The Atheists

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 9

			An atheist is rowing a boat on a lake in Scotland. Out of nowhere, the Loch Ness Monster ‎rears its head out of the water. The atheist screams out, ‘God, help me!’ Everything, including ‎the monster, suddenly stops. A heavenly voice resounds, ‘You say that you don’t believe in ‎me and now you ask for my help?’ The atheist responds, ‘Well, ten seconds ago I didn’t ‎believe in the Loch Ness Monster either.’ It’s not easy to be a genuine atheist. It’s not enough ‎to simply deny the existence of God. You have to really mean it, to understand what you ‎don’t believe in. Our guy out there on the lake would be considered a heretic by true atheists. ‎
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When did atheism infiltrate into Jewish ranks? To answer this question, atheism itself must be ‎defined. The Romans considered the early Christians to be atheists because they refused to ‎take part in the sacrifices to the Roman gods. Those early Christians certainly were believers, ‎they just believed in the wrong god(s). Through the centuries, the tables were turned and ‎atheism came to mean one who doesn’t believe in the Christian deity. Jews were never really ‎atheists to them, just obstinate God-killers. But as enlightenment ideology began to take hold ‎in the Western World, genuine atheists – people who didn’t believe in any God – began to ‎show their faces in public. ‎
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What does it mean to not believe in any God? It doesn’t mean simply rejecting the God of ‎the Bible. It is not enough to reject any notion of a God who pays attention and/or intervenes ‎in the affairs of the world. Even belief in a one-shot God who ignited the Big Bang and then ‎retired from divinity disqualifies one from atheism. Beyond all this, a person who passes all ‎these tests but isn’t really sincere about his or her atheism, like our guy on the lake, cannot be ‎called a real believer. Atheism requires religious conviction. It means knowing what you are ‎talking about and being willing to live or die by your ideals. The standards needn’t be any ‎different than those of required of genuine believers in conventional religion. ‎
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Are there any atheists in a fox hole? Maybe yes, maybe no – the emotional and spiritual ‎attachment that the human mind has for a higher power that generates meaning and grants ‎salvation is powerful. Maybe some people have managed to truly expunge this attachment ‎from their minds and from their non-existent souls. But maybe it’s impossible to ever fully do ‎this. Even if they are right and there is no God, and everything runs according to some ‎immutable and impersonal set of natural laws, it is still very possible that evolution or some ‎other mechanism has hard-wired belief in a deity into us whether we like it or not. ‎
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But the opposite also may be true - that we cannot fully believe in a deity. Possibly there is ‎some other mechanism that causes doubt even among the most devout of the faithful. Was it ‎ever so obvious and undeniable that there is ‘something else’ besides the material world? Was ‎it ever so crystal clear that there has to be some ultimate meaning to life? Perhaps this block, ‎this inevitable obstacle, was always the reason that belief in a deity was an act of faith and of ‎intuitive rather than intellectual knowledge. If this latter conjecture is true, then it may be the ‎underlying reason why atheism came to be a reasonable system of belief. ‎
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Otherwise, it is a bit of a mystery why anyone would want to believe that there is no God, no ‎ultimate source for everything, no guide, no injector of purpose into life. What would make a ‎person choose such a system of belief? Atheists, of course, claim that it was simply an ‎intellectual no-brainer – it was patently obvious if one just looked at the facts. But this is only ‎half the story. At one point, before science had come to dominate man’s perspective on ‎reality, it wasn’t so obvious. As recently as 150 years ago, to reject the notion of God ‎altogether was a big shot in the dark. It was not the least bit obvious what made the grass ‎grow or why some people have blue eyes and others have brown. There was no ‎explanation whatsoever for things as straightforward as lightening or dust floating or the ‎conception and growth of a baby. To try explaining the diversity of life or the lights in the ‎cosmos or the roots of emotions in 1850, without resorting to some sort of God, was to live in ‎a fantasy. To be an atheist back then was to have tremendous faith in one’s intuition. ‎
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So how did it enter Judaism? It wasn’t Spinoza in the 17th century, for he was not an atheist ‎at all. Other than the 2nd century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuyah, it is difficult to find a card-‎carrying Jewish atheist until Karl Marx in the 19th century. Marx, who came from rabbinic ‎ancestry but whose parents converted to Christianity, was as atheist as they come. He didn’t ‎worry about the fine points of natural phenomena or philosophical issues. Very simply, he was ‎a materialist - what you see is what you get. He was representative of a 19th century realization ‎that human problems were not being solved by religion. Instead of attempting to modify ‎religion to make it more effective in solving these problems, people like Marx saw it as part of ‎the problem instead of the solution. ‎
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Around the time that Marx was putting out the Communist Manifesto (1848), Jews all over ‎Europe were jumping on the social action bandwagon and abandoning religion. Numbers and ‎percentages are difficult to determine, but everybody agrees that they were significant. From ‎their Jewish background, Jews were naturals for causes that aimed at bettering the lives of the ‎oppressed. They were also naturals at heavy thinking, with which these movements tended to ‎be weighed down. Additionally, they had a long history of messianic optimism, and this ‎played heavily into the ‘save the world’ motivation of communism and socialism. From this ‎point onward, social action became a Jewish trademark. From its inception, Jewish social ‎action was anti-religious, and usually anti-God. Atheism and communism went hand-in-‎hand. ‎
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Another trend in Jewish atheism surfaced in the emerging arena of science. Major discoveries ‎had been made from the 16th century onward that set human perception of the world on a ‎completely different course than it had always been. No longer was it necessary to look to ‎God, angels, and miracles to explain natural phenomena. Since the time of Galileo and ‎Newton (17th century) physical processes were increasingly seen as being under the sway of ‎fixed natural laws. These laws, as they were slowly and painstakingly pried out of nature by ‎observation and understanding, explained an amazing amount of previously inexplicable ‎things. With each one of these discoveries, God was steadily being pushed to the outside. ‎
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Deism, an 18th and 19th century belief which relegated God to the role of creator of the ‎universe and its fixed laws, was the temporary compromise that many chose. It enabled belief ‎in God, but recognized the role of natural laws. Many 19th century scientists were deists. With ‎each scientific explanation, God’s role diminished correspondingly. A 20th century ‎philosopher/scientist coined the term ‘god of the gaps’ to satirize this desire to keep God on ‎the job and not force him into early retirement. ‎
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There are only a few areas of science that seemed to be immune from any completely natural ‎explanation and still allow room for divine intervention. One is creation of the universe which ‎was largely explored and partially explained in the 20th century. It remains the ‎primary battleground between the theists and the atheists in the world of science. Another is ‎the development of life, of which the first serious inroads were made by Charles Darwin in ‎the mid-19th century. Following Darwin’s theory of evolution and the 20th research into ‎heredity and genes, evolutionary development is largely considered (by scientists) to be ‎outside of God’s domain. This was seen as a major victory for atheism, though the theists ‎never conceded and probably never will. The related subject of origin of life, however, is still ‎a very open issue. ‎
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The third area is the human mind. To this day, despite a vast amount of research and ‎theorizing, nobody really understands some of the most basic functions of the human mind. ‎Consciousness is still mostly guesswork. Free will is so completely inexplicable that the only ‎atheistic solution is to say that it doesn’t exist. Thought and emotions are largely seen as ‎functions of the physical brain, with neurons and neurotransmitters playing crucial roles, in ‎what is increasingly looked upon as a highly complex computer. Theories were dime-a-dozen ‎with the one universal given being that God couldn’t be called upon to fill in any gaps. ‎
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The name that everybody associates as the pioneer of all this was the Austrian Jew, Sigmund ‎Freud. Though many of his ideas have fallen out of fashion within many current circles of ‎psychology, his basic innovation still rules the roost in the field. This fundamental idea is that ‎human behavior, to a great degree, is under the control of subconscious or unconscious forces. ‎These forces are not the spiritual forces of Judaism, the yetzer hara and the yetzer tov. Those ‎are relics of a bygone era when spirits ran amok within the mind. From Freud and onward, the ‎forces were all firmly lodged within memories, within subconscious behavior patterns ‎acquired earlier in life, and within certain human drives that we are born with and have to life ‎with. Despite all the variations, it all boils down to this: human behavior is purely human and ‎there is no need to bring God into the picture. All in all, it was one more nail in God’s coffin. ‎
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In the non-scientific areas, atheism made near-miraculous gains during the 20th century. On ‎university campuses it became cool to mock all things religious. God became an object of ‎derision, something that the losers who couldn’t handle a godless world used as a crutch. In ‎Europe and elsewhere in the Western World, God was largely abandoned altogether until the ‎entire concept became something of a historical curiosity. Recent religious revivals from Islam ‎and Evangelical Christianity only strengthened the atheist conviction that religion and God ‎were relics of a fanatical era that thankfully (and hopefully) was going the way of the flat ‎earth and witch trials. Entire philosophies based on atheist morality sprang up. One of the ‎most radical of these was the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, the goal of which is materialistic ‎selfishness. Objectivism and its rivals all went to great ends to throw off the shackles of ‎antiquated religious beliefs and divinely ordained morality. To them, there is nothing other ‎than life and getting the most out of it, however we choose. ‎
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Where does meaning of life fit in with atheism? Surprisingly, only a small percentage (the ‎number is probably growing as time goes on) of the big names have been willing to chuck it ‎all and declare life to be meaningless. It is almost as if they are willing to dispose with God ‎but not with the value of life. They tend to grope for ways of finding meaning in a universe ‎that is without a Creator or Guide. They find it in just being nice, or seeking happiness, or ‎gaining knowledge, or saving the earth, or just having a good time. It all sounds a little forced ‎and the arguments rarely hold water when actually put to a test of internal consistency. With ‎few exceptions, they simply cannot take the leap of admitting that nothing really matters. It’s ‎odd, but it seems that meaning, even more than God, is embedded in the human conscious. ‎We cannot rid ourselves of it. ‎



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