Friday, 28 March 2008

God is not a meme

I've seen a few bloggers write how religion/belief in God is a meme. I'm not so sure I agree with that.

First off, I've read the God Delusion and The Selfish Gene, and am assuming those who wrote about memes also have. On the book God Delusion itself, I will say that Dawkins displays considerable intellectual arrogance and I don't really like him, champion of atheism or not. That's one of the great things about the secular world - you can criticise the "greats" without fear of a slap from God - or more likely, your rabbi.

It was Dawkins who introduced the meme and he stated a number of reasons as to why he did. The first was that is sounds like 'gene.' Another was that it was supposed to be analogus to the gene in 'structural make-up' and behaviour - that it finds a host and replicates (the gene equivalent of finding a mate and having babies).

The single most significant flaw in this reasoning is that culture is not bits of infromation floating around. Neither is it analogus to the gene in 'structure.'

What is more accurate to describe the fact that religion has propogated itself so far and for so long, at least in my opinion, is a combination of social/moral cohesion and violence.

Social cohesion means that a number of people in a single society are all forced to stay together and keep the traditions and values of that society, by society itself. Whilst that sounds rather odd in abstract terms, since if all individuals wanted to leave society, you'd expect them to be able to do it, for at first glance, it is the individuals who make up society. But in practise, the truth is different.

Take the Jewish community for example. Someone who grows up in a Jewish community will replicate the behaviour of the people in that community. If their behaviour differs from the norm, they will be put back in line by members of the wider community. That could be a parent, a teacher, a friend, a neighbour or a complete stranger who tells you off. This is all due to the effects of cohesion - keeping people together.

Of course, physically leaving the community is difficult, for the indivdual has been integrated into society to the extent that they rely upon it and should they leave, their social and perhaps economic lives will fall away...until they rebuild in a different community which has different values. Of course, the society will continue to function after the individual has left and the community will barely feel the absence of the few who are able to resist this cohesion.

Think of it in terms of quicksand. The longer you stay in the same swamp, the deeper you go in, the more the effects of cohesion, the harder it is to remove yourself. It's possible, just difficult.

Therefore religion is not merely an abstract bit of culture, an idea which has been passed down generations: it is a reinforced way of life which isn't "transferred" to the next generation - the next generation is automatically born into it and necessarily imitates the behaviour of those around them.

Violence is a part of it because that's how religions have tended to remain alive and/or grow. For example, Islam. Sikhism. And just about any other religion...they've all had violent pasts as far as I can tell.

Perhaps this gives a greater insight into the Darwinian necessity of religion than does the concept of a meme. Afterall, the idea of a meme is too abstract to understand why a particular meme would be replicated. This theory (which I'm sure belongs to Weber and that I've done it a great injustice) suggests survival of the individual - the individual now has a community to rely upon. It also suggest the survival of the community, in that the society will always have a membership and those members will remain loyal to that particular community even if it makes contact with other communities.

In short, individuals have little choice how they act, as they will usually only ever act within the bounds of a certain community. If your parents are Jewish, you'll end up being Jewish. If parents vote republican, it's likely their kids will too.

Incidentally, people are therefore predictable and we can therefore begin to predict modes of behaviour based on this alone.

Let the arguing begin.

N.B. this is over-simplistic and was written hurridly between essays over a number of hours.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Late at night. Two tall figures are walking in the dimly lit streets.

Frum friend: So, Jewish Sceptic! What's new? Going on any shidduchim?
Me: Oh, uhh, umm. Not exactly.

--At this point, an internal struggle takes place. Two minature figures appear in a puff of smoke, each sitting on a different shoulder. One is coloured red and carries a pork chop, and a seedy magazine. The other is dressed in a black bekishe and streimel, armed with a yiddish accent and Torah scroll.--

Evil conscience: You do have a girlfriend! Hahaha! She isn't Jewish either!! HaHaHa! Good job!
Jewish conscience: Oy vey! What would your friend think if he knew that? What do you think Hashem would think?
Me, thinking: My friend would have a heart attack. As for the other question, I'm not having a theological debate with you. Again.
Jewish conscience: Yes, what a chochom you are. Not. It says here in the Torah that...
Me: I know. I know. What do I say now though? Do I lie and say no? Or do I not lie and allow an argument to go ahead, and lose my friend?
Evil conscience: HaHaHa! I don't even need to be here!
Me: No. You don't. Because you don't exist and neither does Reb Yid here. You don't exist.
Consciences together: Oh. You're right.
--They both disappear in a puff of logic.--

Me: Umm...No, I'm not.
FF: are you sure?
Me: Yes.
FF: It would make you happier y'know!
Me: But I'm happy already...

The interesting thing about this discussion is that FF here seemed only to have reason in his life once he was dating. Whilst this isn't strictly true for everyone, I know plenty of young frum people, and it seems their only goal in life is to be old enough to get to go on a shidduch. What are their plans after that? Invariably none. Talking about girls take up so much time and effort in the frum community - at least the people I know - that they haven't given thought to what they're going to do after yeshiva, besides vague plans for college or a shallow committment to a family business somewhere...

Of course, not everyone is like that.

I had a similar discusson with someone a few days ago. I told them I was an atheist.
I told them everything. My doubts, my research of religion, my eventual journey to agnosticism and now atheism. I wanted to see what sort of reaction I would get and lucky for me, I found the right person to tell. There was no yelling, no disowning, no unpleasant stuff at all. In fact, they said "is that all?" and told me it's not such a big deal. I think it is a big deal - I also think I found the most liberal, observant Orthodox Jew in the world. Lucky me!! What would everyone else think though? Family, etc? "Oh, there'll be hell to pay, sure. Maybe literally..."

That would be rather unlucky, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Food Glorious Food...!

Ok, so, I lied. This post isn't about Egypt and the Israelites. Instead, I saw Abandoning Eden's blog, where she spoke about food and this led me to post my own food experiences...

I don't keep kosher anymore. Oh, don't get me wrong, I eat kosher food. All the time. In fact, it's pretty much all I have access to, but if I'm hungry, I won't say no to a non-kosher plate of food (except pork and prawns) if I like the look of it.

Why no pork? There's just this huge psychological block for me. My girlfriend wonders why I won't try it if I'm "not Jewish anymore" and I just say it's a 'cultural taboo.'

Why not prawns? On top of them being Not Kosher, I just don't like the look of them.

Now that I recall, the first time I had non-kosher food, was a few months ago at a careers fair. I was wearing my kippa at the time, and I could therefore be identified by all the Jews around - luckily, there was only one other Jew, so I wasn't worried.

I didn't even know what I was about to eat at the time. It was one of those tid-bits that comes on a plate with toothpicks all carried by a waiter, whose usually dressed in white and black and always wearing a jacket. Posh, non? It was a spring roll. My kosher food experiences taught me spring roll was always vegetable based with absolutely no meat in it. Apparently, the non-kosher world doesn't make such distinctions. I was a little taken by surprise as I bit into it, chewing chewing away. This was partly because I hadn't realised there would be what looked like dark meat of some kind, but also because the only other religious Jew present at this place was suddenly next to me and needless to say, saw me eating it.

But I didn't care. I was hungry. It was lovely. I still don't know what meat was inside. The other Jew was on his way out, so still chewing I waved bye-bye, non-kosher tid-bit in hand. By the time I swallowed he was gone - and there were no real Jews in the room anymore.

The next time was several months later but only a short while ago, when I was with my non-Jewish girlfriend and we ordered a Chinese take out. I had shredded beef in chili sauce. I hesitated for only a second before eating it. It wasn't as good as the Kosher stuff, I have to say. But then, girlfriend said her food tasted yucky too, so it's probably the place (everything about it looked really nice, including the food!) rather than the food. In case anyone's wondering though, kosher and non kosher beef taste the same, feels the same, for all I know could be the same.

The next day I met her parents for the first time and was offered lunch, which I agreed to. Either that or starve. There was soup, bread, a variety of cheeses, and together with lox was an unidentified white meat which I assume was ham. I had soup (yummy! just like my mother makes it, actually...) and cheese and bread and was happy with that. Despite my girlfriend offering me ham, I said no (she knows full well I won't touch it...!)

I've also tried non-kosher stuff at the school cafeteria, absolutely gross. I had vegetable quiche (eurgh. It tasted like how I imagine soggy cardboard soaked in muddy water would taste) and lettuce. I had a bite before checking if there were any creepy crawlies in it. I found one. It still haunts me.

As you can see, it's been a bit hit and miss for me so far...

Monday, 24 March 2008

I was dressed in the typical Jewsh 'Ulta-Orthodox' uniform: white shirt, dark pants, tassles on my side and a velvet skull-cap on my head. I had a sefer in my hand and silly ideas in my head. I had been in yeshiva all of three days.

"You're the same as the Muslims!" someone on the left said in a voice only I could hear. "What?" I said, naturally puzzled by such a statement "me?" I turned to see who said such a thing, and saw a dark haired boy with glasses looking at me. "Yes" he said "you agree with such things as murdering babies and children, as the Muslim fanatics do. Innocent people. You're every bit as bad as they."

I assured him I didn't lead a double life of religious Jew and fanatic Muslim, just as I assure you now. What entailed though, was a pseudo-theological discussion, where he related to me that religious Jews are just as bad because they believe they must commit genocide against certain (biblical) nations - and even if they didn't do so themselves, they were required to believe it was a good idea. Problem.

At the time, I pretty much agreed with him, but argued against it anyway, primarily because I didn't like the way in which it was expressed.

So why aren't religious Jews as bad as the Muslim fanatics?
In my circles, frankly, some of them are. Some of them are as bad as regular racists, and will freely admit to it (unless, I imagine, you slap them with a court order, in which case they'll just laugh and say they were joking). In fact, one of my high school rebbeim opined that all Jews are racists by definition. I didn't agree with this at the time, and still don't.

But so far, all I've done is compound the problem. Why aren't Jews racists?

1) Jews tend not to do things beca--
Ok wait. Who am I kidding? Judaism is replete with references to "stay away from the non-Jews, because they're not Jewish" - if they were Jewish, you wouldn't need to stay away from them. Can you imagine someone saying "stay away from Jews because they're Jewish" - they would be thrown to the lions, and rightly so.

Whether or not fanatic Jews are on a par with fanatic Muslims, at the end of the day, is self evident. Even fanatic Jews aren't intent on punishing the west with death and violence, because of their philosophy. They leave such judgement to God.

But still, it is exactly this Muslim over-zealousness that Jews professed when they came out of Egypt. The Canaanites had to die because they were sinful. They were sexually promiscuous. They served other gods. These are pretty much the same reasons Bin Laden acted and is now a wanted man by the western-world today. But still. Jews just don't do that today, so I think some credit is due to them.

Simply put, religious Muslims are more religious than religious Jews, but the Jews aren't that far behind.

Next post: proof that the Israelites really crossed the reed sea. This is scary for me and is one of the single most things which makes me doubt my doubts, for reasons I will explain.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Birkat Haminim

"Blessing" of the Heretics. In case one unfamiliar with Jewish liturgy should grace these humble pages, "blessing" is a euphemism. The full prayer and a brief explanation can be accessed here.

I always wondered about this prayer when I was a Good Yid (tm). Shouldn't we be encouraging the repentance of those heretics, asking God to allow them to see the light, in His eternal kindness, rather than call for the utter destruction? It always seemed a bit odd to me.

And now it's even more odd. When I do go to synagogue and say prayers, should I skip this out? Maybe? Maybe not? I don't want to curse myself! Obviously, there's no Halachic answer to this, unless there's a Sheilos V'Teshuvos I'm missing on the subject, or a sefer "al Ha-Minim," perhaps written by the Rambam, which guides us troubled souls on such matters.

Being in these sort of Halachic situations is still a little awkward for me. It's not that I'm scared of Divine Retribution, it's that I don't want to mess with the beliefs of others. It would annoy me if people were disrespectful of Judaism when I was practising it, things have to be done properly, don't you know. So why should I ruin it for others?

For example, what do I do if I'm called upon to pray from the pulpit? Do I refuse twice and accept on the third time, as is the custom? Or do I say "I'm wearing sandals" as a cryptic reference to Mishnah Torah hilchos avoda zara, describing minim as those who wear sandals or coloured clothes?

What about leading bentching? Am I posul for that too? And what about all forms of eidus, especially vayachulu on shabbos [I never really understood how we could give eidus about something we never saw]?

I must confess that sometimes I do try and make life easier for those around me, if I won't go discovered. After all, what they don't know won't hurt them, right?

For example, on shabbos if no-one's remembered to tear up the toilet paper into usable bits, I do that. If there's a light on in a room that shouldn't be, I turn it off before anyone notices it was ever on. Or if a room is freezing I turn up the heating, and vice versa. Maybe the fridge light is on...Or is it? It's so hard to remember these things after a bowl of chicken soup, but it's off now, that's for sure.

Of course it's risky, discovery would be followed by the certain catastrophe all of us frum sceptics and skeptics are familiar with. But still...mitzvah gorreres mitzvah, right?

If anyone has any ideas on these puzzling questions, let me know.
At this point I'd like to say thanks to Jewish Atheist for being the inspiration for this blog, and to Abandoning Eden, who has given me the fortitude to make my life more than just a blog entry. I'm humbled by the excellence with which these and other bloggers write.

I've harboured reasonable doubts about God since I've been 17, but only recently formulated them into an actual opinion about religion. Orthopraxy was my very first step, pushing aside all my doubts, until I had enough knowledge to make an educated choice on the subject. Agnosticism was my next step, but this could never be a permanent state for me and lasted only a few short months. Now I'm more or less swaying towards atheism, and the only thing which stops me from being one completely, is The Community (tm) and The Family (tm).

My family on my mother's side is sefardi and is pretty patriarchal - I'm convinced my grandfather and my uncles are in some sort of Jewish mafia. They meet once a week and sit in circles, discussing things in Arabic. Though I don't understand Arabic, I know a few words and from what I can glean it's usually about business.

My family know about my doubts, but they feel these can be overcome if I continue acting like an Orthodox Jew and seek "help" from Rabbis. I love my family. I love the Jewish community. It's really all I've ever known, though I've had and continue to have friends of Other Places and Religions. That's probably not a typical Orthodox thing, but I was very inquisitive and pushed myself to be more outgoing than I really was, and somehow, I managed to make all sorts of friends.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd be dating a non-Jewish girl, and yet here I am. Not only is she not Jewish, she's an Atheist, pretty much like me. The first thing I have to say about her, is that she is not at all like the typical image of a 'shiksa' implanted in Orthodox Jewry's collective brains. In fact, she's more Jewish than I ever knew to begin with, it sort of hit me some time after I asked her out. She's practically Shomer Negia (she won't even shake a strangers hand - less about modesty, more about she doesn't know where they've been) and she keeps tznius to modern-orthodox levels. I'll be a bit personal and say we haven't had sex, though she has no philosophical objections to sex before marriage, and though I no longer do.

I love her, she loves me, we like being in each other's company and we get on really well. BUT... what would family say? They would freak out of course. I'm terrified they would ostracise me completely..

I realise it's my life, but I also realise I don't live in a vacuum, I have people who love me and whilst they may let me make my own choices without the shouting and fighting, they may just end up really sad and depressed because of my actions. I don't want that to happen. I always assumed there'd be fighting and shouting, I can handle the anger. I can't handle being the cause of my parent's sadness. I fear this is how it might end, though.

My parent's know I'm agnostic, because I've told them, but also because I don't participate in synagogue prayer anymore. They've already asked "where did we go wrong?" to nothing in particular, and I've had to reassure them they didn't go wrong, I'm still the same son.

So! After strengthening my resolve, I've decided to tell someone I'm an atheist with a non-Jewish girlfriend and see how that rocks the boat. That someone is a good friend of mine, and also a distant family relation. They're the only person I feel comfortable telling everything to, and the person I think will take it the best out of everyone I know. When I say "tell them everything," I mean everything... the doubts since 17, lack of shabbos keeping, lack of kosher keeping, atheism, non-Jewish girlfriend. It may seem like a bad joke to this friend, because it appears that I am far more religious than they are. However irreligious they may have been, never have they had a relationship with a non-Jewish person, and from what I know of them, they never would. I've always been the most religious in my family (what's right is right!) and now I'm set to be the least religious and make my first forays into intermarriage - what's right is right, after all.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Jewish and sceptical

Nothing is really new here, there appears to be lots of people like me - which is comforting I suppose. But whereas many people have already made their life choices, I am now at a crossroads where I have to finally buck up and decide what I'm going to do with my life.

I don't want to repeat what others have spoken out far more eloquently than I could ever put the evidence for/against God, so instead I will tell you my story. I don't say it's unique, but I do say it's mine and how I got to be here...

When I was 15, I came into contact with a Christian missionary and ultimately, it is he I have to thank for enlightening me - though of course not in the way he thought he would. He put forth arguments a religious Orthodox Jew just couldn't accept, and forced me to delve into the then unknown (to me) vast amalgam of the Prophets and Writings section in the Hebrew bible. After educating myself about Jewish scripture beyond what I was being taught in an Orthodox religious school, I looked into the New Testament and found it to be lacking somewhat in substance. I looked into and spoke to members of (either on-line or in person) Catholicism, Islam, witchcraft, druidism, Buddhism and Hinduism (more recently, Sikhism).

By the time I was 17, I was eating Christian arguments for breakfast, followed by Muslim arguments for dessert. I started taking an Advanced two-year Course in Religious Studies because I wanted an easy grade, so I could later get into university. I did it in 9 months between my other studies ("real" subjects and Jewish stuff). I got 100/110 - which actually did secure me a place in a prestigious British university; I'm thankful for it.

The point is, I looked to educate myself beyond what I was being taught and did so. Through it all, I remained true to Judaism. I sporadically came into contact with atheists, who I thought were very thoughtful and educated people (mostly) - and what's more, they weren't interested in converting me, a novel concept at the time, as I was dealing mainly with Christianity and Islam, which was all I knew of people of different beliefs to me. They wanted to "get" you. Incidentally, I thought of Catholics as equally well educated as atheists, but far more arrogant. Of course, I'm not suggesting all atheists are clever and nice, nor all Catholics clever and mean, but these were my own experiences.

When I turned 17 I began fundamentally questioning the basis of all my beliefs up until that point: God. I don't know why, or how, or what started it, possibly these atheists I'd met on the way, but I found myself wondering whether there was any point to what I did. For a long time, I had found Judaism to be a sound philosophy, but hadn't given much thought to what it was all dedicated to: worshipping God. Of course I knew that was the ultimate goal, but God was so abstract, more of a vague Being who all we knew about, was that he told us to do things and got angry if we didn't and would give us material rewards if we did. I got caught up in the details - analysis of texts, potential contradictions, real contradictions, comparative reading with other religious text, and so on and so forth.

I couldn't see God. I couldn't "feel" God. But I didn't know enough to make a decision on the matter, even privately to myself. I decided to remain in full-time Jewish Orthodox education, up until yeshiva (Talmudic college) level. After that, I considered I'd have "gone through the system," and have enough information to work with - and if I found I still didn't believe, no one would turn around and say "no wonder you don't believe: you don't know enough...if only you'd gone to yeshiva!" And so, I was a dedicated Jew.

When I finally reached yeshiva in Israel, only a few years back now, I studied the main curriculum, one tractate of Talmud, and was amongst the few who finished it during that year (all at least with rashi). But I also studied Jewish philosophy, namely the ramchal (Rabbi Chaim Luzzatto, a personal favourite of mine. He suffered so much during his life for his ideas, suffering caused by his own Jewish community. Not in one city, not in one country, but across all western Europe...until he agreed not to publicise his ideas any more). I learnt Derech Hashem, mesilat yesharim (already old to me, I had done this at least twice before yeshiva), rambam hilchos deos, hilchos teshuva and avoda zara, and made a serious attempt to memorise the 613 mitzvot according to the rambam (I got as far as about 40 before I stopped, but that's a story in itself). I pestered every rabbi I could find who would talk to me about philosophy and about religion and about how to live a Jewish life. All the things that bothered me about religion, I asked.

Sometime I understood the answers, sometimes I didn't. I was certainly lucky to have such knowledgeable theologians and philosophers there, however. It was here that I was taught that "If God is all powerful, can he create a stone he cannot lift?" (Aristotle, as you know) was not actually such a good question. It was here that I voiced my complaints about "the shidduch system" and other parts of Jewish Orthodox life, and so on and so forth.

I found some answers good, some answers bad. I was generally happy as a Jew. There was no reason beyond the scientific why I should have wanted to challenge my beliefs. But I think I'm a truth seeker and will do what is right. Two years of university later, and here I am...

I don't believe in God. No, I do...No, wait...I don't. Ok, so I just don't know.
I go to synagogue very little and when I do go (Friday evenings), I don't pay as much attention as I used to.
I don't necessarily keep kosher anymore (though I do).
And now for the real shocker: I have a girlfriend who is an atheist. She is not Jewish.

My parents know she's a good friend of mine, just not how good.

But I'll tell you about her in another post...wouldn't want to give away all the story now, would we? Feel free to comment, it might spur me on to tell you the rest of the story...It helps to know someone's listening!