Four Useful Non-Jewish Ideologies

“The gentile makes gods of stone and we of theories.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Two questions:
(1) Is G-d true?
(2) Is G-d central to human perfection?

Judaism is not any particular combination of answers to these two questions.

If you answer no to both, you are what’s called an atheist. Atheism is the idea that G-d is not there, and that He plays no role in human perfection, which must be defined in terms of the human beings themselves. Atheism, however, is viewed as so contrary to logic that it is rarely mentioned in Judaism. It is, after all, merely an intellectually bankrupt form of idol worship and a spiritually bankrupt form of humanism.

Idol worship (a very common and relatively rational position) says G-d is true but that He is not central to human perfection. That is, there is such a thing as a Most High being, but that Most High being has abandoned the earth (or at least shared it) with lesser powers. G-d made the thunder, but some other being or concept rules it now; whether that concept is electromagnetism or Thor really makes no practical difference. G-d gave us a mind so we could bend these beings and concepts to our will, through sacrifice and understanding, to extend and improve our being. For the idolator, G-d answers a couple of bothersome questions so the real business of life, the navigation of the various finite powers, may begin. Judaism has been anti-idol since Abraham reached (or began to reach) intellectual maturity.

The opposite of idolatry is a dying art called “enlightened humanism” that says it does not matter if G-d is not technically true, since He is the center of a well-ordered life. In the beauty of art or the profound joy and pain of the human experience lies something once rightly called other, sublime, otherworldly. If philosophy cannot prove that these experiences point to an actually existing Infinite Creator, that makes little difference, since so much of our greatest artistic and intellectual endeavors point toward that Creator. Humanism is like the Pantheon in Rome. A beautiful classical structure with a high dome, at the center of which there is a hole, which at the time of its construction demonstrated a wondrous innovation in engineering: The building is no less beautiful, and can continue standing, even if the piece at the top and the center is missing. Judaism, of course, is founded on that center stone having taken us out of Egypt with miracles and wonders.

If you answer yes to both of the above questions, you are what is considered “traditionally religious.” You say that G-d’s Truth and His centrality to the human endeavor are one; G-d is both real, and I exist for Him. I am not sure you have yet discovered Judaism, however. The Rambam (never mind his kabbalistic critics like the Maharal) would tell you that calling G-d “true” is a gross intellectual error, and that all scriptural or rabbinic sources calling Him just that must be understood in the utmost negative abstraction, their names made possible only by revealed prophecy. A human mind landing on some notion called “truth” and then ascribing it to G-d? Preposterous. The Yiddish word for G-d is der Aibishter. The One Who Is Above, eternally above, above the thing we are conceiving Him of right now.

By the same token, to call G-d central to human perfection is so gross a contextualization as to be factually false. G-d in His Infinitude is far beyond being any basis of perfection humans may strive for, even moral perfection. Is this not the very essence of the chok, the suprarational decree no human being could possibly devise had the Torah not decreed it? We do not keep kosher for health or to have a nice ritual to make our community cohere; none of these can possibly explain the precise workings of the halacha, and bizarre cynical contrivances involving Rabbis making things up based on the norms of repudiated surrounding pagans (or the like) must come into play. This cynicism is important if you are traditionally religious; the Jew doesn’t need it, because he doesn’t have to answer yet to both questions.

Now, the Jew doesn’t deny that G-d being true and being central to human perfection are trivially (if not technically) correct. In this sense, traditional religion can serve as a vessel for Judaism, a sort of ideological shorthand for what it does not capture. Judaism as it speaks to these questions, if it is forced to speak to these questions, is like traditional religion. The problems start when that vessel coarsens and darkens, losing its role as a mere interface through which Judaism speaks to certain narrow definitions and becomes the definition itself. And when that happens, the other answers to the questions become incredibly useful.

If someone is getting too comfortable both intellectually and morally, that is, with the conflation of G-d with truth and of G-d with self-perfection, atheism is a good way to kick over their blocks. “Look at all these arguments that say the truth and the human being are both just fine without G-d.” Thus, the Chassidic Master who said that a Jew ought to be an atheist when their fellow man asks for charity or help. We ought not to say, “G-d will provide for them.” Atheism exists to break through the opacity and coarseness of our representations of G-d.

If their issue is primarily making of G-d a source of blessing and benefit to the human endeavor, idolatry is the temptation: “He exists, I grant, but it doesn’t matter! His benefits are achievable without Him. Why pray when you can work, protest, exercise, or study?” The difficult question for the believer that they ought to ask themselves every night: Is there more to me than there was to Abraham’s father? Would I have seen what my forefather saw?

Finally, if they are not concerned with fitting G-d in their heart but rather hold Him as an intellectual ideal, humanism retorts, “You can be spiritually ordered and complete as G-d would want without G-d needing to actually be there; G-d was the center of your heart all along.” Why do you sit at the Pesach Seder, or light the Chanukah menorah? Are these functionally any different than attending a museum? What makes the Jewish Film Festival Jewish? These, too, can be uncomfortable questions for comfortable Jews.

Traditional religion, in turn, reminds each of these errors that they, too, are errors. It fights atheism’s range of arguments when they wish to end the matter, rebukes idolatrous gnosticism, and rages against humanist myopia.

Meanwhile, the Jew. The Jew belongs to something else, and many sense it. As a perceptive fellow once said, “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be.”

The king is no mere drunk historical Persian lecher. The king is The Ruler of All. The problem is, this is a worldly concept, a translation of the truth. When the Torah calls G-d King, it means He is both more a king (in the defined sense of the term) and that He is not a king at all (in that sense). The space of the ark exists to express that there is no space. The center of Judaism is the center because it is not on the map. As ideologies fight and refine themselves upon each other, we remember that they exist for G-d, and not vice versa. So should we exist.

Celebrating Halloween the Chassidic Way

“Why can’t we just celebrate Halloween if it’s secular nowadays?” ought to be a self-answering question for observant Jews. Alas, our passion against paganism may still exist in at least a dormant state, but our passion against secularism does not. That the two are even related has been largely forgotten. Come, then. Let us celebrate the 31st of October in the Chassidic fashion:

The Rambam tells the whole sad story in the first chapter of his laws of idol worship, for it must be the reader’s goal to eliminate foreign worship from our minds and hearts, and our minds and hearts are where, in the story, it first got in. It was the mind and heart that first turned to idols and eventually away from G-d entirely.

No reasonable person could conclude that there is no ultimate purpose or end to the creation unless an alternate explanation presented itself. Man was formed by G-d’s own hands and spoke to Him face to face, so the alternate explanation had to be pretty good. And it was; it was based on G-d’s will itself, an interpretation of it.

First, the generation of Enosh erred in philosophy and reasoned that since G-d has placed the sun as the source of sustenance for the earth, it deserves worship, too. They applied this logic to all spiritual forces, the four elements, constellations. They valued G-d so highly as to make Him irrelevant, a watchmaker, a disinterested king.

False prophets then arose who claimed the intermediaries yearned for worship, that G-d Himself demanded it. And with the stretching out of years, the Creator, quiet and unnecessary, was then forgotten entirely.

If other beings, creations, have importance or efficacy, then they have explanatory power. So was room made for the secular, which existed in theory inherent to the nature of the sun, but needed human reason to bring it out. The realm of things having nothing to do with G-d is first created when we mistake G-d for having created it.

In the Rambam there is little separating idolatry from secularism.* One leads to the other directly; they constitute the error and its eventual consequence.

Today, for whatever reason, we have separated between the unnatural and the natural, the pagan and the secular, witchcraft and philosophy. As we have become ever-more physical even in our spiritual sensibilities, we have come to think of sun worship as something distinct from our experience even as we have come to see secularism as the natural neutral substance of life. A witch cursing an apple for Snow White is a fairy tale, but an apple as a colorless tasteless purposeless hunk of stuff that just exists is called “reality.”

We want to distinguish between sinister necromancy Halloween and cute kids asking for candy Halloween. The latter is clearly not as strange or threatening as the former. The latter could at least theoretically be diverted to G-dly ends, and that is the advantage of secularism over its idolatrous roots. Secularism wants to see things just as they are, and things as they are exist for G-dly purposes, no matter how narrowly you look at them. But if we seek no such purpose and take the secular merely for itself, we live in its lowliness, in its coarseness, in a state of idolatry to which an additional forgetting and numbing have been appended. Such was the world that our father Abraham was born into, per the Rambam, before he walked its sands and peered at its luminaries, before he rediscovered G-d and made Him an heirloom.

We shall not escape secularism through reason centered on our own benefit or perfection. Reasoning with the will of G-d as it relates to our benefit and perfection is what the generation of Enosh did. G-dliness can be found reliably only within a simple faith in Moses’s prophecy, something the Creator gives us and we cannot create. With this, a chassid celebrates the 31st of October and the 2nd of Cheshvan and all other days, past, present, and future.


*By providence, enlightenment secularism has called itself Secular Humanism, and humanity in modern Hebrew is literally Enosh-ity; perhaps we should begin calling it Secular Enosh-ism, to remember.

Douglas Adams Wasn’t An Atheist

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.”

“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.”
“No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”

-Various, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
by Douglas Adams, 1979

Somehow, despite my adolescent devotion to his books, I never found out Douglas Adams was an outspoken atheist until much later. Not that it changed much; I still think The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels are some of the most brilliant books ever written. More: I can’t get away from the notion that his novels are a great guide for relating to G-d.

If you never read those books, shame on you. If you only saw the movie, our entire planet deserves to be destroyed. Which is basically what THHGTTG is about. Earth is destroyed for traffic reasons, but all-around-normal guy Arthur Dent is rescued at the last moment by a friend who happened to be an alien all along, and who happens to be a researcher for the titular galactic encyclopedia. Arthur then ends up bending all the rules of space, time, and propriety on his rollicking adventures.

If all of that sounds like high-concept science fiction, it’s not. It is side-splittingly funny. It is Wodehouse in space, or Monty Python on spaceships. Hitchhiker’s is actually a satire. Not of society per se (though there is plenty of that as well), but, like the best satires, of the universe itself. If the book has one message, it is that the universe is insane, that the apparent sensibility of the world is an inch-thick veneer and all is just papered-over anarchy.

Even the source of much of the magical mischief in Adams’s universe works on this principle. The Heart of Gold (which drives much of the plot) is the most coveted spaceship in the galaxy because it runs on the infinite improbability drive, which can accomplish anything as long as you know precisely how improbable it is that it should ever happen. Arthur Dent’s adventures are basically a series of impossibly improbable events, a story emergent from chaos, and the actual galactic Hitchhiker’s Guide (from the selections of the encyclopedia sprinkled throughout the books) is a smirking chaperon that might let its charges get devoured by aliens on a lark.

All of this seems to have very little to do with G-d. Indeed, some might say it’s a claim in the opposite direction. But I think that springs from our confusion.

We are, indeed, so confused. The Internet, for all its boons, has allowed for a lot of communication without much nuance. It is very hard to convey precise tone in written form, as even professional writers will tell you. So we throw a lot of words at people every day hoping that something sticks in the way we imagined, and we try to divine the meaning clutched in the cold fingers of the words our friends, acquaintances, enemies, and perfect strangers put in front of us.

Somehow, in the confusion, a lot of our jokes get taken seriously.

Somewhere in this mess, a lot of humor passes us by.

And we begin to lose grasp on what precedes what.

It is, after all, only a firm grasp on reality that makes things funny. It is the surprise of contradiction, the subversion of expectation, that the soul so enjoys. Humor is a flying buttress of the mind; it hangs off the orderly construct of the intellect and supports it from the outside. It is absurdity commenting on order. But in chaos there is no expectation, no surprise, and no humor.

If the absurd and the chaotic become our default headspace, become the ground for all thought, then there is no humor. When Mitch Hedberg says, “Who would make their plants hard to reach? That seems so very mean,” it’s funny because it’s a riff on some aspects of reality (infomercials and their language) that are so dull they no longer parse at all. When comedians note how ridiculous politics is, the implication of every single bit is, “The world could make so much sense, but it doesn’t!” Many Americans don’t “get” British humor because they have no grasp of formal conversation and boring sentences in the first place. They do not know the rules, and feel no joy from their breaking.

I learned the wrong lesson from Hitchhiker’s. What I was supposed to learn (as an unconscious corollary, no doubt — obviously the main goal of the book is entertainment) was that the world is mad because there is no ordering force to the universe. What I learned is that the world is mad even though there is an ordering force to the universe.

“After all,” I tell Mr. Adams, “that’s why it’s funny.”

“It’s funny because it’s a book, you dolt,” he’d probably say. “In reality it’s not funny at all. Haven’t you ever heard that all comedians are depressed?”

Yes. If you were Arthur Dent, you would probably be an emotional wreck. But when we read Hitchhiker’s, we have access to someone Arthur Dent doesn’t know.

We have access to Douglas Adams, the winking narrator, the one who tells the story and grins from above at the beautiful workings of his mad universe. We know the author, who has constructed the tale to make us laugh, and in doing so, has acknowledged the reality of the order and sense we all know, deep inside, to be right.

We read the book not from within, but from without, and even meaninglessness becomes magical.

So ride happy into that starry sky, Mr. Adams. In my eyes, you pulled off the greatest absurdity of all. You gave me something you swore you didn’t have: Faith.

So long, and thank you for the tisch.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

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.