Sunday, November 17, 2013

What I Mean When I Say I’m an “Atheist”

I call myself an atheist, which is generally true. But the term needs defining, and I – like all people who use it to describe themselves – need to be more specific about where the term really applies, and where a different term might be more fitting. That’s what I plan to do here.


There are two basic ways the term atheism is used. One describes the lack of belief in gods. The second pertains to the belief that there are no gods. There’s an important difference between the two: The first is atheism in the sense of being “without God” (as in the Greek atheos). It is lacking belief in God either because the thought of God never crossed the person’s mind, or that it has but never made any impact either way. The person simply lives without God. The second type of atheism, by contrast, expresses a definite position on the matter. It is a positive belief, an assertion in and of itself – “There are no gods”. I actually fall into both of these categories.

As I go about my day, I am (with few exceptions – see the end of the post) “atheistic”, according to the first meaning. My experience in the world is one which lacks belief in God. I don’t walk around with a sense that I’m being watched, looked after, loved or judged by an Infinite Being. I don’t think of the world as being supervised, or events as having intrinsic “meaning” because they fall into a greater Divine plan. When something happens in my life, or around me, I have no impulse whatsoever to ask, “Why did that happen?” I don’t assume there being any “grand purpose” to it all. This is atheism in the sense of lacking God-awareness. It’s what is sometimes referred to as a “soft” or “negative” atheism.

That's in terms of my day-to-day experience. But intellectual matters are something else. Do I “believe” in God? The answer to that question really depends which God you’re talking about, and for me it ranges from total disbelief to having no clue whatsoever. As a general rule, the more specific the “god”, the more certain my belief is that it doesn’t exist.

In terms of the God depicted in the Torah, who creates people out of mud, destroys the world in floods, commands us to love Him “or else” – the Biblical God – I don’t just “lack belief”. I strongly disbelieve it. I believe with full confidence that if we had a video recording of the last 5774 years of human history, we could go through every second and every frame of that footage and not find a single one of the supernatural events described in the Bible. In fact – and I apologize if this sounds harsh – I believe the expectation that we would find such events in that footage to be fairly ludicrous.

This is atheism in the “hard” or “positive” sense of active disbelief. It’s the “atheo” in “atheodox”. And believe me, as a religiously observant Jew living in the frum community, I have every reason to want to believe it. It would make life ever so much simpler! But I can’t “in good faith” have that faith. Nor can I simply be “neutral” about it. I’m compelled in my desire for intellectual honesty – and in an odd sense in my desire to be faithful to Torah – to reject the Five Books as being "True" in the literal, supernatural sense.

Even if we get less specific and simply talk about a personal God who answers prayers, who loves us and intervenes on our behalf, I again tend toward active disbelief, and not just “lack of belief”. To think of the millions throughout history who’ve called out to God to be saved – people undergoing unspeakable suffering, crying out in utter anguish and desperation, innocent people, children – and who were simply left to their fate, I can’t help but believe there is no such God. Yes, the “hope” of intervention and salvation may serve an important psychological function for people, but it doesn’t make a loving, intervening God real.


Now, in terms of how I stand regarding the question, “Is there a Creator of the Universe?”, here the label “atheist” is less apt. I think of myself as an agnostic.

Agnosticism generally means having no “beliefs” about God – either of God’s existence or lack thereof. In that sense it’s similar to the “soft” atheism I described above. But there’s another form of agnosticism which goes further – where the person says that not only do they know nothing about God, but that they believe it’s impossible for anyone to have knowledge of God. Where it comes to the idea of an abstract Creator, I’m definitely a “category one” agnostic, and I’m sympathetic toward “category two”. Let me explain – and you’ll forgive me for the lengthy aside, but it’s to make a point.

I count myself no more qualified to give an opinion on the matter of whether there is a Creator than I am about giving an opinion on any matter relating to the ultimate nature of the cosmos. To articulate how utterly futile and insignificant I feel it would be to give my “two cents” about what/who created it all, let me just take a moment to describe one aspect of the universe – the sheer scale of what we’re talking about here.

Let’s say you’re standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. You’re overwhelmed at the magnitude of what you’re looking at, feeling absolutely dwarfed by the scope and grandeur, feeling miniscule in terms of time – reflecting on how ancient it is, how many human lifetimes and indeed entire species have come and gone within the millions of years it took to create this. And this is a place which covers a mere 4,926 km². Compared to the whole State of Arizona at 295,254 km², the Grand Canyon is nothing more than a fetching little dent in the ground.

Let’s zoom out a bit. The surface area of the Pacific Ocean is 165,200,000 km². In terms of volume, the Pacific’s 714 million cubic kilometers of water would fill up around 170,000 Grand Canyons. When you’re out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is absurdly, unfathomably, mind-bogglingly, dizzyingly endless. The surface area of the entire planet Earth is just about exactly three times that at 510,072,000 square kilometers.

Now if you thought you were already feeling small, let’s zoom out a bit further. If you’d take off in a 747 and fly around the Earth (traveling at around 600 mph), it would take a bit under 42 hours to get back to where you started. But let’s say that instead you decided to fly straight up and take a little excursion to the sun. You might want to pack a few extra sandwiches, because it would take you about 17 years. And if you really enjoyed the ride and decided to kick up your feet and haul it to the edge of the solar system, approximately 9 billion miles away (the distance to the “heliosheath”), you’d need to sing “this is the song that never ends” for around 1,645 years before you arrived.

But let’s say you wanted to get to Proxima Centauri, the next closest star to the Sun. I think at that point it might be wise to upgrade your transportation. Say you take Nasa’s “New Horizon” spacecraft, which whistles along at around 60,000 km/h. To get to Proxima Centauri would take you, oh, around 78,000 years.

As impossibly distant as that seems, if we were to zoom out further and look at the Milky Way, which contains approximately 300 billion stars – relative to all that, the Sun and Proxima Centauri are practically kissing each other, an indistinguishable blur of light.

Leave the Milky Way, which looks to be absolutely bustling with light and activity (despite the mind-numbing emptiness between any two objects within it), and you get to a whole other level of quiet. The nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way is Andromeda, which is 2.5 billion light years away. To give you a sense of that distance, the Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years across, meaning if you shined a flashlight out your window on one end, it would take 100,000 years for that light to reach the other end. Multiply that by 25,000, and that’s the kind of empty space we’re talking about between us and the next galaxy.

And yes, if you haven’t guessed it, the Milky Way and Andromeda are really just two peas in a pod. Because if you zoom out a bit more, you realize that we’re in a cluster containing hundreds or even thousands of galaxies. And the next cluster of galaxies over is absurdly far away, and even then that cluster and our own are really part of a “supercluster” of galaxies, of which there are approximately 10 million. Altogether, we currently estimate about 350 billion large galaxies in the known universe, plus another 7 trillion "dwarf" galaxies, with a total of around 30 billion trillion (that’s 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars. And for all we know, the “known” universe is just the tip of the iceberg of something far, far more vast. After all, where did we get the idea that this is “all” there is, that our universe isn’t just one tiny “blip” in something which is far larger, one dimension of something unfathomably greater?

And here you are standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon feeling impossibly tiny.

Point being, to speak about “knowing” anything significant about what it is that created the cosmos is indescribably, stupefyingly naïve. Imagine being blindfolded, touching the side of a building with the tip of your pinky, having no idea where you are, what’s in the building, how big it is, or even that it is a building, and then speaking with any degree of confidence about what you “know” of what it is you’re touching and who/what created it. Even with all our knowledge of the universe, which I agree is quite incredible, that level of futility is about what I imagine we’re facing here.

Yes, I suppose that if there is some sort of Creator, we do know “something” about the Creator to the extent we know something about the Creation. But given the infinitesimal amount that we know, it strikes me that the whole enterprise of making statements about the Creator is nothing more than pure vanity and striving after wind. So you could say I’m a fairly “hard” agnostic in that sense.

I should also mention though that in terms of the Torah, I’m also agnostic regarding the historicity of the non-supernatural elements of the story. Sure, I could make some leaps of intuition. Did Avraham Avinu live? Mmm… I would tend to think yes. Did Adam live? Pretty sure not. Did the Akeida happen? I have no clue. Did the exodus from Egypt happen? My gut says yes, in some form, but I could  be wrong. To me, it’s all open. And as I’ve said in previous posts, my motivation as an observant Jew doesn’t depend on it, so I have no problem living with that uncertainty.


I mentioned toward the beginning of the post about there being “exceptions” to my atheism. I mean this in the sense of "God" or "Hashem" figuring into my life, either emotionally, culturally or conceptually.

For instance, I do occasionally pray. Yes, I daven all the time in the ritual sense, but I’m talking about actual heartfelt “prayer”. This prayer is emotional, and not intellectual. I also say “Thank God” often, and I do mean it in more than the perfunctory sense. I'm expressing heartfelt gratitude for something and acknowledging that I in no way take it for granted. Though the "God" component of the statement is really secondary and cultural. I also speak about “Hashem” frequently in the context of Torah and Judaism. That’s simply because Hashem is in the system. I don’t deny that. But I look at Hashem as either a concept or a literary character, nothing more.

And finally, despite my lack of belief – and full-on disbelief – I consider myself as possessing a form of “emunat Hashem”. I believe in Hashem in the sense of my being largely – though not perfectly – faithful to the Torah. I’m here in the world doing what I can to perpetuate Jews and Judaism, to strive for truth, to act compassionately and kindly with people, and generally to try and do some good. And so even if I'm completely wrong, if my beliefs about God turned out to be totally erroneous and the Torah is true in the literal sense, I have to think Hashem would understand and appreciate where I'm coming from, that I'd still be okay in Hashem’s book. Actually, I imagine everyone apart from the most heinous and wanton evildoers would be okay in Hashem's book.

Now, as to whether Hashem is okay in my book, or humanity's book – that’s another matter entirely. Because it seems to me Hashem has got a whole lot of explaining to do.


  1. Do you think that some aspects of Judaism actually promote this idea of what you describe as hard agnosticism?

    So much of what I was taught about God, from Jewish sources ranging from totally secular to Maimomaides to Chabad, focused on what God was NOT. God was not human or animal. God had no physical form. God had no beginning or end. God definitely wasn't Jesus. God had no physical limits. God wasn't something that we mere mortals could ever come close to understanding.

    1. Very interesting point. The thought did cross my mind as I was writing, but I always come back to a certain cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, there's God as "ineffable", completely beyond any human description. And on the other is the God of the Torah, who is not only described in very human terms (re: thought, emotion, actions) but based on the simple pshat in a number of places seems to be quasi-humanoid Himself!

      Now, of course I'm familiar with the term anthropomorphism and the notion of the Torah being given in the language of humans. But you can only take that so far. Even if God doesn't have hands, He has to "give" the Torah. Even if God doesn't have a mouth, He has to communicate to His prophets. Even if you want to completely darshen away anything remotely physical about God, once you start talking about a God who reveals Himself to a nation and enumerates a host of specific expectations and consequences in the form of the Torah, once you have any notion of Divine "will" or "intent", then by definition this God is no longer ineffable. It is possible (even obligatory) to "know" something about Him.

  2. To add my two cents to this convrastion i am a firm heliever that the ultimate propose of all creation is the existence and perpetuation of conscious that is an elusive term to define but koolie alma lo pliegi it exsists it is therefor twisted to ask what is the point of conscious as it is not a means but the essence of all existence for this reason i stay within thr religios community despite being of the secondsons level of aethism because i believe in having lots of kids even at the cost of quality of life is a worthwhile act

  3. Catching up here after a long absence.

    We might know about the Creator from the creation. Agreed. But we might also know about the Creator from the Creator's effort(s) to be known, and from our efforts to know the Creator.