Judaism and Atheism 0

Today is the festival of Passover when Jews celebrate a legendary exodus from Egypt of their Hebrew ancestors under the leadership of an Egyptian prince named Moses. According to the legend, the Hebrews were slaves, and the Egyptian prince was really a Hebrew himself who had been adopted soon after birth by an Egyptian princess. Well, he had to be “re-adopted” somehow by the Hebrews because he it was (so the legend goes) who gave them the laws which bound them together as a nation and founded the religion of Judaism. It is, as all the world knows, a monotheistic religion based on an idea attributed to one Abraham, a Hebrew ancestor who, it is believed, had conceived it hundreds or possibly thousands of years earlier.

It may have been the case that an historical Moses did indeed lead a host of Hebrews out of Egypt, making common cause with them because  – as Sigmund Freud theorizes in his book Moses and Monotheism – he too was a monotheist; a faithful follower of Pharaoh Akhnaton, who had worshiped the sun as the only god, and whose cult after his death had been all but wiped out of history by the priests of the old, revived, polytheistic religion.

One of our founders and editors, C.Gee, has been discussing Judaism and Atheism with one of our readers, Aeschines, as comments on our post On religion (March 25, 2010). We think the discussion is so interesting that we are re-posting it on our front page today:

C.Gee: I regard Judaism as extremely important in the history of rationality. Judaism was the first step to atheism. By making an abstract God, and making him a law-giver (never mind that some of the particular laws were practiced in the region generally), and elevating the principle of obedience to law not man, it constituted a major victory for rationality over superstition, and paved the way for the national, secular, polity. As science progresses, God the law-giver and creator, can have his remit broadened to become God the giver of the laws of nature. He becomes Spinoza’s God, identical with the universe, and thereafter may be ignored, leaving the universe to stand for Him, and then for itself. The two next Books of the [Jewish] Bible should be the Book of Spinoza and the Book of Einstein.

Aeschines: Just curious, but when do you think that Judaism started to influence thought towards atheism?

C.Gee: The idea of an abstract God began in Abrahamic times – 5000 or so years ago. That idea identified the Hebrew people. By the time Moses brought down the Law in God’s name, the Jews had accepted the authority of a God that was everywhere and nowhere (although with some idol-worship recidivism) and we had the beginning of a polity centered on responsibility to fellow men – righteousness to one’s people in God’s name – and an emphasis on how to live this law-abiding life. The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God. Christianity kept the idea of an abstract God, although its immediate object of worship was an idol of God-made-flesh, Jesus. That abstract, absentee God became useful to Christendom during the Enlightenment – precisely because he was absent. Deism was an accommodation with institutional religion for the growing number of people whose frame of mind was secular and scientific. Scientific inquiry could only be undertaken by those who had accepted that there were explanations for phenomena other than animating magic spirits. An abstract, one-time, singular animating spirit called God was a kind of systemic noise – an absent presence that did not interfere with the discovery of the mathematics of universal physical laws. That the Judaic God was a creator and a law-giver, could permit the discovery of His natural laws, in His creation. The Enlightenment was a time of proto-atheism. Further discoveries pushed the originating God further into scientific irrelevance, and secular politics has pushed the law-giving God into social irrelevance. With even the nominality of God now attenuated to vanishing, we are entering into the age of atheism.

Interestingly enough, a recent survey showed that 41% of Jews regard themselves as atheist.

Aeschines: Yes, but what do you think of the horrendous slaughters of native people by the Jews? I am of course referring to the Old Testament genocides and annihilations done in the name of God. The Jews in this regard don’t seem much different from many other religions of that time.

The Assyrians are regarded as “cruel,” but the Jews seem to escape this description, even though they tended to destroy EVERYTHING in their path (with the exception of virgin women, spared presumably for raping).

“The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God.”

Yes, but even a cursory examination of the Bible reveals Yahweh as a malicious, cruel, jealous, contradictory tyrant, much like many of the other gods of antiquity.

C.Gee: The ancient way of war was fierce – no matter in whose name the war was conducted. Even an abstract God can take on human characteristics in the retelling of legendary conquests boasting of the might and mettle of his people in establishing their national territory. (Who knows whether the early conquest by the Jews of those numerous peoples really happened? The Bible is often the only record of it.) But Yahweh had no statue, no location, no maw to feed with living human flesh – even though he was malicious, cruel, jealous, and contradictory. His abstract nature allowed him to be the God of War, of Law, of Creation, of the Hearth, of Everything. No doubt some of these personae conflicted with others, but then a nation must regulate itself in peace and conduct wars. It must sustain itself through Ecclesiastical exigencies. An abstract God is authority for all national endeavors, an unwritten “living” constitution. That constitution kept the nation together even when the territory of its homeland was lost. The idea of nationhood was coterminous with that of God. Belief in one could stand in for belief in the other. I think that many, many Jews now believe in the idea of their nationhood (even those among the diaspora ) and not God.

The Bible is not the constitution of the Jewish people. (It was not, in any case an original founding document, but written at various times ). It is a mythical and historical record and a statute book. Even if it is seen as the literal word of God, its interpreters do not take literally the passages where metaphorical or allegorical meanings must be sought to avoid nonsense. ( God was obviously a versatile speaker – could bark out directions, or hint enigmatically, as the occasion warranted.) Despite that, there is a whole sub-speciality of antisemitism claiming that the Bible is a “blueprint” for modern Israel’s cruel colonialist enterprise – what Joshua did at Jericho, the Zionists are doing to the Palestinians.

You seem to be implying, though, that atheists would not have conducted war, or conducted cruel wars. While no war has been fought in the name of atheism, there are rational justifications for war (conquest was – and still is, despite Geneva conventions – definitely one of them). There is nothing in atheism – the absence of a belief in God – that requires pacifism. There is nothing in atheism that precludes blood-thirstiness.

Posted under Atheism, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Monday, March 29, 2010

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