Thursday, October 2, 2008


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.


complexzeta said...

I think you're being unfair. You wouldn't say that someone who doesn't understand physics won't come down to the ground after jumping, and you wouldn't say that someone who doesn't know how to program a computer won't be able to type a document. They don't understand perfectly why their actions cause these results, but the results still follow from their actions. So why would you claim that someone who doesn't understand evolution wouldn't innately make evolutionarily intelligent decisions?

Everyone is influenced by the surrounding culture, and (unfortunately, in my opinion) religion plays a large role in society. Atheists aren't secretly and unknowingly following a holy book, and it is very arrogant of you to assume that you know why we (atheists) choose to make the decisions we do better than we know ourselves. We may pick up a few good ideas from religious texts, but that doesn't imply that we believe the rest of the text, or that the text represents truth (whatever that may mean).

Many decisions I choose to make are based on trying to help the world. Sure, that's an idea that shows up in religious texts, but it's also obviously evolutionarily intelligent. Since evolution predates religious texts, it is highly likely (read: pretty much guaranteed) that evolutionarily intelligent ideas shaped the religious texts, not the other way around.

Lucas said...

"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."

I think we all have a hard time justifying *any* of our actions while remaining intellectually honest. Take the example of breakfast. For breakfast yesterday, I had a bowl of Cheerios, a banana and green tea. How can I justify any of these decisions? I like Cheerios, but why? Even given that I like them, why choose to satisfy my hunger? Why not eat pizza or eggs? Why not coffee, or stopping caffeine altogether? The more I analyze even small decisions, the less sense they make. Most of them seem to be based on impulses and gut decisions. To whatever extent I try to justify them, I realize that I've probably made up ad hoc explanations after the fact to explain my actions.

I honestly have no reason to believe that big decisions in life are made for better reasons. I plan to have children. The only real "reason" for this I can think of is that my fiance wants children, and I want to make her happy. I have some other vague desire to understand how children see the world, but again these are probably just after-the-fact justifications.

I don't see this as intellectually dishonest, anymore than saying "I don't know" is dishonest. Really, it seems like a bit of a stretch that all of our actions have justifications, and especially that they should have justifications.

"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 think there is a big difference between justifying why people in general have children and justifying why I in particular want to have children. It makes sense that since all of my ancestors chose to have and take care of children that there is some factor causing them to do so. As to what that factor is, I don't personally understand its action in complete detail, but I don't see what that has to do with God. It certainly doesn't strike me as evidence of God. Of course, if you already believe that God created the universe, then I suppose it's also obvious that God intended people to have children, etc. But I don't. I've never gotten this "feel of compelling, undeniable reality" you have.

To flip your question on its head, how do you justify (given your "perfect" faith) when you sin? Your faith in God and his rules are perfect--let's have a detailed explanation of the last time you told a lie or violated some other religious law. (Or perhaps you never have--most impressive.) Do you honestly need to appeal to a religious rule to justify not killing people who make you angry? If so, I think that's much scarier than people who act morally without a book guiding our actions. If not, then perhaps your religion isn't as important to justifying your actions as you've lead yourself to believe.

Aryeh said...

complexzeta wrote:
"it is very arrogant of you to assume that you know why we (atheists) choose to make the decisions we do". I wasn't assuming anything -- merely expressing my earnest puzzlement at how someone can consistently fail to believe in a higher purpose in life yet eschew a life of pure hedonism.

Why do you try to help the world? What do you care? You are just a clump of matter not much different from a rock and apparently no different at all from an ape (this is a direct consequence of atheism, no?). So what does any of this matter? In the end you'll be dead, and there's certainly no soul or afterlife, so why bother? This to me makes absolutely no sense and is a source of great bemusement!

Aryeh said...

Lucas wrote, "I honestly have no reason to believe that big decisions in life are made for better reasons." So people choose professions, spouses, and parenthood in the same way as they pick their breakfast cereal?! I haven't done or seen any research on this, but I have a feeling this is way off the mark.

Then you ask, [[To flip your question on its head, how do you justify (given your "perfect" faith) when you sin?]]

I am not sure what you mean by 'sin', as the Jewish notion of sin and penitence are quite unique and entirely distinct from, say Christian ones. According to the Jewish view, God created imperfect men in an imperfect world with the very explicit design that we strive for perfection.

Then you write, "Do you honestly need to appeal to a religious rule to justify not killing people who make you angry? If so, I think that's much scarier than people who act morally without a book guiding our actions."

On the contrary -- I would much prefer that people don't commit crimes because they are following a rigid system of rules, rather than because they just don't feel like it at the moment. While your God-less morality sounds noble and enlightened, experience overwhelmingly shows that it's unstable.

Would you prefer that your doctor treat you out of the goodness of his heart or because you're paying him money? I'd emphatically prefer the latter. An altruistic doctor can be tired and have mood swings. Today he's feeling spry and perky and offers me excellent treatment; tomorrow he gets the blues and pulls an all-nighter and the last thing he needs on his mind is my problems.

Jewish wise men have tackled this question millennia ago and reached the conclusion that it is better for a man to follow a rigid code dictated from above (i.e., the Torah) than his own morality -- pretty much for reasons of stability and consistency I alluded to above.

complexzeta said...

Since I'm a mathematician and not a biologist, I'm not going to pretend that I understand all the intricacies of evolution. But one well-documented fact is that individuals tend to do things that benefit other individuals, especially ones that are reasonably closely related. There are many examples of altruistic acts done by non-humans, who are presumably atheists. I'm pretty sure that most holy books, including the one you believe in, don't claim that animals have any sort of belief in a deity. So why should they perform altruistic acts? Because it helps the species (or genus, or whatever) survive. This may make no difference to the individual once it dies, but the individual only existed because previous members of the same species acted similarly.

So, I don't really understand why I choose to eschew a life of hedonism, but it makes sense to me intuitively that a hedonistic lifestyle would not be evolutionarily intelligent for the species, so I am automatically conditioned to reject a hedonistic lifestyle.

In your reply to lucas, you claim that overwhelming evidence has shown that godless morality is unstable. It may be (you can refer to Stalin and Mao as examples of evil atheists, if you want), but how stable is religious morality? If you've ever read the Torah, you'll know that the Israelites were hardly peaceful and moral people. How many battles did they start? How many other tribes did they wipe out? And how many people did God kill in the Torah? If that is your idea of morality, I am very scared of you.

Aryeh said...


Animals regularly engage in rape, cannibalism, and non-self-defense killing. Our closest evolutionary relatives -- chimps -- are certainly a cruel and violent species.

Rape is a very natural and evolutionarily rational behavior; what better way to spread one's genes than to force as many females as possible to bear your offspring? The whole point of morality is to overcome our natural urges and rise above them.

Later, you invoke some violent events in the Torah and condemn the behavior of the Israelites as immoral. I am not going to engage in a theological debate, but I'll comment briefly. One cannot read the Torah literally -- if one does, and interprets "God's outstretched arm" literally, one is engaging in idolatry! I assure you that your concerns have been raised before and have been thoroughly addressed. Take a look here and here as a start.

You have nothing to fear from me -- I wish you no harm. I don't even know you.

complexzeta said...

I didn't claim that all animal behaviors are altruistic or "moral." I claimed that some of them are. Similarly, some human behaviors are moral, and some aren't. (This is, I believe, true of just about every human, religious or not.)

I understand that the Torah is not to be taken literally, but I don't know how to interpret a passage that says that the Israelites killed a large number of non-Israelites and took over their land figuratively. Perhaps I'm just being stupid though.

It makes sense that "God's outstretched arm" is figurative writing (anthropomorphizing), but we killed a bunch of their guys and looted their land sounds pretty literal. I think you want to figure out a way to make it figurative because you don't want to take responsibility for the evils done in the name of the God you believe in.

Aryeh said...

You're trying to turn this into a theological debate, which I emphatically will not engage in. The Torah has to be read on many different levels -- there are hundreds of thousands of pages of commentary on every letter of every word.

You can approach the Torah as a historical document, written by a bunch of backward and violent people with some common sense ideas about basic ethics and hygiene. Then you start explaining the laws of kashrut in terms of trichinosis and marvel at the primitive tribal mentality of the Israelites. This is often accompanied by demands that Jews apologize for their past and their holy scripture. I have the feeling that you're engaging in a bit of this right now.

I approach the Torah as word of God, given to my people on Mount Sinai. If something in the Torah sounds problematic, the problem is necessarily in my understanding and not in the scripture itself.

We are not going to see eye to eye on this. And you certainly won't get any apologies for the Torah from me.

Maxim said...

I have thought about these exchanges for some time (both this one, and the one here), and would like to chime in, if only due to Aryeh's encouragement. [I hereby pre-emptively claim "victory" in the argument by virtue of sheer wordcount.]

Firstly - full disclosure: I'm a less-observant Jew than Aryeh, and my faith is less-than-perfect. However, I do believe in the Jewish concept of God, and that this Creator is the source of morality in our world.

Given that, I find atheism itself (i.e. the conviction that God does not exist) to be little different from religious faith. We all know that there's no way to prove the non-existence of a Creator or higher power, just as there's no way to prove the contrary. Thus, being certain that God doesn't exist requires a faith just as strong as believeing God does exist, and certainly isn't inherently any more "rational." I have no problem with people believing things on faith -- it's a core component of human nature -- so I don't begrudge an atheist his viewpoint, and might even avoid pointing out to him that his worldview is no more rational than mine, so as not to pick a fight. However, there's a more "hardline" version of atheism recently in fashion, which is the Richard Dawkins flavor: not only is there no God, but this preposterous belief has brought nothing but harm to the human race, and we'd all be better off if we could eliminate all religion anywhere, and teaching one's children about God amounts to child abuse. I'll term this "fundamentalist atheism" or even "evangelical atheism," because it has the same proselytizing or supercessionist character as the streams of Christianity called by those modifiers. This kind of atheism I cannot abide, most especially because it exhibits precisely the same type of faith-driven intolerance of "the other," of which it accuses religious adherents. Hypocrisy of the highest sort.
(Note that I'm not accusing Derbyshire nor any of the commenters here of this type of hardline atheism, but do encourage them to take care not to slide into it, and to help their fellow atheists avoid the pitfall as well).

Now, having fired off that salvo, a few comments on the preceding discussion:

Aryeh, I do agree that you're being somewhat demanding on Joe Average Atheist when you accuse him of avoiding being "logically consistent" and "intellectually honest." (Then again, it's very much in your character to be rather demanding of both yourself and others, but I think you know that) I say this because I think huge numbers of people, atheists or not, go through life the way you describe -- with a vague sense of being "supposed to" do certain things, but without truly, positively, definitevely "deriving" why. Lucas takes his rebuttal to an absurd extreme when he describes being mired in existentialist indecision while choosing what to eat for breakfast, but he brings up a fair point. Clearly, much of what people do isn't deeply and profoundly connected to their sense (or lack) of purpose in life. Habits, environment, physical needs, limited time/energy, laziness, emotional reactions -- all of these shape our choices and actions. Many people simply don't have the intellectual depth or inclination/curiosity to ask themselves -- why am I really doing this? And again, that's fine, it's also human nature.

Now, you might say it's not Joe Average Atheist you're after, but rather you demand such logical self-consistency of Joe "Elite and Intellectually-Deep" Atheist. Here what you'll generally get is that our universe is driven by nothing more than random/stochastic processes, and that Darwinian-type evolutionary processes and natural selection shape the moral development of humans (individually and collectively). This is what complexzeta appeals to when he says that the idea of "helping the world" is "obviously evolutionarily intelligent." With that particular example, I'll say only that it's far from "obvious" what is evolutionarily beneficial about people "trying to help the world"; I'll also note that saying "evolutionarily intelligent" implies agency -- random events without agency can't be intelligent -- so this severely undermines the atheist viewpoint. More broadly, though, I've never been able to receive a satisfying answer from an atheist to the major question: Why do we even have morality? Where does it come from, if not God? How is it useful? All explanations of this end up sliding into arguments that require some other external force or some degree of agency in nature or the universe. Or the evolutionary mechanisms get very anthropo-centric.

Fundamentally, I remain convinced that all moral frameworks to which the non-religious adhere actually originate from religious ones, and therefore from God. I know that this can't be proven, so I recognize it's not "purely rational," but likewise, neither is the counterclaim, for the same reason. However, Aryeh, I think by insisting that we "dispense ... with the fallacious notion that religious belief is ... illogical or irrational" you make your position much harder to defend than it has to be. I think you'll agree that you have a highly rational framework built around the core of your faith in God, but that faith itself can't be "purely rational" (by which I mean somehow provable or empirically testable). And that's just fine - it doesn't diminish its validity or make it less compelling. In fact, if nothing about belief was at all irrational and transcending human reason, I think this would hamper its mystery and power. So perhaps instead of dispensing with the notion that religious belief is illogical/irrational, we should instead seek to dispense with the notion that atheism is demonstrably more logical/rational/correct.

For my own part, my best understanding of my belief in God is that it arises from my need for humanity to have a purpose, a direction. To have the arc of history, and in particular the story of the Jewish people, be going somewhere. Without that, I don’t really know why I or anyone else should bother doing anything, and no one's been able to give me another reason.

But to return to the original point that spawned this discussion, in which Aryeh took pains to distinguish his religious beliefs from the “rank superstition” with which Derbyshire conflates them. Aryeh, I applaud your effort at drawing such a distinction, and completely agree with it, but I can also see how an atheist will look at religion and superstition as being different only in degree, but not in kind – i.e. beliefs arising from false conceptions of causation, and in spite of evidence to the contrary. Here again I find being lumped in with the superstitious to be less problematic than atheists’ smug arrogance that their worldview is the only one that makes any sense. I would rather fight against the idea that atheism is more rational and evidence-based, than expend significant energy differentiating Judaism from lucky rabbits’ feet or unlucky broken mirrors. When arguing with an atheist, such distinctions fall on deaf ears (c.f. the anonymous comment: "To atheists, religion looks like a superstition.")

Finally, regarding the dialogue with Derbyshire himself – he certainly approaches the conversation with much less nuance than you do, Aryeh, and brings his usual withering and cutting sarcasm to bear. Fine, that’s his style. The one substantive argument he provides is "the less religion, the more morality," citing patterns across national or ethnic groups. This point is incredibly weak and easily rebutted, since (a) Morality is clearly not a "linear function" of the "amount" of religion at the individual level – there are both horrible and excellent people among the religious and atheists – so why should there be a linear relationship at the societal level? (b) Quantifying religiosity even between individuals is extremely dicey, and depends enormously on the qualitative details of their observance and beliefs, so I’m quite certain it hasn’t been done carefully and comparatively across national or ethnic groups.

Anyway, for Derbyshire, religion demonstrates the random and often wrong paths that evolution takes, and the only reason it's around is that it seems to increase the chances of that religious genetic material being passed on. To the (slight) degree that this may ring true, it still sidesteps the problem of normative morality – why people have ideas about ways that they ought to behave, as opposed to how they actually do. Simply citing the "empirical facts" of what people do ignores the central problem – completely God-less explanations for the origins and purpose of morality remain unconvincing.

Finally, to throw in a provocative jab to the anti-religious environmentalists out there, I posit that the recent obsession and fervor about climate change (in particular, reversing Anthropogenic Global Warming or AGW) is a modern-day nouveau religion unto itself. I challenge anyone to explain how today’s normative insistence that drastic actions must be taken to reduce CO2 emissions differ substantially from other religious precepts.

bopbeeboop said...

I apologize if this doesn't advance the discussion further, but: