One of my favorite commentators, John Derbyshire, is an unabashed atheist. Though his salvos are mostly aimed at his former faith of Christianity, I suspect that he is an equal-opportunity kafir. I admire Mr. Derbyshire for his razor-sharp wit and unwavering intellectual honesty, and so it is with great caution that I venture to point out a lapse in his reasoning. Namely, he seems to conflate religion with "rank superstition". (Again, technically the statement applies only to Christianity, but I doubt Mr. Derbyshire's judgement of, say, Jewish ritual observance would be any more flattering.)
As an observant Jew, I believe with perfect faith that the world was created by an infinitely wise and all-powerful Creator, who endowed men with souls and free will and who demands that we choose to behave in accordance with His laws, as revealed to us on Mount Sinai (the requirements are a great deal less exacting for non-Jews). But the point of this note is not to defend my beliefs or to try to gain converts. Rather, it is to attempt to understand the distinction between "superstition" and other -- "valid", "legitimate", "rational" -- beliefs. Merriam-Webster's definition of superstition is a good start: "a belief [...] resulting from ignorance [...] trust in magic or chance [...] a false conception of causation [...] a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary". That certainly doesn't sound very attractive. So what's the antidote to superstition? Mr. Derbyshire doesn't really propose one, but if I might put words into his mouth for a moment, I would hazard positivism or materialism.
But of course, as any philosopher of epistemology will tell you, there is absolutely no logical reason to prefer materialism over a belief in a higher power. Recently, a very intelligent friend of mine (let's call him W) demanded a logical justification for my adherence to Judaism. I told him that every man must answer for himself the fundamental question along the lines of, "Is there meaning to life? Did a Creator create us for a purpose?"
In my experience, most atheists avoid a logically consistent and intellectually honest answer. Many of them go through life doing all the "right" things -- work, marriage, children -- yet if pressed, have a hard time justifying their actions. Childrearing is a major burden, which certainly cannot be justified on the basis of short-term pleasure. Yet I suspect many people have children out of some vague sense that they're "supposed to" -- without the conscious realization that they are fulfilling some greater purpose. Indeed, there are millions of atheists whose answer to the meaning-of-life question would be an emphatic NO. Yet examining the way many of these so-called atheists choose to live their lives, one can't help but wonder if they're actually scrupulously following some sacred text. How many of them have children? How many justify it solely based on Darwinian genetics?
I claim that such people are being less than intellectually honest. They have some vague sense of purpose in life, but are unwilling to admit that, as it would undermine their "atheist" credentials.
Who can blame them? A positive answer to the meaning-of-life question opens some intimidating doors. If we are created with a purpose, we must seek to discover this purpose and strive to fulfil it. That could entail hard work and major sacrifices!
"But isn't God just a story you're telling yourself for comfort?" my friend W asked. "No," I told him. "To me, this has the feel of compelling, undeniable reality."
How does any of know that we are not, in reality, just a brain in a vat? The short answer is that we have absolutely no way of knowing. One could just as well claim that positivist reality is a story we tell ourselves for comfort. And as long as we're choosing which stories to tell ourselves -- without any objective logical basis for any of them! -- we have to judge these stories by some other criterion than the scientific method. Indeed, there are lots of "stories" out there, and why I picked the "Judaism" one is a long story in itself. But let's dispense once and for all with the fallacious notion that religious belief is somehow illogical or irrational.