Modern readers often have difficulty relating to biblical polemics against idolatry. Idolatry just doesn’t seem to be a problem for us. But in his book In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism, Scott A. Shay argues that the Bible’s stand against idolatry is still as important as ever.
According to his website, Shay, the co-founder and chairman of Signature Bank of New York, has had a successful business career spanning Wall Street, private equity, venture capital and banking.
An observant Jew, he writes: “I am not a rabbi, a theologian or an academic, yet I believe that one need not be in any of these professions to understand or have a relationship with God.” He has read widely on issues of religion, and relies on the writings of many true experts, for example, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, Prof. Joshua Berman, and Prof. James Kugel (although he finds Kugel’s approach insufficiently traditional).
At more than 500 pages, the book is far-ranging, with detailed arguments about why Torah and modern science are compatible, why the existence of evil should not trouble monotheists and why biblical criticism has not, in Shay’s assessment, shaken the truth of the Bible. On this last issue, he concludes: “Both believers and non-believers can make a case that it is perfectly rational to believe in the historicity of the Bible…. The lack of convincing evidence to the contrary is sufficient for me to consider my belief in the Bible rational.”
Shay vigorously confronts the arguments of atheist preachers like Richard Dawkins, who label religious belief irrational and dangerous. Shay defends monotheism in general – not just Judaism – against such attacks. To bolster his arguments, Shay interviewed a handful of Christian and Muslim clerics, whose words he intersperses (only sometimes effectively) among his own.
The book centres on the prohibition against idolatry, “arguably the Bible’s primary contribution to humanity.” In Shay’s understanding, idolatry “promotes lies about power and relationships in society. It deifies – that is, falsely attributes superior and inexplicable powers to – finite natural processes, animals and people. It also bestows the authority … to these finite beings to use these powers as they choose, simply because they have them. Thus … it has led to the widespread exploitation of the many by the deified few.” Idolaters create “a host of fictional deities … in the image of the fickle pharaohs and flawed elites,” in order to fortify the powers of despots and other privileged people.
The biggest contribution of the Bible and of monotheism to the world is connecting God with justice, in contrast to ancient idolatrous religions, whose gods embodied arbitrary power. Even beyond antiquity, “without the prohibition against idolatry, man naturally tends to deify himself.” The human usurpation of power “always leads to a slippery slope of domination and oppression.”
Our world remains filled with people who mindlessly look for strong leaders, paying no attention to whether these leaders actually pursue justice. Such leaders and their followers do not see people as equal. They ignore the biblical claim that we were all created in the image of God, a claim that remains relevant. As Shay notes, “The indisputable influence of the Bible and monotheistic ideas on modern emancipation movements demonstrates that its message transcends its age.”
Shay argues that when adherents of Judaism or other monotheistic religions neglect freedom, emancipation and equality, it is because they are drawn to the power and attraction of idolatry, which distorts the message of true monotheism.
Even if it sometimes falls short, Shay suggests that true monotheistic prayer should be very different from the fawning prayers of polytheists, who are in dread of fickle and selfish, powerful gods. He sets a very high threshold for proper monotheistic prayer: “Real prayer has to have an honesty that is deeper than one has with a spouse or with a psychotherapist for it to have a chance of being effective.”
Shay acknowledges that moral atheists (whom he calls “golden rule atheists”) can and often do effectively promote the same causes of equality, justice and freedom that he sees as the core of biblical monotheism. He is not troubled by this. In fact, his book is, in a sense, a call for monotheists and atheists to work together for these values, which he sees as the essence of the Bible’s message. He claims that both the belief in one God and the belief in none are rationally defensible positions. While not required, monotheism can be useful for fighting idolatry, since “faith in a personal God provides a source of strength and courage to perfect the world in the face of tremendous obstacles. Believing that God … possesses a plan for our world is a source of tremendous power.”
The reduction of the core message of the Bible to something that any atheist can buy into is curious. True, the Bible does not rail against atheism – but the possibility that God did not exist was unthinkable. Long ago, everyone believed there was either a God or gods, the question was only how many. But it seems obvious that if atheism had existed, the Bible would have had harsh words for it.
Furthermore, a case could easily be made that monotheism in general, and the Bible in particular, have teachings that go far beyond opposition to idolatry, no matter how widely we define idolatry. Still, Shay has formulated an interesting argument and, since he is a man of influence and power, it is already being widely discussed.