Soundcloud for some reason had an issue with the dynamics of this recording. You may have to turn up the volume after the intro music.
It stands to reason that free speech laws protect especially speech disliked by those in power. Otherwise, there would be no need for a law. However, free speech on its own is only a negative principle, and governmental respect of rights has never and will never be enough to sustain a civilized society.
What do I mean when I say that free speech is a negative principle? The First Amendment does not tell us what we should say or what speech means; it simply says that whatever it is, the government ought not to get involved. It is concerned with rights rather than what it right. Take, for example, flag burning. Flag burning is a form of expression that I think should be counted under the First Amendment and protected in this country. After all, is speech to be free only if it is patriotic? Where is that constitutional caveat? No, those who protest this country should have the right to speak their minds. Indeed, they have the exact same right to speak as one who praises America. Neo-nazis have the same rights as peace protestors who can speak as freely as pulpit clergy who in turn have as much of a voice as Black Lives Matter. This is what makes America unique – we say that the government has no power over the speech of any of these individuals.
However, this legal principle has led to a modern turn on the political right, in which all speech is viewed as equally valid and anyone who is offended by, say, a neo-nazi sending them pictures of gas chambers somehow has a weak character and is viewed as too childish and soft to deal with American freedoms; they must need their safe space. In other words, a legal negative principle (that the right to free speech shall not be infringed) has come to mean that all speech is beyond moral castigation.
This happened the same way everything in 2016 has happened: Too many years of unbearable progressive puritanism and doublespeak has fueled a partisan hatred of the left; anything that even smells like Barack Obama or his administration is indelibly tainted and must be purged from the conservative ranks. Therefore, since Social Justice Warriors say that praising America is an act of violence and asking someone to play golf is a microaggression, all speech must be equally morally valid. If that logic sounds absurd, it’s because it is. If there is one lesson I have learned from the kulturkampf of this year and this election cycle, it is that two wrongs do not make a right.
The left’s delusion does not mean that gas chambers are a joke, or that any jerk off the street deserves to say his piece in one’s home or business. More important: If someone at my dinner table cries “To the gas chamber with you,” it is not a moral weakness to kick him out of my house. On the contrary, it is moral strength; it is hating evil. But in 2016, hating evil is equivalent to needing a “safe space” free from being offended. Call it whatever you like; I’m willing to bet you would not allow just anyone to come onto your private property, to your business, or even up to you in the street and speak their mind with impunity. If, for example, you are walking with your mother down a public road and someone starts hurling verbal abuse at her and you do not get offended, you are the worst sort of cretin. True, no number of words will twist your ankle, but it is just as true that honor often demands a response to effrontery, especially when it is not our own honor we are defending.
What I am saying, in other words, is that free speech is more of a rule for what the government cannot do than a guiding principle for life. As a moral principle, it fails the same way that libertarianism fails generally. That philosophy does not recognize the need for a shared moral code in society. The United States Constitution limits government censorship of speech but never tells us what man is or what happiness he ought to pursue. It does not explain that no matter how law-abiding a citizen may be, there will never be neighbors living in peace so long as there is contempt between them. It does not and cannot explain what peace is, or what neighbors are, or that speaking in a certain way will inevitably make people hate you, and that this is natural and human and just. That is because the constitution only limits government power and trusts other moral authorities to guide man in forming a functioning society, a role fulfilled at the time of the constitution’s writing by religion.
It slanders the founders to say they considered all speech that is legal to be right. It is false to assume that they sought no Judeo-Christian peace and love of their neighbors and always spoke whatever dark thought entered their minds. This is to attribute to the Founders a post-modern nihilism, a view of society in which every individual truly is detached from the common good. Not merely declining to centrally legislate for the common good, but rather failing to care about it at all, which is madness.
The notion that society will survive just as well with every man truly caring only about his own affairs goes not against the legal but against the moral core of our country. It is a cruel nearsightedness warned against by the holy texts of our religions, in which “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,” a society of alienation, detachment, and moral turpitude.
It leads to a situation in which base opportunists with racist followers are defended by conservatives when they are kicked off Twitter. True, Twitter is run by progressives with a double standard. But two wrongs do not make a right. People from whom the average conservative would have categorically distanced themselves ten years ago are defended with the perennial argument that got Mr. Trump nominated, the argument that the left does worse all the time.
A man who says whatever he wants is a slave to his worst impulses. Though the government should not stop him, he should stop himself, and we should look down on him when he doesn’t. But instead, we now defend his right to service from a private company, no matter what he says, and call his political views conservative if he makes feminists upset.
All because “the left is worse”.
Two wrongs make a right to free speech, anywhere, at anyone’s expense.
And don’t you dare get offended…
I think it is part of human nature that, when confronted by big, old contradictions, we try to find a way around them. We hedge, feint right and left, poke for weaknesses. If indeed the contradiction lies across our only path, we then choose to idle, convincing ourselves that where we stand is where we truly want to be. Finally, when inner or outer force compels us forward, we turn for the last line of defense to our imaginations, which let us pretend contradiction does not exist, which is an elegant, clean solution to a messy problem that deposits us on a firm moral high ground (also imaginary) where we may live out our lives pleasantly repeating, “All is one, all is one.” Or, if our imagination is not so strong as to make all equal while remaining on the high ground, we may at least imagine that we have the strength to one day make it so, and devote all our lives to leveling mountains and valleys…
But facing a contradiction, despite the pain and the mess, is how we, collectively, figure stuff out. Not by avoiding it or attempting to uproot it but by engaging it in its structure do we sharpen our minds. The alternatives are either to dull them through endless, desperate hammering or to discard them in favor of our dreams, as castles in the sky need not these mundane tools for their construction.
Here’s an interesting contradictory structure:
(i) A teacher and Chassid I profoundly respect argued at length that the Vatican City is far, far worse than Las Vegas, as far as concealments of G-d go.
(ii) The same teacher on a different occasion shared with us a well-known fact about the great Baal Shem Tov — that the sage wouldn’t ride with a non-Jewish wagon driver who did not cross himself when his wagon passed a church.
At first glance, it seems like we’re saying Christianity is both bad and good, or both desirable and undesirable. There are many ways we could manipulate these statements to resolve the contradiction. We could simply call into question the veracity of either claim or say they actually represent two different worldviews that are allowed to freely contradict. We could question whether the BeSh”T story could actually be trusted or whether he would agree with my teacher or my teacher with him; there is enough room here to easily escape this dilemma. But suppose for a moment we were convinced that (i) and (ii) are true and that they must coexist in the same worldview.
Our next method of escape is to simply avoid the question through inaction. It might help to point out that the question is academic or pedantic, and that answering it reflects moral weakness. The question of Christianity’s place in the world, as a devoted religious Jew, is largely irrelevant to day-to-day life. There are (as always) so many other more important things to deal with. People are starving somewhere, grandma needs a new pair of horseshoes, etc. So let the question stand; we don’t need to pass through it. Just don’t get in the wagon!
I don’t have a choice. I do need to move forward. Because the ride in the wagon has grown rougher of late, and its drivers are leery, and threats loom on every side. We Jews seem to draw closer to the end of our post-war pass; our defenses are collapsing. If there is some wisdom that could tell us whom to trust, we must find it, and fast, because the wagon may be entering the woods, and the sun is setting.
And so: the next solution, an ever-more-familiar one. Wherein I deny not the source or relevance of the contradiction, but its premises — that is, the shared premise of every contradiction, that things have differences that make them incompatible. This is the best solution so far because we get to say that we have respected the problem (“The Baal Shem Tov really did say it!”) and that we have not just let it stand but rather proceeded forward and dealt with it.
Like this: Our problem arises from the BeSh”T’s judgment of a man based on his religious beliefs, or our teacher’s devotion to the view that Christianity (Catholicism specifically) has a nature or purpose that render it evil in our eyes. Neither of these need compel us, if we are brave enough to stand by our own judgment rather than theirs and say that a man should be judged by his individual tolerance alone and/or that Christianity and Judaism, like all religions, have the same goals and get at the same Truth. The mistake of my teacher and the holy BeSh”T lies not in any obvious disagreement of theirs but in their shared misunderstanding of the situation. And indeed, once we have discovered their mistake it’s easy to return to their statements and extricate them from error. My teacher was merely operating within a religious framework that, though sectarian, was a necessary precursor to our modern universal enlightenment. The BeSh”T certainly judged men only by their tolerance for others, but the best external means of ascertaining that tolerance was, in his benighted times, through signs of religious devotion. Presto! Other than the small matter of rendering them wrong and (appearing to be) relatively ignorant, we have rescued them from their contradiction through the power of imagination, which can conceive of a world where there are no contradictions. And, once it is imagined, we must make it so…
But, assuming I insisted on taking the BeSh”T and my teacher at face value, stubbornly focusing on the structures of (i) and (ii) as they present themselves, the definitions of all their terms intact. What if I insisted on engaging and fighting this contradiction that I may depart its straits with some wisdom for the non-imaginary riotous road?
Here is the problem, as I see it:
(i) is basically an argument that the church is a very old and powerful institution of idol worship and historic Jew hatred, which means it stands athwart the Jewish mission of revealing the one true G-d in this world. Of the few things that could definitely be declared unJewish, idol worship tops the list. On the other hand, (ii) seems to say that this very heresy is in some sense better than the alternative; that the Baal Shem Tov preferred a driver who preferred the Sistine Chapel to the Vegas strip.
We may be tempted to distinguish between (i) and (ii) by the difference between the collective and the individual — that is, the church is bad, but an individual Christian is good, or at least preferable to a non-religious person. But how precisely are we to measure this distinction? At what point does the net-positive of a group of individuals worshipping their non-True G-d become a cumulative negative? Conversely, how do the teachings of the institution, which allow for violence and falsehood, somehow become the opposite in the mind of a wagon driver?
Perhaps we can resolve it like this:
Judaism views the societal relationship with G-d at two fundamentally different levels. There is the connection with G-d that is viewed as an integral contributor to societal cohesion, that faith in G-d that is one of the Noahide Laws, Judaism’s recipe for a successful civilization. Then there is the relationship with G-d that has nothing to do with worldly purposes and everything to do with the divine, the purpose of creation, the G-dly mission that the knowledge of Him should fill the world and he be known even in the lowest place.
Christianity, as a not-quite-monotheistic faith, is at odds with this second goal. While base human nature is neutral on the G-d question, my teacher thought that the church actively spreads misinformation and has historically been at cross-purposes with the Jews.
However, just because we don’t think Christianity is True, we do not begrudge it to its adherents. On the contrary, as the holy BeSh”T would tell you, in the matter of civilization and order in the world, Christianity has been a force for great good.
So: if we are looking, as Jews, for those who would truly aid us in our G-dly mission, Christianity is institutionally disqualified and we would have better luck searching in Vegas, where we might at least find someone with the wrong actions but the right ideas and goals. If, however, we seek not allies but merely for civilized men who are guaranteed not to ruthlessly murder us in their wagon, the Vatican is a better bet than Reno or Amsterdam, for its men are bound by rules, and even though they are in their details the wrong rules, they at least bind a man to manhood, and prevent his descent into foulest savagery.
But this is, obviously, only one of many possible explanations. Perhaps a lack of Christian devotion was somehow much more sinister in the Baal Shem Tov’s time than today. Perhaps religious Jews have bad judgment. Perhaps what divides us all is illusory. Perhaps the whole question doesn’t matter. Perhaps my memory is faulty. Perhaps the words mean other things. Perhaps crosses are not Christian. Perhaps the question will be made moot by driverless cars. Perhaps…
I despise very few things on G-d’s green earth, and at first glance words should be no different. If I am indeed a fervent believer in balance, constantly reminding myself that every stick has two ends and stopped clocks etc., why are there still certain arrangements of English letters that make me grind my teeth, roll my eyes, stomp my hooves?
Because some words are used as clichés. The crime of the cliché (in writers’ circles, at least) is a crime of tedium. Rather than engaging the reader’s mind in the difficult process of communication through the fractured meanings of words, the cliché is little more than a placeholder, read as a blank space, conveying nothing but what the reader knows already. The net communicative effect is nil; only recollection dimly flickers when we read clichés. In short, they’re boring and should never inhabit our writing.
But the cliché is also evil. It is a particularly dangerous sort of falsehood which at once claims legitimacy by naming something and simultaneously elicits an emotional, non-intellectual response. It says, “That guy is anti-semitic; you can’t vote for him.” It never gets around to asking what an anti-semite is, or why racism is bad, or whether it is the same as bigotry or loyalty, or how bad it is in relation with other evils. All it does is push a button somewhere deep among our tangled minds’ wires that says, “Bad! Bad! Bad!”
I’m not saying we have to define terms every time we use them. It would be incredibly detrimental to all forms of communication if we had to specifically delineate the boundaries of “anti-semitism” every time we mentioned it. Besides, I have a feeling this would only go on to eventually make the words of its definition into clichés — the actual clichés we see in our day-to-day life actually work as a sort of buffer, protecting more technical/academic/intellectual language from itself draining of meaning.
Nevertheless, if we do not constantly revisit and discuss the meanings of the terms we take for granted, we can eventually attach the evil of anti-semitism (for example) to things or people innocent of that transgression, and, through so diluting its meaning, we will be unable to convince anyone of it when it does occur. (In short, if we do not work into turning clichés back into meaningful terms, the entire shared meaning which is language falls apart, and even the most skilled orators or writers are unable to recreate their thoughts in the minds of others, and civilization falls apart. In a way you’re the real hero after all, you linguistic scourge!)
The reader may be thinking, “that escalated quickly.” But at what point does a meme, a touchstone joke, become a cliché? How easy it is to stop thinking about what our words mean! I heard the joke about the chicken crossing the road parodied and retold in so many ways as a youth that the actual humor of the joke, or that it was, indeed, ever meant to be genuinely funny, did not occur to me until I was much older. The joke became only the placeholder of a joke; it became a cliché. Relatively harmless with jokes and memes, the exact same effect touches “racism” and “God”, “right” and “left,” “evil” and “good.”
So when someone says in the context of a serious discussion that they don’t want to “waste time” defining words or categories, I worry that they’re charlatans, playing the intellectual game for ulterior motives. It is the most common and most upfront way of declaring bad faith. It says that they’d prefer the alternative, where we can argue past each other, playing for rhetorical points, without actually knowing what the other person is talking about, in the simplest sense of the term. Their conclusions are probably predetermined, and they fear to find, after their words have been grounded by meaning, that they contradict themselves or are illogical. This is a valid fear.
But enough of me being crotchety. I can already see the comments about defining what “define” means hovering before my eyes, or some-such. You came here for a list, and a list you shall get! Let us turn our eyes upon five words that, like cockroaches, do not look good with the light upon them, and that, suddenly illuminated, will dart off in search of a dark, warm, comforting preconception.
(I’m mostly joking when I say the words need replacing.
It’s not the words.
It’s the thoughtlessness.)
1. “Brainwashed” — An Opportunist’s Panic Blanket
When I spoke above about folk who mindlessly wield clichés, I could have called them brainwashed. I didn’t, because it’s a vile word. Unless used in the context of some extraordinary (and I mean extraordinary — actual brainwashing is extremely rare if it exists at all) circumstance like the bowels of a North Korean torture chamber or somesuch, “brainwashing” is not merely the wrong word, it is purposefully manipulative.
Whenever I hear anyone use it, I instantly demand that they explain the difference between brainwashing and education. If they’re a real whacko or fourteen years old, they might agree that they’re the same thing, and then at least we could talk about education. But at least we’re no longer pretending that just because someone has a different view than our own, they must have been erased and rewritten by some sinister force looking to stay in power (Moriarty? The Elders of Zion? The Secretary of Education? ). Most of the time, they just disagree with you, and yes, education impacts our opinions. Byt no one wants to ban it outright.
Suggested Replacement(s): ill-informed, miseducated, ignorant, wrong, duped.
2. “Jewy” — The Latest Debacle
Not actually a cliché, but still sad, I don’t know where this word came from. It can burn in a Meah Shearim dumpster for all I care. This is the new word Jew-kids use instead of “Jewish.” What was wrong with “Jewish,” you ask? Nothing, and that’s the problem. You see, “Jewish” is merely a statement of fact, a fact that to Jews at least has no inherent negative connotations. So Jews who are feeling tired of the whole Jew thing have settled on “Jewy,” an irritating diminutive that still conveys your disgust at the concept while looking dazzling in pink. Instead of the classic “Zionist Jew greed,” Hello Kitty would say “Jewy Greed.” Doesn’t that make it sound nicer?
What? It’s worse because it’s a negative term masquerading as a neutral one? That’s crazy talk.
Suggested Replacement(s): Jewish, Jew, or your choice of honest anti-semitic epithet.
3. “Hater” — Moronic Reductionism
I don’t mind “haters gonna hate” as a pleasant song lyric or the like. But some people actually took it seriously as a life philosophy, which makes me want to individually pull out all my remaining hairs from the follicle. When you say, “Bernie for President,” and I reflect with vivid brilliance that, “I think the populist impulse driving Sanders’s momentum is similar to that of Donald Trump and neither are good for our country,” “Haters gonna hate” (“hater’s”? is it “hater (is) gonna hate” or “haters (are) gonna hate”?) is not a valid response. “Haters gonna hate” is an intellectual forfeit. To me, it’s trolling plain and simple.
First of all, hate is not necessarily a bad thing and is on the contrary incredibly appropriate and even necessary in some contexts. On the other hand, it is an incredibly powerful emotion that I think most of us feel quite rarely. To conflate disagreement, dislike, disgust, or distaste with hatred lessens the power of the term.
This image sums up the degree to which the term “haters” ought to be taken seriously, and is redolent with a multi-layered ironic aftertaste that I find quite delightful:
Suggested Replacement(s): “Dear Sir/Madam, I find it unfortunate that we diverge in our opinion on the matter; alas, would that I could argue further, but I must go on down to dat lit club wit crony and get turnt.”
4. “Nice” — The Empty Vessel
“Nice” is the ultimate cliché. It signifies nothing but utter milquetoast inoffensive blandness, and even that description makes it sounds more interesting than it is. On its own, blandness wouldn’t be so terrible. But people think it means something, like when your Rabbi has a “nice tie,” or he tells his son that peeing in the sink is “not nice.”
The obvious question is whether the tie is nice to the same degree that the boy’s urinary discretion is unnice. Of course, the tie might actually be the harbinger of a messianic utopia, since other things that I’ve heard called “not nice” include poverty, Cards Against Humanity, George Carlin, and the holocaust. This reveals the actual purpose of the term, which acts as a sort of uniform placeholder in small talk that will never hurt anyone nor, indeed, say anything.
How many times has the chivalric Jewish greeting ritual (“What’s your name?” “Tzvi.” “Where are you from?” “Oz.” “…Are you single?”) terminated with one party muttering, “Very nice, very nice”? If anyone were paying attention, they’d call you Roger Daltry. But “nice” is easier. It lets you pay no attention. It is to language what the schwa is to phonetics. It is the sound you make when you are asleep. Disgraceful.
Suggested Replacement(s): Try these.
5. “Leadership” — The Brain Taser
I eat a lot. I have a large apetite; have since I was little. Similarly, I have a sort of mind apetite. I like learning, okay? Also since I was little. But my mind apetite has these anamalistic habits, like Pavlov’s dogs. It knows what it likes and what indicates a hearty meal on the way, and what signifies intellectual junk food that will leave me hungry again in ten minutes.
One of the surest indicators that something intellectually anemic is to follow is the term “leadership.” I don’t mean as a passing mention, or even as part of a discussion of some specific action or policy. My problem begins when this benighted term shows up in advertising, or seminars, or advertising for seminars. I hate it when it’s used in businessese, that strange foreign language half of LinkedIn is written in. For me, “leadership” is representative of a whole class of words we hear so often, with so little actual meaning attached that they merely pass through our minds like white noise, chaos that grabs our attention and wrestles our critical faculty into submission through sheer force. A stun-gun to the brain that says, “Don’t even try digesting this; just give me your money.”
“Leadership” has, for most of my life, hovered on the edge of English, barely coherent, too meaningless to truly seem threatening, the employee that never says anything until he burns the building down. Maybe no one has ever bothered explaining the word to me and I’m totally off-base.
But I’ve yet to find a discussion of this term that describes a concrete reality and isn’t reaching for my wallet in some way that we’re usually too numbed to notice…
Suggested Replacement(s): Something in English.
Last time, we spoke about the famous Euthyphro dilemma, and whether a G-d-based morality is self-contradictory.
In this, the final installment in this series, we will deal with the big one, the center of it all, not so much an argument for atheism but atheism itself, and we will see how it improves our service of G-d.
10. G-d does not exist.
Throughout these blog posts, we have endeavored to examine some of the “smaller” atheist claims, that is, the sort of things an atheist might say casually or have printed on a bumper sticker or the like. Rather than serious arguments for atheism, I feel these more intuitive perspectives, by dint of their common-sense approach, capture something of the truth. Furthermore, they capture a deeper truth than religion per se — a deeper truth than lazy religious thought.
Why should this be? After all, an approach that intuitively senses that there is no G-d hardly seems appropriate as a source of religious insight.
In fact, it is an excellent source of religious insight, because (and this is the underlying message of this entire series) G-d’s nonexistence is a fundamental principle of monotheism. That is, just as we gain ever-deeper and more detailed understanding of the Creator through studying His world and His revelation, we also continue, in the religious endeavor, to realize how little it is possible to know about G-d.
This is why the famous response of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is true. “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” Just as there is the positive commandment to know G-d, so there is a negative commandment to forsake idols. Until we realize that not believing is fundamental to religion, we will always lack a deep religious insight. Ultimately, the atheist perspective is (mostly) not a flase construction of man but a reflection of the reality of the Creator — that aspect of the Creator which is utterly unknowable, the mysterium tremendum.
To ignore the truth of G-d that we cannot grasp is indeed a certain form of religious arrogance. Once the idea of G-d becomes somehow disentangled from the ideas of omnipotence, infinitude, and transcendence, we begin to worship our understanding of the Creator rather than the creator himself — an intellectual form of idol worship. The impulse to atheism is rooted in the rebellion against this prosaic conception of G-d.
It is intellectual idol worship that allows us to think of G-d as contingent and that his existence is demonstrated like a contingent being. If G-d is indeed just another being, then perhaps He is merely the temporal rather than causative foundation of reality, and his knowledge of the finite realm poses no quandary, and an intimate knowledge of Him is easily conceivable. We run the risk of thinking G-d exists for our emotional satisfaction, or that His subjective experiences mirror our own, or that His mission aligns with what we find easy or important. We can even make the mistake of viewing him as a demigod bound within the laws of the universe he creates. Without exception, these errors come from the certainty that we know the creator, rather than the humility of knowing that we can never know.
Now, the reader might think I am playing with words. Sure, intellectual humility is necessary, and atheists certainly bestow that upon believers, but at the end of the day the theist certainly believes that there is a G-d; that’s what makes him a theist, after all.
But even the assertion that G-d exists is technically false in the monotheistic view. G-d is indeed so transcendent, says Maimonides, that there is no meaning of the word “exist” by which G-d exists. After all, to assert that a table exists is to say that there is such a thing as a table, a defined form, and that there is matter that participates in that form — there is wood in the form of a table, and so a table exists. But the G-d of monotheism cannot be an instantiation of a form, since this would imply duality and finitude — there is Him, and there is his form. And so, by the definition of the term “existence,” G-d does not exist. He shares no positive trait with any other being, and that includes existence itself.
Indeed, the most that could be said about G-d is that he does not not exist. But there is no meaning of the term “exist” by which we can say He exists.
And so, we find in the end that the atheist is right practically all the way down.
The difference between the theist and the atheist is that the theist also believes in the positive aspects of religion, that through some miraculous process the infinite, unknowable, non-existent creator cares about humankind and told them His will that they may serve Him. The atheist, on the other hand, knows only G-d the non-entity, mysterious, and utterly uninvolved in our reality, indistinguishable from a truly non-existent being.
The G-d he doesn’t believe in, we don’t believe in either.
If we’re lucky.
In our last installment, we spoke about that old religious chestnut that G-d doesn’t give us problems we can’t handle. We pointed out what to some readers was already obvious: that the “problems” we refer to here are not problems of health, wealth, or happiness, but rather the challenges we face in trying to fulfil our G-dly purpose on earth.
In this, our penultimate(!) Atheist Argument I Like, we will talk about the moral imperative that lies behind that purpose, and whether it exists.
9. What moral authority can G-d have if “morality” is merely what He desires?
This argument often comes citing its pedigree. The question is quite an old one, straight outta Plato, and is called the Euthyphro dilemma.
As Socrates would have it, there are two options when it comes to G-d-based morality — either G-d says something is wrong (or right) because it is, or the thing is wrong because G-d says so. That is, G-d either says murder is wrong because murder is actually wrong on an objective level (thus, G-d is only “the messenger” when it comes to moral truths, but the truths exist even beyond him), or murder could theoretically go either way but is wrong because G-d says so (thus, there are no real moral truths per se but only what G-d desires).
Both of these options are problematic for those theists who tote morality as the thing G-d gives you that no one else can. Because either murder is wrong without G-d and, contra Dostoevsky, everything is not permitted if there is not G-d; we don’t need G-d for morality, or murder is only wrong because of G-d, in which case G-d may have decided murder was okay and the theist would have gladly gone along.
Nowadays, it is this second horn of the dilemma I hear more often — “Are you really saying the only thing wrong with rape is that G-d says it’s a no-no? And then you have the gall to say religion makes people more moral!”
As is our custom, our theistic response is, “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in, either.” Or in this case, the gods you don’t believe in. Because in his criticism of the gods of his time, Socrates was actually paving the way for the G-d of monotheism, even if modern atheists do not see it in the Euthyphro dilemma.
You see, the dilemma is a criticism of the pagan pantheon that has been copied and pasted and rendered in single form in the times of monotheism. But this was a mistake, since the G-d of the monotheistic religions is quite different from the pagan gods, as we’ve spoken about before.
One of the major difference is that the universe in the Greek understanding was eternal, and certainly not created by the gods from nothing. The Greek gods were merely powerful beings, almost like superheroes, and their moral authority stemmed from their power. To this Plato answered, quite correctly, that the gods are either irrelevant or in contradiction to man’s moral understanding of the world; power does not affect ethics; might does not make right.
The G-d of monotheism’s moral authority, however, derives not from strength but from the fact that He is the creator of the universe and of its morals. That is, G-d says murder is wrong because it’s wrong — because in the universe he created, murder is evil (In fact, in a deeper sense, the universe is created from the fact that murder is evil, and G-d’s other moral declarations, as a structure is built from blueprints. That is, the universe has the properties it has, including its moral properties, because G-d had a vision of a place where there could be moral free choice).
This does not make G-d “the messenger” and irrelevant to morality, for He creates it. And His creating it does not mean that its creation is somehow illusory and G-d could turn around and say “murder is good.” The rules, once decided upon, were coded into the fabric of our world, and they are now binding on the creator as much as anyone.
Thus we find Abraham asking, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” In other words, just because G-d wants it doesn’t necessarily make it right. Which is mind blowing. Even further — in the next part of the biblical story, the binding of Isaac, Abraham does not question G-d at all but is willing to kill his own son, because G-d asked it of him. That this story is in some ways the moral center of the entire biblical story and has been puzzled over for thousands of years is a testament to how exceptional it is — proving the rule.
So no, theists don’t say that the only thing wrong with rape is that G-d says it’s wrong. Rape is wrong and always has been since G-d decided to make a world showcasing the foibles and fortitude of that creature, man.
Last time, we spoke about the need to recognize that our subjective reality is completely different from the Creator’s and that his experience of His actions is totally different than our experience thereof.
In today’s post, we will talk about an old religious canard that, with the help of a bit of atheistic thinking, we can blow apart.
8. “G-d gives you problems you can’t handle all the time.”
Religious people like to reassure themselves that G-d doesn’t give you problems you can’t handle. The Jewish texts do say something along those lines (though obviously the texts come with pages of explanations and in-depth commentary and are not the bumper sticker they are sometimes made out to be) — but Penn Jillette disagrees. If I recall correctly, he said that G-d gives you things you can’t handle all the time, like getting run over by a truck, for instance. Not many people handle that too well.
Penn is a famous atheist (and libertarian — perhaps my next series should be on ten libertarian arguments I like?) who seems to largely subscribe to the “religion is a crutch” idea we spoke about back in part 6. I respect his talents, fame, and atheism, which, we hardly need to belabor the point, is a great tool for religious insight. And indeed, he’s hit the nail on the head here.
“G-d doesn’t give us problems we can’t handle” has become something of a cliché. And clichés are evil. Let’s talk about what those holy texts, and religion in general. are trying to say.
Really, it all comes down to what a problem is, and what it means to handle that problem. If someone comes down with a debilitating disease, G-d forbid, or is a prisoner in a death camp, or gets hit by a truck, they will see rapid decreases in comfort and health. They will sometimes even die. And it does no good to pretend that G-d did not cause these things to happen, or, to take the other escape, that these things are easily “handled” in whatever way. If a person is left a quadriplegic and “handling” it means living the life of a healthy human being, then clearly G-d gives us problems we cannot handle.
Problem is, the concept of G-d never giving us insurmountable challenges was never meant to be used to comfort the sick, impoverished, grieving, etc. regarding their dire situations. It was never meant to be, “Oh, you were hit by a car but you can handle it!”
In truth, the “problems” G-d gives you that you can always handle are the challenges you face in pursuing your G-dly purpose. This is in accordance with the general religious perspective that at essence our lives are not taken for granted but rather are given to us by our Creator that we may serve Him.
The challenges in health, wealth, or family are viewed by Judaism merely as the context in which the real drama of life occurs — the drama of whether or not we choose to live up to G-d’s hopes for us, or not. It is in the moral crises of life, those situations where we have a choice between what is right and what is easy, that we are to remind ourselves that G-d gives us no problem we can’t handle.
Really, the unhandleable/handleable perspectives boil down to a much more visceral issue, wherein the theist says, “If I am hit by a truck and die that is His will and if it is unavoidable I will come to terms with it; this is not something I was meant to handle,” and the atheist says, “Are you insane? This is all there is, and the only meaning is the meaning you experience or make, and you can’t do any of that if you’re dead.” This is a debate that aims at the core of our reality and, as such, is a debate worth having.
Way better than a misunderstanding based on a bumper sticker.
In part 6 of our near-endless (but 3/4 finished!) examination of fun and educational ideas I’ve heard from atheists about G-d and religion, we spoke about whether G-d is merely a crutch for those who cannot deal with real life.
Today we continue in the vein of arguments that totally circumvent our rational side and go straight for our gut — and teach us something along the way.
7. “G-d is a killer of millions.”
There is a certain Jewish-flavored shower thought I’ve entertained a few times. It goes like this: There is a general principle in Judaism that G-d only gives us commandments he Himself keeps. How, then, does it rain so often on Shabbos, a day when we are forbidden to water the plants ourselves?
There is a right way and a wrong way to answer this question.
The wrong way: Of course we’re being non-literal when we say G-d keeps the commandments. This dodge, the “it’s all just a metaphor” maneuver, has the advantage of producing sweet, lofty thoughts that happen to not be true. That’s why it is so popular. With metaphor, we can basically affirm what we like and worry how it fits into received truth later. By the power of metaphor, everything will always fit. Why even bother with “G-d keeps his own commandments”? It’s just another way of saying G-d doesn’t lie or G-d’s a good guy or history is deterministic or our morality is G-d-given or a thousand other things I didn’t think of in the last twenty seconds. This is nice for speculative analysis or Shabbos table talk but it does not reflect a concern for what the original statement actually intended.
The correct (and, to my mind, far simpler) way of answering the plant-watering question is to contemplate the premise of the question: that rain is somehow similar to us watering plants on Shabbos.
“What do you mean? It’s water. Going into plants. Equals watering plants.”
I’m not so sure, myself.
After all, at what point did we so limit rain and so promote our own abilities that we can even imagine anything we do approaches the verb “to rain”? If water onto ground is somehow a sufficient description for rain, then perhaps stepping on a nail is surgery or taking pain pills is fine dining. Whence this ignorance of context, intent, scope, and agency? The truth is, we have no idea what it means to rain, as a transitive verb. We are ignorant of gathering moisture on a vast scale into clouds and manipulating pressure systems and stacking them up in threatening towers of thunder and sending the gathered waters hurtling toward the ground as a billion translucent spears, clearing the air and washing the earth and giving all manner of creature their life’s sustenance. The subjective experience of making this happen is beyond us. And forgetting this ignorance is the only way to think rain compares to anything we are forbidden to do on Shabbos. “If there is H2O descending it must be the same.”
Technical physical comparison is the grossest sort of comparison we can make here, and even what is comparable is utterly beneath a true understanding of the creator.
Theists certainly should not think like this.
But if you can’t even grasp the difference between watering plants and creating a thunderstorm, you can’t expect to answer correctly when someone points out, “Your G-d is a killer of millions, master of torture and death.”
Here’s the wrong response: “Those deaths are only caused by man’s evil,” or, “G-d is allowed to kill; He is G-d, after all,” or any other dodge of the fact that G-d directly causes all of the death and suffering in the world. These answers are all good but they accept the false, unreflective premise that merely being the cause of death makes someone a killer or their act killing.
In truth, we must remember that we know nothing of the subjective experience of the Almighty. To liken him too much to us is to break all boundaries of reason.
Back in Part 5 of our continuing series on atheist ideas and perspectives that are good for believers, we spoke about how important it is to recognize and deal with the fact that G-d cannot truly be known (at least not in the normal sense of the word).
But now for something completely different. This time, we leave aside reflections on the nature of the creator for more practical and in some ways more interesting sociological concerns.
6. G-d is just a crutch for those who can’t handle life.
It is both undeniable from my own experience and a realization of many latecomers to religion: the people showing up on the religious doorstep by choice are almost without exception flawed, troubled, or lacking success in regular secular life. This leads to the obvious doubt — are people interested in this because it’s true or because they are flawed?
Of course, if one so desired one might point out that human flaws are just as true as any ideology and far more widely accepted, so what surprise is there that the religious subset has issues?
But it’s much more than just “having issues.” I have friends who as they became more religious also went into therapy. As they sorted out their life issues, they came to the conclusion that their initial attraction to religion was due to psychological insecurities, pain, etc. As they in their adulthood learned to manage their problems they found little need to continue their religious practice which for them was always a crutch they used to deal with the world. So I think there are indeed people who at the very least perceived their own connection to G-d as a shield from the difficulties of life.
(On the other hand, there are many who leave religion in the exact same way. That is, not due to an intellectual disagreement or even deep personal incongruity but because they were merely unsuccessful at the religious endeavor or damaged in other areas of their life and thought that by jettisoning their religious commitments they might fix their problems. Many indeed do fix them in some way and find themselves slowly coming back to religion. So practical examples of what specifically is a “crutch” may be a bit of a wash.)
The atheist argument generalizes this situation and is usually coupled with a historical explanation of how religion came about. It says that all religious worship is a defense mechanism against the painful truths of the world.
The world according to most religions, however, is a painful place. There is no religion I know of (not that I am an expert on other religions, granted) that does not acknowledge that the world is imperfect and full of pain and death. Judaism especially has a long history of struggling with G-d in times of great pain, which unfortunately litter Jewish history. We find the truth of anguish undeniable and so cry out to G-d, doubting His goodness. This, too, is part of our religion.
In fact, the only general pain from which religion generally rescues us is the pain of meaninglessness. It is against the existential void that religion indeed acts as a shield, not dulling life’s pains but granting them meaning and in this way comforting us.
Nevertheless, we could still contend (as Victor Frankl might) that the pain and terror of suffering without meaning is so great the it encourages a sort of willful ignorance of the truth (that is, that the world is an accident and our lives are for naught) that many can achieve only through religion.
As usual, the atheist intuition is quite perceptive. In our struggle for meaning, we may often place our intellectual and emotional comfort before the truth, and that is indeed unacceptable. What this thought teaches us is the need to embrace G-d and religion on their own terms, rather than in a way that fills our voids or comforts us per se. The comfort must ever be a corollary of the truth but never itself the goal of our efforts. And the best way to achieve that, in Judaism at least, is to find a coreligionist and speak with them for five minutes. They will be sure to say something about our religion with which we disagree and which might even make us uncomfortable…
Part 4 of this series dealt with whether or not an infinite G-d would know or care about what takes place in our finite world. We concluded that it is indeed necessary to reconcile the infinitude of the creator with His famed involvement in our lives, and touched on two different ways that was possible.
This week, we will touch on a related issue, from a different angle. We will briefly mention understanding it and, in the process, see how atheist thoughts can often help our theism. Which is the so-called “point” of this entire series of posts.
5. If there were a G-d, he would be totally beyond our comprehension.
I love this idea for several reasons. There is that lovely “there’s only one G-d and Him we don’t believe in” flavor to it. There is the irony of asserting positively that certainly we cannot assert positively about the deity. And there is the fact that it’s true.
It’s true that G-d is totally beyond our comprehension. So the real question is, why is this an atheist argument in any way? How does it support an atheist worldview if religious leaders have been saying it for millenia?
Here, we once again come to realize that the atheist often has a profound understanding of religion — far deeper than that of the non-reflective believer. The theist generally has no problem not comprehending G-d. After all, he or she has G-d’s commandments, directives, rituals, etc. They know what they need to do, and hte means to access their eternal reward or whatever. Why would understanding G-d even enter into the picture?
“Because,” I imagine a patient atheist responding, “your religion is not just supposed to be a game. Is G-d real, or isn’t he? If He is real, real like a table or a dog or an atom, then it should make a difference. It should change everything. It should be the most remarkable truth ever discovered, and you should want to know it.”
For that, after all, is how a human being connects to something; by knowing it. We are creatures of curiosity and knowledge. And if G-d cannot be known, says the atheist, then the religious enterprise is incompatible with the human enterprise. Even if somehow (whether through revelation or pure reason) we knew what that G-d wanted, we would still be mere lab rats in the universe, and man balks at such self-enslavement.
It is absolutely incumbent upon the theist to explain how a human, a creature of meaning, can have a relationship with an infinite, incomprehensible being.
In Judaism, there are at least three ways of answering this question. The philosophical answer is that though it is true we cannot know what G-d is, it can take a lifetime of learning and deep though to truly understand what He is not. The general kabbalistic approach takes a different tack and says that while He cannot be known, He has revealed to us different modes of his spiritual expression, and these can be studied and known. The mystical/Chassidic approach says that being itself is non-being and that the soul is one with G-d, and though He may not be known intellectually He may be known as one knows oneself.
Obviously, each of these answers is problematic in its own way, and each requires careful thought to understand. The modern atheist would probably be most inclined toward the philosophical answer, which relies least on revelation and most on “bottom-up” reasoning. But I suspect from the very nature of the inquiry that a negative theology like the Rambam’s would be to the atheist most unsatisfying. The other answers propose that a communion with the creator is in some sense possible, but their answers leave the realm of the atheistic intellect and embrace revelation and mysticism.
Alas, the conundrum of the inherent limitations of intellect and the infinite nature of the creator persists. It is the obligation of ever religious believer to wrestle with it, whatever way they see fit.
On thing remains constant, at least: Think like an atheist, and your relationship with religion only becomes deeper.