The Will to Disbelieve

Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32 )


According to the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 38:6), the Tower of Babel was built for purely practical reasons. The builders grew up in the era after the Flood and lived in the shadow of the fear of another such disaster. Of course, God had promised there would not be another flood, but the builders no longer believed in Him. In their generation, there were no open miracles or prophecy, and the human life span had shrunk to 120 years. The Creator had begun hiding His face, and this was enough for them to lose faith in Him. They therefore looked for a scientific and naturalistic explanation for the Flood.

And they found one. According to their data, the Flood occurred in the year 1656 after Creation. And because they saw it as neither miraculous nor supernatural, they believed it must be part of some natural cycle.

Alas, what do you do when no observable natural cycle matches that number? Very simple: invent one. If the Flood occurred in 1656, they reasoned, that must mean that every 1656 years the sky collapses! That was what the Tower of Babel was for: to serve as a support to hold up the sky and prevent it from falling the next time around.

This midrash illustrates a fascinating human trait: the tendency to willfully deny supernatural phenomena and insist they’re part of the natural order of things. Think about it: God went out of His way to wipe out humanity in a flood and start afresh with Noah; and then a few generations later his descendants claim this flood was just a part of some great natural cycle, like some far away comet which visits here once every eon.

In 1896, the American philosopher William James gave a famous lecture called “The Will to Believe,” defending the legitimacy of belief without absolute proof. About 90 years later, the American diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick paraphrased James’s title and spoke about “The Will to Disbelieve” – the willful determination to turn a blind eye to something when evidence for it stares you in the face. Kirkpatrick was referring to the American Left’s refusal to acknowledge the evils of Communism, but her expression can be aptly used to describe any denial of simple truths, like the Tower of Babel builders’ refusal to see the Flood as Divine in origin.

Atheistic Faith

Where do we see this syndrome in our generation? Above all it can be found in the insistence of many atheists that the world and everything in it can be explained solely in naturalistic and scientific terms.

As in the generation of the Tower of Babel, we don't currently observe any open miracles, nor has there recently been a flood of Biblical proportions that demands explanation. Therefore, the atheistic Will to Disbelieve expresses itself in denying something even more fundamental: that the very existence of the universe, with all its unfathomable complexity, is one immense supernatural wonder.

Take, for example, the well-known physicist Stephen Hawking’s approach to the Big Bang. For years, science insisted that the universe had no beginning in time. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, evidence was suddenly found that it did. But instead of regarding this as strengthening the claim that the world was created, Hawking used it to do the opposite: portray the universe as a completely closed, independent system – a kind of four-dimensional self-contained “sphere”.

Another example is the well-known television series Cosmos, written and presented by American astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Sagan opened the series with the words, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Sagan was trying to state a “tautology,” a statement that is necessarily always true and inarguable. It would have worked, had he spoken of something like “the entirety of existence” – a broader expression that could include things beyond nature; but because he spoke specifically of the “cosmos,” i.e. the physical universe, he a priori ruled out the possibility of anything existing beyond it.

But the strongest contemporary example of the atheistic Will to Disbelieve is the reaction of many scientists (such as Sagan’s successor, Neil DeGrasse Tyson) to the “fine-tuning” of the universe – the fact that the laws of nature are exactly tailored to enable life in the universe to exist. If any one factor – for example, the force of gravity or the charge of an electron – were even a tiny bit different, life on our planet, or even the planet itself, could not exist.

On the face of it, here is an overwhelming piece of evidence that the universe was fashioned by an intelligent designer. Furthermore, it is evidence that cannot be explained away by something like the theory of evolution – for the simple reason that the universe is not another organism living within a certain environment, but the totality of environment itself!

But never underestimate the power of the Will to Disbelieve. Just as the builders of the Tower of Babel invented an imaginary cycle of floods so as to deny the miraculous, so too atheists have recruited imaginary entities in order to deny the idea of a Creator, even outdoing their predecessors. If our universe is fine-tuned in such a way as to make life possible, they reasoned, it must be part of an infinite continuum of universes, each with its own slightly different laws of nature. It follows that the fine-tuning of the universe is not a wonder: Our universe is simply the only one in which there’s someone around to notice it...

Where are these infinite universes, you may ask? Here comes the best part: The other universes are completely parallel to ours, and so will never come into contact with us. We simply have to, well, believe they exist.

Instead of positing the existence of one hidden variable – an intelligent designer – this solution to fine-tuning conjures up an infinite number of them (similar to the pantheon of “other gods” the ancient idolators turned to in their attempt to shun the one Creator). This idea stems from neither healthy skepticism nor free inquiry, but from the passionate desire to disbelieve in God. It is every bit as “religious” as religion itself.

A point to ponder: There are at least two points of light in the will to disbelieve. The first is that its very existence in the human psyche provides paradoxical evidence for the Creator’s existence. How so? In Kabbalah, God is seen not just as the creator and ruler of the universe, but as the totality of being. The phrase “There is nothing other than Him” (ein od milvado) is interpreted literally, as saying that nothing exists outside of Him. When God created the world, He planted a spark of this sense of totality into it. This spark is the root of the illusion that there’s nothing beyond the physical universe.

The second point of light is that the will to disbelieve reminds us of the power of choice and will in shaping our picture of the world. It seems that when we seriously want to believe in something, it becomes true for us. If we can’t avoid belief, the only option open to us is choosing what to believe in. From the will to disbelieve in God, we can therefore draw inspiration to believing in Him.


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