What do Atheistic Zealotry and Religious Zealotry have in common?
Not much. But this:
Both assume that religious individuals must have a fundamentalistic notion of what God wants from the religious person based on an inerrant view of text or an authoritarian interpretation unmoved by scientific evidence or conscience.
When famous atheist debaters are informed that not all religious people believe in this fundamentalistic kind of way, they often simply say, ‘Well, those religious people are just hypocrites or simply atheists who haven’t realized it yet.’
I beg to differ.
In our Torah portion, Moses speaks of the fact that the gentiles in our midst will be astounded by the nation of Israel primarily as the people whose God rescued us from a mighty nation and appeared to us, giving us good laws.
Sforno says that our rules are so smart that we’ll have answers for the Epicurians or non-believers; today they might be called atheists. So let me try.
If atheistic individuals agree with extreme religious individuals about what a believer is, the regimes based on their doctrines have a more sinister commonality.
Since we humans are evolutionarily wired to be spiritual, atheistic regimes tend to make their leaders into gods in the absence of a transcendent one. As a result, atheistic regimes are astoundingly barbaric, sometimes genocidal, with their own citizenry: Hitler’s Reich was the most famous genocidal atheistic regime in recent history. The USSR under Stalin murdered a comparable number of its own citizens. Mao oversaw the deaths of millions on his watch. Pol Pot murdered a third of Cambodia’s population and the only remaining significant atheist regime, North Korea, has imprisoned its people in abject misery. Dear Leader, indeed.
Extreme religious regimes simply assume they have God’s instructions on speed dial. They have idolized their own interpretations and have no humility about the power they wield in God’s name. They target those who are outside their theological tent whether citizens of their own commonwealths or outside it. The Islamic Shi’ite/Sunni battle seems to be a replay of the similar 500-year-old series of wars between Catholics and Protestants but with far more devastating weaponry.
Those who believe in God along with the humility that we will never completely be confident of God’s will are more likely to preserve periodic religious checks and balances against overreach. They will have to examine what they did in line with their wisest exponents, listening to the most difficult things they can hear from people they may disagree with, forging ahead as best they can.
In chapter 4 verse 8 Moses says, What great nation which has righteous decrees and laws, this entire Torah which I place before you. Abraham Lichtenstein’s Kanfe Nesharim notes the common rabbinic differentiation between Chukim, decrees without obvious rational import (like circumcision), Mishpatim, laws that most societies have because they make sense (Do not steal), but adds the idea that Torot, teachings are those which take us somewhere beyond, laws which transcend reason.
An example of the latter occurs in the midst of Moses’ retelling of the ten commandments which are largely identical to the ones in Exodus with one significant exception: Shabbat. In Exodus the emphasis is to remember the sabbath of creation and make it holy. In Deuteronomy it’s about making sure to keep the Sabbath laws, giving rest to one’s animals and servants. Scholars would say that these are two different versions of the oral ten commandments and one was placed earlier and one later. Traditionalists would say that God said both simultaneously but we could only hear them separately.
I think they both miss the point.
The first one is intended for the slave generation: Newly free, getting a taste of what it was like to create a new life out of chaos. The next generation was set to conquer Canaan and was given the responsibilities associated with taking on their own destiny.
Shabbat transcends reason and may be a small part of why the Jewish people have a disproportionate collection of Nobel prizes. It brings families together for meals at least once a week (there are studies which show that kids that have family dinners do better than others in similar socio-economic circumstances), daily education and a set of habitual behaviors which set us apart.
Let’s not squander it.