Shaya Cohen -


A Brief History of Belief

A Brief History of Belief

Mankind has an instinctive, almost a desperate, desire to make sense of the world around us. We invent classification systems that are ultimately arbitrary, but which we invest with notions of truth – think of any zoological “line” between species as one example. Every classification system is burdened in the same way: there is always a gray area, boundaries that are necessarily fuzzy and flexible. Is a virus “alive”? Is Pluto a planet? Should sound be described using the octave system of Western music, or the sound’s physical frequency? How does one measure intelligence? The answers are themselves arbitrary, and necessarily so: The empirically knowable world is like a fractal, with seemingly-infinite levels of complexity all the way down.

So when we try to make sense of it, we are doing nothing more than overlaying a human construct on the data.  We admit as much when we invoke things like Occam’s Razor: “All else being equal, we go with whatever explanation seems simplest” is, after all, merely a rule of thumb.

Why do we classify, then, if the classifications are ultimately arbitrary? Because there is no need to claim absolute truth. Though these constructs may be imposed solely by our minds, they remain highly useful nevertheless. After all, the modern world is built on handy and useable classification systems. Technology is what happens when people actively work with the natural world, classifying and building, testing and operating.

I think that technology actually can form the template for evaluating other human belief systems as well. Just as a mechanic does not care that the steel he is working is, in the eyes of the physicist, almost all empty space, so, too, we can remain ignorant about any true nature of G-d without it making one whit of difference to our lives.

What does matter, however, is what the fruits of these belief systems produce. How are people changed by the beliefs that they hold?

I would argue that the belief system is the wellspring of all our decisions – or at least, it should be. If we think that G-d is on our side, then we might take risks that we otherwise would avoid. Nobody, of course, can prove that G-d is or is not on their side – at least not to anyone else’s satisfaction. But we most surely can convince ourselves of anything; most of the world holds beliefs that the rest of the world thinks are silly at best. But even at the most superficial level, our belief system dictates how we sort out the data that comes in. If we think we are doomed to a cursed existence, then everything in our lives can be seen through that lens. Similarly we all know people who see everything that happens to them through a looking glass of joy and good things. The belief system can, in turn, select our filter for us.

In my own arbitrary classification system, I distinguish between those faiths that believe in destiny, and those that believe in people creating their own futures: you are what you are born, versus you are what you do. The former is the belief system for those who see the world as a Great Wheel – the cycle of life, the cycles of nature with the daily and monthly cycles of the sun and moon and stars, complete with connections to astrology and the four elements and countless other circular patterns. And instead of being merely the backdrop for life, the Great Wheel often becomes the surrogate for life itself. For fate-based belief systems, the world is a great wheel, slowly rotating in space. Seasons, lives, births and deaths, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Those of us who believe that we can create our own futures do not deny that the natural world has cycles, or even that human societies flourish best when we are connected to ritual. Even Judaism and Christianity are connected to the idea of a Great Wheel – but because we see human existence as an arc, as a story that has chapters yet to be written, the Great Wheel is not suspended in space, hanging on some metaphorical axle as it slowly rotates around. Instead, this Great Wheel is on the ground, rolling and bumping along to destinations unknown, toward the future. We believe that this world and its inhabitants are going somewhere, and this belief makes all the difference. As the wheel turns, it keeps connecting – but to people like me, there is a point to it all.

No one can say whether the wheel is “truly” in space or on the ground. Nobody can prove that people either are all capable of changing themselves and overcoming their nurture and nature, or are actually predestined by powers beyond their control – counterfactuals are by their very definition, mere fantasy. The practitioners make their own truth: if you believe in something, then that thing becomes your world view. And so our world views are prophetic – for ourselves. And we live our lives in fulfillment of them.

An atheist does not believe that G-d exists – and for that person, G-d surely does not exist. That is his reality. A religious person has their own, different understanding. There are as many possible belief systems as there are people in the world: we each have our own existences, our own lives.

This is not unreasonable. Occam’s Razor is handy because, for any set of data, there are at least two (and perhaps infinitely possible) explanations. The number sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, can be mathematically explained using any number of different equations. Given the very same data, people will come to different explanations.

That is in fact what happened when belief systems were first created in our world. Early pagan deities wielded the forces of nature, and those forces were far greater than man could hope to overcome: is it the right time to plant? Will it rain? Will good fortune keep my child from being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Mankind, left to its own devices, took in all the data from the natural world, and developed a belief system that was heavily connected to the image of the mounted wheel, slowly turning in place. Deities were impersonal forces, just like the weather or a mountain, and man was nothing more than another animal at the mercy of the elements and the gods. Except, of course, that surely “it could not hurt” to try to bribe the deity, to try to placate the gods. Indeed, to do otherwise was to tempt fate, and we all know what happens to people who tell the gods to go fly a kite. It is never pretty. To this day, superstitions form a substrate for human behavior across every culture, in every part of the world. Even avowed atheists rarely go out of their way to challenge superstitions, and the “lucky” relics or rituals of modern sports fans would be instantly recognizable to any practitioner of an ancient pagan religion.

But this is not, sports fans notwithstanding, the common vision of American Civilization today. In the Torah’s version (which is surely at least as definitive as any other), by ourselves, mankind did not discover or reason out the existence of a single deity, creator of the whole world. The Torah does not tell us that man found G-d. It tells us instead that G-d spoke to Avraham, initiating the birth of monotheism, the belief in a single deity who was both stronger than any natural force, but also qualitatively different from those forces.

Why does it matter? The difference has everything to do with the personal nature of the relationship. The G-d of Avraham was no remote deity; he spoke with Avraham, argued with him, shared visions and dreams and traumas. This is the G-d of the Jews: someone who is both greater than mankind, but also able to relate to us and connect with us in every aspect of our lives. It is a G-d who does not want us to sacrifice our virgins to him, but instead to seek to improve ourselves and others, to change as people, and to grow in turn.

This vision is different than the pagan belief, to be sure. But this does not prove that G-d – any deity – exists. For all we can prove, the existence of any deity may be nothing more than a mere construct; if we could establish otherwise, then there would be no free will. But even though there is no absolute proof for Judaism, there is certainly a defense of Judaism and Western Civilization as a whole to be found in the product of our shared beliefs.

Just as we can measure the “value” of technology, so, too, we can measure the “value” of belief systems. We can see that the vast majority of the human race achieves little new in their lives. And why should they? By their own admission, they are riding the Great Wheel as it rotates on its axis. They are nothing more than the result of their nature and nurture, locked into a plan that is greater than themselves and certainly greater than their abilities to withstand the impersonal forces of the world.

Atheists see themselves as more hard-headed. But this, too, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-described rationalist will hesitate to begin a venture, especially if the likely outcome is failure. (I’d be curious to see the religious divisions between those, for example, who start restaurants, a business with an 80% failure rate.) A Jew or Christian might, instead, reckon that statistics don’t apply to them, that G-d is on their side – and begin that venture. The failure rate may remain the same, but the overall results would be quite different. After all, 20% of restaurants succeed. And in order to start a venture that is likely to fail, one must believe that, somehow, and in open defiance of all measurable data, a person can be more than an animal, more than a leaf in the wind – that a person can be blessed by a deity who takes a deep personal interest in our lives.

It might seem odd to not try to “prove” the veracity of any religion over another, and merely measure those faiths by their fruits. But it can also be quite liberating to do so, because if we can accept that people often end up with the lives that they choose, then we can see religions (including the religious belief in an objective reality) through a utilitarian lens. And that lens is not merely about technological progress or new restaurants – it is also about morality. The Torah tells us that each person is made in the image of G-d, holding G-d’s divine spirit within us. That is an article of faith, surely. There is no proof of any such thing, and rationalists throughout history have argued that society would be better off if we did not allow cripples or ignoramuses to procreate, or even, in some cases, to live. “Buck vs Bell”, the evil Supreme Court decision that permitted compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including the intellectually disabled, “for the protection and health of the state”  remains the law of the land. The fruits of such a morality can righteously be called “evil.”

There is a problem, however, at the heart of all personal-based religious systems. That problem is the inherent tension between a G-d who supposedly loves us – and at the same time, allows us and our loved ones to suffer and die. The very same data about the world that leads to pagan religions can also lead us to worshipping the Jewish or Christian deity – or even death itself. After all, death is at least as inevitable as life, and much easier to bring about. This is a central question within Judaism and Christianity that does not trouble those who simply make peace with living on the Great Wheel.

The Torah itself brings this tension out repeatedly. G-d wants to destroy Sodom, but Avraham argues with him – to save the city for the sake of those few who are righteous within it. Rather than seeing this as a problem with religion itself, the Torah is making it clear that it is both right and proper that man and G-d see things from different perspectives: man must seek to preserve and grow life, because life represents the opportunity to do good. G-d, on the other hand, created death as well as life, and He barred the entrance to the Garden of Eden so as to keep man from becoming immortal: to G-d, the life of man is not necessarily a good thing in itself. The only thing that matters to G-d is what that life chooses to do, whether in fact we are actively seeking to improve the world, to keep the Great Wheel bumping along, and toward better places.

To me, the tension is not a bug: it is a feature. That tension keeps us on our toes, keeps us from being merely passive actors, placidly chewing our cuds as we go through life and await the inevitable date with the executioner. But it means that we are, in a real and tangible way, at odds with G-d. The system is rigged, because we are both biologically and spiritually programmed to seek life, to seek to extend and preserve our own existences, even in the face of a world where death is the only guaranteed conclusion. G-d, on the other hand, loans out souls at the beginning of their lives, and then brings them back in again at the end. Like planted seeds, the value of each life is in what they do while they are alive, even though the harvest is sure to come for all of us.

Christianity generally seems to accept this state of affairs, and to go so far as to say that we must accept that everything that happens to us is part of a Master Plan to which we are not, and cannot be, privy.

Many strains of Judaism take the same path: they discount the value of free will and especially the ability of each person to  change the world for the better. Instead, we knuckle down, claim that even the Holocaust was G-d’s will, and wallow in our suffering. 

Thankfully, this is not true about all devout Jews. Many of us are inspired by Avraham and Moshe, who argued and quarreled with G-d when it came to how human life should be treated. We are in no hurry to reach that “Game Over” moment, and recognize that, as with any good marriage, there is considerable give and take between the spouses. G-d’s priorities are not our priorities, just as a husband and wife usually apply different priorities to everything from home décor to how one should spend leisure time. But the conversation  that ensues in that disagreement is itself usually fruitful, and brings both parties together. 

So I choose the scary path: the understanding of life and G-d that gives me the most power – and the most responsibility for my own actions.  It is a worldview that does not allow me to placate an impersonal deity with sacrifices, or to submit to a personal deity by deciding that “whatever happens is all part of the Plan.”  Instead, my G-d is profoundly involved in every aspect of my life, and we talk several times a day. Sometimes I do all the talking. Sometimes I mostly listen. And sometimes we grapple with the issues together, which is how I came to write this piece down.

Comments are welcome!

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