In way of introduction, I feel that I should warn potential readers that this is a long post. I was thinking about doing a few different parts but I decided against it as I would rather have one complete article that I feel comprehensively answers the question rather than multiple posts. For many people reading this, I am sure that there will be points that I make that you will disagree with one way or another. My hope is that when disagreements arise you will message me or even comment on the article in hopes to spark a conversation that can deepen everyone’s understanding.
Hope you enjoy!
If one takes a poll of the people in the world who believe in some sort of God or Deity, chances are the vast majority of people will fall into two categories. The first category believes in God simply because their parents and grandparents believed in God. People in this group will rarely (if at all) ever think critically about their belief system. From the time they are very young, the idea of God is impressed into their malleable minds by their parents and by their communities, and these individuals will seldom look back. The second group is very similar, but rather then have their beliefs shaped by parents or community, their beliefs are shaped by a religious scripture. If one asks people from this group why they believe in God, they will often point to the Torah, New Testament, Qur’an or other religious texts. It is not that these books contain philosophical arguments trying to prove God, but rather, they take God’s existence as an a-priori assumption. The Torah was given to Moses by God, The New Testament was written by men directly inspired by God and Jesus, and the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad from an emissary of God (Gabriel). These people, who definitely make up the majority of theists in the world, also seldom analyze their initial assumption of God’s existence. People from these faiths will spend years mastering and asking in-depth and philosophical questions about their scriptures, but the question of the existence of God is usually left out.
I was always somewhat of a skeptic. I can’t remember a time in my life where I actually listened to someone without questioning the reasoning and motivation for whatever I was asked to do. Anyone that knows me well, knows that I like to argue with everyone about everything. It is for this precise reason that I fell in love with Talmud about five or six years ago. The constant questioning of every line and every opinion of the Talmud is exhilarating. The intelligent student of Talmudic study is not one who is pacified by an easy answer, but rather one who asks the difficult questions. I spent years studying Talmud for hours a day, in my room, on car rides, in psychology class, during breaks on hikes, and just about any other time I had a free moment, just trying to understand and master the thought process of the great scholars of Jewish history.
When it comes to the question of believing in God, often times religious people will shy away from the challenge. The very fact that I am even asking this question displays the fact that I am skeptical and doubtful regarding many central tenets of Jewish belief. For example if one were to accept the Torah’s words as 100% objective and historical truth then, as stated before, they would not have the need to delve into this question. Since many Jews believe that the Torah was given to Moshe on Sinai by God, the question of God’s existence need not be touched. However once one begins to question any of these beliefs and assumptions, the difficult questions naturally begin to flow.
If, for whatever reason, be it historical, literary, moral, etc. one does not accept that their religious scripture is the objective truth – is it still reasonable to believe in God?
I do not view my questioning and innate skeptical nature as departing from Torah and the Jewish tradition – rather, I view it as a direct and natural result of it. My questioning is a direct result of my years of deep rooted study of Jewish texts from Job and Habakkuk in Tanakh, to Talmud and Rambam, all the way to the arguments of modern day scholars, and everything in between. I feel as if it would be unfair and unjust to my years of study to simply ignore this question – for as Socrates famously said as he was about to be killed for heretically sharing his philosophy, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
There are many classical proofs of God that philosophers have tried to offer over the years. Needless to say, while none of these philosophers have actually been able to prove God, I think that many of their ideas are valuable and worth touching upon.
The first question worth addressing is why is there something rather than nothing? It makes no sense that there is a vast universe rather than nothingness. Now of course people who do not believe in God will not feel that this question is even worth answering. Although I have seen some interesting and somewhat amusing attempts at answering this question from an atheist point of view (often times evoking quantum mechanics and the like), the majority of atheists would say that this question is not meaningful. In fact, many times Richard Dawkins has answered this exact question by responding something sarcastic such as “what is the purpose of mountains? See!, there are just some questions that are silly and have no meaning!”. However, I still feel like the question of “why are we here” is much more powerful than the question of “what is the purpose of mountains”. The intrinsic nature of a mountain is not one of a questioning nature. On the other hand, the universe has given rise to humans with our mental ability to think abstractly (more on this later). It does not seem fair to compare a world that can give birth to humans to mountains. The question of why is there something rather than nothing is a very powerful question, with very few powerful answers.
Once we move past the fact that there is “something” rather than “nothing” it is almost impossible to miss the fact that our universe is finely tuned for the birth of life. As mathematician Freeman Dyson stated, “It almost seems as if the Universe must, in some sense, have known that we were coming.” Now, to be clear, the fact that life arose somewhere in the universe is not in itself that amazing. As atheists like to argue, there are billions upon billions of different planets throughout the universe and chances are that one of these planets would have the conditions necessary for life. Furthermore, according to the Anthropic principle, even if the chances for evolution to produce humans are beyond insane, it makes no sense to remark how crazy a probability is post-facto. Once something happens, like, say you are reading this post at this exact monument, even if I can prove that from a perspective 1 year ago the chances of you sitting right now and reading my writing are one in a trillion, since something had to have happened – the fact that you just happened to be reading my post instead of playing soccer or sleeping is not that special.
However, as we move throughout evolutionary history we should note that the jump from inanimate matter to life is pretty insane. Scientists have been trying to figure this out for years with relatively little success (and no, a few amino acids do not count). However, I think it would be foolish to look for God in this lack of our knowledge of how life arose or any step of evolution for that matter. As I wrote in my last post, we need to stop looking for God in our lack of knowledge and start looking for him in what we already know. What we do know is that the amazing process of evolution, resulted in the abundance of life we see today along with us – human beings.
I chose to focus primarily on humans for very obvious reasons. It is not a mistake that when the Torah talks about the creation of man it writes that we are created in the “image of God”. We are so cognitively disparate from any other animal on Earth that any mental comparison is actually hilarious. I remember last year in a cognitive science class we were learning about different experiments where researchers tried teaching apes language. With years upon years, along with tens of thousands of research dollars, researchers are able to teach apes a few hundred hand gestures and symbols. While explaining to us the results of the experiment, our professor went on a long rant about how experiments like this show that humans are not as unique as we would like to think. To start off, many prominent researchers actually think that this entire thing is just a form of conditioning and the apes have just learned how to put together meaningless symbols to get their reward. Second, even if one gives these experiments the benefit of the doubt I think that these language experiments are actually a great proof for the innate differences between humans and all other animals. It takes a newborn baby almost zero effort and very little time before they have developed a language system far more advanced than even the most trained ape. While these experiments have often times been done to show how humans and apes are not so different, I think that researchers have successfully supported the opposite.
Just to qualify my last paragraph, I do not think that the evolution or creation of humans is a secret beyond the answers of science. One day science will hopefully discover exactly how humans branched off the evolutionary chart, however the question of why will be left untouched. Just to think about how amazing human beings are, should give anyone the chills. One could say that this is some accident, a purposeless chain of events resulting with humans. However, this seems a bit too crazy to be true. Our ability to think rationally and abstractly is light years past any other mammal in the animal kingdom.
Additionally, humans all throughout history have striven for deeper meaning in life. As many religious historians have noted, for all of human history man has made religious symbols through ritual, art, song , etc. Until recently there has never been a time or place inhabited by man without some sort of religion (religion in this case used very loosely as some attempt to connect to ultimate purpose in the universe). This fact can mean one of two things: Either man kind invented the idea of God and religion because it was the only way they could psychologically cope with life or mankind was born with an innate predisposition to spirituality. Both of these are viable options, however it does seem a bit crazy that different and completely disconnected cultures, would arrive at similar conclusions regarding God and ultimate purpose if this was, as some argue, just psychological baggage. The fact that religion has survived cross culturally is very telling in my opinion. While the history and anthropology of religion cannot definitely tell us one way or another, it does show that humans are, and always have been, creatures who strive to find ultimate meaning and purpose in the universe.
This past paragraph brings me to my next point, namely, if God does not exist then there is not such thing as Truth (with a capital T). If everything in the universe is made up of matter and there is no such thing as God, then there is no ultimate meaning, purpose, or reasoning in the world. Human consciousness would then be just a horrible liability given to us accidentally by the various forces of nature. Human beings would then be stuck in a meaningless universe left alone with their own thoughts. It is in this light that the famous philosopher Albert Camus wrote “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Now in our modern lens this seems crazy. Atheist spokesmen such as Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennet portray life as an atheist to be distinguished, enlightened, and all around amazing. But I think that Camus has it right. Without some sort of objective Truth in the universe, otherwise known as God, life is completely absurd. Nothing matters! It is in this light that the philosophy of Nihilism developed in the 19th century. This philosophical doctrine states that life is without objective meaning, purpose, and that it has no intrinsic value. This is the seemingly obvious and logical conclusion to make when one dispels all belief in a higher power in the universe.
There is however one other philosophy that modern atheists abide by, in a dire attempt to bring “meaning” to their life. This philosophy, known as Secular Humanism, is slowly spreading and being preached by many modern atheists left and right. Humanism values empiricism and rationalism above all else, and the basic principle of Humanism is that it places a tremendous amount of value regarding the agency and autonomy of every single human being. The International Humanist Union writes about Humanism that “It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities.” At this point I hope as a reader you are beginning to understand some of the irony implicitly associated with this ideology. On the one hand, many people who subscribe to this view are not willing to accept anything as truth unless it can be empirically supported. However, Humanists will proudly declare that all humans have natural values, freedom and the right to autonomy. Well…says who? Many Greek philosophers felt that people are not all equal and like many ancient Eastern movements subscribed to a caste system. Their conclusions were surely based on rational thinking looking at the world around them. Eugenics, an ideology with a very similar mindset, was much more scientific than thinking “all men have natural born rights”. William Goodell, a doctor living a little over 100 years ago suggested castrating certain people in society to try and stop their “inferior” genes from living on. About 60 years later Nazis would actually kill people who were deaf, blind, weak, gay, etc. for the same reasons. When Humanists say that people have natural rights they are straying from empiricism and subscribing to something that they believe is an objective Truth in the world. If one is to live based off of only empirical evidence there is no chance one would ever be able to conclude that people have natural rights or values. Believing that humans have freedom or that life is valuable is a statement affirming belief in a higher source.
I believe in God because when I look around at the world I cannot believe that everything is accidental. I think that life is valuable, and that value can only be affirmed by the existence of God. I think that there is Truth with a capital “T” in the universe. Our consciousness is not simply a liability to send humans into a lifelong depression but rather a ticket to explore the wonderful universe and its inherent truths.
Although this post seemed long it only scratches the surface of my internal conversation and thoughts on this most important of topics. I hope that if you took the time to read to the end it has at least brought you to think a little differently regarding this debate. In my next post I want to follow up and write about why I remain an observant and Halachic Jew even though my opinions may be a bit un-orthodox (no pun intended!)
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