Monday, March 07, 2011

A Message for Skeptics and Educators

One of the most difficult issues to deal with among those who go OTD is the matter of belief in Judaism and belief in God. Often going OTD means that one simply stops believing in both. Why that happens is a good question and I will try to explore it somewhat here.

I note that whenever the subject is discussed on various venues, I get a sense that there is more to the story than simply finding Atheism more rational than belief in a Creator. But rationalism is almost always the conscious argument put forward by the Atheist. And it is a powerful argument that is hard to refute.

I should note that Atheism is really a poor choice of words to describe this phenomenon. A more accurate term is skepticism. The former implies absolute certainty about God’s non-existence. The latter simply means doubting His existence. Only a fool would say that God absolutely does not exist. That would mean he could prove it and we would all be atheists. (In fact intellectually honest atheists call themselves weak-atheists for that reason.)

The reason for that doubt is that if one does not take the A-priori approach of God’s existence, there is no proof that He exists. One need not necessarily say that God exists in order to explain existence. As time goes on science increasingly does that, they say.

But even if they would concede God’s existence what often punctures holes in their Judaism is the literary analysis of the bible. Such analyses strongly indicate that the bible was written by human beings in different eras and compiled in post biblical times.

I am not prepared to argue against bible criticism at this point. I don’t have the expertise or skill to do that. But I will say is that literary analyses are not proofs. A bible that was written by the Divine has no time or stylistic constraints. Using phraseology in different portions of the bible to show it was written in a particular era does not prove that God didn’t write it that way on purpose. Why God did that is beyond me. I can’t answer the question. But it does not concern me in the slightest.

But… as I indicated I know precious little about bible criticism to debate those who do.

One of the most prolific Jewish skeptics on the internet is a very bright and intellectually honest fellow who was raised in a Frum home. A few years ago he became a skeptic about both God and Judaism. He recently lamented that fact, saying he was much happier before he became a skeptic.

How did he become a skeptic? He encountered people on his blog and websites that made him question his core beliefs. Not having found satisfying answers to all those questions led him to doubt God and Judaism as understood in Orthodoxy.

How sad for him and his family that he came to this conclusion. I doubt I would be able to sway him at this point. But I nonetheless have to ask, must one become a skeptic if exposed to all those challenges to religious belief? Does lack of proof of God’s existence mean that He does not exist? Do unanswered questions prove anything? The answer is clearly no. As I said, only a fool would say that God absolutely does not exist.

Because of all their questions they understandably want proof that God does exist. That will never happen. If one could prove God’s existence – they would believe in Him. Christopher Hitchens - one of the most famous atheists in the world admitted as much in an interview yesterday.

I would suggest that skeptics re-think the ideology that led them to their skepticism. I think they make a serious mistake in equating belief with facts. They are two separate and independent things. We are called 'Maminim' - believers - because we 'believe' in God, not because we can prove His existence.

Proving God's existence would take God out of the category of belief and put him into the category of provable fact. If God could be proven there would be no such thing as an atheist.

Why should anyone believe in something they can't prove? Why not? God is in fact a concept, not a percept. We cannot perceive Him with any of the five physical senses. But as a rationalist who believes in the idea of ‘First cause’ I find it impossible to say that the existence of the physical universe just happened by itself. That makes absolutely no sense to me. That would make matter and energy infinite.

Additionally there is overwhelming evidence indicating God’s existence even without the rational argument. Although it is inconclusive, I think there is enough of it to make a believer out of anyone - if they think about it. I am not going to list any of it here. I’ve done that in previous posts (e.g. here, here here and many more). While it is true each piece of evidence taken by itself can be challenged, in the aggregate it is pretty convincing – in my view.

If one will concede God, why concede Judaism?

Why not? Does any other religion make better sense than Judaism does? One does not have to be an expert in comparative religions to see some of the major problems presented in each religion. Why not choose the one in which you were raised? The one which accepts all of mankind and does not require belief in a specific theology or else be condemned for eternity?

If skepticism makes more sense to you than Judaism because it is more rational, I understand that – even if I don’t agree with it. But if you are going to be intellectually honest you would have to admit that you might actually be wrong and religious doctrine might actually be right. There is no proof either way. Why not side with belief? Must one choose the path of least rational resistance? Must belief require empirical proofs?

One more thing. I suspect that many people become skeptics for reasons that are other than intellectual. Reading comments on skeptic websites and blogs I find that there is often a root cause that stems from the emotional rather than the rational. Not that they don’t believe the rational challenges - and make their arguments that way. They do. But that they began their search for emotional reasons.

I sense an almost visceral hatred in some cases for organized religion. I think much of that is based on personal experiences in the home or in school. Ultimately it is a failure on the part of the schools to deal with these people that led some of them astray. For example a curious mind that for whatever reason begins to question religious assumptions and receives dismissive responses by their teachers and other authority figures can easily make him or her a skeptic. Especially if there are emotional issues attached - issues such as family dysfunction and physical or sexual abuse.

I find this a sad commentary on religious schools. I think it is an across the board problem and not limited to any specific Hashkafa. Although I’m sure there are exceptional teachers who can deal with it - it would seem that there is no system in place to deal with this problem effectively as a whole.

That has to change. Because today with the click of a mouse one can find all the challenges and none of the answers. Who knows how many people have lost - and how many will come to lose - their faith this way?

Warning: This post is not an invitation to hard core skeptics to argue their position. Attempts at doing so will be deleted. It is only meant as food for thought for those who are on the fence. Serious questions will be entertained and answered honestly.