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.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Who's Really the Frum "Skeptic"?

I'm not the first nonbeliever who doesn't identify with the term "skeptic". Come to think of it, I don't particularly resonate with the term "non-believer" either - or "denier", or "doubter". But I am a nonbeliever. I do deny tenets A, B and C. I am skeptical. I do doubt. So what's wrong with these terms?

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.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Living in Fairyland

Part of the reason I haven't posted lately is that I've been doing some other writing under my real name. In fact my wife suggested to me that maybe instead of having an anonymous blog (she knows about this one), I should start a blog under my own name. I told her it's a good idea - that is, except for the "instead of" part. As much as there's a place for writing about things from the mainstream Orthodox perspective, staying within the "ground rules", I also think it's important to retain a space to express some honest thoughts about the system itself - and in particular about the question of beliefs.

I explained to my wife that I feel I have a certain duty to address the widespread phenomenon of grown adults walking around believing in fairytales. I feel this responsibility both from the standpoint of being a part of a people which presumably values truth, and also because when those fairytales are taken literally it can sometimes cause people to do stupid and even dangerous things, and to take extreme, unyielding positions on a range of issues. So occasionally I just need to drop the "A-bomb" (i.e. atheism) - as in: "You wouldn't be doing all this crazy stuff in the name of God if you just took your blinders off and realized the whole premise is made up!" Challenging the foundations of Biblical literalism, shining a light on the fatuousness of supernatural claims, and pointing out the ease at which people are prone to accept blatant superstition, brings a bit of needed perspective to the conversation, and frankly it helps me to keep my sanity.

And then I told her this, which we both had a good laugh about: "But here's the thing - I've stopped believing in the fairytales, but I still want to live in Fairyland!"

Yes, despite the fact that I don't believe the commands have a Commander, I still want to observe Shabbat, the holidays, kashrut, live with an awareness of the Shulchan Aruch. I want to wear a kippa and tzitzit, and identify outwardly as a Jew. I want to be involved in Torah learning and send my kids to schools where they can become talmidei chachamim in addition to the other things they do in their lives. I appreciate the idealistic, values-oriented, mission-driven aspects of Orthodox life. (Even if - funny enough - I disagree with some of the specific ideals, values and missions, there is a great deal I do agree with and resonate with.) I also very much appreciate the communal component of being frum. We live in a great neighborhood, and all in all life is pretty darn good.

What's more, I happen to enjoy the fairytale. It's filled with fascinating glimpses of consciousness from various times in our history as a people. Some of the lessons are timeless and deep, ones I feel proud to pass on. Others may be deeply problematic - but they too cause a person to think. And as long as you realize it's a tale, you can do just that - think, rather than blindly accept.

For sure there are aspects of Fairyland that drive me absolutely bonkers sometimes, but I'm fortunate to live in a corner of the Land where the positive far outshines the negative. There are plenty of "dark forests" in the land of make-believe, and I travel through them often, but that's not where home is. And while I'm well aware that the vast majority of my immediate neighbors believe in the fairytale too, here it feels more like a video being played in the background. It's there, but it's not what people are consumed with, swept up in, constantly acting out. The people I live around are fairly open and chilled out, and that works.

Besides, as much as I wish we could all be intellectually mature, secure and honest enough to wean ourselves off of any and all belief in fairytales, I'm not entirely convinced that Fairyland could survive without it.