While Jerry Coyne has been “crossing swords” with Rabbi Alan Lurie on his site, the good rabbi and I have been engaged in a more collegial dialogue via e-mail.
You’ll recall that I’ve been a little harsh on some of Lurie’s factual claims about God, though not nearly as brittle as Coyne, who calls him the “wacko rabbi.” In fact, he’s not wacko at all. He’s pretty representative of most liberal rabbis.
After my most recent critique (okay, attack) over his recruitment of Einstein into theological service, he sent me a short quote by Einstein and I replied and published it.
After I received his second reply, he gave me permission to publish the whole dialogue. It’s rather long as is befitting any discussion between rabbis, but I hope you enjoy it:
Thanks for writing back.
As I wrote in my blog, I was not trying to convince anyone of God’s existence – this must be a personal position. As we know as Rabbis, what matters is how we treat each other.
I was only questioning why there are those who absolutely refuse to consider the possibility of a Creator and who, like you, demean those who believe in God (as you consistently do). Of my 100+ blogs, I have only written two directed at atheists, which I regret because I fear that they only made the possibility of constructive communication worse.
What surprised and now frustrates me are the often very nasty, sarcastic responses to blogs about God – like your very personal responses to my earlier blogs, and your recent accusation that I deliberately lied – and the insistence by many that reason and faith can not exist together. This seems to me to be illogical, untrue, and demonstrates an extremist mindset. I am concerned about the overt hatred toward religion and faith, and as a Jew we should all be on alert for this. I’m also shocked by so many, again you included, who define themselves by what they don’t believe in, and hover around the Religion section eager to argue. These arguments are usually based on subjective and stereotypical views of religion, and show little true understanding.
My point in mentioning deistic and theistic scientists is to note that an intelligent, educated person can and does believe in God. I admire Collins, and his belief that Jesus rose from the dead is not a proof proposition, but is a personal orientation that is not inconsistent with his scientific commitment.
For me, God is a living experience. I was an adamant atheist until the age of 37, when I suddenly had a “call.” Now, I do not wonder if God exists, but I explore the nature of God. If you do not feel this, that’s fine, but I really do not understand why you feel the need to write aggressive blogs arguing why God is a delusion, and to define yourself as “The Atheist Rabbi.” You realize that as a Rabbi you are also considered delusional by other more militant atheists.
While we need to ensure that religion does not enter in to social policy, we must also ensure that religion is protected and that we do not fall in to an either/or extremism.
Well, I prize dialogue and we’re having one so I thank you for your thoughtful response.
I actually spend most of my time talking about what I do believe, but it is no doubt inseparable from that that which I don’t. I’ve critiqued your claims about God because you state them as a matter of fact, presenting your ideas as if the fundamentalists have the wrong idea of God and you have the right one. When you write that “…the very question of ‘How could God have allowed the Holocaust?’ represents a profound misunderstanding of the nature of God, creation, and the spiritual dimension, because it is based on very faulty assumptions,” you’re stating that hundreds of millions of people don’t understand the God in whom they profoundly believe. How is that any different than my saying that you have faulty assumptions about the very existence of a deity? You think they’re wrong and I think you’re all wrong, but my assertion is demeaning and yours is not? I know some Orthodox Jews (there are many in my family) who prefer my apikorsus [heresy] over what they consider to be liberal Judaism’s destruction of the authority of God. I don’t agree with them because I support liberal Judaism for re-fashioning God with a significant upgrade
This is because I believe that what you do greatly contributes to compassion in the world and I respect that. I may have critiqued liberal religious claims, but I have saved my real attacks for beliefs and practices that are actually harmful to people, such as homophobia or misogyny. I can hardly imagine such an issue about which you and I would disagree. In fact I’ve rarely encountered a liberal rabbi or pastor who disagreed with me about the abuses of power among Orthodox Jews, Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants or radical Muslims. But after we come to our meeting of minds, they invariably explain to me that it’s because those people have the wrong understanding of God and that they possess the correct approach. My response is that all religious people are making it up.
I have stated repeatedly on my blog that I do not wish or hope for the elimination of liberal religion. It is of great comfort and inspiration to many millions. On the other hand, I do enjoy challenging the factual claims of my liberal colleagues and I have found that it usually leads them to greater clarity about the way they express their beliefs. From them I’m just looking for a little Kaplanian-style honesty about the completely human-made foundations of their theologies. I’m also asking them to ally themselves with us rather than the fundamentalists. We all share the knowledge that goodness can only spread through human action even if we bicker about the source and inspiration of that goodness.
Since my “coming out” out I have met hundreds of other Jews who feel as I do. They are very connected to their Jewish culture but also often repelled by many of our texts and traditions. I write for them and, admittedly, sometimes I do get a little too snarky. I understand that this is how you perceived my tone and for that I offer my apology. I try never to attack ad hominem and I sometimes fail.
As for the militant atheists finding me delusional, I can assure you that while we argue vociferously about how we should regard religion and whether we should engage in its non-theistic practice or even in “interfaith” activities, we are on the same page about how we understand reality. My colleague, Rabbi Greg Epstein, humanistic chaplain at Harvard, just debated PZ Myers about this very topic. And by debate, I mean that they had a pleasant conversation about how humanists should organize and whether the enterprise of religion offers any positive value. But make no mistake, we all regard it as a fabrication of human culture. We simply differ on whether our relationship with it should be more critical or constructive. (See Alain de Botton’s latest book, “Religion for Atheists,” for example of the latter.)
With your permission, I would like to publish the complete text – unaltered, of course – of your reply to me here and my response. What you wrote is a powerful reminder of the importance of civility in this debate and I appreciate it. Those who do share your faith are fortunate to have in you a model of its caring expression.
My apology is sincere. I’ve really been trying not to get all ad hominemy with the “critiques.” Here’s his final reply:
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. As you see, passions run high around issues of faith and religion. And much of this passion is based, I believe, on misunderstandings from both sides – each who truly cares about truth and peace, and each who fears that the other is threatening this vision. After writing for HuffPo for over four years my equanimity sometimes runs thin as I’ve read many responses – often sarcastic and dismissive – that are so far off from the intent of my blog and my actual position as to make my head spin.
My goal is to present an image of faith and religion that helps to bridge difficulties and encourage deeper thought, from one who used to be an atheist and understands the contentions. But as you noted there is always a sore toe ready to be stepped on. Of course we can challenge each other, but the conversation becomes demeaning when one denigrates the other’s character and assumes bad intention or deliberate deception. I confess to have stepped over that line in moments of frustration, for which I am sorry – and human.
Jewish teaching is abundantly clear that what matters most is how well we treat each other, and that theology is meant to be a tool than encourages us to be kinder and more considerate, as we see that all humanity – and all of creation – shares a common face. When theology becomes a tool for condemning others and is used to divide and label – instead of love and heal – then it has become truly sinful.
Please feel free to post this dialogue which is, I hope, in the name of truth.
All the best and, at risk of heresy, may God bless you!
I thank Rabbi Lurie for corresponding with me. I’ve got to face it, outside the world of freethinking non-theists, I’m the one who’s considered the “wacko rabbi.”