The unanswerable question
The Brandeis Humanists and Chabad at Brandeis met to debate God's existence
It's a riddle that might never be solved, but when the Brandeis Humanists met Chabad at Brandeis Oct. 6 for a public debate, they discussed one of the most disputed questions in the modern world: Does God exist?The Humanists, represented by Jonah Cohen '10 and Max Lewis '09, and Chabad, represented by Alex Flyax Ph.D. '13 and Rabbi Peretz Chein, debated before an eager audience of students and faculty in Rapaporte Treasure Hall.
Chein opened the discussion by asking the audience to abandon their traditional modes of sensory perception in order to explore a "more complex" definition of "existence." His arguments centered on the concept of God as the "first cause," the action for which there is no antecedent.
Everything we know about the world is a "joke," Flyax added, if a first cause is not the reason behind the creation of life. "Complex things," he said, "are the result of an organizing force."
Although Flyax acknowledged the roles of evolution and natural selection in human geneology, in an interview after the debate, he described evolution as a result of God.
While they didn't dispute the necessity of a first cause, the Humanists rejected the concept of an omnipotent God, asserting that the Big Bang was the first cause and the beginning of the universe.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Cohen didn't entirely reject the idea that God might have caused the Big Bang. Cohen said he's "willing to wait" for concrete evidence of God's activity.
The Humanists did point out the impossibility of a coherent definition of God in light of the multiple conceptions of God that exist among world religions.
Yet Chein countered that Judaism espouses a more general view of God.
"God is the first cause of all creation who is engaged and responsive to all existence," he said in an interview after the debate. God has all "positive and good qualities" imaginable, he said.
Throughout the debate, however, Lewis remained skeptical, pointing out flaws in what he saw as Chein's idealistic notion of God.
If God is in such a perfect state, he argued, then it would seem impossible for anything, even prayer, to bend his will.
Lewis suggested that if God is responsible for creating mankind and shaping human nature, then God, not free will, is to blame for tragedies, citing in particular the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Lewis declared that he will "gladly" believe in God if someone proves his existence. Religion is grounded in faith rather than certainty, he said, and faith is not evidence enough for the existence of God.
"You can't have faith without evidence," Lewis said, and proceeded to draw a distinction between religious and personal faith. Belief in human relationships, such as that between husband and wife, he explained, is based on the proof of fidelity.
The individual who believes in personal faith can therefore be "happy and accomplished without religion," Lewis said, by turning to the "beautiful" universe around him instead.
In response to a question from an audience member on the relationship between religion and morality, Flyax said that although atheists and religious individuals alike can practice morality, a belief in some higher power allows people to regard morality as a "personal responsibility" as opposed to a "social benefit" or optional performance.
Cohen insisted that people should not feel obligated to act morally, but Flyax answered that the individual option to act according to moral standards is not enough to sustain the well-being of society in general.Religion, Flyax said, is necessary to implement morality in certain societies.
The Humanists said that religion is especially meaningless when it is inherited rather than attained through knowledge. Religion should not be forced upon an individual, Lewis said in an interview after the debate.
When an audience member asked the Chabad representatives how they would perceive religion had they not been raised as Jews, Flyax responded that he was raised as an atheist but remained "objective to the environment." Later, he discovered a personal connection with Judaism and converted, he said.
Some students in the audience were impressed by the persuasiveness of the cases for and against the existence of God.
The topic of the debate was "very well-tackled," said Matthew Lawrence '10, noting that he was particularly "surprised" by Chabad's strong arguments.
Other students, however, felt that both sides of the debate lacked the passion they would have liked to see.
Tara Metal '10 was "disappointed," as she expected a more heated and controversial debate, she said.
Flyax admitted that the topic of God's existence was "too general" for the participants to engage in more detailed discussion. Instead, the aim of the debate was to provide the audience with the incentive to think and respect other schools of thought, he said in an interview.
The debate, Cohen said, was designed to "promote dialogue."
Editor's note: Matthew Lawrence '10 is a writer for the Forum section of the Justice.