Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rabbi Adam Jacobs Responds to Criticism. Meh.

Rabbi Adam Jacobs has responded to criticism (here is mine) of his flawed "Open Letter to the Atheist Community:"
Regardless of forum or tenor, most responses to the article shared a common starting point, namely, an instruction that I was incorrect in assuming most self-declared atheists to be ambivalent about the existence of a higher, divine power, rather than firmly convinced that no such power exists. While I continue to suspect, based on my own experience and history of interactions, that there are more agnostics (as I understand the term) than 'pure' atheists, it seems, based on these responses, that there are more 'true' atheists than I'd thought. Equally striking was the lesson that there are very many different conceptions of atheism: in the comments section alone, there were at least a half-dozen definitions for the terms atheist and agnostic. It's clear that there is no universal understanding of the concept warranting blanket assumptions about the nature of atheist belief (or lack thereof).
The rabbi's problem with definition seems to be a systemic one. Though it strongly mischaracterized atheists, his letter never suggested that they are ambivalent towards the existence of a higher power, but rather that they are mistaken of their position. Ambivalence means holding simultaneous and conflicting feelings towards something, such as loving and hating a person at once. Ambivalence as applied to atheists would entail a state of conflict over the existence of a creator, with simultaneous positive and negative feelings toward the matter.

Notice how the civility-minded rabbi inserts “self-declared” in front of the label. I have a sneaking feeling he would look strangely at someone were they to call him a self-declared Jew. Is not this vague delegitimization reminiscent of those on the right who will go only so far as to admit President Obama's Christianity is “self-declared?” Not that it's an insult, really. I'd rather my position be self-declared than otherwise. Still, the motivation for phrasing it so oddly is questionable in context.
Jacobs: Equally striking was the lesson that there are very many different conceptions of atheism: in the comments section alone, there were at least a half-dozen definitions for the terms atheist and agnostic. It's clear that there is no universal understanding of the concept warranting blanket assumptions about the nature of atheist belief (or lack thereof). I sincerely apologize for making such an assumption and feel somewhat silly about having done so -- after all, there are myriad paths to religious belief, and I've frequently decried those who make blanket assumptions about all religious believers.
I wish to make this plain for the rabbi: I am a “pure” and “true” atheist. A real, honest-to-God atheist. There are lots of us. I am also an agnostic, and a secularist, and many other things which he is welcome to call me so long as he does it accurately. These labels are not exclusive of each other, and they do have specific definitions which can be learned by spending a few minutes with a respectable dictionary.

The comments section underneath the rabbi's post, however, is not the proper place to find these definitions. Definitions matter! However many paths there be towards adopting the position, paths which are indeed important, the destination is singular: atheism is the lack of belief in God or gods. That is all. It needn't any further complication.
Jacobs: A number of commenters felt it was rude or disingenuous of me to invite open dialogue and then immediately launch into a critique of atheism. To be absolutely clear: I want to have a meaningful and open dialogue in which all participants feel respected and valued for our common humanity despite our obvious differences.
"To be absolutely clear:" meaningful and open dialogue is fantastic. What is not fantastic, or rather unfantastic, is calling for respectful argumentation and thereafter creating a straw-man out of misconceptions that a little due diligence should have aborted.
(h/t Staks Rosch)

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