Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reason Behind Intellectual Atheism

Jewish Philosopher wrote a post here, that he had emailed to me as well. I'm not sure why I responded to him since he has a poor history of fair discussion but I figured that it couldn't hurt much to give him a response.

I answered:

Your entire understanding of why people become intellectual atheists is way off base. It has to do with seeing the type of world we live in as opposed to one where we'd expect to live if there was a God watching who kept everything just and fair. It has to do with the fact that the afterlife was made up as a cosmic placeholder for God's justice while we have no real evidence to suggest its actual existence. It has to do with the magical and miracle world of the Bible as opposed to the rational and natural law bound world that we live in.

It has to do with the fact that many ancient people wrote their own fantastic tales and the fact that people all over the world - to this day! - are fooled so easily into believing falsehoods and the impossible. It has to do with the fact that one person's supernatural claim is just as valid (or invalid) as any other person's supernatural claim. Once you accept the irrational into your ontological system how can one rationally justify that belief and no other irrational belief?

It has to do with the fact that the god of the gaps is shrinking with every step of scientific progress. It has to do with the fact that religion tends to act as a salve for emotional needs and that few people critically study it. It has to do with the fact that your most likely "chosen" religion is determined by the one you were born into.

It has to do with the fact that while religious leaders and theologians can make all sorts of arguments and apologies to explain all of the apparent inconsistencies with their teachings and holy books in relation to the actual world and internal makeup - the rational mind will eventually hit on Occam's razor and simplify the entire equation by taking theism out of it.

It has to do with the fact that people recognize the power of science and the power of applying the scientific method to any and all questions of the nature of man and the universe. To believe without evidence is irrational. To believe without evidence is faith.

He replied:

All that is very well and good, however I believe it contradicts the history of modern academia.

Correct me if I'm wrong (and I mean this sincerely; please try to provide reliable sources I can check). The academic world was purely Christian for centuries. All the universities were primarily divinity schools. Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Linnaeus were all devoutly religious. Darwin was a theology student. I don't believe he ever earned a degree in biology. Until about 1840, geologists were busy working on "Flood geology".

Today of course that has completely changed. Why?

I think the dinosaurs did it. In 1842, the term "dinosaur" was coined and the realization dawned on the academic world that they had been fooled. Suddenly it became obvious that in earlier times life was entirely different than it is today. That meant, allegedly, that Genesis was fake. Suddenly, the entire culture of the academic world changed.

This could not be proclaimed openly. In many countries, including England, criticizing Christianity was a jailing offence. Darwin never dared admit publicly that he was an agnostic. However from 1842 onward, the academic world began quietly, gradually educating the public into the new doctrine of atheism [or secularism, agnosticism, naturalism, materialism, scientism or whatever you want to call it].

Of course, philosophers went to work creating all kinds of additional arguments to support the new faith, however I think the core was and remains the Argument from Fossils. Everything else is just fluff which no one was every bothered by before.

Some apologies had to formulated also.

Atheists are obviously going to be asked "OK, there is no god. So where did we come from?" The answer fabricated was "Evolution made us." And when asked "Oh, you don't believe in God. So you can do whatever you want if no one is watching?" the answer formulated was "Of course not! I am a humanist."

The way I see it, the essential debate between Judaism and atheism is:

"In your judgment, which argument is stronger: The Argument from Fossils or the Kuzari Principle?" Of course, you know my answer. ;-)

I answered:

You're confusing the historical trends of beliefs in intellectual western civilization and the makings of modern day atheists.

The beginning of the end of faith was something called the Renaissance. Following centuries of living under the stifling and thought controlling auspices of the church, humanity began to rebel and to think freely. Since those early humanists through the empiricists and the later logical positivists people were growing more and more skeptical of traditional dogma. It wasn't as if dinosaurs became understood and then "poof" the whole world changed. The world had been changing for centuries.

Newton, Galieo, Copernicus, etc were indeed religious - but they also weren't cowed by authority. They were empiricists as they looked towards the physical evidence and not what the clergymen told them. This was the same type of thinking geologists would take later on. This was science.

Science is institutionalized skepticism. As more of religion's claims came to be under the scientific view people took a skeptical view of those claims and appealed to what the physical evidence substantiated. It is not faith, in fact, it is actually the opposite of faith.

People being skeptical of religious claims was a natural part of the entire ways of thought that the Age of Reason dominated. Generally the idea was skepticism, to not appeal to authority and to use Reason. Your way of saying that people suddenly became adherents to a new faith and then surreptitiously began to evangelize is false. It was just skepticism. The same skepticism that drove Galileo to take out his telescope and check out the heavens for himself.

Evolution didn't develop as an apology for atheism. If you've ever read Darwin's works you'd see that his theory was based on many studies and observations. Darwin was a devout theist as he composed it in his mind. It was just his understanding of the evidence he collected that brought him to the conclusion that it did. Skepticism plus evidence is science.

Proper science is minimalistic. Understand that and you'll understand why there are intellectual atheists today.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Israel over Torah

I was having a discussion the other day with this Lubavitch guy regarding the benefits of Zionism towards the preservation of the Jewish people and Judaism. This guy refused to call himself a Zionist because of all the negative connotations that he believes the term implies. Whether is be Labor Zionism or Revisionist Zionism or Religious Zionism or whatever, he objects to them all in one way or the other.

I pointed out to him that he was picking on these individual movements without looking at the common denominator between them all - that is the support for the existence of a Jewish State on the historic Land of Israel. That is it really. And since he does support that idea then he would then be de facto a Zionist.

In any case, the conversation went to his Chabad travels where he did outreach efforts all over the world. And interestingly he would tell those attracted souls to stay in a local religious community rather than to settle in Israel. I found that surprising. Israel, I would think, would be the most supportive atmosphere to engender Jews to return to Judaism, but this was not so according to his understanding.

See, Israel is really a rather secular country with a significant religious minority, yet the Jewish secular majority is extremely antagonistic to that religious minority. And when a newly intrigued Jew comes to the country, they may feel that they are Jewish enough by being an Israeli and being invested in the Israeli popular culture. It could easily stall their religious progress. This kind of process is sometimes seen conversely when mostly secular Jews turn to Judaism in foreign lands to connect somehow to their heritage. One can passively be a Jew in Israel, but one must actively be a Jew in the Diaspora. Thus religious progress is counter-intuitively aided by being outside of Israel's borders. This also explains the dearth of liberal movements of Judaism within Israel, yet their relative strength in the US and in Europe.

But what about the high rates of intermarriage in the Diaspora? Isn't that a worse danger to the Jewish future than possible secularization in Israel? Then here he got a little silly pointing out the increasing numbers of gentiles in Israel, like the non-Jewish Russians and the increasing Arab populations as equally dangerous as sources of intermarriage. But the numbers are completely different. The American Jewish population has a current rate of intermarriage at over 50% and has shrunk about ten percent in just the past couple of decades. Israeli Jewish intermarriage does exist, but its rates are far lower.

Then I really came to understand his point of view. It comes down to the fact that he cares less about the Jewish people as much as he cares about the Jewish religion. Millions of secular Jews could disappear as far as he was concerned as long as a vigorous religious core continues to exist somewhere in the world. So then I asked him point blank which he held to be more important.

He said I was right and that he valued religion over peoplehood since Judaism is what defines a Jew and this "secular Jew" business is a tenuous sort of identity. He agreed that telling people to go to Israel would probably be better for Jewish peoplehood but he insistently claimed that Jewish peoplehood apart from Torah is nonsense and would not stand the test of time. Maybe. That remains for time to tell.

Anyway, I was reading a different book over Pesach about Jewish acculturation and assimilation in history and in modern America. And in one instance in quotes an interesting story from the midrash, Tanna deBei Eliyahu Rabba (chapter 14). In it a man comes to Elijah and questions him on a matter of the law.

He said to me: "O my master, I have two things in my heart, both of which I love dearly, Torah and Israel. But I do not know which of them takes precedence over the other."

I said to him: "It is the way of men to say that Torah comes before all else, as it is stated (Mishlei 8:22): 'The Lord created me at the beginning of His way.' But I say, the holy people of Israel come first, as it is stated (Yirmiyahu 2:3): 'Israel is holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His increase.'"

Apparently Jewish tradition lies in my favor on this one.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Leibowitz, Kaplan, God and Halacha

Over Pesach I had the opportunity to read a few modern Jewish philosophy books and I'm still in the process of digesting them. A couple of them really stuck out though. One was by Isaiah Leibowitz and the other by Mordechai Kaplan. Suffice it to say they each had rather different takes on Judaism.

Leibowitz takes the stand as a metaphysical reductionist and what I'd consider to be a Jewish Kierkegaard. In his view God simply exists and the best way of doing Judaism is through following Halacha for the sake of serving God. Doing Halacha for any other purpose, be it for moral reasons, sociological reasons or political reasons is to turn God's Law into service for man and not for God. Thus doing Mitzvot for the sake of reward or fear of punishment is the basest type of religion since it is purely selfish as opposed to the purely selfless ideal of Leibowitz. Thus he criticizes people like Maimonides who seach for rational justifications for the Law. If Halacha is to serve God then its utility to man is irrelevant.

Leibowitz reminds me of Kierkegaard because he has the same idea that faith and service in God is the ultimate objective in life beyond that of any moral concern or ethical imperative. Thus he uses the Akeidah as an example of God's commands overruling any moral conscience. One's ultimate fidelity lies with God and not with anything else.

There are some issues though with Leibowitz. He in other places claims that Judaism is only meaningful in the sense as the "following of Halacha." He says that since Judaism has had many different theologies and religious philosophies over time the only consistent measure to identify Judaism is through those who live a Halachic life. He thuswise tries to make irrelevant all the metaphysical theories behind Judaism and even the imperative behind composing a metaphysical theory to justify it. The problem is that one must make certain assumptions about the relationship between God and Halacha to say that one is serving God by following Halacha. If Halacha is a creation by man and not truly a command from God then one is serving men, not God.

Leibowitz doesn't outrightly say this anywhere in his book, but I suspect that he basically makes the assumption that the Torah is min hashamayim and Halacha is divinely inspired. Though, I think, you don't need to make that assumption. Even if Halacha was and is devised solely by man, one can still serve God in a way that makes sense to man. God is unfathomable and the ultimate reality. For "Him" to command anything is likewise unfathomable and nonsensical. We must rely on human invention to try and relate to "Him." And the best way to serve Him is through doing that which has no utility to man. For if an act has utility to man then its value as a service to God is much reduced if not entirely so.

In this way we can justify all those apparently silly and meaningless rituals in Judaism. Every one of those Chukim are explained thus. One would be absolutely correct in saying that they serve no purpose to man. For if they served man then that would undermine the whole point. The intention is a service to God.

The problem I run in with Leibowitz is that he says that following Halacha supercedes ethical and moral imperatives. Indeed, how can he not? How can the utility to man's needs come before the will of God? But if Halacha is not the will of God, but rather the innovation of man then this solves the problem. For those laws which are ethically or morally neutral then why not do them? They are a service to God and nothing else. But when a law crosses ones conscience then we must hold one's conscience supreme.

Then this is where Kaplan comes into play. Since the God of Leibowitz is transcendent and unknowable, how are we to relate to Him? We cannot. What Kaplan does is to turn what is meaningful for man into that which is God. God is the power that makes for freedom. God is the power that makes for cooperation. God is the power that makes for social regeneration, for salvation and for Righteousness.

God is that which is virtuous and strived for in human nature. God is morality. For God to come before moral imperatives is impossible. God is the moral imperative. To honestly follow one's conscience is to walk in the ways of the Lord.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

My Evolving Beliefs - God

I find that I do now believe in God. Since being freed from the limiting reaches of Positivism I feel comfortable holding beliefs on metaphysical matters that transcend what we can possibly know at this time. That is if we shall ever know. When stuck between two different options, like belief in God vs disbelief in God, it is downright foolish to choose no sides when it is on such a matter of great import. If one wishes to be intellectually honest then one must make a decision and live _as if_ one option were true because it serves as the bedrock for nearly all further beliefs and actions in life.

The existence of God is no small matter and those who live under the title of "agnostics" are really choosing to live under the assumption that no God exists. Without a positive belief then a non-belief is essentially the same as a negative belief. This is a true utilitarian understanding of Pascal's wager. I don't believe in the afterlife, but I understand how this belief will directly affect my current life and so I must play.

Now, one does not need to pretend that one's beliefs are necessarily true or that they must be free from criticism or any other silly category that people put their special beliefs in. One just needs to recognize the nature of the beliefs as a matter of faith - different from the more reliable method of empirical study and rational thinking. We must find some belief to build on in order to move on and create a philosophy that we can live with. Some shaky belief system based on pragmatism and hedonism just doesn't lead to a fulfilling life or conceptual progress. We must move up in order to move on.

I find that I cannot conceive of a Universe that just sprang into existence by itself. I find that all the intricate and specific laws on which our Universe operates leads to an ordered existence that I cannot believe was a cosmic accident. I find that when I study the extremely intricate and complex biochemical pathways through which our cells produce energy or through which it stores genetic information or through anything that makes life as we know it possible I am struck with a sense of awe and I cannot make sense of it unless I suppose some kind of design.

Some people might say this is my failing. That I am performing a prime example of the fallacy of incredulity - that because I cannot imagine it possible so I am saying that it cannot be true. But this is not so. All I am saying is that since I personally cannot seriously imagine it possible then I personally cannot believe it to be so. I only further and further strain my credulity when I try to conceive of natural or accidental ways in which this all could have come to be. Claiming otherwise is just foolish and dishonest to myself. I may be wrong. The evidence may fall against me in future days. But right here and right now I cannot believe it all to be some amazing coincidence and I must posit some Creator and some Designer which made the whole of Existence.

I do not necessarily propose that this Creator is conscious or intelligent or omniscient or omnipotent. Much less omnibenevolent or emotionally loving or parental. All I propose is that this Creator would be called God. This God is the Rock of the Universe. The Sustainer of all that is. What is the nature of God? Why did it do this creating? These questions and the like I cannot answer. Nor do I claim to be able to answer.

I am also not proposing that this God operates in supernatural ways or interferes with reality as we know it with miracles and wonders. I believe that evolution occurred and I reject "ID" as a scientific theory. My belief is based on evidence and my reaction to it but it is not constructed positively and cannot be called scientific. It is a matter of faith.

More to follow...