Symposium on David Benatar’s ‘What’s God Got to Do with It?’

Orbis - God

Welcome to our symposium on David Benatar’s paper:

What’s God Got to Do with It? Atheism and Religious Practice. Ratio 19 (4):383–400.

Please find a copy of the paper here:

Our symposium begins with three sets of comments on the paper.

Comments by Shira Weiss can be found here.

Comments by Yuval Avnur can be found here.

And, comments by Daniel Rynhold can be found here.

A response to all of these comments, from David Benatar, can be found here.

Thank you to all of the symposiasts for taking part, and to Ratio for providing us a with a free link to the paper.

Event Details
  1. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thanks for this interesting paper David.

    Two clarificatory questions.

    1) In your paper you explain why an atheist might wish to adhere to traditional Jewish practices despite his atheism. In particular, you highlight the celebration and preservation of his identity as a Jew as one such reason.

    I find this notion of Jewish identity unclear and would be interested to learn more since I do wonder why anyone would want to commit to maintaining an identity which revolves around a lie; that is, why would one want to maintain an identity predicated upon an elaborate set of falsehoods? For instance, the atheist cannot accept that he is prohibited from work (melakha) on Shabbat because God commanded him to do so (since he is an atheist after all). Assumedly, therefore, he refrains from work on Shabbat because Jews do not work on Shabbat. But why engage in such behavior all the while talking as if God prohibits it? Why not call it what it is—refraining from work for some other reason. Talking of God prohibiting it is just misleading and false.

    An additional question: why don’t Jews work on Shabbat according to this atheist? It surely cannot have anything to do with the creation of the world by God, as described in Genesis. Would it be problematic for this atheist should it become apparent that there is no good reason whatsoever that Jews first came to refrain from work on Shabbat? What if the atheist learns that the reason is because very early Jews thought that the world was flat and that the only way to avoid falling off was to refrain from work every seven days? Or that a Ron Hubbard equivalent duped his fellow Jews into such a prohibition? Considerations such as these call out for the notion of Jewish identity as a reason for adherence to be developed further. If no coherent and defensible account of Jewish identity can be provided as a motivation for an atheist, then such adherence would be irrational on such grounds.

    (I appreciate that you could not do so in your paper as it was not the main point of the paper. Perhaps there is some literature you can point readers towards on this point.)

    2) What reason does the Jewish atheist have for thinking that Jewish identity is matrilineal?

    1. Dani Rabinowitz


      I think that Dani’s question is related to what motivated my initial comment.

      There is a sense in which Jewish identity is a very simple matter – one is born Jewish as one is born English, or American, or whatever (though Dani’s point about matrilineal descent is well taken). At the same time, however, Judaism is a religion. And it is the nexus of these two “identity conditions” that is puzzling.

      As David (if I may) notes in his response to me, an individual act might be defined as Jewish practice simply by being one of the practices characteristic of Judaism. My point was that as practiced by a Christian, this would not constitute Jewish practice in a religious sense, since the practitioner must be Jewish for that to be the case, which David also acknowledges.
      Yet Dani’s question, it seems to me, again raises the question of how atheistic practice constitutes Jewish practice given that the ethnic condition is the only one that the atheist fulfills. The atheist is indeed a born Jew who is engaging in the practice. But that mere accident of birth seems like a strange thing to invoke in order to distinguish the religious acts of the Jew and the Christian in my hypothetical case, especially given that the Christian is engaging in the practice for religious reasons.

      It might indeed be that the uniquely ethnic character of Judaism does indeed do all the heavy lifting here, but the lack of clarity surrounding the question of Jewish identity to which Dani appeals is generated by what seems to be the unique manner in which Judaism combines ethnic and religious identity conditions in a manner that I don’t believe has been seriously analyzed (conceptually speaking). I’m certainly not suggesting that this forum should be hijacked by that question. But it does seem to be an important question that lurks in the background to this whole discussion.

    2. David Benatar

      Dani asks why “anyone would want to commit to maintaining an identity which revolves around a lie” and seems to think that the atheist’s observance constitutes a “lie” because the atheist cannot say that the prohibitions, for example, are prohibitions from God. Taking as an example the prohibition against working on Shabbat, he asks why the atheist does “not call it what it is – refraining from work for some other reason.” He says that talking “of God prohibiting it is just misleading and false.”

      However, the atheist – unless speaking metaphorically – is typically not claiming that he is observing the mitzvot because God commanded them. Instead, the atheist is claiming to observe for some other reason – such as ethnic identity, Jewish continuity, force of habit, or whatever. No lying there.
      Dani finds atheistic Jewish identity hard to understand, but it really is not that mysterious. An atheist can readily identify as Jewish for any number of reasons. Perhaps he or she has a cultural rather than specifically religious – or theistic – affinity with Jewish practices. Some of these practices may have a theistic origin, but their origin may be as irrelevant to an atheist as any national myths may be to an identifying American or Frenchman, for example. Other Jewish cultural practices may have only a tenuous or no connection with religion. Jewish atheists’ ethnic identity might alternatively or in addition result from the fact that others identify them as Jews and this may generate a recognition that they are vulnerable to anti-Jewish prejudice and sometimes even persecution. (Some respond to this vulnerability by assimilation, but the response of others is davka to embrace the identity.)

      There are very many atheists who identify as Jews even if they do not perform any traditional Jewish practices. Other atheists who identify as Jews do perform some traditional Jewish practices – such as circumcision, a seder or fasting on Yom Kippur. This does not seem to strike them or others as that odd. It’s only when the atheist engages in orthopraxy that people start wondering.

      Dani also asks what reason a “Jewish atheist has for thinking that Jewish identity is matrilineal”. Well, Jewish atheists are not committed to matrilineal Jewishness. Reforming Jewish atheists might embrace alternative criteria of Jewishness. An atheist who accepts orthopraxy might accept the matrilineal criterion because he or she has a particular view of halacha and of the constraints on how it can change. As I argued in “What’s God got to do with it”, this conception of law can be divorced from theistic views about the origin of the law.

      1. Dani Rabinowitz

        David, I fear that I failed to express my point clearly and have thus been misunderstood. It’s clear enough that the atheist doesn’t keep the sabbath because God commanded it. And I’m happy enough, though still uncomfortable, with the atheist speaking metaphorically. It’s the motivation of identity which is troubling me for I don’t see identity as a complete motivation. It only tells one half of the story. That is, my first question to you was aiming at an additional point viz. Jewish identity is a satisfactory motivation for the atheist if and only if some sense can be made of the reasons underpinning that identity and the atheist’s connection to those original reasons. That is, there must be a reason why Jews decided to keep the sabbath and the atheist’s motivation to maintain his Jewish identity must in some way connect to that original motivation (at least in my mind). The theist (by his lights) connects to the original reason why Jews keep the sabbath — because God assumedly commanded it. But the atheist doesn’t seem to connect to the original reason in any way. So there is something asymmetrical here. And I think it is this asymmetry that is troubling me. Does this make more sense?

        1. David Benatar

          Dani, thanks for clarifying your concern. If I understand it correctly then I think that we simply disagree whether the “atheist’s motivation to maintain his Jewish identity must in some way connect to [the] original motivation” for Jews’ deciding to observe the mitzvoth that the atheist observes. You think that the atheist’s motivation must be so connected, whereas I see no reason why it must. By analogy, consider an (atheist) American who celebrates Thanksgiving as an expression of American identity, for example, but to whom the original (theistic) reason why Americans celebrated Thanksgiving is irrelevant. I do not see any reason why the contemporary (atheist) American’s motivation must connect to the original motivation.

          1. Dani Rabinowitz


            Your analogy raises questions of its own. The atheist American might ask himself: why do Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? The theistic answer which you mention will obviously not satisfy this atheist nor will it be relevant, as you say. Is it fair to conclude, then, that for this person there is NO satisfactory or relevant reason whatsoever for why Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? Surely if there is no such reason then that is a reductio against the view that there need not be any connection to the original motivation.

  2. Yuval

    Hi everyone, and thanks David (if I may) for your replies. I have a few different questions about them but I’ll start with just one, about the first argument. In your replies you stated that you aimed to show that “believers could coherently practice anything they wanted.” I think I have a better idea of what you meant, namely that pretty much any interpretation of the scripture is possible, so pretty much any practice can be perceived to be in line with the scripture. However, there is something like a scope ambiguity here that was messing me up on this point. Would you agree to this:

    “It is not the case that, for any specific believer, any practice is coherent (or reasonable, or rational) for *that* believer. So, it is not the case that every believer can coherently practice whatever they want.”

    Why would you agree to that? For one, many (most?) believers take some interpretation to be the correct one, or some range of interpretations to be the reasonable ones. So any practice that is not permitted by such interpretations will be incoherent for that believer to follow. Furthermore, there are limits to what one can bring oneself to believe is a reasonable or correct interpretation. So, for any specific believer, there are practices that correspond to those un-believable interpretations that it would not be coherent for him or her to practice. Would you agree with that? In that sense, there *are* limits on what one can coherently practice, and those limits are set by what one can (or does) believe to be the correct interpretation of scripture. A final thought on this point: if any interpretation must be regarded as acceptable, or reasonable, by every believer, then it makes no sense of any believer to criticize the practice of any other believer. Do you think it is ever coherent, or rational, for believers to criticize other believers for the way they practice?

    Here is a related suggestion. If “coherence” or the rationality which we are discussing (when we say that a believer can “rationally” practice “anything”) is simply a matter of internal coherence, then a believer’s practice could only be limited to that believer’s interpretation of scripture, or the range of interpretations that that believer considers viable. But couldn’t there be an interesting sense of “rational” on which there are objective limits on interpretation of the text? If you read Genesis as requiring loudly clucking like a chicken every day at noon, there’s something wrong with your reading, isn’t there? If so, then there should be a good sense in which it is not rational for a believer to, say, condemn those who fail to cluck like chickens at high noon, in the name of God. Let me pose that in a slightly different way: isn’t it reasonable for someone like me, who thinks that the clucking interpretation is incorrect, to think that religious cluckers are not being rational? If so, then it’s reasonable for me to think that there are limits on what believers can rationally practice.

    To sum up: I can’t tell if, in your replies, you are suggesting that there are no objective limits on reasonable interpretation, or if instead you are suggesting that only subjective beliefs about reasonable interpretation matter for the purpose of determining what practices it would be rational for a believer to engage in. But both of those seem questionable to me. I hope that made sense!

    1. David Benatar

      Yuval, I’m concerned that your line of questioning is distracting us from the argument I offered in “What’s God got to do with it?” and thus does not constitute a challenge to it. The dialectic of my initial response to you was to entertain this distraction on its own terms but then to argue that even if there is a limit on reasonable interpretations of a scriptural text, my argument was left unaffected. I want to emphasize that point now rather than further encourage the distraction.

      In “What’s God got to do with it?” I said that the theist is not committed to orthopraxy, which in this context, refers approximately to the set of practices commonly performed by observant members of the “Orthodox” denomination of Judaism. The concern about whether there are reasonably limits on how people can interpret a sacred text does not, so far as I can see, undermine that argument. As long as significant departures from orthopraxy (thus understood) are possible without resorting to unreasonable interpretations of the Torah a theist is not rationally committed to orthopraxy. You have acknowledged that a wide range of acceptable interpretations may indeed be possible. To accept the conclusion that believers are not committed to orthopraxy one does not have to embrace the view that there are no limits on reasonable interpretations of the Torah or some other sacred text.

  3. Mike Haruni

    The atheist’s praying is problematic, I suggest, not because of what Prof. Avnur mentions, that the atheist does not believe what she’s saying is true (how many of us, reciting the Amidah, believe that the Davidic dynasty must be restored in Jerusalem?), or that it could even be meaningless for her (it need be no more meaningless for her than any work of fiction she might read). The problem, I think, lies in the fact that she is employing a device traditionally and standardly employed, not just to refer to and describe God and His works, but also to address God, to communicate with God. She is instead using the device in a truncated way, rather as if, wanting perhaps to identify as a carpenter, she picks up a hammer and knocks with it at thin air. I want to elaborate on this and show how I think it is a problem for Prof. Benatar’s view.

    I must admit, firstly, that I don’t think this necessarily makes the atheist dishonest. As long as she’s clear to herself, as well as to others who observe her, that she has no pretense, in reciting the liturgy, to be speaking to God, there is no deception here. In practice, though, this is not so simple. Sitting in synagogue and reciting the liturgy with the congregation, not having announced specially and not carrying a sign saying she has no intention, in reciting the liturgy, to be speaking to God (and not sitting in a special disbelievers’ section, the ezrat kofrim), her fellow congregants will probably assume by default that she’s there to address God. So there probably is some resultant dishonesty. But possibly that would be excusable if she’s there in good (er…) faith pursuing some larger goal, for instance nurturing her Jewish identity.

    But can the atheist really be nurturing her Jewish identity by praying? The question might seem unfair at this point: perhaps this one example from among indefinite possible motives is atypical in some significant way, and possibly the argument will unfairly capitalize from it for broader conclusions. I want nevertheless to stick with this example; I’ll presently be able to say why, and to point to how this relates to the broader issue.

    Dani Rabinowitz and Prof. Rhynhold have already mentioned that much hangs here on how we understand the nurturing of some identity. Let me therefore just state minimally (without wanting this issue to hi-jack the present debate), that my wanting to nurture my (in our present example) Jewish identity will involve, at the least, my recognizing this category of individuals, the Jews, and possibly some sufficiently typical core sub-category of model individuals whose Jewishness I’d most want to acquire. Prof. Benatar seems to be assuming here — and I have no reason to dispute this — that I can then nurture my Jewish identity by identifying some key practice (such as praying), which I take to be characteristic of the Jews, or at least of my model Jews, and myself repeatedly engaging in that practice (regularly praying). But this means, surely, that I must really be engaging in that practice — not in some incomplete semblance of the practice. Indeed using the practice to achieve its standard function, its principal justifying purpose when it’s realized by my models, is surely most crucial to my using it to nurture my identity in this way. My knocking at thin air with a hammer might serve some purpose (as the secret signal of salutation at the blacksmiths’ ball), but it surely won’t cultivate any fuller sense, in myself or anyone watching me, that I’m a carpenter. To cultivate this I’d surely need to use the hammer to bang nails into wood, build cabinets with it, and so on. In this same way, I suggest, reciting from the liturgy will not in itself cultivate a person’s sense of being Jewish, if this does not serve the purpose it is standardly and traditionally put to by Jews, that is, if it is not done with the intention of thereby speaking to God.

    Yet we surely can imagine an atheist diligently attending synagogue every Shabbat morning, reciting the liturgy with the congregation, albeit undirectedly, and coming home having thereby strengthened her sense of being Jewish. I don’t doubt this can be true of an atheist; but the matter is confused in that we are picturing the fuller context in which she recites the liturgy. I suspect that her Jewish identity is nurtured, not by her reciting the liturgy — which I maintain cannot serve this goal — but by her coming to synagogue, in doing so marking Shabbat, sitting with fellow community members, reciting and singing together with them, occasionally chatting, and so forth. Picture her reciting the liturgy while alone, into the empty space of her own living room; whatever then remains of her identity-nurturing, properly conceptualized as just the truncated semblance of the traditional practice, it fizzles away.

    I think this is not just an empirical, psychological claim. I am not denying that an atheist could cultivate some Jewish-related sense of herself by reciting the liturgy in her undirected way. But this will not be a sense of being Jewish; it will be, perhaps, a sense of belonging to a (still largely imaginary) group of people who regularly recite the Jewish liturgy without intending thereby to address God. I must also admit, though, that this constraint is contingent. That is, it’s a function of the contingent fact that Jews traditionally and standardly recite the liturgy by way of addressing God. If substantial communities of Jews developed who regularly recite the liturgy undirectedly — and for sure, something like this is beginning to happen at various locations in Israel — this could appropriate some of the meaning of “Jewish identity”.

    Now it had been my impression that, for Prof. Benatar, the case of the atheist’s being motivated by a desire to nurture her Jewish identity was just one among any number of possible motives. But consider that his claim that the atheist can have an imperative reason to observe normative religious practice, and in particular to pray, taken quite literally, is obvious and uninteresting. Obviously she could have any of a boundless variety of imperative reasons for doing so, such as to please her parents by satisfying their wish that she continue Jewish religious practices, or perhaps to please her cat who takes great joy in seeing her recite from the liturgy. Note, though, that these possible reasons work here only insofar as they are not upset by the fact that the atheist’s recitations are an incomplete semblance of praying, devoid of its core purpose. The fact that she’s indulging in a deception doesn’t stop it from working on her parents, or on her cat; the imperative is fulfilled as long as they’re fooled by this. The claim becomes unobvious and interesting, however, when we understand it to say that the atheist can have some deep and (in a broad sense) spiritual, or existential, imperative reason for observing normative religious practice. Hence the example of identity-nurturing forces itself upon us, and is not as arbitrarily chosen as might have at first appeared. Unfortunately, though, deception won’t then work; the truncatedness of atheistic praying cuts right in and shows the claim to be false.

    1. Dani Rabinowitz

      Thanks for these interesting points Mike. I’ve often wondered if there is anything philosophically and/or halakhically problematic with an atheist leading a community of theists in prayer i.e. as acting as the chazan, ba’al koreh, etc. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in light of your foregoing comments.

      1. Yuval

        Hi Mike and Dani (and everyone else),
        I’m interested in the discussion about authenticity (or honesty) in prayer. Suppose we set aside, at first, the point about an atheist leading prayer, and just consider the individual in prayer. One worry I had about the paper was that there is something dishonest, or at least very strange, about an atheist praying. I’m not satisfied by the various replies that have been given quite yet, but I’d like to ask you what you think about this alternative reply to the worry. Presumably, many atheists are not utterly certain that there is no God. That is, they don’t think the probability is 0, they just think it is sufficiently low (whatever the number is) to justify all out belief that there is no God. (The topic of how all out belief relates to degrees of confidence is pretty complicated, I’m just gonna ignore the difficulties for this). An atheist, I imagine, is someone who says “I believe there is no God; it’s possible that there is a God and I’m wrong about that….but probably not.” That seems the only rational (non-fundamentalist) version of atheist. With this in mind, consider two characters, A and B. A is locked in a dark basement and is certain that no one can hear him. Yet, A screams “please, anyone, can you help me???” There’s something kind of crazy, or at least non-rational, about A’s scream, given that A is certain that no one can hear him. B is also locked in a dark basement, and though he believes no one can hear him, he thinks there’s some small chance that someone can hear him. He screams “Please, anyone, can you help me???” With B, at least there is some rationale I can imagine: B thinks that there is some chance someone might hear him, so it could make practical sense, and at least it could comfort him a bit. If B is thinking “I don’t think so, but maybe someone hears me” his appeal for help is, in a way, an exercise in humility, since it plays on the possibility that he is mistaken. In the case of A, it’s hard to see how it could even make sense, let alone be comforting. For, B is certain that no one can hear him so, at least, screaming “to someone” is not comforting in the same way. Back to the atheist: if the atheist thinks there’s some small chance God is there, would his or her prayer make just that much more sense? The atheist believes no one is listening to the prayer, but the fact that he or she does not regard that as an impossibility seems to me to make the prayer seems a little less crazy. Perhaps there’s some literature on the topic of agnostic prayer that applies here (I’d love to know about it if there is!). Anyway, I wonder what those who know about prayer (not me!) think about the distinction between certain-atheist prayer and confident-but-not-certain-atheist prayer.

        1. Daniel

          Hi Yuval,

          I think that you so raise an interesting point about there, in general, being a sliding scale of belief and/or lack thereof. Your proposal could certainly bolster the rationality of the ‘non-believer’ praying. But the rationale would still not be consistent with the thesis that Dr.Benatar was putting forward in his essay.

          As I wrote elsewhere, I am not sure precisely what his theory of rational consistency is in the context of heterodoxic orthopraxy, but, given the examples he cited, here might be a suggestion:

          The agent’s personal beliefs (for argument’s sake, assume total atheism) would never lead them to an autonomous personal conclusion that they ought to pray, if not for the presence of an orthodox community. However, the agent feels deeply identified with the orthodox community. Perhaps they were brought up orthodox and feel ‘at home’ in shul, keeping Shabbat, wearing a kipa and so forth. Perhaps they believe that their childhood was enhanced by growing up in a halachic home seeing their family praying in Shul, or perhaps they feel a sense of identity and connectedness with the friends family and community they grew up in. Either way, they seek to ‘belong’ to that community.

          Now since the orthodox community is a community that believes in God, and the efficacy and necessity of prayer, the agent in question understands that their ability to identify with the community is enhanced by joining the community in Shul and even in prayer. When the agent prays they may not believe that they are talking to anyone. But they do believe that the community with which they identify does believe that ‘it’ is in conversation with God. As such they act as a mouthpiece for their community in it’s heartfelt belief in God.

          I do not know whether such a modality might be considered rationally consistent (in a way that meaningfully selects between ‘rational’ motives for beliefless orthopraxy and ‘irrational’ ones).

          I also think that such a rationale might plausibly necessitate the very link between orthodoxy and orthopraxis that Dr.Benatar’s paper sought to eliminate. In its place we would have a somewhat weaker hypothesis: that the direct link between orthodoxy and orthopraxis could be (rationally) uncoupled, so long as it is achieved, instead, vicariously.

          [Of course, from the perspective of Orthodoxy, such an agent would fall short of an acceptable adherence to Orthodox Judaism, and their actions might be seen as failing the test articulated by the Sefer Hachinuch and many others (that a necessary condition for an act to be considered a mitzvah is that it express a belief in, and love of Hashem – ie that it be a component of a relationship between man and God). But Dr Benatar is not arguing that such an agent ought to meet Orthodoxy’s standard for justified orthopraxis; merely that they do not fall foul of ‘rationality’.]

          1. Yuval

            Thanks Dani, for the clarifying comment! I too am not clear on the operative sense of ‘rationality’ here. But I’m intrigued that you agree low confidence theism might rationalize prayer. Is there any literature on agnostic or doubt-filled (as in doubt about whether anyone is listening) prayer? If so please let me know (here or email is fine). Thanks!

          2. Daniel

            Hi Yuval,

            For clarity’s sake I’m not Dani – there are two of us on this forum with similar names, so whilst I take the confusion as a compliment, I cannot speak on Dani (Rabionowitz)’s behalf. My surname is Rowe.

            As for your question about whether one with weak belief could still rationalise praying, one philosopher who defends precisely such a stance is Anthony Kenny.

            “Being agnostic does not mean that one cannot pray. In itself a prayer to God about whose existence one is doubtful is no more irrational than crying out for help in an emergency without knowing whether there is anyone in earhot.” (Kenny, A., 2006, What I believe, p,64)

            “It surely is no more unreasonable than the act of a man adrift in the ocean, trapped in a cave, or stranded on a mountainside, who cries for help though he may never be heard or fires a signal which may never be seen.” (Kenny, A., 1979, The God of the Philosophers. p. 129)


          3. Sam Lebens

            Hi everyone.
            Thanks for a fascinating discussion.
            I think that we can make more distinctions than we’ve been making.
            As far as Daniel (Rowe) is concerned, Orthodoxy demands belief – the community is one ‘that believes in God’, and that, at least according to Chinuch, a mitzvah is not really a mitzvah unless it represents belief in God.
            Aside from Orthodoxy, we have Heterodox Orthopraxy, which is presented as being consistent with atheism.
            And, we have the agnostic, or the person who’s credence in theism falls bellow the threshold for belief.
            But, I fear that the discussion, though fascinating, is insufficiently nuanced.
            I think we would do well to consider Dan Howard-Snyder’s recent work on propositional faith, published in the American Philosophical Quarterly (
            His basic idea is that there is a propositional attitude known as fait-that. To have faith that p, one certainly can’t believe the negation of p. To have faith that p, one certainly has to want p to be true, or to have, what Howard-Snyder calls a positive conative attitude towards p. But, faith that p is consistent with significant levels of doubt.
            When a person is in the midst of a crisis of faith, and their credences in theism have plummeted, but they keep on in their observance, not for the reasons that Benatar gives us, but because they still hope that theism is true, and hope that their credences will go up, do we really want to say that such a person isn’t fully Orthodox? They seem to me to be perfectly religious, and pious. Indeed, the picture I’ve painted is consistent with complete saintliness. Howard-Snyder argues that propositional faith doesn’t require belief (although belief would be fine). Rather propositional faith merely requires, alongside the positive connative attitude, a positive cognitive attitude, which is to say, p will have to be something of a live epistemic option for you.
            Why can’t we re-frame what Daniel (Rowe) said, and suggest that the Orthodox community has faith that God exists (some of them fulfil the positive cognitive requirement of faith via belief, and some via something less full-blooded)? Why can’t we re-frame the Chinuch to be saying that a mitzvah isn’t a mitzvah unless it expresses faith in God, and faith that he exists?
            It might be that the Rambam thought of his 13 principles as demonstrable truths, and therefore demanded knowledge, which entails belief (and even that’s debatable regarding the Rambam’s attitude towards some of the 13). But I think that Orthodox Judaism is sufficiently broad as to extend beyond the Rambam, and allow for propositional faith, rather than belief.
            Indeed, I think that most people on the street, when they use ‘belief’ often mean something more akin to Howard-Snyder’s notion of propositional faith, and much less akin to the various meanings that contemporary epidemiologists provide for the term.
            So, this comment doesn’t really interact with Benatar’s paper, but it is a call for more categories. Why should we think that Jewish Orthodoxy rules out agnosticism, as long as the agnostic is an agnostic from the standpoint of ‘belief’, i.e., has doubts about God, but nevertheless has resolute faith that God exists; and has resolute faith in God?
            And, in such a case, I think that a person’s faith can rationalise the act of prayer. Kenny justifies prayer even without faith. But faith would do a lot of work for you, if you had it! Then the question becomes, what rationalises faith. Reading Howard-Snyder would be a good place to start, and I hope to work a little on that question from a Jewish point of view, one of these days.
            In short, I accept that Orthodoxy, unlike Orthopraxy, is inconsistent with atheism. I think that Orthodoxy rules out atheism because it is inconsistent with faith that God exists. But one can have that faith without having fully fledged belief, in the current sense of the word, as defined by contemporary epistemology.
            And, in fact, most of the thinkers in our tradition who talk about the importance of emunah, and bitachon, could equally well be read as talking about propositional faith, rather than belief.
            I find it deeply problematic to say that the righteous Jew, who yearns for closeness to God, but suffers from bouts of doubt, and yet never flinches in his or her practice, isn’t an upstanding and outstanding religious member of the Orthodox community.

          4. Daniel

            Hi Sam,

            I meant to use the Chinuch only to argue that my reconstruction of Dr Benatar’s position (whereby the agent identifies with the belief-community and his/her prayer expresses the community’s belief) would still fail to meet the standards of Orthodox Judaism.
            I did not intend to make any claim about excluding the type of faith you are discussing.

            When Yuval wrote:

            ‘An atheist, I imagine, is someone who says “I believe there is no God; it’s possible that there is a God and I’m wrong about that….but probably not.” That seems the only rational (non-fundamentalist) version of atheist’

            I took that to be a doubt that was not supplemented by the type of faith you discuss. Indeed I doubt that such a person would meet the criteria of Howard-Snyder since, presumably such a person would assent to the propositions that negate Orthodox Jewish belief.

            Nevertheless, I do accept that it is highly plausible that the definition of the Orthodox believer indeed accommodates a weak-belief supplemented by the Howard-Snyder conditions, and that the Chinuch very likely can be taken to accommodate such an extension.

            Even with such an extension, my interpretation of Dr. Benatar’s heterodoxic orthopractitioner (whose severance of the link between orthodoxy and orthopraxis is rationalised by a vicarious association with the community where the link is still intact) would still fall outside of the type of justification recognisable from within Orthodoxy. Their orthopraxis would still lack the direct attempt to relate to God that is an essential component of the Orthodoxy that you and I each described.

            As I wrote, that would not impact on the rationality question, which was what Dr.Benatar was aiming for (assuming such a reconstruction meets the rationality standards for prayer that Dani, Mike and Yuval were questioning).

        2. Mike Haruni

          Dear Yuval —

          Thanks for this extremely interesting thought on atheistic praying. I agree with you that there seems to be something strange about an atheist praying, and am like you curious to understand more clearly why. I think what I said earlier about prayer being essentially addressed to God does go some way to explaining this strangeness (though I’m also sure there’s more to it). I’d say, more precisely, that in view of this essential directedness of prayer, an atheist cannot pray, though she can of course recite the liturgy undirectedly — if somewhat purposely. Towards exploring this further, here are a few thoughts that occur to me in response to your new comment.

          1. Let’s suppose you’re right that, in reality, the atheist is not 100% certain about the non-existence of God, but only (100-x)% certain, for some small but non-negligible x. This brings to light that it was an unconsidered assumption (mine at least), when reading Prof. Benatar’s paper, that this referred to an idealized atheist — a hypothetical one who is 100% certain that there is no God, and who is in this way conceptually distinct from the agnostic (whom Benatar mentions as a kal vechomer). The present discussion seems, that is, to be about the idealized atheist. With that, we can also concede that there is an ambiguity here, and that there is also the real-world atheist to consider, who is more like the one you describe.

          2. There is, I think, a certain point of disanalogy in the comparison you make, which throws into sharp relief a rather interesting aspect at least of Jewish prayer, and I suspect of prayer generally. Praying is not throwing one’s voice into the wind in case someone happens to be in earshot who can help. Nor can even the particular case of petitional praying be regarded in this way. For praying is directed at a particular Individual, namely, God. Praying is more like pleading to one’s lover for continued affection, or like asking one’s mentor for a new piece of wisdom, or like asking one’s gaoler for water, than calling to an unidentified possible presence. It is also premised on one’s having some richly (mostly) positive beliefs or feelings about that Individual. I’m inclined to think these must include some selection out of a range typified by feelings like awe, or love, or respect, or by imputations such as omnipotence or caring; though I admit these could be just traditional idealizations which are not actually realized by what we actually count as cases of people praying. It does seem to me, though, that to be praying, something one must at the very least believe about one’s Addressee is that this Individual *exists*. Not just believe that God might just possibly exist; one must be fairly committed to the idea that God exists. If someone calls out, “I don’t really believe You exist at all, but I’m not totally certain, so on the off chance You do exist, please save so-and-so from cancer,” — whatever this might be, I find it impossible to think of this as praying. (In this respect, Kenny makes no sense to me.)

          Let me try accounting for this more fully. As I understand the matter, praying, and even specifically petitionally praying, is founded on one’s having a relation of reverence to the Addressee. It is not just asking some Being for this or that, as one might ask an anonymous passerby to help jump-start one’s car. One is, rather, addressing a Being for Whom one has a special esteem. But to almost fully believe that God does not exist means also that one almost fully believes that God has not had any role whatever in producing or sustaining the order of things. And this, relative to the traditional and standard religious conception, is a denigration of God.

          I’m honestly wondering now if this just my own idiosyncratic intuition, or might it actually be something tied to the concept of prayer? I really can’t tell at this point, and would be very curious to hear from others.

          And suppose even that I’m wrong in assuming that belief in the at least probable existence of God is a precondition for it being intelligible for one to petition God. There then arises a problem of how the Addressee is identified. For we’ll agree, I hope, that to pray is necessarily to address God (Who, let’s even grant for the moment, could be an imagined addressee). But if someone starts the address, “You probably don’t exist…,” then what makes this a case of addressing God, any more than, say, addressing Mickey Mouse? Well, perhaps this person preambles the petition by saying “You, the God of Abraham, Who delivered us from Egypt etc.”; but if she also continues, “Who probably does not exist” — then what non-existent being could have been the God of Abraham and could have delivered us from Egypt? Then perhaps she’d mean to say, “You probably don’t exist, but if You do, then I’m singling out You the God of Abraham Who delivered us from Egypt…” But this still does not work, as she still believes that this Being Who, if existent then delivered us from Egypt, does not really exist, and so could not have delivered us from Egypt. I can’t expect to resolve this issue here, but this seems to make the coherence of atheistic praying additionally questionable.

          3. Yes, an atheist praying is strange, but so are lots of the ways in which human beings familiarly conduct themselves. Your character B’s story takes some of the sting out of the irrationality, but there are also a few other ways of understanding this. Imagine this (I think) plausible turn of events. John, diagnosed with a fatal disease, believes that James, reputedly a healer of some sort, is a total quack. But at a certain point, finding himself bereft of any other remaining recourse, John comes to James for help. We can account for this in any of at least these three ways: (i) John (in the mould of B), was never really 100% convinced that James is a quack; so, given the gigantic potential benefit, he rationally pursues the off-chance. (ii) John was jogged by his despair into a change of mind — he now does believe, is perhaps even convinced, that James is genuine; a bit weird, given the lack of any new evidence on which to base his change of mind; but people do that. And here, it’s worth adding, John possibly continues to regard himself as totally dismissing James as a quack; and perhaps we too continue to regard John as, “in his thoughts,” dismissive of James. (iii) John (like A) is simply acting irrationally, viz., inconsistently with his conviction about James; people do, after all, have a knack of so acting. Likewise, I suggest, an atheist praying could be (like your B) conceding to a shade of uncertainty; or she has undergone a change of mind — though perhaps she and we have not yet recognized this and continue to think of her as an atheist; or (like your A, and like people often do), she lives with inconsistent attitudes.

          1. Yuval

            Thanks, Mike, for this reply. I see now there are many issues concerning prayer (its content, intention, and so on) that just weren’t on my radar, but should be. This seems like a pretty important topic, I’d very much look forward to reading/hearing more about this especially from the perspective of Jewish prayer. While I digest this, I wanted to mention something that comes to mind while reading your reply. The *content* of the agnostic’s (or less than certain atheist’s) prayer need not include “You are probably not there, God,” or “I don’t believe you’re there but I might be wrong.” Rather, I imagined, it would just be addressed to God. It could even contain sentences that entail, or obviously presuppose, that God exists. This may still seem rational given the state of uncertainty, or so it seems to me. And, notice, this is quite different from, say, pleading with Sherlock, while reading a book of fiction, that he please look for clues under the hat. With Sherlock, you are practically certain that there is nothing there, even though the plea to look under the hat might “make sense” since you understand the fiction. It is different precisely because, in the God case, the reasonable atheist isn’t sure. Moreover, I think we could probably find cases in which one’s thoughts or statements intend to pick some individual out conditionally, but not explicitly so. I’m thinking of some uses of definite descriptions. So, for example, I might find my car missing, and say, in a fit of rage, “the person who stole my car deserves to be punished,” even if I’m aware that possibly no one, or more than one person, stole my car. This is a sort of situation in which, if *the* person turns out to exist (that is if one person stole my car), then my thought seems to be about him (or her). If the person doesn’t exist (because no one stole it or many people stole it), then I failed to refer and my thought is “empty.” And yet my thought, or statement, about the person who stole my car seems capable of playing some role in my cognitive life (e.g. an expression of my emotions at the time, expression of a hope, etc.). So, we might think of agnostic’s prayer along those lines, not as involving, in its content, the statement that God might not exist, or probably doesn’t. (Johnston has a book exploring the definite description as it figures in our thinking about God…I haven’t read it but keep meaning to). Not sure if this matters much, but it’s something that occurred to me reading your reply (especially point 2). I’d love to keep exploring this. I’ll let the moderators decide if we should stop because the one week period is over, and we’re no longer discussing Benatar’s defense of atheist prayer. Finally, good point about the idealized, 100% atheist interpretation of Benatar’s atheist, I bet he’d agree…if he doesn’t, then maybe the idea we are exploring really is a helpful addition to his defense of “atheist” prayer.

          2. Mike Haruni

            Hi again Yuval —

            I’ve greatly enjoyed following this discussion and especially our exchanges.

            You’re of course right that a rider such as “You probably don’t exist, though just possibly You do,” need not be part of the content of the prayer. What I should have said is that if its meaning is part of what the speaker assumes, then this determines the speaker-meaning of the prayer. That is, the prayer becomes de re about an entity which the speaker believes probably does not exist. And from this I think the problems I mention ensue, not the least that the atheist’s prayer refers to nothing.

            Thinking also about your comparison with a person’s outburst, “The person who stole my car deserves to be punished”, I find this unsatisfying, for at least the following reasons.
            (a) If I’m largely confident that there is no person X such that X stole my car, then this surely affects my whole statement, not just (in your analysis) the second part of it, viz. the part you separate as conditional on my believing no such person exists. That is, the first part turns into something like:
            I’m almost sure there is no person X such that, if X did exist, then X stole my car and deserves to be punished.
            — which looks to me like an empty statement, no less than the second part.
            (b) Looking at how the outburst would play a role in my mental life: If I believe there is no such person, then okay, this might serve some cathartic need, which is possibly unaffected by my belief that probably no such person exists. But that does not imply anything about how successfully or otherwise this statement, or thought, singles out a referent. I continue to suspect it fails to. So if this suggests something about prayer, it’s that reciting the liturgy might give the atheist a quick fix, but not that this becomes any more intelligible than we might otherwise have thought.

            Many many thanks.

      2. Sam Lebens

        I just wanted to be clear that we weren’t excluding that weak-belief. But otherwise, I’m in agreement with you Daniel.
        Benatar’s project might be rational, but the type of justification it receives is alien to the sort that Orthodoxy would recognise.

        1. Yuval

          Thanks Sam and Daniel for the references and helpful replies.

  4. Ben Winton

    Thanks Professor Benatar for writing this hugely appealing paper. I will definitely be sending it to friends of mine who wish to gain insight into the rational defensibility of (1) “Theistic departure from religious [Orthodox] observance”, and (2) “atheistic observance to religious practice”. I think that you successfully fulfilled aim (1), but I wanted to try pushing the ‘precariousness’ objection that you outline regarding aim (2) (on p.398).

    The concern is that atheistic commitment to religious observance cannot stand the tests of time. For the atheist who only values fostering a personal Jewish identity, this does not matter. However, if your religious observance is motivated by the long-term preservation of the Jewish people, then the problem is that your actions are not achieving this. If you cannot successfully market your religious lifestyle to convince future generations of Jews to be (roughly) heterodox orthopraxists, then you are not really involved in the long-term preservation of the Jewish people. I put the argument as follows:

    (P1) “The Jewish people cannot survive across generations in the absence of religious observance (by at least some Jews).” (p.390)
    (P2) You value long-term Jewish continuity, regardless of God’s existence.
    (P3) You/ Heterodox Orthopraxists (HO) want to be involved in sustaining Jewish continuity (presumably for personal reasons and so it does not merely survive on the backs of people who you fundamentally disagree with).
    (C1) It is rationally defensible for HOs to engage in Jewish practice to the extent that it ensures long-term Jewish continuity.
    (P4) Atheistic commitment to religious observance is so precarious that it cannot succeed in perpetuating the survival of the Jewish people (this is an empirical claim, which I think is correct and can be somewhat verified by lots of Jewish sociology studies over the past 20 years, and personal anecdotal evidence of HO Jewish parents failing to fashion religiously committed HO children).
    (C2) HO-ists do not directly contribute to long-term Jewish continuity.

    (C2) undermines the motivation for (C1).

    Your options are to either give up (P3) or to supplement your argument in such a way that (C2) becomes false.

    To me, it is clear that if an HO only cares about his personal Jewish identity then your line of argument works. It is only in the presence of valuing Jewish continuity that the precariousness objection rears its ugly head.

    1. David Benatar

      I agree with Ben Winton that atheistic observers are less likely to raise children who are religiously observant. This does mean that the orthopraxy of atheists is less likely than that of theistic observers to result in Jewish continuity. In this way, atheistic orthopraxy is more precarious than theistic orthopraxy. However, his does not undermine the argument for atheist orthopraxy. First, as Ben Winton notes, the motivation of some religiously observant atheists may be an expression of their own identity and not specifically aimed at Jewish continuity. (I cited a range of reasons why atheists might observe. They can overlap or over-determine, but I don’t claim that every reason motivates every observant atheist.) Second, an observant atheist might reasonably believe that his or her observance contributes indirectly to Jewish continuity by setting an example of observance to others (including some atheists who might consequently be less alienated from orthopraxy), helping to create a critical mass of observers, etc. Third, some observant atheists might, against the odds, indeed raise observant children, perhaps because the spouse is a believer or because together they manage to convey the delicate balance to their offspring. Finally, and most fundamentally, as precarious as atheistic orthopraxy is, atheistic abandonment of Judaism guarantees that person’s non-observance and makes it even more unlikely that he or she will have observant Jewish children. Thus those who are concerned about Jewish continuity, either within the current generation or into future ones, should welcome the orthopraxy of atheists. Precarious it may be, but it’s less precarious than the most likely alternative.

  5. Daniel


    Thank you so much for the stimulating and thought-provoking essay. And thanks to all the commentators and other contributors.

    If I may, I think that the essay raises some potentially really interesting points, but suffers in its current state from a lack of clear definitions of key terms. Professor Rynold took up issue with the term entailment. He and you rightly pointed out that your thesis is more about the rationality of the compatibility of a/theism with either orthopraxy or the lack thereof. But I think that the validity of the claim requires some theory of what it would take to be ‘rational’ or ‘rationally consistent’ in such a case.

    On one reading of the essay the sole criterion for rationality of practice (or lack thereof) is the presence of a motive. But that would surely make the thesis trivial. What would be a counter-example to your thesis?

    But if not all motives might be considered rational, then where would you draw the line?

    To make it more concrete, consider orthodox heteropraxy. You include only one rationale – the possibility of having additional interpretative factors (such as a New Testament, or liberal school of interpretation). What about factors such a s financial well-being? In the late 19th/early 20th century, many immigrants worked on Shabbat to avoid losing jobs. They kept Friday night sacred, but went to work on Shabbat. Would that count as rational orthodox heteropraxy? What about their children who often grew up still holding Orthodox beliefs, and still making Friday night sacred, but who, in keeping with their upbringing, went to golf or football on Shabbat? What about a modern banker able to make more money if they stay later Friday night? Or those who abandon religious practice because they find some of the laws too straining. Do all of the above constitute sufficient grounds for asserting the rational consistency of orthodox heteropraxis?

    If so, then does the thesis really have any bite to it at all?

    And if not, what criteria would you adopt? It seems to me like much of the above discussion, especially that Dani, Mike and Ben have raised, all concern assumed criteria as to what it would take for (in the cases they discuss) heterdox orthopraxy to be rationally consistent. It seems to me that absent a theory of rational compatibility, it is difficult for the thesis not to merely slip back into religious psychology or sociology.

    There is also an important question as to what constitutes orthodoxy. It may well be that there are fuzzy boundaries around the concept that make fully rigorous definition impossible. But I do think that some kind of definition is necessary in order to evaluate your thesis concerning orthodox heteropraxy.

    Your examples (of orthodox heteropraxy) include Christianity and reforming Divine law. But I think most of us take it that Orthodox Judaism includes a belief that precludes the possibility of God rejecting the Torah for the New Testament. That is an important component of Rabbinic/Talmudic/Orthodox Judaism. Likewise the authority of Torah shebe’al Peh in general and Talmud in particular are central characteristics of Orthodox Judaism. Likewise there are Orthodox beliefs about the scope and possibilities of interpretation. You quoted Talmudic sources that express the Rabbinic (and thus Orthodox) theory of the permission given to man to interpret the law. Such a view is thematic throughout midrash and Talmud. But so is the restriction of the authority of such interpretation to a functioning judicial body vested with such authority (Shoftim/Zekeinim, later called ‘Sanhedrin’). The Rabbis of the Mishna typically served on the Sanhedrin as it moved from Jerusalem to Yavneh to Usha etc, but its meetings were infrequent, decisions rare, and authority severely limited. So Mishna is very much the recordings of the decisions that were made, and the disputes that remained unresolved. The Talmudic Rabbis offer possible reasons for the Mishnaic opinions, including how they might have interpreted Torah. Post that era, however, there is no Sanhedrin and so no authority to direct interpretation of Torah. I think that that too is a central feature of Orthodox halacha in all its stripes and shades. There is also much discussion amongst the halachists as to the methods available for enacting changes in a post-Talmudic era (all agree they are very limited compared with the tools available to a Sanhedrin), including when a minority opinion from a previous generation can be used etc. For widely accepted summaries of all that see Rema, choshen mishpat, 25:2 and the Sha”ch, Yora De’ah 245 (at the end).

    Of course there are still plenty of debates within Orthodoxy about what constitutes the limit of acceptable halachic flexibility given all the above. But I do think that the point is that Orthodox Judaism comes with many more principles than merely a belief in a Divine written Torah. As such, for heteropraxy to be consistent with Orthodoxy, the non-Orthopraxic person would either need to reject some of what is generally taken to be Orthodox (such as the authority of the Talmud) or else they would need to put forward an alternative jurisprudential theory of halacha that would somehow be consistent with Orthodoxy and yet allow for a breaking of Orthopraxis.

    To take some real life examples, how might an Orthodox believer be able to believe that they are permitted to eat meat from an animal that was shot rather than shechted? Or how might they go about permitting the driving of a car on Shabbat? None of these are explicitly discussed in the Torah, and yet I think it is safe to say that the principles of Orthodoxy would entail (in the genuine sense of the term) a commitment to the belief that both of the above would be forbidden and in violation of God’s Will. In contraposition, it seems that if we were to imagine someone permitting meat killed by shooting, the halachic methodology they would need to embrace would be one that, even if they did accept a Divine Torah, would be a methodology that no Orthodox Jew would call Orthodox.

    So I think that defining what is intended by the term ‘Orthodox’ is crucial for the part of the thesis that pertains to Orthodox heteropraxy, and defining a theory of rational compatibility is crucial for both parts of the essay.

    Thank you so much once again for the thought-provoking and stimulating essay.

  6. Noah S. Palmer

    A very thoughtful and well-argued paper.


    Dr. Benatar’s joke about the apikoros alludes to the fact that orthopraxy can be justified in more ways than one:

    ‘Ah, an apikoros I am’, replied the master, ‘but a goy (gentile) I am not’.

    The apikoros is observant not because he believes God commanded it, but because he is a Jew and he considers orthopraxy to be a defining characteristic of the Jewish people.

    The same question plagued Moses Mendelssohn, an Enlightenment-era rationalist who was observant as part of what being Jewish meant. What eluded Mendelssohn was that some kind of supernatural sanction is helpful to most people — including his six children, four of whom converted to Christianity. Theism supports orthopraxy, and orthopraxy supports the survival of the Jews as a distinct people with a distinct religious tradition.

    If the survival of Jews as a distinct people is valuable, then things that support it acquire instrumental value from it. That value adds justification to them, though other factors can add or subtract justification as well.

    The common view and its errors

    Dr. Benatar seems to recognize that theism *per se* implies nothing about human conduct (or about the physical world) because it has no mundane meaning. To have meaning within a domain is to connect to a system of other judgments about the domain. The judgments are often but not necessarily in the form of statements. (One might say more generally that they are mental contents, but mental contents connected in system are judgments that can cohere or conflict, and can be true or false in the relevant sense.)

    For example, in Euclidean geometry, statements about lines and angles have meaning, but statements about Euclid himself do not. They depend on ideas and propositions that are not defined within Euclidean geometry. They are meaningful and true in our wider system that includes Euclidean geometry, but neither meaningful nor true within it.

    Maimonides assures us, plausibly, both that God is incomprehensible and that ordinary words have a different meaning when applied to God. Therefore, the statement “God exists” depends on ideas that are beyond our comprehension. It is undefined within our intellectual universe and asserts nothing from which we can make inferences about our earthly obligations.

    For those reasons, Dr. Benatar talks not about theism but what we might call “theism plus” — belief in God *plus* “belief in the divine authorship of the Bible (or other sacred text).” Conversely, atheism becomes “atheism plus:” denial of both God’s existence and of the authority of the sacred texts.

    If theism plus implies orthopraxy, then the reverse need not be true as well: orthopraxy might not imply theism plus. Dr. Benatar denies that even the former implication is true, but I’d say rather that it is not necessarily true. A lot depends on what the sacred text says: it might or might not command particular types of conduct. We also must add an independent assumption that we should do what God commands; if the obligation were prescribed by the sacred text, then we could not invoke it without circularity.

    Orthodox heteropraxy

    In this section, Dr. Benatar seeks to show why the theist “is not committed, in virtue of his theism, to orthopraxy.”

    He notes that that are multiple versions of orthopraxy. Adherents of different versions justify them by choosing different texts as sacred and being more or less flexible about how to interpret those texts.

    The argument seems to be this:

    1. If theism implied orthopraxy, then there would be only one version of orthopraxy.

    2. There is more than one version of orthopraxy.

    3. Therefore, theism does not imply orthopraxy.

    However, this version of theism is not what he had previously discussed. Theism is belief in God, which by itself implies nothing about our conduct. What Dr. Benatar had considered as possibly implying orthopraxy was *theism plus*: belief in God plus “belief in the divine authorship of the Bible (or other sacred text).”

    If you accept different texts as sacred and take different attitudes interpreting them, then each combination yields a different version of theism plus. Different versions of theism plus are consistent with different orthopraxies, since each theism plus implies a different orthopraxy. Then the argument becomes:

    1. If theism plus (number N) implied orthopraxy, then there would be only one orthopraxy-(number N).

    2. There is only one orthopraxy for each theism plus. This is almost definitional.

    From this, we cannot infer that each theism plus implies an orthopraxy (which would affirm the consequent), but we can see that it doesn’t disprove the antecedent, either.

    Heterodox Orthopraxy

    Religious adherence as a form of identity need not be linked to ethnicity, but it involves going through an inferential step that looks a lot like an appeal to ethnicity.

    The short version is: Natural selection inclines us to act in ways likely to propagate our genes into the next generation — whether by having our own offspring or by helping our genetic relatives (“kin selection”). Field studies show that animals use various cues to identify their genetic relatives, including appearance, behavior, location, and familiarity. If an animal identifies another as a genetic relative, it is more likely to help the latter. If an animal identifies another as a genetically unrelated competitor, it is more likely to attack it. Groups of animals that help each other, and attack outsiders, have a better chance of surviving as groups.

    Human beings are biological creatures who engage in kin selection, but they are also thinking beings who behave in ways associated with having certain belief systems. Like lower animals, they unconsciously look for cues about genetic relatedness that incline them either to cooperate with other humans or fight them. Recall the main animal cues: appearance, behavior, location, and familiarity. In human contexts, religious belief tends to affect all four of those.

    For example, at the grocery store where I shop, one of the managers wears a yarmulke. I know nothing else about him, nor he about me. If I have a problem, I look for him. Whether or not he is genetically related to me, our biology inclines us to recognize each other as kin and to help each other. Religious belief and observance work the same way on a large scale to promote the survival of religious communities.

    Many Jewish beliefs and practices are historically explicable as ways to help our people survive as a distinct group. That is, I suggest, the reason that Judaism gives to practice over belief.” Another reason is that belief, as distinct from religious observance, is private to each individual, and therefore has no impact on the survival of the community.

  7. David Benatar

    Thanks to those who have contributed to the symposium. Regrettably other pressures have precluded my responding to all of the comments over the past week. However, I am grateful for the thoughtful attention to the paper and for the very civil nature of the exchanges.

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