There are quite a few approaches that religious people take in their attitude toward atheists and atheism. Three different ideas have been pitched or implemented in various outlets over the last couple of weeks. Seeing as so many of my fellow Jews are atheists, closeted or otherwise, I think it’s a question that contemporary Judaism must address.
A billboard in New York’s Times Square proclaims: “To all of our atheist friends: Thank God you’re wrong.”
It’s a cute line. It’s not very substantive and I see no chance of winning any atheists over with this kind of advertisement. It’s cool that God is getting a shout-out in Times Square. It’s definitely a lone voice among a very vocal majority of very unGodly advertisements and signage in that spot. But that’s the only value I can see in it.
The New York Times contrasted this billboard with a recent statement by the Pope: “Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one’s conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”
In other words, I think the Pope is saying that actions are far more important than faith. This is particularly ironic coming from Catholicism which has traditionally placed such a great emphasis on belief. In fact, part of the Orthodox Jewish meme on Christianity is that they are all about faith while we are about action. (I’m not saying this is true. I am saying that this is taught.)
It’s a much more inclusive message than the billboard’s message. I think the Pope’s message will have a greater influence on positive social behavior than a snarky anti-atheist sign. It also increases the chances that a non-believer would care to be involved in religion. The Pope wins this one.
Rabbi Avi Shafran also proposed some billboards to promote Orthodox Judaism. His ideas: What if, instead of special offers and glitzy offerings, we simply proclaimed loud and clear – in billboards and web ads and social media – that being a Jew, like it or not, precious fellow Jew, means being Divinely charged, that it means shouldering, whether it is always comfortable or not, responsibility ? And that ignoring that mandate is a reckless wasting of an opportunity to live a meaningful life by doing G-d’s will? That each of us has a stark and urgent choice: either to regard our lives as the brief opportunities to access eternity they are, or to waste one’s days in the pursuit of stuff and fun and “rights”?
I think this sounds more like the Times Square billboards than the Pope. While advertising our message is a great idea, I fear that advertising a hard line message is not going to win too many people over. I think that the approach largely depends on one’s goal. For some, the goal is that people join your movement. That’s a good goal if your movement is a good one. It also depends on whether people are amenable to your movements rules and regulations.
But Orthodox Judaism is not for everyone. It can be. But right now it is not. So perhaps we would be better off with a goal echoed by the Pope. We should be promoting positive, universal values that will help improve the world. Help people who might need a boost find something in their Judaism or other religious heritage that can help them in their lives.
There is so much that religion can offer people, even if they are not believers. Giving them those opportunities trumps snarky billboards and heavy handed pressure, in my opinion. Yes, we need to get the message out there. The question is what is that message.
I think the message is that religion and in particular Judaism can be beneficial to people no matter what they believe.
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