Sunday, August 28, 2011

Intermission: Why I don't believe in religion and god

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” - Marcel Proust

I tend to like to write narratives and stories instead of long philosophical treatises (after all I'm a sociologist, not a philosopher), but I'll attempt to outline my thought process in which I stopped believing in god and a god-made religion.

It basically goes like this: We have no empirical evidence for god- all we have is a bunch of stories written down around 3000 years ago that clearly violate our modern knowledge of how the world works. So how could I believe these specific stories, when not only is there no independent empirical evidence for any of these stories happening prior to a certain time period (around the second temple), but those stories clearly violate scientific laws of nature and would be laughable if told today? Why are they any less laughable for having been written down 3000 years ago, when people had much less of an understanding of how the world works and so of course attributed all sorts of thing to "god"?

And if there is a god, why is Judaism the right religion? Every religion says THEY are the right religion, so what makes judaism more right than any other religion?

The more I thought about it, the more the idea of a personal god who cares about religious rituals just didn't make sense- why would god care if I ate a piece of bacon? What possible reason could an all knowing omnipotent being have for requiring these obscure rituals? If there was a god, and god was good, wouldn't it be more important for people to treat their fellow human beings nicely vs. following a bunch of obscure rituals while acting like assholes, which I found to be common among the jewish community? If god was so into these rituals, and those rituals were more important than how you acted towards your fellow humans, then he must be very petty. And if god is so petty, why should I follow god?

I eventually came to believe that no person can know what the hell 'god' wants if there is one, there is no evidence at all for god existing, and even if there is a god, the best bet is to just be a nice person and treat people well, rather than follow any specific religious rituals. Eden's wager if you will. Or like the quote from Kurt Vonnegut I have on my sidebar- "Live so that you can say to god on judgment day "I was a very good person, even though I did not believe in you." I started reading more about humanism, and realized humanist ideas were much more in line with my personal beliefs about life and how people should behave.

A big influence on my thought processes was Emile Durkheim's book The elementary forms of religious life which I read for my classical soc theory class my first semester of grad school. I loved his ideas so much that the cat I got at the end of my first year of grad school is actually named after him (his name is Durkheim).

Durkheim (the sociologist, not the cat) was also an OTDer, who lived in late 19th century France- his dad was a Rabbi. He argues in his book that religious rituals were a way of increasing group solidarity in the ancient world, designating things as sacred or profane and therefore designating people and objects and behaviors as "us versus them." This served an evolutionary purpose in that designating things as "us versus them" increased solidarity among the "us," and therefore increased safety in the ancient world. He also argues that an important function of religious beliefs is to give the believer strength and motivation to keep going in the face of adversity, and that in order to gain this benefit, religious people must constantly engage in rituals in order to renew that feeling of strength and motivation they get from religion.

The more I peered behind the curtain of jewish religious rituals and thought more and more about what some "latent functions" (underlying purposes) of those rituals may be, as I used this new Durkheimian framework to understand my upbringing, the more I became convinced that religion was man made, and that while the purposes of these rituals are beneficial to many people in contemporary society, to a non believer like myself they do not carry the same benefits.

I do believe religion serves an important purpose in society that has an evolutionary purpose- it still encourages group solidarity, which results in dense social networks willing to give social support, which therefore increases the probability of survival and reproduction. Some religious rituals - the niddah laws for instance, and modern prohibitions against birth control- increase the probability of reproduction directly.

Other benefits such as social support are still present in religion, but not necessary to survival the way they used to be. As any orthodox jew knows, if you run into an orthodox jew anywhere in the world they will probably be willing to help you out and invite you over for shabbas. You can get jobs and other social support though your jewish networks. These are all examples of the results of group solidarity.

I also think, as Durkheim points out, for some people the idea of a god, an afterlife where everything is just and assholes like JP get punished while good people get rewarded and you can meet up with your lost love ones- well it's a very nice dream. It would be great if it were true. It's especially important for people who are facing overwhelming adversity, which is why you always see tons of churches in poor neighborhoods. I think I get extra sad these days when people die (compared to how I felt when I still believed there was a god / olam habbah [afterlife]) because I just don't believe it's true.

On the other hand I know my parents draw a lot of comfort from that idea- for instance when my grandfather died, my mother told me that he kept talking to his dead wife on his death bed. To me that's just the result of someone with alzheimers hopped up on morphine and in the process of dying, and of course talking to the person who was his companion for over 60 years and had just died a couple of years earlier when his alzheimers was already starting to advance, but to my mom it was proof that my dead grandmother was in the room with them. I can see why that idea is very appealing, and I can see why it's a major aspect of many popular religions (A great movie about this point is "The Invention of Lying").

I just can't bring myself to believe in it personally, since ideas of the world to come seems to be based on pure speculation and desire for it to be true, with no empirical evidence. And since I don't believe in it, it doesn't give me comfort.

36 comments:

  1. Very well done. It's interesting how one's training provides the framework for these beliefs or lack thereof. Mine is in the sciences, so my initial skepticism came from an inability to reconcile religious dogma with the realities of the physical sciences and the fundamental incompatibilities of scientific and dogmatic worldviews.

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  3. Well said AE.
    I would be curious to know where you stand on the 'weak' versus 'strong' atheism? In other words, do you consider that it's possible for a god to have created the universe but you don't see good reasons to believe such god exists, or at least intervene, in our universe? or do you think we have sufficient evidence to rule out a mind as being the cause of the universe? Or perhaps you just don't care since it does not change anything... ;)

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  4. I guess I'm a weak atheist, I think it's possible some god like thing created the world, although we have no evidence so no good reason to believe that. It's also possible a flying spaghetti monster or an invisible pink unicorn invented the world though, right? I guess I won't know till I die, and maybe not even then (cause even if there is a god that doesn't mean there's an afterlife).

    But if god exists, who created god?

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  5. Comparing the events of the Torah to the Holocaust? Whoa, bad comparison. There are still people alive who personally witnessed the Holocaust, including my 93 year old Grandmother and her siblings--one of whom survived Auschwitz! Not to mention that the Nazis themselves kept very good records.

    I daresay there's much more empirical evidence to support a Holocaust than fairy tales about the world being created in 7 days, seas splitting, moons standing still, donkeys talking, etc.

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  6. Good post, and I'll have to remember that quote from Kurt Vonnegut, if I'm ever judged.

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  7. Typical intellectually bankrupt fanatic, JP. The moment someone threatens your smug self-assured self-idolatry you call her a Nazi. Go away. You aren't even amusing any longer. You're simply a pathetic aging pervert and borderline erotomanic stalker.

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  8. There are still lots of mysteries in the universe but organized religions of any sort aren't probable or likely answers to them. Because of the former, I don't call myself an atheist. I think you need evidence to make the judgement that there is no god and you can't do that either.

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  9. "I also think, as Durkheim points out, for some people the idea of a god, an afterlife where everything is just and assholes like JP get punished while good people get rewarded and you can meet up with your lost love ones- well it's a very nice dream. It would be great if it were true."

    Actually, if Orthodox doctrine about the afterlife were true, it would just make me even angrier at God. I mean, we're supposed to believe that of we eat a crabcake and some shrimp (like I did this evening), we will go to hell. I would be more willing to accept that if God himself took me on a tour of the afterlife before I died, to show me what might happen. It woukd be something like t e "scared straight" shtick that some police departments do with certain young male adolescents, they take them down to the city jail and lock them up for a few minutes so they can see what will befall them if they break the law. The fact is, I've never actually heard from God about what will happen, I've only heard it from rabbis. And none of them have ever been dead.

    Also, I would have more respect for God if he would take JP RIGHT NOW, shake him up a bit and tell him the way things are rather than allowing JP to keep spewing his nonsense for his natural life,and then getting punished after he dies. It would make life a lot more pleasant for the rest of us, and it would be a mercy for JP, who would have a realistic chance of teshuva.

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  10. "just declaring "I see no evidence", meaning "I deny all evidence", doesn't work for me."

    One of the funniest things i have read!

    Reminds me of fundy ortho jews denying science...evidence...for so many things,,,like EVOLUTION

    Lol

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  11. The torah is less well established than many things we know about ancient history through archeology. People may be lying about the holocaust (although why my grandfather would get a number tattooed on his arm makes no sense without it), and great job on godwining the thread, but we have photos and independent records of the holocaust rather than one non-independently verified book. The bible stands alone, with most of it's stories unconfirmed by outside reports and outside evidence, despite a LOT of people trying to find that evidence over the centuries. And even if some stuff in there is true (somewhat plausible, it was actually written down at one point so maybe there are some historically accurate details int here) that doesn't mean it'S ALL true either. I essentially look at it as a work of historical fiction.

    Also, maybe you are confused as to what counts as "empirical" evidence. We actually just went over this in one of my classes, so I can help you out. Empirical evidence is evidence based on direct observation, not evidence based on conjecture, speculation, logic, reasoning, or subjective morality. The "evidence" you present is based on reasoning (and based on flawed reasoning- each one of the classic "proofs" has a classic counter-argument to go with it which you fail to present), which is specifically one of the things that does NOT count as empirical evidence.

    As for your specific arguments- the watchmaker argument-something as sophisticated as a watch needs a maker. And the world is more sophisticated than a watch. Well the watch maker is always more sophisticated then the watch, right? So who made the maker? Who made god? The problem of infinite regression.Is something that sophisticated MUST have a maker, then god MUST have a maker as well by that logic, since god is more sophisticated.

    The kuzari "proof" that if a large number of people claim something it must have happened. Well, if you have ever actually LEARNED Tanach,you might learn that after the jews went back to israel after the babylonian exile(Ezra 7:10, Nechemia Chapter 8), Ezra "re-taught" the torah to the jews after they returned to israel from the babylonian exile, implying they did not know it already, implying that the whole idea of a mesorah going back to sinai is bullshit, because the chain WAS broken and ezra "taught" them about the mesorah and all those witnesses, it was not an unbroken chain of an oral tradition. Many scholars believe ezra was the last author/editor of the tanach as we know it today.

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  12. >Ezra "re-taught" the torah to the jews after they returned to israel from the babylonian exile, implying they did not know it already, implying that the whole idea of a mesorah going back to sinai is bullshit,

    Well two things. 1) Ezra clearly knew it, along with his entourage. 2) Not all Jews came from Babylon. There were Jews also in Israel at the time. Did they accept Ezra from Babylonian's new Torah? 3) The same Tenach that talks about Ezra makes equal claim that the children of Israel knew about a covenant with their fore-fathers which requires them to keep "Torah" (ie, laws given by God to Moses) That afterall is the spine of the Tanach.

    But, I do agree with you that saying that there is this perfect unbroken chain is not true, at least when talking about practical practice.

    >Many scholars believe ezra was the last author/editor of the tanach as we know it today.

    You mean of the Torah. Not the Tanach.

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  13. >Is something that sophisticated MUST have a maker, then god MUST have a maker as well by that logic, since god is more sophisticated

    Thats what argument that Dawkins makes and I always thought it was a poor one. Why is he assuming God is sophisticated in the same sense a watch, tv airplane or human are "sophisticated?" The argument stops there, and doesn't continue with God because the notion of a diety is not the same "sophisticated" that you can compare with physical entities.

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  14. Yes, god may not have PHYSICAL Complexity, but to be able to create the world, he must have had intellectual complexity, no? One that goes beyond what humans know?

    And if therefore he is so complex, and if complexity requires a maker (Which I don't think it does, but the watchmaker metaphor is used to try to prove their IS a god, which is why I'm pointing out the huge logical fallacies), who are gods parents? What came before god? Who created god? Who created that complex intelligence?

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  15. I guess I'm a weak atheist, I think it's possible some god like thing created the world, although we have no evidence so no good reason to believe that. It's also possible a flying spaghetti monster or an invisible pink unicorn invented the world though, right? ...

    I would argue that no, it's not possible, so that's why I am a strong atheist. However, to reply to mOOm at the same time, I am not an atheist because I believe no god can exist, I was an atheist way before that, when I simply realized, just like AE, that the arguments and evidence "proving" God's existence are insufficient.

    HH wrote:
    Thats what argument that Dawkins makes and I always thought it was a poor one. Why is he assuming God is sophisticated in the same sense a watch, tv airplane or human are "sophisticated?" The argument stops there, and doesn't continue with God because the notion of a diety is not the same "sophisticated" that you can compare with physical entities.

    There is another way to refute the Watchmaker argument, or any design argument, in a way that I find even more efficient.

    Design arguments rest on the fact that we can spot design, like a watch lying on the beach. Now think about why we know it is designed. Isn't because it contrasts with the surrounding? Isn't because designed objects contrast with what is... not designed? i.e. nature?

    The problem is that the very next step of design arguments is to argue that what is not designed, nature, is designed!

    Therefore, at best, what the argument argues for is that there is one kind of design, which is "man-made", that contrasts with another kind of design, which is "natural". The problem is that it thus becomes illogical to argue that the "natural design" needs a designer since we just conceded that "natural design" is not the same as "man-made design"; one is actually designed, while the other is not.

    We identify "man-made design" because it contrasts with "natural design" and the argument would like us to accept the fact that both require a designer. It's really odd when you think about it...

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  16. >And if therefore he is so complex, and if complexity requires a maker (Which I don't think it does, but the watchmaker metaphor is used to try to prove their IS a god, which is why I'm pointing out the huge logical fallacies)

    But the watchmaker theory is talking about physical compexity within the definition of a physical existence. (ie, everything complex was created). Though it may be a copout, if one is to argue (which atheists do) that you cannot know anything about this diety, then stating he is complex (even intellectually) is wrong, because ultimately, you are making an assumption about Him. God, is on a whole different level than what we would typically call complex here

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  17. sorry HH, but your argument is all apologetics. Somehow it's a different complexity that's not physical and therefore doesn't need a maker unless it's physical vs. intellectual complexity? What now? Either things that are complex need a maker, or they don't, but the maker is always more complex than the object they make, and if you are going to argue that the world is so complex is needs a maker, then that maker needs to have a maker too.

    I don't presume to know anything about god if there is one, but I do know about logic, and if you are going to argue via logic that everything complex needs a maker as a "proof" of god, then saying that the maker isn't more complex than the object made, or saying the maker doesn't need a maker, is a logical fallacy.

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  18. >sorry HH, but your argument is all apologetics.

    Sorry, it's not. What does complex mean when you are talking about a diety that its existence is not of this one? What does intellectual mean when talking about a diety that is not of this existence? You can't just make up your own definitions when rule one states you don't know anything about what God is. "Complexity" is a term that is only used for a physical existence. Question is, is God complex in the same way an engineer of a bridge is complex is? I would so absolutely not. They can't be compared.

    This is the fallacy that Dawkins hates when done the other way around when discussing evolution. Opponents will make up a new definition for what evolution is, then attack it. You are doing the same thing when discussing God.

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  19. btw, I think the watch maker theory is a horrible argument. I never use it. But I think the counter to that saying God is complex is just a made up assumption based on nothing. Or, at the most, its based upon a preconceived notion of what complexity is based on the phyiscal world.

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  20. >is a logical fallacy.

    It's only a logical fallacy if you are operating on noting more than a robotic mind on autopilot, unable to discern context.

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  21. complexity is not only used for physical objects...since when is that the case? Otherwise how could you have complex theories? or complex systems? (systems are a concept, not a physical object).

    Are you really being intellectually honest here?

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  22. either way what you have here is an "argument from semantics" not an argument from logic.

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  23. >Are you really being intellectually honest here?

    I'm trying to be.

    What is a complex theory trying to discuss? It isen't exactly trying to come up with a theory of the spiritual world.

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  24. a complex theory is one that's very complex and has a lot of aspects, etc. :) Like the theory of why behavior changes after you get married, it has like 15 different explanations that are all intertwined. Or demographic transition theory. :)

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  26. I do believe in God, but a vague, spiritual version of God. I'm not pinning Him/Her down to a specific religion or set of rules.

    Separately, I believe Judaism to be man-made by humans seeking out that spiritual spark of God. It's imperfect, but it's my heritage. That actually makes me value it more, not less, since it evolved (and continues to evolve) out of a long and deep history of our ancestors.

    I don't claim that Judaism is more "right" than any other religion, only that it's more meaningful to me. So although I don't believe that God specifically commanded me to put on tefillin or to practice shabbat or to keep kosher, I do these things because I enjoy them and feel connected to that long history.

    Despite this philosophizing, what it probably boils down to is emotion. AE, you & I both recognize that Judaism is man-made. But I associate it with warm & fuzzy feelings, so although I recognize that it's not the result of divine revelation, I keep the precepts anyway, because it makes me happy.

    Your experience seems to have been much more negative, so although many of our logical conclusions are the same, I can't blame you for feeling that you don't really feel a need to associate with Judaism. Bottom line, Judaism makes me happy, but it would make you miserable. You're happy now, so that's how you should live your life, and I respect that.

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  27. Holy Hyrax said:
    [...]What does complex mean when you are talking about a diety that its existence is not of this one? What does intellectual mean when talking about a diety that is not of this existence? You can't just make up your own definitions when rule one states you don't know anything about what God is. "Complexity" is a term that is only used for a physical existence. Question is, is God complex in the same way an engineer of a bridge is complex is? I would so absolutely not. They can't be compared.
    [...]
    btw, I think the watch maker theory is a horrible argument. I never use it. But I think the counter to that saying God is complex is just a made up assumption based on nothing. Or, at the most, its based upon a preconceived notion of what complexity is based on the phyiscal world.


    HH, I have read only a few things you wrote here and there so I am curious to know more... You don't believe that any argument from design can be used as proof of God's existence? Or am I extrapolating too much here? Do you believe that certain arguments from design are valid? Do you consider that we do see "non-man-made design" in the universe? Plus, what are your personal "favourite" proofs for God's existence?

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  28. @Philo

    I really like your last comment. As I have written here I consider myself a "strong" atheist but at the same time, because I never had bad experiences with religion, I still find it interesting to participate in the cultural aspects of my childhood religion.

    Quick example... I went to a baptism no later than yesterday and it was a fun experience. A good reason to gather with friends and family. Oh, and the dad is himself an atheist ;)

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  29. Hugo,

    Personally, I do not see anything within design as a "proof" of a creator (at least I don't think I do. Since I believe in YHWH, I am at awe at his creations. Though, I do question the need for the universe being so big. I just don't get it.

    I have no personal favorite proofs for God's existence. There are none. All I can deduce is patterns. In my personal exploration, I simply looked at existence, then homed in to the Jewish people and saw a promise kept: to its existence, its teachings, its connection to the land and its return to its land. It is the bread and butter of all that is the Jewish people and I came to a realization that there is something to this tale.

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  30. The "Intelligent Design" and "Proof that my Invisible Sky Friend isn't imaginary because the world is just so spiffy" nonsense is barely worth refuting. But it has already been refuted a thousand times.

    The thermodynamic "proofs", the arguments from complexity, the amazing Bible prophecies about Science that are completely accurate. All of it. There's any number of good guides for the intelligent layman. One of the oldest and still best is the talk.origins FAQ.

    Trust me, the classic lie AISH Discovery Seminar and its mindless sockpuppsets like JP keep repeating have been examined and demolished in great detail.

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  31. HH, what you've fallen into is Creationist Trap #4 - Irreducible Complexity with an added helping of infinite regress.

    The first warning sign here is that nobody ever defines "complexity" in a consistent, observable, testable fashion. And somehow animals, in particular animals just like us are the most "complex" and wonderful.

    Second, evolution often reduces complexity. Reduction of redundant body parts and loss of vestigial traits can be a hallmark of a species better adapted to a niche. Decided that it's easier to let some other organism do the heavy lifting? Jettison everything that doesn't produce food or more of you. Ta-da! You're a mitochondrion.

    Third, evolution doesn't generally take huge leaps. We mostly see an accumulation of stepwise changes. Consider insects. The highly "complex" body parts like antennae and mouth parts and legs are all slight modifications of the arthropod leg. A tiny developmental change here that have dramatic effects on shape, a few more chemosensors there, add a few around the mouth and you've got buttloads of "complexity" from a few tiny changes, most of which are slight alterations in the rate at which things happen in development.

    Fourth, all the evidence in the world against Evolution wouldn't be the tiniest jot in the ledger towards Jewish literalist creationism. That's the most pathetic part of the whole so-to-speak debate. If we were forced to abandon Modern Biology it wouldn't prove anything about your Bronze Age superstitions. Those would have to subject themselves to the same rigorous standards as Science had. And they'd have to be a better explanation than all competing contentions from Vedic Hinduism to Australian Dreamtime stories to the dozens of other theories of Evolution which existed before Darwin.

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  32. Once again JP demonstrates his complete lack of understanding of the basics of Philosophy. The burden of proof is on the one making outlandish claims. An atheist does not posit gods. The theist does. Since the theist is adding something he has to demonstrate its existence.

    If I say "The street is full of Invisible Pink Unicorns which can't be seen it's up to the believers in IPU to show that they exist, not doubters to prove a negative.

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  33. Infinite regression is a logical fallacy in itself however, since an infinite amount of time would have to have passed to arrive at the present. Therefore, if infinite regression is true, then there would be no present per se, in other words, we'd have a paradox - and paradoxes do not exist in reality. Therefore infinite regression does not exist in reality, and is therefore not a realistic argument, and one whose logic ends at conclusion that there is a paradox. Hence, the watchmaker argument is not only logical, but when it arrives at G-d as being the creator, it posits a realistic conclusion that can exist in reality, and therefore offers a conclusion that can not be refuted with the argument of infinite regression since infinite regression is itself not logical, and has no basis in reality.

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