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May 5, 2011

Where I stand on the Atheism / Judaism issue

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — admin @ 3:03 pm

When I grew up, I believed that faith was enough of a reason to believe something, and that mere skepticism (“you have no reason to believe that”) was not enough to get anyone to lose their faith. Since then, I have come a long way.

First of all, I realized that there was evidence from lots of sciences and history going against the Biblical story. Indeed, the Bible made falsifiable claims, and they seemed to have been falsified. For example, the global flood — which pretty much all orthodox Jews and the Talmud believe happened literally — also must have happened around 2104, but this contradicts Egyptian history, as well as other things. So, studying science causes one to have serious doubts about Judaism, and in fact all Abrahamic religions. Even if you had faith, then, you would have difficulty reconciling what you believe with what people who are aware of science, history etc. believe about the world.

For a while I thought this all but proved religion was untrue. Judaism, Christianity, these were the main religions under consideration for me. If entire chapters of their books described what seemed to be fictional events, that couldn’t be compatible with the claim that an All-Knowing God, a God of Truth would dictate these entire chapters and stories to the Jews. Case closed, I thought. I would continue to observe certain major commandments on the chance that I was wrong, but meanwhile I would question rabbis and Christians and see, how could I be wrong? How do they deal with this? I have encountered lots of guesses and incomplete answers, but no one seems to know.

It was harder to come up with evidence for the other side, but eventually that came together as well. And this is what I want to tell you about.

JUDAISM IS UNIQUE

First of all, Judaism is extremely unique. It is the only religion which does not have the “major problem” every other religion has: that the religion itself says it was started by one or a few people. If no one in the religion has seen the founding events, except a few people, one can only have so much rational belief that the natural order was suspended. Christianity started with a few apostles, and Paul claimed he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus. Muhammad claimed he heard God’s revelation — not to everyone, but to him. So far as I know (and I have been checking a lot, as have other people), Judaism is the only religion that claims to have started with roughly 3 million people who were direct ancestors of the Israelites. (600k males.) Now, this would give a lot of credibility to the religion, because it’s extremely hard to get this kind of thing started. You can imagine a religion like Scientology or Christianity or Islam getting started with a few people claiming stuff that didn’t REALLY happen. And indeed, all these religions continue to preserve the story of how they started — and it was with a few people. But once you have a religion where people say God spoke to ALL THE ANCESTORS, and that ALL THE ANCESTORS wandered for 40 years in the desert, it’s very hard to come up with a plausible explanation for how this happened. Try it yourself.

The above is called the Kuzari argument, and is argued very well by Lawrence Kelemen here: http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/proof-torah-true/ . Dr. Dovid Gottlieb, a famous rabbi with a Ph. D in logic, penned a book leading everyone through the argument of why Judaism alone is unique: http://ohr.edu/992 .

Here are the really powerful parts:

1) Out of all the different religions in the world that we know about, past and present, we do not find any other group of people that believed ALL THEIR ANCESTORS witnessed the founding event of their religion: a supernatural deity speaking to them. This would give a religion a lot of credibility, but precisely because it would be hard to start a conspiracy — anyone could sell you out easily, and one can argue that that’s why no fake attempt has ever taken off. The only way it could have been accepted was if it’s true.

2) Jewish people religiously (no pun intended) follow a set of laws all about the God that spoke to ALL THEIR ANCESTORS. The law concerns every part of their lives, including seemingly insane things like: NO ONE in the country planting for a whole year, because they supposedly saw God give twice the harvest the previous year; or ALL the men leaving all the women and children at the borders to go worship at the temple, because they believed God’s promise that Israel won’t be attacked at this time. Jews took these laws seriously, but why would they do that unless they already believed that God gave them this law at mount Sinai? It would be hard to introduce a written book where the story is recorded once and for all, and then get everyone to accept it even though no one has ever heard of anything like this, and then make them follow the very counterintuitive laws in the book.

3) If this was a NATURAL thing, and explained through natural causes, how come it never happened again? The main principle of history is that history repeats itself. The main tool of science is repeatable experiments. Out of all the religions of the world, this was never repeated.

This last one is the key to the uniqueness I am talking about. I am not saying Judaism is unique in the sense that “everyone is unique in their own way.” It is unique in the exact way that makes every other religion questionable: it doesn’t claim to start with a few people spreading the word! Here is the strangest part:

4) The Torah itself calls this out! The book of Deuteronomy issues this challenge as proof that Jews should know Judaism is true, and to this day, the challenge has remained unanswered. Everyone had a chance to do this, but they didn’t.

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+4%3A32-40&version=NIV

THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE UNIQUE

Out of all the nations that existed 2000 years ago and before, there are very few that are left. One might put China and India in these categories — countries with huge populations and lots of land. But there has only been one nation that survived in the Western world, despite persecutions, despite being kicked out of their land, despite living among other people all around the world, and despite the efforts of a lot of nations to convert, integrate, or otherwise get rid of the Jewish nation. The only things they had uniting them were a common ancestry and a common religion written in ancient Hebrew.

Jews are unique as being the only people who survived in these conditions. But once again, the uniqueness is not some arbitrary uniqueness. It is once again significant as very improbable thing. Ask any historian and they will tell you the conditions in which entire nations are subsumed by other nations, disperse, or integrate with the general stream of humanity. Mark Twain noticed this when he wrote an essay called Concerning the Jew (http://ohr.edu/judaism/concern/concerna.htm)

“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” – Mark Twain

Jews, of course, are ready with the answer. In fact, the answer is right there in Deuteronomy: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+29&version=NIV and http://bible.cc/deuteronomy/4-27.htm . The amazing fact is, that not only is the dispersion into other nations predicted (Deuteronomy must have been written before the Babylonian exile, otherwise how would Jews in different parts of the world have exactly the same religion), but also the return to Israel! No nation that we know has ever achieved this. Why would Deuteronomy make such claims? The same claims are echoed over and over. God says that if the Jews don’t keep his commandments, they will be cast of Israel. But then he will return them into Israel. They will be eternally his people. Here are the powerful points:

1) God in the Bible says the Jews will always be around. Against all odds, this is correct 3000 years later!

2) Deuteronomy says they will get kicked out of their land, live among other nations, worship gods they have not known, and then after a very long time, God will hear their cry and they will come back to Israel. Not even Jewish zionists of the 19th century thought it would happen. They were happy to get land in Libya.

3) Was the writer of Deuteronomy just extremely ambitious with his unprecedented claims, and later got extremely lucky that Jews were the only people to whom this happened?

TAKEN TOGETHER

When I was using science to disprove stories in the Torah, I argued that a combination of independent results which come true is stronger than the results by themselves. So for example, if we Egyptian history said that there were pharaohs around in 2400 BC, it might be mistaken. Or if we carbon dated the mummies in the pyramids (or whatever) and they were around 2400 BC, then by itself our method might have given a wrong result. (It’s happened before. See http://www.science-frontiers.com/online/search.cgi?zoom_query=Carbon%20dating&zoom_per_page=50&zoom_and=1&zoom_sort=0 , and find the real scientific articles linked from there). Looking at the wax-like seals of the egyptian pharaohs might establish some sort of history. But taken TOGETHER, if they paint a coherent picture, it’s very hard to doubt them.

This is what caused me to really doubt Judaism. But look at it from the other side now.

Take just the two unbelievable phenomena I mentioned. The first is that Judaism alone claims to have started from a large number of ANCESTORS — in fact, ALL of them. Other religions all admit and record that they started with a few people who spread the ideas. Deuteronomy itself points this out and dares you to find another religion like that! It uses it as proof that God really did lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and reveal Himself on mount Sinai. The second claim of Deuteronomy is equally bold (for a human writer) and equally fantastic that it came true: the Jewish People will always be around, they will be few in number (not like Indians or Chinese), they will be dispersed among the nations, but will always be around, and eventually God will gather them back in Israel.

I should also mention that in their own book, God said the Jewish people were meant to be “a light unto the nations.” Mark Twain also remarks on the disproportionate amount of Jews who are intellectually affecting the world through science, art, philosophy, etc. and their disproportionate economic impact, in both business and philanthropy. But I will not really go into this because I think it may be related more to the Jews’ emphasis on intellectual study for hundreds of years. It may just be a cultural thing to promote intellectual excellence. But it is undisputed: the number of Jewish nobel prize laureates is far, far greater than would be expected if the number of Jews in the world is considered as a fraction of the world’s population. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_Nobel_laureates

Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science in the 20th century, came up with a theory of science is that is widely accepted today. It is based on the idea of Falsifiability. (His 1969 essay here: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/popper_falsification.html ) . According to Popper, a theory is scientific insofar as it makes non-obvious, testable predictions. If they come true in the real world, the scientific theory gets more support. If they fail, the scientific theory needs to be re-evaluated, and revised if it has any chance of remaining correct.

Earlier I applied this principle to the claims of Judaism and Christianity, such as the flood, etc. And I have found lots of studies (history, radiometric dating, etc.) that seem to contradict the Biblical claims. These theories have been subjected to scientific scrutiny, and while the methods aren’t perfect, they have been shown to be quite reliable because they made non-obvious predictions that came true.

But now we have seen that the Torah makes amazing non-obvious predictions that have come true. And not just random predictions, but predictions that have a direct relationship to God, the Jewish People, and the story that God spoke to the Jews and through this experience their very religion, Judaism, started.

According to Karl Popper’s view or indeed any sort of rational and unbiased viewpoint, Judaism has a lot going for it. At the very least, Judaism and the Jewish People have some astounding and totally unique things about them, that attest to their truth, and that their book predicted beforehand. Maybe it’s just a giant coincidence. But that kind of thinking leads me to my conclusion:

CONCLUSION:

I have met many Jews who believe the world is literally less than 6,000 years old. When you sit with them and explain about all the geological processes, tree rings, and light from the stars, many of them have already heard some of these. And they say, “yes, the stars really are millions of light years of away, and yes we do see them. But this is because just like God created Adam to be 20 years old right away, He created the world to look as if it were old.” Indeed, here’s the interesting thing: the Talmud says this kind of stuff before we ever suspected the world was that old.

But what I hear when Jews say this is, “Fine. You have employed lots of different reasons and arguments. You have convinced me to a great extent that the world looks millions of years old. But… it’s not. It only looks that way!” This response happens not because someone is insane. On the contrary, it signals that they believe their OWN position so much, that they need a way to reconcile it with what you are telling them.

Similarly, I have started to see in atheists the same kind of dismissal of the various strong evidence that Judaism may be true. When I tell them about the Kuzari argument, they say “well, yeah it’s hard to explain how it came about, but there’s gotta be a natural explanation because this stuff never happened.” Once again, this is not because the atheist is insane. It is because he so firmly is educated to believe that nothing supernatural has ever happened, not even in the past, and “science” has so convinced him that he is willing to dismiss any evidence pointing the other way.

In essence both sides are engaging in a form of “I don’t care, your evidence must be wrong somehow, because my position is right.” They must engage with one another and work with each other to find out the truth!

I see this as very similar to special relativity and quantum dynamics. Both are amazing theories that predict amazing non-obvious things, and in their own domain, the evidence is very compelling. But when they enter each other’s turf — when relativity enters the micro domain, or when quantum mechanics is extended to the macro scale, they don’t work. They completely contradict each other in the other’s domain. Does this mean that a person doing special relativity should say “something’s just GOT to be wrong with the theory of Quantum Mechanics” and vice versa? Would he turn a blind eye to all the predictions quantum mechanics makes? If it works all the time, he would consult quantum mechanics researchers in those matters.

Thus it is with Judaism and Atheism. Both are very valid and self compelling world views on their own turf. Both have evidence for them. And proponents of both have a quick reaction to dismiss the “theories” of the other. Scientists have been working the better part of the 20th century, and until today, to find a “theory of everything” to reconcile the two.

One thing is exciting: if Judaism and scientific theories are both true, we may find out how they come together in the future!

4 Comments »

  1. All proofs are problematic, and those in kiruv often know they are being evasive on evidence.

    For instance, national revelation happened to the Aztecs. Also, from what I’ve read, tribes generally do spiritual things together in their mythology. Being tribal, it makes sense. I also believe Jesus did the fishes and loaves thing in front of thousands.

    Second, all religions have convincing proofs. Christianity and Islam included. Nostradamus too.

    Third, from within the tradition there is a hint that a myth was created around national revelation. If you look at Judges (Shoftim) 2:10, you will see that it says that the generation after Joshua totally forgot about what G-d did for them:

    “And also all that generation were gathered to their forefathers, and there arose another generation after them, who knew not the Lord nor the deed which He had done for Israel.”

    Pretty classic “just so” story inserted to convince a generation that did not have the tradition from Mt. Sinai that it really happened. A perfect answer for when they say they have no such tradition: you forgot.

    You should study very hard – there is a lot about Judaism, about all religions, that can make it appear they have a good grip on some proofs, but are actually pretending with you.

    Start with James Kugel, How to Read the Bible. It is just a start. There are great arguments that demonstrate that if you use the faculty of reason, you will find ample reason to think the Torah from one place and one time is not likely. Kugel is a frum Jew by the way.

    There is also other evidence, amassed by frum Jews like Menachem Kellner and Marc Shapiro, that shows that much manipulation and distorting and omitting and suppressing and plain misrepresenting is the fuel for creating a masorah that upholds Judaism.

    After all this, you may wind up religious, and at least you’ll be informed – and will be making an informed decision. Remember that indoctrination is not the same thing as education, and being informed is one thing, and being manipulated another. Remember that religious men don’t know the truth – but may use threats about your place in the next world in order to make you frightened and compliant and obedient. They will try a next world reward system too. Both a version of fear mongering, and praying on people’s fears about their spiritual life.

    Tuvia

    Comment by Tuvia — December 16, 2012 @ 1:04 am

  2. just something a frum Jew once wrote — a hint at what Modern Biblical Criticism is into. the education will take a few years i bet:

    There are a large number of people that work full time in the field of Bible Studies, directly and indirectly. The indirect workers are people who work on the versions from Qumran, the Septuagint (targum shivim,) the Vulgate, the Peshitta, scholars of the second Temple, the Aprocrapha and the Pseudepigrapha (the seforim chitzonim). They also include scholars of ancient languages, Ugarithic, Akkadian and Aramaic in all its dialects. And then the archaeologists and historians of the Ancient Near East. They ALL speak the same language with two exceptions…Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist -Evangelical Christians. There are disagreements, the Scandinavians are very minimalist, the Germans have a hard time keeping science separate from their “Heliggeschicte”, the Israelis are sometimes too nationalist , the Americans overemphasize the literary qualities of the text; but there are huge agreements both in substance and in method, allowing there will always be some cranky outliers who believes in their own idiosyncratic ideas.

    Now what makes this ‘stuff’ powerful is the cohesion between the different lines of investigation. You can see this more readily if you study tanach backwards…start with Divrei Hayamim, ask what are the differences between it and the earlier versions of the same stories and why, and then why both differ from the Book of Jubilees? Study Tehilim, Shir Hashirim, Job, ask what all those difficult words mean, look in Rashi and other mefurshim, then read the Ugarithic scholars, and go sentence by sentence. Read up on the history and development of Biblical Hebrew, especially its syntax. Read around tanach…how were oral traditions preserved in the ancient world, in Egypt, in Mespotamia, how was material written down. Read some of the histories of the Second Temple, ask where were the Perushim in 400 BC, 300 BC, 200 BC, who was in power and what did they believe? I claim some large narratives, stories how we go from 1800 BC to chasimas hatalmud cohere much better than others. They unify and find a place for small truths across many fields over 2500 years. Coherence isn’t truth, but it does impress. Besides saying over the big story, there is much else worth thinking about. One issue is what is the best reading (peshat) of pasuk X in chapter Y in book Z? When one has worked through tanach reading modern commentaries, not just one book of criticism where one can always say “Eh, not impressed, who says etc”, and looking at this entire binyan that has been put up as a result of all these disciplines, it is impossible for a rational person to dismiss modern Bible Commentary as narishkeit. For one thing it is made up of endless smaller ideas, many of which have no theological significance.
    The issue is not “Is it possible that the mesorah is correct?”, who could argue otherwise. Contrary to the XGH school of Orthopraxy I hold the burden is not on the maamin to justify his beliefs. There is also the cohesion RHM points to…how the traditional story helps us understand easily and in a comforting way the large scope of Jewish history in its entirety. I am not one who says one MUST read ‘secular’ commentary. Other aspects of Judaism, Talmud in particular, give far more pleasure and happiness than working in the arid trenches of Bible Scholarship. I agree with RYGB and Curious George that emunah is created and supported by contact with teachers and elders. I just think to apriori dismiss those who are bothered by the world of secular scholarship, without having seen in detail what it can do as a tool for understanding the texts, works as a defensive gesture, but is not terribly reassuring to all those who are struggling with the foundations of Orthodoxy.

    Comment by Tuvia — December 16, 2012 @ 1:34 am

  3. Really weak arguments to be the source of your jewish faith.

    In your conclusion, you say explaining radiometric dating to a creationist is JUST LIKE explaining the Kuzari argument to an atheist. Do you see anything different between these two things? it’s evidence. the Kuzari claim is probably the most extraordinary claim anyone can make, and extraordinary claims require etraordinary evidence. why in the world should anyone believe a claim with no evidence? Kuzari: That’s a story within the book. Like saying Mohammed is the true prophet because he is the ONLY ONE with a winged horse.

    Here are your 3 “powerful” claims: I want to put forward what a non religious person thinks when they see this and I am coming at this with 1/5th the skepticism you do when talking about evolution.

    1. Jews will still be around and in few numbers.
    The jewish religion is keen on keeping jews from assimilating, as any bloodline based group. Just look at the orthodox community today. The whole religion is set to in a way to keep jews from marrying outside their religion. “few in numbers” because it is a religion based on bloodline over conversion. Jews did a good job at keeping the fear of god alive over the years in order to conserve their magic bloodline.

    2. Jews returning to Israel
    Other than intermarriage, this is the second goal of the entire doctrine. Now realize that israel didn’t happen as the magical stories in the bible “jews keeping the commandments, or god rewarding it to them using magic, coming of a messiah…ect”, it happened politically, because of people TRYING to “fulfill” this prophecy.

    3. “It would be hard to introduce a written book where the story is recorded once and for all, and then get everyone to accept it even though no one has ever heard of anything like this, and then make them follow the very counterintuitive laws in the book.”

    are you kidding me?? I don’t know how much history you have here, ASSUMING we have recorded history of early Jews doing weird counterproductive stuff because of their religion, THEY STILL ARE TODAY. also this is the story of every other religion ever.

    Comment by Mike — December 7, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

  4. the global flood must have happened around 2104 BCE, but this contradicts Egyptian history, as well as other things.

    The fact that it must have happened after 4,000 BCE ? Sure. The fact that it did indeed happen ? Not so much. (All flood myths, from the Biblical Noah to the Babylonian Gilgamesh and Greek Atlantis are based on the very real events which followed the melting of enormous glaciers at the end of the Last Ice Age, about twelve millennia ago).

    So, studying science causes one to have serious doubts about Judaism, and in fact all Abrahamic religions

    Highly doubtful. Does the discovery of the Big Bang cause you to have doubts about the Biblical creation story ? Even the great Albert Einstein, who was agnostic, was initially skeptic of the now-accepted scientific theory, since he said it reminded him too much of the Book of Genesis. Does knowing that the first ancient cities of the Levant –including Ur, Abraham’s birthplace– were erected around 4,000 BCE cause you to lose rather than gain appreciation for the Biblical reckoning of Creation as happening around that same time ? Does the historic timeline of man being first a hunter-gatherer, and then only later turning to agriculture not nicely match the Biblical account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, surviving on the fruits of its trees, and then later giving birth to Cain and Abel, which embody the two main branches of agriculture, namely planting and pasturing ?

    Comment by Lucian — April 23, 2019 @ 12:35 am

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