Friday, April 22, 2011

More Questions from a Teenaged Modern Orthodox Skeptic

Hey, its me XXXXX again, that 16 year old kid. I emailed you a little while ago and I have a few more things that I would like to ask you. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read and answer my questions as I am trying to find my way in life.

  1. Is there a particular reason you believe there is no god? Obviously there is a lack of evidence, but is there something in particular that makes you sure that he does not exist?

  2. Why do you prefer the term atheist over agnostic? About a week ago I told a friend of mine in yeshiva in Isreal that I am about "75% percent atheist." He responded, "You're not an atheist only tards are atheist, you're agnostic. No one can be 100% sure that god exists or does not exist." I guess he does have a point. Obviously it is impossible to prove or disprove god 100% so why do you (I guess make the leap of faith is the proper term here, how ironic) and say that god definitely does not exist and therefore identify as an atheist, over agnostic?

  3. This is something i struggle with a little. I even went ahead and made a list of my 5 commandments and mission statement to help guide me if I decide atheism is the way to go. In Orthodox Judaism your goals and ways of achieving them are very clear-cut: daven, learn, give tzedaka, and worship god etc. However atheism has no doctrine of faith, and therefore, correct me if I'm wrong, you really have nothing to guide you. From an atheist perspective life must not have meaning (this is not necessarily a bad thing, this is just what I see when I look at it objectively.) Do you have a purpose in life? I figure mine would just be to get rich, be happy, and help people. Is there anything that can really drive an atheist? Maybe there does not have to be, but coming from my perspective a life without god seems very meaningless. Any of your thoughts on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

Also you mentioned last time that I should pay attention to the comments. I did and they were great. It's awesome to see so many different perspectives on the subject. If you want to answer my questions on the blog, that would be great just so I could see what others have to say about them, but obviously it's your call.

Thank you so much for reading this and I eagerly await your response.

Hey, thanks for writing again. I'll take my swings at answering your questions and hopefully the commenters will chime in as well.

Why don't I use the term agnostic?

I would not say I am "sure" God doesn't exist. When I say I'm an atheist, I mean only that I don't believe that God exists. I recognize that I could be wrong, and I'm prepared to change my mind if confronted with new evidence or new arguments, but having spent a lot of time reading, writing, thinking, and arguing about the matter, I just don't believe that God exists. As an analogy, I don't believe that the Loch Ness monster exists, but if someone went out and captured it tomorrow and showed it to me (and convinced various kinds of experts that it was genuine) I would suddenly believe in the Loch Ness monster. Does that mean I'm agnostic on the subject of the Loch Ness monster? I don't think so.

Your friend's definition of agnostic is way too broad and would necessarily include 99% of humanity. Believe in God, don't believe in God, nobody except the mentally ill are 100% sure, even if they say they are. Does he consider himself an agnostic, by his own argument?

Why am I an atheist?

I would say that the lack of evidence for gods opened up the possibility but after that it's pretty much what seems more reasonable. As I've mentioned in the past, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time convinced me that the universe could have been "created" without any god's intervention and Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker convinced me that humans and all other living things could have evolved without any "Watchmaker."

At that point, I just kind of asked myself, well, does the universe make more sense with gods or without them? (Imagine being at the optometrist -- does this lens look more clear or does that one?) And to me, it just makes more sense without one. It explains why bad things happen to good people, why innocent infants are born with horrible diseases, why the universe appears to be vast and indifferent, etc. etc.

There's a philosophical principle called Occam's Razor that sort of formalizes one good argument for why an absence of evidence should make us work with the assumption that God does not exist. It exists in many forms, but perhaps the most concise is "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." That means that if A could have caused something to happen by itself, in the absence of evidence ("necessity") it's kind of silly to believe that A+B caused it. Another version that is perhaps a little misleading but in some ways more clear is "The simplest explanation is usually the best."

So if you take something like the Holocaust and look at it through this lens, it becomes pretty clear which explanation is more simple. On the one hand, we have an indifferent universe so we shouldn't expect it to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening. On the other hand, we have God and have to come up with all sorts of additional explanations -- that he's allowing man to have free will, that he was punishing us, that it's all part of his mysterious plan, etc. -- to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the horrific reality of the Holocaust.

Or let's take a scientific example. In ancient Greece, they didn't know that the earth was a globe that is tilted on its axis and that's why we have seasons. So instead, they made up this story:
Persephone's mother, Demeter, found out that her daughter was in the underworld. She was terribly upset by this news. She was so distraught over losing her daughter that she withdrew her usual blessing from the Earth. She refused to provide for the harvest until her daughter was brought back to her. This resulted in droughts on the Earth. A famine soon began.

Realizing that humankind would perish without crops, Zeus ordered Hades to free Persephone. But there was one condition… Persephone could be freed as long as she hadn't eaten any food in Hades. Just before he set her free, Hades tempted Persephone to eat a few pomegranate seeds from his garden. Because Persephone had eaten while in the underworld, she could not be freed. But without Demeter's attention to the earth, all of humankind would die.

Zeus was forced to negotiate with Hades about where Persephone would live. It was decided that Persephone would stay with Hades in the underworld for four months every year. During the other months, she would return to Earth to be with her mother. Every time that Persephone left her mother to live in the underworld, Demeter grieved. She withdrew her blessing of a good harvest on the Earth. Thus, the four months of separation caused cold, barren winters. When Persephone was returned to her mother, Demeter would be so glad that she would be kind to the Earth again. This would lead to spring, and then summer, followed by fall. In this way, the seasons were established.

When people found out about the fact that summer happens when your hemisphere of the globe is closer to the sun, they could have said well that's true, but it's also because of Persephone. That's where Occam's Razor comes in. We no longer need the Persephone story to explain the seasons -- the Earth's tilt is quite sufficient -- so out goes the story (and others like it.)

(Of course, I'm sure that if there were Modern Orthodox Greek Polytheists running around today, many would insist that this story is obviously allegorical and that the ancient Greek myths are perfectly compatible with modern science. Others would explain that the tilt of the Earth explanation is actually coded within the Persephone story.)

On meaning

This is a big question and something that many atheists wrestle with for a long time. In fact, I think it's one of the primary (unconscious?) motives for people to become or to stay religious in the first place. If you're religious (at least in fundamentalist religions like OJ) then you are told what the purpose is and given explicit rules and guidelines for how to live your life. Many people find that very comforting. (Of course it also causes problems for people who don't exactly fit into the rules, like gay people or those who care about them, like people who care more about what's true than what they're supposed to believe, etc. For that reason and others, it only kind of works if you're good at not asking questions, not thinking about certain things, living in denial, or engaging in compartmentalization.)

As you allude to, there are no rules and guidelines for being an atheist. Atheism is not a religion or even a philosophy, it's a simple lack of belief in one particular thing. Just as not-believing-in-astrology doesn't give your life meaning or specific rules, not-believing-in-god doesn't either. So there are as many approaches to these questions as there are atheists.

Some atheists (and some theists) are existentialists. They believe that you are responsible for creating your own meaning and examine the best ways of doing that and living that meaning passionately. Other atheists are nihilists who agree with the existentialists that there is no objective meaning, but don't necessarily take it any further than that. Others are hedonists. Others don't really think about it.

As for me, I think it's actually kind of a silly question. I'm not saying you're silly for asking it -- we all ask it -- but that if you think about it, it's kind of a strange way to look at things. Do we ask what the meaning of a summer afternoon is? Or what's the purpose of Tuesday? The question to me reflects some kind of internalized Protestant work ethic that implies that things are only worthwhile if they are productive in some way. I think it's worth really examining that piece of cultural indoctrination.

I try to just live my life as I see fit. I want to be comfortable, so I went into a career where I could make decent money doing something I like, but I didn't care enough about being rich that I was willing to do something I didn't like or to work many more hours in order to achieve great wealth. I love my wife and I want a family, so I got married. I care about other people, so I help them when I can and try to avoid causing them harm. I have various hobbies I enjoy, so I engage in them often. Etc. And again, I have seen and continue to see a psychologist to help me kind of examine myself, recognize and dismantle some of my internalized beliefs that aren't necessarily true, and continue to make good choices and improve my life.

I know that someday I'm going to die but that doesn't really bother me -- I figure not being born never bothered me so being dead will probably be about the same. I know that someday the sun is going to gradually become a Red Giant and then a White Dwarf and that someday long after that the whole universe will meet some kind of end in which no thing could live, too. But that's just how it is. It's sad and tragic like death is sad and tragic, but what are you gonna do? Enjoy it while you can.


jewish philosopher said...

Dear 16 year old,

First of all you are making a grave error. There is no question that God exists since life is otherwise inexplicable.

Secondly, regarding meaning, I think you're touching on an interesting point: Atheism is intrinsically depressing. The reason why is because life is usually fairly unpleasant and then after a relatively short time ends in death. For an atheist, death means the permanent loss of everything. On the plus side, an atheist may indulge without guilt in pleasurable activities such as promiscuity, pain killers and stimulants, however on the down side those things lead to serious and painful consequences. As I have pointed out here, the aging atheist is particularly prone to depression

Judaism on the other hand regards suffering as being a positive thing

"one must receive the evil with gladness"

While death after a righteous life is merely the entrance to eternal paradise.

So in atheism I believe that you can merely find a commitment to an irrational belief system, a temporary high and a long term crash. I think this is clear and well documented.

the kid said...

the kid who wrote the email

yo jewish philosopher

i understand your point about atheism and depression, and how judaism helps deal with pain and etc etc, but i think it is important to realize that just because judaism may help people cope with things or even be happier to a certain extent does not make it any more true. i am not searching for anything but the truth, and even if the truth is that there is no god, and that it depresses the crap out of me, then so be it.

i think this quote properly sums up my feelings on the subject.

- The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. — George Bernard Shaw

i, like many others, am happier when im drunk, but that does not mean that i would be happy living my life constantly drunk just because it put some sort of exuberance into my life.

jewish philosopher said...

Well, the truth of Judaism and the fallacy of atheism are perfect clear, as I've explained here for example

"a drunken man is happier than a sober one"

Monotheism is actually part of the only known cure for alcoholism

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens never caught on to that

P. Buckingham said...

" if the truth is that there is no god, and that it depresses the crap out of me, then so be it."

Why if there is no god should it depress you or anyone? I guess if you lived for 50 or 60 years before becoming skeptical, then yes, but that would have more to do with regret than the absence of a cellestial being.

If you don't mind me asking, what type of god did you believe in before you became skeptical? Was it a merciful and forgiving god? Was it a vengeful and jealous god? What ended the so-called depression for me was realizing the type of god I used to believe in was not the god of the Bible.

To put the question into simpler terms, if you were to live your life as an atheist, and you die and the type of god you believed in before you were skeptical existed; would he allow you into heaven?

jewish philosopher said...

An atheist must accept the (absurd) concept that we are merely soulless bags of chemicals, created by no one for no reason, who will soon disintegrate. I suspect that if anyone truly believed that, he would not only be depressed but insane.

the kid said...

@p buckingham

yes i suppose he would let me into heaven.
my point is not that the lack of the existence of god depresses me necessarily, but rather if it did depress me it would not make it any less true.

P. Buckingham said...

JP, No one should be depressed about something that should never have been expected in the first place.

Ichabod Chrain said...

One of the reasons some people don't believe in God is that the concept of God and the concept of existence are inconsistent.

Look at the attributes Judaism ascribes to God. He has no body, is not understandable and is outside the universe. For an entity to exist it has to have physical properties, and some correlation to physical existence. Otherwise it's just a subjective state. But theists believe that God exists as something more than a subjective state.

And then how can anything "exist" that's outside the universe? It doesn't mean that there's nothing outside the universe. It just means that whatever it is, it doesn't "exist" because we can't know whether there's an "it" that's there, or whether there's even a "there". So even if there's something out there, we couldn't possibly know what's like or what it wants us to do, so why not live as if it has no bearing on what we do?

Also when we say "God", we usually mean the Jewish, Christian or Moslem conception of God. You know the brochos you say in the morning? Well they describe some attributes of God that Judaism ascribes to Him. If there's something out there that runs the world but it doesn't fit into that concept, then it's not God as the Jews, Christians or Moslems would define God.

Look at the problem of evil in the world. Judaism says that there's a God and that one of His properties is that he's good. The atheist responds with "how can you say that God is good, when there's so much evil in the world?" The traditional Jewish response is "we don't understand it." The atheist can respond to that by saying, "okay, but you're defining God as having the attribute of being good, so whatever is running the world isn't God by your definition because God has to be good, and whatever is running the world isn't good."

The Jew might respond, "then you're admitting there's something that runs the world." The atheist responds by saying, "maybe, but I'm saying that what you define as God is an obsessive, compulsive, whimsical tyrant, who's not worth worshipping, so I'll live my life as if the God with all the positive attributes Judaism ascribes to him doesn't exist."

Or suppose there's something that runs the world,why should he care or keep track of whether you put on tephillin, or daven, or keep kosher, or eat chometz on Pesach? These are pretty arbitrary. Yet an Orthodox Jew would define God as something that wants those things.

And then we learn that many of the practices described in the Torah are similar to what the Cannaites were doing in their religion for reasons that might have made sense from their perspective, that the civil laws are similar to those of Hammurabi, and that there are parts of Judaism that just seem to be at odds with any concept of morality. The atheist will say that we can assume from this that even if there's something out there that runs the world, it's not worth worshipping.

That's a very basic explanation of why some people are atheists. They're not necessarily saying that they know that there isn't something that runs the world. They could be saying that maybe it exists, but we know that it doesn't have the attributes that Judaism, Christianity or Islam ascribe to it, so it doesn't make sense to worship it or to make it part of our lives.

That's if anything a simplistic explanation of why atheists take the position that they do.

Ichabod Chrain said...

As for the second question, there's some overlap between being an atheist and an agnostic in the sense you can be both. When you make decisions in your life do you always have to be 100 per cent sure of something? Or do you just look at what the percentages are? Some decisions you might make where there's some doubt but not a reasonable doubt. Some decisions you might make where there's some reasonable doubt but not enough that it matters.

Look at it this way. You can't prove that Moloch doesn't exist. But are you going to sacrifice your children to it, just to hedge your bets?

Or suppose you have no proof that Zeus doesn't exist on some mountain in Greece. But are you going to go to a Greek temple to sacrifice to him just in case?

What I'm saying is that you're atheistic as to Moloch and Zeus because the odds that they exist are so small that you live your life as if they don't exist. But you're also an agnostic as to them if you define agnositicism as being anything less than 100 per cent sure they don't exist.

jewish philosopher said...

"For an entity to exist it has to have physical properties, and some correlation to physical existence."

I think that we can conceive of God as being real while we are like a thought in God's mind.

"The traditional Jewish response is "we don't understand it.""

Not true. We understand that God punishes sin and we all sin to some degree.

"many of the practices described in the Torah are similar to what the Cannaites were doing"

That's false.

"the civil laws are similar to those of Hammurabi"

That's false too.

kisarita said...

The meaning of life is to evolve into yet higher and higher and more and more conscious life form.
How does this translate in the microcosm of your daily existence? Probably not much although I suppose you can endeavor to make the most of yourself and your capabilities and allow and enable those around you to do the same.

(Although I personally believe in god, by which I mean a conscious power greater than us who exerts at least some influence on our conditions, I just don't believe that he is much involved in our individual affairs.)

Rabbi I just loved your critique of the search for meaning, how it is not innate but arises from culturally determined patterns of thinking.

Just think of the folks who believed that their purpose was to get to olam haba. What would they actually do in Olam haba other than a lot of boring nothing? what's the purpose in that?

jewish philosopher said...

If you like evolution, then you should love global warming.

Anna said...

I thought I'd add my perspective. The reason that I gradually came to believe that there was no god (approximately 8 - 10 years ago, when I was 18 - 20), is similar to what Jewish Athiest said about Occam's Razor, though I never heard of that until I read the post just now, but the same logic. I guess the first step was ceasing to believe in the God of modern orthadoxy - it seemed to me that the rules were created and evolved over the centuries to ensure the Rabbis had power and control over the Jews (this dawned on me over my yeshiva year), and I didn't feel that God really formed any part of it, other than nominal. It was more about culture and control to me - giving people a purpose in life (but that feeds into one of your other questions...). There was no other God around for me to believe in, and I felt that there was no need for me to believe in any God. So I chose not to believe in any God.

Then, what is the purpose of my life? How do I know what rules to follow? Well this is what has made me happy about being an athiest - I do not worry about the purpose of my life, and I can do whatever I like without being restricted by arbitrary rules. Obviously I act with restrictions, but they are ones that make sense to me, and that I can adapt over time if I think it sensible to do so. I am sorry to disappoint Jewish Philosopher, but my life is not fairly unpleasant - I love my life. And this is not because I indulge in "promiscuity, pain killers and stimulants" (well, promiscuity - never, pain killers - as and when required, stimulants - occasionally, but show me a frum person (or at least man) than doesn't enjoy a fairly frequent glass of whiskey or wine!). I am happily married, have a job I enjoy, friends I like spending time with, and I do what makes me happy. When I was frum I was often miserable. If acting frum had made me happy I would have carried on that lifestyle even if I no longer believed.

Good luck in working out what makes you happy.