From a talk to students of Emory University, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, in March 2014, billed as “Jews and the New Atheism.”

I’m A Believer

Hi, my name is Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. I am the person your professor warned you about.

Why? Because I am a true believer. I believe first and prove afterwards.

More than that, I am a dogmatist. Even when the reality before my eyes flies in the face of all I believe, I continue as doggedly as before. Until I get the facts to conform to what I believe.

What do I believe?I am the person your professor warned you about.

Well, I’m a dad, see. So, I believe in my kids. I believe that each one of them is a precious jewel with enormous gifts to grant the world.

Actually, I believe the same is true of every human being born on this earth, because each contains a spark of the divine, as hidden as it may be.

I believe the value of each individual is greater than the value of the entire society composed of those individuals. Even though the math doesn’t work.

I believe that life, each life, is worth living no matter what the struggle, just as the biosphere in which we live is worth saving no matter what the cost.

I have absolutely no evidence that this is so.

I believe that this world in which we live is totally amazing beyond anything we have yet to discover, that we have only begun to scratch the surface of treasures yet to be exposed—technology that will join the entirety of humanity in communication and dialogue, providing each of us access to all that can be known, unleashing the latent creativity of every human being, and placing before our eyes the oneness and harmony of this wondrous universe.

I believe that the world has one Creator, and that He is good, and that His intents in creating this place were good, even though it doesn’t always look that way. It sometimes looks quite the opposite. But I believe, so I dismiss evidence to the contrary as outlier data yet to be explained.

You can argue with me; you can bring a thousand proofs that my beliefs are wrong, absurd and harmful. Save your breath. I am a true believer. I am a fanatic. I am the person your professor warned you about.

Dangerous Beliefs

Now, let’s get this straight: Belief is dangerous. Lethal. Belief can destroy humankind—and it almost has, several times over.

Take the belief that human worth can be measured, “just as a rod of iron can be measured.” That belief was responsible for racist immigration quotas and tens of thousands of forced sterilizations in America. Shipped across the Atlantic, that belief gave warrant to the Nazis to terminate the lives of miscreants, crippled children, bedwetters, homosexuals, gypsies and Jews.

In the first half of the 20th century, eugenics was considered the cutting edge of science. But eugenics was not a science. It was a belief. A belief that ended up threatening the survival of humankind.Eugenics was not a science. It was a belief. A belief that threatened humanity’s survival.

Take the belief that the proletarian revolution would lead to emancipation of the people, fair distribution of wealth, the eventual dissolution of governments and peace on earth. In retrospect it sounds downright silly, but people really believed, truly believed in it. They believed it enough to fight bloody revolutions that relegated hundreds of millions of people to virtual serfdom, and stole tens of millions of lives through artificial famine and forced labor.

Communism was touted as social science. But it was not a science. It was a belief.

Take the belief that the state trumps the rights of the individual. Because the many are more important than the few. Because there is nothing divine or special about the life of any human being that accords any individual inalienable rights. Worship of the state—“statolatry,” as the Vatican called it—was an idea that captured the imaginations of philosophers, writers and statesmen—and brought with it the greatest atrocities of history.

Fascism, it turned out, was nothing more than a belief. A lethal belief.

Take the belief that everything can be explained as emergent phenomena of a small set of physical laws—including your subjective experience of those laws. Nobody has explained how subjective consciousness can arise from matter, energy and physical law. Nobody has even explained what subjective consciousness is. But we are told to believe, just believe, that there is an explanation waiting to be found, and that therefore this is absolutely so. You are nothing more than a device, and all that is most real to you, all that matters the most to you—your joy and sadness, your love and fear, your aspirations and inspirations—all is an illusion, nothing more than software running on hardware made of meat.

Materialist reductionism has been a very successful strategy to predict observable phenomena. To believe that it can explain the observer as well is not science. It is a belief—a very radical belief. One that threatens to undermine the dignity of human life.

Take the belief that everything we see about us got here by accident, and so there is no purpose or meaning, other than whatever we wishfully assign to our inherently futile lives. Accordingly, saving the environment and leaving behind a better world for our grandchildren is of nothing more than sentimental value. The world really has no inherent meaning or purpose.Atheism is the belief that there is nothing in which to believe.

How do we know? We don’t know. Atheism is a belief. Atheism is the belief that there is nothing in which to believe.

All these beliefs—eugenics, communism, fascism, materialist reductionism and atheism—are regressive beliefs. Regressive, because they never assisted humanity’s progress forward towards a healthier, happier, more harmonious world. On the contrary, they have provided a fast escape route to the past.

As the Bolshevik revolution returned a populace only recently released from serfdom back to their chains, so materialism and atheism can only return humanity back to the era before the word progress was uttered, before the mavericks of the Renaissance spoke of human dignity, before the emancipators of the Age of Reason spoke of human rights, before humanity began to dream of an age of world harmony and peace. From physical law and a purposeless universe emerge neither dreams nor destiny.

But that’s not what’s most noxious about those beliefs. What makes them most pernicious is that those who believe those beliefs don’t believe they are beliefs. They believe they are pure reason. Proven fact. Science.

And therein lies the trouble with reason that denies belief. Not that it is bad reasoning. Quite often, it is very brilliant reasoning. It may even turn out to contain some great truths. The real trouble is that it doesn’t know who is its father and mother. It believes it gave birth to itself. It believes that reason has proven itself as fact, without recourse to any other faculty of the human being. And that therefore, anyone who believes otherwise is an ignorant, damned fool.

If anyone ever tells you that his beliefs have been proven absolutely true by science, he is playing with fire. Wildfire. It is such beliefs that have the capacity to destroy the world.

Is It Okay to Believe?

The other day, I met an atheist. He told me he doesn’t believe in anything that cannot be proven to him beyond reasonable doubt.

I told him I don’t believe him.

“What don’t you believe?” he asked.

“That you don’t believe,” I answered. “Can you prove that to me—beyond reasonable doubt?”

“Well, I’m telling you so!” he replied.

“So,” I answered, “I’m just supposed to naively believe anything you tell me without proof?”

The truth is, there is no human being without beliefs. Without many, many beliefs.

Belief is to humankind as sunlight is to the forest.

Without belief, there is no life.

If lovers didn’t believe “this is the one!” if couples didn’t believe “our children will be beautiful!” if parents didn’t believe “one day they’ll grow up and it will all pay off”—oh, what a desolate world this would be.

And without belief, life is not worth living.

If businessmen didn’t believe their hunches, if athletes didn’t believe they’ll get that medal, if artists didn’t believe they can become eternal through their art—oh, what a dull, abysmal world.“The human being believes in eternal life, and therefore plants seeds.”

“The human being believes in eternal life,” the Talmud says, “and therefore plants seeds.” We live, love, build and create as though we will live forever, as though our deeds are eternal. Because we believe.

Without belief, there is no success.

Simon Sinek tells us that businesses succeed, inventors succeed, leaders succeed, movements, countries, projects—everything that succeeds—not because of what they do or how they do it, but because of the “why” in which they believe. People buy your product because of what you believe. And employees do their best job for you because they believe in what you believe. “If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”

We’re all feasting and enjoying one another’s company at this beautiful Chabad on Campus event. None of this could happen if the young couple who are your hosts didn’t believe in you. And they believe in you because their rebbe believed in you.

Without belief, there can be no progress.

If Newton had not believed that there is harmony in the universe, we wouldn’t have his exquisitely simple formulas for gravity and for motion. If a young Swiss patent clerk hadn’t believed the universe to be a single whole, we wouldn’t have relativity.

I have a little book on my shelf titled What I Believe But Cannot Prove. It’s a collection of essays by researchers in various fields providing their particular beliefs that they are either out to prove or just take as a given. That is how science works. Because no human being can put one foot forward without first reaching beyond his own intellect and believing—in himself, in his ideals and his ideas, and in his ability to transform a belief that is even beyond insight into a reality.

Reason is useful, very useful. But it goes nowhere without the faith that there is a somewhere to go.

Without belief, the human moral compass is doomed.

Yes, we have an innate moral compass. Our sense of reason is often its worst enemy.

If there were never people who believed that all human life is sacred, we would be living today in a world ruled void of civil rights. They never had proof. There still is no proof. It was, after all, the rational scientists of the first half of the 20th century who supported modern racism. At that time, reason was on the side of totalitarian states, the quashing of individualism, and the supremacy of “the Nordics.”

Thank G‑d for the believers who have saved us from the rationalists.

Because reason alone won’t get you ethics, won’t get you truth, won’t find you meaning. “There are people who live by reason alone,” writes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “and they are called psychopaths.”With reason, we observe the world. With faith, we change it.

Without reason, we cannot listen to the world and discover what it is. Without faith, we cannot speak back to it and tell it what it must be.

Without reason, we cannot know where we are. Without faith, we have no power to change our course.

Without reason, we lose touch with the here and now. Without faith, we forsake the future.

Betting on the Human Soul

There are seven billion people living together in this tightly knitted global shtetl, carrying at least a million banners of diverse beliefs. Can such a cacophony of voices harmonize together without the tyranny of forced conformity?

That depends. If there can be dialogue, there can be harmony. But for there to be dialogue, we all need to come to a simple recognition: That just as we have two legs, two eyes, two ears, two ventricles of the heart and two lobes of the brain, so we have two faculties by which our minds interact with the the world: reason and faith.

But if someone refuses to recognize the sanity of faith, the channels of dialogue are closed.

If someone tells me they believe something is true but cannot prove it, I can speak with that person. I can say, “You have beliefs, and I have beliefs. I can’t prove mine; you can’t prove yours.” I can ask that person, “Just what sort of a world do you think these beliefs will take us to?” That’s a great measuring stick. Because if both of us agree on the same goal, we can work together.

But if that person tells me that if I don’t believe what they believe it’s because I’m ignorant, stupid and insane . . . well, you get the idea. I can’t see that as a route to a happy world.

All this means that no one has to give up their beliefs in order to live peacefully with everyone else. No one has to even compromise in the slightest. That would be nothing less than a death knell to the magnificent patchwork of wisdoms and cultures that multiculturalism purports to preserve.

It would also be murder of the human soul. You can’t tell a world, “Believe that you’re sort of right, maybe, under certain circumstances,” and expect a symphony of voices worth paying attention to.

There is just one condition for us to live in multiple cultures, each with its own beliefs and yet living together: We simply must know that what we believe is belief, and whatever we reason also starts with belief. There is no need to ridicule belief, because none of us can so much as breathe without it.

Those “others” may be unscientific, they may be heretics, or just plain wrong. But they are not insane. They may not be “us,” but they are still human as we are. We can understand them and they can understand us, once we both understand that “our beliefs are not your beliefs; my starting point is not yours.”

Basically, I’m betting on the human soul. I’m gambling that we all really do share common truths, a sense of the transcendent, of meaning to life and of human dignity, and that through dialogue we will discover those shared truths.

I believe in the human being. And I’ll admit, that’s a belief.