Transcendence, atheism, and Idolatry

LeibowitzI have long thought that liberal Christians and Jews are much closer to atheists than they are to their own more fundamentalist and literalist coreligionists. But some like the biologist Jerry Coyne argue that religious moderates provide cover for the fundamentalists by perpetuating the myth that religion alone can provide us with such things as a sense of community, ethical behaviour, and spirituality, thereby letting the irrational beliefs of religion off the hook for the terrible things that are done in the name of religion. Coyne calls it “faitheism”–a belief in belief. (

At least one religious thinker—the late Orthodox Jewish philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz—can’t be accused of perpetuating that myth. For Leibowitz, religion, or at least Judaism, does not serve any human need whatsoever.  Faith consists of nothing more than the observance of the mitzvoth or commandments, ideally for their own sake with no expectation of deriving any benefit from their observance. Religion for Leibowitz also has nothing to do with ethics or morality, which are humanistic concepts. That is not to say that a religious Jew cannot or should not be ethical and moral; it’s just that being ethical and moral has nothing to do with being Jewish. Whether an act is Jewish, i.e., has religious value, depends on intention. If I give charity to the poor because I feel compassion for them, it is a moral act and a very fine thing, but it has no religious value. If I give charity to the poor whether I feel compassion for them or not, but only because it is a commandment , then it is a religious act.

And for Leibowitz, God is utterly transcendent and does not correspond to any human category. Consequently, any attempt to conceive of God invariably leads to confusing God with something else and amounts to idolatry. Usually the confusion involves some larger version of us. We may conceive of God as a loving parent–in the Hebrew Scriptures, God often comes off as closer to an abusive, alcoholic parent—but it is only a metaphor with no factual content.   In Leibowitz’s view, the Torah contains no factual information, which for him comes only from science.  The statement “God created the heavens and the Earth” is meaningless except as an affirmation that God is not the world. Leibowitz famously wrote, “The Torah provides us with no information about the natural world. For that we have science departments.”

Moreover, God does not intervene to change the laws of nature or the course of history on our behalf. Praying is nothing more than the fulfillment of the commandment to pray. The notion that God answers prayers in any sense is to treat prayer as an instrument to serve human needs. Leibowitz wrote somewhat contemptuously, “Folkloristic [Popular] religion makes God the functionary of human society, performing for it the tasks of Minister of Health, Minister of Justice, Minister of the Police, Minister of Welfare, and Minister of the Economy.”  Similarly, praying to achieve a greater spirituality or because it is uplifting is to rob prayer of its religious significance and reduce it to the level of therapy or an entertainment.

Faith for Leibowitz is not a conclusion based on information, but an evaluative decision, freely taken.

One can say nothing about the utterly transcendent God except what God isn’t. So the question, “Do you believe in God?” Must be followed by the question, “What do you mean by God?” Once that question is definitively answered, the answer to the previous question must be “No.” Since existence is a human category, it cannot be attributed to God, and we cannot say that God exists.

This rather austere view of religion is appealing partly because it involves no abandonment of a scientific worldview and because it dispenses with the obviously false notion that religious believers are more ethical or moral than non-believers.  But for conventional religious believers, Leibowitz will surely seem to be advocating atheism as way of avoiding idolatry.



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