By Theo Baker '22
I was given one day and 1000 words to write about a topic deeply impactful to me, so I’ll try to make it as impactful for you.
I’m currently sitting in my mother’s childhood home, looking at a framed black and white photo, searching for answers. This photo (the very one seen above) is of my family—of my great-great-great grandfather and his happy, healthy clan. Can you guess what happened to them? Every single one, with the exception of the young lady in the first row dressed in white, was lined up and shot to death. Every child, every woman, even the 90-year-old Moishe in the center of the center row. Every single one of them was seized from their homes in Poland and shot because they were Jewish. Please, please tell me what kind of a God can let six million of His devoted followers—of His creations—be put to work, tortured, and executed, simply because they were of a certain denomination.
The Holocaust was a barbarious act construed by the very dregs of humanity and yet supported by so many. It was a genocide of horrific proportions and one which eliminated whole families with potential future Nobel winners and activists and humanitarian aid workers and which left those remaining with scars they would never be able to shake off. Even if the claim is that these poor, tortured souls were immediately given their restitution in heaven, what about the effect this had on the people who suffered in the camps watching their relatives die but surviving themselves only to spend the rest of their lives haunted by this?
When I think of the pain and horror of the Holocaust, and even putting aside my philosophical and rational objections to religion, I just can’t reconcile the idea of an omnipotent being of pure love creating us in His image, knowing full well what our actions would be, and even so choosing to unleash us upon each other without bothering to ensure a semblance of safety and happiness. Were the deaths of six million so forgettable to God that he couldn’t lift a metaphorical/metaphysical finger to aid us? Was it so much more important to free the people of Israel from their benevolent Roman rulers than to prevent the slaughter of millions only 1500 year later that He sent His very own son to deal with the first and did nothing for the second? I simply can’t buy that.
And if the argument is that God loved us so much that he set us free to enact our own free will… well… it’s safe to say I disagree with that.
To my mind, there is no free will; there is no spirit to guide us. Instead, we are highly evolved animals, to whom the development of a consciousness was essential to compete with stronger, faster predators. Instead of a magic, immortal, preternatural soul, we have physical processes that control our actions. We have personalities, morals, ethics, and emotions built on our intake of information and the connections our neurons make whenever we take in new information. What makes us special is the 100 trillion synapses of the brain, not some ghost in the machine running the tv show of our lives. This is plainly apparent because, when you change someone’s brain, they become an entirely different person.
That isn’t the whole story though, because you could still argue for free will even in the absence of a soul. The whole story has to do with what our brain actually is, and, according to the most prominent of scientists (take Stanford neuroscientist David Eagelman), most of what happens in our brain is not what we think it is. We take it for granted that the choices we make are our own—that we spontaneously came up with them. But the thing is, our conscious minds are only responsible for the most minute of details. The main driver of the brain and, indeed, our lives, is the unconscious, which throws up ideas and emotions to the conscious, creating the illusion of free will. It seems like we have a choice because we have our secondary layer of processing (the slow-moving conscious, used for dilemenas outside the scope of typical challenges), but most of our decisions (and especially our most consequential ones) are made by the biological hardwiring of our unconscious coupled with the experiences we’ve had up until the point of the decision. For example, if I spontaneously think, “I want an iced chai tea latte,” factors such as low humidity, tiredness, my prior sensory experiences with chai lattes, and innumerable things besides that are the actual decision-makers—not me. That’s not to say all human behavior should be excused because it was preordained, but it does mean that we have to analyze the true roots of our ideas to understand anything.
Humanity has always searched for purpose in life, and religion has—for a long time—fulfilled that need. But that’s changing as more and more people realize that religion is merely a placeholder for things we don’t fully understand, a cop out for questioning that essentially says: ‘you’ll never know because it’s divine; trust that God has your interests at heart as your maker.’
I’ve experienced this first hand. I lived in the “holiest city on earth,” and was thrust headfirst into the religious fervor of times past. When I lived in Jerusalem, I witnessed acts of terrific horrific-ness carried out in the name of a God and responded to in turn by worshippers of another religion. Day after day would be a stabbing, a shooting, a bombing, or a rape case, and day after day after day I saw the strife that religion brought, and the justification it provided for all the very clear sins of objectively bad people. I saw that these people blindly followed what they believed to be the truth without questioning their raison-d'etre in the slightest, bowling ahead in their foolishness with all the might of the rockets and bombs they carried. Religion provided them an excuse for their actions and an excuse for not examining the truth because it is an inherently human concept of vanity, carrying all the flaws of humanity and our ego with it. By the way, these bouts of violence stem in part from the Holocaust, so not only did God not stop a monstruous genocide, but He also enabled a continuous war of brutality (not for the first time; see: the Inquisition, Crusades, etc).
We’re one planet out of an infinite number that was blessed with perfect conditions for carbon-based life, and that’s a miracle—but not a divine one. Our lives have no greater purpose than the ones we make for ourselves, because life is fleeting and it’s all we have. Once your neurons and synapses—the very things that make you, you—fade, you’re gone forever, regardless of what you’ve done on earth, and it’s important for the progression of society that we acknowledge that the only meaning we have is the one we make. I believe that religion will die out in its spiritual form, replaced by the sense of community that already serves as one of its most appealing factors. The next era of human evolution is human-based, and, to advance our own societies and experience more with our paltry lives, we have to acknowledge the true causes behind everything and address them to suit our needs.