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Why Do You Believe In God Is The Wrong Question To Ask


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman

Recently, blogger Andrew Sullivan put up a post called "The Scientific View of Man." He ended it with an aside, saying, "If I could disbelieve in God, I would," and two days later, one of his readers wrote back: "Funny, I'm the exact opposite; if I could believe in God, I would."

But what does that phrase mean, "believe in God"? I've most often heard it framed in terms of existence: People will often say to me, "I don't believe God exists," or "I have seen no evidence for God," or "I often question whether there is a God."

But here's the thing: Either God exists, or God doesn't. And we have absolutely no control over that fact. And so because there's nothing we can do about whether there is a God, I've never found that question to be a particularly interesting one to ask. After all, when the question is framed in that way, there are really only three answers people can give: "Yes, I do," "No, I don't" or "I'm not sure."

But there's an even deeper reason why that question is the wrong one to ask. In my experience working in the religious world, the people who tend to ask the question, "Do you believe in God?" are the ones who hope the answer is "yes," while the people who tend to be asked are the ones who are more inclined to say "no" or "I'm not sure." When you're asking a question with an expected answer -- and that answer is the opposite of what you hope it will be -- there's no constructive dialogue. Instead, when someone asks "Do you believe in God?" it simply comes off as a judgmental attack.

In fact, Rabbi David Wolpe recently wrote a piece here asking "Why Are Atheists So Angry?" and while he made some accurate statements, I think he missed the main reason why atheists have problems with religion -- they feel like they are being viewed as "less than" and are being judged in a harsh and negative light.

So because asking "Do you believe in God?" prompts primarily close-ended questions, and is often experienced as a condemnation, I instead prefer to ask two other questions that I have found to be more valuable to explore:

1. How can we bring more justice and kindness into this world?

Regardless of whatever particular worldview we hold, we have a responsibility to find ways to improve ourselves, our society and our world. Now, reasonable people can certainly disagree about the specifics of how we do that, and our personal outlook will obviously affect our ultimate decisions, but most people I have met are striving to create a more just and more kind world.

So by focusing the discussion around how people act more than on what they believe, we can now have a more productive dialogue. Yes, we may all be coming at this question from different ways, but now the arguments stop being attacks and counter-attacks about who is right, and instead, become an exploration about the ways we need to work together to create the kind of world we hope for.

In many ways, author (and atheist) Sam Harris got it right in his book, The Moral Landscape, when he argued that human and societal well-being are directly related to the state of the world and our own mental state, and that "morality" is about how we improve those two states. And so by emphasizing the myriad ways we can explore how to bring more justice and more kindness into this world, we can also recognize and accept the different belief systems that can all ultimately lead to the same end.

2. When have we felt moments of deep connection?

Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were two of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, and both of them pushed us to recognize that our greatest source of joy and wonder are our relationships -- Buber focusing on our interpersonal relationships and Heschel emphasizing our relationship with all of creation.

Buber taught that the most spiritual moments occur when we are truly in relationship with others. His great book describing his theology is usually translated as I and Thou, but a better description would be "you and me." As he claims, our most powerful and most memorable moments occur when we truly feel "there" with and for another person. As Rabbi Dennis Ross explains in God in Our Relationships, "I-Thou is doing, speaking, listening and touching. Not in the I or the Thou, I-Thou is essentially the '-,' the dash that connects two people" (Ross, 53).

Heschel's theology is often called "radical amazement" -- a deep sense of incomprehensibility at the wonder of sheer existence. As he argues, "We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe ... Standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight" (Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 25).

What both Buber and Heschel have in common is that we cannot put into words our most important and most life-changing encounters. Indeed, the more we try to analyze and explain them, the less power they have. Not only that, we cannot ever expect or plan to experience these moments that elevate our soul -- we can only be open to them and hope we are aware enough to feel them and appreciate them when they arise.

These two questions, I have found, resonate with people much more deeply and create much more interesting, much more respectful and much more valuable conversations than asking "Do you believe in God?" These questions prompt people to ask together, "How should I be treating myself and those around me?" "How can we be more open to the varied experiences of life?" Rather than thinking that those who believe in God are "better" than those who don't, each of us can examine how we can be more just and kind, and how we can create a deeper connection with ourselves, with others and with our world.

And what do I believe? For me, I find God when I am grappling with those questions -- and especially when I am learning new ways to try to answer them. And while I certainly can't prove this, I believe that when we are seeking to bring more justice, kindness and connection into this world, we are also bringing just a little more of God into this world, as well.