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Apr 29, 2012

Debating Atheist Ideology


I was always fascinated by the historic debates, actually the background of those debates rather than the arguments themselves, about Judaism, such as the supposed debate written about by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi between the king of the Khazars and a simple Jew, such as between the Ramban and Pablo Christiani, among others. The idea of a debate in which everything is on the line is exciting.

This debate is not quite at that level, where everything is on the line, where the victor might be at the threat of death or banishment, but it is interesting nonetheless. This is more of the modern day type of debate where a couple well-versed people get together to see who can present better, or maybe who knows a little more than the other. This debate almost reminds me of the great book jointly written by Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and Orthodox Rabbi  Yaakov Yosef Reinman in which they publish a debate about the major issues in Judaism that they discussed via email.

Rabbi Moshe averick, author of the book, "Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist" about the flaws of atheist ideology, has invited a proclaimed ideological atheist to a debate about atheism and Judaism.

Averick extended the invitation, er challenge, to Shauli Grossman, via his article in The Algemeiner a few weeks ago:
[...] Under “religious views” he wrote: “shul [synagogue] of the flying spaghetti monster.” For those who are unaware, “the flying spaghetti monster” has become a standard atheistic metaphor used to mock religious beliefs as in “you believe in something as ridiculous as angels, I believe in the flying spaghetti monster.” While the “shul of the flying spaghetti monster” might not be conclusive, the following does not leave much to the imagination: In “People Who Inspire Shauli” he has listed three of the most prominent “new atheist” ideologues: Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. It would seem reasonable to assume then that Mr. Gross is a committed ideological atheist himself. He also described himself as “A puS**Ter yid” – poking fun in a vulgar sort of way at the common Yiddish expression “A Poshitah yid” which means “A simple Jew.” Interestingly enough, I recently posted a song on YouTube that I wrote and recorded in Jerusalem called “Just A Simple Jew.” (It hasn’t gone viral yet, but I’m still hoping)
As I explained earlier, I have no intention of expressing any opinion on Shauli Grossman’s personal experiences or the particular lifestyle he has chosen to lead. However, the ideology of atheism as expressed by writers like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris interests me very much. All three are discussed in my book (whose title does not leave much to the imagination as to where I stand on these issues), Nonsense of High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is one thing to make personal choices; it is another to mislead people with ideas and ideologies which are utterly false. If Mr. Grossman is inspired by these people and is prepared to go on national TV to express his opinions, perhaps the following challenge will be of interest to him:
Dear Mr. Grossman (R. Shauli): As we both know, Talmudic literature is filled with metaphors comparing the arguments that took place between the sages regarding Jewish law and thought, with the idea of warriors battling one against the other. I respectfully invite/challenge you – from one “simple Jew” to another – to articulate and defend your new-chosen atheistic ideology in the arena of the intellect. Let us meet and debate the issue in a proper forum. I think the best place to start would be at the very beginning (always a very good place to start). I suggest “Does the Origin of Life require the existence of a Creator?” I look forward to hearing from you. May the truth win out.

While I don't know if either of them are an authority on the matter, or in general in any way, I am not sure that it matters. Must one be a national leader of sorts, or the head of a large movement, in order to hold a serious debate? Not at all. The only thing is that when it is just two guys arguing about something, the results don't matter much to anybody else. Maybe this one lost because he just was not well-versed enough, or maybe the other guy was a bit more charismatic or boisterous. Without a large following of people who will act on the results of the debate, the debate is just a simple discussion between two people. Nice, but does it matter?

Either way, even if there are no ramifications to the actual debate, if it happens it will be interesting to  keep an eye on. I have not seen any response yet from Grossman regarding the debate invitation, but I am hoping some interesting reading will come out of this..


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27 comments:

  1. The Man has already lost the debate.

    If he wants to debate "I suggest “Does the Origin of Life require the existence of a Creator?” I look forward to hearing from you. May the truth win out." then there is no point in listening.

    100 nis says he is not going to be arguing anything based on Jewish sources. The internet is filled with this debate, and it's a non-starter.

    I'd find something like this a bit more interesting. http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/proof-torah-true/

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  2. I've read Averick's writings. I'm always left unimpressed. You can't "prove" God. Our belief is based on a Mesorah, that's it.

    Averick's arguments are simply a rehashing of the old "God of the gaps" ideas. Basically, you take something at the leading edge of science, which scientists themselves may admit that they don't fully understand, and use that lack of understanding to "prove" God. (Of course more often than not, science DOES has a reasonable explanation which the author is either ignorant of or willfully ignoring.)

    Problem is, so far every time this argument is made science eventually does pull out the rug from under it or people do a modicum of research on their own to uncover the falsity. It actually amazes me that in the era of the internet, people continually get duped by these arguments. It's really all about a willingness to suspend disbelief.

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  3. I disagree with Menachem. God's existence is actually quite easy to prove. It's not the leading edge of science but its back end that does it. God, as cleverly defined by the Chovos HaLevavos, is the First Cause. Everything that exists came from something which in turn came from something and so on back to the First Cause that ultimately started the ball rolling. Anyone who denies God is an idiot because he also denies that there must have been a cause for whatever the very initial event in history was.
    The question therefore isn't: is there a God? Rather it's: having created the universe, is God still interested in it, does He interact with it and did He manifest Himself at Sinai to reveal His intentions to the Jewish people?

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    1. Sorry, your mightiness, I don't see any proof in what you wrote.

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    2. All that does is push the ball back to an arbitrary starting point. There is absolutely no reason, whatsoever, not to move it back one notch and ask, what "caused" the "first cause", ie God, in your definition.

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    3. Anyone who denies God is an idiot

      Garnel, you can't be serious. Firstly, the most wildly intelligent people can believe in myth, superstition and all sorts of implausible things. Kal v'chomer the rejection of an Aristotelian argument doesn't render someone an "idiot". Second, the idea of taking an utterly human, common sense "first cause" idea and claiming it to "prove" something so completely esoteric and inaccessible to the human mind as how the universe began, and what (spatially and temporally) lies beyond that (and branding anyone who doesn't accept that as an "idiot"), is so myopic, so small-minded and ego-centric, it's hard to even put it into words. Third, even if we were to posit the "first cause" as evidence of anything, who's to say that this "cause" is anything remotely resembling what we would call "God"?

      I do agree though that the question is not about God the Creator, which at least falls within common sense reasonablility (though can hardly be said to be "muchrach"), but rather about the God of the Torah, which when you look into the matter even a bit is an entirely unreasonable, counter-to-common-sense proposition. Hearing someone try to argue "proofs" positive is like listening to a "flat-earther". Again, nothing to do with intelligence - it simply reflects on the mind's limitless ability to rationalize anything a person wants to believe.

      Point being, the intellectually honest thing to do is to believe in the God of the Torah knowing that it is a purely faith-based belief, not something in any way "provable".

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    4. > , who's to say that this "cause" is anything remotely resembling what we would call "God"?

      Ah but that's my point. According to the Chovos HaLevavos, that is the definition of God. Again I stand by my point: at some point there was a first of everything. The universe is not eternal. Something created the Big Bang and if that something was not original then something created it, etc. back to the beginning. We do agree though on my main point.

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    5. First of all, no, there doesn't HAVE to be a beginning. The universe could, for example, be in an infinite loop of expansion and contraction. But even, for argument's sake if you want to call the Big Bang the beginning and label its cause as "God", where does that get you? Your "God" could be a quantum fluctuation. All you've done is define a cause as God, but as you essentially point out, this certainly is not the God of the Torah.

      This is pure semantics and does nothing to advance the discussion, as I think most atheists would have no problem with you, or anyone, labeling the "cause" as God, as long as you don't ascribe any unprovable powers to this "cause/God".

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  4. I have not read this book, but I have read others. I do not believe it is possible to prove God. One can use logic and theory, but none of that is really proof. I believe our trust in God is based on faith, and not proof. As a matter of fact, once it could be proven, in the real sense of the word, that would essentially remove free will.
    It is a matter of faith, in my book.

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  5. We are all atheists.

    I just don't believe in one more god than you.

    You don't believe in the existence of 999 (just to throw out a number) different gods that exist/have existed in the minds of the world, and I don't believe in 1000 gods.

    so our differences are actually quite small.


    As for god of the gaps: the word ill comes from the word evil. People used to think, and many still do today, that sickness was caused by sin. Then science found out why we get sick....

    just because science doesn't have an answer today doesn't mean they won't have an answer tomorrow
    and just because science doesn't have an answer to a question doesn't mean that god is the answer.

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  6. In many case atheism is just an excuse not to keep religious traditions. if I don't want to keep Shabbat, kashrut etc, and have a "good time" doing what I want, then it is a great way out. Say I am an atheist, and then I don't have to keep all those things.
    it also works the other way too of course. I know someone who is atheist, and has reached that conclusion through being brainwashed by the atheist propoganda on this. however that is now his view, so he does not see any need to keep the mitzvot. Another example I heard of recently is of an atheist Jew in New York, who goes to Shul every week, because he loves the social environment of Judaism.

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  7. Faith QuestionnerApril 30, 2012 6:15 PM

    Rafi and/or David Meir,
    Would you be able to explain WHY you have faith in the God of the Torah as opposed to any other "god"?

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    1. I am no big theologian. I have this faith because this is the faith I was brought up in. If I grew up believing in Buddha, I'd probably have faith in that. If Muslim, than that. etc,.

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  8. Faith Questioner, it depends on how you define "faith". I see faith as "faithfulness to" rather than "belief in the existence of". I wouldn't pretend to know the reality of what truly exists, or for that matter what happened 3500 years ago. But I do see the truth-value and life-value in Torah. I appreciate the life of mitzva-observance and Torah learning in the context of a frum community. And "Hashem" is understood as prescribing the whole system. So I demonstrate my "faith in Hashem" by immersing myself in the Torah system and way of life.

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    1. Faith QuestionnerMay 01, 2012 3:35 PM

      Are you saying that if tomorrow you decided the muslim way of life spoke to you more, you would consider being muslim?
      And according to your approach, would you say that a muslim who sees truth in his way of life, including killing "innocents", is no different than you, other than the actual choice of religion?

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    2. killing? who said anything about killing? I spoke about my faith in my God. I completely agree that a Muslim growing up with Islam probably has similar faith, someone growing up in Christianity probably has similar, etc.
      I was brought up with faith. nothing was "proven" to me later in life that i decided this is the only option.

      your suggestion can be turned around - if you are saying Judaism is the only faith possible objectively, then all member of other religions should really be convinced of Judaism, if they only would bother to examine it, and should convert or otherwise support us. I dont agree with that suggestion.

      I would not consider becoming Muslim. I am Jewish and I believe in the Jewish faith. Questions of theology dont bother me - my attitude is that their are answers, there are questions, but this is who i am, even if I dont necessarily know the answers to all my questions..

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    3. I was replying more directly to David Meir. But in any event, I am not saying Judaism is the only provable faith. I would like it to be that way, but it appears that it can't really be proven.
      My question is what is the ramification of that. Does that mean other people who follow their own religion faithfully are basically on the same footing as us? Even to the extent that if they kill people based on their faith?
      And does it really make sense to follow my current faith just because I was born that way?

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    4. the way I see it, some people are more philosophical, some are more disturbed by nt having all the answers, some are like this or like that. following a certain faith because of being born that way might not be for everyone. it might not work for everyone. It does work for me.

      One could say that no, they are not on the same footing, because according to my faith, I am right and they are wrong. If you look at it objectively, remove yourself from the picture and sort of hover over everyone and see what they are doing, then yes - he has faith in his judaism, he has faith in his islam, he has faith in his buddha, etc. from that guys perspective, he is right and we are wrong,. from my perspective, I am right and he is wrong. from an objective perspective everyone has faith in his own religion and that is fine.

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    5. FQ,

      Does that mean other people who follow their own religion faithfully are basically on the same footing as us?

      That depends on how people interpret their religion. What exactly they are being "faithful" to? It's possible to interpret Torah faithfully in a way that produces intelligent, kind, creative, respectful, open-minded, generous people, and it's also possible to interpret it faithfully in a way that produces stone-throwing fundamentalist zealots. And the same goes for other religions. I would put enlightened Torah people on a "higher footing" than faithful Jihadists, and Torah zealots on a "lower footing" than decent, intelligent, reasonable Christians.

      But let's make the question harder - What about the most enlightened (thinking, benevolent, creative, etc.) Muslims/Christians/Buddhists vs. the most enlightened Jews. Who's on a "higher footing"? My personal answer is no one. Because enlightened non-Jews would not believe in superstition or myth any more than we would. They would use their sources to come to a very similar set of conclusions as we would. Only they have a different set of holidays, rituals, norms, etc. And I say great - variety is a good thing!

      Why be "Jewish" then if Torah doesn't have exclusive ownership of the "ultimate truth"? Because I resonate with Torah/Judaism in a way I don't resonate with other religions. Because I care about and identify with Am Yisrael as an extension of my own family. And because it's my "home" - and it feels good to be at home in my own skin, my own life. I feel like I can do more good in the world that way.

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    6. It's an interesting approach. It seems to me, though, that your true religion isn't Torah Judaism, as much as it is "Enlightenism". That is, if you are faced with a conflict between the two, it sounds like you are saying enlightenment would win out. I don't think you can squeeze every aspect of the Torah into your enlightened philosophy. At some point you would have to choose, and I'm curious which one would win out.

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    7. I am not sure what you mean.. can you give me an example of such a situation?

      If you mean what I think you mean, I would say that what you say is true in todays Judaism by all of us. Do we kill out and banish foreigners (except ger toshav) from Israel as the Torah says or are we enlightened and tolerant allowing them to stay, making peace with them? Does anybody (there are some but not in significant numbers) encourage the building of the Beis Hamikdash today and the sacrificing of korbanos or are we enlightened and wait for it to fall from heaven? etc

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    8. FQ,

      I don't think you can squeeze every aspect of the Torah into your enlightened philosophy.

      I think that is precisely what Chazal did in their day.

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    9. Well, let's say for example a person is in danger ch"v of losing a limb on shabbos. Torah law says you can't violate melochos to save the limb. I think many "enlightened" people would think that is crazy.
      What would you do in that situation?

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    10. its a tough question but has nothing to do with anybody being enlightened. anybody in such a situation will have a very difficult niaayon to overcome. I would hope that I would overcome it and ask a shailoh what to do, but it is easy to talk when not in the actual situation.

      regarding the situation itself, I am not so sure there is nothing to do as you say. when there is a wound, we are worried about infection spreading to the entire body and that is called sakana. If a limb is threatened but we know it wont spread, then there are some things that can be done (via a non-Jew) while others cannot. i do not remember all the halachos clearly of what can and cannot be done, but I dont think it is as simple as you put it.

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    11. I'm concerned less about what's "on the books" than I am about how people behave in real life. My guess is that 99% of the frummest people you know would save the limb and find a kula later. I'd also be in that 99%.

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    12. I like your approaches. But my problem is I don't think it matches that which our torah giants hold. It sounds like you have a way of life which you think is proper, and you also like the torah, so you do both, but only because the torah generally fits into the first catagory. But you aren't sounding so convincing that you feel the torah is divine. And according to torah Judaism, if you don't believe it is divine, you have no share in o"h.

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  9. I'm not sure where you get that. I was brought up with Judaism as my faith and I never questioned it, or needed to. Just because I never need philosophical and theological discussion to convince me of its supremacy does not mean that I believe it any less divine.

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