Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

What Atheists Get Wrong

On the “debate” whether God exists, only one thing is certain: there is no complete proof that the Almighty exists and there’s no complete proof that “He” doesn’t. Of course, this doesn’t mean that either side hasn’t tried to convince the other. For most of history, the religious attempted to proselytize the pagan, “other-side believers,” and/or non-believers. More recently, the atheist proponents have gone on the attack against religious belief. It is the latter that I will address here.

I’ll start with a “parable” – or mental exercise, if you will. Mr. Cohen has suffered for a long time from general pains in his body. His doctors, having performed every conceivable exam, are stumped. There is no medical reason for his pain, but as Mr. Cohen is otherwise a respected person and not prone to hyperbole nor a complainer in general, there’s no reason to believe that the pain is a figment of his imagination. With nothing else left to offer, during the latest visit his family doctor turns to Mr. Cohen and says: “Here’s a new drug that just came on the market, precisely for your type of idiopathic pain. It worked for 90% of the trial patients. It’s worth giving it a shot.”

Mr. Cohen leaves the doctor’s office. On his way out, he bumps into an acquaintance, Mr. Levi who asks why he’s there. After relating his issue, Mr. Levi says: “Don’t believe the doctor. I had something similar awhile back and he told me exactly the same thing. It’s a placebo – doesn’t really do anything.”

What should we think about Mr. Levi? At best, misguided; at worst, malicious. Why? Because we do know that for many people placebos do work remarkably well, so why spoil the chance that it would help Mr. Cohen too?

From here we return to the issue at hand. Almost every sentient human being suffers from some form of existential angst – an emotional pain. There are two related, primary reasons for this: 1- our eventual death; 2- the meaning(less) of life. As homo sapiens (thinking wo/man), we are blessed and cursed by our ability to think deeply and analytically about our world, as opposed to the rest of the animal kingdom that basically lives in the here and now without the ability for “philosophical” thought.

How to overcome such existential (psychological) pain – no less debilitating than physical pain? Where to find “meaning” in life?

There are two levels in which we can find or create such “meaning.” At the day-to-day level, by finding “meaning” in our work, or our interpersonal relationships, or some other project in which we can immerse ourselves (e.g., philanthropy). That’s adequate for when we are actively involved in such endeavors, but other times the angst can set in at any time.

Religion serves as a marvelous placebo – on both levels. First, many religions offer the promise of an afterlife, so that death is not “the end.” Second, with an all mighty God (the Almighty), there is “someone” who imbues the entire universe with meaning – even if we cannot know exactly what such “meaning” involves. Believers can rest assured that despite their not knowing the underlying nature of the “Meaning of it All” (God’s response to Moses regarding who He is: “I will be what I will be” – intriguingly amorphous), Meaning does exist.

Why, then, should atheists want to pull the rug from under religious belief when it seems to be so essential for the psychological/spiritual health of most of humanity? Indeed, the fact that religion (or other meta-supernatural forms of belief) has been (and remains) so prevalent throughout world history is proof enough of its utility to masses of human beings.

Interestingly, atheists might actually be more “courageous,” given their ability and willingness to stare into the abyss and continue living with their “surety” that there’s no bottom. But courage in one person does not mean that it can be foisted on others (similarly, believers shouldn’t try to “convert” the unbeliever). Each deals with this core question of existence in a different way.

To repeat, none of this is to say that God actually exists, that there’s really an “Afterlife,” or that in the final analysis the universe has some sort of Meaning. It might well not have any of these; it might also have all of them. Both positions cannot be proven – and most probably never will be. But if “belief” in and of itself provides great succor to myriads of humans, when there are no other effective forms of “medication” for existential angst, then let the believers be.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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