Friday, August 22, 2014

Playing in the Religious Playground

In debates I have had, and debates more prominent atheists have had, with religious people, I dare say we have all made a significant mistake in our argument. In my previous post "Why Morality Doesn't Matter", I attempted to address the fundamental problem of debating the good and evil values of religion, before debating the really important question, that of the existence of God, or not.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, allow me to address another, yet similar, error I and my fellow atheists have made in debates with the religious.

It is common for atheists to point out, generally with due intensity, the immoral verses contained inside the Bible, New Testament, and the Qu'ran. Conversely, it is just as common to hear religious people pointing out the humanistic and revolutionary concepts inscribed therein. At times, both the atheist and the religious end up quoting the same verse!

This makes one thing perfectly clear: Since the authors of these texts wrote in vague and poetic terms, everyone can, without much effort, create the meaning that best suits them. The words can be twisted and bent to fit even the most outlandish of explanations. It is for this precise reason that we have two major camps in every religion (and sub-camps in these two as well). There are religious people who will commit heinous crimes whilst quoting verses of their holy texts, and others who condemn those actions based on the very same verses. Because of the vast number of the latter type of religious person, the former is generally referred to as a "fanatic." Needless to say, the so-called fanatics simply think of the moderates as secularized at best, or at worst, full-blown heretics. I stress again, these groups are not called fanatics because they are reading the text wrong, but only because of the vast number of people who view the text through the prism of 21st century modernism. That is a very important clarification. One has to wonder why God, Jesus, or Allah did not feel the need to be a little more specific.

I have heard religious people when stumbling upon a verse that bothers their moral sensibilities, brush it off with feigned nonchalance, claiming they must have not understood the verse correctly, for: "God, wouldn't command that!" In one sentence they claim to know the inner workings of God's mind, while in the next they will tell you that God allows evil to prevail, and we must accept it, for: "We can't understand God's ways." A tragic, yet popular hypocrisy.

The point is, an atheist should examine the texts, he should know the problems with the religious scriptures, but not to use them against the religious. Why? Because it won't work. If you debate a "fanatic" he will agree with you that, for instance, gays deserve to be stoned, as do Sabbath violators and heretics, and therefore, you will accomplish nothing, accept to show him how versed you are in the Bible.

If you debate a moderate, he will show you how each one of the verses quoted does not mean what you think it means. He, as the religious person, will easily discard you as a fool who glances at the "complex nature" of the verses and jumps to conclusions without proper understanding. If you then show him clergy members of his faith espousing different claims than he about the verses, he will generally wave them off as fanatics.

You will have wasted your time and intellectual energy, and will have again, missed the only challenge to religion that it must answer, and that I have never heard it successfully answer: Does God exist? If so, where is the proof? If not, their texts do not matter more than a piece of ancient literature.

No religion does not have it's share of inner arguments about explanations and interpretations of their holy scriptures. In Judaism (I do not know about the other religions), this pluralism of interpretations is embraced, capsulized in the perplexing statement made by the rabbis of the Talmud: "These and these [the disputed opinions] are the words of the living God." Quoting scripture against the religious is a battle you will not win. It is their playground, in which they know how to maneuver far better than you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why Morality Doesn't Matter

The moral debate in our postmodern age is both majestic and melancholic. Do we still think that there is real concepts such "right" and "wrong?" The terms "good" and "evil" have to some people lost their meaning entirely. While to others, these words have only become harder, though not impossible, to define.

Is there a set of universal laws which govern the way man is to act towards his fellow? Can we speak in objective terms while discussing questions of ethics and morality? Does man have some kind of responsibility towards the universe, or is the world a jungle in which the only the strong survive? These questions have plagued mankind for centuries, perhaps ever since man became aware of himself. [It is fascinating to note that even though no moral code has ever been universally accepted, nor do any two people agree on every ethical dilemma, practically everyone cares about and values morality. We almost instinctively know the value of a moral system, even if we differ on how to define it.]

Religious people are quick to pose these problems to atheists as proof of their religious doctrine, or at the very least, they wish to show the value of dogmatic belief over the "hopelessness" of secular rationalism. I once heard a rabbi who, when challenged as to whether or not God existed, answered by stating that without God there can be no morals, and therefore... He went off to quote Dostoevsky (as they almost always do) who is said to have written: "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." I have also heard many religious people say that were there no God, nothing would stop them from becoming murderers and rapists. As if the only reason they do not carry out such horrifying acts this moment, is to prevent punishment, in this world or the next, from an invisible God. How contemptible. Though, to their credit, I'm quite certain a great number of them are lying, and that they wish only to frighten my heart, so that I too should take cover in the absolutism of their faith. Religion has held a monopoly on morality and they believe this gives them a rational platform on which to stand in the God debate. It does not.

I will admit, however, that without a god dictating our universal laws, there would arise moral difficulties that are almost, if not completely, insoluble. There are fascinating philosophical discussions which have attempted to create an objective moral code based on rational arguments. There have been yet others, who challenge these premises and simply say that all is relative. "His pleasure is not my pleasure, and I have no right to dictate what he does or does not do," is the basic gist of the argument. In practice though, I must add, one will be hard pressed to find the surge of atheists who, because they have no belief in God, are committing crimes. (If the reader is tempted to to say here that Hitler and Stalin disproved this, I will say that while at least Stalin was not a believer, his totalitarian movement was just as dogmatic and anti-rational, as the worst of religions. It therefore, does not negate my point, and rather strengthens it.) It seems that where atheists may differ entirely on whether we can say objectively that there exist these universal laws of ethics, most atheists in practice, live rather morally and upright lives. A seeming paradox indeed, yet a consistent one.

I will further admit, that if there was an all-knowing, all-seeing being, it would certainly be fitting for such a being to dictate our morals. Surely such a creature could make accurate and precise claims as to the nature of the universe. Even more so, if that being created the universe! Of course, everyone following a sacred text which is claimed to be authored by such a being, should wonder if he is indeed following the morals of a god, or simple unenlightened middle-eastern shepherds from a much earlier century.

It is this last point that should compel the religious to make certain their sacred texts are, in fact, true. If they are not, you may, because of them, commit certain acts that I think even the staunchest of believers would agree are immoral. Even if a moral code would be impossible to create or sustain without a god, we have no right to say that such a being exists! The world may be a terrifying, gloomy, hopeless existence where wickedness prevails, that still does not mean that Truth can be manipulated to comfort us. Religion may offer the world many precious comforts. It may allow humans to experience certain sensations such as spirituality, more often than the secular. Religion may, though some would differ, refine a great many people. All these values lead us no closer to knowing whether it's claims are, in fact, true.

Mankind has always been very adapt to evolving to fit their surroundings, we have evolved as creatures both physically and mentally, and will probably continue to do so. Is it such a stretch to say that as we became more conscience of ourselves, we evolved morals that would allow the continuance of our gene pool? Crediting the moral advancements to gods would simply ensure the observance of those moral achievements. Hence religion.

I am no expert in the origins of religion, nor do I claim to know when our sense of morality evolved to where it is today; I merely wish to point out that though religion is an easier moral system, and perhaps has done some good for certain people, we still cannot say without evidence that it is God's word.

The question that must be addressed, the only question religion must answer, is: Does God exist? If you claim he does, the burden of proof is on you. To show the history of religion, to talk of the morals it possesses, to waste time talking about the comfort and hope religion cultivates, is to evade the most important challenge to religion; the only question worth answering.      

Monday, August 11, 2014

How a Child of Converts Became an Atheist

I sit wringing my hands as I watch my father, with his dark beard and long flowing side-locks approach the car. I am about eight years old and he has taken me along, as he had done many times, on one of his deliveries. I wonder, "should I ask him? Will he be angry with me?" I am so nervous, the pit in my stomach has all but enveloped me. His car door opens and he climbs into the drivers seat. I decide that I must ask him, and hope for the best. I heard myself ask: "Abba (Dad), how do we know we are right; the Jews I mean?"

The question was out in the open, there was no turning back now. He looked at me, his eyes were not filled with rage, as I had anticipated, but with love. The very first thing he said to me was: "Great question, son." He then went on to present me with an answer that had left an impression on him. It didn't so much matter what his answer was, it only mattered that it was okay for me to doubt the religion, the path, he had chosen. He then concluded, the way my parents always do when I or my brothers ask questions: "I am proud of you for asking, keep on asking."

There are religious people who reject the natural skepticism in their son or daughter. They either get angry with them for their lack of faith, or they brush off the questions as silly or childish. Their children may remain religious or they may stray, but those parents have failed one of the most important challenges that every parent faces: That of, teaching their children how, as opposed to what, to think. How foolish are such parents!

My parents, who are converts to Judaism, understood the beauty of the question. They praised our inquisitive minds. They challenged our assumptions. They understood that without the question, there can be no progression. If a child inquires into the nature of God or reality, the parent, whether a believer or not, should marvel in the fact that their young son or daughter is seeking to learn about the most important aspects of human life. In that moment, the parent can either lay the foundation upon which the child will build his intellectual tower, or they can shatter the child's most important will, the will to know. My father, on that day, laid the first brick.

My parents, after searching and experimenting with many other ways of life chose Judaism. However, they have always encouraged my brothers and I to ask, to challenge, and most importantly to find the truth for ourselves. I hear stories of children hiding their disbelief in God from their parents. Some have to go so far as to "escape" the confines of their home if they wish to espouse their thoughts. Children who do not believe in their parent's God may be excommunicated, disgraced, and hated by their own families. I have no such woe. My parents, my family, have been nothing but embracing. We debate, we discuss, but we never stop loving one another.

So, are my parents to blame for my atheism? Yes. But not because they did something wrong, but because they did something right. They taught me how to think for myself. They challenged me to find the truth, where ever that journey may take me. They cheered me on always, no matter if I was a ultra-Orthodox lad, or a wild-haired hippie. Their smile is filled with so much love when they repeatedly say: "We are so proud of you."

I do not know what my future will bring; my path may not be that of my parents. But we will always be a family, a loyal family. A family that embraces great questions over easy answers. A family that, though both in the secular and religious world the family structure is crumbling, will stay together. I will continue to seek truth, continue to doubt, continue to ask, and I know there will be a family waiting for me, always. On that day when I was eight year old, my father proved that to me.  

Thank you both so much. I love you.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Temptation of Belief

I have discovered that the majority of atheists find themselves unable to believe. Many of them, whether they were raised religious or not, have always had trouble believing that there was an invisible being watching over them, anxious to hear their prayers. Many atheists are of the stance found in Blaise Pascal's Pensées, where the hypothetical unbeliever declares: "...I am so made that I cannot believe."

Yet, there is another class of atheist, a class of which I am part, to whom belief comes naturally. We are tempted, and have perhaps, been convinced here and there, to believe the impossible. I, for one, spent 24 years engulfed in the absolute belief in God, heaven, and miracles. I was not surprised, and willingly believed, the stories of holy men performing supernatural events. I saw "God's guiding hand" through many of my own experiences. I believed stories about demons, and angels. I believed stories of Elijah the Prophet taking the form of other people to help a Jew out of a tough situation. It was not hard for me to believe the intangible, the incomprehensible, it was as real to me as the sun in the sky. I am a natural believer. I identify with the powerful words of Jean-Paul Sartre when he wrote: "That God does not exist, I cannot deny; that my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget."

I may be a believer by nature, but I am an atheist by choice. Though religion's warm embrace tempts me, I reject her. Though the mysterious and fantastical call to me, I do not hearken to them. It is irresponsible for me to accept claims without proof. Without being able to check a premise, what right have I to call it reality? 

I must interject here only to state, that I am in no way perpetuating the repeatedly told "axiom" that religion is the best way of life. I have shown in other essays that I firmly do not believe that to be the case. Yet, the comfort that religion gives, existential and otherwise, cannot be denied. Moreover, for someone who wants to believe -- who's being summons him to believe -- religion seems all the more tempting. 

Humans tend to believe many claims without sufficient proof. I, no doubt have done so, and will probably be guilty of it, in some manifestation, again. Can this be called a healthy perception of reality? Can man believe whatever he pleases? When truth is no longer an ideal to strive for, what limits should be put on man's untamed imagination? If we are to believe whatever we desire, without some objective method of testing those beliefs, we have but erased the very word "truth" from the universe. 

If the idea of "truth" is to matter at all, if we are to understand reality, however slightly, we must determine for ourselves a tool for measuring it. I have chosen reason. Reason can be tested, critiqued, and most importantly mended. It has no sacred scriptures it must consult, no dogma it must appease. It requires no believe, no blind faith. It desires free-inquiry and a thirst to learn. It demands honesty and open-mindedness. It is the tool that has propelled mankind from primitive tribes scurrying around the Earth, to advanced civilizations that are currently pushing the boundaries of space. 

Reason is not an end in itself, but a tool. There is yet room in the world for wonder, love, poetry and all other conceivable forms of art. We cannot however, be without reason. It must be the tool that is used to measure all the important questions of life. All other aspects that are to be found in the universe that make living so glorious, must be allowed to roam free, only after reason has established the safe borders.

This is why, as natural as it is for me to believe in religion's claims, as tempting as it is, I cannot. Not unless I can reasonably prove them to be true. That is my duty to the truth. To seek her out, even if she is almost impossible to find. I mustn't capitulate to my feeble heart's desires to be comforted as I once was, by religion. Friedrich Nietzsche correctly wrote: "There is nothing more necessary than the truth, in comparison with it everything else has only secondary value."  

I may at times be tormented by my doubts, my uncertainty. I may be beaten down by my skepticism. But I will forever know, that when faced with the "two roads diverged... I chose the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."