By Jim Howard
For thousands of years, the world’s human population believed in gods who orchestrate and control everything happening on earth. There seem to be as many views as there are people subscribing, even now, to more than 10,000 distinct religions across the world. But the fact is that traditional beliefs are on the wane. The “religion” that’s been spreading around the world faster than anything else is the one that believes in no personal deity. That’s right—Atheism. Countries like Japan, China, Canada, South Korea, and Germany are all places where religion was “the answer” as recently as fifty years ago. No longer. And, according to one study by Pew Research, “Nine-in-ten Americans believe in a higher power, but only a slim majority believe in God as described in the Bible.”
The book written by Mr. Katsh, Alo’el’s Dissent, raises these and other provocative questions in the course of telling a magnificent drama cast over twelve thousand years. Mixed in with a turn-the-page conspiracy plot centered on an ancient relic from the days of the first Jewish temple in 586 BCE, and a spicy love story between our hero, an eclectic American studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an Israeli army captain, the question presents itself subtly but clearly: Why are so many people abandoning traditional religions?
The answer is nothing more dramatic than logic and common sense. The dwindling number of “people of faith” who believe in a personal God—a god that is active in every one’s daily life— have trouble, or are simply intellectually or emotionally incapable, of recognizing that God—whether a Him, Her, or They—must be viewed as accountable for everything—that means the good and the bad. And there has been plenty of bad. They say that Him/Her/They know(s) what Him/Her/They is/are doing. But we are the ones who insist that Him/Her/They is/are perfect—that the massive genocides and unconscionable starvation that mankind has unleashed on various populations are a product of divine approval if not desire. Such observable facts must be a turnoff for people looking for a spiritual home beyond what is observable to our physical form.
One of the Jewish world’s greatest philosophers, Moses Maimonides, went to extreme lengths in his revered text, Guide to the Perplexed, to explain that all the images in the Old Testament of God acting like humans—getting angry, warming to the smell of a savory sacrifice, bringing plagues on the Egyptians, splitting the Red Sea, guiding Joshua in taking over the Promised Land from tribes of polytheists and child sacrificers—all of these anthropomorphic images, said Maimonides, were part of a manipulative strategy to ease the Israelites from idol worship to monotheism. Maimonides wrote, “to assume God is corporeal, has any properties of any kind, or to ascribe to Him any attributes, is a sin bordering on idolatry.”
In ancient times, man was utterly dependent on God, plural or singular, to give sense to life: to the rains, floods, conquests, and virtually every other natural occurrence. And so, as the Church did with Galileo, people and institutions who have found science inconvenient simply deny it, claiming their “freedom” to follow their own sense of why things happen and reject scientific proof in favor of a theory of divine intervention. But as people over the past centuries have become more sophisticated, there has been no further need for Church indulgences, self-flagellation, repetitively intoned prayers, offering human sacrifices, or the animal sacrifices that ultra-Orthodox Jews still embrace as the manner of worship demanded by God. The Haredi Jews want a new temple built in Jerusalem predicated on animal sacrifice as in ancient times. In the Second Vatican Conference in the early 1960s, the Catholics fundamentally changed a variety of dogmas they voted on at the Council of Nicaea three hundred years after Jesus had died. As for the Muslims, they practice two forms of Islam (Shi’ism and Sunni), based on the same Koran, and to this day are waging a number of direct and proxy wars against each other.
When one observes all the gods that have been invented, and the ever changing attributes accredited to Him/Her/They over time, it is no wonder that organized religion has been called the “opiate of the masses.”
Whether some dwindling number of people choose to continue to believe in an all knowing, all powerful, perfect, omnipresent and indescribable divinity, mathematically proven science is not open for debate. 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. And contrary to the thousands of current members of the Flat Earth Society, the earth is round and it’s far from the center of the universe. People in the past didn’t know any better. We do. And the atheists want none of it any longer.
Which is not to say there aren’t profound mysteries out there. The point of Mr. Katsh’s grand saga is that we don’t know what we don’t know. There are things—quantum mechanics, quantum entanglement, the fact that pi is a string of numbers ad infinitum, the nature of gravity (why it works–we know it when we see it and can measure and predict it, but we cannot scientifically explain its nature)—that are confounding our best scientific minds. Simply put, traditional religion—the endless variety of priestly uniforms, superstitions like holy water, various paranormal events, and so on– is dying for reasons that are apparent to all who take the time to consider the question.
I have touched on just one subject raised by this novel, a book unlike any I have read, and more fascinating. If you’re curious about the universe and its mysterious ways, I would urge you to purchase or borrow someone’s copy of Salem Katsh’s unique novel, Alo’el’s Dissent—at bottom, a book about the journey of a young man touched by a miracle which propels him to explore the truth about God, religion, and love.