Why Does it Matter If We Think G-d Loves Us?

 

imageThe odds of a man deciding that he will jump off a building and try to fly like Superman are much better if the man is convinced that he is, in fact, Superman. In other words, what we attempt to do — regardless of whether we succeed or get scraped off of the sidewalk — is governed by what we think we can do. Our worldview is an essential precondition for the actions we voluntarily undertake.

Our beliefs matter. Even whether or not we have beliefs matters: A person who thinks that G-d loves him and is involved in every facet of his life will act differently than a self-described rational atheist. True, an accountant in a big firm may make the same decisions whether or not he believes that G-d exists. But in other situations, a person’s beliefs can make all the difference in the world. It is the religious person who will take risks that a rational person will not: Perhaps committing to an early marriage, starting a business, or in trying to invent new things. A leap of faith requires faith.

None of this is speculation or even particularly novel: It is merely an observation of what we already know. And I think that, at least at some level, causality is equally as obvious as the correlation. People who blow themselves up to kill random strangers are often driven by a sincerely-held belief that it is the right thing to do. People who do not share those same beliefs about the virtues of suicide bombing do not become suicide bombers.

To go even further in this summary of what should be blindingly obvious: The beliefs that lead a person to take a risk do not need to be based in provable fact. This is convenient for those of us who are religious, because we cannot logically prove to the satisfaction of every thinking atheist in the world, the existence of G-d.

I have a friend who — many years ago, when we were both in university — decided to become an observant Jew. He explained himself as follows:

“I don’t know what I believe. But I do know that the facts are plain enough: I look around campus, and I see that the kids who are working hard and avoiding overuse of alcohol and drugs are the orthodox ones. So, if I want kids like that, I should be observant, too.”

A purely utilitarian defense of religious observance was a strange argument to me but, in the years since, I’ve found it makes an increasing amount of sense, because it speaks to the primacy of outcomes.

As my friend might have put it: Some beliefs, regardless of any underlying truth, lead to far more successful results than others.

I happen to believe that G-d is intimately involved in my life, and this belief changes just about everything. The way we see the world dictates how we act in it. If, when I wake up at 3 AM, I think it is merely accidental, then I am likely to promptly go back to sleep. But if I think there must, somehow, be a reason that I have woken at 3 AM, then I will check my email first to see if there is something I am supposed to do. Confirmation bias kicks in, and I rarely regret waking at 3 AM.

The same applies to “stray” thoughts that come to me, usually in prayer. I could shrug these thoughts off as a distraction (most people do), or I can choose to see them as things I am supposed to consider or act upon. It all comes down to one basic question: Do I believe that my present existence is essentially the result of a long series of coincidences, however improbable? Or do I think that a Creator is responsible, a Creator who can be intimately involved in every aspect of my life, seeking to grow and develop together with me?

There is no way to prove whether G-d exist and I am satisfied with that; If we could prove this either way, then we would not have the freedom to choose what we believe. And there is far more beauty in choosing a relationship than in one that is imposed.

But I think that it is equally obvious that the decision to have a relationship with G-d or not should be a central question in our lives. Religious people make very different choices than do atheists. We are more able, paradoxically, to make changes in our lives because we are listening for, and give serious consideration to, stray thoughts.

It stands to reason that a person’s ability to grow becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some believe that people cannot change and I am willing to accept that, in their case, this is so. After all, by stating that belief, they have created that reality for themselves. But I also know, from first-hand knowledge of myself and countless others, that if we believe that we can change, then it surely is true.

Here is the punchline: There are chapters in the Torah (starting at Lev. 26:21) dedicated to explaining G-d’s perspective on these dueling worldviews. The end of Leviticus tells us that G-d wants us to hearken to Him and His commandments, to live as if G-d is involved in our lives. Not surprising. But the Torah in these chapters tells us about the alternative as well: The contrasting position is to act with keri, a word that appears in a tight cluster seven times in the Torah (26:21, 23, 24, 26:27, 26:28, 40, 41), and nowhere else in the entire document. (The number seven corresponds to seven days, which could be understood as “all the time”, as in 24×7.)

What does keri mean? Maimonides translates it as “chance,” the idea that events in our world are purely statistical, that everything that happens is nothing more or less than the result of impersonal forces in the universe. In other words, the Torah is warning us against what is today the normative secular view that G-d either does not exist, or does not care about us. How could an all-powerful deity care whether I thank him for my food, or consider what he will think if I say an unkind word about someone? And to even ask that question is to wonder whether keri is really the governing principle, not a Creator at all.

Why does the Torah care how we see things? The answer connects directly back to the beginning of this essay: G-d knows that we can grow as individuals — and improve the world around us — if we believe such growth and improvement are possible.

The lesson is simple enough: Our lives have meaning if we think that they do. Our thoughts create our reality, not the other way around.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    drlorentz: Successful innovators who faced resistance in the past were not promoting courses of action based on delusional thinking.

    Of course they were.

    Kepler believed that the heavens were engaged in an intricate symphony. His life work was to try to transpose the movements into music.

    One does not have to look far to see that some of the very greatest innovators were delusional. And – very often – they discovered things that were tangential to their lines of enquiry. In other words, they experimented without being right about what they would find. So they were actually wrong – and still changed the world.

    • #31
  2. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    By the way, I happen to think that the interest in comic book characters stems from a human desperation to think that one must have special physical powers in order to change the world. People conveniently ignore that Superman could have simply stayed home and avoided the risk of running into the guy with kryptonite.

    My point is that the superpower we all theoretically possess is our ability to think, believe, and take risks based on those beliefs. Like any great power, it comes with responsibility, and with substantial downside risk.

    • #32
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: If the rules were genuinely arbitrary, I’d agree. If the rules could be shown to effectively appeal to an informed sense of justice and/or showed good effects (cultures that ban polygamy have better outcomes, etc.) then that would not be arbitrary.

    So you would then assume that most  people would be willing to comply with an informed sense of justice (whatever that might be), and if we can show “good effects.” I’m sorry, Tom, but I think most people (most of whom are not on Ricochet) are pretty self-centered and narcissistic and don’t frankly care what is good for others, the culture, or the nation. I’m sorry to sound so cynical, but that’s what this past year has taught me.

    • #33
  4. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Susan Quinn:

    Owen Findy: I don’t see why there could not be a formal atheist social structure (with a code of ethics) that, if adopted by a culture, or most people in it, could not, by its nature, result in all the goods you attribute to religion in a religious culture.

    You assume that people would willingly hold themselves to account for an arbitrary set of guidelines–why? For the good of the culture? Without accountability? You have a higher outlook on human nature than I do.

    I think morality matches reality. For example, in a society that doesn’t force person A to care for person B, person B will likely have to learn to carry his own weight. Carrying your own weight is a moral good, and, in a society set up the way I’ve described, its structure has caused person B to be moral. It didn’t require person B to already be moral. He learned it growing up because he had to.

    • #34
  5. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    iWe: Kepler believed that the heavens were engaged in an intricate symphony. His life work was to try to transpose the movements into music.

    Not the whole story. Kepler had data. He was not simply relying on dreams or visions in the night. Just because he made up some fairy tale to explain his results does not mean the fairy tale led to the results. Furthermore, if Kepler merely said, “I had a vision last night. The planets move in ellipses!” and nothing more, everyone would have ignored him. They paid attention because his model agreed with the observations.

    More than that, he got the idea for his laws from observations. It’s not like someone whispered ellipses in his ear and it’s off to the races. Copernicus had circular orbits. There were small deviations from the Copernican model from observations of Tycho Brahe. Kepler’s first law is a correction to Copernican theory. Kepler was an empiricist: he got the data before making the model. That’s the opposite of your guy who thinks he can fly like Superman, who’s gonna do an experiment and be very disappointed in the result. In short, Kepler looked before leaping.

    • #35
  6. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    iWe: I think the data shows that, absent belief in religion, every person’s moral code, in extremis, reverts to “Might Makes Right.”

    If I knew enough of the data, I may end up concluding that, but, so far, I’m not convinced.

    • #36
  7. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    iWe: Today’s secular society has made a moral crusade self-defined gender for children who are not old enough to know whether they are hungry or just tired, as well as reflexive nature-worship.

    Actually, it’s exactly the opposite of nature-worship. Self-defined gender is contrary to biology: it is blank-slate thinking that is in direct conflict with nature that has no empirical basis. Nature-worshipers would acknowledge that sex differences are real and that they have a biological purpose related to the propagation of the species. Nothing is more fundamental to biological organisms than reproduction.

    The modern Left denies nature in a multitude of ways, elevating culture (a human invention) above nature. In this view, culture overcomes all; people have no innate properties, abilities, or inclinations. They are to be molded by their betters in the form of a wise and all-knowing authority: the government. This is the socialist paradise.

    • #37
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Having watched the move of American government to secularism over the course of my lifetime, which I think is a very bad thing for many reasons, I have often wondered if a contract that says I won’t steal from you if you won’t steal from me would effectively replace the Judeo-Christian morality we now live by.

    It will another twenty years before the Judeo-Christian influence could disappear from government, and during that time, there are still people in government who believe in and live their lives by Judeo-Christian morality.

    After that, I don’t know what will replace it.

    The only thing I can come up with is this notion of contracts.

    • #38
  9. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    MarciN: The only thing I can come up with is this notion of contracts.

    Contracts? Marci, what a quaint notion. In our post-modern, post-industrial world, the notions of contracts, rule of law, and property rights are understood to be sexist, ageist, ableist, and racist. They are the despised baggage of the colonialist past. In the socialist utopia we will have no need for contracts because everyone will share freely.

    Off to the re-education camp with you! See you there. I just hope they have free wifi. Do you think they’ll let us keep Ricochet?

    • #39
  10. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Owen Findy:I don’t see why there could not be a formal atheist social structure (with a code of ethics) that, if adopted by a culture, or most people in it, could not, by its nature, result in all the goods you attribute to religion in a religious culture. I don’t know how that structure would look, and I’m not interested in spending the next ten years developing one, but what, in the nature of atheism, precludes this? Don’t tell me you need religion for morality, because I don’t think anyone’s proved that, either.

    Morality comes from religion. It did not self produce from air. Anyone born into the world is taught – how to eat, what to do and how to act, but have an instinct to know right and wrong. God creates this nature, and it is encouraged through religious instruction.  If it is rejected, it still exists, but if you don’t have an moral obligation to help someone or do something other than what benefits you, or society, chances are you will not.  What would motivate you to do things that are extremely difficult, to sacrifice for others, at your own expense?

    • #40
  11. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Front Seat Cat: What would motivate you to do things that are extremely difficult, to sacrifice for others, at your own expense?

    Love. :)

    • #41
  12. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    drlorentz:

    iWe: Today’s secular society has made a moral crusade self-defined gender for children who are not old enough to know whether they are hungry or just tired, as well as reflexive nature-worship.

    Actually, it’s exactly the opposite of nature-worship. Self-defined gender is contrary to biology: it is blank-slate thinking that is in direct conflict with nature that has no empirical basis. Nature-worshipers would acknowledge that sex differences are real and that they have a biological purpose related to the propagation of the species. Nothing is more fundamental to biological organisms than reproduction.

    The modern Left denies nature in a multitude of ways, elevating culture (a human invention) above nature. In this view, culture overcomes all; people have no innate properties, abilities, or inclinations. They are to be molded by their betters in the form of a wise and all-knowing authority: the government. This is the socialist paradise.

    Aren’t most socialist, national socialist, communist and fascist governments founded upon atheism or no belief in anything other than government?

    • #42
  13. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    MarciN:

    Front Seat Cat: What would motivate you to do things that are extremely difficult, to sacrifice for others, at your own expense?

    Love. :)

    Where does love come from?

    • #43
  14. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Front Seat Cat:

    MarciN:

    Front Seat Cat: What would motivate you to do things that are extremely difficult, to sacrifice for others, at your own expense?

    Love. :)

    Where does love come from?

    The heart that God put inside us. :) :)

    I think God has hardwired us humans with some universally felt emotions.

    Native Americans, without an exposure to western religion, loved their babies.

    • #44
  15. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Front Seat Cat: Aren’t most socialist, national socialist, communist and fascist governments founded upon atheism or no belief in anything other than government?

    You confuse atheism with respect for nature. Anyway, don’t you agree that the Left denies nature in the ways I described?

    Regarding fascism and nazism, they are not atheist. Catholicism was an element of Italian fascism under Mussolini, though Mussolini was critical of the Church in his early years. There was conflict with the Church on and off but this was mostly a power struggle instead of a matter of faith. Likewise, Christian churches were alternately oppressed and sanctioned in Nazi Germany. Churches who opposed Hitler were attacked, while simultaneously the German Christians represented the Christians aligned with Hitler. Again, Nazi conflict with churches was related to power, not atheism.

    All statists view religion as a competitor for absolute power. Monarchs of yore were in conflict with church even though they weren’t atheists. Consider Thomas Beckett vs. Henry II. My sense is that Marxists were also hostile toward religion primarily for this reason. Returning to the American Left, many may atheists but this doesn’t mean they revere nature over a deity. Culture and society writ large are their deities. They deny nature because nature interferes with the supremacy of the social order embodied by the benevolent state in much the same way that religion does. The state is a jealous god.

    • #45
  16. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    That said, the moral basis for one country or state or city or town feeling compelled to help another is less clear.

    Compassion, I believe, is also hardwired into us human beings, so perhaps that would be enough in a secular society. Or perhaps an innate sense justice is also hardwired into the human psyche, and perhaps that is enough.

    But I have my doubts.

    So I do worry about our drift into secularism.

    • #46
  17. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Susan Quinn:

    So you would then assume that most people would be willing to comply with an informed sense of justice (whatever that might be), and if we can show “good effects.” I’m sorry, Tom, but I think most people (most of whom are not on Ricochet) are pretty self-centered and narcissistic and don’t frankly care what is good for others, the culture, or the nation. I’m sorry to sound so cynical, but that’s what this past year has taught me.

    I agree most people stink, and for the very reasons you describe.

    My comment was dissenting from the notion that morals are demonstrably less arbitrary if absent from theism. Contra Dennis Prager I do not think “Love your neighbor as yourself” is significantly affected one way or the other by the addition of “I am God.” All this does is kick the philosophical can down the street: it merely changes the burden of proof from demonstrating the goodness of a particular moral system to demonstrating that God exists. This is not necessarily an easier question to answer.

    • #47
  18. Arthur Beare Member
    Arthur Beare
    @ArthurBeare

    God or no, I think the idea of accountability is a significant factor in “moral” behavior.  Would I care to explain this act to God, whose views regarding it are widely published, or would I care to explain it to my children?

    I can (or think I can) hide some things from my children.  But not from God.

    • #48
  19. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Front Seat Cat:

    Owen Findy:

    Morality comes from religion.

    Morality, per se, comes into the world because we’re faced with alternatives, and need a way to choose among them.  If we were deterministic machines, we would not need to choose, and there could be no such thing as good or evil.  The content of morality — the actual list of prescriptions — might have different sources:  reason, religion, unthinking adoption from parents, etc.

    Anyone born into the world is taught – how to eat, what to do and how to act, but have an instinct to know right and wrong.

    Regardless of the source of a code of ethics, I agree it should be taught.  Instinct?  Maybe we have some instinct-like, moral proclivity.

    God creates this nature….

    No.  There’s no reason to think there is a god.  Anyone who thinks morality comes from god is basing it on an indemonstrable fantasy.  Instead of having a solid foundation, it has no foundation.

    What would motivate you to do things that are extremely difficult, to sacrifice for others, at your own expense?

    Right now, I consider it in my rational self-interest to sacrifice for family or country.  (I admit that, with enough introspection, that may come to seem like a contradiction to me, but it hasn’t yet.)  But, I don’t consider sacrifice, per se, without context, moral.

    • #49
  20. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Owen Findy:

    Front Seat Cat:

    Owen Findy:

    Morality comes from religion.

    Morality, per se, comes into the world because we’re faced with alternatives, and need a way to choose among them. If we were deterministic machines, we would not need to choose, and there could be no such thing as good or evil. The content of morality — the actual list of prescriptions — might have different sources: reason, religion, unthinking adoption from parents, etc.

    Anyone born into the world is taught – how to eat, what to do and how to act, but have an instinct to know right and wrong.

    Regardless of the source of a code of ethics, I agree it should be taught. Instinct? Maybe we have some instinct-like, moral proclivity.

    God creates this nature….

    No. There’s no reason to think there is a god. Anyone who thinks morality comes from god is basing it on an indemonstrable fantasy. Instead of having a solid foundation, it has no foundation.

    What would motivate you to do things that are extremely difficult, to sacrifice for others, at your own expense?

    Right now, I consider it in my rational self-interest to sacrifice for family or country. (I admit that, with enough introspection, that may come to seem like a contradiction to me, but it hasn’t yet.) But, I don’t consider sacrifice, per se, without context, moral.

    In what situation would you give your life to save someone else and why?

    • #50
  21. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Front Seat Cat:

    In what situation would you give your life to save someone else and why?

    Even if my earlier claim that I think it’s worth it to sacrifice for family and country was an abject lie, or if it was the truth and I found out in the clutch that I was a coward, all the other things I claimed still stand, and need an answer from you.

    • #51
  22. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    I generally have two questions, that may go unasked but will be assessed before I enter into the “Morality whether God or not” conversation.

    First: Do you understand, at a visceral, the-clock-is-ticking kind of way, that you will die someday?  A disappointing number of people cannot understand that they will eventually shuffle off this mortal coil.  The urbanization/suburbinizaton of the country means that many are detached from the cycle of life and death.  Many have never seen an animal perish, let alone another human, so death is a hypothetical.

    Second: On dying, do you think you will be judged?  No precise list of sins or scale sheets.  Just, do you think Someone will hold you accountable for your time on earth?

    If the answer to one or both questions is–or I perceive it to be–no, then there’s no point in going forward with a conversation.

    • #52
  23. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Boss Mongo: Second: On dying, do you think you will be judged? No precise list of sins or scale sheets. Just, do you think Someone will hold you accountable for your time on earth?

    I do. Ugh. :) :)

    • #53
  24. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    MarciN:

    Boss Mongo: Second: On dying, do you think you will be judged? No precise list of sins or scale sheets. Just, do you think Someone will hold you accountable for your time on earth?

    I do. Ugh. :) :)

    People who have been served in the military are in good stead, I’m sure. The rest of us, . . . Meh. :) :)

    I’m just hoping to hear, “That’ll do, pig.  That’ll do.”

    • #54
  25. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I’m just hoping some of my kindly relatives who are already up there will lower a rope and sneak me in. :) :)

    • #55
  26. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Owen Findy:

    Front Seat Cat:

    In what situation would you give your life to save someone else and why?

    Even if my earlier claim that I think it’s worth it to sacrifice for family and country was an abject lie, or if it was the truth and I found out in the clutch that I was a coward, all the other things I claimed still stand, and need an answer from you.

    why do you need an answer from me? About what specifically?

    • #56
  27. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Boss Mongo:

    MarciN:

    Boss Mongo: Second: On dying, do you think you will be judged? No precise list of sins or scale sheets. Just, do you think Someone will hold you accountable for your time on earth?

    I do. Ugh. :) :)

    People who have been served in the military are in good stead, I’m sure. The rest of us, . . . Meh. :) :)

    I’m just hoping to hear, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”

    Boss – on another note, have you ever heard of a novelist named Michael Farmer? He writes military stories.

    • #57
  28. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Front Seat Cat:

    Boss – on another note, have you ever heard of a novelist named Michael Farmer? He writes military stories.

    FSC, no.  I’ll check him out.

    • #58
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