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Rabbi Adam Jacobs

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The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes

Posted: 11/07/11 01:08 PM ET

Try as I might, I continue to be startled by the mindset of the non-believer. It's not so much that I can't grasp the notion that someone could believe that there is no Creator and that there is no grand design to the universe, but rather that so many of their choices and thinking patterns seem to suggest that they believe something quite unlike that which they profess. Often, I've inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level? After all, one random grouping of molecules interacting with another has no inherent meaning or value. I still await the brave soul (or neuron complex if you prefer) who will respond that I am quite correct; that no thought, deed, action or impulse is any more significant or meaningful than any other, that statements like "I would like to enslave all of humanity" and "I would like a chocolate bar" are functionally equivalent, and that their very own thoughts and words are intrinsically suspect as they are nothing more than some indiscriminate electro-chemical impulses. Until then, I will carry on believing that most "non-believers" actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or that they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.

Let's put this assumption to a test. How would you answer the following series of questions? I posit that if you are inclined to answer any of them from a non-materialist perspective then you might secretly suspect that there are grander cosmic forces at work than those discernible on a purely empiric level, or, possibly, that you are a victim of societal programming.

1. Would you be willing to sell your parent's remains for dog food?

If you answered no, why? As there are finite resources available to us as we plod through our limited number of revolutions on this planet, wouldn't it be in your interest to maximize them -- especially considering that a non-functional carcass provides little to no personal or societal benefit (and is a little unpleasant)? If you suggest that it represents something that was important to you and therefore you are inclined to treat it with more respect I would ask, "so what?" Your notions of respect and importance are subjective, non-intellectual whims that in any case (as we've said) are in reality nothing more than tiny electrical blips in your skull and worth far less than cash.

Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it's just wrong to do it -- wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother's corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer.

2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?

If yes, why? As no one will ever know what transpired and it will soon all be over in any event, what difference could it possibly make what you do in your final moments? I again see only two possibilities for the non-believer -- either you suspect that there is an inexplicable but real import to fateful decisions such as these or you have been conditioned to act a certain way -- one that is more in sync with the logical conclusions of a believer's worldview and not your own. As physicist HP Yockey suggested of the materialist's viewpoint, "if humans are only matter, it is no worse to burn a ton of humans than to burn a ton of coal." If you answer that it makes no difference whatsoever, then you are two for two (and I am impressed with your consistency).

3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?

For those (almost all of us) who are inclined to say yes, the question once again is why? What precisely is the root of their significance? What difference does a painting make? You can't eat it and it will not help your genes to reproduce (for whatever unclear reason it is that they "want" to do that in the first place). Does it truly matter whether or not you love your children as long as you provide for their basic needs? And if you suggest that love is a basic need that was cleverly "designed" by evolution to help parents to provide for their offspring, then does it matter if you only pretend to love them? Or do you believe that love has an intrinsic meaning of its own -- one that transcends chemical reactions and meaningless groping towards cell mitosis? If you do, ask yourself why, as it would not seem to effectively square with the non-believer's weltanschauung.

If you are willing to define the human experience as nothing more than an arbitrary series of chemicals, atoms and other blind and indifferent forces acting in concert, then at the end of the day, you necessarily concede that human emotion and experience are intrinsically meaningless. What difference, then, does it make if you (or others) choose to completely disregard concepts like kindness, decency and love? The non-believer is duty bound to say that it makes no difference whatsoever, as meaning -- in all of its varied splendor -- resides exclusively with those who acknowledge its basis. One that is neither blind nor random nor physical.

If you chose the non-materialistic answer to any of these questions (no, yes, yes) you may be more of a believer than you think.

 

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