How important is ‘belief’? Three questions and a tentative answer

A while back Rabbi Jonathan Romain wrote thoughtfully on some Jewish approaches to the existence or non-existence of God.

The heading of this article is ‘Jews don’t have to believe – if they do what he says’. And clearly this needs a little unpacking.

It may make a certain sort of sense to ‘do what he says’ if you believe in the kind of God who expects obedience. But what if you don’t? If there is no ‘he’ what is the justification for keeping his law? Three questions arise in particular.

First, It’s fairly obvious that if you insist on obeying the commandments of a deity whose existence you deny, and have no considered reasons for doing so, you are in an untenable position in the long-term. So could there be good and sustainable reasons for this behaviour?

Second, there is an aporia in Romain’s piece – a question going begging. At the start he writes as though a decline in synagogue attendance is some kind of problem to be lamented and he identifies Jewish atheism or agnosticism as the culprit.

‘No wonder they do not come back to pray to a God they reckon is absent.’

But by the end, he seems to be excusing the non-attenders on the grounds that Judaism isn’t consensually about belief in any case. The lingering question, then, is whether it matters that synagogues are reportedly emptying. And if it does, would a return to dogmatic belief be any kind of solution, or just promote further alienation?

Third (or eighth and ninth if you’re actually counting), the tradition itself does seem to have an ongoing debate about the significance of attitudes to rules, which Romain seems to skip over rather lightly. This was why the Christian Reformers critiqued what they saw as the ‘legalism’ of the Roman Catholic Church. As they read the Bible for themselves, especially the Prophets, they became exposed to a strand of religious thought that prioritised disposition over practice, epitomised by the rather ungainly but significant metaphor of the law written in the heart. This debate continues into the present. Is it enough merely to keep the letter of the law? Don’t you also need at least a little respect for its spirit?

One partial resolution of these questions might be to see religious observance as a kind of game to be played.

Like any game it’s more fun if you have a set of rules, and almost impossible to continue if you don’t. It’s interesting that almost no one claims a supernatural being invented the rules of games, and yet game-playing is massively and enduringly popular. Conversely, the experience of being coerced into playing a rule-based game, as in a million school sports lessons in the rain, is usually very negative; it’s only when we freely consent to the rules, without authoritarianism, that the game becomes enjoyable. As anyone who has played games will tell you, the rules look fixed but really they’re contestable, and the evolving debate about the rules is a significant part of what makes the game socially worthwhile. Finally, and perhaps more than anything else, it’s a social thing: if you won’t play along, you’re missing out on all the fun.

Perhaps if synagogues and churches were more like that – more ludic in their disposition – they’d have more punters.

In case it is supposed that the analogy between religious practice and a game is frivolous, it should be remembered that games, as well as religious practice, can be very serious things.

The forthcoming TV drama God on Trial gives an example of a seriously playful approach to the problem of evil.

Objectors might argue that a really significant difference between a religion and a game has been overlooked: the difference being the divinity itself. After all, who ever heard of people getting together to behave as though fictional beings really existed? Actually, this is the main premise of fantasy role-playing games. These have taken the Internet and what used to be called ‘the younger generation’ by storm and may well point towards a viable future for religious practice. A concern would be that these ‘massively multiplayer games’ seem to encourage, to put it mildly, a certain lack of ethical seriousness. But hasn’t this always been the dilemma of religionists in an ethically frivolous world? And in any case, with a few notable exceptions this concern probably mistakes form for substance. Beneath the pixie dust and hidden deep in the alien bases lies a far-reaching ongoing experiment in character formation (a phrase the fans of Ignatius Loyola and Gary Gygax would be equally comfortable with). Far from denigrating ethics, games and their rules can actually establish an environment in which ethical behaviour is modelled, learned, and even mastered. In realising this aspiration the games known as religions can and should play an important part.

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