On debating atheists

As intelligent believers our deeply held positions are not based on instinct alone, they are based on a full understanding of the philosophical arguments that support our view

There was a recent debate between a Rabbi and the ailing atheist Christopher Hitchens about the afterlife. I was sent a clip of the debate which I listened to carefully. The rabbi was clear that he personally believed in a posthumous heaven but only because his religion told him it exists. But he sidelined the need for it and instead talked about an afterlife that all people can agree on: the legacy one leaves in this world after one dies.


Having studied the Jewish view on eschatology in some depth I found this argument disappointing. All the great Jewish thinkers from Saadia Gaon to Maimonides to Gersonidies believed in a spiritual posthumous afterlife mainly due to philosophical underpinnings that have to do with the concept of reward and punishment. Because these are borne out of a belief in an intelligent Creator, an atheist such as Hitchens would see these arguments as nothing short of nonsense. But it is disappointing at best to listen to a rabbi debating the issue without discussing the deep philosophical underpinnings of Judaism’s belief in a spiritual posthumous afterlife for a bodiless soul.


But this is emblematic of a greater problem religious people face. We don’t want to be made to look foolish in the face of the recent atheistic onslaught against religion--much of which, I may add, Hitchens can personally take credit for. The impulse often is therefore to revert to half truths about our own beliefs, modifications and apologetics. But none of this is really necessary because the main problem is not one of philosophy or proofs; rather it is that religious people and atheist are divided by a common language.


Recently I saw a bumper sticker that read: "Militant agnostic, I don't know and neither do you." In the scientific sense I could not help but agree with that statement. See, the agnostic uses the term knowledge in the scientific sense and the believer uses the biblical interpretation of the word. The two aren’t really arguing, instead they are talking past each other.


The scientific definition of knowledge is something that has been tested and proven with empirical evidence. Even religious people must admit that based on this definition they don't "know" many of the tenants they believe in. But a religious person defines knowledge differently. The Torah, for example, uses knowledge in a completely different context. "And Adam knew Eve," (Genesis 4:1) means that Adam cohabited with Eve. This is indicative of how religion understands the term knowledge; it denotes a deep connection with something. As far as an idea is concerned it means that one has an intuitive sense that the idea, concept or argument is correct. For religion that would constitute knowledge. For science, however, that would be defined exclusively as belief and not knowledge.


The problem arises when we misunderstand how each other use language. Many agnostics are disrespectful to believers and vice versa. Art authentication experts are respected even though they may use their gut instinct to decide if a piece of art is real or a fake. Similarly a religious person should be respected when they maintain knowledge of an idea because they have a deep intuitive sense that it is true.


To be sure, as intelligent believers our deeply held positions are not based on instinct alone, they are based on a full understanding of the philosophical arguments that support our view. But our choice to accept one side of the argument as true and reject the other is often based on a deep sense of intuition. In other words an intelligent religious person will accept the arguments for the existence of a deity as true and disregard compelling arguments to the contrary because they connect with the idea that there is a higher power and that intuitive knowledge sways them.


The agnostic may say that the religious person’s definition of knowledge is flawed. But that would be like saying that a bank is something into which people deposit money rather than something that goes along a river. Of course the word bank denotes both.


As Maimonides maintains with regard Divine knowledge, the word has multiple definitions and it has a different definition for a religious person than it has for a scientist--yet one should never delegitimize the other. Both definitions of knowledge have their place and both are important. Even an atheist must rely on the religious definition of knowledge for some things. Certainly, however, if in a debate with an atheist; a religious person feels that they have to be less than forthcoming about the philosophical reasons for their own beliefs they should not enter the debate in the first place.


Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts



פרסום ראשון: 10.01.10, 07:19
 new comment
This will delete your current comment