Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How I Became an Atheist

My journey to Atheism has been long and complicated. My title indicates that I "became" an Atheist, but the truth is that I always was an Atheist to some extent. I only needed to recognize and embrace it.

I grew up in a Jewish household, but my family was not particularly religious. We went to Conservative synagogues, which seemed plenty religious to me when I was a kid. At least, I thought we Conservatives were a religious cut above the Reform temples, which held services in English. In my Conservative household, though, we observed only the "big" holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover. I don't recall observing other Jewish holidays or even Shabbat.

From the time I was in third grade until I was bar mitzvahed, I went to Hebrew School. As with "regular" school, I wanted to do well in Hebrew school, so I worked at it. Nevertheless, my belief was not exactly iron-clad. One time, when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, I declared to my younger brother that I did not believe in God. On the other hand, around the time of my bar mitzvah, I had seemingly swung around the other way, as I considered going on with my Jewish education after the bar mitzvah. I even wondered whether being a rabbi was something that would suit me for a vocation.

To this day, however, I hold onto a fondness for Judaism that has little to do with religious belief or feeling and has everything to do with family. I remember being in synagogue on the High Holy Days during my youth and adolescence. I loved to pray in song alongside my father, so much did I enjoy hearing his beautiful tenor voice. Even a few weeks ago, I brought my family to my brother's home for Hanukkah. My father and mother, my brothers and their families -- we all sang together and had a delightful time. I associate these moments of family goodness and togetherness with Judaism. For me, being with my family is a Jewish thing.

However, along with my confessed soft spot for Judaism, I harbor great reservations about the religion. For example, I do not absolve Judaism of its tribalism, of its bastard children Christianity and Islam, and of its myriad hardships for those who have believed. This troubling side of Judaism is surely also part of my family heritage. Maybe because I have an indestructible core of love for Judaism, I realize now that, like all religions, Judaism must not be regarded as a statement of truth about the universe and its life forms, including people.

This realization about Judaism came slowly to me. For most of my adulthood, I regarded Judaism fondly but also harbored an unsure feeling about the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible. Why was God so present in the lives of Biblical people and so absent in the lives of modern people? Why were there so many different faiths that claimed to be the one true religion? If Judaism was true, why wasn't Christianity or Islam? Why did the Bible repeat itself in some places and contradict itself in others? Where and how were the 'books' of the Bible written? By whom were they written and for whom?

In graduate school, I learned about some of the analogues to stories in the Bible, such as the flood in Gilgamesh. I also learned about the problems of textual transmission: texts came in different versions. Some contained errors and corruptions that were preserved. Some were added to or revised. Some were re-cast in the cultural idiom of the new society. Religious doctrines appeared to me to be works in progress, the records of people trying to reconcile the incongruities of earlier texts. For all this, I never broke with Judaism.

As a matter of fact, in 2005, after I'd started this blog, I decided to become more Jewish. I wanted to live a more authentically Jewish life. I studied with Chabad rabbis. I davened every day, and donned tallit and tefillin. I read the weekly Torah portions. I lit candles on Shabbat and sought to refrain from working.

In 2007 or so, I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. I wasn't impressed at first. On this very blog, I wrote this about the book:
I picked up a copy of Richard Dawkins’s The G-d Delusion. It’s a good way to test and define the faith I have been working to cultivate. I won’t give his precise argument – the title of his book does that, anyway. I appreciate the challenge offered by the book, even if the voice reminds me of everything that I associate, negatively, with British intellectualism. A kind of mean-spirited, elitist polemic presented to be wit.

Yet as a result of what I have read so far, I am more and more coming to conclude that, to twist a familiar saying, “The man who believes in G-d’s existence and the man who doesn’t are both right.” Maybe G-d, the One I hope will inhabit the place I am building in my heart, will exist only for me and only in the way I “construct” him. Hence, the “delusion” that Dawkins refers to, the self-reflecting belief, or fiction, that the constructed G-d preceded the constructor and, indeed, had constructed him instead.
Since I wrote this, I've come to find myself in close agreement with the main arguments Dawkins makes for evolution, for atheism, and against religious irrationality. Looking back, however, I see that I was struggling against reason to maintain belief in God. I wanted to believe, and Dawkins's book did not deter me from continuing in that desire. But I also see that I understood God as a personal projection, a concept useful for thinking about the world but of dubious existence in a genuine sense.

And I might have stayed in this mindset for a good long time except for what happened next: I became a ghostwriter and researcher for an Orthodox rabbi. He was looking for someone to help write his book, which would be a Jewish response to the "New Atheism." I was ambivalent about the project. Indeed, I was certain I wasn't the guy for the job. I knew some about religion but I wasn't as knowledgeable or passionate about it as I felt I needed to be. I knew even less about the natural sciences. I had read some science books, but that was it. Evolution was something I only knew in a two-sentence definition.

I wanted to do a good job for the rabbi, so I read and read and read and read. Everything I could get my hands on I devoured and annotated. At first, the rabbi wanted me simply to update material that he had used in previous debates. This material was -- no joke -- over 20 years old! I very quickly saw that the rabbi was using outdated information and arguments. I told him that everything needed to be re-done from scratch because the old arguments weren't going to cut it anymore. He wanted to use old quotes that were taken out of context. He wanted to use "gaps" reasoning. He wanted to blame Darwin for Hitler. It was bad material and, worse, it was bad reasoning.

On the other side, I found the scientists provocative, self-critical, careful in their reasoning, and measured in their words. I saw immediately the difference between people who write from direct, first-hand knowledge of the science they put forth and hacks (like me) who aren't scientists and don't do science day after day. Don't misunderstand: I am not talking about the "experience" of science or the "experience" of religion. I am talking about working closely with the primary sources of data, documenting the methodology and data, and using the findings to ask questions about the strengths and weaknesses of various relevant hypotheses about the world. In all the religious explanation of unsavory or incoherent passages in the Bible, I never saw the same level of intellectual rigor, methodological transparency, or questioning of presuppositions.

I should also mention that in the course of my research I was eager to learn about Intelligent Design (ID). However, I quickly discovered that ID was not going to help me develop what I thought would be a legitimate critique of the scientific side of the New Atheism. One big problem is that very, very few credible biologists and working scientists seem to be in the ID camp. Most of the staunch ID people seem to be lawyers, mathematicians, engineers and journalists. They focus a lot on denigrating evolution (which they call "Darwinism"). Sometimes they have critiques of science, but mostly they beef at the media presentation of scientific research and findings. The ID proponents don't seem to have any full-fledged research programs and findings that specifically advance their theory. However, my biggest problem with ID was that it was utterly superfluous. Touting intelligent design as a "best explanation" for the diversity of life earth seemed totally unnecessary in the face of the materialist phenomena which were the proper subject of science. Any preceding intention to such phenomena - whether from a super-human being or from a combination of natural factors - were actually irrelevant, so far as I could tell. In my estimation, while the New Atheists supported their rhetoric with evidence, logic and facts, the ID proponents supported their rhetoric with more rhetoric.

During the book project, I became ever more the religious skeptic. But I thought I could mount a new argument that posited the reasonableness of a certain kind of faith and that criticized the ideas of the New Atheists. The argument I eventually made for religion -- specifically about Judaism -- was that religion signified a particular way of seeking and achieving a comprehensive (cultural, moral, spiritual, etc.) personal fulfillment:
One can change affiliation, as one can switch political party affiliations. If one is born Jewish, however, one remains Jewish even if the choice is made not to exercise that inheritance. To me, choosing to be Jewish opens up many different ways to be personally fulfilled, beyond intellectual fulfillment and beyond social acceptance. To be Jewish is to be intensely curious about the universe, yet wanting more to learn from it than about it. To be Jewish is to experience real horror when people – any people, but especially Jewish people – behave barbarously, and to take some ownership and responsibility for not having fostered more peace in the world. If I am a Jew, it is not only because I say so, or because I pray and keep kosher. If I am a Jew, it is because every day, and throughout the day, I re-assert my belief that we will all make that connection with transcendence. When we do, and when we are all met together at that celestial place, these worldly identities won’t matter so much.
In the final manuscript, my critique of the New Atheism was that it over-valued science and scientific reasoning as freedom-protecting cultural forces: "Science is itself a blind watchmaker. Science theorizes nature and physical reality as a blind watchmaker because this is what science is. In essence, science projects itself onto the universe it seeks to describe." Richard Dawkins of course coined the term "blind watchmaker" to describe the way evolution worked. In applying the metaphor to science itself, I think I was getting at the idea that science was not a complete or totally consistent formal system: science needed to resist ideology and dogma, most especially from itself.

That book project was grueling for the writing, for the toll on other areas of my life, and for the stress of dealing with the person whose name would go on the published book. The project finished at the end of 2008. After this time, I kept reading the science and religion blogs that were part of the project. I continued studying the claims, reasoning, and evidence that people brought out. I began posting on some of these blogs as a commenter and debater. I kept learning, and I kept developing my positions. By summer of 2009, I realized that it was no longer rational for me to accept
  • The claim of existence for God or for any divinity.
  • The claim of existence for anything like the supernatural.
  • The claim of divine inspiration for the scriptures of any religion.
  • The claim of any sort of moral or social authority for any religious group. 
I determined that none of the religious faiths or their spokespeople were putting out anything other than fantasy. I decided that it was no longer responsible or honest for me to call myself anything other than an Atheist.

And so I say I am an Atheist.


  1. Your post doesn't make clear if you've changed your mind about New Atheism or not.

    I wonder if people have always needed to justify their reasonableness to themselves by finding people both more and less extreme than they, or if it is a recent phenomenon. As someone with much less of this impulse than others seem to have, it always infuriates me when I read something like "Some people reject evolution, because it conflicts with the Torah. Others reject the Torah. I take the middle approach."

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for the feedback. I've edited slightly to make it clearer. In the post, I specifically referred to Dawkins. As I said, at first I was not impressed. While I'm not one to be a fan or a disciple of anyone, I've since come to find myself in agreement with the main arguments Dawkins makes for evolution, for atheism and against religious thinking.

    In the post, I don't mention other so-called New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchins. I find Hitchens to be a great read. His research can be sloppy sometimes, but he knows how to make a rhetorical punch almost better than anyone.

  3. Maybe because I have an indestructible core of love for Judaism, I realize now that, like all religions, Judaism must not be regarded as a statement of truth about the universe and its life forms, including people.

    This statement is ambiguous. Do you mean "Religions should not be regarded as statements," or "Religions should not be regarded as true statements"? In other words, are you proposing to regard religions as not subject to assessment as true or false, or are you assessing them as false statements? The first option is the view that I find more interesting, but I can't be sure that it is what you have in mind.

    Assuming, however, that the first option is your view, I will ask a further question: How would you reply to the following objection (which I think is what Richard Dawkins would say to your view): "Every religion contains a distinctive body of truth claims. Ask almost any religious believer what he believes and he will give you a load of what he takes to be 'statements of truth about the universe and its life forms, including people.' To say that religions should not be regarded as such statements is just an ineffectual attempt to make religions immune to rational criticism."

  4. MKR,

    I probably actually meant the second option, that religions should not be regarding as making statements about the universe that are factual.

    The first option is more interesting because it puts religion in the same category as literature. Take the fairy tale opening, "Once upon a time": it's certainly not a true statement, but on the other hand the act of reading virtually conjures a world of a long ago and far away realm.

  5. I probably actually meant the second option, that religions should not be regarding as making statements about the universe that are factual.

    Aarg! You are using words ambiguously again! "Factual" could mean "pertaining to matters of fact" or it could mean "factually true." But since you identify this with my option 2, I can infer that you mean "factually true."

    Still, even if you take option 2, your statement "like all religions, Judaism must not be regarded as a statement of truth about the universe and its life forms, including people" raises the question: how should Judaism and other religions be regarded? As failed theories? Or as human enterprises of an entirely different kind (as on my option 1)? That would still leave my "Dawkins" objection unanswered, but maybe that is more my problem than yours.

  6. Aarg? After two posts?

    Look, I admire your drive for precision. I often share that drive and pursue it as best I can. But I'm in no mood for silly games. Do you have a point of your own to make or do you just want to ask silly questions that so far I seem unable to answer to your satisfaction?

    Now, I agree with the Dawkins statement you give. I don't think religions are "immune to rational criticism," and I don't think that can be made so immune.

    Anything else?

  7. Goodness me, I thought that the jocular intention of the exclamation was obvious. But I guess that I was acting as if you knew me personally, which of course you don't. Just another Internet miscalculation. My apologies. As for silly games, quite the contrary: I thought that your post made some interesting points and posed questions in the hope that you might have something of interest to say further about them.

    By the way, if you would like to delete this comment along with your last one, that would be fine with me.

  8. MKR,

    My apologies, too. I was in a bitchy mood yesterday. But I was also frustrated a bit for not being able to give you what you wanted.

    Let's start over.

  9. Shalmo9:38 PM

    Certainly you know there are forums, blogs, books, articles, websites all offering refutations to the God Delusion

    How many have you read?

  10. I can't give you a number, but I've read plenty of critiques and refutations of TGD in books and online.

    The ones that deal with the actual substance of his points, rather than his perceived tone or supposed ignorance of finer theology, seem to falter at more or less the same place.

    That place is the one where the argument for theistic explanation is given. I am not saying that all of Dawkins' arguments are golden; rather, I am saying that the theistic arguments are universally weak and less compelling.

    I used to work for this company, and my boss was talking to me about how so many things in our organization were screwed up. "But," he said,"as bad as we are, the other guys are worse."

    That's the way I feel about atheism and theism. Atheism is not an answer--it may not even be a great answer--but it's better than theism's answers, which all suck bad.

  11. Larry,

    Great post and I especially liked your comment here:

    "Atheism is not an answer--it may not even be a great answer--but it's better than theism's answers, which all suck bad."

    Good stuff, sums up how I feel about it currently.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.