Between busy-ness at work, some ill health and time with family, I have not been able to post recently. During that time I’ve occasionally worked on this rather long post.
Rabbi Adam Jacobs, director of the Aish Center in Manhattan, has written “An Open Letter to the Atheist Community.” I am going to reply in full and send it to him. Let’s see what happens!
I know it’s long, but I hope you’ll stick with it. I’ll re-produce and reply to his entire letter, beginning here:
My dear atheist friend,
I have been actively involved in the education of Jews of all stripes (especially those with a built-in apathy or antipathy to theology) for the last 11 years. I have had a lot of time to reflect on your position and I’d like to offer a few general observations that I’ve culled from my experience over the years – not to convince you to change your mind (which, I’ve discovered, is close to impossible) and not to judge your choices, but rather so that we can understand each other better and possibly “walk back” some of the clamorous dialogue. Certainly we can open by agreeing that all human beings should be respected and, assuming no egregious misdeeds, treated with civility.
Adam, you and I have something very important in common. We are both professional Jewish educators. I have worked with the full spectrum of our community and, at least according to some, I’ve had a modest positive impact. I have been especially successful with “those with a built-in apathy or antipathy to theology.” Having discovered that these constitute the plurality (and quite possibly the majority) of our fellow Jews, I have endeavored to teach them that Jewish identity is not predicated upon belief in the unbelievable. You, on the other hand, labor mainly to bring our fellow Jews to “HaShem,” while, it is assumed, disregarding the possibility of other ways of be authentically Jewish.
But you’ve hardly begun. You next write:
The first point I’d like to explore is that there really are no true atheists. It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe – seen and unseen – and I don’t think any of you guys are ready to make that claim. You have not observed an overarching creative force, a God … yet. Being a rationalist, of course, you know that failing to make such an observation is different from proving that there isn’t one, which, by its very nature, is an impossible task. (You will counter that definitively proving the existence of God on purely rational grounds is similarly impossible, which, for the sake of argument, I will concede.) Given this, your assumption of the title, “atheist” isn’t so much a statement of fact as it is a statement of principle, or intent — a nom de guerre. To define oneself as simply agnostic (which I believe you truly are) sounds unsatisfyingly [sic] wishy-washy and degrades your ability to take a firm stand against deism, in its various forms. While this is certainly understandable, I suspect that you have traded accuracy for titular intensity.
I am uncertain about why it is important to you to address the labels we use. For all practical purposes, there is no difference between an agnostic or atheist (for an exhaustive analysis of these terms, please see Michael Martin’s excellent introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Atheism). In fact, I am both. More significantly, we can all be classified as non-theists. What we share is a healthy skepticism about the truth claims of “revealed” texts and their interpreters. That is what I mean when I say “for all practical purposes.”
As for the charge that we call ourselves atheists for the “titular intensity,” I admit that I named my blog as I did in order to garner attention. It’s a bit like when Orthodox Jews employ the clearly polemical monicker “Torah True Judaism.” It’s not entirely accurate, but it draws attention and makes a statement. As for the charge that using the label agnostic “degrades [our] ability to take a firm stand against deism,” why should we want to take a firm stand against deism? What authority claims do deists make upon the world? There is no practical significance to deism in the real world. A deist is just a non-theist with a god that pulled the trigger.
You may want to counter that you have many well-regarded and brilliant personalities who have provided more than sufficient evidence to knock theism back to the Bronze Age where it belongs. Hitchens, Dawkins, Weinberg, et al are big time, unapologetic, capital “A” atheists. I’ve read many of their books and found much of them to be polemics against Christianity and ill-conceived take downs of classical philosophical and scientific arguments that make the idea of a Creator seem more than plausible. See here for a great rebuttal of Dawkin’s “The Ultimate 747 Argument.” But even if the arguments were more persuasive and comprehensive, surely you are aware that believers are ready to parry with many philosophers and scientists of our own, people like Anthony Flew, the Oxford philosopher and sparring partner of C.S. Lewis (who was a pillar of academic atheism until he reversed his position late in his life), theoretical physicist Dr. Andrew Goldfinger, and the mathematical physicist and cosmologist Frank Tipler. You will quote your expert and I will quote mine. Strangely, they disagree … utterly. At the end of the day, it’s always going to be a draw, each of us convinced that our own arguments are superior and that the other is (perhaps willfully) missing the point.
As for the “747 Argument,” I’ve read and responded to Dr. Averick’s writing elsewhere. If you want to talk about various experts, I can only point out to you that neither Flew nor Lewis came to YOUR specific conclusions about the deity. In fact, no two theistic religions have the same approach to the deity. For that matter, philosophical arguments for the existence of God hardly get you to your “HaShem,” dictator of commandments, laws and lifestyle to Israel.
Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective. What I have found hard to understand from my new vantage point, however, is why so many of you spend so much time trolling around the comments section of religiously-themed blogs or spend good money to buy billboards on the Jersey Turnpike asserting a negative. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to just chuckle knowingly to yourselves and shake your heads at our folly in the way you might with children who believe they have magic powers? Yet, many of you seem to have a big axe to grind, and I only recently realized why. You believe that we are ruining the world and stunting its progress. You will point out all of the violence carried out in religion’s name. We will point out that equally severe evils have been perpetrated by secularists such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot. You deride us as anti-science, to which we respond that we’re really not, but, rather, see scientific proof and inquiry as subject to certain inherent limits. You do not find our responses any more compelling than we find your criticisms to be insightful.
I don’t agree with every utterance that comes out of every atheist’s mouth. Atheism is not a belief system, it is a starting point. My atheism – or better, non-theism – leads me to secular humanism. As for trolls, well they are on every blog on the internet. If you don’t want to see trolls, you should probably exit this information superhighway. More to the point, you question our use of good money for billboards.
The ubiquity of churches on nearly every street corner in this nation is like one gigantic billboard for God. Plus you also have a whole lot of actual billboards. And Haredi Jews bring “Mitzva Tanks,” tables and free synagogues to every Jewish neighborhood or far-flung Jewish travel destination in the world. We’ve simply purchased a little advertising space. Most of it modestly says something to the effect of, “Millions are good without God.”
In a nation where atheism is a synonym for satanism, we do feel a strong need to let people know that if they share our beliefs they are not alone. As a rabbi (go ahead and laugh, but I am one) who is also a non-believer, I want Jews to know that a least a few million Jews are also good – and still Jewish – without God. The moneys used to get across our message are minuscule compared to the hundreds of millions that pour into and out of Aish Ha-Torah and Chabad, just to take two examples. And that’s just the Jews. The theists’ desire for outreach is not more than ours, yet our attempts are laughably small in comparison.
Do we have an “axe to grind” with theists? We do with some of you; not with all. I have no problem with my liberally religious friends’ and colleagues’ ways of being religious. I don’t agree with their approach and I don’t participate in it, but I don’t think it’s harming the world (except when they give cover to movements like yours).
Aish Ha-Torah, Chabad and their ilk are another matter altogether. You represent a stream of religious behavior that promulgates inequality between the genders, homophobia and frequently a hateful form of ultra-nationalistic ethnocentricity. You don’t think you do because you think “HaShem” commanded you to behave as you do. Some of you may even couch your behaviors in terms of morality (“Women are equal, just different!” “Gays shouldn’t be mistreated, as long as they refrain from acting on it!”). That’s called making an authority claim. And again, that’s just among we Jews, who are numerically the least threatening and problematic of the three “Abrahamic” faiths (except in Israel). Don’t get me started on Islam or the Catholic Church.
Speaking of ethnocentricity:
To me, however, the crux of the matter is incontrovertible. It is not the product of rational argument, nor expression of faith, but simple historical fact. The faith to which I ascribe has brought substantial light and unique meaning to the world. Some great thinkers readily embrace this idea. Have a look at this quote from British historian Paul Johnson:
“To them (the Jews) we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
This is an ahistorical statement from a widely acknowledged hack. It is patently ridiculous to ascribe all great moral progress to one small band of argumentative tribes. In a few weeks I will be commencing a dialogue on this blog with an Orthodox rabbi of a different stripe than you. He suggested that we frame our conversation around Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. I recommend that you read it or any of the number of excellent books – many written by people who admire religion – that demonstrate human moral evolution. At its best, religion merely reflects moral growth. Even as one proud to call myself a Jew, I find it the height of arrogance to ignore the contributions of all the many other peoples of the world to advancing morality.
Given this historical reality, since you’re a rationalist who bases your world view on empiric evidence, could you be open to the possibility that religion isn’t inherently bad?
Of course not all religion is inherently bad. It’s a completely human institution and it’s as good or bad as the humans who run it. I, for example, propound a type of religion that is non- or post-theistic. Your version, however, engenders much that is bad and I have already touched on this above.
As an empiricist, you are only prepared to believe in that which can be seen or measured. You don’t enjoy my conviction that there are aspects of existence that are, by their nature, beyond the reach of science. Fine. So when we Theists look carefully at the astounding complexity and improbable fine-tuning of our universe and conclude that there’s no way that this happened randomly, you then turn around and ask us to accept that it is the result of undetectable organizational forces or of an un-testable (and thus non-scientific) multiverse. Isn’t your argument every bit an assertion of faith, rather than knowledge? Maybe we can at least agree that forces unseen, however we conceive of them, seem to be playing a major role in our lives?
You want to believe in God? Believe in God. Believe that Moses received commandments on Sinai or that Elijah flew to heaven in a magical fiery chariot. No one cares what you believe. We care about the behaviors that are driven by those beliefs. We care that you perpetuate antiquated doctrines that drive public policy, whether here or in Israel. Our assertion of faith drives exactly one policy statement: Leave the rest of us alone. Don’t tell us how to be Jews. Don’t tell us how to be human beings. Don’t tell us how our lack of God brings down America, Israel or the world. We’d also be awfully grateful if you’d learn how to get along with your fellow theists and stop fighting over “holy” lands and places. That would be just swell.
Charles Darwin added three interesting quotes to later editions of the Origin of Species. Of these, the third, from Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, is especially revealing:
“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well-studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity and philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficiency in both.”
If Darwin himself could find room for belief in a God and stay faithful to his discoveries, maybe the common ground is much bigger than we currently imagine. We still have a lot to discuss. Let’s do it with a caring heart, and open mind and a spirit of appreciation for our shared humanity.
What Darwin believed or did not believe about God is thoroughly irrelevant to what any modern non-theist might think. Any system with a claim of absolute knowledge and authority – in the name of a god or any other dogma – that imposes said authority on others is illegitimate. It is especially egregious when it issues forth from the religious who claim to love and honor humanity while simultaneously working to keep women in their place, gays out of marriage and “holy” lands and places in exclusive hands. Earlier you mentioned Hitler (not an atheist, by the way). As a Jew, here’s what I learned from Hitler. The Jewish people spent millennia trying to please a god that never answered a single prayer that they piously sent heavenward. Hitler brought us the single worst instance of that experience; a last straw, if you will.
God did not save our temples. God did not restore our land. God did not rescue our communities. God did not save one baby from the gas chambers. God simply did not. And though we prayed and prayed, no answers came. Just more destruction. Now we are grown-ups. We have the discoveries of science and reason, many of them revealed by our fellow Jews. Each new revelation points logically and reasonably to the absence of planning or design, either for Israel or the world. As the late Sherwin Wine pointed out, there is no management running the place.
Please don’t give me your complicated theologies and fairy tales about why God, in his love and mercy, put us through all of that. We understand now. He didn’t. He could not have. He is not.
Anyway, thanks for your letter. I hope you understand us a little better now.