There are very good people who claim that they are agnostics or atheists. They cannot see any reason to believe in God, or they seriously doubt His existence.
However, they are greatly disturbed by this question, for they feel that they are missing something fundamental. Firstly, a higher meaning to life. They complain they have no rituals, or festivals that stand for a higher purpose, no religious gatherings in a synagogue or church where they may feel that there is more to this world than what meets the eye.
This void darkens their lives, and they feel depressed. They would like to be religious but cannot convince themselves to adopt a theist worldview.
I meet many people like this and I see their pain, which is sincere.
Although I am not sure the following is entirely true for all of them, and I am probably overlooking certain issues, here are some insights.
The main cause for their denial of or doubt in the existence of God is that reason does not offer these good people sufficient grounds to believe in God. Sometimes their reason moves them in the opposite direction from belief in God.
I believe that it is most important to realise that reason is not the way to go. There are certain matters in life that surpass reason.
Reason, no doubt, plays a most important role in our lives but it has its limits. There are many matters that play a crucial part in our lives which reason is incapable to penetrate because these matters belong to a totally different category and have little to do with reason. Reason only enters the mind. Faith enters the whole human being and makes us experience the awareness of awe.
I cannot explain why I love my wife, why I am deeply impressed by nature, why I’m moved by music, why the sky at night with its millions of stars overwhelms me, or why I am overcome with emotion when holding a newborn baby with all its tenderness and sweetness. I also do not know why at times my conscience tells me that certain things are morally wrong although I do not have a good reason to justify this instinct.
All these experiences are extraordinary and belong to an all-together different category than what reason can touch or relate to. It is rooted in the fact that something within us creates a need ‘to look up’, an awareness of that which is radically different. Something we cannot define. Words fail us. These feelings and emotions are ineffable. However, all these sentiments make our lives warm, and romantic, and they are capable of lifting us out of our down-to-earth experiences, which are often cold.
Awareness of something higher is shared by every human being – religious, atheistic alike. Should someone maintain they have no such feelings they are probably in denial because these feelings are the very stuff of which we are made. We may have killed these feelings, but they were surely there when we were young. One matter which nearly every atheist will experience is love, and yet, he/she cannot explain this experience by rational means, and no reason can prove or deny it – however, it is as real as anything can be.
We have an inborn awareness for hope and joy. It is a need for a relationship that surpasses us, without which we will be alone – which is one of the worst conditions a human being can experience. But we cannot explain why this is so.
Nothing of all of this can be proven, and therefore, disproven. Reason stands helpless. To ask why we have this feeling is the wrong question. Because asking “why” presumes an answer, however, it is vital that the very unexplainable mystery behind all this remains inexplicable. After all, every answer deals a deathblow because it stops us from searching further, and it is the search that is of vital importance. Indeed, some will argue that this mysterious encounter is purely a psychological or neurological necessity, yet, the question is why we have this psychological need. Where does it come from? We have no real answer. To say it is a brain state is no answer: why is there such a brain state?
The concept of the God idea is born from this mysterium? For the rationalist this is a primitive tale because he/she will always lead it back to the intellect. Yet it is the intellect (reason) which limits the human being’s view. It incarcerates it within the bars of intellectual speculation, while the truth is that it surpasses it by far.
Nothing about God is certain. The concept of “God” alludes to the unknown, and it is for this very reason that it is so appealing. God is an inner image, a reflection of a feeling and experience that stays unexplained – and must stay unexplained.
That is why rituals are of outmost importance. Their purpose is to make us aware of the se deep feelings that are often deeply embedded in us, and only through the ritual become more tangible. There is no other way to get to them; they reveal a dimension in our lives which we are otherwise not aware of.
Whether ritual reveals the biblical God to us, or just a “God idea,” a higher dimension of our life, or some kind of meaning is very individual. Whatever the significance, it cannot be argued against or in favor of. But what seems to be true for most people is that these rituals, or even prayers, or religious or spiritual gatherings allow us to touch on the ineffable. Rituals fill our lives with a higher meaning and passion, and remove the feeling of emptiness. Therefore, they are of immense importance – even to the atheist.
I often tell Jewish and non-Jewish atheists who are searching for a religious dimension in their lives, to go to church or synagogue because these services will (when done with great awe) bring everybody in contact with the “mysterium magnum”, even if one does not believe in a personal God.
After all, there is more to life than what meets the eye.
We shall never know what the word “God” means, or whether He exists in the way we imagine. More than that, intellectually we cannot know whether God exists or does not exist. After all, it is a question that surpasses the intellect, like love, passion and beauty, and so many other matters.
Even when the Torah speaks about God and tells us that He “speaks”, it is probably a metaphor for something much higher of which we human beings can only grasp a little. It is a higher “speaking” of which our speaking is a poor representation. We cannot do better than that. That is the meaning of the Talmudic statement that the Torah was written bilshon bne adam, “in the language of man”, i.e, in the language that man can understand; a kind of translation of a higher “speaking” (see also my booklet: The Torah as God’s mind, BepRon Foundation.)
Perhaps this not so important. What is important is that we live as if this so called “God” exists in whatever representation. It is what can make life meaningful. To reach Him is impossible and should be impossible. Consequently, proof or disproof are not only missing the mark, but they can do enormous harm for the person who is truly searching.
To live in doubt and keep searching is perhaps the greatest education. To be “certain” is easy and leads to boredom.
So, can God exist for the atheist and agnostic? Yes, as long as he/she can live with the awareness that God is a concept that cannot be grasped. The God idea is unreachable. He is unique beyond any human imagination. He can only be reached via a translation.
“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his power.” (Erich Fromm, Man for Himself)
While in the days of the Torah God was openly revealed, this is no longer the case and consequently we must judge all doubters and deniers favorably. (Chazon Ish, Yoreh De’ah, Hilchot Shechita 2:1)).
To be continued.