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A recent Pew poll on religion that found one of six people on this earth—over a billion souls– affiliate with no religious group whatsoever. What about G-d? He seems not to have weighed in on this wholesale snub. Why is he acting as if he doesn’t care?
Maybe because he doesn’t. Or maybe he’s already spoken.
By several accounts (including the positions of Jews, Christians and Muslims), the prophets in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament acted as emissaries of G-d himself, conveying His words and wishes to historically stubborn audiences. Turning to those spokespeople might tell us something about what is on the divine mind.
The prophets lived in interesting times, B.D. (i.e., Before Dawkins and other New Atheists). Back then, all people feared exciting the wrath of the Lord, because they personally experienced plenty of that anger through the forces of nature and disease, about which they couldn’t do too much. And those prophets spoke to a specific people—the Jews who were 100 percent religiously affiliated.
That statistic alone did not make G-d happy. He wasn’t only looking for team members, but for activists.
Take Isaiah. He chided the people for believing that they could get by with external displays of ritual performance—even if they filled the technical requirements of 613 commandments. He told them what G-d really wanted. “Break open the shackles of wickedness; undo the bonds of injustice; let the oppressed go free and annul all perversion…Break your bread for the hungry; bring the moaning poor to your home; when you see a naked person, clothe him.” Sounds like a script from Occupy Wall Street? In fact, this script occupies a key piece of the Jewish High Holy Day Prayer Book.
Thousands of years ago, the prophet Nehemiah was accosted by a lot of stressed-out people who suffered from problems that beset millions of Americans today. They had mortgaged their fields, vineyards and homes, and faced foreclosure. Nehemiah did not seek government bailout programs, or offer to restructure the loans. He offered one simple, if drastic, suggestion. “I confronted the aristocrats… and said to them, ‘Are you creditors of loans against your brothers? …I and my brethren and my servants as well have lent them money…let us all now relinquish this debt.’”
Rodney Dangerfield always complained that “I get no respect,” but G-d doesn’t seem to mind as much. Ranking higher on the divine wish list than full pews is for people to be good to other people. Want to get G-d angry? Try treating people poorly. That is more likely to invite extreme divine intervention than ignoring him, or falling asleep during a religious service.
The book of Genesis repeatedly returns to this point. Therein, G-d gets angry enough to have provided Cecile B DeMille with several blockbuster scenes. The Great Flood destroys a corrupt world, but the sin that seals its fate is not disobedience of G-d, but theft. (In Jewish tradition, this was theft of very small sums, in a way that subverted the legal system by taking advantage of its loopholes.) Sodom and Gomorah conjure images of general debauchery, but a later prophet (and Jewish tradition) claimed that their fatal flaw was refusing to be kind, giving, and compassionate to people outside their own borders. The Tower of Babel brought Divine intervention not because of any licentiousness, but because the project – and government – became more important than the people they were supposed to serve.
Finding that much of the world is religiously unaffiliated is not much of a problem for those of us who love and esteem religion, any more than universal affiliation would be a great victory. G-d cares more about what we do than with what we identify. He wants a world of people fanatically devoted to making the planet a better place for all its inhabitants.
Yours truly do not mean to make light of religious affiliation. We are religiously committed ourselves. We are mindful of the fact that, as Putnam and Campbell put it in American Grace, the hard evidence shows that “religious Americans are, in fact, more generous neighbors and more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts.” Yet it is critically important that believers and atheists should be able to get behind the same goals to create a better society.
It is even more critical for believers. It may be reassuring to find satisfaction in numbers of faithful, but that would miss the point of the ancient prophets, and mean that we have learned nothing since. Numbers mean nothing if we fail at the mission G-d gave us. The Talmud, paraphrasing another of the early prophets, depicts G-d as saying, “It should only be that they abandon me, but do not abandon my teaching”, meaning that sometimes the shortest path to G-d is a roundabout one. In serving G-d’s creatures, man can discover the image of G-d in them. Rather than belief in G-d bringing people to serve man, serving mankind can bring people to believe in G-d.
Affiliation statistics should not make believers laugh or weep. The only numbers that count are the ones that measure how many human beings have their dignity honored and protected; how many have access to their basic needs, and whether we– those steeped in a faith tradition— tried to help. When believers and non-believers come together on the basics, you can be assured that G-d will be there too.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center