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My Path to Atheism

Alan Rutkowski
July 6, 2017

by Alan Rutkowski

I RECENTLY HAD an epiphany: I don’t believe in God. For a very long time — most of my life, actually — I sort of thought I did. Religion has played a big part in my life. For some reason my mother, who was not religious at all, sent my sister and me to a Catholic school. When as an adult I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, I realized that, up until I was about 18, my world view was pretty much that of the High Middle Ages.

Around the age of 18, I abandoned the High Middle Ages and became a Marxist but without understanding Capital or any other Marxist writings nearly as well as I had understood the Baltimore Catechism. The atheism part of Marxism didn’t make a big impression on me.

Over the years I tried a couple of times to reconnect with the church, once because I thought our children should have something to rebel against. It just didn’t work. And I was not a bitter ex-Catholic. The aesthetic of the High Middle Ages isn’t bad. I love liturgical Latin, and Gregorian chant is sublime. Alas, after I left the church, it introduced the vernacular Mass, which was often accompanied by guitar music. Aesthetic appeal could no longer make up for the obvious problem of giving assent to certain propositional “truths.” Transubstantiation? No, thanks.

What about God? For most of my life, when somebody asked me if I believed in God, I wouldn’t say no. Often I said, as many do, that I believed in some vague higher power, but when I actually thought about God or made any attempt to pray, I confess (Catholicism again!) that I had a puerile image of a distinctly male God that had been planted in my head years ago by nuns.

When I stopped being a Catholic, I still retained many of the values I had absorbed. I became involved in left-wing political movements that were non-religious, even anti-religious, but many of the values — concern for the poor, seeking justice, valuing community — were actually the same. In my fifties, I formally converted to Judaism. In many ways Judaism combined those same values with a religious worldview that I found congenial.

What specifically appeals to me about Judaism is its emphasis on ritual and on ethical action rather than on dogma or doctrine. Judaism does not impose any particular concept regarding the nature of God, nor does it insist on the literal interpretation of its sacred texts. I suppose Judaism satisfies my need for ritual and a sense of spiritual connectedness without posing the perplexing intellectual problems that a specifically doctrinaire religion does. Jews can and do believe all sorts of nonsense, but it’s not a requirement.

JUDAISM, of course, presents its own problems. The intersection of Judaism, ethnic tribalism and Israeli nationalism troubles me. Along with many other Jews, I strongly oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza. I have witnessed the devastating effects of Jewish settler fanaticism on the lives of Palestinians. The relentless expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has gone so far that the two-state solution is probably dead. What the alternatives are is hard to say, but the occupation can’t go on forever.

Religion and nationalism are a toxic mix. My favorite Jewish philosopher, the late, Orthodox polymath, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, put it very well: “Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state — which is only an instrument for serving human needs — supreme value from a religious standpoint.”

I have long thought that liberal Christians and Jews are much closer to atheists than they are to their own more fundamentalist and literalist coreligionists. But some, like the biologist Jerry Coyne, argue that religious moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists by perpetuating the myth that religion alone can provide us with such things as a sense of community, ethical behavior, and spirituality. In doing so, these moderates let the irrational beliefs of religion off the hook for the terrible things that are done in the name of religion. Coyne calls their approach “faitheism” — a belief in belief.

At least one religious thinker — again Yeshayahu Leibowitz — can’t be accused of perpetuating that myth. For Leibowitz, religion, or at least Judaism, does not serve any human need whatsoever. Faith consists of nothing more than the observance of the mitzvoth or commandments, ideally for their own sake, with no expectation of deriving any benefit from their observance. Religion for Leibowitz also has nothing to do with ethics or morality, which, he notes, are humanistic concepts.

That is not to say that a religious Jew cannot or should not be ethical and moral; it’s just that being ethical and moral has nothing to do with being Jewish, religiously speaking. Whether or not an act is Jewish, i.e., has religious value, depends on intention. If I give charity to the poor because I feel compassion for them, it is a very fine moral act, but it has no religious value. If I give charity to the poor whether I feel compassion for them or not, but only because it is a commandment, then it is a religious act.

For Leibowitz, furthermore, God is utterly transcendent and does not correspond to any human category. Consequently, any attempt to conceive of God invariably leads to confusing God with something else and amounts to idolatry. Usually the confusion involves some larger version of us. We may conceive of God as a loving parent (in the Hebrew Scriptures, God often comes off as closer to an abusive, alcoholic parent), but this is only a metaphor with no factual content. The statement “God created the heavens and the Earth” is meaningless except as an affirmation that God is not the world. Leibowitz famously wrote, “The Torah provides us with no information about the natural world. For that we have science departments.”

Moreover, argues Leibowitz, God does not intervene on our behalf to change the laws of nature or the course of history. Praying is nothing more than the fulfillment of the commandment to pray. The notion that God answers prayers in any sense is to treat prayer as an instrument to serve human needs. Leibowitz wrote somewhat contemptuously, “Folkloristic [Popular] religion makes God the functionary of human society, performing for it the tasks of Minister of Health, Minister of Justice, Minister of the Police, Minister of Welfare, and Minister of the Economy.” Similarly, praying to achieve a greater spirituality, or because it is uplifting, is to rob prayer of its religious significance and reduce it to the level of therapy or an entertainment.

ONE CAN say nothing about the utterly transcendent God except what God isn’t. So the question, “Do you believe in God?”, must be followed by the question, “What do you mean by God?” Once that question is definitively answered, the response to the previous question must be “No.” Since existence is a human category, it cannot be attributed to God, and we cannot say that God exists.

This rather austere view of religion is appealing partly because it involves no abandonment of a scientific worldview, and also because it dispenses with the obviously false notion that religious believers are more ethical or moral than non-believers. But for conventional religious believers, Leibowitz will surely seem to be advocating atheism as a way of avoiding idolatry.

Faith for Leibowitz is not a conclusion based on information, but an evaluative decision, freely taken. Leibowitz’s leap of faith involves a commitment to observe the mitzvoth, all of them that are still relevant in the Orthodox interpretation. This is a leap I am not prepared to make. If I am honest with myself, my embracing Leibowitz’s view of God really does amount to atheism. I reject the idea of the Chosen People, not because it implies superiority, but because I really don’t believe in a God who does the choosing. I am an atheist.

Of course, there are other currents of Judaism that are non-theistic — including elements of Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism. When I told my rabbi that I don’t believe in God, for example, he assured me that the God in which I don’t believe, he probably doesn’t believe in either.

Alan Rutkowski lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is a founding member of the Canadian Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? His views do not represent an official position of that group. He appeared here recently with “Reflections On Conversion and a Trip To Israel.”