Judaism and Atheism 0

Today is the festival of Passover when Jews celebrate a legendary exodus from Egypt of their Hebrew ancestors under the leadership of an Egyptian prince named Moses. According to the legend, the Hebrews were slaves, and the Egyptian prince was really a Hebrew himself who had been adopted soon after birth by an Egyptian princess. Well, he had to be “re-adopted” somehow by the Hebrews because he it was (so the legend goes) who gave them the laws which bound them together as a nation and founded the religion of Judaism. It is, as all the world knows, a monotheistic religion based on an idea attributed to one Abraham, a Hebrew ancestor who, it is believed, had conceived it hundreds or possibly thousands of years earlier.

It may have been the case that an historical Moses did indeed lead a host of Hebrews out of Egypt, making common cause with them because  – as Sigmund Freud theorizes in his book Moses and Monotheism – he too was a monotheist; a faithful follower of Pharaoh Akhnaton, who had worshiped the sun as the only god, and whose cult after his death had been all but wiped out of history by the priests of the old, revived, polytheistic religion.

One of our founders and editors, C.Gee, has been discussing Judaism and Atheism with one of our readers, Aeschines, as comments on our post On religion (March 25, 2010). We think the discussion is so interesting that we are re-posting it on our front page today:

C.Gee: I regard Judaism as extremely important in the history of rationality. Judaism was the first step to atheism. By making an abstract God, and making him a law-giver (never mind that some of the particular laws were practiced in the region generally), and elevating the principle of obedience to law not man, it constituted a major victory for rationality over superstition, and paved the way for the national, secular, polity. As science progresses, God the law-giver and creator, can have his remit broadened to become God the giver of the laws of nature. He becomes Spinoza’s God, identical with the universe, and thereafter may be ignored, leaving the universe to stand for Him, and then for itself. The two next Books of the [Jewish] Bible should be the Book of Spinoza and the Book of Einstein.

Aeschines: Just curious, but when do you think that Judaism started to influence thought towards atheism?

C.Gee: The idea of an abstract God began in Abrahamic times – 5000 or so years ago. That idea identified the Hebrew people. By the time Moses brought down the Law in God’s name, the Jews had accepted the authority of a God that was everywhere and nowhere (although with some idol-worship recidivism) and we had the beginning of a polity centered on responsibility to fellow men – righteousness to one’s people in God’s name – and an emphasis on how to live this law-abiding life. The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God. Christianity kept the idea of an abstract God, although its immediate object of worship was an idol of God-made-flesh, Jesus. That abstract, absentee God became useful to Christendom during the Enlightenment – precisely because he was absent. Deism was an accommodation with institutional religion for the growing number of people whose frame of mind was secular and scientific. Scientific inquiry could only be undertaken by those who had accepted that there were explanations for phenomena other than animating magic spirits. An abstract, one-time, singular animating spirit called God was a kind of systemic noise – an absent presence that did not interfere with the discovery of the mathematics of universal physical laws. That the Judaic God was a creator and a law-giver, could permit the discovery of His natural laws, in His creation. The Enlightenment was a time of proto-atheism. Further discoveries pushed the originating God further into scientific irrelevance, and secular politics has pushed the law-giving God into social irrelevance. With even the nominality of God now attenuated to vanishing, we are entering into the age of atheism.

Interestingly enough, a recent survey showed that 41% of Jews regard themselves as atheist.

Aeschines: Yes, but what do you think of the horrendous slaughters of native people by the Jews? I am of course referring to the Old Testament genocides and annihilations done in the name of God. The Jews in this regard don’t seem much different from many other religions of that time.

The Assyrians are regarded as “cruel,” but the Jews seem to escape this description, even though they tended to destroy EVERYTHING in their path (with the exception of virgin women, spared presumably for raping).

“The Israelites were the first proto-secular, even humanist, society living under a nominal God.”

Yes, but even a cursory examination of the Bible reveals Yahweh as a malicious, cruel, jealous, contradictory tyrant, much like many of the other gods of antiquity.

C.Gee: The ancient way of war was fierce – no matter in whose name the war was conducted. Even an abstract God can take on human characteristics in the retelling of legendary conquests boasting of the might and mettle of his people in establishing their national territory. (Who knows whether the early conquest by the Jews of those numerous peoples really happened? The Bible is often the only record of it.) But Yahweh had no statue, no location, no maw to feed with living human flesh – even though he was malicious, cruel, jealous, and contradictory. His abstract nature allowed him to be the God of War, of Law, of Creation, of the Hearth, of Everything. No doubt some of these personae conflicted with others, but then a nation must regulate itself in peace and conduct wars. It must sustain itself through Ecclesiastical exigencies. An abstract God is authority for all national endeavors, an unwritten “living” constitution. That constitution kept the nation together even when the territory of its homeland was lost. The idea of nationhood was coterminous with that of God. Belief in one could stand in for belief in the other. I think that many, many Jews now believe in the idea of their nationhood (even those among the diaspora ) and not God.

The Bible is not the constitution of the Jewish people. (It was not, in any case an original founding document, but written at various times ). It is a mythical and historical record and a statute book. Even if it is seen as the literal word of God, its interpreters do not take literally the passages where metaphorical or allegorical meanings must be sought to avoid nonsense. ( God was obviously a versatile speaker – could bark out directions, or hint enigmatically, as the occasion warranted.) Despite that, there is a whole sub-speciality of antisemitism claiming that the Bible is a “blueprint” for modern Israel’s cruel colonialist enterprise – what Joshua did at Jericho, the Zionists are doing to the Palestinians.

You seem to be implying, though, that atheists would not have conducted war, or conducted cruel wars. While no war has been fought in the name of atheism, there are rational justifications for war (conquest was – and still is, despite Geneva conventions – definitely one of them). There is nothing in atheism – the absence of a belief in God – that requires pacifism. There is nothing in atheism that precludes blood-thirstiness.

Posted under Atheism, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Monday, March 29, 2010

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On religion 5

One of our readers and commenters, bornagainpagan, sent us a link to this American Thinker article. We thank bornagainpagan. It is well worth reading. But on several points we take issue with the author. (Please read it all, as we are only quoting the parts we particularly want to comment on, and do not wish to give a distorted impression of the whole.)

We want to reply to, not quarrel with, a fellow atheist. We would be foolish to deny the historical importance of religion, especially of Christianity and Judaism to the West (and we greatly value the Bible as literature). But we do not think that religion as such, or any particular religion of any particular culture, has ever been, or ever could be, a force for good, even though good people might feel motivated by it.

Rational thought may provide better answers to many of life’s riddles than does faith alone. However, it is rational to conclude that religious faith has made possible the advancement of Western civilization. That is, the glue that has held Western civilization together over the centuries is the Judeo-Christian tradition. To the extent that the West loses its religious faith in favor of non-judgmental secularism, then to the same extent, it loses that which holds all else together.

We strongly disagree. First: By “the Judeo-Christian tradition” is always meant Christianity, and we think – as Edward Gibbon demonstrates in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – that Christianity brought a thousand years of darkness down on Europe. Next: Secularism does not have to be non-judgmental. It is actually  impossible to be non-judgmental. Even to choose to be what a person thinks is non-judgmental is to make a judgment. Third: We believe it was the Enlightenment (starting with the Renaissance) – ie the bursting out of the confining Christian world-view – that made possible the real progress of the Western world, towards ever more scientific knowledge and, with luck, a continual shrinking (though never of course to the total vanishing) of superstition.

Arguably the two most defining and influential Christian concepts are summarized in two verses of the New Testament. Those verses are Romans 14:10 and John 8:32.

Romans 14:10, says: “Remember, each of us must stand alone before the judgment seat of God.” That verse explicitly recognizes not only each man’s uniqueness, but, of necessity, implies that man has free will — that individual acts do result in consequences, and that those acts will be judged against objective standards. It is but a step from the habit of accepting individual accountability before God to thinking of individual accountability in secular things. It thus follows that personal and political freedom is premised upon the Christian concept of the unique individual exercising accountable free will.

Did not the Athenians of pre-Christian antiquity, the fathers of philosophy and science, recognize the importance of the individual? Was not Greek democracy based on the counting of individual choices? One does not have to be accountable “to God” to live in civil society, treat others respectfully, and obey objective law.

John 8:32 says: “And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Whatever the theological meanings that have been imputed to that verse, its implicit secular meaning is that the search for truth is in and of itself praiseworthy.

No, that is not the implicit meaning. The very particular meaning is that the truth is the Jesus cult. And it isn’t, of course.

Although I am a secularist (atheist, if you will), I accept that the great majority of people would be morally and spiritually lost without religion. Can anyone seriously argue that crime and debauchery are not held in check by religion? Is it not comforting to live in a community where the rule of law and fairness are respected? Would such be likely if Christianity were not there to provide a moral compass to the great majority? Do we secularists not benefit out of all proportion from a morally responsible society?

An orderly society is dependent on a generally accepted morality. There can be no such morality without religion.

We don’t know what is meant by “spiritually”. Morality need not depend on religion. In fact, no religion has a history or a literature that fits with the morality any of the so-called “moral religions” preach, certainly not those “moral religions” themselves. Enlightened self-interest and the practical requirements of civilized existence are strong regulators of human behavior.

Has there ever been a more perfect and concise moral code than the one Moses brought down from the mountain?

Some of the ten commandments are indeed concise. (Moses did not of course “bring them down from the mountain” except in a symbolic sense.) But the concise ones are the same as far more ancient laws. The crimes “Moses”  forbids were held to be crimes by the time Hammurabi had the punishments for them codified.

Those who doubt the effect of religion on morality should seriously ask the question: Just what are the immutable moral laws of secularism? Be prepared to answer, if you are honest, that such laws simply do not exist! …

The secular laws are the laws of the state. They are intended to be moral. They are not immutable. The values of a culture that underlie law may seem immutable, but in our time many “Western values” have been turned upside down or inside out. Liberty? Justice? Loyalty? Modesty? Chastity? Decency? Erudition? Profundity? Bravery? Self-reliance? – to name but a few – are they now, consciously or unconsciously, valued by most people in Western societies?  Most Americans may agree intellectually that they ought to be: Europeans are more likely to deride them.

For the majority of a culture’s population, religious tradition is inextricably woven into their self-awareness. It gives them their identity. It is why those of religious faith are more socially stable and experience less difficulty in forming and maintaining binding attachments than do we secularists.

Are they and do they? It may be the case, but we haven’t observed it.

To the extent that Western elites distance themselves from their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage in favor of secular constructs, and as they give deference to a multicultural acceptance that all beliefs are of equal validity, they lose their will to defend against a determined attack from another culture, such as from militant Islam. For having destroyed the ancient faith of their people, they will have found themselves with nothing to defend.

We cannot see how an irrationality like Islam can be fought by another irrationality like Christianity. Religion as such is and always has been a common cause of war, persecution, massacre, cruelty, oppression, and waste of human potential.

What we really need to defend, especially now under the onslaught of Islam, is our culture of reason. We need to teach it to our children. What any individual does with the gifts and burdens his culture bequeaths him is inescapably a choice that he must make.

Against all gods 2

A. C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, writes in his book Against All Gods (Oberon Books, London, 2007):

It is time to reverse the prevailing notion that religious commitment is intrinsically deserving of respect, and that it should be handled with kid gloves and protected by custom and in some cases law against criticism and ridicule. It is time to refuse to tiptoe around people who claim respect, consideration, special treatment, or any other kind of immunity, on the grounds that they have a religious faith, as if having faith were a privilege-endowing virtue, as if it were noble to believe in unsupported claims and ancient superstitions. It is neither. Faith is a commitment to belief contrary to evidence and reason… [T]o believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect.

He further asserts that ‘it is the business of all religious doctrines to keep their votaries in a state of intellectual infancy’, and that ‘inculcating [any one of] the various competing falsehoods of the major [or minor, for that matter] faiths into small children is a form of child abuse, and a scandal’.

With these opinions we agree.

But we are not  sure that he is right when he  declares in the same book that religion is on the decline, and ‘as a factor in public and international affairs it is having what might be its last – characteristically bloody – fling’.

If he is alluding to the jihad being waged by Islam on the rest of the world – as he surely is – it is certainly bloody. But whether it will prove to be religion’s last act on the world stage, or  fail in its aim to spread Islam as the predominant faith and only system of law on earth, is uncertain. A belief that mankind as a whole is continually progressing towards an ever more reason-directed future, can only be held on faith. Grayling seems to have that belief, that faith. But we do not.

With the spread of Islam through Europe, and the election of Obama in America, there is a double threat  to individual liberty, and so to the triumph of reason; because reason can flourish, create, and persuade, only where individuals are free.

Posted under Atheism, Christianity, Commentary, Europe, Islam, jihad, Judaism, Religion general, Socialism, United States, War by Jillian Becker on Friday, August 28, 2009

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Judaism and the Jews: a draft for an obituary? 6

The founding myth of the monotheistic faith that evolved into Judaism, is the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham sacrifices to his god not his son but an animal. The story is often interpreted as an hortatory tale about having to obey God. But that is not its significance.

Its essential message is that the God of Abraham, the one and only God, does not require human sacrifice.

The idea of a god who did not want human beings sacrificed to him was a great leap forward for mankind. The other gods of ancient times were all given human flesh to eat and human blood to drink. The huge statue of the god Moloch was a hollow bronze image, a human body with a bull’s head, in which his worshippers, the Canaanites, made a fire and heated the metal until it glowed red-hot, and then they fed their first-born babies into the furnace through the gaping mouth.

Such gods, it was believed, needed propitiation with human flesh and blood, suffering and death, so that they’d allow the tribe to survive and prosper.

The Chaldees, whose god Ba’al was the counterpart of Moloch, similarly sacrificed living people. It was from them that Abraham and his tribe broke away, both in a physical-geographical sense, and in a moral-religious sense.

One of the four main reasons why Jews faithful to their religion could not possibly accept Christianity was because Christ was held by Christians to be a human sacrifice. No idea could be further from Judaism (and would certainly have been absent from the mind of an orthodox Jew like Jesus of Nazareth). The other reasons were: God cannot be incarnate; God is One, and cannot be Three as Christianity holds its triune divinity to be; and Judaism requires obedience to the Law. The Jews were set free physically when they left Egypt where they had been slaves, and became a free civilization when they were granted and accepted the law – traditionally fifty days after the accomplishment of the exodus. Law protects and guarantees freedom. Freedom is only possible in practice under the rule of law.

St Paul, the author of the Christian religion, was willing and eager to abandon the Law. The Catholic Church did not after all do this, and accepted Judaism’s moral law though not its rituals.

As a people, the Jews’ first great gift to humanity was the idea that God, an abstract being, was a moral authority who required people to treat each other justly, and did not himself require them to suffer or die for him.

When the center of their religion, the Temple, was destroyed by the Romans in the first century CE, and they were exiled from Jerusalem and dispersed from their land, the Jews clung to their religion, adapting such rituals as it was possible for them to observe in the absence of a Temple and a priesthood; and their faith held them together for two millennia as a people though they were physically scattered through the world.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in Europe, and then the Age of Science, belief in the supernatural began to die in the Western world generally. But the Jews still needed to adhere to their religious tradition. Only since the land of Israel has been restored to them, has the Jews’ need for religion as a kind of abstract glue to hold them together become less compelling.

It is true that orthodox Jews still observe the religion as it has long been observed. But orthodoxy has spawned a crowd of rivals, some of which have become such broad churches that traditional Judaism is hardly discernible in them. Rabbis (male and female) in Reform synagogues now call God ‘he or she’, and even speak of a plurality of gods. What is left of Judaism there? And if the answer is nothing, does it matter? For ever-increasing numbers (even in America), all religions have passed their use-by date.

If the State of Israel were again to be destroyed – a tragedy that looks all too possible now – would the religion revive to bind the Jews together again?

Just possibly, but much more probably not. The only thing that could and should bind the Jews together in this age is loyalty to their peoplehood in the light of their history. But that is a nationalist kind of idea, and nationalism is despised by the loudest intellectuals of our time. Many of those loud voices are Jewish voices. Treasonously they decry Zionism – the nationalism of the Jews – and raise moral objections to the existence of the Jewish state. If the State of Israel is destroyed, brought to political extinction, can the Jews continue to exist, either as a religion or as a people?

Jillian Becker  June 3, 2009

Posted under Articles, Atheism, Commentary, Israel, Judaism by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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