Reader Simon called my attention to an op-ed in the New York Times by a secular Jewish (i.e., atheist) philosophy professor who “believes” in prayer, but not in God. This is one of an apparently continuing series of articles in the NYT about how you can be religious and secular at the same time.
Click on the screenshot to see how one accomplishes this feat.
Much of the article deals with how the “problem of evil” has not been tackled successfully by religion. He’s absolutely right. Hershovitz offers the usual explanations—free will (he doesn’t mention physical evil, like childhood cancer or natural disasters, which elude that explanation), one can’t have good without evil, and so on. But he concludes:
I’m with Rex. I think the problem of evil poses a serious barrier to religious belief.
(Rex is Hershovitz’s son, who despite also being an atheist is nevertheless studying for his bar mitzvah.)
Nevertheless, Hershovitz sees value in praying. The reason is—wait for it—to accept fictionalism. That is, you pretend God is real, even though you’re pretty sure that He/She/It is not:
Philosophers have a name for this sort of view. They call it “fictionalism.” Suppose I say, “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts.” If that was a claim about this world, it would be false. Hogwarts doesn’t exist here, and neither does Dumbledore, so he can hardly teach there. But they do exist in a different world — the fictional world that Harry Potter lives in. The sentence “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts” is true in that fiction.
Some philosophers are fictionalists about morality; they think rights aren’t real except in stories that we tell. Others are fictionalists about numbers; they think that math is made up. I think both views are mistaken; I believe in morality and math.
But I think Rex was right — and onto something important: For real, God is pretend, and for pretend, God is real. I am a fictionalist about God.
How does this work? Apparently it’s the old saw that you don’t have to accept religion but somehow the rituals of religion—the songs, the chants, the incense, the cantor, the reading from the Torah, make the world a better place:
Still, I pretend. And I don’t plan to stop. Because pretending makes the world a better place. I learned that from my kids too — Rex and his younger brother, Hank.
Pretending blurs the boundaries between this world and the ones we imagine. It breathes life into stories, letting them shape the world we live in. Just think of the delight kids take in Santa Claus, even those who know, deep down, that he’s not real. Or the way they lose themselves in play. Pretending makes the world more magical and meaningful. And it’s not just for kids.
When it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us but that people persevere, survive and even thrive. I take my kids so that they feel connected to that tradition, so that they know the world has been falling apart from the start — and that there’s beauty in trying to put it back together.
In other words, God is Santa Claus for adults. The difference, though, is that adults enact the ritual of Santa only for their children: a grown human without kids does not put out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve nor expect magical presents. Why? Because such a ritual does not create any meaning or beauty for a grown person.
Now I concede that there’s a certain virtue to tribalism—to the set of rituals, songs, and prayers that make people feel they belong. And with that tribalism comes a ready-made community that will often help you in times of trouble (this is true of many Muslims, Orthodox Jews, the Amish, and so on).
But with the upside of tribalism comes two downsides: the fractionation of humanity along religious fault lines, and the valorization of “faith”, for not all people who go to church are atheists. Most of the people going to church each week are not fictionalists. I’ve met and talked to many religious people on this trip, and take my word for it, they are not pretending to believe.
In other words, by touting religion (even though for him, it’s all a big story), Hershovitz is also valorizing the great majority of churchgoers who really do believe things that aren’t true. And, to be sure, there’s something embarrassing about a grown adult acting out a fiction similar to that of Santa Claus, whether their fiction involves either a series of stories about captivity in Egypt, a man on a cross, or a message from Allah. There’s something even more embarrassing about a grown man writing this stuff in an op-ed in the Paper of Record.
I’ll finish this Wednesday sermon with a quote from H. L. Mencken:
“Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration—courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.”
Fictionalism is opposed to all of these, save perhaps fairness. As the example of thriving atheist countries—like those in Scandinavia—tells us, society doesn’t need fictionalism to thrive. Adults can do just fine without pretending there’s a god to pray to. The trick is to prevent them from religious indoctrination in the first place