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Godly philosopher Buber lauded atheism but couldn’t embrace it

Godly philosopher Buber lauded atheism but couldn’t embrace it May 27, 2021

martin buber philosophy theism atheism god america
Professor Martin Buber, right, is met my officials at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands, 1965. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I must admit that the excruciatingly nuanced philosophy of German Jew Martin Buber (1878-1965), at least to me, is an impenetrable fog, while a Buber quote describing atheism that a commenter left recently on my blog is as simple and clear as a bright spring day.

The comment by a regular reader of Godzooks! named Jim Jones was in response to my March 13 post — “Bishop has it backwards. Bigotry the ‘root’ of U.S. woes, not atheism.” — about a Texas Catholic bishop who contends that atheism, not racism, is the primary scourge of our time in America. I suggest in the post that the bishop does not truly understand atheism, which is a completely benign adherence to reality, and that racism is by far the most damaging scourge on our society early in the 21st century.

Buber’s quote, from his 1991 book Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. 2: The Later Masters, surprised me, because he was a God-believer, though of a fairly unique kind of deity that, if I understand his thinking, is more comprehended than embodied.

This is the Buber passage from Tales that Mr. Jones left in my post’s comments section:

“There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master teaches the students that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.

“One clever student asks, ‘What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?’

“The Master responds ‘God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.’

“‘This means,’ the Master continued ‘that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead, for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”

Lovely and true as it is, Buber’s quote I think seems to completely misunderstand that inherent atheist morality is good because it is true — a good unto itself, perhaps the main source of worldly good — while he seems to instinctively view it as but a coincidental part of divine imperative.

It seems difficult nigh impossible for people for whom a sense of God’s existence is already deeply embedded in their minds to entertain the idea that deities might be unneeded inventions — that evolution has equipped most human beings with the natural capacity for good without evocation of the divine. That humankind survived in its long evolution in large part because it evolved altruistic and congenial strategies to cooperate and get along with other members of its species, a reality that also aided fulsome reproduction and survival of offspring.

As I said before, Buber’s philosophy, to me, is far to dense and opaque to be accessible. But the gist of it appears to be that. To give you a sense of this intellectual morass, the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy explains that, when characterized as an “existential philosopher,” Buber “rejected the label, contrasting his emphasis on the whole person and ‘dialogic’ intersubjectivity with existentialist emphasis on ‘monologic’ self-consciousness.”

In other words, again, if I understand it, Buber views godliness as a dialogue between individual people and the divine — between “I” and “Thou” (God), the title of his best-known book — rather than an embodied conjoining of God with human beings, where speaking to God is effectively speaking to ourselves in mystical self-union.

Still, Buber’s philosophy posits that God exists, and his ideas flow from that. So, he is no atheist, although his quote above suggests he very well understands atheism if not embracing it as a practical, overarching life philosophy in itself.

It seems curious to me that such a smart, godly man who clearly see the profound beauty of selfless, godless altruism, without seeing what that strongly suggests.

It’s one reason why, up until very recently, still-majority-Christian Americans have viewed atheists with loathing and alarm, having a kinder attitude toward Muslims even after 9/11.

Clearly, we atheists need to explain ourselves better. We are, in fact, about as much of a threat to anyone as a warm smile.


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