How You Approach Your Spirituality Depends On Your Tolerance For “Uncertainty”

In his excellent lecture “Beyond Belief“, Astrophysicist, author, science communicator and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC Neil deGrasse Tyson points out how even the most brilliant human beings in history — Isaac Newton (perhaps the MOST brilliant human ever) for instance — went to “magical thinking” when they reached the limits of “what they knew”. Isaac Newton was so smart that he invented calculus (because the math didn’t exist to solve the problem he was trying to solve). And yet, when Newton found inexplicable variables that confounded even HIS knowledge (when the calculations to describe multiple multiple moving bodies became even too much for HIS mind to get around), he ascribed the answer to God. God understood it and that’s why it worked the way it did.

Isaac Newton

Had Newton’s answer — “It’s God” — stood the test of time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But, as Tyson points out, before too long, sss came along and — using information not available to Newton — answered Newton’s question without relying on God — the “God Of The Gaps”, really — to explain it.

Over time, religion answers less and less because its answers become more and more demonstrably false. In religion’s defense, it usually tries to answer the Big Questions using only the information available to it at the time — even if only contextually. Had the authors of the Old Testament known about germ theory, for instance, or had access to telescopes and microscopes or the internet, would they have written what they wrote? Of course not. They wouldn’t have felt compelled to invent things to explain how the world works. They’d have known how it works. Science would have informed them.

As an atheist, I accept that as curious as I am to know how exactly the universe works, it is unlikely my curiosity will ever be answered. I will never know for sure, for instance, what lies on the other end of a black hole — beyond its raging singularity. I accept not knowing. That means I accept the uncertainty that rides shotgun with it.

How did the universe begin and how will it end? I don’t know. And I can live with that.

But that’s just me. Not everyone feels the way I do or thinks this way. Not everyone can live with not knowing. Faith doesn’t require certainty to work — except certainty in the faith itself. Certainty that the faith is correct — regardless of whether it really is or not. Abrahamic faith would tell you that it (and it alone) answers every question a person could have about the world.

How did the universe begin? Well, “In the beginning…”. How will it all end? “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come” says John in Revelation (14:6). Everyone not fearing God will end up this way, in “…the great wine press of the Wrath of God” and their blood will flow “…from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.”

That’s a lot of blood. A lot of certainty, too — about things that absolutely will not happen. Faith’s advantage (such as it is) is that no one ever has to check it’s work. In fact, no one wants anyone checking faith’s work. That would mean faith always failing because faith’s “work” never checks out. “Trust me” is not the same as “Trust the data — as much as one can”. It’s a whole other way of thinking, in fact.

And that’s the point. How do you think about certainty? Do you need to feel certain about where we came from, where we’re heading and what it all means? Or are you willing to accept doubt? Can you handle not knowing why we’re here — or (the harder assignment still) handle the task of assigning a purpose to yourself?

Can An Atheist Be A Fan Of Jesus?

By AL Katz

Though completely counter-intuitive on its face, it’s not only possible for an atheist to be a fan of Jesus, I’d argue most atheists are already “fans” in that they live their lives by happily, successfully “doing unto others”.

One of the questions most atheists will face at some point in their life as an atheist is the theist’s “But, without God, people would be free to murder each other!” It’s not phrased as a question but it is: what basis does an atheist use for “morality” if there’s no God to tell you what moral “is”?  Are theists saying that without worrying how a sky deity might react, they’d be completely down with killing people?  That seems more a reflection on them — and their character flaws (that minus the threat of an angry sky deity to motivate them they’d go on killing sprees every day) — than it is a reflection on atheists.

Humans are social creatures.  In order to live with even a modicum of happiness, we need to learn how to co-exist peacefully and peaceably with other humans.  And, we do.  Most of us go our whole lives without killing another human.  We may get angry at them — we may even scream and shout and raise our voices at them.  And then we apologize and get on with things.

As Jesus put it, we “do unto others” and live happier lives as a result.

How can not be a fan of that?  It’s so simple.  So elemental.  So basic to human nature.

For the record — Jesus also railed against priests and temples.  He said we don’t need them.  “Speak directly to the father”, Jesus preached.  Talk directly to God.

Cut out the middleman.

Do I know for a fact that Jesus existed?  Hell, no.  No one “knows”.  There’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that someone vaguely (very vaguely) like Jesus appeared around this time — which was ripe with chaos and apocalyptic preaching.  Reminder — Jesus did not invent Christianity (he — such as he was — never knew such a thing ever existed least of all in his “name”), Paul did.  A huge chunk of the NT is Paul writing to all the growing, far-flung Christian communities being established across the Roman world.  In those letters, he’s describing a Jesus he never met.  Also he’s trying to justify his deification of Jesus by lining up Jesus and his life with the messiah vaguely prophesied in the Hebrews’ religious texts.

On the one hand, Paul jumps through all sorts of crazy hoops to make Jesus a descendant of the House of David.  In keeping, the early church fathers, picking up from Paul, altered history itself to invent a census that required Jesus to go to Bethlehem — the justification for his being in Bethlehem in order to be born there.  Again — for prophesy’s sake.

Check out the Jesus Seminar for an academic, scholarly approach to Jesus’s actual historicity.  The Seminar was formed in 1985 by Robert Funk — an actual “bible scholar” — with actual academic bona fides and included, at various times, up to 150 similar scholars.

The Jesus that emerges from their work has a simple message — Do Unto Others — that has nothing to do with what the church (the early church then the Catholic Church then the Protestant Church and the Mormon Church etc etc) eventually invented and called “Christianity”.  That’s probably why pretty much every church out there uses Jesus as a mascot.  They have no use for any sort of historical Jesus because he contradicts everything they want you to believe.  About their Jesus.

Well, their Jesus is not “the” Jesus.  Their Jesus is “a” Jesus.  A Jesus only a racist, misogynist, science-hating bigot would love.  Their Jesus is a Jesus Jesus would most definitely hate.  Because he hasn’t a clue how to “Do unto others”.

I Have Always Been Grateful To Hebrew School For Making Me The Atheist I Am Today

By A L Katz

To be completely honest, I think I hit the ground an atheist.  I can’t recall ever believing there was a giant sky deity who created everything and looked down on human life benevolently — except when he got angry at us or a natural disaster hit.  Aside from one 24 hour period when I was 8 and thought I was in deep shit (I wasn’t), I never even tried to communicate with this sky deity as in “Hey, God — here’s what I want from you!”

It wasn’t until I’d been in Hebrew School for a few more years (I started when I was 6) that I actually began to process the stuff they were putting to us — and think about it — that I began to question, well, everything.  Fortunately — for me — questioning, well, everything wasn’t a bug in the system, it was what the system wanted me to do.  For real.

Judaism isn’t dogmatic by nature.  Though the ten commandments feature prominently, there’s no institutional stick to make you follow them or else.  There’s no hell in Judaism.  No concept, really, of “sinning” or “sinners” (except in the broadest possible sense of people not following the ten commandments).   Punishment is more personal.  You should know better.  Be ashamed of yourself — for real.

Jesus did not invent “Do unto others”.  It’s a core message of Judaism that Jesus (whatever vestige of an actual human he was, if he was) articulated with sublime economy.  Three words even a humble atheist can live by — without another drop of “instruction” from above or anywhere else.

Do.  Unto.  Others.

My family were “conservative” Jews.  We were “the middle way” between the “we follow-every-last-rule-there-is” Orthodox Jews and the “we-follow–so-few-rules-we-might-as-well-be-Christians” Reform Jews.  My family belonged to a large synagogue called Chizuk Amuno in the northwest Baltimore suburb of Pikesville, MD.  We went to high holiday services and, mostly, all the other holiday services which got us out of going to public school for the day.  We went to Saturday services occasionally — usually when my mom decided we weren’t being Jewish enough.

Moms, ya know?

My dad (a surgeon, himself the son of a physician) was, in retrospect, an agnostic on the way to being an atheist.  He was, more than anything, a cultural Jew — the same way I see myself.  I am proud of my Jewish culture and heritage.  I have no use for the religion.

While Hebrew School itself was mostly dreary, a few of the teachers were awesome.  Memorable and life changing in what they taught me.  I don’t know what Henry Hyman did for a living in addition to teaching Hebrew School.  If he was half as good at whatever that was as he was at teaching?  He must have been very good at his job.  Mr. Hyman invited questions — not slapdash, shotgunned bullshit — I mean, in the context of what he was teaching us — Mr. Hyman’s main job was teaching us Jewish scripture — the Torah and all the other books of the canonical OT and all the other texts and commentaries that are part of extended Jewish learning and thought.

With Mr. Hyman, the assignment was always this simple: read and ask questions.

The story we read that made me ask the MOST questions was the one about Abraham and Isaac.  The one where Abraham — because Yahweh tells him to — agrees to sacrifice Isaac.  “God”, by the way, is actually the character’s job description; his name — one of them — is Yahweh as in “That Yahweh is one unpleasant, self-centered god, isn’t he?”

What message, I wanted to know, was my religion trying to convey with this cockamamie story?  Do they really want us to “respect” a grown man (like any of our fathers, understand) who hears a voice in his head say “Take your son — this person you love more than anything in the world — and KILL HIM because I’m telling you to” — and DOES IT?”

Henry Hyman didn’t try to dodge the question.  He tried to reframe the story’s point from the ending — where Yahweh (now that he’s seen just how loyal Abraham is) promised Abraham great things because of it.  A great nation will flow from him — this man who didn’t just consider murdering his son but went to do it.  If an angel doesn’t intercede (in the story) — Isaac dies right there, right then.

On the one hand, Henry Hyman — representing my faith and its teachings — couldn’t answer my question.

On the other hand, Henry Hyman — acknowledging that my 14 year old’s point had actual real world validity — gave my religion credence in that it’s response to my continuing to question it wasn’t to bludgeon me into submission.  “Keep asking question,” Mr. Hyman told me.  Not — “Shut up and go away” but “Keep-a-going”.

I don’t know what became of Mr. Hyman.  I’m quite sure he’s long gone.  But if I could talk to him today, if I could video call him (social distancing after all and neither of us is Spring Chickens), I’d thank him — genuinely.  I hope he would take pride from the fact that nearly 50 years on, I’m still thinking of the man.  Still thinking about him — and what he taught me.