Saturday, March 19, 2011

Advice for a Teenaged Modern Orthodox Skeptic

I am a 16 year old boy who goes to a modern orthodox high school. I have been religious my whole life but am very skeptical about Judaism and God's existence as a whole. A few months ago, I hit the breaking point and for a few weeks I did not keep kosher or shabbos. I spoke with my parents about it and they were heartbroken.

I thought about it for a while and I decided that I will finish up high school and go to my Israel year and then if I am still not satisfied with Judaism I will just live my life free of overbearing laws that make no sense and just go crazy in college.

This leads to my question. When i learn gemara and chumash and what not I have a hard time taking it seriously. So my question is that what in Judaism is actually real and what is just made up, from an atheist perspective at least. For instance, were the Jews actually ever in the desert? Did the forefathers really exist? What about more modern things like the Channukah and Purim story and the wars in the times of navi'im?

The 2nd part of my question is, so lets say there is no god, were the prophets and rabbis like rashi and rambam just delusional old men?

thank you for taking time to read and i eagerly await your response by email or maybe a post on the blog.

biding my time

Hi "biding",

I'll respond by blog so that other people can contribute answers as well and so that other kids in your situation might be able to read it.

I sympathize with your situation -- that sounds hard. I personally didn't start being really skeptical until college, when I was already out of the house. My parents were also heartbroken, but since I wasn't living under their roof, there were fewer complications. We do have a pretty good relationship to this day, though. I'm sure they'd still prefer I be religious, but it's not really an issue between us anymore. We just don't really talk about it.

It sounds reasonable to finish up high school where you are if that's what you want to do. As for Israel, I'd do some thinking about what you're trying to get out of it. Some yeshivas are intellectual, some are for partying, and some specialize in making people frum out. It can be pretty tough I think if you go to one that doesn't fit. A lot of people end up just hanging out with friends or partying, so if that's what you're into it might not matter that much. I was kind of introverted and not so into partying, so even though my yeshiva wasn't a good fit for me (too right-wing) I mostly just kept to myself and read books all year. It kind of sucked. Something I wish I'd considered more seriously was doing some kind of joint program like the one at Bar-Ilan, which is coed. You can still do some Orthodox stuff for your own sake or your parents', and you get the experience of living in Israel (based in secular Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem) but you also get more of a college-like experience. Or, of course, you could just head straight to college.

As for "going crazy" in college, if that's what you decide to do, try to be smart about it. :-) Just because you don't believe in Orthodoxy's rules doesn't mean that you have to be some kind of crazy hedonist. Just look at Charlie Sheen to see where that gets you -- it looks fun, but it's probably not the best way to lasting happiness and healthiness. I think some level of experimentation is probably a good idea for most people, but just be smart about it. If you go that route, educate yourself about safe sex, try to have some real relationships, don't kill yourself with alcohol, and try to use other drugs responsibly if you choose to use them.

Onto the questions. I don't think there's a singular "atheist perspective," so I just try to go with what the actual experts on a subject believe. You can usually just look something up on Wikipedia for some pointers.

For example, on the "Were the Jews ever in the desert?" question, Wikipedia offers:
While a Moses-like figure may have existed in Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century BCE, archaeology cannot prove or disprove his existence, and the "overwhelming" archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel "leaves no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness."[20] For this reason, most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit."[21] A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus narrative of an Egyptian captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness,[16] and it has become increasingly clear that Iron Age Israel - the kingdoms of Judah and Israel - has its origins in Canaan, not Egypt:[22][23]

If you're really interested, of course, you won't stop at Wikipedia but will follow the references to primary sources.

It's really not possible to rule out the existence of, for example, the forefathers, but suffice it to say there doesn't seem to be a good secular reason to believe that they are anything more than literary/mythical creations. The important thing to realize is that the majority of secular scholars believe the chumash was written by multiple authors over a long period of time and put together somewhere around 600-450 BCE, over 500 years after Moses would have existed. So the validity of the text as a historical document has to be understood in that context.

The story of Chanukkah seems to be at least "based on a true story" in that the Temple obviously existed and there was a war, etc. There is some scholarly disagreement on the nature of that war. See Wikipedia for more information. As for Purim, secular scholars seem to think that Megillat Esther is basically a historical novella and point to various historical inaccuracies in the text.

I think it's possible to continue to study and even enjoy chumash and gemarah on an intellectual level even if you don't think that they represent the truth, but I'm sure it's not for everybody, so I'd just treat it like any other subject I didn't really care about as far as school goes.

The second part of your question asks about the prophets and rabbis. With regard to prophets, some scholars hypothesize that Ezekial, for example, may have suffered from a form of epilepsy, but that's really just guesswork as far as I'm concerned. There are of course many mental illnesses or drug-induced states that we know cause people to act the way the prophets are said to have acted. I have a neighbor, for example, who can talk for hours in a very manic state about all kinds of visions and wild experiences she has had. I'm not a doctor, but she appears to me to be schizophrenic. It could also be that prophets were normal people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and that the stories about them were just exaggerated and embellished.

I don't think it's fair to call rabbis like Rashi or the Rambam delusional, in the sense of the word that implies mental illness. Orthodox Rabbis today aren't delusional, they just believe things that I don't think are true. I assume that the same is true of Rashi and the Rambam, although they at least have the excuse that they lived before the scientific revolution. It's fun to think about if the Rambam, who was obviously a brilliant man interested in philosophy, would have become an atheist if he were born in the last couple of centuries, but there's really no way to know.

Anyway, I hope I've been helpful. Good luck in getting through the next few years and making some big decisions. It might be helpful to see a psychologist to help you think through everything. I advise even adults who become skeptics to consider seeking therapy just because leaving Orthodoxy and all the things that go with that (family issues, big changes in personal philosophy and the meaning of life, etc.) can sometimes be hard to work through on your own. I've found it helpful myself.

Feel free to write to me again if you have any questions, etc.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Load-bearing Beliefs vs. Cosmetic Beliefs

I've been arguing a lot recently on various other blogs, mostly about the standoff in Wisconsin between the governor and the teachers' union. (I'm for the union, obviously.) Like an idiot, I went in thinking that since my position makes a lot of sense, at least to me, I'd be able to convince the people I was arguing with to if not change their minds than at least see that there was another reasonable point of view.

Instead, I found myself responding to not to just a couple of counterpoints, but to a number of arguments multiplying so fast that I couldn't possibly keep up. I'd attack the first six, and not only would I not have convinced my opponents, but there would suddenly be six more arguments on top. If I attacked those, there would be six more. No arguments were ever conceded, either, so they could cheerfully go right back to the first six arguments if they ever ran out of new ones. This is a not a new insight -- people have compared arguing with certain people to playing Whac-a-mole.

I was thinking about how frustrating this situation is, though, and I realized that not all of the arguments are equally important. Some arguments reflect the genuine reasons the person believes in their position, while others are arguments they just think will help their case. I'd like to call these load-bearing arguments and cosmetic arguments.

Load-bearing arguments

These are the only arguments that matter. If you can convince someone that a load-bearing argument is false, then it will rock their belief. It won't necessarily convince them, because if their belief is psychologically important to them, they'll quickly shove a bunch of other arguments under there and hope they hold, but you're not wasting your time. If you could convince them that the load-bearing argument is false, it's going to at least temporarily shake their confidence.

Cosmetic Arguments

These arguments are just for show. They exist to create the appearance that the belief is supported by a vast and ever-multiplying array of arguments, but they are just decoys. Upon examination, not only do they not hold up, but you realize even this particular believer isn't convinced by them.

It's important to realize that an argument is load-bearing or cosmetic for a particular person -- it's not an objective categorization. One person's load-bearing argument might be another's cosmetic one and vice-versa. There are some arguments, though, that are always cosmetic.

Some examples

Let's take abortion. I think "God says it's wrong" is a load-bearing argument. If (obviously a big "if") you could convince a person who uses this argument either that God does not exist or that He does not say it's wrong, it would shake their belief. Again, it's possible that they would hold onto it by putting other arguments under it, but there would have been a moment when the belief was actually at risk.

"Abortion is murder," on the other hand, is a cosmetic argument for most people. If you could convince someone who says this that abortion and murder aren't exactly the same, they would likely still oppose abortion without ever wavering. That's because they don't really believe this argument in the first place -- their belief rests on a different argument entirely. (As evidence that they don't really believe abortion is murder, they would send a woman who killed a baby to jail, but would never send a woman who has an abortion to jail.)

How about our old favorite, the existence of God. I think some version of the Argument from Design is often a load-bearing argument. I'm not talking about the formal argument -- I don't think formal arguments are good representations of how people actually think -- but the genuine intuition that some intelligent being must be responsible for the dazzling complexity of the universe. If you can convince a believer that the universe *could* have come about without a designer, you will often have genuinely shaken their belief. Again, they might not be convinced, they can shove other arguments under their belief, but there will be that moment of panic. I think that's what happened to my belief in God. Hawking shook it with A Brief History of Time and Dawkins sealed the deal with The Blind Watchmaker.

That's why Darwin was so revolutionary and why he is still so reviled by many religious people -- he didn't just disprove a literal reading of Genesis, he demolished the Argument from Design as it applies to biology and human beings. Even though he didn't explain why the universe exists, how the planets formed, or even how life began, it was enough of a blow to the idea of a Designer that it convinced a lot of people, himself (probably?) included, that God does not exist.

Note that the Argument from Design is not load-bearing for all believers. Some believe that they have personally witnessed God or that they can see him in everyday life. For them, the Argument from Design is a cosmetic argument and this other thing is the load-bearing one. Convince them that the universe could have come about without God and it won't shake them. But if (huge if) you could convince them that what they experienced was a hallucination, for example, or that what they took to be God's influence was really a series of coincidences, then their belief would be rocked.

I think the Ontological Argument is a rare argument that is *always* cosmetic in all its forms:
When we hear the words "that than which a greater cannot be thought", we understand what the words convey, and what we understand exists in our thoughts. This then exists either only in our thoughts or both in thought and reality. But it cannot exist only in our thoughts, because if it existed only in our thoughts, then we could think of something greater than it, since we could think of something than which a greater cannot be thought that exists both in thought and in reality, and it is a contradiction to suppose we could think of something greater than that than which nothing greater can be thought. Hence, that than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in thought and in reality. Therefore, that than which a greater cannot be thought really does exist, and in later chapters of the Proslogion Anselm argues that this being has the traditional attributes of God like being the omnipotent creator.

I can't imagine anybody's belief rests on such an obvious gimmick.

How to Tell the Difference

Again, most arguments can be either load-bearing or cosmetic, depending on the believer. It's all about the genuine reason the believer believes, and that might be ultimately unknowable. However, I think there are some clues.


Some arguments are clever, and the believer might be proud of them. This is usually an indication that it came after the belief already existed and is used simply to score points -- that's why the believer is proud of it. The Ontological Argument, discussed above, is a prime example.

When I was in yeshiva, we were talking with our rabbi about the "apparent" contradiction between an omniscient God and free will. (In Orthodox Judaism, playing Resolve that Contradiction! is a popular pastime, both in casual conversation and in Torah study.) I came up with an analogy. I said we people living in this century can look back at people living in the last century and know that they chose X instead of Y and yet they still had free will. So, since God exists outside of time, it's pretty much the same thing.

The rabbi was delighted and the other students smiled and nodded and I was really proud of myself for coming up with such a clever argument. The argument, though, now that I don't believe, is obviously bullshit. Even if we allow for a God that exists "outside of time," he also must be "inside of time," because he allegedly interacted with the universe in the past. Therefore, he knew about people's choices before they made them and the contradiction still stands.

If someone had pointed out the flaw in my argument to me then, I would have shrugged and been like, "Oh yeah, good point" but my underlying belief in God (and free will) wouldn't have been shaken for even an instant. That's what makes it a cosmetic argument.


Oftentimes, a believer will offer up an argument or several tentatively. Now, obviously, there's nothing wrong with offering an argument tentatively rather than confidently, especially if it's a bad one or one not yet investigated or challenged, but it's on obvious indicator that it's not load-bearing. Either the person does not yet believe the conclusion of the argument (hence the tentativeness) or the person already believes the conclusion and the argument is just cosmetic.

For example, in this thread at the great XGH's, commenter Thanbo offers four "solutions" to the same problem - the conflict between the Documentary Hypothesis and the belief that God dictated the Five Books to Moses - and adds "I'm sure there are others I haven't thought of." Clearly, regardless of the merits of the individual arguments, they are all cosmetic because if you knocked them down, it won't affect Thanbo's belief. He's sure there are others.

I find that a lot of believers who think of themselves as more open-minded (but not so open-minded that their brains fall out!) do this. They see a contradiction in their beliefs and are too "open-minded" to either pretend it doesn't exist or to pretend that any particular argument resolves it, so they'll say well this could be a solution or that could be a solution, etc. Ultimately, if you destroy every "solution" they offer, they'll just shrug and concede that it's an issue, but it won't shake their faith in the slightest.

Arguments that don't directly support the belief

Some "arguments" don't really support the belief in question. For example, Pascal's Wager is more of an attempt to convince the audience that it's in their self-interest to believe than it is an argument that the belief in question is true. Arguments that not believing would have adverse effects (religion makes me happy and healthy or it keeps me behaving) might point to explanations for a person's belief, but they aren't load-bearing because knocking them down would not directly affect the person's belief.


Engaging with cosmetic arguments is a waste of time if you're trying to convince a believer (in anything) that they are wrong. In the best case, defeating a cosmetic argument might cause the believer to start questioning the source of that argument, but in no case will it directly lead to a change in belief. It's probably still a waste of time to engage with a load-bearing argument since it's so hard to convince anybody of anything, but that is where you should direct your efforts if you decide to argue. It's the only one that matters.