Reviews | How to pray to a God you don’t believe in

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The world is terrible right now. Millions have died from Covid-19. Authoritarianism is on the rise, abroad and at home. And now it’s war, with all the death, destruction and upheaval that entails.

In dark times, many people seek refuge in religion. They hold fast to their faith.

But darkness also drives many people away from God. My eldest son, Rex, is one of them. He’s studying for his bar mitzvah, but he doesn’t believe in God. He told me that one day while we were walking.

“Why not?” I asked.

“If God was real, he wouldn’t let all these people die.” He was talking about the pandemic, but he could have been talking about the killing of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha or any number of other atrocities he was exposed to in his short life.

“Why do you say that?”

“God is supposed to care about us,” Rex said. “It doesn’t seem like something you would let happen if you cared – and could stop it.”

This is the “problem of evil”. This is an old philosophical question. Rex had never heard of it, but it’s not uncommon for kids to rediscover old arguments on their own. They think about the world. And if you think about God (who is supposed to be all-powerful and infinitely empathetic), the existence of evil poses a serious conundrum: why does God let us suffer?

People have offered many answers, but most are poorly reasoned. For example, some say that good requires evil — that it cannot exist without it. We don’t know why that would be true. But the bigger problem is that if you take that view, you question God’s omnipotence. It turns out there’s something God can’t do: create good without evil.

But also: if the good requires the bad, maybe a little would be enough. Are all the evils in the world absolutely essential? Why can’t we have a world like this – except without that pang of pain I felt last Tuesday? What kind of God can’t soothe my sciatica? My physical therapist, Tony, improves my back and he doesn’t even pretend to be a deity.

He’s a hero, though (at least to me). And some say that’s why God allows evil in the world. He doesn’t care about pleasure and pain. He cares about what pleasure and pain make possible—compassion, redemption, and heroic deeds, like Tony fixing my back. To obtain these goods, however, God must give us agency. And once we have it, some of us abuse it.

This is, historically, the most influential answer to Rex’s question. But I don’t buy it. Why can God only create people who would use their agency well? Why can’t he wave to Paul Farmer and keep Vladimir Putin out? He knows in advance how each of them will act — if he is truly omniscient.

Some believers feel the force of these arguments, but nevertheless maintain their faith. Marilyn McCord Adams, philosopher and Episcopal priest, doubted that we could explain the existence of evil. But that didn’t bother her. A 2-year-old, she explained, might not understand why her mother would allow her to undergo painful surgery. Nevertheless, he was able to be convinced of his mother’s love by her “intimate care and presence” through the painful experience.

For those who feel God’s presence or have faith that they will feel it later, I think Mrs. Adams’ attitude makes sense. But if I’m being honest, that seems overly optimistic to me.

I’m with Rex. I think the problem of evil poses a serious obstacle to religious belief.

Still, Rex continues to study for his bar mitzvah. Why?

Prior to Rex’s arrival, I struggled to account for my own religious practice. I don’t believe in God, so why do I fast on Yom Kippur and observe Passover? This is exactly what we Jews do, I might say; it allows me to stay connected to a community that I value.

I would say that again, I guess. But when Rex was 4, he reframed my view of religion. One night I was cooking dinner and he asked, “Is God real?

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think for real, God is pretending and for fake, God is real,” Rex announced.

I was stunned. This is a great thought for a 4 year old. That’s a big thought for a 40-year-old man. I asked Rex to explain what he meant.

“God is not real,” he says. “But when you pretend, he is.”

Philosophers have a name for this kind of view. They call it “fictionalism”. Suppose I say, “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts.” If it was a statement about this world, it would be wrong. Hogwarts doesn’t exist here, and neither does Dumbledore, so he can hardly teach there. But they exist in a different world – the fictional world Harry Potter lives in. The sentence “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts” is true in this fic.

Some philosophers are moral novelists; they think rights aren’t real except in the stories we tell. Others are novelists on numbers; they think math is made up. I think both views are wrong; I believe in morals and mathematics.

But I think Rex was right – and on something important: for real, God is pretending, and for pretending, God is real. I am a novelist about God.

Our family recently changed synagogues. In the old days, the service was mostly in Hebrew, and I don’t speak much Hebrew. I know how to say all the prayers; I don’t know what most of them mean. So in the synagogue, I sang and let the words invade me. I liked that.

At the New Synagogue, we sing many of the same songs and say many of the same prayers. But we say a lot more in English. And I find that almost intolerable. Turns out I love my inscrutable religion.

I just don’t believe in the stories we tell. And hearing them in English forces me to face this again and again.

Yet I pretend. And I don’t intend to stop. Because pretending makes the world a better place. I also learned this from my children – Rex and his younger brother, Hank.

Pretending blurs the lines between this world and the ones we imagine. He breathes life into stories, letting them shape the world we live in. Just think of the fun children take in Santa Claus, even those who know, deep down, that he isn’t real. Or how they get lost in the game. Pretending makes the world more magical and meaningful. And it’s not just for kids.

When I feel like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals – but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us but people persevere, survive and even thrive. I take my kids so they feel connected to this tradition, so they know that the world is falling apart from the beginning – and it’s beautiful to try to put it back together.

Soon, Rex will be standing before our congregation and praying to a God he can’t quite believe. It will be a magical morning, and for this moment, at least, we will transcend the problems of the world.

Scott Herchovitz (@shershovitz) is a professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. He is the author of the forthcoming book Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy With My Kids, from which this essay is adapted.

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