In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism Hardcover
by Scott A. Shay
Publisher: Post Hill Press (2018)
Often the greatest critics of religion offer us a series of criticism about the depth of our faith; they confront us with our hypocrisy. They challenge us to reexamine what it means to “believe.” As a young teenager, I remember hiding Raphael Patai’s book, “Hebrew Myths” in the library because I did not want this book to poison any reader’s mind, even though I thought the author may have “poisoned” my mind by forcing me to take a new look at the Bible and its ancient sources through the prism of myth.
After I read Scott Shay’s remarkable book, “In Good Faith: Understanding Religion and Atheism,” I discovered a fellow pilgrim who has thought very deeply about the meaning and the possibilities of religion. I should point out that Shay is the son of Holocaust survivor. Shay and I have that much in common; my father was also a survivor from Auschwitz. His father had developed (like my own), his own concept of God (p. xviii). Children of survivors often become philosophically or theologically obsessed with trying to make sense of the Big Picture, pertaining to God and the Holocaust.
I get it and I have the tee shirt to prove it!
Part I of his book began with a sushi dinner he had with a friend who was a non-believer. Sushi bars (I can personally attest to this fact!) is often a wonderful place for people to have a spirited dialogue about life, God, or just about anything! In this section Shay argues that without the religious dimension that pertains to God, why should Jews bother worrying about preserving a “Jewish identity”?
Shay might have considered the famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth about the purposeless nature of life, “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28).
Shay perceptively observed that many of his friends feel, “The Bible is just so primitive and obscure, it is no longer relevant to educated adults.” Shay added, “These people believe that the book Religion for Dummies should have been titled, Religion Is for Dummies.” (p. xvii)
After reading the introduction, I felt interested enough to read the rest of the book. In Good Faith: Understanding Religion and Atheism” is very well researched, and it covers a vast area of interesting interlocking topics, from the various scientific areas, quantum theory, relativity, and the new miracles of molecular genetics and so on.
To his credit, Shay shows a willingness to engage the modern atheistic writers in an honest and thoughtful manner. The list includes Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and (my personal favorite!) Christopher Hitchens. While Shay could agree with their critique of religious dysfunction, he differed with their carte blanche rejection of religion.
Shay believes it is not fair or accurate to blame monotheistic religions for the most violent crimes perpetrated in its name. According to Shay, the real enemy of society is idolatry. In the hands of an ancient shaman, the power of idolatry gave the ancients considerable power; this pattern can be seen in the long line of 20th and 21st century dictators, and Scott identifies these leaders as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Kim Jung-On.
In terms of freedom vs. determinism, Shay agrees with the writer Balshevis Singer, who said, “We have to believe in free will—we have no choice.” A world without such freedom would be undesirable. “Everyone would have to behave the same. There would be no need to teach children to be moral, no need to teach adults the path of justice” (p. 241).
Shay is correct—up to a point. I would only add that a Maimonidean approach to the problem reveals that idolatry often hides under the guise of “believing monotheists.” This point would have strengthened Shay’s overall thesis. And this point is more relevant because of the emergence of religious totalitarianism we have witnessed in many of the Muslim countries today (and in Israel today, I might add), who wish to destroy the separation of Mosque/Church/Synagogue and State. Maimonides more than anyone of his time, and probably afterward, understood the danger in monotheistic religions that promote retrograde images of God that reflect human depravity.
Shay does not deny the horrible record organized religion has in the history of human civilization in perpetuating human suffering. Yet, he counters that religion has also civilized humanity. He contends, the Torah limited the number of cases that could result in capital punishment—in fact, any court that executed a single person once in seventy years was considered a murderous court. Shay is correct. The nation’s religious leaders largely inspired the Abolition movement of the 19th century.
Yes, religion can be a healing force in the world. Shay’s book reminds me of an old Jewish story that has been told countless times over the years.
Once a rabbi had a discussion with a soap maker who did not believe in God. As they were strolling down the street, the freethinking soap maker asked the rabbi, “There is something I cannot understand. We have had religion for thousands of years. But everywhere you look there is evil, corruption, dishonesty, injustice, pain, hunger, and violence. Religion has not improved the world at all. In all earnest, please answer me: What good is it?” The rabbi listened and did not reply. They continued their walk. Eventually, they approached a playground where children, covered in dust, were playing in the dirt. The rabbi said, “There is something I don’t understand,” the rabbi said. “Look at those children. We have had soap for thousands of years, and yet those children are filthy. What good is soap?” The soap maker replied, “But rabbi, it isn’t fair to blame soap for these dirty children. Soap has to be used before it can accomplish its purpose.” The rabbi smiled and said, “Aha, aha! That’s exactly the point—you have to use religion if you want it to better the world.”
This book is full of wonderful ideas that will make you rethink what it means to be a Jew who embraces faith in an age of unfaith such as ours.
It is a book well worth reading, discussing, and sharing with some friends.