Sunday, November 10, 2013
Who's Really the Frum "Skeptic"?
What's wrong is who the terms are assumed to apply to. To call me a "skeptic" assumes that the baseline "normal" is the belief that A, B and C are true: The Torah is in fact a word-for-word dictation from God. God created the world in seven days. Adam and Chava were the first humans, created out of mud (or more precisely, Adam was created from mud; Chava was created from Adam). Noach brought at least one pair of every single non-aquatic animal on Earth into the ark. Individuals from the antediluvian generations lived upwards of 1,000 years. God spoke face-to-face with people, rained plagues on Egypt, split the sea, stopped the sun in the sky, etc. And the reason we don't see such neat tricks today? Either it's because we don't need them, or we aren't on the "spiritual level" for them, or we're being punished with God's "hiddenness" in exile. Bronze Age Near Eastern society somehow got it exactly right, arrived at the perfect cosmic cocktail - which is why God's eternal commandments reflect that one specific time and place... Let me get this straight - if I don't believe all that, I'm a "skeptic", a "denier"?
No, no. You've got it the other way around. Not to believe that the Earth is billions of years old makes you a skeptic. Not to believe that human beings evolved over millions of years (if not in a graduated manner then via a more punctuated equilibrium) makes you a skeptic. Not to believe that the world runs via entirely natural processes (which would preclude supernatural intervention) makes you a denier. Not to recognize that the Torah emerged out of a world where god myths and other legends were commonplace, which explains why the Torah speaks the way it does (and not because it's "literally true"), makes you a nonbeliever. Not to acknowledge that the mitzvot are what they are because of their historical context (and not because they're somehow "spiritually perfect"), makes you a doubter.
The skeptic is the one who takes a cynical view of conventional wisdom and evidence. That's not me! The denier is the one who believes what he/she believes despite being saddled with the burden of exposition. Again, that's not me - adaraba, it's mainstream frum believers! They're the ones who should sooner be termed skeptics, deniers, nonbelievers and doubters, no?
Now, some people in the atheistic category don't like being called "atheists" either, since that's also a term which assumes God (i.e. theism) as the baseline "normal". I feel the same way. I don't walk around identifying as being "without God" any more than I walk around thinking of myself as being "without wings" or "without an eleventh toe". So some atheists came up with the term "brights" as a way of describing themselves in the positive. To be honest though, I'm not sure I like that one either, since the potential diyuk (inference) is that believers in God are "not bright." And if I've discovered anything in my journey through Torah and life in general, it's that this notion couldn't be further from the truth. People who believe in God - and indeed people who believe in the some of the most crazy things you can imagine - can also be absolutely brilliant. Genius and intellectual fallibility are by no means mutually exclusive.
So I don't think I need an identity-category to describe myself intellectually. I'm just a regular guy who's interested in truth, and who takes common sense and preponderance of evidence as the primary means of evaluating what's more likely to be true. I say "more likely" because history has taught us over and over that common sense and evidence can sometimes be completely misleading and erroneous.
"Ah," says the religious believer, "so you admit you're also a 'believer' - just that you believe in scientists who think they know everything but keep getting proven wrong time and time again, whereas we believe in an unbroken chain of Torah sages who've been saying the same thing for thousands of years. Who's the one believing in 'crazy things' here?"
I definitely admire the chain of tradition for its consistency and tenacity. And simply put, if it didn't exist I wouldn't be here writing these words. But you do also realize that people have been saying that Jesus is God for close to 2,000 years, which is fairly impressive itself. Saying the same thing for a long stretch of time clearly doesn't prove anything about the veracity of what's being passed down.
But more to the point, I don't mind at all that scientists are wrong, or that theories get overturned and new ones are built in their place. In fact I rather like that about science. It shows flexibility, a willingness to learn, to discover, to rethink, remake ourselves. I think that's a sign of health. And if that means I have to sit with the thought that large chunks of what we think we know scientifically may in fact be wrong, that's okay by me. I don't miss out on the certainty that I'm somehow keyed into the "absolute truth". It's not something I need. I'm quite content with the approach that we simply make our best guess based on the information we have in front of us. Which is also (aside from my rejecting the notion of "omniscience") why it doesn't bother me in the least that Chazal and other Torah greats erred in science - just like others did in their generation, and just like every generation does, as part of the organic process of learning.
So then I suppose you could give me a label. I'm a "work-with-what-you've-got-ist". But that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.