Sunday, February 13, 2011

Rabbi Adam Jacobs: An Open Letter to the Atheist Community

A Rabbi wrote me a letter via the Huffington Post, well, I don't consider myself part of a community, but close enough. I've never really talked to a Rabbi before, so, I decided to post and open reply to the open letter. I've added my comments below.
My dear atheist friend,

Sorry, never heard of you, but okay, we can be friends. Do you play any musical instruments? Have any good stories about UFOs?
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.

Your last point about civility, correct or not, seems irrelevant to the topic, but I'm listening...
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists.

This seems pointlessly provocative, neither are there true theists.
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.

By this specious argument you would have people believing in a panoply of absurdities. By your logic, I have never seen the totality of the universe, so cannot claim that I do not believe very skinny leopards slip through the crack under my door and steal my socks.  :-/ (Damn them!)
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.)

For the sake of argument?! But... wait, you just admitted your entire argument to this point is pointless.
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.

The direct translation from French is "name of war", but the phrase is used as "pseudonym" or a fictitious name. This name calling is plainly invalidated by your above concession. By your own argument, unless you can produce your god for inspection, "Jew" or "Christian" is just as much a statement of intent.
To define oneself as simply agnostic (which I believe you truly are) sounds unsatisfingly 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.

Accuracy for titular intensity? Lovely high brow insult. Intensity in name only?  So, what you are really saying is we are faking it. Sorry, wrong. We really do believe that there is no magic sky daddy who made everything.
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.

Don't assume we are like you. We are goats, not sheep. We believe what we do based on our own observations, not because someone else, brilliant or famous or not, agrees with us.
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.

You fatally misunderstand the source of our conviction. I don't give a rats tail what experts on either side believe. I've considered the facts from our history, from human nature, psychology, physics, genetics, microbiology, evolutionary theory, geology, and it is clear to me that theism is simply superstitious wishful thinking.
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.

Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective.

It is clear that you don't really understand my perspective. If you did, you would believe as I do. ;-)
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.

True. You nailed it. We believe that illogical magical thinking causes a lot of problems.
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.

This is just wrong. Hitler is yours, not ours. Hitler was a Catholic, a staunch creationist. He spoke of the Lord and the Creator... not something atheists generally do.  I don't know about Mao and Pol Pot, but I think Stalin reinstated the church after Hitler invaded, also not an atheist move.  Even if they were all atheists, this would not remove the stain of the witch hunts, the crusades, or countless other religiously justified killings over many ages.   There are secular reasons for war as well, but a second wrong does not make the first wrong right.
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.

We think you want to be anti-science, but we know you can't. You've had to make so many concessions over the centuries. You know you keep losing ground, the churches finally agreeing with science on certain points after hundreds of years. Your desire for absolute certainty is unrealistic. We know you want it, but you can't have it. It is your lack of ability to accept this and to say, with bravery, "I do not know" that leads you to invent gods so you can feel certain about them and about the unknown.
You do not find our responses any more compelling than we find your criticisms to be insightful.

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.

You are speaking of "light" metaphorically. Your faith has not generated one watt of visible light. It has provided relief from suffering, by easing the discomfort people have at awareness of mortality. Should we reward well intentioned delusion?
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."

Nice try, but this is overly self-important. I'm not saying Jewish thinkers didn't contribute these ideas in their time and place, but these same themes exist in parts of the world without Jewish influence.  Are you saying that without their superstitions, the Jews could not have seen the value of social responsibility?
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?

I have many religious friends and I see the utility of people helping each other, creating social networks, connecting through shared rituals, and so on.  It can be adaptive to believe things that are not objectively true. I doubt we would have evolved successfully without mental blinders and defense mechanisms.
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.

Not every atheist believes in a multiverse. The "fine-tuning" you cite can be the unavoidable result of variations in "universal" constants. In other words, some of us believe that our one universe is enough, that it has enough variation in the different parts of it that our particular location having the conditions is not miraculous, but rather, unavoidable.
Isn't your argument every bit an assertion of faith, rather than knowledge?

There are already hints of variation, time will tell.
Maybe we can at least agree that forces unseen, however we conceive of them, seem to be playing a major role in our lives?

Perhaps you think God is a force, like gravity or electromagnetism?  We see almost none of the forces which play a major role in our lives. Almost all forces are unseen. But when we speak of forces, we mean, something you can measure. We don't accept a force that can not be measured as a real force.  Don't confuse ideas--love, faith, fear, anger, god--, with physical forces. Of course our thoughts and the ideas of others play a major role in our lives. The Star Ship Enterprise and its crews have played a major role in my life.  They have inspired me, caused me to make certain life decisions. They have given me courage, new ideas, hope, excitement, and I was even fortunate enough to be able to thank "Captian Picard" (Patrick Stewart) in person. Nevertheless, I am completely aware that these are fictional characters. There is no star ship, no phasers, no transporters, no Vulcans, no Prime Directive ... This entire self-cohesive world is a human invention, a teaching story, a celebration of our humanity.

Your "angels" do exist. Angels are the visible planets, once worshiped as gods, for which we have the names of several days of the week. Your holy spirit does  exist, the spirit in your bible is the wind, and the breath, the invisible force once seen as magical and now understood to be the motion of molecules of nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide which causes gas to exert pressure.
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.

Again, I don't care about the cult of personality. It doesn't matter what Darwin believed. Darwin is not our Jesus. You are seeing our belief from your perspective, but you have it wrong. Our convictions come from evidence, not from the person pointing to the evidence. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.
We still have a lot to discuss.

Yes, there are thousands of years of misunderstandings to unravel!
Let's do it with a caring heart, and open mind and a spirit of appreciation for our shared humanity.



Sure Adam. I appreciate the fact that you took time to write to us. Write again when you have had time to consider our replies.




Sam said...

When I hear a creationist bring up Darwin, I immediately understand that they are not intellectually capable of having the conversation. They think we're clinging on to that 152 year-old book. (Clinging on to old, obsolete texts seems to be their way, though.)

Brian said...

el oh ell. Two possibilities here. One: the guy is really smart and devious and he knows that he can get some less-rigorous thinkers to accept his arsenic olive branch. Two: the guy is a dope who really believes in his voodoo and has been taught a few dime store semantic tricks by smarter sophists.

"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."

hahahahaahahahahahahahahahahahahahaaha gasp gasp.

As if to say "Look, megalomaniacal authoritarian statist psychopaths did the mass murder thing too man. It wasn't just us."

Let's try it this way:

"You will point out all of the violence carried out in Charles Manson's name. We will point out that equally severe evils have been perpetrated by non-Charles Mansonists such as Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot."

Therefore non-Charles Mansonists are bad just like Charles Mansonists because some of them did really violent things.

The bilge that gets passed of as rational discourse nowadays is astounding. Again, either this douche's logic has been crippled by brainwashing and protection of his self-interest, or he was never capable of logic to begin with.

The favorable consideration that religion gets is getting really tiring. Do you think the puff-ho would publish an article from xeno reaching out to non-skinny-cheetah believers? Because there is no-less validity in that line of reason than there is in spooky sky man stories.

Reading this makes me feel so lucky that my paycheck doesn't rely on having to try and convince people of absolute nonsense all the time. Good luck in your huckstering Rabbi. I have no idea how you live with yourself.

Mirlen101 said...

It's like talking to a wall . A wailing wall ! Logic is obviously not their strong point . Statements like God must exist because of all the complexity in the universe ! They of course mean that place outside of the flat zone ! The 6000 year old flat earth ! Apparently complexity = God ? WTF ! That makes no sense ! How did someone ever jump from >the universe is so complex to a guy who looks like Santa must of made it ! He used some clay ! You know the dirt kind ! Not the oven bake stuff ! That wasn't invented yet ! I hope there is a God because I hope to meet him one day and slap him silly ! He's a JERK ! I mean the guy makes Satan ! ;-O WTF was up with that ? Cancer what kind of sadistic bastard comes up with that ? He decides he doesn't like anybody so he drowns them ! ;-O Oh wait Noah , ya Noah and his crew were all right ? That was luck ! Everyone on earth deserved to die but Noah and his family were like angels . Minus the wings ,harps and lack of sexual organs ! Or was that mermaids ? No I think that's angels ! Easy to get them mixed up ! BTW have they found the ark this year yet . I look forward to those yearly ark discoveries . The yearly end of the world , apocalypse events also ! Each year I get out my lawn chair and a beer . Get a pizza delivered , run down my bank account ! And nothing ! ;-/ No end again ;-/ I'm sure they will succeed someday though . Some world wide holy war . You know my religion is better then your religion ! And I'll prove it by annihilating you all ! God must be on my side if I can kill thine enemy ! Besides I need to prove my enemy is a barbarian of low morals by brutally exterminating him in the name of GOD ! And we'll all be saved if we can just get religion taught in schools ! And when I say religion I really mean MY RELIGION ! To hell with your religion ! Yours is obviously false . How do I know this ? Because it isn't mine ! And if you don't like it well just move to another planet ! Until we ruin this one of course . At which time we'll be wanting that there planet back !
Actually I usually avoid talking about religion or politics someone usually ends up dead ! ( probably ME ! ;-O If anyone finds out I'm a agnostic liberal democrat. I'll be hunted down in the name of the Lord ! Probably by a Palin type . Bible in one hand a gun in the other ! Probably an automatic , much more efficient for killen ! ;-) Or so the pro lifers tell me ;-|

Cheng said...

Unashamedly plucked from the web:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he said.
I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"
"Like what?"
"Well ... are you religious or atheist?"
"Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?"
"Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
To which I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.

oliver stieber said...

"It’s like talking to a wall . A wailing wall ! Logic is obviously not their strong point . "

When you are fed lies, what logic can remain but the un-natural.
google triangulation, and have a look at some personality types, and things like government and the education system.

if you have to be taught right from wrong, how can you triangulate but to modify the truth?
at a different end a savant does it naturally, without the need to 'bad' parenting.

Just read comments of bbc have your say to find all manner of people saying how people need right and wrong beaten into them.
All it takes in to know how understanding is created without direct observation.

which like is longest?

define: longest

Cheng said...

That which is longer than anything else.

Of two lines, your question should be "Which line is longer?".

oliver stieber said...

so your rational is a spelling mistake and language, not a logical challenge. brilliant argument considering the subject matter!

triangulation by inversion or assertion of unnatural truth not by natural artefact.

you could for instance do this.

-------------- is longer than

--------- is longer than

------ is longer than

--------- is longer than

define: longer.

Cheng said...

Of two objects, that which has the greater length.

Cheng said...

And, on the contrary, YOUR rationale is a spelling mistake.

From your post, I'm still not sure which side of the argument you're arguing for.

Who has fed lies to whom? Who is it that requires teaching right from wrong?

You may think me a pedant, but this is just how confusion and misunderstanding are perpetuated over the millennia in, say, such things as religion, philosophy and theisn.

Pyrodin said...

You can't logically argue with some body who concedes to using illogical arguments, I like your point about star trek.....Captain Picard was my hero too.....

Can you imagine treating star trek like people treat religion? "Picard spoke to me to day through his technologically advanced communication systems, he said you are to....yada, yada...." lol Strait to the loony bin, but if you say "God spoke to me, through his divine, and he said to...yada, yada...." you get your own tv show.....


oliver stieber said...

"I’m still not sure which side of the argument you’re arguing for."

I don't take sides. guess I'm a heretic now.

spelling mistakes are a nice little way to see where the argument takes things. to seek the truth. didactic not consensus.
you 'choose' consensus, I guess that's your free will. I would rather understand the truth.

oliver stieber said...

maybe god made those spelling mistakes? I didn't make them of my will or choice, I just did not correct them.

live long and prosper.

oliver stieber said...

Cheng. I'm not arguing against you, just using your style to parody the difference.

That difference, well, it can be confusing and people have to deal with it in some way. God is as good as any... so long as you accept that it's a difference, not something to be destroyed but appreciated.

oliver stieber said...


define longer: (I've put in an is and a than, but that's an English language simplification, pretend they are three sticks and I'm just saying longer, with only two there is no triangulation, no meaning)

if you look at the last set, I've inverted the definition of longer.

you could for instance do this.

————– is longer than

——— is longer than

—— is longer than

——— is longer than

Cheng said...

You don't take sides? Your a 'god believing' atheist? Or you don't know what you believe?

Go on, have the courage of your convictions. From all your efforts in the didactic pursuit and understanding of the truth, which is it? God or no god?

For me, there is no hesitation. Weighing up all evidence and as far as I can be certain, there is no god.

Cheng said...

There is no god to guide your hand I'm afraid. The mistakes were yours and yours alone.

If you wish to be taken seriously in an argument, then it is your responsibility to put your argument intelligibly.

oliver stieber said...

define: length

how long is a piece of string.

now you could get into SI units, but when you work with theory like set theory for instance you get into all kinds of problems, esp at the moment when it comes to a kilogram.

That's an issue when you try to impose daulist measurements on something which is by nature transcendental, flux of flux if you like.

There are different theories that different people are more comfortable with than others, some more practical than others.

people often throw a straw man when they pick up on spelling mistakes first, and then start trying to be-little.

They also seem to often think people need discipline, had bad parents, need locking up in prison, have low moral fibre, need authority, being told what to do etc......

what does that tell you about the way they are thinking?

oliver stieber said...

google psychopath (the ones who try to kill themselves etc.. cos they don't know what's going on, not the sociopath types there a bit less that inclined)

I have a friend who learns more purely by 'feeling' and you have to give him exact rules exceptionally little classical empathy. He works are a mechanic, can't do math, can make things look pretty, doesn't understand, or didn't that hitting people isn't a way to stop them doing what they are doing that aggregates you.

Or, schizoid, or Autistic spectrum etc.....

All different ways of thinking from extremes to somewhat less extreme.
All run in families, like being British.
and the ones in the middle called neuro-typical.

I don't think it's really a case of taking sides, more a case of understanding.

Mirlen101 said...

LOL ! ;-) That's a good one and proves a point ! This is why we don't have religion in schools . Which religion would we have ? Everyone says MINE ! Because mine is the true religion ! They usually start at the majority rule the digress into the above branches of Christianity until they realize ( or not ) that there isn't a clear one religion to teach . And the last thing they want is someone else's religion being taught to their child ! Let alone all the religions as I think it should be ( but that would lead to a blood bath ! )But would be very enlightening ;-) Atheists and agnostics tend to be more religiously educated then most people in spite of what religious people believe !

Mirlen101 said...

Do you notice how things have changed though . There apparently was a time when seeing angels and talking to God was a regular occurance ( if one believes in that ;-) People excepting that so a so talked to God or an Angel . If someone said they had just had a conversation with an angel or God I think most people these days would question their sanity . But would except it as fact if they read it in the Bible as past tense ;-/

Mirlen101 said...

Your a ‘god believing’ atheist? That's a good one ! ;-)

Mirlen101 said...

Cheng I think your poking at a revolving door ;-) Kind of amusing though ;-)

Mirlen101 said...

Oliver are you in prison now ? Touch the walls , do you feel padding ?

Cheng said...

The shortest distance between two fixed points.

Xeno said...

Still happens today and there is still no cure for schizophrenia.

Xeno said...

In the example, "longer" may correctly be defined to mean "above", "shorter" and "longer" based on the "or" since "or" does not exclude "and". I'm probably missing some other creative options since I'm seconds from passing out asleep. Zzzzzzzzzz.

Cheng said...

Surely "or" precisely excludes "and". Or presents a choice, where as and includes all.

Cheng said...

Sorry, I thought this blog was in English. Silly me! :)

Xeno said...

This is a common misconception. The blog is written in Xenoic Quantum Precision Logic English (XQPLE).

Mirlen101 said...

Ann should be chiming in here ! What ever happened to Ann ? :-| I've totally forgotten what we were talking about :-| String theory ?

john Morrow said...

Whenever one of these discussions gets to "for the sake of argument" territory, i also imagine the person just literally talking out of their ass.