Jewish Atheism

Coming as no surprise, I identify both as a Jew and an atheist. I’ve written about what it means to me to identify as religious, and how I reconcile the potential contradictions here and here (oh, and here), and I spoke about the Holocaust memorial on the Ohio statehouse on the Camels and Hammers show, which can be found here.

The atheist community seems split on this (I mean, insofar as they are deeply preoccupied with this questions, which is not so much). Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, says no. Kate Bigam says yes. Many many people say things that I find demonstrate a total ignorance of Judaism and Jewish identity. These comments range from a misunderstanding of what the Jewish star is and represents, to what halacha (Jewish law) and the separation of genders in Orthodox spaces is supposed to do.

My dear friend Miri Mogilevsky and I sought in the most recent FTBCon (full play list here) to explain ourselves and address some of those ideas and misconceptions. Comments and further questions welcome!

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[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have an entirely negative attitude towards people who ask religious people about their beliefs. When I hear at a party, “But how do you know God exists?” or when I hear over a Friday night dinner table, “But what about the contradictions in the bible?” or anything similar in any social situation, I cringe and walk the other way. Part of that is for decent reasons: I have no reason to expect that anything will be said I haven’t heard a hundred times before, the conversation is likely to be unproductive and/or combative, and there’s high probability of someone getting offended or upset. I honestly don’t want any part of that, especially in a social context.

But that doesn’t really excuse how little I think of the people asking. If I’m being honest, I see asking such questions as low-status. They are, to me, a marker of a 101-type, a newly christened atheist still asking the basic questions. Atheism is boring, after all. There are so many other questions to discuss besides God. I would obviously never be so gauche as to ask my friends what evidence they have for god; my intellectual sophistication means that I instead discuss Talmudic sources and argue about the consistency of John Calvin’s theology.

This is what a page of Talmud looks like, by the way

This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters. Those are easy to rebut. If you were to read Platinga (I haven’t) or Calvin or Luther or Vatican II, you would understand. Again, it’s a marker of low-status to be pointing out silly things like lack of evidence or evil in the world. Haven’t you examined the best possible counterarguments to your position? Humph, done with you, I’m off to read Luke Muelhauser and Leah Libresco, they’re atheists (or used to be) who take religion seriously.

Now, I’m not throwing out all of this approach. I do think discussions about God at a party are largely uninteresting and unproductive, I do think asking such questions gives me good evidence that someone is a 101 level atheist, and I do think that atheists could stand to know more about common counterarguments to their positions.

But I am deeply questioning the morality and accuracy of my position. Firstly, the sneering superiority really isn’t a good look for anyone. Atheism isn’t my primary hobbyhorse, and I might argue it shouldn’t be anyone’s, but that doesn’t mean that the people who like to argue about it a lot or talk about it a lot are to be looked down on. People have their interests and their preferences, and it’s much more appropriate for me to disagree with the extent to which these people have implicitly prioritized their atheism than to dismiss them entirely. (Somewhat to my credit, consistency-wise, is that I tend not to have a lot of patience for anyone who has just the One Big Thing that they care about, hence my general disapproval of hedgehogs. But the whole low-status business is pretty disgusting on my part.)

Furthermore, some subset of the people who talk about atheism a lot online or in person are new to atheism. Anyone new to a belief system and community deserves the space and patience to do the whole 101-thing, to figure it out for themselves. We should be happy and excited that they’re asking questions and being skeptical, and recognize that there are things we’re all still figuring out. That’s how we make atheism a safe place to land.

Also, I’m often secretly happy that this kind of person challenges religious people, and actually makes them argue for their position. As we know, religious people frequently get a pass on their beliefs that no one else gets on any other type of belief, and I’m only contributing to that state of events by not asking. Good on them for being willing to have the intense conversations, even if I wish they were more charitable and/or less focused on “winning.” And after all, without Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dennet and others writing books that tackle these issues, the atheist movement really wouldn’t be what it is today, whatever else one might say about them.

On the empirical part, I’m currently reading the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes for a class, and I recently attended a Veritas Forum on Truth and Tolerance that I livetweeted. You know what I’ve noticed? The sophisticated arguments for the truth of scripture and the existence of God? Really not much better than the ones I see on facebook every day. Why is humanity sinful? Because of the fall. Why did god make us fall? He didn’t, we did. Then we have free will? No. Then why is it our fault? It was necessary, but also voluntary. Why would god make our wills such that we would fall? God is perfect. Really? Yes. (The format is different, but this is the actual content of Calvin’s argument). Similarly, the Christian (David Skeel) at the Veritas forum made utterly uncompelling arguments for the existence of god and the redemption of Christ. So I seem to have been wrong about at least a large part of the my belief in the Courtier’s Reply.

That’s why at the Veritas Forum, I asked Professor Skeel what it was like to live in a world where most of the people he cares about and interacts with were going to hell. He’s a public intellectual, making public claims about the nature of the world I think are both wrong and disturbing. Many, many other religious people are making similar claims, equally wrong and equally distressing. They should have to defend those claims, and the fact that I think it’s boring or low-status to be the one to make them doesn’t erase that truth.

Professor Skeel himself

Now, I think there’s a difference between public intellectuals and people at a party or online. And I think there’s definitely a difference between people who personally believe things and people who are very public about them. But I no longer think it is a useless or rude thing to ask about and challenge religious beliefs (except when it is, and I trust my readers can figure out appropriate contexts). I may still find it uninteresting, and I may still find many of the actual arguments made in such discussions uncharitable or badly made, but I am committed to working on no longer seeing the very act of asking as a low-status thing to do, as something worthy of derision. On the contrary, it’s deeply important.

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God of the Gaps, or How Wrong Can an Argument Be?

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It’s been a while, but I’ve been busy.

Anyway, at some point, I promised myself I wouldn’t do this (referring to atheism/theism or evolution/creation debates) anymore, but this is just too frustrating to ignore.
HuffPost, that bastion of rigorous thought, has a gem on its page today, found here.

It is, of course, a reasonable argument for the existence of god. Because the other ones aren’t, obviously, but this one will rectify all the mistakes of millennia of arguments and come up with a conclusive proof that all reasonable people must accept (that must is, of course, descriptive rather than normative.

Let us see. It begins,

“In our recent dialogue I have noticed a consistent theme. It was frequently remarked that religious lines of argumentation lack reason. The contention seems to be that most, if not all, religious systems rely solely on wholly unsubstantiated faith to support their beliefs.”

So, there’s a somewhat valid point half-buried in here, which is that it is often assumed that religious arguments are, ipso facto, irrational, and it’s possible that that’s a problem. Here we need to think about the words we’re using, because what it is to be rational is a matter of some debate. In common usage, it generally just means sensible, as in, it makes sense to me. In a more rigorous philosophical way, it refers to those ways of thinking which are deliberative and logical. The first has more than a hint of intuitionism, and so gives us a poor test to establish the validity of an argument. After all, arguments for god frequently “make sense” to those who already believe. Regarding the second definition, my Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Religion will furnish as many consistent, well-reasoned arguments for god as you care to read. To contend that religious arguments are necessarily irrational is empirically incorrect, and furthermore ignores the history of philosophy, in which Alfarabi, Aristotle, Aquinas and Maimonides, rationalists all, promote their conceptions of god and religion.

On the other hand, most religious systems do rely on unsubstantiated faith to support their beliefs. The “all” and “solely” are strawmen, as clearly there exist nontheistic religions along with secular aspects of religious thought. Moving on, though, it’s an entirely valid claim to make that religion is in large part based on faith. Many believers themselves make such a claim, saying that not only do they trust in the existence of unseen things, but that this faith is indeed a virtue. All of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith (notice the title) begin with the phrase, “I believe with perfect faith.” Aquinas counts faith among his theological virtues, the cultivation of which leads to full happiness and defines it further as Paul does, saying “Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” If there were no element of faith in religion, then it would either be prescriptive without foundation, and thus incredibly weak, or subject to an enormous amount of change as empirical evidence comes to light. So the essay has not gotten itself off to a good start.

But then arises the main portion of the argument, which we are told will consider the naturalistic account of the origin of life, in particular its failings. After an entire paragraph of promises that much high level intellectual work has been done on behalf of the author’s position, the subject is introduced with,

“One might suppose that in the six or so decades since the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick during which researchers have been investigating the origin of life they might have come up with some pretty solid leads to explain it. The truth of the matter is that we see scientists coming up surprisingly empty-handed and that even within scientific circles, the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.”

Ok, firstly, citation needed. Vague, gleeful allusions to a heartwrenchingly disunited scientific community are all too common in this kind of piece, and not appreciated. Secondly, and I really cannot believe I have to say this, but the fact that hypotheses are getting proposed and then rejected by the broader scientific community is how science works, and more importantly exactly how it is supposed to work. Criticize the Baconian method if you like, criticize the historical materialist nature of science, criticize empiricism, but please do not disparage an enterprise you contend has failed for doing exactly what it sets out to do. Finally, we do have some leads, not that it matters. If we had not a semblance of a shadow of an idea, that would not indicate that naturalism had somehow failed. Is this the argument you would have used before we came to a (moderate) consensus on the Big Bang? But, in fact, we do. The Oparin-Haldane hypothesis, for one. And others. There’s a wikipedia page. You should have read it before you wrote this.

“So how is a non-religious scientist expected to contend with this dearth of hard evidence?”


By turning to you for answers, of course! Because that’s what scientists do when they don’t know the answer.

Now comes the copypasta of ostensibly relevant quotes.

“One must conclude that … a scenario describing the genesis of life on Earth by chance and natural causes which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith has not yet been written.” (Dr. H.P. Yockey, physicist, information theorist and contributor to the Manhattan Project)

A physicist, information theorist, and most-destructive-thing-people-ever-created-creator, but interestingly enough, not a biologist. That’s not a sufficient argument, of course, as information theory is very important in biology. But pretty much only creationists take Dr. Yockey seriously, as he provides so many pithy tidbits on the failure of science to do what he wants (in this case, defund SETI). Criticisms of his argument can be found here and here, and even those take the Dembski threshold too seriously, as far as I’m concerned.

The general idea behind the Dembski threshold is that life is extremely improbable, so its natural formation is impossible. This deeply problematic conflation of improbability with impossibility is addressed by relying on the number of particles in the universe times the number of seconds since the universe began (I’m glad, by the way, that we’re accepting that number on “faith”) being orders of magnitude higher than the odds against life happening. The general problem with that being that there’s no reason why the universe has to cycle through all possible configurations before getting to the one we’re interested, which is why despite there being ~8E67 ways to lay out a deck of 52 cards, no particular ordering is impossible. Even if we accept that, though, there are many issues with the argument, including the fact that, by and large, the numbers don’t fall on the far side of this “Dembski threshold.” Leaving all that aside, it’s possible that this quote is right, but even so, the theory we need hasn’t been written…yet. The history of supposedly intractable problems solved by science is long, and the history of “Golly gee, I have no idea” is less paved by success.

“The theory behind theory is that you come up with truly testable ideas. Otherwise it’s no different from faith. It might as well be a religion if there’s no evidence for it.” (Dr. J. Craig Venter, Biologist and one of the first people to sequence the human genome)

Ah, Craig Venter, beloved by accomodationists and creationists alike. Quite a few problems with this one. Firstly, that’s an egregiously broad use of the word ‘theory’ which just contributes to the confusion surrounding the issue. Whatever leads we have on abiogenesis, they are hypothesis about how things came about, not overarching organizing principles, so let’s get that straight. Next, yes, of course, testable ideas are paramount, but that doesn’t make expecting a naturalistic explanation to arise, as it has every other time, faith. Furthermore, hypotheses and theories can still be helpful in ascertaining various ways of looking at an issue, as in string theory, and also, things like Bayesian probability can actually give us near certainty on things that can’t be tested, like the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics. And then, finally, methodological naturalism has a track record unlike essentially anything else, so comparing the vast intricacy of ritual, symbolism and entrenched faith that constitute religion to an expectation that science will, as it so often does, win out, is patently ridiculous. There are different kinds of faith being talked about here, and conflating them is bordering on intellectually dishonest.

The author goes on to assert that we can either accept science on faith, an inherently silly notion, or we can believe in the power of chance, which is an argument that has always been at the bottom of the proverbial barrel in ongoing debates of this kind, so I won’t address it, except to say that the quote that follows it from Robert Shapiro is ruthlessly quote-mined from a scientist who believes in nothing like what this article is promoting and has in fact written several books about potential origins of life. He continues on the irrelevant chance tangent and adds in some more quote mining for good measure (“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going,” is followed directly in Francis’ book by “but this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions.”)

Then he moves into a complete misunderstanding of evolution.

Evolution can only begin once we already have a dazzlingly complex, self-replicating, living cell with which to work” is a completely untrue statement. Any replicator with semi-fidelitous hereditary factorsundergoing attrition will evolve. That’s how the math works, and the real world, too.

Rabbi Adam Jacobs then says something absolutely remarkable, not only for its utter absurdity, but also for its sheer disrespect for all philosophical positions mentioned.

“That — the origin of that first cell, not what happened thereafter — is the fundamental basis of disagreement between theist and atheist.”

I really, deeply, fundamentally, hope that’s not the truth. Because I pride myself on rationality and truth, science being a phenomenal method of using the former to get to the latter, and many religious people pride themselves on not only those things, but a much more far-reaching understanding of the divine than highly negentropic chemical generation. But he goes on to his even more ridiculous conclusion:

“I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.”

No. No, no and no. Absolutely not. The evidence in no way points to a supernatural explanation for everything. What evidence? Where? And in what way would we account for the natural world pointing to a supernatural explanation? All the lack of evidence hurled at the scientists is there for the theist, doubled, and then squared because the evidence for the supernatural, if your philosophy allows for such a thing, would have to be insurmountable. And it’s not. This is not a reasonable position. It’s a tentative one, until we find an explanation for abiogenesis, and then this God of the Gaps nonsense is going to move on to something else.

The key phrase in this paragraph is “the appearance of design.” Not design itself, the appearance of design. And that can be and will be accounted for. Let us not pretend otherwise.

As for the prolix quote that ends the piece, that too is mined from a naturalist scientist who is pointing out the difficulties and limitations of materialism, and the deep and abiding commitment anyone who wants the truth has to make to it, so as to be seduced by easy explanations which give us no further understanding of the universe and as such fail the enlightenment project.

I like to have my intelligence respected, so let us have no more of this.

Atheism, and Why I Don’t Much Care

I wanted to write a post about the interactions between atheism, secularism, naturalism and humanism, but after multiple tries in which the atheist paragraph just got far too long, I’ve decided to make that a post of its own.

So, atheism. I am an atheist; I have a profound lack of belief in the supernatural in general and god in particular. But what I kept finding myself wanting to talk about was how boring that was, which I realize is an odd topic for a blog post, but that’s the way it goes.

So, first off, I think atheism, qua atheism, is largely unimportant. Not irrelevant, and not worth making a fuss about, because I’ve certainly been known to do that, but just low on my list of priorities. I realize I’m likely saying this because I happen to be an atheist, but I think that for how important the potential for god’s existence could be, it really isn’t. The vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time as if god didn’t exist. We spend time eating, sleeping, working, talking, breathing. We have daily needs to fill, and no one, including god, is going to do it for us. Whatever your conception of god, that’s a lot of time in which he/she/it’s really just not that relevant. And I happen to care very deeply about all the things that go on in my and other people’s lives, and so to bring god into that discussion is to go off point.

Secondly, atheism isn’t a worldview; it’s a truth claim about the universe, and not a particularly interesting one at that. As I said, I think people spend most of their time as if go didn’t exist, and to be perfectly frank, the universe spends just about all of its time acting as if god didn’t exist. The god hypothesis is a truth claim that not only lacks evidence but is, in many cases, unfalsifiable. As a scientist, that gives me a reason to chuck it right out the window, even if it might be true. Following directly from those two facts, whether or not you believe in god is mostly up to what’s going on in your head.

This means that I generally find movies, books, blog posts and conversations about the existence of god boring at best and meaningless at worst. Generally, intelligent thinking people either believe in god, or they don’t. Anyone who’s spent time in the blogosphere has likely come across more arguments for and against god’s existence than they would ever like to, and even the great theologians don’t have ideas all that different from those you’re likely to find in any religious forum (see here). As a result, the question isn’t very exciting. You’ve either thought about it or you haven’t, and if you haven’t and you want to enter the atheist or religious community, you should, and if you have, you’ve probably made up your mind pretty firmly.

Even considering that, though, whether or not you’re an atheist doesn’t say a whole lot about you. Because it’s a negative, rather than a positive, at most, you might be a committed rationalist, but then again, you might not. Most qualities atheists have, theists have, too. I mean, obviously, as people, we all have a lot in common, but there’s even more than you might expect. I know fiercely rational believers (who I tend to believe aren’t applying their rationalism correctly, but whatever), and largely apathetic atheists. I know secularist activists in both camps. There are pro-life atheists and pro-choice theists. I still think that PEARLism (physical evidence and reasoned logic) ought to come about everything, but there’s really no simple dichotomy, and as a result, saying you’re an atheist just isn’t that descriptive. Nonetheless, because I am, in large part, the intersections of my attributes, and I am a committed rationalist, and I think visibility is important (see below), I do describe myself as one.

Even though it’s not that important to me, the atheist issues, even those that are specifically, narrowly, about god’s existence, still ought to be part of the public conversation. I’m not saying that those movies and blog posts and bus campaigns aren’t important and useful. At all. They are instrumental in a variety of ways. For example, though it’s not supposed to be polite dinner conversation, I’ve found that a lighthearted or even quite serious discussion with someone about their religious beliefs can have some extremely positive effects. I feel closer with them, having discussed something so meaningful (to them, anyway), I feel as though I may have broadened their horizons, and it’s also kind of fun, at least for someone like me, for whom the question doesn’t really matter. So on a personal level, those conversations are a lot like ones about whether evolution is true. Largely already decided by the general community and more importantly, the scientific community, but a potential source of conversation nonetheless. Also possibly fun to pointlessly debate on internet forums when bored.

I also think that visibility is very important. I was brought in a mostly secular household, though I did go through some measure of a deconversion process, and I’m mostly surrounded by people who are either atheist or know and accept that I am. So I realize I don’t have quite the perspective on the issue that those who have endured discrimination and the like as a result have. For those people, and for the atheist community at large, and to make waves in mainstream culture, the visibility that comes from the books and the blogs is very important.

My point is only that there are way more interesting and pertinent things to talk about. I know all of the statistics about how trusted atheists are in America, and I’ve read the George HW quote about atheists and I’ve seen the youtube videos about small town rural America and the discrimination that goes on there and I read about the political race between Elizabeth Dole and Kay Hagan, and I still think that atheists, as a whole, have it pretty well off. If you’re going to be marginalized, this is probably a good way to do it, especially as most atheists are white males. Now, this in and of itself is a problem, and I know that black atheists have a lot to contend with in the black community and all such things but still, overall, not the worst oppression in the world. So if we’re going to talk about religion, instead of talking about how hard it is to be an atheist, let’s talk about how the religious problems in America, and how those affect everyone. Freedom of speech issues as regard the Westboro Baptist Church. Prayer in schools. The appalling state of sex education in this country. Faith based funding. Religion in general as a social phenomenon, and how the institution affects everyone in the society. How much respect ought to be afforded religion versus faith versus religious figures in public and in private. Humanitarian work and missionaries. Condoms in Africa. The role of progressive religion in the progressive movement. These are all atheist issues, but they’re broader issues, too, and leave room for alliances that might not be made if we just think about the beliefs in our head and not how they work in practice.

Intellectually, too, I find broad, sweeping debates largely unsatisfying. Liberal vs conservative. Socialism vs. libertarianism. Relativism vs. realism. Those can all be fun and important, but the shades of gray and the need for abstraction and thought experiments is really where the meat of intellectualism lies. So whether or not god exists is way less interesting than, say, the role of free will in Christian and secular philosophy ( see: C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell). Whether or not theology is comparable to fairyology (as Dawkins once quipped), with proper suspension of disbelief in the name of sheer intellectual inquiry, it can be an illuminating discipline for people of all philosophical tendencies.

For all these reasons, and more, I find, for myself at least, that while I appreciate the need for the debate, and while I hope it remains in the public consciousness, unless I’m just looking for something to agree with, I think that atheism, as a description, is pretty low on my list.