In Christian Scripture, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse usher in the “rapture”, when traditional Christians believe this world will come to an end, Jesus will return in glory, believers will live happily ever after, and free thinkers will be sent by a loving God to eternal torment. The fact that they look forward to violence and suffering with glee, speaks volumes.
One horsemen in the Book of Revelations wields a bow and another, a sword, representing conquest by violence; the cross shaped bow and arrow could easily represent Christianity, and the sword symbolizes Islam. The third horse represents famine and the last horse is plague; the natural results of climate change, environmental destruction and overpopulation. These mythological horses run wild in the modern world, and pathological religion exacerbates them all.
Challenging this cult of death and religion itself, the “Four Horsemen of Atheism”, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, (alav ha-shalom), have galloped into super star status with best-selling books, riveting debates and sold-out lectures. While our society tends to praise blind faith, these four horsemen say “neigh” to belief without evidence. Naturally, most clergy seek to “unhorse” these iconoclastic equestrians, but I greatly admire their chutzpah, brilliance, humor, and tikkun olam.
Rather than condemn, I commend their impassioned eloquence, which has “spurred” long overdue debate and reflection on previously taboo topics. But unlike the Four Horsemen of Atheism who seek to end religion, I propose a horse of a different color, i.e. Silver, the Lone Ranger’s faithful, intelligent horse, and advocate an intelligent and intelligible approach to the Jewish faith, and all other religions, consistent with science. Just as we don’t adopt anarchy because some governments are bad, we should not throw out the baby with the holy water by abandoning all religion, because of the excesses of many of them.
In a rare moment, Christopher Hitchens said something nice about Judaism, observing that unlike Christianity and Islam which require absolute obedience to authority, Judaism has a rebellious streak, even against God. Yisroel (Israel) means “one who struggles with God” and Jacob a/k/a Israel, emerged victorious in his struggle. The intolerant, angry God of Jewish Scripture has evolved over the millennia. The groundbreaking revelations of Darwin accelerated this process and today, God may be viewed not as a thing or an entity, but rather as a creative process in the universe that changes what is, into what could be, present in all, uniting all and greater than all. Einstein taught that there is no supernatural, but the natural is super, and advocated religion’s primitive tribal perspective, giving way to a cosmic perspective, with unity our goal, as reflected in the Shema. He described himself as a “deeply religious non-believer” and considered those who cannot experience the numinous and the miracles of everyday life as spiritually dead, like a snuffed out candle. Thus, Einstein did not reject religion, he hoped to see it continue to evolve to one day incorporate the truths of science.
Unbridled religious fanaticism threatens civilization as we know it, beginning with violence against Jews, and “allows otherwise normal people to reap the fruits of madness and call them holy”. (Harris) A Trojan horse in the religious community, consisting of those who share Einstein’s view of spirituality, could challenge the misuse of religion that builds walls of hate and replace them with bridges of love. A cosmic religious approach could bring unaffiliated “cultural” Jews back to the fold and reinvigorate our people’s historic mission to illuminate a world of darkness with the light of science and reason.
When humans emerged from the forest onto the Savannah, and had to compete with bigger and more ferocious mammals, we seemed like a dark horse in the struggle to survive, but thanks to our intelligence, we beat the odds. Today, once again, we must rely upon reason to survive, especially in the realm of religion, where a rational approach makes the difference between life and death, the blessing or the curse.
As Jews revolutionized religion in the past with concepts of monotheism, justice, compassion and love, we must once again seize the reins of spiritual progress. Hillel said, “He who refuses to learn, deserves extinction”. The Jewish ability to adapt helps explain the “Survival of the Yiddish” after our more powerful enemies have long since disappeared. The Jewish people’s faith in progress, reason, and justice, infused with our indomitable spirit and love of life, are essential to prevent humanity from going the way of the dinosaur and living to see the dawn of a new day. Rather than condemn the four horsemen of atheism, I am profoundly grateful for their ability to point out what is wrong in religion to help us chart a better course for tomorrow, which is the goal of any mature spiritual heritage. Perhaps as the horsemen have trotted out an approach to life which is grounded in reason, religion could run with this idea and turn it into a gallop, as we help humanity reach its stride with a blessed tomorrow.