Monday, February 14, 2005

Why is religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) fallacious?

I grew up in an Ultra Orthodox Jewish community and I have experienced the rigors of fundamental religious practice first-hand throughout my childhood and teenage years. After 16 or so, I started to ask many questions, I was trying to understand why I should or should not do certain things and why I should believe in certain religious principles or events. I had every motive to confirm the validity of my religion: fit into the community, keep my existing friends, be respected as a "talmid hakham" (Talmudic scholar) and receive financial and social support from family and friends. On the other hand, I had everything to lose by abandoning my religion! Yet, I have found that religious practice is so misleading and counterproductive that these forces could not overcome my immense contempt towards religion once it reared its ugly head in full view.

prophecy- All three religions believe that God has revealed his command or admonishment to humans by communicating with one or more prophets. This supposedly is the basis of all religions: Do or do not do so and so because such is god's will; the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. The problem is that there is no evidence to support the claim that God has ever revealed himself as a distinct being and "spoke" to anyone. In the Christian and Islamic religions, no one claimed to have witnessed the revelation of god to Jesus or Muhammad and there is no proof whatsoever that it ever occurred.

Only in the Jewish religion (which incidentally is the basis for the other western religions) is there a claim that the nation witnessed the revelation of god to Moses at mount Sinai.

"On the third day in the morning there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain and a very powerful sound of the Shofar and the entire people in the camp shuddered... And the Sinai mountain was full of smoke because Yehovah had descended upon it in the fire and the smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace and the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly. The sound of the Shofar grew continually stronger, Moses would speak and god would respond to him with a sound... And god spoke all these statements saying: I am Yehovah your god...".

It is obvious from this account that Moses was the one actually speaking the words "I am Yehovah your god...". It says openly "Moses would speak and god would respond to him with a sound" which refers to the sound of the Shofar (mentioned in the beginning of the verse), which presumably was a response signal from god confirming that Moses is authentically relaying his word.

And so, even though there were supposedly 600,000 people present in the camp during "Matan Torah" (the issuance of torah) none of these people witnessed god actually speaking to Moses. God's presence was only in the form of fire, thunder and lightning and his confirmation of Moses' prophecy was in the form of the sound of the Shofar. To me lightning is lightning, thunder is thunder, fire is fire and Shofar is Shofar but none of these phenomena are supernatural and none of these phenomena indicate the presence of god or the prophecy of god. Therefore, the account of matan torah could be quite accurate in all aspects except for the fact that it was "god responding to Moses with a sound". This is a subjective interpretation of the event by gullible observers and it was therefore included in the account as fact but the only fact is that a sound of Shofar was heard, which I believe to have come from a human and not from god (am I not also entitled to interpret this event?).

And so we see that even Judaism's claim of the presence of many witnesses to god's prophecy is invalid. There were many witnesses to an event that SEEMED to indicate god's presence and the broadcast of god's word to people who are inclined to believe so but there is no absolute evidence that God was actually involved in this event.

None of the prophecies of other religions or the numerous other prophecies by Moses and Hebrew prophets of later generations have been witnessed by others and there is no artifactual evidence that god has ever spoken to them.

miracles- In the bible there are numerous accounts of miracles that occurred in various ages. Miracles are supposed to be a sign of god to humans that he is charge and that we should heed his voice. In the first supposed revelation of Yehovah to Moses (Exodus 4:1) "Moses responded and said: but they will not believe in me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say: Yehovah did not appear to you. Yehovah said to him: what is that in in your hand? he said: a staff. He said: cast it on the ground. He cast it on the ground and it turned into a snake and Moses fled from it. Yehovah said: extend your arm and grasp its tail and Moses extended his arm and grasped it and it turned into a staff in his palm, so that they will believe that Yehovah has appeared to you, the god of their forefathers, the god of Abraham, the god of Isaac and the god of Jacob". God then then taught Moses two more "signs" (making his had leprous and turning river water into blood) that will induce the people to believe that Yehovah the god of their forefathers has appeared to him in a prophetic vision and that he is relaying the word of god to them.

The account that includes the abovementioned three signs is not only an account of Moses's very first prophetic vision but it's also an account of the very first miracle ever mentioned in the bible. It is no coincidence that they both occurred simultaneously, because the miracles were needed to support Moses's claim that god appeared to him. If he cannot perform any miracles, then any impostor can come along and claim to be relaying the word of god. The miracle is "proof" that god has spoken to him.

Later in the chapter it is told that "Moses and Aharon went and gathered all the elders of the children of Israel and Aharon spoke all the words that Yehovah had spoken to Moses and he (Moses) performed the signs in the sight of the people". "The people" here must refer to the elders mentioned earlier, for the entire people had never been gathered for this event and so only the elders witnessed the signs which supposedly confirmed that Moses is speaking in the name of god.

But let's examine these miracles a bit closer. Moses casts his staff to the ground and then (only after it reaches the ground) it turns into a snake. Moses places his hand in his bosom and only then does it become leprous. Moses pours water to the ground and only after it reaches the ground does it become blood. It is obviously much more miraculous for these events to have occurred suddenly: The staff turns into a snake while he is holding it, the hand becomes leprous while in full view and the water turns into blood in mid air, but they didn't occur this way. Therefore, even if we believe in the overall occurrence of these events, we might dispute the miraculousness of these events. There may have been a snake already there hidden in the sands of the desert but these old people were not paying attention to it, the elders were paying attention to the staff. Moses casts the staff to the ground which simultaneously buries it in the dust and startles the snake; the snake tries to run away and its presence is therefore revealed and it seems as if the snake has just been "created" out of a staff. Moses places his hand in his bosom where some chemical concoction is hidden that makes the hand seem leprous. He then places it in his bosom again, this time removing the chemical or whatever had been applied to the hand. Moses pours water from the river to the ground and then some blood or red coloring is added to it and so the water seems to be blood.

If I would be watching these "signs" happening at a circus, I would be convinced that it's magic. Even if believed that god exists and that miracles are possible, I would still not conclude that these events are miraculous, for I had witnessed displays of magic before very similar to these three signs but I have never witnessed any miracle and therefore logically I would attribute these events to conventional magic -at most- and not to a miracle, which has never been observed in modern western civilization. So when we read stories like these in the bible, if we are predisposed to believe in miracles then we will indeed interpret them as miracles just like our ancestors did. But if we approach them from an objective standpoint, then we will first seek to explain these events in ways that conform to the everyday laws of physics, which we have never ever witnessed being violated. Only if and when we exhaust all other possible explanations, will we conclude that it must be a miracle.

Some people even think that the Ten Plagues were miraculous but that is not the case at all; all ten events were natural events that appear in nature periodically. Maybe the fact that these events all occurred in such a short time frame within a relatively small geographic area, makes them seem more miraculous than they should seem. The fact of the matter is that none of the Ten Plagues -even as told in the bible- violate any laws of physics. It is ironic but true that the three signs discussed earlier are the "proto-miracles" and they are also the only major miracles ever mentioned in the Torah. The problem is that only the elders witnessed these events and that these events could have been simple acts of magic.

One more major even that I should discuss here is "Kriyas Yam Suf" (splitting of the red sea). Some theologians believe this to have been the grandest miracle that has ever occurred, for it was witnessed and experienced by the entire nation of Israel. The problem is that it was no miracle at all. "Moses stretched out his arm over the sea and Yehovah moved the sea with a strong east wind all night long and he turned the sea into frost and the water split. The children of Israel came within the sea on dry land and the water was a wall for them on their right and on their left". It is obvious from this account that the sea water froze as a result of the cold night and the strong wind. The ice then developed cracks, which is conceivably a natural event, and the Israelites found one sufficiently wide crack in the ice to allow them to pass on solid ground through the ice safely (passing on the ice is dangerous because the ice can easily break apart from the weight and people would drown). In the morning, the sun warmed up the ice and it started melting away while the Egyptians were passing through. This situation was exacerbated because the wheels of the Egyptian chariots had previously been damaged and so the Egyptians had a very hard time making it through the sea. By the time noon came around the ice had melted away and the Egyptians thus drowned in the sea.

I am not making up this story; this is how it is told in the book of Exodus (14:21). Splitting of the red sea as told in the bible does not even seem to have been a miracle. Obviously, the Israelites took it as a supreme intervention on their behalf and that is why they composed a special song to Yehovah for this major rescue. But when we read the account 3,000 years later and analyze it from a purely objective standpoint, we see no miracle at all.

And so we come to the conclusion that miracles have never occurred in the past, just like we have never witnessed any miracles in our current, modern civilization. Miracles are in the minds -and in the minds only- of primitive people who are not aware of science and do not understand the complexities of nature. To them, if anything unusual or unexpected occurs, it is a miracle and it comes from god. To us, that very same event is not unexpected and it is explained by science.

God's commandments - In every religion there are commands and prohibitions (mitzvas aseh and mitzvas lo saseh) issued by god to mankind or to a specific people. These are standing orders from god. They do not have an expiration date and there's no built-in way in the system to repeal these laws. But let's examine these laws a bit closer.

If you look at the laws of the Old Testament, you notice that there generally isn't anything bizarre about them. The laws are there for the benefit of society just like modern secular laws. City of refuge for killers, prohibition against usury, fining an animal thief by having him pay four or five times what he stole, helping a fellow unload the merchandise off a crouching donkey, acceptance of a "sojourner" (ger) and many more laws like these are designated as "between man and his fellow" (ben adam lachavero) and they are all based on common sense. Other laws, like those pertaining to animal sacrifices and cleanliness (including dietary laws) are designated as "between man and god (ben adam lamakom) and their meaning and purpose is not as easily understood, nor can they be derived from common sense. Nonetheless, every single law in the Torah, down to the very smallest detail has a logical explanation and reason. The laws of animal sacrifices are based on long-standing traditions and the need to appease god with wholesome, pure sacrifices in order to ensure the continuity of success. Dietary laws are probably based on a traditional perception of impurity and uncleanliness in those animals that were prohibited.

Therefore, these laws are very similar to modern secular laws in the sense that there is a beneficial purpose to society in observing these laws, which is obvious to everyone; there is no hidden agenda behind them. But, there is one big difference: secular laws are made by people and are extremely fluid; as the needs and circumstances of the people change, so do the laws. Religious laws supposedly are the word of god and they do not change. But the more that we try to stick to the religious laws, the more we realize that we are forced to discard them in favor of modern man-made laws that are more in sync with the modern day.

For example: "If a man shall steal an ox or a goat and slaughter it or sell it, he shall pay five cattle in place of the ox and four sheep in place of the sheep". The problem is that there are no cattle or sheep around in the cities where most thefts take place and I don't think that many -if any- people have been caught stealing cattle or sheep in recent years. This law is therefore not very relevant these days. The same is true about the command to help a fellow unload the burden of a crouching donkey: donkeys are no longer used for hauling goods and even if they are, I doubt that you will ever encounter a "crouching donkey".

So what we need to do is rewrite the laws in forms that are more in sync with modern ways of life: If you see a fellow driving an overloaded minivan, you shall help him unload the merchandise. We can go through the entire bible and rewrite all the laws this way, but we still won't have a perfect code of law because many modern problems will not be addressed there. What about the tax code? what about USFDA regulations? what about NTSB travel procedures? What about OSHA health precautions. We won't be able to survive as a society without these laws and regulations and even if we revise and reinterpret the bible as best we can, we still won't find any laws pertaining to these matters. Logically, therefore, the best way to go about developing a modern code of law is simply by discarding the outdated code altogether and starting from scratch and in light of the latest scientific discoveries. So in the new code, there will be laws about punishing auto theft, not sheep and cattle theft. There will be restrictions on the production/consumption of poisonous or contaminated food and advice against eating cholesterol and sugar but not against eating pig meat or horse meat which has proven to be no different than meat from "kosher" animals.

My point is that since we ultimately see that religious code is based on logic and tradition anyway, why stick to an outdated form of logic and to an obsolete tradition? The same god that presumably commanded us to do so and so 3,000 years, doesn't he want us to behave more modernly in a modern era? I think that he does! and that is why my lifestyle is perfectly compatible with the religious lifestyle of an Israelite 3,000 years ago. He lived in an age when people believed in spirits and the need to appease the spirits with animal sacrifices and so they did. I live in an age where people believe in the laws of chemistry and physics and the need to do something concrete -based on scientific observations of cause and effect- to sustain life and so I do (or at least I should do).