Monday, February 14, 2011

"An Open Letter to People Who Don't Exist"

Rabbi Adam Jacobs has written an “open letter” to atheists in the Huffington Post that misstates atheism and its entailments in a way that can be justifiably called dishonest.  He begins this way:
“My dear atheist friend,
[…] 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.
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists.”
In other words, “I want to tell you, not in order to change your mind for I've come to recognize that you are impervious to argument, my opinion, which I have spent many years in forming, that you do not legitimately exist. But I'm only saying this so that we may all hold hands and sing happy songs.”  

Just to point out how wrongheaded my new “dear friend” is, imagine if I were to address an open-letter in the following way:
My dear Jewish friend,
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.
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true Jews.”
That such an opening would be both factually wrong and hypocritical seems to me inarguable. The definition of a Jew, speaking religiously and not ethnically or culturally, is one who at the very least believes in the singular God of the Torah and does not follow New Testament scripture. Therefore, since millions of such people can be said to exist, one's assertion that, in fact, no “true” Jews exist would be quite flatly wrong (not to mention "true" Jews who can be otherwise defined culturally or ethnically).  Notice that such a claim remains in error whether or not there is a god. I, as an atheist, can no more legitimately deny the existence of Jews than the rabbi can deny the existence of me. 

Mr. Jacobs exposes the extent of his misunderstanding with the very next line:
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.”
Since the rabbi claims to have had “a lot of time to reflect” on the position of atheism, and also claims to have been an atheist himself, one would be justified in expecting from him a proper representation of the position, instead of a straw-man drenched with gasoline and set aflame. The definition of an atheist is one who disbelieves in God, or gods, and not one who claims to know with certainty that God, or gods, does not exist (though such a person would still fall into the category). 

It is true that most atheists would come as close to certainty as proper respect for technicality would allow, that the literal God of the Old Testament, who created Adam, Eve, and a talking snake, does not exist. But if the definition of God is sufficiently malleable, as it so often is, to describe a god who is non-intervening and one that is therefore undetectable, then most of us would shrug and say “okay. I don't believe that. It doesn't mean much or contribute anything. But I can't with full certainty deny the existence of a god so defined.”  

Mr. Jacobs' argument can become really amusing if we play with it a little bit:
It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there are no leprechauns, 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.” 
Well, I don't have knowledge of the totality of the universe. I am, however, perfectly comfortable in saying that there is no credible evidence for leprechauns, that I therefore disbelieve in leprechauns, and, since I care about your dignity as a fellow human being, I also feel justified in arguing that your deeply-held belief in leprechauns is ill-advised and you should probably give it up.

Mr. Jacobs continues:
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.”
Though these books are indeed polemics against Christianity (as well as religion and supernatural creators more broadly), pointing this out does not constitute an indictment of any kind, in fact, this was their very purpose for being written. Furthermore, if the rabbi wishes to argue that the rebuttals of old theistic arguments which these books contain are “ill-conceived,” he'll have to explain why rather than merely declare it. 

I find it slightly shady that the rabbi claims to have read so many of these books and yet repeatedly misstates the position of atheism at such an elementary level. Indeed, in Dawkins' book, there is a very memorable section explaining the spectrum of religious belief, with differing sureties of God's existence ranked on a gradient from 1 (sure of God's existence) to 7 (sure of God's nonexistence). Dawkins:
“I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so (Jung also believed that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang). Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 - I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”
The above sentiment is repeated again and again in the other literature, and this prominence leads me to cry foul. Either our “dear friend” has 1) not read the literature, 2) has read the literature but deliberately misrepresented it, or 3) his reading comprehension is so stunted that to make fun of it would seem almost improper. Maybe the latter (and only innocent) scenario is the case, but I doubt that very much. 

Jacobs goes on to claim that arguing over this subject is pointless, in any case. Why write the article then? Imagine if you heard the following logic from one who claimed the Earth's age was no more than a few thousand years:
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.”
The thing is, of course, one of us would be right and the other wrong. 

Insulting his reader one last time, the rabbi suggests that “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.” Except, of course, this is a lie. One too blatant to be mere oversight. Charles Darwin lost his faith in God, and said that for one to hold the position of ardent theism while simultaneously acknowledging evolution seemed “absurd.” Darwin only said he would not call himself that common misconception of an atheist which the rabbi so kindly straw-manned for us earlier.

So, I'll leave you to chuckle at the craftless dishonesty of a letter that calls for respect and civility while blatantly lying to its correspondents by finishing with Jacobs' own closing:
“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. 
Sincerely, Adam.”

6 comments:

  1. Great article Landon!
    Here is my response to the Rabbi:
    Atheist responds to open letter from Rabbi Adam Jacobs - http://exm.nr/gQEuJ3
    Keep up the great work.

    I would someday like to write for HuffPost on atheism too and would appreciate any contacts you could give me.
    -Staks

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  2. Well stated. My thought on his article was immediately, "Who said atheists have to be certain there's no God?"

    As Richard Dawkins said, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

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  3. Good work, thanks. The Rabbi's article was tough to read.

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  4. Snakes may not talk and apples grow on apple trees. But these two facts do not make nonsense of the opening chapters of Genesis. The story can most definitely lead to enlightenment on different levels. Do a search: The First Scandal.

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  5. Oh, painful, painful.

    @Robert: No, you're absolutely right, those aren't things that make nonsense of the opening chapters of Genesis. The fact that "God" created two human beings in His image, created every facet of their personality, gave them curiosity, then set them up for a test that they were absolutely certain to fail because he didn't give them the proper tools (ie, wisdom to know that they should not listen to a talking snake, because they were not given wisdom) not to fail the test, and then ultimately punishing them *and* their children for what they could not help--that is what makes the opening chapters of Genesis ludicrous.

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  6. "not to convince you to change your mind (which, I've discovered, is close to impossible)". He's right, it is nearly impossible toto change an atheist's mind. A lot of us have spent a lot of time removing ourselves from being brainwashed by religion. Most of us didn't run across a point of issue and make a snap judgment to become atheist. We spent a lot of time, reading, researching, understanding and finally coming to terms with our lack of belief in something we were raised to believe by the people we trusted most in our lives.

    So yes, it is extremely difficult to change our mind. We left behind a fairy tail that runs the world and we choose to move forward rather than look back. Our only hope is to help other misguided people understand that there is still life, happiness and good in existence without religion and without their particular god.

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