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Does atheism exist?

Rabbi Yakov Saacks, The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY www.thechaicenter.com

Author of The Kabbalah of Life

AMERICAN ATHEISTS

Someone recently sent me a link to a pretty active organization called American Atheists headquartered in New Jersey. He asked me my opinion as to whether I think this is a good organization or not a good organization. My position as of late is not to engage with these types of questions. My opinion doesn’t really matter. In fact, I stopped listening to talking heads on the radio and cable because their opinions do not matter either. So, why bother. Plus, my degree, as well as my experience, is in the rabbinical and not atheism. Just as I would not comment on Buddhism, Taoism or Jainsim, I am not to comment on atheism.

TORAH/5 BOOKS OF MOSES

The question did get me thinking as to what the Torah says about atheism. The Torah, according to Maimonides, classifies the command to believe in God as an obligation, as stated in the first line of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.” Other scholars state that this is not an obligation but rather a given, and is therefore not to be included in the sum of biblical commandments.

Upon delving further, I found something remarkable. While there are 50 commandments in the Torah denouncing idolatry, there is no specific commandment denouncing atheism. The focus of the Torah is more on don’t worship false gods rather than how dare you not worship me. Take a look at a verse in Jeremiah, which states: “They have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah.” To which the Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, a 5th- to 7th-century Midrash, explains it to mean: “If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.” This essentially means that Judaism stresses deed way more than creed. As Nike’s slogan says, “Just Do It.”

ARE THERE ATHEISTS?

Upon further reflection and contemplation on the fact that the Torah does not denounce atheism while it emphatically does condemn worshiping false gods, I have a theory I would like to offer.

Perhaps the Torah does not believe that there is such a thing as true atheists. I am not referring to the quip, “there are no atheists in a foxhole.” I think the Torah does not believe that an atheist exists even when not in a foxhole.

You see, we all have to believe in something. Yes, everyone must have a greater cause to focus on outside of themselves. Even those who are completely selfish believe in something. Let me explain.

For those of you who believe in a God, you may stop reading these thoughts. For those who do not believe in a God, I would humbly suggest that you do, in fact, believe/worship something greater than yourself, but you may call it by a different name.

MONEY

We all know that money is worshiped by many. It is probably the greatest idol of our time. Even on the U.S dollar bill, it clearly reads “In God We Trust.” This is no coincidence. This was not put there just to pacify some of the old religious men during the Civil War.

THE TWO SIDES OF MONEY

The phrase “In God We Trust” teaches us two great lessons.

  1. Be careful lest you start putting the almighty dollar bill before God, family, state, country and morality. Many people work so much that they never participate in family affairs like nightly dinners or their kids’ sports competitions, etc. Likewise, treason can usually be traced to money. Think about this. A person is able to betray their country’s very safety for a few thousand dollars.
  2. The other lesson is that if you believe in God, then you do not need to resort to stealing money to survive. In fact, the very belief itself will (should) prevent someone from committing a theft as it is incongruous to believe in God, and at the same time trespass His commandments to get money. It makes no sense. If you act like this, then clearly you have not thought things through properly.

SELF WORSHIP

The other big contemporary idol would be self-worship. The Torah admonishes a successful person who claims that he/she is wealthy and effective either because of hard work, prowess, brilliance and the like. The Torah rejects this attitude as there is no room for God in this self-proclaimed success. Likewise, character traits such as ego and arrogance are not only putrid, they are also idol worship, because you only see yourself and there is no other cause other than you.

OTHER FORMS OF IDOL WORSHIP

There are of course plenty of other types of belief systems that swap the belief in what I call God with what they call god. Interesting to note, the following forms of idol worship are strictly because God was not included in the picture.

HOLOCAUST

Hitler was a pantheist who believed in the god of nature. He therefore believed in the superiority of one race over another. More so, he himself played the role of God. If you were a Jew, gypsy or homosexual you were vermin and therefore deserved to die. He along with others made that determination. When I think of Mengele’s thumb, I think of the Jewish prayer recited on Yom Kippur, who shall die and who shall live, which is attributed to God and God alone.

COMMUNISM/MARXISM

Stalin, Lenin, Mao & Marx may not have believed in God, but they did believe in their failed canon and defended this belief to death. They claimed that there is no God, and since there is no God, therefore, they suppressed and killed political dissidents and social classes (“enemies of the people”). There was religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, forced collectivization and use of forced labor in concentration camps. I don’t know about you, but to me, they replaced one God for another god, albeit very ungodly.

I could go on and on and on.

MY GOD

I would much rather believe in a God than in the idea of self-rule, because as we have seen empirically, when left to our own devices, we leave much to be desired.

As for the arguments that so many have been killed in the name of religion, I maintain that these killers, pillagers and rapists are not religious, they just look religious or talk religious. I would also remind you of this proven fact that between Stalin, Hitler and Mao, over 80,000,000 were murdered and slaughtered.

Don’t replace God with another “Ism,” as it is not a good substitute.

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About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.
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