God, without religion

Scandalous apostasy? John Lennon famously “Imagine[d]” no religion. So let’s step back and ask, if religion did not exist, can God Himself possibly be said to exist? In other words, can we have the essence, while having abandoned the process of religion?

Perhaps we wake from a deep sleep every morning, rub our eyes, and simply say: “Blessed art Thou, Lord God of the Universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day”. In this proposed scenario, we say these words without intending any additional daily ritualistic observance. No nationalistic expression of our “Chosen” status (that we are preferentially chosen by God from all the peoples of the world). No need to believe in the inevitability of a World To Come, or a Messiah. No obligatory and formulaic expression of one’s (or a community’s) love for or fear of God. No belief system that insists that God is far more than a First Cause. No required acceptance of the authenticity of Scripture. Just basically, “Thank You God for what You have done for me in having brought the world into existence, and me personally to this day. I’m with You in my heart and soul, intent on scrupulously exhibiting moral behavior, as understood in today’s world, in every single interaction with mankind – a mankind whom You Alone created.”

Indeed, what if people who believe in God engage in a simple, albeit somewhat more demanding, deism – a belief that there is a Supreme Being who, in fact, created the Universe (“First Cause”), but doesn’t currently engage or interfere in the world’s, or mankind’s, activities or interactions. And, most critical here, a God who doesn’t demand any form of fealty or obeisance to Him. Imagine: No religion! Indeed,, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a true believer in religion, in discussing Gnosticism eloquently acknowledges, “religion can make us indifferent to the world . . . because this [unlike in the World to Come] is not where God is found.”

At some point in time, Observant Judaism concluded that those of this world who are not Jewish, could enter the World To Come even if they don’t believe in God. The Noahide Code – the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah – required only this: that the adherents 1) not profane God’s oneness, or engage in idolatry ; 2) not curse God; 3) not murder; 4) not eat the limb of a living animal; 5) not steal; 6) harness and channel the human libido; and 7) establish courts of law and ensure justice in the world.

Curiously, although Observant Judaism doesn’t believe that Jews can enter the World To Come by complying merely with these seven laws that ostensibly comprise the foundational elements of a civilized society, it does indeed believe that non-Jews can. Basically, that those adherents to deism, along with just a few particularized rules which require no acts whatsoever of Talmudic or ritualistic observance, are welcome to comfortably sit alongside the “Chosen” in heaven.

But from where does all of this come? For those who accept the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God, all that it says regarding God’s interaction with the sons of Noah is, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you” (Genesis 9:9). It is only man’s word, or (shall I call it) elucidation that determines the precise details of that “covenant” as being the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah. Man, Jewish man, (apparently) decided for itself the status in the Afterlife, not only of Jews, but also that of Gentiles.

Meaning, our religion somehow allows itself, arguably arrogates to itself, the ability to conclude that non-Jews – even with no affirmative belief in God or adherence to adhere to the so-many canons to which we are obligated – can enter the World to Come. More pertinent here, though, Gentiles don’t seem to be required to believe in religion at all. Simply put: Don’t worship idols, don’t curse God, and conduct yourselves as should a civilized society, and you go to the World to Come. Not bad, huh? No sacrifices, no Passover, no kashruth, no shatnes, no prayer, no need to even thank God for anything including life itself: “Imagine [as Lennon put it] no religion, it’s easy if you try!”

But maybe there’s something different at stake. Maybe there are those who don’t believe in religion but believe that God does indeed intervene, interact or even interfere in the conduct of the world. And, for them, whether or not God does acts one way or the other in response to their prayers or actions, He does listen to the prayers of those who believe in or pray to Him holding that belief. For them, God requires no obeisance, but rather He simply responds by His actions if He chooses to. For these individuals, God may simply have an “I Thou” relationship with them – God and the individual communicate with each other in which they believe. There is no architecture, no apparatus, no demands of a religion to intrude on what exists between them. Perhaps, you might say, a religion of its own.

It may be, at bottom, that there is great benefit in worshipping – at least, recognizing – God in personal relationship with you, without all the rest that other religionists from our distant past, and even now, have sought to impose (yes, “impose”) on us. Especially in troubled times when adherents to traditional organized religion have chosen to throw stones at those who don’t believe in (honor) God in the identical way they do, not to mention those of different religions altogether, maybe there is great merit in simply honoring God in our own distinctive, individualized way.

We should probably try once in a while to throw off for a spell the more ritualistic process of the organized religion that we’re a part of, and just be alone with God. It would be interesting indeed to see what remains for us individually. Will we – will that relationship with God – be worse for it? Or better? Talk about apostasy in even proposing it!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, Slate and Huffington Post). He teaches Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein, a Stroock colleague, assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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