“Dang it, I am sick and tired of everyone’s asinine ideas about me. I’m not a redneck, and I’m not some Hollywood jerk. I’m something else entirely. I’m… I’m complicated!” -Hank Hill
One of the most common questions I get from writing all I do about the Universe is whether or not I believe in a higher power, in any religion, whether I’m an atheist, etc. And up until this point, I’ve always declined to answer, on the grounds that it really shouldn’t matter for what I do. But I’ve also declined to answer because, well, my own personal views don’t really align very well with the views I’ve ever heard anyone else espouse, and I believe that the wonders of the Universe are for everyone, regardless of what your beliefs — religious or otherwise — are.
But since this remains something that many of you are curious about, this weekend I am willing to open up to you about it. As always, I’ve got a song for you. This week’s selection is an older one — from Dire Straits — and should help set the mood:
So, let’s get right into it. What am I?
First and foremost, I’m Jewish. For me, that doesn’t necessarily mean I believe anything that the Jewish faith tells me to believe: I don’t keep Kosher, I don’t believe in the Hebrew God, and the only sense I think I’m part of the “chosen” is the Fiddler on the Roof sense, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
But I’m Jewish just as surely as a black person is black, a homosexual is gay, or a woman is female. When millions of people have been persecuted, vilified, tortured and murdered — and the prejudice towards you still exists today (and on occasion nastily shows up either in comments or hate mail) — just for being born the way they are, I would be ashamed of myself if I didn’t stand up for them, and for myself, too. (I have a long record of this.) It’s where I get my sense of justice from.
“As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.” -John Stuart Mill
This feeling — as evidenced by Dr. King and many, many other non-Jews — isn’t exclusive to Judaism. But personally, I don’t know that I would feel this way, this strongly, if I weren’t Jewish. But I am. I’ve never been ashamed to say it, and when someone asks me what religion I am, “Jewish” is always the first answer out of my mouth.
And I know plenty of people — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, etc. — who benefit in all sorts of personal and communal ways from their religion. (It may even be a majority of people I know, but I don’t tend to ask.) But simply identifying as “Jewish” doesn’t mean I look to Judaism for answers to my questions about this world or this Universe.
“If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?” -Carl Sagan
Because if you want to know how anything works, you have to do the work and learn in order to figure it out. That’s what the entire enterprise of science is: observing, testing, and experimenting with the Universe in order to figure out how it works.
And perhaps unbelievably, that works. The fundamental laws of nature are the same today as they were 400 years ago, and they’re the same on Earth as they are in interplanetary space! It didn’t necessarily have to be this way, but it is. And we can go even beyond that, to make the following statement that applies, as far as we know, to the entire Universe:
There is no observed phenomenon in this Universe that cannot, in principle, be scientifically explained by natural laws and processes.
In other words, although it often takes a lifetime’s worth of work to understand how, everything that has ever happened in this Universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them. And in that sense, I also call myself an atheist.
This is why I was particularly outraged by Rick Perry yesterday. The idea that you can fix natural problems — and I include man-made problems, like the economy, when I say natural — solely by praying for them to get better is absurd. You have to do the hard work required to fix it, and as a precursor to that, you need to have done the hard work to understand what’s wrong with it in the first place. You must think, and you must be competent in your knowledge and your reasoning.
I believe the best way to solve problems and explain phenomena is to look to what is known about the Universe and to apply those laws, axioms, and prior results to the problem at hand. And in that sense, I am definitely an atheist.
And there’s one more question that comes up when people ask me about my beliefs: Do you believe in God?
And this is a tough one, because “God” is not something that means the same thing to everyone who uses it. When your favorite football team needs their opponent to miss their final kick to win the big game, I don’t believe that anyone’s God has anything to do with the outcome.
As far as everything in the known Universe goes, from inflation (before the Big Bang) to today to our future heat death, I don’t believe in any sort of being or entity that has played any sort of role in how it’s played out. Even Einstein had issues with his conception of God:
“That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” -Albert Einstein
But where did our inflating spacetime come from? What happens on sub-Planckian or super-horizon distance scales? Speculations abound, of course, but a type 4 multiverse, a primeval singularity or an infinity of 10-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifolds have about as much observable evidence for them as angels bowling, if you get my drift. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting questions to ask, and that doesn’t mean that the scientific speculations don’t have some good motivations for them, but it means that we need to be willing to admit that:
- We don’t know the answers to these questions.
- We don’t know where to look to find the answers to these questions.
- And we don’t know whether the Universe accessible to us even — in principle — contains the information that would provide any indication of how to answer these questions.
So we’ll look, of course. And we’ll do all the theoretical work to try and tease potential observable tests out of these various ideas.
I am agnostic as to the answer to these or any other metaphysical questions, in the sense that I not only don’t know, but I don’t even know whether or not it’s possible to know. But people don’t tend to ask me what I “know” about these questions, they want to know what I believe.
Well, when I think about our Universe, I think there likely was some organizing force or principle that somehow led to the existence of the state that eventually created the Universe as we know it today. I don’t have a good name or description (or even a hunch) as to what this force or principle is, so I call it God. And so — in a sense that (probably) nobody else uses the word — yes, I believe in God. (I don’t know, however, what to make of the picture one of my fans made, below, except to say that I’m pretty sure I love it.)
So I don’t have any idea what to even call myself as far as religions or beliefs go. Am I a Jew? An Atheist? A Deist? A Jewish Atheist who believes in God, but not in your God?
Regardless of what you believe, I hope you feel at home here. So long as you’re willing to learn about the things you yourself are not an expert in, and so long as the Universe itself fascinates you, you’re always welcome to join me on this grand adventure. And now that I’ve said my piece, you’re all more than welcome to tell me how it breaks down for you, what you agree/disagree with, and anything else you care to mention. I’d love to know what you think, or in this case, believe.