Judaism: Naturalism, Neurology, and Narrative,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

We may have been brought up as Christians in Christian households—our parents and grandparents may have been Christians—yet now we are not Christians at all. There is no contradiction in that assertion, which is, furthermore, true. I am an example of someone nurtured in that way yet one who is not a Christian—who is, indeed, an atheist and secular humanist. Being brought up a Christian, born of Christians, does not automatically make one a Christian now. Let us not complicate matters by introducing caveats about whether someone “being brought up a Christian” is, during that time, necessarily a Christian.

Without any particular reflection, I had taken it as obvious that someone may have been brought up in Judaism, born of Jewish parents and grandparents, and yet may no longer be of the Jewish faith. And that claim too is surely true. Most of my Jewish friends do not believe in Judaism; they do not believe in the Torah (the first four books of the Bible) as the word of God or even in the existence of God.

For completeness, we may look at the matter the other way around. Being a Christian now does not require having been brought up a Christian, born of Christians; being of the Jewish faith does not always entail being brought up as a believer in Judaism born of Jews. People do “convert” to Judaism.

In summary, it is true that being brought up in a religion, of religious parents, does not mean one must be a believer of that religion now—and being a religious believer now does not require having been brought up in that religion and of religious parents.

And yet …

Judaism’s Narrative

The above may appear mundanely correct. Is it, though, as straightforward as that—once our focus is on Judaism and the interplay between that religion, the Jewish people, and Jewishness?

It is not so straightforward because being Jewish and being a religious Jew (a Jew committed to Judaism) intermesh. I gradually became aware of this while coauthoring a couple books with a rabbinical friend, one very much in the Reform liberal wing of Judaism. While some Jews may break out of that mesh, most—including many atheist Jews—do not; that they do not is because there is a common grounding of Jewishness and Judaism, namely the historical land, the Holy Land, that covers today’s Israel and some surrounding areas. Typically, Jews—whether atheist, secular, or religious—tie their identity very much to a historical “narrative.” They are a people of a particular parcel of land in the Middle East, centered on Jerusalem and the Western Wall. The land has a deep and divine significance in the religion of Judaism and for the Jewish people.

In Genesis 15, we find God saying to Abraham: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.” Putting to one side the miscalculation of four hundred years, the Jews are a people who were exiled, dispersed, and suffered terribly over the centuries, yet they have held together as the people of Judaism, the “chosen people.” As a people they now, once again, have Israel as their homeland.

Not even the deeply religious Jews all view the historical narrative, as set out in the scriptures of Judaism, in the same way. The highly orthodox, such as the Hasidim, understand the Torah as being the word of God, of Yahweh, with the Jews being chosen and with a land promised by God. Other orthodox Jews would enter caveats about quite how to interpret the Torah as being the word of God and how to understand that promise. Liberally minded religious Jews—Reform Jews, Progressive Jews, and so forth—are disinclined to understand the Torah as manifesting the voice of God and hence may challenge at least some of the codes of conduct that the orthodox believe are divinely commanded. Of course, atheist Jews have no truck at all with any divine instructions, on the basis of their alleged divinity, be they by word or deed.

Despite the differences just mentioned—and they are radical differences in some cases—most Jews, so it seems, grasp their identity in terms of a narrative of a people stretching back three thousand years with the special link to the Holy Land. It is a link that makes that land “our land.” It is a history of suffering, of dispersals, of being hated, culminating in Hitler’s grotesque attempt at extermination of all European Jews.

The Jewish commitment to the Holy Land as “our land” helps to explain why many treat criticisms of modern-day Israel—criticisms being versions of anti-Zionism—as thereby manifestations of anti-Semitism. That is a conflation—and a dangerous mistake—because someone may have excellent reasons for opposing Israeli actions and even opposing Israel as a Jewish state without having any hatred of Jews at all. Presumably those who commit the conflation believe that certain criticisms of Israel are bound to be motivated by a hatred of Jews. We may, of course, wonder about the evidence for that motivation, especially when the criticisms are made by Israeli Jews.

Now, probably all religions see a significant tie between the divine and the universe in totality, but Judaism, as noted, also maintains that there is a divine tie to a specific piece of territory, one that is essential to the identity of the Jewish people.

We shall now have a detour on naturalism and how it challenges religious belief generally before returning to Judaism and naturalism’s challenge.



It is commonly said that while the naturalist approach—as manifested in today’s sciences—tells us how things happen, it fails to account for why they happen. Taking that at face value, what is said about the sciences’ failure is obviously false. Scientists, appealing to what they have discovered about the natural world, can readily tell us why the explosion occurred, why the ice is melting, and why Miranda’s walk turned into a stagger. Those are explanations with appeal to what is natural and with no appeal to what is supernatural—in the sense of the supernatural as a causal agent outside of nature.

Hence, religion and naturalism are usually understood to be in opposition. Though neither is easy to define—and I should doubt the value of a definition—we can offer typical features. Naturalism relies on some sort of reference to scientific procedures, concepts, and the laws currently held to apply that have been uncovered, in part, by empirical observation. As is well known, the scientific concepts and the scientific view of the world have radically changed over the centuries, even in recent decades, but we are readily aware of how science deploys its concepts and uses experimentation—and how concepts get displaced or revised and so forth. The key point is that the concepts and workings of today’s sciences do not make reference to any divinity as cause or designer.

Here, I should hasten to add that naturalism’s appeals to the natural are not immediately grounded solely in the physical. The understanding of the natural world involves use of mathematical concepts and mathematical truths; we may rightly doubt whether there is any sense in thinking that such concepts and truths can ultimately be reduce to—or are nothing but—physical states and processes. We may reasonably enough have similar doubts regarding psychological processes, events, and states. Presumably there are many correlations between neurological changes and my experiencing tingles in my toes, but that goes no way toward showing that the tingles are “nothing but” the neurological changes—just as the existence of evolutionary explanations of how tingles emerged from the physical goes no way toward showing that tingles are “nothing but” the physical.

In summary, even if of a naturalist bent, one may consistently accept the existence of abstract entities such as numbers, psychological events distinct from the physical, and, for that matter, certain moral truths—without any belief or faith in ultimately “reducing” them all to the physical. Furthermore, in this easygoing naturalism, we need not insist that understanding the physical world must exclude irreducible teleological explanations. Perhaps, one day, the natural sciences will need once again to understand certain movements as a striving to an end—but perhaps not.

The above is an easygoing naturalism because it lives with the thought “Who knows the concepts that may yet be needed to understand the world?” That thought, though, has one substantial restriction. What is not needed for understanding the world is any reference to a god—to God or gods—as creator(s) of the universe with a design in mind, let alone a creator with a personal interest in the development of humanity—let alone a creator designer with benevolence to the fore.

Why does God get ruled out? Well, how is God meant to supplement the naturalist picture? Here is the central way.

What Is God Needed For?

There are naturalistic explanations of why events and items in the universe happen and how things are, but once we ask the question of why there is the universe with those items and events—those laws and regularities—there can be no adequate naturalistic explanation of that. Whatever explanation is offered, be it deploying causal concepts or teleological, the question arises again. Why do the ways of this universe exist rather than a universe of different ways? Why a universe at all? Whether it is that type of “why” question or “how has it come about” question, the religious believer, noting how there is no adequate naturalistic explanation, will typically turn to God as needed to supplement the naturalism.

One simple and well-known way of challenging that turn to the divine is to ask, “Why stop there?” After all, if it is legitimate to ask the question of “why” the universe exists, we should obviously be entitled to ask the question of “why” God exists?

“Ah,” comes the reply, “You would be right, were you to think of God as another contingent item, an item that just happens to exist, but he is a necessary being; he must exist.”

That idea of God as a necessary existent raises problems. There is a logical problem of how there could then be the existence of contingent items at all. If God is a necessary being with all his features necessary, then what flows from his being—the universe—must also be necessary. Yet the argument started off with the claim that we are all contingent beings. Hence, the explanation by divinity leads to the necessity of all beings; however, if sense can therefore be made of that necessity, there is then no need to introduce God into the explanation after all.

That puzzle to one side, the basic question is what is served by introducing God as a necessary being upon which to ground the universe. First, why believe that there must be an explanation of the totality of contingent items? Second, if that is a true belief, then it is more rational to accept the universe, which we experience, as a necessary existent instead of postulating something radically different as a necessary being with, as just mooted, a mystery of how it (he? She?) relates to the universe.

In summary, let us take seriously the aphorism: explanations must come to an end. The question then arises, “Where is the end?” We could accept it as the universe contingently existing—a brute fact and that is an end to it. If one has some argument for the need for necessity, then the end could be acceptance of the universe and its components as being necessary. Nothing is gained by insisting that there must be explanations making reference to a teleological and/or causal divinity—how does that so-called explanation help explain anything at all?

It does not help, unless it is needed to explain particular events believed to occur within the natural world. Let us see.


Divinity in the Natural World

Many religious believers’ belief is not grounded—or not solely grounded—on the need for an explanation of the existence of the universe in totality. For many religious believers, some specific natural events hold the key to the divinely supernatural.

Traditional Christians believe that the historical figure Jesus Christ existed—and furthermore, that he was the son of God. The belief is even more mysterious: He is God—the son, the father, and the Holy Ghost—he was crucified, resurrected, and ascended to Heaven. Now, I do not know how to make sense of that Trinity (my guess is that most Christians also have no idea), but people certainly believe in it. Probably I am taking a relaxed attitude here toward “belief,” accepting the possibility of believing propositions that are contradictory.

Tertullian, a Christian apologist writing in the early third century, objected to those Christians who insisted that God’s incarnation needed to be understood in such a way as to avoid contradiction. Tertullian declared that the son of God was born and then died and “just because it is absurd, it is to be believed; and he was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.” Possibly there is a psychological state distinct from belief that is “faith,” despite being labeled “belief,” a state that, in some way, can accept contradictions and impossibilities without worry. I should worry.

We have, no doubt, naturalistic explanations of how individuals come to hold those beliefs about Jesus—tales of transmission of testimony—but that such explanations exist is not sufficient to show, for example, that Jesus was not resurrected and did not ascend to Heaven. A naturalistic account of the genesis of a belief does not thereby show the belief to be false or, for that matter, true—though it sometimes can. For a falsity example: if it is discovered that I was drunk at the time when I reported the existence of pink elephants, that should be sufficient to undermine the truth of my report.

Considering any naturalistic alleged account of a belief rather than its genesis, let us remember the following: that the argument “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal” is a valid argument does not rest upon neurological transmissions. Its validity is not explained or justified by natural events.

The best we easygoing naturalists can do with, for example, Christianity’s commitment to the resurrection is to explain how there is no good reason for the commitment. We may invoke an approach advocated by David Hume in his discussion of miracles. It is surely more likely that the experiences, the testimony, and the transmissions that led to the belief have been misinterpreted or mistransmitted than that the resurrection was a historical fact. We have plenty of evidence of how mistakes occur in transmissions but very little evidence (to say the least) of resurrections. Please note: that such Humean reasoning is good reasoning (or indeed bad) is not justified by the fact that there may be a neurological explanation of why someone ran through that reasoning and assented to it.


Judaism’s Distinctiveness: Intruding into the Naturalist World

Would Christians cease to exist if they no longer believed in Christianity, in Jesus’s resurrection, and so forth? We may readily make the quip that no “true” Christians, in any case, existed or exist in Christendom—but the people who purport to be Christians existed or exist. Quip to one side, let us consider the position of sincere Christian believers.

According to most Christians, the nonnatural is held to intrude into the natural world—by way of Jesus, “God made into man.” However, that intrusion is not such that Christians cannot make sense of themselves still existing if they no longer believe in Jesus. But it is true they may feel that their lives would lack meaning. Further, they probably can acknowledge that Christianity could die out, but that would not amount to the death of “a people.” It also would not amount to the death of God. Christians can live on without being Christians.

Matters seem to be different with Judaism and the Jews. Here I observe two important differences.

The first observation relates to the very identity of the Jews, of the Jewish people. That identity is tied to the narrative of how the Holy Land—today’s Israel and more—is the rightful land of the Jews, promised to the Jews. That narrative is grounded in the Torah, with associated rituals and festivals being observed throughout history. That narrative seems to hold power even for those Jews who are prepared to question the historical accuracy of the Torah and who readily read its tales as at best metaphorical, holding the Jewish people together and guiding their behavior.

Given what I have just said about the importance of the Holy Land in Judaism, people not steeped in Judaism may be surprised to learn that most of the Orthodox Jews dispersed throughout Europe and elsewhere strongly opposed the nineteenth-century proposal that a state specifically for Jews be created. Today, many would deem that stance anti-Semitic. The stance of the then-Orthodox, though, was not a rejection of the Jews’ right to the Holy Land. The stance instead resulted from the orthodox belief that it was for God, not for man, to return Jews to the Promised Land.

Many, probably most, Jews feel the need for a safe haven, a Jewish homeland, especially after the horrors of the Holocaust; however, that haven cannot be just anywhere, even though some suggestions had earlier been made for places such as Uganda. The Holy Land is seen as the Jewish home—and as being distinctly Jewish. Although around a quarter of modern Israel’s population is non-Jewish, Israel is a Jewish state. Israel’s 2018 “The Basic Law” gives the Israeli Jewish people “exclusive right to national self-determination.” Thus, again we see how Judaism is wrapped up with the idea of the Jewish people, possessing an identity through history with the focus on the Promised Land.

The “right of return” to Israel by Jews, set out in Israel’s 1950s Law of Return and insisted on by most Jews, religious or otherwise, is grounded in the identity of “the people.” This is because, of course, most individual Jews with that right of “return” have never lived in that area of the world. Individual Jews identify with Jews the people—and “Jews the people” possess a history with a focus on the Holy Land.

My second observation is to emphasize how Judaism’s focus on the Holy Land brings God very much into the natural world. We find in the Torah an account of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:18):

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi[a] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

The covenant, the promise, was repeated and has been read as unconditional. If the promise is not fulfilled, then (it has been argued) not only will Jews cease to believe in God, but God is no longer to be trusted. Further, he has staked his existence upon the fulfilment of his promise within human history. God’s existence and Israel’s existence are bound together: destroy one—and the other is destroyed.


Judaism and Naturalism

What can naturalism say about the beliefs of many, many Jews concerning their ancestry and right to a particular parcel of land in the Middle East? As we saw earlier, just to be able to give a causal explanation of beliefs does not show the beliefs are false. Of course, we can argue that there is no good reason to believe the facts as outlined in the Torah and related scriptures and traditions—and no good reason for Jews of today to identify with those Jews of the past who believed in the Torah. To make such points, though, runs the risk of being accused of anti-Semitism.

When I speculated about the possibility that over a few generations, perhaps Jews would cease to have any interest in Judaism, in their history as a people, and in their ancestry—perhaps they would turn Israel into a secular state—my easygoing rabbi coauthor was horrified, rejecting the possibility and describing it as giving Hitler a posthumous victory. There is, though, a clear and radical distinction between descendants of today’s Jews no longer having an interest in their Jewishness and Hitler’s aim of killing all Jews. Despite that clear and radical distinction, the Jewish people in general do seem to hold that the very identity, even existence, of Jewish individuals rests on their recognition as being of a people with its history traced back to God’s promise, be it metaphor or real.

It is, of course, paradoxical that even many of today’s atheist Jews see their identity as resting on a tradition that has God making the Jews the “chosen people” with the Promised Land. It is also paradoxical for those religious Jews who no longer take the Torah as the word of God and who treat the reported events in the Torah as at best inspirational tales.

Naturalism, one may think, should surely be able to show how irrational it is for Jews to hold to that narrative, yet can it? Maybe, if one’s perceived existence depends on an irrationality it can yet be rational to hold to that irrationality. After all, in our nonreligious secular societies, do we not believe both that people ought not to be discriminated against and that people have a right to self-determination, that is, a right to discriminate against others?

We may have been brought up as Christians in Christian households—our parents and grandparents may have been Christians—yet now we are not Christians at all. There is no contradiction in that assertion, which is, furthermore, true. I am an example of someone nurtured in that way yet one who is not a Christian—who is, indeed, …