Two Beers and an Argument Please
There’s an old adage: do not discuss religion at parties. Having been burned a number of times, I tend to shy away from it, but am still a sucker for answering direct questions that are initiated by other people. One of the most complex, in my experience, is also the simplest: do I believe in God? I am never entirely sure how to answer this question and so I generally commence by telling them that I think they asked the wrong question. Things tend to go downhill from there.
You see, there are two ways of asking this question and, while the difference between them may appear innocuous, it is also rather staggering. “Do you believe in God?” is a question that relates to a belief in the existence of, and the actions and sayings attributed to, the main protagonist in the Hebrew Bible. I know this because the question lacks an article and so, when written, it would require the capital letter that designates it as a proper name. More often than not, however, people are really wanting to know whether or not I believe in a god. In other words, a prime mover; a first cause, responsible for creating the very notion of creation.
There is a world of difference between these two questions, and the difference is reflected in my answers to them. Do I believe in God? No, I do not. Not only do I think that all of the actions and speeches attributed to this character in the Hebrew bible belong within the realm of fiction, I also believe that any opinion that “he” expresses is the opinion of the authors of the text that records it. When God says that homosexuality is icky, that Canaanites deserve to die and that people who put cheese in their shwarma are bad people, what I have is a record of the sorts of thoughts and opinions that were current among particular communities of proto-Jews, over two thousand years ago. Do I have the immortal words of a eternal deity? Surely not.
Then, of course, there is the question that they meant to ask. Do I believe in a god? Do I think that the complexity of our universe, the complexity of reality itself, or – at the very least – the seeming complexity of our own minds in their appraisal of these phenomena, requires a deity? Perhaps it requires several deities, but that’s a scientific question, isn’t it? My answer is still no, but it’s now a different type of “no”: I don’t know whether or not there is a deity (or even an entire pantheon of gods, godlings and animal spirits) and, frankly, I also don’t really care. The nature of the creation of our universe, while fun to consider from time to time, is the occupation of physicists and surfies. The precise conditions under which our world came into being won’t interfere with my ability to catch a bus, sing a song, or eat a shwarma with cheese.
In other words, I believe with complete faith that even if this universe has a conscious creator, that creator did not write a book. I believe that it did not infuse certain individuals with a kind of cosmic fairydust that enables them to understand things hidden from us mere mortals. I do not believe that this deity chose a specific group of people, whose descendants (for no greater honour than having been born) would constitute the privileged few, destined to spread the word of the Lord throughout the earth. In fact, I do not even believe that these sorts of things can be believed by anybody except those who were raised in an environment conducive to their belief. Identification with such precepts is emotional and not intellectual, which is why almost everybody adopts the religion of their parents.
However, I believe very much in Judaism. I believe that the Hebrew Bible is a genuine work of literary creativity, and is deservedly famous as a result. I believe that many of our sages were genuinely inspired and genuinely inspiring. I believe that the religion that they created is a superb monument to the creative ingenuity of the human mind, and I think that any effort to cement it in a literal truth is stultifying. To paraphrase the late Douglas Adams, a garden can be beautiful and worthy of preservation without needing to believe that there are fairies in the bottom of it. Our texts, from the Bible onwards, are remarkable examples of human literature. To suggest that they were composed by gods, that they confer magical powers or that they presage the future would be like pointing to a garden and declaring it full of fairies.
Needless to say, I don’t really get invited to parties any more.