Thursday, June 23, 2005

What Kind of Atheist am I?

Zookeeper-Benjamin asks, "What kind of Atheist are you? What are the foundations for your beliefs?"

Technically, I am a strong atheist, which means I hold "the philosophical position that God or gods do not exist. It is contrasted with weak atheism, which is the lack or absence of belief in God or gods, without the claim that God or gods do not exist." Make no mistake: I do not claim that I can prove that there is no God; it is simply my belief. However, please don't write and tell me that I have "faith" that there is no God, since "faith" has implications which don't make sense for atheists. One can't have "faith" in nothingness.

So if I can't prove it, why do I believe it, especially since I was raised an Orthodox Jew? Well, I can describe how I arrived at atheism and perhaps that will do. As early as I can remember, I believed in God, since that's what I was taught by my parents. I was a curious child, though, and I always had questions. I was also cocky and didn't believe anything just because somebody said it. My first doubts probably started when some of my early rebbeim said things which I knew to be untrue or believed to be immoral. Being curious, if a Rabbi contradicted a science book, I did more research. In the end, I found the science books to be more credible than my Rabbis, who, while intelligent and learned in one particular field, were demonstrably ignorant in other matters. Once I realized that it was possible for Rabbis (and secular teachers, too, of course) to be incorrect, I became a skeptic. If I was taught something which seemed wrong and was testable, I would test it. If it weren't testable, I would do research and find the most credible sources I could come up with.

Eventually, I realized that if Rabbis could be wrong, perhaps the Torah could be wrong. After all, what made me believe it was the word of God other than the claims of Rabbis I knew to be fallible? I started thinking about Breishit (Genesis) since it makes many claims which are relatively testable as compared to stories about people who supposedly lived 3000 years ago. The six days' account of creation seemed to contradict Evolution, which I had come to believe in through my readings, but I could reconcile the two if I sort of squinted and told myself, "Well at least the Genesis story is presented in mostly the right order."

The first thing that really tripped me up was the idea of the firmament:
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. (Genesis 1:6-7.)


What was this? First of all, this seems to imply that the Earth is the center of the Universe. But more imporantly, it clearly states that some firmament actually exists and there's water on top of it. To my understanding, no such thing exists. I was troubled. I went to one of the smartest Rabbis I knew and I asked him what the firmament was. He said, "I always thought of it as the stratosphere." Huh?? That didn't make any sense at all. Combined with the other curious parts of the Genesis story like the fact that it took place in 6 days, that there was no mention of dinosaurs or of mass extinctions (pre-Flood), that it doesn't appear to agree with evolution, that it doesn't seem to realize that the Moon is a satellite nor that the Earth is a planet, I decided it must not be literally true.

Well, so, maybe it was metaphorical. Maybe it was just a pretty story. But then what about the rest of the Torah? Was the Flood just a story? How about Abraham? I was a big reader of fiction as well as science books and the stories in the Torah certainly read like fiction. Don't Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, Isaac and Ishmael, Isaac and Esau sound like fiction? Aren't they a little too pat to be historical record? Joseph and the multicolored coat? Come on, now. What about Egypt? How do I know that even happened?

I read about other religions, past and present. I wondered, did the Greeks and Romans literally believe in their mythologies? How were my Rabbis so sure that the Torah is true but the New Testament is false? Why were the Muslims as confident that they're right as we were that we were? Wasn't it unlikely that I was just born into the right denomination of the one true religion? Didn't Muslims and Baptists and Catholics all think the same thing? Why hadn't all the smartest, best, and most learned people in the world converted to Orthodox Judaism if it's so obvious that we were right?

I was going to have to look at it objectively. I couldn't directly test whether a given religion was correct, since religions are so slippery. You disprove one thing, and the apologists say, "Oh no, that doesn't mean what you think it means. It means [this entirely different thing.]" I started to think about that phenomenon a little bit more. It was interesting that as scientific knowledge grew, religious claims seemed to get milder and milder. Long ago before videorecorders and Richter scales, Moses supposedly split a sea. Before we knew that the Earth rotates, the Greeks believed a god pulled the sun around the earth each day. The Egyptians thought the sun was God. Jesus supposedly walked on water. But it was fascinating that whenever we figured out how something works, religion simply accepted our explanations and shifted their claims to less impressive events. We started understanding weather better, and religions stopped claiming that the gods made it thunder and rain, at least directly. God Himself (or Herself or Theirselves) became less specific. God became abstract.

Okay, so maybe God was this abstract Thing which didn't directly cause thunder or give people leprosy for lying anymore. Maybe the Torah stories were just for the people who lived back then, so that they would understand. But if God wrote the Torah, or if God even talked to Moses, or talked to anyone, why didn't He take some easy steps to alleviate suffering? Couldn't he have just explained about tiny, invisible bugs that cause illness? If God exists at all, why does He allow such misery in the world? Why the earthquakes and the holocaust and child slavery? Why does the Torah hate gay people so much? Why does it allow slavery and condone genocide (e.g. of the Midionites and Amalek?) Even if it's not literal, even if the Torah is just allegory, and even if God inspired it rather than dictated it, shouldn't it be a better book? Shouldn't it be more moral?

I stopped believing the Torah wasn't written by people living thousands of years ago. I mean, what would it look like if it had been written by people who lived in Israel thousands of years ago? Wouldn't it reflect their ignorance and their knowledge and their hangups and prejudices? Doesn't it?

I started thinking about whether the Universe could exist in the absence of God. I read Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time. I noticed that although he went out of his way to deny being an atheist, his book presents a good case for a Universe that runs by itself according to a bunch of math and physics and randomness. Hawking didn't know what caused the Big Bang, but it sure looked like the Universe has been taking care of itself since then. I read Carl Sagan. I realized how incomprehensibly huge the Universe is. I decided there's no reason for such an enormous Universe if the whole point of creation was humanity. I read Dawkins. Obviously, he was a fanatic atheist with a chip on his shoulder. But he made a lot more sense than most of the religious apologists I'd read.

Then I started reading philosophy. I read Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian and a whole bunch of stuff online. I found that Russell's and others' arguments made a lot of sense to me.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I no longer believed in God. I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but as John McCarthy wrote, "An atheist doesn't have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can't be a god. He only has to be someone who believes that the evidence on the God question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question."

20 comments:

Mis-nagid said...

Great post. So much of it is so familiar.

BTW, I'm a weak atheist.

Enigma4U said...

I enjoy your blog. Keep it up!

With slight variations, my route was very similar to yours, with almost identical conclusions.

It's still a mystery to me why atheists seem to be such a minority. I can understand religion in the context of humans trying to systematically make sense of the world. But you would think that religion would wither away in modern times, where any schoolboy has access to more information about science than the people who wrote the Bible had. Religion does a terrible job of explaining the world, yet people cling to it and perceive anyone with doubts about religion to have committed a capital offense.

Orthoprax said...

Enigma,

Atheism is rare, not because of the God question but because of the implications of the atheist's God answer.

Turn it from a simple factual discussion about the origins of everything and turn it to a debate about whether the universe and things we do and life itself has any real purpose and meaning and you get people unwilling to come to certain conclusions.

Orthoprax said...

Btw, JA, nine times out of ten, I'll tell you I'm a weak atheist but I'm an open minded person and I do think that the universe is much more complex then we can know at this time through empiricism.

It could be that at some point we'll see the force that brought our universe into being and all the events following which brought us, as a species and individuals into being. The theists will point to it and call it God, while the naturalists will point and call it nature. Who will be right? Neither really, or both. It would be a matter of opinion. But that force or forces surely exist.

Basically, I remain unconvinced that there is no God and so I remain hopeful. And sometimes I allow myself a little suspension of disbelief.

I also suspect that a strong atheist such as yourself only rejects a certain type of God and not all conceptions of higher powers which exist. And for some free advice, don't allow yourself to become "loyal" to atheism. It clouds your thinking. It's just a belief, not a way of life. Fanaticism is just as bad no matter which side of the fence you're on.

ZooKeeper-Benjamin said...

I responded to this on my blog. I am guessing that a lot of what I wrote you probably already heard. Anywho-

http://jewzoo.blogspot.com/2005/06/jewish-athiest-responds.html

Hope no one here comes with pitch forks and tourches to me.

Stacey said...

This was such an interesting post. I feel almost exactly the same way that you do. Although I haven't labeled myself as such, I guess I am a Jewish Atheist, too.

Ben Avuyah said...

Great Post, JA

I went through a very similar process to arrive at my beliefs

I have to agree with Enigma, I am often surprised that there aren't more people who have come to the same conclusions.

Ben Avuyah said...

BTW,

Friedman talks about the firmament in one of his books, I believe it is the one in which he discusses how god disappears over time, but I can’t recall the exact title. In any case, he says the firmament was an imagined substance of antiquity that held back the “water” that was on top of the sky. This water made the sky blue. And the reason it didn’t fall on us all the time was the invisible firmament. This fits with the Mobul in which one author describes the firmament being opened to allow the “water of the heavens” to gush down.

Anonymous said...

Hello fellow, you sill out there?
I read your post and I felt bad for you.
Nothingness; having nothing to hold on to but your own thoughts. Why do they even matter - why bother to question a world that has no purpose? Let it go, live quietly take what you need and go back to where you come from.
The model that you portray points to a higher purpose, and by definition a higher being. If we are all just the result of many accidents, we would live that way. Yet we talk and think. What is this need to make sense (or non-sense) of it all. This unnatural drive should be a strong indicator to you of the existence of Hashem. But it is a hard road to take. It requires struggle and accountability. It forces you change and grow. I wish you good luck. ~Shmuel

Cameron said...

Who do I have to blaspheme to get on your blogroll?

;-)

Cameron

Anonymous said...

JA, I appreciated your story as I can relate, although mine is different. I had one of those "show me" episodes years ago and "He" did, or more likely it was a coincidence, but a good one. Since then I've grown and been more challenged by death than Torah, which I never took as the word of God, but inspired. In too many contrary debates with my Rabbi over an afterlife, I've had to think through the process and realized that the brain decays as you get older and death is the ultimate decay, no chance for a wonderful afterlife if there are no synapses firing.

On the issue of why atheism is not more prevalent, for me the answer is simple, people need faith it a superior being because they have no faith in one another (not altogether unwarranted). The only way atheism will become popular, is by developing a humanistic religion (of sorts) that postulates an utopian society by caring about one another and despising those who wantonly hurt others, so that the evil do not take advantage of not having to worry about hell. SG

Yosef said...

Why are you hung up on the 6 day thing? On the first day, G-d said "let there be light." On the fourth day, G-d said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times - the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth. And it was so. G-d made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars."

So, the sun wasn't created until the fourth day, nachon? The clock was not hung until the fourth day. The "light" of the first day, according to some Rabbis, is the light of the world to come and is, in fact, the light people report seeing in so-called "near death experiences."

You mentioned that there is no mention of dinosaurs in the Torah. There is mention of "the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep..." The animals are referred to in general terms. "Wild beasts" also. (JPS translation)

The creation of the world is a short account, as you point out. Lack of dinosaur talk, though, doesn't disqualify it. What do the dinosaurs have to do with our spirituality?

If you want to talk about a scientific problem, most scientists believe that the sun had to be created before the earth and that it couldn't have been the other way around (according to Dr. Rose from Georgia State University). But even this is highly speculative.

DZ Sokol said...

I realize that you refer to yourself as an "Atheist"... Based on a brief review of your blog, it would appear that you fall more into the camp of an "Agnostic" (i.e., lack of sufficient evidence to prove existence of God).

Is there a specific reason why you identify as an Atheist?

Anonymous said...

No, he seems atheist to me. Not agnostic. Maybe a better term would be to use Bill Mahar's word "rationalist". Its as rational to compare the evidence from quasi-historic times to say, the evidence for lycanthropes

Geonite said...

You're an Agnostic with strong leanings towards Atheism.

I agree with you 100% that the bible was written by men and portrays the human moralities and understandings of the times it was written. But I haven't completely ruled out the possibility that some form of deity exists that might have gotten the universe started. So I'm still an agnostic and not an atheist.

It might be splitting hairs but Atheists believe in no god. It's a form a religion of its own (they won't admit it) because it isn't searching for the truth it claims to know the truth.

Egoist Paul said...

There is a book that I think every atheist should read. It's called "Atheism: The Case Against God" by George H. Smith. It contains most arguments against the existence of God.

Raphael Herz said...

I am wondering if you have ever read Genesis and the Big Bang. Schroeder makes some good arguments to reconcile the Torah and science.

Anders said...

Hello!
You wrote: “Make no mistake: I do not claim that I can prove that there is no God; it is simply my belief. However, please don't write and tell me that I have "faith" that there is no God, since "faith" has implications which don't make sense for atheists. “

My reply: I recommend the formal logical proof (based on scientific premises) found in (my blog) bloganders.blogspot.com (right menu) for the existence of an intelligent Creator and His purpose of humankind.

You wrote: ….” I started thinking about whether the Universe could exist in the absence of God. I read Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time.”

My reply: According to causality every physical occurrence has a cause. To say that the first physical occurrence lacks a first cause contradicts logic and science.

Anders Branderud

alexandra said...

I'm really similar to you, although I hang somewhere in between strong atheism and weak atheism. I definitely don't actively believe in any God(s)- but I also know that there is no way of disproving an indifferent, deistic God, for example. So I classify myself as an Agnostic Atheist- all evidence lays in the realm of atheism, and all evidence seems toc ontradict the idea of a God, but I'm open to the possibility of some 'energy' or whatnot we don't understand.
Here's the thing though: The minute we ever find ANY evidence for God- any way to at least make a rational case for his existence- he has effectively ceased to be supernatural. He is now natural, and thus posesses superpowers, but in all probalilty nothing more. A 'God' can only exist in the theoretical. At least that's how I see it.
Oh, and Anders- its been a while, but if you're reading this, your reply betrays an ignorance of physics. This topic has been written about extensively. Ask your 'causality' question on any science forum and see what they respond :) Stephen Hawking has said in so many words that he is an atheist and belive me, he's discussed the question you have brought up. Science is great like that.

Anonymous said...

try reading
"Not by Chance!: Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution" by Lee M. Spetner