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.