Thursday, June 19, 2014

The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes

Try as I might, I continue to be startled by the mindset of the non-believer. It's not so much that I can't grasp the notion that someone could believe that there is no Creator and that there is no grand design to the universe, but rather that so many of their choices and thinking patterns seem to suggest that they believe something quite unlike that which they profess. Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level? After all, one random grouping of molecules interacting with another has no inherent meaning or value. I still await the brave soul (or neuron complex if you prefer) who will respond that I am quite correct; that no thought, deed, action or impulse is any more significant or meaningful than any other, that statements like "I would like to enslave all of humanity" and "I would like a chocolate bar" are functionally equivalent, and that their very own thoughts and words are intrinsically suspect as they are nothing more than some indiscriminate electro-chemical impulses. Until then, I will carry on believing that most "non-believers" actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or that they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.

Let's put this assumption to a test. How would you answer the following series of questions? I posit that if you are inclined to answer any of them from a non-materialist perspective then you might secretly suspect that there are grander cosmic forces at work than those discernible on a purely empiric level, or, possibly, that you are a victim of societal programming.

1. Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?

If you answered no, why? As there are finite resources available to us as we plod through our limited number of revolutions on this planet, wouldn't it be in your interest to maximize them -- especially considering that a non-functional carcass provides little to no personal or societal benefit (and is a little unpleasant)? If you suggest that it represents something that was important to you and therefore you are inclined to treat it with more respect I would ask, "so what?" Your notions of respect and importance are subjective, non-intellectual whims that in any case (as we've said) are in reality nothing more than tiny electrical blips in your skull and worth far less than cash.
Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it's just wrong to do it -- wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother's corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer. 

2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts? 

If yes, why? As no one will ever know what transpired and it will soon all be over in any event, what difference could it possibly make what you do in your final moments? I again see only two possibilities for the non-believer -- either you suspect that there is an inexplicable but real import to fateful decisions such as these or you have been conditioned to act a certain way -- one that is more in sync with the logical conclusions of a believer's worldview and not your own. As physicist HP Yockey suggested of the materialist's viewpoint, "if humans are only matter, it is no worse to burn a ton of humans than to burn a ton of coal." If you answer that it makes no difference whatsoever, then you are two for two (and I am impressed with your consistency).

3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?

For those (almost all of us) who are inclined to say yes, the question once again is why? What precisely is the root of their significance? What difference does a painting make? You can't eat it and it will not help your genes to reproduce (for whatever unclear reason it is that they "want" to do that in the first place). Does it truly matter whether or not you love your children as long as you provide for their basic needs? And if you suggest that love is a basic need that was cleverly "designed" by evolution to help parents to provide for their offspring, then does it matter if you only pretend to love them? Or do you believe that love has an intrinsic meaning of its own -- one that transcends chemical reactions and meaningless groping towards cell mitosis? If you do, ask yourself why, as it would not seem to effectively square with the non-believer's weltanschauung.
If you are willing to define the human experience as nothing more than an arbitrary series of chemicals, atoms and other blind and indifferent forces acting in concert, then at the end of the day, you necessarily concede that human emotion and experience are intrinsically meaningless. What difference, then, does it make if you (or others) choose to completely disregard concepts like kindness, decency and love? The non-believer is duty bound to say that it makes no difference whatsoever, as meaning -- in all of its varied splendor -- resides exclusively with those who acknowledge its basis. One that is neither blind nor random nor physical.
If you chose the non-materialistic answer to any of these questions (no, yes, yes) you may be more of a believer than you think.


  1. There are many who purport to not be believers, and still hold on to some faith in the unknown; on this point you are correct. Allow me to suggest there are equally as many who purport to be believers, yet have no real belief in the almighty (regardless of which almighty that might be). My entire family (of Jews) have no actual belief in God, yet come each holiday, they go through the dog and pony show of celebrating as if they did. When I ask why they do this, they say it's for the kids.

    So what if people are afraid of the unknown? Media and religious dogma terrify the masses of uncritical thinkers; this doesn't actually suggest people believe in some invisible, all knowing, power in the sky. It simply means people have been brainwashed and are afraid.

    This is nothing a heavy dose of consistent education from generation to generation couldn't eradicate. If you are raised to believe, you will struggle to fully shed those beliefs. The developing mind of a child through the formative years imprints this information in the mind nearly indelibly. if you are raised a critical thinking atheist, the same will likely hold true. i think it would be interesting to study how many raised atheists convert to some form of religion vs how many raised theists shed their beliefs and become atheists.

  2. Hi Contrarian,

    Thanks for your comment. I fully agree with what you say in the first paragraph. For many people of all faiths the ritual has become nothing more than a nice cultural experience or perhaps a nostalgic reminder of days gone by. And while I think this is not nothing, I also find it tragic that these same folks will not have the meaning, beauty and pleasure that can come from the real thing.

    I think you give the game away a bit with your second two paragraphs. You seem to feel that the religious are all "afraid" and "terrified" and (of course) "uncritical thinkers" and "brainwashed." I don't feel that I fall into those categories (though maybe that's just because I've had my brain so thoroughly washed). Nor do most of the theists I know.

    In any event, it's not really the point that I'm making in this piece. The point is that most of what humanity most needs and wants (theists and atheists alike) have no material basis. Things like meaning, truth, justice and beauty should be meaningless concepts for the atheist or at least they should acknowledge them as convenient fictions they create and live by so that they don't want to slit their wrists from hopelessness. To me, the fact they they all live AS IF these things are truly meaningful demonstrates that they (deep down) believe that there is REAL meaning. If there is real meaning then that requires a standard by which to judge that which is meaningful. Where would that come from? We say from God - who is both the Creator and Arbiter of that which is meaningful.

    I find that when atheists really get this they become theists...

  3. Thanks Rabbi,

    I'm with you on the "no material basis" part, after that however, I think you are taking some leaps. Firstly, I couldn't tell you why I wake up and proceed with my day, day after day. It does, in fact, seem pointless. We are all going to die, and whatever we have done in this life will then be as if it never happened.

    Still, I continue to wake, shower, work, love, despair occasionally, etc. I see value in the experience(s) of life and simultaneously know there is no god of any sort. Does this make me hopeless? I believe it does, yet I'm quite happy. It is impossible to say if there is or isn't "real" meaning in anything we do; I'm unsure by which basis you claim to have this knowledge.

    Can you please expound some on why truth, beauty, and justice should be meaningless to the faithless? Is it due to the ephemeral definition of life atheists subscribe to? Should not this limited experience of life increase the value of the experiences contained within it? I can't know what comes next, so I'm going to fully enjoy and experience life in the most real manner I can. Following a set of rules which appear arbitrarily made up (as well as enforced) by an unprovable, invisible entity seems a terrible and noisy distraction from this, no?

    I suppose some might fall into the categorization you've described, but do I, based on what I've stated or am I actually a true atheist?

  4. Thank you for your (refreshingly honest) answer.

    I'll admit that it's hard for me to see any correlation between the set of beliefs you hold and happiness. Here's what Freud had to say about it: "The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence." It seems to me that sickness is a logical response to that set of conditions to I always wonder if you guys really and truly mean it.

    You do seem to leave some wiggle room for yourself by suggesting things like "It is impossible to say if there is or isn't "real" meaning in anything we do" and "I can't know what comes next..." Statement one suggests that there very well could be real meaning and statement two that there could be something which comes next. That's quite different from saying you KNOW there's no real meaning and NOTHING comes next. Could not agnostic actually be a better title for you? Also, you're not sure by which basis I claim to have knowledge of actual meaning - yes, because we haven't discussed it! But I would be happy to. I'd also like to know by what basis you know that it's "impossible" to say if there's objective meaning or not.

    The faithless ostensibly believe that our thoughts and experiences are illusory. For instance: "We feel, most of the time, like we are riding around inside our bodies, as though we are an inner subject that can utilize the body as a kind of object. This last representation is an illusion ... " - Sam Harris

    "The intuitive feeling that we have that there's an executive "I" that sits in the control room of our brain ... is an illusion." (Dr. Steven Pinker)

    Therefore, all of the emotions, values and sensations of this "illusory I" are illusions as well (including truth, justice, beauty, et al)

    To me, your happiness, despite the "pitiless indifference" (Richard Dawkins) that is our universe, is the surest sign that you are not an atheist.

  5. You're certainly a clever wordsmith, but I only see you elegantly twisting words, and redefining them. I intend no disrespect by this, btw.

    I believe in no god, of any sort, from any point in time. God, Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Thor, Heaven, Hell, Valhalla...all nonsense to me. I hold these to be on par with Santa, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Boogie monster, (fill in the blank). If you choose to read the aforementioned, and maintain that I am some sort of theist, then I'm unsure who (on god's green earth) could be possibly be considered an atheist!

    Hopefully this will remove the wiggle room which I had inadvertently allowed into the conversation:

    I'm with Harris, Pinker, Dawkins, Shermer (and Hitchens!), when I say every single thing which occurs is random and illusory. I fail to see any methodology which can elegantly assert some form of proof to the contrary. You seem to think you have one, as many do, I am unconvinced. While I am interested to hear well founded arguments which support your thesis, I generally find myself considerably more interested in trying to understand why one would believe things which are such departures from reasonable thinking. The assertion that the almighty, omniscient overseer in the sky is the great creator of man and the universe requires a very high level of proof, at least somewhat in proportion to the grandeur of the assertion.

    Not clever word play.

    1. Well, I do like words, but I think there's also some substance behind them in this case.

      The various names that you claim to not believe it are by and large all describing the same thing - not something "in the sky" but rather the Creator of the sky (and of everything else).

      By and large people (atheists included) look around the world and see intelligibility - order, They may theorize that this reality is the result of blind and indifferent forces but they are far from proving it - very far. What is your hypothesis to explain: the origin of matter, or of consciousness? How did the process of abiogenesis occur? Science has no answers for these profound questions and yet you're fully prepared to look at and acknowledge design and dismiss a designer? I would say the burden of proof is on you and and the grandeur of your claim - which to me essentially sounds like "it was magic!"

      Furthermore, you fatally undermine whatever point you are tying to make once you acknowledge that you and your thoughts are illusory. If that's the case then you can't possibly know if anything you think has any relation to reality as your faculties are inherently suspect. How can an illusion correlate to reality? How can you have any "reasonable" thinking - or thinking at all for that matter? And finally, if you and your thoughts are illusions then why should I (or anyone else) take what you have to say seriously?

      Shabbat Shalom my contrarian friend...

  6. After re-reading my last response, I noticed my tone came across a bit more aggressive, and snippy than I’m comfortable with. I apologize for that. Regardless of what we agree or disagree on, this is an interesting conversation, and you’re a good man who deserves respect by default, as does everyone. I appreciate the back and forth.

    Moving along…

    Rabbi: “By and large people (atheists included) look around the world and see intelligibility - order,”

    Contrarian: I do not see any evidence of design however, I do in fact see some semblance of structured chaos.


    Rabbi: “They may theorize that this reality is the result of blind and indifferent forces but they are far from proving it - very far. What is your hypothesis to explain: the origin of matter, or of consciousness? How did the process of abiogenesis occur? Science has no answers for these profound questions and yet you're fully prepared to look at and acknowledge design and dismiss a designer?”

    Contrarian: Again, you are placing words in my mouth; I see no design, I see natural selection, I see evolution. One thing led to another, and here we are. This is not speculation, this is demonstrable fact which can be seen and readily understood in any major museum.

    Do you not see natural selection and evolution? (Please don’t skip over this response)

    I don’t dismiss the possibility of a designer randomly (as a matter of fact, I was raised to believe in him), I just fail to see any intelligible argument which provides the slightest shred of evidence to support such a big assertion. Humor aside, I dismiss unicorns, faeries, Santa as well; they all seem unreasonable at first thought. Once given serious consideration, that same initial observation remains unchanged; primarily because they is no evidence to support such claims. An invisible, universe-creator (who seemed to be quite chatty a few thousand years ago, during a bronze age where most everyone was illiterate, uneducated, and almost no science as we know it today existed…only to have conspicuously gone radio silent in recent millennia) seems exactly as plausible to me as unicorns.

    Big assertion, zero evidence.

    You say my claim of not seeing your god should result in my somehow proving that he doesn’t exist. Anyone can assert anything, this doesn’t make the assertion true. I didn’t invent the notion that there’s an invisible almighty force who created and micromanages the universe; whoever did, or whoever insists this is the case is who has the burden of proof, not I. There are people in this world who have no idea who the Jewish God is (as well as who Jews are). Is the burden of proof on them to prove he doesn’t exist? How can that make any logical sense sir?

    What makes your god claim any more valid than a child’s wild imagination claims that there is an invisible monster under the bed? Surely it can’t just be that millions of others believe what you believe; millions of children around the world believe in the monster under the bed or in the closet. Should the burden of proof then be on you to prove such monsters do not exist? By your logic, you are now a monster-believer.

    Also, am I an athiest?

  7. Likewise! Interesting discussion.

    Here's Dawkins on the appearance of design: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” {Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1996, p. 1}

    I'm just agreeing with the world's biggest atheist (on that point) only I think it really was designed for a purpose - actually this seems quite obvious to me.

    Evolution is a big can of worms and I certainly believe in the micro version but not the macro. Have you read any of the opposing literature? Have a peak at Darwinian Fairy tales by (agnostic) David Stove or the Deniable Darwin by (agnostic) David Berlinski or at the Signature in the cell and Darwin's Doubt by Stephen Mayer or the Edge of Evolution by Michael Behe. It's not so simple and a lot farther from being settled than people think. In fact, I think it's in jeopardy as a theory. Also, evolution, even if true, doesn't explain the origin of the three things I asked you to explain (matter, life and consciousness). Could you please address those?

    Evidence besides the Teleological? Just posted on that here: and here: What's your response?

    Finally, please address my assertion that if your mind is an illusion then it is unreliable and there's no good reason to accept any of your arguments.

    So, no, I don't think you're an atheist until I've heard your answers to all of this.

  8. Firstly, you have completely perverted the intention behind Dawkins quote; you are only agreeing with yourself here, which is quite odd. He said these complicated things “appear” designed, so as to suggest it could be easy for one who doesn’t give the proper level of critical thought to the matter to actually believe this might be the case. He certainly does not believe there is any sort of top-down design. He is the preeminent evolutionary biologist in the world, you can’t be serious. Again, tricky word play (intentional or otherwise) really dilutes your intellectual brand good sir. I find this a tad reckless on your part, and there are those which might use the word nefarious, although not I.

    Rabbi Jacobs: “Evolution is a big can of worms” What?
    Rabbi Jacobs: “Evolution is far from settled”. Huh?
    Rabbi Jacobs: “Evolution is in jeopardy as a theory” You’re joking, right?

    You realize you are aligning yourself with the fringiest of fringe crazy people when you say these things, right? Not to change the subject too much but how do you feel about atom theory, gravity theory, germ theory, and the earth rotating around the sun as well as being round theories? These are all at the point of being irrefutable, they are not theories in the sense of being some wild speculations. They are scientific theories which are at the point of being fact…as is evolution. You’re seriously discrediting yourself with this kind of talk.

    I intend no disrespect when I ask if you’ve ever taken a science class. This is high school science we are discussing (or rather which you are refuting). I assure you this is not up for debate. Fossil records alone make this a slam dunk, and there’s so much more evidence than that.


    That’s everything you’ll ever need to know about evolution. It’s concise, and irrefutable. It’s honest, no word play, no trickery, no misunderstanding. Jerry Coyne is a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

    I do not know where matter, consciousness, and life originated. I’m unsure how my not knowing this provides any evidence that god made it happen. I suspect you have a theory however.

    I never said my mind was an illusion or illusory, neither did Sam Harris. I said (as does he) the notion that we are the authors of our (very real) thoughts is illusory. Our brain creates thoughts, and we seem to think we have willfully and spontaneously created them. I’m unsure how this ties to everything else we are discussing, as it is effectively a free will argument, to which I subscribe to the idea we do not have free will. I’m considerably more open to the possibility I could be wrong on that, as it is a bit more complicated conversation, as the evidence can be spun in both directions.
    More importantly, again you took words which specifically intended one thing, and played with them in the most literal sense, removed the context and portrayed them as meaning the exact opposite of what was intended. You should really consider what I’m saying here, because either your comprehension skills are very off, or you’re intentionally practicing deception. Based on your denial of one of the most elegantly demonstrated scientific theories, I’m inclined to think it is the former. You might be well studied in the Talmud (I’m guessing), but it would be quite surprising if you had any scientific education at all, or perhaps any non-theistic education for that matter. Again, I intend no disrespect here; these are my honest thoughts. I could certainly be wrong.

  9. Dawkins on Design - not sure what you're taking issue with here. My opening words on it were "Here's Dawkins on the appearance of design." My point was to address your contention two emails back that you "don't see any evidence of design." By first agreeing that there is the "appearance" of design (do you?) we can move on to discuss whether or not it is what it appears to be. No word twisting going on.


    I know this one is super hard for you guys to process. Let me try to explain. From my vantage point you guys are the dogmatic and inflexible ones. Despite the manifold contrary evidence (including the 4 books I mentioned in the last email) belief in Neo-Darwinism is near absolute. Counter-evidence is actively suppressed - in the media and especially the academy - where people are harassed, ostracized and/or fired for expressing an opposing view. Let me ask you, are the 500 scientists on this list "fringe" I doubt that you were aware of it as I doubt you have read even one book that opposes your view. The people I mentioned in the last email (Stove, Berlinski, Meyer, Behe) are all credentialed and serious thinkers and scientists - University of Sidney, Princeton, Cambridge and U Penn respectively. I challenge you to read one and explain your refutation to me. I am well aware of Jerry Coyne and have even had the (dis)pleasure of being the subject of one the posts on his (frankly silly) blog.

    I have taken all the standard science classes that one takes in high school and college and have spent an inordinate amount of time reading about it in the last three years. I have since become convinced of the existence of modern society's "scientism" - essentially a (misplaced) blind faith in science and scientists. It's actually quite unnerving. Have you ever taken a theology or philosophy course btw?

    Life, matter, consciousness

    If you don't have answers to these basic and profound questions then you simply lack the evidence to conclude that they were not the result of a designing intelligence - which is a logical possibility. Staking the position that you know there is no God when you haven't the foggiest idea how life developed or even how it is that you are capable of self-awareness is an emotional decision and not one based in reason (though I know atheists fancy themselves masters of science and reason).

    Sam Harris

    What makes thoughts "real?" Aren't they just electro-chemical reactions? And if there's no real "I" in these brains generating these "thoughts" does it really matter if I smash one in with a hammer for instance? Actually, if I don't have free will could you really hold me accountable? And if you don't have it, then how can we even have this conversation since we have no choice but to believe what we do? Which would also imply that independent thinking is impossible.

    These are my honest thoughts (that "I" generated myself through my free will - thank Gd)...

  10. I'm not prepared to simply skim past your deceptive word play:

    Here are the full quotes from this book:

    "Designoid objects look designed, so much so that some people- probably, alas, most people - think that they are designed. These people are wrong... the true explanation - Darwinian natural selection - is very different."

    "Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning. The purpose of this book is to resolve the paradox to the satisfaction of the reader, and the purpose of this chapter is further to impress the reader with the power of the illusion of design."

    The appearance quickly disappears once you ask a few followup questions, which apparently you can't seem to do (which is quite odd). If i see the appearance of Christ and the virgin Mary in the clouds, does this lend ample credibility to the notion they are in fact real? Might there be another reason as to why I'm seeing god's love child and mother in gaseous formations? Your point is irrelevant, and dare I say "noise". Appearance si in the eye of the beholder my friend, and you are seeing what you choose to, despite the mountain of evidence sitting right alongside it.

    Please explain why this (illusory) appearance is so valuable to you.


    "Life, matter, consciousness

    If you don't have answers to these basic and profound questions then you simply lack the evidence to conclude that they were not the result of a designing intelligence - which is a logical possibility."

    Why would your "logical" possibility be any more plausible than the schizophrenic homeless guy's version, citing invisible pink unicorns living in the milky way, who use mind control over all of us? is this too not a logical possibility? Can you disprove this? Well my good man, if you cannot, then I contend it is as possible as any other thesis on the matter. You simply lack the evidence to conclude otherwise.


    What exactly makes you god-invoked thoughts any more real than my god-less synapses? Is it the existence of god, the one which you cannot provide any evidence for? It seems that you are saying that because you have thoughts, god exists, and there is no other reasonable explanation for these thoughts other than a god who designed you to have them. Is this correct?

  11. "Please explain why this (illusory) appearance is so valuable to you."

    Ok, good - that focuses the discussion. The reason is that if it can be shown that it's not possible that this "appearance of design" could not possibly have arisen by chance then we would be forced to conclude that it actually was designed. That is the assertion made in two of the four books I recommended for you (the other two just say that Darwinism is untrue) and there are many more. Darwinism is the only bulwark that the materialists have against this conclusion and that's why they defend it tooth and nail and forbid dissent of any sort. If you have the courage to read them you may find the arguments compelling and reevaluate your position. Since I assume that you are an intellectual and a truth seeker and since we are having this dialogue I encourage you to do so and perhaps we could discuss it afterwards.

    There are no theological argument for pink unicorns, et al since those entities would, by definition, all be contingent and as such have nothing to do with the Being that we assert is the one and only God. It's just not a valid challenge and frankly demonstrates a lack of understanding as to what our position is. It's fine for you to disagree but at least do it based on our actual arguments and not some straw men you want to knock down. I have posted two classical philosophical arguments on the blog thus far (the Cosmological and the Ontological). Please deal with those. That is the God I'm talking about - wholly unrelated to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Easter Bunny, blah blah blah.

    I think that the reason you keep saying that I can't provide any evidence for God is that the only criteria of evidence that you will accept is a material one (test tubes, Bunsen Burners, etc) and God is simply not material and therefore cannot be quantified that way. His existence is a conclusion, an inference and a best answer to the conundrums that science helps to outline. My thoughts are evidence of a non-material consciousness. Electrons have no self-awareness no matter how many you put together. Computers don't wonder about their own existence or struggle with moral choices. It can't be that we are material solely material entities and yet are conscious. The consciousness itself is the evidence. I recommend the work of Dr Jeffrey Schwartz from UCLA on this topic including "You Are Not Your Brain" and Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser. Synapse thoughts are just some random neurological reactions due to some equally random and insignificant electro-chemical events that at their root have no meaning or value. Surely you see that.