When we are children, we are given a description of God at about the same level of sophistication as the description given to us of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. As we get older, the contradictions in the Santa Claus story become too much for us to continue to believe in as a literal truth: no man could live at the North Pole, and in a single evening, enter through the chimney of every house of children that believed in him and deliver gifts while they sleep. We figure out that the Tooth Fairy gives our friends different sums of money that he gives us, and we notice that both the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus has our mother’s or father’s handwriting. Similarly, our childish version of God falls apart. Why did God allow our cat to run in the street and get killed? Why did our schoolmate die of leukemia? Why do bullies go unpunished? Why does my teacher take a sadistic pleasure in humiliating me in front of the whole class, and get away with it? Why do children who did nothing wrong get molested and abused, going to bed hungry night after night? Why doesn’t God protect me from these things? How can God be simultaneously omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and omnibenevolent in a world populated with humans who possess free will, and where evil exists?
When we lose our childish version of God, what happens? Some give up on God completely, and become atheists. If they really believed as children in the childish version of God, this loss can be very bitter. Some people never question their childish version of God, and become the crudest kind of fundamentalists. But most religious adults, just as they learn that their parents are only human, and make mistakes sometimes, learn that God is very different than our first naïve conception of God. If we are fortunate, we regain or never lose our intimacy with God, but we also realize that God can be very remote from the world of actions. God isn’t Superman; not weaker, just different. If we never evolve beyond the childish version of God, we remain stunted regardless of whether or not we remain religious.
The God of adults is incredibly difficult to describe, and the mature theology of a myriad of religions over the course of millennia struggles in this description. Too many descriptions either insult our intelligence, or are too ephemeral and abstract to hold in the mind. It is because of this that so many people left to decide on their own become either atheists or agnostics. I regard this skepticism as more healthy than an adult belief in a childish God that borders on idolatry.
I know God exists because I feel God’s unconditional love for me and I daily experience God actively sustaining my existence, showering me with providence. I know the limitations of human intelligence, consciousness, empathy and power. I experience fleeting glimpses of a higher intelligence that created the Universe and all things in existence; a higher consciousness that invites me to share in elevated peak experiences, epiphanies, insights, revelations and synchronicities; a higher empathy that feels all the sorrows and joys that humans feel and shares our emotions with us without being consumed by them, and loves us when we are deeply flawed and yearning for redemption; and a higher power that fuels quasars, and sustains a droplet dangling from a bent blade of grass and the microcosm of myriad living creatures swimming in the droplet.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, which became the State of Israel, wrote:
“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.”
This is a fascinating idea. Atheism despises idolatry even more than any religion, and idolatry is absolutely unacceptable to any real monotheist. If you worship anything that isn't God, you are an idolater. Rabbi Kook would prefer an atheist to an idolater: even though he regarded atheism as a grave sin, he regarded idolatry as an even graver sin.
Two more quotes immediately spring to mind, one from a contemporary atheist, and one from a Hasidic rebbe.
"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." — Stephen F. Roberts
“Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw the town apostate approaching. With a loving smile, he drew near him and embraced him: ‘Don’t worry,’ he told him. ‘The God whom you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.’” (From a Chabad website)
Stephen Roberts is performing the virtue of idol-smashing that the Prophet Elijah did before him. But he suffers from the arrogance particular to many contemporary intellectuals. He assumes that the believer does not understand his own process, and that Mr. Roberts understands the believer better than the believer understands himself. Talk to a college freshman who has had their first serious complicated idea penetrate their brain-pan, and they will project their previous ignorance onto everyone they meet, and assume that nobody understands their new idea (which usually isn't their creation) but themselves, and possibly their teachers and comrades who share their idea. If you happen to run into one of them in the fulmination of their fervor, it will not matter that you have read the same books that have inspired them as long as you do not entirely agree with their slant on this idea. You are ignorant and they alone have wisdom. People let down by the failure of their childhood conception of God, who reject that god as an adult, often suffer from such a close-minded zeal. People who cling to the failing childhood conception of God as it fails have a similar close-minded zeal.
Roberts assumes that we dismiss false gods because they are rivals to our false god. If all gods are imaginary, then there really is no difference between any two such imaginary gods. He foresees a day in which we contemplate why we don't worship any of the myriad of fetishes that people have bowed to before, and realize that our current worship is similar idolatry, that worship of any kind is idolatry. He believes that when we understand this, we will abandon our silly attachment to the concept of Deity and join him in enlightened atheism. He cannot conceive of a concept of Deity more mature than that of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, on the other hand, understands that we require a concept of God mature enough to withstand our intellect’s full range; a God worthy of worship and praise. Worshiping anything less than this is idolatry. Elsewhere, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak takes God to task for the suffering of the Jewish people, even putting God on trial during Yom Kippur and acting as the prosecutor. He has faith that God can withstand such a trial, and a god who cannot is not worth worshiping. A mature conception of Deity can withstand the question of theodicy (why does a loving God allow evil to exist?), the internal contradictions of Scripture, and one can find value and meaning in a faith built on such a conception. It strikes me that both the antitheist and the fundamentalist cannot imagine that such a mature conception is possible.