An atheist is rowing a boat on a lake in Scotland. Out of nowhere, the Loch Ness Monster rears its head out of the water. The atheist screams out, ‘God, help me!’ Everything, including the monster, suddenly stops. A heavenly voice resounds, ‘You say that you don’t believe in me and now you ask for my help?’ The atheist responds, ‘Well, ten seconds ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster either.’ It’s not easy to be a genuine atheist. It’s not enough to simply deny the existence of God. You have to really mean it, to understand what you don’t believe in. Our guy out there on the lake would be considered a heretic by true atheists.
When did atheism infiltrate into Jewish ranks? To answer this question, atheism itself must be defined. The Romans considered the early Christians to be atheists because they refused to take part in the sacrifices to the Roman gods. Those early Christians certainly were believers, they just believed in the wrong god(s). Through the centuries, the tables were turned and atheism came to mean one who doesn’t believe in the Christian deity. Jews were never really atheists to them, just obstinate God-killers. But as enlightenment ideology began to take hold in the Western World, genuine atheists – people who didn’t believe in any God – began to show their faces in public.
What does it mean to not believe in any God? It doesn’t mean simply rejecting the God of the Bible. It is not enough to reject any notion of a God who pays attention and/or intervenes in the affairs of the world. Even belief in a one-shot God who ignited the Big Bang and then retired from divinity disqualifies one from atheism. Beyond all this, a person who passes all these tests but isn’t really sincere about his or her atheism, like our guy on the lake, cannot be called a real believer. Atheism requires religious conviction. It means knowing what you are talking about and being willing to live or die by your ideals. The standards needn’t be any different than those of required of genuine believers in conventional religion.
Are there any atheists in a fox hole? Maybe yes, maybe no – the emotional and spiritual attachment that the human mind has for a higher power that generates meaning and grants salvation is powerful. Maybe some people have managed to truly expunge this attachment from their minds and from their non-existent souls. But maybe it’s impossible to ever fully do this. Even if they are right and there is no God, and everything runs according to some immutable and impersonal set of natural laws, it is still very possible that evolution or some other mechanism has hard-wired belief in a deity into us whether we like it or not.
But the opposite also may be true - that we cannot fully believe in a deity. Possibly there is some other mechanism that causes doubt even among the most devout of the faithful. Was it ever so obvious and undeniable that there is ‘something else’ besides the material world? Was it ever so crystal clear that there has to be some ultimate meaning to life? Perhaps this block, this inevitable obstacle, was always the reason that belief in a deity was an act of faith and of intuitive rather than intellectual knowledge. If this latter conjecture is true, then it may be the underlying reason why atheism came to be a reasonable system of belief.
Otherwise, it is a bit of a mystery why anyone would want to believe that there is no God, no ultimate source for everything, no guide, no injector of purpose into life. What would make a person choose such a system of belief? Atheists, of course, claim that it was simply an intellectual no-brainer – it was patently obvious if one just looked at the facts. But this is only half the story. At one point, before science had come to dominate man’s perspective on reality, it wasn’t so obvious. As recently as 150 years ago, to reject the notion of God altogether was a big shot in the dark. It was not the least bit obvious what made the grass grow or why some people have blue eyes and others have brown. There was no explanation whatsoever for things as straightforward as lightening or dust floating or the conception and growth of a baby. To try explaining the diversity of life or the lights in the cosmos or the roots of emotions in 1850, without resorting to some sort of God, was to live in a fantasy. To be an atheist back then was to have tremendous faith in one’s intuition.
So how did it enter Judaism? It wasn’t Spinoza in the 17th century, for he was not an atheist at all. Other than the 2nd century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuyah, it is difficult to find a card-carrying Jewish atheist until Karl Marx in the 19th century. Marx, who came from rabbinic ancestry but whose parents converted to Christianity, was as atheist as they come. He didn’t worry about the fine points of natural phenomena or philosophical issues. Very simply, he was a materialist - what you see is what you get. He was representative of a 19th century realization that human problems were not being solved by religion. Instead of attempting to modify religion to make it more effective in solving these problems, people like Marx saw it as part of the problem instead of the solution.
Around the time that Marx was putting out the Communist Manifesto (1848), Jews all over Europe were jumping on the social action bandwagon and abandoning religion. Numbers and percentages are difficult to determine, but everybody agrees that they were significant. From their Jewish background, Jews were naturals for causes that aimed at bettering the lives of the oppressed. They were also naturals at heavy thinking, with which these movements tended to be weighed down. Additionally, they had a long history of messianic optimism, and this played heavily into the ‘save the world’ motivation of communism and socialism. From this point onward, social action became a Jewish trademark. From its inception, Jewish social action was anti-religious, and usually anti-God. Atheism and communism went hand-in-hand.
Another trend in Jewish atheism surfaced in the emerging arena of science. Major discoveries had been made from the 16th century onward that set human perception of the world on a completely different course than it had always been. No longer was it necessary to look to God, angels, and miracles to explain natural phenomena. Since the time of Galileo and Newton (17th century) physical processes were increasingly seen as being under the sway of fixed natural laws. These laws, as they were slowly and painstakingly pried out of nature by observation and understanding, explained an amazing amount of previously inexplicable things. With each one of these discoveries, God was steadily being pushed to the outside.
Deism, an 18th and 19th century belief which relegated God to the role of creator of the universe and its fixed laws, was the temporary compromise that many chose. It enabled belief in God, but recognized the role of natural laws. Many 19th century scientists were deists. With each scientific explanation, God’s role diminished correspondingly. A 20th century philosopher/scientist coined the term ‘god of the gaps’ to satirize this desire to keep God on the job and not force him into early retirement.
There are only a few areas of science that seemed to be immune from any completely natural explanation and still allow room for divine intervention. One is creation of the universe which was largely explored and partially explained in the 20th century. It remains the primary battleground between the theists and the atheists in the world of science. Another is the development of life, of which the first serious inroads were made by Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century. Following Darwin’s theory of evolution and the 20th research into heredity and genes, evolutionary development is largely considered (by scientists) to be outside of God’s domain. This was seen as a major victory for atheism, though the theists never conceded and probably never will. The related subject of origin of life, however, is still a very open issue.
The third area is the human mind. To this day, despite a vast amount of research and theorizing, nobody really understands some of the most basic functions of the human mind. Consciousness is still mostly guesswork. Free will is so completely inexplicable that the only atheistic solution is to say that it doesn’t exist. Thought and emotions are largely seen as functions of the physical brain, with neurons and neurotransmitters playing crucial roles, in what is increasingly looked upon as a highly complex computer. Theories were dime-a-dozen with the one universal given being that God couldn’t be called upon to fill in any gaps.
The name that everybody associates as the pioneer of all this was the Austrian Jew, Sigmund Freud. Though many of his ideas have fallen out of fashion within many current circles of psychology, his basic innovation still rules the roost in the field. This fundamental idea is that human behavior, to a great degree, is under the control of subconscious or unconscious forces. These forces are not the spiritual forces of Judaism, the yetzer hara and the yetzer tov. Those are relics of a bygone era when spirits ran amok within the mind. From Freud and onward, the forces were all firmly lodged within memories, within subconscious behavior patterns acquired earlier in life, and within certain human drives that we are born with and have to life with. Despite all the variations, it all boils down to this: human behavior is purely human and there is no need to bring God into the picture. All in all, it was one more nail in God’s coffin.
In the non-scientific areas, atheism made near-miraculous gains during the 20th century. On university campuses it became cool to mock all things religious. God became an object of derision, something that the losers who couldn’t handle a godless world used as a crutch. In Europe and elsewhere in the Western World, God was largely abandoned altogether until the entire concept became something of a historical curiosity. Recent religious revivals from Islam and Evangelical Christianity only strengthened the atheist conviction that religion and God were relics of a fanatical era that thankfully (and hopefully) was going the way of the flat earth and witch trials. Entire philosophies based on atheist morality sprang up. One of the most radical of these was the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, the goal of which is materialistic selfishness. Objectivism and its rivals all went to great ends to throw off the shackles of antiquated religious beliefs and divinely ordained morality. To them, there is nothing other than life and getting the most out of it, however we choose.
Where does meaning of life fit in with atheism? Surprisingly, only a small percentage (the number is probably growing as time goes on) of the big names have been willing to chuck it all and declare life to be meaningless. It is almost as if they are willing to dispose with God but not with the value of life. They tend to grope for ways of finding meaning in a universe that is without a Creator or Guide. They find it in just being nice, or seeking happiness, or gaining knowledge, or saving the earth, or just having a good time. It all sounds a little forced and the arguments rarely hold water when actually put to a test of internal consistency. With few exceptions, they simply cannot take the leap of admitting that nothing really matters. It’s odd, but it seems that meaning, even more than God, is embedded in the human conscious. We cannot rid ourselves of it.
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