Monday, July 27, 2009

Challenging Assumptions: Am I an Atheist?

This is the third in a series of posts that have resulted from a dialogue with C. August of Titanic Deck Chairs about where I stand with respect to Objectivist ideas. As is the nature of good dialogue, C. August has posed a series of challenging questions that probe my assumptions about human reason, religion, and ethics. The post that inspired this dialogue--for it is not a debate: C. August appears to be interested and curious, rather than missionary--was Rules for Patriots? , the first response from Ragamuffin Studies was Objectivist Questions About Rights and Religion (Part I) and the second is more parsimonously titled Objectivist Questions (Part II) .

In his comment to my response to his question about natural rights, C. August begins by saying:

"Thank you for the very detailed response. It's a lot to go through, with the same amount of specialized (Jewish) language and concepts that non-Objectivists must have to deal with when reading detailed Objectivist philosophical arguments."

Very true, and indeed, my specialized vocabulary is probably harder for a non-Jew to wade through than Objectivist arguments are for a non-Objectivist who has some experience with philosophy. I was not trying to snow you--part of the exercise in writing these responses was to answer your questions and thus engage in dialogue with you, but the other part of my purpose is to clarify my own thinking for me, by putting it into words.

C. August then gets right to the point, which is an Objectivist virtue, and says:

"To put it simply, it sounds to me like you have recast Judaism to emulate Objectivism... or perhaps, recast Objectivism to fit Judaism. I'm not sure which. Maybe you even mean that they are basically the same in your eyes, and no recasting was necessary?"

Hmmm. I would say that I started with Judaism as I understand it, and although my practice of Judaism is rather traditional, my thought is not quite in accordance with traditional Jewish belief; rather the bent of my mind requires me to delve into more abstract Jewish philosophy. Jewish ideas concerning moral philosophy and political philosophy have evolved, perhaps rather steadily with one exception, and that is the punctuated leap from the Israelite sacrificial temple cult to modern Rabbinic Judaism that began with the rabbinic notion of Oral Torah--an interpretive tradition that allowed the Rabbis (capitalization denotes the authoritative Talmudic rabbinic tradition) to reinvent the religion while simultaneously claiming authority from the tradition. As the Engineering Geek would say, "very clever, these Hebes."

This evolution is possible because normative Rabbinic Judaism understands the human mind, and the knowledge gained from examination of nature of which it is part, to be equally definitive with the religious tradition. Thus, a Jew must study both Torah and the sefer ha-olam, the book of the world, to fully know the universe. My thought is in line with Maimonides, who fully stated the rabbinic notion that there can be no contradiction between Divine revelation and the discoveries of the human mind. These discoveries were defined by Maimonides to be science and philosophy, in accordance with Aristotle's definitions. Therefore I am no mystic; however, in accordance with Maimonides and unlike Aristotle, I understand Providence to extend to individuals rather than to some collective notion of humanity.

I am still ignorant on the point of whether the universe is purely external (in accordance with Aristotle) or created out of nothing, which is the normative Jewish view. I tend toward the former, but I have not studied the issue sufficiently to say that I know all of the implications of either claim. Suffice it to say that my understanding of G-d* proceeds from the nature of the physical universe alone. I do not accept the concept of a reality that cannot be defined or measured. I do accept that we have not yet measured or defined all of reality. There is ever more to be discovered!

*It is the Jewish custom not to complete the Name out of respect. Some Jews, myself included, use this custom to denote that our understandings of G-d are incomplete, and differ from the cultural Christian norm.

Am I an atheist? I do not define myself as such, rather I identify myself as a Jew.

However, as I state above, I can find no evidence at all for any supernatural (or supranatural?) realm of existence. Therefore, I understand much of the religious mythic tradition to be metaphor for observations about the world and human nature that our ancestors had insufficient knowledge and/or vocabulary to describe in any other way. And taken as metaphor, the mythic tradition can give us insight into the beginnings of human metacognition about human existence and ethics, but it cannot give us any scientific understanding of the universe.

When I say this, though, I need to make clear that I am not a Progressive. That is, I understand there to be certain moral absolutes derived from human nature that cannot be altered by novel political systems imposed on human societies. Human knowledge, understanding and wisdom with respect to the universe in which we live progresses with time, it evolves. But this progress does not imply that human nature is infinitely plastic. Genetic changes in the human brain that would reorganize the large-scale structure would result in speciation--the arrival of a new species on the human cladogram--rather than in the pefection of Homo sapiens as H. sapiens.

Am I an atheist? No, I am a Jew.
But in line with my Jewish understanding, I understand G-d to be bound by the same Natural Law that binds the universe, and that defines human nature as rational, and establishes moral absolutes derived from reason. Therefore, I see reason as primary and autonomous.
Perhaps the Dutch philosopher Grotius put it better than I just did:

" Even the will of an omnipotent being cannot change the principles of morality or abrogate those fundamental rights that are guarranteed by natural laws. These laws would not change their objective validity even if we should assume--per impossibile-- that there is no God or that he does not care for human affairs." --Hugo Grotius, Introduction to De Jure Belli et Pacis, as cited in Cassirir, E. (1946). The Myth of the State. Yale University Press: New Haven. p. 172.

Am I an atheist? I do not define myself as such, but normative Christians probably would. That is their problem, created by their need to define the concept of God universally and in their own image and likeness. It is the same problem that causes liberal Christianity to do mental gymnastics to simultaneously reject Judaism as an acceptable religion according to Christian scripture and yet claim that somehow Jews share in Christian salvation.

As for me, I am a Jew.


Brianna said...

"I understand G-d to be bound by the same Natural Law that binds the universe"

Which I just identified in my earlier post as the thing that you must do in order not to clash with Objectivist thought. Figures :-)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Yes. I cannot imagine bowing down to the idea of a capricious god that would suspend the natural law. Such an entity would be malevolent to the core, and to worship something like that would be idolatry.

An understanding of the meaning behind the classic Hebrew creation myth, on the other hand, bespeaks a respect for the goodness of reality, of matter, of embodiment.