On the first page of his new 559-page book, Scott Shay tells the story of a life-changing lunch he shared with a business acquaintance in 2013.
His friend, “a proudly self-proclaimed atheist,” confronted Shay, a banker and Torah-observant Jew, with a theological challenge: “Why should anyone in his or her right mind believe in God?”
Over his meal of sushi, the friend continued: “We humans can figure out right from wrong for ourselves without the help of some nonexistent god or his or its imagined laws.”
“I couldn’t accept my colleague’s visceral dismissal of religion,” writes Shay, an Upper East Side resident who is the co-founder and chairman of Signature Bank and a veteran Jewish community activist, in “In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism” (Post Hill Press).
But what cogent counter-arguments could he mount to a non-believer, especially at a time when the so-called New Atheists were attacking religion at every turn?
“In Good Faith” is his answer.
Shay’s friend’s attack on religion and its adherents was a spark. In recent years, while best-selling books that serve as advocates for atheism — titles like Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great” — have proliferated, Shay searched, unsuccessfully, for a book that, point by point, would take on the doubters.
Shay, a man of prayer, a believer in “an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God,” would have to do it.
For the next five years, Shay, now 60, cut back on his non-business-related activities — “just about everything … except family, work and wine” — to concentrate on his thinking and researching and writing. “It became an obsession,” taking up a few hours of his Saturday nights and most of his Sundays, he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview.
To buttress his already extensive knowledge of Judaism, he conducted interviews with eight “leading Christian and Muslim thinkers.” No rabbis. Because the author, who is a member of three Orthodox congregations in Manhattan, did not want to be seen as harboring a bias in favor of any single denomination.
While his Jewish background is obvious throughout, Shay’s book is not just aimed at Jews, he said. He calls society’s atheistic bent “more than a Jewish issue. It’s more than a Jewish book.”
As the book’s title suggests, Shay is heavy on questions. His work is divided into six parts, each — and many of the individual chapters — introduced by questions, from “What Is Idolatry and Who Cares?” and “Is the Bible Unjust and Is Progress Secular?” to “Is the Bible a Hoax?” and “Why Pray?”
Shay said he posed many of the questions that readers, both believers and atheists, Jews and non-Jews, are likely to ask. “I was trying to make it easy to find what is on readers’ minds.
“It’s a major mistake for us to be afraid of questions,” Shay said. “We Jews are big believers in questioning God.”
Some humor sneaks into some of the chapter headings, like “Fifty Thousand Canaanites Walk Into a Bar” and “Dating the Bible — Something to Do on a Saturday Night.”
In 150,000 words, citing history, science and philosophy, Shay argues that belief in God, while not empirically provable, is logically sensible.
Encyclopedic in its scope, the book cites such concepts as good and evil, reward and punishment, string theory and quantum mechanics, and such people as Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
While criticizing what he sees as hypocrisy and inconsistencies in the self-declared religious community, non-believers are his bullseye. His basic thesis: such concepts as atheism and secularism are bunk, and their proponents do not understand the foundations of religion. At least of the Abrahamic religions, on which Shay concentrates.
“The atheists’ criticism of the Bible would be a fatal blow to monotheism if they actually emanated from a correct reading of the Bible. But they don’t,” he writes. “The atheists have it backwards. Far from being identical to the polytheism of old, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam actually largely align with humanistic atheism in that they are rational and moral and oppose idolatry.”
He calls the need for an understanding of idolatry — “blind belief in the power of a finite person or thing … the default mode of humanity” — “as relevant as ever.
“I’m concerned that we are enthroning man,” he said.
Shay is not dismissive of atheists. Their questions are good for religion, forcing faith groups to act in accordance with their declared beliefs, and to explain what they believe. “We need to take the atheists seriously,” Shay said.
He refutes the frequent claim that more people have died in the name of religion throughout history than because of any political belief system. “The record clearly shows,” he says, “that idolators, ancient and modern, have consistently surpassed monotheists in global destruction.”
“I am not a rabbi, a theologian, or an academic,” he writes. So what qualified him, a layman, to write a tome of such theological introspection?
The subject is not only for rabbis, he answered.
“Every person is qualified” — probably obligated — “to think about God for themselves,” he said. “We are thinking people. We should not be subcontracting our thinking to specialists.”
Shay’s book is getting some good notices in the Jewish world.
The book “shows a commitment to consider contemporary trends in the study and practice of religion from a layperson’s vantage point and marshall sources to inform and offer a counter-cultural perspective,” Erica Brown, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, told The Jewish Week.
“In Good Faith” is Shay’s second book. His first, “Getting Our Groove Back – How to Energize American Jewry” (Devora Publishing, 2007), is his prescription for what he considers the major problems afflicting Jewish life in this country.
Both books are part of his larger Jewish involvement, which has included chairing the Fund for Jewish Education (a joint venture of UJA-Federation of New York and the Gruss Life Monument Fund) and UJA’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal.
Shay said he’s not looking to make converts, or to encourage readers to show up regularly at their synagogue, church or mosque. Just to sew seeds of doubt about their doubts: “I want to give people a way of thinking about these questions.”
The product of a typical U.S. Jewish upbringing in Chicago, he attended a typically uninspiring Hebrew school, he says, and only later, as a teenager, became interested in traditional Judaism. Then he became a believer.
He identifies himself as a devout Chicago Cubs fan, which demonstrates deeper belief than most theologians could imagine. (The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, after a 108-year drought.)
Shay said his book reflects “to some degree” the questioning path that, starting in high school, led to his current status as an observant, largely self-educated Jew.
The work on the book strengthened his beliefs, and helped refocus his prayer life, he said.
Now he’s relaxing a bit, taking a step back from the research and writing that consumed his last half-decade.
What about his friend whose lunchtime questioning sparked Shay’s decision to write the book?
Shay sent him a copy.
“He’s reading the book,” Shay said. He doesn’t expect his friend necessarily to embrace religious belief. “I’ll be gratified if starts to give him doubts about his doubts.”
Scott Shay will participate in a book-launch conversation with Rabbis Angela Buchdahl, Elliot Cosgrove and Chaim Steinmetz on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 7 p.m, at Hebrew Union College, 1 W. Fourth St. in Manhattan. Admission for the event, sponsored by The Jewish Week in partnership with HUC, is $15, $20 at the door. For information: nyjw.test/event.shay.