Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Freethought Heroine 2011

Strong resistance to God’s existence

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, gave this speech Oct. 8, 2011, at FFRF’s 34th national convention in Hartford, Conn., where she was named Freethought Heroine 2011.

Thank you so much for that introduction. Not only do you have the best music of all freethinking organizations, but you also have the best way with words: “Freedom from Religion Foundation,” “The Emperor Has No Clothes Award,” “Freethought Heroine.” These words have a playfulness to them that only underscores their seriousness and honesty.

Actions are very important, but so are words. I’m a writer, so I would never say that words are cheap. Searching for the right words — words that are precise but also startling — certainly costs me dearly. So I just want to savor, for a moment, the flavor of these words that you’ve applied to me: freethought heroine. They’re very sweet on my tongue.

My being named a freethought heroine is a small vindication of one of the core assertions of Steven Pinker, who just spoke to you and humorously described himself as the warm-up act for me. Steve, in his defense of human nature and his rejection of the blank-slate metaphor for the human mind, has stressed the genetic contribution not only in our generic human nature but in our individual natures as well.

When it comes to nature or nurture, it’s not a matter of either/or, as Steve has told us again and again in his best-selling books, but nevertheless nature does often exert a very surprising hegemony over nurture. It turns out to be nature over nurture in numerous surprising ways.

This assertion of Steve’s means a lot to me because there was absolutely nothing in my nurturance that would have led me to have ever been associated with an organization like FFRF, much less being honored by it. I was reared to look in horror at all of you godless people. In fact, in some sense, the a priori improbability of such an honor being conferred on me has induced in me a strong feeling of imposterhood in accepting this award. I’m reeling from the sense of unreality.

My sense of unreality derives from my birth family, which is Jewish and strictly Orthodox. I come on my paternal side from a long line of rabbis and of rabbis’ wives. I never want to forget the rabbis’ wives. I like to fantasize that maybe there were some freethought heroines hidden among them.

My father, who was from Poland, had rabbinical ordination but he was too self-conscious about his accent to sermonize for American worshippers and in general lacked confidence. So he became a cantor instead, as a result of which he could barely support his family. We were as poor as synagogue mice. We were four children. I was inauspiciously positioned in the middle of three girls, and the oldest was a boy, which has great significance in a family like mine.

There were high intellectual expectations placed on my brother, who was expected to carry on the family tradition of producing Talmudic scholars, and my brother did, in fact, become a rabbi, which reminds me of one of my favorite jokes. Question: “Why was Jesus the perfect Jewish son?” Answer: “He lived at home for a long time, he went into his father’s line of work, his mother thought he was god, and he thought his mother was a virgin.”

Unlike my brother, I was a girl, and as a girl there were no expectations for me other than that I be sweet and docile, unassuming and modest. Modesty, or tzniut as it’s called in Hebrew, is the premier virtue indoctrinated into Orthodox females.

Girls gone mild

I’d attended an all-girls school in Manhattan, an extreme all-girls school, by which I mean extremely backward. It was a member of a loose confederation of schools that were started in Europe about 100 years ago called Bais Yaakov schools. These schools were considered progressive at the time when they were first instituted, since, although Orthodox, they instructed girls in some of the sacred texts. This was considered radical. One medieval sage had written that, rather than have girls ever study from the holy books, it would be better for the books to be burned.

We didn’t study the Talmud, which is the intellectual zenith in Orthodox Judaism. It’s the menfolk’s highest pride, the very means of conferring status, so that the best in Talmud are simply the best, full stop. Talmudic brilliance is the standard used even in arranging marriages. An outstanding Talmudic scholar, no matter what his other failings, can get a very desirable bride.

Especially when I was younger, I would play in my mind with the counterfactual: “What would it have been like if I had been born a boy?” I know that I might have become immersed in the world of Talmudic scholarship, which happens to be a world of intellectual ethereality and deftness in splitting a hair at least 20 different ways — which is, I confess, just the sort of intellectual exercise that I’ve often enjoyed as an analytic philosopher. I think I would have made a rather good Talmudic scholar, but, being a girl, I didn’t get the chance, which I’m now grateful for.

Tzniut, female modesty, on the other hand, was stressed to such an extent that in my high school instead of having pop quizzes we used to have pop hemline inspections. This was in the late ’60s, so hemlines were showing plenty of leg. We were supposed to be wearing our skirts down to mid-calf. Teachers would come in to check our hemlines, and if it was a little too short, you were sent home.

But this was only the external tzniut, the external modesty — inducing body shame, of course, but that was not the worst of it. Far more invidious was the internal inculcation of female modesty, which meant doing nothing to attract undue attention to oneself, including in one’s very speech. I mentioned how hard I struggle for the words that manage to be both precise and startling. Well, this inclination of mine, especially the startling part, was actively discouraged.

There is a Talmudic prohibition against a woman’s voice; the prohibition is known by the Hebrew phrase kol isha, the voice of a woman. Men outside her family can’t hear her voice because it is in itself, the Talmud says, an instrument of seduction. The law has been interpreted by almost all scholars to cover only the singing voice of women.

In my family, this was a very active issue. Since my father was a cantor, we were all musical. My older sister in particular had a voice that might have made her known in the greater world had she not been born an Orthodox female.

It was such an extraordinary voice that she was actually given voice lessons by my parents, very peculiar in our background. When her teacher heard her sing, she said, “I have very little to teach Minda. God taught her how to sing.” But that voice, which was professionally trained, was never heard outside our house or outside her own household when she got married. She used her voice strictly to sing lullabies to her children, or to sing her prayers in synagogue under her breath, trying hard not to let her love of music take over so that her voice might soar.

Kol isha is almost always interpreted as referring to a woman’s singing voice, but there is a Talmudic discussion as to whether it extends even to a woman’s speaking voice. I quote here from the Journal of Halacha (Jewish law): “Perusal of the Talmudic sources thus establishes the undisputed principle that a woman’s voice is erva” (an instrument of sexual incitement), “but leaves unclear whether a speaking or a singing voice is intended. And, in fact, some authorities do ban even the speaking voice of a woman.”

To come from a background like that, in which such questions are even debated, even if the more liberal interpretation which prohibits only a woman’s singing voice is accepted, is to have a very special set of problems in attaining one’s personal freedom from religion.

Imagine, if you can, how difficult it is for me to speak up, the special hurdle of convincing myself to overcome the embarrassment of undue attention, whether it’s in the fray of philosophical combat — and philosophy happens to be one of the most combative academic fields — or before an audience such as this one. Then, of course, I’m a writer, and writers are supposed to be engaged at least as much in self-promotion as they are in writing. This business of self-promotion is an especially difficult aspect in the life that I’ve chosen for myself, given my background. This was my nurturance, and it was intensified in that high school, that abominable high school that I went to.

Forget about evolution

It was, however, a state-accredited school, which meant — and I have to say hallelujah — that we were required to take the New York State Regents exam. I am so grateful for that accreditation, because it meant that there was some control over the secular curriculum. I consider those religious schools which don’t have accreditation, and there are a slew of them, to be a form of child abuse. I wish they could be outlawed.

In 10th grade, when I took biology, our rabbi/principal came in and solemnly spoke to us on the first day of class to warn us that the teacher, who was a moonlighting public school teacher — almost all of the secular teachers were moonlighting public school teachers — was required to teach us the theory of evolution because it was going to be on the Regents’ exam, but it was only a theory, which means unproven, and since it contradicted the story of creation that we all knew was true, we should learn the theory for our test and then we should forget all about it. But instead I promptly forgot all the holy nonsense I had to learn just as soon as the test was over, while the theory of evolution shined on in me as the luminous model of a thoroughly satisfying explanation.

We were actively discouraged from going on to college, especially those among us who were considered the best students. Instead we were urged to go to a seminary that was connected with the high school and was a sort of way station to bide our time until the all-important event in our lives, which would be getting married. But I did go to college, and eventually, after I got married — I got married very young the first time — I transferred to Barnard College, Columbia University, which is the place where I was born into consciousness. It was the first time I experienced what it was like to have my nature nurtured.

I could study anything I wanted, even the subjects considered mostly for boys, which were math and physics. I have to say I was a little disappointed that that category — subjects that were considered mostly for boys — existed even outside of that insular world that I was trying so hard to escape from, but at least I could study those subjects. Nobody was saying I couldn’t, nobody was going to burn the books before I got to study them, and my professors were encouraging.

Then there was philosophy, which I got into because I was interested in philosophy of science and philosophy of math. I was learning very strange and baffling things in my physics classes, especially quantum mechanics, and I wanted to understand what these theories meant, what they were saying about reality. There are outstanding questions in the foundations of quantum mechanics — they exist still — and often when I would ask my professors, I would get a version of the answer that you sometimes get in physics classes when you ask what does this all mean: Don’t ask what it all means; shut up and calculate.

I was also interested in questions about foundations of mathematics. Mathematics is so different from all other knowledge. It’s a priori — we can prove things conclusively. Mathematical results are immune to empirical revisions, and this delighted but also baffled me. So math, too, led me to seek out some philosophy classes.

But I found far more in these classes than I could ever have anticipated. I found a way to completely distance myself from religion, to lose it and never mourn the loss. While I was studying philosophy, I came to understand (and I have to say for me this understanding had the feel of salvation), that it is no sign of moral or spiritual strength to believe that for which one has no evidence, neither a priori evidence as in math, nor a posteriori evidence as in science. Quite the contrary. Religious epistemology has it all backward.

What I took from my philosophy classes, the persistent if unstated norm, is that it’s a violation almost immoral in its transgressiveness to shirk the responsibilities of rationality. There are obligations that are placed on us by being propositional creatures who are able to formulate truth-valued propositions, to consider them, to reflect on them, to assert them or deny them, and then to act on our considered beliefs when those beliefs are such as to support actions.

Bertrand Russell said about the practice of postulating in mathematics: “The method of postulating what we want has many advantages. They are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.”

One can very easily adapt Russell’s statement about postulating in mathematics — and it’s an adaptation I know that he wouldn’t mind (uncompromising atheist that he was) — so that it describes not what’s so wrong about postulating in mathematics but what’s so wrong about an epistemology that sacralizes faith, which is what religious epistemology does. So to paraphrase Russell: The practice of believing on faith what we want has many advantages. They are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.

I’ve been hanging around these atheist circles for a while now, and it seems to me, especially coming from the background I do, that some of my fellow atheists sometimes underestimate the intellectual sophistication of religious believers, speaking of them all as if they’re just dimwitted. They’re wrong in this, and I know that they’re wrong, because there are people in my family whose IQs I would match against anyone’s. They’re not dimwitted, and they know how to reason.

They don’t require that we enlightened ones point out the fallacies of their religious arguments, because they eschew religious arguments. They’ve got an epistemology that makes religious arguing appear as naive in their eyes as it is in ours.

My last book was called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. When I was on my book tour, they would often leave off that very important subtitle, so it was just, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and I would often have very enraged audiences. They thought I was going to be delivering a rejoinder to Dawkins and Hitchens.

I actually had interesting discussions with the audience, and there was one woman, in the Free Library of Philadelphia, who said, “Are you actually saying that you’re an atheist? Why would you just come out and say something so terrible about yourself?” It was as if I had just said that I eat babies for breakfast.

I ended up having probably one of the greatest dialogues of my tour, or maybe of my life, with that outraged woman. As we went back and forth, it became clearer to her that she and I had common ground, that both of us believed in objective morality and had similar ideas about what was right and wrong. Babies for breakfast was definitely out.

At the book signing at the end, she handed me a little scrap of paper and said, “Well, I don’t agree with what you say, so I’m not going to buy your book, but you seem like a nice lady so I want your autograph.” I considered that a great triumph. She came away thinking that she’d met a a nice, albeit godless, lady.

Three dozen arguments

In this book, although it’s a novel, I attach an appendix which gives 36 arguments for the existence of God, but with all of their fallacies. I lay them out in the way that we philosophers like to do, very clearly, stating the premises and then showing what’s wrong with each of the arguments.

There are all the classic arguments that philosophers and theologians have been debating for a long time: the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument. I also wanted to formulate the vaguer and more emotive lines of reasoning that I’ve never seen explicitly formulated, so I have — for example, the “argument from answered prayers” and the “argument from the intolerability of insignificance.”

The point of the novel, the storytelling that precedes the appendix, is that religious faith and religious adherence, at least in my quite intimate experience with them, very often have little to do with arguments. None of the Talmudic scholars in my family put much faith in any arguments. There are believers who see through these arguments just as well as you and I do. Rather, they put their faith in faith, which is what I mean by “religious epistemology.”

Epistemology is the area of philosophy that has to do with knowledge itself. What counts as knowledge, what kinds of grounds we need in order to have license to believe. There’s an almost ethical or normative component to epistemology, just as in questions of ethics, having to do with the evaluation of standards, of what counts as right. In ethics, we consider the standards for evaluating actions and determining the right sorts of actions. In epistemology, the normative questions revolve around the standards for evaluating beliefs. What counts as the right sorts of grounds for beliefs? Do you have to have grounds at all, and for all one’s beliefs?

Philosophy has been concerned with these sorts of questions from the very beginning, from Plato 2,500 years ago. It was Plato who stressed, as philosophers have continued to stress, how conscientious we ought to be in these matters of belief, as much as in our actions — and not only because beliefs are implicated in our actions but because the truth itself is important, and there are so many ways in which we get duped.

Plato stressed how many irrational and subjective forces are always lying in wait to take the place of good grounds, these dark forces of the ego that incline us toward wishful thinking and fantasizing, coming up with visions of the world that flatter our own senseless sense of self-importance in this world, so that we come up with worldviews, with weltanschauungen, that, flattering our own egos, incline us toward divisiveness.

The demand for compelling and objective reasons to believe arises as a way to combat these self-deluding tendencies. Religious epistemology, with its enshrining of faith, rejects the epistemology shared by both science and philosophy, demanding compelling reasons, that are compelling to everybody who submits herself to reason, which get at what “objectivity” means.

Beware of philosophy

Here’s something that Bertrand Russell really did say, without any paraphrasing: “A habit of basing convictions upon evidence and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world suffers.”

There’s an ethics to epistemology, there’s an ethics to taking our beliefs seriously to demand objectivity. This is a continuous theme in philosophy, from Plato on, and it’s why the spirit of philosophy has always been seen as inimical to the spirit of religion.

These epistemological and ethical considerations are part of the sphere of reason even though they’re not strictly part of science, but rather of philosophy. We shortchange reason when we identify reason only with the empirical sciences. Reason has science at its disposal, but it has more than only science. We have more in our arsenal. We have philosophical reasoning as well. And realizing the greater resources of reason undermines the great chasm which is supposed to exist between facts, on the one hand, and values, on the other.

Many religious accommodationists exploit this alleged distinction, most famously, Stephen Jay Gould, who magisterially proclaimed the existence of the “nonoverlapping magisteria” (often abbreviated as NOMA). I think this phrase is nonsense, but it sounds awfully good.

These two nonoverlapping magisteria that Gould laid out are both, he said, mutually exclusive and co-jointly exhaustive categories of propositions. On the one hand we give to the authority of the empirical science the dominion over all facts, facts of the matter, propositions which are either true or false.

On the other hand, we give over to the authority of religion dominion of all values, which presumably do not concern propositions which are either true or false. This distinction between facts and values lines up, Gould says, with the distinction between science and religion. It’s religion, in other words, which is to tell us how we are to live our lives, what are the values that matter, what it is to live a life well-lived.

According to NOMA, there is no work for reason to do here at all. So we have to leave it to the authorities of religion and religious codes of ethics.

Someone like Gould can think that reason has nothing to say on matters of value only because, with a certain degree of arrogance not unknown to scientists, he equates reason with the empirical sciences, which makes it almost unavoidable then to hand over to the authority of nonreason, also known as religion, all things having to do with value.

NOMA ignores the long history going back to Plato and Aristotle and onward to Spinoza and Hume and Kant and into our own day, which has been steadily offering us trickle-down arguments establishing the foundations of morality in reason. Steve gave away a little bit of how I think that this is accomplished in his own talk, the sorts of arguments which don’t belong to the empirical sciences but rather to moral reasoning, that professional philosophers have been developing and expanding upon, building on each other’s work — just as scientists build on each other’s work. And just as practitioners in the sciences have had their practical and beneficial effects, furthering the flourishing of human lives, so too have practitioners in the abstract work of moral reasoning, furthering the flourishing of human lives.

Philosophers have been hard at work, laying out arguments that clarify the objective nature of morality, laying out arguments that extend the intrinsic value of life to previously excluded groups — women, people of different races and religions, children, even animals — using rigorous reason, showing the inconsistency of conferring intrinsic value on some lives — certainly one’s own! — and not on others. And the force of the rationality of these rigorous arguments gradually trickles down.

People may not be able to reproduce the exact abstract logic of the philosophers, but their moral sensibilities have been transformed nevertheless. This process has helped to move us along, painfully slowly and often regressing, but still slowly going further in the process of moral progress. It’s a lovely aspect of our species that we don’t enjoy the feeling of being caught in inconsistency, and so much of our moral abominations involve inconsistency, which it has fallen to philosophers to point out.

Secular moral arguments

There’s a lot of disagreement among philosophers, who are split into the camps of Kantian deontologists and Millsian utilitarians. The two camps argue whether there are certain acts — torture, for example — which are intrinsically immoral, no matter what good results might ensue from them, or whether an act’s moral character derives from its consequences.

There is substantive controversy here, but that shouldn’t blind us from seeing the far more fundamental consensus. Both the deontologists and the utilitarians are joined to a common sense of what the moral point of view is–an entirely secular understanding of the moral point of view as requiring an effort of distancing from one’s own particular identity. That you happen to be you -— as important as that is to you ­— is of minimal moral consequence. Everybody else happens to be themselves as well, and feels about that self as fervently as you do about yours. Kant’s famous categorical imperative — that before you perform any action, you should try to perform this test in your mind: could you universalize it, make it a rule for everybody to follow — is getting at the distancing from the strong pull of the self, a distancing which is of the essence of the moral stance. If you want to perform some act­ — say cheating somebody out of his fair share — and you find you wouldn’t be able to universalize it, then what you’ve revealed is that you’re giving too much weight to your own identity in the situation. You only think the cheating is justifiable because it’s you who will be performing it. And utilitarians, in asking us to consider the greatest good for the greatest number, ask us to perform a similar distancing from the pull of the self, in which you view yourself as just one among many, and it’s the consequences for everybody — not just yourself — that constitutes the moral aspect. So deontologists and consequentialists, as divided as they are on important issues, still build on a common understanding of the nature of morality. Just as there are disagreements among scientists on the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics, but still they all know how to use it, and nobody but a fool would say there’s no established knowledge here just because controversy remains; so, too, there’s a tremendous amount of agreement among philosophers, and nobody but a fool would deny that there is shared genuine knowledge about the nature of morality secured through philosophical reasoning. And this secured knowledge has impacted on the world outside of professional philosophers, gradually changing opinions and sensibilities. It’s impacted even the moral sensibility of religion, so that people read the bible differently now, according to moral arguments that have been brought to them through secularism. It’s because of secular philosophy, at least as much as because of secular science, that all but the most fundamentalist of religious believers resort to claiming that the bible is, in various places, to be interpreted metaphorically, as much when it talks in moral ignorance about slavery as when it talks in scientific ignorance about the creation of the world in six days.

The division between facts and values that Gould’s touted NOMA supposedly rests on is a false division. Facts have been established in the world of values, secured through sound ethical reasoning. For example, it’s a fact that slavery is wrong. It’s a fact despite the fact that no religion was able on its own, without the input of secular philosophical arguments, to discover that fact.

It’s a fact that slavery is wrong despite the many laws concerning the keeping of slaves that are to be found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, just as it’s a fact that the voice of a woman, whether speaking or singing, is not to be regarded as in itself a sexual incitement. And if it is so regarded, that’s not the moral problem of the woman who’s speaking. It is, rather, the problem of the men who can’t hear it as anything but sexualized.

In any case, I thank you very much for listening to this woman’s voice.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. She received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University and taught philosophy for most of her life. She is the recipient of many awards for both her artistic and scholarly works. In 1996 she was named a MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She is the author of six novels, including 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, The Mind-Body Problem and Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal and Quantum Physics, a book of short stories, Strange Attractors, and two award-winning nonfiction books: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. She has retired from teaching to write full time and lecture.

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