According to a poll carried out by Fox News in 2003, 85 percent of Americans believe in the existence of heaven and 82 percent in miracles. The same telephone poll of 900 registered voters found that 78 per cent believed in angels, 74 per cent in hell and 71 per cent in the devil, with substantial minorities believing in ghosts, UFOs, astrology and witches. Still, there are some things that Americans do not believe. Three leading Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States recently declared in a televised debate that they do not believe in evolution. It makes you think: One of those primitives might one day have his finger on the big red button.
The poll also inquired into belief in a deity, and 92 percent claimed to believe in God while 3 per cent replied "Not sure." Even allowing for the inability of pollsters to capture nuances, that 3 per cent is an amazing statistic. Would not a majority of thinking people - even those who practice a religion - shoehorn themselves into that 3 per cent? Whence this certainty?
If, as the poll attests, full-blooded unbelievers number only 5 per cent, they seem to buy an awful lot of books. In recent years, elbowing aside such essential reading as the "Best Life Diet" and the "Natural Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems," the nonfiction bestseller lists have been dominated by books attacking God. Two Olympic-class public intellectuals, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have now published books arguing for atheism. And not agnosticism, by the way. The view that, in the absence of evidence, one cannot know whether or not God exists - the 3 per cent 'not sures' of that poll - is ridiculed by Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion" (Bantam Press, 2006). Dawkins, who, since the untimely death of Stephen Jay Gould, has become the most popular writer on science in the English-speaking world, will have no truck with such wishy-washy compromisers. Anyone who will allow for the possibility of the existence of God is indiscriminately lumped by him together with the most credulous religious fundamentalist.
Equal opportunity atheist
While Dawkins' beef is with God, Hitchens prefers to make war on religion, and he takes no prisoners in doing so. His book is entitled "God is Not Great" (Hachette, 2007) but the in-your-face subtitle: "How Religion Poisons Everything" better conveys the thrust of the book. No religion can complain of having been neglected by Hitchens. He is an equal opportunity atheist. He puts the boot in on all the major monotheistic faiths. Having smitten Christianity and Islam, Hitchens trains his guns on Judaism.
Although he was brought up as an Anglican, Hitchens discovered late in life that his mother was born Jewish and that he was thus legally a Jew. This does not deter him from singling out for special attack two features of the Jewish religion that many Jews might think worth defending: the rite of circumcision ("the genital mutilation of infants") and the "vapid and annoying" festival of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah commemorates what Hitchens describes as the most tragic day in human history. Had the Greeks, according to the Hitchens version of history, defeated the ultra-Orthodox Maccabee fanatics in battle, Judaism would have withered away. Without Judaism, neither the Jewish heresy of Christianity nor Islam could have come into being. What a pity, thinks Hitchens.
Hitchens and Dawkins find it difficult to understand why freethinking Jews should cling to some of their ancestral practices. They are missing something. For a majority of Jews, their religion is neither toxic nor - it has to be admitted - particularly uplifting. It is an institution that defines their identity. Few Jews, although they reject the dogmas of their ancient faith, will - as apparently Dawkins expects them to - get up and walk away. In striking at circumcision, Hitchens will not carry many Jews with him. So long as there is no evidence that it is medically harmful - indeed there is some evidence that circumcision has a marginal health benefit - Jews will circumcise their sons because that is the badge of the tribe. It is what their ancestors have done for millennia.
If he wanted a more promising stick with which to beat Judaism, Hitchens could have zeroed in on the longed-for rebuilding of the Temple, a wish the fulfillment of which would engender horror in the minds of all but a deranged minority of Jews. On this issue, for once, most Jews are ad idem with the ultra- Orthodox who take the view that the Temple is not to be rebuilt until the Messiah comes. That is the Jewish way of saying "never."
The few who are sincere in their desire for the restoration of the Temple face two principal difficulties. In the first place, it cannot have escaped their notice that there is already a structure that has occupied the site for upwards of 1,300. "No problem!" says a segment of the faithful; if God had not intended us to blow up the Dome of the Rock, he would not have created dynamite. These enthusiasts, happily held in check so far, are not deterred by the thought that Muslims who would visit death on disrespectful novelists and cartoonists are unlikely to look on the destruction of the third holiest site of Islam with special favor.
But, aside from those dynamic dynamiters, there are others who are preparing in earnest for the day the site is vacated, with or without human assistance. A cottage industry has arisen to train novice priests in the minutiae of the Temple ritual. And there lies the second reason why the sound of mind are less than enthusiastic at the idea of the restoration of the Temple. The Temple will not be a cathedral synagogue, a kosher St. Peter's. The business of a Temple is not prayer but blood. What happens there is the killing, flaying and burning of birds and animals and the spraying of their blood in all directions. Any man fortunate enough to be called Cohen will be able to take part in the bloodbath.
The inability of many to confront the idea that the holiest place of their religion was an abattoir stems, I think, from a failure of the imagination. Certainly I, at my most fastidious, have been obtuse on this undeniable fact. What was I thinking of when I belted out from the book of Numbers: "On the Sabbath day, la-la-la-la, two lambs, la-la-la-la, of the first year, la-la-la-la, without blemish" or the verse from Isaiah "their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable, hey-hey-hey, upon Mine altar"?
The truth is that the Temple must have been a place of intolerable noise and stench. We can take with a large pinch of sacrificial salt the claim of the sages that, for the entire period that the Temple stood, there was a daily miracle to assure that no fly was ever seen and the dead animal flesh never became putrid. Can the rabbis who obsess about the restoration of the Temple guarantee that another massive divine air freshener will operate when they finally get their way and the blood starts flowing? I think not. My own view is that if the Messiah stops tarrying and finally turns up, he will have the common sense to adopt the view of Maimonides that the sacrificial cult was a temporary aberration. Otherwise, count me in with Hitchens and Dawkins.
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