At our Shabbos table last week, my husband Zev and son Izzy were reminiscing about the time they saw a debate between Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and an Israeli “atheist,” a woman whose name neither Zev nor Izzy could remember.
“But I do remember that she was brilliant,” Zev recalled.
“How could an atheist be brilliant?” I asked in all seriousness. The words just sort of came out.
Izzy, who loves to debate as much as I dislike it, laughed at the ridiculousness of my comment: “C’mon, Mom, you don’t think there are brilliant atheists?”
“I’m sure they’re brilliant people, but there are two things they have no answers for: where that primordial stuff came from and how it came to life.”
“You can’t prove that G-d did all that,” he continued in passionate defense of atheists everywhere. “Did you ever see G-d?”
“G-d’s not physical,” I answered him. I sounded calm but I could feel my back stiffening. I remembered all over again why I hate debates.
But I also don’t like to lose.
A few minutes later, when I reached from behind Izzy to collect his salad plate, I whispered to him, “I know G-d exists.”
“What can an atheist know? Aren’t they the true believers?” I asked my son Mordy as we walked into the kitchen.
Mordy’s answer was simple: G-d wants people to have bechira, free choice, which means that an equally compelling case can be made either “for” or “against” the existence of G-d in the world.
So I tried this week to learn more about what atheists believe. Google indicates that they are a diverse group with many different beliefs and several brilliant, outspoken advocates. What appears to unite them is their universal dislike for “religion.”
But to the degree that religion is mindless dogma followed by rote, I agree with them. Whatever we choose for our life construct, “living” it and “believing” it are inextricable, each strengthening the other. And if our life construct doesn’t lead to increasing satisfaction, if we’re not energized to “live” what we “believe” and vice versa, then why wouldn’t we change that construct?
Because it’s easier to be “religious.”
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has spent decades proving that our physical bodies respond to what our minds “believe,” so it behooves us all to choose our beliefs wisely. Especially because, once we believe something, she says, we tend to continue believing it.
And then it becomes a challenge to “live,” that is, to experience new phenomena happening around us.
If atheists experience joy and purpose from “living” as atheists, whatever that means to them, their beliefs have served them well. If not, their anti-religion is just like any other religion.
So how do we know if we’re truly “living” our beliefs or if we’re just being religious? And who’s to judge? Oh, and, of course, does any of this really matter?
I guess it all depends on what we believe.