My skeptic friend wrote this back to me and I, obviously, answered her back. Tell me what you think.
You assume morality is divinely inspired. And I think morality is an imperative. I think there is no race, color, creed, or other “them” category which differentiates me/you from others in the world. The imperative to help them does not emanate from Judaism [that often asks us to ignore human suffering if it is endured by non Jews, as in the laws of Shabbat], rather it emanated from a deep seated impulse to empathize with the weaker members in our “troop”. Many animals display the same type of behavior, ancient humanoids [like Neanderthals] displayed similar behaviors, and other cultures have long standing traditions of helping the meek and the needy. We often pretend we are the inventors of all that is good in “civilized” society, but we too adopted habits, customs, deities from other peoples that preceded us like the Hittites.
To say that ungodly men have wrought the worst suffering in our world is a truism. Nazism could not and would not have prospered were it not for two millennia of Church inspired xenophobia and cruel anti-Semitism. Nazism found fertile ground among populations that readily accepted the persecution of the Jews as a law of nature. One can cite longer lists of cruel men who brought misery upon other men, and who were inspired and “called” by their gods. Of course, the scale of murder is different, efficiency and industrialization are new concepts, and of course the size of populations is different [in 1700 there were only 600 million people in the entire world. Today there are 6.5 billion], and consequently the worst of the murderers are younger historically speaking. But they are not symptomatic of atheism, but of the avarice and cruelty of our species as a whole. What happened in Rwanda a few years ago [800,000 killed in 4 months] was accomplished in the name of tribal differences, with machetes. Men did that. It still happens today but we have grown accustomed to it. and more often then not god has something to do with the bloodshed. He is always given a role as the protector of the winners and the abandoning betrayer of the losers.
Have you read Sam Harris yet? I have two of his books. Letters to a Christian Nation is a quick read, a couple of hours, and I recommend it. but the better one is called The End of Faith. Read that one. Also a book by Karen Armstrong “The Spiral Staircase” is an excellent read. Not all atheists are barren morally or otherwise. Armstrong is a world renowned scholar of religion and has much to say on the subject. Harris is a more populist type of writer, but he is blunt and uncompromising and writes incredibly well. There are other writers who speak about these topics, and I have all their books. I think they contribute a great deal to the discourse on god and his supposed place in our civilization.
I lost my faith completely because of the Holocaust. I can tell you the story on Shabbat if you like. I was praying on a Rosh Hashana morning in 2005 and it struck me that 64 years to the day before that day 33771 men women and children were shot to death point blank in Babi Yar, screaming and crying the same words I was muttering to my god, their god. Who had abandoned millions. Who still abandons millions today. I began trembling, I cried, I went to the rabbi, then to several others to talk about this awful sense of having lost my faith. In what was I believing? Who was I praying top and what for? If he is so great, does he need a ‘worm’ like me to tell him how great he is? If he listens and takes an interest in our affairs, where is he when he is most needed? And if he is not there who am I speaking to? And how could he have let this happen? How can he let this happen still? Most rabbis said we do not know. Others dared say we somehow deserve the wrath for our sins [an abominable claim I cannot even dignify, which the Leubavitch Rebbe and many of his ilk promulgated and still do]. The sky is and has always been empty. What fills the sky is our mind’s need to seek a greater force beyond us. It is a human need for comforting daddies who will make it all right, for mother goddesses that will supply our needs. Men have written genius books, and offered us moral guidance we still follow. But to call the words they wrote divine is a cop out. I believe in a divinity that is a potential energy residing in our minds. Not in a supernatural being that hovers over the abyss of time and space making magic and miracles to amaze us and to boast of his powers. I believe in evolution, in facts, in science, in the ability of man to reach for the stars in all fields of human endeavors. But not in god.
While I see your passion and your desire to improve the world, you have given me no concrete reason why an atheist should. In fact, since after all is said and done, we will all rot in a hole in the ground, why should I waste my life when I could be out taking what I want, 'survival of the fittest'. The Darwinian theory leaves no room for altruism or kindness, and if it exists it is only in a 'I'll scratch you back, you'll scratch mine' sort of way. I'll quote Hitler again: "The earth continues to go round, whether it's the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it's the law of nature. The world doesn't change; its laws are eternal." We can delude ourselves into believing that morality or fairness is a human concept but in reality "You established justice" (Tehillim 99:4). Just look at young children; they need to be taught to behave. Also, Judaism is unique among world religions in that not only Jews but non-Jews have a part to play in G-d's world. While Christianity holds that the 'unsaved' will burn in eternal hellfire and every 12th verse of the Qur'an speaks of the All-Merciful Allah throwing non-Muslims into rivers of fire, Judaism holds that "the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come". This "deep seated impulse to empathize with the weaker members in our "troop", as you call it, of course stems from the fact that we are created in G-d's image and that He ingrained mercy into us. However, it was the Torah that brought these qualities or values into the world. Before Avraham's moral and ethical revolution, the world was ruled by despots who believed that 'might makes right'. Avraham Avinu was born in Ur, governed by the wicked tyrant Nimrod and was a society awash in cruelty and slavery. In his time, the rich owned slaves who had absolutely no rights. Although the Torah does permit slavery (but does not mandate it) it gives many rights to slaves and orders that they be treated fairly. In fact, the idea of freedom comes from the Torah, that no man can own another man since we all have the same Father. The leaders of the Emancipation movement derived their support from the Torah. The ancient Jews were surrounded by pagan nations who sacrificed their children to idols, burnt their sons and daughters in honour of Molech, worshipped nature with sacred prostitution, orgies and other promiscuities while the Jews lived in a free society which, throught the Torah's social laws, had eliminated slavery, oppression, debt and poverty. Thanks to the influence of the Jewish people, these ideas are now accepted but don't think that that was always so. In the words of the prophet Micah, "O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." (Micah 6:8)
The Holocaust was not a crime that happened to be carried out by atheists but stemmed directly from Hitler's hatred of the Jewish idea of goodness and morality. The Hitler Youth sung a song that said " We are the joyous Hitler youth, We do not need any Christian virtue, Our leader is our savior, The Pope and Rabbi shall be gone. We want to be pagans once again." Hitler wanted to return to Germany's pre-Christian Teutonic days. The Church did have a role to play in this too but don't confuse the crimes of one particular faith with all faith in general. Remember the hundreds of churches, monasteries, nuns and priests who took Jews in out of a sense of duty. Why were the Ten Commandments given on two tablets? Because every commandment between man and G-d has a paralle between man and man. The first commandment between man and G-d is "I am the Lord You G-d" while the first between man and his fellow is "Thou shalt not murder". Both are essential to peace and mercy. Religion without morality offers you the Crusades, Inquistions or 9/11. On the other hand, morality without G-d gives you the Holocaust or the gulag. Nazi Germany had extremely harsh laws against cruelty towards animals while it callously murdered millions. This is an amazing example of G-dless morality! Why do you think the Soviet Union worked so hard to suppress religion?
As for Sam Harris, I haven't read his books though I have read some articles by Christophet Hitchens. Instead, I read a book with the complete opposite thesis. It is called 'the Garden of Emuna' written by a Breslover chassid in Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Arush which explains how belief in G-d adds sweetness and is essential to a healthy life. If you want, we could trade books tomorrow at shul.
I read a book, the Committed Life, written by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. She is a Holocaust survivor who as a child was in Aushwitz and Bergen-Belsen along with her entire family. She comes from a long line of rabbis and today is the head of an outreach organization called Hineni. (Their site is Hineni). She tells the story how, when speaking at a public highschool for Yom HaShoah, one student asked here how she can continue to believe. Rebbetzin Jungreis told him how she never doubted G-d. She told how, in Bergen-Belsen, her saintly father, the chief rabbi of Szeged in Hungary, would never eat non-kosher food and how he would risk his life to perfom any mitzvah that she could. To quote her "If not G-d, what could I have believed in? Humanity? I may have been young, but I understood only too well that what the Nazis did to us had the tacit approval of the civilized world". You can look at the apparent silence of G-d or you could look at the thousands who risked their lives to light channukkah candles or pray in Auschwitz or those who sang Ani Maamin in the gas chambers. In the gas chamber, the shemah was found inscribed by nail by someone in their last moments. I cannot and will not excuse G-d, that is up to Him, but I do know that He is just. Eli Wiesel, who suffered through all of that, still lays on tefillin and still studies the Talmud. Think of the rebbes whose entire chassidic dynasties were wiped out but came to America or Israel with the hope of rebuilding them and teaching others about G-d. They did not lose faith! Do you think that anyone could have survived through the Holocaust if they had believed in 'the End of Faith' or' the G-d Delusion' instead of the Torah? Would the world be a better place if people turned to 'G-d is Not Great' in times of need? Even though this does not completely absolve G-d from any responsibility, He did give us free will. "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if ye shall hearken unto the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day; and the curse, if ye shall not hearken unto the commandments of the LORD your God" (Devarim 11:26-27). Man committed the Holocaust, not G-d. (As a sidenote, you are very wrong about what the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l said about the Holocaust. He said the complete opposite! You can read the article 'What the Rebbe said (and didn't say about the Holocaust'. The basic point is that, having lost many relatives, it is extremely callous for a man to say why the Holocaust happened. Not even the Satan himself could find enough sins to merit such a genocide! Neither is punishment the only was to explain bad things in Judaism. Just a brief quote: "The Rebbe also said: Our outrage, our incessant challenge to G-d over what has occurred -- this itself is a most powerful attestation to our belief in Him and our faith in His goodness. Because if we did not, underneath it all, possess this faith, what is it that we are outraged at? The blind workings of fate? The random arrangement of quirks that make up the universe? It is only because we believe in G-d, because we are convinced that there is right and there is wrong and that right must, and ultimately will, triumph, that we cry out, as Moses did: "Why, my G-d, have you done evil to Your people?!""