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The case for rationality and belief in G-d

  • simon apfel
What is the nature of Jewish faith? And are we rationally entitled to believe in G-d?
by SIMON APFEL | Sep 06, 2018

Recently, I had a theological debate with a hardcore atheist. Not hiding his disdain, he spoke of a “chasm between faith and reason”, said he found “the incongruity of any intelligent, educated person having religious faith baffling”; and claimed that atheism was “not a religion or ideology, just a passive non-belief in a deity”, its proponents intending “no threat to the faith of others”.

Since these are some of the most common misconceptions in the world of popular atheism, I’d like to use them as a starting point to explore “faith” from a Jewish perspective, and “belief” with respect to science and philosophy, in context of the contemporary phenomenon of “new atheism”.

The intention isn’t to prove G-d’s existence, merely to examine the rational basis for belief in G-d. Actually, by definition, there can be no logical proof either for G-d’s existence or non-existence, since we are dealing with metaphysics. There’s a major philosophical debate about whether there can be rational belief without evidence in general. It certainly seems there are many things we believe without evidence. What evidence do we have that we aren’t actually just brains floating in vats as in the movie, The Matrix? What evidence can you point to that the “envatted” brain in The Matrix couldn’t point to? And, what evidence do you have that your cognitive faculties are functioning properly? Can you rely on any of the evidence they provide when their very reliability is what’s in question?

Another problem: the philosopher David Hume framed a little argument about two hundred years ago to the effect that we have no evidence for claims such as “the sun will rise tomorrow”. And virtually no one thinks that Hume’s problem has been solved. And what evidence do we have for moral propositions such as “pain is bad”? What observation or experiment could show that? Maybe you have answers to these problems (good luck succeeding where Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, et al, failed), or maybe we’re not entitled to believe any of these things (again, good luck), or maybe there are things we are entitled to believe without evidence. Now, the big question: could belief in G-d be like that? If not, why not?

But what’s clear is that my atheist friend has misinterpreted the concept of faith in its Jewish embodiment as “belief without evidence”. Actually, the correct, literal translation of emuna is not “faith” in the sense of belief, but “faithfulness”, or “loyalty” – to a truth that was once discovered and clearly discerned, but which may not always be openly apparent. Put another way, faith as blind belief – with no core of certainty or basis in knowledge – has no place in Judaism.

Consider the first of the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Utterances). Here again, their mistranslation as the “Ten Commandments” is problematic, not just in literal terms, but because the first, Anochi Hashem, (I am G-d), isn’t even a commandment. Indeed, according to many Torah authorities, there cannot, perforce, be a commandment to believe in G-d, since a commandment requires the pre-established existence of a commander. In other words, we need to have knowledge – real knowledge – of G-d before Jewish practice becomes meaningful.

Maimonides writes that the first, essential step to this knowledge is the study of nature.

So what exactly do we see in nature – in the world around us – that leads us to this knowledge of G-d? Well, if the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens – the so-called “four horsemen of new atheism” – are to be believed, not much.

And if it weren’t for their enormous influence, those like my atheist friend would not be so obviously “baffled” at the existence of educated people with religious faith.

On the contrary, they’d know some of the greatest minds of the past few hundred years – Aquinas, Avicenna, Maimonides; Leibniz, Pascal, Kant; Newton – have argued for G-d’s existence, and that great contemporary philosophers such as Plantinga, Swinburne, Lennox, Marmodoro, and Kroons continue to do so.

They’d know that Neo-Darwinism, the dominant paradigm of the theory of evolution (and its only current viable explanation of heredity), is in crisis, embattled on all sides within the scientific community.

They’d know that while intelligent design is traditionally the cherished domain of the American Christian right, the fundamental precept underlying it – first framed by Aquinas as a syllogism in the 13th century – is a scientifically and philosophically compelling one.

There are many other areas of scientific and philosophical inquiry that strongly suggest the existence of a divine first cause. Unfortunately, too many seem blissfully unaware of them.

In 1965, for instance, the Big Bang theory confirmed that the universe had a beginning, dismantling the assumption held by scientists since Aristotle – upon which atheists depended – that the universe was eternal, and later moving Stephen Hawking to admit that a beginning of time “smacks of divine intervention”.

Similarly, there is the cosmological argument for a first cause, first formulated by Plato and Aristotle, and more latterly by Swinburne and others, which continues to rankle devout atheist thinkers.

There is also the problem of consciousness – that a materialist paradigm is an insufficient explanation for what goes on in the mind. This is articulated by card-carrying atheists such as the celebrated mathematical physicist, Sir Roger Penrose, and by the world’s foremost authorities on philosophy of mind, Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers – the latter of whom recently declared that of the seven theories explaining human consciousness, the four materialist (non-metaphysical) conceptions are so bad, they aren’t even worth developing.

Finally, there is, of course, Leibniz’s famous question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” To answer his question, Leibniz posited the existence of a metaphysically necessary being which carries within itself the sufficient reason for its own existence and which constitutes the sufficient reason for the existence of everything else in the world.

Besides Leibniz’s answer, the only alternative is, “The universe is just there, and that’s all.” However, thanks to the Big Bang theory, we now know that the universe is not “just there”; that it, in fact, came into being. The beginning of the universe means that the universe is not a necessarily existing being, but is contingent in its existence. This is an enormous problem with which many great thinkers on either side of the theist/atheist divide continue to grapple.

The great cultural theorist, Terry Eagleton, heavily critiquing Dawkins’ The G-d Delusion, wrote of its author: “There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice.”

That the new atheists are of unscrupulous mind is not the contention of this article. But that they – knowingly or not – cave in to gross prejudice, is.

Because the popular notion that there’s no rational basis for belief in G-d, is, like many other popular notions, simply bunk.

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