Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Letters to the Editor

"What is the atheist point of view on the witnessess at har sinai? There were 600,000 (or 2 million- depending who you ask) witnesses to the event and the revelation of God. I would like to know what the athiest argument is on this."

Well, I don't think there exists anything that you could call _the_ atheist belief or point of view about anything except specifically the view of God, and even then it's iffy. The most popular view though would likely be that the event at Sinai simply did not happen. Or if it did happen, it happened very much differently than how it was recorded.

Maybe there is a nugget of truth in the story. Maybe Moses made a speech from a mountain and from there he gained a following, or a further understanding of who they were. Maybe it was a recording of a volcanic eruption or a wild thunderstorm. Or it could also be that the whole event was just made up.

There is no one view, especially as it's all speculation because we have no independent evidence one way or the other. Note that we do not have millions of independent texts giving credence to miraculous happenings. There are not actual witness statements. We have one text claiming for there to have been so many millions of people who saw it. I could claim that a billion people saw me fly yesterday, but that's not the same as having an actual billion witnesses.

What it comes down to is that the event, as written, did not occur. The argument for such a conclusion is that the story is fantastic (meaning; like fantasy) and we have no independent evidence for it. Why should a person assume that such an incredible tale is true?


"We have one text claiming for there to have been so many millions of people who saw it. I could claim that a billion people saw me fly yesterday, but that's not the same as having an actual billion witnesses."

Exactly where I was going with this. If you came to someone and said: "a billion people saw me fly", the people you are telling will say: uh, where are the witnesses? and the idea that a billion people saw you fly would go out the window.

Now, take the guy who `made up` the sinai story. He goes and tries to spread his relgion saying millions of people saw the events at saini. The people would have the same reaction as those above to you flying. How does someone even start a lie like that? Claiming to have millions of witnessess? You would be laughed out of here and the story would end there.

No other relgion has claim that a gigantic mass of people witnessed something.

That's the classic Kuzari argument but it fails because it is creating a false picture of how legends and myths come into being. It isn't one sneaky guy pushing a lie, it is a national or regional story which is told and retold over generations and _becomes_ authoritative over time. And have you ever played telephone? One person hears a story and repeats it to someone else, but with a little bit of emphasis in a different place or adds a few details to make the story more interesting or even changes the whole story around in a fundamental way because he misunderstood it. These things happen and myths grow.

So suppose in 1400 BCE, Moses went atop a mountain and spoke to a thousand people. That would be a pretty big crowd in those times. That group, invigorated by the speech follows Moses in his new conception of divinity and follows him. These people tell their children about this amazing speech. And those children tell their children and so on. But along the way, one person tells the other that his face was radiant as he spoke, not meaning literally, but as an descriptive to show importance. The listener misunderstands and actually thinks his face glowed. Maybe over time the one thousand people in the story were added to by the storytellers after reach iteration. One says 1000, the next "thousands" the next 45,000.... Perhaps one person, five generations down, creates an embellished version of the event and says that God himself was there. People like that version better, maybe they don't believe it literally - but their children do because they don't know any better. That's the story they were told. This kind of storytelling went on for centuries.

We know stuff like this happened all the time in the ancient world. Take the story of Greece's war on Troy. It likely is a historical event, but is it anything like what you read in Homer? With gods, demigods and superheroes leading the way? It was centuries before the story of Troy was first penned. It has a nugget of truth, but the story by Homer is hardly an accurate representation of the event. It was embellished over time through an oral tradition.

That event, by the way, also records the eyewitness of hundreds of thousands of people as well. Lots of soldiers were said to have fought, right? And the books detail the powers of gods and demigods that thousands of people had witnessed. So can we now use the Kuzari argument to maintain the assertion that the gods of ancient Greece are real?

There are a number of examples of fantastic myths which many witnesses are said to have seen. Thousands of ancestors of the Irish are said to have seen the island disappear through magic in their Book of Invasions. And, hell, in the New Testament, thousands of witnesses are said to have seen the wonders of Jesus.

What it comes does to is that the Kuzari argument fails because it is setting up a strawman in the form of a "prankster" instead of a true evaluation of how myths form.


Ben Avuyah said...

I think there are many reasons why the Sinai proof as mentioned in the Kuzari is defunct. The one, which you mention, is that there are clearly no millions of witness’s rather only one eyewitness account claiming that there were millions. When I am in discussions with devoutly orthodox people their next move is usually to get a little more personal.

“Is your father a liar? Do you believe your father would lie to you? Or that his father would lie to him? This is how we know the torah is true and that revelation at Sinai really happened, there is an unbroken chain from father to son from Sinai”

I guess your off the hook if your pops is a habitual fibber, if not, it might be a good idea to point out that this idea of "unbroken chain" is most notably refuted by the very book it purports to legitimize.

The tanach states that Judaism completely strayed from the torah not long after receiving it. This was so widespread that at some point the book of devarim was reintroduced and no one recognized it as part of the original scripture. In which case we don’t really know if they got just devarim; or devarim, the farmers almanac, the top ten hit psalms and god knows what else all mixed into one.

This really comes across more potently to the believer, in my experience, than other logistical arguments about how the proof from Sinai ignores categories such as myth and fable etc…

Once the idea of the unbroken chain is successfully challenged the atheist/ nonbeliever doesn’t have much to explain, and Sinai takes it’s natural place among other well-known legends like Atlantis and Dracula.

That’s not to say there isn’t a kernel of truth to it, it’s just not the bucket of popcorn everyone says it is

Jewish Atheist said...

Funny. I got the same exact email. I've been corresponding.

Orthoprax said...


Good points, but the person I'm talking to didn't go that way. He went the "a lie so big no one would buy it" route. So I needed to explain why just seeing it as a sneaky lie is misunderstanding the whole situation.


Interesting. I guess he was scoping the opposition, eh? How's it going with you?