Saturday, April 04, 2009


Just a few weeks ago, the results were released of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The study, which included 54,461 adults, confirmed what anyone with half a brain could tell you: that the percentage of Americans with no religion is increasing dramatically. In 1990, that percentage was only eight. Today, it has increased to 15.

That might seem like a high number to you, but compared to overseas figures, it’s just a drop in the bucket. Allow me now to cite results from a study by Phil Zuckerman entitled "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns", and published in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). That study identifies the following as the percentage of people in various countries that identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or non-believers in God: Sweden – 46-85%, Denmark – 43-80%, Norway – 31-72%, Japan – 64-65%, Finland – 28-60%, France – 43-54%, S. Korea – 30-52%, Germany – 41-49%, Russia – 24-48%, Holland – 39-44%, Britain – 31-44%, Belgium – 42-43%, Israel – 15-37%. That wasn’t even the top 13. I was simply selecting examples of nations with high rates of atheism/agnosticism that also have relatively high rates of literacy. Leave aside for a moment the population of the United States, which is both relatively religious and relatively literate. Around the world, if you’re educated, you’re much, MUCH more likely to be atheist. And boy does that fact ever bring smugness to non-believers.

For those of us who do not count ourselves with the non-believers, it’s high time that we consider the dwindling relevance of religion among the world’s educated people. What is it about the belief in God that seems so out of touch with modernity? Is it that the concept of a “Supreme Being” is antiquated? Or that the Theory of Evolution is grand enough to explain all things, great and small? I don’t buy either explanation. The idea of God stood the test of time for literally thousands of years, providing a sense of meaning, a sense of unity, a sense of joy, a sense of being grounded, that any scientific theory – ancient or modern – cannot.

So what is it then? Why is it that God is getting such a bad rap? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the idea that there exists a God who is eternal, infinite and ultimate and omnipresent. Rather, it’s the notion that, in order to “relate” to God, we have to turn Him into one of us: trapped in time, trapped in space, and knowable from “miracles” that to the modern mind are merely myths. In other words, if God is to serve all of our EMOTIONAL needs, we must make God into a human, all-too-human creation who has likes, dislikes, and has emotional needs of His own. And we have posited a God who doesn’t hesitate to “will” what satisfies those needs, even if it should conflict with the laws of nature/God as we know them.

If you ask many of the Jews in the West Bank settlements, God has willed that Jews control all of Judea and Sameria, for the Jews are the “chosen people.” If you ask many of the militant Muslims in the West Bank “occupied territories,” God has willed that Muslims seize back all the land they once possessed, for it is they who practice the only perfect religion, which is based on the only uncorrupted Scripture. And if you ask many of the Christians who live in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, it is only they and their fellow Christians who will occupy the Kingdom of Heaven – for everyone else, there is purgatory or worse.

To the modern mind, this sort of chauvinism is extremely dangerous. Surely, something must be held responsible, and who not God? To the modern atheist, it is the notion of God, above all else, that is at the heart of our problems. It is that notion that allegedly divides us into groups of fanatics and precludes us from working together in harmony.

Sorry, but I beg to disagree. I see nothing about the idea of the divine that needs to divide people. That idea arguably entails the belief in transcendence. But what does that have to do with killing people or stealing their land? There’s nothing about positing a Supreme Being that needs to make one group feel that they are closer to this Being than others. In fact, the more we focus on God – not what God has supposedly said to our ancestors, but the idea of divinity itself – the more we see a potential source of social UNITY.

Far from thinking that religious people focus too much on God, I’m increasingly convinced that they focus too little. Oh, they might say “Adonai” or “Allah,” but the being they’re referencing is anything but the ineffable, transcendent, omnipresent God revered by the great philosophers. Instead, most religious people focus on God as a character in the holy books – those are the books that purport to speak for God -- and turn Him into an actor on the world stage, an actor who is frequently as human as they come. That’s where we get the source of chauvinism. And resentment. And fanaticism. And yes, violence.

The holy books themselves are not the problem. Quite the contrary -- they are majestic, if read poetically, metaphorically, and as guideposts for moral virtue. But increasingly, we are living in a world where they are either read literally or disdainfully. Hence, the polarization.

As I contemplate my next Muslim-Jewish dialogue on Sunday, I can’t help but recall the previous one from last month. It was supposed to focus on the topic of how the idea of God can become a source of social unity. Curiously, though, few people wanted to stay on topic. For some of the Jews in the room, “God” is but a mythical being who isn’t worth talking about. For some of the Muslims, “God” is an author of a book (the Qur’an) that must be read as literal truth from start to finish … including the numerous portions about Hellfire. How, I ask, can we possibly find common ground between two such opposite poles?

I’ll tell you how – it’s all about listening to the sages, and reclaiming God as the Ineffable One. As long as we continue to speak for God based upon our Scriptures, the atheists and the fundamentalists will rule the day. But if we can resist the temptation to personalize God … if we can assume that God doesn’t act according to a human-like will or communicate with human prophets in clear language or visions … if we can agree with Spinoza that to compare God’s mind with our mind is like comparing the Constellation of the Dog with the animal that barks … if we can simply contemplate such words as divine unity, ultimacy, eternality, and infinity and associate those words with God, rather than such human emotions and faculties as love, will, patience, vengeance, or justice … then, perhaps, we can re-introduce into our lives a deity who is worthy of the name.

Let’s give it a try. The next time someone talks about God like they know all about Him because they read about Him in a book, just take a deep breath and contemplate the unity of Being, or the idea that we all reside inside of a single great Self. Something tells me those are not concepts that need to divide us … unless of course someone writes about them and tells you that only if you agree with what you read will your soul be saved. Therein lies the road to Hell if ever there were one.

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