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Atheism Will Get You Everywhere

This morning I flew down to Boca Raton, Florida for the annual Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium. On a whim, I decided that I wanted to bring some new reading for the plane — something completely outside my area … Read More

By / April 19, 2007

This morning I flew down to Boca Raton, Florida for the annual Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium. On a whim, I decided that I wanted to bring some new reading for the plane — something completely outside my area of interest and/or expertise, since over the next few days I will be inundated with discussions of Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick. I have about twenty books piled high on my desk just waiting to be read, and only three of them have nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish literature: Ian McEwan's Saturday; Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; and The Kite-Runner. I chose Saturday — can't go wrong with a national bestseller book by a Booker Prize winner, not to mention the fact that my contemporary British literature knowledge-base is rather shaky these days.

So far, it's good. Really good. The language is lush and dense at the same time. He's deeply philosophical without losing his knack for storytelling. But there is one moment in particular, so far anyway, that has kept me thinking all day:

Even the denial of God, he was once amazed and indignant to hear a priest argue, is a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer: it's not easy to escape from the clutches of the believers.

Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian-born French-Jewish philosopher who studied with phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and is known for his ideas of the face-to-face and infinite responsibility, once suggested that the only way to "get" to God is through Atheism. And it seems to me that there is something really profound in this, something that I think McEwan may be getting at here as well.

I find also that in my own life, the people I find most interesting are those who "struggle" with the notion of God. I would much rather talk with someone who is ambivalent about God, or does not believe in God, than with someone who doesn't think about why he or she believes what he or she does. I think it may be a more organic, or authentic, way of accessing God in some instances. Disbelief, I suppose, is as much an action as belief . . .

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