Ben Avuyah

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In Search of a Rational God

It's not a fair fight, from the start, faith has stacked the deck.
Most of us can remember being told by our parents that we could grow up to be and do whatever we wanted. This sentiment is so ubiquitous in our society that I have rarely encountered someone who didn't start life with this broad option.
"What ever you want to be, Doctor, Lawyer, Doctor, Doctor…" (every family has its own variation.)

Well, except for one thing.
Here we are told what to believe and how demonstrate our faith.
Sorry, kid, no choices here. This is the way we do things... get it!
Good. Now eat your Matzo and tell your sister to stop pulling on the cats tail, he doesn’t like it.

This works well for a number of years as long as reward follows obedience. A child treasures reward and acceptance more than truth.
But inevitably we grow up and in the process make acquaintances with people who are just as consumed as ourselves, with odd religious beliefs, often passed down from antiquity, that color their perspectives and direct their actions.
Carl Sagan once theorized that the reason free thought and scientific inquiry of ancient times were so often found in coastal regions was related to this same effect of ecumenical exposure. When enough sailors from different cultures had passed through, a local inhabitant would be sure to wonder how both Marduk and El could be supreme Gods. Each had very different set of rules. Additionally, and equally troubling, each God claimed the exclusive allegience of different peoples. Even to a mind from the bronze age the contradiction is obvious.

It must have amused port city dwellers of old, to hear one culture after another, impart with sincere faith and conviction, their beliefs about world forces they couldn't understand, while decrying the views of others.To the intelligent observer some of these ideas must be wrong. And if some, why not all. And if so, why would one's own belief system be any better.

Once the seed of doubt is planted, and one's mind turns to examination of orthodoxy it doesn't take long to find the ridiculous.
Do our fingernails really contain a source of unholy power so awesome as to require quarantine ?
And what of all the rich and abounding heritage of demons and devils. Is the Gemara in Berachos correct. Can one see demons by semi medical administration of a special eye drop that contains ashes of a black cat, seventh descendant of a black cat?
Can a document that claims, the reason why the trousers of Talmedei Chachamim wear thin at the knees is from the rubbing of demons, minions of which live amongst us; be trusted to help us with the logic we use daily with regard to end of life issues?
It is a slippery slope downwards and as we peel away the layering of our laws and traditions we are left confronted with belief itself.

Its probably put best by Shalom Auslander in his book Beware of God where he describes the ancient world thusly:

"Everybody believed in someone or something and whatever anybody believed, they believed it completely. Their belief in their belief was unbelievable. They had complete faith in their faith. The only thing they doubted was doubt itself. "

This seems apropos to the modern world as well.
I have often wondered, "What is this thing called belief whose hold is so powerful over me that I find my heart pounding every time I consider doubt? And can someone, even an all powerful someone require it of me."?

The more I think of it, Belief seems to me to be a preponderance of evidence that you have come to accept, and a rational belief means a belief that can change as the evidence does.
In every area of my life other than religion I change my beliefs as evidence and common sense indicate. Why would religion be any different? Is religion meant to be devoid of logic and evidence or perhaps, above them?
Surely not, otherwise why would we have a Talmud steeped in logic to determine the will of the Creator, and why would the Cuzari expound on his “evidence” that our religion is correct.
No. Surely logic and reason are central to our religious beliefs and if so should be subject to the same rules as any other area of our lives.

Additionally, I have found that I don’t, in other areas of my life, choose my beliefs.
I don’t believe Alien Civilizations have visited earth, but I didn’t decide to believe that. I simply viewed the evidence and read critical reports and, Poof… I had an opinion. My opinions and thought processes are inherent to whatever it is that makes me 2/3 a skeptic and 1/3 a dreamer.

Additionally, I don’t think someone could ask me to believe that furry ewoks do the gardening in my back yard. They could beat the words out of me, or offer a reward high enough to make me lie. But actual belief would not occur until some element of evidence or rational was offered that was weighty enough to tip whatever scale exists in my brain.
This, for better or worse, leads to two questions.
If religion were a rational belief it should allow adjustment based on evidence. Clearly it doesn’t and is therefore irrational.
Given the nature of belief, why would a superhuman creator require as a prerequisite to service, for you to believe in him?
To my mind it is clear that beliefs are based on evidence. If evidence supports a creator, one believes. If not, well, then, hey, nice knowing you God.

But to require belief outside of the framework of evidence or rationale, is contradictory for a being that supposedly understands our innermost workings.

Here once again we are left with an irrational logic/creator/religion.

For those who persist in the rationality of religion there exists the following thought experiment.

What would it take for you not to believe in God?

You know, like on a scale of one to ten. One being biblical criticism, five being the dead sea scroll discovery of a J or E document in entirety, and ten being, lets say, time machine: you get to go back and stand next to an irate Moses, who, having just nicked his thumb, starts yelling at Joshua for not holding the damn tablet still. Or whatever scenario seems most convincing to you.

When this question is posed most religious people assume the look of a trapped animal. The rational admit that there is some level of evidence that would make them not believe. This is a problem because religion and God require you to believe no matter what.

The irrational folks do something quite amazing in response to this question. I have heard, “it is heresy and therefore forbidden to think about.” Which makes one wonder how strong is a belief you can’t think about. And if you can’t think about it then what are you believing in when you say you believe.

I have also heard “Since it is impossible that anything in the torah is not true, that can’t happen.”
I just view this as another variation on the first theme with similar problems.

In any case, above-mentioned conversations end poorly, as you would expect when the rational meets the irrational.

Because of all of the opinions I have mentioned here my conversations with most of my friends have become difficult. And I often wonder if there are not many more people like myself.

I am not saying anything in this, my own little soapbox preamble, because I want to leave Judaism. To the contrary I like my friends and family too much to depart.

Nor do I really mind the laws and customs. I am not saying I am the most observant, but I do OK and have found a nice level of comfort, well within the norms of the community.

I am sure many people lash out at our religion from the inside because they yearn for the delights that sit fragrantly on the dinner plates of their business partners, while they are forced to smile perfunctorily, feigning enjoyment of their tuna in a can.

For me it is not necessarily about that (though I cant deny those steaks look good and juicy) rather, it is about an empirical logical problem that plagues our religion and all religions, which does not appear to have an answer.

I would happily ask for an answer, and would not be disturbed by the existence of the divine should it become probable based on evidence or logic, (Suffice it to say it would take a lot to get me to believe in that fingernail stuff.) but I am afraid that very little in the way of conversation can occur between those who embrace rationality and those who don’t.


At 8:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course you are correct. But what can we do ? Give it all up ? Become completely irrational ? Surely we should at least try ?

If Judaism is (in some form) true, then logically it must shtim (in some way) with reason.

Therefore logically, if I believe Judaism to be true (which I do, mostly), and if I believe Science to be true (which I do, mostly), then there should be some type of formulation which satisfies both.

At 9:01 AM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

That is a very noble quest, but realistically speaking, if you take a moment to step away from your life's perspective, that has taught you to believe in talking donkeys and revelations, and just look at the Torah with fresh eyes, you will see that this is not a document you would endeaver to defend had it not been forced upon you as a child.
I'm not saying that you won't be able to bend sceince and twist it to fit the Torah's miracles, but in doing so you will by default loose a rational outlook on life. Science adheres to Okam's Razor, the simplest reason is likely the correct one.
The torah is likely exactly what it appears to be, a text of ancient superstition and dogma.

At 4:04 PM, Blogger Mis-nagid said...

Excellent post.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Thanks Mis-Nagid !!!

You've left some big shoes to fill, but we'll try.

At 3:02 AM, Blogger PerplexedYid said...

Very insightful post...I just discovered your blog and am intrigued by what I'm reading.

And what it is that I'm intrigued by, primarily, is not necessarily the thought process...the concept of doubt, of the inherent irrationality of faith, etc. are all well-worn ideas. What fascinates me, actually, is that there are others like me out there...those who harbor serious doubts about the veracity of faith, who bear more than a little resentment at the restrictions and constrictions imposed on us...and yet, this relationship is decidedly love/hate. If we feel so stagnated by religion, why don't we do what millions, if not billions of others have done, and abandon it altogether? What is it about those of us who were brought up frum, are well-versed in the ways of the world , are socially acclimated and yet...


criticize from within, because we can't, no matter how much doubt and downright disbelief we harbor, leave the faith altogether?

I can't accept the argument that culturally we're comfortable only as members of th Jewish community. This is one of the only generations in history where the option to be both Jewish and secular exists! One does not have to abandon the community or his identity. And yet, we stay...why why why?

At 8:09 PM, Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Perplexed Yid,

There are many more out there like ourselves. If I had half a wit about me when it came to computers I would have the links to other like minded blog sites up already, but since I’m still working it all out, here are some names. Orthosceptic, A Hassid and a Heritic, the shaigetz, Jewish Atheist, that’s just to mention a few. Also the Frum skeptics group on Yahoo is good, and if you stop by there take a look at Mis-Nagid’s old posts, he has vivisected orthodoxy with surgical precision, leaving it’s exposed organs bottled there for curious passers buy to goggle at.

In regards to your second question of why we are still part of Judaism I think you have begun to answer that for yourself. Both of us having likely spent a large portion of our lives within orthodoxy, it now makes up a large part of, well let me restrict this presumption to myself, my personality.
I mean, what makes company with, lets say, a spouse so enjoyable ? I think part of it is that you have such similar experiences together, and such a compatible outlook on life. The same is true of Judaism, it supplies the background and fabric to all your previous experiences. Leaving it is in a sense leaving behind a part of your self. It turns out it is not so easy after all. Just coming to the rational conclusion that it is all a crock, does not necessarily replace the formative years of your life with something else.

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