Email questioning Sanders’ Jewish faith ‘unacceptable,’ Wasserman Schultz says


Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee over leaked emails, denounced an exchange between staffers that proposed questioning Bernie Sanders’ belief in God.

“There was one very unfortunate, unacceptable, outrageous email exchange — that I was not a party to — that discussed using Senator Sanders’ faith, a faith which I share,” the Miami Herald quoted Wasserman Schultz as saying Thursday during a public address in Miami.

Wasserman Schultz was referring to an exchange, contained in the leaked emails, initiated by former DNC chief financial officer Brad Marshall.  In it he claimed that then-Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, is an atheist. Marshall suggested that this information could be used to undermine his campaign among religious voters like Southern Baptists.

Wasserman Schultz resigned the DNC post last month, days before the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, following complaints that such emails proved DNC bias towards the campaign of eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.

Marshall and two other DNC staff resigned earlier this week.

Sanders last month ended his bid to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate by endorsing Clinton. The Vermont senator is the first American Jew to win a major party primary.

Wasserman Schultz is in a race for re-election to the House of Representatives in her Florida district’s primary election on August 30 against Tim Canova, her Sanders-backed primary opponent and first serious challenger in more than two decades.

Wasserman Schultz denied that the DNC attempted to favor eventual nominee Clinton over Sanders. Some of the more than 19,000 leaked emails, apparently obtained by Russian hackers and published two weeks ago by the WikiLeaks website, showed party staffers discussing ways to hurt the Sanders campaign.

“I’m very proud of the primary nominating contest that we won — that we ran,” she told the editorial board of the Miami Herald. “We conducted the primary at the DNC according to the DNC rules.”

Leaked Democratic email indicates potential effort to smear Sanders as atheist


A top Democratic National Committee official reportedly suggested in May that “someone” should draw attention to Bernie Sanders’ atheist beliefs.

In an email leaked Friday by Wikileaks Brad Marshall, the DNC’s chief financial officer suggested that the party should “get someone to ask” about “his” religious beliefs, The Intercept reported.

“It might [make] no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief,” the message says, presumably referring to Kentucky and West Virginia. “Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”

The email does not mention Sanders, who was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, by name. However, he was the only Jewish candidate from either major party at the time and has repeatedly skirted questions about whether or not he believes in God.

Responding to a request for comment, Marshall said in an email to The Intercept, “I do not recall this. I can say it would not have been Sanders. It would probably be about a surrogate.”

The email was sent to DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda and Deputy Communications Director Mark Paustenbach.

It is not clear why a DNC staffer would be seeking to draw attention to a Democratic candidate’s quality that voters might find off-putting, particularly since the group is supposed to remain neutral until a candidate has been nominated.

Sanders, the first Jewish candidate to win a major-party presidential primary, officially dropped out of the race and endorsed Clinton earlier this month.

Letters to the editor: Atheism and Mendelssohn


Felix Mendelssohn Wasn’t Jewish

No need to twist history. Felix Mendelssohn is [repeatedly referred to in the Journal and online as being Jewish].

A Christian who converted to Judaism is not anymore a Christian, but a Jew. Similarly, Felix Mendelssohn, whose Jewish father Abraham Mendelssohn had converted to Christianity, was not Jewish. Felix Mendelssohn was not circumcised, and was brought up without religion until the age of 7, when he was baptized as a Reformed Christian. His funeral was held at the Paulinerkirche, the university church of Leipzig. Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather, the German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, was Jewish. Thus, Felix was Jewish only according to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws.

Edith Shaked Perlman, Los Angeles

An Atheist Answers Prager

I am not an “influential” living atheist, just a living one, but I am eager to respond to Dennis Prager’s column (“Two Questions for Atheists,” June 10). Do I hope if I am right or wrong? My hopes lie somewhere else. Do I ever doubt my atheism? No. 

Prager’s rumination actually supports the fundamental objection against the existence of Divinity: Man was not created by God but God was created by Man. Particularly in the early days of humans on Earth, understanding of nature and life was simplistic; religious tales seemed to be helpful in dealing with harsh reality. (Remember Marx, labeling religion as the “opium of the masses?”) Unfortunately, religion morphed from fairy tales into a tool of exploitation.

Our mind is advanced enough to instill big questions but still not advanced enough to find sufficient answers. What I hope for is better understanding of nature and myself. I accept only objective, observable reality (or materialism, to use a “dirty” word Marx also favored). Until I see undeniable evidence, I don’t have doubts. Since thousands of years were not enough to generate a shred of such evidence, I am not concerned about eating crow or earning Prager’s respect; I am not an agnostic but a proud atheist. 

Peter Hantos, Los Angeles

Letters to the editor: Orlando, Dennis Prager and atheism, Muhammad Ali and more


An Astute Reaction to Orlando

I’d like to thank Rob Eshman for his insightful response to the Orlando tragedy (“Pulse and Pride,” June 17). It had the merit of being the smartest and most comprehensive reaction I read this week, while remaining succinct and clear. He legitimately referred to the violent attack as an example of Islamic terrorism, but criticized the Donald Trump supporters’ unfair rhetoric against the general U.S. Muslim population. Eshman’s prescriptions for gun control were moderate and respectful to Second Amendment rights. His comparison to last week’s terror attack in Tel Aviv, and Israel’s response to it, was justified.

Guy Handelman, Sherman Oaks

Words That Were Left Out 

I am surprised that the quote you reported by Rabbi Michael Lerner speaking at the memorial for Muhammad Ali did not include his shameful comment that he stands shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians against the unjust rule by Israel (“Best of Our Blogs,” June 17). 

Jerry Freedman, Los Angeles

Atheists Are Unhappy — With Prager

Here is Dennis Prager’s statement of faith and ironically the reason that so many of us have become atheists: “For to know how awful the consequences of atheism are and still be convinced that there is no God is an unhappy fate indeed” (“Two Questions for Atheists,” June 10). 

To assume that atheists cannot possibly be happy and are deluded is a form of moral supremacism. Atheists have moved past that.

Larry Shapiro, Rancho Mirage

Why does Dennis Prager persist in peddling his discredited myth that because they don’t believe in God, heaven or hell, for atheists “there is no ultimate meaning in life,” no “objective morality” and “no ultimate justice in the universe”? Far more profound thinkers than Prager have long rejected the idea that there is no morality without religion.

The Dalai Lama has pointed out that “the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.” According to Albert Einstein, “Man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.” 

According to Greg Epstein, a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, to “suggest that one can’t be good without belief in God is not just an opinion … it is a prejudice. It may even be discrimination.”

Prager needs to practice what he preaches by extending as much tolerance and mutual respect to nonbelievers as he does to believers. It’s called the Golden Rule.  

Stephen F. Rohde, Chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, Los Angeles

Prager responds: To Mr. Shapiro: Regarding atheists and happiness, I stand by the common sense position that to care about human suffering yet be convinced that there is no beneficent God and no ultimate justice — so that, for example, the Six Million and their murderers have identical fates — must make any sensitive human being unhappy. If it doesn’t, there is something wrong with the person’s heart.

To Mr. Rohde: When I debated the subject of God and ethics at Oxford University, the first thing the Oxford professor of morals, Jonathan Glover, an atheist, acknowledged was that if there is no God, ethics is subjective. I know of no serious philosopher who denies that. Thus, one of the greatest liberal philosophers of the 20th century, Princeton’s Richard Rorty, a nonbeliever, wrote that for nonbelieving liberals such as himself, “There is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’”

Finally, I have never written, implied or said that an atheist cannot be a good person. 

CORRECTIONS:

An article about a local Shavuot celebration (“A Shavuot All-Nighter at Temple Beth Am,” June 17) misidentified the congregation at which Charlie Carnow is a member. He belongs to Congregation B’nai David-Judea.

Due to a production error, an article by Scott Edelman and Jesse Gabriel (“Dependable Steps to Defeat BDS,” June 17) did not appear in its complete form. The full story is now online.

Two questions for Atheists


I have had the privilege of debating five of the top seven “25 Most Influential Living Atheists” as listed at SuperScholar.org:

No. 2: Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”)

No. 3: The late Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”)

No. 4: Daniel Dennett (“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”)

No. 6: Steven Pinker (“How the Mind Works”) 

No. 7: Michael Shermer, founding publisher of the Skeptic Magazine

Recently, however, I realized that I never asked any of them two questions that I would now ask before any other:

1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?

2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

The answers to those questions would tell me what I would most like to know about the person: how intellectually honest he is, and what motivates him.

To be sure, the answers to those two questions neither validate nor invalidate any atheist arguments. Atheist and theist arguments rise and fall on their merits, not on the motivations or personal characteristics of the atheist or the believer. But on a purely human level, their answers would enable me to understand the atheist as a person and as a thinker.

Take the first question: Do you hope you are right or wrong?

I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.

Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life. A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.

That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism. This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God. If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God? Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?

Now to the second question: Do you ever doubt your atheism?

A few years ago, the largest atheist organization in the United States, American Atheists, to its credit, invited me to Minneapolis to debate the head of the organization at its annual meeting. 

At one point, I looked at the audience and asked people to raise their hands if they ever doubted their atheism. Not one hand went up. 

I found this interesting, if not disturbing, and said so. Nonreligious individuals often accuse religious believers of not challenging themselves. And, depending on the religion and on the individual, that is often the case. Yet it would seem that believers challenge themselves more than atheists do. 

As I explained at the debate, I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God. When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?

I remember sensing that I had a struck a nerve.

So, then, while I still debate God’s existence with atheists, I do so in order that the audience will hear sound arguments for God’s existence.

But what really interests me — and I think should interest any believer or atheist — are the answers to these two questions. 

Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God” — do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism. I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person. 

But a sad one. For to know how awful the consequences of atheism are and still be convinced that there is no God is an unhappy fate indeed. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Atheism as my path to High Holy Days enlightenment


Not long ago, I was having lunch with a colleague and we got around to the almost-always-perilous subject of religion. He asked me how I define myself, and I said, “I’m Jewish. And an atheist.” He laughed and said, “No, really, what are you?”  

For my colleague, a non-Jew, one is either religious or an atheist. Even more baffling to him was when he learned that, as a totally nonreligious Jew, I helped found a synagogue (IKAR), am married to IKAR’s founding president and executive director, revel in the study of Talmud, celebrate Shabbat dinner every Friday night, attend services almost every Shabbat morning, and regularly vacation with my rabbi and her family. The fact that atheism hasn’t diminished my deep connection to the Jewish tradition, people or even practice seemed utterly incongruous to him. But hardest of all for my colleague to understand was how my evolution into atheism has actually enhanced my enjoyment of Judaism over the years. 

For most of my life, I comfortably identified as agnostic. God never made much sense to me on either a scientific or ethical level, yet I felt that to be an atheist implied a degree of arrogant certainty that I preferred to reserve for my strident politics. Nevertheless, opening the prayer book as an agnostic was a maddening and fundamentally alienating experience because I believed that, to be a good agnostic, I was compelled to remain open to the possibility of God. I would stand in the midst of earnest, shuckling Jews, searching the words of the Amidah, for example, for meaning: 

Blessed are You, Lord our God … the great, mighty and awesome God, exalted God, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for the sake of His Name.

The only meaning I could discern was that God was an insecure narcissist who doesn’t seem to merit the required exaltation — as evidenced by the dismal state of the world. All that forced love and fawning praise seemed like a theology of rigid obeisance to a needy and ineffectual deity, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to flee. Invariably, I’d put the book down and retreat to the lobby where the scotch (and politics) flowed liberally.  

At some point, however, my agnosticism evolved into full-blown atheism. This was not the result of a single epiphany but was, rather, the consequence of my accumulated experience of the state of the world and my deeper understanding of the science underlying the world. 

The effect of this evolution (or devolution, depending on whom you ask) has been nothing short of miraculous. No longer feeling that it was incumbent upon me, as a Jew, to find a way of embracing God, I am finally able to enjoy Judaism. And beyond that, once I liberated myself from the impenetrable language of the prayer book and its force-feeding of praise for a reckless and imperious deity, I was able to see something pure and, yes, even holy, in the communal engagement characteristic of great and compelling services. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous has often said that religion, at its best, is a call to allow oneself to experience awe. While I have no doubt that belief in God can be a catalyst for the appreciation of awe, awe can be experienced in a myriad of ways. And, for me, experiencing the power of a community rooted in and fueled by the ethical imperative embodied in the Jewish tradition has become one of my greatest sources of awe.     

With that in mind, services became a vehicle through which I could experience community in the purest sense, a space to share sorrow, gratitude and fear; a place to find fortitude, moral clarity and hope. The inevitably huge turnout of the High Holy Days only magnifies the intensity of that experience, especially when combined with the powerful call for self-examination and rededication to personal and communal responsibility that are the hallmarks of the holidays. 

I am galvanized and humbled by the extraordinary passion and possibility of a committed and intellectually serious community — so much so that it doesn’t even bother me anymore that some of my closest people and fellow IKARites are true believers. Indeed, I’m grateful that IKAR is strong enough to allow space for both the God-inspired and the godless.

Now, with God out of the picture, I’m finally able to have a truly religious experience.

Adam F. Wergeles is a Los Angeles technology lawyer and a co-founder of IKAR.

Shabbat without religion


How do you talk about Judaism in a way that's not too “Jewish”? How do you convey Jewish ideas to Jews who might get turned off by religious ideas? Is it possible, in other words, to talk about the Jewish religion in a nonreligious way?

Those questions were on my mind last Friday night when I was asked to speak to a group of Jews who had gathered for a wedding weekend. Because many of them were disconnected from the Jewish religion, I thought: Why disconnect them even more? A “religious” talk on the parasha of the week would surely have risked doing that.

Still, I confess, I had an agenda. I wanted every nonobservant Jew in the room to come out of the evening thinking: “Wow, we ought to try this Shabbat thing ourselves once in a while. It was quite enjoyable and it made a lot of sense — religious or not.”

Knowing that their minds were already tainted by the idea of anything too “religious,” I had to find ideas that transcended religious language. 

So, I focused on two ideas: gratitude and peoplehood.

The gratitude part was easy. I spoke about the annual American ritual of Thanksgiving and how Shabbat took that great idea and made it a weekly ritual.

The weekly Shabbat meal, I said, was a time to gather with family and friends and thank our Creator for all our blessings. No matter how difficult or complicated our lives can be, Shabbat comes to remind us that there are always reasons to be grateful.

I could see many heads nodding. Gratitude is one of those great universal ideas. And a meal of gratitude works on so many levels: It brings families together, adds warmth to our homes and injects meaning into our lives. How can anyone be against that?

By the time I brought up specific Shabbat rituals — lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, the blessing over wine, washing our hands, blessing the bread, etc. — each ritual glowed under the umbrella of a universal idea.

The rituals were not in the service of “religion,” but in the service of the human idea of gratitude.

The next part is where it got trickier, because I connected the rituals to Jewish peoplehood.

Why was this tricky? Well, because Jewish peoplehood can easily be interpreted as a religious idea. If Jews gather to do religious things like pray in synagogues and make blessings at a Shabbat table, doesn't that mean that being Jewish is, first and foremost, a religious idea?

And if I'm not crazy about the idea of “being religious,” why should I be crazy about belonging to a people that worships religion and religious rituals?

So, I decided to go Hollywood and speak about a mind-blowing miracle: How is it possible that the Jewish people could be scattered around the globe for about 1,900 years — since the destruction of the Second Temple — and then, when they finally meet up in a place like, say, Pico-Robertson, they discover that they're all still using the same holy words?

How could it be that after not seeing one another for 1,900 years, we're still reciting the same blessings at the Shabbat table and reading from the same Torah? How is that possible?

“We probably do more editing in one day at The Jewish Journal than the Jews have done to their holy texts in 2,000 years,” I told them, only half in jest.

Again, I saw many heads nodding. The idea that we were all there, gathered at a Shabbat table, doing what our ancestors have been doing for centuries, was not a sermon or a religious idea.

It was simply a moving historical fact.

I spoke about how, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews became a “people of software rather than hardware,” and how the Shabbat table became the weekly centerpiece of this idea, serving to honor “software” ideas like gratitude, holiness and family togetherness.

The rituals of the Temple evolved into the rituals of the Shabbat table, and without this Shabbat table, it's hard to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived.

Our gathering on that Friday night, then, was a continuation of this miraculous story of survival.

The two ideas had merged: We were gathered in a joyous atmosphere to express our gratitude for all our blessings, and one of those blessings was the very idea of Shabbat.

In the same way that the Shabbat ritual has helped to protect and nurture individual Jewish families, it has helped to protect and nurture the Jewish people for centuries.

And, as far as I could tell from all the head nods, you didn't have to be too religious to appreciate that miracle.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

A Moderate Proposal


On Wednesday evening, Nov. 12, I was the moderator of a debate between author Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills. As some 1,500 people filed into the grand space, the rabbi, Hitchens and I sat in a small, plain green room backstage, chatting.

The subject of the evening’s debate, sponsored by American Jewish University as part of its annual Celebration of Books, was: “Is Religion Good for the World?” Hitchens wrote the massive best seller, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” and Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote a just-released rejoinder, “Why Faith Matters.”

But in the green room we talked politics. Hitchens reported on a breakfast he had taken earlier that week with Army Gen. David Petraeus. Hitchens held forth on Osama bin Laden, on the chances of an Israeli preinauguration strike on Iran, and he was brilliant — lucid, deeply sourced and quick with historic parallels. When you have Hitchens, you don’t need Wikipedia.

The start of the event was running late — did I mention it was a Jewish event? — and midway through our green room conversation, Hitchens pulled out a small bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. He emptied it into a 16-ounce clear-plastic cup and drizzled in some Crystal Geyser spring water. And he began sipping.

All this took place with his back almost completely turned, not quite hidden, but not exactly out in the open. If he had offered me a touch, I would have been happy to oblige, but he gave the sense this wasn’t convivial, it was medicinal.

Hitchens brought the cup onstage, tucking it under his podium as Wolpe went first, holding forth on the value of religion.

As the debate finally got under way, it went into the comfortable cul-de-sacs where these debates tend to end up.

There was Wolpe, who opened by saying religion — a sense of God — ennobles us as humans, lets us know we are not alone and that something greater is demanded of us.

Hitchens went after the God-is-just argument.

“If there is a just God, why do people tremble about things? If God were just, everything would be proportional,” he said.

As for religion improving us, Hitchens began to categorize every atrocity committed in the name of God, from human sacrifice to the stoning of a 13-year-old rape victim for “adultery” in Somalia earlier in the month.

This led to the second cul-de-sac, where each speaker marshaled evidence to prove that his side wins because it massacred somewhat fewer people.

Wolpe recounted the atheistic regimes of Hitler and Stalin and averred that the anti-slavery movement had its roots in the Bible.

Hitchens argued that 20th century fascist movements were synonymous with right-wing Catholicism, that Hitler and Stalin had their roots in religion and that the Bible smiled on slavery.

“Overcoming badness does not require religion,” Hitchens said. “How do we end slavery? We invoke humanism. It is much more noble, logical and ethical, as opposed to a supernatural totalitarian, a celestial dictator.”

There was also the morality cul-de-sac, with Wolpe claiming religion spurs moral action and Hitchens countering that there is no good action a religious person takes that a secularist couldn’t, but plenty of cruelties carried out in the name of religion that an atheist would have no part of.

Space does not permit me do justice to both men’s arguments or eloquence here. You need to see the entire debate online — Jewish Television Network filmed it, and www.jewishjournal.com has a link to it.

The problem for me is that the arguments seemed to be about the fringes, while most people live in the center. Hitchens was attacking religious fundamentalism, not religion, and Wolpe was forced to defend all of religion, when his intellect and heart (and book) are more at ease defending its more common, moderate manifestations.

Hitchens asked Wolpe whether he prefers that a child born in Saudi Arabia today grow up a Wahabi Muslim or an atheist.

“The choices are not only between atheism and religious fanaticism,” Wolpe said. “An average approach in the Saudi Arabian example is to be a moderate Muslim and influence Saudi Arabia for the better.”

“That is a warm and fuzzy sentiment,” Hitchens said.

“It is not just about atheism or being a Conservative Jew,” Wolpe countered. ” There are other choices.”

Isn’t there a middle ground? I asked both men. What’s wrong with moderate religion? With liberal Judaism?

“For one thing,” Hitchens said, “there is not enough to argue with.”

He went on: “I look for contradiction and polarization, not common ground. It is how we learn. Thinking requires confrontation, which brings intellectual combat. Heat produces light.”

Wolpe offered up a brief defense.

“Pluralistic and democratic religious societies are good,” he said. “They lead to more stable families and more charitable behavior. Religion works.”

But Hitchens was rolling his eyes, ready to get on with the post-debate book signing.

By then, he had drained his tumbler, with nothing to cut the booze but a half-empty bag of trail mix he pulled out of his coat pocket and nibbled on during the proceedings. His face, which struck me when I first met him that night as preternaturally youthful for his 60 years, had become blotchy and loose. His temper changed, too, from the erudite discussant in the green room to testy, coarse, impatient.

You could say it’s because the man’s a genius and doesn’t suffer fools, but I had been just as much the fool an hour earlier in the green room.

Nope. Hitchens looked like he’d gotten himself crocked.

Evidently, moderation is not something Hitchens finds worthy — in religion or in Scotch.

Religion: The ‘first and worst’ explanation


Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning.

“Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.”

To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed — or actually insisted upon — that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister.

For Sir Isaac Newton — an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-papist — the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian, as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about evolution and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued — though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it — that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

How true is this on a second look or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct in Africa 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan.

Which design or designer made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan or planner determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous and even cruel.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it. They cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was once the prerogative of the pope and the witch doctor, but now it’s gone.



Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books



This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism, not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence.

It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear.

This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This, of course, is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates, we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of “God Is Not Great” and the editor of “The Portable Atheist.” This piece was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation as part of an essay series that can be found at http://www.templeton.org/belief.

Agnostic about atheism


Albert Einstein’s letter, containing a short rant about God and the Bible, sold recently for 25 times its expected price — thanks, in part, to professional atheist Richard Dawkins being one of the unsuccessful bidders.

It’s long been said that religion is a racket. Sales figures of other anti-God rants — much longer than Einstein’s letter to Eric Gutkind — suggest that atheism may be catching up. But is it good for the atheists?

As we know, it helps to have a book in circulation. Dawkins’ recent work, “The God Delusion,” is nowhere near as big as the Bible, but shifting 1.5 million copies is more than respectable. Book sales have a legitimizing effect. It’s not just the growing number of readers who may be converted by a polemic. Monetary success confers an impressive, almost magical, aura.

If atheism’s a commercial success, associated with a certain kind of high-flying, worldly proselytizer, we may yet see the advent of an atheist sect — reclusive ascetics who wish to distance themselves from the more ostentatious nonbelievers. Atheist sects? Not as crazy a concept as you might think. In New York, there has even been talk of a “church” — a physical house of nonworship — for atheists. Start a church and, even if you remove all mention of God, a schism seems inevitable.

What would Einstein do? His views on religion can’t be summed up in one letter. They were, in some respects, inconsistent. Religion being what it is — huge, ancient, diverse — only the fanatical or the very dim can have a consistent response to its existence. Einstein found religion “childish” but described atheists as creatures who, harboring a grudge, were resistant to “the music of the spheres.” In other words, resentful puritans.

For it is not only Einstein’s “music of the spheres” but music in general that must be tossed out when you refuse to appreciate religion. If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.

Whether your preference is Bach, Britten, Palestrina, Kanye West or Earth, Wind and Fire, you’ll find some aspect of Christianity in the details. But reggae — such as The Melodians doing Rivers of Babylon, based on a psalm of the exiled Jews — can’t easily be separated from religion, either. Run from religion, if you must, but you can’t hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food.

Given that the influence of religion over the centuries has made them what they are, I can’t help seeing something crude in the impulse for some to bash it. As a “cafeteria” atheist and secular Catholic, I don’t share that impulse. Religion has given us some rather fabulous architecture, a lot of excellent paintings, a variety of head coverings — from yarmulkes through wimples, veils and turbans — which I, for one, find fascinating.

Religion has often been the engine of tourism from which the laity could benefit. All sorts of people made a good living from pilgrims traipsing through Europe to check out the relics of the latest hot saint. Today, some of these pilgrim routes attract eager non-believers, as do many cathedrals and churches. For many tourists, the Way of St James pilgrimage route across the Pyrenees is an exercise in self-improvement through education, a recreational history lesson rather than a form of piety. Religion has staying power because it can adapt.

I enjoy pilgrimage sites as much as I enjoy sampling the obsessive-compulsive cuisine born of a strict religious diet. (I might be wrong, but something tells me Dawkins is not a world-class foodie.) When food is part of learning about the world (and how other people live), almost anything is worth trying once.

Take a look around New York and you’ll realize that halal is the new kosher. In Manhattan, the Jewish restaurants on West 72nd Street (one for meat, one for dairy) have disappeared — while halal pushcarts, dotting the midtown sidewalks, service the city’s office workers.

Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It’s as though they’ve just discovered God doesn’t exist, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy nonbelievers gets on his or her soapbox. Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have helped me to understand how a genteel Anglican must feel about some of those “other” Protestants. As athiests become more strident, a new snobbery arises — or a schism, so sects aren’t out of the question.

Some of us are too delicate for evangelical excess. Whether it’s atheistic or religious, we find it embarrassing. Yes, religion can be abusive, and we’re often told that religion causes war. When people kill each other in the name of religious identity, it’s sickening. If I thought evangelical atheism could end violence, I would be happy to tolerate the embarrassment factor. But I’m not convinced it can.

Hitchens, declaring that “god [sic] is not great,” seems to have designed this phrase expressly to piss off the worshipful. Religion might be childish but so is a show of disrespect. If we’re so comfortable in our nonbelief, do we need to go around nettling the believers?

While finishing my third novel, I faced a dilemma: whether to capitalize the G in God when referring to the Christian deity. God is more of a concept than a being to me, but the lowercase “god” suggested by Hitchens just didn’t look right. If Nancy, Allison and Jasmine (fictional prostitutes in my novel) require the uppercase treatment, it seems democratic to do likewise for God, who is also a product of the imagination.

As a central character in so many other stories, God has legs, but I am not here to defend God’s greatness. Or legs. I prefer to say that God … is just OK.

Tracy Quan’s latest novel is “Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl.” Her first, “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl,” is being developed into a television series for HBO. She has also written for Cosmopolitan, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.