A Teaching of the Rebbe Rashab

In commemoration of the birthday of the Rebbe Rashab, 20 Cheshvan, 5778.

Why would G-d create the universe? It doesn’t make sense.

A philosopher knows it doesn’t make sense. G-d is, of course, the perfect, necessary being. He needs nothing; He is utterly complete in a fashion quite beyond human reckoning. Even the words “complete” or “perfect” fail to describe him, for our words work metaphorically, and to say He is perfect is to say He shares a quality of all other things that are perfect, of a category or form or nature of perfection. But G-d does not exist in a category; He is His own form; He has no nature but is the ground of all natures. To say He is perfect is only to say he lacks all known imperfection. This is the highest thing we can say about G-d. But how, then, does G-d come to create a universe? When we act, we act because we are lacking something. When we want something, it’s because we want something — we are found wanting; we lack. But He does not lack. Therefore, He does not want. If He does not want, He does not want the universe. And yet the universe is here. Isn’t it?

A kabbalist also knows it doesn’t make sense for G-d to create the universe. In the beginning, we are taught, there was G-d and his infinite light, the full expression of His being. The light filled the entire place of the void; all that was, is, will be, can be, and cannot be was filled with His light, was filled with the fullness of His self-revelation. He decided to create the universe, and so He moved His light to the side, leaving over a vacuum and an empty space, into which he poured a single ray of the original light. This is the primordial Kav, the ray or vector, by which He creates all worlds spiritual and physical. After an infinite number of infinite descents, the Kav eventually creates the worlds of emanation, creation, formation, and action, and finally the very physical realm in which you are reading these words. The universe is the terminus of a single beam of His expression within a space devoid of the knowledge of G-d. And one day, in the messianic age, when the purpose of the world’s creation is fulfilled, that void and empty space will once again be full of His infinite light. First, his light filled it. Then, there is the creation, and his light is removed. Finally, his light is returned. So, the light was here, and one day it will be here again. The universe is just a moment in between. What could be the point of that?

One source says, He created the universe in order to be known. He wanted something else, something other, to taste of His truth. But when only He and His light existed, there was no other. In fact, there was no room for other, as a concept. All of reality was subjective. Everything was I. There was no room for thou. There was no room for reality. Everything was “in His head.” So G-d contracted his “I” and left a void and an empty space, so that objective reality may arise, and then He created other beings, who could meet him in that objective reality, and they could know each other. A Creator looking down at reality. A creation looking up at reality. A shared place. And He would no longer be alone.

But this itself does not make sense. For in our physical universe, we do not know Him. His presence is so concealed here that we have no inkling of what He is, and many have even forgotten that He is. The objective meeting ground is almost entirely beyond our grasp. “The Creator,” reminds the philosopher, “is completely beyond the limits of human intellect, to the extent that none of our words describe Him.” We know Him only through negations, only by saying what He is not, and even then, this is not an experience, not knowing — it is running on fumes, a grasp of His reputation. We do not know Him the way we know our mother, the way we know ourselves. It is only the soul as it stands above, or the abstract intelligence of the angels, that begin to understand the Creator. If He wished to be known, He should only have created the higher realms, the hidden realms, where G-d is as obvious as the rising sun and as directly experienced as ice cream. If He desired to be known, why would he create the low pit of physical reality?

Another source says He created the universe in order to actualize His potential. Before He created objective reality, He was only able to do it, and once He did, He actually did it. Everyone knows that doing it is better than the ability to do it; the perfection of potential is in its actualization. To this, both the philosopher and kabbalist speak up. The philosopher objects that we’ve misunderstood, since obviously the perfect being is pure actuality; He does not have unfulfilled potentials, since that would entail multiplicity which cannot be true of G-d. The kabbalist objects that we’ve misunderstood, since what part of His infinite light being the full expression of His being did you not understand? Everything that can be and cannot be is expressed in that One Infinite Light, the Ein Sof.

We might object that the universe does not exist as a physical entity within the unity of that expression. That is, even though everything is somehow contained within His infinite expression, it does not exist there as it does when He actually creates it by removing the light etc. But this is no real objection. Everything that happens from the removal of the light down to the actual physical universe is only a lower, more distant, “dimmer” expression of those same realities. In simpler terms, the creation of all worlds from His light is a subtractive process. The world is created by taking things away, not by adding them. And so if He already has his light, actually creating a physical universe adds nothing to it. It is not a further expression of Him. On the contrary, it is the slightest, most limited, most infinitesimal part of what He already possesses in Himself, before the creation. This is the general rule: There is no potential above that lacks actuality. He already possesses everything that can (or even cannot) exist. So why go through the diminishing process of actually creating a universe?

Indeed, the creation of the universe does not make sense.

He creates it simply because He desires it. If he wanted it because of its qualities, that would imply He was lacking those qualities, and He is not. He does not want, or lack, anything. He chooses to create the universe not for its qualities, but for its deficiencies. He “desires a dwelling place in the lower realms;” He does not desire it because it accomplishes some end (this being impossible, since he has no ends that are not accomplished), but for its own sake, for no reason, from a place beyond reason.

But if He himself is the perfect being, utterly actual, and lacking nothing, then how does He choose to create the universe for its own sake? He does not choose to create a being, for he is lacking potentiality, and if such a being were possible it already exists, one with His light. He does not create a new potential for a being, since if that potential were new, it would not have been expressed in His infinite light, which is impossible, since His infinite light is the full expression of His being. Whence, then, the Universe?

Rather, He chooses to create the world from the place of His own “being beyond being,” where He does not exist at all in any sense of the word existence, where we say He exists only because we cannot say He does not exist. This is what we call G-d’s own self, and it cannot be said to exist, or not exist. It is beyond all reckoning. There, in Himself, he bears potentials that are not actualized, for He Himself transcends the binary distinction of existence and non-existence, potential and actual, perfect and imperfect. Within Him, there is imperfection, though the word “is” refers to something utterly unknowable. Within Him, imperfection is a limitation and violation of His Truth only as much as perfection is. And it is from this place that He chooses to create the Universe. And therefore, it is only the physical universe, in violation of all laws that seem to bind Him, that fulfills not some external or arbitrary calculus that He creates, but satisfies Him Himself.

This is what is accomplished by the moment of the universe, the moment  between His infinite light filling the void before creation and the messianic age. It is not the same light. The first light was the full expression of His being, but since it was an expression, it was not Him Himself. And through the universe, the blink of an eye between eternities, He Himself is expressed, in a new and greater light.

Based on the first discourse of the famous “Samech Vov,” Yom Tov Shel Rosh HaShana 5666.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 10)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

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.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 9)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

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.

 

 

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 8)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

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.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 7)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

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.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 6)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

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…

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 5)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

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.

I agree.

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.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 4)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

We finally continue our series on atheist arguments that help us improve our faith in G-d. Our previous installment spoke about the perennial question, “What caused G-d?” Indeed, it is a good question, and we spoke about how we need to think of G-d as the uncaused cause of the classic Cosmological Argument, how G-d is qualitatively different from everything else.

This time, we will be dealing not with the existence of the creator per se, but rather a problem with religion.

4. The infinite creator of the universe cares about what we do? Preposterous.

Rather than say G-d is such a trifling matter that His existence is irrelevant, this argument takes quite a different tack. It is incredibly hard to understand, we are told, that the same being of infinite power who created the universe would care at all about the humans on earth. He is too big to care about our behavior, our feelings, or perhaps our existence as individuals at all.

There are several ways to answer this argument, and several ways in which it thus helps us improve our theism.

The theistic preconception many of us naturally have from our childlike understanding of G-d is that the creator essentially exists for our purposes, rather than vice versa. It is indeed this approach, wherein G-d is the solution to all of our problems and we are the solution to none of His, so to speak, that turns many people off from religion. When the deity is constantly on our side and helping us live our lives, the whole enterprise begins to smell somewhat…artificial. Man-made. A put-up job.

And so, the atheist points out: Either your guy is infinitely powerful and the creator of the Universe, or He is your own personal cheerleader, warrior, confidante, etc. How can He be both?

The obvious answer to this question is also a bad one, and that is, “He’s G-d; He can do anything.” There we go. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to question or self-evaluate. All the atheists’ favorite things…not.

The truth of serious religion, as any thinking theist knows, is that we exist for G-d, rather than the other way around. The question is, how can we possibly exist for a being who is transcendent and infinite and totally beyond us in every way?

In Judaism, at least, there is more than one answer to this question, and each leads to a different way of looking at the entire G-d/Man dynamic.

The philosophical, nonmystical position, especially in the Maimonidean view, maintains G-d’s simplicity and infinitude as the ultimate truth, to which all other aspects of reality, including Judaism, must conform. Thus, on the matter of whether G-d cares about us or anything that happens on earth, the answer is a resounding no. G-d doesn’t care about anything. G-d doesn’t have feelings; feelings are a logical contradiction to being G-d, as is caring, thinking, or anything else we know from our experience. After all, if G-d feels, then there is Him and His thoughts, and they exist in some kind of unity, and any unity must indeed comprise some third, higher category, and this leads to some sort of strange holy trinity that falls flat on Jewish ears, not to mention it means G-d has parts and is not truly infinite.

No, the Rambam is forceful in his insistence that there can be no positive knowledge of G-d, that what he is totally incomparable to anything we know of. And that includes emotions like concern, love, hatred, compassion…

So, what is a human being to do? What does it mean to serve G-d? And what does the Rambam make of the religion of Judaism, with its famous 613 precepts and a metric ton of moral responsibilities demanded of mankind?

Suffice it so say, there is an entire way of looking at man’s service of G-d that allows Him to “remain still” as we do all of the moving. We work to refine ourselves and achieve a connection to the Good, and the more we refine ourselves, the more we are transparent vessels for the truth of G-d, though He will never feel or care about our efforts. Though there exists an ultimate reality that creates and sustains the world, whose existence the atheist denies, there is nevertheless no interaction between that reality and us. The historical revelation in our religion, says the philosophical view, is, on the whole, to teach us how we can refine ourselves and become vessels for knowing G-d.

If all of this sounds to you a bit like Cthulhu, impersonal and cold and far vaster than anything to which man can relate, you’re not alone. But there is another option open to the theist that is as rationally consistent and in consonance with religion, divine revelation, and man’s moral responsibility to G-d.

Such is mysticism, in which G-d’s unity and transcendence are not the ultimate truth to which everything else must bend. But instead of relying on a dismissive “G-d can do anything” approach to the Creator’s relationship with the creation, Chassidus, Kabbalah, and Jewish mysticism write at great length about the G-dly desire for revelation in a place of darkness, and how the Creator’s simplicity and transcendence are not contradicted by His reaction with the world. This is achieved by the kabbalistic concepts of G-dly light and the ten sefirot, concepts absent from Jewish philosophy and claimed as part of the divine revelation of the oral tradition of Kabbalah.

And so, once again, those who believe in G-d must indeed confront, and try to understand, a contradiction it sometimes takes an atheist to see.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 3)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Last time we spoke about the difference between the G-d of monotheism and the random fictitious characters no one believes in, such as the tooth fairy. Whereas the existence of the former is arrived at through deductive reason and is thus disproved through questioning the premises or logic of certain classic arguments, the existence of the latter rests on no such reasoning and is much more easily disbelieved.

This time, we will briefly examine the most famous argument for G-d’s existence as it has existed since the middle ages. We will examine it through the lens of the most common and by far the worst objection to the argument, which is:

3. “What caused G-d?”

At first glance, this argument is not an expression of ridiculous offhanded easy atheism, like the other things we are examining in this series. This argument appears in several books claiming to be serious atheist criticisms of theism. It is what people say when they hear one of the famous cosmological argument for the existence of G-d. When they hear, but not when they pay attention, because, as we shall see, this argument is not an argument at all a lazy bumper sticker dismissal of G-d, and is perfectly at home on this list.

Now, there’s a reason that the classical arguments for G-d’s existence, including the one I’m about to ridiculously briefly paraphrase, are found within the context of much broader works. An understanding of Aristotelean and scholastic metaphysics, of the way the world works according to those philosophical schools, is required to really understand the arguments they put forth. I do not claim to grasp that entire metaphysical picture, and I certainly am not getting into the bits I do know in this small space. Suffice it to say, the following paragraph is merely the tip of the iceberg of the proof for G-d in its entirety, with all caveats explored and all concepts mapped out.

In my own words, the cosmological argument, as laid out by medieval philosophers of all three major monotheistic religions, is:  Everything that is caused has an efficient cause outside of itself, because nothing can cause itself. Since the potential can only be made actual by something that is already actual, this efficient cause must itself be actual. But if this efficient cause is itself caused, then it itself needs a cause outside itself, to make it actual. This chain of efficient causes must therefore terminate in a cause that is uncaused, and that uncaused cause can be shown to have all the traits of G-d.

Now, this argument (which I hope I have done justice in my paraphrase) sometimes appears in other terms. The Rambam, for example, makes this argument not from causality but from motion (that is, anything which is in motion cannot move itself, etc.). A similar argument exists in terms of essence and existence (anything whose existence is not its essence must have its essence and existence conjoined by something outside itself, etc). But one thing this argument never, ever, ever, does, is start with, “everything has a cause,” which would then allow us to turn around, triumph writ upon our countenances, and say, “But what caused G-d?”

(That is not to say that there are no legitimate critiques of the cosmological argument, On the contrary, many great thinkers have challenged its premises, and it has been a debate among philosophers since the argument was made. I am simply pointing out that “What caused G-d” has absolutely nothing to do with what the Rambam, for example, was saying. No one ever said everything has to have a cause.)

Why, you may wonder, is this relevant to the average theist?

Because the real cosmological argument, as opposed to the caricature of “everything has a cause, nothing causes itself, so there must be a first cause which is G-d,” puts us on the right trail toward (at least a negative version of) an understanding of G-d.

You see, the false cosmological argument offered by no classical philosopher is what makes room for the deist understanding of the creator, of G-d as a divine watchmaker who at some point created or gave order to the universe but may today be totally uninvolved. After all, the place for G-d according to that argument is at the beginning of a causal change that stretches into the distant past, irrelevant except as the first step of a process that has been going on for thousands or millions of years, etc.

The true version of the cosmological argument, however, has a sense of the qualitative difference between G-d and everything else. In other words, the idea that anything which is comprised of act and potency must be caused by something other than itself, whereas pure act requires no cause, draws a sharp delineation between the causative powers of G-d and those of everything else. Ultimately, the cosmological argument is trying to say (and again, whether it succeeds is a matter of some controversy) that all causes other than the first are instrumental, that G-d is first not just in order but also in quality, that nothing can be unless G-d makes it so, at every moment.

(This, incidentally, is why, as pointed out by the Rambam, the existence of G-d has nothing to do with whether the world has always existed or was created at some point in the past. According to his cosmological deduction of G-d’s existence, even an eternal universe requires G-d to sustain it at every moment. Students of chassidus will note that this sounds similar to what the Alter Rebbe is saying at the beginning of the second part of Tanya. Indeed, that work takes the Rambam’s argument and takes it further, showing the qualitative gain in an appreciation of G-d when we do, in fact, accept that the world is not only sustained by G-d at every moment but also was created ex nihilo.)

Thus, if we study the actual arguments made by the great philosophers of the monotheistic religions, we begin to realize what they have in mind when they constantly praise this “G-d” character…

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 2)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

I must start with a confession, and that is — I’m cheating with the numbering of this list. You see, “arguments” (and I use to the term loosely) one, two, and three are all related and quite similar. Though the points discussed in each of the three sections flow from one another, it is still worth listing each of the arguments seperately, if only for the nostalgia of recognizing them, like when we saw the Millenium Falcon in the new Star Wars. “I saw my friend in grad school comment that on an unrelated Facebook post five months ago!”

It warms the heart.

Last time,  we spoke about the idea that what is at issue in monotheism is merely an incomplete form of atheism, or, as the famous quote goes, “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one less god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” This was noted to be a generally wonderful point, because it forces the monotheist to think of his god differently. We noted (very) briefly that the answer to this claim is that the monotheist G-d is very different from other “gods.” If we do not believe in Hercules or Loki, it is for very good reason, and a reason that does not apply to the One G-d of monotheism.

Not convinced? That’s why we have

2. “Believing in G-d is like believing in the tooth fairy.”

Or as Queen put it, “You say, ‘Lord,’ I say, ‘Christ, I don’t believe in Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Super Man.'” Or Santa Clause. Or  Poseidon.  Or whatever. The point is, there are these imaginary people that they tell us about as kids, but some of us never grow out of believing in the “G-d” one. If you think that G-d exists you’re stuck in your childhood, foolish, buying into the big lie. The atheist has merely managed to stop foolishly believing in one more contrivance than the monotheist.

Now, just who exactly is supposed to be pulling the wool over whom’s eyes, or whether someone need be deceitful for someone to be fooled is an issue for a different time. What we’re dealing with here is the substance of Freddie Mercury’s point, i.e. that not believing in G-d is the same as not believing in any other character or being we have never actually seen with our eyes.

This is, unfortunately, not true, because everyone agrees that the criteria for reality does not involve actually seeing something with our eyes. Sure, if G-d were like a person, if He were a demigod like the pagan deities, who are basically like superman with less Jewish backstories, then the only way to affirm His existence would be through seeing Him or believing the testimony of those who have. This is because these beings are basically people, like anyone else. You know they’re there if you see their body, same way you know your aunt has shown up at the family reunion and it’s time for slobbery kisses.

G-d, if He doesn’t have a body (a point that, like G-d’s existence I’m sure, is still widely considered to be up for debate), would be rather hard to spot. That’s okay; there are other things that don’t have a body and have never been seen, and we believe in them. Some of these we know through their effects, like recalcitrance or love or the wind. This is unhelpful in trying to determine whether G-d exists, since His effects are just as up for debate as his existence, and this sends us down the rabbit hole of the whole “science vs religion” thing which, no matter its outcome, is utterly unnecessary.

It is unnecessary because there are other things we know to be true, but not through seeing their bodies, and not even through their effects. These we know with a more arcane, thoroughly human form of perception, that is, through logical demonstration.

Take, for example, Euclid’s magnificent proof that there are infinitely many prime numbers, still beautiful and true after 2300 years. This proof does not involve anything physical, nor does it affect anything we can observe. It is an example of deductive logic whose premises and conclusion deal in purely abstract concepts. As far as I know, very few people go around saying, “Believe in Euclid’s Theorem? I don’t believe in the tooth fairy, either.” The reason very few people go around saying this is because it’s stupid. You are comparing something that can only be known to exist through witnesses or the testimony of witnesses (the tooth fairy) to something that is said to exist because basic premises and logic itself leads us to that conclusion (Euclid’s theorem).

Now, this doesn’t mean it is impossible to argue with deductive mathematical reasoning. What it means is that if we are to argue, we should really argue with either the premises or the logic of the demonstration. On the contrary, if you do not believe every number can be broken down into prime factors, or you are a fervent skeptic of modus ponens (having read that thoroughly disturbing Lewis Carroll story), by all means — argue these things. But comparisons to the existence of mythical figures accomplishes nothing at all.

If you haven’t yet guessed it, it’s worth saying now: I really do believe G-d is more like Euclid’s Theorem than the tooth fairy. That is, His existence is classically known through a process of demonstrative logical deduction, not through seeing Him or His effects in some way.

Very well, you may be thinking. What is the demonstration? Where is the proof? What are the premises or logic that we must criticize, rather than saying G-d is like Peter Pan?

But that’s for next time, when we’ll discuss the perennial question, “What caused G-d?” For now, for those of us who believe in G-d, it is worth meditating on the difference between Frankenstein and G-d. And rest assured: The great religious philosophers of all three major monotheistic religions have always said that the difference is sizeable indeed.