Wednesday, September 06, 2006

From Judaism to Atheism: Maybe?

Naturalism is a philosophical movement which affirms the natural universe the whole of reality and is understood only through scientific investigation, often referred to as methodological naturalism. While denying the existence of supernatural or transcendent entities, or the questioning of the ultimate nature of reality, naturalism affirms that cause-and-effect relationships, as in physics and chemistry, are sufficient to account for all phenomena.

Materialism is the doctrine that all existence is resolvable into matter or into an attribute or effect of matter. According to this doctrine, matter is the ultimate reality, and the phenomenon of consciousness is explained by physiochemical changes in the nervous system. Materialism and naturalism go hand in hand.

Skepticism is the refusal to accept certain kinds of claims without first subjecting them to a systematic investigation or rational inquiry. For many skeptics, this process is akin to the scientific method. This type of skeptic generally accepts those assertions that are in likely to be true based upon a testable hypotheses and critical thinking.

Atheism is basically a lack of belief in a deity or deities of any sort. Although some atheists tend toward skepticism or other secular philosophies such as humanism, naturalism and materialism, there is no single system of philosophy which all atheists share, nor does atheism have institutionalized rituals or behaviors.

I endeavored to define each ‘ism’ as succinctly and yet, comprehensively as possible to set the stage for understanding this article. There are a few of you whose eyes have already glossed over and you’re getting angry at me for not getting right to the point. These brief definitions are important for understanding where it is my ‘atheism’ comes from and why I feel so strongly about it. The metamorphosis from belief into non-belief is not, as some would have it, merely a matter of emotional or social dysfunction, though such things do occur internally in those who are faced with conflicting outlooks and must, as their social needs require, perform a psychological balancing act to live in both worlds simultaneously.

Why Us?

It occurred to me that more Jews turn toward Atheism than those of other religions. From Spinoza, to Freud, to Einstein, and many others in between and since, Jews have been at the forefront of non-theistic thinking in modern Western culture. I wondered why this was and thought maybe it is because so much of what makes an atheist is already latent within Jewish learning and culture. Is that possible that elements from within my own religious education led me to atheism? My personal correspondences with other disaffected Jews also confirms this hypothesis, as none of them (among the dozens that I have contacted) have taken on other faiths or even less stringent forms of Jewish practice. All have embraced either atheism or some variant of agnosticism. This was definitely something that needed further exploration.

The answer I came up with isn’t definitive or universal by any standard. I cannot speak for all renegade Jews-turned-atheist, nor would I attempt to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. My goal here is seek out that ‘something’ in Judaism that could lead to atheism and rejection of Judaism in the process. This is, at worst, an uneducated guess which proves to be way off base or, at best, an introspective analysis into my own particular view of Jewish learning. I believe it will be instructive in either case. Those of you living with these same inner conflicts and questions will understand and hopefully garner some insight from this article.

When the Love of Being Right Goes Wrong

As a rule, most human beings love to be right, but when we Jews decide we are right about something no one hammers home the point better than we do. It isn’t enough to know that we are right amongst ourselves. Oh no. We Jews are fully prepared to take all the time and effort required to make sure the world hears every syllable explaining and justifying our correctness. If you argue with a Jew, the first words out of his mouth will be “As a matter of fact…” attesting with precise logic and devout passion to the veracity of anything we assert as truth. We are the ‘Kings of Disputation’ and throughout our history in Exile we have been subject, time and time again, to debates and argumentation with Epicureans, Christians, Moslems, the Enlightenment, and, last but not least, even amongst ourselves. Why do you think we make such good lawyers?

This steady stream of attacks from without and within Judaism, philosophical and physical, on traditional believers has created an insular and defensive mentality among the Orthodox. Let’s be honest here. We are a culture that is built, shaped, and influenced by our persecutors and retractors as much as it is by our own internal genius and religious ingenuity. One cannot exist as a hated minority for all that time and not come away without a victim mentality. This mentality reinforces, or maybe even is what created our argumentative nature and the often hyperbolic, reflexive defense mechanism that our culture displays. Without military power or demographic numbers to save us, all that was left for us to do was argue our way out of the predicament. The flip side of providing this positive argument for one’s position is by exploiting the weaknesses of the other opinion. Overall, this method has met with limited success.

This ‘Jewish’ skepticism means that every time we hear about Jesus doing a miracle, or the Pope blessing a couple to conceive, or any other supernatural claim, we immediately have two thoughts. First, it’s impossible, and second, if it did happen, there must be a perfectly rational explanation for it that has nothing to do with Jesus or the Holy Father. Our skepticism directed at the claims of other religious doctrines leads us to arguments based in naturalism and materialism. We have now, and so far unknowingly, united the three basic elements needed to create an Atheist into our method of disputation, but we haven’t asked the same questions of ourselves, because it requires more emotional input and sense of loss to question one’s own beliefs that it does to destroy the faith and hopes of 1000s of others. You couldn’t possibly take their loss personally.

So what happens when a Jew, trained in Talmudic logic and the various forms of argumentation and now having this ingrained skepticism toward any threatening or seemingly anti-Jewish ideal, suddenly doesn’t know how to shut that skepticism off? What if all the arguments that one utilizes to debunk Christianity or Islam suddenly become thrown into reverse, critiquing one’s one faith and heritage by the same rules? This is where the problem begins. I cannot simply claim that Judaism’s miracles are rational and true and yet, in the same breath, claim that Christianity’s claims must be false because they are physically impossible or highly improbable. I cannot, in good conscience, debunk the myth of Santa Claus while, in the same breath, seek to defend the belief that Elijah the Prophet shows up at every Jewish home on the night of Passover. Each idea is equally preposterous for the very same reason; it is physically impossible. We invariably end up, through asking others to be ‘intellectually honest’ to prove our point to them, at same later time, facing ourselves in the same ‘intellectual’ mirror and wonder if we are being equally honest about ourselves and what we believe as truth.

(I wonder if this is the ultimate reason why Maimonides opposed philosophical inquiry, or why, during the Middle Ages, the Rabbis generally forbid formal disputations with Christian scholars. In debunking an opponents idea, the same logic could be used, circumstances reversed, to debunk one’s own, and therefore one had to very careful as to who was going to be doing the debating. It’s not that the Christian would trip one up in an argument, but that one would become so sure of his own debating skills that one would begin to argue with everything, friend and foe alike, based on that technique. )

The Truth Isn’t Cold or Hard

As much as I’d like to think this whole process is completely cold and rational, it obviously isn’t. The feeling of power that can accompany being ‘right’ about any issue can be very addicting. Sometimes this gets out of hand, but even then isn’t necessarily a bad thing until we separate our intellectual and emotional faculties and that is where we go horribly wrong. We assume that when we are thinking that we are somehow no longer feeling, and we end up, unknowingly, becoming attached to our thinking in way that puts us into a position of holding an enormous emotional investment in our opinions. Do you know how hard it is to admit that you are wrong? Or that the position you have arduously defended for many years is as equally misguided as those you debunked, if not even more? Few of us ever realize the deep emotional attachment we have to ideas we assume are ‘cold hard facts’, and are dead wrong about. We throw ‘intellectual honesty’ in the face of every opponent but no ‘emotional honesty’ in the way of our own introspection.

At some point, some of us actually make that leap into that intellectual-emotional self-inquiry. We use the very same tools we have been taught to use on others to inflict maximum damage on our own Jewish beliefs and religion in general. We begin to ask the same questions of ourselves that we demanded of others and by the same methods and arguments. Yet, we are no longer debating strangers from whom we emotionally disassociate ourselves. We are arguing with our own core beliefs and the fight hits home with a vengeance. For those of you who have never felt the emptiness of being wrong, completely wrong, and having to alter your entire thinking based upon that realization, I cannot put adequately into words how gut-wrenching that experience feels. It is nothing short of heart-break. I really believed that the Judaism I was raised in could withstand all the scrutiny that I was fervently using to admonish the rest of humanity, but it could not.

My atheism is a direct by-product of my Jewish upbringing. Not in terms of information, mind you, but in how information in general is to be processed. I was taught to ask tough questions; to think and to problem solve. I was trained to debate the point with determination. I was educated in argument and commanded to treat any strange idea or religion with strong skepticism. My problem is that I didn’t know when or how to turn it off. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to.

So here I am.

Kol Tuv

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