Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Gets Besser

Pretty incredible. Even though I grew up Modern Orthodox, I found myself feeling a visceral sense of freedom when I saw the "after" pictures. Before, their lives and appearances were chosen for them. After, they chose for themselves.

(HT: Failed Messiah. Apparently "besser" means "better" in Yiddish.)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

High School Kid Kicked Out of House, Threatened for Opposing Graduation Prayer at Public School

This story's been going around the atheist blogosphere and reddit for a while:

High School Student Stands Up Against Prayer at Public School and Is Ostracized, Demeaned and Threatened

Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was about to graduate. His public school was planning to have a prayer as part of the graduation ceremony: as they traditionally did, as so many public schools around the country do every year. But Fowler -- knowing that government-sponsored prayer in the public schools is unconstitutional and legally forbidden -- contacted the school superintendent to let him know that he opposed the prayer, and would be contacting the ACLU if it happened. The school -- at first, anyway -- agreed, and canceled the prayer.

Then Fowler's name, and his role in this incident, was leaked. As a direct result:

1) Fowler has been hounded, pilloried, and ostracized by his community.

2) One of Fowler's teachers has publicly demeaned him.

3) Fowler has been physically threatened. Students have threatened to "jump him" at graduation practice, and he has received multiple threats of bodily harm, and even death threats.

4) Fowler's parents have cut off his financial support, kicked him out of the house, and thrown his belongings onto the front porch.

Oh, and by the way? They went ahead and had the graduation prayer anyway.

Bunch of small-minded bullies.

In good news, Damon has become something of a hero in the atheist world, he has a supportive older brother, and atheists around the country have so far donated almost $30,000 to give him a scholarship for college.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Interesting Interview with Michael Jenkins of Footsteps

Footsteps is a unique organization. Founded by Malkie Schwartz in 2003 to assist former Charedim in exploring the world beyond their former insular communities, Footsteps is part social club, part therapy-house, part educational laboratory. Members gather for a bite to eat from its well-stocked pantries, to read the latest issue of the New Yorker, or simply pop in at the end of a day’s work or schooling to meet with others of like mind, to “hang out,” to laugh over the latest absurdities in their lives, past and present. They also come for more formal discussions: free-flowing drop-in groups, dating and sex talk, and educational lectures. They might stay for five minutes or five hours. And Michael Jenkins is always there to greet them with his easy cheer.

Along with Executive Director Lani Santo, social worker Alix Newpol, and a dedicated group of volunteers, Michael organizes the organization’s programs, facilitates many of the discussion groups, and provides members with one-on-one counseling.

The interview. Unpious, by the way, has some of the best writing I've seen from formerly Orthodox people.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Matt Dillahunty on How He Became an Atheist and More

I thought this was pretty good. By Matt Dillahunty, president of the Atheist Community of Austin and host of the Austin Public-access television cable TV show and podcast The Atheist Experience.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A New Term for Intellectual Dishonesty

Secular Knowledge Integration Strategy

How Would You Describe Your Secular Knowledge Integration Strategy?

a) I discard or ignore most secular knowledge

b) I accept most secular knowledge and only discard that which blatantly contradicts Torah

c) I carefully sift secular knowledge to see if it is truly consistent with Torah

d) Other

This is not a parody. It's from a group blog for baalei teshuva -- people who have become Orthodox Jews as opposed to having been born into it.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Atheism vs. Agnosticism

I've been seeing a lot of confusion about the term "atheist" lately -- specifically the misconception that it implies 100% certitude (surely impossible.)

I thought this chart (via reddit's enormous atheism community) really clears it up:

Strong atheism is the belief that there are no gods. Weak atheism is simply an absence of a belief in God. Neither one implies certainty.

Similarly, theism is the belief that there is at least one god, even if you aren't 100% sure.

Agnosticism is (1) the belief that neither gods' existence nor nonexistence can be known or (2) simply a lack of certainty about gods' existence or nonexistence. The chart above uses the former definition, although the latter is perhaps more common in lay usage. Both meanings are compatible with atheism or theism, although people who are pretty sure one way or the other tend not to use the term.

I consider myself a "strong" atheist in that I believe that there are no gods, but I do not claim 100% certainty.

Hope that clears things up.

Friday, April 22, 2011

More Questions from a Teenaged Modern Orthodox Skeptic

Hey, its me XXXXX again, that 16 year old kid. I emailed you a little while ago and I have a few more things that I would like to ask you. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read and answer my questions as I am trying to find my way in life.

  1. Is there a particular reason you believe there is no god? Obviously there is a lack of evidence, but is there something in particular that makes you sure that he does not exist?

  2. Why do you prefer the term atheist over agnostic? About a week ago I told a friend of mine in yeshiva in Isreal that I am about "75% percent atheist." He responded, "You're not an atheist only tards are atheist, you're agnostic. No one can be 100% sure that god exists or does not exist." I guess he does have a point. Obviously it is impossible to prove or disprove god 100% so why do you (I guess make the leap of faith is the proper term here, how ironic) and say that god definitely does not exist and therefore identify as an atheist, over agnostic?

  3. This is something i struggle with a little. I even went ahead and made a list of my 5 commandments and mission statement to help guide me if I decide atheism is the way to go. In Orthodox Judaism your goals and ways of achieving them are very clear-cut: daven, learn, give tzedaka, and worship god etc. However atheism has no doctrine of faith, and therefore, correct me if I'm wrong, you really have nothing to guide you. From an atheist perspective life must not have meaning (this is not necessarily a bad thing, this is just what I see when I look at it objectively.) Do you have a purpose in life? I figure mine would just be to get rich, be happy, and help people. Is there anything that can really drive an atheist? Maybe there does not have to be, but coming from my perspective a life without god seems very meaningless. Any of your thoughts on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

Also you mentioned last time that I should pay attention to the comments. I did and they were great. It's awesome to see so many different perspectives on the subject. If you want to answer my questions on the blog, that would be great just so I could see what others have to say about them, but obviously it's your call.

Thank you so much for reading this and I eagerly await your response.

Hey, thanks for writing again. I'll take my swings at answering your questions and hopefully the commenters will chime in as well.

Why don't I use the term agnostic?

I would not say I am "sure" God doesn't exist. When I say I'm an atheist, I mean only that I don't believe that God exists. I recognize that I could be wrong, and I'm prepared to change my mind if confronted with new evidence or new arguments, but having spent a lot of time reading, writing, thinking, and arguing about the matter, I just don't believe that God exists. As an analogy, I don't believe that the Loch Ness monster exists, but if someone went out and captured it tomorrow and showed it to me (and convinced various kinds of experts that it was genuine) I would suddenly believe in the Loch Ness monster. Does that mean I'm agnostic on the subject of the Loch Ness monster? I don't think so.

Your friend's definition of agnostic is way too broad and would necessarily include 99% of humanity. Believe in God, don't believe in God, nobody except the mentally ill are 100% sure, even if they say they are. Does he consider himself an agnostic, by his own argument?

Why am I an atheist?

I would say that the lack of evidence for gods opened up the possibility but after that it's pretty much what seems more reasonable. As I've mentioned in the past, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time convinced me that the universe could have been "created" without any god's intervention and Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker convinced me that humans and all other living things could have evolved without any "Watchmaker."

At that point, I just kind of asked myself, well, does the universe make more sense with gods or without them? (Imagine being at the optometrist -- does this lens look more clear or does that one?) And to me, it just makes more sense without one. It explains why bad things happen to good people, why innocent infants are born with horrible diseases, why the universe appears to be vast and indifferent, etc. etc.

There's a philosophical principle called Occam's Razor that sort of formalizes one good argument for why an absence of evidence should make us work with the assumption that God does not exist. It exists in many forms, but perhaps the most concise is "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." That means that if A could have caused something to happen by itself, in the absence of evidence ("necessity") it's kind of silly to believe that A+B caused it. Another version that is perhaps a little misleading but in some ways more clear is "The simplest explanation is usually the best."

So if you take something like the Holocaust and look at it through this lens, it becomes pretty clear which explanation is more simple. On the one hand, we have an indifferent universe so we shouldn't expect it to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening. On the other hand, we have God and have to come up with all sorts of additional explanations -- that he's allowing man to have free will, that he was punishing us, that it's all part of his mysterious plan, etc. -- to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the horrific reality of the Holocaust.

Or let's take a scientific example. In ancient Greece, they didn't know that the earth was a globe that is tilted on its axis and that's why we have seasons. So instead, they made up this story:
Persephone's mother, Demeter, found out that her daughter was in the underworld. She was terribly upset by this news. She was so distraught over losing her daughter that she withdrew her usual blessing from the Earth. She refused to provide for the harvest until her daughter was brought back to her. This resulted in droughts on the Earth. A famine soon began.

Realizing that humankind would perish without crops, Zeus ordered Hades to free Persephone. But there was one condition… Persephone could be freed as long as she hadn't eaten any food in Hades. Just before he set her free, Hades tempted Persephone to eat a few pomegranate seeds from his garden. Because Persephone had eaten while in the underworld, she could not be freed. But without Demeter's attention to the earth, all of humankind would die.

Zeus was forced to negotiate with Hades about where Persephone would live. It was decided that Persephone would stay with Hades in the underworld for four months every year. During the other months, she would return to Earth to be with her mother. Every time that Persephone left her mother to live in the underworld, Demeter grieved. She withdrew her blessing of a good harvest on the Earth. Thus, the four months of separation caused cold, barren winters. When Persephone was returned to her mother, Demeter would be so glad that she would be kind to the Earth again. This would lead to spring, and then summer, followed by fall. In this way, the seasons were established.

When people found out about the fact that summer happens when your hemisphere of the globe is closer to the sun, they could have said well that's true, but it's also because of Persephone. That's where Occam's Razor comes in. We no longer need the Persephone story to explain the seasons -- the Earth's tilt is quite sufficient -- so out goes the story (and others like it.)

(Of course, I'm sure that if there were Modern Orthodox Greek Polytheists running around today, many would insist that this story is obviously allegorical and that the ancient Greek myths are perfectly compatible with modern science. Others would explain that the tilt of the Earth explanation is actually coded within the Persephone story.)

On meaning

This is a big question and something that many atheists wrestle with for a long time. In fact, I think it's one of the primary (unconscious?) motives for people to become or to stay religious in the first place. If you're religious (at least in fundamentalist religions like OJ) then you are told what the purpose is and given explicit rules and guidelines for how to live your life. Many people find that very comforting. (Of course it also causes problems for people who don't exactly fit into the rules, like gay people or those who care about them, like people who care more about what's true than what they're supposed to believe, etc. For that reason and others, it only kind of works if you're good at not asking questions, not thinking about certain things, living in denial, or engaging in compartmentalization.)

As you allude to, there are no rules and guidelines for being an atheist. Atheism is not a religion or even a philosophy, it's a simple lack of belief in one particular thing. Just as not-believing-in-astrology doesn't give your life meaning or specific rules, not-believing-in-god doesn't either. So there are as many approaches to these questions as there are atheists.

Some atheists (and some theists) are existentialists. They believe that you are responsible for creating your own meaning and examine the best ways of doing that and living that meaning passionately. Other atheists are nihilists who agree with the existentialists that there is no objective meaning, but don't necessarily take it any further than that. Others are hedonists. Others don't really think about it.

As for me, I think it's actually kind of a silly question. I'm not saying you're silly for asking it -- we all ask it -- but that if you think about it, it's kind of a strange way to look at things. Do we ask what the meaning of a summer afternoon is? Or what's the purpose of Tuesday? The question to me reflects some kind of internalized Protestant work ethic that implies that things are only worthwhile if they are productive in some way. I think it's worth really examining that piece of cultural indoctrination.

I try to just live my life as I see fit. I want to be comfortable, so I went into a career where I could make decent money doing something I like, but I didn't care enough about being rich that I was willing to do something I didn't like or to work many more hours in order to achieve great wealth. I love my wife and I want a family, so I got married. I care about other people, so I help them when I can and try to avoid causing them harm. I have various hobbies I enjoy, so I engage in them often. Etc. And again, I have seen and continue to see a psychologist to help me kind of examine myself, recognize and dismantle some of my internalized beliefs that aren't necessarily true, and continue to make good choices and improve my life.

I know that someday I'm going to die but that doesn't really bother me -- I figure not being born never bothered me so being dead will probably be about the same. I know that someday the sun is going to gradually become a Red Giant and then a White Dwarf and that someday long after that the whole universe will meet some kind of end in which no thing could live, too. But that's just how it is. It's sad and tragic like death is sad and tragic, but what are you gonna do? Enjoy it while you can.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Yetzer Haemes (The Inclination to Truth)

In Orthodox Judaism they talk about the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination) as components of the human psyche. It's obviously an oversimplified version of reality, but so is Freud's id/ego/superego. It can still be a useful concept.

As regular readers know, I've been thinking for a long time about how and why some people become skeptics and others, even very smart and educated ones, continue to believe in what I see as fairy tales. I've investigated various hows like compartmentalization and good, old-fashioned denial, but I haven't really gotten into the why. Why did I stop believing, while others maintain their faith or even harden it?

Subjectively, it feels to me like I have what I'll call a yetzer haemes, the inclination to truth. When I think or hear something that doesn't ring true, I feel a nagging sensation in my brain, analogous to the one I felt when I was a kid and wanted to break a rule that my parents had set, which would have been the yetzer hatov. I feel it when someone I disagree with says something that rings false, but I also feel it even when someone I agree with makes an argument that rings false. It's even caused me to delete some of my own drafts for this blog instead of posting them.

Maybe it's a function of nerdiness. I am a computer programmer, and I have (but fight) that nerd's compulsive desire to "fix" statements that are even just a little imprecise, let alone false. You know that nerd who will interject into a conversation to correct somebody's off-the-cuff remark about something totally unimportant? ("Well, actually, in ancient Rome, the aqueduct was blah blah blah...") That would be me if I hadn't learned how to shut up so I wouldn't get made fun of in middle school*.

There does seem to be a correlation between nerds and atheism. Scientists are disproportionately atheists, science fiction is full of atheism, etc. On the other hand, engineers and accountants are nerds who tend to be believers more often than programmers and scientists do, in my experience -- maybe their need for an orderly, sensible universe combined with a cautious, conservative nature overrides their desire for correctness at all costs. And anyone who knows Orthodox Jews knows there are plenty of nerds who believe, too.

So do other people just not have that yetzer? Or is it much weaker? Or have they just gotten into the habit of ignoring it or running it over? Has religion taught them to ignore it, perhaps identifying it with the yetzer hara? Is it possible that even fundamentalist religions like Orthodox Judaism really ring true to them on that level?

I guess I don't really have any answers. I just thought the concept might be worth thinking about.

*For those who still suffer from this malady, software developer and blogger Miguel de Icaza gets into it in Why you are not getting laid.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Advice for a Teenaged Modern Orthodox Skeptic

I am a 16 year old boy who goes to a modern orthodox high school. I have been religious my whole life but am very skeptical about Judaism and God's existence as a whole. A few months ago, I hit the breaking point and for a few weeks I did not keep kosher or shabbos. I spoke with my parents about it and they were heartbroken.

I thought about it for a while and I decided that I will finish up high school and go to my Israel year and then if I am still not satisfied with Judaism I will just live my life free of overbearing laws that make no sense and just go crazy in college.

This leads to my question. When i learn gemara and chumash and what not I have a hard time taking it seriously. So my question is that what in Judaism is actually real and what is just made up, from an atheist perspective at least. For instance, were the Jews actually ever in the desert? Did the forefathers really exist? What about more modern things like the Channukah and Purim story and the wars in the times of navi'im?

The 2nd part of my question is, so lets say there is no god, were the prophets and rabbis like rashi and rambam just delusional old men?

thank you for taking time to read and i eagerly await your response by email or maybe a post on the blog.

biding my time

Hi "biding",

I'll respond by blog so that other people can contribute answers as well and so that other kids in your situation might be able to read it.

I sympathize with your situation -- that sounds hard. I personally didn't start being really skeptical until college, when I was already out of the house. My parents were also heartbroken, but since I wasn't living under their roof, there were fewer complications. We do have a pretty good relationship to this day, though. I'm sure they'd still prefer I be religious, but it's not really an issue between us anymore. We just don't really talk about it.

It sounds reasonable to finish up high school where you are if that's what you want to do. As for Israel, I'd do some thinking about what you're trying to get out of it. Some yeshivas are intellectual, some are for partying, and some specialize in making people frum out. It can be pretty tough I think if you go to one that doesn't fit. A lot of people end up just hanging out with friends or partying, so if that's what you're into it might not matter that much. I was kind of introverted and not so into partying, so even though my yeshiva wasn't a good fit for me (too right-wing) I mostly just kept to myself and read books all year. It kind of sucked. Something I wish I'd considered more seriously was doing some kind of joint program like the one at Bar-Ilan, which is coed. You can still do some Orthodox stuff for your own sake or your parents', and you get the experience of living in Israel (based in secular Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem) but you also get more of a college-like experience. Or, of course, you could just head straight to college.

As for "going crazy" in college, if that's what you decide to do, try to be smart about it. :-) Just because you don't believe in Orthodoxy's rules doesn't mean that you have to be some kind of crazy hedonist. Just look at Charlie Sheen to see where that gets you -- it looks fun, but it's probably not the best way to lasting happiness and healthiness. I think some level of experimentation is probably a good idea for most people, but just be smart about it. If you go that route, educate yourself about safe sex, try to have some real relationships, don't kill yourself with alcohol, and try to use other drugs responsibly if you choose to use them.

Onto the questions. I don't think there's a singular "atheist perspective," so I just try to go with what the actual experts on a subject believe. You can usually just look something up on Wikipedia for some pointers.

For example, on the "Were the Jews ever in the desert?" question, Wikipedia offers:
While a Moses-like figure may have existed in Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century BCE, archaeology cannot prove or disprove his existence, and the "overwhelming" archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel "leaves no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness."[20] For this reason, most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit."[21] A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus narrative of an Egyptian captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness,[16] and it has become increasingly clear that Iron Age Israel - the kingdoms of Judah and Israel - has its origins in Canaan, not Egypt:[22][23]

If you're really interested, of course, you won't stop at Wikipedia but will follow the references to primary sources.

It's really not possible to rule out the existence of, for example, the forefathers, but suffice it to say there doesn't seem to be a good secular reason to believe that they are anything more than literary/mythical creations. The important thing to realize is that the majority of secular scholars believe the chumash was written by multiple authors over a long period of time and put together somewhere around 600-450 BCE, over 500 years after Moses would have existed. So the validity of the text as a historical document has to be understood in that context.

The story of Chanukkah seems to be at least "based on a true story" in that the Temple obviously existed and there was a war, etc. There is some scholarly disagreement on the nature of that war. See Wikipedia for more information. As for Purim, secular scholars seem to think that Megillat Esther is basically a historical novella and point to various historical inaccuracies in the text.

I think it's possible to continue to study and even enjoy chumash and gemarah on an intellectual level even if you don't think that they represent the truth, but I'm sure it's not for everybody, so I'd just treat it like any other subject I didn't really care about as far as school goes.

The second part of your question asks about the prophets and rabbis. With regard to prophets, some scholars hypothesize that Ezekial, for example, may have suffered from a form of epilepsy, but that's really just guesswork as far as I'm concerned. There are of course many mental illnesses or drug-induced states that we know cause people to act the way the prophets are said to have acted. I have a neighbor, for example, who can talk for hours in a very manic state about all kinds of visions and wild experiences she has had. I'm not a doctor, but she appears to me to be schizophrenic. It could also be that prophets were normal people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and that the stories about them were just exaggerated and embellished.

I don't think it's fair to call rabbis like Rashi or the Rambam delusional, in the sense of the word that implies mental illness. Orthodox Rabbis today aren't delusional, they just believe things that I don't think are true. I assume that the same is true of Rashi and the Rambam, although they at least have the excuse that they lived before the scientific revolution. It's fun to think about if the Rambam, who was obviously a brilliant man interested in philosophy, would have become an atheist if he were born in the last couple of centuries, but there's really no way to know.

Anyway, I hope I've been helpful. Good luck in getting through the next few years and making some big decisions. It might be helpful to see a psychologist to help you think through everything. I advise even adults who become skeptics to consider seeking therapy just because leaving Orthodoxy and all the things that go with that (family issues, big changes in personal philosophy and the meaning of life, etc.) can sometimes be hard to work through on your own. I've found it helpful myself.

Feel free to write to me again if you have any questions, etc.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Load-bearing Beliefs vs. Cosmetic Beliefs

I've been arguing a lot recently on various other blogs, mostly about the standoff in Wisconsin between the governor and the teachers' union. (I'm for the union, obviously.) Like an idiot, I went in thinking that since my position makes a lot of sense, at least to me, I'd be able to convince the people I was arguing with to if not change their minds than at least see that there was another reasonable point of view.

Instead, I found myself responding to not to just a couple of counterpoints, but to a number of arguments multiplying so fast that I couldn't possibly keep up. I'd attack the first six, and not only would I not have convinced my opponents, but there would suddenly be six more arguments on top. If I attacked those, there would be six more. No arguments were ever conceded, either, so they could cheerfully go right back to the first six arguments if they ever ran out of new ones. This is a not a new insight -- people have compared arguing with certain people to playing Whac-a-mole.

I was thinking about how frustrating this situation is, though, and I realized that not all of the arguments are equally important. Some arguments reflect the genuine reasons the person believes in their position, while others are arguments they just think will help their case. I'd like to call these load-bearing arguments and cosmetic arguments.

Load-bearing arguments

These are the only arguments that matter. If you can convince someone that a load-bearing argument is false, then it will rock their belief. It won't necessarily convince them, because if their belief is psychologically important to them, they'll quickly shove a bunch of other arguments under there and hope they hold, but you're not wasting your time. If you could convince them that the load-bearing argument is false, it's going to at least temporarily shake their confidence.

Cosmetic Arguments

These arguments are just for show. They exist to create the appearance that the belief is supported by a vast and ever-multiplying array of arguments, but they are just decoys. Upon examination, not only do they not hold up, but you realize even this particular believer isn't convinced by them.

It's important to realize that an argument is load-bearing or cosmetic for a particular person -- it's not an objective categorization. One person's load-bearing argument might be another's cosmetic one and vice-versa. There are some arguments, though, that are always cosmetic.

Some examples

Let's take abortion. I think "God says it's wrong" is a load-bearing argument. If (obviously a big "if") you could convince a person who uses this argument either that God does not exist or that He does not say it's wrong, it would shake their belief. Again, it's possible that they would hold onto it by putting other arguments under it, but there would have been a moment when the belief was actually at risk.

"Abortion is murder," on the other hand, is a cosmetic argument for most people. If you could convince someone who says this that abortion and murder aren't exactly the same, they would likely still oppose abortion without ever wavering. That's because they don't really believe this argument in the first place -- their belief rests on a different argument entirely. (As evidence that they don't really believe abortion is murder, they would send a woman who killed a baby to jail, but would never send a woman who has an abortion to jail.)

How about our old favorite, the existence of God. I think some version of the Argument from Design is often a load-bearing argument. I'm not talking about the formal argument -- I don't think formal arguments are good representations of how people actually think -- but the genuine intuition that some intelligent being must be responsible for the dazzling complexity of the universe. If you can convince a believer that the universe *could* have come about without a designer, you will often have genuinely shaken their belief. Again, they might not be convinced, they can shove other arguments under their belief, but there will be that moment of panic. I think that's what happened to my belief in God. Hawking shook it with A Brief History of Time and Dawkins sealed the deal with The Blind Watchmaker.

That's why Darwin was so revolutionary and why he is still so reviled by many religious people -- he didn't just disprove a literal reading of Genesis, he demolished the Argument from Design as it applies to biology and human beings. Even though he didn't explain why the universe exists, how the planets formed, or even how life began, it was enough of a blow to the idea of a Designer that it convinced a lot of people, himself (probably?) included, that God does not exist.

Note that the Argument from Design is not load-bearing for all believers. Some believe that they have personally witnessed God or that they can see him in everyday life. For them, the Argument from Design is a cosmetic argument and this other thing is the load-bearing one. Convince them that the universe could have come about without God and it won't shake them. But if (huge if) you could convince them that what they experienced was a hallucination, for example, or that what they took to be God's influence was really a series of coincidences, then their belief would be rocked.

I think the Ontological Argument is a rare argument that is *always* cosmetic in all its forms:
When we hear the words "that than which a greater cannot be thought", we understand what the words convey, and what we understand exists in our thoughts. This then exists either only in our thoughts or both in thought and reality. But it cannot exist only in our thoughts, because if it existed only in our thoughts, then we could think of something greater than it, since we could think of something than which a greater cannot be thought that exists both in thought and in reality, and it is a contradiction to suppose we could think of something greater than that than which nothing greater can be thought. Hence, that than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in thought and in reality. Therefore, that than which a greater cannot be thought really does exist, and in later chapters of the Proslogion Anselm argues that this being has the traditional attributes of God like being the omnipotent creator.

I can't imagine anybody's belief rests on such an obvious gimmick.

How to Tell the Difference

Again, most arguments can be either load-bearing or cosmetic, depending on the believer. It's all about the genuine reason the believer believes, and that might be ultimately unknowable. However, I think there are some clues.


Some arguments are clever, and the believer might be proud of them. This is usually an indication that it came after the belief already existed and is used simply to score points -- that's why the believer is proud of it. The Ontological Argument, discussed above, is a prime example.

When I was in yeshiva, we were talking with our rabbi about the "apparent" contradiction between an omniscient God and free will. (In Orthodox Judaism, playing Resolve that Contradiction! is a popular pastime, both in casual conversation and in Torah study.) I came up with an analogy. I said we people living in this century can look back at people living in the last century and know that they chose X instead of Y and yet they still had free will. So, since God exists outside of time, it's pretty much the same thing.

The rabbi was delighted and the other students smiled and nodded and I was really proud of myself for coming up with such a clever argument. The argument, though, now that I don't believe, is obviously bullshit. Even if we allow for a God that exists "outside of time," he also must be "inside of time," because he allegedly interacted with the universe in the past. Therefore, he knew about people's choices before they made them and the contradiction still stands.

If someone had pointed out the flaw in my argument to me then, I would have shrugged and been like, "Oh yeah, good point" but my underlying belief in God (and free will) wouldn't have been shaken for even an instant. That's what makes it a cosmetic argument.


Oftentimes, a believer will offer up an argument or several tentatively. Now, obviously, there's nothing wrong with offering an argument tentatively rather than confidently, especially if it's a bad one or one not yet investigated or challenged, but it's on obvious indicator that it's not load-bearing. Either the person does not yet believe the conclusion of the argument (hence the tentativeness) or the person already believes the conclusion and the argument is just cosmetic.

For example, in this thread at the great XGH's, commenter Thanbo offers four "solutions" to the same problem - the conflict between the Documentary Hypothesis and the belief that God dictated the Five Books to Moses - and adds "I'm sure there are others I haven't thought of." Clearly, regardless of the merits of the individual arguments, they are all cosmetic because if you knocked them down, it won't affect Thanbo's belief. He's sure there are others.

I find that a lot of believers who think of themselves as more open-minded (but not so open-minded that their brains fall out!) do this. They see a contradiction in their beliefs and are too "open-minded" to either pretend it doesn't exist or to pretend that any particular argument resolves it, so they'll say well this could be a solution or that could be a solution, etc. Ultimately, if you destroy every "solution" they offer, they'll just shrug and concede that it's an issue, but it won't shake their faith in the slightest.

Arguments that don't directly support the belief

Some "arguments" don't really support the belief in question. For example, Pascal's Wager is more of an attempt to convince the audience that it's in their self-interest to believe than it is an argument that the belief in question is true. Arguments that not believing would have adverse effects (religion makes me happy and healthy or it keeps me behaving) might point to explanations for a person's belief, but they aren't load-bearing because knocking them down would not directly affect the person's belief.


Engaging with cosmetic arguments is a waste of time if you're trying to convince a believer (in anything) that they are wrong. In the best case, defeating a cosmetic argument might cause the believer to start questioning the source of that argument, but in no case will it directly lead to a change in belief. It's probably still a waste of time to engage with a load-bearing argument since it's so hard to convince anybody of anything, but that is where you should direct your efforts if you decide to argue. It's the only one that matters.