Norfolk is a long way away from anywhere, and if I were you, I shouldn't start from here. By the time you get to the outskirts of Cromer, any distinctions between science, beachcombing, social commentary, writing and animal husbandry have started to blur. When the process is complete, you know you've arrived at the End Of The Pier Show. So, welcome. Find somewhere to park your unicycle. Pull up a girrafe chair. Make yourself comfortable.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why I Am Now An Atheist

My faith has never been particularly strong, and in recent years has been set rather in opposition to what I saw (and still see) as the unedifying spectacle of Dawkins-style fundamentalist militancy and its failure to understand the nature of faith and, more seriously, science.

In the past few days and weeks, however, I have been thinking along rather different lines: not about the existence of God as such, but of the nature of God in terms of the properties that worshippers appear to believe He must have to qualify as a deity, rather than just a bloke who is just bigger or cleverer than anyone else. In other words, there must be clear qualitative differences between Man and God and, as far as I can see, they boil down to two things - immortality and omniscience.

I looked at immortality in a recent post, in which I used somewhat literary arguments to propose a necessary trade-off between immortality and sentience. In other words, you can be immortal, or you can be sentient, but you can't be both. Of course, this view would be threatened by the discovery of immortal, sentient aliens, but here my criterion of qualitative difference comes into play. There is a clear distinction between a being that is immortal, and one that simply lives an awfully long time.

To be immortal, one must be in existence for eternity, presumably outlasting the Universe. This must mean that a deity that is immortal exists outside the Universe, and therefore outside the space-time continuum, in which case the question of birth and death has no meaning. Beings that live outside the Universe are immortal by definition. One-Nil to God.

Not so fast - I don't know about you, but I'd say that things said to exist outside time do not exist at all, and even if they did (or could) they could have no influence on what happens inside the Universe.

To be sure, one might now launch into arguments about the many-worlds interpretation, or branes or string theory and whatnot, but to do this runs a risk that's central to why Intelligent Design and Dawkinsian Atheism are both failures. For the faithful to seek plausible evidence for the physical evidence of God is at the very least an implication that one's faith is weak, because faith should not require physical evidence. Conversely, to seek to disprove the existence of God by some apparently scientific test or process of falsification, as Dawkins suggests in The God Delusion, is also in error. It is in the nature of faith that one cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God. You can't seek to prove that God exists, because if you did, he wouldn't - he'd just turn out to be a very powerful alien instead. And that's not what we mean by God.

The omniscience question is simpler and, amazingly, hadn't occurred to me until I started to read Impossibility by John Barrow. At first sight, there doesn't seem to be anything implausible about omniscience. However, as Barrow demonstrates using an age-old trick I thought I knew, there are limits to how much one can know, because one can make statements whose truth or falsehood can never be established. Barrow looks at the paradoxes inherent in the statement

THIS STATEMENT IS NOT KNOWN TO BE TRUE BY ANYONE

but I prefer it in the classic form of the Epimenides Paradox.

'ALL CRETANS ARE LIARS'

said Epimenides, who was a Cretan. If the statement is true, then it must be false, because we've been told it by a Cretan. But if it's false, it must be true, again because we've been told by a Cretan. In other words, there are statements about the world whose truth or falsity cannot be determined, therefore it is mpossible to know everything. Omniscience fails - and, importantly, it fails whether one is Man or God, because the paradox is made without reference to the nature of the hearer. It is logically impossible to know everything, so omniscience is ruled out.

Well, you might say, perhaps God knows almost everything - but that demotes him from Godhead to just a bloke who is more informed than you. We might try to sneak round the problem by saying that we cannot know what God knows, which is true, but it's true for any two beings. I don't know what P Z Myers knows, or Richard Dawkins for that matter, and I strongly suspect that neither of these people are deities, though at least one probably thinks he might be. So we're back where we started.

To sum up - One can assert that God is immortal but to do so invokes physical problems which, in the world of faith, we have no business asking. We are on more secure ground by saying that God cannot be omniscient. This conclusion stems from logic, and holds true irrespective of God's location or physical state (which is why the Barrovian argument is so much better than the Dawkinsian). If God is someone who knows nearly everything (and stop me before I invoke Heisenberg) than he's not God. He's more than a Very Naughty Boy, but the point is made.

23 comments:

  1. I've been an atheist for most of my life, though many of my religious friends tell me that I'll "come around" any day now, and accept God whenever I'm beset with real trials and tribulations. Which is insulting, even if it's not meant as such.

    Equally insulting are the publicly expressed views on the part of some prominent atheists, that 1) their writings are influential in the decisions and thinking of all atheists, and 2) any true atheist should be as loudmouth and attention-whorish as they are, in defense of Reason and Science.

    The argument against omniscience is probably the closest to my reasoning, as justification for atheism. People who claim to know the thoughts of others, whether in meatspace or in cyberspace, have always struck me as particularly intellectually dishonest. But then, a few prominent atheists are intellectually dishonest on a regular basis, if by no other means than sins of omission (hah! I typed "sin" while writing about atheism). I also find it ironic that so many commenters on atheist blogs seem to assume the godlike mantle of omniscience quite readily. *rolls eyes*

    ReplyDelete
  2. The associated irony is pretty tasty.

    I'd roll my eyes more frequently, if I were anatomically capable of that action ... being an owl and all.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'd call you Isiah, cos one eye's 'igher than the other. Except it's your ears. Doh!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Crox, you say "there are statements about the world whose truth or falsity cannot be determined, therefore it is mpossible to know everything."

    Is it not that case that these statements are as they are now, and the attendant impossibility is as it is now - but that we cannot say what the scope of knowledge will be in the future. So maybe we will find that such a thing as a god does exist, and if they don't play dice with the universe they may nudge it now and then - but otherwise they are watching and waiting for us to work things out such that they can have a decent conversation?

    ReplyDelete
  5. That's the beauty of it. Undecidable statements will exist no matter how much knowledge we accrue. It is in their nature that no amount of fresh knowledge will help us make them any less intractable.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have been taking Small Girl to shul nearly every Saturday for the last few years now, and in the course of some of these morning I've sat moving my finger along the page in a way that immediately identifies me as Jew. (And which SG has learned to copy.) I've read all the bits of the five-books story several times, some of them more than that, and it seems to me that the terms of the argument above have a distinctly Christian-theologian flavor.

    In these stories -- and, granted, I'm reading naively as a story person, not as someone interested in peering up God's asshole -- I see no worries about whether God is immortal or all-knowing. These seem to me to be churchmen's worries. God is a Power, and the deal for the Jews is that he is the _only_ Power. He doesn't expect faith; this is why the pillars of smoke and supernatural fires and murrains etc. are necessary. And there isn't any business about backsliding on faith during the Golden Calf story; the problem is breach of contract. Like any gangster, God expects that if you're in his protection zone, you do the required, and you don't go chasing off after some other flashy fellow. Whether or not God is immortal -- how is this our business? Were you planning on outliving him? And as for all-knowing...I see a lot of vacillation around that notion in the various stories from various times, but I see no reason why we must have consistency. The stories serve different purposes.

    What strikes me about the Pentateuch is that, unlike, say, the Gospels, you really don't get much in the way of the abstract, story-driven wonderings about virtue that lead to that depersonalized sense of faith and spirituality. Apart from fable and history and fraternity rites you get codes of ethics and law, and I don't get the sense that lots of it was revolutionary when written. You must do this, you must do that, and -- if something needs justification -- you must do this because [one sentence].

    Which, when it comes down to it, is boring, isn't it. Not enough for the creative types or those looking for anything more than a bund. I think this is the genius of Christianity, that it takes seriously those story-driven wonderings.

    Anyway it seems to me a more tangible way of asking is whether there are Powers running the show, and if so, what are their natures. I suspect this is still what's most important to most people who bow their heads. And then the question is whether or not the Powers have some human aspect and are understandable (and persuadable and maybe even sympathetic), or do not and are terrifying because potentially unconcerned with human affairs. (Which is why science keeps losing.) So questions of immortality seem to me a form of turf-staking marginalia, not the main event.

    ReplyDelete
  7. ... all of which explains (and very eloquently, if I may say so) why it's perfectly possible to be an atheist Jew (as I am) or even an agnostic atheist Jew ( like Gee Minie, who's still up for her Bat Mitzvah). As Jonathan Freedland says in 'Jacobs Gift', it's even just about possible to be an atheist Catholic. But the creationism wars are being fought with Protestant sects for whom belief is central and you have to check your brain I'm at the door.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hmm...

    Surely complaining that God can't know things that are logically impossible to know is like complaining he can't make rocks that he can't lift?

    Compare the similar argument about what God might be able to do. If God can do everything, can God make a triangle with four sides? This only seems paradoxical because it embodies a mistake. And the mistake is that by definition square triangles cannot be. Asking whether anyone can do that is hardly interesting, surely: it is like saying "God cannot be omnipotent because he cannot make colourless green ideas sleep furiously".And similar is asking "can an omniciscient being know whether green ideas sleep furiously" or any other impossible thing.

    I agree that there is even so limitation built in here to the picture, but that is surely just one of the many limitations imposed by creation. For if there were only God and nothing else, whose being and essence are one, then there could be no unknown things. After all, this view accords with the wise creation theology of Isaac Luria, of which a random gobbet from the web says:

    "The key concepts in Lurianic Kabbalah are tzimtzum (contraction)and the “shattering of the vessels.” Luria posits a story of creation in which Creation is essentially a negative act in which the Ein Sof (God’s essential self) must bring into being an empty space in which Creation can occur. The Almighty was everywhere--only by contracting into itself, like a man inhaling in order to let someone pass in a narrow corridor, could the Godhead create an empty space, the tehiru (Aramaic for “empty”), in which the Creation could occur. God retracts a part of the Eternal being into the Godhead itself in order to allow such a space to exist, a sort of exile. So Creation begins with a Divine exile.

    In other words, as in both Jewish and Christian theology, creation is an act of love not of power, it necesarily involves the suffering of self-limitation. How could there be a creation worth the name otherwise? And that is in the end why we can surely respect - even love - a God who can't do everything...

    G. E. Budd esq.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Graham, I smiled at that, because while the Ein Sof story is familiar to me, the "act of love" interpretation is terrifically Christian. My sense of the story in Judaism has been that of ancient mythology. Who knows why the gods do as they do? Their motives are beyond our ken. They do godlike things, and here is the narrative, what happened. How does one know that God suffered by withdrawing? Answer: One don't.

    Maybe I'm wrong, but that text above of yours sounds to me very like the sorts of things I often see in the books set aside for our shul's "Jewish-Christian Dialogue Group" (run by an eloquent Aspergian convert of some fine sensibilities, so I don't think you could really do better, except that he won't shut up once he gets rolling). They often read books written by Christians explaining Judaism, and the terms are really persistently Christian. Which means it can't fit. (Much closer, I thought, was the title of a book maybe 10 years ago, written by an Israeli about American Jews: _With Friends Like You_.)

    Around here we have enough evangelism that I'm sometimes accosted as some walking embodiment of ancient authenticity, and asked whether xyz is so about Judaism. (And then invited to church.) But I find it's nearly impossible to get non-literary Protestants to step outside a Protestant framework into a world where these concerns are unnecessary.

    Henry, I think this is a good conversation, or at least one I've never had much to do with & so am new enough to it to find it interesting. And I wonder if the battles with creationists that aren't about sheer power will have to be left to the Christian scientists (not Christian Scientists) like Freeman Dyson et al, because the likes of us don't notice their concerns as anything cryingly important, so the conversation isn't likely to be serious beyond pointing out the fact that these problems are _not_ a universal big deal, but parochial, and that perhaps they ought to go handle them on their own turf and stop bothering the rest of us.

    (Oddly enough I don't hear invective about 'Jewish scientists' a la 'Jewish financiers'. It seems the rhetoricians missed an opportunity. This photosynthesis thing I'm working on is a regular bar mitzvah club. If they'd known each other earlier their parents could've bought from Waterman in bulk.)

    I guess my own interest in this has more to do with knocking holes in Protestant universality, which (around here, anyway) is anxious to paper over significant differences by saying that really, we all want and believe in the same things, and then proceeds to hammer on with Protestant themes and pat the seat next to it on the wagon. I am watching my daughter's public-school ed with some amusement; they're deliberate and serious about teaching Core Virtues, which, at the elementary level, include (see if I can remember): Responsibility, Giving, Punctuality, Honesty, Compassion, Perseverence, and Respect.

    None of which I'd argue with -- I must say it makes for a very nice society, especially if you're not subject personally to the self-repression inherent in it. But it's led to an interesting bedtime story; she'd been ill and missed the megillah reading at Purim, and I told her about Purim at my grandparents' enormous shul in Queens, with the noisemakers and the feet stamping at the mention of Haman's name. "But not the grownups!" she said. "Oh yes, especially the grownups," I said. "The men were loudest of all." Well, she wanted to to know why, and I said, "To blot out the name of Haman, so no one would remember he 'd lived." Well! She was shocked, and then quite angry, and said this was wrong, because everyone was good, and everyone was important.

    "Even someone who tried to kill all the Jews?" I asked, and she hesitated, and then tilted her head and put on that soft/yielding Midwestern-girl little smile that's about distant spring breezes, and said, "Yes. Everyone is good." They've got her, you see. We shall see what happens with all the bloody stories as we go.

    I used to sing her "Dona Dona" as a lullaby when she was a baby, then stopped as she got old enough to ask about the lyrics. Now she's asking for it again, so I sing, and last week she finally asked what a "mournful eye" was, and what "slaughter" meant. I'm simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the evening when she asks why the winds are laughing, and I suspect I'll put her off and let her figure it out herself.

    ReplyDelete
  10. To G. E. Budd Esq, who I assume is a thinly disguised avatar of Professor G. E. Budd of Uppsala - welcome.

    But I think we're talking about different things. We know that four-sided triangles can't exist. We also know that the furious sleep of colourless green ideas is meaningless. Such things fall in the realm of knowledge - what I am discussing are stements whose truth or falsehood cannot formally be known by anyone, therefore rendering the idea of omniscience untenable. I wasn't talking about omnipotence - that's another question, but still runs into the same obstacles. Nobody, no matter how powerful, could make four-sided triangles or modulate the furious sleep of colourless green ideas.

    The ideas of Lurianic Kabbalah are rich and interesting, but the creation story you describe is really a version of many other creation stories - including the Biblical one and the Babylonian one - which involved the separation of a formerly unified or formless body. I'm not sure that's really relevant here. 'Love' is a human quality which we ascribe to God after the fact.

    @ Amy - glad you're enjoying the conversation. Yes, one could leave all the discussion with creationists to those scientists who are Christian, but

    1) they need all the help they can get;

    2) there are Jewish (and Moslem) creationists, too;

    3) being Jewish frees one from the problems that beset scientists who are devoutly Christian - I mean those specifically Christian impedimenta that must be taken on faith, such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection and so on. When I read John Polkinghorne's 'Belief In God In An Age Of Science' I felt he'd have got a lot further had he been Jewish.

    About Purim. You know of course that the rabbis referred to Yom Kippur as Yom Ha'Ki'Purim - the Day That Is Like Purim. I guess this is partly good ol' Jewish Humour, but also something to strive for - if the day ever came when nobody had any sins to confess, then Yom Kippur wouldn't be necessary and we might as well have a big noisy party in which - as in the Megillah - God isn't mentioned at all.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hmm, hello Henry (and others), I hope you don't mind my quasi-Protestant ramblings on this topic.

    Suppose at not just all cretans are liars type statements are unknowable, but also something more mundane like the colour of the tongues of Guinea Pigs. Then, the statement "it is impossible to know whether the tongues of Guinea Pigs are blue or pink" would be correct. But then I still don't see why one might blame (or rather, downgrade) God for not knowing this, if it is impossible to know. Surely omniscience is about knowing all things that are possible to know? But I fear I misunderstand you again...

    On Jewishness and Christianity: I must tread very carefully here, as my understanding of Judaism outside a Christian perspective is tragically limited (which is why this is very interesting for me!). But surely one thing that has emerged in the last few decades is how utterly Jewish very early Christianity was. Take, for example, John's gospel: even though it has been condemned as an anti-Jewish polemic, it is still through and through a Jewish work; with elements of apocalypse, dualism and eschatology all thrown into the mix. Or rather, it is very typical of a *certain type* of Jewish work? Isn't that the thing really, that Judaism has encompassed many different strands over its long history? My mind here has been poisoned by Max Weber's Ancient Judaism, who points (rightly or wrongly?) to the highly non-magical, rationalistic world view the ancient Jews developed, in contradistinction to the superstitions of most of their neighbours; and a world view that saw divine action not in magical spells, but as the outworking of history. After all (again, my understanding is) that the Pentateuch is a relatively late work that is a reflection on and synthesis of several strands of tradition and experience, with parallels in the babylonian and egyptian literature. And as might be expected, one thus sees a veritable kaleidoscope (sp.?) of different views of God. The view I myself find most impressive - and one of the many that enrages the dawkinsites so much (with whom I have crossed swords on several occasions) is perhaps the "God as numinous mystery" one that Job forcefully elaborates on in the last part of his book. Here the sheer unfathomable, terrifying and yet compelling nature of God is elaborated on by calling on all the works of the creation.

    Yet there are surely other views also? What about the moment of strange. almost child-like tenderness when after Noah has entered the ark, the Jahwist author has God shut the door of the ark up after them, or any other of his bold anthropomorphisms? (again, all despised by the "talking snakes" type of Dawkinsite).

    God shutting the door of the ark might be childishly simple; but it is also surely a moment of astonishing theological profundity. For its kind image is, after all, set in the context of the total destruction of the world. And it is the juxtaposition of this against the first points that Henry made - that God (if such a thing there be!) must be utterly other, beyond all the storms of thought - that I find so interesting. It is like looking at a doubly-exposed photography, where two utterly incongruous images brought into ghostly apposition, nevertheless make a compelling composite...

    GB

    ReplyDelete
  12. Graham - I don't mind at all! The more the merrier at this decidely ecumenical table. In contrast to Amy C, I know rather little about Judaism, having come to it rather late in life from a somewhat atheist background: so I am probably inclined to see Judiasm more through the lens of a churchman than most Jews I know.

    Surely omniscience is about knowing all things that are possible to know?

    Aha. I see what you mean. Yes, one could define omniscience like that, but the fact remains that it is still possible to frame statements that are formally undecidable. The statement

    'It is impossible to know whether the tongues of guinea pigs are blue or pink'

    raises the question of why it is impossible, except by fiat. But the statement 'All Cretans are liars' is (if the person telling you is a Cretan) begs no such questions. It is formally undecidable. The Epimenides Paradox feeds into Goedel's work that showed how in any sufficiently complex logical system, there must exist statements which are true or false, but there is no way of deciding their truth or falsehood.

    Now, I'd say that were God qualitatively different from Man, he would in principle be able to know every aspect of His Creation.

    However, the very fact of undecidability forbids complete knowledge, even to the Creator. To me, that demotes God to the person who wound the clock and walked away - which, to me, is unsatisfactory, and certainly does not admit the idea of a God who intervenes directly in human affairs.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I can see, my dear Crox, how your reasoning could lead you to agnosticism. But the step into atheism seems to me one step too far. I also think that discussions of God's existence tend to be discussions about various ideas about God. In fact, what many people call their "faith" really involves nothing more than subscribing to one idea about God or another. (No one in his right mind believes in the God He Who Must Not Be Named doesn't believe in.) But I think those whose faith is living don't regard God as a thesis or the conclusion of a syllogism. The I Am Who Am, the Tao, the Logos, the motion and the spirit "that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things" is best experienced not theorized about. After all, the Tao that can be named is not the Tao.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Let's leave He Who Must Not Be Named out of this. The God Delusion reads like the ravings of an aspergic sixteen-year-old sexually repressed geek offended by kindergarten Bible stories. 'Nuff said.

    What you say, Frank, is no doubt true: But I think those whose faith is living don't regard God as a thesis or the conclusion of a syllogism. - one cannot argue with that.

    However, for me, I always come up against the fundamental limits of knowledge - determined by logic, not scientific inquiry.

    After all, the Tao that can be named is not the Tao - the closest I can get to this is the kabbalistic epigram that 'God Is Existence'. This makes sense, but demotes God to the status of the Higgs Boson, and not really something or someone with whom one might have a conversation. Pantheism, or just Theism, doesn't do it for me, I'm afraid. It might do it for other people - just not me.

    ReplyDelete
  15. The God Delusion reads like the ravings of an aspergic sixteen-year-old sexually repressed geek offended by kindergarten Bible stories

    *snerk* Sorry.

    I think I must be an apathetic atheist, because I haven't read any of the New Atheists books, I don't listen to any of the atheism radio programs or podcasts, I belong to none of the atheist/humanist groups (is it the People's Front of Atheism, or the Atheist People's Front?), and I don't have a letter A T-shirt or blog widget. Do not want.

    Nor am I interested in having any sort of bible or holy book on my shelves, even if it's a sarcastic, mocking version. I've never read the Koran, so Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is just a funny magical realism novel. I liked Life of Brian because it was a Monty Python movie with Graham Chapman, not necessarily because it was a satire on religion.

    OTOH, when religion interferes with biomedical research, as it does in the case of stem cell biology, then I do feel it's necessary to speak out and take action. I just don't think that mocking the faithful and their beliefs serves any constructive purpose in that context.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Proselytism is an unlovely trait in any religion, including atheism.

    Incidentally, a friend at my former synagogue and I had a drinking club/website called the King Herod Appreciation Society. On the website we advertised ourselves as the only religiously affiliated organization that viewed Monty Python's Life Of Brian as a documentary. Imagine our surprise when we were invited to Broadcasting House to be interviewed by Terry Jones!!!

    ReplyDelete
  17. As far as scientific research goes (and remember that Lysenkoism in the USSR did a pretty good job of suppressing science quite without any help from religion: genetics was denounced as "bourgeois pseudoscience in 1948), isn't the real issue that science simply comes up against society the whole time? After all, no-one thinks that any sort of science at all should be allowed in a society, for at least two good reasons. The first is that in the end, the public pay for a fairly hefty chunk of science to be carried out, and there is thus automatically an onus on scientists - even palaeontologists - to be able to justify their work to the public. Surely part of democracy is that if one is in a society where the majority strongly disapprove of a particular sort of research line, then public money can't be used for that purpose? Discuss. The second is that science often comes up against ethics. There are all sorts of totally unethical experiments one could do (I do not need in this context to enumerate the famous examples) that would generate interesting and helpful research: OK, one famous example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_Study_of_Untreated_Syphilis_in_the_Negro_Male

    The trouble comes when people disagree about ethics, as the religious and non-religious sometimes (but not always) do. But I suspect that this tension would simply be embodied in other interactions even if there was no religion...

    ReplyDelete
  18. Graham, I think there's a difference between public disgust at & resignation to being mugged by govt and having Science(TM) pissing around with the Good Book. No idea how it goes down in the UK, but here, when you start talking about How the Universe Began in schools, and telling Just So stories about humans, you're often in direct conflict with what parents are teaching the kids at home. And that'll enrage them every time. (I will not here digress into my own reaction when I found that the school counselor had given my 5-year-old a rape whistle.)

    (The Small Girl, incidentally, is offended by the notion that humans are animals. "We're not," she says. What makes us different, then? "People don't lay eggs." But cats don't either. "We're just different. I can't explain it.")

    Henry, I don't know much about Judaism; just grew up with one foot in Modern Orthodoxy and was sent to a yeshiva day school for a few years when I was a child. It hadn't occurred to me before, though, that if you give a kid this sort of education it's likely to stick unless one of two things happens:

    1. The kid never does take it seriously and goes along to please and avoid trouble;
    2. the kid does take it seriously, but at some point notices that it doesn't make any literal sense, and is made up, and the kid is put off by this.

    I hadn't quite noticed that playing-with-fire aspect of it. Well, that was dumb. In any event: We have our seder (one is plenty) with two other families w/small children, and since I cannot face the prospect of slogging through the children's haggadah _again_ and showing the stupid egg and shank bone and the rest, I've proposed a quiz format for the seder, with questions to be pulled from a hat and asked while we're eating, and answers allowed with mouths full. Small plastic toys are to be thrown at children. The idea's been enthusiastically embraced by the others, and here are SG's questions:

    1. How did the Jews make the bricks for the pyramids?
    2. How did God open the seas into a path?
    3. How did the Jews get food on the other side of the sea, in the desert?
    4. How did the Jews make gold?
    5. How did God make all those horrible plagues?
    6. How did the Jews make the Torah?
    7. Did the Jews make their homes out of bricks, steel, or mud after they escaped?
    8. Why was the Pharoah so cruel to the Jews?
    9. Why are there two seders?

    I think we can safely cross "the child who wits not to ask" off the list. And it's lovely, because not only can you tell the whole story out of those questions, but you're likely to get arguments as kids & adults try to answer. The questions line up very closely with a book my worried Orthodox grandfather gave me when I was 8 or so called _Science and the Bible_. Which gave tortured physical explanations about how customary winds managed to sweep Red Sea water aside, and how the frequencies produced by the trumpets brought down the walls at Jericho, and that sort of thing.

    Am curious to hear what the other kids come up with. Unfortunately we won't have enough people there who can read Hebrew to stumble through "Chad Gadya". Maybe I can lead a little of it after Cup 4.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Since the subject of seder has been broached, I'll ask the question "How is this night different from all others?", or, "Is it wrong for an atheist to attend a Passover seder?" I should say up front that I, atheist-with-a-lowercase-a, have attended at least half a dozen seders over the years (invited, of course), and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them. And I plan to attend yet another this weekend ... but is this wrong of me? *I* don't think so, of course, and here are my reasons:

    1. I respect the traditions, stories, and rituals. Especially the rituals (I'm somewhat obsessive-compulsive, a behavior pattern that is all about rituals). I know how to comport myself properly, and read the parts I am assigned.

    2. I love the food. I like the charoset and matzah and almost everything (brisket, matzah ball soup, etc.) that is part of of the festive dinner. Much of it is quite similar to the meals that my German grandmother prepared ... must be the cultural influence from Eastern Europe and Russia.

    3. The seders I've attended have a strong theme of peace, tolerance, and social justice. How can this possibly be bad?

    4. (most important) My friends are hosting the seder and invited me, and I enjoy spending time with them. Their friends are also liberals (American definition) and academicians, physicians, or artists, and they're interesting people. Discussions can be animated and intense, but not in a bad way. My friends know I'm an atheist, but the others perhaps do not - I'm not very public about it.

    So I think I have good reasons to attend the seder and enjoy it. But I'm willing to listen to the opinions of others.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Well, I'm an agnostic and have been doing this for years, and nobody seems to mind. We'll have two very tolerant Catholic husbands at this one, too. They dig the brisket.

    I am mentally trying to reconcile "peace, tolerance, and social justice" with all the smiting, drowned cavalry, deaths of firstborn, a-strong-hand-and-a-mighty-arm, starvation, water poisoning, etc. in the haggadah. Frankly, that's one reason I'm not very interested in thumping through the bloodiness as usual this year. When the kids are older.

    What's interesting to me, though, thinking about that, is that you have on one side God, and the other the Pharoah and his court magicians. Should be no match, and indeed is no match. And yet nothing goes until the Pharoah cries uncle and recognizes God. I think he was a rather smaller God back then, in the stories.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Whoops. The other thing, Barn Owl, is that Judaism's emphasis is on orthodoxy, not faith. (Which makes explaining this to churchgoing Protestants around here difficult, because by their definitions anyone who's churchy without either having faith or caring about it is a hypocrite.) What you believe is your business. What you do is the community's business. (Again, often in a non-Protestant sense.) So as long as you eat, talk, and argue, I think you're all set.

    ReplyDelete
  22. The big difference IMHO is that Jews are not united by a religion so much as tribal custom. Faith only became important after St Paul said that you didn't have to be Jewish to be Christian. We'll be going to our community's Seder on Thursday and it'll be fun. Chag Pesach Sameah everyone.

    I should say here, by way of clarification, that my atheism doesn't come from 'proof' that God doesn't exist, because that's impossible (and why HWMNBN is an idiot of a scientist for asserting the contrary), but from consideration of the logical impossibility that God can have the attributes that make him qualitatively divine. If God can't be omniscient, omnipotent, immortal, then he's not a God but some other guy who's just older and wiser than you, like Gandalf or Dumbledore or Obi-Wan Kenobi.

    ReplyDelete