Many years ago, as I was putting my (then) 7-year-old, youngest son to bed, I was ready to relate another nightly story. But before I could start, he turned to me with a serious face and said: “Abba, I have something to tell you.” I thought to myself: “here comes a confession of some minor infraction; after all, Avihai didn’t like to lie.”
“What is it?” I asked, with an inner smile.
“God doesn’t exist,” he responded.
To say that I was dumbfounded would be an understatement – by the very thought, and even more that a 7-year-old was even considering such a weighty matter!
But then again, why not? We all constantly mention the Almighty – whether in saying “My God!” or “God help you…”. Moreover, who doesn’t think about the big question: “who’s really in charge here?” And for children of religiously observant parents, it’s hard to avoid God altogether.
So let’s return to the substance of what my son said. I’ve been thinking about that for decades and have come to the conclusion (well, one of many on this broad issue), that the ability or tendency to Believe in God (or not) is something that we are born with i.e., it’s part of people’s nature. Of course, deep in their hearts many are somewhere in the middle: agnostic – not sure that He (or She) exists, but not sure either that an Almighty Being doesn’t exist.
To be sure, this isn’t only a matter of a person’s nature. Socialization is a large part of it as well (family and peer environment) – although that tends to influence the way we express our religion more than the actual belief itself. In short, it’s Nature and Nurture.
However, there’s a third aspect that is less talked about, but in my estimation is central to a person’s level of belief: existential angst. I know, that’s a mouthful. In simpler language this involves two quite different things: 1- the fear of “nothingness” that humans have regarding what happens after they die; 2- is there any rhyme or reason to life (or for that matter, the universe)?
The first fear can be felt at an early age, especially if a young person sees someone in the family (or close friend’s family member) pass away. (In Avihai’s case, it might not be coincidental that he made his declaration quite soon after Israel’s Gulf War in 1991, when everyone in the country was deathly worried about Scuds landing on their home.) This doesn’t mean that everyone – child and adult – will find succor in God’s hands. Many people will not accept a Being that they can’t see, hear, or touch – indeed, one (not One) who’s completely invisible. For a 3-year-old, the “virtual” is real (make-believe characters they converse with); by the age of 7 or thereabouts, the only real is the really real – for them, “make-believe is for babies.”
But for much of humanity, it’s not “make-believe” but rather they really believe. Or should I say, really need to believe. Which brings me to the “war” between atheists and believers. My first reaction to Avihai’s statement was to try and convince him otherwise. But I stopped myself, for if such a young boy can come to such a conclusion by himself (he certainly didn’t get this from our home!), why try at this stage to argue with what is (for him) a very natural conclusion? Yet, there’s a converse lesson here too: why should atheists try to convince religious believers of their “error”?
Here’s why they shouldn’t. Let’s try a “thought experiment.” You are told by a doctor friend with many years of experience as a family GP, that for so-called ailments, the best thing she does is to prescribe for the “patient” a placebo pill to be taken three times a day. “It’s amazing how many of my patients return after a while thanking me for the great medicine I had them take!”
Do you run off to inform his patients that it is all a scam; the “medicine” is a sugar pill? Of course not! Why not? Because in fact, it works! Now for the above doctor’s vignette, substitute “existential angst” for “ailment”, and “God and prayer” for the “placebo pill.” You as an atheist might feel that they are being duped; they feel (and in actuality, receive) relief from their spiritual “ailment.”
Thus, there is nothing so exasperating to me as religious people who try to convince atheists that God exists – and equally maddening, atheists who try undercut religious belief of the observant and the worshipper. If both sides are happy with their (un)belief, they should leave the other side alone.
Which leaves open one gigantic question. All this might be fine and dandy on the micro-individual level, but don’t religious belief and conversely atheism have consequences on the macro-societal level? I’ll relate to that question in my next post.