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.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Yetzer Haemes (The Inclination to Truth)

In Orthodox Judaism they talk about the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination) as components of the human psyche. It's obviously an oversimplified version of reality, but so is Freud's id/ego/superego. It can still be a useful concept.

As regular readers know, I've been thinking for a long time about how and why some people become skeptics and others, even very smart and educated ones, continue to believe in what I see as fairy tales. I've investigated various hows like compartmentalization and good, old-fashioned denial, but I haven't really gotten into the why. Why did I stop believing, while others maintain their faith or even harden it?

Subjectively, it feels to me like I have what I'll call a yetzer haemes, the inclination to truth. When I think or hear something that doesn't ring true, I feel a nagging sensation in my brain, analogous to the one I felt when I was a kid and wanted to break a rule that my parents had set, which would have been the yetzer hatov. I feel it when someone I disagree with says something that rings false, but I also feel it even when someone I agree with makes an argument that rings false. It's even caused me to delete some of my own drafts for this blog instead of posting them.

Maybe it's a function of nerdiness. I am a computer programmer, and I have (but fight) that nerd's compulsive desire to "fix" statements that are even just a little imprecise, let alone false. You know that nerd who will interject into a conversation to correct somebody's off-the-cuff remark about something totally unimportant? ("Well, actually, in ancient Rome, the aqueduct was blah blah blah...") That would be me if I hadn't learned how to shut up so I wouldn't get made fun of in middle school*.

There does seem to be a correlation between nerds and atheism. Scientists are disproportionately atheists, science fiction is full of atheism, etc. On the other hand, engineers and accountants are nerds who tend to be believers more often than programmers and scientists do, in my experience -- maybe their need for an orderly, sensible universe combined with a cautious, conservative nature overrides their desire for correctness at all costs. And anyone who knows Orthodox Jews knows there are plenty of nerds who believe, too.

So do other people just not have that yetzer? Or is it much weaker? Or have they just gotten into the habit of ignoring it or running it over? Has religion taught them to ignore it, perhaps identifying it with the yetzer hara? Is it possible that even fundamentalist religions like Orthodox Judaism really ring true to them on that level?

I guess I don't really have any answers. I just thought the concept might be worth thinking about.

*For those who still suffer from this malady, software developer and blogger Miguel de Icaza gets into it in Why you are not getting laid.