Friday, March 30, 2007

Repost: How I Became an Atheist

Originally titled 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 importantly, 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."

7 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Nicely put.

I think that I had a bit of a head start on you not having to jettison the religious baggage first. But certainly from my teens onwards science gave a far more believable explanation of things than the various religions did. As far as I'm concerned there's no contest.

I tend to oscilate between 'strong' and 'weak' atheism. I most certainly do not believe that God does exist... and from time to time believe that He does not exist. Like you I have no absolute proof of this position but it is by *far* easier to hold those positions than it is to hold their opposites!

Ezzie said...

It seems as illogical to be a strong atheist as you claim believing in Orthodox Judaism is.

It may make more sense from what you've written to not believe in Orthodoxy or Judaism than to believe, but that shouldn't affect whether you think there is or isn't a God.

It seems more like you've chosen strong atheism because of your disagreements with OJ than anything else... and that's just not all that logical. :)

Regarding your other more specific issues... it's weird. Had you been educated more like I was, I feel like you would never have become an atheist (though certainly possible). It sounds like most of your teachers simply didn't know all that much or teach all that well. That's just not how I learned the same subjects and issues. One example: The "two waters" were taught to us as being the water and the layers of atmosphere (I suck at basic science, so that may be the wrong term) where the clouds are. As for the Earth being the center point, that is yet another example of where the Torah is written in a way humans can relate. From our point of view, Earth *is* the center with everything surrounding it. This is no different from countless questions in the Talmud that are similar in nature.

A lot of your other questions are almost taken as givens by the world - that an Abraham existed, that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, etc. There's plenty of historical proof for aspects of it at the least. I'm not talking about the specifics of what happened, which is almost impossible to prove, but that they existed? Come on. I don't believe Jesus did what Christians think he did, but I believe that a Jesus existed... heck, he's mentioned in the Talmud.

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?

Interestingly, wasn't it you who posted the statistics of people's religious views coming out of academia? A high rise in atheism, a drop in every other religion... except Judaism, with a small rise? What's interesting about that is that Jews generally view Judaism as unproveable - if it were, there would be no free will. (It's why people note that Aish actually HURT Orthodoxy by claiming they could "prove" things. Since those proofs were not actually proofs, people got turned off.) So, it makes sense that people would choose atheism if they're looking for ironclad proofs, but if they would pick a religion, Judaism makes more logical sense (better claims than other religions, etc.).

Plenty more I can say about all of this... and I'm not even saying I disagree with a lot of what you said. But the examples you chose, at least, are seemingly weak and more of a result of a poor Jewish education or poor individual teachers. [Note also, I grew up more UO than MO, so it's not like it's an MO vs UO thing.]

Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

It seems more like you've chosen strong atheism because of your disagreements with OJ than anything else... and that's just not all that logical. :)

No, that's just where I started... because that's where I started. Once one realizes the Torah isn't divine, it kind of takes the wind out of the sails of Islam, Christianity, and their offshoots, as well. In terms of strong vs. weak atheism, I'm a strong atheist because the world appears to me (as to Hawking, et al) to be not the work of an intelligent creator.

It sounds like most of your teachers simply didn't know all that much or teach all that well... One example: The "two waters" were taught to us as being the water and the layers of atmosphere (I suck at basic science, so that may be the wrong term) where the clouds are.

Yeah, I got the same BS answers as you did. :-) A moment's thought will tell you the firmament can't be between the water and the layers of atmosphere, since the sun, moon, and stars are placed inside the firmament. Breishis 1:13 says yehi meorot baraqiya hashamaim. (I'm sure you can come up with a tortured translation of the bet in baraqiya that means anything but "in," but clearly the author of that passage, if writing literally, thought the stars and sun were embedded in some thing that had water on top of it.

That the teachers frequently give such obviously incorrect answers leads me to believe (1) they've never bothered to think about whether they make any sense and (2) that nobody ever really calls them on it. I know that I never confronted a teacher on that kind of stuff when I was a kid. Asking heretical questions is something you did only carefully, and you certainly didn't argue with the answer.

Ezzie said...

Yeah, I got the same BS answers as you did. :-)

LOL. But in all seriousness, it definitely helps to have a father-in-law who has a PhD in biophysical chemistry and smicha (translation?) in Shas (Talmud) and Poskim (Rabbinic Authorities). You get much better answers to your questions. :)

That the teachers frequently give such obviously incorrect answers leads me to believe (1) they've never bothered to think about whether they make any sense and (2) that nobody ever really calls them on it.

I actually agree with that. I'm impressed with my rebbeim who spend the time to read up on this stuff (really read up on it) and some even follow the blogworld a bit. They're all too rare, but I'm lucky to have had them.

I wouldn't say I confronted anyone on these subjects at the time, but on more moral issues, which I still find their answers to be satisfactory for (though they were obviously explaining it in simpler terms for a HS kid, which I don't find offensive). When I later had questions, I had other people to ask and was again given decent answers and a lot of refreshingly honest ones.

But those who asked more heretical questions (which granted, were rare) were never met with derision where I was, as far as I can recall. The rebbeim gave their answers and they were usually decent.

Jewish Atheist said...

LOL. But in all seriousness, it definitely helps to have a father-in-law who has a PhD in biophysical chemistry and smicha (translation?) in Shas (Talmud) and Poskim (Rabbinic Authorities). You get much better answers to your questions. :)

Nu, so ask him, what's a raqiya? :-) (Warning: this line of questioning may lead to problems with emunah.)

But those who asked more heretical questions (which granted, were rare) were never met with derision where I was, as far as I can recall. The rebbeim gave their answers and they were usually decent.

Oh, I'm not saying people with heretical questions were derided -- somehow we just "knew" not to ask. Maybe we were wrong about that, and to this day I don't quite understand how such questions are prevented. It's like it's just a social taboo rather than something that's not allowed. You know, kind of like talking about an Orthodox's person's kid who went off the derech or, chas v'challila, became gay.

Intuitor said...

JA, were you ever given answers such as that rakiah is Seichel Elyon, and Mayim is Binah and that that is the true meaning of the words...

Jewish Atheist said...

intuitor:

No, people weren't that into mysticism where I grew up.