In the debate between believers and skeptics, each side often accuses the other of holding their positions for reasons other than the unassailable rationality of their worldview. To be blunt, each side accuses the other of holding the position they do due to a failure of character. The skeptic accuses the believer of being intellectually lazy and dishonest, of holding onto his belief because it is comforting, or because of his biases and upbringing, or because he has too much invested in his religion, or, most often of all, because the believer has simply never given his beliefs any real thought. The believer accuses the skeptic of denying the existence of God and the truth of his religion because the skeptic is angry at God, or because he has too much invested in being a non-believer, or, most often, because by denying God and religion the skeptic is then free to live a amoral hedonistic lifestyle.
It is interesting to note that the believer’s accusation is more vicious than the skeptics’ equivalent. The skeptic accuses the believer of wanting to hold onto his culturally-indoctrinated beliefs and of never bothering to challenge beliefs that he was taught to regard as self-evident. We all have unexamined beliefs, and most of us have neither the time nor the interest to investigate them all. You might even think of it as pragmatic laziness. While unexamined beliefs may leave one with an inaccurate perception of reality, assuming that the world is as our culture teaches us it is is not a moral failing.
The believer on the other hand accuses the skeptic of being an amoral hedonist, blinded to the Divine Truth by his base desires. What’s more, this is not the empirical consensus of the believing community, arrived at through their interactions with skeptics. It is instead a religious dogma that dictates only an immoral person would deny God’s existence. It can be found in sayings and anecdotes: One must be a slave to God or to his desires; There are no kashyos, only teirutzim. The skeptic, then, is a disgusting person who wallows in the base fleshly pleasures of the material world and tries to fool himself into believing there is no God so that he can indulge himself without feeling guilty. Such a person should be shunned, cast out of the community to protect the innocent and pious, and kept away from our precious impressionable children.
As insulting as the believer’s characterization of the skeptic’s motives is, I thought that it might be prudent to investigate whether the core claim has any merit. Stripped of its invective, the believer’s accusation is that the skeptic rejects God and religion not because he has come to the conclusion through rational inquiry that God doesn’t exist, but because he desires to do things which if God existed would be unwise. Rejecting God is therefore a direct result of the skeptic’s desires and a necessary step for his fulfillment of those desires.
In this conception of the skeptic’s motivation, the skeptic’s method of reaching conclusions mirrors that of the believer. The believer accepts on faith that God exists, and then rationalizes that belief. The skeptic “accepts on faith” that his desires should be fulfilled, and then rationalizes away God. (All right, it’s a little more subtle than that, as the claim is usually that the skeptic’s desires are unconsciously influencing him rather than an explicit statement that his desires must be fulfilled, but the parallel stands.)
Is there any merit to this? Might my desires be influencing me and blinding me to the existence of God and the Truth of Judaism?
I like to think of myself as rational, but I am all too aware that people, as a species, are not nearly as rational as we think we are. We all like to think that we’re the exception, but objectively I must admit that I’m probably not. While I was in school from time to time professors would present examples of how our minds trick us. In the back of my mind I always assumed that I would be able to see through the trick, that I was in some way superior to the plebes who suffered from the illusions of their own minds. Again and again, I was dismayed to find that I was as susceptible as anyone else.
Objectively, then, I cannot claim that I am wholly rational. As much as I may try to approach everything rationally, inevitably I am limited by the same human frailties as everyone else. I have my biases and preconceptions, my culturally-influenced worldview, and yes, my desires.
So, is my rejection of God’s existence wholly rational?
Surprisingly, I have to conclude that it’s not.
This is not to say that it is irrational. I think I have a sound rational basis for my skepticism. But had I been perfectly happy with all aspects of frum life, I would never have gone this route. My rejection of Judaism’s truth-claims does not stem wholly from a dispassionate evaluation of the religion, but from a base that includes a distaste for certain communal norms and the related desire to disregard them. This was one of the many factors that contributed to my skeptical stance, and I cannot disregard the likelihood that it influences my judgment.
Does this mean my conclusions are invalid? Not at all. To quote Philip K. Dick, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” Do my biases, my “desires,” lead me to favor certain conclusions? Yes. Does that mean that those conclusions are wrong? No. I try to remain aware of my biases and to examine all arguments objectively, even though my instinctive reaction may be to dismiss theistic arguments out of hand. What we must all remember, believer and skeptic alike, is that whatever our desires, whatever our biases, reality is what it is. Brute facts are care nothing for our desires. And it is upon the facts that we must base our conclusions.
So while I didn’t arrive at my current worldview wholly through dispassionate rational inquiry, I think I am justified in rejecting the believer’s characterization of the skeptic’s motives. My conclusions, while undoubtedly influenced by my desires and biases, do not rest upon them but upon the facts.