Is atheism necessary for religion? Rabbi Zusya would say yes.
The great Russian chasidic rabbi, who lived more than 200 years ago, was one day teaching his students when he emphasized the necessity of atheism and agnosticism. His students were aghast. Had the master lost his mind? He proved his point. “Say you’re walking down the street and you see a hungry man or a homeless woman. If you’re certain there is a God your reaction might be ‘I need do nothing because God will provide.’ But if you don’t believe in God, or if you doubt his existence, then there is only you who can provide.”
Truth regardless of consequences Religion is the most powerful tool known to mankind. It is capable of inspiring the artistic wonders of the Italian Renaissance and the reliefs of Michelangelo, and it is capable of inspiring 19 young men to fly airplanes into buildings. It can lend mankind a vision of a perfect world in which “the wolf lies down with the lamb” and it can impart to the world a vision of people needing to be burned at the stake as infidels.
Without intelligent and earnest critics of faith, the heavenly vision of religion can easily spill over into the hell on earth. Hence, the necessity of atheism and agnosticism. I would argue that religion learns more about itself from its critics than it does from its admirers.
I have debated many atheists in my time, from Richard Dawkins to Daniel Dennett to Sam Harris to Christopher Hitchens. Of them all, Hitchens stands alone. He has by far been the most formidable and the most interesting opponent, the one I have most loved and the one that has most gotten under my skin. Religious people have no real interest in Dawkins, whom they find extreme, clinical, mechanical, and monolithic. But Hitchens is passionate, utterly unpredictable, contrarian, and fluent. And while at times he has been, in my opinion, highly unfair in his criticism of religion, he redeems it all by being all too human. It is his most likable quality. He is also supremely entertaining.
I believe this is the reason that my debate with Hitchens on Sept. 16 in New York City at the Cooper Union on “Is there an afterlife?” has generated considerable interest, particularly among religious people. The news that Hitchens has esophageal cancer and may be terminally ill has evoked sadness all around, particularly among the faithful. When I told my friends at the excellent Baron Herzog vineyards in California that Hitchens was ill, we all immediately decided to send him fine bottles of kosher wine so he and his friends could toast l’chaim, to life, for his recovery. Religious prayer groups for Hitchens’ healing have sprung up all over America.
Are the faithful praying for Hitchens’ recovery because they want to have enough time to convert him and win a great victory? Is it because they want a miracle in Hitchens’ life to open his eyes to God’s presence? I cannot say. I can only speak for myself.
I have no interest in converting Christopher Hitchens to religion. His atheism has not stopped him from being a singular champion of human rights throughout the world, and he can teach us religious people a thing or two about courageously standing up to tyrants. I am not so naÃ¯ve as to believe for a moment that Hitchens would be so intellectually dishonest as to suddenly change his antipathy toward religion because of the possibility of impending death. Only a coward would forsake his personal truth out of fear of death, and one thing Hitchens certainly is not is a coward. I am not a believer in religion-in-the-foxholes and deathbed conversions. Religion is too important to be embraced out of fear or trepidation.
Rather, what I intend with our debate is to finally dismiss this notion that religious people invented the idea of an afterlife out of a sense of weakness and insecurity. We’ve heard it all before. Religion is the opiate of the masses. It’s a drug that weak-minded people take to help them deal with the meaninglessness of life. They invented the afterlife because they couldn’t accept the finality of death. Then they invented God to give purpose and design to a fundamentally chaotic and unjust world.
The afterlife in Judaism is none of these things. It is not an escape from the flaws of this world or a reward for the suffering endured here. Any religion that promises an eternal reward for living righteously is better characterized as a business promoting celestial remuneration. Worship God so that he’ll pay you in the hereafter. Judaism certainly demands that we do the right thing because it’s right, and never for the consideration of any external reward.
Most Jewish sages understand the world to come as the world the way it will be when it reaches a state of perfection through human endeavor and God’s finishing touches – what we call the messianic era. Judaism’s focus is not on the heavens but on the earth, not on a disembodied existence in the sky but on souls animating bodies and doing good deeds here on earth. Our ground zero is not God’s celestial throne but the earth’s sacred spaces.
I have no intention of converting Hitchens to my religious point of view and do not believe I could do so even if I wished.
But I can convince Hitchens that his ideas about religious people are wrong: that we are strong rather than weak, focused on this life rather than the next, dedicated to healing the world rather than gaining entry into the heavens, fundamentally opposed to fundamentalists, extremely suspicious of any kind of extremists, and open to ideas – and criticism – from every quarter.
And that’s what Rabbi Zusya was trying to demonstrate in his story. Religious people learn how to serve God and humankind better from all they meet.