the undecided,” he says. “Accordingly, I neither slander nor belittle. But I do argue vehemently that this whole insane saga known as God, the conceptual notion that a willful supernatural [force] exists who created and manages the universe with infinite power, is sheer lunacy.”
Wearing a faded green tank top and leaning back in a chair in his sparse apartment on the fourth floor of a building in Tel Aviv’s gentrifying Florentin neighborhood, Boneh recalls the start of his journey.
“I decided to write the book on the day the Twin Towers fell,” he says. “The shock of the event made me want to do something, to go public with an argument that was churning within me. With the spectacle of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers flickering incessantly in my mind, and the images of stunned Americans, their faces covered in white dust, running through the streets, I decided to do something. My heart was pounding; I thought that in another minute planes would also start to crash into Tel Aviv. It was only hallucinatory that this hell was actually a religious act and that Osama bin Laden saw himself as God’s messenger; that his goal was to eradicate the infidels; that the citizens of New York died in the name of God.”
In his book “Never Happened,” Boneh, as a declared unbeliever, addresses the question of whether it is possible to posit logical arguments against religious belief. He puts forward a series of logical faults in regard to belief in God.
“If God exists and he created everything, why did he create evil?” Boneh says passionately, invoking one of the more familiar arguments. “Why, if he was able, did he not prevent Nazism, which was aimed at his ‘chosen people’? Why, if ‘everything came into being by his word,’ are so many children born to suffer? In nature there is no evil for its own sake; animals kill each other, but not from cruelty. Cruelty is a purely human expertise. There is so much evil in the world that the very belief in the existence of a ‘supreme architect’ who is responsible for all this is itself a logical fault. How, in the light of this, is it possible to believe in the existence of a good and beneficent God?” he asks angrily.
“Wherever I turn,” he continues, “I see that people’s belief in God extends to everything. Unfortunately, God is found in every phenomenon, in every place. If we want to understand Israeli, American or Pakistani politics, we have to examine the role played by God. If we look at the energy crisis, global political conflicts, anti-Semitism, massacres, discrimination against women, population density − God stars in all of them. Sometimes in the lead role, sometimes as a supporting actor. Over the years it became clear to me how problematic religious belief is in our way of life. It is disturbing to see the phenomenon in which secular people are ‘strengthened’ by infirm belief, stemming from the need to fulfill some obligation or be part of a group in order to preserve the fabric of the Israeli society as a Jewish state.”
Is there any other cement besides the Jewish religion that can hold together the range of identities that make up Israeli society? What will happen to us if we will all be without God?
“I am explicitly against the fence-sitters. A great many members of the secular public want to live together as a nation and do not want to underscore the abysmal differences between them. Within the Israeli spirit there is apparently a very strong need for solidarity and national unity. Maybe it’s because of the feeling of life under siege, or because the fulfillment of Zionism is so important for us. But it’s clear that we are ready to make concessions to achieve domestic peace.
“God used to be needed to explain the present, the arbitrariness of existence. In the meantime, science has become the explanatory model we use. I maintain that the opposite is the case, that only when God will not be an answer for everyone will we be able to become a better society. God is a burden on Israeli society, especially when in the meantime the tendency is in the opposite direction and the Yad Eliyahu Stadium fills up time and again with people who come to listen to preachers calling on them to repent.”
You sound very worried.
“Demographically, the religious public is triumphing over the secular population, year after year. I find that a cause for concern, because this trend signals the end of national Zionism, within whose framework we aspired to establish a liberal, pluralistic, humanistic, progressive and modern nation-state. It is even more regrettable, because in Europe we see the opposite situation: The churches are empty, no one goes to pray. Nowadays, religion is the preserve of the trapped and the poor across Africa. Even the Americans, apart from the Evangelists, are extremely atheistic. When the religious public is victorious in this country, democracy will vanish and Israel will become a theocracy and, as such, will not survive. That is my concern.”
What alternative do you propose for the secular “fence-sitters”?
“To all appearances, atheism does not have an independent doctrine − after all, there is no atheistic Torah. But there are definitely alternative approaches to human life. One can be a humanist even without God. There is a spiritual side to the human experience that is not the exclusive preserve of monotheistic believers. There are a number of tenets to believe in: in life itself, in nature, humanism, freedom, love, art, the human body, science, rationality and kindheartedness. We are alone in this world and the ability to improve our life lies in our hands. There is no need for God.”
God in America
For the past decade a debate has raged in the United States about whether God exists or not. There are three main writers in this impassioned dispute, who are among the world’s greatest advocates of atheism. The first, Prof. Richard Dawkins, a British ethologist and evolutionary biologist, burst into the public consciousness in 1976 with his book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins is considered one of the fiercest critics of creationism, a theory that accepts the biblical account of the creation of the world. His book “The God Delusion” was recently translated into Hebrew and published in Israel.
The second of the trinity, the late Christopher Hitchens, was an English-born American journalist and writer of Jewish descent. Known as “the atheist high priest,” Hitchens was famed mainly for his book “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007).
The third author, Dr. Sam Harris, a writer known for his books “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (2004) and “Letter to a Christian Nation” (2006), has argued, particularly since the advent of the Islamic wave of global terrorism, that religious belief in our time is threatening civilization.
The three authors, whose works have sold millions of copies around the world, uncover the inbuilt tension in America between the fact that religion and state are totally privatized and the fact that the United States is the most religious country in the West.
“God is deeply present in the political and public discourse and in daily life in America,” says Dr. Yael Sternhell, a senior lecturer in American history at Tel Aviv University. “He is present on American currency notes in the form of the saying ‘In God we trust.’ He is mentioned in the daily oath of allegiance that every schoolchild in the United States recites: ‘One nation under God.’ There is hardly a speech delivered by a public figure that does not conclude with the words ‘God bless America.’”
These are commonplace utterances in the public sphere, Sternhell notes, but the phenomenon exists equally in American private life.
“Church membership in the United States is soaring and the adherence to Protestant values remains firm, even today, after the Western world underwent a radical secularization process,” she says. “From many points of view, that process passed over the American public. That’s a generalization, of course, and obviously there are atheists in America, particularly in the educated classes, but even among them, religion is undoubtedly a factor that is present far more saliently than in Europe or Israel.”
A survey published by the Financial Times in 2006 reinforces Sternhell’s analysis. It found that only four percent of Americans term themselves atheists, compared to 20 percent in Germany and 32 percent in France. “You have to remember that Christianity constituted an extremely influential element in American foreign policy over the years,” Sternhell notes. “This was certainly the case in the period of the young President Bush, when the idea of a Christian state that disseminates its values was a dominant factor in the foreign policy of the White House. Possibly in reaction to this we saw the rejection of that idea and an attempt by certain intellectuals to revive the atheist ethos, which offered a type of response to what appeared to be America’s insularity within the Christian world of values.”
Still, she adds, “However strange it may sound, people in America don’t necessarily want to be liberated from God. The daily life of religion, belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque accords people an identity and a place in a huge, anonymous society. Despite the fact that the American community comes together through the democratic idea and vests the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence with the status of secular holy writ, religion in America is not perceived as conflicting with democracy. On the contrary, religion provides a sense of belonging that transcends the national community. Christianity in America is not only the raucous right-wing Christianity that is against abortions and same-sex marriage, and in the name of which President Bush went to war."
“Historically,” she continues, “Christianity was a liberal force that engendered positive processes. Christianity was the driving force behind the women’s liberation movement and the movement to free the slaves. The same holds for social reforms, such as in the prisons and the insane asylums. Those developments were made possible because the Christian religion preaches equality among people, and in its American version also encourages every believer to take responsibility for life within society and ensure that the souls of his brothers and sisters will be saved. Religion in America is not necessarily an instrument for suppression and discrimination, as we tend to grasp it − certainly in a country like ours, in which Judaism has become a repressive, discriminatory tool. The American version of religion is a little different.”