Navigate to News section

How to Be a Better Atheist

By rejecting Maimonides’ God, ‘New Yorker’ writer says

Allison Hoffman
August 25, 2009

One of the difficulties of being an atheist is that the task of explaining just what it is one doesn’t believe in requires, to some degree, an idea of what God might be like, if one did believe in a Supreme Being. In this week’s New Yorker, James Wood examines the question of whether the recent crop of public atheists (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens among them) have rejected a “cheaply understood” God who is, among other things, “not very Judaic, or very philosophical.” Wood slices through the new book by the Marxist Catholic literary theorist Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which argues that the new atheists ought to stop and consider the ethereal, Judaic God described by none other than Maimonides. It’s a deity indescribable by human attributes, “not neurotically possessive of us,” a provider of the power to be our best selves. Which Wood says might be fine, except that Christianity kind of depends on Jesus—and believers like the idea, as Joan Osbourne put it, of imagining God as one of us. So how to be a good atheist? Woods offers up a religious approach he calls “disappointed belief.” “Such atheism, only a semitone from faith,” he writes, “would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity.” That, of course, is something the vast tribe of two-day-a-year-plus-Seder Jews can swallow—literally.

God in the Quad [New Yorker; subscription only]

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.